Halloween Countdown: ROSEMARY’S BABY

rosemarys-baby

I won’t forget the sudden chill I felt when Mia Farrow sees her baby and recoils. It is one of the great moments in the horror canon, a testament to the power of the human face  in cinema. We never see the baby ourselves—nor should we—but her bulging eyes belong to the history.

So Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is one of my favorite horror movies, and probably one of yours, too, though it now seems much closer to 60s/70s paranoia thrillers than it does to today’s horror flicks. This also means Rosemary’s Baby faces the obstacle that all paranoia thrillers face: namely, we figure out what’s going on long before the hero(ine), and then have to wait for them to catch up. But that’s just the raw framework, and Rosemary’s Baby hangs on it a richly detailed story about a mild-mannered woman struggling for a voice when surrounded by people who want to use her.

Despite having two bona fide horror classics to his name, Roman Polanski wasn’t mainly a horror director, or necessarily a thriller director either. His recurring M.O. is trapping opposing/incompatible forces together in close quarters, and then having them fight for dominance. Over the years, this method lent itself to melodrama or dark, absurdist comedy as much as paranoid conspiracy.

Rosemary’s Baby has pretty much all of the above, so don’t miss how much weird humor it packs in, including having its villains be two senior citizens whose enthusiastic kindness and vulgar wardrobe only make them more sinister. Its great horror coups are turning pregnancy into the original “body horror” and turning a single apartment—home, where you should be safe—into a fresh minefield for claustrophobic fear.

The ending will continue to cause debates, I’m sure, and I’ve encountered more than one person who feels it doesn’t add up. But the horror that lingers after the film (as opposed to the very modest number of horrors in it) is the idea that agency might be snuffed out, and that accepting your role might be a fact of life.

Let your eyes widen.

✬✬✬✬✬

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Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.

Halloween Countdown: GREMLINS

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The appreciation of Gremlins (1984) director Joe Dante as a proper film artist is nothing new—Jonathan Rosenbaum, for one, has been arguing it for decades. But I do wish it were more widespread.

Gremlins, coming in the era of the “high concept” FX blockbuster, is easy enough to pitch. Just say “It’s a Wonderful Life meets The Blob“, or “it’s E.T. but evil”, and you’re in a kind of alchemical genre paradise: a mixture of Roger Corman, Steven Spielberg, Looney Tunes, and 50s monster movies, as Dante gathers as much mid-century American kitsch as he can get his hands on just so he can have fun blowing it all up. Not that the town these critters arrive in isn’t in dire need of some chaos. You know the rules, and to break them: don’t get them wet, keep them out of sunlight, and never ever feed them after midnight

The explicit references to E.T. (1982)—Spielberg was on hand as producer—are a joke the entire world is in on, but they also put Dante’s and Spielberg’s presentations of childhood in delightful and provocative contrast. It is as if the film is a riposte to all that’s tender in the Spielberg universe, arguing that for every sweet child who badly wants an imaginary friend and a complete family, there’s a half-dozen pint-sized anarchists who daydream about kicking over their school like it was made out of LEGOs. (Echoing similar remarks made by Roald Dahl and Terry Gilliam, Dante noted that the grislier moments of this “kid’s film” horrified the parents more than the children).

And so we have a horror movie for innocent kids, best appreciated when they become warped adults. Some of you may argue that the film is better for Christmas than for Halloween. The two holidays can take turns holding it, as far as I’m concerned. Come November 1st, the discounted candy and the Santa hats will be sold in the same aisle.

✬✬✬✬✩

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Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.

Halloween Countdown: DRACULA

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As I write these, a friend of mine posed a challenge: to review a film I don’t like. Here, I face a choice. “Bad horror films” is a hole with no bottom. Most of the ones I’ve stumbled into by circumstance have already been forgotten—remember 2008’s The Strangers, with Liv Tyler? anyone?—and there’s no point resurrecting one of the many formula hack-jobs just to bury it again. So instead I picked a legitimate classic that I legitimately think is a bad movie: the famous 1931 Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi.

This has little to do with age. There are movies just as old—and older—that retain mystery and fear. But Dracula commits one of the worst sins of movies: most of it is shockingly un-cinematic. A lot of this has to do with its origin: for legal reasons, the original novel couldn’t be licensed, so the studio licensed a later Dracula stage play instead, one tethered to some of the worst conventions of early 20th century theater. The director, the talented Tod Browning, reportedly didn’t have his heart in it, leaving his DP to take over for much of the shoot. So, despite some strong, atmospheric art direction near the beginning, the result is largely a lot of silly characters standing around saying silly things. Vampyr, from 1932, showed the dark lyricism that could be found if such material were treated with high-minded artistic ambition. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Island of Lost Souls (also 1932) showed the subversive, transgressive thrills possible when pulp material lets its id get out.

