A great evil lurks in the fields of Gatlin, known only to a select few who have been ensnared by its mental claws. All those who do not accept it – mostly adults – are destined to become its famous first victims, as shown in an early sequence where the young narrator watches as rows of adolescents slaughter them at a local diner. Few beyond the town’s borders know of what transpired there, but a token mechanic living on the outskirts provides all the perfunctory warnings to those passing through. “Well, folks in Gatlin’s got a religion,” he tells a couple searching for a phone. “They don’t like outsiders.” And so the stage is set for the two oblivious leads to get lost on the road, wander into the abandoned town square and begin a bloody face-off with kids who otherwise would be carried off to youth detention centers in any normal reality. Piece all these elements together and you have the default premise for countless teenage splatter films; add in a few extra touches like excess violence with farm weapons, bad child actors mugging for screen time and a preacher who sounds like he is choking out his ponderous sermons, and what you have is the greater offense of “Children of the Corn.”
You can deduce a lot about a madman by the way he is perceived by others. The conventional anecdotes are the staple of many retellings of their crimes. They were loners. They didn’t talk to anyone. Some thought of them as socially awkward. They never stood out, always seeming to disappear among the faces in crowds. And then there are the sorts whose sins come as a total surprise to onlookers who otherwise thought highly of the culprits. “No one expected a sweet man like him to murder those boys,” a resident in Houston, Texas once said of Dean Corll. “I considered him a friend, and I’m stunned by this all,” another spoke of John Wayne Gacy, shortly after his house was ransacked and 29 bodies were pulled from the crawlspace beneath. The more lurid and disturbing maniacs cast a long shadow of doubt amongst their peers, who would never assume something so heinous behind a set of charismatic eyes. That also means their crime sprees tend to be long and drawn out, no doubt since they provide few (if any) warnings signs. Yet as I watched “Tenderness of the Wolves,” a dramatic reenactment of the many crimes of Fritz Haarmann, I was struck by the almost cheerful ambivalence of his friends, lovers and onlookers as he routinely got away with the vicious killings of teenage runaways. Consider a scene, for example, when the notorious “Werewolf of Hannover” drops a slab of meat on the counter of a lady’s establishment, and she expresses glee at his arrival. He apparently doubles as a butcher, in addition to being a police informant. Others, however, find the texture of his delivery odd and off-putting (no one questions where it comes from, of course). But the restraint of curiosity belongs to a single pitch: what purpose is there to suspect a man so charismatic of engaging in anything so heinous? This is a movie that theorizes people are more content to look the other way on what is obvious than to deal with it directly.
The insurmountable tension between the main characters of “Midsommar” would usually indicate the foreshadowing of some sort of dramatic showdown, but for Ari Aster, a filmmaker who prefers to quietly agonize over more unconventional horrors, it is simply a wound for the story to exploit much later, when the narrative pummels down on it like a merciless weapon. Up to that point, the leads dance around cordial exchanges as if attempting to subvert the topic of their mutual dislike, and brief arguments seem held back by a suspicion that it will all explode into something more elaborate. But those confrontations never come, usually because the faces are gradually picked off by something more volatile in the nearby shadows. Is Aster insinuating, perhaps, that not dealing with an issue like this early on is a gateway to tragedies beyond your control? Or is he of the belief that people’s individual personality conflicts are pointless when viewed in a broader sweep of cynicism? However you choose to approach the movie will do little to quell the macabre connotations of the outcome, which uses these behavioral details like roadblocks preventing eventual casualties from detecting more obvious fates. Theirs is less a story than it is a series of actions preceding inexplicable bloodshed.
