Category Archives: horror movie

Movie Essentials: Persona

Ingmar Bergman has always been cinema’s great existentialist. His work delves into musings about life and death and love and sex and the mystery surrounding all of it. Watching one of his films is equivalent almost to a church confessional, as if he is whispering to us all his deepest thoughts.

Filmed during the height of the war in Vietnam, Persona (1966) begins with a series of seemingly random images: corpses, spiders, a young boy waking up, hands nailed into a cross, a reel of film spinning out of control while showing old cartoons.

We then meet our principal characters: An actress, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), who falls into a silent state suddenly during a performance and her young, soon-to-be married nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson).

The two spend the summer at a doctor’s summer house. Throughout their stay, the audience learns about each woman, one through talking (Alma), the other by silence (Elisabet). Alma relates a lucid sexual excursion she and her friend had at the beach and the subsequent abortion. Her guilt afterwards festers and makes her wonder if she could be two people at once. Afterwards, in a dreamlike state, both women meet in the dead of night and seemingly blend together. Upon discovering that Elisabet has been condescendingly humoring her during their stay and seeing her as a case study, the two fight. Their fight escalating into surrealism, Elisabet’s husband arrives and confuses Alma for Elisabet, further drawing the two characters together. It is revealed that Elisabet hates her child, and Alma is terrified of their strange connection, seemingly trying to convince herself that she will not end up the same way. In a state of near vampirism, Alma cuts her wrist and Elisabet drinks her blood before Alma repeatedly slaps her. Alma leaves Elisabet as the audience views the film projector spin to a stop.

Bergman described the film as a poem in images. He came up with the initial idea after an operation and the process of waking up from unconsciousness. The film seems to imply that consciousness is something unnatural. Both Alma and Elisabet suffer from delusions about what they should be feeling, but can’t. Love is a mystery to them and even harmful in respects. Elisabet is hiding from confronting her fears about humanity, and Alma tries to convince herself that she won’t end up like Alma, a vessel of emptiness. Hands are a visual key throughout the film, always reaching, searching for connection. When both characters realize just how similar they are, they see that they are both deluding themselves.

The camera stays on the two women’s faces during the pivotal conclusion. We see every movement in their expression, their lips trembling, their eyes watering. Through this deep inspection, the audience understands that both characters are open to us despite what they hide from themselves. And then the faces merge.

pers2

Perhaps Bergman was making a comparison between the character of Elisabet and us, the audience. We sit back and view the film silently as Elisabet does, watching Alma pour herself out to us, telling us her story, but, like Elisabet, we watch with amusement rather than investment, and Bergman resents our condescension.

Or perhaps Bergman was insinuating the decline of structures themselves. Featuring shots of Nazi concentration camps and a monk burning himself in protest, the 1960s were a time when societal structures were viewed with rancor. By deconstructing the film process and showing the film reel in his film, perhaps Bergman implies that all structures, whether they be social or sexual or governmental or cinematic, are false compared to the allure of unconsciousness and the peace that entails.

Alma eventually convinces Elisabet to say one word. “Nothing.” Perhaps that is the meaning of the film, a desire to return to nothingness when confronted with both halves of our personality, one ready to admit the truth and the other trying to hide it.

Perhaps Bergman’s seminal work, “Persona” continues to haunt and entrance those who view it. It will always be one of the greatest works of cinema.

‘Get Out’ delivers interesting social commentary

Horror movies like “The Wicker Man” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” use the “you” against “the world” formula to generate their scares. There’s an eerie strangeness to everyone knows something that you don’t, and everyone is out to get you. What Jordan Peele has done with “Get Out” is to take those same principals and apply them to current themes of race relations.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a black man, is nervous about meeting his white girlfriend’s parents. Rose (Allison Williams) tells him that everything will be fine. They voted for Obama. Everything will be great. When Chris gets to this faraway, secluded wilderness house however, things start to unnerve him. The black help there don’t act black. They act downright bizarre. The white people ask him probing questions. Rose’s mom, Missy (Catherine Keener), claims that she can hypnotize Chris so that he’ll stop smoking. Her dad, Dean (Bradley Whitford), introduces him to a bunch of the family friends in a very strange manner. As Chris learns more and more about those around him, a terrible secret is revealed.

