LEFT BANK: A Horror Allegory on the Eternal Return of Existence

Linkeroever (English title: Left Bank). 2008. Directed by Pieter van Hees. Screenplay by van Hees, Christophe Dirickx, & Dimitri Karakatsanis.
Starring Eline Kuppens, Matthias Schoenaerts, Sien Eggers, Marilou Mermans, Frank Vercruyssen, Robbie Cleiren, Ruth Becquart, Tinneke Boonen, Tom Dewispelaere, & Bert Haelvoet.
Caviar Films/Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds.
Rated R. 102 minutes.

posterThe following discussion will be filled with MAJOR SPOILERS
Trust me when I tell you: you’ve never seen a movie like Pieter van Hees’ Left Bank.
Okay, maybe you have. Who knows. But not many horror movies start out with an unknown happy ending just waiting to be discovered at the end of the terror-filled rainbow.
Van Hees aims for lofty goals. The screenplay touches on everything from the ancient concept of Ouroboros to Greek mythology, to bringing Samhain into the mix. Best of all, the plot hides what juicy story lies at its centre. When you think you’re watching one thing, the finale – and what you go back to think about afterwards – switches up the thought process to encompass something altogether different.
The first time you watch Left Bank it’s a mystery. Then, if you dig it, you watch again. True meaning shows itself. Slowly there are themes of reincarnation, the rebirth of existence and nature in a cyclical process. You find all the tiny moments, the bits of dialogue, which point towards more than your average horror. And after watching a few times, the dark beating heart of the film suddenly blossoms to reveal a shockingly positive tale.
screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-6-33-25-pmHees consistently goes back to images of nature. Specifically, the first few are all instances of nature in its primordial stages – a messy, muddy shore by the water near the Left Bank apartments, fledgling grass amongst a cold, dry landscape. Then the imagery changes to show us a tree, although it’s wilted. However, you have to recognise the way it’s changing behind everything; or better yet, why. After the first time Marie (Eline Kuppens) and Bobby (Matthias Schoenaerts) make love, she later finds dirt in her underwear. A gross, odd image, indeed. There’s more to that. It’s after this event we see the nature begin changing. The restoration of the nature in Left Bank runs parallel to Marie and her body horror-like experience. Soon after an injury, a swollen knee is a manifestation of her body building up all the negativity surrounding her life, and the trees become more prominent now, green grass nearby. During the final scene we watch as a mouse – a symbol of fertility – crawls out of the busted knee, right before Marie goes for an eerie trip through the Diabolic Vagina, as it’s called in the film. Essentially, she goes into the birth canal this dragon cult Bobby’s involved in have created.
These ideas are best exemplified when we take a look at the first and last shots, as well as the progression between them. First is that muddy shoreline; awhile later there are glimpses of the Left Bank tenements where no plant life is thriving, nothing green. By the time we’ve reached the last shot, after the climactic and revelatory finale, nature is all but exploding out in front of the apartment complex. We finish on a gorgeous shot of flowers starting to bloom, vibrant green grass, sitting right out front of the ugly building. The beginning is a sombre opener. And even though by the end we’ve journeyed through a chamber of horrors, the resolution is positive, happy; a literal reincarnation ends us not on that muddy shore, but on a lush field of green with flowers of spring fresh for a new beginning.
screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-6-35-22-pmscreen-shot-2016-09-29-at-6-37-05-pmPeople have knocked this online for not being coherent enough. I argue that you have to dig into the plot and the imagery in order to find the answers. So, naturally, this isn’t what the majority of horror viewers out there are probably seeking out. Not shitting on anybody. It’s fine if you’d rather something more concrete. But don’t take a movie down simply because it isn’t your bag. Left Bank is impressive in scope, as Hees takes on the idea of reincarnation through a twisting, turning, labyrinthine horror rife with mystery.
His best clue is the necklace Bobby wears: the dragon eating its tail, perpetually rebirthing itself, over and over and over. This is the symbol of Ouroboros – in Greek this is “oura” (tail) and “boros” (eating). Ultimately, this symbolises the ‘eternal return’ that posits existence has been recurring and will continue to do so in a self-similar form an infinite amount of times across infinite time and space.
screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-6-39-08-pmAn example from the film? In the end, Marie is reborn as a child through the Diabolic Vagina. When she comes out, she is a baby in the arms of Hella (Ruth Becquart) – the woman who disappeared at the start, Dirk’s partner. In fact, her parents now seem to be Hella and her coach Gilbert (Frank Vercruyssen). Why, exactly? Earlier, and a few times, Bobby tells Marie he wants to fix her life, to make her happy, and even talks about how she’s never truly happen when she runs. This links back to Gilbert telling her not to be so hard on herself for not winning races, that “winning isnt everything,” and he’s more positive than her mother has ever been. Gilbert is a father figure to her, and Hella was hoping to get pregnant (while Dirk wasn’t prepared for children). After her reincarnation, life has been fixed, and Marie’s existence renews, beginning once more. Just like the dragon eats itself constantly, life through the Diabolic Vagina allows human beings the same gift.
One thing I kept thinking about is the mouse in Marie’s knee. This is a purge of all the negativity. In line with the idea of Ouroboros, Carl Jung said that this concept is the idea that one “slays himself” and “brings himself to life” through this view of existence. So while Marie must enter the pit, basically drowning (as others turned up dead having supposedly drowned over the years in that same pit), she simultaneously is bringing herself to life, just a new one yet in the same ever flowing process of existence. A head trip, but a good trip.
Also note that Bobby, in those last moments around the pit, is dressed – in terrifying fashion – like a kind of dragon.
screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-6-39-45-pmscreen-shot-2016-09-29-at-6-41-05-pmNot everyone will agree with what I think about Left Bank. To me, these theories make the film a unique one amongst the horror genre. It is mysterious, exciting, and grim. Somewhere along the line it crosses over from being horrific into something beautiful. If you understand the concepts behind the cult at the centre of the story, if you pay attention to the finale, you can’t ignore that.
There is a ton of amazing horror imagery. Just the pit itself, the basement, is a production design dream! Plus, van Hees does well with his co-writers to craft an interesting, cryptic, and tough though rewarding thriller. Those who don’t like to think may as well turn around and never bother watching this Belgian flick.
I give this a 5 star rating because I genuinely feel it’s perfect. If you don’t like what it’s saying, fine, or if you think it doesn’t execute the aims appropriately – that’s fine, too. Although I urge you, big time – read what I’ve said. Watch Left Bank. Write down some notes if you have to, I don’t care. But come back for a real discussion once you’ve dissected this one a bit. There’s way more beneath the surface than anyone else leads you to believe. And I’ve only touched on the tip of the iceberg.


