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Friday, July 29, 2022

Review: Pornography for the End of the World by Brendan Vidito


What purpose does horror literature serve? To frighten, to make you turn on the lights and shiver at what could be waiting in the shadows outside? To make you wonder at what sort of strange beings may exist out there in the limitless dark of the universe? To make you look at your own body and feel a sense of vertigo at how alien, how removed you really are from your flesh? Yes and yes and yes. But also horror literature serves as a kind of celebration of the dark, a sort of eroticism of the inhuman and the unnerving. And I do fully mean it when I say eroticism. Are Sacher-Masoch and George Bataille so far removed from H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti? Is the exploration of the strange skeletal womb of the derelict spaceship in Alien so far removed from the exploration of so many spread legs of countless pornographic films? 

And with this, we come to the intertwined connection of eroticism and horror. And we come to Brendan Vidito’s new collection of horror tales aptly named Pornography for the End of the World. Brendan is a up and coming talent in the horror literature scene. This is his second collection after the also aptly named Nightmares in Ecstasy. Brendan is a connoisseur, and his fiction reads as love letters to the genre he is obsessed with: Horror. You can see all kinds of influences that he unabashedly plays with and explores. Silent Hill. Junji Ito. Hellraiser. David Cronenberg. Ramsey Campbell. All fetishistic names and titles in Brendan’s world. In this way, Brendan follows in a tradition established by such writers as Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber, and Karl Edward Wager, in experimenting with forms and genres, paying homage and using influence to further the genre, and most of all showing an absolute delight in the pleasures and possibilities of fantasy and horror. 

Pornography for the End of the World is a collection of what I can only take to be, Brendan's own cherished nightmares. From the body-changing carnal desires of The Chimera Season with its hints of polyamory and sexual swinging, Mother’s Mark with its exploration of objectification of sexual partners, and Walking in Ash with its fantasies of seeing the death of your loved one, Brendan is not afraid to use the horror genre to explore taboo areas of sex and hunger. Also contained in Pornography for the End of the World are tales of a more dark and pessimistic tone. Apate’s Children focuses on abuse and the ramifications of being an abuser and Glitterati Guignol is a survival horror epic of desperation and fear. And I think the two masterpieces of the collection are The Living Column, an absolute masterpiece of cosmic horror, worm-infested body horror, and an ecstatic delving into perversion, and The Human Clay, a surreal mixture of cum soaked technology and aberrant flesh. This is a pornography of horror in all the best ways. Brendan is fetishistic and obsessive with his love of horror, and I think the brave reader will delight in getting lost in the psychosexual landscapes of Pornography for the End of the World. 

Like Max Renn falling through the endless depths of Videodrome, Brendan Vidito takes the reader on his own explorations of hallucinatory and erotic horror. Like Max Renn, you will be confused at first, but then after a while, you will enjoy the pleasures of trying new things. I fully feel that Pornography for the End of the World is one of the best collections to have come out recently and fully expect Brendan to keep cultivating and producing these most elegant and delightful of nightmares. Encore Brendan… encore…

Monday, June 13, 2022

Review: North American Lake Monsters

Let me just say this right up front. Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters is one of the greatest horror collections ever published. An absolutely unique voice, deeply fleshed-out characters, and plot lines that will both break your heart and shock you. Nathan’s focus is on the regular 9-5 “common person” trying to get by. One of the major themes of the collection is characters who are trying to find some kind of compromise. Things are never gonna be great, but is there a way to make life worth living, and what price do you have to pay? To learn to live with compromise, to take what you can get, to learn to be happy with the only choices you have, to live with the decisions you make, is the crux of many of these tales. Also, a major theme in this collection is failure. When confronted with the supernatural, with malignant evil or forces beyond your control, human beings… fail. They cry and they beg and they run. And somehow Nathan manages to mix such bleak themes with a poetic beauty, these are gorgeous stories of heartbreak and ruin. 

Nathan reminds us that the horror tale is not just one of cultivating fear or providing the reader with a fun rollercoaster ride of adrenaline. Here the horror tale explores the ways we are transformed by the dark, by the strange horrors we can find ourselves lost in. How dark can things get and still be able to find a way to live with it. There is a strong feeling of despair to these stories, things will never be what you had hoped they would be. His writing is a prose of pain, of emotion. Of rending hearts and silent cries alone in the night. His mastery of character is so rare in horror fiction. Breaking from the tradition of Lovecraft and Ligotti, his stories revolve around the characters. They are absolutely real, as you read his work you feel like one of these characters could have been someone you worked with or had talked to briefly at the bus stop. 

Nathan is a master of the elliptical tale. His stories in this are never what you think they will be about from a brief plot description or the beginning pages of the tale. He is not interested much in big exciting set pieces here. Here he delves into the most private thoughts of his characters, the secrets that they will tell no one, the shames and the regrets that fester in their soul. These are explorations of humanity, raw and unfiltered. You see yourself, in your most private and exposed moments here, facing the dark and the uncertainty of existence. Because you become so connected to the characters, because you understand their plight, the horrors in the tales are just that much more hard-hitting.

