Casey the Nietzschean Ghost

A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017)

Your response to this film will depend on whether you can buy its central conceit: when a husband dies in a car accident he haunts his wife in a white sheet. In the next house along there is another ghost, in a rather more fetching design. The cumulative effect is it is not certain how seriously you are meant to take the film — is it a comedy, a tragedy, a bitter sweet comedy, a comedy with tragic overtones? Much of the film is in silence, the husband staring, first at his wife, and then at the various later, or perhaps earlier, inhabitants of the house. The cynic is me suspects that they could only afford Casey Affleck for a couple of days, and a stand in plays the ghost, but apparently it is him.

One of the incomers, present at a party, has a speech longer than all the other dialogue put together. Oddly, when a Spanish-speaking family move in, they are not subtitled — perhaps the ghost does not understand them — but the dead neighbour is.

Lowery works within an almost square ratio, something like 4:3, the same as used in silent films, and this adds a sense of voyeurism to the proceedings. The Curzon’s policy of not closing curtains — maybe there are no curtains — to cover the blank screen draws attention to the empty space outside the restrained diegesis. The ghost is often at the edge of the frame, just in view, with the camera held on the tableaux for longer than we are used to and certainly more than is comfortable. I was reminded of the great southern American photographer, William Eggleston, with his focus on the determinedly mundane. It is ordinary, but there is a beauty in it.

Whilst in Manchester By the Sea delayed the final revelation of what the trauma and guilt at the heart of the film was, this is more circumspect. There is tension between the married couple, over whether they should move or not, the chain of tragic events is less laid out for us. Whilst that film denied us catharsis, this one is even more frustrating of audience desires. The pace is glacial at first, but slowly builds, never less than watchable even as it toys with us. The mourning wife, Rooney Mara, binge eats a chocolate pudding, in spoonful after spoonful after spoonful and I hope this was achieved in a single take for the sake of her waist line.

It is not clear whether it is told in linear time — in a sense it isn’t, as we have flashbacks — but the years that the house lies empty should be stretching out from more or less the present, even as a modern metropolis encroaches on the house. They have laptops. Mobile phones. And we also loop back to pioneers. The film’s epigraph is taken from a Virginia Woolf story, “A Haunted House”:

”Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure — a ghostly couple.”

and Woolf repeatedly plays with duration in her work.

On a couple of occasions the husband loses patience with his squatters and haunts them — exploding light bulbs, throwing books around. We see some of the titles: A Farewell to Arms, some Nietzsche. They mean something. Probably. You may lose patience. You may surrender to the film. You should probably cry.

Or, the Modern Frankenstein

Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012)

By design or accident, the Alien Tetralogy became interesting because each film had its own auteur or its own genre — Alien offered haunted house in space (and an uncanny double of the slasher), Aliens was a ‘Nam movie, Alien3 was a prison movie and Alien: Resurrection was. It simply was. So Ridley Scott decides he wants to go back and produce a new film in the Alien universe and make it a prequel — except for some reason it leaves the A-word off the title.

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Mirthless in Brooklyn

Vampire in Brooklyn (Wes Craven, 1995)

It’s a bad sign when, even a week or so after watching, you are unclear whether you are watching a horror film or a comedy.

There was a time when Eddie Murphy was box office gold — actually he’s waxed and waned several times — and this film comes at a point where he’s tied into doing films for Paramount (for example Beverley Hills Cop (Martin Brest, 1984) and sequels, Coming To America (John Landis, 1988), Harlem Nights (Eddie Murphy, 1988), Boomerang (Reginald Hudlin, 1992)), but wants a break from doing comedy. Craven, meanwhile, had long harboured desires to move on from horror.

It is a match made in…

Well, somewhere damp.