Creature Feature-Crime Mix & Match: Larry Cohen’s Q THE WINGED SERPENT

Q The Winged Serpent. 1982. Directed & Written by Larry Cohen.
Starring Michael Moriarty, Candy Clark, David Carradine, Richard Roundtree, James Dixon, Malachy McCourt, & Mary Louise Weller. Arkoff International/Larco Productions.
Rated R. 92 minutes.

posterThey don’t make directors like Larry Cohen anymore. From It’s AliveGold Told Me To, all the way to The Ambulance and his awesome “Pick Me Up” episode from Masters of Horror, his career’s been full of interesting surprises. His mark on the horror genre is indelible. People can remake his movies if they want. No matter how hard anybody tries, the Cohenesque qualities of his work won’t ever turn up like they do in the originals.
Q The Winged Serpent is a movie I’d heard about long, long ago. I was never too intent on seeing it, noticing the cover many times at the old video store in my neighbourhood and passing it off as something cheesy and foolish. There are absolutely a couple schlocky moments, most involving the creature itself. But what Cohen lacks in budget, he makes up for in writing, character, dialogue, and overall execution. Some of my favourite horror is the kind that dips in and out of other genres on its way. Cohen expertly writes such a plot in Q, using a pulpy noir-ish plotline to masquerade in front of the titular dragon-like monster, creating an impressive mix of crime and horror. All wrapped in a blanket of strange mystery.
pic3I have to say, this is one of my favourite of Cohen’s scripts. Generally he’s an interesting writer because of the different ways he opts to take his plots, as opposed to the typical Hollywood formula people love to complain about. Sometimes he had to suffer a smaller budget than he may have wanted, that’s why he’s always been a more independent spirit in horror filmmaking. But I’d rather take something that looks a little aged if we’re going to get an interesting story with rich characters, rather than amazing effects for a pile of shit warmed over. Cohen uses the characters so well in Q. First off, David Carradine and Richard Roundtree have great chemistry together as Shepard and Powell respectively. I always love Carradine. He gets to do good work, but it’s Michael Moriarty I’m especially focused on. As are most who see and enjoy the film. He’s natural, quirky, like he actually IS Jimmy Quinn. What I’d call a casual performance. Not in any bad way, he makes the acting look easy, the way it ought to look. Quinn’s not your average criminal: doesn’t like to go inside places for robbery jobs, plays piano and sings, never carries a gun. Moriarty makes this into a genuinely fun role, his charm always near. The plot’s a big part of this due to how Cohen puts Jimmy Quinn right in the centre of everything, halving the plot between a noir-type story of a lucky (yet strikingly unlucky) criminal who takes advantage of a wild situation, and the other half a monster movie.
pic1Shepard: “Sounded okay to me
Quinn: “Yeah, what the fuck do you know?”
Shepard: “Yeah, what do I know?”

