Lita On Film

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They don’t make ’em like they used to: The decline of the haunted house movie

In Film Reviews on September 28, 2012 at 9:35 pm

The new Jennifer Lawrence vehicle HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET is just what you’re hoping it’s not: a bad amalgamation of all the slasher movie cliches that can be crammed into an hour and a half. Plucky heroine who nonetheless can’t save herself when it counts? Check. Creepy shut-in next door with a basement full of secrets? Check. Intimations of something nasty/potentially supernatural running around the forest? Check. Bad acting, worse writing, and unforgivable plot holes? Check, check, check. Even Lawrence, with her respectable acting chops (see WINTER’S BONE), can’t save this trashy, disappointing flick. However, rather than spend any more time bemoaning the state of current big-budget horror I am devoting this column instead to an examination of the place of the house in modern horror film, in the hopes that a look back will inspire at least a modicum of hope in you, dear readers, for the future.

Let’s begin with PSYCHO (1960). As critics from the popular (see David Thomson’s “The Moment of Psycho”, 2009) to the academic (see Slavoj Zizek’s “Looking Awry”, 1992) have long pointed out, Norman Bates’s family home plays a key role in the film, almost functioning as a character in its own right. (I always find the scene in which Lila (Vera Miles) explores Mother’s bedroom, with its many mirrors and creepy tchotchkes, to be one of the scariest in the whole film.) The place of the basement in PSYCHO has achieved nothing less than legendary status and led Zizek, in THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO CINEMA (2006) to construct an entire theory of the house as being divided into Norman’s id (basement) ego (ground floor) and superego (second floor), with the relevant parts of the story thus occurring in the appropriate parts of the house. It’s no accident that detective Arbogast is murdered at the top of the stairs, as he’s about to break into Norman’s superego zone. (The superego strives for perfection, according to Freud, and for Norman would be the place where the discrepancies in his split personality—and anyone finding out about them—would be the least tolerable.)

PSYCHO may have been the film that really cemented the house itself as a fixture in the horror film, but another film from the same year, Michael Powell’s PEEPING TOM, did just as good a job of making home sweet home into the ultimate horror show. The protagonist’s profession as a photographer gives him the perfect cover for getting close to women who catch his fancy, and also allows him to construct a darkroom in his apartment where he menaces his girlfriend and his landlady, her mother. These scenes are nothing less than spectacular, both for their perfectly choreographed use of light and shadow and for their sudden cuts to the living room just outside which, jarringly, appears welcoming at at least somewhat normal. Like the cavern in the basement of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, PEEPING TOM’s darkroom is a cabinet of horrors nestled skin-crawlingly close to the seat of domesticity.

Isn’t this really what’s frightening about haunted house movies—the collision of something foreign and threatening within a space that’s supposed to be completely knowable and safe? I think so. This foreign, threatening force can take many different forms, however, from an intruder lurking out of sight (WHEN A STRANGER CALLS [1979], BLACK CHRISTMAS [1974]) to an invading supernatural force (POLTERGEIST [1982], A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET [1985]) to the idea of the house itself being alive, possessed, and malevolent (THE AMITYVILLE HORROR [1979], THE SHINING [1980]). Sadly, with so many role models to choose from, HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET settles on precisely none of them. While it gestures towards the unseen-intruder trope several times, nothing ever comes of it, and though there is a secret room in a basement, it proves not too difficult to escape from.

Though its most obvious progenitors are the slasher films of the early to mid-80s, HOUSE doesn’t even have a fully-formed commentary on gender dynamics to offer, something that can often be found in the best films of this period. (Those who haven’t seen the original BLACK CHRISTMAS should do so straightaway; its politics are so far ahead of their time you’ll be checking the box to make sure you’re not mistaken.) The slasher cycle gave rise to what theorist Carol Clover (“Men, Women, and Chain Saws”, 1993) termed the “Final Girl,” a female character who isn’t sexualized as much as her compatriots and—partly because of this—manages to outwit the aggressor and kill him in the end. Though this is the general arc that Lawrence’s character follows in HOUSE, the story is so tired and the characters and dialogue so cliched that her eventual triumph and escape are not only not a surprise, but downright disappointing in their simplicity and predictability.

While there have been a few haunted house movies in the past few years that approached the greatness of some of the classics I’ve already mentioned—THE ORPHANAGE [2007] and INSIDIOUS [2010] spring to mind—the subgenre as a whole has been woefully anemic. Unfortunately, even with a compelling lead actress, HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET does absolutely nothing to reverse this trend. Here’s hoping that Lawrence gives horror another try in a better film sometime soon.

