Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Patreon Post: Fun Horror

By Gemma Files, for Patreon

My Facebook friend Daniel Braum calls fun horror "the smallest category in [his] genre food pyramid," but to me, that's the category from which all Halloween playlists should be programmed. Because Halloween is mostly about a celebration of horror culture, it should embrace the grotesque and spectacular—the monster movies/mashes, classic and otherwise, from Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow or Dark Shadows to the original Universal Invisible Man, Mummy, Wolf Man, Frankenstein and Dracula variants, all those ones people usually complain “aren't very scary.” The Nightmare Before Christmas end of the scale, in other words.

Let's pause for a moment to examine this particular complaint, however, since it's one I've also seen levelled at almost every new horror film anybody makes the amateur mistake of telling somebody else they enjoyed online, at one point or another. Immediately, a horde of people will show up to put your enjoyment in context, assuming that their lack of enjoyment vis-a-vis the same thing must necessarily trump it: How could you like that crap, let alone proselytize for it? is the clear implication. As though a horror film's sole function was to frighten across the boards, and any film that claims to be horror which doesn't is just a big, creepy joke being played at their expense. As though any narrative, horror or not, could ever hope to produce exactly the same effect in every person who encounters it.

Consider the jump-scare, that bane of modern horror—a classic bait-and-switch once used to great effect in movies like Val Lewton's Cat People (1942): through careful cueing, a character/the audience is led to expect something (direct threat) before suddenly being given something else (not that, not at all). The scare in question might be as elaborate a set-up as a New York City bus abruptly pulling up right next to the woman who's just spent five minutes thinking she's being stalked by a panther while simultaneously making almost the same sound such an animal might emit as it pounces, or as simple as a lost pet falling on you from an upper cupboard, a noise in the dark loud enough to make anybody flinch, or a child in a mask jumping out to scream in your face sheerly for the pleasure of watching you freak out.

Most people agree that jump-scares are the lowest rung on the ladder of purely autonomic horror responses, the simplest possible effect to achieve—and that, no doubt, is why genre-literate horror fans have become so reflexively contemptuous of them rather than delighted by them. Other such autonomic effects include low-decibel sound to create a mood of impending doom, use of frame, darkness contrasted with dimly-seen or out-of-focus images, whip-pans, sudden appearances in mirrors, et cetera...all the myriad ways in which filmmakers try to trick us into mistaking something normal for something not, a long-established vocabulary of fright developed over almost a hundred years of Hollywood film history. Unfortunately for genre fans, however, the more you encounter these techniques, the easier they become to recognize in action—until that recognition itself, eventually, serves to defuse or callus over the same inherent human fight-or-flight prey reflexes on which the techniques rely most directly to work.

So we ask ourselves, as horror fans, what are these tricks being used in aid of, exactly? Are they tools being used to construct something, some greater argument/narrative, or is the point of the exercise the use of the tools themselves? Are these mere mechanics what make up the mechanism itself, in its entirety? When we talk about something being a simple “thrill ride,” this is what we're saying—that while the film may work moment to moment, it contains nothing we can take away from it, nothing which will make us want to take that particular trip again. That it's a haunted mansion without a ghost, empty as any given cartoon Halloween Disney ride, and we should feel bad for even meeting it halfway.

Or, to put it another way: I was scared on an autonomic level by Annabelle: Creation because it does these particular things very well, but does that make it a “good” movie, enduringly so? Probably not, objectively, any more than making me cry makes a movie from some other genre “good”...I'm easy like that, annoyingly. All you have to do is press in the right places, and it's like turning on a faucet.

One reason that people who otherwise love the genre of cinematic horror may start to have a flinch/cringe reflex around so much of its established vocabulary is that the jolt of “seeing the strings” often causes them to assume there's nothing there but a big ball of string. For me, even though the more often I view something I already enjoy, the more strings I see—those moments in Blade and From Dusk 'Til Dawn where Stephen Dorff and George Clooney get switched out for their stunt doubles, for example—it actually somehow increases my affection for those things, instead of diminishing it. It's like a bad retro haircut on an old familiar friend.

So we have to ask ourselves: is the goal simply to scare people, or is the goal to make them afraid—aware of their own fears, their own mortality, the things they don't know and never will? To make them question themselves, their own sense of reality; to put them in a bad place, then help them back out of it? Or not, depending. I'd argue it's always the latter, or should be, because the latter is far, far more difficult to achieve. Not that anything's inherently wrong with the former, if that's all you want to do, but that means you're going to end up creating something that probably passes right through people, pretty much undigested—you won't get a lot of repeat business. It's the repeat business that we all long for, though; whatever that itch is that makes you want to scratch, and re-scratch. To return to the moment of your own fright and study it, break it down so you can figure out why it works for you, and—hopefully—how to make it work for somebody else.

As my husband Stephen J. Barringer points out, when you define your genre by its subjective effect rather than its objective content, you will always run into trouble convincing people who are genre-literate to look deeper once that effect wears off for them. Which explains why “It's not scary” is, from my POV, an evaluation so subjective as to be empirically useless as a mode of assessment. In my own work, I concentrate on what scares me personally, what disturbs me most, and trust that there'll be people out there in my prospective audience for whom it works the same way...and as for the rest, well, fuck 'em. They're not for me and I'm not for them; it happens. It is, in fact, life.

What might be threatening about this methodology beyond the fact of mere rudeness, however, is that it's sort of the reverse of the logic that people who complain about being triggered in some way appear to be employing; by pressing on my own scabs, I feel as though what I'm trying to do is to tell all the people out there who jump at the same things that their response is valid: their fear, their pain, their grief, their hurt. Their wounds. That pressing on those wounds—embracing and familiarizing oneself with pain, rather than avoiding it—may be, in the end, more helpful than not, because it has been for me. And if they can't make that leap with me, I understand, but it's never going to stop me from doing it—because, on some level, I need to. Like Joan Didion, I need to write about things to understand what I think about them, and in a way, my fiction can be read as a series of metaphorical essays about certain moments in my life.

