The latest edition of Twisted Parallels takes on imagery from Nicolas Winding Refn's THE NEON DEMON.
The Perfect Husband. 2014 (released 2016 in Canada & America). Directed by Lucas Pavetto. Screenplay by Pavetto & Massimo Vavassoria.
Starring Gabriella Wright, Bret Roberts, Carl Wharton, Tania Bambaci, Daniel Vivan, & Philippe Reinhardt. Artsploitation Films/DEA Film/Cobra Film/Nedioga Film.
Not Rated. 85 minutes.
So first of all, I want to thank the fine folks over at Artsploitation Films who sent me a physical Blu ray of The Perfect Husband, which was super nice.
I find it a little difficult when given copies of films to determine how to go about reviewing them. Part of me will always be honest, no matter what. However, when you get to know people from production companies, people in any given position, you sometimes might feel like being brutally honest isn’t the best route to go. Middle of the road, plain honesty is best for me personally. I can say I do like a film, or don’t like a film, while also seeing the other side of things. While I’ve even said certain movies are worthy of 5 stars, they can still have little faults, small flaws, without ruining that perfect movie experience for me. Because you’re no good as a critic, in any capacity, if you start curtailing your reviews (and opinions) simply due to a beneficial relationship. Nor are you any good if you can’t admit there are other subjective opinions; same goes for the artists, the production companies, right down to the directors and actors. As a published author, I’ve had to accept that not all people will like the stories I tell. Yet I want to know their opinions, positive or otherwise. There’s just a way to go about giving those opinions. And there’s the rub.
Even while I don’t think The Perfect Husband is anything amazing, I can see its decent qualities, the things director Lucas Pavetto did well in terms of directorial choices, as well as all the wonderful elements like the look and feel of certain scenes, and so on. I certainly don’t think it’s all bad. There’s a nice feeling of mystery before anything happens that sort of threw me off while first watching. I could tell and feel where things were headed, the trailer isn’t exactly hiding much. But still, the writing at least keeps bits of backstory and plot slightly at bay, instead of charging forward through a ton of expository dialogue. Underneath its blemishes, the movie has things to say. I’m not exactly sure some of what it said upfront is particularly how they should’ve made their statement, nor is the ending my cup of tea. Regardless, there are a few mad moments to indulge. When I thought I knew where it was all going there came a surprise or two. Not every one was so great. Just don’t be one of those people who writes a movie off after only watching part of it. Watch it all, you might just get a surprise, too. Or maybe, like me those surprises won’t exactly thrill you.
I can’t say that I’m thrilled by the acting. Not the entirety, but a good portion is trying. As in you’ll find yourself a bit tested by the actors abilities. The atmosphere of the film itself does more for the story than the actors are able to accomplish on their own. One plus is that both Gabriella Wright and Bret Roberts – as Viola and Nicola respectively – after a quite rocky start, come into their own. It’s not great, they could still have given much more to their characters and the emotions necessary to take us inside their headspace. I still think Roberts was the weakest of the two, by far. Although Wright is pretty decent by the time the plot gets moving a bit more and she finds her character in a terrifying predicament. Luckily, they’re both photogenic, and amongst all the wilderness backgrounds of Catania (which is in Sicily, Italy and has been the backdrop for other big work like The Godfather Part II & III, Antonioni’s L’Avventura among others) they make so many of the scenes look impeccable.
The writing saves a lot of the story for me, early on, because the screenplay doesn’t automatically dive in. We’re allowed to get to know the people themselves, the characters, before totally becoming involved in what their situation is, beneath the obvious tension and pain they’re going through at the start. Not every last scene or turn the script takes is on point. By the finale we’re given a lot of poor writing, a twist passed off as ingenious while it’s actually just boring and, really, a cop out.