Some brief descriptions of the tales contained within:

You Go Where It Takes You. The perfect story to open up the collection on. And also one of the rare stories that actually emotionally messed me up when I finished it. It is a real sucker punch to the face. Absolutely heartbreaking and disturbing in equal measure. A strange man walks into a single mom’s life. He meets her at her waitress job at this run-down diner. This story of the vortex of darkness one can find oneself in, brought into your life by some strange yet intriguing man who promises to help you, reminds me of a Ray Bradbury story, but with a denouncement so bleak that Bradbury wouldn't have dared. When life has failed you, will you take a chance at a new beginning, no matter what the cost? 

Wild Acre. A tale of beasts and how we live with traumatic events we are forced to live through and how they affect us in the long term. When our lives are on the line, when our friends are in danger, how will we react? And is surviving no matter what worth it?

S.S. A young man trapped in a life of embarrassment and despair. When he sees a lifeline out, a monstrous path he could take, but one that is better than the life he is living now, is it right to take that path? A tale that is genius in the way it shifts in and out from harsh realism to subtle and surreal dream imagery

The Crevasse. A bleak tale set in Antarctica. An expedition team has to bring an injured man back to basecamp, but then encounter a strange hole in the ice, a hole that has held a secret for eons. The sounds of whimpering dogs lost in the eternal night. A homage to classic cosmic horror tales but one only Ballingrud could have written.

Monsters of Heaven. A tale of strange beings falling from the sky. Beings strange, silent, and... sexual. People kidnap these things, injured from their descent from the sky, and hide them in their homes. Some people even call these alien things... "angels".

Sunbleached. The lure of the dark and seductive and the price you pay when you get what you want. A classic vampire story told in a unique way.

North American Lake Monsters. We kill what we don’t understand. And sometimes we are the monsters of the story. A mood piece and an examination of how we react to the strangeness of our lives.

The Way Station. We live lives unknowable to others. And our private hurts and fears can shape our world in very real ways. 

The Good Husband. A tale that shows how bleak a horror story can be. It reminds me a lot of Bob Clark’s film Deathdream. Maybe a hint of Eyes Without A Face? A story that does not look away from pain but explores it to its limit. A real test of endurance, how much misery can a reader handle?

The world we inhabit is a bleak one. A vast infinite black emptiness hangs over our heads, and we scavenge on this cold dark earth for whatever pleasures we can grab before we die. But all the same, we try to love, to give, to nurture, to try to hang on to some small glimmer of hope. Even in the darkest of times. What hope can be born from the repulsive, the abhorrent? What faith can we find in this weak and failing flesh? What compromises must we make and what long-standing dreams must we leave behind to find some kind of happiness? These are the questions Nathan’s stories in North American Lake Monsters ask. His monsters are beautiful in their cruelty and loving in their malice. They represent something beyond the day-to-day life, the banal work days and lonely nights. They represent mystery and transgression. Something to long for and desire even as it ruins you. Smoking cigarettes, drinking whisky, desiring the shadowy and the inhuman, the poisonous things we do to make life livable. These beautifully rendered visions of a compromised hope, of a longing for more in a world of dirt and failure. There is an honesty to horror, an acknowledgment that the world is a harsh, cruel, and bizarrely unknowable place. Yet beauty can still be found. And hope, even in the darkest of places.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Review: Men

Men, directed by Alex Garland, seemingly came out of nowhere, a bit of a teaser trailer but that’s it really for promotion. His previous films, Ex Machina and Annihilation, showed promise as a director of real vision, an intellectual director with things to say. And now his new film Men is out, and I think with Men he has delivered his most personal and most accomplished film yet. There are also virtuoso acting performances from Jessie Buckley playing Harper and Rory Kinnear playing every man in the film, and a genius soundtrack by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. The film centers on Harper, a woman hurting from a recent disastrous breakup with her husband. He threatens to kill himself after she tells him she wants a divorce. He then seemingly falls ( he may have purposely jumped ) out of a window above her apartment, landing on a fence, splitting his arm in two, and bleeds to death right there on the sidewalk. An emotionally wounded Harper rents a house in a small out of the way village to get some air and some mental space. The house is gorgeous, surrounded by a vast forest and beautiful countryside. But while she is trying to get some distance from the trauma of the breakup she keeps running into these strange random men. They start off lurking around her, in the background, but then they start to assert themselves more and more into her life. They seem to hold some kind of bias against her, they all want to either want to degrade her or imply that she was at fault for her ex-husband's death, even though she has never met them before and they really shouldn’t know anything about her. They range from openly accusatory, to insultingly dismissive of her. And the threat of the men just keeps increasing to the point of them stalking her at her house and then trying to break in. The first half of the film is a masterwork of tension and slow-building dread. Then in the second half, the film escalates into just insane body horror and maybe even a nebulous undercurrent of cosmic horror. A lot of films falter at such a transition but the film’s logic is solid and earns it. What follows is a closer look at the film and does contain spoilers. 

