Tag: horror movie

Anna and the Apocalypse – movie review

Anna and the Apocalypse – movie review

Anna and the Apocalypse is a deliriously fun movie. Set against the end of the world as the title suggests, it turns that setting into a horror comedy centered around a high school, but on top of that, it’s also a musical. Anna is played by the excellent new actress Ella Hunt, and she dances and sings songs while she kills zombies. It’s a wonderfully odd movie that manages to blend a musical reverie of horror with serious topics, and it all happens at Christmas time.

There are so many unusual things happening just in those key ideas to make this an exciting project from the moment it took shape as a screenplay, but the execution of the film is remarkable for maintaining tight control over so many elements that each seem capable of dominating the film. The very first shot of Anna and the Apocalypse demonstrates how well controlled director John McPhail is of his subject matter. We see Anna’s family driving along in a shot that immediately is reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s remarkable zombie classic 28 Days Later. Her father is at the wheel, and the family is clearly dressed for Christmas with the appropriate music playing, but the way the scene is shot looks like horror instead of celebration even though nothing has happened yet.

This is a British film, and like 28 Days Later, it centers around the end of the world happening due to a virus turning people into zombies. Like Boyle’s film, it also deals with serious social topics within its entertaining guise, but the similarities mostly end there. By setting his film within a school, McPhail is able to have mostly innocent people just beginning to make their way in the world offer us a perspective on a society that seems doomed. We all live amidst a rapidly worsening environmental crisis. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein was recently caught on video telling a group of children that she isn’t very concerned that the way her fellow elite leaders are trashing the environment will leave them with effectively nothing to live from. While powerful people like her are more disgusting than the zombies in John McPhail’s excellent film, Ella Hunt gets to play a heroic part as Anna, a lost innocent girl looking for hope amidst a collapsing world.

She fights zombies with her friends, and they are all saddened by how much their lives are shaped by technology instead of human interaction. McPhail is astute for seeing the way that smartphones and other high tech gadgets are ruining society and the future of young people rather than enhancing them. This art magazine was designed around the idea that the internet is high tech garbage. By having nothing besides in depth and clear content, I’m aiming to give readers something that is not an endless pile of ads, tracking services, and consumption and allow them a chance to think and engage exciting works of art. In that vein, I admire Anna and the Apocalypse for finding so much wrong with our world and for having an artistic vision that turns zombies into its metaphorical depictions and a singing girl into its heroine.

Anna runs around with a giant candy cane smashing and killing the zombies who took over her school, and in a remarkably odd scene she uses a seesaw to behead a zombie. To make that even better, she finds the seesaw on a children’s playground that inexplicably sits next to a graveyard she was dancing and singing in, and the beheaded zombie was dressed up as a furry. Anna and the Apocalypse is so inventive that I worry it might be missed for its high quality simply by virtue of being so fun that viewers might not realize how strange and meaningful the entire work is.

Ella Hunt is cast perfectly here. She has the right blend of ordinariness, innocence, and willfulness to convince us that Anna is an average girl made into a heroine. It reminds me of the best classic horror films from the 1970s and 1980s when directors like Dario Argento and George Romero were churning out masterful and inventive films that took cinema to new places it had never seen before. When films like Deep Red, Suspiria, and Dawn of the Dead came out they were controversial, but they were also aesthetically coherent works with powerful and deep themes and comments on our world within them. Anna and the Apocalypse is using a horror musical to do something similar, and it is a challenging film even though it is incredibly fun.

The students dance in an obviously well choreographed way that makes absolutely no sense for high school kids, and the headmaster has a gigantic and frightening academic beard he wears around the school while he pretends everything is fine as children are being eaten by the zombies. There is a lovely homage to George Romero when the zombies finally surround and eat him, and Anna spends a lot of the film singing about how much she wants to escape her dismal surroundings. For viewers who read between the lines, Anna and the Apocalypse has a very rich story, because we see scenes of Anna doing things like singing and dancing about her own misery and decayed world which is already so bad that she doesn’t even realize there are zombies at first, even though they walk right past her eating people.

As someone living in America, a country with such appalling violence in its schools that I am left thinking the leaders here should be locked up, this film does a beautiful job of showing exactly that much social deterioration. It is very much in the vein of George Romero’s work, because as most serious students of film know, Dawn of the Dead is a profound portrayal of American consumerism run amok in its depictions of people eating each other in a shopping mall. While many people wanted to see Romero’s film banned when it came out, his social commentary was right on the money as we now see selfish consumerism having reached the point of the planet nearing environmental collapse with major food sources threatened by disappearance and politicians living more corrupt lives than The Godfather.

