Crimson Peak – Guillermo del Toro (2015)

All of Guillermo del Toro’s films are, in some way, tales of the gothic. Like his influence (and failed adaptee) H.P. Lovecraft, they are also hybrids, so it is not surprising if the gothic tendency is not the first quality that springs to mind when considering his work. But it is there, running like a subterranean stream through films that feature a kind of art cinema historical realism (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth) or that seem genre exercises in fantasy (Hellboy and Hellboy II, Pan’s Labyrinth) or sci-fi (Mimic, Pacific Rim). In fact, looking at his filmography, it is possible to wonder if all these categories are indeed fused for him – while horror is the overarching category that captures all of his work, most of the films fall into at least two categories. (Blade II, for example, is a horror film, but also has elements of sci-fi and fantasy. Mimic could be considered sci-fi horror. Pan’s Labyrinth is art horror fantasy. And on and on). So what is surprising, given this trajectory, is that Crimson Peak is not a hybrid, and that it is avowedly gothic through and through. Like most of his other films, it is a tale of ghosts, of the dead who refuse to remain dead, and of the vampiric need for the blood of others to guarantee personal survival.

Like Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak is the story of an escape from a traumatic reality into a fantastical space where, it seems, dreams can come true. In fact, it could almost function as a kind of sequel to Pan’s Labyrinth, as while it lacks that prior film’s grim historical specificity (and outcome), it focuses on a young woman, just on the far side of adolescence, who also seeks to escape a personal tragedy, but instead of forming a closed, safe interior universe, instead ventures outward, both physically and emotionally, leaving her country and falling in love for the first time. Pan’s Labyrinth was a story about the dangers inherent to trusting that the world will support you; Crimson Peak is about the risks of trusting others, after the continuation of the world itself has been assured. The story will be very familiar to anyone who has had a passing encounter with 19th century literature. Our heroine, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), is an aspiring writer of gothic tales and the only daughter of a self-made magnate in 19th century Buffalo, New York. Her father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver) is visited by Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a vaguely aristocratic young Englishman of seemingly decrepit lineage, who tries to interest Cushing père in funding his mud harvesting and brick making scheme. Carter, ever cagey, doesn’t trust Sharpe at first because he is not the up from nothing American type that he can identify with, and then later because of some nasty details learned through the aid of a private detective (the distinctively seedy Burn Gorman). Not thrilled that Sharpe has been making a romantic impression on his daughter, and armed with his evidence of skulduggery, Carter confronts Sharpe and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and writes them a check to send them on their way, on the condition that Sharpe thoroughly breaks Edith’s heart before leaving. He does so, humiliatingly, at a dinner party, but before they can leave town, someone bashes Carter’s head in. Edith, newly orphaned and without anyone to protect her from the Sharpe siblings except her friend and doctor Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), who is too discreet, respectful of Edith’s will (and perhaps hurt at being passed over) to intervene, falls back into Thomas’s arms, and soon is newly married and travelling to his vast manse in the wilds of the English countryside for a new life with he and his sister. Sister Lucille seems strangely jealous of Edith, the house is a monstrous wreck, and haunted to boot. Soon, Edith is wondering what is kept secret in the supposedly too dangerous to visit basement, but before much can be discovered, she inexplicably falls ill. Are the mysterious visitations from bloody women portents of some vile past? Are Edith’s sudden health issues the sign of foul play? (I think you don’t need to read the tea leaves to find that answer). Eventually, all sorts of degenerate yet predictable “secrets” will be revealed, but does Edith make it out alive? Is the love of Thomas true, or will Dr. Alan reemerge and press his case? For the answers, tune in tomorrow… (Or simply imagine, as you are probably right).

Crimson Peak plays out as a kind of cut and paste mashup of the Illustrated Classic’s versions of Wuthering Heights, The Turn of the Screw, with a few panels from Great Expectations thrown in for good measure. It is well done, and the attention to period detail, and character filigree, is impressive. And, although the first third of the film, set in Buffalo, is far more interesting than the high gothic doings that comprise most of the rest, and although del Toro’s ghosts look crummy, are not scary, and seem attuned to the worst trends in horror films from the past decade or so, the movie is still affecting and moving in parts, as it does plug us back into what makes the gothic an affective and disturbing form. The acting is good, and helps sell the weaker parts, with Wasikowska being particularly winning and sympathetic (can the gothic exist without a woman at its core?) and her dad Beaver a nuanced standout as well. Beyond that, it is not particularly memorable or powerful. What is fascinating about del Toro as a director is also what is frustrating about him – his films are quite uneven. He’s made a few very good films (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone), many solid and thought provoking entertainments (Blade II, Cronos, Crimson Peak) and a few semi-stinkers (Mimic, Pacific Rim). He doesn’t tend to write characters with deep or complex psychology, and he rarely surprises with novel techniques or with narrative originality. Just as his imagination is clearly visual first and foremost, it is citational as well; he tends to ransack other films and literature for character types, plot devices, and generic situations. What is surprising, though, is that despite this, each of his films has a distinctive flavor, whether they are art films that we would think more “personal” or genre moneymakers. Despite the hoariness of his material, he is totally sincere; the familiarity of his references feels warm, and comfortable, rather than tired or lazy. Indeed, even though many of his films are “generic” in this way, del Toro takes considerable care to make sure all the details are right and that there is a fidelity to the original within his elaborations. Yes, he tends to focus on the surface, but he is meticulous in his construction, and seems to believe that through detail something larger can emerge. For his faithfulness to the source material to matter, del Toro needs to understand it, not just intellectually, but emotionally, and not just for modern audiences, but for the original ones too – and it is clear that he does. This is why he never winks at the audience, why his references are completely straight, and unironic, as for him (and often for his characters) the imagination is a vehicle that provides an escape into, not just an escape from, and where we are carried is just as important as the fact that we are carried away. Unlike the majority of cynical image makers, who mine the history of representations for shorthand notations in an attempt to convey emotions and meanings that they are too limited to create, del Toro is instead recalling – his cinema is a cinema of memory, but the subject is his own memory, the child-like delight evident in the beauty and directness of his imaginings a window to what he finds important morally and emotionally. del Toro is an anachronism in the sense that he reminds one of those journeyman directors of yore, toiling within the studio system, who turned out uneven product and inconsistent art, and who never rose to the rank of household name or avatar of “greatness,” but who nonetheless, in their ubiquity, in their striving, in their simple desire to work and solve problems of visual communication, helped build the grammar of the visual language we speak with today, and by the by constructed a palace of dreams vast and rich enough to escape into, perhaps, like del Toro, forever. Crimson Peak does not do anything new, nor does it overly impress us in any particular way, but at the same time, it helps us remember the stories we thought we had forgotten. Even if this remembering does not linger far beyond the end credits, in the time of our transport it reminds us that we are haunted by the ghosts of past representations for a reason. The ghosts are important, as when we are haunted, we are, like Edith, learning how to navigate the world of humans by remembering those who came before. And, also like Edith, such remembering ultimately allows us to survive, able to become the author of the story of our own lives.

