Lights Out (David F. Sandberg, 2016)

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Like an awful lot of its ilk, Lights Out is a horror film made by people who believe that being quiet for a long time, then being loud briefly is the same as being scary. Thus, I’m exceptionally happy for the filmmakers that Lights Out is at least very scary by their own valuation, even if by virtually nobody else’s on God’s green Earth.

I walked in, knowing nothing about this film but figured within seconds of it beginning that this was basically an 80-minute version of one of those completely samey “3-minute horrors” on YouTube. I realised, as the end credits rolled, that, no, that’s exactly what this film was. Thus, the entire point of this feature-length adaptation appears to be the search for a narrative justification for the micro-narrative of the original short. Needless to say, I found the search distinctly frustrated.

Here’s the thing: some horror films work brilliantly with no explanations whatsoever. It’s good that nobody can say 100% for sure why, for instance, Jack is in the photo at the end of The Shining. Alternatively, there are many horrors that successfully balance heavy extrapolation – take, for instance, Martin or The Wicker Man – with a still greatly cinematic aesthetic. What doesn’t work at all is when you explain loads about half of something, then just drop it, and that’s exactly what happens here. All this does is confirm that you as a filmmaker had a premise, but no real insight whatsoever into the plot of your own film. It means your film is severely lacking in justifications and motivations but not because you’re representing a world of chaos; rather that you just aren’t a good writer.

What we gather in this film is that “Diana” the supernatural antagonist, who exists only in the dark, definitely did exist as a human girl once but is now, like, a ghost? But she’s grown older? And she’s intrinsically connected to the mother’s mental state? But she still functions when the mother’s been knocked unconscious? Seriously, in terms of logic, this film is driving on empty.

I remember when I walked back home in a quietened daze from the first time I saw The Babadook, I said without a hint of irony or reservation that the family-based abuse-metaphor psychological horror filmmakers may as well just pack up shop: whatever hadn’t been covered to perfection the first time round by The Shining had absolutely just been covered to perfection by The Babadook. Because I understand The Witch in somewhat broader gender-oriented and theological terms, nothing has successfully shaken my opinion since – Lights Out is not merely no exception; it is in fact re-confirmation.

In The Shining, the monster is not merely the abusive father, rather the great old evil behind all such events – it is a force patriarchal, racist, misogynistic, addiction-enabling and murder-encouraging. This is why there’s little to no contradiction when all the symbolism points to the ghosts being part of Jack’s own mind (for instance, the fact that, every time he speaks to one, he’s stood before a mirror/reflective surface) and yet they reveal themselves to have power and presence separate from him (Grady’s ability to open the pantry door, Wendy’s visions etc). In The Babadook, the monster 100% reflects Amelia’s grief, pain and despair in the face of what she perceives as the intrinsic connection between her husband’s brutal if accidental death and the birth – in fact very existence of her “problem child,” Samuel. Its existence as an entity separate from her is as nuanced as the distinct between anyone’s personality and their mental illness. Thus, the answer to the question “is the monster real, or is it just a representation of a mother’s anguish?” is, of course, a resounding and simultaneous “yes” to both. No such nuance in Lights Out. The remarkable imbalance in this film leaves the meaning behind Diana’s presence entirely nonexistent, and yet mother Sophie still appears, in everyone’s esteem, entirely to blame.

The Shining and The Witch might both most simply be described as horror films about a family desperately tearing itself apart, whilst The Babadook may most simply be described as a horror film about a family trying desperately to piece itself back together; Lights Out seems to have the type of philosophy of family Robin Wood described in “The Lucas/Spielberg Syndrome,” charming, yet entirely motivated by a brutal neoliberal ethic. If a member of the family is too mentally unwell to fulfil their role satisfactorily, it’s best they just kill themself, so the rest of the family can carry on without them. Thus, what is most insidious (no pun intended) about Lights Out is not the horror at all, but the attitude it takes towards mental illness – one as mercenary as it is antediluvian. Even within the grand scheme of cookie-cutter jump-scare horrors, this film stands out as one worthy of particular reproach.

 

(Additional note: so what? The stepfather was a neuroscientist who worked at a mannequin factory? Why do they never explain what all the mannequins are doing everywhere?)

