Archive

cinema

Suspiria wasn’t quite my first giallo film, even if purists would probably call it something more like giallo-adjacent. I had previously seen Phenomena (aka Creepers), but hadn’t really known how to understand it, let alone respond to it. So when I watched Suspiria for the first time–late at night, streaming it on my laptop, headphones clamped over my ears blasting that exquisite soundtrack–it was a revelation.

Throughout my life I have had many favorite movies, and I have had a handful of movies that were something other than favorites. Films that changed the way I watched, thought about, and consumed movies. They aren’t always the ones I love the most, but they hold a special place because of the impact they had on me, on my life, my imagination, and my work. Suspiria was one of those.

It’s easy to say that, well, of course it was, Suspiria is a classic. But I don’t think that it necessarily has as much to do with the quality of the film as the moment when you see it. If I had seen Suspiria a few years earlier–say, when I first saw Phenomena–would it have hit me in the same way? I honestly don’t know.

Thanks to Suspiria, I have become a giallo fan. Or, at least, a fan of those gialli I have seen, mostly the work of Argento and Mario Bava. I wrote a story for Giallo Fantastique which I’m pretty proud of, and I think my affection for the genre has infiltrated much of my work in subtle ways.

Here’s the thing, though. When people talk about gialli, they always talk about the death scenes. After all, giallo films are the precursors of modern slashers or “body count movies,” and for many genre enthusiasts, it’s all about waiting for the next kill. And certainly the kills in giallo films are justly notorious. There are only a handful of deaths in Suspiria, but all of them are one kind of excruciating or another. Probably my favorite “straight” giallo, Bava’s Blood and Black Lace has a higher body count and is also full of cringe-inducing deaths. But for me, the kill shots aren’t what endear me to giallo. In fact, they’re more often a bug than a feature, a speed bump I have to get over in order to resume my enjoyment of what I signed up for.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not so highbrow that I can’t enjoy a good death scene, even an occasionally excruciating one. I’ve seen all the Final Destination movies, and if there is a franchise that is defined by just hanging around waiting for people to die in grotesque and unlikely ways, it’s that one.

And it’s not as if the deaths in giallo films don’t sometimes stick in my brain. I may not be able to run down the specifics, but I can clearly remember snapshots of the first murder in Suspiria, the piano wire scene, the hot stove in Blood and Black Lace, the bathtub in Deep Red, etc. Maybe it’s that I find the death scenes in giallo films too unpleasant to really enjoy, and that’s not even going into the implied (or not-so-implied) misogyny or other problematic elements. But I don’t think even that’s it. I just think those are the parts of giallo that draw me in the least, not because of anything that’s wrong with them, but because of what’s so right about what’s going on around them.

I come to gialli for the visuals, the colors, the music, the cinematography, and above all the sense of weird menace that seems to pervade every frame of the best of the bunch, a surreal feeling of unease and disassociation that not even the best genuinely supernatural horror movies tend to be able to match. When it works, there’s a magic there that I have rarely found in any other subgenre. It’s what draws me back, what I’m always looking for when I peer behind this particular curtain. What I try (and so far probably mostly fail) to infuse into my work, when I get the opportunity.

Thanks to Adam Roberts and the folks at the Screenland Armour, our awesome local movie theatre, I recently got to see what I am told was the second-ever screening of the new 4k remaster of Suspiria in America. I can’t honestly speak to how different it was from previous versions (besides redder) but I can say that, when that unmistakable theme first came up, I got those same goosebumps as the first time all over again.

Advertisements

Death Note

How do you make a movie that feels simultaneously boring and way too short? Ask Adam Wingard, I guess. Wingard’s name was what drew me to the Americanized Netflix original movie version of Death Note in the first place, having never read the manga or watched the anime or any of the various Japanese live action versions. Wingard had previously impressed with his 2011 film You’re Next and then even moreso with 2014’s The Guest, and while I wasn’t a big fan of his take on Blair Witch, I was willing to cut him enough slack to be curious about Death Note.

