We mostly talk about fantasy.
We mostly talk about fantasy.
Worst... lollipops... ever.
Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! It’s almost time for Halloween! And you know what that means? Stressing out about costumes, making the Sophie’s Choice over which parties to attend (basically an exercise in letting your friends know who you like most) and experiencing undue suspicion of apples. (Is an apple stuck with hidden pins healthier if it’s organic? And do child-killers have a preference between Braeburns or a Cox’s Orange Pippin?)
Halloween: the scary holiday. You know what’s scary? How my body can turn two, tiny Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups into a week’s worth of adult acne.
If it sounds like I’m anti-Halloween, know that I’m not. It’s just that, unlike Walrus Day, this holiday bears with it certain responsibilities, just like all the other more pious celebrations. Granted, one usually isn’t pressured to hang out with family members on Halloween (I actually like my family, but a lot of people have to settle for loving theirs), and no-one’s expected to cook lavish feasts (unless you count opening a fun-size Snickers “cooking”), but you are expected to have a lot of fun. This presents someone like me with real challenges.
Having never seen Offspring (Andrew van den Houten and Jack Ketchum's adaptation of the latter's novel about a Northeastern cannibalistic kin, who first appeared in the book Off-Season), I took its sequel's opening pre-credit sequence to be a phantasmagoric continuation of I Spit On Your Grave where the eponymous Woman retreated into nature after having escaped the tyranny of Man and patriarchal culture. Surely, Lucky McKee and Ketcham's The Woman is more than an accidental synecdoche for the original title of Meir Zarchi's classic, Day of the Woman. Their film is, at its core, another rape-revenge film, but with the twist that the victim is feral, so outside of man's law. The misogynistic repression perforce comes from a different place than horror's generic South, since its resident hayseed hordes are uncultured and would likely sympathize with the bestial Woman. Zarchi's victim-protagonist Jennifer HIll, on the other hand, was an urbane writer who had culture stripped from her by barbarous rednecks. The Woman has just as much dirt under her fingernails as those rednecks, her language isn't much more than a growl, plus she's a cannibal (a taboo even greater than the use of the contraction "y'all"). Therefore, her victimization is a form of structural violence, that which is the repressed base of the status quo. The central fear expressed by The Woman isn't in having the Woman's culture dismantled (as it was for Jennifer) -- for she is pure cultural Other and has none -- but that cultural normativity is structured around the primordial violence she represents. Hillbillies can't victimize her any more than animals can victimize other animals, but the nuclear family can in the same way that a suburban adolescent might torture a cat.
Following last week's release of Kelly Reichardt's languorous westerner Meek's Cutoff, we get Jim Mickle's not quite as languorous (or, even, as) post-apocalyptic vampire film Stake Land. It has more visceral violence (and vampires, of course) than the former, but enough contemplative wide shots of trudging through dull colored landscapes to capture the imagination of the average boring-film cineaste -- the kind who uses terms like poetic realism and lyricism, and, when reaching for the sublime, suggests Terrence Malick (or, if really wanting to prove his or her bona fides, Tarr, Tarkovsky, or Bresson). Vampire films aren't exactly made for this type (excepting maybe Carl Dreyer's Vampyr), but Mickle tries by -- according to many reviews that dealt with his supposed literary precedents -- grafting the subgenre onto Cormac McCarthy's sci-fi bildungsroman The Road, an ideologically boring version of growing up after the apocalypse. To wit:
- Now, it's perfectly true that the story of Stake Land is strikingly similar to that of The Road, the post-apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy novel that reached the screen last year by way of Aussie filmmaker John Hillcoat (except with that film's portentous, minimalist allegory replaced with an actual story). -- Andrew O'Hehir, Salon
- Fans of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road will find much to enjoy in this sombre and nerve-wracking post-apocalyptic horror film[.] -- Bruce Jones, The New Yorker
- Add vicious, voracious bloodsuckers to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and you have Stake Land[.] -- Maitland McDonagh, Film Journal International
