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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Thursday, October 30, 2014

entry arrow7:42 PM | Horror Hits and Misses

I get asked this all the time: What are my favorite horror movies? I don't know how to answer, because I hate such questions, and because my choices are pretty personal -- all marked by a certain appeal that speaks only to me. I think of Todd Haynes' Safe (1995) as a very effective horror movie, for example, but for most people it won't be. There are no monsters in it, after all. And if there is one, it is the mind of our protagonist/victim. And yet nothing is more horrific to me than a bewildering affliction of the mind -- I think of Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965), which I first saw as a 21-year-old living in an alienating city like Tokyo. And so I saw that movie as more than just careful, frightening study of the descent into madness; I saw it as a depraved, gothic articulation for alienation, a kind of warning for my own existence then. Julianne Moore's Carol White in Safe, a prototypical suburban housewife who's starting to feel allergic to the world around her, has so much in common with Catherine Deneuve's Carol (coincidence in names?) in Repulsion, a beautiful but repressed French beautician living in London who's starting to mentally crack from what she perceives to be horrific advances by men who hound her. Polanski's film vocabulary fleshes out the horror elements more than Haynes does, but they're effectively the same movie. Horror is often mistaken for its tropes, which becomes problematic when you consider Arthur Penn's The Miracle Worker (1962), which basically tells the otherwise heartwarming story of how Helen Keller gets saved from crippling blindness by her tutor Anne Sullivan -- but Penn films the story like a horror movie. It feels and looks like a horror movie, but it's not.

Which is why I hate answering the question above. I get defensive, and I become long-winded in my explanation of choices.

But every year, around Halloween, I do take time to almost exclusively watch horror films, taking note of the cult status and the iconic contribution each title has given the horror genre. In other words, I ransack the whole horror canon, an ongoing project that I doubt will ever end.

Last year, I started with six horror classics in black and white that have eluded me for so long. When I finally saw Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), what I couldn’t believe was how I’d missed out on this film in all those years. It being a Deborah Kerr starrer should have already recommended it, but I took my time getting to this film. It turned out that I loved it, so much so that a year later, I still remember its haunting set pieces, its incredible atmosphere. It is a taut, psychological thriller based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, where we don’t exactly know the boundaries between sanity and madness, the ghosts and the living, the victim and the victimizer. It is, without doubt, a great horror film.

Then there was Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited (1944). Its iconic for being the first film to take the haunted house genre very seriously, and not played for laughs or ridicule as was the practice before this. (Think of Scooby-Doo unmasking the human culprit behind the horror — that’s how it was usually played.) It won't play well for those seeking out a bloodcurling tale, and certainly not for a crowd inured by the torture porn of such films as Hostel or Funny Games or A Serbian Film. Its horror is more subtle, which I admired, and in consideration of its place in horror film history, it proved quite educational, like you were seeing the genesis of a genre being played out in front of you, one trope being invented after another.

Jacques Tourneur’ Cat People (1942), on the other hand, does a good job of dramatizing, in tantalizing black and white shadows, what everyone who has had their heart broken has been through: rage, jealousy, lust. And the feeling of having a dark monster within us that threatens to come out because of those provocations. Here, Simone Simon’s cursed woman marries a man who loves her unquestionably, but she begs off from more intimate contact, because even a kiss will unleash some ancient evil in her. She turns into a predatory cat, and she can devour. But it’s not just lust that can consume her and make her transform — jealousy, too, and rage. She is, in a sense the grandmother of both Edward Cullen and Jacob Black. (Hahaha.) I love this film. I love the perfectly staged fright pieces that involve nothing more but shadows, sound, and the darkness of our imagination.

And sometimes, there's poetry in a horror movie. There is no denying the sheer poetry of Tourneur’s other horror classic, I Walked with a Zombie (1943), which is a film scintillating with lines written by Inez Wallace, Curt Siodmak, and Ardel Wray — things like: “Everything good dies here … even the stars." I have a soft heart for this movie, about a good-hearted nurse who loves her married boss so much, she tries everything to cure his ill wife, the titular zombie. But a horror movie this is not. It’s a love story every which way. It’s a romanticized tale of life in the tropics, voodoo and all. Heck, even the zombie in this movie walks about in flowing gowns.

There was also Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), a curious film peopled by circus people of various sorts of deformities (the bearded lady, the Siamese twins, the dwarf, and so on and so forth…). But the one that’s crucial to the story’s tension — an evil deformity of the soul — is embodied in the film’s central villain: a beautiful, very normal-looking, but wily trapeze artist who uses her charms to seduce the circus’ dwarf who just happened to come into a great fortune. The film has been touted as an influential horror movie, a pre-Code artifact that has more in relation to German Expressionism that anything else. True enough, the assault in the end is chilling — but we are incredibly on the side of the freaks. In the end, there’s nothing horrific about this film. It’s a warm and fuzzy love story.