In many respects, our civilization has gotten so bad that it is hard to even depict it in a work of art, and I love Anna and the Apocalypse for being inventive enough to be up to the task. The most memorable and beautiful line of the songs in the film, many of which are extremely funny, is surely, “There’s no such thing as a Hollywood ending.” After the recent success of Damien Chazelle’s excellent La La Land, that is a potent line. Chazelle revived the musical in a serious way by going backwards and revisiting a lot of classic Hollywood. His debut film, Whiplash, established him as a fine lover of jazz, and that certainly gives him classical credibility to have been up to the task, and La La Land is another important work of art. Chazelle is using Hollywood in that film to support dreams and artistic aspiration to be something more and something better than mundane life.

I think Anna and the Apocalypse has a perspective that would agree with that being a worthwhile goal, but it wants to bring us down to earth about how bad our surroundings really are even while giving us space to dream past them. So we get an innocent girl wearing a tie to her school having to pick up a giant candy cane and slay zombies while she dances and sings.

The cinematography in the film is appropriate to the subject matter and is beautiful in a muted sort of way. Fans of black and grey aesthetics will enjoy it a lot, and I love the way the film is able to use those images to combine both hope and decay. Clearly, we live amidst a broken monstrosity, but there is still some hope. We can wish for entirely different people to take things over and fix them by throwing out the past, and that is what Anna and the Apocalypse has its heroine doing.

The director deserves a lot of credit for how he blocks his actors. Musicals introduce the additional element of choreography, and combining that with drama and a story can be a difficult task. Even when the singing is incredibly funny, such as Anna’s ex-boyfriend singing, “When it comes to killing zombies, I’m the top of my class. While you were hiding, I’ve been kicking some ass,” the actors are well blocked. The story unfolds through every line and every shot, and drama continues on a consistent level.

We also care about John McPhail’s characters. Anna is too innocent and her dream of getting away to a normal life too respectable to not like her. When I see a new actress in a really good film that she completely nails like this my hope is always to see her in more good parts, because there aren’t enough good characters and scripts to go around. This one is a true gem, and Anna and the Apocalypse deserves to be taken very seriously even while its musical numbers manage to succeed at decadent horror comedy.

The Love Witch – movie review

The Love Witch – movie review

With The Love Witch, Anna Biller has crafted one of the finest films of the 21st century. A beautifully photographed story about witchcraft, love, and an odd personality, the film deconstructs enormous amounts of Hollywood iconography by reaching back to films of the 1960s to re-envision classic horror and love stories. The witch at the center of her story fills in for femininity and horror at the same time as she kills only because she wants to be loved. It’s a charming, funny, and odd touch to see a horror movie so centered around love.

The love witch of the title role, Elaine, has an interest in magic that is treated as a blend of occultism and female mystique, but both are laden with cinematic trappings. Director Biller treats them all as inseparable things. It means that the magic of cinema, women, and witches are the same poetic idea in her film, and we see a rich study of Elaine’s character using intricate scenery and bright color schemes. It’s as though Biller takes her starring witch’s psychology of love and extrudes it into the movie’s scenery as one fantastical but incredibly normal place, which is part of why this is a horror comedy.

I enjoyed learning that Alfred Hitchcock’s underrated and great psychological film Marnie was a major inspiration for the cinematography. Shot by Benjamin Loeb, The Love Witch has some of the most creative use of color I’ve seen since Michelangelo Antonioni. Like The Red Desert, it is able to use colors to portray the psychology of its characters. This is especially true of Samantha Robinson’s love witch, who is seen as a sympathetic and loving witch who just wants to be appreciated. We see her framed alongside vivid bright colors and soft pastels as well as darker facades of rich blackness. It shows the intensity of her emotion while also emphasizing gentleness and mystery. She’s supposed to be a dangerous witch, but she’s really funny and cute, and anyone with a heart has to like what Samantha Robinson does with the part. The cute mystique reminds me very much of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and that classic sensibility is exactly what The Love Witch is after. 

The cinematography is exquisite and recreates technicolor very well. The director and cinematographer spent a lot of time studying 1960’s films, and Hitchcock was a major touchstone. Marnie is one of his greatest and most underrated films. Tippi Hedrin’s character has secrets of her own psychology that she has no idea about, and they tie back into past trauma and actions by her mother, a story of sexual derangement drawn from Hitchcock’s fascination with psychoanalysis and Freud. Sean Connery’s character tries to understand and help her, but he has a hard time working his way in. In some ways, Hitchcock’s film is about the impossibility of love and the search for it. Impossible, because people are by nature separate, but desire calls us to one another even though no companionship is really a unity, and with the masterly techniques of the thriller and his past studies of psychology, Hitchcock makes love into horror. It’s a brilliant psychological turn, and the beautiful diffuse lighting with its dreamy qualities and sharply defined colors play major roles in the film. The Love Witch is openly indebted and also fascinated with the gender roles at work there, particularly the rational assertiveness of Connery and the vulnerability and confusion of Hedrin.

