Archive for the “Spooky Month” Category

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One of the strengths of horror as a genre is that it’s very malleable. There’s a lot of different types of films that you can comfortably call a “horror” film and still be fairly accurate. You can do horror as action, horror as mystery, horror as thriller, horror as sci-fi, cosmic horror, psychological horror, horror comedy, gross-out horror, etc. And this is, of course, without getting into the huge variety of theme and tone and subject matter that is open. This means there’s pretty much a horror film for everyone. It also means that sometimes you have to really stop and think, “wait, is this a horror movie?” And that’s part of what is happening with Adam Wingard’s 2014 film, The Guest.

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The Guest opens with a shot of a man running through vast, open fields somewhere in what looks to be the Midwest. He makes his way to the home of Laura Peterson, and introduces himself as “David” and claims to be a friend of her son Caleb, who died in Afghanistan. It becomes clear that the Peterson family has been largely broken by Caleb’s death, Laura and her husband Spencer particularly, but youngest son Luke and daughter Anna are clearly rebelling or retreating in various ways from the trauma of losing Caleb. Laura insists that “David” stay a few days, since it clear he has nowhere to go, and despite Spencer’s objections and Anna’s distrust, “David” quickly wins over the family. He fills Spencer’s need for a son he can relate to on an adult level, and Luke and Anna’s need for a big brother figure.  The Peterson’s are so happy to have “David” around they overlook some warning signs, such as a peculiar lack of sleep, and a capacity for extraordinary violence and emotional manipulation. Anna eventually realizes that “David” is not who he says he is after he kills two minor criminals and frames her drug-dealing boyfriend for the crime, and her investigations trigger the arrival of a clandestine military contracting group to retrieve “David” who is part of an experiment in creating “better” soldiers that went wrong. Their arrival triggers “David’s” survival mode, and he cuts a swath of destruction through the town focused on eliminating the Peterson’s, as the greatest risk to his continued freedom. With only Luke and Anna left alive, the three are trapped in a burning building when Luke stabs “David” fatally. “David” lives long enough to tell Luke that he did the right thing. The films ends on a genre-appropriate stinger, with Luke and Anna being treated by paramedics and Anna seeing a very much alive “David” leave the building and escape.

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In many ways, The Guest is a tonal follow up to Wingard and screen-writer Simon Barrett’s previous collaboration, You’re NextBoth films occupy a sort of hybrid space between a horror film and an action film, and both have “mysteries” at their core which are mostly there for window dressing. Careful viewing of both films even indicates that, in fact, they take place in the same cinematic universe.  But while You’re Next played the action/thriller angle almost from the start and kept that tone throughout, The Guest builds up much more of a quiet menace, letting us know that something is very, very wrong with “David” and this situation, and releasing all that tension in an apocalyptic manner. It’s a smart difference given that the theme of this film is very much contrary to what you’d expect out of a “typical” horror movie. In many ways, “David” functions as a Mary Poppins-esque figure. He’s the mysterious stranger that arrives into the lives of this typical family and fixes them in ways that they many not have realized were broken. What they don’t realize, of course, is that he’s fixing things in casually violent and murderous ways. At one point, Spencer even likens a particularly tragic stroke of good fortune he’s experienced at work to wishing on a monkey’s paw.

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Other than the “be careful what you wish for” semi-moral of the tale, the film is somewhat slight. Which isn’t a criticism, really, as the film is well shot, well acted, and features extremely relateable and sympathetic characters. The actions scenes are exciting, the scenes of menace are frightening, and when it’s funny it’s genuinely funny. But the film doesn’t aspire to be more than a slightly arch and smart horror-thriller, which occasionally comes across as an excess of self-awareness. That stinger, while tone and genre appropriate, almost doesn’t sit quite with the rest of the film. It turns much of what went before into something of a shaggy-dog story, and while I personally adore that ending, I can’t help but wonder if a less explicit version of the same revelation might have worked better. The smartest thing the film does, though, is leave that central mystery of who “David” really is unresolved. We know he’s not “David”, from a very brief glance at the real “David”, but we know he is unmistakably someone who did know Caleb, in some way, from the military. There’s some room for ambiguity in who he really is and why he really came, but ultimately it doesn’t matter, and the film-makers recognize this and leave it a question that can never be answered because, with this kind of story, there can never be a satisfying answer.

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The stupidest cliche in horror is “humans are the real monsters.” Because, while humans can be venal, selfish, and cruel, the point of comparison here is actual fucking monsters, and as terrible as humans as a whole can be, they’re not brain-sucking ghouls. But we seem to like this idea, judging by how often it comes up, probably because we’re so narcissistic and self-loathing we can’t really imagine anything worse than ourselves. However, if we stretch our genre boundaries a little, and completely remove supernatural hoo-har from the picture, the idea does take on some added power.