Blending horror and comedy, the film succeeds as biting satire by posing the truth that even though you may not be overtly racist like a Ferguson cop, you can be racist in a very polite, complimentary way. Who knows if any of this based on Peele’s personal experiences or if it’s just a crazy idea he thought up one night, but the film asks interesting questions about what it means to be black, the white eye in regards to black identity and the forces at work behind the friendliest of smiles.

Horror Movie Classics: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu

German Expressionism’s influence can still be felt today. Take any episode of American Horror Story or any Tim Burton film or any gothic music video, and you will see that heightened sense of reality, the use of grossly distorted architecture and the deep, long shadows that the movement was known for. And it is that style that was utilized in two of the earliest horror films: Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Weine, is not really a horror film in a literal sense, but it contains the psychological underpinnings that would reign in the genre. Told by a man named Francis, the story focuses on Dr. Caligari as he visits a small town with his somnambulist named Cesare and presents him at the fair. After Cesare correctly predicts a man’s upcoming murder, Francis grows suspicious and investigates, but the somnambulist kidnaps his fiancee, Jane. Chased by the the townspeople, Cesare drops Jane and tries to escape, but collapses and dies. Caligari attempts to escape himself, followed by Francis to an insane asylum. The film leads you to believe that Francis discovers that Caligari is in fact obsessed with somnambulism and sorcery, but in a twist, the final minute reveals that Francis is in fact a patient of the asylum, along with Cesare and Jane, and the man of his obsession, Dr. Caligari, is the asylum director, the entire narrative imagined in his head. It may be the first real twist ending of cinema.

The use of the camera dynamics, the lighting of Cesare and the gothic and grotesque settings really create an eeriness that translates to a horror aesthetic. With a monster, an evil doctor and an insane asylum, the film is filled with elements of macabre that have served the film well nearly 100 years after it was made.

Directed by F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu is an unauthorized adaptation of Dracula (all prints were court ordered to be destroyed following a suit brought on by Stoker’s family, but some copies were saved) and follows Bram Stoker’s narrative very closely.

Thomas Hutter is sent to Transylvania to carry out a real estate transaction while his wife, Ellen, stays behind. Upon finding the recipient of his business deal, Count Orlok, Hutter realizes that something is very wrong. He is disfigured, more a wraith than a human being, and tries to suck his blood when he pricks his finger. After buying the home across from Hutter’s, the Count compliments Hutter on a picture of his lovely wife. After discovering Orlok sleeping in a coffin during the day, Hutter attempts to escape but is knocked unconscious as he falls out his window. Orlok travels to Germany, killing all of the members of the ship he travels on, and moving his coffin to the house he had purchased. Many citizens of the town die and rumors of the plague circulate. Hutter tries to tend to his wife and keep her safe, but Orlok breaks in during the night and drinks her blood, but he is careless, the light of day catching up to him too quick. He vanishes into nothingness at daybreak.

While the narrative is a classic of literature, what really distinguishes Nosferatu from other vampire films is its lighting, camerawork and moodiness. Just the shadow of Count Orlok played masterfully by Max Schreck moving across the stairs is enough to send shivers down your spine. For all the blood and gore and menace of modern vampire films, the simple use of shadows, harsh lighting, makeup, calculated motion and cross cutting make the 1922 film still one of the scariest movies of all-time.

German Expressionism’s influence still lives on today, but it is these early films that established a new mode of cinema. They are strong testaments to a motion picture industry that valued the image beyond all else and modern horror owes a tremendous debt to the work of Weine, Murnau and their brethren.

Horror Movie Classics: Halloween

Most horror films today are terrible and contrite, boiling down to just basic jump scares or excessive gore to excite their audience. It’s a shame really because good scary movies can really shine a light on the human condition, revealing our greatest fears and desires, showing us the darker side of nature that many of us keep hidden. By acknowledging this dark side and examining it, horror films can do so much more than just scare; they can make us feel.

So in looking at the best of the best of horror, it’s natural to look at the films that have defined the genre. And no film may have changed the genre more than John Carpenter’s Halloween.

The plot of Halloween is simple: A crazed killer escapes from a mental institution to terrorize a suburban town on Halloween night, the same night he murdered his sister years ago. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it has been done to death since Carpenter’s film was released, a testament to the influence of his work.

