Thursday, December 20, 2018

Hereditary



Hereditary (2018)
Dir. and written by Ari Aster
Starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne



Part I: The Inheritance of Hereditary

            My friend Mr. Majestyk has a problem. And it’s a problem which does not, at first, sound very much like a problem at all. It it, essentially, this: the genre that he loves dearly is experiencing something of a cultural renaissance at the moment. After years of lurking in the exploitation ghetto, and still more years churning out imaginative and interesting films which were largely ignored and underrated by most of our alleged cultural gatekeepers, Horror films are suddenly chic again. They’re getting rave reviews from Variety, drawing hot new talent, starring serious A-list actors. A fucking horror film was nominated for Best Picture at last year’s Academy Awards! That would have been absolutely unthinkable just five years ago.* For most of the history of the medium (and indeed, going back to the very origins of horror fiction in the 19th century), everyone, including fans, generally agreed that the genre was an artistic ghetto; schlocky matinee stuff for the kids, an entertainment product to be produced in high volume at low cost by hucksters and hustlers, not craftsmen. Virtually no serious artist would touch the genre (and if a few did, well, those were just the exceptions that proved the rule), and an A-list actor appearing in a horror film was a blatant cry for help that they were deep in a career tailspin.

 And then somehow, everything changed, the world turned upside down, and in a few short years the genre went from artistic pariah to a hip launching ground for the au courant aspiring artiste. And suddenly, something like HEREDITARY was playing in mainstream theaters.

            It’s difficult to put an exact date on when this shift started. It had been gradually building for some time, and I’d be willing to argue that it had its origins in the DTV boom of the early 2000’s, when --long before Netflix was even a twinkle in Satan’s eye-- the need for constant new content on Blockbuster Video shelves prompted a tidal wave of hustling bottom-feeders to churn out low-budget genre content with just enough of an apparent hook to snag a few ignorant suckers into a rental under the false impression they were getting a real movie. Or not; whether or not anyone actually watched this shit was seemingly irrelevant to the business model. Blockbuster wanted content, and these films were mostly in the business of providing content to Blockbuster, with the hypothetical viewer a distant afterthought. Consequently, these films were almost uniformly horrible; lots of low-budget cash-in sequels to theatrical movies (FROM DUSK TIL DAWN 2 and 3, endless sequels to HELLRAISER and WRONG TURN and TREMORS and AMITYVILLE HORROR and so on) or zero-effort time-wasters (EVIL EYES [2004] with Adam Baldwin or FURNACE [2007] with Michael Pare, Tom Sizemore, and Danny Trejo) or that weird run of serial killer biopics they were doing for awhile back then (GACY, HELTER SKELTER, ED GEIN). Occasionally something decent like John Fawcett’s GINGER SNAPS or THE DARK would sneak in there, but if so, it was mostly by accident, a thousand-monkeys-with-a-thousand-typewriters sort of statistical anomaly, and certainly not an integral part of the business model. These films would sometime debut in a regional festival or two, but the business model was selling bulk units to video-rental chains, not selling tickets to consumers (the same way that approximately 70 billion new horror films so dismal that even I would never watch them appear every year on Netflix, entirely to shore up their overall numbers and make them look like they have an extensive catalogue when in fact they have about 20 movies you want to see and then another 800,000 that are movies in the strictest possible technical sense, but no human being would ever voluntarily watch.**)



            But somewhere in the mid-2000s, something interesting happened. As the conveyor belt of DTV genre crap became more efficient and demonstrated it was consistently profitable, producers throttled back on budgets, but made up for it in volume, and suddenly it became feasible for a lot of neophytes to get a crack at directing their own movie. This was before PARANORMAL ACTIVITY cleared the way for films which had no narrative or cinematic content of any kind whatsoever, and so, with almost no budget for gore and tits and rubber monsters, the aspiring filmmakers gradually started remembering the lessons of the old Val Lewton days: if you don’t have the budget to show us the goods, you’re gonna have to cinema the hell out of it instead. And thus, out of necessity, the germ of artistic ambition was born.

            This idea didn’t take hold immediately, of course. Cinema is hard, and churning out cheap crap was easy. But one man rose to the challenge, a man I think is probably more responsible for the state of modern horror than any other single person: Producer (STAKE LAND), director (BENEATH), actor (WE ARE STILL HERE) and noted cervidaeophobiac Larry Fessenden. Ol’ Fessywig didn’t have anything to do with HEREDITARY, and wasn’t involved with most --if any!-- of the movies which are typically associated with this modern movement, but I think he laid the groundwork for it. If you asked me to pick a single starting point for how we ended up with HEREDITY, I would point you to his 2001 film WENDIGO. It was not his first film (in fact, according to IMDB, he’d been directing short films since 1978, though his first widely-distributed feature was certainly HABIT in 1995) but it was a horror film that was made for nothing and barely released, but clearly aspired to a level of artistry which was unusual for its time.*** It’s patient and atmospheric, character-driven, deliberately ambiguous; it insinuates, never insists. And consequently, it will either entrance and unnerve you, or bore you into a depressive fugue state, which makes it, I think, the most direct primordial ancestor of modern films like THE VVITCH, IT FOLLOWS, and, yes, HEREDITARY. WENDIGO was not overwhelmingly successful or influential, but Fessenden, I’d argue, was: his production company, Glass Eye Pix, spent the ‘naughts slowly cultivating young talent (Ti West, Kelly Reichardt, Glenn McQuaid, Jim Mickle, Mickey Keating) who gradually evolved into a distinct cohort of ambitious and, eventually, semi-respectable auteurs.