The opening seems promising enough with a ship adrift and heading into a Brooklyn harbour in the fog — a nod back to Dracula somewhere along the line. But Murphy in weird wig and thick accent as vampire Maximillian from somewhere in the Caribbean is insufficiently horrific or comedic, displaying the same kind of tension that Jim Carrey sometimes does when playing straight. Maximillian is in search of a woman to continue the species, in the form of NYPD cop Rita Veder (Angela Bassett). Maximillian, meanwhile, has to pass as a preacher and an Italian criminal, allowing him space for the comic business that has largely been displaced onto his hapless, petty criminal assistant and valet, Julius Jones (Kadeem Hardison). These are some of the longest scenes in the movie.

Let’s note the theme of the untrustworthy family — Veder’s mother, some kind of paranormal anthropologist, is dead, and it almost seems as if Maximillian is her father, or a father figure, which leads us to incest. There are a couple of dream sequences, as she wakes from a nightmare, and Maximillian turns a squalid apartment into a mansion.

Meanwhile, we have a strong female lead — albeit with the slightly lovelorn Detective Justice (Allen Payne) to help her out — and indeed an African American lead (compare Poindexter “Fool” Williams (Brandon Adams) in The People Under the Stairs (1991)). In fact, Italians aside, there are very few white actors in the film — Joanne Cassidy has a cameo as Captain Dewey, as does Jerry Hall as a woman mugged in the park in a moment that ought to have political bite, but… We should note Zakes Mokae from The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) as Dr Zeko, but have a creepy sense of the Haitian equivalent of Orientalism about both roles. Craven is trying.

But the film is trying — Murphy will go onto better things, and Craven was to put his tongue better in his cheek in the Scream franchise.

Old Red Eyes is Back

Red Eye (Wes Craven, 2005)

So the original plan was to watch a film that wasn’t work-related – Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011) – but that started skipping and so I went back to the Wes Craven pile I’ve been working through and should have written up but haven’t. Of course, this is a late entry in the oeuvre and I need to check out whether this or Cursed (2005) came out first. These were his penultimate non-Scream franchise movies.

I’m interested in these as works of an auteur and so the point is I suppose that this is thriller rather than horror, although it has hints of the home invasion horror that Craven began with in The Last House on the Left (1972). Craven was arguably the director who introduced the supernatural into the slasher, but he didn’t need it here or in many of his early films. Unusually, too, there is no playing around with reality and fantasy, although comic relief receptionist Cynthia (Jayma Mays) is wandering through a nightmare shift.

So we have Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams), a nervous flier on her way home to Miami from her grandmother’s funeral, making phone calls to an over protective dad, the great Brian marked-for-death Cox; you know it can’t end well. She strikes up a brief relationship with blue-eyed Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy) – indeed the film could have been called blue eyes – who turns out to be part of a plot to kill deputy Homeland Security guy Charles Keefe (Jack Scalia). She must move him into a suite where he can be assassinated or her father gets it. Most of the film is in the claustrophobic confines of the plane.

So, relatively common for Craven, we have a female lead – although at first you wonder whether she couldn’t fight back a little more. The decks seem stacked against her, but that’s the way the plot works. She comes good in the end, although (spoiler) she is denied the pay off.

There is a political subtext – the evils of the Homeland security – but oddly the film comes down on the side of them and the villains are mostly unseen and ill-defined off screen machinators. Should we see it as a critique of the TSA that the characters are so able to move on and off of aeroplanes, even on a domestic flight? The earlier Craven would have had a bit sharper teeth, but this is Amblin after all.

The families are less ambivalent than usual – the Keefe family seem adorable and whilst Lisa’s parents are split up, daddy seems nice if overprotective. Again, earlier films have critiqued the family, and in the avenging family there is a question of whether eye for eye justice is justified.

The climax, despite a largely unnecessary return to the hotel, is at the family home, mid remodelled, and somewhere along the line there is the sense of the uncanny as the familiar and he forgotten. The place of refuge and safety turns into a trap – Lisa moves from locking out into locking in. The police, obviously, can’t help as usual, and justice has to be personal. Her weapons are improvised – whilst villains have guns and knives, she has chairs and fire extinguishers and hockey sticks but an inexplicable failure to kick anyone in the balls. And, as I say, patriarchy reasserts itself.

I’m glad I’ve ticked this off the list, but it’s a by the numbers slick thriller with some nice touches.