Psychologically we delve into the love witch herself in deep and gentle ways that cross fantasy and reality in manners that remind me of the great Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel. Elaine’s key motivation is simply love, and Anna Biller uses this as a comic trope. It also allows the development of horror and magic to happen, because her desire for love pushes her to extremes. Mystery enters the film as she explores the occult in her efforts to make someone love her, and she is open to other people through both love and magic. The film makes fun of the convention that women only care about love while also using it to define its characters through remarkably rich iconography that confronts the entire tradition of cinema and deeply embedded cultural ideas of gender. Elaine is only happy when she is outside of herself loving someone else, and being a witch becomes her vehicle for achieving that. Part of the film’s humor is that she is using magic to get something that is entirely normal and doesn’t require witchcraft at all.

The acting has a wonderful classic sense to it. Samantha Robinson embodies classic beauty as Elaine, and she is very up to the task. Biller shoots her amidst bright surrounding colors most often with classic dress, makeup, and hairstyles that offer small hints at traditional depictions of witches. The goal is obviously to merge the idea of the witch with the idea of being female. Jennifer Ingrum plays a cute and funny pagan priestess in a witch cult, and she captures the irony of the film the best of any of the actors. Elaine’s boyfriend is a cop who wants to be masculine and tough and is thus afraid of loving Elaine, and her previous boyfriends were killed by her when she couldn’t get enough love. The funny quirk of Elaine as a witch is that she really just wants love in spite of all her odd involvement with witchcraft and its horror trappings. When she can’t get enough love, she kills. It’s a bit of a joke about feminine portrayals in cinema.

The editing gives the film a slow and realistic pace. With editing having gotten so out of control with brief shots that make no sense in most cinema of today, Anna Biller is remarkable for taking us back to organic filmmaking. I want to say that the use of Avid and related software has done cinema a disservice. When actual film was cut on a flatbed machine, there was an impulse to make things actually fit into a structured narrative and logical film. Now that it is so easy to put an edit in with software, the cuts go in places where they don’t belong in order to move ultra fast and maintain short attention spans while masking bad shots. The Love Witch is a welcome improvement.

Anna Biller follows her characters and develops them instead. We understand her locations for their longer shots. Emotion develops in the film. Time has a real sense like this, and it is a better way to make movies. The degree to which this film is informed about cinematic technique and history is masterful, and Biller went to great effort to make sure this was made on actual film. Digital has overtaken the industry so much that it is hard and expensive to even shoot on film any longer, and we should be thankful to have such an organic and analogue example of great filmmaking. I recently watched Scarlet Diva by Asia Argento, and that film was one of the first shot on digital, back in 2000. 18 years later it still seems innovative, because Argento had to work to use a new form for her medium. Anna Biller’s use of real film in The Love Witch has the same magical sense to me now, because she had to seriously think and work at her use of an old form for a medium that has been cheapened by easily shot digital video being far too common now. 

Feminist themes are a major touching point for The Love Witch. Anna Biller is fascinated by traditional roles of women and closely examines them in 1960s cinema. I have to agree with her that Hitchcock is the lion of all that iconography. He constructed Hollywood cinema perhaps more than anyone, and his take on gender roles is something popular culture has inherited as traditional gospel. Biller uses Samantha Robinson’s character of Elaine to deconstruct those traditional roles, and she obviously knows that Hollywood tradition is a foundation for shaping the present in that very same sense. Our minds are shaped by these conventions, and getting inside the love witch’s head is a deconstruction of how they operate within and around us, and on the screen in its flickering light.

Occultism was researched extensively by Biller to make The Love Witch, and she obviously references Wicca and Thelema throughout her film. One is an effort to recreate traditional witchcraft by reconstructing it historically, and the other is a later creation by Alistair Crowley which claims divine inspiration and also love, but both have influenced hippies, the arts, and California pop culture. In Anna Biller’s hands, magic becomes a natural part of art, and true magic is spread throughout this movie in its beautiful and vivid images that suggest something more than the mundane, a closeness to fantasy that fascinated Maya Deren in her experimental films of much earlier. Meshes of the Afternoon was about finding magic in the everyday and the self and thus bringing that into cinema. The Love Witch has similar lofty goals in bright color and a long feature running time of two hours, and I think Anna Biller is in many respects the inheritor of Maya Deren.

