The cinematic art itself may be biting the dust worldwide, as the endless parade of Marvel and DC superheroes colonize Hollywood, the indie cinema is selling out, film studies graduate students are watching source materials via Netflix streaming in their spare time, left over from decoding hallowed writings of Lacan and Deleuze, and Lars von Trier is lauded as the world's greatest filmmaker. But hey, horror cinema is alive and well. Even if future consumers of cinema would have to watch their “movies” on six-inch screens attached to their wrist-phones, you can guarantee there will be horror films, about haunted Google Glasses, your latest wonder drug with a side effect of turning you into a purple-skinned carnivore (“Your loved ones suddenly crave meat!!”), even maybe a teenage space-shuttle astronaut vampire, who loves inhaling human blood globule by floating globule, in the zero gravity.
Watching horror films has always been one of the less mentionable-in-polite-company cultural habits of mine. And you are right to call on this sense of mild embarrassment as hypocritical. After all, what dumb English lit major would publicly state that Edgar Allan Poe is inferior to, say, Herman Melville, because the former mostly wrote morbid stories about the supernatural? My closest friends and loved ones can certainly testify to my ongoing and never-flagging love of the genre. My wife, Angela, remembers me sauntering off to catch the third installment of Hellraiser playing at a Somerville theater all by myself, in between caffeine-induced bouts of paper-writing and seminar preparation. In my youthful days a dinner conversation could easily slide off to a loving description of the effects of a “Stonehenge chip” embedded inside the Silver Shamrock Halloween mask in Season of the Witch... you get the idea.
Now I am enjoying motion pictures on a staggering variety of platforms-- In addition to Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, Film Struck, Amazon, Shout! Factory TV (such a thing truly exists… I am currently fast-forward watching, of all crazy things, Ultraman Leo on it) and other glut of streaming and VOD services, I still catch a chunk of horror films not only through Blu Rays and DVDs but at the local theaters-- and horror genre is far from shrinking in proportion and importance in terms of my movie-going life. It certainly remains an important sector of the archival Blu Rays and DVDs I purchase-- especially among the cinema of '70s and '80s-- but even among relatively new films, its power and influence have not diminished. Now whether there are more good horror films these days than, say, '80s: that's another set of ballgame. Has the quality horror cinema gone the ways of civil discourse in American politics and VHS tapes? Or are we in fact facing another renaissance of ingenious and creative horror cinema?
So I had this idea of watching one hundred horror films in one year, regardless of national origins or year of production, the only condition being that I watch them in proper venues (with the correct aspect ratio, preferably HD presentation) and that I have not laid my eyes on them before. Call it a tribute to horror cinema from a fan. In terms of Korean cinema, I am politically more invested in seeing a truly excellent SF film (a goal partially met in 2013 with the release of Bong Jun-ho's majestic Snowpiercer), but that's for the future happiness of South Koreans. For the future happiness and philosophical growth of the mankind (I hope you do not take my pronouncements as juvenile humor or even misplaced irony, thus revealing your hideous cultural prejudices against the genre: I will remind you again, Edgar Allan Poe did HORROR. Mary Shelley did HORROR. Dostoevsky did HORROR. Goethe did HORROR. The truly great masters ALL did horror), we could still do much more with horror.
As I am reviving this series in September 2018, I will give it until December 31, 2019, to tally up one hundred horror films. I don't think this will be difficult at all, in terms of keeping up with the supplies. Shucks, I could probably fill in the quota even if I limit myself to only Asian horror films, or North American ones. I will also discard my long-held feature-film-only prejudice and include TV series and short films in the roster: the rather arbitrary rule of thumb will be to count three or four episodes of a series or the same amount of short films as one feature film, although obviously exceptions could be made.
A word regarding the format: I am not going to list the usual detailed staff and cast information, and the reviews will be shorter than my full-on Blu Ray-DVD reviews, or other academic pieces such as interviews with scholarly colleagues or creative personages. A word on the star rating system: I use the black-and-white star ratings system developed by the Japanese film critic and hardboiled mystery specialist Futaba Juzaburo 双葉十三郎 (1910-2009), with a white star ☆ counting for twenty points, and a black star★ for five points. The average score falls somewhere between fifty five ☆☆★★★ and sixty ☆☆☆, as few movies actually score less than twenty points. I might drop the star ratings after a while, as rating the movies is really not the point of these lists. It is really for 1) archiving my movie-watching habits, and 2) discussing the evolution of cinematic horror as an ineradicable component of the broader cultural expression of the global mankind.
