Posts Tagged horror

The Dead Don’t Die

 Year of release: 2019             Directed by Jim Jarmusch.      Starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, Tom Waits, and Tilda Swinton.

“This is going to end badly.” That line quickly becomes a recurring punchline from Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), whose last name might be a subtle reference to the previous collaboration between Driver and Jim Jarmusch. In a film overflowing with meta jokes, it’s difficult to overlook such a similarity. It’s also a bold choice for a repeated line, since it will give plenty of fodder to critics who dislike The Dead Don’t Die.

According to IMDB trivia, Tilda Swinton gave Jarmusch the idea for a zombie film while they were working on his vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive. Much like that film redefined the conventions of vampire films in service of a story focused on the role of art and relationships in a polluted world that does not value the good, true and beautiful, The Dead Don’t Die redefines the conventions of zombie films in service of a story focused on surviving in a world that is literally turning into Hell.

The Dead Don’t Die is certainly more cynical than Only Lovers Left Alive, but it is an apocalyptic film taking place in a world that has dug too deep down the rabbit hole of its own destruction. It also was made five years later than Jarmusch’s earlier film, and the world has now seen a racist, bullying fascist use his office to roll back environmental protections, lock children in cages, and peddle countless lies as “facts” every day.

If there’s any question as to whether Jarmusch intends to skewer America’s current administration and its supporters, Steve Buscemi plays a racist farmer who wears a red baseball cap with the words, “Keep America white again.”

Jarmusch is clearly disgusted by the state of American politics, but he doesn’t let his disgust give way to anger. Instead he channels it into brilliantly exploiting the fine, fine line between horror and comedy, ruthlessly highlighting the absurdity of a world choosing to endanger its own existence. Similar to Aronofsky’s Noah, which showed an apocalypse that resulted from humankind’s destruction of all creation, The Dead Don’t Die shows an apocalypse that results from polar fracking, which knocks the earth off its axis, changing its rotation, which in turn alters day and night lengths, which enables the dead to rise. How could such a scenario end other than badly?

The inevitably of the movie’s conclusion enables Jarmusch to play the resigned, deadpan, matter-of-fact humor for all it’s worth. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s worth a lot, especially with Chloë Sevigny’s everywoman Officer Mindy Morrison anchoring the normal human reactions to the horror. When Driver’s Officer Peterson tells Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) that the gruesome attack on the local diner owner was perpetrated by zombies, ghouls, the undead, the suggestion is as calmly met as if it were as common as a pack of wild animals.

The omniscience of Officer Peterson serves another greater purpose beyond the hilarious running punchline throughout the movie. Driver’s banter with Bill Murray whenever they’re driving is hilariously self-referential, and it culminates in a fantastic scene that underscores the purpose of art and the role of the artist. Even at its darkest, art holds a mirror up to the world, as the artist guides his creation down a path that hopefully gives us some understanding of the world as it as and as it should be.

Jarmusch homages other works of art as well, from Nosferatu to Night of the Living Dead to Star Wars, all of which highlight in one way or another that this version of Centerville, PA is very much not as it should be. The person best prepared for the zombie apocalypse is Hermit Bob (another frequent Jarmusch collaborator, Tom Waits) who lives in the local woods and provides a running commentary on the action. His detachment from worldly materialism is his saving grace. Science fiction and samurai films both receive a tribute (and hilarious conclusion) through the town’s new mortician Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton). Caleb Landy Jones plays a nerdy gas station attendant whose extensive horror film knowledge helps him and Hank (Danny Glover) fare slightly better than most of the other characters.

However, because the dead don’t die, as the theme song by Sturgill Simpson says, the film is obviously going to end badly. At the same time, that doesn’t mean it is devoid of hope. The only way to kill a zombie is to destroy its head. Whether that is intended as a call for impeachment or completely cutting off our dependence on fracking and other environmentally detrimental procedures is debatable. Either way, the metaphor clearly suggests the difficulty and necessity of ceasing the destruction of our planet and its inhabitants.

With a large cast of quickly developed characters, bizarre and extremely dry humor, strong political overtones, and deliberate avoidance of any zombie film tropes, The Dead Don’t Die is obviously going to be a strong cup of coffee that not everyone appreciates. Perhaps the best litmus test for enjoying it is this. We hear the title song play over the opening credits; two minutes later it comes on the radio, and Adam Driver explains it’s the theme song, so it’s familiar. If that strikes you as hilarious, the rest of Jarmusch’s self-aware, environmentally conscious zombie apocalypse should as well.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

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Heathers

Year of Release: 1989      Directed by Michael Lehmann.  Starring Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk, Shannon Doherty, and Penelope Milford.

