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Trzecia czesc nocy (1971)
"Putting your hands in the vortex"
I don't like to treat movies as simply fictions to pass the night, that way lies the habit of simply partaking of culture, or worse it becomes the equivalent of following sports. The whole point is that we're roped in life by forces that have significance for us - and if film is to be a truthful reflection, it will devise ways to portray this pull, turn it into something we can see.
This is how I welcome this man in my life. It's not because of what he has to say or because themes might be important. Similarly I don't reject him because stories are muddled or the acting is hysteric. I welcome him because he can use the eye of the camera to rope forces that move us.
On the surface this is a glimpse of Polish life under Nazi horrors, but not the mock historical type that seeks to enshrine bygone events in ceremony. No this is one that speaks very much about anxiety that haunts the soul now in this very life, rending the air with dread and confusion. Horror that is very much present and didn't go away with the war but still lingers. He would rail - more or less covertly - against a repressive Soviet regime in later films.
So he's angry with god that won't manifest, he shouts dejection at a broken state of things, everything he would become known for is already present here, fully formed as template. But no answer can be found in the mind that despairs and clamors and none would suffice to explain anything. No his power is that he can show these things truthfully for what they are, confusion as confusion, ignorance as ignorance. So of course the narrative becomes oblique, muddled, sense takes flight and we're left with fragments.
He's still striving to burst forth here, not yet channeling madness through the eye to alter how we see. That would come to him in due time. But everything you need to know about him you'll see in the very beginning of this first film.
A man's wife and child are taken from their house one day and murdered in the yard; evil that swoops over this world and wrecks lives. He joins the resistance and immediately people are chasing after him and shooting to kill him, agents of that evil.
So he hides in an apartment building and by a chance turn of fate, police arrest someone else in his place, someone with the same color of coat who was going up the stairs to a pregnant wife. In a stunning turn he helps the wife give birth, becoming the husband who was taken away.
Jancso and Tarkovsky were previous masters of the floating eye who could maintain equanimity in the face of horror and misfortune, he is ruptured by it. But it's still the same deep roar from the engines of consciousness that propels him.
It's Disney's castle in the horizon
This is Disney self-reference about the engineering of narratives to deliver a message to us about the value of engineering them. And narratives should always be construed broadly as the world in which they take shape, so this means the engineering of narrative worlds.
A kid is seduced by a girl, one of those feisty princesses that populate Disney, into following her inside a themepark ride like something you'd see in one of Disney's parks. But the ride deviates from its course of established imagination, sending the kid to a hidden world (another themepark) below where the future is being engineered.
The film proper is another ride that decades later takes a young girl all the way back to that hidden world to find where it all went wrong in our ability to imagine a better world. Along the way we get chases, lasergun fights, sci-fi hijinks, that's just the stuff that populate the ride.
A lot of it fun, and you'll note that all of it comes down to how we as viewers are thrust through a place that reveals how it was engineered to be, seen more clearly in the race through Clooney's house revealing various contraptions built in the walls. It's the same logic behind themeparks of course.
But it's the message I want to come back to. Unpacked from the film, it goes a bit like this. The world is in a bad place now, with a doomsday clock counting down as the film begins, but it wasn't always bad. It was looking forward to a hopeful future once, this is given to us as some purer time in the 60s. (which is when the current generation still responsible for much of our cinematic imagination was coming of age - there was never a purer past except what childhood recalls)
Later we find out that somewhere along the way the marvelous project of imagining the future was abandoned. Why? The discovery of a device that counts down to world end. The girl swoops inside the story so that we can see by her spontaneous nature that the device is predicting no such thing - it was only projecting a narrative in peoples' minds, a set of images much like what's on the news today. War, famine, displacement.
The message that emerges is one of the most vital I know. See, instead of being awakened by these images to take charge of their future and alter course, people have succumbed to their illusion, believing them to be inevitable, which only serves to precipitate the end. The root of the problem was a stuck imagination fettered by images, given to us as a device that fosters a mechanical certainty that closes portals in the imagination.
This is all true in a deep sense. The angst we feel - and these are angsty times - comes from what we perceive partially and bundle into stories that we carry with us. You'll see this partial reality every time you open the news. Never anything about how millions of people had a perfectly ordinary day or fell in love today, only about what's broken.
But will the people who need this message most - people stuck with the cynical habit of regurgitating what's wrong with the world because that's how far they can envision - see this in any other way than cynically? And is the best way to get this message in a movie where someone has to throw a bomb in the machine while robots fight below?
Indicative, the parting image shows kids being awakened in a field of a now unfettered imagination yet to a dim view of Disney's castle in the horizon.
