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Thursday, February 13, 2020

Review: The Untamed.



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In Amat Escalante’s erotic sci-fi horror film The Untamed, there are a couple scenes of the main characters looking off into the sky, with a look of wonder and longing on their face. But as this film eventually shows, human wonder and longing is no innocent thing. The beginning scenes of The Untamed show a slow-motion asteroid on its way from the mind breakingly far away and abysmal places of the dark Universe, on its way to fall onto an unsuspecting Earth. Then the film cuts to a young girl named Veronica being sexually ravaged by some strange tentacled.. thing. The main focus of the film centers on four people: Alejandra and Angel, a young married couple with kids, Alejandra’s cute and successful brother Fabian, and a young mysterious woman named Veronica. Alejandra is detached and distant from her husband and from her day to day life. Unknown to Alejandra, her seemingly homophobic husband Angel is having an affair with her brother Fabian. Alejandra has a well-regulated life, she works all day at a candy factory and takes care of her two children. And while her husband is out at night secretly fucking her brother, she sits at home with her own secret and perverse desires. And then out of the blue, like she senses a rift in Alejandra‘s and Angel’s relationship, Veronica slithers her way into all their lives, befriending first Fabian, and then Alejandra, eventually leading the both of them, one by one, to a strange cabin, into a dark room with a old dingy mattress laying on the dusty floor, where in the corner lurks this strange alien being, Veronica promises them that what they are about to meet is maybe the most beautiful thing on Earth, maybe even the Universe, something that will free them from their lives of entrapment and thwarted desires, she brings them to feel its alien caress.

All the characters in The Untamed walk around like if in a dream. They do everything normal responsible citizens do, except for Veronica, they take care of the kids, go to work, pay the rent. In most scenes, their faces read like a blank slate, maybe with a hint of exhaustion from work or a bit of repressed anger in their eyes when they stare off into the distance. They are somnambulists, just sleepwalking through their lives. But underneath, they want to break free. To escape the trap life has set for them. They dream and they desire. They are bored with life and want to find meaning in sex and perversion. They want to fuck. All the characters freely fuck throughout the whole film, with the exception of Alejandra, who is too busy with kids or work to do anything but lazily lay beneath her husband while he fucks her. But after Alejandra meets Veronica, that will all change. Veronica is a bit of a naive character. She is awkward in social situations. She just says what she feels and does not care what people think of her. She uses her youthful sexuality to make her way through life, to get what she wants. She is a bit adrift in the world, with no family, no job, and no partner. But she has found something that she feels she wants to belong to. She is addicted to the thing in the cabin. To the point that it may destroy her. The alien thing arrived on the asteroid seen at the beginning of the film and has been hidden away in a cabin by an old married couple, a retired scientist and his wife. They look after it and they bring it what it wants, they fulfill its strange desires. They introduced Veronica to the thing, and she found meaning through it. But it has started to become abusive to Veronica, apparently, the more you copulate with it, the more violent it becomes in its lovemaking, and she agrees with the married couple to find it new lovers. So she first brings Fabian, and after Fabian is destroyed by the creature, she brings it his sister Alejandra. 

The thing in the cabin is a strange mess of tentacled horror and alien anatomy, completely nonhuman and abjectly disturbing. Something about being in its presence, makes everything living, animals, people, want to fuck. It kind of centers them, allows their most hidden away selves to emerge. It fucks you and enters you, running its tentacles over all your bodies and your various holes, taking you over with its own desire, its all-encompassing penetration. From the hidden away cabin, the alien corrupts all the characters, and everything it comes into contact with, for good, or for ill. When they leave the cabin, the characters feel unfulfilled with their regular lives, their work lives, their family lives, after knowing such a rapture, all other pleasures in life are found to be lacking. Veronica tries, reluctantly, to get away from it before it destroys her, but Alejandra has found new meaning in life, committing herself fully to her alien lover.  For the first time in a long time, she is truly happy, no matter what the outcome may be. By the end of the film, you understand why the characters keep looking up to the sky in wonder. If this thing came from the stars is representative of what lurks out in the outer dark, does the entire Universe just seethe and roil with creatures fucking? Is that the secret purpose of life? To penetrate and be penetrated? 