By comparison, Dracula is a lifeless pageant. But it was a huge success at the time, then segued into classic status borne on nostalgia, even though it’s a poor representative of what filmmakers in the early 1930s could do. (This, in itself, is a pernicious trend of how our canons are formed and remembered). So by all means see it, check it off your list, hum along to its clever and legally expedient appropriation of “Swan Lake”, and enjoy the iconic moments it has to offer. But don’t walk out thinking “boy, we’ve come a long way.” Even when Dracula was new, we already had.

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Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.

Halloween Countdown: ISLAND OF LOST SOULS

Island-of-Lost-Souls

Our next Halloween review is dedicated to Pre-Code Hollywood: that magical time between the birth of sound and the dawn of strict censorship when gangster movies could be harsher, romantic comedies saucier, and horror movies more perverse. It is from this era, and this era alone, that you can stumble across as invigoratingly weird as 1932’s Island of Lost Souls.

It is, in so many ways, an authentic trashterpiece: a quickie adaptation of H.G Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, barely over an hour long and directed by a certifiable non-auteur (studio man Erle C. Kenton), whose main attractions are Charles Laughton with a whip, Bela Lugosi in a furry mask, and a slinky actress listed in the opening credits only as “The Panther Woman.” (Historical scholarship tells us that the Panther Woman was a 19-year-old dental assistant from Chicago who won a contest to appear in a Paramount Picture. Hooray for Hollywood).

And yet the appeal of the film, aside from that utter weirdness, is how it finds that B-movie paradise between the tawdry and the serious. There are real technical accomplishments in the film, from the makeup to the cinematography by Karl Struss, who had been behind the camera for more respectable movies, like F.W. Murnau’s classic Sunrise (1927). And even as it qualifies as primo vintage camp, there’s a subversively playful bite to its allegory as well. Moreau describes himself as “god”, and has made it his project to rid, train, condition, and surgically remove all bestial instincts from animals. Yet suppose this doctor or this god is a fraud, and that animals (and men) prefer to be beasts?

I imagine that this high-minded subtext comes from the H.G. Wells novel, and the rest comes from an early-1930s studio system that didn’t know any better. Enjoy it as such, but don’t dare call it “so bad it’s good”; there are some truly potent moments that no studio man would be able to get away with a few years later. The film’s last few seconds, where a genuinely disturbing horror movie finale suddenly gives way to the inappropriately cheerful, please-exit-the-theater end credits music, never fails to make me smile at what the industrial system of Old Hollywood was capable of.

✬✬✬✬✩

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Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.

 

Short Cuts: LUCKY

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“Harry Dean Stanton is…,” the opening credits of Lucky say in big letters right before the title, thus conferring upon one of our humblest players a level of movie-carrying star power usually reserved for a Schwarzenneger or a Stallone. When Harry Dean Stanton passed away last month at the age of 91, he had stayed active until the end. Very few movies gave him the leading role; the only ones I can think of off the top of my head are Repo Man and Paris, Texas, both from thirty years ago. But the outpouring of grief from cinephiles was rightly that of an icon, one who delivered more fine performances for more fine directors than we could keep track of, and I suspect this is also because those performances always felt more open than transformative. That is, unlike an Oscar titan like Meryl Streep or Robert De Niro, you got the sense (illusory or not) that if you were fortunate enough to meet him in person, he would probably be pretty close to what you knew from his best roles, with little pretense of celebrity. So Harry Dean Stanton is Lucky, and Lucky is an old soul in an older body, a chain-smoking retiree whose tranquil routine—maybe too tranquil, for some audience members—is broken when it starts to sink in that he can’t go on forever.