Iconography of women, men, and horror trappings are studied carefully throughout The Love Witch, and one of Elaine’s fantasies is to have a man become sensitive and experience intense love like a woman. This is taken to comic extremes of crying sensitive men who want to be held, and the way it all comes together to successfully explain Elaine’s motivations in a traditional narrative sense while being at the same time absurd is a delight. It’s a remarkably light take on witches while at the same time delving deeply into their iconography, and I find it fascinating to explore against One-Eyed Dolls’ excellent album Witches about the Salem witch trials, which was a tragic time compared to the freedom of Anna Biller’s remarkable film about witchery.

The 1960s are lovingly recreated and examined all through the film. I agree with Biller about this being a seminal period in cinema and find the beauty of the colors, fluid camera work, slow editing, and self-referential sense of cinema to be at a high point in that era. It’s a wonderful period for horror, because people were thinking about social roles and psychology quite a bit, and it would lead to the works of directors like Dario Argento and George Romero in the next decade. Roman Polanski’s great horror film, Rosemary’s Baby, is of this era, and it also examined gender closely. This is my favorite 21st century horror film. So don’t miss The Love Witch if you don’t already know her technicolor aura.

Mandy – movie review

Mandy – movie review

Mandy is one of the most exciting films I have seen in years.  It combines hallucinatory imagery with a strange plot that is not exactly linear. Nicholas Cage plays a man on a quest for revenge after his girlfriend is slaughtered by demons. That alone makes it sound like an odd movie that leaves some curiosity about how such a story would be executed. Panos Cosmatos is more than up to the task, and he uses this odd storyline as a vehicle for surreal imagery and symbolism that is refreshing and enrapturing. Cosmatos earlier on directed Beyond the Black Rainbow, an odd and absorbing film that is so hallucinatory it is hard to figure out what is happening. It’s a very interesting and psychological film, but it was flawed for not allowing drama to develop in its odd visual wrappings. Mandy manages to balance surrealism with dramatic storytelling very effectively and features fine acting and interesting psychological development of its characters and their motivations.

The way the characters are portrayed is intriguing and different. We see them in impressionistic glimpses with deep emotion, but we don’t get full explanations or a linear story about Red Miller and Mandy Bloom. We mainly see that they’re in love and are both dreamy people. They seem to inhabit a world of their dreams and are intentionally disconnected from everyday life as much as possible. She likes to draw, and he works as a logger. While logging is hard work, the Nicholas Cage character of Red seems to enjoy it for being so apart from society. The two of them have a home in the woods, and they shut everything out. She works at a local convenience store and comes home to draw, and they both love to look at the stars. Mandy is wonderfully dreamy, and it combines dreaminess with horror in a way that manages to be disorienting and oddly beautiful. Nicholas Cage gives one of his strongest odd and enraged performances of a man psychologically shattered, and I am reminded of his work with David Lynch in Wild at Heart, another strange and surreal film from a highly stylized director. Both films are a journey, but this one is a descent.

The demons are shown in a wonderfully visceral way. Instead of supernaturalism, we get crazed bikers who would make Mad Max proud. They offset the calm gentleness of Andrea Riseborough’s character of Mandy very well. We also get a religious cult that allows for commentary on religion and hipsterism in a darkly skeptical way that is absorbing as a bit of social analysis. Horror films don’t have the social commentary force they once did when George Romero was working, and it is well appreciated to see Cosmatos work to resurrect this in his film about a dead girlfriend. The cinematography is beautiful and odd. The color grading uses bright color schemes but softens them and has them flow into cloudy pastels. So part of a frame will appear harsh while another part looks soft and dreamy. It’s a beautiful and strange effect, and it seems to fit the psychology of its two protagonists who have their dream like world intruded on by harsh violence and madness. 

The descent of Red and Mandy is reflected brilliantly in the film score by Johann Johannsson with its harsh echos and musical screams of breakage amidst eerie haunting sounds that resemble industrial music. It sounds like an exploration of hidden interiors that are too apt to break us apart for it to be a good idea to explore them. Like a lot of movie scores, the opportunities for experimentation are ripe, and in this case, it sounds like a genuine musical advance. There are odd influences from heavy metal, psychedelia, Pink Floyd, Goblin, John Carpenter, industrial sounds, and other horror movies. I strongly suggest watching Mandy first, then listening to the soundtrack, and then watching the film again to absorb it all and see the psychological richness on display. Johannsson recently died, and this is his last score and quite a legacy.

Cosmatos has said he’s always been suspicious of hippie cults, and his previous film also explored that idea. The new one takes some of its discoveries and puts them into a more sensible narrative based on characters, where the other one seemed like a straight entry into distended madness with little explanation or exit. Mandy is killed by a group led by cult leader Jeremiah. He is a David Koresh like figure who is worshiped by his followers, and he likes to preach the end of the world and use hallucinogenic drugs. Cosmatos is taking the hippie interest in psychedelics and consciousness expansion and turning it into a dangerous upending of reality and normality. We see a shot of Mandy in her convenience store next to an American flag while one of Jeremiah’s gang visits and examines her. The flag can mean a lot of things to different people, but for Cosmatos it is just about a normal expectation of ordinary American life, a quiet life with her own place where her and her partner are left alone. Jeremiah’s insanity disrupts that. Mandy is not a conservative film, but it is suspicious of radicalism breaking things and taking away the basic pleasures of life.

