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Monday, October 28, 2019

Review: The Beyond by Lucio Fulci

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In room 36 ( 3 plus 6 is 9 ), unused furniture lay in dust and shadow. A terrible secret is kept in room 36, and its malignant tendrils are spilling out into the life of Liza Merrill, a woman who has not yet found a place for herself in the world and is hoping that running a hotel will change her fortunes. The Seven Doors Hotel, located in Louisiana, she inherits from her parents. She starts having the closed hotel renovated, she by chance meets a handsome doctor who seems to take an interest in her, and her life looks to be starting to settle down for her. To finally be happy after years of wandering from job to job in New York. She traveled across the country for this chance, and she means to take it.

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But this is not to be her fate. There is an inescapable past waiting in the dark rooms of the Seven Doors Hotel. A secret that can not be kept secret any longer. The barren rooms hold a form of dead life. A dead life that is starting to rise and emerge. The basement, full of moldy and moist holes, hides rotting limbs that thrust out to main and mutilate any who go near. Cadaverous beings emerge from murky watery abysses, bathtubs and pools of basement water. These creatures shamble in a sleep-like state, like somnambulists not yet woken into our reality. She turns to the doctor to help, because she feels like she is falling into a nightmare that can not be real. People keep disappearing in her hotel and blood leaks from the walls. But the doctor is sterile, he is not able to help or rescue anyone. His bullets are ineffective and his choices only end up damning the both of them. The dead take over the living, and the landscape of Hell is revealed to be limitless in its horrors. 

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In all this surrealism and terror, what is The Beyond really about? It seems to be haunted by a fear of dead things in wet decaying holes, about impotence, about those things that wish to be born even though they are dead and damned. There can be no escape in The Beyond. You were already born doomed. Is Liza already in Hell when the film starts? The gateway to Hell is opened up by a painter named Schweick, a creator of nightmares, a father to the horrors. Was he real, or is he a symbolic figure in the nightmare world of Liza? Is this all a dream/nightmare of miscarriage or abortion? The Beyond is this delirium of empty rooms and dead things crawling out of damp cavities in the body of the hotel, hollow with the rot of the dead who wish to corrupt and deface the living, to rip their flesh and tear out their internal organs. In room 36, the corruption of secrets and regrets seep out into the world. In 9 months a human is born. In 9 months a gateway to Hell may be opened in one's own mind. In 9 months the dead may be born inside the living, only to kill the mother. 

“ And you will face the sea of Darkness, and all therein that may be explored. “

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Thursday, October 24, 2019

Review: To Wallow in Ash and Other Sorrows by Sam Richard.

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I would like to introduce a newer writer on the horror scene who I am sure will be making quite the impact, Sam Richard. He has recently released a collection of his short fiction and it is certainly a breath of fresh air in a growingly stagnant and inbred horror literature scene. A much-needed sense of transgression and real importance informs Sam’s work. This book is a testament to how horror fiction can engage in a real and honest way with real-life trauma and grief. When most more traditional fiction falls into condescending falsehoods and feel good fallacies, horror can be truthful, can convey feelings of deep hurt and shame, can explore secret thoughts and hidden wounds. To Wallow in Ash and Other Sorrows serves to author Sam Richard as an inner diary of his trying to cope and deal with the real-life loss of his wife Maureen Richard. It is full of self-destructive dreams and a terrifying longing that goes beyond the dark at the end of life. It is shockingly transgressive, a kind of self-inflicted sadism against the author. When you read about Baudelaire and Nietzche talking about writers who bleed out their prose, this is a perfect example of that. Each story is like a bone in a cage made of his dead love's body, trapping him inside. Wonderful and terrible Batailleian visions of diseased sex and universe destroying despair. 

To Wallow in Ash and Other Sorrows, at its best, is a series of feverish dreams and tormenting nightmares all centered around the death of a loved one, almost all the stories in this collection serve as a kind of self therapy through horror. The collection is a deep delve into the inner life of writer Sam Richard. It has an intimacy that balances with the horrors. Certainly not a light read. In some ways, I would compare this book to Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition and Bataille’s The Story of the Eye. It is completely an obsessional book, personal in nature, and an attack on anyone who opens its pages. 

