Lita On Film

Posts Tagged ‘Jennifer Lawrence’

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

This Week’s Netflix Recommendations

In Netflix Recommendations on August 3, 2011 at 1:40 pm

1.  Winter’s Bone

Director Debra Granik’s tour-de-force drama about a teenage girl in the desolate Ozarks is nothing less than mesmerizing (see my full review here!).  Star Jennifer Lawrence and her young co-stars do an excellent job of naturalistic acting, and the film’s atmosphere feels authentic to a fault.  John Hawkes is unrecognizable as Lawrence’s volatile uncle, who reluctantly agrees to help her track down her no-good father before the family loses its home.  A must see!  Currently available on Netflix streaming.

2. Tie me up!  Tie me down!

This very sexy early Almodovar film has it all: tension, drama, comedy, and lots of sex.  Did I mention it’s full of sex?  Antonio Banderas stars as an escaped mental patient who takes a former porn queen hostage in her home and tries to get her to fall in love with him.  While clearly not a paragon of feminist ideals, as with everything from Almodovar, it’s definitely worth seeing.  Currently available on Netflix streaming.

3.  Don Juan DeMarco

This rom-com is as fluffy as they come, almost–Johnny Depp stars as a young man convinced he isn’t just a Brooklyn drifter, but actually the world’s greatest lover, a Mexican Casanova trained in the arts of lovemaking, sword fighting, and general swashbuckling.  An aging Marlon Brando is assigned as Depp’s psychiatrist, and the two forge an unlikely connection that turns out to save both of them from the brink of despair.  With Faye Dunaway as Brando’s wife.  Delightful!  Currently available on Netflix streaming.

Winter’s Bone (2010)

In Film Reviews on July 9, 2010 at 6:20 pm

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Winter’s Bone is a story of poverty, desperation, and the scrappy resourcefulness of women.  The film follows 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) in her quest to save her family from homelessness.  She cares for her near-catatonic mother and two younger siblings alone, in a shabby house in rural Missouri, until the Law comes calling.  She is informed that her missing father, Jessup, has put up the family property as collateral on a bail bond.  If he doesn’t show up to court, the family will be turned out into the snow.

What follows is a story as simple and taut as an old-school Western.  Ree sets out to track down her father, but every step along the way turns into a do-or-die endeavor: just getting her hands on a vehicle and keeping her siblings fed is an enormous feat.  Her every interaction with other characters—even those trying to help her—crackles with tension.  Even extended family members turn on her without warning.  Knowing she can’t trust anyone, Ree has learned to rely only on herself, and so we are treated to long sequences of her walking endlessly through the gray Mid-western woodlands, skinny and alone.  There isn’t a lot of talking in Winter’s Bone, but the film is shot through with a deep, poignant resentment of authority and the status quo.  At one point, Ree admonishes her hungry siblings to “never ask for what ought to be offered.”

Lawrence carries off such lines, which could turn to cheese in the wrong hands, with an earnest passion.  What makes her a fully realized character rather than a spectacle or a stereotype is the fact that director Debra Granik allows the audience time to breathe, to soak in Ree’s reality and to contemplate her depressing surroundings.  We aren’t shown her pathetic house in voyeuristic flashes; there are no sappy montages of her worn-out furniture and clothes.  Instead, we are at her elbow as she cooks for her family, and next to her on a barn floor after she’s been beaten up.  Granik, like Ree, keeps things moving and stays focused on the task at hand.  The result is beautifully balanced, that rare film that’s both contemplative and thrilling.

Perhaps the most obvious progenitor of Winter’s Bone is Frozen River (2008), another excellent film that also received accolades at Sundance and the like.  As with Bone, River follows a female protagonist (Oscar nominee Melissa Leo) and boasts a female writer/director (Courtney Hunt).  It is a film of similar minimalism—and similar quality.  What elevates Winter’s Bone and Frozen River from the realms of so-called “poverty porn” is both films’ insistence on simply telling the women’s stories, neither sensationalizing nor apologizing for their subject matter, even though the characters’ poverty is sometimes shocking.  Hopefully, this new aesthetic of raw reality and female resilience is the tip of the proverbial iceberg; one Winter’s Bone is worth more than a thousand Twilights.