Three stars out of five

Goodnight Mommy – Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz (2015)

The original German title of Goodnight Mommy is Ich seh, Ich seh, the meaning of which you might be able to deduce even if you don’t know German. That title, while cloying, also serves as a key to the film, and so is more fitting than the rather generic renaming; all the same, if you can decode the punny reference the German title is making, you can pretty much skip seeing the movie, as you’ll already know the outcome. Yes, Goodnight Mommy is about as derivative as they get. What’s more, like in an M. Knight Shyamalan film (but without any of the bumptious stabs at poetry to make up for its faults), the meaning of Goodnight Mommy hinges on a “twist” ending, a revelation that is supposed to answer questions, but instead only leaves us questioning the point of the whole enterprise. Like last year’s The Babadook, this is “psychological” horror, which effectively means that the scares are going to tickle your cerebrum and not twitch your death nerve. At least in that film, ham handedly managed though it was, the director tried for a level of allegorical content which vainly attempted to pull the tale from the grip of irrelevance. Sadly, the makers of Goodnight Mommy have no such desires – they tell their little (oft-told) tale straight, with no chasers of emotion or humanity. The style is Haneke, but it is like a Xerox of that master’s austere playbook. Since there is no point to seeing the film at all if you already know the ending (except, as the New York Times seriously suggested, to fact check the story’s logic), I will spare a spoiler. Here is the thusly reduced synopsis: two young twin boys (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) live in a modernist house in semi-rural Austria. Our story begins with the return of Mom (Susanne Wuest), wrapped in bandages as she has just had plastic surgery. The kids seem leery of Mom, and think she is an impostor, or changed by her surgery. And she seems unbalanced; often cold and angry, she treats one of the twins with rough, grudging love, and ignores the other one completely – she won’t address him, won’t feed him. Mom seems to get more and more extreme as time goes on as the boys (or rather, the favored twin) question her more strenuously on what her problem is. We do see pics of Mom from earlier in her life, and she does not look much changed by the surgery, but we must agree she does act weird. But weird enough for the boys, feeling threatened, to whittle some wooden arrows for their “toy” crossbow? As you might expect, eventually the boys feel threatened and alienated enough by Mom that they tie her to her bed, and get to the bottom of things. Sorry Mom.

If you are familiar with The Other, Robert Mulligan’s sadly little known film of 1972, you know this film, and how it goes. The Other was true psychological horror, as it made us inhabit and identify with the protagonist to a degree that when the horror of his mind is understood, we feel it, and can both sympathize and shudder – our identification works like a mirror, and we cannot turn away, as to do so would be to deny ourselves. Goodnight Mommy is like a twist film procedural – it takes the alienated portrayals of early Haneke, adds a “creepy” gotcha, and, like an experiment, examines what the resulting aesthetic is like. For if there is enjoyment within this film, it is within the aesthetic. What we watch unfold is seen as if from outer space, or underwater – it might fascinate us, but it is too distant to move us. I can see that the Times might have a point, though, as perhaps watching the film knowing the outcome in advance would humanize Mom and make her fate more affecting, or make the twins creepier. At the same time, there are only so many hours left in my life, and an inversely proportional amount of movies in the world. Save yourself $14.75 (Angelika is a harsh mistress) and watch The Other instead.

One and a half stars out of five

The Green Inferno – Eli Roth (2015)

There are without doubt many reasons to repudiate The Green Inferno, Eli Roth’s new film about a cannibalistic Amazonian tribe that makes more than eye candy out of a clutch of young, attractive, white college students. I think that one could reasonably claim that the representations within the film are racist. The film features much gory human butchery and more partaking of “the other white meat” than The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Alive, and Eating Raoul combined. Indeed, as anyone who is familiar with both Mr. Roth and the genre of cannibal films instantly recognizes, this film is an homage to Ruggero Deodato’s indelible and notorious 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust (the working title of which was, in fact, Green Inferno). And without doubt, Mr. Roth’s contribution falls far short, both in terms of power, and in terms of queasy exploitation, of that earlier title. And yet… there is something going on here. Do not be alarmed, my fellow cinephiles, when I ask you to lend me your ears, for I am indeed here to bury The Green Inferno, and not to praise it. Still, although the film deals in racist imagery, and is not making a cogent or self-aware critique, it does reflect something other than the disavowed inferiority, the desire to other strange cultures, and the unmitigated disgust of difference that forms the bedrock of true racism. For this film is not about people, but images; it does not even reach the threshold of having a relationship with reality. This is not to say that Mr. Roth knows what he is doing, nor is it an attempt to excuse or elide content which many will find repugnant. It is, instead, an attempt to understand why the film, for all its purportedly stomach-churning and repulsive imagery, is a strangely anodyne experience. For if many films, Cannibal Holocaust among them, concern themselves with the horrors of humans becoming images (call it objectification if you like, but it is, to my mind, a process more haunting and tragic than what that term implies), The Green Inferno concerns itself with images, pure and simple. Or, impure and slightly less simple.