All the men in the film are played by Rory Kinnear, all of them insidiously threatening to Harper and somehow all related in their disdain of her. Having the same actor play all the men certainly adds a subtle hallucinatory quality to the film that just increases its nightmarish feeling. From implying that she should have just given her ex-husband a chance to apologize after he was physically abusive to her and, that it may in fact have been her fault he died, to policemen dismissing her as paranoid when she complains of a naked man stalking her outside her rental. The men are an utter delirium of toxic masculinity. Towards the end they start to seem to have a joint purpose and even share the same wound after Harper cuts one down the length of its arm, splitting the arm in two, which is also the same type of wound her ex-husband died from. All the scenes of the men subjecting themselves on Harper have this creeping intensity and are just dread-inducing sequences. 

The film overtly is about the horrors of relationships and desire, after all, what is more strange than the person sleeping in bed with you? Seemingly a nightmare of brutish men that seek to control and manipulate in the name of love. While toxic masculinity is one of the main themes of the film there is an undercurrent of a differing interpretation. There are underlying hints, easily missed, that there may be another side to the story. Is Harper as innocent as she seems? Between subtle lies she tells to the pointed avoidance of any details of her and her husband's relationship before the breakup, the film pointedly does not fully back up the men as monsters thread, not fully anyway. What if the recurring men of the title actually are externalized figures of her subconscious? The film is both so allusive with its intentions and so over the top with its aggressive imagery you could make the case that maybe Harper is an unreliable narrator and the film is shown from some dark side of her perspective. Maybe she had actually wanted her ex-husband to die and the film is a projection of her tormented psyche? If you said that the film is actually about Harper in some way intentionally killing her husband, and the film centers on her fleeing from the externalized regret and guilt, personified as the monstrous, nothing about the film would have to be changed. The film allows both a reading of a woman tormented by a corrupting masculine force, but also hints that a woman's sexuality can torment and manipulate a man, to the brink of destruction and breakdown. Where the film shines is in its examination of human relationships and interactions, at their most nightmarish, and is brave enough to be unsparing in its focus. 

At the end, the men are shown to actually be pathetic and degraded, pleading with Harper to take him/it back. The men/thing seems powerless before her sexuality. The men develop female sex organs and start birthing and rebirthing themselves over and over. All the while begging for her to accept it back into her life. A filmic moment as powerful as similar scenes in Society and Eraserhead, likewise delving deep into a Beckettian horror of the body and its functions. The ending is just genius filmmaking, in the best traditions of surrealist horror, searing images into your brain that will live in your nightmares for years. Then the film ends on this extremely ambiguous note. Does Harper take him back? Or does she kill him and end this horror? The film refuses to say. It may read as a transgressive subversion of the “final girl” trope. You expect a badass girl power moment in the end, for the disgusting and abusive men to be defeated by a justified and therapeutic act of vengeance from Harper. But that is not what we get, which leaves one in a state of confusion. Is this film not what we were led to believe? Men ends not in predictable stereotypical cliches but in utter mystery.

Men stands as a new classic of horror cinema. A part of a new canon of classics alongside such films as Under the Skin, The Witch, Hereditary, The Untamed, Evolution, and The Neon Demon. With themes of dehumanization, the breakdown of a classical sense of reality, the collapse of the family unit, a revitalized focus on the female protagonist alongside the failure of the male hero, and a sense of an unrelenting future coming of failure and ruin. These films guide us into this strange new century as guideposts of where we are at and examinations of what is to come. 

Friday, May 13, 2022

Review: Richard Gavin's Grotesquerie

What does grotesque mean? A radical departure from the natural, the expected, or the typical. Absurdly incongruous. Fanciful, bizarre. In Richard Gavin’s new collection Grotesquerie, the book certainly lives up to the name. In this collection Gavin plunges deep into grotesquery, there is a radical deformation of reality in each story. He sets out to corrupt our safe worldview in each story, every time in new and ever more unsettling ways. Characters find out how close pure nightmare is to their day-to-day lives, one wrong step, one horrible decision, meeting the wrong person, and you may wind up in this place of profound dark reality. These are diseased stories, some kind of decay slowly, subtly rising up and by the end, the rot has completely taken over. I would also say this is Gavin at his most murky, and by that I mean these stories feel like drowning in some fetid swamp, water black with lichen and fungus, a swamp that has never seen the light from the sun. Meanings are vague and the stories kind of shift around in unexpected ways. These stories are abstract, diseased, surreal, and disturbing. This collection finds Gavin really going for the throat of his readers, these stories are meant to disturb and to make the reader uneasy. While in past collections his influences may have been more Blackwood and Machen, in this one his influences seem to be more Ligotti and Aickman, There is an insidious underside to these tales. A willful descent into delirium. Desired dooms and erotic anxiety. There is a sexual edge to some of these stories, a descent into perversity and the darker realms of fetish. This is certainly a more edgy Gavin, more of a drive to transgression and perversity than we are used to seeing from him. Grotesquerie may be his most horrific collection yet. 