© Lita Robinson 2012

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Twenty Years of Silence: Horror and the Oscars

In Uncategorized on September 22, 2012 at 8:47 pm

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*Find an edited version of this post on Diabolique!

It’s been just over 20 years since Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS swept the “big 5” categories at the 1991 Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, and Actress. Only two films had done it before: ONE FEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975) and IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934). Before 1991, only one other true horror film had even been nominated for best picture: box-office smash THE EXORCIST (1973). Needless to say, it didn’t end up winning.

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It goes without saying that horror as a genre has been woefully underrepresented—particularly given its popularity with audiences—at the Academy Awards since their inception in 1928. The list of canonical American horror films that were never nominated for Best Picture is too long to reprint, but it contains such landmarks as FRANKENSTEIN (1932), PSYCHO (1960), ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), and THE SHINING (1980). However, even as horror itself has been continuously shunned as a category in its own right, it has gradually become more popular as an element in dramas and thrillers widely lauded perhaps because they weren’t easily identified as “horror films.”

Many nominees before SILENCE included a significant aspect of horror driving their narratives, or featuring in climactic scenes: REBECCA (1940), Hitchcock’s lone Best Picture winner, GASLIGHT (1944), BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971), DELIVERANCE (1972), JAWS (1975), TAXI DRIVER (1976), APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), and PLATOON (1986) are some of the most obvious. It’s no coincidence that there’s a cluster of such films beginning in the early 70s, arguably the best decade thus far for American horror film. With the demise of the Production Code, the rise of the New Hollywood and the country’s identity crisis over Vietnam, American culture was more receptive to horror films than ever before and possibly ever since. Horror was also starting to be recognized at this cultural moment as something more than the dredges of more respectable genres, and big names like Gregory Peck (THE OMEN [1976]) and Julie Christie (DON’T LOOK NOW [1973]; DEMON SEED [1977]) lent an air of respectability to films that featured murder, blasphemy, evil children, and supercomputers bent on mating with people.

Similarly, it’s no coincidence that films like PSYCHO and THE SHINING are conspicuously absent from the list of Best Picture nominees, despite their reputations as some of the greatest works in the history of American cinema. Put simply, it’s because the Academy and the awards it bestows each year are designed to be markers of what constitutes Good Film, not popular film. This isn’t news to any true horror fan; the false dichotomy of high vs. low culture has long been a subject of both popular and scholarly investigation, and many an academic tome is dedicated to the subject. Horror as such is seen definitively as the lowest of low culture, something that teenage boys obsess over and which encourages all types of perversion in its viewers (witness, most recently, the furor over THE DARK KNIGHT RISES in the wake of the Aurora shooting, and the immediate parallels drawn in the press between violence onscreen and in real life).

As theorist Linda Williams, among many others, has pointed out, horror is seen as reprehensible in part because it provokes an immediate, physical reaction in its viewers. Any genre that does this is seen as somehow less noble and less artistic than the more cerebral genres of drama, romance, period piece, thriller, etc. After all, the only genres besides horror that provoke such a physical response are melodrama (“women’s weepies”), comedy, and pornography. Naturally, these “low” films are also the most popular at the box office—witness, for example, the outrageous success of the TWILIGHT franchise, which has managed to lump horror, comedy, melodrama and at least the trappings of pornography all into a single package.

SILENCE was something of an anomaly; for one thing, its cast featured a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Anthony Hopkins. As far as High Culture goes, it doesn’t get much better than that. It was also something of a weak year for Best Picture nominees. Besides SILENCE, the field included Oliver Stone’s controversial JFK, Disney’s animated BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Barbra Streisand’s THE PRINCE OF TIDES, and period biopic BUGSY. SILENCE’s popularity with audiences, coupled with the built-in fan base that came with Thomas Harris’s novel, might have been enough to put it over the top even without Hopkins’ bona fides. However, the presence of such a Serious Actor in the role of the villain, and that of a plucky up-and-comer as the protagonist (Jodie Foster, fresh off her star turn in THE ACCUSED [1988]) made SILENCE a force to be reckoned with. It placed fourth in the year’s total domestic box office takings, lagging behind only TERMINATOR 2, ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, and the aforementioned BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

So what happened? It seemed like the beginning of a new era of mainstream horror appreciation, but at least at the Oscar level this hasn’t panned out. The Library of Congress may have entered SILENCE into its National Film Registry in 2011, its 20th anniversary year, but the genre has gotten scant recognition in those intervening decades. After all the hue and cry, was SILENCE just a fluke, propelled to glory through its unlikely combination of salacious source material and top-shelf talent?