In a move with echoes of Sade, the film opens and closes with our heroine, a young woman and upper-class college student named Justine (Lorenza Izzo), as she moves from innocence to “experience.” This seeming naif, primed for corruption (as any good cinephile can tell from the very first scene, as she rouses from her slumber underneath a poster for Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 37.2 Le Matin, commonly known as Betty Blue), is the daughter of a U.N. ambassador, and an idealist who wants to make a difference. In reaction to her cynical (yet wise?) roommate Kaycee (Sky Ferreira), who mocks all things authentic, Justine is fascinated by the hunger strikers on campus who are agitating for social justice. Radicalized by classroom representations of female circumcision, and then drawn into the group of protesters by the equally idealistic Jonah (Aaron Burns), who also has a crush on her, Justine quickly embarks with them on a mission to the rain forests of Peru, in an attempt to stop an oil company from despoiling the land and destroying the native populations in its quest to exploit hidden resources. The plan is to put themselves on the front line of the deforestation, chain themselves to trees, and then use their cell phones as weapons, broadcasting outrage directly to the rest of the planet via a phalanx of social media followers, to shame the exploiters into quitting their project. And the plan seemingly works. Soon the group is on a plane out of there, celebrating their victory – or, almost everyone is. Justine is understandably bitter that the leader of the group, Alejandro (Ariel Levy), exploited her ambassador Dad, while putting her life at risk during the operation, to make sure it was a success. There is little time for her to parse the realpolitik behind these revolutionary exploits, however, as the small plane’s engine explodes over the deep jungle, and soon it is rocketing to the ground, breaking apart as it does, and leaving half the group, and all of the crew, definitively dead. The small group of survivors is quickly set upon by the local natives; it doesn’t help that everyone in the airplane is still wearing their oil company camouflage jumpsuits. The natives, mistaking them for the enemy (or maybe just looking for a solid month’s worth of eating), quickly blow-darts our group into submission, and when they awake, they are being led through the native village and into a guarded cage. Jonah, being the biggest and meatiest, is the first to go to the butcher block, but it is understood that everyone will meet a similar fate in good time. The girls are quickly pulled out and examined for signs of virginity; only Justine passes the test (of course). She is thus singled out, and saved for last, as she will be forced to undergo the procedure that also radicalized her (oh, the irony). While in the cell, the group discovers that Alejandro is not the fellow traveler they thought, but instead either a very misguided, cynical leftist, or a complete psycho. After giving a nice speech about how 9/11 was allowed to happen by the U.S. government (although the moon landing was real, I guess), he reveals that the jungle stunt he orchestrated was at the behest of a rival oil company, looking to discredit the original one just long enough to jump their claim. No worries, says Alejandro, this is just the way business is done if you want to really affect change, and further, sit tight! That rival company is on its way, and they will soon arrive and slaughter all these horrible natives, saving our skins. (Needless to say, his comrades are nonplussed to the extreme). Not content to sit tight, everyone tries to escape at various points (save one gentle youth who slits her own throat with broken pottery), and pretty much everyone dies in their attempts. By the end, only Alejandro and Justine are left, beauty and the beast in a cell, waiting for the deus ex machina to descend. And lo, it does. The oil company arrives, just as Justine is about to go under a relatively dull looking knife-like implement, and the village rushes off to wage battle. Justine, aided by a young village child she has wooed with jewelry, escapes in her ritual body paint and natural fiber microkini, leaving Alejandro sous vide. She hustles through the jungle, under the waterfall, past the black jaguar, and into the clearing where the oil company militia is taking on the tribal warriors. Faking up a redo of the earlier cell phone activism, she manages to stop the battle and get herself airlifted back home, where she vouchsafes to no one the reality of her ordeal, instead singing the praises of the native tribe, all the better to ensure that Alejandro is eaten up with regret. (But maybe he’s not?!? Possible sequel, everybody).

