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Tuesday 13 June 2006

Cinema Macabre

a review and selection by Claude Lalumière

When I was ten years old, ads for the film version of Carrie ran regularly on television. They terrified me. No — that's not quite right. They disgusted me — just seeing that brief TV trailer made me feel filthy and violated; even now, that's still one of my most powerful childhood memories. I can still feel myself seeing those ads, feel how devastating and loathsome I found them. I could not understand why anyone would willingly see that film, why anyone would risk being subjected to what I experienced, and still experience, as a kind of psychological torture. It wasn't so much the supernatural aspect that horrified me, but the aura of abuse, degradation, and utter humiliation that enveloped every shot of that poor, unfortunate title character. (I have similar memories from the same period of seeing snippets of another film, Aurore, l'enfant martyre, a classic Québécois non-supernatural movie about an abused girl, that provoked a similar reaction.)

To this day, I have never seen Brian De Palma's Carrie, nor have I read Stephen King's novel. I'm still that scared, that revolted. I have no doubt that it's a truly horrific movie, and it might even be excellent. But I know it's not for me.

My reaction to those Carrie ads turned me off anything related to horror, and I avoided the genre for years. This was not helped by the fact that, as I entered adolescence, slasher films became the dominant form of the genre, and I remain to this day both emotionally squeamish and intellectually repelled by that particular subgenre. As a result, unlike many of my peers in the world of speculative fiction, I never had that passion for horror films that often accompanies adolescence, never binged on horror films as an outlet for my teenage rebellious energy.

Nevertheless, horror did find its way back to me (I've even written several horror stories), but my experience of horror cinema, like my experience of so much else, remains quite idiosyncratic.

Horror opened itself up to me once I realized that it wasn't all akin to Stephen King, Brian De Palma, or slasher films. There are other paths that lead to darkness, other ways to explore the dark.

In Mark Morris's anthology Cinema Macabre (PS Publishing), fifty horror writers, most of them from the UK, write an essay each on one horror film that particularly marked them — not necessarily their favourite, but the one they felt most compelled to write about, with the one caveat that no two contributors could cover the same subject. And that's an excellent caveat, as it forced authors to come up with an often much more interesting and quirky choice once they were denied their top classic because someone else had snatched it up. This book offers, via the selections of the writers, diverse possibilities of what can constitute a horror film.

Here, I must confess that, since I spent so many years avoiding horror, and since I have always avoided splatter/slasher films, I've only seen approximately a third of the fifty films showcased in Cinema Macabre.

The essays in this volume are not exactly film criticism. Rather, they are passionate personal testimonials — glimpses into the minds of fifty practitioners of horror, of what fed their imaginations, of the dark shadows these fifty films left in their minds.

Although every piece is roughly the same length, no two authors follow quite the same template. The least interesting of these essays are those that lean too heavily on recounting the film's plot, but thankfully those are not in the majority.

The essays are arranged chronologically by the films' release dates. The earliest film on the list is F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922). In that essay, Chaz Brenchley also discusses E. Elias Merhige's charmingly creepy Shadow of the Vampire (2000), a recursive film that playfully postulates that Murnau hired a real vampire to play the role of Nosferatu's Count Orlock.

On the way to the last entry — M. Night Shyamalan's masterful The Sixth Sense (1999), courtesy of Ariel — horror films of all stripes are discussed, from the usual suspects to obscure treasures to even a few not usually considered horror. I especially enjoyed these last ones; it's always fun to examine — and rediscover — a work from a perspective other than its customary genre affiliation.

As ever with such lists, I'm always interested in reading about films I thoroughly disliked yet that obviously had an important impact and are widely loved. Maybe I hope to be able to perceive what it is that I seem to be missing. That said, no matter how heartfelt were the essays on James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) by Neil Gaiman, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) by Jonathan Oliver, Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973) by Kevin Mullins, Roman Polanski's The Tenant (1976) by Joel Lane, Stanley Kubrik's The Shining (1980) by Conrad Williams, Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder (1990) by Graham Joyce, and Hideo Nakata's Ringu (1998) by Douglas E. Winter, they failed to provoke that elusive paradigm shift that might enable me to admire their subjects. The fault lies either in the films themselves or in me, but not in these thoughtfully crafted appreciations.

