Friday, February 14, 2014

OTHER: "This was never about death."

Other (2012)
Director: Daniel DelPurgatorio
Seen via:
Runtime: 15 min

Daniel DelPurgatorio's Other is a blistering body-horror short about a doctor (David Steiger) stricken with cancer and left without any traditional options for a cure. He takes the matter into his own hands by subjecting himself to an experimental treatment that he's devised - a series of painful and harrowing sessions in a small machine he's cobbled together in his basement. As he becomes increasingly wracked with sores and scabs, he begins to question the success of his treatment and whether the unexpected side-effects suggest an alternate solution...

Other boasts impressively nasty special effects, most prominently in the doctor's disintegrating health. His equipment is pretty terrifying as well, particularly when it's in action. Sinister fluids pump through tubes, wires hum, and awful chunks of organic matter fall into a holding chamber. Adding to the atmosphere is the dark and grimy set and the great sound work. It's all incredibly effective in capturing the sense of dislocation and desperation accompanying a life-threatening illness.

Other is everything I want in a short film - intense, bloody, and really well constructed. It also has a particularly killer ending. It's currently free to watch via the film's website (, and is definitely worth checking out.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Madness and Metafiction

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
Director: John Carpenter
Seen via: Retrofantasma, Durham, NC
Rating: 6.5 / 10

I'd heard a lot about In the Mouth of Madness prior to seeing it, mostly by fans using it as an example to show John Carpenter's post-80's work wasn't uniformly bad. The 90's are so often reviled by horror fans as a terrible decade for the genre, but after the horror boom of the 80's it seems like the genre had to step back and wrestle with its success. How to deal with the tons of watered-down films and franchises capitalizing off the hits of yesterday? How to handle the burgeoning CG technology beginning to dominate special effects? Lots of films from the era seem to be casualties of the choice between adapting to trends or endlessly retreading old ground. Is it any wonder that some films took the third route of turning to self-reflection? In the Mouth of Madness examines the success of horror as a genre without letting the self-awareness take center stage, as in films like Scream (whose constant explanation of its gags seemed to turn it into a film made primarily for non-horror audiences). It also manages to lovingly incorporate lots of classic horror tropes within a metafictional context that works... sometimes.

At the center of the film is the work of fictional author Sutter Cane - a Stephen King stand-in with a body of work whose subject matter appears to be a blend of King and Lovecraft. Cane's books have been wildly successful, and his latest work, In the Mouth of Madness, is flying off the shelves. But Cane has vanished, and in response his publishing house hires investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) to look into the disappearance. Trent is not a horror fan, and his disdain for Cane's work is only magnified by the over-the-top marketing surrounding the new book's release.

The skeptical anti-fan placed front and center had me hoping that the film would engage with some of the common criticisms of horror. Unfortunately, it doesn't have much to say. Trent initially decries Cane's work on the grounds that they're inciting violence by unstable readers. He's right in a way, even if there turns out to be a little more to the story. Once Trent starts reading the books to get insight into his disappearance, he admits that they've got a certain lowbrow appeal. If anything, they've given him nightmares, just like any good horror novel should. But all of Trent's criticisms become somewhat irrelevant when fiction starts to bleed into reality. Horror authors face frequent scorn because their work approaches violent or taboo topics in a manner inconsistent with the norms of polite society. By dissolving the barrier between the real and fictional worlds, the film lets the rules of horror run wild without calling them into question.

Still, there's quite a bit of fun to be had once the film enters the world of Cane's novels. The fictional New Hampshire town of Hobb's End is a kaleidoscope of Lovecraftian horror, and Trent's constant scoffing is pretty amusing in the face of the outrageous supernatural events going on around him. The film's denouement is a little tedious though, and dwells longer than I'd have preferred on Trent's descent into insanity. We've been privy to the real story for much longer than he has, so I feel like the film would have been more powerful if it had wrapped itself up more quickly.

In the Mouth of Madness is a pretty good film, it just doesn't feel like a pretty good John Carpenter film. The metafictional aspects feel a little played out at this point. I have no way of knowing how fresh the film seemed in the mid-90s, since at the time Ghost Writer and Wishbone were about as metafictional as I got. But the is-it-fiction-or-reality games aren't terribly suspenseful these days. More engaging to me was the greatest hits reel of horror tropes the film throws into Hobb's End. Overall, it's a fun film, if a little overblown, and definitely not deserving of the grief that often gets piled on Carpenter's later work.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO: The Giallo is Dead, Long Live the Giallo!