In terms of where this film stands in modern horror cinema, it obviously is some distant cousin to Zulawski’s Possession. The Untamed is certainly a more subtle and quiet film whereas Possession is more loud and in your face. But The Untamed does have several moments of strange beauty and dream images. This is a coldly gorgeous film. It shares with Cronenberg’s film Crash a boldness in directly representing sex as plot. In showing humans to be sexual beings in a very taboo-shattering way. I think that The Untamed would make a great double bill with Glazer’s Under the Skin, both coldly poetic films that explore the alien and the feminine in sexual/gothic terms. Also, this film has some of the most startlingly unnerving dreamlike imagery since von Trier’s Antichrist. There are images that will stick with you for the rest of your life in this film. The Untamed continues the new wave of arthouse horror films that take inspiration from directors like Cronenberg and Tarkovsky. Modern horror cinema is releasing some of the best work the genre has seen since the 1970s, and I think The Untamed continues that trend, being one of the best films to have come out recently, being both challenging and provocative in an era of cookie-cutter megaplex blockbusters.  An under talked about, under viewed masterpiece. Highly recommended. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Review: All the Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma.




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I wish I had read this collection sooner. It came out in 2018 and has been on my to-read list for far too long. I finally took the plunge and let me tell you, Priya Sharma’s All the Fabulous Beasts is an absolute masterpiece of strange eroticism and dark fantasy. On the outskirts of horror, comes this book of gentle nightmares, of loving tortures, and of bone-deep longings. Beings lost in a world of disappointment, desperately seeking some kind of sense of self, a feeling of belonging, some kind of transcendence. The works in this collection are inspired by myth, fairy tale, and urban legend. Shapeshifers, bizarre combinations of human and animal, people with hidden identities, all roam these pages, but, they are no different than you or me. What defines who we are? Are other people not as strange to us as a mermaid or a snake woman would be? And when we look in the mirror, do we not see some unknown chimera staring back at us? These tales of fantasy are presented with a strict realism, an attention to the nuances of characterization, these are real living and breathing people, not one-dimensional fantasy tropes. The themes of transformation and rebirth run throughout her fiction here, but her stories are not the usual horror trappings about ordinary people suffering hideous transformations. Her stories are about beings trapped in lives they know they were never meant to have, and finally escaping their traps or at least longing to. Sometimes what traps us are things like family, love, or career. And sometimes we are trapped by what we thought we were, by what we were told we are. Yes, they may change in horrific ways, change into something alien to them and us, but at least it’s change, at least they are free to be who they really are. There is this recurring love of the outsider, and a fear of settling down, of compromising. These stories are hymns to loneliness, to secret desires, to those who chose to walk down the shadowy path far away from the sun. All written in this quietly poetic, understated yet powerful prose.

There is a lot of great work here. Some stories I would like to single out are:
The Crow Palace: A woman is forced to return to her old family home after her father's death, emotionally detached from years of being away and secretly haunted by deeply buried shame. She finds a landscape of skies filled with black crows and a shocking secret long hidden away. 
The Anatomist’s Mnemonic: A wonderfully many-layered exploration of fetishism and loneliness. It balances a tightrope between erotic thrills and a surgical coldness that only a master storyteller could accomplish. 
The Sunflower Seed Man: Maybe the most “horror” centered tale in the collection. It’s one of those stories where you are reading it, wondering if the author is really going to go there. And when she actually does go there, it’s just wonderfully macabre and amazing. 
A Son of the Sea: A tale of a man who feels this longing for something he can not define. A tale of loneliness and the mysterious depths of both the ocean and the human heart. And when he does what he has been seeking, it is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful and surreal endings in all of horror fiction. 
The Nature of Bees: A true chimera of a tale, where most would find horror in a strange tale about a woman, alone and longing for physical pleasures, and the strange cult-like group of beekeepers she encounters, here we find unbridled eroticism and an escape from social mores.