I now understand perfectly the cult status attained by Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962), which has reportedly influenced the aesthetics of David Lynch and George A. Romero. It’s quite an effective independent horror film, even counting the obvious ticks brought about by its low budget. (Then again, the low budget was what made many horror films — particularly Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead (1981) or Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) — effective. There’s something about the enterprising crudeness of the filmmaking that adds to the sense of the horrifying.) Even then, the pacing of its story — about the sole female survivor of a car crashing into a river, now suddenly being haunted by a pale-faced ghoul — keeps the tension tight, and the final reveal is worth it. I love how this predates the ghostly dimension of Christopher Gans’ atmospheric Silent Hill (2006). And that visceral organ score! A chiller to the bone.

And then there are the more contemporary ones, and even some of them defy our expectations of a horror movie. Take Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947). This gorgeously shot, intricately mannered drama about five nuns battling temptation and altitude sickness in 1940s Himalayas is only a kind of horror story: Deborah Kerr’s uptight and emotionally broken Sister Clodagh is the central character, but the growing malevolence focuses on Kathleen Byron’s Sister Ruth, a psychologically disturbed woman pushed to the edge (hahaha, I made a pun) by carnal desires. The above shot of her is the most chilling image from the movie. It took me a while to get to this film, but now that I have, I can very well understand Martin Scorsese’s fascination over Michael Powell. I loved The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom — and Black Narcissus just cemented for me Powell’s genius.

Then there is Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964), for example. It is a visual feast above all. An anthology of traditional Japanese ghost stories, the film disregards conventional narrative for the most part (the last unfinished segment is a prime example) but never shies away from its attempts to seduce our senses while terrifying us with that kind of dread and unease only Japanese cinema can do: a face reflected on the liquid inside a teacup, or the slightly open smile of a wintry ghost to reveal a sinister ohaguro (blackened teeth) inside. This is not Wes Craven or Shirley Jackson territory of horror. It is of the sublimated kind many might even find tedious. But the pace is made more unworldly by set pieces that borders with the surreal. Once you allow yourself to succumb to its tentacles, however, it will render you breathless.

And then there is Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo (Pulse, 2001), which I watched because it landed on Time Out London's list of 100 Best Horror Films of All Time, a comprehensive enough list that had me admiring the thoroughness of the editorial choices. It beat out so many other titles from the huge pantheon of Asian horror that was churned with so much horrific regularity in the last decade. But watching it only underscored for me how so many of those films — and there were a lot of good ones — really were just run-of-the-mill productions that tried to make dreadful presences of everything in our ordinary lives, from cellphones to acacia trees to dating. In Pulse’s case, it’s the entire Internet, and how our online lives make ghosts of us all. It makes a good point — heck, the online world is full of zombies whose lives are all Facebooked and Twittered and Instagrammed and so on and so forth — but the years have not been kind to this kind of movies. They’re suddenly so silly now, and Pulse above all.

Haynes’ Safe (1995) is a horror movie of a completely different sort: the monster is the world, especially if you suddenly develop an allergy towards it. The film calls it “environmental illness,” and I know how that feels like. I saw this film way back in my cinephiliac college days, and it scared the hell out of me then — the slow descent to allergy hell of Julianne Moore’s pampered housewife, the slow buzzing score that underscores the dread, the insight into a world overrun by toxins… It gets didactic, at times — especially in the last act set in a desert retreat, but everything feels real. The horror becomes the realization that this could happen to you.

And finally, there is the story of the tragic prom girl turned fire-starter, a horror classic I turn to once in a few years. What I love about Brian de Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie (1976), is how the movie’s titular monster is not the evil presence in the story at all. It’s other people, the so-called “normal” ones. They’re the ones who are truly monstrous. Which is of course a horror movie staple. Take a look at James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), or Browning’s Freaks, or just about any of King’s greatest tomes, like The Shining. It’s ordinary people we should be most scared of. I revisited this classic last year before I set out to watch the critically-reviled remake by Kimberly Peirce. And the horror has not lessened over the years — although I’ve observed that the telekinesis, strangely enough, doesn’t really figure so well in the film, save for the moving of ashtrays, the bursting of lightbulbs, and the bumping of kids in bikes. Until the massacre at the gym, of course. The central horror lies in the figure of the evangelical mom, whose godly pronouncements still send chills down my spine.

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