In a way, it’s amazing that this film—directed by the actor John Carroll Lynch (who has a pretty wide resumé of supporting roles himself)—gets away with as many contradictions as it does. It stays remarkably light and buoyant for a film that keeps pondering mortality, subjectivity, and “the void”, and then throws in a metaphorical Garden of Eden just for good measure. And it maintains grave seriousness even as its view of a small town in the American southwest is atilt with comic eccentricity. (Cinephiles will get the bonus of watching a well-cast David Lynch play a man uncommonly obsessed with his tortoise). Undoubtedly, this is because the film avoids the easiest climactic ways out—Lucky has, for instance, no estranged family member he needs to reconcile with—while allowing its little details and discrete vignettes to mean as much as its “big scenes.” I suspect the movie is perfectly satisfied to be small, and to see what it can find within that scale. There’s a scene at the end when Stanton, who by the then has been at both the giving and receiving end of fine monologs, suddenly makes eye contact with the camera and lets out a big silent grin—and for a second, you can’t tell if you’re looking at the character or the actor himself. Lucky is, by design, a film too miniature and too shaggy for entry into Valhalla. But that moment is one of the most subtly transcendent shots I’ve seen this year; it left me both heartbroken and exiting the theater on a high. As the movie keeps reminding us, everyone will die someday. But not every actor gets to take such a lovely final bow.

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Lucky is still playing in a few theaters. See it with a small crowd of people who care.

Halloween Countdown: IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS

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Here’s a question that can get movie buffs arguing: did John Carpenter make a truly good film after 1990? It’s a question with added relevance when the return of Stranger Things—which is part homage to Carpenter—is building hype. From the mid-70s to the late-80s, he made his mark as a unique voice in American genre cinema: The Thing (1982) and Halloween (1978), certainly, but I count a solid half dozen other cult gems of action, sci-fi, and horror with varying degrees of “classic” status.

Then the 90s came, and he started to look like a director whose context had disappeared. This is not to say there weren’t fine moments to come—if you catch me with my guard down, I’ll even have pleasant things to say about Ghosts of Mars (2001). But the latter-day film a Carpenter buff is most likely to make big claims for is this 1994 horror show: In the Mouth of Madness. The good people at the prestigious Cahiers du Cinema, suckers for genre films with meta-subtext that they are, even voted it one of the best films of the year. It follows Sam Neill as an insurance investigator looking into the disappearance of a pulp horror writer—Stephen King as H.P. Lovecraft may have imagined him—whose writing is starting to break out of its fictional confines and effect the real world. Carpenter thought of this film as the finale to his thematic “Apocalypse Trilogy”, started by The Thing and continued with the underrated Prince of Darkness (1987).

You have to care more about horror paperbacks than I do to see this all as a canny prophesy instead of an idle game. But In the Mouth of Madness does have a very intriguing idea on its side: that a well constructed work of fiction can override your reality, even when you know it’s fake. And thus the best moments of the film come when it scares you (sometimes exquisitely) while making as little sense as possible. It works as well as it does by sticking with the spirit of Lovecraft’s short stories, in which a hero tries to rationally narrate his own story while clearly going off the deep end. And per Carpenter’s standards, it leads to a bonkers final scene that reminds me of what we always loved about him: that his genre films were very un-generic.

The scariest thing may be that 1994 FX now look like they’re entering the realm of camp. I was around in ’94, and it didn’t look that way at the time. An ill omen for the future, if there ever was one.

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Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.

Halloween Countdown: THE INNOCENTS

the-innocents

Nothing ages worse than horror, they say. And they’re not wrong. So when I popped in a copy of The Innocents a while back, knowing absolutely nothing about it, I was expecting a fairly low-key evening. After all, gothic horror is by definition old-fashioned, and how scary could a haunted house movie made in 1961 be?

Two highly disconcerting hours later, it turns out that the type of horror movies that age are the ones that revolve around a very contemporary type of shock. But aim for the subconscious, and you get something timeless. All you really need are lights, shadows, the right pacing, a good actor’s face, a subtext that corkscrews its way into your mind, and a director—like the estimable Jack Clayton—who knows how to use them. The Innocents has all of these in spades: its total death toll is one, and I suspect it will continue to be scary long after our jaded, bratty grandchildren find Eli Roth torture porn boring and tame.

The plot is about a repressed governess sent to a remote manor to look after two small children. Only, as isolation sets in, she begins to suspect the children are possessed by some horrifying evil force. The atmosphere is exquisitely frightening and irrational, full of weird choices, like casting the 40-year-old Deborah Kerr as a sexually repressed 20-year-old, that make you question your sanity. It’s enduring triumph is asking if ghosts exist only in mind—and that if they do, maybe that alone is enough for a haunting.

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Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.

Short Cuts: A GHOST STORY

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I’ve never believed in ghosts, but movies may be the next best thing: apparitions of light and shadow taking the form of a person or a moment whose original no longer exists. At the movies, the dividing line between one mortal plane and the next can be as simple as a cut, a fade, or a presence implied where none is seen. And for this reason, some of the most effectively ghostly special effects predate not only the digital revolution, and not only color film stock, but sound cinema itself. So credit David Lowery for creating an appropriately elemental spirit and a proudly analog look—even as a digital rental—with A Ghost Story. A nameless man and wife (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) live together until he dies in a tragic accident. From there, looking like a man under a sheet with holes cut out for eyes, his ghost haunts their old house and watches both mournfully and angrily as time moves on without him.

