Unsolicited Thoughts on Recent Horrors

“Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened!” Florence Pugh as Dani in Midsommar. (Source)

I finally saw Midsommar.

Let me begin with the good. I liked it a lot more than Ari Aster’s first offering, Hereditary. The bright Scandinavian aesthetics and Pawel Pogorzelski‘s enchanting cinematography lent the film an undeniable visual appeal. The acting was also to be commended. Florence Pugh’s performance is a masterclass in theatrical distress.

That being said, the film was on the whole, yet another disappointment from Ari Aster. I cannot say the same about Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, which I saw with friends last week.

I think I can fairly compare these two horror directors working under the aegis of A24. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Eggers is better in every way that counts. Both have now produced folk horrors centered on the trauma of young women in claustrophobic wilderness. The Witch is more inventive, precisely because it is more traditional, than Midsommar. Or rather, it did what few films are willing to do in its approach to the past; take it on its own terms. Its originality lies in large part due to its embrace of the Puritan myths without judgment, and exposing the horrors we thought we left behind in the seventeenth century. Admittedly, Midsommar doesn’t have the burden (or the gift?) of history to work with. But one can’t help but feel that what we find here is just The Wicker Man gutted of its moral core and set slightly farther north. In fact, the ending is probably a double homage to both Wicker Man films.

Nicolas Cage in a bear skin suit. The Wicker Man (2006) – (Source)

While Midsommar is an improvement over the rather humdrum (if at times shocking and, admittedly, very well researched) Hereditary, it doesn’t push the boundaries of cinema in the way that The Lighthouse does. In The Lighthouse, we discover a radically different kind of film. Its irregular aspect ratio, its black-and-white cinematography, its baroquely salty dialect – these bewildering distinctions from the run-of-the-mill horror flick work together to construct a vision of a world totally unlike our own. And yet, The Lighthouse manages to provide a series of sights, sounds, and even smells so visceral that one feels entirely immersed in this other world.

Midsommar fails to do that. For all its blood-and-guts moments, for all its eros and trauma, one comes away from the experience feeling strangely detached. I couldn’t manage to care too much about what happens to these characters, some of whom are intensely annoying. Not so in The Lighthouse. One cares very, very deeply – or more correctly, you feel the confusion and desperation of the situation in your gut. You are on that island. It is happening to you.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment of Midsommar was its rather predictable plot twists (if I can even call them that). Anyone familiar with the genre will be able to see exactly what is coming, even if they can’t imagine all the precise details. Not so in The Lighthouse. While one can establish a direction of travel – particularly in the film’s first half – after a certain point, you become as disoriented as the film’s unhappy protagonists. Like its great antecedent, Moby Dick, The Lighthouse is full of strange allusions, haunting images, and intensely visceral shocks. It’s a tight, dark, and disturbing maze.

Beyond that, I have a complaint that is, perhaps, too subjective to warrant much value criticism. Midsommar failed to scare me. Not many horrors do, I have to confess. I liked Possum, even though it was more unnerving than actually scary. Two of my favorite horror films, The Shining and the original Wicker Man, don’t actually frighten me. Nor does The Witch. In their cases, I can overlook the lack of fear because of the strength of these movies has as a film. Midsommar wasn’t strong enough for me to forgive the lack of fear.

The Lighthouse however, climaxed with one of the most genuinely frightening scenes I have seen in any film for a very long time. Without saying too much, I will refer my readers to my essay on eldritch horror in the New England literary tradition. Eggers knows that tradition very, very well. The Lighthouse, like The Witch before it, is a superlative contribution to New England’s peculiar darkness. His final, terrifying scene in The Lighthouse is an echo of Pip’s experience in Chapter XCIII of Moby Dick. Eggers, and of many a chapter in Lovecraft.

Powerhouse performances, top-notch writing, historical faithfulness, invocation of the New England horror tradition, black humor, innovative cinematography, and genuine scares make The Lighthouse the best and most beautiful horror film of the year. (Source)

I’m a sucker for folk horror, as my readers may well recall. Midsommar does deserve a place in the folk horror canon. But The Witch and The Lighthouse are higher on that grisly totem pole. They are also better works of art.