Worst of all, there’s a portion of brutality that I felt would’ve been better left out and not brought into the mix. Reason being – without spoiling anything – there’s a needless plunge into exploitation during a later scene, one that feels terribly misogynistic in a film that wasn’t exactly trying to be that way. This story easily have succeeded by going for a straightforward horror-thriller, but instead devolves into a mess of cruelty. And because of the willingness to go this route there’s a rift in the writing that rushes things, never healing itself. The film then takes a fairly predictable path to its finish. I felt there was a lot of potential here, almost for a strange modern take on Red Riding Hood. The best parts of the story are betrayed by the bad moves made with that one disgusting scene of viciousness, totally unneeded and unnecessary to the plot.
A scene where Viola imagines herself in the forest, a bloody baby at her feet, is probably one of the more intense, eerie moments out of the whole thing. There’s a weird imagery contrast of this woman, a white dress flowing around her and a bit of blood here or there, and a bloody baby on the forest floor. This image is striking. It only lasts a couple moments then we’re hauled right back to Viola and Nicola. Apart from that, the biggest and best instances of blood/gore are very few. At the end of the nasty scene I can’t stand, we’re privy to an okay effect including an arm chopped off. So that’s something.
Overall, I can give this a 2 out of 5 stars. I did enjoy portions of the film. After the opening scenes, I found the initial 20 minutes or half an hour worth the time. While the acting didn’t exactly pull me in, the cinematography of Davide Manca and the score (from Giuseppe Caozzolo & Massimo Filippini) were engrossing. Something that continued pretty much all the way through. The sound design, even. Dug all that. All the same, I can’t particularly say that the rest of the production holds up to its enjoyable aesthetic qualities. I hope to see more efforts from director Lucas Pavetto, though. He has the ability to do some good things.
The Childhood of a Leader. 2016. Directed by Brady Corbet. Screenplay by Corbet & Mona Fastvold.
Starring Tom Sweet, Robert Pattinson, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin, Bérénice Bejo, Caroline Boulton, Sophie Lane Curtis, Rebecca Dayan, Luca Bercovici, Yolande Moreau, Scott Alexander Young, Michael Epp, Jeremy Wheeler, & Roderick Hill. FilmTeam/Bow and Arrow Entertainment/Bron Capital Partners.
Not Rated. 115 minutes.
For a long while now I’ve tracked the career of Brady Corbet. It was perhaps Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin where I first truly noticed Corbet and his talent for quality acting; one of those quiet, subdued sort of actors more interested in the internal workings of a character than any melodrama. He’s worked on countless films as a mere supporting actor, though his talent is absolutely worthy of being the lead. When Simon Killer came around I was extremely happy to see him holding that film up by its bootstraps.
I expected much of his sensibilities to crossover into his directorial career eventually. The Childhood of a Leader is one of the more ambitious debuts of any filmmaker in years. Not simply due to the scope of the story, but in the sense that this is a dark, at times morbid rumination on the nature of power, and how the quest towards it can often turn a person into a monster. On top of that it’s a period piece set around the drafting of the Treaty of Versailles around the end of World War I. So in no way is Corbet making anything easily digestible for the viewer. At the same time, this isn’t a pretentious, contrived bit of cinema either. Corbet shows us what’s underneath the actor’s skin. It is the blood and bones of an artist. The story of the film surrounds the Treaty of Versailles and other pieces of history, everything from Bolshevism to the lack of comprehension of what communism and socialism were in reality. However, the tale of the little dictator-to-be is first and foremost a story of family, of upbringing, of the way in which a boy is shaped by not just historical events during his formative years, but also by the day to day life he leads under the influence of domineering parents.
The score is absolutely fantastic, from the mind of Scott Walker (Pola X). Nothing emotes better for the suspense of a film like this better than a properly intense score. With the various pieces, each section of the film goes by with maximum tension. Even right off the top we’re drawn in quick by a frantic arrangement of strings that makes you feel like you’ve stepped into a Bernard Herrmann score. In the darker, quiet scenes everything is so mysterious, eerie. You really feel like this is a horror, despite any of its subject matter or themes. Corbet uses his directorial choices and the music to conjure up a genuine feeling of dread. In the last moments there’s this insane piece of music that spins you around with the camera, as if you’re directly in the midst of this history, in the centre of the crowd being thrashed about. So many of these scenes work well and they’re given such weight because of the combination of excellent imagery with the pounding brass, wailing strings, and so on.