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
Director: Peter Strickland
Seen via: Netflix Instant
Rating: 8.5 / 10

Berberian Sound Studio is a film that takes the aesthetics of a dead genre and places them under a microscope, magnifying the style and meticulously studying their mechanics. Director Peter Strickland has pulled from corpse of the Italian giallo a film that's best classified as a meta-giallo. Like Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzano's brilliant Amer, it's a deconstruction of the genre that's intimately focused on the texture of its predecessors. In the course of its examination it manages to question the assumptions and origins of many gialli at the expense of a traditional plot.

Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a shy, quiet man renowned for the exceptional sound work he's done on films produced in his native England. Berberian Sound Studio begins with his arrival in Italy. He's been conscripted to work on a film called The Equestrian Vortex, directed by Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino), a man who believes his work transcends its origin as low-brow, low-budget horror. Gilderoy's mild-mannered personality is at odds with the brusque collection of Italian men working on the film, but he takes pride in his work and is determined to deliver a soundtrack as good as any he's ever created... even if he "didn't know it was going to be this kind of film."

While we see almost nothing of The Equestrian Vortex on screen, we're able to get a pretty good sense of its subject matter through the constant sound and voice-acting going on in the studio. As was custom in Italy at the time, the film (including dialogue) is completely dubbed after filming, so Gilderoy works in tandem with a parade of actors and actresses as they record their lines. Despite the fact that we never see the film, we're able to piece together fragments of its somewhat scatterbrained plot - something about a coven of witches inhabiting a horse farm. The only on-screen casualties are countless vegetables destroyed to create the sounds of bones breaking, hair pulled from the scalp, and necks being snapped. Letting the viewer's imagination do the work was a great decision, as it spares us from what could have been a shabby tongue-in-cheek rendition of a trashy old horror film. The dialogue and sound effects will immediately sound familiar to any Italian horror fans - they're the same kind of overblown low-fi aural tidbits you'd hear in an old Fulci film.

Yet, despite the fact that it takes place almost entirely within a sound studio, all the elements of the giallo are present. Gilderoy is the outsider protagonist, thrown into an unfamiliar and unsettling world. Santini and the local sound specialist Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) are somewhat sinister in a way that's hard to pin down. Their unbridled machismo and maltreatment of the female cast members turns them into villains of a sort. Through their interactions with the leading ladies, particularly Silvia  (Fatma Mohamed) - the voice of the film's main character, Berberian Sound Studio introduces misogyny not dissimilar to that found in Italian horror in the same era. While the film doesn't kill the girls in lavish set-pieces, they're boxed away in recording booths, dismissed by the male technicians, and viewed as nothing but sex objects whose talent rests almost entirely on their ability to scream on command. We even get a pair of black leather gloves in the form of the projectionist Giovanni, who remains faceless throughout the film. While the photography is more modern than most gialli, the film carries some visual similarities and throwbacks to the genre. Characters are often saturated in primary colors, and the film plays with darkness and shadow as much as any horror film. When the power in the studio goes out unexpectedly, candles are lit as if for a seance while the crew snacks on the vegetables Gilderoy was planning on chopping up... Entirely mundane, but with undeniable overtones of witchcraft and cannibalism.

Gilderoy's reserved nature clashes with the film's violence, and he's forced to examine his complicity in the tasteless production. Like the modern giallo fan, he confronts the dilemma of being allured by the style of the film (particularly since he's lending his talents to its production) while being put off by the exploitative subject matter and casual misogyny. Gilderoy's paradox is that he's deeply in touch with the texture and sound of violence and sex, but remains withdrawn from any actual physical contact. As he struggles to retain some sense of his personality, he longs to return to the placid English countryside - the subject of the documentary film responsible for his reputation. He pores over letters from his mother describing a nest of baby birds. He's a sexless, impish figure thrown into a world of seething testosterone. Even when he becomes friends with Silvia, he's seemingly oblivious to her femininity, and asks only for her help in acquiring his missing travel reimbursement. The answer, of course, is to adopt the anger that comes so naturally to the native men. Gilderoy's transformation away from his repressed, queer nature is subtle, but he eventually succumbs.

As fascinating as this is, it doesn't make for a ton of on-screen action. Those expecting a plot similar to that of a classic giallo will probably be disappointed. There's no flashy violence, no lurid sex. The action is all internal, taking place within Gilderoy's mind. The frequent references gialli and Italian horror might not be enough to sustain newcomers to the genre, and I'd totally understand why. As a huge fan, I found all the sly references to be a lot of fun. Even so, there is a bit of plot drag in the middle act - aesthetics can only take a film so far.