These are tales with ideas behind them, this is intellectual horror in the best of ways. Gavin is exploring a certain worldview. Maybe he is also seeking a kind of salvation in darkness? His dedication to craft and his love for the genre is apparent in each of these tales. What his characters endure, live through, and survive may be dark and horrendous but there is revelation there for those who seek it. There are lessons to be learned, wherever in the lowest pits of hell or in the darkest of abysses, there is knowledge waiting for the adventurous. Gavin is one of the great names in horror fiction today, an absolute master of the literature and a student of the field. And Grotesquerie stands as one of the great works of our era. Here I will touch a little on some of my favorite works of the collection:

Banishments: which opens the collection, is a legitimate descent into nightmare. As the tale goes on it goes deeper and more intently into the realm of the surreal and the nebulous. This story never allows you to gain your footing and just when you think you know where the story is heading, Gavin twists the narrative again, leaving you lost in shadow and darkness. This is a tale of a coffin. A coffin containing a decayed and diseased form floating in a post-disaster flooded river.. The coffin lands on the black earth. The inverse of birth. A strange new kind of emergence presents itself. 

Neithernor: One of the weirdest stories I have ever read. A tale of a man looking for a present for his wife and the strange art… and artist he discovers. Written for a Robert Aickman tribute anthology, this tale shares Aickman’s reluctance to make his subject matter obvious while also taking Aickman’s subtle perversities and amping them up. One of the things the stories delight in, in Grotesque, is leaving the reader in darkness and confusion by the end, and this tale shares that perversity. 

Scold’s Bridle: A Cruelty: an absolutely delicious tale of torture devices, bondage and discipline, and desperation, all told in a subdued way, undercutting the debased subject matter. A rare horror tale that actually succeeded in pushing the edge and is genuinely shocking. This story stands out from the collection also for being a non-supernatural tale, almost a conte cruel of fetishistic dark erotica. 

After the Final: One of the greatest “tribute” stories I have ever read. This one was written for the Grimscribe’s Puppets anthology dedicated to the master of the horror tale, Thomas Ligotti. And I would be hard-pressed to think of another tale that so delves into a writer's work and works as this obsessive and dark love letter to the work of Ligotti. Full of subtle homages and directly engaging with many of the themes you would find in Ligotti’s work, Gavin is obviously a student and a fan of his and you can tell with the love and the care that went into crafting this tale. Just an amazing story.

The Sullied Plane: Horror erotica at its finest. Imagine Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, in its sexual frankness, meets Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, in its atmosphere of weird tentacled beings, things made of shadow, lurking just out of sight… but told in a whisper. Strange and secret couplings may or may not be happening behind the scenes of a family New Year's Eve party. 

Crawl Space Oracle: A tale of users and being used. Also, there is a slight hint of cuckoldry hidden in the background. A tale of a woman who connects with an old friend to try to get some financial advice, only to have the tables turned and for her to be the one to be of use. 

I highly recommend Grotesquerie to anyone who loves great horror fiction. Grotesquerie both pays homage to the long tradition of horror fiction and blazes new trails, creates new forms and new directions for horror to take. I would say this volume stands with the best works to have come out in this new era of horror. Grotesquerie, alongside Brian Evenson’s The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell, Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters, Adam Nevill’s Wyrd and Other Derelections, Samantha Hunt’s The Dark Dark, and Augustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh, all stand as a new corpus of horror literature for the 21st century. 

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Guest review: Antichrist by Brian O' Connell

      If we are to believe its director, the 2009 horror film Antichrist arose from the heavy miasma of a profound, debilitating depression. “There was no pleasure in doing this film,” he admits in an interview shortly following the film’s scandalous debut at Cannes. He speaks of having to force himself to write ten pages every day just to complete the project, of filming at half his ordinary capacity, of the whole experience being “a kind of hell”. And yet, he insists, the film is by far his “most important”, “made from what I would call a pure heart”. The apparent significance of this deeply personal background for him encourages an understanding of the film as atypically candid, indeed as confessional, as, in a word, honest.

Of course, there has long been a widespread, not entirely unjustified reluctance to take Lars von Trier at his word. His nearly thirty-year reputation as, variously, malevolent prankster, canny showman, sadistic misogynist, wannabe Nazi, visionary genius, shallow provocateur, and above all else—in an endlessly, tediously re-invoked cliché—cinematic “enfant terrible” has more than invited a certain degree of skepticism (to say the very least) as regards his intentions and means of achieving them. Antichrist has stoked this sort of controversy perhaps more than any of his other films. Featuring (we may as well get these things out of the way now) an infamous CGI fox who intones pronouncements of doom, explicit shots of unsimulated penetration and fake blood spurting out of a cock, and, of course, what else, that ghastly, wince-inducing close-up of a self-performed clitorectomy responsible for one of the most stunned silences in Cannes history, the film offers a veritable buffet of what many consider to be the very worst tendencies in von Trier’s filmography. Moreover, the central thematic strand of Antichrist’s second-half—an eyebrow-raising evocation of the age-old association between the feminine and the Satanic—openly courts the accusations of misogyny that have dogged von Trier since his 1996 melodrama Breaking the Waves. Was this not yet another cynical charade, a calculated provocation, even, to quote British TERF Julie Bindel, “the sickest general release in the history of cinema”?