As I've said before, turning things into fiction gives me retroactive control over them. I can change how I remember things, and de-fang them in the process. E.M. Forster said it very well: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say [about anything]?” This applies to most types of writing, in all genres—personal honesty and delight in your own storytelling trumps mere cold mechanics, especially when reduced to pure tropery in hopes of reaching the widest possible audience. It's the theory behind PG horror, supposedly—but always remember, by today's standards, Rosemary's Baby is PG. The Exorcist is PG. It doesn't necessarily have to mean what we've all been trained to think it means, in other words: to pitch your story only to some amorphous mass of white, straight, mainstream teenagers out there in the dark somewhere, never thinking—never recognizing—that some of those teenagers might in fact grow up to be people like me (and you, I can only assume).

One of the biggest advantages of horror is that, like erotica, its fundamental techniques are inexpensive and you will always find a market for the type of thing you're selling. In fact, the people you end up targeting will be so happy to see themselves reflected back, centre-stage at last, that they will respond with instantaneous affection—and better yet, they'll spend as much of their money on you as you want to take, just to get another hit of that good stuff, the stuff that's for them. It's a crass way to put it, but it's true. It's like flipping a house—you can get out of it far more than you put in, depending on what you put in.

So...with the whole “but it's not scary!” thing hopefully gotten out of the way, let's go back to the idea of “fun horror” in general—what's so fun about it? For me, it all boils down to the element of delight: what makes a horror film “fun” is that it's someplace I want to inhabit over and over, to explore as I would a landscape, or re-play as I would a curated playlist. The entries on such a program would have to consist of films that each represent a bunch of strung-together moments I thoroughly enjoy, pretty much from beginning to end. They might range from eccentric picks like Big Trouble in Little China (aka John Carpenter Does Urban Wuxia, at least in my house), with its crazy pacing, screwball comedy dialogue and genuinely weird supernaturalism, to supposedly mainstream stuff like Paul W.S. Anderson's Event Horizon, which doesn't in any way set out to be funny yet nevertheless ably manages to juggle both Hellraiser In Space antics and deadpan action-film comic timing throughout. (After having finally viewed the titular lost ship's final space-bending hell-dimension body horror flesh apocalypse log entry, badass space-rescue captain Laurence Fishburne has only one thing to say: “We're leavin'!”)

Most of Clive Barker's work qualifies, to my mind, because it takes place inside a clear horror universe where magic is to some degree routine: Hellraiser, Hellbound, Lord of Illusions, Nightbreed. In Barkerlandia, even relatively “normal” impulses, like cheating on your boring-ass American husband with his dirty yet sexy-ass brother, lead not to divorce so much as to, oh, say, being flayed alive and torn apart by the demon Leviathan's representatives, then put back together by an insane psychiatrist who conjures your living corpse out of a mattress watered with the blood of a self-harming psychotic. It's all about the truly big issues, in other words: Immortality and destruction, transformation and transfiguration. As John H. Frank observes, in Lord of Illusions the “fun horror” is front-loaded by concentrating on Scott Bakula's black magic P.I. Noir shenanigans while the back half eventually turns out to involve pure cosmic Gnostic nihilism, as Aleister Crowley/Charlie Manson-style cult leader Nix announces: “I was born to murder the world.”

With a lot of my Fun Horror faves, gore is a given, since once you push things past a certain level everything tends to take on a Grand Guignol quality of inventive nuttiness. Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn is as much a slapstick comedy as it is a horror film, and I love it for that—both sides of the pie are equally valid; I'd also throw Fede Alvarez's equally gonzo yet totally straight-faced re-visioning of the original Evil Dead into the mix, noting that its French title is something like L'Opera des Terreurs. But then there's Dan O'Bannon's punk extravaganza Return of the Living Dead, in which we learn that nihilism won't help in the face of mucky, brain-eating tar-man zombie attacks, that apparently “It hurts to be dead!” (which is why zombies want to eat those damn brains in the first place, who knew?), and that no matter how shitty a part of town you're calling from or how decayed your voice sounds when you say it, some moron down at the 9-1-1 answer line will always “ssssend... morrrrre... PARAMEDICS.

(Always remember, O'Bannon also wrote the screenplay for Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce, which adapts Colin Wilson's The Space Vampires into the best schlock sci-fi horror movie Hammer never made. The end result plays somewhat like a Nigel Kneale softcore, and is probably best known for its liberal use of the often completely-nude Mathilda May, in her English-film debut, and her amazing gravity-defying breasts. The moments that have stayed with me the longest, though, are the hellish spectacle of thousands of zombified Londoners simultaneously energy-vampirizing each other while crumbling to dust at top speed as the space vampires' umbrella-shaped ship sucks up their residue, counterpointed with that one time our protagonists try to locate May's astral form by slapping possessed lunatic asylum director Patrick Stewart in the face over and over again before finally making out with him.)

Peter Jackson also has a fair deal to answer for, in this respect—Lord of the Rings Oscar-winner loot aside, his early filmography mostly looks like the work of an incredible talented New Zealander ten-year-old gross-out artist on a sugar high. My favourite of these entries has to be Dead-Alive, the hands-down foulest, most suppurating, over-the-top cartoon zombie film ever made. Thrill as a hapless nebbish cuts his way through acres of pus-filled undead Kiwis with nothing but a manual lawn-mower, eventually rescuing his lovely girlfriend by cutting his own mother in half and “returning to the womb” in style! The sight of an otherwise mild-mannered cleric drop-kicking half a dozen zombies—including a rotting infant in a baby buggy—through a graveyard while announcing: “I kick ARSE for the LORD!!!” is worth the price of admission alone.