There is no doubt that the representation of the tribe in the film partakes of racist tropes; it might be off-putting, if it could be taken seriously. The blueprint for the tribe is less Cannibal Holocaust than King Solomon’s Mines. Well, maybe even King Solomon’s Mines looks more anthropological. Perhaps a Tarzan film of pre-Johnny Weissmuller vintage? The tribe is led by what can only be called a sorceress; she has a milky eye, a chain running from her nose to her ear, and earrings that would seem out of place even in an ’80s themed camp fashion show. She wears a weird earthenware gom jabbar on her middle finger, carries a staff, and eats tongue al fresco with relish (and almost no chewing). Her chief henchman is bald, frequently bug-eyed, painted in black from head to toe, and has a nose ring the rises up, up, up around his head. We all understand that these are not people, nor anything near Amazonian tribespeople, but actors, representations of representations. The “regulars” of the village are more problematic, in that they do hew closer to what might be mistaken for reality (Hollywood style, that is, looking more like extras from At Play in the Fields of the Lord). In fact, it is not simply the tribespeople that we have a hard time taking seriously, it is the entire enterprise. Now, in one respect, this is simply the mark of a bad (or more accurately, stupid) film. But it is not laughable, nor played for laughs. In what is its closest connection to Cannibal Holocaust, Roth presents the values and ideals of these college students in a serious, if caricatured, way; similarly, he treats the classroom discussion of female circumcision with anthropological and political gravity. Indeed, given how stupid and crass the subject matter of the film is, almost nothing is played for laughs, or winked at. Is this a case of accidental “virtue,” a kind of Ed Wood “bungling?” One could make the argument. For instance, in one scene during the waiting to be eaten cage sequence, Amy (Kirby Bliss Blanton), the girl who eventually kills herself, is racked with diarrhea, and has a prolonged evacuation in her jumpsuit. (The natives laugh at this, but we are not cued to join them). However, when she is later pulled forward for her virginity exam, her jumpsuit is not only not befouled, she is wearing a spanking clean pair of purple panties that shows not a stain. Did Roth really overlook this continuity error? It is quite possible. There is, however, another possibility. Perhaps this film is not even near the realm of attempting a relationship with “reality.” In the fully post-modern sense (perhaps even as far as Godard is post-modern), we are self-consciously looking at a representation from within. The characters are not people who, through their death, and its subsequent filmic record, are made into images (as in Cannibal Holocaust); they are images first and foremost, no more real, or deep, than the characters in a Coca-Cola commercial. These timeless, placeless young white bourgeoisie are tormented by, if anything, their placelessness. What are they to do? Why do they exist? Just to be flat fodder for a car advertisement? Is that all there is for them? Is that “success?” They want more – so they adventure into the rain forest to “make a difference.” In the rain forest, they are caught between an image of the past and an image of the present that supports them. They are simply puppets of the multinational corporations that are despoiling the “real” world to support our fantasy image of that world – an image of abundance, of easy access to magically produced consumer goods, of ready, easily procured, and cheap meat on our tables. They cannot accept such a situation, as it reveals them to be one-dimensional, powerless, a front for the terrible forces of the “real.” However, what is their other option? The other side of the coin is an atavism that is as alien to them as it would be to the rest of us – a world of true communism, where the individual is lost within the group will, where daily struggle must ensure survival, and where the cruel practices that mark the passage from one modality of life to another are not masked by a neuter symbolism. Thus the behavior of Alejandro, who espouses conspiracies, which run on the logic of images, and who has nothing but optics in mind. It is the hell of no-exit that The Green Inferno documents; it does it through the tropes of a genre film, and it probably does it unknowingly, but all the same, it is a movie about being caught between an image of our past (which has only an imagined connection to past realities) and the realities that support and produce our images (which are our only means of knowing present-day reality). Thus it makes perfect sense this is a movie about cannibalism, as it is a movie about images coming to awareness that they too are mere products, made to be consumed. Thus the dream-like acceptance of their fates, and the lack of horror or feeling on our parts; watching them be led away is no more than watching slips of paper fall into a bonfire. Thus too the ending, with Justine returning and projecting, for those protected and naive images back home (unaware that they are products with a use value), a false image of the tribe. She is forced to create that which does not exist – an ideal outside to the hellish closed circle of unreal existence. Cannibal Holocaust was infinitely more disturbing, as it still could claim a purchase on reality; indeed, the production and reception of the film was imbricated in reality to the degree that it was proclaimed snuff. It is a true image of exploitation. The Green Inferno fits our era as it is post-exploitation. The joke is that we sit watching this film, feeling next to nothing, not realizing it is a mirror, and we are seeing ourselves; with nothing left to exploit, we have begun consuming ourselves, and yet we still believe we do good, that things will turn around, that a resurgence of idealism will arise, ex nihilo, to save us. We can paint the red of hell green, and call it paradise, but eventually, the heat will melt away all the artifice, and reveal truth and reality on a scale we, blinded by modernity, cannot yet conceive.

Two and a half stars out of five

Unfriended – Levan Gabriadze (2015)

I am beginning to have hope that we are in the midst of an unexpected Renaissance of horror films. At the very least, Unfriended is the third in a row I’ve viewed that I’d recommend without reservation. I am doubly happy as, from much of the early evidence, Unfriended looked awful, to the point that I almost passed on it. The trailer was grating and full of screechiness, and, come on, the film centers around teens using Facebook and Skype. Not only does that sound inauspicious in terms of scares, it just sounds painful in general. Drumming myself out of the torpor which has kept me from theaters in the past few weeks, I scanned Rotten Tomatoes for some help, and was shocked, shocked, I say, to see Unfriended labeled as fresh (and in the low 80s at that). And lo and behold, the film is quite good, very rarely annoying or stupid. In many ways, there is not much to it. The simple plot centers around a group of “friends” (chums and graduates of Knife Sharpening 101, Spring, Prof. Choderlos de Laclos all), one of whom is driven to commit suicide via online bullying by way of a shaming video. This friend, Laura, returns one night in demonic form to take her revenge on these faithless friends. The night in question happens to be – video chat night! (Which is every night in teen world, I suppose). Laura, in the guise of an anonymous, lurking video chatter cum invincible malware blackmails her former cohort into betraying each other’s secrets, shaming them (with a little help from her demonic mojo) into acts of violence against themselves, all of this wrought through and then revealed by our beloved networking technologies.