It is hard to criticize such a personal book, but there are some criticisms that must be made. There are two stories that seem out of place in the collection. The Verdant Holocaust written for a Misfits tribute anthology, about strange rites and monstrous religions, is pretty over the top and kind of just meanders. The Prince of Mars was written for a Williams Burroughs tribute anthology, and again is an example of over the top writing, it may be of interest to those looking for more Burroughs homages, but to me, it just didn’t capture my imagination. And the first story, the title story To Wallow in Ash, is maybe too autobiographical, it seems that Sam is writing a memoir about his lost love, and then, in the end, it starts turning into a fictional story. Which sometimes may work, but the problem here is that the story never has time to seduce the reader into its fictional world, never allows a sense of its own reality, never allows an atmosphere to develop or allows the reader to enter the dreamworld space of a short story. We Feed This Muddy Creek starts off promisingly, but takes this unconvincing turn with super unrealistic characters and kind of random over the top violence. If you like the more goth punk early work of Caitlin Kiernan or the more Bizarro style of writing you may enjoy these works, but for me, they didn’t really work.

On the other hand, there are some masterful works in here. Love Like Blood is an absolutely nightmarish delirium of doppelgangers and longing. There are also shades of the films Ringu and Lost Highway in this tale. A powerful story that in itself makes this book a must buy. I Know Not the Names of the Gods to Whom I Prey is a descent into an inferno of self-loathing and self-destructive desire. It has this perverse sadomasochism that is so truthful and painfully, it’s like Sam Richards put his most hurtful thoughts directly on paper, I wish Clive Barker in his writings was so honest. Nature Unveiled, a type of end of the world story, is gleefully and unapologetically a revenge story in honor of the main characters lost love. Deathlike Love is a masterpiece of diseased desires and shame-filled infidelities, a story both erotic and horrific in the best possible way.

So overall To Wallow in Ash and Other Sorrows is a book that is both a loss filled dirge for those we most care for ripped away from us too soon and a celebration of the possibilities of horror fiction and how it can explore deeply personal horrors. I do think the book would have fared better if it just focused on the main theme, making the book a series of repeated nightmares of loss and guilt. The great stories in here kind of overshadow the others which don’t quite rise up to their level. But this is a minor quibble. To Wallow in Ash and Other Sorrows is one of the most original collections to have come out in years, it will arouse you, bring you to tears, and shock you, sometimes all at once. Life is usually a confusing affair, full of conflicting emotions and disturbing thoughts you would never share. But that is the stuff that weaves through this book like a burning contagion through your heart, flaring and destroying all at once. 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Guest Writer Brian O'Connell: This Horrible, Hopeless Machine: Politics in Ari Aster's Films

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This Horrible, Hopeless Machine: Politics in Ari Aster’s Films