The films of David Lynch are a nice reference point here, because he also deals with surreal themes and threats to ordinary safe domestic life. Lynch loves to reference the 1950s and paints it as a time of basic normal living in an undisturbed world of simple expectations. It’s his image of Amerrican tradition and its better norms. Underneath everyday life though, there are seedy and corrupt undercurrents of horror. Blue Velvet handled that exceptionally well with the white picket fence at the beginning of the film decaying into Kyle McLachlan finding a severed human ear in a cornfield and never being the same after. Cosmatos sees a similar world based on insanity. Jeremiah’s gang take LSD and become crazed killers with inhuman and depraved sensibilities, like a surreal vision of the Charles Manson gang of past fame. The suggestion seems to be that we should dream, but that it needs to be tied to normal lives. The basics of love, work, and domestic life are good things that give us the space to have real dreams and to see past ourselves in fulfilling ways, while Jeremiah’s hallucinatory decent and radicalism breaks the minds of himself and his followers. 

Eventually it also breaks Mandy. She is kidnapped and treated horribly by the gang, tormented and then burned alive while idiots laugh about it. Her portrayal is heartbreaking. Cosmatos has a scar on her face, but Cage finds her beautiful. She seems to be kind and dreamy, and she just wants ordinary things, a simple job, home, love… and art. She likes to sit around reading and drawing, and we see at the end of the film that she liked to draw Nicholas Cage and saw him as her safety. Cage becomes enraged by what happens to her, and her death takes place at exactly the midpoint of the film and is its dividing point. He goes on a quest for revenge, and the last hour of the film is his search for resolution through avenging her death. He gets a crossbow with arrows that cut through bone, and he makes his own axe. It’s an impressive device and reminds me of Bruce Campbell’s iconic chainsaw in The Evil Dead.

His revenge quest is bloody and violent, but most of all, it seems like a descent into hell and madness. The way that Cosmatos is able to portray this cinematically is genuinely brilliant. He uses harsh angles, bright colors, deep blacks, and diffuse lighting as Cage’s world gets more disoriented in the closing segments of Mandy. Hippie legends about LSD start to look like hell on earth, and the wilderness that is safe on its own is twisted into an apocalyptic landscape. Cage does seem redeemed by killing everyone who killed his girlfriend, but we don’t get the sense that he will ever be happy or normal. Jeremiah went searching for extremes, and he twisted the lives of two normal people into hell.

Alien – movie review

Alien – movie review

Ridley Scott made one the best films anyone has ever made in the genres of horror, science fiction, and the thriller all at once with Alien. In a visually striking and dark setting, he delivers a disturbing story about space travel and alien life. The film confronts several basic questions that many people have. They are questions about being alone in the world, about life very different from our own, biological reproduction, technology and corporate power, predation, and isolation.

Those are some fairly heady themes, and perhaps the most missed point about Alien is that it is able to cover all of that intellectual and dramatic ground in a film that is entertaining and engrossing without making us realize how serious its topics are. It still rewards serious exploration of those themes, and it might very well be the most uncomfortable movie anyone has ever made. This is easy to miss when so many movies are much more violent, but I don’t think any of them are as scary or as well crafted. The vision Scott has with this movie is completely dark, bleak, desperate, and disquieting. There are lots of horror movies and lots of monster movies, but either they can’t really be taken seriously or else they are about a threat that can be overcome. Alien essentially offers no hope and entertains us with extreme nihilism.

Scott has a considerable intelligence for his way of realizing this. Space is vast, and the universe is a big place. The odds of only our planet having life makes effectively no sense, because science rests logically on the idea of nature being uniform. The simple need for the laws of physics to be the same throughout our universe makes it awfully likely that there is other life, some less advanced and some more advanced. If we drop all assumptions and take that basic point of logic into cinema and apply it to one of its worst possibilities, we get the movie that made Ridley Scott famous.

Some travelers heading through space on a mining mission land on a planet that gives a sudden indication of having life as they pass by. This is a wonderful narrative setting, because Scott has taken what we already know about corporations and technology and made it more advanced, as he would later do in Blade Runner. Corporate life and technological advances happen hand in hand. So once it is possible to make ships that can carry more things much farther in space, it is likely that resources will be harvested from other places. Resource deposits have already been found on asteroids that dwarf the presence of economically valuable metals on earth. So the idea of mining space in the future is very plausible and would be economically desirable.