It didn’t happen immediately, by any means; the “reception” section of Glass Eye Pix’s 2004 THE OFF SEASON dryly notes that, “Since the film's release it has been regarded as one of the worst movies ever, only garnishing 1.6 stars based on 395 votes on Internet Movie Database and receiving numerous complaints on the site's message board,” (to prove that claim, it offers four separate citations). But they got better, and as they got better, they started gradually receiving some minor critical notice, which in turn led to higher profiles, which led to slightly higher budgets, which led to some minor financial successes, which led to more producers getting interested in investing in small, ambitious horror films which had artistic aspirations beyond the Herschell Gordon Lewises, Don Dohlers, Charles Bands, and Fred Olen Rays of the previous generation of indie horror moguls.

            The process was slow, but it was steady. Ti West’s 2009 THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL may have been something of a tipping point; its deliberately restrained slow-burn style and its enthusiastically positive reception (for a horror film in 2009) seems to me to be the official inauguration of a new era in horror cinema, wherein the genre started to draw not just ambitious young horror buffs, but aspiring auteurs who, perhaps for the first time in the 100+ year history of film, saw the genre as a legitimate starting ground for a serious film career. 2011 and 2012 saw early films from Mike Flanagan (ABSENTIA) Benson and Moorehead (RESOLUTION) Nicholas McCarthy (THE PACT), Ben Wheatley (KILL LIST) and Peter Strickland (BERBIAN SOUND STUDIO), plus West’s THE INNKEEPERS, and Almodóvar’s THE SKIN I LIVE IN (as wells as something quite different but tangentially important, for reasons we shall see directly: the rapturously received horror meta-comedy CABIN IN THE WOODS.) Now, it’s important to note that these reserved, atmosphere-driven horror films were never overwhelmingly profuse; they were, and remain, a tiny minority of the released horror films every year (2012 also saw the release of THE COLLECTION, V/H/S and ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE HUNTER). But it was becoming increasingly clear that a hitherto artistic eccentricity was solidifying into a trend.

That trend became a genuine phenomenon, I would argue, in 2014, with the release of Jennifer Kent's THE BABADOOK, the point at which the critics finally noticed this isn’t just a great horror film, this is a great film, period. In fact, I said something very similar myself in my original review (and I happily stand by that to this day -- THE BABADOOK fuckin’ rocks). Despite being shot by a first time feature director on such a modest budget that it required a kickstarter to finish the sets, the movie bloomed into a genuine phenomenon (William Friedkin compared it favorably to PSYCHO, ALIEN, and DIABOLIQUE), a critical darling, and eventually, as all the truly great ones eventually do, a gay icon. This, it seemed, really opened the door for critics to start unabashedly heaping praise on a series of small-scale, atmosphere-heavy indie horror film from the subsequent years; IT FOLLOWS, THE CANAL and A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT in 2014, THE INVITATION, THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE, and THE VVITCH in 2015, EYES OF MY MOTHER, RAW, and I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE in 2016 (and THE MONSTER, although I don’t know that anyone saw it), GET OUT and IT COMES AT NIGHT in 2017, and A QUIET PLACE, SUSPIRIA, and --our subject tonight-- HEREDITARY for 2018. Reading the plot descriptions, you wouldn’t get the sense that these movies have much in common. But they share with each other common stylistic choices, most notably a patient, sober ambiance with a strong emphasis on psychological drama. Which is to say, they have a shared investment in things that critics like: deliberate filmmaking, subtle acting, discreet thematic exploration.



What they do not always have in abundance is a lot of actual horror. In fact, The Guardian actually took the somewhat infuriating step of dubbing them Post-horror films. They’re long on patient, icy atmosphere, but real short on big genre payoffs. Which is where the problems begin for poor ol’ Mr. Majestyk. Partially, this is because he requires his horror films to be visceral on a level which I suspect puts him distinctly on the far end of the bell curve, and so some of these movies were just never for him in the first place. But the other problem is that he can’t help but notice that when the critics like a horror movie, it often seems like the thing they like about it most is that it’s mostly not a horror movie. These classy modern horror joints tend to garner reviews which praise everything about them except the actual horror part: ‘well, eventually it reaches the inevitable climax and slides into predictable genre fair,’ they’ll say, ‘but until it gets to the actual horror part, there’s lots of good acting and handsome photography!’ Which certainly sounds a lot like ‘I liked the fact that it’s mostly a solid drama about a sad person, and I forgive it for pandering to the audience by having a few crumbs of sordid actual genre content in the back end.’ No wonder the phrase "Post-horror" suggested itself.

Even when one of these movies does get praise for its actual genre content --and often using reckless, breathless superlatives (“Not since Marion Crane took the last shower of her short life has a horror movie so cruelly, effectively shattered an audience’s false sense of security,” gushes The AV Club’s A.A. Dowd about HEREDITARY)-- sometimes it feels like the impact may have been somewhat heightened by unfamiliarity. When CABIN IN THE WOODS was getting raves from the likes of The Washington Posts’ Ann Hornaday (“A pulpy, deceivingly insightful send-up of horror movies that elicits just as many knowing chuckles as horrified gasps”) and Christopher Orr of The Atlantic (“inventive cabin-in-the-woods picture since The Evil Dead and the canniest genre deconstruction since Scream”) one would be forgiven for getting the impression that it was the first film to ever have a little fun tweaking horror cliches, as if that old refuge of the scoundrel wasn’t basically as old as the cliches themselves (hell, JASON X offers satire about equally incisive and a lot less labored). (CABIN IN THE WOODS is great, of course, but come on). Similarly, when heaping praise on HEREDITARY and its ilk, the critics --and sometimes even the filmmakers!-- inevitably cite ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE SHINING, maybe DON’T LOOK NOW as comparison points. And those are great horror movies, but one sometimes gets the feeling they’re also the only horror movies these guys have ever seen. You know, the ones film students watch. It’s easy to say something is one of the most terrifying horror films of all time!!!! If you’ve only seen a half-dozen.