The narrator succumbs to hallucination
Film noir was a type of film driven by a narrator succumbing to hallucination. The clothes, the hardboiled lingo, the music, these were all just contemporary accoutrements of the era. More than a genre, it was for that matter a cosmologic stance that spoke of the illusory nature of phenomena.
This is noir by appropriating the drive; a narrator succumbs to hallucination. This is given in an overt way that stresses images and illusory nature; one day he sees his doppelganger in a movie, someone exactly like him, and sets out to meet this mirrored self.
He's a college professor, his lectures shown to be a mechanical repetition of ideas, long zapped of passion. At home he lives a drudgery of routine, we get the sense of dissatisfaction and malaise; even sex with his girlfriend shows no real intimacy and only cold taking. This is all to insert us in the film as perhaps ourselves, in a way that we might recall.
But now forget about surreal or not, a term that merely labels confusion. The whole point behind creating puzzling dream realities like the one here is so that we can begin to examine the dreamer with more clarity, encounter our confusions and malaise outside of us. It's so we can have in-sight of our place among things internal.
An alternate self then who is identical except he's an actor - someone inhabiting roles, acting out fantasies - and has a devious plan. In a plot point you'll just have to swallow, he agrees to let this devious self take his place for a night of empty sex, which is his own way of vicariously acting out the desire for it, which ends with suspicion, squabbling and death. Having internally experienced the void of that desire, it frees him to experience a night of real intimacy - as himself now - with his actual wife. But the damage caused by fantasy hasn't gone away and will take horrifying shape the next morning.
That's it in a nutshell. A bit too obvious in the devices it uses so that in the end we have maybe a puzzle to put together, Lynch without the deep permeating of Lynch. More Woman in the Window (the Fritz Lang film where a professor meets the woman from a painting) than Out of the Past in noir terms. It turns the study of desire into a study of evil, you'll see this in the first scene, a ritual where a naked woman standing for desire, unveils a spider for an audience of rapt men in attendance.
But the very last scene is eerily effective and I want to draw your attention there; the wife has gone into their bedroom, and when we go in ourselves expecting to see the only sweet face in the film, we get that (you'll know when you see it). It makes us have the same kind of disruptive thought that he's been experiencing all along and creates the nightmare. Effective but that's because it's so blunt.
It Follows (2014)
Horror that weaves itself in the fabric
Horror is illusion that unfolds in space, mind itself. Nothing else needs said, much less a whole story of explanations.
This was Halloween for me. It wasn't a story about this masked killer, how he's an embodiment of evil or all of the other things Loomis run around announcing to us. Loomis was merely the carnival barker - a PT Barnum - ushering us in the tent, grooming the encounter. It was the place you could inhabit from which horror sprang, a sleepy suburbia with kids dashing by on Halloween night and livingrooms dimly lit by TV.
And so it is here. There's a story here about a presence that attaches itself to people but such as it is matters little. We have almost no mythos, no real explanations of particulars, the thing somehow exists and is passed on sexually. (I'm sure that will be one for sequels to ruin by explaining)
The rest is in being in that space, a quiet suburbia much like Carpenter's with the big houses and nicely kept lawn that shrieks can pierce. It's in the thing that will just lunge at you again and again until it gets you, taking any shape. In the running up and down houses that spills out into quiet suburban streets.
Everything you need to know is in the very first scene; a girl runs out of the house screaming on an afternoon, an ordinary day. The street is empty save for a neighbor unloading his shopping bags from a car, who asks is she OK. We have seen nothing, but something is in that house.
We get a few silly popup moments that mar the effect, but the whole is cool, embodied in space, present. Something has insinuated itself in the fabric of things and occupies bodies that create encounters. My favorite of those is when an inexplicably tall man enters through a door, a chilling moment because of how it throws our footing in a solid reality asunder.
And if the world is a remarkable thing, it is not because we see the meaning of it at first and can point to it as something we can explain but on the strength of its chance occurrences and paradoxes.
Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Some things a man can't ride around
A few good things here.
It gives us familiar faces in costume and prosy dialogue but always pulls back from letting it become Tarantino, about how clever it is.
It's about men traipsing through rocky desert in search of cannibals but never goes off in hijinks or caricature, it just keeps going.
It has clear, strong characters and writing, understated wit. It elicits memorable performances from people we can't help but know as actors as we watch, Jenkins in particular pulling a Walter Brennan.
