Horror

Count Yorga, Vampire

"Its powers were many. It could see in the dark, which was no small ability in a world half-veiled from light."

"Its powers were many. It could see in the dark, which was no small ability in a world half-veiled from light."

Written and directed by Bob Kelljan. 1970.

Count Yorga, Vampire has all the hallmarks of an exploitation picture aping a Hammer film, but it never feels uninspired. What's more, it even has things to say about men, women, science, etc. None of what it says is particularly new or original, but there's an energy to the movie that suggests it wasn't just a copycat production, at least not for its writer-director. The standout character is Erica, played by Judy Lang, who balances the outlandish (eating a kitten) with the cool. (Lang's bio on IMDB is shockingly short.) The good folks at Twilight Time, that red-headed stepchild to Criterion, are doing their part.

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BEWARE THE SLENDER MAN

Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky. 2016

The final shot of Beware the Slenderman is haunting. It shows us a construction site in progress, two roads intersecting, a patch of cleared woods. It's as banal as images get. But it's the unseen--as in all great horror--that's truly terrifying. In this case, it's the erasure of a bloody deed, the active sanitizing of a terrible blight. Quite literally paving over it. The image taps our deepest well of fear, where all the bad things get tossed, deep and dark. From Edgar Allan Poe to David Lynch to Stephen King, this has been the great theme and subject of horror: walling up or burying the bad. Forcing forgetting.

It's particularly haunting here, in the context of this story, where the space between the real physical world and the twilight universe of the unreal is so razor thin--and is, in fact, key. The filmmakers often reflect on the emotional toll taken on the parents of the child-murdering kids at the center of this story, but always on the edges are the iPads, the cameras, the Internet, the manipulation of reality through lenses and screens and technology and, most importantly, imagination. There's some key balance in all of these things that lets a mother read It and understand it's fiction, a balance missing from her daughter and her daughter's friend. Missing from their emotional lives, their psychologies.  And its absence opens a kind of tear in that thin, crucial space, giving birth from a fictional, near-Lovecraftian universe to true and incomprehensible horror. A tear we're all too eager to patch with concrete and call the past.

The Neon Demon

Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. 2016.

I sometimes think of Nicolas Winding Refn and Lars Von Trier as two halves of the same coin. Both haunt the twenty-first century landscape of independent cinema. They make movies about esoteric ideas with heroes and heroines who are less than noble. They deal with women and sexuality and violence in an often exploitative fashion. But one has far more heart than the other, and an excess of heart tips the scales in Refn's favor. Von Trier often seems to abuse his heroines. Refn is sympathetic with them, no matter their flaws, right up until the end. The Neon Demon is an excellent vampire story, wholly original in the world it inhabits, and often quite unsettling. It gets under your skin, to borrow a phrase from the soundtrack of Drive.

Byzantium

Written by Moira Buffini. Directed by Neil Jordan. 2012.

I've never copped to being Neil Jordan's biggest fan. I've always disliked The Company of Wolves, despite my love for Angela Carter's source material. But the truth is Byzantium charms me. Sure, Jordan goes full-Jordan here and there, with waterfalls that gush blood on what I'm pretty sure is the same island where Luke Skywalker's currently residing in self-imposed exile (wouldn't that be fun, if Luke had entered the wrong hut and come out a vampire, thebig reveal of Episode VIII). Still: I kind of like Byzantium. It's funny. It's entertaining. I'm not sure it's ever really scary, and that's a definite criticism, especially when your movie is about vampires that don't sparkle. Ultimately, this may be my disconnect with all of Jordan: his vampire movies and his werewolf movies just aren't scary. Odd, weird. Chilly, even. But not scary. He's more enamored of the eroticism that runs through vampire lore, I think. Best of all, perhaps, the film delves into the silliness of men and their brotherhoods, but Gemma Arterton's bosom is always front and center, too -- the object of a decidedly male director's gaze. It's a muddled, flawed, well-acted, diverting affair.

A Font of Horror: Stranger Things

The type is called Benguiat. It's the font of my childhood, big and mysterious and curving in a way that suggests the edge of something sharp, something dangerous. Something we, as children, should not be handling. Viking used it, in part, to make Stephen King's name iconic on their covers, though most would agree (myself included) that King himself did the real carving out, cutting his name into our imaginations like a mad-skilled butcher -- but not with Benguiat, no; he did it with the dull, spoon-like edges of an Underwood's Courier-shaped keys. And in this way, the Duffer Brothers' Stranger Things affects us. It entices us with a font, makes us remember a very specific set of iconography, then draws us into something far deeper, far richer: a collective well of imagination.

