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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As fun as a straight-forward monster movie can be, with clear delineations between good and evil, sometimes something more meaty is called for. I’m not talking about the almost cynical nihilism that you see more often than I’d like in horror films; I’m thinking more of the quiet, introspective dread that you see from time to time, especially in the more supernatural films. Horror that disquiets at least in part because it is taking base human needs and emotions and exposing the potential monstrousness that’s there.
It Follows opens with an anonymous girl fleeing her home, attracting the concern of her neighbors, before racing away to the beach in her car, making one last phone call to her parents, and then being found the next day brutally murdered. It then cuts to Jay, a young woman preparing for a date with Hugh, her new boyfriend, while her sister, a friend, and the “nice boy next door” Paul all hang out in her living room. On their date, Hugh seems somewhat melancholy, and cuts the date short when he thinks he sees a woman entering the movie theater behind them, but Jay agrees to see him again anyway. On their next date, after having sex in his car near an abandoned factory, Hugh choloroforms Jay, straps her to a wheelchair, and explains to her that he has passed on a curse to her. An entity will start following her, moving at a slow walking pace, and will kill her if it catches her unless she passes the curse along to them. Only people with the curse will be able to see this Follower, and it will start to move back up the line of previous targets if it kills the current one. When a strange, naked woman starts walking towards the two of them, Hugh takes Jay home. The nature of her delivery, and the fact that Hugh lied about his name and where he lives leads everyone to presume Hugh raped her, but in a few days, Jay starts seeing strange figures following her that no one else seems to be aware of. Her friends, somewhat skeptical, agree to keep her safe, but no matter how far they flee or how many people Jay attempts to pass the curse on to, it keeps coming back to her. Eventually she and her friends attempt to trap and kill it at a pool, and while it’s possible they succeeded, the film ends without a definitive answer.
A lot has been written about the symbolism and metaphor in It Follows, much of it focusing on what some see as an essentially conservative, anti-sex message in line with the sort of “if you have sex you’ll die” morality of 80s slasher films. I don’t really accept that, especially as I can’t help but see that as a gross misinterpretation of what was actually going on in those 80s slasher films, but also because it doesn’t really fit at all with what’s going on in this film. Jay, as we learn, isn’t a virgin, so it’s not as if she’s being punished for having sex, full-stop. Yes, the curse is acquired through sex, but it’s also lifted, at least temporarily, through sex. Sex is a primal human drive, but it’s also a very adult drive, and is often seen as the unofficial rite of passage into adulthood. And adulthood means responsibilities, but it also means mortality. The Follower isn’t so much coming to get you because you were a bad little girl or boy and have to be punished, it’s coming for you because everyone, eventually, dies. And this is just the nature of your death.
Or, you know, not. It Follows is deliberately elusive, and layers in metaphor and subtext to the point where a number of possible meanings present themselves and can be convincingly argued. The repeated connections to water, reflections, point-of-view shots, white-clothing, watching others; there’s quite a few ways a careful viewer can dig into the film, and unlike most times a film-maker does this, the freedom granted to the viewer to interpret feels like a specific choice the film-makers made, to give viewers room while still telling their story.
Given this elusiveness, the bare nature of the Follower works well. One of the things that aggravates me with supernatural horror films, is when a creature is given specific weaknesses and rules it must follow, which are then disregarded in favor of a cheap jump scare or one of those cynically nihilistic endings I mentioned earlier. The audience barely knows anything about the creature because the characters barely know anything about it, and what they do know is pieced together and hearsay. And because of that, since we don’t really know what this thing is or how it works, the question of origin or motivation are moot. Even one of the central mysteries, why it changes its appearance, to what end, and why it chooses who it chooses, are only the subject of conjecture by the characters. It’s nice to see a horror film embrace the alien and unknowable, and the dread those bring, rather than make something blandly quotidian by over-explanation.
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The Black Stranger and Other American Tales, 2005, Robert E. Howard
The nice thing about this collection is that it doesn’t shy away from the uglier aspects of Howard’s work, which, given that pretty much every story here is set in the US, there are plenty of opportunities to showcase.
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Our cold open this week is Jack sitting on a bench, feeling sorry for himself while he ruminates silently on how twisted up the differences between good and evil seem to be lately on their quest to retrieve cursed antiques. Then we flashback to 1969, and see Kurt Bachman and his new bride Michelle on their honeymoon, when she’s abducted by a vampire (which are totally a thing independent of curses in this universe).
We cut to the present day (of 1989), as Jack continues to narrate the story of how Kurt became a vampire hunter, with some rather heavy handed comparisons between Kurt and those he hunts, leading to him returning bit player Jill Hennessey vamping on a club goer. He stakes her, which upsets a group of flying vampires who conveniently stay off-screen, and is chased into a church. He steals an antique crucifix from the altar, stabbing the priest accidentally with the blade hidden inside the cross, before leaving. The next day, Jack and Micki are at the church, the dead priest being yet another occult friend of Jack’s, and the crucifix turns out to be a relic from the Crusades, the Cross of Fire, so, yeah, clearly something Lewis Vendredei got his hands on at some point. Meanwhile, Kurt has tracked the vampire who abducted his bride to a club, and discovers the power of the Cross of Fire, which is basically to be a holy flame thrower, when he incinerates a bouncer who let’s just say was a vampire. The death makes the news, confirming the gang’s suspicions, and leading Jack to arrange a talk with the head vampire, club owner Evan Van Hellier, and getting only elusive answers from his human henchman.
