Night of the Living Dead

As someone who used to see about a film per day – in recent years, more like two or three per week – I knew I was in for a shock when I moved to Shelter Island, New York for a job that lasted from 4th of July till this week: Zero cinemas and a house with poor Wifi meant practically no movies.

 

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Somebody’s a Zombie.

My first visit to a cinema back in the city just had to be something both classic and entertaining. Luckily a restored Night of the Living Dead was out. I loved it from the first shot – more like a regional indie film than pure horror. And the content, about a black man and white woman confined to a house together, started with so much promise.

Its problem – and not in a theoretical sense, I mean, it kept us from enjoying the film – was the female characters. One is a vicious nag, one is hopelessly in love, and one, The Woman, is in such shock she turns hysterical by minute ten and needs a slap across the face just to ineffectually help The Man, a little.

The girl who becomes “a ghoul” and takes a trowel to her mother’s face has the most get-up-and-go of any of them! For kicks I took a quick look at the 1990 remake, and in the first five minutes the heroine fights back more than the 1968 heroine did the whole time.

There you have it. Seeing a good film is so satisfying, that seeing an okay film gives you  the feeling you get when you want s strong cup of coffee and all you have is diner Bunn-o-matic. You feel like a ghoul yourself.

Why I Love Horror Films This Week – and I Hate Horror Films

I’ve never liked horror as a genre, and yet the most timely film in theaters right now is Ouija: Origin of Evil. I came across it at the end of a horror film bender I started a week or so ago. I could blame Trump, but really the devastating fall cold virus that’s been haunting the continent dropped off a demon spawn in my bloodstream for a long weekend, and it just seemed right.

It started with 2016’s Sacrifice (written and directed by Peter Dowling, based on S.J.Bolton’s book), a Wicker Man knockoff about an American obstetrician who moves to her husband’s hometown in far northern Scotland – Big mistake! This whet my appetite for 2013’s Neverlake, written by Carlo Longo and Manuela Cacciamani, whose credits include production-managing The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. The story, not unlike Sacrifice, is about a British girl who goes to visit her Italian father in southern Tuscany and finds he has more than just a passing interest in the the bizarre fertility rituals of the Etruscans. When production managers start writing stories, you can expect them to be about this exciting.

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“Which Oxford twit dies first?”

This made me crave a classic, so I watched 1973’s The Legend of Hell House. I recall this one being the late movie on television – one that was so late getting started, it seemed unthinkable that anyone could tolerate watching it in a dark house. It’s about a team of scientists and psychic experts who go to spend a week in a house haunted by a patrician serial killer.

By now I was sensing the old familiar patterns of horror of films, and the minute Pamela Franklin appeared as Florence Tanner, the young psychic whom the “real scientists” don’t respect, I said to my wife “She’s going to get sexually violated,” and she was. Horror films tend to be moralistic. Dionysian pleasure, and especially sexual precocity, get rewarded with violence.

They’re also often about self-righteous believers in science and reason getting their comeuppance, and that’s why the classic British horror films are the best. Enter Christopher Lee or Basil Rathbone talking about how thank goodness we don’t believe in superstition anymore, and wait for the spirit world to make a stunning comeback. Take that, Oxford twit!

Richard Matheson, who wrote The Legend of Hell House based on his own novel, had a long writing career that included the novel I Am Legend, episodes of Night Gallery, The Twilight Zone, and The Night Stalker, and screenplays for the series of Roger Corman versions of Edgar Allen Poe films from the early 60s like The Pit and the Pendulum.

For good measure I thought I’d watch Children of the Corn, the 1984 film written by George Goldsmith based on a Stephen King story. This is about kids reimagining Christian fundamentalism in a brutal and childish way. One thing I always found frustrating about horror is the need of story-tellers to reveal “the secret” inside the story: the nuclear accident or experiment on monkeys that went awry and got covered up. It makes me tune the stories out for offering so much new information just when they’re promising clarity.

In their defense, horror films are often just about perfect in length. 90-100 minutes of tight story-telling that rivets you for the first 60. Then comes the unnecessary backstory about a sexually abusive bishop or Nazi doctors.

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Sheila Vand in “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night”

For this, among other reasons, 2014’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, is in a class by itself. Setting the film in an imaginary Persian underworld called Bad City, she takes the moralism inherent in horror and jacks it up by turning a feminist vampire on the loose. Her vampire, who devours drug dealers and shows mercy to prostitutes and children, is someone we get to see having downtime, enjoying English language music in her apartment. Her cape, coupled with a striped shirt, is equal parts burqa and vampire cape, and manages to evoke Jean Seberg from Breathless.

Amirpour has a new film coming out soon, and has to live up to the hype of being “the next Tarantino,” but I hope she just keeps writing stories like this. Really A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a love story that uses horror as a setting. No bombshells from the backstory needed come the one hour mark.

Which brings me to Ouija: Origin of Evil, a film that reviewers kept insisting is “actually not that bad,” which is true enough, for an hour. It’s written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard. Elizabeth Reaser, who many of us know as the diner waitress-siren of death from Mad Men, has bills she can’t pay so she starts spicing up her scam psychic business with a ouija board, and lays a moral trap from beyond the grave for herself and her daughters.

That the film is set in 1967 fascinates me, and that the dad figure who almost returns to make the family whole again in the conservative, Hitchcockian way, is a priest who’s obviously regretting his celibacy, also makes this movie extra titillating. So many lovely plants in the first hour of this film, you hope for a tight story, and just then it spins out of control. This week has been all Trump versus Hillary, which the Times is calling, correctly I think, a final rematch in the intra-generational fight inside the Baby Boom.