I could go on talking about all the stories I love in this, it is such a breathtakingly beautiful collection. It shares some of the quiet tenebrous subtlety of the films of Val Lewton. And those who love the work of Angela Carter and Caitlin Kiernan will love the heady mixing of eroticism, myth, and cynicism in her work. Through the use of fantasy and horror, Priya Sharma shows us we are all strange unique beasts, and all the more fabulous for it. Highly recommended! 

Monday, January 13, 2020

Review: In Fabric


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Peter Strickland, director of Berberian Sound Studio, a meta-fictional romp about a sound designer working on an Italian horror film slowly going unhinged or is it the film that is going unhinged, and The Duke of Burgundy, a poetic study of masochism and power dynamics, is a director who exemplifies the notion of the director as artist, the auteur. His films are so deeply personal, so explicitly obsessive, they are at once almost completely unassessable and completely alluring in their fetishism and necessity. He clearly needs to create these films, and we are the better for them. He is one of the few modern masters of cinema, and his newest film, In Fabric, may just be his greatest creation yet.

One of the hardest things to do when you review a film is to attempt to pick apart the film, to understand it so you can explain it to the people reading the review. But, as a film lover, you don’t really want to know a film inside and out. You want to live inside it, to submit to its strange rhythms and textures. In Fabric is a film that almost defies one's ability to review. It is this phantasmic collage of different horror tropes, all perfectly assembled without the slightest stitchers seam to see how he put it together. 

Inside this strangely disorientating clothing store, sinister whisperings can be heard. A cabal of seemingly witchlike retail workers enchant customers into buying their wares. Their sales pitches are almost spell-like, absurd poems of sinister salespeak. This beautiful score, something that sounds like it came from the heyday of the European horror film, envelops everything in its sensual embrace. One of the customers, going out on a date with a man she met on a dating site, buys a dress, something to help her hopefully catch a new man. But, this is no ordinary dress. It is this creeping, dread-inducing thing, a haunted, or maybe cursed, thing that lurks, silently floating in the dark. Meanwhile, this strange clothing store, sends out these television commercials, maybe diabolic transmissions would be a better name, a cancerous technology, dangerous to view, infecting the late-night stations. 

In Fabric is this weird mix of the old school ghost story like The Innocents, shades of elegant Euro-horror films like Suspiria and Daughters of Darkness, the Cronenbergian techno-panic of Videodrome, a strong dose of the schizo drug-induced humor of Adult Swim programming, and the experiments in terror of the 90’s Japanese horror film like Ringu and Kairo. And it plays as this aggressively surrealist satire. Meant more to disturb than make light, but without losing sight of the humor of its disturbing subject matter. Like Eraserhead, you could watch it one day and laugh your ass off, then watch it again the next day in anxious silence. And somehow this all works, and it works perfectly. I was amazed at how this film is all of this and absolutely uniquely its own thing. It just may be the greatest horror film of the 2010s. Its only competition being Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution and Eggers’s The Witch.  I have the feeling that I will be watching this one over and over and over again, a contagious film fetish captured on celluloid. 


Review: The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt.


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Sometimes the greatest of reading experiences kind of come out of nowhere. After reading all the books your friends recommend and just feeling cold to them, all the masterpieces that you could not get past ten pages into, sometimes you just pick up a book that you had maybe heard one or two reviews, maybe mentioned once on social media, you pick it up, take it home, and within a couple pages, you know you are in the hands of a master, after a couple stories, you know you are reading a new all-time favorite. I just had that experience reading The Dark Dark, a collection of short work from Samantha Hunt. I knew next to nothing about this book and was completely unfamiliar with the author. Now, as it stands, The Dark Dark is one of my favorite books. 