My First Year at Grad School in Twelve Musical Selections

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A still from Farinelli. This was the year I both became an 18th century scholar and discovered Castrato arias. (Source)

12. “Somebody That I Used to Know” only Vaporwave.

11. “Sumer is Icumen In,” from The Wicker Man (1973).

10. “Demons,” by Alex and “Sleep Games,” by Pye Corner Audio.

9. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake theme.

8. Psalm 129 from King’s College Choir, Cambridge.

7. The soundtrack from Le Roi Danse.

6. “Never Enough” from The Greatest Showman.

5. “Pur Ti Miro,” by Monteverdi.

4. The Little Match Girl Passion, by David Lang

3. The Farinelli soundtrack.

2. Michael Nyman’s “The Garden is Becoming a Robe Room,” “Prospero’s Magic,” and “Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds.”

1. Various Arias from Handel, especially Rinaldo‘s “Il Vostro Maggio” and “Lascia Ch’io Piangia” as well as most of “Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne.”

 

My Favorite Scary Movies

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What’ll ya have? (Source)

It’s nearly the Eve of All Hallows, and that means it’s time for some spooky stuff. I thought I’d offer up my top 10 favorite horror films for your viewing enjoyment.

I’ll begin with a few honorable mentions, including horror comedies. In no particular order: Sweeney Todd (2007), Halloween (1978), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), The Exorcist (1973), Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), What We Do in the Shadows (2014), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Young Frankenstein (1974), The Others (2001), and Shaun of the Dead (2004). All of these are pretty good films on their own terms, and you should watch them. But for the following list, I wanted to highlight a few I though were especially worth re-viewing this Halloween.

I generally dislike slashers and body horrors, so you won’t see any of the Saw, Grudge, Hostel, Alien, or Ring series here. My tastes run towards the Gothic, psychological, occult, Lovecraftian, and atmospheric. My list reflects that tendency. I don’t claim it will satisfy everyone. Finally, while I have generally tried to avoid SPOILERS, I think I may have left one or two. So abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

10. Jack Frost (1997)

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When he kills this guy, he says, “I only axed ya for a smoke.” And chuckles. Really. (Source)

Admittedly, this is a very bad film. It holds a whopping 7% on Rotten Tomatoes, and I’ve never been able to get through the whole thing myself. But what I have seen makes me esteem Jack Frost as one of the corniest and campiest of horror B-movies. And I adore B-movies, so this one’s gonna stand in for all the crap I could have chosen instead.

The plot is pretty straightforward. A psychopathic serial killer is being transported to death row when his car gets in an accident with a massive container truck full of a biological reagent. He is burned by the acid and seemingly melts away. However, his DNA fuses with the snow and takes on a new form as a Killer Mutant Snowman, hell-bent on terrorizing the community that sentenced him. Hilarity ensues. Complete with over-the-top gore, the very cheapest of special effects, completely maladroit music, a ridiculous sex scene, some of the worst acting you will ever watch, and dad-level one-liners (no, but really), this Christmas-themed whopper of a flop will liven up your Halloween.

9. Les Yeux Sans Visage (1960)

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Les Yeux Sans Visage – a classic of French horror, with profound Feminist undertones. (Source)

Now on to something actually creepy. This French horror film by Georges Franju is not overly scary, in the sense that it lacks jump scares or the typical fare of, say, slashers or sex-crazed body horrors. But it’s definitely worth seeing, as at times it actually becomes a poignant exploration of power and acceptance. Also, it inspired an eponymous song by Billy Idol.

A mad scientist and his cohort of minions murder young girls in Paris so that he can steal their faces – literally. His daughter Christiane suffers from a terrible facial disfigurement after a motorcycle accident for which he was responsible, and in his guilt, he promises he will graft a new face onto her. Every attempt is unsuccessful. Christiane wanders the halls in an eerie white mask, and we are treated to a gruesome, close-up view of a face transplant. Ultimately, the story examines how men use female bodies as canvasses to represent and expiate their own guilt, especially for violence they have committed against women. It also examines the complicity of other women – the mad doctor’s closest assistant is a lady whom he successful healed after her own scarring accident.