What hell they’ve unleashed on us.

Slimier Things

Why are dystopian road movies all full of people wearing leather, and yet we never see any cows in them?

I’ll never forget Roger Ebert asking Gene Siskel that while reviewing a Road Warrior knockoff in the late ’80s. It seemed like a fair question to me at the time, since I hardly gave a damn about the movies then. Years later, of course, I would have found it a buzzkill. It’s a movie! Suspend that disbelief.

Coincidentally, this week a friend sent me a very funny 2003 article entitled “The Biology of B-Movie Monsters” on the same day I decided I really ought to finish watching Stranger Things, the Netflix hit of the summer that I’d lost interest in. The article, by marine biologist Michael LaBarbera, is full of musing like, “Enlarging an insect to this size raises other interesting problems that don’t arise with large vertebrates. Take the respiratory system.”

Yes, take the respiratory system. LaBarbera uses his favorite old films to give us some readable discourse about the kind of work his colleagues do, studying the metabolism of shrews and all that, so he’s not really defending disbelief. And yet I could not get around my own disbelief about Stranger Things, which was, by most accounts, just enjoyable TV. Friends kept saying they sat and watched the whole miniseries in two sittings, and I’d shyly say I’d gotten to the last episode and couldn’t finish it.

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The girl in the vintage dress is the only person who knows what the hell she’s doing.

Not that the series lacks its charms, like seeing Matthew Modine return with a sinister side. As Vox points out in a profile of the designers who did the series’ opening credits, Stranger Things gets a lot of things right about the period, the early ’80s. But it also has a very contemporary girl power message.

I often say that thrillers are defined by the nexus of evil inside them. Is it supernatural? Science fiction? Government conspiracy? Corporate? A killer on the loose? The series is not a thriller, so different rules apply, but eventually I want to know, what kind of villain are we facing here? What’s it going to take to topple it?

As the title implies, there’s always something stranger in Stranger Things, and that bottomlessness leaves me unsatisfied. It’s a government coverup of a military-scientific experiment gone awry, with a cheap Freudian father-daughter thing at the center, and a break into the extra-dimension. Robert Rodriguez can do this in Planet Terror, since he’s playing for laughs, but after four hours I want to know just how strange things are.

It also hurts the series that it’s so innocent. You know you’re never really going to see anything gruesome: The first three minutes of Saving Private Ryan are scarier. It compensates by dialing up the gross factor. The portals to the next dimension aren’t clean, Escher-like discontinuities, they’re nonsensically membraneous, and the parallel world covered in slime, a place where walking causes the sucking sound of aspic being tossed from a vacuum-sealed can. I found myself wanting to skim the action scenes and get to the unrequited teen romance.

A lot of people are looking forward to the return of this series. I guess, like M.J. in the “Thriller” video, “I’m not like other guys.”

It Follows

Believe the hype about It Follows. It’s the first horror film I’ve seen in a theater in years, so I’m not a fan of the genre, obviously. I find horror films too horrific. Too much attention on the shock, and not enough on developing whatever else is going on thematically.

Jay (Maika Monroe) had sex with the wrong guy!

Jay (Maika Monroe) had sex with the wrong guy!

That’s precisely where the very high concept but low-fi It Follows, written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, excels.

It’s about a group of teens who’ve gotten a sexually transmitted demon that kills people in a gruesome manner – but here’s the trick: If you sleep with someone else, then the demon will haunt them instead of you. As long as that partner manages to stay alive, you’re off the hook. Partway into the story, we learn that additional rules apply, but I never blinked about the premise at all.

One thing about the demon is that he/she appears to you in all kinds of forms, even as a friend or family member. Mitchell claims he dreamed about such a demon as a child, but fans of Kolchak: The Night Stalker will remember the Rakshasa. Kolchak was a series starring Darrin McGavin, who was kind of a poor man’s Jack Lemon, as a Chicago reporter who encountered every type of paranormal experience, including the shape-shifting Hindu demon, during one single season of network TV.

Fun stuff, and in It Follows Mitchell mines the conceit for all the obvious material. Sure, it’s normal for teen horror to objectify their young bodies, and to associate sex with danger – this time maybe more than in most – but I just loved how this set of suburban teens has practically no adults in its cosmos, unless of course they’re murderous demons posing as parents in sexually charged ways. Sheltered kids. Above-ground pools. Borrowed cars. Sneaking out at night. Waiting for the slow, certain march of adult consequences. It felt like a Jeffrey Eugenides horror film.

The dark underbelly of Middle America is so old and overdone a theme, I only want to see a film that dips into those waters if it’s there to stay on a more specific topic. It’s cheap Freudianism, which morphs into a meditation on the impossibility of finding safety in the suburbs, but it also spoke to me about sex, and the way we pass feelings back and forth to one another via sexual relationships. Among the many interpretations of this film you can read about online, rape and STDs among the cheaper ones, I’m yet to come across the writer who relates to it quite like this, but when you start a sexual relationship with someone, or even just sleep with him or her once, you’re inviting them to witness your madness. The net result is often that you send them away carrying your grief, or trying to heal some wound that originated in your heart, and this film is a fun and easy-to-look-at iteration of that.

Only once did I feel like it was over-directed, a dizzying 360-degree pan shot that made me say, “Alright, stop it.” And only one hunk of the plot was a misstep: why the kids, who were reasonable up to then, thought going to a pool was such a good idea.

It must have been a lot of fun to write this story, and I was cheering for Mitchell all the way. It’s given Andrew O’Hehir an excuse to call our attention to Mitchell’s previous film, the overlooked 2011 romantic comedy The Myth of the American Sleepover, and I’m all eyes and ears.