This lends a certain suspicion of smug hipster tourism to the loose movement, maybe not attached to any specific film, but certainly in the air. Are these Horror movies made by people who maybe don’t have a lot of affection or exposure to the genre, who just assume any hack can make a horror film, and consequently anyone who’s seen a couple Fellini movies should easily be able to beat them at their own game? Is this like some Brooklyn hipster who owns 36 Chambers and The Low End Theory and figure that pretty much qualifies them to be a rapper?

Oh, you make horror movies? That's cool I guess. I like to unmake horror movies. It isn't as played out.

 It’s easy to let yourself think so, but I dunno, I don’t think that’s exactly true. I mean, looking at the actual suspects on my list, they all seem pretty earnest to me. These directors may not have seen every single GHOULIES sequel, but it feels like they take their adopted genre seriously, treating the tropes with respect and legitimately making an effort to be at least as scary as arty. In fact, with the exception of the dull yuppie pity party THE INVITATION, I liked every one of those movies I mentioned above.

But while I’m willing to give their intentions the benefit of the doubt, I’m less able to overlook that being well-intentioned is no substitute for being well-versed. While these movies tend to be well-crafted (sensitively acted, handsomely photographed, effectively edited), they often seem to rely on some pretty threadbare horror staples, without any apparent awareness of just how played-out these tricks can be. The pioneers of the horror revolution (Fessenden, Ti West, Lucky McKee, Benson & Moorhead, even directors like Adam Wingard, David Buckner, John Fawcett) had ambitions to explore new frontiers in horror, try new things. They made films like JUG FACE, THE SACRAMENT, POP SKULL, THE WOMAN, things that maybe didn’t necessarily work all the time, but clearly aspired to forge some new territory, experiment with new techniques, construct new icons. The more recent crop, by contrast, seem to have a slightly different goal; they have ambitions to make well-crafted cinema, but not necessarily to invent anything new. Their films feel ambitious because they’re slow and careful and atmospheric and attentive to character drama, but how ambitious can a horror film really be if it is content to recycle the same basic horror shticks that have been around since time began, just slowed down? At their worst, as Mr. Majestyk puts it, “They just feel like a collection of atmospheric tricks that make them feel deeper than they really are, but without any real meat on their bones. They’re too tasteful to shock, too serious to entertain, too obviously symbolic to get under the skin. They feel like horror made for and by dilettantes. I’ve seen everything they attempt done with half the pretension and twice the crowd-pleasing”

**********************

Part II: The Actual Review Of Hereditary

I preface my simple review of HEREDITARY with all this backstory, not because the movie itself deserves to be made a poster boy for a minor trend in horror movies which has been brewing for nearly 20 years, but simply because I cannot otherwise express the overwhelming ambivalence I feel towards a film which is, in many way, very very good indeed. A film, in fact, which occasionally even touches greatness, and yet somehow never adds up to more than OK.

There are a lot of ways in which it excels, most notably in its cast, who are uniformly excellent, with Toni Collette in particular laying it all on the table in a performance which fearlessly flirts with out-and-out mega-acting (in a good way). And it’s crucial that the cast is so good, because for a long time, the movie is mostly a prickly, despairing family drama about the Graham family, and the mostly-unstated threads of alienation, guilt, and resentment which are making their lives miserable and hollow. Annie (Collette, xXx: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE) has just experienced the death of her mother, by all accounts a difficult, mentally unstable woman with whom she had long periods of estrangement. Annie seems more than a bit brittle and unstable herself, but appears able enough to at least keep up the rough appearance of normalcy for her calmly checked-out husband (Gabriel Byrne, GOTHIC, whose appearance in the movie is by itself reason to regard it with utmost skepticism****), her teenage slacker son (Alex Wolff, MY FRIEND DAHMER), and her weirdo 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro, in her film debut). The family gives every outward aspect of being able to indefinitely maintain this hollow veneer of emotional functionality, until they suffer a second sudden tragedy, which gives each family member a decisive shove towards their distinct individual dysfunctions, and before long the seams start to show. And that’s when it starts to become clear that for some reason witches are fucking with them using magic.



I had been told that director Ari Aster was a drama director making his first entry into horror with this film, but looking back at his history of short films, that isn’t exactly true; while maybe not horror, exactly, his button-pushing 2011 incest drama THE STRANGE THING ABOUT THE JOHNSONS should be ample evidence all by itself that his interest always lay in making audiences anxious and uncomfortable. That inclination is in strong effect in HEREDITARY, which mines most of its tension from the silently fracturing family, and particularly the escalating inability of mom to hold together and pretend to be OK. Colette brazenly goes all-in on the portrait of a woman simultaneously repressing her raging inner turmoil and spiraling out of control into a panicked, self-hating frenzy. A handful of times, she goes full Nic Cage with a fury that we’re subsequently never unaware is roiling away just below the surface, waiting for another opportunity to explode. It is, frankly, a performance which flirts with over-the-top camp (and may well cross that line if you’re not on the movie’s wavelength) but, for my money, maintains just enough control to lend the relentlessly solemn direction a jolt of jagged, unpredictable energy. Even before anything the least bit unnatural has occurred, the movie draws its ample source of lacerating emotional anxiety from the psychological demolition derby into which Colette is throwing herself and everyone around her.