Well. Without personally offering an overall verdict on von Trier in general—an issue on which, both as a great admirer of his movies and an individual troubled by his worst behaviors and tendencies, I remain as divided as anyone else—I would like to venture that, at least with this film, he has been almost totally sincere. There’s no doubt the man is a troll, and even Antichrist is laced with a tremendous amount of sneering irony and black humor, but watching the film, his insistence that it was created in a place of genuine suffering and apathy rings true. For better or worse, the fogginess of Antichrist’s narrative, its ambiguous characterizations and sometimes inscrutable abstractions, the knotty tangle of troubling themes, repulsive imagery, and leaden, joyless despair with which every moment is weighted: all resonate with the absolutely draining and abject experience of serious depression, regardless of whether it makes compelling viewing or not. And feminist or anti-feminist, it’s fairly obvious that the mingled anxiety about and fascination with female sexuality and violence against women on display here is clearly something extremely personal to von Trier. Antichrist is one big, disgusting, indigestible outpouring of its filmmaker’s many hang-ups and neuroses, so naked and unprocessed that it’s almost unintelligible: and consequently, depending on your personal position, is either intolerable or utterly fascinating.

         For a tale so steeped in ugliness, the film opens with an astonishing flourish of visual beauty. Like its sister sequence in the subsequent Melancholia, the prologue to Antichrist presents a painstaking sequence of slow-motion images that evoke, to borrow a phrase from critic Michael Sicinski, “the exquisite, agonizing beauty of stasis”. Facing each other in the shower, the all-too self-consciously archetypal She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and He (Willem Dafoe) initiate a frenzy of copulation drained of its delirium by the solemnity with which it is shot. The molasses-slow movements and luminous black-and-white simultaneously evoke a sort of sustained paradisiacal ecstasy and an atmosphere of morbid, icy decay, nowhere more apparent than in the close-ups of Gainsbourg, whose wracked expressions convey a marked ambiguity between pleasure and pain. The couple fucks in a matrix of water and snow, the various scenographic accouterments (first a heater, then a washing machine, further on a tumbling glass bottle) acquiring a slightly absurd tinge as the sequence progresses. These devices serve a twofold purpose: to conjure an almost tongue-in-cheek atmosphere of soon-to-be-broken cosmic harmony, and to succinctly establish the domestic sphere which will prove to serve as the locus of horror and cruelty.

As He and She tumble from room to room, their erotic bliss seemingly unbound by rules of spatial consistency, their toddler Nic (Storm Acheche Sahlstrøm) wanders from his pen, observing his parents’ copulation with an unsettlingly wry smile on his face. Shortly thereafter he is standing before the bright open window, seemingly drawn forward by flakes drifted in from the wind; inevitably, he slips and falls, his terminal drop intercut with a close-up of his mother as her head kicks back in orgasm. The body hits the pavement, kicking up a funereal cloud of snow; her eyes gleam in release; the washing machine’s cycle finishes, signaling the end of this exquisite aestheticism and expelling us into the horrors of the narrative proper.

What does this alluring, impossibly macabre opening offer us? Grief, yes (probably the defining element Antichrist’s many “elevated horror” descendants have borrowed from it), but also the seductive danger of the natural world, the erotic thrill of death, and a perverse portrait of the nuclear family. There is, moreover, a gruesomely literalized allusion to the Biblical Fall of Man: and in Nic himself, one might well perceive the Antichrist of the movie’s title, an innocent son whose death brings about utter damnation and disaster instead of salvation.

These five strands—grief, nature, sex, gender, and religion—become intertwined in maddeningly complicated and often outright baffling ways throughout the subsequent scenes. It’s this murky, portentous meshing of unpleasant themes and ideas (which, I maintain, rings true to the muddled, gloomy mindset induced by depression) that has led some to dismiss Antichrist as incoherent. But to search for one clear throughline or allegory here is a mistake. Antichrist is instead a remarkably open and wide-ranging text, untied to any one single narrative or thematic strain: a horror movie whose simple set-up allows its filmmaker to hold a nightmarish mirror up to all manner of cultural myth-making surrounding human relationships and our place in the world.


        Take the words of the aforementioned talking fox as its basic thesis. “Chaos reigns,” it tells Dafoe, who has happened upon it consuming its own entrails. It’s the ultimate image of the film’s understanding of nature: a sadomasochistic hellscape ruled by a suicidal law of self-cannibalization. von Trier drives home this idea repeatedly in some of the most unsettling images in his entire oeuvre. There is the fawn with a stillborn fetus dangling from its sex, the baby bird that tumbles out of a nest only to be swarmed by ants, the acorns that ceaselessly fall on the roof of the cabin in an eerie echo of Nic’s death. “Now I heard what I couldn’t hear before,” says She of their pitiless nocturnal rhythm. “The cry of all the things that are to die.” Contrary to its (increasingly dwindling) popular conception as a self-sustaining ecosystem, nature in Antichrist is bent on a perpetual destruction that turns ever more inward, devouring its young, mutilating itself. It’s a law the characters themselves will eventually internalize as their sex grows more brutal and their acts more violent: a backdrop against which the gruesome destruction of their genitals, organs of pleasure and propagation, seems an almost obvious final consequence of a world in which birth only means death.

