Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

It's a Carpenter Hush: SOLE SURVIVOR, IT FOLLOWS

I love the ominousness of October, the seasonal gloom wiping the world away with a deep HD black eraser, saving me for last, pale in the TV reflection. Hurrying like a napping sunbather woken by the first cool breeze of evening; relentless the tick-tock approach of Halloween, as if the entire month was rolled up into a cone, draining the hours like peanut M&Ms. Neighbors in the distance raking leaves take on a sinister shadowy shimmer in the dimming day and the black decorative window shutters of suburban houses seem like cartoon eyebrows fronting a devil's skull. House interiors become extra dark as increasingly early twilight tricks us into into not turning on the table lamps til after the deadly vapors have infiltrated. Pumpkins and wood panelling, orange shag rug and black witch hats, talking low and quiet to as not wake the sleeping behemoth in the basement: I love when eerie horror movies capture all that. If they can find the ambiguity in autumn leaves swirling around under gnarled bare trunks in the Magic Hour +1, I am theirs. So few movies get that feeling right, that mood of giddy doom, the inexorable looming.

Halloween (watching The Thing)
It Follows (watching Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women)
Note: black and white TV atop dead floor console -like we had in the early 80s
Carpenter's original Halloween (1978) most assuredly captured it, maybe even defined it, the uncanny suburban home familiarity of being creeped out alone in the house with just a distracted babysitter who tries but can't keep the nervous trill out of her voice when you all hear a strange noise upstairs even though it's probably nothing. The kids watching old horror movies on TV more for comfort and protection from bigger scares, like a fading camp fire keeping the wolves at bay.

(1983) Dir. Thom Eberhardt

In the annals of the modern horror/sci fi genre auteurs there are recognizable names (Argento, Craven, Carpenter), up and comers (West, Fessenden, Wingard) and then... well... no one. But with DVD making it impossible for them to fully disappear, also-ran auteurs--those who only made one or two genius films, are ready to be exhumed and dusted: Herk Harvey and his unconscious poetics (Carnival of Souls); Michael Almereyda's double mid-90s dip into reflexive homage (The Eternal, Nadja); and Thom Eberhardt, who made two 80s sleepers that have stood the test of time: 1984's Night of the Comet, and an only recently seeable 1983 bit of crafty low budget bit of Final Destination-in theme / Fog in moody Carpenter vibe ominousness called Sole Survivor.  

After a schismatic opening with some psychic TV actress (Caren Larkey, who also co-produced) on the phone and doing automatic writing we have the heroine Denise or "Dee Dee" (Anita Skinner) sitting in her seat (in the upright position) amidst the best looking plane wreckage a low budget film allows. The sole survivor of a terrible plane crash; she's lucky to be alive but something's not right and beginning with her release from the hospital the recently dead seem to be following her around, or maybe it's that she's mixing alcohol with her discontinued antidepressants.

ask not for whom, kitty-kitty
But the coolest stuff is in the clever masterful use of Carpenter-esque momentum, 70s sexual casualness and the sense of being alone in a world slowly disappearing around you as night falls, conveyed by weird shots of Denise's empty kitchen, living room, stairs, 70s faux exposed brick and panelling and deep red walls.

What I like most is the pro-feminist assertiveness warm romantic exposition with her cute doctor, Brian (Kurt Johnson) who worries she's suffering from 'survivor's syndrome', or at least that's his excuse to call her up. In a cool little scene we see their back and forth phone conversation, the way she moves to the bedroom phone to lie down and focus in on her seductive phone stratagem. She's confident and in charge, unafraid to tell the man she's seducing "I'm nine months older than you!" Alternating shots of her in bed and he at his kitchen making sauce or something are very Hawksian, and then the camera becomes like that friend who, once they sense their pal has it in the bag, as it were, gives them a quiet congratulatory smile and heads downstairs to get a drink or something, but the thing is there's nobody there, and the stillness is broken only by the roving eyes of the pink cat clock.

