While most defiant ideas for films are usually seized by the underachievers, few directors ever openly admit to being conductors of substandard rip-offs. Part of me would challenge that possibility if I ever came face-to-face with Ruggero Deodato, who in 1980 made one of many “Last House on the Left” clones and, by all traditional measures, used the screen as an open admission of his failure to equal its painful austerity. Craven’s notorious debut was hardly an original commodity – famously, its premise was based off a folk legend first used by Ingmar Bergman – but it so thoroughly embodied the nerve and conviction of its creator that few who saw it found it unworthy of notice. It was a film that lived and breathed its soul-shattering horrors. A great number of would-be understudies justifiably saw it as one of the main precursors to the genre’s sharp transition from supernatural absurdity to real-life misery, and some like Deodato were compelled to replicate the measure in more direct homage. But his “House on the Edge of the Park” is not simply a paint-by-numbers exercise. That might have been a lesser offense. No, this is a movie so listless and deceptive that we don’t dare call it bad, lest that imply anyone watching cares enough to show a faint hint of loathing.
A group of fresh-faced 20-somethings assemble in the halls of a sorority house to pledge their loyalties during hell week. One of them, seen in the early scenes waking from a violent nightmare, is to be the primary target of a series of impending pranks; being beautiful and wealthy are traits easily exploited by the more vain and narcissistic, especially while she seems oblivious to them. Dialogue is formal but laced with underlying resentment, as if more than mere looks and prestige divide the cliques. But these are not motions to imply more secrets between them – only gestures used by novice actors who have yet to formulate a plausible manner in front of the camera. In a way they acquire that behavior both from inexperience and from the misguided endeavors of their director, who was on his first (and last) film assignment here in the months preceding “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” which was credited with adding a potent psychology to the tired dead teenager formula. His “The Initiation,” which survives in the periphery of an inexplicable cult status, is one of the last genre excursions preceding that transition, and certainly one of the dumbest: every single scene exists not to stimulate the excitement of the audience, but to suggest a sense of laughable frustration on part of individuals who have no clue as to what they are doing.
Quiet and eccentric Frank Zito has serious issues. Rarely occupied by conventional social interactions and often lost in the labyrinth of a self-imposed solitude, he has taken up precarious hobbies as a way of passing the hours – among them, decorating female mannequins throughout his apartment while carrying on one-sided conversations, as if they were verbal punching backs for his paralyzing insecurity. Unfortunately, one key attribute between them bypasses the notion of a foreboding gesture: they all carry the scalps of deceased women he has killed over the recent weeks, with their head of hair acting as a leftover trinket of the crimes. Who these victims are is not as thorough a detail for the audience as much as the anatomy of their demises, and in an early scene on a beach the camera spies one such victim (nameless, no less) having her throat cut so that she can bleed out on the sand. Most films would use this kind of display as a precursor to the psychological study, particularly if it involves an engaging pattern. But the obscene and detestable “Maniac” has only one focus: to fill scene after scene with relentless bloodshed while robbing us of a genuine dramatic context.
Maybe it’s apropos that a fifth blockbuster about genetically engineered dinosaurs begins and ends with words from Ian Malcolm, the man whose theories have underlined the obligatory fallout of this exhausting excursion. Seen in a senate hearing about whether the U.S. government should intervene in the protection of gigantic creatures at the sight of a now-defunct theme park, he signals an ominous warning that most recognize as authentic: if you save beings that exist in violation of the natural order, you may be risking your own. All signs point to a wrap-up of that possibility as the site of Isla Nublar faces a new threat: the island’s long-dormant volcano has come back to life and will likely render the surviving species extinct, effectively undoing the experiment of scientists playing god. Alas, a movement of fierce protectors has risen in the political fringes, seeking a way to rescue the dinosaurs before such a fate is a reality. That prospect inspires the agenda of a billionaire closely linked to the park’s resources, who calls upon characters from the previous film to go in and relocate a dozen species to a nearby sanctuary island… without knowing that they intend to sell them to foreign harvesters on the black market.
The most unsettling element in “Hereditary” is rooted not in specifics or reveals, but in a deliberate evasion of answers. This is a film so audaciously assured that the audience is rarely given the chance to clutch the source of the horror, as if to assume details can be distorted by a deceitful vantage point. In a way that makes the primary observation just as maddening as it is unsettling – and after a monumental promotional engine pointed to grandiose comparisons with “The Exorcist” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” most viewers targeted it with a frustrated dismissal rather than shared accolades. But for Ari Aster, who makes his directorial debut with a script he also penned, it represents a bold and striking departure from the populist convention of horror films, where great inspirations are usually filtered down by derivative ideals. Containing almost no jump scares or slick camera edits, the movie throbs with a relentless underlying terror that is frequently mystifying, sometimes aggravating, and almost always poised to keep the mind engaged in disquieting wonder. If the most elusive quality of a genre picture is how fears manifest in the uncertain, Aster finds them lodged the membrane of a greater psychological riddle.