Scott uses this setting to make science fiction realistic. The crew of the Nostromo deal with the same labor and corporate issues most employees deal with. Their company makes a lot of money off of their mining adventure. They are there simply to get paid and have this as their first concern. If something bad happens to them, they would suffer misfortune, but the company would take a loss and still be profitable, because that is how businesses tend to run. As technology advances and opens new profit avenues, Soctt has us troublingly ask: what will a company do to make a profit in the future?

Those concerns are reasonable, and it puts Alien into a strange mode of being a realistic film on many points despite its science fiction setting. The juxtaposition between realistic existential, economic, and technological questions with the unreality of the alien is what makes the film so scary and effective. We can connect with everyone in the movie and even like them, because they are like the normal workers of a corporate world simply trying to survive. The company they work for, the ship they are on, and an alien lifeform all converge to make that problem of survival become very difficult.

As biology advances to presumably one day become exobiology, more questions are raised about the expansion of science. We already have a lot to fear about the misuse of technology on our own planet to invade privacy with computers, to destroy things with atomic weapons, and to endanger life through the misuse of biology. What happens when biology deals with organisms from other planets, and some are more advanced than us? Scott’s answer is that we are simply finished and should give up all hope. His existential bleakness has few equals and is one of the best inspirations for drinking that I know of in cinema.

Perhaps most effectively, Alien is about indescribable otherness. We have no idea what will happen when humanity encounters life from other worlds. Stephen Hawking already warns that it could bring our destruction. More likely, we will encounter simple nonthreatening life of very basic sorts on places like a nearby moon before having to deal with intelligent life, but the question of what sort of otherness this could be is a powerful one. It is hard for us to make sense of animal life on our own planet, with cat owners wondering what their pets are thinking just as things are. Scott has us deal with how different life could potentially be, and he raises the question of hostility within it. Such a foreign encounter can’t really be categorized, and Scott’s film makes the alien odd enough to capture this very well.

Scott is a master at composing shots in his films, and Alien is a beautiful work even while it is bleak. The lighting on the ship is so eerie, and its corridors so carefully framed in so much shadowy darkness with bits of glowy high tech light breaking through that it is intoxicating. Alien manages to have the look of a classic film noir brought into an industrial setting as if to say that our technology is inevitably leading to a nightmare. The film at varying points does have a hypnotic dreamy quality that amplifies this sense of being a nightmare, though this often gets overlooked due to the high level of suspense.

When the film was made, Sigourney Weaver was not yet a famous actress, and it was unusual to cast a female lead in an adventure film of any type. Scott showed himself to be a subtle director of characters and built the entire cast into memorable personas who we could care about while giving the character of Ripley the heroic part. He is able to effectively keep her character as feminine while also conveying strength, as he would later again do very well in Thelma and Louise.

The gender exploration is a serious gesture in a film that is about the limits of life and humanity. This very obviously plays out in the horror of the famous chest burster sequence where the alien first emerges from John Hurt with a twisted form of birth. Similarly, the one black actor in the film is clearly portrayed as equal to all other characters in Scott’s film as though humanity should get over superficial reasons for treating each other as parts of separate groups when nature is big enough to include things that aren’t even human at all.

Finally, the treatment of artificial technology is a fascinating bridge to where Scott would go with Blade Runner. For a film made in 1979, Alien has a remarkably clear picture of a future in which computers are both necessary and dangerous, so needed they are even capable of taking over. The crew of the Nostromo can’t find out what is happening without help from a computer, but it turns out to be under the control of the company and does not have their best interests at heart.

The computer is mostly interested in profit and in war fighting, and it has been programmed to treat the crew as expendable in order to have the alien as a resource. This is done through an artificial intelligence that seemed just like another person. Certainly AI is gaining steam and will be making decisions that are very dangerous in the near future, but Scott is raising the philosophical question of how different humans and machines are in the first place once we live in a world surrounded with technology designed to profit from us.

Suspiria – movie review

Suspiria – movie review

Dario Argento’s 1977 masterpiece, Suspiria, has finally been restored, and the new version is a revelation. It shows subtle genius at work in the film and will do a great deal to establish this film’s place within the canon. Made just after Deep Red (which is also often argued as being Argento’s best film), Suspiria deals with witchcraft and the occult, and Argento uses an unusual and dreamy color scheme to show a world of hidden things to his audience.

All Argento films show a profound interest in seeing, and Suspiria is perhaps the best demonstration of this. The sophistication with which he handles the theme of vision helps to make the case for Argento as a major figure in world cinema. Suspiria invites us to attempt to see the unseen, and this has a basis in occultism. By using unreal color schemes and baroque framing on shots, we are brought into a dreamlike structure that feels like a fairytale. The self contained nature of Suspiria as its own dreamy world of incongruity makes the film like no other experience. The bright technicolor images haunt us, disrupt our place within the normal world, and draw us into Argento’s very different reality.