Where Mickle's film fails is in its overreliance on the generic contrivances of plot, which I guess is what some of the critics are getting at with their use of the Malick meme:
- The Terrence Malick approach may be novel, but it probably isn't right for this material -- or at least not in the hands of this director. -- Josh Bell, filmcritic.com
- An odd, ambitious and only partially successful fusion of Terrence Malick poetics and 28 Days Later viscera[.] -- Scott Tobias, WNYC
- It’s an ambitious hybrid, grafting the ethereal, landscape-driven, light-infused beauty and naïf narration associated with Terrence Malick onto a tale in which struggle against supernatural forces is just one challenge of coming of age[.] -- Karina Longworth, The Village Voice
Personally, with the exception of Badlands, I've not found Malick's works to be anything more than kitsch with some fetching tableaux. (He's begun two of his four extant feature lengths with twaddle about the beauty of savages living undisturbed by the sea, for example.) In place of Stake Land failing to live up to a vampire film directed by Malick (or McCarthy's novel), I'd suggest it fails to live up to its most obvious source material, Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. The story is set in Matheson's world with its zombie/vampire hybrids, only moved westward and in a time just prior to his novel when more humans were still alive. Matheson's book doesn't have any more of a plot than The Road, focusing instead on the daily routines of its protagonist, Robert Neville, trying to stay alive. There's an entire chapter (the best one, in fact) devoted to Neville's earning the trust of a dog, the only other non-vampire still alive in New York. Unfortunately, Matheson is filed in the horror section, McCarthy in literature, so mentioning the former doesn't carry as much cultural capital. Though both authors convey how routinization serves to constitute and retain a sense of humanity, no one asks what The Road loses by taking out the vampires (e.g., Matheson's dialectic between racial ideology and genetics in the allegorical struggle between the last remaining man against a new race). Likewise, I don't expect to see any critics wondering how much better Malick's films might be if scripted by Matheson. Stake Land was in the position to ask such questions, but reverts to another man against monster plot, which it manages to diminish further by giving it a personal revenge twist, saying not much about man, monster or the boy having to grow up in this milieu.
Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's homage to the giallo genre was filmed on Super 16, but what I saw was from a really crummy digital source. It looked like a theatrically sized YouTube video. There were so many of those digital Lincoln logs that Inland Empire now compares favorably to Casablanca. At times, there was little more than some blur of color being eaten by a surrounding black blob. (For the record, the digital Carlos looked a lot better than this.) So see a 35 mm print if possible.
Style is substance in Amer, just as it was for Seijin Suzuki, who would elide generic contrivances in his yakuza action films with radical cuts and by omitting psychological development, assuming the audience would fill in the details. Cattet and Forzani take a similar approach, but because they're working within a psychosexual genre, they omit sociological filler (friends, jobs, etc.) and drive the film inwards. Freeing the narrative from external, objective constraints and a rational narrative structure, the giallo is reduced to pure primal desire, which has always been its most appealing feature, anyway. However, they more or less replace the genre clichés with ones from psychoanalytic film theory. Ana, the protagonist, likes to watch, but really wants to be watched (she, of course, sees her parents in coitus -- the second primal scene of late, the other being in Enter the Void). She wants to be captured, bound and punished, as fetishized by the recurring presence of a black glove and shaving razor. And behind every masochist is the death drive, which begins to show up early on in Ana's fascination with her grandfather's corpse. (If it weren't for artists, would we still need Freud?) All of which is sexualized and stylized in a surrealistic montage of saturated hues, body parts and objects, conjoined by the sounds of metal scraping, leather squeaking, heavy breathing and the directors' favorites tunes from Italian cinema (Morricone, Nicolai, Cipriani, etc.). Some scenes are indeed perversely beautiful (particularly where a face gets symmetrically sliced up), but there are far too many close-ups to create any real horror or suspense. It feels like a perfume commercial borrowing from Argento instead of Resnais, with the hypnagogia of Chanel or Gucci.