More than a few reviewers have mentioned the similarities to Christie’s Ten Little Indians, which I suppose exist. A few fewer (but more than one) have also made reference to Val Lewton’s immortal Cat People, I guess because of a seeming shared economy of means, a “less is more” mentality. Okay, whatever. In truth, I would call Unfriended more avant-garde than Lewton, and perhaps the most avant-garde “mainstream” film this year, certainly. The formal elements that make the film so interesting exist in a kind of strange opposition to the rather hackneyed narrative elements, but instead of failing to mix like proverbial oil and water, they come together in some kind of sleepy emulsification – the senescence that the film lulls you into is not boring, though, but properly nightmarish in quality. One could say the film consists of a long 80-odd minute shot; in reality, it is a faked-up screen capture of a desktop in which the “cuts” happen through the many little screens of the video chativerse. What is fascinating is that, by and large, the film captures the reality of multitasking and the phenomenological ambience of the computer screen to a T. This one long “shot” is almost completely devoid of non-diegetic sound. We hear the computer whirring away, and the crispy crunching of a Mac’s hard drive, along with sometime pop-up and notification sounds that are, sadly, in this historical moment recognizable without need of visual cue. This limited purview leads to a strangely embodied experience, which the film heightens by, at times, dampening the background chatter of the vidiots with an “I’m underwater” type of sonic submersion. There is a lot to look at, what with all the windows popping up and moving around, but it is fascinating how watching Blaire (our “eyes” and the film’s ersatz protagonist) type, erase, and then retype Facebook timeline posts, search around the Internet, or otherwise fiddle with interfaces becomes engrossing, both dreamy and more interesting than the plot itself. Likewise, within the plotting, watching the characters in their “off” moments, when they are passive and we should be looking at the character talking, for instance, becomes more fascinating and, strangely, moving, than the plot as such. What elevates the film, though, is that this subdued mode does not overtake the story and the unfolding horror – it actually increases interest and heightens the tension in those sequences when the characters are forced to confront each other and the ambient world drops away (as in the extended sequence where Laura forces them all to play “Never Have I Ever” for high stakes). Thus the nightmare quality, as in the sleepy majority of the film, we are happy to watch this or that little thing happen, tidbits that increase the humanity of these potentially cardboard teens, only to be ripped out of this state of appreciation by snippets of self-destruction and degradation that, because of this contrast (and their brevity) do indeed disturb. Conventions of Internet life are played like sick jokes, but the laughs don’t often come off, and are not cheap when they do, as they are not simply jokes, but, like a bad dream, dig at something more profound. The film manages to ride the line between satire and serious with some skill, and could perhaps be called a true dark comedy.

There are disappointments, of course, as the film sadly has not the courage of its relatively austere convictions. There are moments near the end of the film where non-diegetic sounds (particularly the cliche sub-bass rumble endemic to almost all contemporary horror films) do seep in. The filmmakers chose to over-utilize a kind of digital artifacting and pixilation that is more common in cruddy DVDs or corrupted digital video files than in streaming video, which tends to go soft and smudgy in my experience – while generating some interesting effects, this look winds up reading more as a filter pasted on after the fact, and worse, unlike the rest of the film’s relationship to technology, seems out of touch and ultimately distracts from the verisimilitude. Worst of all, the ending is pretty stupid. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, but it makes sense only from the standpoint of horror conventions we thought we had left behind (in this regard, it reminds me of the first Paranormal Activity). Really, though, this film does engage all the issues surrounding how we relate virtually, and how such relating involves degradation a priori, and it does so in the best possible way: not by saying, but by showing. In its 80 minutes of submersion into what is seductive and horrifying about digital reality, Unfriended both defamiliarizes the technology and makes you feel strangely comfortable and at home, not an easy task. Yes, it is not a terribly poetic film, but anyone who knows me knows that I was won over from the moment the film opens with Liveleak’s lovely warning screen.

Three stars out of five

It Follows – David Robert Mitchell (2015)

It Follows is pitched as a horror film. It is so only insofar as it is a stalking ground for a certain kind of dread. Beyond the trappings of the genre, which It Follows inhabits only as much as it needs in order to critique them, the film is about the sadness inherent in moving from adolescence to adulthood, and more specifically, from a teenager’s conception of sex to a fully informed, mature one. If it were only this, it would already be an unusual, and significant, addition to a genre that, especially in the last few decades, has been painfully devoid of intellectual and emotional significance. But it is more than that. It is not an elegy for a lost, idealized youth, but rather, a portrait of what it means to become an adult, if we take adulthood not as a fallen state, or a cynical inevitability, merely the grabbing ground of goodies denied to youth, but as a stage that must reckon with the endgame while trying to figure out how to play to the end ethically. What sets It Follows apart is not that it contains more insight than your average horror film (it indeed contains more insight than your average film, period), but that it provides an answer to the problems it poses. If it is a portrait, it is a picture of what it means to ethically interact with other people in full knowledge that the end is always already in view, that nothing lasts, and that true friendship, or even love, places demands on us that, if not heeded, result in the destruction of everyone in the game.