Still, there’s a subtle difference between lacerating emotional anxiety and actual horror. For much of the movie, it’s content to simply evoke ROSEMARY’S BABY by enveloping its characters in a vaguely uneasy paranoid swirl which plays on their vulnerabilities and slowly breaks them down. But surprisingly, the movie pivots hard towards straight-up horror for its climax, maybe even its entire final act, dropping all pretense that this is some sort of subjective mental breakdown and diving whole hog into a generous sampling of standard witch movie tricks of the trade. And on one hand, I can’t help but feel magnanimus towards a deadly serious family drama with an A-list cast that’s willing, even eager, to straight up turn into Rob Zombie’s LORDS OF SALEM at the last minute.



 Alas, on the other hand, herein lies the problem: it certainly commits to being a horror movie, and makes a real effort towards being a shocking and scary one. But it contains not a single image you couldn’t find in LORDS OF SALEM, and it offers a lot less of them. And so Mr. Majestyk’s prophetic words come back to haunt us: “I’ve seen everything they attempt done with half the pretension and twice the crowd-pleasing.” There’s no way around it, the fundamental impact of seeing a bunch of naked old pagans and a skittering, impossibly-moving possessed person is no deeper or more profound in HEREDITARY than it is in widely-acknowledged trash like LORDS OF SALEM or THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE or whatever. And while it may be more artfully executed, I don’t really know that it’s better executed; fundamentally, it’s the exact same bag of tricks, working exactly the same way. There’s just less of it, perhaps as a concession to good taste, perhaps simply through lack of imagination or lack of exposure to LORDS OF SALEM. It’s pretty, but it’s still the same old witch movie shit.

I enjoy that sort of thing, of course, and I enjoyed it here; Aster and his frequent cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (Camera intern, WATER FOR ELEPHANTS) make excellent use of long, achingly quiet camera movements to effectively undersell the usual eldritch grotesqueries, Colin Stetson’s (Saxophone and lyricon on the ARRIVAL score) music handily conjures pit-of-the-stomach dread,  and Grace Yun’s (FIRST REFORMED) oppressive production design lends a suffocating, nightmarish air without abandoning realism in any specific way you could put your fingers on. But there’s no way around it: these are the exact same ingredients, working towards the exact same goals, as LORDS OF SALEM. And if you had to pick between the two, wouldn’t you prefer the version where Bigfoot worships a giant neon cross, and there’s an evil baboon statue, and what looks like an ambulatory oven-basted turkey waddling around, to the one with just the basics? For me, the answer is obvious. HEREDITARY’s horror game feels like one of those restaurants in Northwest DC which exist exclusively so political insiders can buy crazy expensive dinners for wealthy visiting Midwesterners while at the same time being careful not to expose them to anything that will be unfamiliar and scary. It’s a $35 meatloaf entree; certainly tasty enough, and prepared with an uncommon artistry, but still basically just a fancy version of the same damn thing. And in much smaller portions. Hats off for the gnarly decapitation, though.



The obvious retort is that sure, we all love Bigfoot cameos and shit, but the whole point of spending most of HEREDITARY in a state of fraught emotional tension is that it invests in its characters and their inner lives significantly more than most horror movies, and consequently the impact of the horror is heightened without needing to throw the kitchen sink at the audience. We’re here to focus on psychology and philosophy, and subtly threading these themes into the story will deepen the experience, frighten us on a more profound, richer level. This certainly can be done; indeed, every aspiring young horror filmmaker who cites THE EXORCIST or THE SHINING, with their endlessly unsolvable mysteries of human frailty, is angling to do just that. But alas, it is here that the bottom drops out of HEREDITARY, and it manages to lurch from some very solid drama to some very solid horror and still end up with less than the sum of its parts. The drama is good. The horror is good. But there’s surprisingly little thematically which links them; they feel distinct and parallel, yoked together through superficial narrative contrivance rather than deep-rooted textual necessity. Unlike THE BABADOOK, which finds its crushing psychological frenzy intrinsically linked to its creeping horror, HEREDITARY feels compartmentalized, disconnected. It’s a tense familial drama with a horror movie stuck on the end, rather than a sleek vehicle of unease which manifests its central anxiety in ever-more-overt ways.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Collette’s character; [Minor SPOILERS follow] she dominates the movie, and while it expends a not-insubstantial amount of screentime on Alex Wolff’s character, I think anything less than calling her the clear protagonist would be disingenuous. It is primarily her emotional struggle that motivates the conflict of the movie, she is unambiguously the center around which the rest of the film revolves, and even if those two things were not so --and they very much are-- Collette’s performance is just so spectacularly dialed up louder than everyone else that any possibility of this being read as some sort of ensemble drama is flatly erased. The film is fundamentally, inexorably, about her. And yet, at exactly the point the film lurches from vague dread to clear-cut horror, she functionally vanishes from the movie, and all her thorny personal idiosyncrasies --which the movie is absolutely fixated on for most of its runtime-- entirely vanish with her, unresolved. Her ambivalent feelings about motherhood, her increasing agitation over a looming deadline at her work, her desperate, helpless desire to believe that there is some hidden reprieve from the debilitating pain of her loss... --in other words, the bulk of the film’s runtime-- none of it has any meaningful impact on the climax whatsoever. To the extent that any of it turns out to be relevant at all, it is in the most purely expository, incidental narrative way, and consequently nearly ever bit of the substantial impact it manages to exert in the body of the film evaporates into nothing right as the film is trying to gear up for its finale.