And then there's the perennial question of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Which version is the best? Don Siegel's original (1957), with its Cold War paranoia? Ed Gorman makes his case for this version, in a candid and engaging essay. While I do love Siegel's film, I've always favoured Philip Kaufman's darker, more overtly psychological 1978 remake, starring Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy, and Jeff Goldblum. I think that most people would agree that Abel Ferrara's 1993 Body Snatchers is best forgotten. (Although Ferrara did direct a fascinating 1995 vampire film, The Addiction, starring Christopher Walken, Lily Taylor, and Edie Falco, which deserves more attention than it's received.)

Inspired by Cinema Macabre, I have created my own chronological list of fifteen favourite horror films:  

The Invisible Man, directed by James Whale (1933)

Whale's celebrated Frankenstein films don't move me (in fact, I find them stiff and laborious), but The Invisible Man completely works for me. The gothic visuals, the intense virtuoso performance by Claude Rains, the oppressive feeling of dread and paranoia ... all of this is so deliciously realized. The film even surpasses Wells's novel.  

Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur (1942)

Tourneur's sexy and scary horror debut is not to be confused with Paul Schrader's atrocious, cold, and risible 1982 remake, nor even with the original's overly sentimental sequel, The Curse of the Cat People (1944) directed by Gunther Von Fritsch and Robert Wise. Tourneur's film is taut, brilliantly written, and shot with a keen eye. The stalking scene in the indoor swimming pool has been ripped off time and again, but it's never been as scary and effective as here. Cat People evokes the idea of a secret, darker world lurking just beneath the perceptions of most people with stark economy and subtlety.  

Alien, directed by Ridley Scott (1979)

This taut and claustrophobic monster thriller spawned a series of rather silly sequels, but the original remains terrifying. H.R. Giger's nightmarish designs are powerfully evocative and disturbing, while Scott brings all the elements together — mise en scène, actors, story, pacing, visuals — to create a scary hybrid of SF and horror. Tim Lebbon ends his otherwise perspicacious Cinema Macabre essay on Alien by calling James Cameron's follow-up, Aliens (1986), "the best sequel of all time" — a sentiment I cannot share, as I found the sequel to be a boring retread of the original's plot, but with big guns, big explosions, grosser violence, too much light, too heavy an emphasis on special effects, and laughable choreography. In Aliens, more is less, while in Alien less is more. Much more.  

A Zed & Two Noughts, directed by Peter Greenaway (1985)

Most of Peter Greenaway's films are assembled with dark humour, painterly mise en scène, sublime music, and disturbing anatomical imagery. Never was the result as terrifying as in A Zed & Two Noughts, a viscerally disquieting spectacle of decaying flesh, morbid prurience, ambiguous identities, and perverse love.  

The Lair of the White Worm, directed by Ken Russell (1988)

In the much-maligned The Lair of the White Worm, iconoclast Ken Russell is at his most playful, as he uses Bram Stoker's tale as the raw material to rip apart the sexual hangups of Victorian literature. High kitsch, weird horror, ribald humour, and a sexy snake goddess ... this one's got it all!  

Naked Lunch, directed by David Cronenberg (1991)

Cronenberg's Naked Lunch is both an adaptation of the novel and a fictionalized/mythologized biography of its author, William S. Burroughs. A nightmarish journey into the fractured psyche of a dark visionary, this film is rich with powerful and disquieting sexual images and metaphors.  

The Rapture, directed by Michael Tolkin (1991)

It's common to hear that faith in a deity of some sort is a response to the fear that life is meaningless or to the inevitable oblivion of death. I find neither of these to be at all scary or troubling. No doubt one of the many reasons why atheism strikes me as the only rational worldview. What would be really scary? What if there really were a god — in particular, what if the vengeful, capricious, arbitrary, spiteful, egomaniacal God of Judeo-Christian scripture were actually the creator and head honcho of the universe? Michael Tolkin's The Rapture explores that very premise, and, in the character of Sharon (played by Mimi Rogers), creates a tragic, bold, and resolute hero who refuses to play by God's rules, even when there are no other available options.  