It is not the easiest film to get into, just like any film that treats its actors more as photographic models than characters. And as it rockets off into the mysteries of space and time, the true fullness of its cosmic aspiration is beyond the film’s reach. Its level of insight is no more profound, or less obvious, than the philosophical rap about tiny human footprints in an infinite universe that a guest (Sundance stalwart Will Oldham) delivers at a shindig after the house has been invaded by post-grads. In other words, A Ghost Story is not so much the wisdom of a life lived as it is dinner party conversation for intellects of a certain age. But it is also a work of cinematic imagination from an up-and-comer who wants to build on the very Malick-isms that have turned so many moviegoers off. The middle passage, where time slips between cuts and pans, is beautifully detailed. The authentically muted portrayal of Rooney Mara’s grief, done with a minimum of dialogue or actorly emoting, has stuck with me. Even the moments where it risks silliness—and doesn’t always come away clean—have a lucid audacity to them. It’s certainly not horror, but it is empathetic to why you would want to haunt a world where everything keeps sliding away. That emotional core works, and any sad sack could tell you it means as much for the living as it does for the dead.

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A Ghost Story is available to rent on iTunes. This Halloween, try fun-sized pretension.

Halloween Countdown: HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE

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As American cinema entered the 1960s, a curious trend arose of big stars from the past getting cast in camp horror movies, as though Old Hollywood itself were by then something of a haunted house. And thus, with 1964’s Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, came the delicious idea to take Bette Davis (from Jezebel (1938)) and Olivia de Havilland (from Gone with the Wind (1939)) and cast them as two ex-debutante hellcats duking it out in a crumbling Southern mansion full of terrors. The director was the great Robert Aldrich, and he had been in this territory before, with the similarly morbid battle of wits—who can be trusted? who is insane?—in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Sweet Charlotte is something of Baby Jane‘s homicidally jealous younger sister, a B-side mystery with meat cleavers, severed hands, and poor Bruce Dern meeting a sorry fate.

To that, you can throw in Joseph Cotten, doing an uncharacteristically hammy performance the way a pro pitcher might let his son win at tee-ball, and you have the new kind of self-conscious cult cinema that was capturing the imagination. At 133 minutes, it’s a bit long and convoluted for this sort of thing. But Aldrich exercises wonderful control over the stormy set-pieces and the ghoulish sense of humor, and the film’s head isn’t empty. It’s a game of movie star personas about the perils of being (in)famous, elevated because such talents would stoop to the material. And its narrative trap snaps shut with the glorious payoff of Bette Davis doing a demented version of walking the red carpet. I’ll take it over Scarlet O’Hara any day.

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Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.

Halloween Countdown: THE OMEN

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His name is Damien. He has a dead-eyed stare, a strange birthmark, an indifference to the pain of others, and—raised unwittingly by a morally upright Gregory Peck—he has been sent here by Satan and 20th Century Fox to create a new franchise. He was not horror cinema’s first creepy child, and certainly wouldn’t be its last. But after The Omen opened in 1976, he became arguably its most iconic.

In truth, The Omen today is a film that’s more “iconic” than “great,” pulling textures and elements from Don’t Look Now (1973), The Exorcist (1973), and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and making them a bit more pop, a bit more kitsch, and a bit more safe—if you show it at a movie night, there’s less of a chance you’ll deeply unsettle any of your friends than if you have the hubris to pick something that’s “out there.” But the virtues of the film shouldn’t be ignored. Gregory Peck brings gravitas wherever he goes, and it gives the script a touch more prestige than it deserves. The sound design is creepy. The gothic imagery shows how a good color scheme goes a long way. And Jerry Goldsmith got a song called “Ave Satani” nominated for an Academy Award (I sincerely hope it was performed during the ceremony, to turn the Oscars into the dark ritual they always kind of are).

The Omen‘s biggest drawback today is that it feels light; its strongest impression is that, eight years and six Black Sabbath albums after Rosemary’s Baby, fictionally giving birth to the Antichrist had gone from a queasy metaphor to a fun hobby. So I wish it did more with the themes it touches on but leaves largely unexplored: the psychodrama of being locked in a battle with your own offspring, and the sneaking suspicion that 1976 looked pretty close to Armageddon already.

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Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.