On the other hand the camera is plain, the desert more a backdrop for characters than its own ritual. I miss here a particularly physical sense of place that will pervade our eyes and nostrils. Most importantly I miss abstraction, a way for this to permeate deeper than just a story about four people setting out to rescue a woman. It's not sloppy Tarantino, it's not the Coens either, or Sayles, or Altman, who all made their way West at one point. It's a story well told in the pulp tradition, a writer's creation.
But to finish on a positive note, I can appreciate what it musters on screen and the balancing act of making it happen. And it used to be that filmmakers in old Hollywood could crank out a film every year, sometimes more. It seems that you needed little more to work in the industry than decide to go West and apprentice, learn by doing it. Ford was 23 years old when he got his start, unusual now. So for a first-timer to deliver competent work on a budget, he should be celebrating. I hope his phone is ringing and that he gets to ride around the things he can't now.
Eventually the same type of Marvelnoise
I realize that lambasting Marvel is getting to be like ripping into MacDonald's for the pre-processed slop they serve. It would be coy to feign surprise that there's no lobster on the menu and people going in would have it no other way at this point, at any rate that's what the place is, you either go in for the big mac they make or steer clear.
But this one seemed like it would be different, if only in a small measure. It looked like it might be an opportunity to see the same landscape a different way, a way that diminishes its histrionic tiresomeness perhaps or points at its plasticity. He shrinks and all that.
No dice, folks. There may have been a more selfaware script in the early stages or not, anemic traces of which you'll see perhaps in the way the average joe plucked off the street tries to blend in the improbable mission. Even that seems ordinary to think of. But what we have up there on the screen is the same pre-processed Marvel, more of the same cookie-cutter missionmaking to retrieve gadgets and avert doom, storynoise where we constantly need to have things explained to us.
I mean, this is a film where our hero has to infiltrate a company's HQ in time before the snarling bad guy sells the all-important thingamajig to shady agencies. 15 years ago that would have been par the course so to see the very same cartoon now that doesn't point at it but actually is that cartoon? Lazy.
What's left is the shrinking action and what way it paves for internal mechanics, how it transforms reality to give us views and imagination that a Mission Impossible film or Avengers won't. An early piece where he plummets through different floors shows the possibility. But we're never far off from I Shrunk the Kids territory, which was at least wholly invested in this transformation of familiar reality.
The climax takes place in kid's playground, we get some whimsy with small and huge toytrains. But with Fury Road and Lone Ranger in mind (as exemplars of imaginative flow) how little they achieve and what ordinary imagination. It seems the only thing the execs in control of these things care about is making sure the product is streamlined to be what customers would expect to find. Corporate.
Son of Evil Dead
New Zealanders playing among blood and guts again, always an inviting occasion. This one vomits blood on people, sends zombies and demons to skulk around lawns and livingrooms, tears bodyparts and strews the floor with them. It loots Evil Dead and Braindead most obviously, but does it with deepseated affinity. It loves the culture it derives from, the kind of freewheeling filmmaking that you make happen with your hands around a house, rigging splatter that made you giggle as a teenager. It loots with the enthusiasm of a metalhead being let loose in a record shop.
So even when it loses its way here and there, the climax as a series of haphazard mangling and decapitations, that's okay by me. It has all been an opportunity to let loose around the neighborhood with no larger plan in mind. It's for us to bathe in fake blood, knowing it is something being made up.
A metalhead leading a crappy highschool life discovers an arcane sheet of music that summons demons, plays it with his garage band one day. This cracks the world, unleashing all the pent-up energy that he carries inside, turning suburban normalcy into zombie playground where he can be the guitar- shredding hero who slays evil. Of course the gorgeous blonde girl is smitten, wants him and in the end adopts his life wholesale, ugly tattoo on her arm and now a metalhead herself. Daft but it's all been wistful fantasy about how we'd like life to be in his shoes.
The local bands they got to score it are okay, but how about some suitably ghastly music? The two protagonists bond over an Autopsy vinyl. How about signaling the apocalypse by having Necrophagia tear into the opening bars of Blood Freak?
Black Death (2010)
Medieval movie around the plague, which means mud beneath our feet, oppressive atmosphere of gloom, rampant superstition in the name of an austere god who may be punishing mankind.
But we don't have a cinematician who will thread deeply around images, merely a director who films plot scenes and strings them into a story, here about mercenaries venturing into the forest in search of a necromancer. It's all sloppily filmed without abstraction that will permeate beneath the words and gestures to uncover fundamentals.
It has some mystery I guess, a few reversals about the nature of evil as belief in a story, but it's without anything to recommend it. Stagy and announcing every bit of conflict through actors. Looking back it will be swallowed up in a murk of samey b-movies about medieval darkness.