Honestly, in spite of my snarky opening up there, I’m really not sure how much of Death Note‘s failures lie at Wingard’s feet. This is a movie that feels, at every step, like it needs to have been a series, which, obviously, it already was, more than once. As a result, the film has the weird feeling of shortening or skipping over all the most interesting bits and short-changing most of the character building, giving it a sense of being at once thin and overstuffed.

Like a number of other recent movies, Death Note has been at the heart of a whitewashing controversy for importing the original characters from Japan to Seattle and making them American. I don’t feel like I’m the right person to ask about the whitewashing aspect of the film, but I do feel like Death Note made a fatal mistake by being an adaptation of the source material at all. The core concept of the series (as I understand it) seems like one that could be re-purposed into dozens of stories, so if you’re going to make an American version, do it as a sequel or spin-off of the original, rather than a retelling. Something that fits less awkwardly into an hour-and-forty-minute frame. (Not only would this have spared the film at least some of its whitewashing problems, it would also eliminate the need to buy that Shea Whigham’s character actually named his son “Light,” even with the flimsy “explanation” that his mom “was always kind of a hippie.”)

Of course, if the movie had a different story, it might also lose its greatest strength, which is Lakeith Stanfield as “L.” Having never read the manga or watched the anime, I don’t know what the character of “L” was like before, but Stanfield’s performance makes him far and away the best thing in the film, absolutely stealing the movie out from under everyone else. (I’d say something like “Lakeith Stanfield as Batman,” but, let’s be honest, his jittery, candy-guzzling “L” is already kinda better than Batman, isn’t he?)

The good news is, the Adam Wingard of You’re Next and The Guest seems to be at least somewhat back in Death Note, with its shots of “L” prowling through the halls of a nightclub or perching in every chair that he occupies. The visuals of Death Note stay fairly interesting even when the story flounders, though some shots, like an early image of spilled marbles rolling across the floor, needed to hold a little longer to really kick. (There’s a review of Death Note over at Birth. Movies. Death. that says most of what I would say about the film, while also being maybe a little more generous than I would be.)

Ultimately, I can’t speak to how Death Note holds up if you’re a fan of the anime/manga/whatever, though most fans I know have so far been disappointed. I can say that probably the highest praise I can muster for this Netflix original (besides that it really needs to cement Lakeith Stanfield as a star), is that it made me want to track down the other versions. So I guess that’s something.

Let’s see if we can’t torpedo any remaining credibility I may have as a consumer of horror media, shall we? Recently, I’ve been watching the two seasons of R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour that are on Netflix. Initially, I was doing this because each episode was a standalone story that was only about 20 minutes long, which fit nicely with my “watch something while I eat lunch” approach to consuming media lately. However, once I got started, it didn’t take me long to continue watching because, frankly, The Haunting Hour is actually pretty damn good.

Because I was initially just watching out of convenience, I started picking out episodes with appealing-sounding synopses, not necessarily planning to ever watch the entire thing, so I ended up watching the two seasons completely out of order. Even so, while there were better and worse episodes, there were very few that I genuinely didn’t like, which is more than I can say of a lot of anthology horror. (“Best Friend Forever” may have been the worst of the lot, but it was also probably the most overtly comedic and overall the more comedic episodes tended to fare less well than their more serious counterparts, though I was also still happy to have them, as they helped give the show variety.)

My favorite episode from the first two seasons was probably the season 2 Halloween episode “Pumpkinhead,” while “Mascot” has one of the most genuinely disturbing creatures I’ve ever seen on film. Speaking of creatures, the next time I see someone wondering where all the practical creature effects have gone in modern horror, I know what to tell them: Apparently, they all went to R.L. Stine TV shows. Seriously, while there are a few (sometimes dodgy) CGI ghost effects in The Haunting Hour, this show, like Spooksville, which I watched a year or two back, is lousy with practical makeup effects and rubber suit creatures.

While just about all of the stories are classic “campfire horror” fare, they vary somewhat in their ultimate execution. Some tales take a more lighthearted approach, with the “good guys” winning out. More often, however, things take a darker turn, sometimes in a moralistic way as unpleasant, selfish, or ill-behaved characters receive their (usually severe) comeuppance, while other times even our most “likable” and well-meaning protagonists still end up on the wrong end of whatever ghost, monster, or other weirdness is going on.  (The apocalyptic “Scarecrow” is a good example of how nihilistic the show is capable of getting without any real bloodshed.)