 

*

American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)

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All in all, it’s pretty difficult to watch American Psycho as anything other than an adaptation of the novel. Beyond some good performances – naturally, Bale’s above all else – the film doesn’t add anything to the narrative whatsoever. It does, however, subtract an awful lot. The book worked primarily as a document of obsession – particularly, obsessive attention to detail. Nobody walks into a room without Patrick Bateman describing in full and minute detail what each character is wearing, where they bought it, and how much they paid. At the drop of a hat, he can provide a virtual PhD thesis on why one should only ever drink mineral water out of glass bottles. With this same level of inhuman meticulousness does Bateman describe unthinkable levels of rape, torture, murder, cannibalism and necrophilia at levels rivalling and quite possibly besting Bataille and Sade. Degrees of repugnant atrocity that defy understanding and thus flatten the relief of phenomenological perception, and are merely delegated to emotionless description.

And in the film? A couple of out-of frame and/or dimly lit stabbings and a couple of shootings, breaking the monotony of Bateman out and out telling us how crazy he is, and that he does terrible things. In essence, this is the problem – although the film is narrated by Bateman, and there is hardly a single scene without him, American Psycho betrays film’s status as a visual medium, by consistently telling us what it should be showing us, and maintaining too great a distance from the protagonist’s mental state. Having an unreliable narrator, as American Psycho assuredly does only works when the spectator has first undergone a required process of alignment with the protagonist’s subjective position, first.

American Psycho thus remains, to my mind, an unfilmable novel, its film adaptation doing nothing to sway this opinion: in order to work, the film would need to show levels of violence stretching beyond that of August Underground’s Mordum or Melancholie Der Engel and yet, in doing so, it would have no budget required for the plethora of conspicuous consumption that dominates the characters’ lifestyles. It’s not simply a question of violence, of course: the amount of time that would need to be devoted to the dogmatic description of food, drink, men’s fashion, social etiquette etc would render a legitimate adaptation more 24 Hour Psycho than American Psycho. Goodness knows, I’m the first person usually to argue with anyone who believes the success of an adaptation should be measured by its fidelity to the source text, but the heart and soul of this story is devotion to minutiae which, in the film, are passed off as diversions and vagueries. Beyond there being no blood in American Psycho, there’s considerably little meat – it’s a largely glossy, rather funny, and certainly very well-executed advert for the book, complete with fine acting and a wonderful John Cale score. It’s an enjoyable watch, but far too bland to offer anything incisive in the way of social satire or, at least, a good horror.

At the end of the day, American Psycho‘s essential if enjoyable failure – much like The Neon Demon‘s – reveals what may at first seem like paradox, but later seems like common sense: if you want to investigate shallowness, you have to have your film go deep.

***

We are the Flesh (Emiliano Rocha Minter, 2016)

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Okay, now this is something very special. Tenemos la carne / We are the Flesh is one of those feature films for which the concept of the 5-star rating was invented: it is a film I feel, on some level, truly grateful for. I hesitate to give any real synopsis as part of this review as it is a delirious enough experience to make it unclear what would be a spoiler and what would not. Suffice to say, my assumption of the premise on the basis of the (still very good) trailer with regard to narrative events and character dynamics was pretty much erroneous, though for all the better, as my anxieties about this simply being a Mexican answer to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were quickly allayed.

Instead, We are the Flesh appears to be the brainchild of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, not to mention Jean-Luc Godard, the late playwright Sarah Kane and a whole host of video artists, devised theatre groups and installationists. In fact, what The Revenant may positively be described as being to European Art Cinema (a not-inappropriate link to make, considering Iñarritu’s backing of this film, alongside Carlos Reygadas and Alfonso Cuarón), I feel We are the Flesh may be said to be to a contemporary Artist’s Film & Video. The premise meanwhile combines what appears to be Catholicism, folklore and fairy tales, with a central figure whose name may be Mariano who appears and acts all at once akin to Charles Manson, Rumpelstiltskin and the Devil incarnate (no pun intended). The first act, amongst other things, details the transformation of an abandoned floor on an abandoned office building in an unexplained post-apocalyptic landscape into a womb-cave that may act as venue to each character’s Id to fully express itself. The film’s themes of sexuality, violence and cannibalism all have direct connections to psychoanalysis, as much as they do to the concepts of sin, and both are exploited to full symbolic effect in the film. Meanwhile, We are the Flesh rallies between states of modernism and post-modernism as the “film itself” struggles and seemingly fails to contain the jouissance within – visuals break to singe photographic frames as someone foams at the mouth; a sex scene turns into a music video shot in heat-cam and, later, another sex scene reaches a level of volatile intensity that the film distorts and colour-shifts into oldschool anaglyphic stereoscopic vision.

