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, she'll... take the fire poker with her before she goes up to --- no on second thought she won't go upstairs. She's sure it was 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.


SOLE SURVIVOR 
(1983) Dir. Thom Eberhardt
***1/2

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 q 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 trying to find out about a plane crash she just dreamt of, we have the heroine Denise or "Dee Dee" (Anita Skinner) sitting in her plan passenger 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, the handsome young doctor assures her. 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
The dead are moodily presented, but all in all it's more 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, that works to make it such a precious October find. Weird shots of Denise's empty kitchen, living room, stairs, 70s faux exposed brick and panelling and deep red walls, only the cat's yes and tail moving (left), but something there - just by seeing it, we're bringing some 'seer' into the house.

What I like too is the Hawksian pro-feminist assertiveness in the 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, canary-swallowing grin on her face, as she prepares to 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 on the phone and he at his kitchen making sauce or something are very well done. 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)
DeDee also has 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. A dripping faucet, and a pre-Twin Peaks realization that nothing is more profoundly creepy than a traffic light in the dead of night, still changing from green to yellow to red, even though there are no cars in sight. (Was that poetry?) During the long nights, the ominousness of the action shuffles back and forth between Denise's house and Cristy's (Robin Davidson) house next door --where Deedee presumably babysat Cristy when a lot younger and now they're just kind of neighbor/pals.

 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. We never actually see either of Cristy's parents, either, another eerie similarity with our next 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 in 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, 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 her cool Cristy relationship are both very well etched in a very short time.  And with all that evocative 70s dusky decor and the hushed October magic hour mood, as far as I'm concerned the film doesn't even need to go anywhere to become one of my favorite 80s horror movie discoveries. 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.



IT FOLLOWS
(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. Until then, the terrible powerlessness we feel as young asleep post-infants, bodies still hungering for the sense of safety we used to feel sleeping with our parents, translating into nightmares 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;  stuck in a slow motion drag as we try to run away, the monster slowly advancing. 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 at the core of horror, yet 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 (we never saw him shamble in his wrappings), but the Chaney sequels where he stayed in his bandages and lumbered slowly but relentlessly forward, mute and easily outpaced, yet--like the tortoise vs. the hare, bound to catch up to you through sheer relentless, unstoppable, methodical forward shambling. The 'Shape' as Michael Myers was billed in Carpenter's Halloween, was this nightmare figure's ultimate modern expression... until now. Even the immortal Michael Myers is outgunned for raw uncanny primordial dread by the 'thing' in It Follows. For this and countless other reasons, I might go on a limb and say It Follows is the greatest horror movie ever made, certainly one of my top ten favorites if not the favorite (we'll have to see how it ages over time). 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. Set in a middle class suburbia outside abandoned Detroit. It's a world where the sweet shyness of late afternoon plummets into the sweet nighttime of adulthood's sexual jolts; in a flash we're exposed to 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 of old people in hospital gowns, and of nudity--as terrifying as anything ever conceived of by any modern horror auteur.

“I am Lazarus, come from the dead..."
One of the insidious aspects of this killer is its ability to assume the shape of its past victims: thus we see, in prime STD warning film style, the way unprotected sex means exposure to the germs of a whole vast capillary system of past lovers of lovers, stretching back to now elderly old lechers. This is the unspoken question hovering over the nudity we see too, implies some kind of past victim catalog as well as of lover, 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, (did some skeevy carrier temporarily shed the stalker by balling his comatose mom's hospital roommate?). The idea that only the victim can see these images, evokes the uncanny suburban nudity of Eric Fischl's paintings (below), wherein everyday suburban Americana is rendered instantaneously perverse, hostile, uncanny. 


This uncanny element mirrors too 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 the bombed-out Roman streets in the late 40s. Some maybe nods to modern J-Horror with darkened eyes and hissing and people getting yanked off their feet aren't as successful (too obvious). But with its subtly 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, we have something truly worthy of the Freudian defintion of uncanny. In itself alone, that's more precious than gold.

HOW "THE FANTASY SCREEN BREAKS DOWN"

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 there are other rare riches here too: I love how the kids choke slightly when they talk, confident in themselves, but still coltish with their adult voices, as if trying to reign and shape some kind of limitless volume. I relate hugely. These kids are on 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 or the general volume of obnoxious waggery in a film like Scream. Rather is an awareness of the gorgeous magic that happens when a cute girl everyone kind of crushes on isn't a bitch, but is also nice, like Jay (Maika Monroe) is to little sister Kelly (Lili Serpe) and her bookish pals 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, a Guinevere to unite Camelot, evoking the bond between 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) (and most recently in my docket, Dee Dee and her neighbor in Sole Survivor -above)

A key aspect too, in my mind, is the use of old black-and-white horror films on local TV as a kind of modern equivalent to a protective fire. 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 how it paradoxically lessened our fear, and it's the familiarity of the set-up that makes the use of TV monster movies so unforgettable and meta-creepy real in Halloween and (more overtly) Scream. 

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 transference point--as does the film as a whole--where childhood innocence gives way to the disturbing real of adult sexuality.

Mike Gioulakis' beautiful cinematography bathes each shot in amniotic swimming pool light turquoise and early two-strip Technicolor pinks. Disasterpiece's great retro synth score pulses with amniotic analog electronic music. God it's so good. Excuse me while I have a quick rant about how much I hate Keith Emerson:

God, let there be no more orchestra scores for retro horror movies, and let first and foremost  Keith Emerson's shitty score for Suspiria follow-up Inferno stand as a warninf that busier big name musicians don't always have the same genius as more balls-to-the-wall raw players (like Goblin). Fuck Emerson, man. And fuck classically trained wankers trying to shoehorn their master's thesis into every stab of the knife. It's like if some music theorist 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 of that hack mickey mouse shiite, 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 Follows thrice already. I listen to the soundtrack nonstop while walking my Brooklyn streets, 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, campfire ghost stories, we might avoid were we alone. Thus like the dialogue of 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, and torture/abduction (even Carpenter's last film fits that bill to an extent), 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 --neither hiding from a distance like other shots, nore 'with' the actors like a Hawks shot. 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

3 comments:

  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.

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  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.

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  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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