There are also plenty of familiar plots, even when they’re not in the “be careful what you wish for” type vein. The season 2 episode “Headshot” is basically a retelling of “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” while the season 1 episode “Afraid of Clowns” is reminiscent of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” But, y’know, with clowns. There are also odd cinematic coincidences. In the season 1 episode “The Dead Body,” Brendan Meyer plays a bullied kid who strikes up a relationship with a ghost that is a lot like his relationship with “David” in The Guest four years later, while “A Creature was Stirring” has a plot that heavily prefigures Michael Dougherty’s 2015 film Krampus, even while its titular creature is more obviously inspired by Gremlins.

Some other notable episodes include “Dreamcatcher,” “Flight,” and “Catching Cold,” to name a few. There are things wrong with The Haunting Hour, of course. It has some problems with representation, and, with a few exceptions, most of its tween protagonists live in suburban mansions by comparison to anyplace I ever lived. Meanwhile, an episode like “The Hole” actually ends up being chilling due to its implications of domestic abuse more than any supernatural goings-on. Ultimately, though, if you don’t mind stories aimed at younger viewers and a PG-level lack of gore (even while often reaching for some genuinely unsettling thematic conclusions), The Haunting Hour is a surprisingly robust bunch of campfire-style horror stories, broken up into easy-to-consume chunks. At least for the first two seasons…

 

Shin Godzilla

I’m big enough to admit when I’m wrong. I had been kind of reticent about watching Shin Godzilla because I wasn’t expecting to like it much. I thought I was going to be getting another “dark and gritty” take on something that, frankly, I didn’t need a dark and gritty take on, and while that isn’t exactly inaccurate, it also doesn’t do the film justice at all. As it turns out, Shin Godzilla isn’t just a great alternative take on Godzilla, it’s just great. Period. Full stop.

One of the things I was most concerned about going in was that I kind of hate the new Godzilla design. Don’t get me wrong, I love him when he’s a stupid, goggle-eyed lungfish dragging himself around and coughing radioactive blood out of his gills all over the place. But the actual “final” Godzilla design doesn’t do it for me in still photos, or in action figures, or anyplace else I had seen it before finally sitting down to watch the movie. And, admittedly, there are problems with the suit’s execution, maybe most notably that it is remarkably immobile, to the point where Godzilla may as well be a giant sculpture being dragged through the city on a track for long stretches. In the course of the film, though, even when he isn’t moving much–and, it must be noted, this iteration of Godzilla does just up and literally shut down for long stretches of the movie for plot reasons, standing in the middle of the ruins of Tokyo and not doing anything–this new Godzilla design works.

Part of why it works is because this Godzilla is something very different than previous iterations. Not only is Godzilla scary for probably the first time since 1954, but this Godzilla is constantly mutating, changing from that dumb lungfish version (which, do I need to reiterate, I absolutely love) through a couple of metamorphoses before we reach the “final” form. (And the movie teases us with the possibility of other, further mutations that we never actually get to see.) As a sort of living nuclear reactor that is in a constant state of biological flux, this new Godzilla no longer seems like just a way to make one of our most classic monsters “more extreme” as envisioned by a 90s comic book artist, but instead seems like a coherent design decision. (They even address his ridiculous jagged teeth.)

And while Godzilla’s rampage lacks the immediacy of the 1954 original’s image of Tokyo as a “sea of flames,” there’s no denying its impact, especially in the sequence when Godzilla unleashes his most destructive power. Nor has there probably ever been another disaster movie–kaiju or otherwise–that showcased such an absurdly realistic take on this kind of devastation. In this case, however, “realism” does not mean a lot of shots of filthy, bloody people suffering. It means a lot of shots of people sitting around in conference rooms and talking on phones.

And that is where Shin Godzilla‘s greatest strength comes to bear. As an attempt at taking Godzilla seriously, it works remarkably well. As an attempt to make Godzilla scary again it works perhaps even better. But it works best as a black comic satire of bureaucracy. The 2014 American Godzilla remake took a lot of (deserved) flak for sidelining Godzilla, or shrouding his skirmishes in smoke and debris, or burying them on the screens of televisions in the background. But the real crime in Godzilla (2014) wasn’t “not enough Godzilla,” it was “too many boring people.”