Stuart Gordon's early films—Re-Animator and From Beyond, in particular—are prime Fun Horror material, consistently rocking both that all-important retro pulp vibe and a certain Saturday morning serial sense of constant acceleration; they satisfy even with their downbeat Lovecraftian endings virtually intact, exhilarating me in a way that makes me laugh out loud during certain sections of both. In a lot of ways, it boils down to exactly how many moments per film there are of: "Oh my God, ha ha, you actually went ahead and went there, didn't you? Dude, you really did! Good for you."

But then there's also Neil Jordan, who's directed three films I could watch again and again (and have), immersing myself inside them like a bath of glorious, sensual darkness: The Company of Wolves, Interview With the Vampire, and Byzantium. Much like Guillermo del Toro in his own Fun Horror triptych (Pan's Labyrinth, The Devil's Backbone, Crimson Peak), Jordan comes at horror from the Gothic side of things, with all that that entails intact—Romanticism with a big “R,” sexuality both vanilla and bent, mis en scene so lavish you live in it (“Welcome to my haunted garbage dump, Edith!”, as the primary Tumblr meme about Crimson Peak goes).

It's just not debatable that all these films are made by masters operating at the very top of their respective games, no matter whether or not you find their actual content a tad shallower than you might otherwise hope. What's equally undeniable, however, is that both Jordan and del Toro know exactly what they're doing, and that they've studied the same sort of films they're trying to craft for years—del Toro in particular, that gigantic monster-loving fanboy. Like Martin Scorsese, they can cobble together visual, character and mood quotes from their own internal library of films with ease, because they know its various entries both inside and out.

In a way, you could claim that all horror films made before a certain era—your own, most probably—tends to fall under the category of Fun Horror simply because of the way they were made, which can derail even the most devoted of viewers' sense of internal reality just on grounds of “but wait, real life is in colour” or “but wait, real life comes with sound.” I've had film history students who literally claimed they just couldn't watch genre staples like The Silence of the Lambs because “those fashions are so awful, and that music!” (“I was born in 1990,” one once told me, almost causing me to choke on my own spit.) People in the past looked and acted differently, news at eleven! Suck it up and move on, folks. On the other hand, the same can be said of almost every advance in special effects. For all the people who decry computer-generated imagery, there'll be somebody for whom practical effects or stop-motion animatronics look equally ridiculous.

Willing suspension of disbelief is what carried everybody through the long phase of film production during which something as simple as a mobile camera seemed an impossible dream, or in which all vehicle shots were achieved with rear-projection on a studio back lot because the idea of actually filming outside on location was fucking crazy-talk. So to my mind, affection—sheer delight in the way all a film's elements come together, grinding gears notwithstanding—is the only thing that's ever going to make you want to make that particular leap of credibility, to agree to pretend you just don't see the seams and the pulling, the slight pixilated blur, the zipper up the back. The first step in suspending any disbelief is to stop looking for excuses not to.

It's like Stephen King says in Danse Macabre, talking about watching The Creature from the Black Lagoon from the back seat of his Mom's boyfriend's truck at a drive-in: most of the time he knew it was just a guy, a stuntman who could swim really well and didn't mind being encased in rubber...but every once in a while, if he didn't watch himself real close, it suddenly turned into something else—this horrible thing, muck-encrusted and primordial, building a dam to trap its prey where it could get at them, handful by slimy handful of mud and sticks and hate. “Its ancient, evil eyes...”

That's what I'm looking for with Fun Horror, and on really good days, that's exactly what I get. That's what makes it so fun.



Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula
Attack the Block
The Lost Boys
The Fly (David Cronenberg's version)
The Hidden
The Wolfman (Benicio del Toro edition)
House of Dracula
House of Frankenstein
Bride of Frankenstein
Son of Frankenstein
The Invisible Man
The Raven
The Black Cat
The Mind's Eye (aka The No-Budget Telekinetic Exploding-Head Scanners Successor You Never Knew You Were Missing)
The Legend of Hell House
Brides of Dracula
Dracula A.D. 1972
Dracula Prince of Darkness
The Abominable Dr Phibes
Twins of Evil
Happy Birthday to Me
City of the Living Dead
The Beyond
Demons and Demons 2
House of Dark Shadows
John Badham's Dracula (1979)
The Hearse
John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness
Phantom of the Paradise
The Howling
Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors
As Above So Below
Dean Koontz's Phantoms
Dog Soldiers
John Carpenter's In The Mouth of Madness
We Are The Night

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Patreon Post: Self-Made Awful Objects

By Gemma Files, for Patreon

Every once in a while—most 'specially when you're a former film critic with a library full of DVDs and BluRays to program from, I guess—a thematic mash-up double feature suggests itself that's odd enough on the face of it, you really just have to make it so. So by “you” I obviously mean me, for which I apologize. The double feature in question, meanwhile, turns out to be roughly four hours of Evil Nazi Magneto Movies separated by ten years of film history: Blood Creek (2008, dir. Joel Schumacher, starring New Hotness Flavour cinematic Magneto Michael Fassbender), followed by Apt Pupil (1998, dir. Bryan Singer, adapted from the novella of the same name by Stephen King and starring Old-School Original Flavour cinematic Magneto himself, Sir Ian McKellen).