Spoilers for both Hereditary and Midsommar below.
Ari Aster does not want to be known as a political director.
“I’m sort of loathe to expound openly about these things,” he said in a July Forbes interview, “because I’m not making a polemic.” In another piece posted on Inverse, he elaborated: “I know that I never want to make message movies. But a movie doesn’t need to have a concrete message to make a deep and meaningful impact…If the movie’s agenda is transparent, that makes me resist. A question well-articulated is so much stronger (and more trustworthy) than an answer firmly stated.”
Aster’s films certainly pose questions. Debuting with the critically acclaimed possession movie Hereditary in 2018 and following it up just one year later with the surreal folk horror of Midsommar, he’s quickly established himself as one of the most interesting and innovative directors working in genre filmmaking. Taken together these films paint agonized portraits of isolated, troubled people beset by terrifying phenomena: a grief-stricken Utah family in Hereditary, a dysfunctional millennial couple in Midsommar. Unbearable loss is the driving current in both, incited by sickeningly extreme tragedies early on in the runtime. The central conflict, then—witches and pagan cultists aside—is how the characters cope, or fail to cope, with this loss.
Aster has stated that the appeal of making genre films, at least for him, is having “the scope of a story match whatever the characters are feeling” (linking them to the tradition of melodrama). His primary goal is to express the individual emotions and lived realities of his characters, a feat he pulls off admirably. Hereditary’s Paimon, a demon passed down from generation to generation by an insidious coven of witches, functions as a powerful metaphor for the horrors of inherited mental illness. And the pagan cult at the center of Midsommar, which seduces Dani (Florence Pugh) into its perverse rites with promises of empathy and affection, disturbingly echoes her unhappy, codependent relationship with manipulative grad student Christian (Jack Reynor). But the metaphors of these films aren’t purely psychological. On another level, they are also stories of people inescapably trapped by sinister social orders beyond their control.
Hereditary, for example, is at least in part about the constricting power of gender roles: particularly societal expectations for women, and the imposition of outside agendas upon their bodies. Annie Graham (Toni Collette), our protagonist, did not choose to be a mother. In one of the film’s most painful sequences, she dreams a conversation with her son Peter (Alex Wolff), giving voice to her unspoken thoughts: “I never wanted to be your mother,” she confesses. “I was scared. I didn’t feel like a mother. But she pressured me.” The “she” Annie alludes to is her sinister, domineering mother Ellen, who dies shortly before the advent of the film but continues to hold the household in her vise-like grip. The major twist of the film is that Ellen, unbeknownst to Annie, was the leader of a coven of witches, and that their designs have been on Peter—not Annie—all along. The entire plot has been an elaborate ritual intended to place the masculine demon Paimon, formerly trapped in the body of Annie’s daughter Charlie (Millie Shapiro), into Peter’s more fitting male form.
All this is primarily meant to symbolize the passage of mental illness down through the generations, but it also has relatively self-evident gendered connotations that come into sharp focus when looked at through the right lens. Ellen forces her daughter into family life and reduces her daughter’s womb and her grandchildren’s bodies to chattel for the coven’s purposes. She’s a stand-in for a wider patriarchal society that pressures women to rear children and fit in their socially-ordained identities. Significantly, Paimon’s influence is transmitted through conventional moments of motherhood: we see photos and dioramas of Ellen's breast- and bottle-feeding Charlie, implied to be part of the long-running ritual carried out in the film. Motherhood, especially compulsory motherhood, is here depicted as a kind of unspeakable curse, part of a wider societal plan that does not have women’s best interests at heart. (In this sense, the film’s sizable lineage from Rosemary’s Baby is starkly apparent.)
The elevation of the very male Paimon as the object of worship here is also significant. Paimon, we discover, specifically desires a masculine body for possession, and becomes “livid and vengeful when offered a female host”. Charlie’s female body, his original home, is thus deemed insufficient, and her brutal death is engineered to place Paimon in Peter. Annie is similarly sacrificed, turned into a satanic puppet who saws off her own head in a grisly act of occult reverence. But Peter, far from a willing vessel, is also victimized by this design. He is deemed a suitable vessel not only for being male but being “vulnerable”: permanently scarred by his sister’s death, he is an ostensibly emotionally “weak” boy, evicted from his body to provide room for a more powerful entity. As in our own society, masculinity “is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others” (to quote a Michael Ian Black piece for The New York Times).
The twisted vision of a nuclear family we see in Hereditary, and the controlling faction that breaks their minds and bodies, is a distorted reflection of our own society’s conventional “family values” and oppressive institutions. (The fact that the coven is led by women—Ellen and Joan, played by Ann Dowd—has an eerie resonance of internalized misogyny in a time where 51% of white women voted for Trump.) The film upsettingly concludes with three generations of Graham women decapitated, their ambulatory corpses bowing to a ceremonially crowned Peter, himself nothing but a hollowed-out shell. Aster may be adding distinctly supernatural flourishes here, but the banal horrors of patriarchy are far from the stuff of fiction.