Shin Godzilla seems to take that challenge and extend it to the next level. It’s a film that is perhaps best summarized by a montage sequence in which intense rock music plays over shots of people talking on phones. The reaction to Godzilla’s abrupt arrival on the scene is mired in red tape and internecine conflicts. One of the funniest parts of Shin Godzilla isn’t even anything that would normally be considered a joke. Instead, it’s that literally every time anyone speaks or we are shown anything, there are subtitles on the screen identifying who or what it is in weirdly minute detail. So many, in fact, that it often becomes nearly impossible to read all the words that are being hurled at you. It’s both a play on the form of the modern disaster movie, and an effective way to drop the viewer into the bureaucratic quagmire of the film.

Helping everything along is great music–often repurposing the classic score of the original film–and the fact that, aside from some dodgy CGI and the aforementioned weirdly immobile suit, Shin Godzilla looks great. It utilizes a lot of found footage elements, especially early on, but it is also full of lingering, pulled back shots of everything from crowded conference rooms to empty streets to rain-soaked railroad tracks to a bowl of ramen. It’s a beautiful movie, and a potent one, and a surprisingly funny one, if not often in a laugh-out-loud sort of way. And while the characters are constantly bogged down in quotidian tasks, everything is shot and edited with a faux-documentarian flair that never makes any of it feel boring.

Would I want every Godzilla movie to be like this? No, not at all. This feels like one-of-a-kind, and I think it is probably the better for it. But judged on its own merits, I can say without a doubt that I was wrong about Shin Godzilla. It’s a hell of a thing.

Godzilla

Artwork by Sophie Campbell.

Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the new Mummy yet. I’ll probably do so this weekend, because I have free tickets, but I doubt I would pay money for it. Here’s why:

It isn’t because the movie looks bad (though it kind of does, and the reviews certainly haven’t been kind). I’ve said before that if the trailers were exactly the same but when the title came up it said Mission: Impossible 6 instead then it would look fine, and I stand by that. No, the problem isn’t that Mummy: Impossible is an inherently bad approach to take to a film, it’s that it’s an inherently bad angle for Universal to take to launch their “Dark Universe” shared monster franchise.

I was talking with some writing friends about the new Tom Cruise-starring Mummy movie on Facebook messenger a few days ago, and Jeremy Tolbert posited that if he were in charge, the story would focus on “a group of kids who had a disturbing encounter with a series of monsters [in 1989]. After that, they dedicated their lives to being prepared to deal with future threats.” Not only does that sound like a better setup, it actually underscores the real problem with the 2017 reboot of The Mummy, which isn’t the dodgy CGI, the (apparently) lifeless characterizations, or the fact that it looks to be a goofy action movie that is largely lacking any horror to speak of.

The problem is that Universal doesn’t seem to understand what the actual value of its monster franchise is. But Monster Squad did, even while, not being financed by Universal, Monster Squad had to change all of its creatures just enough to avoid getting slapped with a cease and desist. The thing is, Universal doesn’t own the idea of a mummy, it doesn’t own Frankenstein, it doesn’t own Dracula. Which means that the biggest problem with this new Mummy movie, before you even get to whether or not it is any good on its own merits, is that any studio could have made it. It could just as easily have a Sony or a WB logo in front of it as the old, familiar Universal globe. And there’s the rub.

The value in Universal’s monster universe isn’t the monsters themselves, because, with the exception of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, they’re all public domain. The value is in the aesthetics of those original movies. That’s what Monster Squad got and this new “Dark Universe” brand doesn’t. Without those original movies, you’re just making an action film with a mummy in it, and anyone can do that.

Even the Brendan Fraser Mummy from 1999 (which, I’ll admit, I love) knew that, and pulled plot elements, names, and the occasional bit of imagery from the older Universal Mummy sequels (mostly). Hell, even the largely terrible shitshow that was Van Helsing was closer to the mark than this looks to be. How, exactly, you tap into that reservoir of old film aesthetics is up for some debate, but that you have to in order to mine anything valuable out of the intellectual property that Universal still owns seems like a no-brainer.