A friend once quipped, “There are two rules of humor: 1) nothing is funny; 2) anything can be funny. Both nothing and anything must be taken absolutely literally.” That is not to say that any and all jokes are funny and sensitive subjects are a free for all when it comes to humor. Rather, it is to say that with proper care and diligence, laughter in response to sensitive subjects can be an appropriate means of attacking the powerful and defending the weak.

Heathers is a film that makes jokes about taboo subjects including, but not limited to: teen suicide, date rape, homophobia, body shaming, bullying, eating disorders, narcissistic exploitative teachers, neglectful parents, and school shootings. And in every single one of its jokes, the target is the victimizer/abuser and the way our culture’s unhealthy obsessions with popularity and trying to make sure our team is the winning team perpetuate the oppression and exploitation of the most vulnerable.

Exclusive tribalism is mocked from the first scene when the titular clique of high school mean girls, all named Heather except for their lackey Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder), exert their self-claimed superiority over the rest of their high school first through humiliating an overweight girl named Martha and then by forcing the entire school to participate in a lunchtime poll, thought up by the ringleader Heather Chandler (Kim Walker).

The cruelty of humiliating Martha is contrasted with the sadistic glee of the Heathers, which sets up an unremarkable mockery of high school cliques for being exclusive and mean. However, the lunchtime poll is carried out with unapologetic aplomb by the Heathers despite its inherent stupidity, for which any other student would be mocked. This contrast makes it clear that things such as fashionable and the “in crowd” are determined by the whims of whomever can be the bossiest and most snobbish while getting others to envy them.

The first push back Veronica experiences against that poll, “If you received five million dollars, and on the same day aliens said they were going to blow up the planet in three days, what would you do with the money?” comes from obvious cool kid and scoundrel JD (Christian Slater, blatantly channeling Cuckoo’s Nest Jack Nicholson). We know JD is cool because he wears all black, openly tells Veronica how stupid Heather Chandler’s poll question is, and says “Greetings and salutations!” instead of hello. When threatened by the two school bullies, he also pulls a gun and shoots two blanks at them after calling them assholes to their face.

At this point every future plot point has been foreshadowed, and the stage is set for one of the darkest and funniest high school comedies, surpassing the similar high school satires of subsequent decades: Clueless and Mean Girls. One substantial reason that Heathers resonates so much more strongly for me than those other high school comedies is that is not afraid to follow its premise to the morbid conclusion necessitated by the tribalism and obsessive desire for coolness. Indeed, with its blend of horror and comedy, Heathers serves as a sort of link between Brian De Palma’s Carrie and the high school comedies of the ‘90’s and later decades.

Veronica’s trajectory in Heathers follows that of a horror film, albeit one punctuated with many moments of humor. Witnessing JD intimidate the two bullies whom she despises sparks an instant attraction, which leads to an inevitable partnership as Veronica transitions from a Heathers wannabe to a vigilante agent for justice within her high school. The problem is she abandoned her snobbish clique for an even more exclusive and dehumanizing one.

This blend of comedy and horror is perfectly captured in Daniel Waters’ brilliant dialogue, which is mannered enough to be obviously artificial compared to actual teenage talk, and yet is simultaneously pointed and stinging. Lines such as: “Dear diary, my teen angst bullshit has a body count,” and “I use my grand IQ to decide what color lip gloss to wear in the morning and how to hit three keggers before curfew,” expose a broken world while belittling the mentalities that lead to such distortions.

The obsession with coolness and being a member of the right team or club is the primary target of Heathers’ satire. What is most remarkable, however, is not the film’s ruthless critique of that attitude among high schoolers nor how it shows the horrific yet logical conclusions of such selfish worldviews, but that it shows such shallowness also extends to adults as the teachers, parents, and principal respond to the increasing number of tragedies by selfishly using the supposed teen suicides as a platform to push their preconceived notions.

The destructive phoniness on display throughout the entire film is succinctly summarized by the highly stylized opening montage of the three Heathers playing croquet in outfits matching their balls, walking straight through flower beds, and hitting the balls into Veronica’s head instead of croquet hoops. This entire sequence is underscored by “Que será, será,” both a reminder of the childhood innocence which has been lost by the high school preoccupation with cliques and a commentary on the tragic inevitably such mentalities lead to when taken to extremes.