At pivotal moments (though I may not intend the pun, I’m not so sure the filmmakers don’t) throughout the film, the camera appears to spin 360⁰ in a style highly reminiscent of other recent Satanic Mexican art film Lucifer (interestingly enough, I believe the titular character’s actor, Gabino Rodriguez, may make a cameo in We are the Flesh though I’ll have to check when IMDb is more accommodating)’s use of “tondovision.” At others, it exploits a fantastic score, masterful editing, and psychedelic post-production values to elicit anything from empathetic lustmord to kolpophobia (at these points, one may detect faint echoes of William S. Burroughs’ writings in Central and South America, above my personal favourite, all Cities of the Red Night).

If We are the Flesh may be understood as a response to anything, I feel inclined to view it as a response to Ben Wheatley’s infinitely disappointing adaptation of High-Rise, whose ironic detachment from the narratologiccal grisliness was far too distant in the former and far too “stylish” in the latter – certainly a word of which all film-goers should be wary, due to its typical indication of little more than plenty of shiny things in the mise-en-scène. In the papier-mâché catacombs of We are the Flesh, nothing shines, though the entire film glows with an intoxicating, evil beauty of which I cannot wait for my next fix.

 

*****

Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier, 2015)

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Still pretty hot on the tails of his previous, similarly named revenge subversion, Blue Ruin, Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is a triumph of his increasingly signature style of adding mumblecore sensibilities to genre-flick settings and, in so doing, establishing a surprising synthesis that eschews the navel-gazing of one and the repetition of the other. I’m reminded of the myriad youtube parodies of West Anderson’s instantly recognisable style, applying it to the tropes of pornography and horror – there’s a brilliant fake trailer for, I believe You’re Next as directed by Anderson – were Saulnier not already rapidly establishing himself as an auteur in his own right, one could easily describe Green Room in terms of premise, execution and success, as “Straw Dogs, as directed by Richard Linklater.”

Hardcore band The Ain’t Rights’s tour of the Pacific Northwest comes disastrously a-cropper and they find themselves the hapless opening act for a neo-Nazi skinhead club. (Sidenote: the person who books the gig describes them as “far right, well, technically far left,” which might actually imply the members adhere to a violent wing of the perpetually embarrassing and 99.9% of the time just as racist National-Anarchism movement. However, there are Swastikas abound, so it clearly has, at the very least devolved into full-blown neo-Nazism, whatever the original intentions allegedly were. It’s in no way relevant to the plot, but it did get me thinking, nonetheless.) Following a set that starts off defiantly bumpy due to a cover of the Dead Kennedys’ anthemic “Nazi Punks Fuck Off!” the band stumble upon a grisly murder scene in the eponymous green room and quickly find themselves barricaded, fending off attacks from the nastiest members of the movement, not to mention their bloodthirsty attack dogs, all led by the silver-tongued and scheming Darcy (Patrick Stewart).

True dialectical materialism demands both thesis and antithesis to be at a climactic stage of development for the synthesis, andGreen Room is absolutely no exception – the film is a masterful balancing act of bloodiness and gore which extracted a fair few gasps from my fellow audience members, and a genuinely humanist attitude, spending time and energy on establishing inner conflicts and contradictions in even the most minor of characters, allowing for motives to “justify” everyone’s actions to a point of sense, but never having it be so clear-cut to a point of 2-dimensionality. Thus, this world of brutal violence is immediate and inherent, purely for the reasons that the writing, direction, editing, acting, even the mise-en-scène (“performance” not in fact being a simple synonym for acting, but the cumulative effect of all formal elements onto acting) contribute to a holistic reality that all individuals congregate towards a singular ideology for largely personal reasons. Whilst in most slashers, the actual motivations of the killer/s are irrelevant if they known at all, these motivations become the driving force, in some cases bringing enemies together and splitting allies apart. Such character complexity within a horror on the most primary level allows the increase of pathos to make every death be felt by the spectator and count all the more. On the secondary level, it defines trope expectation and allows even the most abhorrent of bad guy ideology (and Nazism is nothing if not that) to remain at the very least a sign of a consistent integrity which, if and when broken by some of the antagonists for individualist ulterior motives, deepens certainly the narrative evil and, arguably, the moral evil itself.

