YouTube is bursting at the seams with horror shorts, the vast majority of which traffic in the same old jump scares and photoshopped demon faces. David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out, however, managed to distinguish itself from the lurching masses, brilliantly capitalizing on its limitations to present one indelibly shivery concept: namely, a silhouette that creeps closer whenever the lights go off. The James Wan-produced feature-length expansion can’t match the compressed primal frisson of the original, but it contains more than enough flickeringly lit yelps to justify its existence. How many variations can be successfully run on the same gag? Quite a few, as it turns out.
[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
by Gregory Dean Way
Two priests chant “The power of Christ compels you!” as the possessed child floats in the air above her bed. The shot is a static one, both visually and behaviorally, one of the few inert moments in a film full of forward energy: The child remains rigid, resistant to the droning incantation. Paradoxically, it is at this most static moment that The Exorcist hints at truly coming alive as a worthwhile experience, by suggesting the agony of endurance that its symbolic battle of good against evil requires. However, one’s hopeful expectations go unfulfilled: The child gravitates downward far too soon; the potential for truly subjective, protracted participation by the viewer in the elemental confrontation of this two-hour picture is cast aside (one suspects because of the filmmakers’ fear of an impatient, negative viewer response to unfamiliar, nonlinear film experience). That The Exorcist should cast aside (i.e., spend so little time developing) one of its thematically most significant moments, yet sum to overkill its moments of more cretinously comprehensible shock, is a telling comment on the locus of Friedkin and Blatty’s concerns.
Death walks twice in Luciano Ercoli’s giallo match set Death Walks on High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972), a pair of films connected not by story or character but by genre, style and creative collaborators. Both films are written by Ernesto Gastaldi and Mahnahjn (a.k.a May) Velasco and star Spanish actress Nieves Navarro (under the screen name Susan Scott) and leading man Simón Andreu, a team first brought together for Ercoli’s directorial debut, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970). Navarro’s history stretches back even further, appearing in spaghetti westerns, spy movies and even a Toto comedy produced by Ercoli and his partner Alberto Pugliese in the sixties. High Heels was only Ercoli’s second film as director. He proved to be a quick study.
In classic giallo style, it opens on an attention-grabbing set piece: a masked figure with a big knife stalks and stabs a man on a train, but the real object of his hunt is missing. The victim is—or rather, was—a notorious jewel thief, and the police immediately pay a call on the dead man’s daughter Nicole, a celebrity stripper in Paris. So does the killer, who terrorizes her with a knife and the threat of brutal sexual violence unless she hands over the jewels from a recent heist. She hadn’t a clue as to where her estranged father stashed his loot, but neither the police nor the killer believe her. As for her hot-tempered boyfriend Michel, we’re not exactly sure what he believes. He’s an opportunist kept in high style by Nicole, a situation that tends to bring out the resentment of the ne’er-do-well. The setting may be France but his attitude is pure Italian machismo, slapping Nicole around to establish alpha-male dominance while also living off her earnings. That makes him the prime suspect but certainly not the only one.
Writers and critics have likened the experience of watching movies to dreaming with your eyes open for almost as long as moving images have been projected in front of audiences in dark rooms. But in reality the dreams that movies show are more like the stories we tell ourselves or the fantasies we imagine in our waking lives. When filmmakers attempt to actually recreate the nocturnal odysseys churned up from anxieties and obsessions and the residual thoughts and images scattered through our unconscious minds, they are more like expressionist theater pieces or symbol-laden action paintings. Think of Spellbound, with its Dali-designed sets and loaded Freudian symbolism representing the unprocessed issues of our troubled hero. These films satisfy our idea of “dream” or “nightmare” but don’t actually capture the experience or texture of those twilight journeys which seem to make sense in the moment as they slip from one idea to another but confound us as we try to piece them together when we awaken. If movies are dreams, they have been tamed and rewritten to fit the demands of narrative storytelling.
That’s one reason why I love David Lynch’s waking nightmare Eraserhead and Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s haunted-house fantasia House (a.k.a. Hausu). They recreate dream logic in ways that almost no other films do. Is it coincidence that both films first saw the light of a theater screen in 1977? Creative serendipity or primeval synchronicity? Lynch might appreciate the idea of some sort of Jungian breakthrough in such different cultures. They are, after all, the feature debuts of two filmmakers who learned to express themselves cinematically in the world of experimental film. The similarities end there, however. Each of these films spins its own unique dream in its own crazily weird way.
[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
Kris Kristofferson seems to be about the only recent folk rock star to have come to films with any degree of dramatic acumen and at least some feel for what is involved in establishing a credible screen presence. Others—Dylan, for example, in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid—seem always to be somehow looking at themselves in a mirror of selfconsciousness. While this may have something to do with writing good songs, it is disastrous in front of a camera. James Taylor, in Two Lane Blacktop, comes to mind as another screen casualty; he had to be given short, heavy “message” lines because he apparently couldn’t handle normal dialogue. But at least Taylor didn’t come on with selections from his greatest hits at every lull, which is more than can be said for Harry Nilsson in Son of Dracula.