Let me be less abstract. It Follows concerns Jay, a girl on the far side of adolescence; she still lives at home with her mother, and attends a local college. She has a clutch of friends that are always hanging around at her house, watching movies, behaving like teens. Jay is not a teenager anymore, but she still has the trappings of a teenager’s life, and we sense, in one of the many quiet moments the film provides, as she floats around in her above ground pool in the family backyard, that she feels herself on the cusp of something she is not quite sure of. She goes on a date with Hugh, who seems a nice enough guy; at the movies (a revival of Charade, ho ho), Hugh becomes disquieted, as he sees a girl in the theater that Jay cannot. They depart, and eventually wind up in the back of his car, having sex. The sex is depicted like much in this low-key, non-exploitative film: as a bit of sweaty, heated connection, not overly profound for either partner. After the sex, Jay lounges in the back seat of Hugh’s car, and he approaches her from behind; he forces a rag over her face, and she passes out. When she wakes, she is in an abandoned building, tied to a wheelchair, and Hugh begins to tell her, and eventually shows her, what will happen to her. She will be stalked by an apparition, which can appear as any person – often it will look like someone she knows, but just as often it will be a stranger. This apparition is, basically, death. If it catches her, it will kill her. This specter is not fast moving; it is insidious, and threatening only in its relentlessness. The only way Jay can avoid this fate is to pass the curse on to someone else – if she has sex with another person, then that person will now be stalked. Jay will not be off the hook, though, just as Hugh is not now off the hook. If the apparition catches the person Jay has slept with, and kills him, then the apparition will return to hunting Jay, and if it catches and kills her, it will return to hunting Hugh. This infinite regress of death, this vertiginous space of slow-moving inevitable destruction, is her new reality, for good. This is the premise of the film, and the rest of the movie works to slowly clarify the realities of this new mode of being; it is really nothing but a description of what it means to live like this. We are not in doubt that this curse is real – the film does not toy with the usual “perhaps she’s crazy, and nobody believes her” cliches. Her friends are affected physically by this unseen force, which can cause collateral damage in its relentless movement toward Jay. Given that it is a real, if invisible, presence, the group tries to destroy it – and indeed, it appears that you can temporarily slow its advance, cause it to dissipate for a short period of time, but eventually it will reappear and resume its forward motion. This invisible force frequently appears to the afflicted with the hallmarks of its character – it often, even when resembling a friend or relative, has the pallor of a corpse, and just as often signifies a sickly sexuality (in this way the film pays homage to Kubrick’s The Shining, specifically the scene where Jack Torrance is seduced by a sexually voracious young woman who, when glimpsed in a mirror, he recognizes as a decomposing yet living body).

Now, this concept, strangely resembling a type of game, or perhaps a chain letter, might sound like a gimmick not much different from many others that guide horror films recently (such as the one that drives the Saw franchise). What places this film above its peers, and reveals the concept to be both a parody and a critique, is that it is not cynical. In fact, the structure of “the gift” forecloses cynicism, or rather, makes mindlessly passing along the curse the most losing strategy of all. Pass it on to some nameless somebody you have no connection to, and before long the specter of death will be back stalking you, as your nameless somebody was unprepared, unknowing of the danger, and thus quickly succumbed. Further, you are setting yourself up to be surprised, as you’ll have no idea when this nameless somebody died, and hence no idea when you will be next. No, “the gift,” for the sake of your own survival, comes with an ethics as well. The best way to ensure your own future is to do what Hugh does: inform the victim of what will befall them. But better yet, take it a step beyond Hugh – watch over your “victim.” Keep an eye on them. In fact, in the best of all possible worlds, you will help them stay safe by becoming a permanent fixture in their life (as everyone with “the gift,” no matter if they are the next intended or far down the list, having been so enlightened, can see the specter). Thus this predicament, undoubtedly a despairing and insolvable one, does have a solution: learn to live with it. And the best way to learn to live with it is to build a community around it. This is why Jay, after much delay and coming to grips with her new reality, gives her “gift” to another. The first intended is Greg, a fellow student at the local college who, we come to learn, she had a sexual relationship with in high school (which was “no big thing”). Greg is likable, and we trust that he has Jay’s best interest at heart, but we come to learn, sadly (for his sake) that he cannot handle the reality that Jay hands him. Taking on her burden as his own, he very quickly becomes distant, avows that he has not seen the specter, and begins to cast doubt on Jay and her burden. Jay’s friends, however, become suspicious of him because of this, as they have both seen material evidence of the specter and, more importantly, understand that something horrible is happening to Jay. Soon enough, Greg’s disavowal catches up with him (in the appearance of his own mother) and he succumbs to his inevitable demise. The second intended is a childhood friend of Jay’s, Paul. He and she shared their first kiss together, and he has obviously retained his crush on her. Near the end of the film, after their last, seemingly fruitless attempt to destroy the apparition, Jay relents to Paul’s desire to share her pain, and she passes “the gift” on to him. The film ends with the suggestion that this bond will take, and, consequently, they will both be better equipped to deal with the future, as they can look for, and fight against, the specter as a team. The last shot of the film shows them, walking hand in hand down the street, with a possible manifestation of the dread ghost slightly out of focus, walking behind them in the near distance.

Rarely, at least in contemporary cinema, has there been as thoroughgoing and unsexy a portrayal of what it means to be an adult, and to live in the grown-up world of knowledge of inevitable death and decay and the responsibility toward others that such knowledge entails. It is not a conservative worldview, predicated on fear of sexuality, despite the coupling of sex and decay throughout the film. Rather, it is a deeply more ambivalent portrayal of sex than we are used to. On the one hand, sex is the release from the world, a means of escaping inevitable death – passing on “the gift” stands in for what the French call “the little death,” the paradoxical forgetting of oneself that another body and, ultimately, the orgasm that body elicits, provides. In mirroring the permanent forgetting of self promised by one’s demise, sexual coupling allows a subject to, temporarily at least, escape their knowledge of mortality. At the same time, passing on “the gift” also binds the two parties together in a permanent relationship, just as sex does in a properly adult world – not as an obligation, but as a profound sharing, profound because of the consequences that can result from the act: not only pregnancy, or the transmission of disease, but of heartbreak or emotional damage. Of course, anyone can ignore such consequences, or pretend they don’t exist, but such a disavowal marks hedonism with a requisite moral decay in our own world, and in the world of the film, the disavowal marks one as weak, an easier target for the creeping inevitable. Thus the depth of the metaphor within the film – of course anyone can pretend sex has no consequences, but doing so is tantamount to believing you will live forever, or that you are self-sufficient and cannot be touched. It marks you as singular, and forever alone; truly alone in your flight from the realities of life (and death). Acceptance of the fact of mortality, and the burden of the responsibilities that it entails, is, really, no burden at all. The film shows this in its resolution – in forming a couple, in partnering, in accepting the consequences of sex, Jay and Paul strengthen each other. This relating as adults, “adult sex,” if you would, is not a buzzkill, but indeed the seedbed of love (as we see them holding hands as they walk away into their future). This real love is not narcissism and denial of reality masquerading as care for another, but actual acceptance of fragility, decay, and the death that awaits us all, with or without “the gift” (indeed, the gift is simply a metaphor for the mature recognition of the facts of life). What is brilliant about the film, and again marks it as not conservative in nature (that is, as espousing that the answer to all life’s problems is to couple up), is that it provides a picture of relating that is fundamentally humane: no matter if within a coupling that is monogamous, or within a polymorphously perverse community, the answer to the problem at hand is to watch over one another, watch out for one another, and to know when to flee, or fight, together.