Tradition is a social construct eroding in the sweep of modern values. This is one of the key observations made by Marxist E. J. Hobsbawm, who also suggests their prevalence in a series of more dangerous cultural identities, including the same nationalism that lead to Hitler’s Germany. One wonders how the writers of “Birds of Passage” would feel about this assessment – whether they would, quite possibly, concede that the behaviors of their characters seem like gateways to troubling histories, or if they, like their customs, are simply undermined (or destroyed) by more cynical paradigms. Evidence before them could support either theory. The scene: an indigenous tribe of Wayuu natives in the plains of Colombia is celebrating the coming-of-age of Zaida, the daughter of the family matriarch, and she has acquired the notice of Rapayet, a member of the neighboring family, who announces his intention to marry her. The snag in his desires is Ursula, Zaida’s mother, who insists on a steep dowry. Protective and dismissive, she believes he will never be able to pay it. But as days pass and Rapayet is seen caught up in a monetary agenda with foreign vacationers, her demands are met. Unfortunately, this does more than promise him the bride he seeks; it also sets the early stages in motion for what will become the gestation period of the Colombian drug trade, which found footing in the late 1960s and became the source of a cycle of violence that continues well into the 21st century.
John Carpenter’s “Christine” is a well-made attempt to bring sincerity to absurdity, without calling much attention to the disconnects of logic that would otherwise collapse the story. Imagine how frustrating that must have been for a man that was otherwise absorbed by more palpable realities. After “Halloween” established him as a filmmaker obsessed with the possible and “Escape from New York” moved him towards a more prophetic sense of storytelling, along came a ridiculous screen treatment involving a killer car and his nutjob owner who mow down the town’s teenage bullies. Who would have guessed – indeed, predicted – that any filmmaker might develop the self-awareness to know exactly where to take this story without tipping the audience off or sabotaging their interest? “It was just a paycheck when I took it on,” Carpenter once said in a book-length interview about his career. That was a payday well-earned, and now long after the horror movie market has been saturated by sub-par adaptations of most of Stephen King’s famous stories, his end result is widely seen as one of the more effective screen treatments of the era, however corny or preposterous it may remain on paper.
It takes a certain endurance to thrive among the X-Men, especially in the movies. Reflect for a moment on how frequently this team of misfits changes lineup: one minute a certain character is front and center, joining the ranks of Xavier’s mutants as their power comes to fruition, and then the next they are cast as a backdrop when someone more exciting (or dangerous) comes strolling through the doors, like new car models or better generations of cellphones. Only the more showy or idiosyncratic personalities ever make it past this curse of a momentary observation, and as with the source material the film adaptations have often leaned towards the same series of faces to revolve around: Wolverine (who even starred in his own trilogy of movies), Magneto (the most consistent villain), and Mystique (who has the benefit of, well, always being able to change her appearance). Now the filmmakers can add poor Jean Grey to that list of primary identities, if for no other reason than because of what her history will dictate: that she will go beyond being a normal telepath and see her mutant abilities ascend into the realms of gods and monsters. The newest chapter of this series, “Dark Phoenix,” has the distinction of casting her in that role before she is emotionally developed, which adds another challenge: how do you control yourself in a situation where everyone in the room has either lied to you or knows you must be destroyed to preserve humanity?
No other high-profile actor from the Hollywood golden age was more earnest in personifying the agony of character than the great Marlon Brando. Across four decades of challenging performances that involved smooth-talking creeps (“A Streetcar Named Desire”), crime world kingpins (“The Godfather”), exiled military generals (“Apocalypse Now”) and a mournful dock worker (“On the Waterfront”), it was his harrowing turn as a pseudo-predatory widow in “Last Tango in Paris” that ricocheted with the most realism. Something within what was otherwise accepted as perfunctory dialogue and staple behaviors slipped past the notion of simple observation and echoed deeply and sincerely, particular in a cluster of scenes where the camera observes his mourning process. “I’ll never understand the truth about you,” he tells the figure of his deceased wife before collapsing in a heap of raw emotion over her corpse. There is the moment where the entirety of his career can be absorbed in miniature, in a scene where all the conviction of his method is unleashed in a heartbreaking explosion of grief and confusion. How did he find the ability, or the strength, to transcend the notion of embodiment and become the very source of torment he was portraying? Where most actors simply repeat the words and actions to the service of a story, Brando became one with an identity.