  This imparts a curiously arbitrary quality on the movie itself, a sense that this sure does end up being a lot of extraneous backstory to characters who, when you get right down to it, are basically just random victims of a sinister conspiracy, and only barely grasp what’s happening to them, let alone have any hope of fighting it. It doesn’t really matter if Annie is worried about her career or if her son feels guilty about their relationship; the same thing would have happened to them if they were relentlessly cheerful and open about their feelings. Their problem turns out not to be alienation and psychological trauma so much as it is... witches.

Frustratingly, the movie is clearly aware of this, and I say “clearly” in the sense that it all but patiently explains it out loud. It has one of those inevitable classroom scenes where the topic they’re discussing just happens to be incredibly germaine to the movie’s theme, and in this case, that takes the form of a conversation on the concept of “fate” in Greek tragedies, and the question of whether having no control over your ultimate doom is more or less tragic than a downfall which is solely the responsibility of its victim. And just in case you didn’t pick up on that oh-so-subtle hint, let me point out that Annie is a renowned artist known for depicting her own biography in tiny, excessively detailed miniature dioramas, simultaneously suggesting her own fevered desire to control her life, and the intrusion of imperceptible godlike forces that actually do control her fate.

Which all adds up to the film’s preemptive defense against the charge that there can be no stakes without active protagonists. “Sure, these characters are completely passive victims who at no point have any ability to save themselves,” it argues, “but isn’t that really more scary? After all, fear is fundamentally about a loss of control, right?” This theory motivates the whole affair; HEREDITARY is overtly, inescapably invested in the idea that true horror is about the total loss of control, and especially about stripping that control from people who are vitally fixated on trying to maintain it. I mean, it’s in the movie’s title; this is a movie about the inevitability of doom, and the utter hopelessness of any attempt to subvert fate. Aster is, essentially, betting the entire movie on inexorable fate being the supreme primal fear.



But unfortunately, I’d have to disagree with him on that one; having no control over your fate is arguably more tragic, but it’s certainly not more frightening. Where’s the suspense in a fixed fight?***** If this was all inevitable no matter what the characters did, what was the point in spending so much time telling us what they did? It’s no more terrifying than watching a character gradually die of an incurable disease. It might make for interesting drama, but it doesn’t add up to a very good theoretical foundation for horror.

Alas, then, that the movie ends up abandoning that drama just when it counts the most.  Because even if gloomy fatalism was the same as gut-wrenching horror (and it most emphatically is not) it doesn’t matter, because whatever you think of the horror, the film is unquestionably better as a drama, and that gets thrown overboard along with everything else by the film’s finale. And that’s a real shame, because Colette’s portrait of the repressed, guilty, ambivalent mother is too good to just throw away as an aside. And it’s especially too good to just wheel out as a tiresome feint that maybe this is all in her head (fortunately, the movie never really tries to push this wearying notion, it just drops that bit of exposition and lets you do with it as you will.) There is certainly no shortage in the world of films about wealthy middle-aged white people who are experiencing anxiety and alienation, but then again, there’s also no shortage of films about malicious witches, and HEREDITARY is better as the former than the latter, and too hopeless fragmented for the two to harmoniously co-exist. And unfortunately, bailing on the drama at the last minute leaves the climax of the film hopelessly undernourished, while the impressive head of steam Colette has been diligently working up evaporates silently and ignominiously before our eyes.



I’ll leave you with one little synecdochial detail that I feel neatly embodies the underlying problem here. As I alluded to earlier, part of Annie’s deepening panic is due to her career: she has an upcoming art show, and she’s behind on her work, so she keeps getting worried calls from the gallery managers wondering if she’ll be finished on time. No problem there, of course; there’s a rich tradition of horror movie protagonists who are boxed in by their work and simply don’t have the time to be haunted, adding another source of strain (See, for example, LOVELY MOLLY, DRAG ME TO HELL, THE BABADOOK). But HEREDITARY completely undermines this easy mechanic in a mess of confusing details. For one thing, Annie is already super rich, her husband is super rich, and even if missing a deadline here gets her fired from art forever (?) she’s obviously going to be just fine. Secondly, despite the stress of being haunted, if anything, Annie is just spending more time working than she normally would. If she’s pressed for time, it certainly has nothing to do with what’s been happening to her, and it’s hard to see what she could possibly be doing differently. And finally, despite their check-ins, the people running the show are, like, super sympathetic and accommodating, they keep offering her more time and reminding her that she needs to take care of herself, and that whatever happens they’ll make it work. It’s literally the lowest-stress scenario imaginable. If she thinks being rich and working from home at your own pace on a passion project on a flexible timeline is so overwhelming, man, she oughtta try a night shift at McDonalds sometime.

This is obviously not some kind of boneheaded oversight by Aster, of course; the point here is that the pressure she feels is a product of her own mind, not a product of her circumstances. Which is perfectly fine as far as it goes, I suppose, but now we’ve spent a significant subplot making a scenario less relatable, less anxiety-producing, and less relevant to the main plot, all in the service of telling us something already evident from Colette’s performance, which doesn’t end up being germaine to the film’s conclusion anyway. Like so much about the movie, it is, by itself, a well-considered and finely executed bit of character work. But a plot is a complex machine, and when you drop this ornate little bit of clockwork into the plot as a whole, it doesn’t mesh with the other gears at all, they strain against each other, push in different directions, and bring the whole enterprise to a grinding halt. There, you see what I’ve done, just like HEREDITARY, I’ve created a metaphoric miniature simulacrum for the plot as a whole. Aren’t I clever?