But the aesthetics here are impeccable, particularly the sound work. (Which is essential for a film about sound work.) The soundtrack was composed and performed by indie group Broadcast, and as a fan of the band I was incredibly excited when I heard that they were involved with the film, particularly since it was the last project vocalist Trish Keenan worked on before her untimely death. The soundtrack is similar to the band's previous collaboration with experimental collage artists The Focus Group in that it consists of shorter compositions littered with sound effects and scraps of dialogue. The analogue synths of Broadcast are a perfect fit for the feel of the film, and the music plays an essential role in making the film feel haunted. There are callbacks to the soundtracks of the past in the frequent use of organ, harpsichord, and eerily distorted vocals.

Berberian Sound Studio may not be for everyone, but I enjoyed it immensely. Admittedly, it suffers from the same problem other aesthetic studies like Beyond the Black Rainbow in that it maintains a languid pace throughout and deemphasizes plot in favor of mood and tone. Regardless, it's an audiovisual feast, with enough meta-analysis of the giallo to remain engaging. I love that the giallo lives on in films like this, and that the buried psychosexual themes of older films have worked their way to the surface. It's almost as if the weirdness of the older gialli has taken center stage, and isn't that a good thing? Some of the best gialli seem to consider their plots as almost secondary to their artistic qualities. Berberian Sound Studio does the same, but very deliberately, and takes on the shape of something alluringly weird.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Revisiting RE-ANIMATOR

Re-Animator (1985)
Director: Stuart Gordon
Seen via: Retrofantasma, Durham, NC
Rating: 9.5/10

The last time I watched Re-Animator I was working as a high school teacher. Any critical opinion I had about it is all lost in a PTSD haze, emotions and memories stripped away to leave nothing but a "4/5" rating in the old list I kept as a film journal at the time. I'm guessing horror comedy is what I needed most then. For that, it fit the bill perfectly, a gore-soaked 90 minute vacation from reality and the relentless emotional demands of the job. Rewatching it last week at the Lovecraft-inspired Retrofantasma double feature, I found myself in a very different situation: 4/5 years through graduate school, largely disenchanted with the whole process and with much of my idealism lost in the face of the looming task of forcing the square peg of my education into one of the sparsely scattered round holes of the current job market. Maybe this is a better place in life to approach Gordon's film though, because I realized something about halfway through that I hadn't before: Herbert West is the type of graduate student that every graduate student wants to be.

When scientists of the film world work on screen it's in the form of montages where months of drudgery is compressed into just a few minutes. We see the catastrophic failures and the elation of success but never something like the boring slog of debugging code for weeks on end. You're not shown the time spent digging through papers to find the appropriate citations, or resoldering a circuit from scratch because it didn't work the first three times. Also, undergraduates don't exist except as sordid love interests - you never see a movie scientist grading piles of tests or TA-ing a lab. Okay, in real life it isn't all drudgery. There's a lot of fun in the process, but 90% of the time you are alone on a computer or in front of an apparatus whose inner workings you've come to know all too intimately.

But even after completing an undergraduate degree in their chosen field, people seem to carry the movie-scientist image with them. Prospective grad students send out application packets with visions of singular discoveries and world-changing ideas unfolding before them. In other words, they like to believe that they're going to approach things as Herbert West: with no time for the outdated information to which the establishment clings. West is a true pioneer, conducting experiments that push the boundaries of life and death. His work is so important that accidentally killing his advisor is just a minor speed bump. Before him lies a new establishment promising more freedom and an abundance of lab supplies to be co-opted for some extracurricular work. What better image than the basement lab to encapsulate the mindset of the mad scientist? Free from supervisors and review panels, this is pure research unbound by the limitations of academia or morals. It's the ultimate stage on which ideas that are too groundbreaking for the ivory tower can play themselves out. Re-animator rekindles that feeling of possibility - the enthusiasm that causes people to sign away five or six years of their life in pursuit of a goal that initially is pretty ill-defined.

Brighter glow = better science.
Wish fulfillment aside, Re-Animator is still a really good horror comedy, delivering a ton of violence that's as shocking as it is funny. The pacing is near perfect, and escalates the absurdity of the gore to the point where David Gale's decaptiated head molesting the dean's daughter seems almost inevitable - until you realize how awful it is. That's the mark of a good horror comedy in my mind: horror visceral enough to override the humor when it appears, surprising you so much that you're not sure whether to keep laughing or not. There are so many unexpectedly brutal moments in Re-Animator that occur amidst otherwise hilarious scenes. West and Cain chasing a reanimated cat around the basement with sporting implements is slapstick gold until Cain throws the animal against the wall (a scene that's echoed later when a reanimated corpse chucks Dr. Hill's head out of the morgue). There's just so much manic energy once the film takes off that you've no choice but to enjoy it.