Or they could always just have the monsters go up against the gang from the Fast & Furious movies, preferably while driving monster-themed funny cars. That’d work, too.

I recently got back from a trip to Atlanta for the first (annual?) Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird, where I was one of a handful of panelists who talked about “The Weird Monster.” While the panel (and, indeed, all of the Symposium) is intended to show up as a part of The Outer Dark podcast sooner or later, I wanted to share a few thoughts that came about independent from but related to the panel.

For one thing, the discussion of the subject among the panelists began (as such things so often do) at the bar the night before the Symposium actually started, and continued throughout the weekend, ranging far and wide. On the flight to Atlanta and back, I started reading John Langan’s The Fisherman, and had I finished it then, I could certainly have brought it up as a modern novel that tackles the “weird monster.” (Not to mention a great contemporary example of the “weird novel,” which was the subject of another panel at the Symposium.)

As is often the case, however, while we talked about monsters in literature, many of our examples were drawn from movies. Because, while we have sometimes read the same books, we have almost all seen the same movies. Throughout the weekend, subjects returned with an almost uncanny regularity, including (probably because of the proximity of Alien: Covenenant) how angry we all still were at Ridley Scott’s Prometheus for being so unforgivably terrible (with the exception of a handful of dogged defenders).

One subject that came up a couple of times was Kong: Skull Island, which I had recently seen, and which we discussed, along with the whole backlog of Kong and Godzilla and other kaiju cinema through the lens of the weird monster. I’m not really here to regurgitate any of our theories on that, though no less a personage than Caitlin R. Kiernan has made a pretty good argument in the past for consideration of the original 1933 King Kong as a Lovecraftian tale.

One thing I didn’t get to talk much about, except with kaiju enthusiast and Symposium co-organizer Anya Martin on the car ride back to the airport, is a subject that I have been meaning to bring up in re: Skull Island, but that I wanted to wait until the movie had been in theatres for a few weeks so as to avoid spoilers. Still, fair warning, there will be a few in what follows, so heads up.

I liked Skull Island well enough (you can read my thoughts about it here), but one thing that really struck me about it is something that I haven’t seen anyone else talking about, though I’m sure they have. Kong: Skull Island was packed to the gills with monsters, and while those monsters may have varied somewhat in execution, I saw in most of them a sort of kinship with monsters from previous Kong and Godzilla movies. The big spider that shows up in Skull Island looks an awful lot like Godzilla’s sometime-nemesis Kumonga, while the scene of Kong fighting the squids or octopi could easily be a nod to the scene when Kong fights the giant octopus in King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Those are pretty minor, though. More significant are the skull crawlers. These bipedal lizard-like creatures are the main antagonists of Skull Island, the subterranean horrors that Kong’s presence helps protect the rest of the island from. Their design has received both praise and derision, depending on the person, but virtually everyone I’ve seen talk about them has discussed them as though they are a wholly new addition to the giant monster canon, but for me, at a glance, I saw something else entirely.

As anyone who is reading this probably knows, the first cut of the original 1933 King Kong contained a famous (and famously lost) sequence in which the protagonists fall into a “spider pit” and are attacked by all sorts of weird creatures. Over the years, a couple of shots that are supposedly from this sequence have surfaced, but the sequence itself remains one of the most famous pieces of lost film in history. When Peter Jackson remade King Kong in 2005, he not only added the “spider pit” sequence back into his narrative, he also “restored” a version of it using stop-motion animation and incorporating footage from the original film. (You can watch that here.)

Apart from Peter Jackson’s recreation, the closest we’re ever likely to come to actually seeing the original “spider pit” sequence from Kong is a cave sequence in the 1957 film The Black Scorpion, for which Willis O’Brien did the special effects. (You can watch a portion of that here.) According to rumor, the models used for the cave sequence in The Black Scorpion were repurposed models from the original “spider pit” sequence.