Though Schumacher rightly takes a lot of shit from genre fans, primarily for the sin of having single-handedly busting the Batman movie franchise back down to jokey Adam West TV show level before Christopher Nolan finally reinvented it, I actually have to say that Blood Creek is a real keeper, at least from my POV. It's got an amazing amount of the things I like most, all stuck together in one freakish package: Thule Society Nazi black magic shenanigans, Hellboy-esque Lovecraftian undertones, starting things in the middle, on the run, without too much explanation. Plus, the monster of choice (Ahnenerbe researcher Richard Wirth, once a rising star in SS director Heinrich Himmler's secret crypto-archaeology project, who uses the power of a Viking runestone buried in the foundations of a German immigrant family's West Virginia horse-farm to make himself into less a vampire per se than some sort of zombie necromancer, a draugr or afturgangr, a seidr-practicing revenant) is actually played by a genuine actor, for once—Fassbender, then late of Inglourious Basterds, who starts off all handsome and charming, tricks his hapless hosts into selling their souls for $150 in World War II-era dollars, then eventually degenerates into a char-skinned Aryan Blood Whisperer who spends most of his time either imprisoned in the basement until sunset or bringing random animals and humans back to life to use as weapons against his enemies, all while wearing a fetching vest made from his ancestors' bones over his flapping black leather duster.

Our story begins in 1938, with Wirth descending on the Wollners, fascinating their daughter Liese (played as a child by Andreea Perminov, as an adult by Emma Booth) by showing her how to resurrect her dead pets, then exacting a literal blood-price for his services. After this handy flashback, we fast-forward to the present, which sees rural paramedic Evan Marshall (Henry Cavill) treating meth addicts and patching up accident victims all day before returning to look after his bitter old veteran father at night, who still blames him for “losing” his older brother Victor (Dominic Purcell) during an ill-fated camping trip that took place right after Victor's return from Iraq. One night, Evan wakes to find a no longer missing Victor leaning over his bed, sporting wild eyes, matted hair and a long, dirty beard; he claims to have been captured and imprisoned by a family of “crazy people” who tortured him every evening, then staked him out and allowed something grotesque to feed on his blood—the Wollners, obviously. Traumatized to the point of insanity by these experiences, Victor demands that Evan must come along with him as back-up while he exacts his revenge on his tormentors...and though Evan knows in his heart this is a bad idea, he feels guilty enough about leaving Victor behind that he can't quite refuse his big bro's apparently deranged request.

So back they go to the farm, where they invade the Wollners' homestead, shoot Liese's brother Karl, tie Liese and her parents to chairs and make an inventory of the place. Evan checks the stable Victor claims he was kept in and discovers they've already replaced him with another wounded vagrant (Shea Whigham), chained up like a judas goat waiting for Wirth to come drink from the wounds on his back; the farmhouse's windows and doors have all been haphazardly marked with the rune dagaz (“day” or “fire”), which the bits of knowledge Liese managed to pick up from Wirth before turning on him indicate will keep him out as long as they remain intact. Evan also finds photographic evidence that she's been “seventeen longer than [Evan's] been alive”—first Wirth's victim, then his Renfield, then his keeper. Kept from aging by Wirth's proximity, the Wollners remain tied to their farm both in an effort to make sure he doesn't leave and because they're well aware they'd age and die almost immediately if they went any further away than it takes to barter for food and parts at the next farm. Besides which, as Liese points out, Wirth isn't quite finished his transformation yet; tonight is an eclipse of the moon, the first in 600 years, during which he can supposedly open his “third eye” (with a chisel!) and become permanently un-defeatable. 

(This last part is contextually weird in the extreme, a Lovecraftian or possibly Tibetan touch; the Ahnenerbe were notoriously interested in Bulwer-Lytton's “Vril” theory and its potential crossover with Tibetan Buddhist thought, believing as they did that the Tibetans were a fragment of an earlier pure Aryan race which had supposedly conquered most of Asia. Hard to think that a gloriously unrepentant “B” movie like Blood Creek can really be folding in legitimate Nazi apocrypha like that, though, except sidelong.)

Sidebar: I'd love to have seen Liese as a main rather than a supporting character, rebellious yet fatalistic in that prototypically German way as she is, a very old woman in a very young woman's smooth skin, albino-blonde to the point of being slightly rabbit-eyed but always thinking, always reacting, determined above all to both frustrate Wirth's plans and never become his “property” again. The real struggle has always been between the two of them, even though they barely seem to talk anymore—Wirth kills the Wollner horses and then brings them back so he can send them crashing through the front door like battering rams and kick out the rune-inscribed windows, brings back Karl and his father so they can finish Liese off before she can fill Evan and Victor in on the situation, kills poor Shea Whigham for a snack and then basically forgets all about him, leaving him to stumble into the house in turn, begging Evan to lock him away before he can hurt anybody. He struts around wearing Fassbender's trademark spiky grin, peeling away first his filth-stiff head-bandages, then the leathery yellow scab of a face he has left underneath to reveal a fresh, creepily pore-less expanse of moonburnt white skin, scarred all over with protective runes of his own.

The sole time Wirth seems to get genuinely pissed off is when Liese throws the ancient evil texts she stole from him out the window and gets Evan to set them on fire, especially once he realizes she actually did it to create a diversion so Victor can sneak into the barn and steal Wirth's precious bone-jacket. Then they manage to pulverize one of the bones, grind the resultant paste into Evan's wounds and tempt Wirth to drink “his own” blood, which weakens him enough that Victor can garotte/partially decapitate him with a length of barbed wire. After that, Liese dies and we find out that not only did Himmler apparently sent eight more Nazi agents to investigate other potential runestone finds, if you connect the places they must have ended up in on on a map, they form a swastika. The clear implication at the end is that Evan—who's shown cutting dagaz permanently into his own chest—will become a Nazi vampire-hunter, while the still shell-shocked Victor, who leaves a party celebrating his return to stand in the Wollner farm's ashes staring at that same damn runestone sticking up out of the burnt-black ground, might be thinking about using it to make himself into a Nazi vampire.