As Veronica, Winona Ryder gives one of her best performances, torn between the desire to be a member of the cool club and wanting to make the world a kinder place for everyone. As that tension leads her down an increasingly horrific road, the film capitalizes on several moments for her to experience actual humanity and compassion, serving as a sharp prick to her guilty conscience. Her delivery of her final line to JD is pitch perfect in its condemnation of their bad choices and as a triumphant rejection of the mentality that caused so many of the film’s tragedies in the first place. “You know what I want? Cool guys like you out of my life.”

 

Personal Recommendation: A+

Content Advisory: Long distance shot of date rape, multiple non-graphic murders, underage promiscuity, drinking, and smoking, recurring foul language. MPAA rating: R

Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

 

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mother!

Year of Release: 2017      Directed by Darren Aronofsky.   Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer.

“God therefore called man into existence, committing to him the craftsman’s task. Through his “artistic creativity” man appears more than ever “in the image of God,” and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous “material” of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him. With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of his own surpassing wisdom, calling him to share in his creative power.” – Pope St. John Paul II in his 1999 Letter to Artists

The question at the heart of mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s latest bizarre fever dream heavily infused with Biblical allegories, is what happens when an artist abuses that power. Portrayed by Javier Bardem, the artist in question receives no name throughout the film, and he is clearly meant to serve as an archetype of something, but what that something is remains a mystery for much of the film. One thing that is clear throughout the film is that more than desiring to write great poetry, he longs for mass adulations from his adoring fans to the chagrin of his doting, supportive wife, the titular mother (Jennifer Lawrence).

Mother herself is another allegorical character, with touches of the Virgin Mary, Hestia, and Aphrodite, but she is primarily drawn from Gaia, or mother nature herself. Whatever combination of metaphors mother is meant to represent, Lawrence draws on them all effortlessly, creating a sympathetic character who never seems gullible or foolish for blindly going along with her husband or pouring all her energies into refurbishing their mysterious house, another process of creation and a sort of vocation that no one, including her creative genius husband, appreciates.

Aronofsky has said that his original idea for mother! was to convey a feeling of dread and helplessness as one watches their home destroyed, an allegory of mother earth’s helplessness in the face of environmental destruction. That is an easy interpretation to see, especially considering the selfless giving of mother to her husband and the increasingly disturbing string of guests he parades through their home because they love his work. At the same time, if the invasion of the home is a parallel to humans destroying the earth, it also functions as an example of a self-centered artist allowing his wife’s handiwork to be abused and destroyed because he wants all fame and glory for himself, not much different from an abusive artist trying to usurp glory from God or misuse His creation.

As the destruction to the house crescendos in increasingly disturbing ways, it is impossible not to sympathize with mother as Aronofsky builds up to the horrific finale of his disorienting thrill ride. That sense of sympathy and compassion serves as a lament in the face of evil as we watch mother’s suffering. mother! may be a horror film, but it’s a profoundly sorrowful one. If the desire for fame can give birth to the ugliest of human behavior, idolatrous religious fervor fortifies those tendencies. mother! shies away from depicting neither.

The horror of human capacity for evil is made strikingly apparent by Aronofsky’s choice to saturate this film with Biblical allegories. The ones that feature into the finale are a jarring choice considering what happens, but that dissonance emphasizes the twofold horror of the artist who thinks he is God and of the inherent idolatry of adoring fans who place their faith in works of art rather than allowing the art to remind them of something greater.

(Mild spoilers in the next paragraph, skip it if you wish to avoid them.)

The metaphorical nature of Javier Bardem’s poet has caused consternation among many Christian reviewers, and while he is certainly meant to be indicative of God the Father on some levels, he is just as much drawn from Pygmalion in Greek mythology with his doting trophy wife half his age, carefully concocted to be the ultimate fulfillment of every sexist fantasy regarding the subservient housekeeping wife whom the husband can ignore, whose existence seems due to a magical crystal he owns. He is also a highly incomplete portrait of God with his obsession of permitting people to do whatever they want provided they tell him he’s awesome. Mother is also representative of God with her sense of justice, the way she breathes life into the house, and the way she bears its burdens. If the poet represents a god where mercy has been divorced from justice, the abuse heaped upon mother results in a god where justice is divorced from mercy. Both are horrific alternatives, and the film depicts both.

It would be easy to dismiss mother! as an offensive and badly muddled allegory of religious themes, and indeed, many Christian reviewers have done just that. Furthermore, considering the damning way in which uniquely Catholic symbolism plays into the film’s climax, adding one more such condemnation to the fray would have been all too easy. However, to have done so would have been to ignore the thoughtful and complex way Aronofsky wrestles with the vocation of the artist and how that can be abused in a unique setting haunted by Biblical themes.