The killer, Michael Myers, is not some raving lunatic. He never says a word. The only thing you ever hear from him are his low, shallow breaths. He is often referred to as the boogeyman by the children in the film. He practically ceases to be a man and instead becomes a malevolent force, something that can not be killed, but lurks everywhere, behind bushes, in your garage, in the bedroom where you think you are most safe. In many ways, he is a metaphor for death, always lurking, waiting, omnipresent. The camera tracks him through both his point of view and through the other characters, often with the use of steadicam, bringing us right into the action.

Jamie Lee Curtis as the young Laurie plays the role with poise and innocence. The effect of a masked figure hunting such a girl is the ultimate nightmare, the outside world crashing in on youth and innocence. Laurie’s journey of going from naive girl to heroine is illustrative of the growth of adolescence and understanding the apparent senselessness of death, something that can take you at any time. You can also make the case that Michael represents the male hierarchy intruding into feminine virtue or that the act of trying to murder Laurie is akin to an act of rape or that it is simply a struggle of good and evil; one is good, pure and innocent, and one is evil, malicious and tarnished. There are many interpretations of what each represents since the forces Carpenter is dealing with are so elemental.

And then there’s the score. If you were to watch the film without that trademark score, it’s a pretty dismal affair, but there’s something about the simple repetition and the eerie piano music that crawls under your skin and won’t let go. The score becomes a representation of Michael in the film, his own voice since he himself doesn’t speak. It is almost an entry into his psychosis, his insatiable desire for murder driving him continuously.

No greater compliment can be given to any film than the act of duplication and Halloween may be the most imitated film of all time. The lone female survivor followed by a senseless killer, the act of sex an harbinger of death, a psychopath who simply commits foul acts for the fun of it, suburbia being the center of evil: all were started at least in some part by Halloween and its success. The formula has gotten stale recently simply because it has been done so frequently, but that should in no way detract from the glory of the original slasher film.

At the end of Halloween, the killer is seemingly dead and all is right with the world. Except nothing is right. Our world of innocence and high school frivolity has been crushed, our friends are dead and our sense of safety and place in the world has been turned upside down. Michael Myers was more a force that could not be reasoned with than a man, and we are left to pick up the pieces of our lives. Except we learn that Michael Myers is not dead. His body is gone, the bullets meant to kill him obviously ineffective against such an evil being. We are left with random images of the places we have been throughout the film, knowing he could be anywhere now, always hearing the huff of Myers’ breath, omnipresent, the score building to a crescendo towards the inevitability of death.

What modern filmmakers forget as they copy Halloween‘s tropes is that the film is not just a slasher film (only five people die throughout the course of the film plus a dog), it is also an examination of death and innocence. Modern horror movies are so caught up in the thrill and the gore that they forget what is really at the heart of a good horror story, the thing that sticks with viewers; our fear of death and how it is always there.

Horror Movie Classics: The Exorcist

There can only be one movie to claim the title of scariest film ever made. And it was made over forty years ago. Despite great enhancements in the fields of digital effects, millions more spent on production budgets and an audience more hungry for scares than ever before, no movie has ever topped the near universal claim that “The Exorcist” is the ultimate horror film of all-time. And it is unlikely that any film ever will.

Regan (Linda Blair) is a normal 12-year-old girl living in Washington, D.C. with her actress mother, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn). She starts to act strangely, just in little ways at first (being rude, peeing on the carpet in front of guests), but then things escalate. Soon, she is performing supernatural acts of crab walking down stairs, tilting her head 360 degrees and moving furniture and other objects with her mind. No one is able to help Chris in the scientific community, and she is forced to turn to two priests, Father Karras (Jason Miller), who has lost his faith after the death of his mother, and Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), who has dealt with demons before. Together, they learn that an evil spirit has possessed Regan’s body.

In many ways, director William Friedkin set out not to make a horror film with Paul Blatty’s book. He rejects so many of the horror film tropes, and the film is shot is a dramatic, glossy style. The story is told with compassion, not looking to emphasize scares, but to convincingly and realistically tell the story of a poor girl possessed by the devil. Its attention to solid characters, believability and storytelling technique set it apart from its brethren.

There is a lingering sense of dread as the characters discover the nature of the malevolent spirit inhabiting Regan’s body and the futility of their efforts. As Regan grows worse and worse, that sense of growing dread creates more of a lasting terror than any jump scare.