The pitch is easy to imagine. It's Stephen King meets Steven Spielberg, the ultimate campaign: boys on bikes and a telekinetic girl battle monsters from another dimension. The execution, of course, could have been terrible. Nothing sits so uneasily as half-baked nostalgia that doesn't pay off. Super 8 is testimony enough to that. It tried. It wanted us to believe. It struck out in the last inning, gave us a monster that couldn't live up to its forebear in the great white shark from Jaws. The glorious thing about Stranger Things is that it seems to understand this danger throughout, and it negotiates the inherent pitfalls with wit, grace, and masterful storytelling. It's an eight-hour campaign that never flags, a novel that never disappoints; both keep you up late into the night. Catching references to Goonies, E.T.Alien, Aliens, The Thing, Stand by Me, Carrie, Cujo, It, Firestarter, The Stand, Silver BulletNightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Poltergeist, Rambo: First Blood Part II, The Breakfast ClubJaws, Gremlins, or even Tobe Hooper's re-make of Invaders from Mars is only half the fun. The rest is in how these things all seem at once familiar and new, like how old artifacts stuffed in boxes become treasured memories you'd forgotten.

It's the Upside-Down, as the Duffers call it: that place that's like our world but not, the Vale of Shadows -- the place we escape to, are dragged to, and, upon waking, hopefully return from. It's a post-modern technique that's less critique and more compliment, suggesting that modern American horror stems now from not only a shared or collective unconsciousness but a pop-cultural unconsciousness. It's a fantastic conceit, one I see bearing fruit in the works of a whole new slew of great horror writers, among them Joe Hill, Nick Cutter, Paul Tremblay, Christopher Buehlman, and Stephen Graham Jones. It's almost as if the Duffer Brothers have re-opened a mainstream gateway to horror, at a time when a few of us were already wandering into the woods again anyway -- in part, I imagine, because the evils of our present dimension have become so commonplace and frequent that we tend to overlook those monsters that have always lurked in the periphery. No Eater of Worlds likes to go unnoticed.

My favorite image in the series is a baby's crib topped off by a mobile of clowns. It's a visual metaphor for so much in the series and in the genre. It suggests that horror is the stuff of childhood dreams from the very beginning, that we're shaped by it almost immediately after exiting the womb, whether we want to be or not. It's always present. It suggests that adults are oblivious to the monstrous nature of what they impose on innocence. It suggests that terror hangs over us when we're least expecting, least equipped. And, of course, in a very literal way, I guess, it (or It) suggests that, well, clowns float.

And we all know how that one goes, don't we. Say it with me, friends: "We all float down here...."

When Animals Dream

Written by Rasmus Birch and Christoffer Boe and Jonas Alexander Arnby. Directed by Jonas Alexander Arnby. 2014.

When Animals Dream belongs to a recent class of monster movies that is itself a hybrid creature: the monster movie as art film. We have its like in Let the Right One In, Only Lovers Left Alive, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. What's common among these, aside from an aesthetic beauty that beggars belief, is the monster as protagonist: each is a werewolf or a vampire movie in which the werewolf or the vampire is the hero, not the villain. I like this, if only because it delves into mysteries of character and motivation that we've always been content to keep at arm's length in this genre in order to call the monsters scary. But part of living in a postmodern world, I think, is that we're mostly beyond fear of the other; nowadays, what we really fear--what represents everything wrong with the world--is the normative. Traditional family structures that require the maintenance of a facade. Small-town secrets that aren't really secrets save to those they're about.

Here, Marie's life is hard, bleak, and ultimately very typical of a girl her age; she doesn't seem to mind it, but she doesn't seem to enjoy it. It's mundane. Which makes her turn into monstrosity much more than a metaphor for sexual awakening, which is itself a kind of normal, boring thing--at least here, in this seaside village, where every wasted youth works through his urges in tedious nightclub grappling. Marie's evolution, it seems to me, is more about women who defy and transgress traditional beauty and thereby become beauty because of some inherent truth. Women who grow hair in unusual places. Women who bleed in public spaces. "You're beautiful," men keep telling Marie, and she is. In fact, the more monstrous she becomes, the more beautiful she becomes. Her turning is almost an ascension. And, of course, the more monster she becomes, the more she discovers that the true villains are the ones around her, the men and women who have worked so wretchedly to keep their normal, tidy world in peaceful slumber.

Big Bad Wolves

"This fairy tale was written by the Israeli police, based on true events. And like any fairy tale, ours also begins with a wolf. The wolf is you, by the way."

"This fairy tale was written by the Israeli police, based on true events. And like any fairy tale, ours also begins with a wolf. The wolf is you, by the way."

Written and directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado. 2013.

The scene: two men, Dror and Micki, imprisoned in a basement. Micki's a cop, Dror an accused pedophile. Their captor, Gidi, is a father. His daughter's corpse was found in the woods, missing a head. Gidi wants to know where Dror has buried the head. His plan: torture Dror by breaking his fingers and pulling out his toenails. Eventually, once he's learned what he wants to know, Gidi plans to cut Dror's head off with a rusty saw. Micki, the cop, is a tough guy with a conscience, and his conscience got in the way, so he's handcuffed to a pipe, helpless to watch as all manner of torture is wrought upon the shackled Dror. At one point, Gidi bakes a cake laced with sedatives and plans to feed Dror a slice, if only because this is one of the methods Dror has allegedly employed on his victims: he drugs them with sweets, violates them, tortures them, and decapitates them. "I put one candle," Gidi says, presenting the slice of cake to Dror, who is strapped to a chair, his fingers already broken by a hammer. "At our age, many candles would be impolite."