But still, the acting is really good, and the film is aces at evoking a disquieting atmosphere of implacable anxiety. There’s plenty to praise. Like the family at its center, HEREDITARY certainly looks elegant and functional, but underneath the sheen, there’s a surprising emptiness which only really becomes clear once its pushed out of its comfort zone into areas which do not play to its strengths. We often think of great cinema as a collection of finely crafted ingredients; a great film is defined by having incisive writing, evocative acting, handsome photography, and so on. And this is what so many of these post-BABADOOK films are banking on, that horror, as an artform, can be elevated by a focus on stately, fine-tuned craftsmanship. But a work of art is not, in the end, simply a sum of its parts, any more than a fine meal is merely a matter of assembling a pile of choice ingredients; the parts must function as a whole, and the whole must be judged not by its components, but by how well those components function together to achieve a harmonious aim. And finally, of course, by the worth of that aim in itself. HEREDITARY, alas, focuses all its efforts on crafting its parts --and very fine parts they are, by and large-- but seems less interested in the way they work together. Consequently, its apparent strengths end up working against each other, and the harder it works, the less impact it makes. And besides, even if the whole did work, its final goal is just to be another witch-possession movie, and not even a very colorful one at that. Artistic ambition is a fine thing, and I am unable to wholly disregard the self-evident ambition on display here. But ambition is only so useful as the design to which it aquits its energies, and, alas, in this case I fear it is almost entirely misspent.

But hey, I’ll still probably check out the sequel. Horror fans like Mr. Majestyk and me might still have reservations about the wisdom of letting the cool kids crash our party, but fortunately, we’ll still watch pretty much anything.  

FIN



            * It is not, however, completely unprecedented: THE EXORCIST was nominated for Best Picture in 1973, but it was also the #1 grossing movie that year, so they kinda had to. JAWS was also nominated for Best Picture in 1976, and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS actually won in 1991, if you consider those horror movies (I don’t). And I’d forgotten this, but did you know THE SIXTH SENSE was nominated for Best Picture in 2001? Just like EXORCIST, though, it was a huge hit, the second highest-grossing movie of that year after STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE.

            ** It actually makes me think of that report a few years back that a full 30% of World Bank Policy Reports had never been downloaded even a single time. It makes you wonder if there are movies sitting on Netflix right now that literally no one on Earth except the editor have ever actually watched all the way through. If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? 

            *** Not entirely unique, however; 2001 also gave us TROUBLE EVERY DAY and SESSION 9, which are, if anything, more successful attempts at subtle, arty horror than WENDIGO is. 2001 was mostly in the business, however, of producing things like JASON X, ELVIRA’S HAUNTED HILLS, ROUTE 666, THE ATTIC EXPEDITIONS, WISHMASTER 3, HORRORVISION, DEMONICUS and so on. Outside the US, to be sure, things were a bit better: we had Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s KAIRO (PULSE), Sion Sono’s SUICIDE CLUB, Takashi Miike’s ICHI THE KILLER, and Guillermo Del Toro’s THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, but there’s no question that US horror was in a serious slump.

            **** Don’t worry, I love Gabriel Byrne too. But look at his filmography for a second. Can you think of any actor who is consistently as good, and yet has been in so many disappointing and crappy movies? I know he’s in MILLERS CROSSING and all that, but the guy’s gotta have the single worst miss-to-hit ratio of any A-list actor in history.

            ***** Or, if you prefer, as per our discussion in DOWNRANGE, the difference between a slasher and a torture porn flick. They may share many elements -- a colorful psycho creatively massacring a bunch of pretty young women-- but their central mechanics are spectacularly different, defined entirely by the victims’ potential to escape their predicament.



CHAINSAWNUKAH 2018 CHECKLIST!
Searching For Bloody Pictures

TAGLINE
Evil Runs In The Family, which is both an appealingly lowbrow tagline for this and kinda a spoiler
TITLE ACCURACY
Sure, it works.
LITERARY ADAPTATION?
No
SEQUEL?
None (as of now. But a 75 million buck box-office says that we can expect at the very least a DTV sequel someday)
REMAKE?
None
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
USA
HORROR SUB-GENRE
Possession, Witches, Family Drama
SLUMMING A-LISTER?
Toni Collette,
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
Gabriel Byrne, and you know, between this, THE SIXTH SENSE, THE NIGHT LISTENER, FRIGHT NIGHT REMAKE, and KRAMPUS, I’d say that Collette has some real horror credentials too. But she probably had too diversified a filmography to really be an icon.
NUDITY?
Lots, but I hope you’re into weird old people doing satan stuff if you rent it for the nudity.
SEXUAL ASSAULT?
No
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
No, but warning, a dog gets killed.
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
No
POSSESSION?
Yes
CREEPY DOLLS?
None
EVIL CULT?
Yes.
MADNESS?
Nah
TRANSMOGRIFICATION?
Yes
VOYEURISM?
There’s a curious zoom into a dollhouse to start the film, which lends a hint of voyeurism to the whole thing. Plus I guess witches are watching them, but the movie doesn’t seem to really do much with that.
MORAL OF THE STORY
Sometimes you’re just fucked for no reason, and there’s nothing you can do about it, and you can try or not, it really doesn’t matter. You know, white-knuckled terror.