The opening scene of “Scream 2” contains a dialogue on horror films as a device of exploitation on minorities – particularly for African Americans, who are routinely the first to die at the end of a knife-wielding madman. That the comment is delivered by a character played by Jada Pinkett is not ironic; because the movie knows it must play by similar rules, however self-aware, her observation will serve as prophecy as she and her boyfriend are murdered by a masked maniac at a local screening on the night of her proclamation. No, the true irony is found above them: the film they have shown up to see is a Hollywood retelling of the Woodsboro murders from the year prior, which have been sensationalized into a cheap slasher knock-off at the expense of the survivors. This reality is expressed with a striking clarity during the close of the opening scenes, in which Pinkett’s character is stabbed with incessant conviction by a hooded figure just as the audience behind her engages in uproarious cheers at the murder going on in the light of the projector. Only when she walks up towards the screen and lets out one last horrific scream do they realize a fatal tragedy has transpired among the crowded seats of the screening room: their embrace of the violence has inherently created a perfect storm for their ambivalence to a literal manifestation of it.
The fundamental component of any descent into the unknown is an unresolved emotional wound lurking beneath the exterior, consistently haunting the main character as they confront dangers in the present. A riveting acid test frequently rises in this duality: without the ability to reach closure with the past, how does one find the courage to confront something sinister staring back at them? It is a measure of psychology scurrying deeply through a great number of modern thrillers that puts heightened emphasis on the stakes of the survivors, and somehow as they attempt to outwit devilish creatures, ambiguous aliens or supernatural terrors we become facets of their struggle, right down to the obligatory climactic moment when they have no choice but to relive the old pain just as mortality seems within reach. Think of the grief of losing a daughter and how it propels the heroine of “The Descent,” for instance, who is forced to relive memories of her child’s final birthday as monsters in a dark cave close in towards her location: is it the idea of the creatures that is disturbing, or that a universe who spawns them is unwilling to spare a woman who is already barely functioning?
The bridge persists as a stubborn link between a decaying empire and imminent liberation, defended enthusiastically by seven young men on the precipice of mortal danger. They wear masks that distort their notion of the inevitable, but not merely out of ignorance; they have been molded by the vehement enthusiasm of nationalism, which remains unchanged even after buildings have crumbled and soldiers have been erased from the battlefields. Most of them are all too eager to step in as defenders of their treasured Reich, though the faces of their parents reflect a more anxious concern. In one notable moment, for instance, one of the mothers tearfully pleas with her son to ignore the drafting letter he has received, insisting that he flee to the country to stay with relatives. He declines, grinning the whole way, which places emphasis on the underlying conflict: can these teenage boys be faulted for being slaves to the pure and idealistic, even as the possibilities of triumph seem lost in a haze of downtrodden confessions? Perhaps it is more sobering to see them as symbols of the uncultivated, especially under the rule of the Nazis: because this essentially made them the most expendable in an impending fight against enemy combatants, an obligatory defeat only aggravates the wound created by their destructive occupation.
To ponder Robert Altman’s “Nashville” is not merely to examine a profoundly important movie, but to deal with the very birth of a filmic ideal: the thorough gestation of a concept that rings with persistence even in these times of redundant outlooks and simplified meanings. Some have referred to it as the first fully improvised screen endeavor of its kind, but that only trivializes the point; born from a 140-page screen treatment – and one that was famously dismissed by studio heads as an inconsequential exercise – the endeavor reflected the resonant artistic yearning that followed its filmmaker through much of his early career, where narratives became increasingly secondary to behavior and atmosphere. At the threshold of those desires, under the firm hand of his own control, his most famous film found a footing and, in the process, transformed the very cinema that was already knee-deep in irreverence and counterculture. A first-time observer might absorb the images and see only a snapshot of a series of lives as they descend on a single event, but those who contemplate underlying ramifications will recognize almost oracular insights: the threat of political populism, the deceptive lure of entertainment and even the indifference of casual onlookers. No other picture of its kind so accurately predicted the social transitions of the modern age, or did so with such casual assurance.
The gifted Larisa Shepitko was 39 years old, four films into her career and on the verge of more when “The Ascent” first emerged as a blip on the radar, placing her among the most promising new commodities of 1970s Russian cinema. Patterned in the tradition of a persistent arsenal of anti-war hits about the Nazi occupation, hers was an adjunct that also drew upon more precarious sources – particularly the legend of Jesus Christ, who like the hero of her story became a willing sacrifice as penance for the sins of others. Was there a thread running parallel between both that she felt mirrored the context of the war? Perhaps a reasoning, or a justification, for the history we know was to follow? Her protagonist, the stone-eyed Sotnikov, is not exactly a warm and embracing personality, and early on he is handicapped by ailments – and then a gunshot wound – that keep him from more profound gestures. But even as the prey in a doomed hunt he materializes, unbroken in his humanity, as a willing casualty in the jaws of fate, even though the key figures among him seem all too eager to use his martyrdom as their own safeguard.