That night, Kurt breaks into the Van Hellier mansion, killing a security guard in the process to power up the cross, but Van Hellier escapes before being incinerated. Kurt does manage to barge in on a pair of Stock Lesbian Vampires, incinerating one and discovering that the other is his long-lost wife, Michelle. He takes her to his completely inconspicuous abandoned factory covered in crucifixes lair, which is almost immediately raided, unsuccessfully, by Van Hellier. Van Hellier turns to Jack for help in dealing with the Cross of Fire, who notices that Van Hellier is a vampire when he casts no reflection in a mirror at the shop, while Kurt goes and gets a prostitute to feed to Michelle. While Kurt and Michelle are distracted, the gang breaks in and steals the cross, and Michelle agrees to make Kurt a vampire to protect him from Van Hellier, now that he has no protection. When Micki and Johnny see Van Hellier arrive, they go in to help Kurt, unaware of what has happened, and refusing to listen to Jack’s insistence that the only thing they should concern themselves with is recovering the cursed object. Kurt and Van Hellier get into a a vamp fight, during which Van Hellier is staked, and Kurt is splashed with holy water by Jack, having overcome his reservations out of concern for Micki and Johnny’s safety. Michelle he leaves to her fate, finding himself unable to bring himself to kill her. And then he goes and spends some time on a bench feeling sorry for himself.
Hoo, boy, this is rough. The main cast is almost completely side-lined during the story, and the cursed object is something of an afterthought; visually impressive, but not even the main focus on the story. The story itself is mostly concerned with Kurt and Van Hellier fighting over Michelle in some form or another, with Michelle herself pretty much something of an afterthought as well. The soft theme of the season, with characters pondering the morality of their actions, is present, but it’s hard to give much sympathy to Jack’s concerns when the people who prompted them were all pretty killing other people throughout the story.
A Very Robey 80s
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Mixing comedy with horror is, as I’ve talked about in the past, a tricky business. But people keep going to the well, probably because when it’s done well, it is extremely satisfying. There’s just something about those two primal emotions, joy and fear, playing off each other. For some peculiar reason, New Zealand seems to be one of the few countries that really excels at making the combo work.
What We Do In The Shadows is a faux documentary focused on Viago, Vladislav, and Deacon, three centuries old Eastern European vampires living in a run-down house in a Wellington suburb. Also living with them is Petyr, an almost completely feral Nosferatu-type creature, in the basement. Wellington, for inexplicable reasons, is home to a host of supernatural creatures, including a large vampire community, but the three room-mates are, clearly, not adjusting well to 21st century life, spending most of their time in petty squabbles, nostalgia, and utterly failed attempts to find victims. Until one night Jackie, Deacon’s human servant, brings some victims over and one, Nick, is turned into a vampire by Petyr. Nick, along with his very human computer programmer friend Stu, prove to be what the vampires needed to jump-start them into adjusting to the new century and moving on from their past regrets, much to the annoyance of Deacon, who finds his place as the cool, upstart bad-boy vampire taken by Nick. Unfortunately, Nick’s modernity also leads to a lack of care that endangers those around him, leading ultimately to the (re)death of Petyr and the mauling of Stu by a pack of werewolves. Ultimately, though, a kind of happiness is found for everyone.
Much of What We Do In The Shadows is straight comedy. It’s very character driven, establishing the three leads, their particular neuroses, and letting them play off each other and the world around them in a naturalistic way. So, when the film does shift gears into horror, as it does dramatically on at least two occasions, the contrast is jarring. The horror sequences are genuinely tense, and don’t shy away from the inherent monstrousness of the characters. This is actually a recurring feature of the film; it never lets you forget that these three men, as quirkily appealing as they are, are all mass murderers (Deacon even casually mentions that he was a Nazi, just to drive the point home). Yes, there is a pathos to them (the joy they all experience when Stu shows them sunrise videos on YouTube is palpable), but at the end of the day they’re monsters. It’s hard to classify them as evil, though; the only truly evil character would appear to be Jackie, who is quite happy to lead innocents to their death if it means she can get what she wants out of Deacon. The contrast with her and Stu, who actually does seem put off by the supernatural but stays with it because of his friendship with Nick, keeps the film from the now insufferable cliche of “humans are the real monsters” though.
The film also deserves credit for almost aggressively shying away from the trend in modern vampire stories to make the creatures “not vampires” in some way, or to dismiss the accumulation of vampire lore as mere fictions. These vampires die in the sun, avoid crucifixes, are burned by silver; in general, they conform to all the major elements of classical vampire lore. A lot of this ties into the overall themes at play in the film, specifically the conflicts between the present and the past. Each of the characters, in some ways, is unable to reconcile themselves to their place in the modern world. Even Nick, the very modern and contemporary character, is challenged by the realization that he is going to ultimately outlive everyone he knows and that the future ahead of him is one of constant loss, that he is going to become just as much a relic of the past as the others. Sticking to the vampire lore gives the film the grounding it needs that ultimately allows the characters to move forward and find some kind of reconciliation with the present.
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