A sensitive, beautiful, and tragic tale with a few disturbing scenes. Worth your time.

8. Repulsion (1965)

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The famous hallway of hands sequence in Repulsion. (Source)

One of Roman Polanski’s early greats, Repulsion remains a standard of Psychological Thrillers. It features some of Polanski’s classic sequences and shots: the buskers, the hallway of hands, the decomposing rabbit. The film follows the mental breakdown of a young girl (played by a youthful Catherine Deneuve) on a weekend she spends alone in her apartment in Belgium. That may sound simple, but boy is there a lot going on. Sex, murder, insanity – not to mention painfully tight close-ups in an era when that was considered artistic. Repulsion is definitely one of the strangest and most harrowing films on this list.

7. Jaws (1975)

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Duh dum. Duh dum. (Source)

One of the greatest and most popular horror films ever made. Its instantly recognizable theme is one of the few horror scores to rise to the status of auditory icon. I would argue that it’s Steven Spielberg’s finest and scariest foray into the genre, much better than his trope-heavy Poltergeist (1982). The simplicity of Jaws is what makes it so effective as a nail-biter. There’s a murderous shark, and to hunt it, you have to become ever more isolated – and thus ever more vulnerable.

There are plenty of genuinely scary moments in the film, but I think one of the best is also one of the most understated: the tale of the USS Indianapolis. Here, too, the black magic is all in the simplicity. Quint tells a story. That’s it. But it’s one of the most disturbing stories ever told in a film (and what’s worse, it’s true). While all the cast give fantastic performances, Robert Shaw exceeds his peers by that one scene.

6. Psycho (1960)

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“We all go a little mad sometimes…” (Source)

I probably could have chosen several of Hitchcock’s films for this list. Some of his thrillers are remarkably good. Particular favorites include Strangers on a Train (1951), Vertigo (1958), and Rope (1948). But as far as frights go, nothing in the prolific director’s oeuvre surpasses his horrific masterpiece, Psycho. Long before M. Nigh Shyamalan attempted (and subsequently wrecked) the art of the twist ending, Psycho showed generations of directors how it was done. Ans like Jaws, Psycho gave us an iconic score, forever associated with an iconic scene.

Psycho was among the first real horror films I saw, one Halloween night many years ago. I’ve loved it ever since.

5. Eraserhead (1977)

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The woeful Henry Spencer in David Lynch’s first movie, Eraserhead (Source).

David Lynch is one of my favorite directors (I sometimes joke that Twin Peaks is my “second religion”). His first film, Eraserhead, has an affinity with the New Wave horror of Polanski et al. As in Repulsion, we are constantly made to feel the limits of the space the characters inhabit. But Claustrophobia is only one of the fears that Lynch explores. Eraserhead is a great meditation on the terrors that attend some of the most common experiences of life: work, sex, marriage, fatherhood. Jack Nance’s performance as Henry Spencer is riveting as it is tense, and the eerie Lady in the Radiator sequences foreshadow much of what Lynch would later use in his more famous works like Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive. The film also probably wins the award for creepiest baby in cinematic history; even today, Lynch won’t reveal how they made it. If you like surrealism, body horror, or pencils, I recommend this classic for your consideration.

4. The Innocents (1961)

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Deborah Kerr gives a masterful performance in this classic Gothic horror. (Source).

If you like your horror set in creepy old English manor homes, full of candlelight and the creak of ghosts on the stairs, then you’ll certainly love The Innocents. Based on Henry James’s classic novella, The Turn of the Screw, the film follows a governess, played by Deborah Kerr, who is sent to care for two orphans in the English countryside. As time passes, she starts to believe that the children are under the malign influence of ghosts. Is she insane? Or is she battling the forces of the supernatural?

While viewers still debate the meaning of the deeply ambivalent ending, one thing’s for certain; this film is a masterful example of mid-century Gothic horror. Not to be missed.