He seems to be disturbed less by the fox’s unnatural capacity for speech and more by the import of his words. He is, after all, a psychologist, a rationalist, a bastion of civilization in the primeval hell he has confidently taken his wife to. But just what civilization, what rational order is he working to defend? We see glimpses in the film’s opening act, before the couple arrives in the woodland that will prove the site of their annihilation. Taking his wife out of the care of medical professionals (a scene punctuated by a telling close-up of severed plant roots in a vase of water), arrogantly confident in his own ability to treat her without medication, we observe the mechanics of a callous and heartless oppression masquerading as marital love and care. During one of her early panic attacks, when she fumbles for sex in an attempt to escape her terror, he pushes her away, then clamps his hand over her mouth and places his heavy thigh over her stomach. His words are in the soothing, even tone of a therapist, but his body language emphasizes a violent domination. The implication is even more explicit in the sequence following her halfhearted suicide attempt over a toilet bowl, following which he drags her away and immediately starts fucking her on their bed, a cruel reversal of her desire in the preceding scene, and a contemporary resurrection of the horrific psychiatric history of inducing orgasms in mentally ill or “hysterical” women. Wheezing in agony, she vanishes beneath his heavy body, his pale buttocks thrusting into her in as unpleasant a depiction of heterosexual intercourse as I’ve yet seen in cinema.

The cruelty is not only physical but psychological. Repressing his own grief—we only see it visibly once, in the tears on his face at the funeral—he trivializes his wife’s by treating it in the cold, impersonal language of a scientist. She observes, in one of the film’s more melodramatic sequences, that he has only ever interested her as a specimen, that he is indifferent to his child’s death. He doesn’t respond to these provocations, his face composed and impassive, masking his feelings with a supposed neutrality that, in truth, is simple inhumanity. To cap it off, in a remark that seems to have been the most personally hurtful to her, She accuses him of having said, or at least implied, that the subject of her abandoned thesis was “glib”. Though he denies the accusation and the question is never returned to, his indifference and dismissal will give rise to his own undoing.

        The subject of that thesis, which we don’t find out until a marvelously-constructed “discovery in the attic” sequence in the third chapter, lays bare what is really at stake in his conception of civilization. The “civilizing”, “rationalizing” arrogance of patriarchal society has resulted in nothing but mounds of murdered women: a legacy documented in the innumerable woodcuts of witch burnings pasted all over her research space, and summed up by She in the simple, awful word gynocide. It becomes clear that He is a mere contemporary extension of this order, one which violently subjugates women to their role as wives and mothers and exterminates any deviation. The domestic paradise of the prologue becomes loaded with sinister meanings, an entire machinery of oppression manifested in the banal appliances of the household. We understand that She has lived with an awareness of, and possibly experienced (if only psychologically), the violence of this tradition long before her son’s birth. She is afraid of her husband—an abject terror hauntingly expressed in the film’s most iconic image, when He and She have sex at the base of a tree whose roots intertwine with pale, cadaverous hands. Here is the most succinct and searing illustration of the film’s understanding of the heterosexual relationship under patriarchy: it is to be fucked atop a mountain of corpses. And if her response is madness, is the deformation and possible murder of her child, it is only a product of the impossible double-bind between her existence as an individual (who loves and truly grieves her son) and her existence as “Woman” (with the consequent awareness of both her son and her husband as emblems of the patriarchal regime that tortures her). Torn between guilt, desire, rage, and fear, it is no wonder (by allegorical logic, anyway) that she ultimately self-destructs and conforms to history’s ghastly portrait of femininity, a hysterical, murderous witch who enacts a sexual terrorism upon the illusory order of Man.

It’s a doomed endeavor, of course. At the climax of the film, He overcomes his pain and strangles her against the wall of the cabin. The outcome is obvious from the moment he wraps his hands against her neck, and after only a brief, bitter struggle, She is finished. Watching this scene with a group, I was horrified to hear one of my male friends sighing with relief. It would seem that, by appealing to the outrageous, cartoonish violence of misogynistic stereotypes, von Trier has successfully created a scenario that can bait a male audience member into cheering on the murder of a woman. It’s a trap, of course. For what we witness is not so much the victory of one man over the forces that would destroy him as the brutal, barbaric reassertion of a rule infinitely more destructive and evil than anything She could manage individually. He burns her corpse like a witch’s on a stake, and the earth dissolves to reveal a multitude of naked bodies beneath the soil, the victims of a trans-historical campaign of murder in which She is now only one inconsequential chapter. The epilogue returns to the glowing black-and-white of the prologue, finding the man picking berries at the top of a great hill, feeding off the nature he strives to destroy. But his security is offset by what is the perhaps most intensely surreal stroke in a film full of them: the sight of thousands of faceless women, approaching from all sides, converging upon him. They are the manifestation of the sorrow, the pain, the fury of the many millions of women subjected to the brutal dominance of male hegemony over the centuries. It’s an image that’s terrifying, overpoweringly emotional, and weirdly funny in equal measure, a perfect summation of the film’s bizarre tonal contortions as well as its thematic concerns.