My argument is no. Though it’s hardly been a cavalcade of awards for horror since 1991, the nominees for Best Picture since then have included many horror-tinged films which were taken seriously despite their featuring undeniable elements of that least respectable of genres. Examples include PULP FICTION (1994), FARGO (1996), SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007, winner), DISTRICT 9 (2009), and BLACK SWAN (2010). Even on television horror has become both more popular and more respected in the last twenty years, with shows like “American Horror Story” garnering Emmys alongside such conventional fare as “Mad Men” and “Downton Abbey.”

Though there is undeniably a long way to go before horror is as respected a genre as the marital drama or historical biopic, I believe there is still reason for hope. Even in the age of torture porn and trashy slasher pastiches, horror has permeated enough of our cultural landscape that it’s simply a matter of time before it’s claiming Oscars as regularly as the next Meryl Streep vehicle. And if anyone takes you to task on the subject of horror’s worthiness and respectability, you can always point to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and end the argument right there.

© Lita Robinson 2012

Horror and Animation – Strange Bedfellows

In Uncategorized on September 22, 2012 at 8:37 pm

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*Find an edited version of this post on Diabolique!

In honor of the upcoming release of HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA, we thought it a good time to take a brief look at the phenomenon of animated horror films. It’s an unwieldy category, to be sure, and not this writer’s area of expertise. Usually these horror-comedies, or diet horror films directed at children, are the sorts of films I ignore. “When I have kids someday, those will be great,” I think to myself, but until then they don’t seem that interesting. But animation as a genre often gets short shrift just the way horror does, so investigating their similarities and intersections seems worthwhile. (First off, a caveat; if you do any type of research on horror and animation, 90% of the results you receive refer to Japanese anime. Since neither of the above films are from this tradition, I am restricting this column to American/Western European films and histories.)

 

The history of animation is intimately tied to the history of cinema. The illusion of motion produced by the rapid projection of still images (24 frames per second on celluloid, about 30 on digital media) is what makes makes cinema its own art form; you could argue that all cinema is just a form of animation. Animation as we think of it today, though, really came into its own in the late 1920s and took off with the advent of Walt Disney’s films. He received an Academy Award in 1932 for his body of work, by which time he had already made such landmark shorts as STEAMBOAT WILLIE (1928) and a parade of films featuring Mickey Mouse. Interestingly, the 20s and early 30s were also a landmark period in the history of horror films, producing such seminal European works as THE GOLEM (1920), THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920), NOSFERATU (1922) and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925).

 

In the United States, James Whale completed FRANKENSTEIN in 1931 and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1935; Tod Browning completed DRACULA in 1931 and FREAKS in 1932. (Thomas Edison’s 1910 FRANKENSTEIN, long thought to be lost, is perhaps the earliest American horror film and is completely amazing to watch.) Many popular animated horror films these days trade on tropes established in that first “golden age” of horror, like the sewn-together, reanimated body (CORPSE BRIDE [2005]) or the murderous animal prowling the innocent village (WALLACE AND GROMIT: CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT [2005]). Indeed, much as the shrieking violin has become a punch line that is understood even by those (misguided souls) who’ve never seen PSYCHO, much of what makes animated horror effective—whether effectively scary, funny, or endearing—comes from a deep cultural knowledge of early horror films, whether or not the individual viewer has actually seen them.

 

Perhaps the perfect example of this is the annual Simpsons Halloween episode, which trades on horror pastiche at many levels. While kids can be entertained by the characters’ antics even without understanding the “in jokes”, adults with a deeper knowledge of horror film, whether gained on purpose or through osmosis, can appreciate the humor much more profoundly. The works of Tim Burton, most seminally THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993), owe their success entirely to this facile blending of horror tropes with easily accessible comedy. Not to say that Burton’s films aren’t at times truly scary—they are—but by turning horror into something broader and deeper than just scares, he managed to forge a whole new subgenre out of the cultural encyclopedia of horror traditions that we all refer to constantly without even realizing it.

 

Into this hybrid, self-referential world comes HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA, which in its very title gestures all the way back to the first great vampire film, Murnau’s NOSFERATU. It features characters including Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, a mummy, and hosts of zombies and bats (and that’s all just in the trailer). It seems fully invested in this trend of using horror tropes in new, unexpected and comedic ways; in the trailer, Dracula is horrified when a human visitor to the titular hotel struggles to remove a contact lens. “That is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen!” he shrieks.