Over a period of four years in the middle of his lauded creative boom, Woody Allen assembled the pieces of what would become “Zelig,” a faux biography about a man from the early 20th century who could physically change his appearance just by being in the company of others with similar attributes. At the time, the ambitious artifice was merely regarded as a self-contained display of his comic ability, a closed world of the sorts of wisdom and quirk than often ran unrestrained in his more mainstream endeavors. Looking back on it now, however, one uncovers a deeper meaning, particularly when we use the full hindsight of his career as the framework. Like the enigmatic Leonard Zelig, Allen harbored deep questions about his own value that were frequently sidelined in an attempt to “fit in” with the world’s perceptions, and making movies – much like changing identities – became an outlet to work through the impulses and behaviors. If the sum of his career can be seen as a series of destinations on a road to that discovery, then his strange, off-the-cuff “mockumentary” provides the most unlikely roadmap.
Early on in “Under the Silver Lake,” Andrew Garfield offers the first of what turns out to be countless stares of confusion, as he gets caught up in a mystery that lacks all obvious conclusions. It turns out his gaze will reflect the inevitable response of the audience observing him. That is not to say they will share the same intrigue or dedication to the cause, mind you, but instead will discover themselves trapped in an agonizing web of deceit that tests the very patience of their commitment. For what, you may be curious? Consider this scenario. Garfield plays a Los Angeles 20-something, wandering from one sensory experience to the next, who befriends a beautiful blonde woman living nearby. Then she mysteriously disappears – along with all her belongings – the morning after they share some innocent flirtation. Possessed by a suspicion that she vanished as a result of foul play, his journey to find her takes him into a maze of controversies, conspiracies, false leads, lurid fantasy, violence, death, long-winded monologues, inconclusive solutions, absurd puzzles, hidden messages, and virtually every possible detective device every utilized in a movie. That it is all made with a remarkably sense of craftsmanship only adds to the offense; this is an endeavor so overwrought, so obsessed with tossing the proverbial rug of chance out the window, that it never deserves the aesthetic of the man orchestrating it.
It is impossible to write anything disparaging enough about “Movie 43” to disrupt the notoriety underlying it. Here is a film – if you can call it one – that stands against its criticisms with an almost agonizing immunity, like a virus adapting to severe shifts in temperature or climate. And while countless writers and film enthusiasts have slung ambitious piles of mud without qualm for well over six years, with some still calling it the worst major release of the 21st century, the general public continues to give it the sort of life generally reserved for the more obvious failures like “The Room” or “Troll 2,” which endure as cult hits in late-night revivals. Yet to hear a basic description or run-through of the premise does not suggest just how ambitiously the material goes off the rails. It essentially plays like a series of amateur pranks you would find in a YouTube playlist. To observe them in a full-fledged composition, however, is to sense a marvelous lapse in judgment on part of Hollywood agents, who have set their bosses – actors and filmmakers alike – adrift in an artistic whirlpool. So awful is the experience, so utterly perplexing and tone-deaf is the payoff, that you have no choice but to watch on with curious eyes while your jaw falls depressingly to the floor. By the end you can’t entirely be sure whether you have watched a film or participated in a eulogy for the careers of its participants.
For well over three-fourths of its tenure, Jordan Peele’s “Us” moves to a rhythm that casts doubt on the momentum of its characters. Questions emerge through a rolodex of possible outcomes for nearly every intricate twist: are these people living in the hell that they have been ensnared by, or is it all part of a psychotic state forced upon them by something too baffling to deal with directly? Answers eventually become critical, as they must, but not before the very nature of individuals is tested in what seems like rip in the continuum; they move through a nightmare that tests them beyond the rules of their existence, as if their very existence has been an elaborate façade cloaking a collapsed reality. There’s a great deal of possibility in that prospect, especially for Peele, whose own “Get Out” also visualized a subterranean dimension while underlining powerful social commentary. But here the fun ends just as abruptly as it begins, in a final explanation so painfully broad that it inspires confusion more than closure. There is no question in anyone’s mind that Peele is slowly emerging as one of the most exciting provocateurs of modern horror films, but is a picture like this not more rewarding when the riddle doesn’t inspire our collective scorn?