Craven Images

I’ve been slowly working my way through Wes Craven’s oeuvre of films because I thought he would be a good example to teach with of a horror auteur. And whilst so far there have been a fair number of stinking moments, there are a lot of interesting signatures that I’ve been picking up. There was a moment where I pondered that with showing Wes Craven’s New Nightmare as my auteur exemplar and Last House on the Left as controversy film, I should add Vampire in Brooklyn as the vampire film and maybe The People Under the Stairs to explore what horror is.

But you can get too much Craven.

I have to be careful about the original Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream tetralogy, because I’m teaching slasher films on my Popular Genres and Popular Culture module and there’s potentially student overlap next year. But in going through the material on slasher as feminist genre, I pondered if something needed updating (and ironically, I was teaching this the same day as materials on the monstrous-feminine in the horror module).

I don’t really buy slasher as feminist. I think there’s too much pleasure to be taken in the sexualised sadism against the female characters. The Final Girl is subjected to an extended ordeal. On the other hand, I can see the appeal of a screen character being more than just a victim. In the monstrous-feminine class I showed the softporn opening sequence of the original Carrie, and again I’ve heard arguments about this film’s feminist potential. But when there’s a male director filming a male scriptwriter’s adaptation of a male author’s novel,  I’m not sure how the female perspective can get into it in any entirely convincing way. (Some of the students seem not to be able to acknowledge that the full frontal nudity of the young women in the sequence might be sexualising and objectifying — even as the centra lingers in sift focus and Carrie soaps her body… Or see that this is problematic.)

So somewhere I came across the idea where the slasher  was an index of male anxieties about the role of women. I suspect I read this – but you might want to see Halloween as a response to second wave feminism. I suspect we can then trace the subgenre through reactions to new men and new lads and the antifeminist backlash and Scream is somehow in a conversation with third wave feminism. I’ve yet to sit down and trace this in any detail. Given who the victims of the slasher are, the ostensible villain is acting as the avatar of surplus repression.

Meanwhile, I rewatched Cursed and watched My Soul to Take. The former I suspect is an attempt to do for the werewolf subgenre what Scream did for the slasher. Whilst it has its moments, it obeys the first rule of virtually all werewolf movies I’ve seen: the werewolf will be a dog’s breakfast. The latter film  is a cousin to the slasher — sixteen years before the main plot some guy killed his wife and his psychiatrist and a cop or two and tried to kill the people in the ambulance and may or may not have died himself. It’s a series of set pieces and they barely make sense. He might be barking (but not in a werewolf way); he might be possessed. In the present day, the seven kids born on the same day as he died hold a ritual to face the monster, and one of them dies. 

The teenager of colour, obviously.

Although there’s also visually impaired African American.

Indeed, the teens are killed off one by one, with the twist that it may well be cute little malcontent shy geek Bug who is responsible. Who you think wouldn’t kill a fly. Or it might be his best friend Alex, who is bullied by a stepfather in a one-off scene that might well have been added late on for all I know.

My initial reaction is that it’s largely mindless by the numbers pap, although it passes ninety minutes or so.

It’s perhaps a bit early to think about this film in terms of fourth wave feminism, but I suspect here we have an example of the geek male as hero and a way of tracing the shifting patterns of hegemonic masculinity. Intriguing though Max Thieriot’s performance is — and he has to ventriloquise other characters — I think we’ve already seen the geek hero in a purer form in Jessie Eisenberg in Cursed. And whilst I need to rewatch the film at some point to focus on what Emily Meade’s character is up to, Cursed reminds me of what an interesting actor Christina Ricci appears to be. At some point though, I will need to go and look (again) at the late slasher films to see what they get up to in terms of masculinity and the flatter your audience ploy of putting the geek centre stage. 

Although, of course, in the slasher the most interesting male character tends to be the slasher “him”self.

The Dead Woman in the Attic

45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)

One of the songs that Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) want to play at their forty-fifth anniversary party is “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”. And it seems likely to — it’s filmed in a perpetually semi-foggy Norfolk, Geoff (and latterly Kate) sneak out for cigarettes and that might be a tear or two.