The Nightmare before Christmas, directed by Henry Selick (1993)

Christmas is hijacked by Halloween. Horror ensues, spiced with bizarre songs. I don't even like Christmas, let alone Christmas movies, but the beautifully creepy animated film The Nightmare before Christmas charmed me with its clever dark humour, weird monsters, macabre ideas, and pop-gothic Tim Burton designs.  

Dead Man, directed by Jim Jarmusch (1995)

Dead Man is a profound journey into the mythology of the American frontier, a grotesque existential western filled with moments of wry macabre humour, chilling dread, and unsettling dissonance. Racism, colonialism, gender identity, and capitalism are only some of the themes Jarmusch handles with sobriety, originality, intelligence, and piercing wit.  

Seven, directed by David Fincher (1995)

Seven is by far the greatest serial-killer film I've ever seen. The intense and commanding performances by Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and, especially, Kevin Spacey are enough to recommend this film, but it's also a brilliant piece of dark cinematography. Director David Fincher creates an oppressive claustrophobic city, the mood of which never relents until it opens up spectacularly for the harrowing final sequence. Fincher uses no explicit gore, yet Seven's aura of latent violence is so overpowering that it feels like the audience is being subjected to a parade of gore and brutality. But it's all exquisitely suggested, never blatantly or directly shown.  

From Dusk till Dawn, directed by Robert Rodriguez (1996)

With a screenplay by Quentin Tarantinto, who also plays in the film, director Robert Rodriguez creates an utterly bizarre hybrid of sober noir and over-the-top horror. From Dusk till Dawn is a quietly tense kidnapping road movie that wanders into a deranged, hyper-violent erotic vampire film. Salma Hayek is at her sexiest as a teasing and merciless vampire stripper.  

The Sixth Sense, directed by M. Night Shyamalan (1999)

In his Cinema Macabre essay on The Sixth Sense, Ariel provides an excellent overview of the rather lamentable state of horror cinema in the late 1990s (as exemplified by cliché-ridden lame ducks such as David Cronenberg's eXistenz and David Keopp's Stir of Echoes), then points to the two 1999 films that showed new, intriguing paths into the darkness: The Blair Witch Project, directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, for which Justina Robson provides an especially thoughtful essay, and M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense. Bruce Willis as the psychologist who refuses to give up and Haley Joel Osment as the young boy whose life is beset by the relentless presence of dead people both give profoundly moving performances. The precisely scripted The Sixth Sense rewards multiple viewings.  

Ginger Snaps, directed by John Fawcett (2000)

Ginger Snaps is a post-Buffy story about two teenage sisters and lycanthropy, featuring both Whedon-like neologistic dialogue and a refreshingly positive and sensitive depiction of teenage agency. Candid, funny, and scary, this film is both tremendously entertaining and a perceptive examination of growing up as a teenage girl who can't quite fit in. Followed by a sequel (Ginger Snaps: Unleashed, Brett Sullivan 2004) and a prequel (Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning, Grant Harvey 2004); the sequel is interesting, if not as effective as the original, but the prequel is entirely forgettable and unnecessary.  

Mulholland Drive, directed by David Lynch (2001)

With Mulholland Drive, David Lynch once again uses the Wizard of Oz template to tell a dark story of a life gone utterly wrong. Naomi Watts gives a harrowing performance — perhaps the most affecting and moving performance I've ever seen. Haunting, mysterious, and profoundly sad, Mulholland Drive seeped under my skin, its complex shadows magically shedding light on my own inner darkness. It's worth noting that, although Mulholland Drive is not discussed in Cinema Macabre, three other Lynch films are: Eraserhead (1977), by Gavin Williams; Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), by Mark Chadbourn; and Lost Highway (1997), by Ramsey Campbell.  

Sin City, directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez (2005)

With the help of Robert Rodriguez, cartoonist Frank Miller brings the nightmare world of his Sin City comics to the screen. Sin City — the most picture-perfect adaptation of comics to film — depicts a hyper-mythologized hardboiled noir metropolis replete with human monsters, sadism, torture, and despair. Beyond its startling pop-infused dark vision, Sin City is remarkable for looking like nothing else ever captured on film.

© 2006 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.