Against my better judgment, I have attempted to extract one possible reading of Antichrist in this piece. But I wish to stress how much of this film eludes my language—a difficulty that should be clear given how much of it I haven’t talked about—and how little it can be domesticated into a clear-cut metaphor for one thing or the other (least of all a cogent commentary on gender relations!). Most of its strength derives from its lack of clarity, its unpredictable digressions, and the troubling sense that it may be leading us toward some very dark territories indeed. Are we seriously being asked to contemplate the idea that female sexuality is evil? That nature itself is evil? That men and women are locked in an eternal, foredoomed battle? You could think about these questions for hours if you’re so inclined, and they certainly represent some of the more complex territory horror films are capable of exploring (though they’re usually all too reticent to: those descendants I mentioned earlier mostly lack even a fraction of this film’s bravery and weirdness), besides simply being part and parcel of the guaranteed Lars provocation package. But they’re ultimately less important than the rattle of those acorns on the roof, the fog that rolls across the dirt, the gothic glow of the camerawork, the morbid intensity of both Gainsbourg and Dafoe as they each move toward a confrontation with their worst selves. Fittingly for a project conceived out of depression, Antichrist first and foremost functions as an emotional (and sickeningly visceral) experience rather than one to be definitively understood or broken down. By that metric, it is one of the most remarkably effective and profound horror films I’ve ever seen.

Stepping back from all of the analyses, I’m attracted to the simplicity of Roger Ebert’s enthusiastic response, a response that hinged upon the simple idea, scrapped from von Trier’s original screenplay, of an earth created by the Devil instead of God. It is a “mirror world”, a world in which everything is wrong. A paradise that is hell. Sex that births death. Nature that destroys. Love that is hate. A lonely, disordered wasteland of pain, marked solely by agony and futility, through which Man and Woman wander burdened by the damnation of their knowledge, one an impotent monster of unfeeling sterility, the other a nightmarish wellspring of frenzied sexuality and despair. Trapped forever in the torment of their accursed Eden: a new creation myth for Satan’s church.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Review: Ringu


Ringu. The film begins with a young girl, haunted and scared for her life, having just watched a strange video almost a week ago that rumors say is cursed. A video that unleashes on the viewer a series of weird inexplicable images, and after watching it your phone will ring, with a sinister voice telling you that in one week you shall die. She is found, her heart stopped, her face distorted with fear. Then we cut to a reporter named Reiko investigating the strange occurrences surrounding the rumors of a cursed videotape, now circulating as a kind of urban legend among school children. Her investigations lead her to actually watch the cursed tape, putting her and her young son, inadvertently, in danger. She recruits her ex-husband, Ryuji, who has psychic gifts, to help her try to escape the deadly fate the VHS tape has put on her. He willingly subjects himself to a viewing of the tape, not believing in the curse, to try to find clues to help Reiko. They discover that the tape has connections with a woman named Shizuko, who was vilified for her ability to predict disasters, and her young daughter. The daughter, named Sadako, was said to have strange powers, the ability to kill with a thought, and was the offspring of the psychic woman and, if whispered rumors are true, something that came from the ocean, something that may not have been human. They find out that the young girl was murdered and buried in a well, killed by an ESP researcher who was studying the family and decided to make an attempt to stop her from unleashing her dark powers. Figuring that finding Sadako’s body and releasing it from the well where it has lain for decades would release the curse, they race against time to find where the well is and end the curse. They find the body, and Reiko cradles the skeletal remains, a child tragically long dead and forgotten, in a motherly embrace. They return home, the child given a proper burial. Reiko is safe now that the curse is broken, the week has passed. Except they are all wrong. Sadako comes for Ryuji, crawling out of his television set and completing her curse upon him. Reiko wonders why she was saved from the curse and he was not. Then she releases the only way to escape the curse, is to perpetuate the curse. So the film ends with Reiko, to save her son, willingly spreading the cursed video, thereby keeping the video virus circulating.

One of the all-time great filmic expressions of sheer dread, Ringu was a huge and unexpected international hit when it was first released out into the world in 1998. Almost singlehandedly resuscitating horror cinema which was in a steep decline in the 1990's and also influencing horror films for decades to come. From art-house horrors like Hereditary and It Follows to big-budget Hollywood horror like Insidious and Sinister, Ringu changed the map of horror cinema forever. Drawing influence from such different sources as Japanese horror films like Onibaba and Jigoku with their use of folklore and imagery, classic American and English horror films like The Haunting and Night of the Demon with their slow pacing and carefully curated sense of dread, and more modern films like Videodrome and They Live, with their critiques of technology and society. 

Sadako is the buried secret that modern society would prefer to pretend not to exist. She brings visions of ruin and decay, visions that she must have endured while starving to death deep down in the darkness of the well. She brings a foretold doom, the same doom she felt as the light dwindled into black as she slowly died in the wet earth. Her curse spirals outward, seething from a black hole in the dark soil. These videocassette transmissions were sent out, infused with some kind of black magic of the earth. She emerges a week after exposure to stop your heart. She is shrouded in mystery, her black hair concealing her face. A large deformed bulbous eye is revealed, scanning you like a video camera. The background static of the television roaring in your ears, or is that the sound of the never-ending ocean waves? There is some hidden, unknowable force behind this. Is it her father, inhuman, something that may come from the sunless depths of the ocean? Or is there some force behind the video transmissions, some kind of occult technological demon, shaping humanity with its corrupting media? Sadako is media as contagion, the fleshy corpse behind the seemingly sterile image of the television screen.  

