Dueling werewolves

The 1980s were a good time to be a werewolf, or at least a lover of werewolf movies.  1981 saw the release of John Landis’ horror comedy An American Werewolf in London, which features what is generally considered to be the werewolf-transformation scene to end all werewolf-transformation scenes (and which won makeup artist Rick Baker an Oscar for his efforts).  Joe Dante’s The Howling was released the same year, also with makeup effects by Baker, and 1984’s The Company of Wolves (dir. Neil Jordan) featured similarly protracted—and artfully designed—transformation sequences.  I’m partial to The Company of Wolves, myself, mainly because it strikes the perfect balance of fantasy, horror, and eroticism, but I also keep a soft spot in my heart for The Howling, the film which perhaps best exemplifies Joe Dante’s ability to make tongue-in-cheek genre films that aren’t contemptuous of the genres to which they belong.  Where similarly meta-generic films like The Cabin in the Woods affect a cynical superiority to horror conventions, The Howling remains good-natured, affectionate, even slightly lunatic in its enthusiasm for werewolf movies (this in addition to its proffering a neat little send-up of new-age psychotherapy).  We might call that tempering of parody with affection camp, which Susan Sontag famously insisted was not motivated by haughtiness or disdain but was a fundamentally “tender feeling.”  It’s that genuine tenderness for the cheap thrills of the horror genre that makes Dante’s films so easy to love, and so much fun to watch.   


Steven Spielberg's ghost

Domestic disturbance: the Freeling family at home in Poltergeist (1982).

Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), which has been one of my favorite horror films since childhood, could be considered a knockoff of Stuart Rosenberg’s The Amityville Horror (1979) in that it concerns an American family’s realization that their seemingly ordinary suburban home is a hotbed of paranormal activity.  But Poltergeist is the vastly superior film, in part because it has a command of tone that The Amityville Horror lacks.  Poltergeist seems to me one of the most convincing portrayals of suburban American life I’ve ever seen in a movie.  Steve and Diane Freeling (played with a kind of quiet brilliance by Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) are like two grown-up hippies who have suddenly found themselves looking after three kids, a dog, and a split-level; there’s a loose, messy, sunny-California vibe to the house, which is casually strewn with toys and food wrappers and where Mom and Dad are prone to smoking a joint together in bed in front of the TV before they turn in.  The kids (played by Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robbins, and Dominique Dunne) are seventy-percent cute, thirty-percent annoying.  And throughout the entire film—not only, it should be noted, at moments when it’s narratively required that the film to convey this—we’re never unconvinced that these people are tied to one another by bonds of love and commitment.  Where The Amityville Horror is the story of a haunted house and the rather dour, miserable people who have the misfortune to live there, Poltergeist is the story of a family weathering a trauma together, in which the haunted house also bears memories of suburban bliss.

The messy-funny portrait of suburban domesticity that we get in Poltergeist, with its good-hearted, flawed, working-class parents and precocious kids, invites comparison to those that we find in films like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Is it any surprise, then, that Poltergeist was co-written and produced by none other than Steven Spielberg?  Rumors abound that Spielberg also helped Hooper direct portions of the film.  The real ghost hanging over Poltergeist, then, is Spielberg himself, who keeps making his presence felt in the form of those details of suburban life that infuse the film.  As in E.T. and Close Encounters, the supernatural intrudes upon that world in ways that feel unsettling and driven by a nervous, absurd comedy.  That comedy is one of the ghostly Spielbergian touches in Poltergeist (along with a scene that repeats almost verbatim Karen Allen’s attack by skeletons in Raiders of the Lost Ark, released just one year before; see above).  Of all the ghostly spirits hanging over the Freeling household, Spielberg’s is certainly the most benign—and the most powerful.


Profondo rosso

An image from Dario Argento’s horror classic Suspiria (1977), which I had the pleasure of re-watching recently in preparation for an undergraduate lecture on cult horror cinema.  Upon revisiting the film, I was reminded yet again just how visually striking it is, and how expressionistic its use of color, from the jewel tones of the stained glass in the opening sequence to the lurid red and green lighting that floods the inner chambers of the ballet academy.  I proposed to my students that Suspiria lends itself to cult appreciation because it basically privileges style over substance, eschewing the principles of continuity, logic, and narrative that govern most “well-made” films.  (Cf. L. Andrew Cooper’s recent claim that Argento’s films resist narrative altogether.)  I, for one, have never watched Suspiria for its plot, nor because it lends itself particularly well to interpretation; I’ve watched it, and continue to watch it, for its excessive, almost maniacal attention to the surface pleasures of style, atmosphere, tone, and mise-en-scene.  Its spellbinding visual pleasure—and its blatant disregard for realism—seem to exemplify the words of Professor Milius, the film’s Doctor van Helsing figure, who tells our heroine that “magic is everywhere.” 