Some movies let you know you’re in good hands with the very first shot. The latest mystery wrapped in an enigma from producer J.J. Abrams, 10 Cloverfield Lane takes an instantly fraught premise and never stops stripping the screws. Within its narrow self-imposed parameters, it’s just about perfect.
Related to the original Cloverfield by mood and background references only (check your nearest message board for exhaustive details), the film follows a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who suffers a horrendous car accident. When she comes to, she finds herself locked down in an underground shelter…
“In the early modern period,” begins Robert Eggers, writer and director of the deeply unsettling The Witch, “the real world and the fairy tale world were the same thing.” It’s an appropriately Once Upon a Time preamble for discussing the film, in which a devouter-than-thou family of New England Puritans venture past the outskirts of civilization, only to attract the attention of a primal—and terrifyingly implacable—force. “These days, the evil witch is more of a Halloween decoration,” Eggers says, “so we have to go back to the 17th century and be in that mindset to believe again. In that time, the idea of an evil witch was a given, like, a tree is a tree, a rock is a rock.”
Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD) has been described, incorrectly, as Gothic horror. This is Gothic romance with notes of horror, bathed in the unreal and magical colors of a giallo and brought to life by Guillermo Del Toro’s beating heart of compassion in the face of evil.
As lush and atmospheric a film as the American cinema has created in years, Crimson Peak stars Mia Wasikowska (whose wide eyes and open face evokes the gothic heroine incarnate) as a smart, passionate American heiress, the daughter of a self-made man (Jim Beaver as the model of paternal affection and American responsibility) and a writer with a romantic streak and an unsullied innocence, and Tom Hiddleston as the dashing suitor from overseas, a handsome aristocrat with a haunted soul whose mystery captures the American’s heart. His calculating sister (Jessica Chastain), however, who dresses in blood red and death black gowns that give her the spiky presence of a predatory insect, has all the warmth of vampire. Suddenly orphaned and swept away to the desolate hinterlands of rural England, she moves into the most haunted manor you’ve ever seen in the movies, a rotting mansion that lets the snow and rain and bitter cold in through the collapsed spire of the roof and literally bleeds red through the floorboards and down the walls. That it is explained away as a geological phenomenon, the churning red clay of hill seeping into the house as it sinks into the hill, doesn’t make it any less ominous. It’s the seeping of that same clay into the winter snows that gives the hill its name.
Mississippi Grind (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD) plays like a seventies character drama, a meandering road movie through the byways of American characters who populate the card rooms and dice tables and racetracks, and an oddball buddy movie built on a chance encounter and an instant kinship between two losers gambling their lives away. Ryan Reynolds is Curtis, a good looking guy who has all the outward suggestions of a charming hustler, and Ben Mendelsohn is the self-destructive Gerry, killing his nights and his income at cards and sports bookies, betting everything on the fantasy of instant success on a single good night.
These guys are buddies by chance—they meet over a hand of cards and bond over top-shelf whiskey—and travelling companions by impulse when Gerry decides to follow Curtis to a big tournament in New Orleans. Curtis is generous and trusting to a fault, or maybe to a need, and a storyteller whose tales may or may not be in the orbit of reality. He runs in gambling circles for the charge of the action, not just the cards but the byplay, the people, that cardroom culture of oddball personalities. Gerry is a gambling addict and a pathological liar whose past is a wrecking yard of ruined relationships and failed promises and impulsive long shots and whose future is already in hawk to a loan shark (Alfre Woodard in a single scene-stealing appearance).
The name still has mileage: Toss Frankenstein into a title and you’re promising a modicum of chills, plus at least one creation scene in a laboratory. But ever since Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein loosened the stitches from Mary Shelley’s monster, moviemakers have had a hard time finding a fresh take on the mythology. Victor Frankenstein suffers this fate as well. Handsomely mounted and energetically acted, the film is far more bearable than the inane Van Helsing and other recent monster reboots. Yet it doesn’t seem to fulfill any particular need, except nostalgia.
The script by Max Landis (Chronicle) takes the perspective of Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), a circus hunchback drafted into apprenticeship by Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy).
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s most famous creation has withstood all manner of affronts to its dignity over the years, ranging from Abbott & Costello to nuclear pink cereal to Robert De Niro seemingly doing an impression of Curley from the Three Stooges. This one, though, boy, I dunno.
Despite a lively titular performance from James McAvoy, Victor Frankenstein comes off as sloppily paced, overly knowing, and mostly inadvertently hilarious in its naked attempts to shape the source material to appeal to the kids these days, with their origin stories and shared cinematic universes and whatnot. This Dr. Frankenstein knows parkour.
