Looking at the (albeit few) films I’ve chosen to review, the ones I’ve been willing to dive into blind, the expectedly shitty ones I’ve willing put up with, it’s fair to say I have a bias to exploring horror films more than other genres. At the very least I’m more interested in exploring scary movies when looking for something to watch than other genres. And in some ways, they’re more rewarding on a base level than say, romantic dramas that are equally good or bad. I’m sure Death Note is worse than Tulip Fever, but lord knows I’m not gonna go watching the latter for “fun” the way I got wine drunk with friends and tore at that racist, unscary piece of shit. On the other side of that spectrum, I went and saw It with that same dynamic duo as Death Note roughly a week later and had a ball, premised around actually having a wonderful time with a great film that all of us liked on its own merits and as an adaptation. It was all we talked about during dinner, and if I didn’t have to run home before meeting them at Tommy’s place we probably would’ve talked about it even longer. The film is a monumental step up from the original TV adaptation (obvs), but I sincerely hope that we’re at a place where the culture can stop being as reverential as it is with Tim Curry’s performance – one I liked but couldn’t quite be impressed by – in favor of the truly horrifying wraith that Bill Skarsgard has created. Andy Muschietti deserves plenty of credit for Pennywise too, but also for negotiating such a dense source novel, a mostly child cast, a more elastic range of tones than necessary, a time period wholly original to this adaptation, plus all the hokum reputation surrounding the author, and doing justice to all of it. Never in my life would I have expected the director of Mama to have succeeded in marshalling all of that into such a purely enjoyable, scary, funny, and utterly full film as It. Yes, it’s not perfect in parcelling out equal screen time to every member of The Loser’s Club or establishing what their lives are like when they aren’t hanging out together, but if that’s the worst this film has going for it, I’m absolutely delighted to recommend it to everyone and go along with friends who’re too scared to see it alone. Maybe with a red balloon in hand, and a severed arm to hold it for me.
I originally intended this to be a sort of two-shot with mother! but, given how absolutely insane that film is and the likelihood I’m going to ferry David along someday soon, I’m going to put off a formal review of it until another showing. I think I have my reaction to it sorted out, though another trek through it would do me good. The last scenes recontextualize the whole film so fully, even one as bluntly allegorical as that one, I think it’d be worth checking out again before I dive into it. With that being said, and to give me something fun to write about, I’m gonna just jot down some favorite memories of horror films I’m really in love with. You can consider this a recommendation list, I’d be more than happy to elaborate on full-throttle reviews and explanations of any of these films. Hopefully there’ll be another list of five tomorrow. Either way, sit back and enjoy the ride, dear reader.
To start off with the recentest features, I think one of It’s greatest successes it that each of its characters has pretty individualized embodiments of fear that Pennywise deploys, each scene delivering its own unique terror. That being said, there’s no way the film’s most utterly terrifying scene isn’t its first, where Pennywise lures poor Georgie into reaching out his hand for a little paper boat. For all I said at the top about Bill Skarsgård’s interpretation of It – and I’ll be shocked if I don’t write up this performance on my year-end list – credit must also be given to Jackson Robert Scott’s sweet, almost saccharine take on Georgie Denbrough. Watching Pennywise somehow circle this poor child even from within a sewer grate, convincingly entrancing by the standard of a six year old even if he can’t help but notice how unhinged this clown is, it’s maybe the only film I’ve been around for the release of that palpably conjured the same kinds of lumps in my gut I got watching Ileana Douglas and Juliette Lewis wrangle with Robert De Niro in Cape Fear (minus all the sexual overtures of Cape Fear, thank god). It’s the only time Pennywise is patient enough to even try and lure in his prey like this, more eager to eat the boy than he is to prey off his fear. The tension here is so efficiently realized I had to wonder what a version of It that drew out a few more of these encounters into their own short films would look like. A little longer, sure, but when the result is more scenes that make your skin crawl and your stomach churn, we’d all be winners.
mother! was an insanely vexing experience, purposely so, but in many ways a virtuoso one. A lot of it comes down to how marvelously it’s crafted, plus Michelle Pfeiffer’s deliciously crafted turn as a home invader, and I’d love more time to sit and think about Aronofsky’s script. Pfeiffer is the only ingredient missing in the film’s most stunningly crafted scene, where the house of Jennifer Lawrence’s nameless character is beset by an seemingly infinite swarm of her husband’s idolaters. Her painstakingly assembled home, one she made all by herself with her own two hands, is torn apart by the mob of fans proclaiming the poet’s will of sharing all that he has. One hangs up the phone as she calls the police only for another to yank it out of the wall, each hurling the philosophy of sharing at the other to justify their actions as though the other is stupid for not expecting them to do this. The police arrive a few minutes after, and suddenly her house seems to be divided into factions of SWAT members, violent cabals of her husband’s words, and those directly loyal to him. It’s almost impossible to imagine how long this sequence takes, especially since mother! often presents its sequences as though they’re happening in real time, but it’s stupendously mounted and realized by everyone involved. The transformation of Lawrence’s home from an idyllic, rustic nest for her and her hubby into a war-torn wreckage plucked straight from Children of Men isn’t the film’s scariest scene – that would be everything immediately after something delicate is inevitably, disastrously shown off – but on a sheer technical level it’s the film’s most impressively realized scene, and one of many I can’t shake for the life of me.