All of this is made extra-special by Jeffrey Combs, who plays West with a seriousness that never really belies the insanity of his actions. Whether he's snapping pencils in class to distract the pompous Dr. Hill until he's willing to engage in a shouting match or shutting down questions with deadpan one-liners, there's something appealing in how myopic his genius is. Unchecked brilliance is dangerous, but also somehow appealing, even in the face of West's wry arrogance.

Poor Rufus, how could you have ever known the awful fate in store for you?
The work I do is theoretical, so unless circumstances become very dire very fast, it's unlikely that I'll decapitate my advisor with a shovel. I probably also don't have to worry about being snatched by prehensile intestines that have sprung from his reanimated corpse. The worst I can expect on a day to day basis is eye strain from looking at my computer monitor for too long or poor posture from slouching in my desk chair. I'm okay with that - it makes for a better chance at securing funding in the future. But still, maybe it wouldn't be a terrible idea to adopt a little more of the Herbert West mindset. Not for the recklessness, but for the zeal.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

SIGHTSEERS: Relationships Can Be Murder

Sightseers (2012)
Director: Ben Wheatley
Seen via: Netflix Instant
Rating: 7.5 / 10

Ben Wheatley has proven himself to be one of the more interesting filmmakers to emerge over the past few years, cranking out a series of films that blur the boundaries between crime, horror, and comedy. Down Terrace was an interesting portrayal of a degenerate family whose members were so toxic that it ended up undermining some of the dark humor of the film. Kill List was widely lauded upon its release, and was undeniably weird but somewhat uneven - a hallucinatory tale of a hitman taking an increasingly strange series of jobs that spiral into madness. If there's one thing Wheatley excels at, it's extracting horror from the mundane. Despite the fact that he shies away from anything supernatural, his films include enough violence and gore that he seems to have gained some notoriety in horror circles. I was hoping that in Sightseers he'd be able to strike more of a balance between the levity and the carnage.

The film begins by introducing us to Tina (Alice Lowe), a sheepish woman who lives with her controlling mother. Tina and her boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram) have planned a vacation across the English countryside in Chris's RV, with stops allotted for kitschy museums and historical sites alike. The trip seems to be going well until Chris accidentally runs over an obnoxious tourist. It's genuinely an accident, so the two see no reason to abort the trip, but Chris's murderous side begins to show itself again as he begins to dispatch all manner of yuppies, hippies, and upper-middle class tourist scum. Is this man really the person Tina thought she was dating, or will it turn out that they have even more in common than they initially thought?

Both Lowe and Oram are outstanding in their roles as Tina and Chris. Tina is dreadfully ordinary, and so passive that it's comical, while Chris wanders through most of the film as a ball of seething hate. Each is so disarmingly unremarkable at first that their eventual actions are all the more surprising. Adding to the shock factor is the gore. Having been familiar with Wheatley's previous films, it didn't catch me that off guard, but juxtaposed with the sarcasm and snappy editing, it's still startling. The problem is that Tina and Chris become increasingly unlikeable as the film proceeds, and the disintegration of their relationship makes the film an uncomfortable watch. There's still some excellent dark humor laced throughout, but it comes at the expense of watching some pretty abrasive behavior.

Wheatley can put together a really nice-looking film though, with credit also due to director of photography Laurie Rose, who has worked on all of Wheatley's prior projects. There are moments when the film lapses into a dreamlike state, most notably during one overnight stay where Tina and Chris camp next to some incessantly drumming pagans in the midst of a bloody drug-induced ritual. The landscapes of the English countryside are downright beautiful, and evoke the same sense of ancient brutality that Chris seems to embody. The idea that there is some regression to a Darwinian way of life taking place here is alluded to multiple times within the film, particularly during Chris's dreams where he and Tina clash in medieval times. But is this the reason for all the senseless bloodshed? Chris claims he has a system for determining who he kills, but is it that or just the consequence of an inadequate sense of masculinity brewing in an unstable mind? The skewering of traditional gender roles seems to be more prominent the more I think about the film, and I almost want to rewatch it and really pay attention to this the second time through.

But Sightseers works on a surface-level reading as well, and Tina's slow realization of her doomed relationship with Chris will be familiar to anyone who's ever been in a similar situation. When Tina does finally figure things out, it makes for a great ending that puts a twist on the bloody road films that have come before. Wheatley is clever, and is certainly a director I'll continue to watch. While Sightseers fell a little short of my hopes for it, it's another piece of evidence that Wheatley has a truly great film inside him somewhere, and I'm really eager to see where his career goes from here.
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