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The cult or coven, as we see in Hereditary, will always function on some level as a metaphor for a predatory and warped social unit. This idea is amplified in Midsommar. Though Aster is hardly explicit about it, Midsommar is more overtly political than Hereditary: appropriately, since it’s a folk horror film, and folk horror almost always derives its terrors from the barbaric cruelties people enact on each other, generally in the service of some groundless and nonsensical belief. In Midsommar, the beliefs are those of Hårga, a seemingly ancient pagan cult living in the wilds of Hälsingland, Sweden. A group of college students, including self-satisfied anthropology major Christian, journey there to see a special iteration of Hårga’s midsummer festival, which only occurs once every ninety years. The trip is complicated, though, by the fractious and crumbling relationship between Christian and his girlfriend, Dani: an anxious, withdrawn psychology major who is still grieving the tragic loss of her family in a murder-suicide. As the cult’s ceremonies grow more and more extreme, so too does the couple’s bond decline, till both ultimately intersect in a fiery, overwhelming ending.
Much of the politically oriented discussion surrounding Midsommar has centered around the portrayal of Christian and his male friends. And indeed, a large part of the film’s emotional honesty and potency is how mercilessly it skewers the brand of shallow, bro-dude masculinity espoused by the grad students. As well as functioning as a metaphorical depiction of the “apocalyptic breakup” Aster hoped to convey, the cathartic ending has been convincingly read as a feminist triumph over toxically masculine victimizers. But Midsommar’s other dimension is one common to many folk horror films: that of race. From the moment the students arrive at the commune and the camera smoothly pans over the idyllic landscape, taking in a panorama of abstracted buildings and frolicking Swedish youth, one fact is blatantly unavoidable: Hårga’s (literally) glaring whiteness.
Contemporary paganism has always had a troubling relationship with fascism, and Midsommar drives home this relationship more than perhaps any other folk horror film. Hårga espouses a return to ancient traditions, an emphasis on “preserved bloodlines”, and specific ties to the land: ideas common to most fascist and ethnonationalist ideologies. Their primary colors are blue and yellow, echoing the Swedish flag, “to make the point of how wrong nationalism is,” production designer Henrik Svensson says. Their community, while seemingly utopic, is founded on brutish acts of euthanasia and human sacrifice—but, as Jenna Wortham writes in her insightful piece for The New York Times, Hårga never sees anything remotely wrong with their behavior. “[N]othing is too expensive if it means the preservation of their village’s purity, their rituals and their way of life: a perfect metaphor for the historical violence and legacy of whiteness.”
There are three people of color in the film: Josh (William Jackson Harper), one of the grad students joining Christian; and a London couple brought separately to the commune, Simon (Archie Madekwe) and Connie (Ellora Torchia). The latter are the first to realize something is wrong, but their voices are ignored. After witnessing a gruesome ättestupa, wherein two elder cult members commit ritual suicide to the joy of the commune (echoing the cult of death, another component of fascist ideology), they immediately pack their things and attempt to leave, but individually disappear. Connie’s screams are heard echoing around the commune, and Mark (Will Poulter) even comments that he’d seen her running for the trees, but, pointedly, none of the white protagonists do much in response. Josh later disappears as well; not only do the remaining characters not seem to care, but the oafish Christian even sells him out to the cult elders and insists “we don’t associate with him in any way”.
The film hints at these tendencies with little Easter eggs and details that might be missed on a first viewing. On Josh’s coffee table in the pre-Sweden scenes, we see a bright yellow book titled The Secret Nazi Language of the Uthark, an iteration of the runic alphabet. (In the director’s cut, this is even more explicit: during the car-ride to the commune, we see the cover, which features a large swastika encircled by a sea of runes.) Also on the car-ride, the students pass under a large banner, which, when translated from the Swedish, complains of “mass immigration to Hälsingland”, and urges the reader to “vote Free North this fall”—an obvious allusion to Brexit, and more generally to the anti-immigrant movements presently springing up across Europe and the world.
Before leaving off, it would be wrong not comment on Ruben (Levente Puczkó-Smith), the cult’s disabled oracle, who has drawn considerable commentary. A member intentionally bred of incest to write Hårga’s scripture, the character has been accused of ableism and insensitivity—but this seems to miss the point. Ruben is not an object of horror, but a victim of the cult’s purposes. He is an individual subjected to traumatic rites he does not fully understand (he is present during the sex ritual late in the film), born only to continue Hårga’s holy text, which the elders dictatorially interpret in any way that suits their motivations. Additionally, Ruben’s presence stresses Hårga’s obsession with their “pure” bloodlines, which ultimately extend to the point of inbreeding.
Even Aster, cryptic about it though he may be, acknowledges these aspects of Midsommar. From the interview cited at the top of the article, he explains: “if you also consider Swedish history, it is a very closed society and what does that really mean? There are things happening in Sweden right now that are echo[e]s of things that happened in the Second World War.” When discussing his own work, Svensson is even more direct: “[the sets are] pumped up, fascist architecture-style. I find it historically and traditionally oppressive, and this place breathes with it…It’s important to note that just because Sweden was neutral in World War II, that doesn't erase the fact that there were strong Nazi sympathizers at the time, from the people on the street all the way to the king. This is still in some extreme way[s] relevant in today’s Swedish political climate, unfortunately.”
It would be wrong to call Hereditary and Midsommar political movies, and equally wrong to call Aster a political director. Nonetheless, social messages seep in. No film exists in a vacuum, and in the stressful and intense atmosphere of the past several years, it’s inevitable that the spirit of times will be expressed in horror movies. It is easy to feel like we are all pawns in one horrible, hopeless machine: controlled by our government, our social standing, our cultural values. One doubts, based on his comments, that Aster will ever be an explicitly political filmmaker. But the peculiarly fatalistic attitudes of his debut features speak to the moment all on their own.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge

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One of the aspects of dreams that horror films always seem to get wrong is that dreams are intensely personal to the dreamer. If one was able to watch someone else's dream, you would almost always find the dream to be completely incoherent with no understandable narrative. But to the dreamer, the dream is a deep delve into the most personal domains of hurt and desire. 

One horror film franchise that is deeply involved in the explorations of dreams and how we view them is the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. Like most franchise horror films that spawned a seemingly unending number of sequels, the quality of each film varies from almost achieving greatness to utter stupidity. Growing up I must have seen most of these films dozens of times, except for one, which as a teen I found to be confusing and seemingly out of place in the series. That film would be A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge. Well, after recently rewatching that film, I now think it may be the best Nightmare on Elm Street, beating out my old favorite of Part 3: The Dream Warriors. 

Part 2 opens up to a new family, the Walsh’s, moving into the former home of Nancy Thompson, some years after her family and friends were destroyed by dream stalker Freddy Krueger. The film centers on Jesse Walsh, a teenage boy who is seemingly popular at school but has some deeply hidden insecurities and confusions. Jesse starts to dream of a hideously burned man with a glove fitted with razors on each finger. This burned man, Freddy Krueger, has sinister intentions for Jesse. Freddy wants to take over Jesse’s body, so he can bring his nightmare world of murder into the sunlit real world. 

A Nightmare on Elm Street takes the central conceit of the first film, that Freddy stalks teenagers in their sleep and makes their nightmares real, and inverts it. In Part 2, Freddy wants to enter the real world and make everyday life into a nightmare. It makes Freddy into this kind of vortex of unreality. He seeks to subvert the normality of reality that we take for granted and twist it into something malevolent and delirious, to make the whole universe a nightmare. It’s actually a quite brilliant idea and one that I missed on my first viewings. One just assumes that Freddy attacks teens in their nightmares, so I was confused why people were getting killed in real life, I didn’t get the inversion of the premise. 

In the first two films of the series, the nightmares are deeply personal, completely intertwined with the main characters. Nancy’s visions of Freddy had to do with her shame and hurt over her feelings of parental abandonment and the fear of losing her friends. Jesse’s dealings with Freddy centered on his fear of his body changing into some unknowable thing, and his deeply repressed needs and desires that felt alien to his concept of who he was. The visual style changes from the first to the second film to capture this change in focus. A Nightmare on Elm Street has these creeping phantasms of Nancy’s friends in body bags, visions of opened bodies and the stuff that leaks out, whether ropy innards or slimy crawling things. Part 2 has these Cronenbergian visions of discarded husks and bodies emerging from bodies, all underscored by this subdued homoerotic tension. 

How great would it have been if the A Nightmare on Elm Street series had kept going with the premise that Part 2 brought? That Freddy, and the actual framework of the film, was actually shaped by the fears and secret desires of the main protagonist. Instead, we got a wise-cracking anti-hero that spewed one-liners while finding new and ever more over the top ways to kill teenagers. There is a seriousness to the first two films that gets lost along the way. Freddy is more malicious, he isn’t saddled down by the ridiculous expectations of the later films. He is allowed to actually be scary. The first A Nightmare on Elm Street had a brilliant idea with the killer who stalks you in your nightmares, but was hampered by Wes Craven's directing style. While a lot of the imagery was beautifully surreal and disturbing, the pacing and the editing was just too fast, the film never allowed any kind of dream-like atmosphere to emerge. Anytime a scene started to get interesting, he would immediately turn it into a chase scene, killing the mood. Part 2 fixes the problems of the first one. This one has atmosphere to burn. The scene of Jesse sneaking into his sister's room, possessed by Freddy, only to see his sister jump roping in slow motion singing, 1... 2... Freddy’s Coming For You…, and the look of utter horror on his face is simply devastating. 

I think that like Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, this one is due for a rediscovery by horror fans. A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 is a film that showed how much could have been done with the series. It pushed the boundaries of the franchise while also blazing its own trail. The film is both a vital part of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series and completely capable of standing on its own. 9...10… Never Sleep Again...