It Follows (my clock radio at middle right)

There's also the exact 70s clock radio I had as a kid (from which I listened to The Shadow and Suspense reruns every night on local PBS radio) and which is also in It Follows. There's a dripping faucet, and almost Twin Peaks empty road stop light at night ominousness as the action shuffles back and forth between Denise's house and Cristy's (Robin Davidson) house next door where she presumably babysat when a lot younger. Both houses are great relics of the 70s style, very cozy, with all the exposed faux stone and dark wood panelling, the deep reds and dark oranges shag carpets and walls offsetting Denise's red hair and blue vein pale skin look. I can relate to hanging out with younger people; going over and drinking Cristy's parents' booze and falling asleep on their couch while she sneaks off to a party, because you're too squirrelly to be home alone. Another uniquely real relationship in this quietly amazing low budget little film.

As with Carpenter's best early work, it's all very Howard Hawks right down to two lines of dialogue lifted wholesale (along with her hip beret) from To Have and Have Not: "it's even better when you help" and later Cristy's "what are you trying to do, guess her weight?" at a strip poker game (with a special early appearance by future scream queen Brinke Stevens)--indicating the two may have seen the film together one night earlier. The strip poker game isn't It Follows or Carnival of Souls, the two films that sort if act as intertextual timeline bookends to this one (more so than, say Final Destination) but that they follow similar courses illustrates the potency of the pattern, one borne I'm sure in old horror pulp stories or Twilight Zone style twists, though this in its elemental mix-and-match has something you won't see anywhere else, an undead gun usage.

"read the label - maybe you'll believe me then"
Hey, it doesn't have to break new ground beyond that, as long as it does what it does with a certain amount of atmosphere and taste, big rarities in horror films of any time frame, let alone the early 80s. Dee-Dee and Brian's budding pair bonding and the cool Cristy relationship are both very well etched in a very short time, and with all that evocative 70s dusky decor as far as I'm concerned the film doesn't even need to go further. There might be Xmas trees lurking in the corners of rooms but hey-it's California so it doesn't matter--there's an autumnal vibe that makes each formed or renewed bond, each drink and playful touch feel precious with fading warmth, fires all the warmer and brighter for the encroaching darkness. And above all what makes this such a gem is the confident of Eberhardt's vision. Hindsight is everything, and between this and Night of the Comet he could surely have been a horror auteur like Carpenter or Stuart Gordon if he cared to. Instead... well, he made Captain Ron. 

Eddie was a good man on a boat once.

(2015) Dir. David Robert Mitchell

I used to wonder why filmmakers didn't do more adapting from the golden book of universal childhood nightmares -- the ones we all remember but usually move past once we learn the 'turn and face your fear rather than trying to run' trick; terrible powerless terrors of trying to escape relentlessly approaching figures only we could see, the adults around us ignoring our pleas for help, like they could see neither us nor our pursuer, we stuck in a slow motion drag trying to run away. For me it was an old woman, evil eyes, hunched over and staring right at me and smiling laughing but making no sound and extending her hands towards me as she tottered closer, not unlike a clothed version of the crone in The Shining's room 237.

Such an image, that slowly pursuing creature, is we realize now at the core of horror and very seldom used to the full uncanny shiver extent we find in It Follows. In the Universal days there was the Mummy--not the Karloff original, but the Chaney sequels where he stayed in his bandages and lumbered slowly but relentlessly forward. The 'Shape' as Myers was billed in Carpenter's Halloween, was its ultimate expression... until now. Myers is outgunned for raw uncanny primordial dread in It Follows. I might go on a limb and say It Follows is the greatest horror movie ever made, for it is beautiful to look at, eloquent, sweet, and true even as it floats deep into a reverie that fully captures the mortal dread that sexual awakening brings with it like an inescapable shadow, like middle class suburbia's abandoned Detroit neighborhood ominous underside. Adulthood's chemical jolts reveal the evil sickening core of life, the eternal footman's snicker like a 'test positive for STD' report; and a closed community center pool in a rain storm conjures Corman Poe mattes. I'll forgive Mitchell's film any dream logic inconsistency for here is a movie that distills the purity of October, of teenage angst, the side effects of seasonal change, of the inevitability of not just old age and death, the husk of a dead city after even the crime has gone, the horror of public nudity and the oblivious crowd.  Alone amongst all horror filmmakers (Kubrick, Polanski aside), Mitchell realizes the shocking power not only of old people in hospital gowns that no one else can see, but nudity--as terrifying as anything ever conceived of by any modern horror auteur.