Dore Spider PitLike all of the original King Kong, the “spider pit” sequence was heavily influenced by the artwork of Gustave Dore. You can see some obvious “spider pit” seeds in a couple of Dore’s illustrations for Don Quixote and Orlando Furioso in particular. (There’s an entire thread devoted to Dore’s influence on the “spider pit” sequence that you can read here.) In Dore’s illustrations and Jackson’s recreation of the “spider pit” sequence, you’ll find odd lizard-like creatures that have only front legs, which transmutes, in The Black Scorpion, to a sort of giant worm with bifurcated tentacles mounted near its head. These bipedal lizards are, I would argue, at least potentially, perhaps subconsciously on the part of the monster designers, the ancestors of the skull crawlers from Kong: Skull Island.

This isn’t really an attempt at a defense of those critters. If they didn’t work for you on screen, chances are they still won’t, and I’ll be honest when I say that I’m not entirely sure how I feel about them, even now. (Their design seems at once boringly modern while at the same time oddly weirder than it needs to be; it took me a while to notice that they had eyes mounted behind the eye sockets of their skull-like heads.) But it was something that I noticed and (obviously) wanted to write like a thousand words about, so there you go.

[Edited: Thanks to Outer Dark host Scott Nicolay for reminding me that the weird bipedal lizard does, in fact, show up in the original King Kong, and that I hadn’t just hallucinated it there because I knew about all this other crap.]

IMG_20170310_145038_633No remake can ever live up to the original King Kong. Luckily for Skull Island, it’s smart enough not to try.

From its largely unnecessary opening sequence (because we’ll get it all exposited to us again later), Skull Island is a lot sillier than I was expecting from the trailers. Not just in a “giant monsters smashing each other” kind of way, either. In a “Tom Hiddleston slow-motion chopping up pterodactyls with a katana” way. Pretty much top to bottom, this takes place in what is fundamentally a comic book universe without superheroes. Which is fine for Kong, and especially fine given that this is basically the first step in creating a shared universe with Gareth Evans’ 2014 Godzilla, to be exploited first in Mike Dougherty’s forthcoming Godzilla: King of the Monsters and then later in a planned Godzilla vs Kong.

While Skull Island never even aspires to anything more substantive than what is essentially the pilot for a particularly brutal Saturday morning cartoon, it learned the lessons that Godzilla had to teach, even if it then goes on to make its own mistakes along the way. Where Godzilla didn’t spend enough time on the titular monster, Kong is all over this film, along with piles and piles of other monstrous denizens of the eponymous island. (Including the Best. Stick insect. Ever.) Your mileage on individual critters may vary, but at least there are lots of them, including a few nice visual nods to other giant monster movies that I may or may not have been reading too much into.

And while the human characters here may be just as thinly drawn as those in Godzilla, they replace any attempt at “normal folks” with a collection primarily composed of outsize archetypes, ready made for Saturday morning syndication. While most of the actors aren’t given a lot to do, John C. Reilly and Samuel L. Jackson steal the show, with the latter playing Ahab to Kong’s Moby Dick.

A quick skim across other reviews shows lots of people complaining about the screenplay, and while yeah, we could all have probably wished for something with a little more heft there, nobody really comes to a movie like this because of the screenplay, right? The biggest problem that Skull Island actually has is that the (frequent) monster battles too often feel like exactly what they are: nothing but a bunch of pixels. No matter how good they look, there’s a weightlessness, a lack of physicality, that keeps them from having the punch that you want from seeing Kong wrestling with a giant octopus or some weird, surprisingly gross skull-headed lizard monster.

Before I walked into the theatre, a friend basically texted me to say, “I hope it’s good!” And I replied back that I was pretty sure it would be what I wanted it to be; and it was. On the spectrum of modern giant monster movies, it’s situated firmly below Pacific Rim, which is certainly the contemporary benchmark, at least for me. But it’s also a big step up from my recollections of Godzilla, and a huge improvement on Peter Jackson’s 2005 attempt to remake Kong, if only because it never makes the mistake of trying to replicate the original’s success.

Instead, Skull Island is a fun, cartoonish movie with lots of giant monsters fighting one-another while humans played by good actors mostly narrate things that just happened. Chances are that’s all you’re going in for, which is good, because it’s all you’re gonna get. (There’s your pull quote, in case you need one.)