What is doubly impressive about It Follows is that it provides not only this mature picture of what true love is, but that it does so within the framework of a genre that usually does the exact opposite. As the film begins, before we even encounter Jay for the first time, we are met with the image of a victim of the stalking specter. She flees her house in the early morning hours, perhaps unaware of what is happening to her and the nature of the knowledge she has acquired. She is dressed in a way that is completely ridiculous, even more so for someone running for her life: she wears close-fitting girl “booty short” boxers, a loose tank top, and high heels. This image, so incongruous that it caused me almost instantly to lose faith in the film I was embarking on, is indeed a parodic picture of most films of this type. Sexualized children, set loose in a world of deadly consequence that they cannot comprehend, try their best to play at being adult. Such play is what most films of this type engage in – not actual play, but playing-with, where humans stand in for dolls, and are pressed together, thrown about, and pulled apart with cynical abandon by makers who either possess the minds of adolescents, or believe that we do. There are myriad other, more specific ways that It Follows, image for image, is a revelation, and a significant critique of our culture (I have not even touched on its use of Detroit as a setting, or of its portrayal of fatherless families, or the other filmic quotations, from Breaking the Waves to The Exorcist, that it contains). Its prime contribution, however, is to play fair with its toys, as the “game” that the film proposes is indeed the game of life. Winners will need to strategize, and to realize that such “play” is nothing if not deadly serious; but only by taking it seriously can it also be exciting, beautiful, and fun.

Four and a half stars out of five

Starry Eyes – Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer (2014)

The horror genre has exploded in the past few years, thanks to the same technological and funding possibilities that have made other genres (such as mumblecore) feasible. One need only look at Netflix to understand that there is a flood of new genre filmmaking out there, films shot on video and sold directly to on-demand or streaming services without ever reaching a theater (or with very limited local releases). I am a horror fan, but have not touched many of these films, as they look like derivative time wasters. They often feature electronic scores, and reference horror films from the ’70s, primarily the Italian stylists (Argento, Fulci, et al) who also made relatively early use of electronica, or perhaps zombie or body horror films from the ’80s, Cronenberg and Romero leading the list of influences in that department. I have not ignored this body of work, but merely sampled it. An early entry, the anthology film V/H/S, in which mumblecore directors explored their video influences, was quite good – the sequel was also strong, if a bit spottier. (I have not watched any of the further entries in the series). Mostly, though, these films are long on style and short on substance. The catalog of Ti West remains preeminent in this regard; he has a good sense of the look of a genre film, but somehow can’t deliver actual scares or much tension. Yet, he is considered an auteur and his films taken seriously even though, to my mind, they have declined in quality since his most well-known film, 2009’s The House of the Devil. Other runners in this race include Beyond the Black Rainbow, by Panos Cosmatos, a mash-up of Cronenberg’s clinical settings with the plot of Blue Sunshine, which, aside from a decent soundtrack, a great mid-film high contrast drug trip sequence, and nice set design was quite dull and, in the end, utterly ridiculous; Upstream Color, Shane Carruth’s pretentious mishmash of body and eco horror (although some would consider this too “refined” a film to be included in this bunch, as it does set a trotter in art film territory); and You’re Next, a nothing-special home invasion/giallo thriller that I nonetheless found compelling and which at least built up to a tense surprise ending.

Starry Eyes fits squarely into this group of films, yet rises above mere stylization. Part of the reason for this is that it’s not particularly stylized; it hints at the era of influence noted above, primarily in its title sequences and with its soundtrack, but otherwise it looks more like a contemporary indie movie rather than a pseudo-relic. What is interesting about the film is the way it fits body horror elements into what is a critique of the Hollywood image machine and the allure of stardom, while acknowledging that such an allure is, in many ways, anachronistic and bygone in this era of DIY filmmaking and the Internet’s intervention in traditional notions of celebrity. The plot of the film centers on Sarah, an aspiring actress who lives in L.A. and spends her days, when not auditioning, working as a waitress at a fast food restaurant that exploits her sexuality. Sarah is something of a misfit. She doesn’t seem to have any real friends (most of her socializing is with her roommate and her friends, millennial bohemians who seem satisfied making their own opportunities, or making none) and her bedroom wall is plastered with pictures of the stars of Old Hollywood: Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth, and other glamour queens of the 1940s. Sarah aspires to be something that doesn’t really exist anymore, a movie star. Not a celebrity, or a successful and popular actress, but a star – someone who leaves behind their past, and their quotidian self (body included) to become a pure object of desire, an image. Perhaps obviously, she’s having a hard time fulfilling this goal, and tends toward the neurotic – when things don’t work out, as when she has a bad audition, she tends to pull her hair from her head and let out a hearty yell or two. Something is not quite right with Sarah, but she has no backstory, so we don’t know what it might be, and further, she manages to pass in her contemporary world, if not particularly successfully. All of this changes when she goes on an audition for a rather generic seeming horror film, called The Silver Scream; we see her act, and she has chops, but the creepy casting crew (a young man and a middle-aged woman) appear uninterested. Uninterested, that is, until the woman happens by the bathroom stall in which Sarah is self-abusing, and then she gets called back in, to audition her “fit.” A bit unnerved, but wanting to please, Sarah does so, and a few days later, gets a call-back, during which she is instructed to disrobe, and, standing in a pitch-black room illuminated only by spotlight, auditions a fuller version of the fit, in which she fantasizes about being a star. This leads to an interview with the producer of the film, a nameless man who runs a production company called Astraeus Pictures; Sarah’s “friends” are jealous, and the more knowledgeable among them validates that this is a real, prestigious company, albeit a bit old and without more recent successes. This jealousy soon evaporates, however, as when Sarah turns up at the producer’s mansion, she is offered the leading role only in exchange for unnamed sexual favors proffered to the leering, slightly goggle-eyed, tan, and 60ish producer. She flees the scene, and settles for a starring role in the DIY film being put together by the millennials, but after dropping some E, along with her inhibitions, she heeds the old man’s admonitions to “do,” not just “tell,” and goes for the unsavory deal rather than settle for the slow, self-contented paths of her cohort. She does indeed give the producer some head, and passes out as hooded, masked, and robed unknowns come hither out of the shadows. When she awakes, she begins a process of transformation which will lead to the destruction of her old body (as foretold by the producer), along with requisite blood sacrifices. By the end of the film, she will have attained her dream, but at the cost of her identity, “Sarah” being nothing but an empty signifier left behind.