 

The film looks cute, entertaining and even mildly interesting on an intellectual level. Here’s hoping that the generation introduced to Dracula by HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA goes on to appreciate the likes of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee at least a little more than the erstwhile vampires of the TWILIGHT series.

 

© Lita Robinson 2012

 

 

COMA (A&E 2012)

In Uncategorized on September 9, 2012 at 9:32 pm

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Michael Crichton’s COMA (1978) is a tough act to follow, even for the man who brought us ALIEN (1979). But Ridley Scott and his late brother Tony have given it a good try in A&E’s two-part miniseries, which clocks in at just under three hours. The project has an amazing cast: James Woods, Geena Davis, Richard Dreyfuss and a truly fabulous Ellen Burstyn—with hair recalling Elsa Lanchester’s—all make campy appearance as doctors colluding to intentionally put patients into comas for research studies. Lauren Ambrose plays the straight man to their collective scenery-chewing, and the Scotts have just managed to keep the absurdity in check. The result is a satisfyingly exciting but fluffy piece, ultimately not much more than a mix of CSI, Grey’s Anatomy, and a little 70s-style gore thrown in for fun.

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Lauren Ambrose is much more likable in the role of surgical intern Susan Wheeler than the original’s Genevieve Bujold, who made something of a specialty out of creepy medical dramas, later starring in DEAD RINGERS (1988) alongside Jeremy Irons. Ambrose’s large eyes and cherubic face give her a childlike quality that makes her both easier to root for and less compelling than Bujold’s version of the character. This contrast is a neat microcosm of the entire COMA remake; the updated version may be longer and slicker than the original, but it also has a whole lot less to say.

Image Made just a few years after the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973, Crichton’s COMA was all about shifting gender relations. Susan’s complex relationship with her boyfriend, another surgical resident played by Michael Douglas, was as much a source of conflict in the narrative as the body-snatching conspiracy she eventually uncovered. Douglas’s character constantly complains that Susan is too uppity, and mutters to himself that he “should’ve dated a nurse” instead. He even declares that Susan is hysterical when she tries to explain the conspiracy to him, though he eventually realizes she is telling the truth and rushes to her aid. Recalling the queasy uncertainty of ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), Douglas’s character nearly convinces Susan that she’s made the whole thing up before he realizes the truth at the last possible moment.

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In the Scott brothers’ version Susan isn’t dating her equal but her superior, the chief resident (played by Steven Pasquale), and their relationship is fairly simplistic; both of them are primarily focused on finding out who’s behind the rash of comas, not on debating the finer points of gender equality. Ambrose’s Susan even has a famous cardiologist grandfather who once worked at her hospital, on whose coattails she’s constantly accused of riding. While Ambrose’s Susan isn’t treated as a total outsider, as Bujold’s Susan was in 1978, she is also less powerful in her own right. She relies on her paternal legacy and the protection of her boyfriend’s seniority just as much as she does on her own instincts and chutzpah. Bujold’s Susan, conversely, had nothing but chutzpah. This may have made her unlikeable, but it also made her character much more substantial.

Image In 1978, Bujold’s Susan first realized something was amiss when a friend fell into a coma while undergoing a “routine therapeutic abortion.” There’s none of this political explicitness in the 2012 version. Though there is a clumsy gesture towards male science co-opting female bodies at the end of the film (you’ll recognize it), it’s used more as a “gotcha” scare tactic than a sincere cultural analogy. In the modern version of COMA there are no abortions, plenty of other female doctors, and no one telling Susan—in so many words, anyway—that her real problem is being a woman in a man’s world. Given the current political situation in this country, maybe there should be.

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© Lita Robinson 2012

Cosmopolis

In Film Reviews on September 4, 2012 at 10:32 pm

*A shorter version of this review can be found on DiaboliqueMagazine.com

To say that a Cronenberg film represents a “departure” from the director’s oeuvre to date is to make a profoundly empty statement; anyone who knows anything about Cronenberg knows that he never shies away from trying something new. The fact that he has chosen to follow up last year’s A DANGEROUS METHOD—a period biopic about Siegmund Freud and Carl Jung—with the narratively unconventional, difficult-to-sit-through talkfest that is COSMOPOLIS should, therefore, make perfect sense. And while it’s difficult to endorse the film on anything other than formal grounds since much of it is, by design, opaque and meaningless, it’s also impossible to dismiss COSMOPOLIS out of hand as some sort of creative misfire. While Cronenberg certainly gives in to every type of self-indulgence throughout the film (and even before; he adapted the screenplay himself), he has also, oddly, come as close to accurately encapsulating the existential crisis precipitated by the financial collapse as anyone has so far.