I believe the key to understanding mother! is to remember that it is not a straightforward allegory, but one that deliberately scrambles all its metaphors, much to the frustration of audiences. Alissa Wilkinson mentioned that Michelle Pfeiffer, in a scene stealing performance, is simultaneously an Eve and Serpent figure. That is the sort interpretation this film requires. Jacob and Esau are merged with Cain and Abel. The Nativity and the Passion are referenced almost simultaneously. And in a predictable, yet brilliant twist, Alpha and Omega symbolism bookends the film.

mother! is a grand, macabre symphony of big, bold, Mahlerian-scaled allegories that pummel the viewer through a psychological horror tale about creation, its destruction, and the artist’s vocation. The relentless pacing, disturbing and revolting plot twists, plethora of closeup shots, and the predictable yet nonetheless WTF ending all contribute to an atmosphere which will challenge even the most adventurous of viewers, causing many of them to abhor it. And for all those reasons, which create a perfect marriage of style and substance, I absolutely loved it.

 

Content Advisory: Disturbing graphic violence, including cannibalism, a scene of physical assault with fleeting nudity, a couple non-graphic sex scenes, a few harsh obscenities, and brief male nudity.                    MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with extreme discernment

Personal Recommendation: A

 

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The Witch

Directed by Robert Eggers.    Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, and Harvey Scrimshaw.

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Everyone should see The Witch.

Okay. That’s a hyperbolic opening sentence which neither takes into account differences of tastes and sensibilities nor describes what makes The Witch a compelling, thought provoking viewing experience vastly different from most other films. Of course not everyone should see The Witch, but anyone who appreciates thoughtful, challenging works of art which wrestle with faith based questions should give this film a chance.

The Witch is a powerful work of art about faith gone badly wrong and the horrific consequences thereof. While those consequences unquestionably make The Witch a horror film, it’s hardly one I would call scary. Rather, the creepy and unnerving atmosphere, achieved through a perfect blend of fantasy and tragedy, gives the themes of religion, fundamentalism, and destruction of the family a fresh vitality. In other words, both horror aficionados and those who rigidly eschew horror films should throw out any expectations and allow The Witch to unfold in its unusual and spectacular manner.

The story itself is fairly simple: a Puritan family is exiled from their colonial village because the father has been challenging the ways of the towns’ elders, whom he claims are heretics. After they set up their farm on the outskirts of the woods, the infant disappears one day while the oldest is playing peek-a-boo with him. Not long after that, increasingly unusual events begin to plague the family, creating rifts between all the relationships: siblings, spouses, and parents and children.

With its masterful recreation of superstitious, seventeenth century, colonial New England, The Witch transports its audience to an era long since passed where characters behave in ways that make little sense by modern standards. Regrettably, several screenings have had a few audience members’ laughing in shock because they are unable to accept the perspective of characters whose mentality is completely foreign to twenty-first century America. However, the unapologetic immersion in seventeenth century Puritan New England by writer/director Robert Eggers is what makes The Witch so thoroughly engrossing.

Eggers’ script is full of archaic language which would be right at home in a Shakespeare play, and his dialogue frequently focuses on sin and the fear that one might die in sin and thus go to hell. That fear naturally applies to children and infants, and it is a pressing concern for the family, especially young Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), who cannot comprehend what his baby brother did to deserve to go to hell. While his father (Ralph Ineson) acknowledges God’s mercy as a possibility, the strict sect of Puritanism to which the family adheres places an extreme focus on sin and damnation, almost to the point that sin is greater than God’s mercy, a warped perspective which will feature prominently later in the film.

At the center of the story is Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), on the verge of becoming a woman, suffering from guilt for losing her infant brother while she was playing peek-a-boo, her mother’s scapegoat for anything that goes wrong on the farm, and increasingly uncertain about the rigid fundamentalism of her faith. The opening shot of her silently staring wide-eyed into the camera portrays a young girl who sees her family’s future jeopardized as her father is banished from the village community. That young girl gradually becomes more assertive through the course of the film, but since her family and religion both devalue her, her journey to adulthood hardly follows a normal trajectory. The two other scenes when she stares directly into the camera frame her mental and spiritual journey. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then the film unnervingly captures a very troubled and lonely soul.

Overshadowing Thomasin’s coming of age and the family grief is the omnipresent threat of a witch in the woods that border the farm. It goes without saying that Thomasin and her family believe in witchcraft, and a very early scene shows the audience the witch. However, the overarching question is whether or not the witch is really a threat or if there is another demonic presence haunting this family. The answers are skillfully suggested throughout, particularly in an early tracking shot which distorts its subject in a brilliant fashion. The final answer will seem perfectly natural to viewers who have bought into the characters and world on display. For those who haven’t, the denouement will probably be the biggest head scratcher in the film. Either way, it pays off in spades.