I think one of my favorite things that art can do, whatever film, literature, etc, is, as David Lynch puts it, “ leave you room to dream “. Samantha Hunt creates these seductive mysteries of narrative, these little shards of dreamlike delirium, always grounded in reality, grounded in people you know and maybe, just maybe, are just like you, and with just the slightest touch, a seeping unreality slowly creeps in, coloring everything with an impenetrable haze. You think you are reading one kind of story only to end up someplace strange and unexpected. I think to give an idea of what her work is like, you would take the extreme ambiguity of Aickman, then take the willfully corrupted narratives of Evenson, and add a pinch of the playful meta-narratives of Calvino. Which is to say, Samantha Hunt’s work here is challenging and thought-provoking to say the least. These stories are kind of like some strange creature, recombined from familiar animals into something strange and compelling, like a chimera or a manticore. You think you know what you are seeing, then the landscape of skin and flesh changes, and you wind up in the dark, entangled in strange limbs and just falling into darkness.

To give an example of the stories in The Dark Dark, one of the tales, All Hands, concerns a coast guard officer inspecting a cargo ship in the Gulf of Mexico. One night while on duty, he falls overboard into the black ocean, almost getting trapped under the ship. All around him, deep in the water, are thousands of abandoned holes, former oil wells. He is later visited by his lover, a teacher at a grade school. She just got done with a meeting with some students and the principal of the school. Apparently, there has been an unexplained outbreak of teenage pregnancies. At the school, there are over a dozen girls pregnant, all seemingly impregnated at the same time. It’s also hinted at, that there may be a widespread epidemic of unexplained pregnancy, reaching maybe into the thousands. But all of this comes in underplayed plot points and hints. The story focuses on the inner life of the two main characters, their frustrations and worries, their desires and longings, you could almost miss the underlying themes. And what is this story about? What links these two themes, the abandoned holes in the ocean floor and the inexplicable pregnancies? There seems to be some subterranean meaning buried in the narrative, and you can’t help but keep going back, thinking about this story. Pretty much every story in this collection had me thinking about what I just read, hours later, days later, trying to figure out the mystery, trying to see through the fog and the obscuring gloom of the stories to discover just how deep they go, what meaning I can take from them. These aren’t just random exercises in surrealism, to be clear. These are heart-rending, subtle, powerful examinations of the human condition, at turns melancholy, despairing, cynical, or painfully hopeful. These are characters lost in the darkness of an unknowable world, but there is someplace even worse they find, the dark dark inside themselves.  

Saturday, January 4, 2020

The Top Ten Horror Films of the 2010s.



The horror film scene of the 2010s were this mix of post-Anti-Christ art-house horror, post-Ringu/Kairo creeping dread, post-Existenz/Crash Cronenbergian body horror, and post-Adult Swim bizzaro acid humor. Adult swim and streaming services like Netflix have acted like this decades midnight movie experience, bringing all the subversive pleasures of cult cinema to your television. And I think that horror cinema is actually in a great place right now. In a way that no one seemed to notice, while everyone seemed to be talking about remakes and franchises, we may have had the most vital decade for the horror film since the 1970s. While the 1970’s horror film subverted reality by exploring strange dream states and nightmares made reality, the 2010’s horror film dealt with a reality that has disappeared, a world of simulation and unrealities made normal. Central themes of this new era of horror filmmaking seem to be trying to find some semblance of the real or the human inside the labyrinth of unreality that we are trapped in, and the having to deal with an actual political and environmental nightmare unfolding every day on social media and the nightly news. And can we comment on what an amazing job independent film company A24 is doing? Almost half the films on this list were produced by them. All in all a very interesting period for the horror film. Here is my pick for the ten best horror films of the 2010s.

1. In Fabric ( Strickland, 2019 )
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2. Evolution ( Hadzihalilovic, 2015 )
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3. The Witch ( Eggers, 2015 )
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4. Under the Skin ( Glazer, 2013 )
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5. The Neon Demon ( Refn, 2016 )
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6. The Lighthouse ( Eggers, 2019 )
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7. Hereditary ( Aster, 2018 )
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8. Enemy ( Villeneuve, 2013 )
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9. 10 Cloverfield Lane ( Trachtenberg, 2016 )
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10. The Human Centipede 2 ( Six, 2011 )
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