[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]
The situation is hopeless. The film became a box-office phenomenon the day it opened. The public said Yes and the candyass critics said No and the frothing-at-the-mouth daily reviewers scuttled to assure the public it was right. You just know what those snits at the little film magazines are going to say. They’re going to say No. Big deal. If you’re so smart why ain’t you rich? All right, I’m sorry. I can’t help it. I thought it wasn’t a very good movie.
I read The Exorcist during a summer more disengaged than most, a time when I didn’t have very much to do and felt guilty about not doing it. A discerning friend later observed that the book seemed to him “one of the finest trash novels ever,” and while it had never occurred to me to invoke the stern god of Literature, I knew he was quite right. As narrative, it belonged firmly in the couldn’t-put-it-down class, and no one had to feel ashamed of succumbing to its spell. The film, written for the screen and produced by the man who’d so cozily chilled the summertime reader’s blood, had every right to exert the same spell. But it doesn’t.
[Written for the National Society of Film Critics anthology The A List (2006)]
In 1931, the director Robert Florey lived in a Los Angeles apartment with a view of a Dutch-style bakery and its logo, a windmill complete with turning vanes. Florey had just been assigned by Carl Laemmle Jr. to direct a production of Frankenstein for Universal, and as he mused on a possible look for the film, he found himself considering a windmill as a key location – perhaps the site of the scientist’s secret laboratory. As it happened, it would be James Whale, not Florey, who directed Frankenstein, and Henry Frankenstein would set up shop in “an abandoned watchtower.” But that windmill got lodged in the collective brain of the filmmaking team (also in one line of dialogue absentmindedly retained from an early script draft), and finally made it on screen as an opportunistic but aptly crazed-Gothic setting for the film’s fiery climax.
Larry Fessenden isn’t the most well-known of indie-horror filmmakers but he should be. As a writer / director, he’s taken the classic horror genres and turned them inside out, and he’s produced or co-produced dozens of films, including Kelly Reichert’s Wendy and Lucy and Night Moves, Ti West’s The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, and Jim Mickle’s Stake Land, through Glass Eye Pix, his own production shingle. He’s been a cheerleader, in his own words, for other independent filmmakers with a passion for horror, and his encouragement has made the genre much richer in the past couple of decades.
Scream Factory, the horror imprint of the Shout! Factory label, collects Fessenden’s first four directorial features and releases them on Blu-ray for the first time in The Larry Fessenden Collection (Scream Factory, Blu-ray). All four films are all newly mastered in HD transfers approved by the director and presented in separate discs with new and archival supplements.
No Telling (1991), Fessenden’s first feature as a director, takes on Frankenstein through the story of a research scientist who starts poaching animals from the nearby forest to experiment on while ostensibly on a summer vacation with his wife. Meanwhile a proponent of organic farming tries to get the local farmers to give up pesticides for the good of the land. It’s eco-horror in the modern age. The disc includes new commentary by Fessenden, a featurette, the short film White Trash (1997), and deleted scenes.
The Brood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – I’d seen David Cronenberg’s The Brood before watching the terrific new Criterion edition but it never really registered the way it did this time. Perhaps the quality of the presentation (newly remastered from a 2K master supervised by Cronenberg) helped me connect this time—Mark Irwin’s cinematography not only establishes the chilly tenor of the film, it belies the low budget with such strong, controlled images—but I think it’s more a matter of time and appreciation. I love the raw, primal imagery of Cronenberg’s Shivers and Rabid but here that primal body horror erupts from an environment of normalcy (albeit one of social disconnection), a seemingly stable world where the suppressed horrors are no longer held in check.
The beauty and the power of Cronenberg’s body horror—of flesh invaded, transforming, rebelling—has always been how they are completely visceral experiences that grab the viewers on a biological level and evocative metaphors at the same time. In The Brood the metaphor is both on the surface—the emotionally damaged Nola (Samantha Eggar) transforms her most powerful emotional impulses into biological incarnations of her darkest desires—and underneath it. Cronenberg quite famously explained that the film was “my version ofKramer vs. Kramer, only more realistic,” and he had the emotional bruises of a painful divorce of his own to inspire him. But what came home to me on this viewing was not the jealousies and feelings of betrayal behind divorce but the scars of child abuse that take root in the victim. Nola is a survivor of abuse and when she becomes the willing guinea pig in the radical experimental “psychoplasmic therapy” (a term right out of the zeitgeist of sixties and seventies fads) of Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), she quite literally gives birth to those psychic wounds. Her mutant children are rage babies, born of her most intense, unresolved emotional storms, and they enact the vengeance she desires (perhaps without her even knowing or understanding).