The Films of 2013: Gravity

I’ve long been a fan of Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron: he’s made two of this century’s best films, the searing erotic drama Y Tu Mama Tambien (2002) and the beautifully choreographed dystopian thriller Children of Men (2006).  In both of these, Cuaron has shown off his ability to craft long takes of remarkable intricacy; watching Children of Men, I often found myself holding my breath, not only because its chase sequences were so suspenseful but also because they were so meticulously composed.  So, needless to say, I’ve been looking forward to Gravity, Cuaron’s latest, since I first heard about it several years ago.  The word was that this was Cuaron’s most ambitious project yet, a space drama that reportedly contained fewer than one hundred single shots, the first of which was said to run some twenty minutes.  It turns out that while those rumors weren’t exactly true (the opening shot is a good deal shorter than twenty minutes, though it’s still a stunner), and while Gravity may not number among Cuaron’s masterpieces (for all its technical wizardry, it feels somewhat slight by comparison with his earlier work), it’s certain to be one of this year’s most sensational and best made films. 


Happy Halloween

Halloween is fast approaching, which means that it’s time to revisit some of my favorite horror movies.  My plan is to share my thoughts about them in a series of short-ish posts—and yes, I realize that I just finished a set of horror-themed pieces not very long ago, but really, can you ever run out of things to say about horror cinema?  It’s a boundless, rich, endlessly fascinating genre, and of all the film genres it’s the one I’ve had the longest relationship with.  My love of horror movies dates back to the very first film I ever saw in a movie theater, Disney’s Snow White (1937), which I saw at the age of three, during one of its theatrical revivals in the 1980s.

Anyone who would argue that Snow White is not a horror film hasn’t seen it recently enough.  It’s true that a good portion of the film’s running time (maybe a bit too much of it) is taken up with cute songs and comic gag sequences (the Seven Dwarfs get a lesson in washing, etc.), but its most dramatically powerful moments are arguably those which concern the Wicked Queen, one of the great villains in the movies.  Her transformation scene, in which she makes herself over into the leering hag who will succeed in tempting Snow White with the poisoned apple, appears to have been inspired by sequences from silent horror cinema such as Lon Chaney’s histrionic metamorphosis in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  It’s also one of Snow White’s most virtuosic pieces of animation, with Snow White’s terrifying race through the forest coming in a close second.  I would argue, in fact, that Disney was at his best when he dealt with frightening or nightmarish material: witness Lampwick’s violent transformation into a donkey in Pinocchio, or the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia, or the Maleficent sequences in Sleeping Beauty.  Always scary and fun in equal measures, Disney’s horror scenes exemplify the exuberant pleasures of the horror genre—an ideal place for the budding horror fan to start.


James Joyce, The Movie, Part VI: "Passages from Finnegans Wake" (1966)

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the better cinematic adaptations of Joyce, and the only one to effectively capture the density of his late style, was directed by the avant-garde filmmaker Mary Ellen Bute.  Her ninety-minute interpretation of Finnegans Wake makes no attempt to flatten or straighten out the jaggedness of that notoriously difficult work; instead, it gives us a film that’s just as assaultive, raucous, and schizophrenic as its source.  Bute is perhaps best known for her formalist experimentations with shapes and colors, so even though her rendering of the Wake features live actors she seems to know instinctively how to handle Joyce’s abstract patterns and repetitive structures.  And she’s attuned to his humor, too, especially when it lends itself to translation into her own medium, as in the very clever TV commercial sequences.  Passages from Finnegans Wake doesn’t literalize Joyce’s text (how could any film do so?); it keeps it full, messy, and loud. 


James Joyce, The Movie, Part V: "Bloom" (2003)

Angeline Ball as Molly in Sean Walsh's Bloom.

The best thing that can be said about Sean Walsh’s Bloom (2003) is that it preserves the extraordinary perversity of Joyce’s Ulysses, which is to say its rootedness in the near-constant demands of its characters’ genitals and excretory organs.  Ulysses is a novel that suggests that, however lost we may temporarily become in the recesses of our minds, we will inevitably be pulled back down to earth by our lower bodies.  Walsh’s film, though governed by an egregious sentimentality, should be commended for making sure that Joyce’s excrementalism didn’t end up on the floor of the cutting room (as it did, for example, in Strick’s version).  It gives us not only Bloom’s famous outhouse scene and Stephen’s piss on the beach but also Bloom surreptitiously farting on the street and masturbating into his pants while gazing at Gerty McDowell’s legs and Molly hovering over the chamber pot in the middle of the night and imagining herself sitting on Bloom’s face and Stephen pissing against a wall in Nighttown, and on and on.  One is almost inclined to excuse the film its shortcomings—the strained quality in the acting, the badly synthesized music, the questionable casting choices—on behalf of its ability to recognize the scatological fervor at the heart of Joyce’s novel.