Friday, November 30, 2018

Blood Of The Vampire



Blood of the Vampire (1958)
Dir. Henry Cass
Written by Jimmy Sangster
Starring Vincent Ball, Donald Wolfit, Barbara Shelley, Victor Maddern



            In “Transylvania, 1874,” as the opening credits dubiously explain, “The most loathsome scourge ever to afflict the earth was that of the vampire. Nourishing itself on warm living blood, the only known method of ending a vampire’s reign of terror was to drive a wooden stake through its heart.” This little bit of trivia seems extremely pertinent almost immediately, as the movie opens with a stake driven through a shroud-wrapped body by a burly masked man, while a priest or authority figure or something looks on approvingly. And later, when some wall-eyed hunchbacked weirdo (Victor Maddern, CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG) sneaks up to murder the gravediggers and steal the corpse, you would be forgiven for assuming that this movie called BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE, which is set in Transylvania and begins with a bunch of text about vampires, was about vampires.

            Alas, you’d be wrong. While the most loathsome scourge to ever afflict the earth may well be the vampire, this movie will be dealing with, at most, the second most loathsome scourge ever to afflict the Earth, and to be perfectly honest, considering the small scale and relative local impact, if the source we’re dealing with here is even in the top ten most loathsome ever to afflict the earth, we’ve actually had a pretty easy go of it. I even have my doubts about if it’s the most loathsome scourge to ever afflict Transylvania in 1874, given that all the characters have a weird mix of German, British, and Latin names. Maybe there’s a lesser-known Transylvania in Germany?



Anyway, wherever the scourge may fall in the all-time rankings of loathsomeness, it’s certainly loathsome enough that I’m against it. And the person who’s going to discover it the hard way is one Dr. John Pierre (Vincent Ball, small roles in WHERE EAGLES DARE, A TOWN LIKE ALICE, MURIEL’S WEDDING, along with a lot of TV), a forward-thinking doctor who’s just been tried in “Carlstadt” * for murder, following a failed last-ditch attempt at a blood transfusion on a dying patient. The ignorant locals consider this basically one step down from witchcraft, and when his last-minute attempt to get a respected colleague to corroborate the medical necessity of his actions is strangely answered with condemnation, he’s packed off to the Penal Institute on Comboat (?) Island. This institution, as it turns out, is run by a sinister warden/mad scientist named Callistratus (Donald Wolfit, BECKETT[!], LAWRENCE OF ARABIA [!!]) who happens to have great need of a man with exactly Pierre’s skillset. Pressed into work in Callistratus’ secret basement laboratory, he quickly begins to suspect something sinister is afoot, especially when his fellow prisoners start to mysteriously disappear. OK, not so mysteriously; everyone knows Callistratus is killing them in his diabolical experiments. But can Pierre foil the dastardly villain and clear his name before he, or his devoted fiancé (Barbara Shelley, the original VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED and various Hammer productions) become the next victims of the madman?

1958 was still the very, very dawn of British horror cinema; CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, which touched off the movement, was only a year old, and its follow-up, THE HORROR OF DRACULA, was barely even out of theaters by the time BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE came calling. But producers and longtime low-budget hustlers Monty Berman and Robert Baker of the also-also-also** ran Brit grindhouse studios Eros Films and Tempean Films (THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS, THE TROLLENBERG TERROR aka THE CRAWLING EYE) already saw something of a formula brewing, and hired FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA scribe Jimmy Sangster pretty much immediately after DRACULA proved that its predecessor’s success was no fluke.



Sangster had only two produced screenplays when DRACULA premiered, but was already in hot demand: he had six produced screenplays in 1958 alone, which might explain why he was running a little low on ideas when he wrote BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE. I mean, I guess there’s a certain smirking cleverness to the idea that the “vampire” of the title here is not a supernatural bloodsucker, but rather a mad scientist who steals blood for medical transfusions to combat his rare blood disease. That is, however, more a matter of title semantics than a plot point the movies makes much of --or, in fact, comments on at all-- and alas, the movie is otherwise strictly standard mad science fair, with a castle, laboratory, hunchback, etc. In fact, despite the “Vampire” in the title, it differs in no particular from the Hammer FRANKENSTEIN movies that Sangster also wrote (there’s even a hunchback named “Carl”!), with the exception that even the lowest-rent FRANKENSTEIN film had at least some aspirations towards a high concept premise. BLOOD is more of a prison movie, where it matters less exactly that the doctor is up to (just trying to develop a treatment for his own blood disease) than that our hero escapes from him.

And to that end, it’s actually a pretty good story, as far as it goes! The fiendish  Doctor’s machinations are mostly unimaginative, but respectably diabolical (one might even say loathsome!), and our hero’s situation looks suitably hopeless. The script does a perfectly proficient job of methodically establishing the specific obstacles he must overcome to clear his name and defeat the villain, and consistently rolls out new complications to keep things from getting too repetitive. The hero himself is dull as dishwater, but at least the circumstances of the story lend themselves well to a nicely-build prison-escape-thriller. And the cast is proficient enough; Ball isn’t exactly explosively charismatic, but he imparts a prickly sense of contemptuous umbrage upon the character, which at least gives him more definition than the litany of bland pretty boys Hammer insisted on shoehorning into their movies for the next few decades. Wolfit is basically doing a low-level Bela Lugosi impression without the accent, which is fine enough, because after all, he’s quite right, this movie would be better if Bela Lugosi was playing the villain. Interestingly, the two least important characters are the ones who are actively good here: Hammer scream queen Shelley brings vastly more intelligence and agency to her role than is strictly required (Sangster, who does not exactly have a great history of writing meaty female roles, at least gets her directly involved in the action here, and Shelley runs with it every inch as far as the boilerplate damsel-in-distress trope will possibly allow her), and Maddern, through his one real eye, does a surprising and impressive amount of work to instill his non-speaking hunchback sidekick stereotype with some inner life. It’s hard to know what he’s thinking, exactly, and the screenplay offers very little that would help one guess, but it’s definitely clear from his performance that he is thinking, that he’s taking all this in and pondering it.