Two different ways to haunt
There are different modes to convey horror, mechanisms that control it; what it comes down to is is how a viewer is placed in the vicinity of horror he feels to be there. (it doesn't matter if it is actually there and films that laboriously explain why and how waste their breath)
The story here is about this in a way that makes it clear; a crime author comes to live with his family in the house where gruesome murders took place, aiming to write a book about it. Right away we have a viewer placing himself on the scene of horror. Reality in this house is not the same as in any other house, there's a story that lingers.
The very first night he discovers something else that lingers - a box containing footage of murders in the attic, a set of images that contain horror.
So there are two different placements here, one powerful and eerie, the other silly. The contrast between them is so stark that if ever a horror film school comes about, this should be taught. It will be more insight than film schools deliver in a year.
One placement is anchored in these mini-films from the attic. The films themselves are strange, eerie and the most lasting thing about the whole film. Each one of them culminates with murder of course, the grisly stuff we've come to see, throats slashed etc. But more pertinently about the kind of horror they give rise to. Each one is a little more elaborately staged, making us grope in the dark of a house in search of horror we know is coming. Each one contains a hidden reflection of the boogeyman on the scene. Each one is filmed by an unseen presence. Nothing at all is explained of them but taken together they suggest malevolence that spills from them.
The other placement simply has weird things happening around the house at night, the usual apparitions, noises from the attic, that before long we come to understand as supernatural in origin. It's all as contrived as it sounds on that end and seems to come from a lesser film. Nothing is intricately sketched in this set of images, no hidden reflections. Everything is explained about them in due time.
You'll see what I mean for a clear effect by looking at the stories that evolve from each set of images.
One gives rise to a frightening reality; someone in an eerie mask has been out there for a long time committing atrocity to some inscrutable purpose, suggesting a devious mind orchestrating who may be out there now, watching. The story emanates from what the images conceal (with a little help from a policeman).
The other story is foisted on us by an "occult expert", simply delivered by a talking head to a camera; nonsense about a Babylonian deity that actually lives in images and comes out to harness souls. This one shows "devious" scares and then comes up with the full story to explain them.
In both cases, we end up in theory with much the same thing; evil that defies sense, inhabits images and spills out from them to haunt the place. But what a world of difference between them.
The Houses October Built (2014)
The houses illusion built
Nevermind the actual film, the idea is one of the most potent I've seen in some time.
A group of friends set out in a van in search of horror, haunted house attractions scattered around rural America. It's the days leading up to Halloween so we can have a pervasive atmosphere of masks and monsters roaming the streets. I like that it's a glimpse outside the usual and tied to a larger fabric of make-believe.
The idea is that we'll venture into these houses where horror is supposed to be controlled around us, the work of fiction, only to discover more slippery boundaries of truth. This would touch at the very essence of horror, exploiting the same perturbations that move viewers in both the actual houses and film; see, we know it's not real, but what to do when your body tells you otherwise?
So nevermind that it's actors we see and scripted reactions. Some of the most potent footage here are from within these houses where we go in with a camera and a swirl of monsters lunges at us, staged but it comes alive. I'm guessing these are actual places that partnered with the filmmakers and this is what tantalized me going in; it would be at least in part an actual tour of that America that goes to pilgrimage in actual places.
They manage to bungle this for my taste, the part where fiction blurs and we go to something that comes alive in the moment of watching.
For one, they chose the "found footage" mode (it really means "someone is filming this now"), the most apt choice I've seen since Last Exorcism, but no one ever films a sense of place, a physical sense of journey; they waste it on lots of blathering around a camera as if it was an episode of cable TV. Indicative of the actual makers holding the camera.
And then there's the end - this is where the staged scenarios in these attractions don't cut it any more as the characters push for more and more "real" stuff. Lo, there's rumor of a secret place that you can only reach by invitation. Not a bad choice. But once there, it's the most obviously staged part of the film, the complete opposite of where we were meant to be viewing-wise.
So this is a miss, filmmakers with maybe the strongest idea of any of their peers this year but none of the tools of insight to cultivate it. They outline enough for me to imagine it in more intuitive hands so all in all I would have this over the next paranormal film.
Someone has gone out with the urge for horror in mind (and it's our very urge to inhabit illusion that made us build these houses), thinking he knows illusion from real, but it begins to spill outside, perturbing reality. From a certain point on, the apparitions become aware of someone watching, aware inside the fiction, so conspire to stage the real thing as a cosmic prank that shatters lives.
Watch The Funhouse, Hooper's film driven by the same instinct, a funhouse that extends from the actual place to haunt the whole film.