Does any of this mean I think Blood Creek ranks as some sort of masterpiece? Oh, hell no; much like Warlock, Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight and Outpost in their turn, it's just an unpretentious straight-to-“video” thrill-ride with a cool thesis and compact execution, not to mention a great cast. But it's weirdly satisfying nonetheless, not to mention genuinely creepy; though we see relatively little of him except in action, Fassbender manages to project the impression that Wirth is both a true believer and a self-made awful object, my favourite kind, practicing a forgotten form of magic that he barely seems to understand and piling curse after curse on top of himself in the vain hope he'll somehow be able to win a war that's been over since 1945. Watching him roll around in horse manure while scuffling with Superman-to-be and that other guy from Prison Break is hella fun, though, especially when you posit the whole cast of Vikings giving him the side-eye at the same time for messing with shit only the gods have ever gotten away with—ergi's a bitch, draugr-man! Now lie down and stay down, you genocidal asshat.

Apt Pupil, on the other hand, has a genuine whiff of the Oscar-worthy about it...Hitchcockian in structure from inception on, a weirdly intimate power-struggle between straight-A high school student Todd Bowen (Brad Renfro), the seemingly squeaky-clean young American with an attraction towards what King calls “the gooshy stuff” but Singer paraphrases as “everything...they don't want us to know” about the Holocaust, and the literal predator next door: former SS Sturmbahnfuhrer/Patin concentration camp commander Kurt Dussander (McKellen), an uncaught war criminal who escaped justice after the fall of Berlin only to end up permanently masquerading as old Mr Denker from down the block, eccentric neighbourhood misanthrope, who's never seen without a cigarette in one hand and a glass of straight vodka in the other.

Todd wants all the details his teachers wouldn't give him, gory and otherwise—what it's like to be given a legal license to kill and torment, how it feels to have that much power over other people, to be able to do whatever you want so long as it eventually leads to the men, women and children you've been told to get rid of disappearing without a trace. And these are all things Dussander's obviously tried not to think about for a very long time—not because he didn't enjoy doing them or wouldn't like to revisit those memories, but because allowing himself to remember who he was threatens the already-shaky illusion of the person he needs to be in order to not eventually find himself on a plane to Israel. But it's too late, right from the start; Todd's done his homework, as ever—printed Dussander's mailbox, matched those prints with his outstanding Wanted sheet. The old monster is trapped by a monster-to-be.

So Todd “helps” poor old Mr Denker after school every day, and Dussander pays him for the privilege with anecdotes about the gas chambers and the mass graves, stories so fascinating yet horrifying that they gradually infect every part of the rest of Todd's life. His grades fall off, the one thing he knows his parents won't stand for; his friendships and team sports participation suffer, as does his dating. “Maybe you don't even like girls!” one suggests, laughing, as they share a joint in her Dad's car, so he tries to re-seize the upper hand by buying an SS uniform through the mail and making Dussander wear it, drilling him like a life-size action figure, only to get freaked out by how “real” he suddenly looks. Dussander, in turn, begins to have his own re-awakened cravings for total power, total control—he tries to stuff a stray cat into his oven, then notices a homeless man (Elias Koteas) rooting through the trash cans in his backyard, staring up at him as he stands in front of the mirror with “his” uniform on. The next step should be obvious.

Throughout the film, there's more than a whiff of sadomasochistic homoeroticism about Todd and Dussander's back-and-forth “relationship,” with Todd initially the dominant, masculine voyeur and Dussander the symbolically passive, feminized object of his gaze—a reading not only suggested but seemingly cemented by Singer and McKellen's shared status as proudly out gay men. (Interestingly, Schumacher is also gay, though most people don't seem to register that fact, even when noting the odd campiness of Batman and Robin's nippled suits of armor.) McKellen was not the original casting choice for Dussander, since a version of Apt Pupil directed by Alan Bridges starring Rick Schroeder as Todd and Nicol Williams as Dussander was partially shot in 1987, only to be discarded after Williams died partway through principal photography; he was, however, Singer's only choice for the role once Singer was able to jump-start his own production—it was the first time they worked together, and thus led directly to McKellen being cast as Erik Lehnsherr in Singer's 2000 X-Men. This reading would also appear to be confirmed by an exchange that occurs after Dussander has forced the redistribution of power between he and Todd, making Todd equally complicit and guilty in Dussander's crimes by tricking him into completing a murder Dussander begins: “Fuck you,” Todd snarls, to which Dussander replies, with sly McKellen charm: “But my dear boy, don't you see? We are fucking each other.”

Given the overtness of this subtext, I should probably mention the scandal that attended Apt Pupil's filming. A shower scene in which Todd imagines his fellow showering students as Jewish gas chamber prisoners was filmed at Eliot Middle School in Altadena, California, and two weeks later a 14-year-old extra filed a lawsuit alleging that Singer forced him and other extras to strip naked for the scene. Two other boys, 16 and 17 years old, later supported the 14-year-old's claim. The boys claimed trauma from the experience, seeking charges against the filmmakers that included negligence, infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy. Allegations were made that the boys were filmed for sexual gratification, as national tabloid programs stirred the controversy, but the Los Angeles District Attorney's office eventually determined that there was no cause to file criminal charges, stating there was “no indication of lewd or abnormal sexual intent.” A civil case was later dismissed due to insufficient evidence, and the scene was filmed again with adult actors so the film could finish on time.

According to media theorist Rob Cover, the lawsuit reflected current cultural concerns about nudity on film being connected to sexual or erotic forms of gazing. Writing in the journal Body & Society, Cover stated: “The ways in which the accusation that the director and other crew members identified as gay is seen to collapse gay identity into gay sexual behaviour, but the wholesale collapse of nudity into sexuality.” Singer has since been consistently accused of being part of a Hollywood “gay mafia” who supposedly extort sexual favours from underaged or barely-legal actors, and has had two civil cases launched against him for sexual assault of a minor, most recently in 2014, right before the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Both suits were later withdrawn by the complainants.