As a director, Eggers brilliantly chooses what to show and what not to show. He times the cuts to leave just enough room for doubt so that the tragic, fantastic atmosphere is greatly heightened. He places Mark Korven’s visceral, textural score against Jarin Blaschke’s bleak cinematography so that the world of the film is immersive. Finally, his Bergmanesque wrestling with faith, doubt, and isolation suggests a cross between Winter Light and Hour of the Wolf.

It’s very rare to see a film that demands to be seen multiple times to fully digest it. With The Witch, first time feature film director Robert Eggers has crafted such a film.

 

Content Advisory: Fleeting depictions of disturbing satanic rituals, some gruesome violence, shadowy nudity, and horrific unusual deaths.   MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Adults with discernment

Personal Recommendation: A

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JeruZalem

Year of Release: 2016     Directed by The Paz Brothers. Starring Danielle Jadelyn, Yael Grobglas, and Yon Tumarkin.

Here’s a quiz as to whether or not you should even consider watching JeruZalem.

What do the words: Plan 9 from Outer Space mean to you?

A. Um, I have no idea. Is that some sort of sci-fi thing?

B. Good grief, that’s that terrible Ed Wood movie.

C. A classic example of what not to do in making a movie. Like Zardoz, young film buffs should watch it as a rite of passage, and then promptly try to erase it from their memories.

D. Cult classic, so bad that it’s hilarious. I watch it at least once a year. Zardoz is great too, now that you mention it!

If you answered A, B, or C stay far, far away from JeruZalem. If you answered D, you might (never mind, inappropriate joke about bad movie taste redacted). If you answered D, and if you like cheesy, dumb horror films with absurd premises and a fair amount of gore, then maybe, and I mean maybe, you would enjoy JeruZalem. (For the record, my answer to the above quiz is C.)

After a “found footage” opening of several decades ago, in which an exorcism in Jerusalem goes horribly wrong and the exorcist shoots the possessed woman, who turns out to have been a demon in disguise, the film cuts to two naive, young American women planning a vacation to Jerusalem. Actually, they are planning to go to Tel Aviv, but after landing in Israel they change their destination to Jerusalem, because they decide it will be more fun, thus setting up the women as classic horror film damsels in distress: cavalier and foolish.

The film’s central gimmick, which is an interesting though unsuccessful idea, is to show the entire story through the perspective of Sarah (Danielle Jadelyn) by having her wear a pair of glasses which act as a computer, phone, and video. Since the glasses apparently never need to be recharged, for the entire film, the camera is placed to capture the perspective of Sarah’s glasses, usually whatever she’s seeing when they are on her face, but occasionally a side view from a table when she takes them off. The latter is mostly so the filmmakers have an incredibly stupid and lazy excuse to show her breasts when she has sex with Kevin (Yon Tumarkin), a cool guy she meets on the trip (another horror film cliché in a film overstuffed with them).

The bigger reason that the gimmick does not work is that the glasses are a distraction. First of all the lens width that the directors and cinematographer chose is too narrow to give an accurate feeling of periphery vision. Secondly, whenever Sarah falls or gets hit the glasses briefly short out, and the screen goes black until they reboot. Thirdly, whenever the glasses are searching for a Wi-Fi connection (which is more often than you would expect) a pop-up menu appears onscreen. Finally, since this is a horror film, there’s a lot of running from zombie like monsters, and when you run, your glasses bounce. Consequently, the image becomes an out of focus, shaky mess, which makes it impossible to be scared or care for the characters, as you spend a third of the film unable to see them.

As to the rest of the plot, there’s an opening title card which claims one of three gates to Hell is in Jerusalem. On Yom Kippur that gate opens, and Jerusalem undergoes a sort of Night of the Living Dead, which makes the fleeting cameo of a Godzilla-like monster jarringly out of place.

The biggest problem with JeruZalem is that it’s too gruesome to enjoy as stupid fun like an old Godzilla film or Plan 9 from Outer Space (if you enjoy those), but it’s too stupid and shallow for any of its half-baked theological ideas to have any resonance at all.

 

Content Advisory: Gruesome horror violence, a brief sex scene with nudity, potentially blasphemous acts (one to Jews and one to Catholics), disturbing creatures, and some occasional rough language.     MPAA Rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

Personal Recommendation: D

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