The restoration is crucial to the reception of this film, because mood and visual structure convey a large portion of the meaning of the film. Watching lesser prints with pale greyed colors over the years was unfulfilling and left only the film’s simple story intact, when much like Michelangelo Antonioni, Argento uses other specifically visual aspects of the medium to create his film with less emphasis on traditional narrative. As opposed to the profound humanism of Antonioni though, Argento gives us a very strange supernaturalism.

It is fair that Antonioni has the larger reputation given the universality of his ideas and the perfection and revolutionary nature of his work, but Argento deserves to be taken seriously for using a profound visual sense in Suspiria to take us out of the ordinary and into the occult in a way that no one else ever has. Occultism rests on an idea of unseen forces, and where most films leave that as silly creatures or jump scares, Argento turns this into a beautiful world of odd events and images which don’t make much sense on a normal level. He makes the unreal seem real for the 98 minutes of his film, and he changes the way that we see in doing so.

The story centers on a young ballerina who heads from Italy to Freiburg, Germany to attend a dance academy. Odd and unpleasant events ensue, and Jessica Harper’s portrayal of Suzy Banyon leaves us with sympathy for an innocent and decentered protagonist who we get to know mainly from being in far over her head. As the odd events continue, we discover that the school was the center of a witchcraft scandal and that the witch died. Of course, Argento shows us that the witch remains alive, but her existence turns out to be some other form from normal life entirely. Rather than explaining this, Argento relies on the use of striking unreal imagery to bring us into a dreamlike state of believing in an unseen force that is much larger than any person actually shown on film.

The reference to seeing continues into a a blind pianist who is murdered and eaten by his own dog under a full moon, as though a nocturnal type of seeing that is not normal perception is present. No one in the movie really can see what is going on, and that is the point of the film. We all seem to sense something just beyond the horizon of the image, and the baroque images of the film successfully portray this in an additive way that is masterful. It is one of cinema’s best accomplishments, and the restoration which Synapse Films has put together from original camera negatives with oversight from cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (who worked with Antonioni prior to this film and is not always in fine form in his later work but is brilliantly on top of his game here) make it possible to finally see this film on its own terms.

The music in the film is absolutely crucial to both the development of cinema and to electronic music. The score by Goblin is one of the most otherworldly and over the top compositions to ever be used in a film. Strange electronic sounds with wild keyboards and disturbing percussion draw us into a frenetic dreamworld that is haunting while at once being urgent and unstable. There is an all pervasive circular sense to the sounds as though something is always lurking around us with no way to pin down what it is. When artful stylized murders happen in unreal color schemes, the music has an eerie way of anticipating them.

Argento has had a problematic reception for a number of reasons. His films lie somewhere between the horror film and art cinema. While he is clearly a genre director, his aesthetic sensibilities take on a far more artful view than most of the genre with sophisticated issues being raised in his films. Some of his contributions have not been noticed due to being judged principally as an icon of the horror film. In particular, the place of seeing, reporting, sexuality, and psychology in his films is worthy of the most serious filmmakers. Many of the films feature journalists trying to uncover the truth, and Argento uses cinema as a means of helping the audience to interrogate the world through images.

His films often stand as fairytales, less aimed at disgusting us (though they are famous for that) than at warning us about dangers not everyone notices around us and offering a cathartic release from these concerns. His underrated later film, The Stendahl Syndrome, shows a woman struggling to overcome sexual trauma and examines its psychological effects on who she is. For Argento, we are all fundamentally unstable and face the risk of being split apart by our surroundings which may have dangers we don’t recognize. These dangers don’t only take the form of absurd killers or supernatural forces as is often caricatured about his films, but institutions as well are traps. We see this clearly with the dance academy in Suspiria, the boarding school in Phenomena, the research center in Cat O Nine Tails, the apartment building in Inferno, etc. Argento suggests that if we could learn to see better we could free ourselves, but searching for truth carries dangers in his world, because the people we notice might not appreciate our awareness. So reporters are regularly either in danger or else tricked into blindness and delusion, left to live as naive or else attacked by crazed people. Mere seeing is almost never enough for them to make their way around to the truth.

For many of his characters, surviving trauma becomes a centerpiece of self discovery, and Argento is inviting his audience to enact that experience. While the late films might not hold the brilliance of his heyday, the best period of his work is brilliant, running roughly from Bird With the Crystal Plumage to The Stendahl Syndrome, but admittedly at its best from Deep Red through Opera. Of that run, some films are stronger than others, and Suspiria is the pinnacle.