Theirs seems a happy marriage. Kate is a retired teacher, we learn from a tell-don’t-show conversation with her postie, Geoff is a former factory worker, slowly falling apart, whose heart condition caused their fortieth anniversary celebration to be cancelled. They have few photos of themselves and no children — but several dogs.

Then comes the bombshell. Fifty years ago, Geoff had pretended to be married to Katya, a German woman two years older than him, on a holiday in the Swiss mountains. She had fallen into a crevasse and her body has only just been found.

Kate notes that it is ridiculous to be jealous of a woman who died before they met. But still.

Indeed. Still.

Kate clearly feels haunted by Geoff’s ex (and Kate/Katya are so close as names), as the house becomes increasingly creaking and full of drafts. How much of their lives together were dependent on her not being Katya? Did they not have children because of this? And have far has Geoff been thinking of her? The mementos are in the attic — how often has he been with them? How often has he been with her? Had they slept together? Was she pregnant?

Haigh lets the camera rest on the two of them, lingering, letting us soak up the atmosphere. One or other will slide out of shot or come into view, forcing us to read faces (and sometimes silences). It’s all about reading the reaction.

Part of you may well think that she should just get over herself — why should someone he knew before her make her jealous? But, still. Did she have no boyfriends before him? But, still.

Both actors come with histories — La Caduta degli dei (The Damned, Luchino Visconti, 1969)), Il portiere di notte (The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1974)) and Max mon amour (Nagisa Oshima, 1986) for her, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962), Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963) and Last Orders (Fred Schepisi, 2001) for him — and apparently he’s Corporal Jonesy in the Dad’s Army Film. I associate a certain iciness yet sexuality with her (a Nicole Kidman with talent) and a melancholia with him. The actors, bravely, give us a sex scene — which we are initially teased over by the director as the bedroom door closes — and a lot of film history has flowed under the bridge for it.

I was struck by a certain amount of Katherine Mansfield-ness about the narrative — which turns out to be based on a short story. Her epiphanies are never as earth changing as Joyce’s and always seem a little out of reach — an infinity glimpsed, a set of footsteps over your grave, something learned but immediately forgotten. What shall we do now? What shall we do?

Kate needs her exorcism — but there seems to have been a lie at the heart of their marriage that its forty-five years cannot erase. The trust is gone and yet they might be closer than ever. Her friend Lena (Geraldine James) has tried to reassure her, how it is with women and how it is with men, and there has been a life, they have had a life (with photographs) … But, still.

Haunting.

Incredulity Towards Metanightmares

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (Wes Craven, 1994)

Popular culture relies on repetition with difference and there is perhaps no subgenre that is quite so repetitive as the slasher — the crime in the past, the discrete/isolated setting, the gender ambiguous and curiously mobile villain and their double the gender ambiguous final girl, the increasing number of unmissed teen victims… none of whom go to the cinema to see slasher films. Craven, finally, is allowed to visit his idea of a Pomo slasher and puts Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund and John Saxon at the heart of a movie about making an Elm Street style film, with a real Krueger going after the cast and crew. Alongside actors playing themselves, we have Craven as Craven and Robert Shaye as Robert Shaye and no doubt best boys playing best boys. As far as one can see, Langenkamp is better as Langenkamp than as Nancy, and Englund plays affable character actor troubled by nightmares.

Yes, it is clever and we have some more spectacular deaths, as well as further cameos from actors we probably last saw in the franchise. John Saxon as father figure melds into Thompson’s father and the original footage of A Nightmare on Elm Street is folded into the film. There is a sense of biting that hand that feeds them — dangerous with those metal nails — and possibly those actors would have gone to greater things than most of them did without the Elm Street resume. 

To the extent that Pomo is radical rather than neoconservative it is fun and interesting and at least foregrounds the cynicism of film franchises, but now the final girl is the final mother, kicking slasher butt because she is the lioness protecting her cub. We’ve neatly been prepared for the denouement by the telling of Hansel and Gretel, and the script plays into the generic  imperative of the open ending.