We meet Lou Bloom as he’s stealing a chain-link fence to sell as scrap-metal, beating up a security guard and taking his watch in the process. After failing to get a good deal, and being turned down for a job on the reasonable grounds that even a man who buys stolen goods isn’t going to hire a thief, Lou stumbles upon a car crash, accompanied by multiple police cars, and a freelance “news camera crew” run by Joe Loder, and a new career path presents itself to Lou. Selling some more stolen goods nets Lou a small camcorder and a police scanner, and his utterly callous indifference to human suffering gets him some excellent close-up shots of a carjacking victim, footage he sells to “vampire shift” tv news producer Nina Romina. With a little cash, Lou is able to “hire” an intern, Rick, and steadily improve his equipment by going for footage with greater and greater shock value, even going so far as to break into crime scenes and “restage” accidents for more dramatic impact. And when Lou experiences a setback, such as Joe Loder’s crew beating him to a plane crash, some creative tampering with Lou’s van gets him some prime footage of Joe’s own death. Things begin to spiral when Lou comes upon an active crime scene, an apparent home invasion in a wealthy neighborhood. He breaks into the home, and cuts out the footage of the perpetrators before selling it. He uses the footage to track them down and arrange for the police to arrest them in a public place, leading to a shoot out and the deaths of several people, including Rick, who had been asking for more money after realizing what Lou was up to. And, in the end, Lou gets his happy ending, becoming a successful and respected entrepreneur.

Lou is a singularly monstrous figure. There’s no comforting distancing in the film, we as the audience are up close and personal with a sociopath the entire time. There are no attempts made to soften Lou or make him sympathetic. He is essentially a parasite, living and profiting off human pain and misery, and smiling at you as he beats you for a cheap watch. But, as monstrous as Lou is, he exists within a system that is designed to create people like him. Everyone Lou encounters, save possibly Rick, is somehow living off others, from the metal shop owner who knowingly buys stolen goods, to Joe who inspires him, to Nina whose livelihood depends on exploiting the public’s appetite for pain and violence, no one is morally clean. Lou is just better at it than everyone else, probably because, as he admits, he just simply doesn’t like or care about other people at all. It’s hard to fairly evaluate the truthfulness of that statement, because everything that comes out of Lou’s mouth is a rapid string of pattering bullshit (the casualness with which Lou tosses off Malcolm Gladwell-esque aphorisms is his most unsettling verbal tic), but it’s probably the closest time he comes to saying what he’s actually thinking. It’s also the moment when he very clearly decides that it’s time for Rick to die in the line of duty.

Lou is monstrous because he’s recognizable, and he’s the product of a very human system. So, yes, humans can be the real monsters, but only when we bear in mind that, after all, it’s only us out here.

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I’ve talked about the weird overlap between horror and comedy before, and how the two genres often work together. But usually when they work best, it’s when one or the other is at the forefront; either a comedic film with horror elements, or a horror film with comedic elements. What’s relatively rarer, and somewhat surprisingly so, is the full black comedy in horror, much less a tragic comedy in horror. It’s probably a harder trick to pull off because it’s especially unsettling when it does happen.

The Voices focuses on Jerry, a pleasant but somewhat shy factory worker in a rather dilapidated post-industrial town. It’s clear early on that Jerry is somewhat…off, in comparison to his co-workers, and part of his employment seems to be supervised by a court appointed psycho-therapist. During planning for a company picnic, Jerry develops a crush on a coworker, Fiona (and remains completely oblivious to the crush coworker Lisa has on him in turn). At home, Jerry lives in a modest apartment over a bowling alley with his dog Bosco and cat Mr. Whiskers. Who talk to him. Bosco is warm and supportive, while Mr. Whiskers is cynical, and both attempt to guide Jerry through his crush on Fiona, who, frankly, is rather creeped out by him. Tragically, while giving Fiona a ride home from work one night, Jerry hits a deer. When Fiona sees Jerry kill the deer (to put it out of it’s misery, as he “heard” it ask him), she runs into the night, and is badly injured by Jerry on accident. And so he puts Fiona out of her misery as well. At home, Bosco and Mr. Whiskers argue over what Jerry should do next, with Bosco advocating going to the police, and Mr. Whiskers urging Jerry to become a serial killer, and Fiona’s severed head chiming in as well. A relationship with Lisa offers Jerry some hope, but that too ends tragically, setting off a chain reaction which eventually leads to the discovery of what Jerry has done. In the end, cornered by the police and trapped in a burning building, Jerry decides to lay down and allow himself to die, as it’s the only way he feels he can be trusted not to hurt anyone else.