This tonal precision is especially apparent if one compares the world of COSMOPOLIS with that of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, another film about the post-Occupy world (or at least the post-Occupy New York City). While the latter relies on clunky, prop-filled set pieces and overblown scenes of class-based anarchy—throwing old ladies in fur coats out into the streets, for instance—to get its ultimately conservative point across, COSMOPOLIS portrays anarchy and senseless violence as almost mundane, the primal bubblings of an entire culture’s repressed carnal urges all coming to a head in a single afternoon. In the same way that the star of COSMOPOLIS, young billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), views sex, food, money and death as not much more than basic necessities devoid of real significance, so the film itself depicts the social upheaval that animates the otherwise stultifying narrative: dispassionately, but with a sardonic wit.

It is the quest for this missing archetypal significance which leads Eric, ensconced in his futuristic limo, on a daylong journey across town (a journey which, as any New Yorker knows, can indeed be almost as harrowing as sitting through this film). As he progresses at a snail’s pace, he is joined in his silent, rolling palace by a procession of guests whose philosophical musings grow more and more absurd as the film unspools. Juliette Binoche and Jay Baruchel make appearances, but Samantha Morton is the apex of the film’s absurdity, introducing herself as Eric’s “chief of theory” yet still peppering her logorrhea with a mantra of disavowal, constantly stating, “I do not understand this.” She prattles on for several minutes, as protestors toss dead rats and try to overturn the car, about the meaning of time and the morality of capitalism. It’s by turns amusing, suffocating, and nonsensical, like listening to a lecture on Derrida underwater.

After being rejected by his sexless, robotic wife (Sarah Gadon), Eric finally finds what he’s looking for—catharsis, in the person of Paul Giamatti, playing an ex-employee of Eric’s money management empire bent on assassination. Theirs is the only exchange in the movie that actually hums with any resonance of real meaning; even though their sentences are festooned with self-reflexive bullshit, they slowly manage to spiral their way towards something definitive. Of course [spoiler alert!], Cronenberg denies us our catharsis of seeing this encounter all the way through, preferring to leave his viewers in a state of perpetual unresolvedness, as Eric is for all but the final moments of the film—and as, one supposes, we all may be in this era of LIBOR and bailouts and millisecond stock trades; forever waiting for something definitive to actually happen.

While there are a few moments of squeamish body horror in COSMOPOLIS, the centerpiece perhaps being Eric’s daily prostate exam, precious little in this film would give it away as a Cronenberg picture apart from its inscrutable male protagonist and air of claustrophobic nihilism. Recalling VIDEODROME (1982) in particular, Eric’s gradual realization of just how fucked both he and the world around him are mirrors that of James Woods as Max Renn, renegade TV producer. Both characters are totally unscrupulous and only interested in fulfilling their own desires. However, the similarities between the two pretty much end there; while Max ends up being physically co-opted by the nefarious corporate conspiracy behind the Videodrome, before ultimately turning against it and killing himself (after famously declaring “long live the new flesh”), Eric faces no conspiracy except the absurdity of the super-rich and the existential void of a possible post-capitalist future.

While Max is assaulted by meaning on all sides, even in his dreams and hallucinations, Eric can’t seem to find any meaning anywhere—not in sex, not in marriage, not even in the act of murdering one of his security guards on a whim. It is only in the chaotic filth of Giamatti’s character’s dwelling (it can’t be called an apartment) that Eric finally brushes up against mortality, when he impulsively puts a bullet through his own hand. With that he finally tastes something real, something that can’t be explained through currency fluctuations or charted on a luminous screen, and he seems to have come close to finding his catharsis. It’s a truly Cronenbergian moment: only through the messy realities of physical flesh can the most arcane, post-postmodern questions be even partially answered.

However, even as his film gestures toward a definitive, almost humanist statement, Cronenberg undercuts himself. When Eric, a propos of nothing, asks Giamatti’s character what having an asymmetrical prostate “means,” Giamatti looks at him with both tiredness and pity, as though Eric were a querulous child. “Nothing,” he says firmly, “it means nothing.” Obviously, this is an epitaph for the whole film—a far cry indeed from “Long live the new flesh.”

© Lita Robinson 2012