Do elements of Bryan Singer as potential abuser come across in Apt Pupil? The relationship between Todd and Dussander can certainly be seen as one of mutual grooming, at the very least. Todd is afraid of his own kinship with Dussander, of his own capacities, so he wants to isolate them outside himself and control them through the control he exerts over Dussander; Dussander tops from below by turning this back on Todd, regaining his own lost power by showing Todd that being able to recognize what's inside Dussander will never extract the possibility of that same “gooshy stuff” being inside Todd, of it having always been inside him. Maybe Dussander alleviates his guilt by pretending everyone else is equally guilty; maybe he's weirdly proud of being the one monster who can do this awful stuff, get away with it and enjoy having both done it and having gotten away with it. McKellen, brilliantly, plays all these “maybes” simultaneously.

Of course, Singer's also Jewish and he also grew up in the same Southern California suburban milieu as Todd, two things which probably contributed to him wanting to do the film in the first place; he says himself that he patterned Todd's school and home after his own. And while Brad Renfro plays Todd beautifully, that wasn't ever the same sort of place he came from—on some level, he really was that kid in The Client, a trailer-park hustler/victim caught up in indie Hollywood's sub-glamour, and on some level he stayed that all his life. On some level, he died of it.

At any rate—back in Apt Pupil, things fall apart, and with startling swiftness; though Dussander manages to pull Todd's academic fat out of the fire by impersonating Todd's grandfather, thus persuading super-nice guidance counsellor Mr French (David Schwimmer) to allow Todd time to get his grades up to par, Dussander's “slip” back into his old murder-habit brings on a heart attack that lands him in hopital—right next to a Patin concentration camp survivor. He wakes the next morning to discover a black American FBI agent named Richler (Joe Morton) and Nazi hunter Dr Isaac Weiskopf (Jan Triska) by his bedside, happily informing him that he's going to be investigated, then deported; his house is searched and the homeless man's body found, even as Todd manages to look exactly as surprised as his parents expect him to be by the revelation of who that nice old man he volunteers with used to be.

The grand finale comes with two juxtaposed sequences, cut between for maximum ironic effect. During the first, Dussander manages to distract his suicide watch long enough to be able to kill himself by inhaling carbon monoxide, in karmically just imitation of his former victims—we close on a shot of McKellen's contorted face, eyes slightly crossed in death, as the jaunty Marlene Dietrich tune “Das Ist Berlin” plays over the film's credits. This “study in cruelty” Singer undertook would seem to be over—but then there's the parallel pay-out to Mr French's realization that Todd's “grandfather” must, in fact, have been Dussander in not particularly effective disguise. French shows up at Todd's house just after Todd's graduation ceremony, planning to confront him about what happened, only to have his righteous disgust promptly turned back on him by an apt pupil who remembers every lesson he ever learned at the master's feet; Todd retreats behind his bright and hollow facade, promising French that if he tries to suggest Todd knew who Dussander was all along, Todd will accuse French of making inappropriate sexual advances towards him and imply that he's a pedophile. “You have no idea what I'm capable of,” Todd says, his blue eyes just as dead as Dussander's, bouncing his basketball.

Like Madame la Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons, Todd appears to have found a perfect way to get what he wants and then, if someone wants to tell his secrets, make sure “he finds he can't; that's the whole story.” And unlike the King novella, Apt Pupil the film doesn't end with even an implication that Todd might self-destruct later on—Singer's point is that he's learned far too well for that, hiding behind the all-American goy mask he was born in without a shred of guilt. Sure, Richler and Weiskopf suspect him, but what can they prove, really? We'll all just have to wait and see what comes next—Wall Street or baseball success, Congress, the White House, more mass graves. Good or bad, anything's possible when you're not afraid of anything anymore, even yourself.

So there you go. As Sonya Taaffe notes, both films are stories of a conscious descent into monstrosity, one pulpily supernatural, the other atrociously real...not to mention that both monsters trace their provenance back to a war that's supposedly long over, a brand of evil supposedly far too deeply-stained to ever seem attractive again. But unfortunately, fascism's ill lure—that clear link between pleasure in violence and its most fatal, Othering exercise—never really does seem to go out of style; we still end with Victor staring at the runestone, with Todd accepting that his future will be powered by him becoming Dussander's living legacy, a one-man reborn Reich in the making. King was sure no one like Todd could outlive his own “maker,” but for all his faults, Singer knows damn well—from several angles—how not only how things like these really can happen here too, but that they almost inevitably will. Thus Apt Pupil seems about as horribly prescient in hindsight as Blood Creek remains ridiculous, from where we are right now.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Patreon Post: Cats, Masks, Aristocrats

By Gemma Files, for Patreon

One of the things I absolutely love about watching horror from around the world is the same thing I love about watching foreign movies in general—this sense of immersing myself in a different culture, one whose historical references and mythological cues I sometimes don't understand and can have a great time educating myself about. It's like back in the 1990s, when I used to watch Hong Kong movies in the heart of Chinatown, and often had the experience of everybody else laughing at something I didn't get was supposed to be funny—the literal fetish some Cantonese-speaking guys have for listening to women speak Mandarin, for example. It felt like my head was opening up in very interesting ways.

Some time back, I got hold of the Criterion copy of a classic 1960s Japanese folk horror film called Onibaba, by Kaneto Shindo—for ten bucks or something, because people are stupid. (This is also how I got my Criterion copy of Videodrome.) Onibaba is set during what Shindo calls the “Warring Period” of Japanese history, the civil wars of the 16th century, when constant feuds between city-states and samurai clans made things particularly crappy for everybody who wasn't a samurai—you see this in Kenji Misoguchi's Ugetsu, too, as I recall, whose protagonists are a pair of peasants who sign up in order to gain power by becoming samurai themselves, and end up destroying everything they want to save. This, Misoguchi implies, is simply the way it works; it's not so much that there's no stepping across class lines than it is that to gain power is, by nature, to abuse it.

