Thursday, October 23, 2014

31 Days of Horror: Freaks



One of us, one of us, gooble, gobble, gooble gobble, we accept her, we accept her! they shout as Cleopatra is accepted as one of the Freaks.
In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.

Day 23: Freaks (1932)

Director Tod Browning enjoyed a long career in silent films, then transitioned rather easily into talkies, particularly compared to some of his contemporaries. In 1931, he helmed probably the most famous film version of the Dracula story, starring Bela Lugosi in his most iconic performance. The next year, he made Freaks. Though Browning lived into his 80s and died in 1962, he made only four more movies after Freaks, the last coming in 1939.

The film was so shocking and its story so controversial that Browning could not get work, and the kind of work he could get was not the work he wanted. So that was it. A brilliant director’s career ended much too soon, right as he seemed to be hitting his stride, in fact, because the world was not ready for his peculiar brand of filmmaking.

The irony will not be lost on anyone reading this or seeing the movie today – that a film about intolerance could be met with such derision and disgust for having this cavalcade of freaks descend upon the movie houses of Depression-era audiences. The people who successfully banned the film share more in common with the villains of the story than with its deformed heroes

Yet time has been kind of Browning’s masterpiece, and viewed through a modern lens, Freaks stands as a stirring rebuke to the prevailing prejudices of its time – and of ours. It could have been anything really, but Browning, a contortionist with the circus in his youth, had a particular soft spot for the sideshow performers who were often mistreated when they were not on stage to be mocked.

The director’s familiarity with the world of the story and his decision to cast actual sideshow performers in all of the key roles add much-needed reality to a crazy though not unbelievable tale of deceit, hatred, and misunderstanding. When little person Hans, played by Harry Earles, finds out he stands to inherit a great deal of money, trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) decides to trick him into marrying her. She plans to poison him and take his money.

She can do this because, to her, Hans is subhuman. Hans’ mistake is not realizing she sees him this way. In the movie’s most famous scene, referenced as recently as last year in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, the sideshow performers gather for the wedding feast and to accept Cleopatra as one of their own. Cleopatra is disgusted that they could ever consider her one of them.

Everything is summed up in this scene, which takes place surprisingly late in the film. The “freaks” want love and will take any that comes their way, even if their trust is misplaced and misguided. Cleopatra stands in for us and our own hate and prejudice. It is a rare instance of the audience seeing through the eyes of the villain. The choice is a stroke of genius by Browning because if you do not feel dirty by then end of this film, you are not paying attention.

Tomorrow, we visit a time when there is no one to trust, villain or ally alike.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

31 Days of Horror: Inside



Beatrice Dalle torments Alysson Paradis in French horror-thriller Inside.
In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.

Day 22: Inside (2007)

I have seen a lot of horror films – more than most people and not as many as some. They have been of wildly differing quality, and most have offered wildly differing experiences. I have seen extreme levels of blood, guts, and gore, and I have seen films that revel in their restraint. If asked to put a figure on it, I would say I have seen something in the neighborhood of 600 or 700 horror films. I say none of this to boast, only to provide context for the following statement: Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s Inside (À l’Intérieur) is the most intense film I have ever seen.

It is 82 minutes of gripping tension broken by the occasional act of extreme violence, but rather than providing release at any point, each new incident further tightens the screws. Gallons of blood is spilled over the course of this film, but the moments between the violence are what leave you shocked into silence and rigid with terror. We have spoken of descents into madness this month. Well, this movie begins at madness proceeds to dig down to whole other levels of depraved insanity.

All you need to know about the plot can be summed up in two sentences. A pregnant woman is home alone on the eve of her planned delivery. Outside, there is a violent would-be intruder who wants the baby. That is it. Co-directors/co-writers Bustillo and Maury do not waste a lot of energy layering extra detail on top of their bare-bones plot, but do not think of it as thin. Think of it as razor sharp. It is not a marathon but a bloody, barefoot sprint over broken glass.

Alysson Paradis stars as Sarah, the pregnant woman under attack. Vacillating between hysterical, if justified, fear and unbreakable resolve, the character is a throwback to the classic scream queens of the 1980s, but as with everything else in this movie, the filmmakers take an old trope and multiply its intensity by a factor of 10. For a performance that requires her to be locked in one room or another for much of her screen time, Paradis is excellent as the blood-spattered mother-to-be.