“I am Lazarus, come from the dead..."
The most insidious aspect is the unspoken question hovering over the nudity we see implies some kind of past victim catalog, the curse's sexual history and possible origin, like the drowned obscene often naked forms the thing adopts, moms with breasts exposed, sopping wet girls peeing themselves, old men on roofs, all exposing an Eric Fischl-style suburban surrealist abundance (below), the idea that just a slight tweak can render a simple everyday Americana scene instantaneously perverse, hostile, uncanny. The way American auto manufacturing has been abandoned and left to wither where it fell like a dead tree, and the way an enterprising Michigan filmmaker like Mitchell might utilize the city's abandoned look as effectively as the Italian neo-realists used bombed out cities in the late 40s-early 50s There's some maybe nods to modern J-Horror with darkened eyes and hissing and people getting yanked off their feet, but it's secondary to the disturbing scenes of sexual display, the sick flash of what Todd McGowan might call the traumatic real, or at any rate, the signifier of the gaze:

Blue Velvet (naked figure middle left background) / compare w/below from It Follows
"[Dorothy in Blue Velvet] seems to appear out of thin air, appearing at first as indecipherable blot that no one--including the spectator--initially notices. When the other characters do notice, they become completely disoriented. Her intrusion into the fantasmatic realm rips apart the fantasy structure.... Her body has no place in the fantasmatic public world, and the fantasy screen breaks down... She doesn't fit in the picture, which is why we become so uncomfortable watching her naked body in the middle of a suburban neighborhood" (McGowan, The Impossible David Lynch, p. 106-7)
It Follows

Eric Fischl - Birth of Love (2nd Version)
But the ingenious threat of It Follows and the sublime use of Detroit in its dying autumn are just two of many brilliant elements. I love that the kids choke slightly when they talk, confident but still coltish with their adult voices. I relate hugely. It's the sweet side of teenagerdom, the not the strident grating character played by PJ Soles (not that she's not great and perfect for the film and the era) in Halloween but the magic that happens when a cute girl is also nice to her kid sister and her friends, such as Jay (Maika Monroe) is to sister Kelly (Lili Serpe), bookish Annie (Bailey Spry) and Paul (Kier Gilchrist). It's that sweetness that makes it understandable they all want to help her, for when pretty girls who are nice to their little sister and her friends and the other kids in the neighborhood, the result is like a reassuring lantern in the darkness, evoking too the one between Dee-Dee and Cristy in Sole Survivor (or Curtis and her babysitting charges in Halloween; Curtis and Tom Atkins in The Fog; or Mike and older brother Jody and pal Reggie in Phantasm).

This relationship seems to underwrite the potency of the 'hushed' horror film, perhaps because the older sibling figure is a transition between kids and actual adults --who are worthless in a pinch because of their calcified dogma (there's no bogeyman therefore the kids are all liars). Those of us who were kids in the 70s certainly remember staying up all night watching old black and white films on local TV (I recognized the two films Paul has on: Killers from Space and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women) and it's the familiarity of the set-up (so few horror movies center the action around the TV showing old horror movies, yet it's the modern era's campfire) that makes it so unforgettable and meta-creepy real.

Jay's constantly exposed cute legs represent a more socially acceptable form of the grotesque nudity of the above; marking the semi-magical/semi-horrific point--as does the film as a whole--where childhood innocence gives way to adult sexuality.