Onibaba tells a similar story, but frames it from the point of view of the women who get left behind—a mother-in-law and her son's wife, left to fend for themselves in the middle of a great grass sea after their mutual breadwinner is drafted into some lord's army. The implication is that he dies, but they'd have no way of figuring out if this is true or not—these ladies live their lives down on the ground, like the insects in Jeffrey Beaumont's backyard, with utterly no idea of the larger political context that keeps sending wounded men in armour armed with swords blundering through their territory, aside from the fact that said men must be treated either as threats or—increasingly—prey.

In the middle of the field, near the women's house, is “a hole...dark and deep”. And that's where mother- and daughter-in-law dump the bodies of the samurai they kill with pikes they must have gotten off of previous dead bodies—using the grass sea as cover, they stalk these larger, more experienced men, rush them and slaughter them like animals, then strip them of armour and weaponry, which they barter in town for rice. It's a Brechtian subsistence existence, each woman left naturally dependent on the other: The wife on her husband's mother for strategy and impetus, mother-in-law on daughter- for sheer muscle and the sexual attractiveness necessary to lure their prey, when guerrilla tactics fail. A static, repetitious life literally built on a heap of bones, with no hope of change or growth.

One day, a virile young peasant who was drafted along with the son/husband turns up. He's deserted from the army, and needs a place to stay; he claims he doesn't know what happened to his friend, though the mother-in-law suspects he's lying. He and the daughter-in-law immediately hit it off, and run off by night to screw feverishly in the grass. The mother-in-law, sexually frustrated, pleads with this man not to take the girl away, because she needs her in order to keep killing samurai; he only promises not to marry her, but says otherwise, she'll do what she wants.

Previously, we watched the old woman kill a samurai who wore a helmet with a hinged mask in the shape of an oni devil covering his entire face; though he claimed to be ”beautiful” underneath, when she took the helmet off, she saw that his face was actually scarred and disfigured. On impulse, she kept the mask, which her daughter-in-law doesn't know about. Now she uses the girl's native fear of ghosts and demons to guilt her into staying, appearing suddenly out of the grass with the mask on—but when she tries to take it off again, she can't. It almost seems to be stuck to her face...

With its air of stark daylight horror (Shindo was unable to film by night in the region where it was shot, because it was located on the bank of a river and every evening the grass would flood, after which the entire area would be infested by crabs. He was eventually forced to specify that anyone who left mid-filming wouldn't get paid, just so that his crew didn't simply run off) and its fleshly concentration on sweaty sex, ravenous eating and blood, Onibaba seems to take place in a world without supernatural influences—all its worst plot twists come purely out of human psychology, human impulse, human venality and weakness. Yet Shindo would revisit an overtly supernatural version of much the same story with his later film Kuroneko, a riff on the classic Japanese “bakeneko” or “goblin cat” vengeful ghost/vampire scenario.

I got hold of Kuroneko also as a Criterion release, and believe you me, it didn't cost $9.99. But that was okay—I'm more than willing to pay for quality, if I have to. The film begins with what almost looks like an alternate version of the Onibaba scenario, except that the people emerging from the grass sea are samurai so down-and-out they look like peasants, descending on the unsuspecting house of yet another mother and daughter-in-law pairing like grim locusts. They kick in the door, eat everything in sight, gang-rape the women 'til they're dead, then set fire to the house. The next morning, as the women's charred corpses lie forlorn in the smoking ruins, a small black cat comes skulking out of the grove behind them, licks the delicious flesh of the mother-in-law's neck, and purrs.

Because Shindo's assumption is that everyone in the audience knows what's going to happen next, there's very little build-up before getting right to the meat of the story: A finely-dressed young samurai, dozing on his horse, passes through the Rashomon Gate around midnight and is startled by the cry of a cat. Immediately, a classic Heian court lady dressed all in white emerges from the darkness, seemingly lit up from within, almost cartoonishly bright. She explains that she has to go home through the grove, but is afraid, because it's rumoured to be haunted, Naturally, he volunteers to escort and protect her from the same ghost she later turns out to be.

Shindo sketches in the legend with fascinatingly palpable detail—the girlish way our demure young creature skips across puddles in slow motion, revealing black-furred ankles, or how her mother-in-law's beautifully-groomed ponytail will suddenly flip up at the end, twitching, like a cat's tail. The vision of the mother-in-law lapping water from a bowl while, behind a nearby screen, her son's wife tears a drunken samurai's throat out with her teeth. Peasants in life, their status as ghosts seems to have suddenly elevated them to the nobility: they occupy a massive mansion made from sliding paper and fog, constantly playing on the way that “sexy” Heian court makeup makes everyone who wears it look like a Noh play actor—blanched, impassive, those smudge-brows lifted in constant surprise, hairline plucked impossibly high. We don't feel too bad about their prey, either, since every samurai we meet is a bastard, to one degree or another. It simply seems a great pity that in a country this unstable, real justice can only be delivered through unnatural, toxic means.

And then...we switch over to the son/husband, drafted just like the guy from Onibaba, but still alive—surviving a massacre, triumphing over incredible odds, gifted with the samurai status he thinks can “save” his mother and wife, who he doesn't know are already dead. Shaved, bathed and dressed in the best his lord has to offer, he is nigh-unrecognizable by the time he's sent back to investigate this string of supposedly-supernatural murders in the grove, not knowing that the monsters he's agreed to slay are the only traces left of the two people he loved best in the world. A series of decisions ensue, all of them tragic. There's no way to get out of this situation that isn't going to hurt.

In the original bakeneko legend, there's always an implication that the goblin cat ghost/vampire may only take on the appearance of a human being, along with their reasons for seeking revenge—that they eat the original person entirely, becoming a perfect facsimile that incorporates the dead person's memories and personality yet is nevertheless not really them, and never can be. And while I'm not sure if believing this makes what happens in Kuroneko better or worse, watching it and Onibaba in quick succession makes for a very interesting experience. In both, Shindo's world-view is extraordinarily bitter, bleak and weirdly feminist, his every set-up implying a great respect for nature but almost no respect for the flawed, terrible human beings which inhabit it.