What unfolds in the second half of the movie is a combination of body horror in the service of a somewhat sketchy alternative history of Hollywood, in which the movers and shakers are a cult of immortals who have traded in their original identities, and bodies, for eternal life and a place in the firmament. Like many of the films I mentioned earlier, all of this is not explicitly fleshed out, and the details are indeed vague. At the same time, unlike the films mentioned above, Starry Eyes manages to walk that thin line between overly explicit exposition, which can lead to plot holes, ridiculousness, and hence disappointment on the one hand, and under-baked symbolism, which can lead to pretentiousness and an outcome that we could not care less about. For instance, the film names the cult, and hints, through plot developments and the visuals, at the (quite real) occult history of Hollywood, without explaining where its powers come from, or dragging hoary old Satan into the mix. We also understand that Sarah is transforming, and that the outcome will vault her into the company of these elect, without really having to understand how she is changing, or being asked to believe that these elect are really existing players in the film community – they are representative of the eternal power of the image, rather than actual people (that is, we don’t see Veronica Lake and friends at the eventual cult shindig during which Sarah casts off her old form). While some of the processes of transformation Sarah undergoes are a bit overdone and trite (she looses her fingernails, and vomits up some maggots, for a second causing viewers to fear she might be auditioning for the role of Mrs. Brundlefly), by and large the changes she undergoes are in her demeanor. We suddenly feel like we are seeing the “real” Sarah, the hidden, angry, and assertive person only hinted at before. The bloodletting that occurs as Sarah sacrifices her “friends” calls to mind the Manson murders (another significant piece in the puzzle of old Hollywood occultism) without any explicit visual punning. Be warned, the last part of this film is very gory indeed; even I, jaded old hand at such effects that I am, winced and groaned a few times. The movie does not satisfy completely, as it reads more as an allegory than as a story we become invested in (Sarah is a bit too remote and strange for us as well), but it is an effective allegory, and, I might even venture, a poetic one. In its positioning of Sarah as an avatar of a bygone golden age of filmdom, the movie questions the nostalgia we screen lovers feel for the allure of such lost glamorous beings; perhaps the current era, more critical, reflexive, and honest in its idol making (and breaking), is not so bad after all. Perhaps.

Three and a half stars out of five

The Babadook – Jennifer Kent (2014)

The Babadook has to qualify as the most over-rated film of the year. I really don’t understand the hype around this one. Horror film? No. Psychological thriller? Barely. It’s pretty much a straight allegory of the grieving process, and a damned literally minded one at that. If Freud’s Dora had a kid, this would be her song (as writ by screenwriter Freud of course). The film is so bloody straightforward there are no cracks for interpretation to slip in, and certainly no room for scares. The “horror” aspects of the movie are so cliché and banal I can’t believe critics are eating them up (bugs coming out of the wall, lights flickering, creepy voices, skittering J-horror style monster, etc etc etc). More offensive is that the director seems pretty high on her own supply, acting as if she’s reinvented the horror film by putting it on “serious” footing – in interviews, she compares it favorably against big studio horror sequel dreck, and acts like she has just invented psychological horror. What, we’ve never seen a film before concerning a mother ambivalent about her own child? We’ve never seen a horror film with “symbolism?” Perhaps such things are less frequent in American cinema of late, but certainly there is a rich history in Europe of psychological horror, and maybe she’s heard of our Canadian friend Mr. Cronenberg? It is well made, for sure, but I found it pretty boring and on the whole pretentious – a few dark humor chuckles here and there, but no scares, and no need to think about the film after the fact, as it is so… damned… literal.

One and a half stars out of five

I don’t like pooing on a female director, so in compensation I’d direct interested viewers to Netflix to see Joanna Hogg’s first feature, Unrelated, an exceptional and comparatively quiet drama about struggling through the passages of life, trying to define yourself before the clock runs out. Psychologically astute, nuanced, and unlike Mr. Babadook, the implications and resonances grow in proportion to the viewer’s observational perspicacity. This is one of the best films I’ve seen in quite a while. The performances are great too. All three of her features are streaming, so I’m very much looking forward to seeing the other two (Archipelago and Exhibition). Check ’em.