3. The Wicker Man (1973)

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Traditional British Values. (Source)

The Wicker Man, strictly speaking, really isn’t all that scary. But it is a very good story all the same, and Christopher Lee puts in a marvelous performance as Lord Summerisle. If you like folk-horror, a subgenre the English do better than anyone, you’ll enjoy this creepy little romp through a murderous, pagan island in Scotland. Arthur Machen would have loved it.

I find it somewhat amusing that Lee, a devout Anglo-Catholic, thought that the film was ultimately a Christian one in suggesting that even nice people can commit horrible acts if they are not within the fold of the Church. Maybe. But what a poor argument for Christianity it is! The protagonist is such an unlikable and censorious prude, and the villagers are such fun-loving heathens, that you end up not caring too much about the Christian policeman’s fate in the final showdown. Alas. I suppose I’m biased, though, as I’ve long thought that Catholics are just baptized pagans anyway. Incidentally, I think the community of Summerisle gives a pretty good picture of what the Benedict Option might look like in practice.

Don’t confuse this classic with the highly memeable 2006 sequel starring the one and only Nicolas Cage. There are creepy masks, but no full-on bear suits in Christopher Lee’s version. And definitely no bees.

2. The Shining (1980)

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“Come play with us, Danny.” (Source)

Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece. Considered in purely artistic terms, there are no better films on this list. It shows what kind of art can happen when a genius director works with a genius actor (Jack Nicholson in one of the best performances of his career). More to our point – the frights are just as potent today as they were in 1980. Unlike a number of other works from the same decade, The Shining has retained its creepiness. It terrified and disturbed me the first time I saw it, and while I mainly pay attention to its formal and aesthetic qualities now, I still jump now and then when I watch it. I will never not find that man in the dog/bear suit (you know the one) absolutely terrifying, and I will never not relish the conversations with Lloyd and Grady with a certain perverse glee.

I could probably go on and on about how great this film is. But why bother? Just watch it yourself. You won’t be disappointed.

1. The VVitch

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“What went we out into these woods to find?” (Source)

Horror has gotten much better lately, with genuinely artistic offerings from bold new directors. The Babadook (2014), Goodnight Mommy (2014), It Follows (2014), The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015), The Eyes of My Mother (2016), It Comes at Night (2017), and Get Out (2017), among others, have all renewed the genre. But my favorite among the new horror is The Witch (2016). Genuinely creepy, trope-laden without being clichéd, atmospheric, Gothic, full of painstakingly reproduced sets and costumes from Puritan New England, and written entirely in 17th century English, The Witch represents an enthusiastic return to the old legends of Early Modern witchcraft. And it is beautifully shot. At times, it looks like the film that Goya would produce if he lived in our time. There is a black goat. It will change the way you look at the animals. In short, it is a cinematic triumph for A24, a studio that has proven itself to be one of the leaders of the new horror.

I love The Witch for all those reasons – but also because it presents a world in which Christianity is taken seriously. That rather startling quality has been in short supply among horror films since Terrence Fisher’s Hammer flicks of the 1960’s and 70’s. We see these characters as real, dignified people afflicted by indisputably real forces of the supernatural. In the world of The Witch, the Devil is real and so are his servants.

The film can also be read as a profound meditation on the doctrine of original sin. The ruin of the whole family follows from the pride of the father as we see it at the movie’s start. They are effectively damned as soon as they leave the village. There is perhaps some irony in the fact that the Church of Satan both endorsed and promoted the film. It is the only really Calvinist movie I’ve ever seen; no other has so deftly and deeply explored the Reformed idea of reprobation.

Halloween is naturally a time to seek out a good scare. If you’re looking to do that with a movie, I can think of no better option than The Witch. But you’ll get more than that. The Witch immerses us in a world we can hardly fathom, a world where supernatural evil lurks just behind the treeline and in the pale light of an attic. Dipping into that world can be salutary. After all, maybe it’s a good idea on the Eve of All Hallows – the night before the feasts of the Saints in Heaven and the Holy Souls in Purgatory – to spend some time first meditating on the damned.