Matching her blow for blow in the role of the stalker is Béatrice Dalle. She is sinister, calm, and professional until things begin to get out of hand, at which point she absolutely rages. Dalle sells both aspects of the character with aplomb. She does not speak much and is often in shadows, but as the very essence of evil, she is terrifying.

As discussed earlier this week with Ginger Snaps, this is another rare horror film in which both the protagonist and antagonist are women, but I would never go so far as to call this movie feminist. There is some troubling imagery – allegedly added by a producer against the wishes of the filmmakers – of the fetus inside the womb, which critics rightly point out reduces our main character to a vessel for the baby rather than a person in her own right.

Even beyond that, the simple fact of two women fighting over a baby seems like an ill-advised appropriation of gender stereotypes. At the same time, both of the main characters are strong, intelligent women with fiercely independent streaks – to admittedly different ends – of the kind rarely seen in movies, and it would be wrong to apply too much thematic intention to a film that exists on a purely visceral level. This is not a movie for everyone. It is not a movie for most people, in fact, but it is a damn good movie no less.

Tomorrow, we step back in time with an early master of the genre who gives us bodies and horror but not in the ways we have come to expect.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

31 Days of Horror: The Fly


Jeff Goldblum is the scientist Seth Brundle, the man who will become The Fly.

In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.

Day 21: The Fly (1986)

With all due respect to Kurt Neumann’s 1958 original, which is an entertaining sci-fi B-movie romp with surprising depth, nothing tops David Cronenberg’s The Fly for sheer grotesquerie, moral uncertainty, and scientific blasphemy. It is on a short list of very dark, very adult films I saw at (probably) too young an age and which left a lasting impact. Its impact, however, was not to terrify me – though this is the stuff of nightmares – but its emotional resonance is such that I find myself thinking about it every so often even now.

There is a very specific subgenre of horror of which Cronenberg is the imperator. It is known as body horror. There are plenty of films in which human bodies are subjected to any number of tortures and torments, but body horror refers to something different. It is the fear of what our bodies are capable of and of how close we all lurk to the edge of losing control over ourselves. This can mean disease or parasitic infection, madness, paralysis, or all of the above.

Since the beginning of his career, Cronenberg has had a preoccupation with human fears of sexuality and decay, often mingling these ideas into singular expressions of manifestly gruesome abominations. His characters are often terrified of the primal urges growing within themselves such as hunger, sex, and violence. The desire to repress these urges usually leads to an explosion of sorts, a rampage of the very behaviors the characters are trying to deny.

“There was an old lady who swallowed a fly. Perhaps she’ll die.”

Jeff Goldblum, in arguably his career-best performance, plays scientist Seth Brundle. Brundle is the inventor of a teleportation technology that will revolutionize transportation; however, when an experimental test he performs on himself goes wrong, his DNA is combined with that of a common housefly. From there, Cronenberg shows us every gory detail as Brundle slowly becomes more insect than man. Chris Walas’ makeup effects earned him an Academy Award for transforming Goldblum into the unholy beast he winds up as.

At first, he takes his increased strength, stamina, and virility to be positive signs of the teleportation device. But after he realizes what has happened, he knows these “improvements” are just the base instincts of the insect inside him taking control. In a wonderful monologue delivered to his girlfriend, Veronica Quaife, a journalist played by Geena Davis, Brundle makes his deepest fears known and makes it clear his nightmare has become a reality.

“You have to leave and never come back here. Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects don’t have politics. They’re very brutal. No compassion. No compromise. We can’t trust the insect. I’d like to become the first insect politician, but you see, I’m afraid … I’m saying I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake. I’m saying I’ll hurt you if you stay.”

It is a tragic acknowledgement that the scientist he once was may as well have never existed. Taken literally, as in the film, it is a bloody affair comprised of equal parts pain and pathos. But taken as a metaphor, it is the expression of a fear we all have – that our darkest selves will take over and the intoxication of that freeing power will blind us to our better nature. In The Fly, Cronenberg creates a world in which that power can be embraced or fought, but it can never be held back.

Tomorrow, we all cringe together as a modern French masterpiece takes body horror to its logical extreme.