Corbet absolutely has an eye for directing. His aide comes in the form of cinematographer Lol Crawley (45 Years, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom). Using what looks mostly to be natural lighting, Crawley evokes the time period in such vivid beauty. The dark corners of the low lit hallways, bedrooms, offices makes for a nice parallel to the darkness of the character development, as well as the story overall being embedded in the despair coming out of the First World War. Corbet’s directing makes the work of Crawley stand out, and vice versa. I hope to see both of these artists make more stuff that’s challenging, as this film is certainly. The techniques and eye of Crawley are wonderful to watch. Corbet allows us lots of enjoyment by weaving all those images into an altogether delightfully horrific piece of art.
Prescott: “I don‘t believe in praying anymore”
Best of all is the dissection of dictatorship, in a very vague sense. Not that it doesn’t accomplish anything directly. Rather that the vague qualities of the screenplay, its character development tracking the rise of Prescott’s (Tom Sweet) ego into something of megalomaniac proportions as time passes, doesn’t try to lay a ton of exposition on us. This is probably a sticking point for some viewers. They’ll want specifics. They want to see little Hittler, little Benito, someone like those figures. Yet that isn’t what Corbet and Mona Fastvold are trying to do in this film. Yes, at the end there’s a very definitive idea of who they wanted to use as a figurehead for the type of politics Prescott was picking up along the way to his transformation from young sociopath to tyranny; note the hair, the facial hair, the flags and symbols, these all clearly indicate the person in question (click here if you want to spoil yourself). But then you realise that even though that dictator is clearly who Corbet is aiming at, the timelines and the age of Prescott (and obviously his name) do not line up. So again, even with this seemingly definitive answer at the finish, the film is not pointing to a single man.
The basis of this story comes from one of the only short stories philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre ever wrote, right down to the exact same title. Bits and pieces come from that story, though many aspects of Prescott’s life are cobbled together from the childhoods of various mad leaders throughout history. What we’re mainly seeing is the birth of a hideous ego, the development of a scary narcissist whose track in life has all but been predetermined due to his proximity to politics for the better part of his life. While some deride the plot as not having much happen other than act as a view into the tortured childhood of a spoiled child, everything going on around Prescott is building him up into a lad poised for truly bad things. Coupled with the fact he’s a budding sociopath, a young child much too aware of his own blasphemy, the ugliness of his personality shows you a means to his tyrannical end. The most important moment comes when Prescott’s father (Liam Cunningham) finally shows his hypocrisy, being an ambassador working on a peace treaty in public while privately thrashing his own child. Prescott then learns that you can be whatever, whomever you want behind closed doors, as long as the appearances tell a different story; thus is the start of his eventual cult of personality, the case for most of the worst dictators ever to live. There are several poignant, formative moments serving to lead Prescott towards his fate. I think this event with his father makes for the one that has the most impact on Prescott, particularly in regards to his understanding of the boundaries between political and personal life.
Ada: “It‘s going to take time. But you‘ll arrive at where you‘re headed.”