In addition, Regan, Chris and Fathers Karras and Merrin are not simply there to be killed off, but are actual characters we can relate to. They have emotions and conflicts and seem like real people and through that, we have an empathy with them. We care about them, and that brings the terror of the situation closer because we become part of the film.

And the movie, though dealing with supernatural forces, does not for one moment refrain from treating its subject seriously. There is never a wink or a nudge to the audience about the corniness of demonic possession. The effects are done in ways that still send shivers down the spine because they seem so real. It keeps the film far more grounded than perhaps any horror movie before or since and adds to the terror of the experience.

What truly makes “The Exorcist” so memorable though is the central conflict of the film, the battle over an innocent girl’s life. The struggle between good and evil does not need to take place over a large battlefield or in the stars, but can happen in a location as small as a young girl’s bedroom. Karras and Merrin are clearly in over their heads against the demon, but they try to save her anyway, out of necessity, out of love and out of faith. The courage of the two men against the ultimate evil that has terrified the audience up to the conclusion elevates the film into the realm of the mythic. It sticks with us in a way few films ever do, showing us the possibilities of our courage and the carnage of our ultimate fears. In short, it deserves the title of scariest film ever made.

‘The Babadook’ a smart horror movie

Horror movies are very seldom smart anymore. The classics are always about something other than just the scary monster (“Night of the Living Dead” is about inherent racism. “The Exorcist” is a restoration in the faith of divinity. “The Silence of the Lambs” is a dissertation on male voyeurism.) So it is that “The Babadook” is not really about a horrible demon that stalks you in the night. It is about depression and overcoming personal loss.

Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, “The Babadook” is the story of Amelia (Essie Davis), a single mother living with her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Amelia’s husband died in a car accident while she was in labor, and she has never been able to forgive Samuel. The boy acts out, continually talking to and warning of a creature in a children’s pop up book, the babadook. Flustered with his behavior, Amelia destroys the book only to have it return with more gruesome images later on, warning her that she will be the one to murder her son.

In the dead of night, Amelia feels something moving about in the darkness, giving her insomnia, pushing her closer and closer to the edge. She dreams of murdering Samuel and sees a horrible black figure in a top hat with long outstretched fingers reaching for her. Could the babadook be real? Is it a part of her?

The babadook in the film is a representation of all the anger and despair that Amelia has built up over her life. It is the possibility that those emotions will turn her into a monster and only through love and forgiveness can the babadook of her soul stay docile. The film plays with whether or not the supernatural force is real or just a symbol of Amelia’s emotions, and the effect of not knowing makes the film all the more chilling.

Delivering both scares and emotion, the film lingers in the back of your mind long after viewing because it delves so deep into the human psychosis. It’s not just about monsters and shadows, it’s about pain and suffering. As Samuel reminds his mother, once the babadook is there, he never leaves.

 

‘Krampus’ silly fun

There’s a very thin line between scary and funny. Sometimes that line is blurred in movies, and you’re not sure if you should be laughing or screeching. So it is that “Krampus” (2015) is a movie that blends the pair with a holiday twist.

Handled with deft and also tongue-in-cheek, some will argue that the film can not make up its mind of whether to be funny or scary, but to those astute in the genre, it doesn’t matter. After all, this is a film about a malevolent demon who takes people to the underworld on Christmas by springing deranged and psychotic toys on them. You can not take this seriously.

Max (Emjay Anthony), suffering a horrific Christmas with awful family members, accidentally summons the demonic Krampus to his town during the middle of a blizzard. Taking his family members right and left, Max, his father Tom (Adam Scott), his mother Sarah (Toni Collette) and his grandmother Omi (Krista Stadler), must all come to terms with the force hunting them and what they need to do to survive.

The backstory to the demon is handled rather sloppily, and the characters are pretty much stereotypes, but the film is aimed at just being fun. It handles it’s premise well, keeping the film grounded just enough in realism for the humor of the plot to shine through. And the film should be commended for keeping CGI effects to a minimum, relying mostly on animatronics and makeup to create its hand-crafted ghouls.

Reminiscent of a modern day “Gremlins”, “Krampus” should not be taken too seriously as it is really just a Sci-Fi original movie with a beefed up budget, but it respects its audience enough to give them a worthwhile jolt.

(***/5)