1. Down a Dark Hall (U.S.-Spain, 2018). A Fickle Fish/Nostromo/Temple Hill Entertainment Production. 1 hour 36 minutes. Widescreen 2.35:1. Directed by Rodrigo Cortes. Screenplay by Michael Goldbach, Chris Sarling, based on a novel by Lois Duncan. iTunes, Rented. Down a Dark Hall brings together two strong trends of today's genre cinema, the Spanish-language Gothic thriller tradition on the one hand, and young adult literary resources a la Hunger Games and The Maze series, on the other. The result is reasonably well constructed but entirely predictable Gothic hokum, with the central idea that really sounds like it was daydreamed up by a suburban-bourgeois teenager sick and tired of having to go through piano lessons or math tutoring classes.
Considering the already existing countless stories about girl's boarding school it would have required some other ingenious turn of events to elevate Down a Dark Hall above average. But the filmmakers have little ideas other than the admittedly interesting casting of Thurman in the tyrannical headmistress role (she seems to be a tad too sincere: a kind of droll, Lynn Redgrave-on-oxycodone approach might have worked better). AnnaSophia Robb does what is required as the suitably harried young heroine Kit, but the materials she is given to work with are just not up to the snuff. Rodrigo Cortes, director of Buried (2010) and Red Lights (2012), keeps the kettle boiling and the Blackwood Boarding School set is pretty impressive. Jarin Blaschke's (The Witch ) cinematography, while plenty atmospheric, sometimes becomes so pitch-black as to entirely obscure the goings-on. Probably appropriate for a popcorn-munching spook-show screening during a junior-high girls' slumber party (they wouldn't know Uma Thurman from Meryl Streep, I suppose?), I was not seriously bored with the film, but still can't give it a score higher than ☆☆★★★.
2. Cold Skin/La piel fria (Spain-France, 2017). A Babieka/The Ink Connection/Kanzaman/ Pontas Film & Literary Agency Co-Production. 1 hour 48 minutes. Widescreen 2:35:1. Directed by Xavier Gens. Screenplay by Jesus Olmo & Eron Sheean, based on a novel by Albert Sanchez Piñol. Purchased, iTunes. Cold Skin is another classically-oriented horror opus filmed in English language with the British leads but dominated by the Spanish-Catalan sensibility. The director is Xavier Gens, who has primarily worked in the Francophone cinema, and, as evidenced by his previous films, Frontier(s) (2007) and The Divide (2011), has tended to gravitate toward the characters in confinement forced to reveal their animal-like true colors. This particular film, about a young, unnamed weather observer (David Oakes) stationed at an isolated Antarctic island (nicely location-shot at Canary Islands and Iceland) running afoul of a disgruntled, possibly insane lighthouse technician Gruner (Ray Stevenson) as well as a horde of amphibian humanoid creatures, is inevitably going to be compared to Guillermo Del Toro's The Shape of Water. There is even a female humanoid christened Aneris (impressively embodied by the Spanish actress Aura Garrido under layers of blue-grey latex) who Gruner keeps as a sexual slave.
The creatures and the desolate, salt-bitten island-scape are quite effectively drawn, and the screenplay does not dawdle on, quickly introducing the otherworldly menace and keeping the viewers on their toes for the most part. The human characters, on the other hand, are simply not interesting. Gruner is such a thoroughly unsympathetic rapist-cum-mass-murdering-scumbag that the young meteorologist's initial willingness to join in the former's daily routine of extermination campaign against the humanoids comes across either as a form of transmitted madness, or an irredeemable moral failure on the latter's part (possibly both?). Gens possibly intended all this as a political allegory (heavy-handed references to the genocidal character of the First World War,-- the movie is set in 1914, following the source novel, I assume-- not to mention a groan-inducing epigram taken from Nietzsche-- that's right, that "you gaze into the abyss and the abyss gazes into you" jazz--, seems to corroborate this interpretation), but without a sympathetic character or even a relatable villain, the movie tends to fall back on creature-attack action scenes and other monster-movie boogaboo stuff. Concerning those things, at least, this film is not too bad.
I didn't expect Cold Skin to be as powerful or genuinely weird as The Shape of Water or Splice (2009), but given its considerable technical prowess, I wish it had the temerity to swim beyond its sub-Jack-London, men-are-the-true-beasts literary-trope atoll and to genuinely surprise the viewers. ☆☆☆
Well the class is starting soon, and I still have many, many things to do, so I will resume at No. 3 hopefully in a few days. I know, I know, it is a constant struggle to keep the blog going, but seeing that some of the people I know or read, who are far more prolific and diligent than I am, eventually shut their blogs down or keep them unattended for months on end, I take solace in the fact that this problem is not unique to me.