Thursday, October 13, 2016
12:01 AM |
Women in Peril: Cujo, The Bad Seed, The Witch, Lady in a Cage, Sudden Fear, and the 1975/2004 Versions of The Stepford Wives
Every year since 2010, I've devoted the month of October to watching horror movies of all kinds, from slasher films to psychological thrillers to haunted house movies, from the classic to the contemporary. (Except torture porn. I draw the line there.) This year, I've decided to do "Women in Peril" as a theme. It is an intirguing subgenre of horror, and I intend to catch a full range of its varieties. I'll try to stay away from the "final girl" trope, however. So, no Jamie Lee Curtis in
Halloween for me. If you have any suggestions, drop me a line in the comments.
Lewis Teague’s Cujo
(1983), the now cult adaptation of Stephen King’s tenth novel is remarkable for its capability to heighten and embellish the plain conceit of its horror: it is simply a rabid dog story. That King managed to conjure an entire novel out of that premise really does tell me that structure is all, that perhaps a man vs. wild animal narrative could be a true source of terror if you invest it with something to root for. Who we root for is Dee Wallace’s Donna Trenton, a likeable, if harried, housewife whose life is made more complicated by three things: she is having an affair with her ex-boyfriend from high school, her husband’s advertising campaign for a cereal commercial is failing, and her young boy is exhibiting disturbing signs of being a little too sensitive. Apparently, domestic difficulties get their resolution by an encounter with the diabolical: a good-natured St. Bernard has been bitten by a rabid bat, and has become a lunging mass of droopy murderousness. Away in the city from their little town to salvage his cereal campaign, he tells his wife their car needs servicing. She goes to the town mechanic with her son, and before she could even say, “This is a good parking spot,” the dog has lunged after them, trapping mother and son in the car, whose battery has died. The film’s prototypical set-up is complete: our helpless protagonist is trapped, the geography of the trap is laid out well, and the monstrous creature is circling around the trap. What follows is truly a surprisingly nerve-wracking unfolding of the dog’s uncanny mercilessness, underlined of course by Dee Wallace’s wrenching performance and the growing problems she encounters in a closed car without food or water, the sun making its interiors a frightful oven. Throughout the ordeal, the boy weakens with a deadly swiftness – and tests the mother’s resolve. I like the film, I like its pace, I like its haunting score, I like how it handles atmosphere, and I like that I’m genuinely bedevilled by this dog.
Melvyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed
(1956) is a peculiar horror film that for me becomes a perfect snapshot of its time: the 1950s. By contemporary standards, it fails as a horror film – but taking into context the time it was produced in, it becomes a beguiling artefact. It was a popular film, a major hit for its studio during its release, and subsequently earned four Oscar nominations, three of them for its cast. Only those performances remain indelible, the production not much so – because the immediate thing one notices about it is how stagey it is directed and rendered by LeRoy, which may spring from the fact that it honors more the 1954 stage adaptation of the story rather than the breathtaking novel by William March, which was nominated for the National Book Award. Thus, the story never leaves its primary location, the house of housewife Christine Penmark, which she shares with her husband Kenneth, a colonel, and her precocious and lovely little daughter Rhoda, and which she rents from the lovely landlady Monica, who lives upstairs. The only time it leaves the house is at the end with the scene at the lake, a coda that was added to the film to satisfy the Hollywood Code censors, and provided a marked departure from the more cynical original ending of the play and the novel. That meant most of the vital turns of the plot – in particular, the three murders of the story, as well as the mother’s backstory – are staged off-screen, reported over radio news, narrated by visitors, or unfolding solely through the reaction shots of witnesses. It is a strange filmic device, perfect for theatre but fatal for cinema. That theatrical borrowing is even taken further, with the actors exiting and bowing at the end, like in a curtain call. It left me cold and uninvolved, the very thesis of the excesses of exposition. But the story does posit interesting questions. Can evil be inherited genetically? And if so, if you are a blood relation of someone evil, can you do something about it? Those questions haunt Nancy Kelly’s Christine Penmark, who begins to suspect her perfect daughter, played with such sweet malevolence by Patty McCormack, may in fact be a sociopath (in a time when the term had yet to be invented). When she also finds out that she has been adopted and that her real mother was in fact a serial killer, she recoils from the full implication of her genetic inheritance – that her mother’s killing instincts had skipped a generation but has it passed it on to her daughter. What’s a mother to do? Do you turn over your daughter to the police? Do you do something distract? How do you exactly fight a monster if the monster is your own blood and genes? LeRoy employs a clumsy Deux ex machina to solve the dilemma, which diminishes this adaptation further – but even that is a sign of 1950s social imperatives. While the end credits roll, Nancy Kelly playfully spanks Patty McCormack, in a hopeful suggestion to 1950s audiences that all they had seen so far is just fiction, that they are just actors playing roles. It is a timid comforting hug, and it robs the film of its possible powers to truly terrify.