Add to this all an amazing punk soundtrack – my personal favourite being Bad Brains’ “Right Brigade” over the end credits – not to mention a wonderful original score, and stellar acting across the board, and Green Room truly becomes yet another vital milestone in the apparent international horror golden age the 2010s are swiftly becoming.

Circle (Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione, 2015)

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If the Cube series taught us anything, it was that the point about Kafka-esque locked-room sci-fi scenarios is that, if you want to know what’s on the other side of the door, it’s because you really don’t know what you want. This fact absolutely remains set in stone for Circle. A motley group of 50 find themselves in a circular room that kills a person at random every two minutes, until they quickly realise they have the ability to vote for who dies next.

Unlike the first and best Cube, which does in fact hold an escape route found within a savant’s ability to perform mental arithmetics to the level of prime factorisation, both the survival stratagem and plot ofCircle is at once more accessible and more cruel, on the basis of it coming down to a considerably more human element: personality, prejudice, biased consideration.

There is an exceptionally strong potential, just bubbling below the surface of Circle in which racism, classism and queerphobia, not to mention the more abstract inner-workings of the human psyche could have really been addressed, but all we get is, well, surface. A couple of easy stereotypical bigot lines you could have lifted from a youtube comments section on a very, very slow day and you start to wonder why the majority lets some of the assholes live for as long as they do, especially considering they decide to kill all the people in their 70s and 80s first, then turn instantly to a 52-year old woman, even though one of the biggest douches of the bunch is clearly never going to see 60 again.

Circle, particularly on account of its shape and the almost farcical hopelessness of the plight did make me think not only of Kafka but Foucault and his panopticon, and was certainly diverted by how quickly and earnestly the characters establish pathetic voting rituals and teams, making threats and promises, all constantly talking about “buying time” to work out how to fight back, but never even bothering to do so… there’s a lot to read into, there, and a lot of allegories to make.

However, there just isn’t anywhere near enough meat on the bones to inspire anyone to bother to do so, and the ending is a really disappointing deflation. Oh well.

**

NekRomantik (Jörg Buttgereit, 1987)

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NekRomantik is a bewildering film – certainly one of the much better shot-on-video horrors out there, NekRomantik provides the viewer with a uniquely grim and grimy tour through a vast array of abject vices, not least of all sex with a particularly gooey corpse.

I say “not least of all,” rather than “most of all,” because it’s hard to say if it reallyis. Virtually no time at all after our protagonist procures the body is he dumped by his girlfriend, who takes the corpse with her. What certainly feels like the grand majority of the film then follows him, wandering in an aimless stupour of depression, killing on rare occasions, but generally bringing the mood totally down.

Thus, beyond variable acting and an undeniably contrived plot, NekRomantik gets such a ho-hum rating, largely on the basis of its utter Debbie Downer status. The poster implies a whirlwind of outrageously gross yet funny necro-eroticism and, on that front, NekRomantik pretty heavily fails to deliver. Thankfully, its sequel makes a much better job of mining out an ironically upbeat message and is thus more successful in the tongue-in-cheek satire so clearly intended.

 

**1/2

The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)

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A neatly written, well acted horror film that operates fully on the “girls to the front” ethos, The Descent would be excellent, if it weren’t for the fact that it isn’t in the slightest bit scary. Annoying as it is, the film’s noble intention to showcase regular female badassery renders the encounters with the vampire-esque monsters much more like an action film than a horror film, complete with frankly stupid Bourne Identity-reminiscent rapid editing techniques that completely alienate the spectator from any form of empathic involvement in the panic and fear these characters are supposed to be, reasonably, feeling as they are trapped underground, sharing space with bloodthirsty creatures unlike anything they’ve seen before. The psychological aspects of the protagonist Sarah’s potentially self-destructive emotions, surrounding the death of her family are referenced sporadically enough to consider them little more than a half-hearted afterthought to the narrative at large, and the whole experience comes across as rather sub-Whedon-esque. Enjoyable and exciting viewing, complete with decent monsters, but little substance under a variable style.

***