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.

Swamp Water

Written by Dudley Nichols. From Vereen Bell's novel.Directed by Jean Renoir.1941.

Jean Renoir's Swamp Water is a troublesome picture. On the one hand, it is, as The New York Times allows, Faulknerian in its scope and, despite its many off-set troubles, an intensely personal movie. On the other hand, it occasionally smacks of a certain attitude toward the backwoods southerner that falls just short of barefoot caricature. There are moments that astound--a live snake striking at Walter Brennan, a man screaming to his very last breath in a quicksand bog--and threads that confound, namely the use of "Red River Valley" as a theme song (no cowboys here by a mile) and the mythic status assigned to the swamp by the denizens along its borders. If a whole community of hunters and trappers were to spring up adjacent to a swamp, surely they'd venture into its wilderness and brave it, if only for profit? I like to imagine Dana Andrews seeing Waycross, Georgia, for the first time. It probably helped his scenes as Ben, staggering around in a lost and dangerous land.

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.

Midnight Special

"I saw the sunrise this morning. I think I know what I am now."

"I saw the sunrise this morning. I think I know what I am now."

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols. 2016.

Fellow Arkansan Jeff Nichols is emerging as one of the most original and talented voices working in movies today. I've seen three of his four films -- Take Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special (Shotgun Stories is still out there, waiting on me) -- and all three have featured a by-turns lyrical and spartan style, outstanding character work, and deftly structured plots. They're engaging and resonant. They dig deep, down to the roots. I imagine the pitch for Midnight Special had something to do with John Carpenter-meets-Steven Spielberg, with a little Kubrick on the side. But the story plays out in such an original fashion -- beginning in media res and following Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, and Jaeden Lieberher until their journey's end (and perhaps beyond) -- that I can't help feeling Nichols stands wholly apart from any other contemporaries. He's in a class of his own, a director to watch; he's building a stairway to greatness.

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.

The Shining: In Praise of Shelley Duvall

Post-Doctor Sleep, there was a great deal of talk in book presses and blogs about Stephen King's well known take on Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of The Shining. No secret by now that King has strong dislike for the film, mostly owing to Kubrick's interpretation of the characters and his cold tone. Wendy, for example, King says, is one of the most misogynistic portrayals of a woman ever committed to film (his take paraphrased). I recently re-read Roger Ebert's review of The Shining, one of his Great Movies, and at the end of the review he tells the story of asking Shelley Duvall what it was like working on the picture. "Almost unbearable," is her answer. She describes the year-long shoot as nine months of crying, five and six days a week.

She means crying in the role of Wendy Torrance, of course, but in Vivian Kubrick's documentary, Making The Shining, we catch glimpses of very real tears. Duvall has a fainting spell; the assistant director cracks wise. Jack Nicholson ignores her, directs his flirtations elsewhere. Kubrick himself mutters impatiently, occasionally yells at her. Duvall, as tall and strikingly pretty as she is, like a weird, wide-eyed forest creature by way of Tim Burton, seems small and frail on set, almost overlooked. "After all that work," she tells Ebert, "hardly anyone even criticized my performance in it, even to mention it, it seemed like. The reviews were all about Kubrick. Like I wasn't there."

King noticed her, though. His comment to the BBC is that she's basically just "there to scream and be stupid, and that's not the character that I wrote about." In this, King's both right and wrong. No, he didn't write a stupid screamer in Wendy Torrance, but it's no stupid screamer that Shelley Duvall's playing. In light of what Duvall says to Ebert, I don't wish to give Stanley Kubrick any more credit here for how great The Shining is than I've given him in the past (a lot). I say, instead, let's talk about Shelley Duvall's Wendy, about misogyny, and why she's every bit as strong as King's character in the novel.

First, it's important to note that Wendy, in the movie, performs no action that Wendy, in the book, does not do. Wendy in the book looks out for Danny. Wendy in the movie looks out for Danny. Wendy in the book stands up to her husband when her son appears with bruises on his neck. Wendy in the movie does, too. In fact, Wendy in the movie locks Jack Torrance in the pantry all by herself, whereas in the book, her hands are shaking so badly her five-year-old son has to slide the bolt in place for her (granted, that's because she's been beaten with a mallet by her deranged husband, but Wendy in the movie never allows herself to be beaten). My theory is that Shelley Duvall simply isn't the Wendy King describes: long blonde hair, great legs, beautiful. Not that Duvall isn't beautiful, but she's not King's Wendy. She's an altogether different kind of woman whose long features and odd physicality are amplified by near-constant screaming and crying (all of which is perfectly logical within the circumstances of the film; her terror is meant to be our terror). Simply put: she doesn't look strong because she looks odd and she cries and screams a lot. But how or why do these things equal weak? Does a woman have to look or act like Rebecca DeMornay to be strong?

Was Kubrick a misogynist? On this set, probably. Does he destroy Duvall's performance, crush her spirit? No. Conversely, does the way he treats her somehow add to her performance, make it better, more natural, more harried? Not in the least. She persists in spite of Kubrick, I think, not because of him. To endure a year-long shoot in such isolation with so many men, I think, is the strength we're ultimately seeing in the film version of Wendy Torrance. Is it a quiet performance? Not always. Is it pretty? Not always. Is it graceful? You bet.

Consider what's happening in Shelley Duvall's early monologue about Jack dislocating Danny's arm. Notice the fragility she conveys, the complex psychology at work behind her mask. She tells the psychiatrist it was just "one of those things you do to a child a thousand times," but we get the sense that Wendy has never done any such thing to Danny, or would she ever. It's her husband she's really talking about in this scene, and the subtext of her fear of him is all there in the way she trembles, the way her eyes widen, the way her cigarette ash lengthens, forgotten. The way she smiles. Hers is, in fact, the first great moment of naturalistic acting in the movie, following a scene of oddly calculated, mannered dialogue between Nicholson and the manager of the Overlook Hotel. How is this, then, a misogynistic portrayal, to shoot her in light and colors so becoming, to make her the first great moment of the movie?

One thing I will give Kubrick credit for here, because it's relevant: he understands Jack Torrance. Detractors of Nicholson's take on the character often cite the fact that he seems crazy from the beginning. But in the novel, well, Torrance is, in fact, crazy from the beginning. He's the heavy, an angry man whose issues with rage, not alcohol, seem to be the true root of his madness. Yet in the novel King allies Danny with Jack, creates a bond between them that his Wendy is jealous of. Kubrick, to his credit, makes Jack the villain with no apology, and allies Danny with his mother, not his father. It just makes sense.

In fact, in the movie, Duvall saves Danny's life on at least two occasions. She drops him down the snowbank away from Jack and takes up a knife to defend herself. She finds him outside the hedge maze and drives the Snow Cat down out of the mountains. What's more, she's confronted with the horrors of the hotel after the horror of her husband, and she survives both.

In Vivian Kubrick's documentary, there's an unforgettable moment in which Scatman Crothers, who plays Dick Halloran, is asked what it was like working on the film. His eyes water. Tears spill down his cheeks. Extraordinary, he says. Just extraordinary. Shelley Duvall's answer to that same question, ten years later, from Ebert: "Almost unbearable." In light of the fact that Kubrick put Crothers through almost 160 takes of a single scene, I can't help wondering if the actor was spilling tears of relief just to have survived.

Duvall's Wendy is just that: a survivor. Her performance is one of the great naturalistic performances in horror, made even more special by the fact that it's found in one of the most mannered horror movies ever made. She's the warm light at the center of this cold, cold movie. She's the one we root for.