Robert Eggers’ The Witch
(2015) makes no pretense at all to make you think that the witch of the title is metaphorical, or that he has made a film where the supernatural darkness is an allegory for human depravity and the abuse of superstition and religion. (In Arthur Miller’s The Crucible
, for example, the “witches” are liars, and whole Salem debacle is an allegory for the McCarthy political witch hunts of the 1950s.) The witch is real in Egger’s film, and we encounter her immediately before the ten-minute mark, coating herself in the pulped flesh, blood, and fat of an abducted and subsequently murdered baby. (Ack.) With that abrupt end to Act 1, the film then ushers into completely unexpected territory: the terrors that bedevil the Puritan family we are following, as they try to work new farm away from the settlement they have been banished from because of religious differences, are real – and the Devil himself taunts them through visions and the demonic possession of assorted animals, including a creepy rabbit and a creepier goat. The family has made the crucial mistake of setting up a farm beside a forest that now has revealed itself to be truly forbidding, its dark innards the encampment of diabolical beings. First the baby disappears, then the young twins start to act strange, then the older boy gets sick after a seductive encounter with evil and then dies, but not before spewing out a fervid litany addressed in cold terror to the Divine. All throughout, we see the Puritan stranglehold on the family adding further to the devilish stew, with mother and father now becoming holy inquisitors. The malevolence surrounds young Thomasin, the family’s teenage girl whose burgeoning sexuality may be attracting the very evil now taunting them. The twins accuse her of witchcraft, and the mother and father – fervent in their puritanism – now must decide how exactly to resolve this losing skirmish with the diabolical. It is Thomasin’s viewpoint we follow, as she sees everything around her – her life, her family, her home – getting demolished bit by bit into madness. The film works as a study in tone and mood, as well as its astonishing embrace of historical detail, helped tremendously by all the actors who are outstanding in their embrace of their characters. It is a film almost without a false note – although it leaves us with a conclusion, concerning Thomasin’s final fateful decision, that doesn’t seem organic to the rest of the unfolding. It is a film that is slow in its scares, which may put off the most pedestrian of horror aficionados, but it is best enjoyed in the cumulative experience of its terrors.
In the 1960s, there was a brief trend of Hollywood queenly royalty reacting to the dissolution of the studio system by doing macabre horror. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
(1962). Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte
(1964). Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket
(1964). Bette Davis in The Nanny
(1965). In Walter Grauman’s Lady in a Cage
(1964), Olivia de Havilland – with Ann Sothern in a supporting role as an ageing prostitute – does extra time in that trend of horror movies in a home invasion story that would have been truly terrifying were it not for its obvious, hilarious leaning towards Republican conservatism in panic mode. Ostensibly, it’s the story of a wealthy old widow played by De Havilland and one unfortunate day in her life. She has been incapacitated by a fall, breaking her hip, and thus must walk around with a cane and must use a newly-installed elevator to access the bedrooms in the second floor of her big house. On the weekend the film opens with, her only son (who’s a closeted gay man) leaves for a trip (with a plan to commit suicide later). A power failure occurs just as she is riding her elevator, trapping her. She pushes the alarm, which attracts only a wino, and later, Sothern’s prostitute, and much later, a murderous trio of hoodlums (two white trash and a dimwit Latino) who proceed to trash the house, burgle it, and unleash bloody terror. All the while, De Havilland is trapped in the cage of the elevator, shouting “Help! Help! Help!” And all the while, the film makes broad editorial comments about the undertow it wants highlighted: how this is really a parable of the best of American [white] society dying, terrorised by new 1960s realities with its liberal progress. We know this because the film is intercut by images of the outside world – rallies, technology, traffic, etc. – that indicate the symptoms of contemporary madness. And we know this because De Havilland’s character makes both voice-over narrations and monologues where she decries the evil and the indifference of the new world. And we also know this because, in response to James Caan’s hoodlum taunting her, she spats at him: “You’re one of the bits of offal produced by the welfare state… You’re what so many of my tax dollars go into the care and feeding of!” So, in sum: white privilege gets terrorised, gay man commits suicide, the welfare state produces hoodlums, and Latinos are dimwits. It’s a film begging to be Trump’s favourite movie.