Although there are a few flaws – no first time feature is perfect, even the greatest – The Childhood of a Leader is one of the best debut features from a director that I’ve seen in a long time, if not ever. The plot slowly unfolds beneath the story of the end of World War I, the period afterwards, all shaped through the lens of a supposedly peaceful time. Or at least a time where there was hope for peace. Meanwhile, underneath all that bubbled the rise of a dictator, of a true monster, as is the case in many places. Young Prescott represents the situation many of these horrifying leaders went through coming of age in a time where young people weren’t exactly free to play; they were burdened by coming to terms with both their changing childhood and lives, as well as the upheaval of everything around them politically and socially. Corbet manages to cover a lot of ground in just under two hours. Not only that he instils the picture with the sensibilities of a classic director. I can only hope he makes more of this innovative, ambitious cinema as a director and writer. He challenges the audience with this audacious first feature film. In a time where a lot of people are caught up in remakes, big film franchises, artists like Corbet are much welcomed in my world. I love a bit of fun, but film, words, images, these can help us dig into and understand subjects that elude us. Maybe there are no answers, though I can’t help feeling this sort of psychological approach to the typical films about war (and the human figures which get caught up in it) is something that can foster better discussion than other work that’s getting vomited out into the Hollywood system.
Schramm: Into the Mind of a Serial Killer. 1993. Directed by Jörg Buttgereit. Screenplay by Buttgereit & Franz Rodenkirchen.
Starring Florian Koerner von Gustorf, Monika M., Micha Brendel, Carolina Harnisch, Xaver Schwarzenberger, Gerd Horvath, & Michael Brynntrup. Barrel Entertainment/Jelinski & Buttgereit.
Not Rated. 65 minutes.
Really good or great serial killer films are few and far between. Because directors and writers often either don’t go deep enough, or sometimes they descend too far into the tortured psyche of a killer that their crimes and murders can end up sensationalised. There’s a truly fine line to making these types of movies. One of the more contemporary examples of which I’m a huge fan is David Fincher’s Zodiac; it tackles a true story, and it also makes a known case into interesting material for a dark crime-thriller. Then there are others which go for realism in examining a fictional killer, though sometimes they end up too far from anything poignant and fall into the sensational representation of violence.
Schramm is an odd case. All at once there’s an attention for the psychological mess inside the heads of serial killers, as well as the inclusion of bloody scenes to keep the interest of the most twisted horror hounds. While I’m not inclined to love this movie, though I do own it, there’s a certain quality that makes me find it a good serial killer character study. This can be extremely difficult to stomach. One specific scene is a truly hateful thing to watch, especially if you’re a guy and feel squeamish about anything genital-related. But outside of the controversy and its rough exterior, Schramm offers an effective look at the deranged life of a serial killer, the introverted pleasures of madness, and never once lets you forget what you’re watching.
There is a hideous amount of blood and gore that will please the most hardened genre fans and disgust the less able to cope with such brutality. One of the first (which is presented in non-linear fashion so it actually comes later in the plot’s timeline) is a brutish double murder. We start with a throat cutting – even worse, while the man tries to drink himself a nice little, tasty glass of Cognac – and then ends with a head getting whacked by a hammer. Right afterwards, we see Schramm taking pictures of the dead, posed in terrifying sexual positions for his delight; some by themselves, other photos of them together.
The single most savage scene is the infamous penis moment. If you’ve ever read about this movie in any capacity, you’ve probably heard about it. This is like watching something out of the Pain Olympics, as Lothar’s self-hatred and his disassociation with reality comes forward tenfold. His unique mix of personality disorders makes him susceptible to self-harm and extreme behaviour, plus it explains his ritualistic manner of killing and what he does with the bodies.
Perhaps more frightening, somehow, than all the bloody imagery are the flashbacks and the snippets of memory from which we begin to glean a sense of the killer himself. They are eerie. Particularly, one early cut to a flashback simply sees children running in the distance through a field, the unsettling atmosphere of an 8mm tape rolling, catching them in their natural habitat. This also leads into the fact Schramm wears a large, complicated brace on his right leg, so right away there’s the idea that something happened to him all those years ago, an event which not only shaped his physical life, but also likely did the same for his mental life, too. Within many scenes we hear heavy breathing. Furthermore, the director edits in shots of Schramm running, other feet running in a group, at times as if he’s dreaming of running again, or maybe they’re memories, who knows. There’s an ever increasing sense that Schramm has been traumatized by his apparent leg injury. He even wakes up, supposedly, to imagine his leg’s been cut off below the knee, savage and bleeding, only to discover it’s all a dream. Most of all what this does is plant us firmly in the perspective of the serial killer whom we are about to examine in full.