Did I mention this is a comedy?

Big Bad Wolves is a perfect concoction: part Tarantino and part Coens, part Grimm's and part Hitchcock. The music evokes Bernard Herrmann at every turn, and the premise, imagery, and violence are all firmly rooted in the juicy subtext of "Little Red Riding Hood" and, well, pretty much every fairy tale you've ever heard. And yet: at no point does the movie seem unoriginal. Israeli directing duo Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado (the first directors to make a horror film in Israel!) have written and directed a thrilling movie with a sense of humor a mile wide. They call it a revenge narrative, something to pay back the adults for telling them bedtime stories that were so horrific. It's evident, from the first shot, they know precisely the effect they intend with every scene.

There's a lyrical moment in the final act, when Micki escapes the basement, flees through the woods, and, after bursting out of the trees, encounters an Arab on horseback in the middle of the road, lit in a circle of orange lamplight. Micki throws his hands up, and the shot's constructed so that we don't immediately see the threat. The tension deflates when, surprise, there is no threat: the Arab isn't armed; he's just a guy on horseback. Micki asks to borrow his phone. The Arab hands over his iPhone 4S, exasperated by the assumption he is dangerous. "You know how it is," Micki apologizes with a shrug. The two men agree: they get it. It's how fear works.

Very much, this is a horror film, and it's rooted in an age-old tradition that surprises, delights, and terrifies. As children, we fear the big bad wolves. What the fairy tales never tell us is how we grow up to be them.

Movie Review: Carnival of Souls

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Written by John Clifford. Directed by Herk Harvey. 1962.

The highest compliment I can pay Carnival of Souls is to give it three bananas, that rating reserved for, alternately, the average and the B-picture. Souls is hardly average, but it is the latter, and it revels in its B-ness, so much so that giving it four bananas -- my impulse -- would be a kind of betrayal. But it's startling in its creepiness, in its sexless heroine, in its oftentimes Felliniesque evocation of place and people. Great locations may be all you need for an excuse to tell a story, and Carnival of Souls is nothing if not an ode to such striking, scary places.

"It's funny. The world is so different in the daylight. In the dark, your fantasies get so out of hand. But in the daylight everything falls back into place again." -- Mary Henry

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Inland Empire

"From Hollywood, California -- where stars make dreams, and dreams make stars."

"From Hollywood, California -- where stars make dreams, and dreams make stars."

Written and directed by David Lynch. 2006.

So much of the early dialogue in Inland Empire is near inaudible -- and for good reason. It isn't really necessary. For a time, words are secondary to image. This becomes less the case in the second half, as nightmarish faces and ghost-like spaces are intercut with Laura Dern's violent (and quite funny) monologues -- neat vignettes offering glimpses of character in the dark.

But words, we understand from the beginning, are not the point. Everything Lynch has ever had to say about women in trouble (the film's nifty catch-all phrase), creepy bedrooms, whores, and Hollywood is here. He's said it all before and, yes, to greater, tidier effect. But to presume he's commentating on these things is to miss the intent of Inland Empire. Lynch's subconscious is on display here, the great dark region of his mind that doesn't plot but gives birth. It's appropriate that so many of Dern's close-ups share similar composition to Lynch's photographs: the movie is more an art show occupying many galleries than it is a narrative.

I've decided what makes David Lynch a great filmmaker is his defiance of any standard other than his own. There's not a rule of cinema you can hold him to or expect him to obey. And so we're tempted to measure each new film by comparison to his others. The end credits make it plain that Lynch is aware how redundant some might see this film, how self-indulgent it might seem. But a lumberjack sawing away at a bit of wood is the nod and the wink required, I think, the compact between Lynch and viewer: now you come to this only because it is a David Lynch film, and your expectations are both fulfilled and defied.

And it's fortunate, as Lynch has said, to be an adult and still be doing what you want to do.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

"That's okay. I was having a bad dream anyway."

"That's okay. I was having a bad dream anyway."

Written by Robert Engels and David Lynch. Directed by David Lynch. 1992.

Good Coop ushers Laura into the light, but he's not the Angel. Or is he? In part, maddening, how the movie resolves an incidental thing or two and, for the most part, merely fills in a few factual and emotional gaps we don't really need filled in. In the beginning, Fire Walk With Me strikes the same beats as the series: humor, oddity, mystery. But when Laura Palmer shows up, it gets dark. Much to the dismay of the cast who got cut, if you watch the documentary on the DVD. Everett "Big Ed" McGill in particular seems affected. But really: this is Laura's story, always has been. You don't need Lara Flynn Boyle to make that work. Or Audrey Horne, I'm sorry to say. These poor girls are food for monsters.