David Miller’s Sudden Fear
(1952) is a thriller that warns us never to fall in love. In this curiously engrossing film noir, Joan Crawford plays an heiress who also happens to be a very successful playwright. (Which renders the story pure fantasy, of course.) In an audition for her new play, she dismisses an actor [played by Jack Palance] who seems to know how to get to the meat of the character, but alas – according to Ms. Crawford – lacks the physical rightness of the part. She tells Palance he just doesn’t look like a romantic lead. (She should have followed her initial instinct.) On a train tip to California a few months later, she encounters the actor again – and what do you know, romance develops. He sweeps her off her feet and the film seems destined for a melodramatic romance about second chances when it suddenly makes a left turn: we find that he is in fact in cahoots with another girl, and they are planning to steal her fortune after killing her off. Of course, Ms. Crawford soon stumbles on the plan, and finding no other possible recourse [the film makes painstakingly lays out the impossibilities of her situation], she pretends not to know, but is aware that a deadline is looming that is actually quite literal. The film is a showcase of Crawford’s luminousnesss, and her smart, lovelorn woman is rendered quite beautifully that we genuinely fear for her danger, and at the same time, her confusion about what to do when you find out that the love you’ve found is actually quite a dangerous thing.
Ira Levin’s 1972 novel, The Stepford Wives
, is about a Connecticut town where the men has conspired to turn their wives into preening, submissive robots, and has since entered popular parlance to describe people who have surrendered to dull conformism. It follows the travails of a metropolitan woman newly transferred to the town, and slowly comes to realise that something is not right with all these displays of domestic perfection. The story has been filmed twice over the years -- in Bryan Forbes’ 1975 version, which imbibed the pure horror of the book, and in Frank Oz’s 2004 version, which turned it into comic camp. In all versions, just as in Levin’s other popular novels -- which include Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys From Brazil
, and Sliver
-- we get a good transfer and exploration of Levin’s theme of paranoia, this time centered around domesticity and the feminism that was quite a big deal in the progressive spirit of the early 1970s. I like both film versions of The Stepford Wives, although none of them are exactly perfect. The 1975 version is more critically acclaimed because it sticks to the gritty feminism of the book, and does delve into the horror of the story with a shattering clarity. The frothier 2004 version is truer to the colour palette of the novel, but gets no respect for its candy-colorer comedy, with its zings and wit and pop cultural references and unexpected role-reversals and the happy ending. And let’s face it, Oz’s film was also quite a mess, with inconsistencies everywhere, it becomes harder to forgive its flaws as it unspools. William Goldman’s 1975 script is actually quite a chore, and is never really able to give us a good and thorough introduction to the town of Stepford, and is also quite averse to showing us much of the “wives,” save for the creepy end at the supermarket. Rudnick’s 2004 script maps out Stepford with zany precision and gives us the “wives” immediately in a tight cluster (performing aerobics that’s based on household chores!), it is impossible not to see the robotic in them -- but it doesn’t gel together, and the horror is totally gone, rubbed away by an avalanche of pastels. Maybe in the future a better version could be had, but I’d rather they film instead Levin’s A Perfect Day
Labels: film, halloween, horror, review
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