Everything about Cohen’s writing is thrilling in Q. The way ole Quetzalcoatl emerges to the city, disproving those who believed it a myth, is awesome fun. In the beginning there’s a scene I love when the flying serpent snatches up a sunbathing, naked woman, and it rains blood down on the streets. Random pedestrians walking the streets get hit by errant drops of blood. Later, gory bits of limbs, feet bitten off, land amongst the busy hordes of Manhattan citizens, unsuspecting of a dragon above eating others; the panic slowly erupts after people notice a foot suddenly.
There’s something hilariously genius about Cohen placing the nest in the Chrysler Building. I don’t know why it’s funny, it just is, okay?
The screenplay makes the unrealistic real. During the serpent’s journey soaring above Manhattan, eating people, Moriarty, Carradine, Roundtree and the rest make the characters interesting enough that everything happening around them has an incidental quality of feeling real, too. Honestly, Cohen’s abilities as a writer are hugely undervalued. When you look at this screenplay there’s a well balanced mix of the crime, where his characters develop, and the horror, where that nasty monster Q gets to lunch on human sacrifices. Best of all? The parallels between Quinn’s human sacrifice in order to save himself and that of the Aztecs to please their god Quetzalcoatl. Never thought of it much before, but this latest time watching I couldn’t help thinking of how needless both are, yet there’s this weird dichotomy of modern and ancient instances of sacrifice. Another neat aspect to the writing.
pic1When you think about a few of the Q scenes, actually seeing the dragon being less than stellar during those moments, also remind yourself Cohen made this for barely over $1-million. More than that he came up with the script in less than a week, completing pre-production in that span of time; he’d been fired from another production and didn’t want to waste the hotel room he’d paid for already. That’s the ingenuity of a guy like Cohen. His filmmaking sensibilities were such that he took any opportunity possible to create one of his artistic visions. Not just that, I can guarantee part of what Cohen wanted to do was also recreate some of the movies he saw as a child, the movies which influenced him and his unique style.
Q The Winged Serpent is a fantastic independent film that exceeds expectations. In one smooth package Cohen fits a few excellent characters, including their exciting subplots, a throwback to creature features from the early days of cinema, and a dose of ancient terror with the blood to boot. I can never get enough of this one. Although it’s absolutely a nice treat for the Halloween season. Maybe a double feature – Q and Wolfen, two atypical monster movies with a brain. Regardless of how you watch it, just make sure you do. Cohen deserves more of our praise, as genre fans. He is a king.

There Are No Answers for Evil in HOME MOVIE

Home Movie. 2008. Directed & Written by Christopher Denham.
Starring Adrian Pasdar, Cady McClain, Amber Joy Williams, Austin Williams, Lucian Maisel, & River O’Neal.
Rated R. 80 minutes.

