The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012)

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The genre film’s genesis – indeed, its very ontology – is, by many standards, some of the clearest and most compelling evidence of the dialectical process at work. The western, the musical, the gangster, the romcom, the horror are all formed and established in a system of dialogues between studios and spectators, manifesting as individual films and as cinema attendance/ticket sales/reviews. And yet, what sounds like a system of refinery holds many elements of inherent vice. Consider the Nightmare On Elm Street series: what began as a genuinely scary film inspired sequels which established a franchise. Franchisement made Freddy Krueger a recognisable household name, even to children far too young to watch the movies, which consequently quickly established the need for Freddy to become and increasingly comedic and even cuddly character, reliant on one-liners, and an ever further far cry from the vengeful ghost of a child rapist, acting as the manifestation of genealogical trauma.

The Cabin in the Woods is, first and foremost, a thinly veiled metaphor for just how hard it is to make a good horror film in the 21st Century. The “sacrifice” that appears to be effectively a standard horror film has at its core a triangle of tension, whose points are adherence to the pre-established generic formula, freshness and adaptability to change, and plausibility. We notice quickly how, in order to present a narrative supposedly more “relatable” to us, the complexity of humanity is coercively voided in favour of one-dimensional archetypes through psychotropic chemistry that would turn Curt (Chris Hemsworth) an eloquent Sociology major who happens to be sporty into a testosterone-fuelled jock who refers to his own friends as “eggheads.” The reliance on the kids’ “free will” and “choosing” is consistently re-mentioned by the senior technicians, and yet their hand is forced in ever-increasingly implausible ways.

Indeed, several of the deaths are distinctly unsatisfactory – not least of all Curt’s crashing into an invisible forcefield – indeed, into the second half, the Director seems content simply to send a SWAT team to shoot Marty (Fran Kranz), just to get the job done. This is effectively the problem with the genre format, as revealed by Cabin formulae being demanded inevitably leads to desensitisation, which leads to shortcuts, which leads to the formulae not being adhered to, after all. We may consider again the “free choice” given to the kids through various items put in the basement to invoke unwittingly one horror or another, all of whom we later encounter in the second half of the film. Save for the “Zombie Redneck Torture Family,” which of the other monsters would have actually made any sense at all in a cabin in the woods? Certainly not the giant cobra, the murderous clown, the buzzsaw-wielding robot straight out of Chopping Mall… The necessity for adherence to tropes as part of the sacrifice paints the process into a corner of reasonable plausibility, with a tragically untapped well of potential, as represented by senior technician Hadley (Bradley Whitford)’s constant disappointment at never seeing a merman.

It was with a similar disappointment that I responded to Cabin the first time I saw it but, with each rewatch, I am further impressed by the extent to which it acts as film-as-film-criticism. A significant development on Scream which simply employs a character to straight-up tell an audience the “rules” of being in a horror film, Cabin manages to lambast them. What it provides instead is, arguably, not all that much, which is why seeing it as I did most recently as the first film in a movie marathon (immediately followed by You’re Next, Get Out, Kill List, The Babadook and It Follows) was such a perfect way to experience it. Ultimately, Cabin‘s status as horror critique first and horror film second means it can never be perfect; it is, however, a legitimate, engaging and deeply funny set-up for what I consider to be the horror golden age we are currently experiencing.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

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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.

⭐⭐⭐

Star Spangled to Death (Ken Jacobs, 1957-2004)

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Between its anarchic genderfuckery in the form of Jack Smith, its sociopolitical cynicism and its extended, barbed, and wholly sardonic use of found-footage from throughout Hollywood’s history, Star Spangled to Death may potentially warrant the bizarre honour of being the American Underground’s radical response to Myra Breckinridge. However, and I say this without a hint of sarcasm, compared to the tragically disorganised and honestly quite dull 94 minutes of fairly uneventful camp posturing, Star Spangled‘s 7 hours genuinely fly by.

Building on the avant-garde’s propensity for creating film analysis in the form of film itself, Star Spangled exploits 20th Century Hollywood and TV broadcasting’s dominance over the Western world to, in turn, critique that world itself. By focusing itself multiple times on, but by no means limiting itself to, milestone figures of cinema’s development Al Jolson and Mickey Mouse (and the indisputable influence of blackface minstrelsy over both), it allows the intersectional ideologies of Capitalism and racism flowing through the film industry to be revealed in clearer terms than even Comolli and Narboni might have achieved.

Throughout the film, text appears, sometimes for only one or two frames, often challenging the assertions of documented figures such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and it invites us to become Laura Mulvey’s partially-dreaded “possessive spectator” – disrupting and restarting the film as many or as few times as we care to read Jacob’s comments – in so doing, we engage in some of the same techniques as him.

However, Star Spangled exists not solely as a found-footage documentary, nor as an essay film, rather as the synthetical product of these two dialectics which, in turn, results in what may only be described as “fiction” – Jacobs and fellow artist friends playing “characters” such as Jack Smith’s “The Spirit Not of Life But of Living.” As is the case with Jacob’s Little Stabs at Happiness, there are wistful, tragicomic references to the fallings-out Jacobs experienced with Smith and co. before the end of the film’s production. Star Spangled of course, is all the more poignant for its gestation period outliving not only Smith’s firm friendship with Jacobs, but also Smith, himself, who died of complications related to AIDS the lion’s share of 15 years before the film’s completion. In the final chapter reaches a level of deep profundity when it references Smith’s apparent inability to shake off the internalised queerphobia instilled by a hardline Christian education, believing himself deserving of his fate, followed rapidly by footage of the anti-Gulf War 2 protests in New York, in which Jacobs believed he had encountered Smith’s ghost, in the guise of a similar-looking young protester, leading chants and drum circles.