“The Head Hunter” is a creature feature in which the most fearsome beast is man himself, set adrift in a moral wasteland, where civilized behaviors are seized by carnal urges running wild in a horrific wilderness. The first scene establishes his routine while simultaneously pointing to the undercurrent of his vengeful demeanor; as he wanders past the frame to slaughter an unseen villain (we only hear the impact of the sword and the cry of a creature), a small voice calls him back towards his prior location. It is his young daughter, concealed in a tent, needing to know her protector is nearby. They exchange smiles and she returns to sleep, but the morose voiceover indicates this is a memory from the past; one of the beasts has apparently killed her, and now his life has become a long hunt for the animal responsible for her demise. In the meantime, the main wall of his cabin becomes a monument to all the heads he has collected – some frightening, others bizarre, few of them based in any tangible reality. The first reaction is one of befuddlement: what possible villain could be more dangerous, especially when his domicile already looks like a scrapbook of the most diabolical movie monsters you have never seen?
Some movies announce themselves in celebratory spectacles. Gaspar Noé’s “Climax” lands in a howl of agony. Born from within a creative engine that relishes the pain it inflicts, here is the culmination of the director’s most masochistic instincts: a laboratory of excess that unknowingly becomes a living hell for all the unfortunate characters populating it. How strangely challenging it must have been for him to look at this material and find the desire to exceed his own trajectory. After “Irreversible,” containing the most painful rape sequence ever made, and “Enter the Void,” a visceral exercise that sickened (literally) many members of his audience, the chutzpah underlining his strange career seemed poised to linger in the corners, unable to escape into something more daring. But now he has orchestrated a work of genius that upstages all the unsettling rhythms that came before, essentially because he has now married the lurid tendencies of his style with an arc that is profoundly engrossing. These are people whom we share little common interests, yet who transition from one extreme to the next as if holding us hostage through a rapid descent.
Well before the nomadic lead character in “Transit” lodges a place in our understanding, the movie observes him in a grind more akin to that of a noir protagonist: always in the wrong place at the wrong time. This trend is established in the first scene, during a dialogue exchange in which he is persuaded to deliver letters to an enigmatic source for a monetary reward. The situation: a provocative writer is in hiding as the German occupation nears Paris, and it would make more sense for a stranger to show up at his hotel carrying parcels than a known rebel who might attract the wrong attention. The letters, we learn, consist of information that would allow him to leave France (one indicates he has a wife beckoning him to meet her in Marseilles). On arrival at his room, however, he discovers the writer has committed suicide in the bathtub, leaving behind an unfinished manuscript (among other things) that he is compelled to take. And so he returns to the streets, now aimless as the Germans move in towards frightened immigrants, with no established identity to defend him… other than that of his deceased source, whose passport he has chosen to safeguard. After stowing away on a train with a wounded friend and narrowly escaping inspection, he arrives at the port and is mistaken for the deceased scribe, leading to a moral quandary: can his conscience allow him to play along in order to escape the fascists? Or will the arrival of a strange beautiful woman complicate the matter further, especially when he discovers that she is the wife of the man he is impersonating?
Some horror movies are content to let the terror sneak up on you. Others may show the characters wander into it almost blindly, usually compelled by the dramatic currents of grief or curiosity. A rare few will jump head-first into the danger, because without fully understanding motives or behaviors first, we can resent a film for not providing adequate breathing time to lodge anything into a plausible context. “The Hole in the Ground” shows a new director audaciously planting himself in the third distinction, where he sets himself up for a plethora of narrative dilemmas by, basically, skipping over the development of his would-be victims. The key moment: a mother and her son are driving in the wilderness and nearly run down an old woman standing aimlessly in the road, her withered face concealed behind a dark robe. Briefly, after being checked on by the concerned driver, she turns towards the vehicle and catches a glimpse of the boy. The soundtrack emphasizes the impulse, indicating something ominous. What does it indicate? How will it affect the ones who nearly ran her down? These are questions that ought to be reserved for a time after reaching comfort with the important players, who are clearly likable but seem displaced by a melancholy that never has a chance to formulate. In the age of genre pictures that often make their points in overlong passages, here is one that trims off too much and shoehorns it into a space too brief to allow for an adequate understanding.