If you’ve never seen [safe], I beg you to go see it right now. Surely everyone who loved Carol has gone back and examined some of Todd Haynes’s filmography, if not looked up his Wikipedia page and seen this film, whose heroine has the same first name as his 2015 masterpiece. [safe] is about as asphyxiating and antagonistic to the audience (while still being immensely hypnotic) as any film can get, and one I had difficulty rewatching last semester in the hopes of finding a screencap to use for an art project. I ended up not using what I got, but there’s so many indelible moments picking one feels difficult, let alone throwing my hands up and just reveling in what Haynes’ direction does to make the film so menacing. And yet, there’s that one object that I instantly thought of for this little piece, in some ways the one that convinced me to do it at all. Early in [safe], Carol White (a genius Julianne Moore) orders a couch to her house and starts to help the movers arrange it in her house, only to find that it’s seemingly the most antagonistic shade of black on the planet. Carol is horrified to see this thing in her carefully constructed beige palace, as was I when I first saw it. Never has an ordinary couch been so pointy and prickly and out-of-place and threatening in a film, and never have I wanted to leave a room so much once I saw it. Pressing against everything pale and beige and carefully styled in her home, this couch doesn’t just look out of place but as alien and invasive as any of the houseguests in mother!, and even more unwanted. [safe] isn’t necessarily a horror film, but it’s still the most unsettling feature on this list, one that’s even more horrifying for all that it has to say on the human experience, and for the tremendous filmmaking (and actressing) that makes it such a seminal, terrifying film.
Suspiria, on the other hand, is nothing if not an exercise in how many scary, go-for-broke aesthetics you can grate against each other and mold together and throw at the audience at once. The production design can be summed up as though the art directors of Wes Anderson and Pedro Almodovar had a child that was trying to kill you, specifically, but of course the real star of this entry is the vicious score of Dario Argento and the band Goblin. Much like Get Out, you have the distinct feeling that somehow the score itself is going to slaughter our hero before the actual forces of evil hunting them do. Even in scenes that don’t seem overtly menacing, the orchestra shrieks at you to remember that Jessica Harper and her friend are always being watched, always in danger, always among those who have killed before and would kill them if they got the chance. And somehow, this only makes the scenes with an actively dangerous presence more affecting rather than less so. In the words of Decider’s Joe Reid “Everything is heightened, so everything is fuckin’ heightened”. Suspiria is so heightened it’s a wonder the central school doesn’t just fly off into the upper echelons of the Earth’s atmosphere, which is probably close to where the film is heightened to, but thank god it’s stuck to the ground. Not all stories work in space, and sometimes all you need is a man, his dog, a weird gargoyle, and a bunch of nice looking buildings to make a scene as tense as all hell. And, of course, a bullying, visceral score.
There’s a multitude of great performances from David Cronenberg films. In truth, the best two probably reside in the duet between Jeremy Irons and Genevieve Bujold in Dead Ringers, if not the duet between Irons and Irons in the same film. But we’re really here for The Brood, which boasts the most volcanic performance I’ve seen among Cronenberg’s filmography in the form of Samantha Eggar’s ferocious, unstable shrew of an ex-wife and absent mother. The entire film is premised on her rage, literally summoning embodiments of her anger to carry out acts of vengeance against those she decries in therapy sessions. These sessions have the head physician role-playing as the target of his patient’s psychosis in the hope of provoking a real break in their psyches, and take place in a facility miles out of town and built like log cabins, resembling a hotel from a distance. Her character’s ex-husband is right to suspect something’s amiss here, that Nola isn’t getting the treatment she needs, but even as he finds the corpses of the gremlins whacking their family members it takes until he witnesses the creation of one of these rage babies for him to fully grasp a situation that’s actively threatening everyone he loves. Eggar’s vitality and commitment gives the film a beating, potent heart that The Brood otherwise wouldn’t have, in spite of its crazy conceits and directorial strength. Without her exorcising fury, The Brood would be a weaker film, and it needs Eggar’s to power the whole thing through its demented thesis and towards its inevitable, monstrous climax.