Star Spangled to Death is a blisteringly angry, bitingly funny, but most of all desperately vital masterpiece of American Underground cinema, documentary and anti-kyriarchal self-expression.

 

*****

The Human Stain (Robert Benton, 2003)

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My stance with the obnoxious whiners, both the ones for and against what is so often frankly mislabeled “political correctness” ever in flux, my opinion on The Human Stain‘s own argument is not unlike the opening joke of Annie Hall about two elderly Jewish ladies complaining about the awful food, and in such small portions: it is all at once desperately stupid, and isn’t made at all strongly enough.

It is almost universally acknowledged that Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman are woefully miscast in this film. I mean, obviously, Nicole Kidman, a nigh-perpetual charisma vacuum, appears miscast in pretty much everything but the casting of protagonist Coleman Silk is at least slightly interesting, if still pretty lousy. Better qualified and more dedicated people than me could explore the potential racial-identity-oriented implications of having the young Coleman Silk played by a man of Afro-Carribean and Jewish descent (Wentworth Miller), and the old Coleman Silk being played by a man with neither, with regard to Silk’s choices regarding his familial and racial disconnection, but I don’t feel all that comfortable exploring it right now, myself. What I shall instead say is that, despite my general lack of interest in Miller, I think he does a pretty fine job, all things considered, both of portraying Silk on his own terms and also reflecting Hopkins’ mannerisms enough to make one a believable younger version of the other. However, this only further establishes something of a star-power-dynamic, as the latter’s performance is a wholly workaday Hopkins-as-Hopkins which, especially in the context of the May-December relationship between Silk and Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), makes The Human Stain appear an overly-serious dummy-run for the equally underwhelming Allen comedy You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.

The catalyst for the lacklustre narrative, Silk’s loss of his academic post on account of his use of the term “spooks,” meaning “ghosts,” being seemingly intentionally misconstrued as “spooks,” meaning “Black people,” is wholly dependent not on the clandestine racial origins of the speaker, but the lack of level-headedness of his colleagues, given the clarity of context of the word, situated in the phrase “do they exist, or are they spooks?” This is ever so slightly alluded to, right near the very of the film which, given what’s just happened at the climax, everyone essentially goes – “who cares?” However, the bulk of the film is essentially predicated on a deeply inane “freezepeach” babble: “What do you mean I can’t use a racial slur? What if I’m secretly Black? Didn’t think of THAT one, didya?” An argument made predominantly by the whitest of white men.

Nicole Kidman is, of course, awful but, to be fair, so is her character. The Wentworth Miller-led flashback sections are, without a doubt, the most engaging, but are entirely cheapened and embittered by the fact that what is actually a fairly compelling story of one man is being used, inappropriately and poorly, as smoke-and-mirrors for a completely fatuous argument. The tensions surrounding Faunia and her obnoxious PTSD outbursts, one-dimensional allusions to childhood molestation, dead children, and her not-at-all-menacing menacing ex husband (Ed Harris), beyond being dull and grating, also distract from the point the story is trying to make. The result is, rather than complexity, The Human Stain merely gains confusion.

The Human Stain suffers through its underuse of good actors in good roles, overuse of good actors in bad roles, and overuse of bad actors in bad roles, never with enough conviction or narrative drive to express its point to the extent that it could be described as a “commentary” or “satire,” and it’s a stupid point anyway.

 

*1/2

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

High-Rise (Ben Wheatley, 2015)

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A real kick in the mouth, considering every film of Ben Wheatley’s up to this, High-Rise, alongside such examples as The Cell, Stoker and Lost River stands as testament to the unforgiving reality that it really doesn’t matter how much style you throw at something, if you don’t have the substance to back it up. Though I haven’t seen them, the glossy sci-fi setting and reliance on stars suggests High-Rise may in fact share considerably more in common with the Doctor Who episodes Wheatley directed than any of his prior films, which would partially explain my utter dislike of this film, in contrast both to my feelings about his oeuvre as a whole, and the grand majority of audiences.

In interviews for previous films such as Kill List and Sightseers, Wheatley has always made clear that he likes all his characters, despite the horrible things they may do, and speaks with a paternal generosity that feels entirely fitting – none of his previous films have been without pathos, without a vested interest in seeing his protagonists develop, even from bad to worse; High-Rise, to put it simply, doesn’t. It’s ironic that the one film of his that is a veritable social satire displays the least interest in breaking through any character’s archetypal shell. Thus, there isn’t nearly enough groundwork laid in the first act to leave much room for shock, or even surprise, when everyone starts going berserk – the loss of humanity to primal rage and survivalism can only make an impression when there was a minimum amount of humanity to lose.

Sure, High-Rise is “nasty,” but only really on a surface level – any film that involves murder, violent rape, enslavement of a pregnant woman, and the eating of a dog is going to make you shift in your seat – but the film’s alignment with protagonist Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston)’s constant state of ironic self-detachment at it all doesn’t reinforce the cruelty of the events so much as combine with the tiresomely “stylish” presentation to permeate the film with an atmosphere of smugness.

I so, so hope that Wheatley is essentially never given this amount of money or the desire to adapt a book again – it’s clearly bad for him, and really disappointing to me.

 

**