Mike Gioulakis' beautiful cinematography: each shot bathed in amniotic swimming pool light turquoise and early two-strip Technicolor pinks. Disasterpiece's great retro synth score: pulsing amniotic electronic music is essential for the 21st century. Let there be no more orchestras, and let first and foremost  Keith Emerson's shitty score for Suspiria follow-up Inferno stand as a clue that busier big name musicians don't always have the ability to keep it simple. Fuck Emerson, man. It's like if someone said hey everything's great about Halloween  except the score, why not swap it out with some grand concert piano and a busy bunch of jazzy nonsense from, say, Howard Shore? Or Kubrick got rid of Wendy Carlos' Shining score and replaced it with some micro-managerial John Williams orchestral pomp and swirling--self-satisfied they'll be incorporated into Oscar medleys for decades to come--melodies that seem to celebrate our every emotion like we're goddamned George Washington being led by the nose through the Delaware. Instead, Richard Vreeland's AKA Disasterpiece's electronic score both evokes its dream era (70s) and looks forward and into the moment to become true myth, conjuring primordial nostalgic aches for moments of dream longing-first crush-reverie so intertwined with pop culture it would be foolish to separate them from our 'actual' memories.

For me I've seen it thrice already, listen to the soundtrack nonstop while walking my Brooklyn street and it always seems like someone's following me; it's instant paranoia but of the delicious October kind. It's the rosy glow of nostalgia, of remembering the way safety in a group allows indulging in ominous hushed dread we might avoid were we alone. Thus like Hawks' To Have and Have Not figures in Sole Survivor, so too the esprit de corps of Hawks' The Thing plays out in It Follows. And so it is that America has finally produced a horror film it can be proud of. Amidst the myriad worthless zombie sieges, found footage asylum investigations gone awry, and torture/abduction (even Carpenter's last film fits that bill to an extent) flicks dumped onto Amazon and youtube every livelong day, here at last is the real deal, a thing of real beauty and urban legend potency. So a quick prayer: Mr. Mitchell, please become our new Carpenter and stay in the genre and don't go anywhere.

Lastly, forget about Ryan Murphy-crowned final girls and strident scream queens like the new Sarah Michelle Gellar, Emma Roberts. Let the lamplighter in the Detroit dark affix his beam: Maika Monroe is the Empress of October.

From top: It Follows, Halloween -- Note odd camera placement - neither in the street or on the sidewalk, the 'impossible' POV of someone standing near the curb, neither close enough to the actors that the POV becomes 'invisible' or friendly rather than the killer's, but neither hiding from a distance like other shots. It's the POV of eerie dissipation - as if it could cohere into a figure and rush onto the sidewalk and attack the person as they pass, but is, at the moment, disincarnate. 

See also: A Clockwork Darkness: Subjectivity, Hawks, and Halloween


  1. Most of the fear, for me, comes from how beautiful and simple the shots are. Like the odd angles or maybe the symmetry or light placement. Those things make a horror movie. So much Kubrick! I read that DRM didn't include The Shining when asked about inspiration because certain films are inspiration for all horror movies, and he believes that Kubrick's The Shining is one of those.

  2. I really enjoyed the time It Follows took to build suspense instead of constantly bombarding viewers with action. I'm also glad the movie left a lot of mystery behind the "It" and did not allow for a sloppy and rushed resolution. Overall, It Follows was much appreciated break from the dribble that leaks out onto the marketplace.

  3. Idk, it definitely had me hooked throughout, but the climax just ruined the whole thing for me - I thought the "It" suddenly strategizing at the pool, tossing and throwing shit was dumb. Also it got me thinking what I would do in those circumstance. Why not fly to Australia and have sex with somebody and fly back? It will take "It" 3 years walking under the sea to reach Australia, and 3 years back. The girl I had sex with in Australia is probably going to have sex with a few guys in those first three years, and so on. I could probably buy 3 life times of safety.


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