So many essays have been penned about Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” generally considered to be his greatest film, that a barrier occurs in any attempt to say something fresh or stirring about the material on screen. Most conversations tend to begin with the parallels of his life and that of his hero – how a methodical conductor of creative impulses sought so earnestly to achieve a perfect technical modulation from behind the camera that he manifestly wrote his obsessive qualities into the visuals, giving it the dual function of an off-the-record autobiography. But then there is the more secondary consideration of the premise, involving a retired detective who is assigned to follow and protect a beautiful woman before ultimately falling in love with her on the eve of her demise. If less is said about how Jimmy Stewart’s persona endures the curse of his director’s paralyzing vulnerabilities, it is because his predicament was ultimately overpowered by the shadow of its author. The Hitchcock identity carried so much gravity, such dominating influence, that it is entirely possible to see his films for their exhibition of talent and not necessarily for their narrative points. How many still remember “Psycho,” for instance, as being about a man who murders strangers while posing as his deceased mother? Today, is it not more about how a composer of macabre visual symphonies shamelessly inspires hysterics in a subservient audience?
While the seed of Robert Altman’s “3 Women” is said to be contained in “Persona,” the key bridge between them may be “Images,” a daring film he made in 1972 during the pinnacle of his first (and some say greatest) commercial peak. Like those films, it was an experiment that embodied the bold risk of an emerging method of cinema, where a garden of new filmmakers was being driven by themes more than characters or story – and though Altman was still refining his own voice, it presented the sort of audacious challenges that horrified those resting comfortably in convention. Yet today it rarely comes up in a discussion about his most prominent work, other than a vague reference to the confusion it first caused in the film festival circuit; initially, no one could decipher the intricate meanings between the overlapping narrative arcs, and many gave up in frustration too early to realize their concealed resonance. Was it simply ahead of its time? Or did “3 Women” cast a shadow impossible to move out of? Some, fortunately, have kept the material active in discussion despite a trend to elevate the more populist achievements of his early days, and thanks to internet theories and a new digital restoration it can finally be seen with the tool of modern hindsight, where its power becomes obvious.
Three movies in Gus Van Sant’s filmography make up what is commonly referred to as his “death trilogy,” and like similar multi-picture endeavors by Ingmar Bergman and Lars von Trier they are linked less by story or characters and more by deep thematic echoes. But to describe the material in them as being just about “death” would be to simplify the nature at which they originate; while death itself awaits many of the important players, it is the journey towards it that stirs uncomfortably in the mind of their curious author. Consider the long and arduous walk towards nothing in “Gerry,” or the almost haunting silence preceding the chaos of the final hour of “Elephant.” Van Sant’s theory is not that some are meant to die young or tragically, but that they often do so because of a decay in stability brought on by lifelong alienations – many of them either self-imposed or clandestine. In these worlds, taking one final breath well before the mortal clock has wound down may just be a release from a routine that has already killed their goal to persevere.
In many respects “A Quiet Place” is pitched as a silent film, without verbal cues or explanations underscoring the plot’s core function. Immediately that prospect will conjure up a befuddling uncertainty in the audience: how are they to establish a setting, who the players may be and what’s occurring to them? What is the context? Are mere physical observations enough? Any number of sensationalist outings would freely risk continuity without a well-modulated visual device, but to see it done here is to discover a filmmaker who has studied, mastered and executed the great doctrines of Hitchcock and Kubrick, whose own stories were usually incidental to the orchestration of a mood. What he accomplishes here, in a horror film set somewhere in the modern world, is astounding: a survival study that says little but observes, impeccably, as a family braves the unknown in a place that has been (apparently) wiped out by bloodthirsty monsters. And when two verbal exchanges do occur on screen, the words have no importance; they are gestures to supply the characters with a reminder of their hard push for endurance, and why they refuse to surrender to a fate that has isolated them in the cold clutch of despair.
The solution to enduring the absurdity that is “The Witches of Eastwick” involves distancing yourself from any measure of logic. Here is a movie that invites an explosion of disbelief, assembled from pieces of a reality that looks as if it might have been plausible in the early stages. But to gaze at the screen any longer than a moment’s notice is to find the New England locales, the happy faces and the passive daily routines to be the cloak surrounding a supernatural fantasy – and a ludicrous one at that. In a way, George Miller depends on our trust in his ability to shed a light of purpose; after “Mad Max” made him a cool commodity in the eyes of nerd culture, it became obvious that he could make a long and successful career out of playing against convention. And somehow he manages to sustain that prospect even here, in a film that audaciously asks us to believe characters played by Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer can not only dream up the same ideal love interest, but that each of them would be ok sharing him at a mansion just outside of town with little sense of jealousy or insecurity.