IT – movie review

IT – movie review

The new film of IT from the novel by Stephen King has been eagerly anticipated, and the film easily lives up to expectations. Directed by Andy Muschietti, who made the auteurist but commercially successful horror film Mama, the movie shows a deft grasp of the source material and does an interesting job of exploring its characters and themes. IT is really a portrait of American life and a coming of age story as much as it is a horror story, and the director takes those elements seriously. While King has been an impressive author at entertaining his audiences with macabre stories for most of his life, the most frequent passages in his books are spent on developing characters and portraying everyday American life with its complexities and pitfalls. The horrors of his books are usually metaphorical things that relate to that, and this film does a nice job of taking those considerations seriously with a lot of time spent on developing the personalities, lives, and interactions of its central characters.

The horror is nonetheless truly delivered in the film, and it does a very good job of showing how the concept of an evil clown really can be scary rather than just silly. Taking the point of view of the children in the film, we see that a creature that is meant to be humorous can take on terrifying connotations if it is twisted to some other purpose. This is what King and director Muschietti both do with Pennywise. He is demonic and able to change his shape, but he takes on the form of something familiar to young people and twists the visage of the clown into something horrible. Faces are highly personal to all of us, and twisting a face around is indeed one way to effectively scare.

Clowns are staged performers who by nature break expectations of normality. So there is little limitation on what an evil clown could do, and Pennywise delivers this very well in the film. He is acted with a disturbing ferocity and a willingness to toy with victims that is much more frightening than most horror villains. Clowns also seem to have the advantage in horror of being costumed enough that any crazy person could be underneath the clown suit.

Americans have run with this idea, with journalists comparing Donald Trump to an evil clown in prominent articles, and people have taken to dressing up like clowns to scare others and play pranks. There has even been a rash of red balloons being left on sewer drains around the country in reference to the film. Sociologically this is very interesting, because King’s novel is really about corruption and evil of the human type being present in a small American town. The young people face damaged existences and lessened futures as a result of this.

Since the novel came out in 1986, conditions in the country have deteriorated over the last 20 years with lower wages, less healthcare, and more interest in fighting wars than in helping domestic citizens. IT paints a picture of the 1980s as a time of innocence that was a prelude to the development of serious social ills, much like King’s novel treated the 1950s that way in comparison to when it came out in 1986.

The cinematography in the film is nicely done for its subject matter. The haunted house is genuinely dark and creepy, and the lighting of the more shadowed scenes is eerie enough to please anyone who wants to dwell in the darkness with Pennywise. The daytime scenes are contrastingly shot with great brightness and a nice level of diffusion, as though we all have blinders on in how we perceive our surroundings. They carry a suggestion of hope and promise which is surrounded by a strange foreboding presence: Pennywise in the horror sense, and social problems of the town of Derry and implicitly America in the real sense. The juxtaposition of an innocent looking small town with horrors underneath is reminiscent of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet which came out around the time of the book.

The director also is sympathetic to King’s frequent use of profanity in the mouths of young people. This is a quirk in his writing which is meant to add realism, and the director allows this to be carried over the top just like the novel’s author does. I think it is a bit excessive and becomes an annoyance at times, but there is a point to this. It shows us an underlying cruelty that is reflected in how the young characters attack each other for absolutely no reason. This belies some serious social problems and is indeed a phenomenon of American life which probably leads to a series of other problems down the road.

The film’s heroes are really the young people who decide to work together and overcome their innocence while not becoming evil or corrupted. King seems to suggest that this is a real problem for people growing up in American towns. In the novel, there is also clear reference to the AIDS crisis lurking around as a horror for the development of young people in the 80s. The film does not explicitly reference this, but the use of blood in some scenes shows a respect for that aspect of the source material. I don’t find this theme to carry over so well in the film, but there is definitely a horror associated with contact with blood that at least captures the subtext of this.

The editing is also worth some appreciation, as the pace of the film is brisk when it needs to be but does not lack a willingness to dwell on scenes of characters. It is nice to see a blockbuster movie that does not have the typical bad taste of composing a film out of a series of two second shots. Similarly the violence is present enough to make this a legitimate horror, but it does not dominate the film like so many bad piles of shootouts that Hollywood has been concocting for far too long. While the film does entertain with its disturbing horror narrative, it also forces its audience to take seriously its characters and more serious questions.

The novel is intentionally weird and long and spends over a thousand pages developing this pervasive strangeness about the town of Derry, and the film is willing to dwell long on characters in order to capture this. At 2 hours and 15 minutes, it is long but nicely paced and uses that time to develop more than only frights. Unlike the source material, which takes place over two timeframes, the movie only deals with the characters when they are young. A sequel due in 2019 will deal with the adult characters, and there is good reason to hope that the two films together will do a lot of justice to the book.