For more on the bakeneko, you could check out first the absolutely insane Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Stories anime three-episode arc called “Goblin Cat,” then the separate series it spawned (Mononoke, named after the Japanese word for spirits, in the animistic sense), which stars “Goblin Cat”'s ostensible protagonist, an arch yet empathetic wandering medicine-seller of the Edo Period who moonlights as a freelance exorcist and appears to be not entirely human himself. The art in both series is absolutely riveting, based on what seems to be a mixture of period ukiyo-e prints, murals and screen designs, with a texture to the animation itself that almost make it look like paper collage—the most physically beautiful guro I've ever seen, and unsettling as hell. Its creators at Toei Animation (director Kenji Nakamura, writers Chiaki J. Konaka, Ikuko Takahashi, Michiko Yokote and Manabu Ishikawa, plus animation director/character designer Takashi Hashimoto and art director Takashi Kurahashi) have much to answer for.

As Mononoke the series goes on, the Medicine-Seller takes on a haunted hotel that used to be a brothel and is (naturally) haunted by aborted fetuses, an area of the sea infested with ghosts, the ghost of a lump of aromatic wood used for making perfume, a woman who splits herself in two and is effectively haunting herself, plus a second ghost-cat haunting set on a train in 1920s Tokyo. This last arc is particularly fun, given it takes place against a backdrop of technological and social advancement and its central murder appears to have been specifically spurred by a reaction against the feminist implications of women starting to work as journalists—but also because the Medicine-Seller seems to have teleported himself through time from the ukiyo-e print era to the 20th century, without anybody finding him terribly out-of-place. “Are you a sandwich-board man?” one character asks him. “No, just a humble Medicine-Seller,” he replies. “I have to dress this way to attract customers.” Politely: “Oh...it's nice!”

Another Criterion DVD release I've finally caught up with is that of Masako Kobayashi's Kwaidan, the rightfully revered grandmother of all Japanese folk horror story anthologies, adapted from Lafcadio Hearn's collections of Japanese folk tales. Cut into four distinct sections, the tales it tells run from the universally recognizable—“The Black Hair,” in which a samurai returns home from the wars and is warmly welcomed by the wife he left behind only to realize the next morning he's been sleeping with a long-dead corpse, forms the template for Ugetsu's climax, where it's given extra punch by the fact that this same character has already almost been seduced and devoured by the ghost of a court lady several days earlier—to the considerably less familiar. (The last section, “In A Cup of Tea,” is its least powerful and most forgettable, in that I literally had to re-check the film's Wikipedia entry to even recall it was there.)

Most critics tend to fixate on the second section, “The Woman of the Snow,” in which a yuki-onna or snow demon spares the life of a young peasant boy, then returns masquerading as a human woman to marry him, have his children and wait patiently, knowing he will eventually break the promise she laid on him: never to speak of her to any other person, on pain of death by freezing. And it is indeed incredible! Yet I was oddly far more struck by the third section, "Hoichi the Earless," because it was so completely new for me, involving as it does not only mythology I'd never seen before but also history I'd never known about. (It's also very Mononoke-like, and not just because part of it takes place during a huge sea-battle.)

Hoichi is a blind musician who plays the biwa, a kind of lute, and is well-known for being able to perform all 99 songs which make up the Tale of the Heike, an epic immortalizing the downfall of the Heike Clan, who were overthrown by the Genji in a struggle for power centred around child- Emperor Antoku. Although respected, Hoichi is penniless and forced to squat in Amidaji Temple, where he's fed and looked after by a friendly priest. One night, a gruff samurai shows up outside the temple gate, claiming he's been sent to summon Hoichi to perform for a group of aristocrats who turn out to be—ta dah!—the Heike themselves, who want to hear about their own exploits in order to remember themselves the way they were in their former glory. The way you do.

Night after night, the Heike send their samurai messenger to haul Hoichi out and force him to play. The fact that he gets no sleep is making him ill, and worse yet, they never even pay, so he's starving to death—but they're aristocrats and they're dead, so they frankly don't give a damn. And Hoichi feels like he can't refuse to come when summoned, because (see above); half of it's probably “I don't want to be impolite,” while the other half is “because they'd probably tear me apart if I was.” Eventually, his priest friend comes up with a solution: write sutras all over him, rendering him effectively invisible to ghosts. But the one place he neglects to write anything is on Hoichi's ears, so the Heike samurai ends up tearing them off and bringing them back to his masters, just to prove he really did try his best to find Hoichi one more time. (Historically, Hoichi is said to have survived this injury and gone on to become widely famous as a musician, so go him for getting something good out of this whole crazy mess.)

Though all of Kwaidan is equally visionary, “Hoichi the Earless” contains some truly powerful sequences, all the more wonderful for their sheer alienness: a palace that rises out of a graveyard, re-enactments juxtaposed with scrolls illustrating the Heike's last naval engagement, and—sitting in state above everything—the coldly water-logged beauty of Lady Nii, the emperor's former guardian. As we watch the critical moment after she realized her generals had been defeated, when she told her five-year-old charge: “There is a capitol at the bottom of the sea where you will reign from,” then threw them both into the blood-stained water as her ships sank around them, we receive a jolt that resonates on several levels at once. This is history brought alive once more only to die a ritual death so honour-bound it's not even allowed to scream, literally soaked in the most basic, stupid human awfulness.

The idea of the dead sustaining themselves through other people's memories isn't exactly a new one, but here it's just another form of vicious exploitation practiced across class lines, a spiritual vampirism passed from parasite samurai to prey-animal peasants. That Hoichi only escapes the Heike's contagious doom because of the power of creativity, faith and education is probably highly significant, in context. That's classic Japanese Folk Horror, in a nutshell: though anything can haunt you, aristocrats are just the fucking worst.