posterThe theme of evil is a prevalent one in the horror genre. Whether through a lens of science or organised religion, there are many films that tackle the nature of evil; from where it originates, what makes a person evil and drives them to do evil to others. It’s hard to ever know, but horror movies do their best to give us all the scenarios for our sick enjoyment.
Christopher Denham gives us Home Movie – a suspenseful, eerie addition to the found footage sub-genre. Using the story of two parents – David and Clare Poe (Adrian Pasdar & Cady McClain) – who are having trouble with their young, strange children, Denham explores the idea of evil. The main plot has to do with the mother (works in psychology) and the father (a pastor) having opposite worldviews, so they’ve come to different conclusions on what is making their children act like two budding serial killers.
What makes it all so effective is attention to sticking with the found footage format, generally keeping close to making it feel like this footage was actually FOUND instead of edited together. Furthermore, Pasdar and McClain are a natural couple with positive chemistry for the roles, alongside Amber Joy Williams & Austin Williams as Jack and Emily who act beyond their years with an ability to creep you out that needs to be seen to be believed.
Trust me. If ever creepy kids were creepy as hell, Home Movie is the flick.
pic2Opening the film with dead animals being wrapped in plastic bags, put in a kid’s wagon, then quickly cutting to David flicking through the camera starting to film some nice family moments is a masterful juxtaposition. This sets the film’s tone fast. A disgusting moment juxtaposed against the innocuous, typical dad-like activity is like a thesis: we are about to witness a (semi)normal family descend into macabre madness.
There’s a lot of dragon imagery throughout the story. We see the dragon puppet the kids have, and then dad tells his children a story called “The Dragon and The Paper Bag” that concerns a dragon who disguises himself to fit in amongst boys and girls only to eat them up in a dastardly plan. Notice it’s a two-headed dragon. So, quite swiftly Denham sets up a symbolic parallel between the two-headed beast and the two Poe kids. Just as the dragon walked and talked like a child but was only pretending, we eventually come to see how the Poe kids also pretend to be children while they’re so much more in the most sinister of ways.
Our first big indication of a serious problem, as well as the kids’ affront to their parents respective fields (a conscious effort on their part), is the crucified cat. On Christmas Day, no less. They don’t just kill a cat, they don’t simply nail him to a piece of wood: they crucify him. This is their initial dig at God. Worse still, it’s likely the kids who set into motion the mistaken assumption on their mother’s part that David is abusing them. He gets drunk on New Years and ends up laying in bed with his kids; they wake up with bites all over them, deep and hard. Earlier in the movie we hear Clare tell David to stop biting her. And so the kids – who are known to be watching the tapes – bite each other. They manipulate Clare into thinking that her field of science is the one able to provide an explanation: David, as it turns out, was abused as a boy, and so statistics show many abused kids grow up to abuse their own offspring. More and more, little Jack and Emily set their parents against one another, all in the name of completing their evil without being bothered too much.
pic3So many message boards for this movie have thrived on the idea that there’s actually a chance the kids were possessed. Not true, at all. Not in any way. The children aren’t possessed, nor can psychology and all the science of the world properly diagnose and explain their evil behaviour. Just like the most famous serial killers in history, these kids are psychopaths. They’ve gone from nailing down worms to beheading dogs, crucifying cats, to first harming another child to likely murdering their own parents. The whole point of the film is that evil has NO explanation. There’s no one solitary answer. Even the FBI with their checklist of factors which lead to someone becoming a serial killer readily admit there’s no right combination; each person, and consequently their personal brand of evil, is different.
What’s positively evident at all times is the creepiness. Pasdar’s charm as the family patriarch lulls us into a complacent feeling, like these are real people, as does the relationship between him and McClain. Set against the parents, Jack and Emily are terrifying, two near emotionless children, manipulative and worrisome at every turn. The family dynamic overall is so natural that once the horror gets going full force you’re swept away by each following event. Calling back to the dragon, the kids don paper bags when committing ghastly acts, such as preparing a friend from school to eat – they don’t get to do it, but close enough. Later when they have their parents tied up, they once more put on their paper bags. Again, their likeness to the dragon is brought to the front. We see the kids for who they are: monsters. They even wear Japanese-style masks, reminiscent of dragons, as they lay siege to their parents before the climactic moments. Love the imagery that repeats, getting stronger with each appearance, until the horror is unbearable.
pic3-1This is a great found footage horror. Near the end, the kids start setting up for “The Jack and Emily Show” and it’s as if Kevin McCallister and his younger sister teamed up as killers to make his wish of never seeing his family again come true; the found footage edition of Home Alone. Most of the sub-genre is adhered to, although a couple times a bit of choice editing works its way. I can forgive some of that because Denham really makes the whole thing look like we’re seeing home movies, some messed up and static-filled, bits merging together having been taped over time and time again.
Above anything else, Home Movie unnervingly looks into the nature of evil, positing that between science and religion there are no full explanations. Try though people might we will never find an exact definition or idea of evil. When it comes to the subject of killer children, or those kids who may go on to be serial killers at a later age, there’s often no way to clue everything up in a nice package for people to say “Oh this is evil” like a coordinate on a map. No. Just as the Poe children show us, there are no ways to understand evil, and certainly not in such young people. Evil is fluid, it comes in many forms and all too often inexplicably.