Does video technology, unfathomably, come from the ocean? Does the drive of technological innovation have a darker origin than we are aware of? Who is Sadako’s father? Just what abysmal intelligences lurk in the alien depths of the Earth? And what dark purpose has she unleashed upon the world? The incessant waves can drive someone mad. And the intrusion of video media has completely taken over every sphere of human life. Ringu is a film that is shrouded in mystery. It hints at horrible secrets but never explains the nature of the dark heart beating at its core. To watch Ringu is to continue its infectious agenda. To talk about it is to ensnare others in its bleak orbit. What is the end goal of Ringu? Maybe we are doomed to find out as Sadako’s curse continues growing and spreading like a dark mold on the underbelly of our media-driven society.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Erotic Nights and Nightmare Cities: An Ode to Late Night Cult Film Fans.


           Staying up all night even though you have to work in the morning, watching Erotic Nights of the Living Dead for the fifth time. Life has not been kind to you. But the strange synthesizers and bone-thin zombie hordes coming down the beach after George Eastman give you some kind of meaning. The strange atmospherics of weird horror films and sleazy sex films become a reason to keep going, you work like someone already dead, but when you get a new movie to watch in the mail, the promise of transgression and perversion keeps you going. Then you continue on with Porno Holocaust and then A Virgin Among the Living Dead. Something in these films makes sense to you. They present the world in a way that refuses to lie. Seedy, sex-driven, brutal, selfish, like you know the world to actually be. This isn’t bland sterile fucking like in the mainstream pornos, and this isn’t boring funhouse hack and slash like in the Hollywood slasher films. This is perverse and bizarre. A decayed dream world that is both alluring and degraded at the same time. Alone at night when the world is sleeping outside your windows. The flicker of the television set in your dark room. You will scour through hours of garbage to find that one scene, that scene of poetic perversion, that will live inside your head for the rest of your life. Films from Italy, Spain, and Japan stack up to form a mini barricade around your television keeping out the banal sadness of the outside world. The smell of weed and cheap snack food fills the air. 

Work, doing the same meaningless tasks over and over for a boss who controls your life. The only solace you get is from the strange visions of some poor quality, blurry, low-grade horror film played out on your irises at three in the morning. Watching the maid get her hand stabbed to the wall and her head chopped off by a crowd of ravenous zombies in Burial Ground. Watching a vagina open up in a man’s head as he is taken over by an alien in Goke: Bodysnatcher from Hell. Watching young lovers run down and mutilated by undead templars riding dead horses in Tombs of the Blind Dead. These dark, sometimes surreally campy, sometimes deliciously malevolent, visions keep you going through your banal and slowly crushing life. These films offer you something you can not find in your daytime life. A real transcendence. The grittiness, the sweaty flesh, the ramshackle sets, offer a vision of real life that makes the bigger budget mainstream films feel like lies, like purposeful deception. We are born into some rotten and fallen world. We grow and we change. We fuck and we strive. We wither and we die. And these films show this in a way that Hollywood never could. 

            The characters who live to fuck. Debutantes and libertines walking straight into some abysmal nightmare. The strange creatures emerging from old forgotten graveyards, dark underground tunnels, unexplored islands, old abandoned gothic castles, among dozens of other locations. Creatures who are a mix of cheap makeup and ingenuous prosthetics. Like some ramshackle monster straight out of some deeply disturbing fever dream, they have a mix of the grimy and the surreal. And the naked flesh of the stars of the films, poked and prodded, stroked and inflamed. These films offer an intoxicating mix of occult mystery and sexual luridness. In Anthropophagus, set on a sweltering, sun-bleached island off the coast of Greece, we follow a group of tourists stalked and eaten by a maniac cannibal. The atmosphere is drenched in sweat, abandoned buildings, hidden catacombs, and a strange pulsing synth score. Anthropophagus is committed to pushing the limits of onscreen violence, offering sights that will shock and absolutely scar themselves in your psyche. In Nightmare City, hordes of atomic zombies burst out of airplanes, into television studios, through amusement parks. It is a film of an unrelenting madness, exploding out into the world. In Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People, mushroom monsters attack a group of shipwrecked survivors. Hallucinogenic terror and long past midnight camp humor converge into a singular viewing experience. There is something pleasurable in having your comfort levels pushed by these films, in the delicate scars they leave on you, the strange sights, and the weird ideas you return to again and again.

            The films unfold through the night. The night is quiet with everyone asleep. Just you and your stack of films. Sometimes wide awake soaking everything in, sometimes half asleep fading in and out through the movies, your dreams and the movie intertwining. Undead hordes descending on fleeing lovers, alien doppelgangers infiltrating a family home, a curse visited upon a town, creatures emerging from long-forgotten crypts, radioactive mutants invading an apartment complex. These are the visions you live for. In a world of disappointment and failure, these visions give you a reason to live. No one you talk to has any idea about the films you watch. They have never heard of them and they don’t care to. They yap on about movies sure, the boring big-budget action films and the oh so important dramas that they will forget about a month from now. But your films you will cherish for your entire life. You will watch and rewatch them. Learning every line, thinking about every camera angle, delving into every idea the film presents you with, memorizing each curve of flesh. Until they become a part of you.