Jerry is an intensely sympathetic figure, so when his mistakes turn violent, you feel the horror of it. He’s a bright, friendly man, who sees the world in a fundamentally good way, and there’s a grim, inescapable tragedy to everything that happens that follows from that. Jerry wants to do good, and is trying to do good, but is in a place where he doesn’t understand enough of the context of what is happening to see the wrongness of his actions. In a brilliant and subtle use of visuals, when we see the world through Jerry’s eyes, it’s bright and shining and colorful. When Jerry isn’t around, everything is dull and grey. Even his apartment, which to Jerry is clean and charmingly kitschy, is full of stacks of rotting garbage when we see it via another character. And so, when Jerry kills, we can see the logic of what he thinks he’s doing, even as we understand what’s really happening. It’s tricky to pull off this kind of unreliable viewpoint character in film, but director Marjane Satrapi manages it, both with the visuals and the casting. Everyone in the film is charming, but having an affable “everyman” actor like Ryan Reynolds in the lead helps as well.

It’s also important to note that the film entirely avoids the temptation to make Bosco and Mr. Whiskers anything other than pets that Jerry is externalizing his good and bad urges onto. The film does not shy away from the fact that Jerry is very sick and actively avoiding taking the medicine that he knows he needs to take. Those visual cues are important here, because the abrupt visual shift when Jerry does take his meds again are what drive home that the brightness and optimism we’ve associated with Jerry are actually symptoms of his disease. By the time Jerry is able to accept the full consequences of what he’s done, things are so far gone he doesn’t see any options other than death. Given what we eventually learn over the course of the film about Jerry’s childhood, his mother’s own illness and his father’s abuse, there is a bit of an overplaying of the “tragic inevitability” angle here, which is a little upsetting when dealing with a character who is, essentially, ill. But even so, the film finds a way to end on a upbeat note, bringing Jerry’s optimism full circle in at least a small way.

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Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper, 1989 ed., Pamela West
Well crafted, but very much in the “vast unspeakable conspiracy” realm of Ripper stories.

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One of the more intriguing aspects of horror is the cathartic effect. On many levels, it’s just the pleasant feeling of stress and relief that comes with a good scare. But, given how frequently horror gets into metaphor as story, more interesting modes of catharsis sometimes come along.

The Babadook focuses on Amelia, a single-mother raising a troubled boy, Samuel. Samuel acts out and is clingy and his dependence on Amelia repulses her, probably not least because she became a mother and a widow at the same time, her husband dying in a car crash on their way to the hospital. It’s clear that she has had little to no support in raising Samuel (her sister is clearly resentful of Amelia’s needs) and the constant reminders from those who knew him that Sam is “just like his father” doesn’t help much either. One night, a strange pop-up book that Amelia has no memory of appears in Sam’s room, and the boy insists on hearing the story of Mister Babadook, a strange figure that comes into your life and can never leave, whose presence and actions will make you “wish you were dead.” Amelia’s attempts to destroy the book only results in its continued reappearance, and her fear that someone is stalking her and her son soon changes into a very real concern that they are being menaced by something unnatural. The situation comes to a head when Amelia, desperate for some sleep and relief, exhausted and drugged, becomes possessed by the Babadook and attempts to kill Samuel. Samuel eventually manages to exorcise her, and in a final confrontation with the force Amelia, while not defeating it, comes to a place of understanding with the creature.

Amelia exists in a world of greys and blacks, her depression and exhaustion reflected in her physical surroundings, her home almost hallucinatory in its bleakness. The entire visual design of the film is amazing, with the contrast between interior and exterior worlds reflecting the minds of Amelia and Sam and their complicated relationship. The Bababadook fits perfectly in this world, never fully seen but glimpsed in flashes, and somehow even more unreal the more his physical presence becomes inarguable. Again, this is a film where the scares are slight, but the palpable dread is inescapable because of the care with which it has been made.

The Babadook itself is a brilliantly realized horror creation, as well. While supernatural creatures only having power if you believe in them is a groan-worthy cliche at this point, the Babadook upends that, becoming more powerful the more you doubt his existence. Within the symbolic logic of the film, this works, because the Babadook is in some way all of Amelia’s darker thoughts made manifest, her grief and depression and anger at Samuel made manifest. Though, interestingly, there’s no real indication that it is Amelia who has created or summoned the Babadook, but Samuel. It’s Samuel who first has the book, and the Babadook bears more than a passing resemblance to Sam’s favorite magician on a video he watches over and over, somehow cobbled together from his father’s hat and coat, and even at multiple points appearing as Sam’s father. Because while Amelia is dealing with her own feelings, Sam is equally angry at his mother, blaming her for his father’s death and keeping his father’s things from him.

It’s particularly fitting that, given the metaphoric nature of the Babadook itself, that there is no real way to defeat him. We’re told this, of course, right at the start, that “you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” Amelia can only achieve a kind of defeat over him, driving him back and diminishing him, but not eliminating him from their lives. Just as neither she nor Sam can ever truly escape their grief, by confronting the Babadook they can confront it. And by confronting it, they can reduce it so that, while it will always be there, it’s now simply part of their lives. Something they live with and take responsibility for and watch as, slowly, it diminishes more and more.

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