Indeed, while over the next decade or so Sangster’s scripts and plotting would sometimes get a bit loose (even the next years’ THE MUMMY and BRIDES OF DRACULA struggle with some basic narrative structure), BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE sports a perfectly sturdy construction. It’s a perfectly fine yarn, told perfectly adequately. And yet, for all that, it packs very little punch compared to its British horror contemporaries. Despite its gothic horror trappings (the “prison” might as well be a castle, it even has a drawbridge, towers, and posh living quarters), it feels much more akin to the mad science films of the 1950s than the burgeoning horror films which would define the 60s and 70s. Partly this comes from the somewhat anachronistic story itself, which is set up in every imaginable way to resemble something like THE DEVIL COMMANDS (1941) or, hell, even ISLAND OF LOST SOULS from 20+ years prior. But a bigger part is the production, led by director Henry Cass (THE GLASS MOUNTAIN), which is every bit as stagy and stodgy as the early Hammer films were vital and audacious. With its lengthy medium shots, drowsy editing, hammy theatricality, and corny under-dressed castle sets, it resembles the low-budget movies of twenty years prior more than their descendants just a few years later. Cass demonstrates not a whit of understanding about why the Hammer films were such a monumental leap forward in modern British filmmaking, and seems perfectly content recycling the same style as the films at the beginning of his career in the late 30’s. Even the addition of color film --Hammer was notorious for using the medium for bright red blood splatter-- makes no difference to a films whose primary palette consists of dirty grays and faded browns.

With a more forward-thinking production and a little more ambition, I think the film could have mustered more bite and been a little better. But ultimately not much better. Bottom line is, although it’s a competently assembled little tale, its most damning flaw is that it utterly lacks in anything remotely exotic or exciting. It’s about as standard as they come, hitting virtually every cliché in the book without building off a single element in any kind of new or imaginative way. Even its mild nods to actual science (the protagonists study blood types and discuss transfusions) were a half-century old by the time the movie came out (though, in fairness, they would have brand new in the movie’s 1880 setting***). Other than the need to crank out a sixth horror script in a single year and to prominently feature the word "vampire" in the title, I can't think of much reason why anyone would have thought this was a tale especially worth telling. It’s fine as far as it goes, but without a little more imagination, “fine” was all it was ever going to be.



*Presumably they mean Karlstadt, Germany, a town about an hour East of Frankfurt, not Carlstadt, New Jersey. There’s also a Carlstadt which is a borough of Dusseldorf, though if that’s what they mean it seems unnecessarily specific. The only other potential contender is the Croatian city of Karlovac, which, apparently, is rendered in German as “Carlstadt.” Either way, none of these are anywhere close to Romania. It’s over 1,500 miles from Karlstadt to Transylvania, which is a 16 hour journey any way you slice it today, by car.

** Standard wisdom is that Hammer > Amicus > Tigon > Tempean > Harry Alan Towers, although there is certainly some variability movie to movie.

*** The opening takes place in 1874, everything else takes place “six years later.” I looked it up to be sure Sangster wasn’t incorporating new medical knowledge ripped from the headlines, but blood types were first discovered in 1900. That made me wonder if this was actually vaguely based on a true story, but if Nobel-prize winning biologist and physician Karl Landsteiner got the idea while being unjustly imprisoned by a imperious madman, they don’t mention it in his wikipedia page. Landsteiner made his discovery in 1900 and 1901 and got his Nobel for it in 1930, so even that was almost three decades old when Sangster wrote this script.

You can really see why they thought this image would bring in the kids.


CHAINSAWNUKAH 2018 CHECKLIST!
Searching For Bloody Pictures

           
TAGLINE
NO WOMAN IS SAFE from the MOST FRIGHTENING FIEND IN THE HISTORY OF HORROR! Which is blatantly a lie on a whole cornucopia of levels, most notably that actually almost every woman is safe, since the FRIGHTENING FIEND runs an all-male prison and the inmates are his primary victims. He does kill his maid, though, and threatens Dr. Pierre’s girlfriend, so those particular two women are not safe from THE MOST FRIGHTENING FIEND IN THE HISTORY OF HORROR. And yeah, about that last part...
TITLE ACCURACY
Technically vaguely true if you’re willing to accept that a guy who steals blood to transfuse it for medical purposes can reasonably be called a “vampire.” But blood definitely does play a key role here.
LITERARY ADAPTATION?
No
SEQUEL?
None
REMAKE?
None
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
England
HORROR SUB-GENRE
Mad Science, arguably vampire
SLUMMING A-LISTER?
None
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
Jimmy Sangster
NUDITY?
None, though Berman and Baker would become notorious for inserting random scenes of nudity into their later movies, as we discuss in THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS
SEXUAL ASSAULT?
Yes, poor Barbara Shelley gets assaulted by this one asshole, though she’s saved before things get too out of hand. And, thankfully, the movie agrees that the guy who did it is scum who deserved to get strangled by a Hunchback.
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
Yes, there is a pack of vicious dobermans who are trained to kill anyone who displeases Dr. Callistratus or his sadistic guards.
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
No
POSSESSION?
No
CREEPY DOLLS?
None
EVIL CULT?
None
MADNESS?
Just mad science
TRANSMOGRIFICATION?
None.
VOYEURISM?
None
MORAL OF THE STORY
Never practice cutting-edge medicine in Carlstadt.