So much of the camera work is impressive for a production that’s mostly low budget and fairly simple. There are several key points I find wildly interesting. The first comes after Lothar picks up his friend, a prostitute, and they’re driving – out of nowhere appears this swirling shot that makes you feel as if the car is going around an off-ramp, only there is none to be seen and they’re in the middle of a road; the car spins several times as they chat, neither of them noticing, except us, the audience. This is a disorienting moment that again throws you into Lothar’s world where you feel just as estranged and disconnected to real life as him. Later, in his apartment Lothar works out and the camera sort of follows along with his movements, then soars up over him giving us a bird’s eye view down on the apartment. We constantly get the sense of inhabiting the world he knows, and this only makes things scarier.
Living with Schramm, in his headspace and seeing his actions from day to day, can be psychologically horrifying. And it is, undoubtedly. This film has gained comparisons to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and to a certain extent they are both quite alike. However, aside from Ottis, the main focus of that film was not sexual deviancy (even though the real Henry Lee Lucas was all manners of insane and although the character does commit horrible crimes against women), but instead honed in on the pure hideousness of Henry’s evil, the perpetual killer inside him unwilling to be tamed. Our main protagonist/antagonist, if you want to see it that way, Lothat Schramm is both a killer and a complete sexual deviant. The way we spend our time in the other film with Henry watching him commit one murder after another, we likewise spend our time during Schramm with this man, no matter if he’s having sex with a blow-up doll while listening to his neighbours fuck or if he’s doing incredibly masochistic things to his body. We experience all of it, and fall deeper, farther down the pit of his abyssal mind.
The blurring of reality and nightmare is one significant aspect to the psychological elements. A most evident sequence is when Schramm is with the dentist (or imagining it at least), and as the doctor begins removing teeth, he seems to notice something else: all of a sudden Lothar has his eyes pried open like A Clockwork Orange and the dentist begins slicing open his eye socket, a dental assistant comes in to help and removes his whole eyeball. Reality and the nightmare world in Schramm’s head often collide in the most awful ways, from techniques used by the director in shooting a scene to the way things ar edited from time to time.
The most disturbing break from reality? Schramm wakes up naked in bed to find a strange vagina-like creature between his legs, squirming, its lips opening to reveal a set of ugly teeth. Honestly, this one frightened me. Repulsed me, too.
It isn’t my favourite serial killer film. Schramm isn’t easily digested. There are intensely nasty sequences which will push the boundaries of even the most hardened veterans. Myself, I’ve seen 4,200 films and many of those horror, at least one third or more maybe. And still, I find myself squeamish during a couple of overly vulgar scenes. The best part about the whole thing is that this is a quiet, more subdued serial killer tale than most you’ll find. Not subdued in its blood or willingness to show the inner workings of a sick, rotting mind, but quiet in its process. There are no jump scares like other contemporary works of horror cinema. There isn’t a masked or unknown killer. Director Jörg Buttgereit forces us to spend just over an hour (thankfully a short runtime) with Lothar Schramm, until we’ve had our fill of depravity, running blood, murder. Until no more can you deny that evil is entirely human, not a supernatural element by which people feel themselves overtaken. In the end, you’ll need a cozy blanket and a warm beverage to start heating up the cold heart you’ll be left with awhile after
seeing experiencing Schramm.
A Late Thaw. 2015. Directed & Written by Kim Barr.
Starring Michelle Boback, Lucas Chartier-Dessert, Kathleen Fee, Helena Marie, & Ivan Peric.
Over at ChicArt Productions they’re consistently putting out interesting little short independent films. Some are great subversions of genre, others are merely great examples of the genres in which the films exist. In the past six months or more, I’ve received a lot of fun screeners from them. I’m only now just getting around to seeing each film and reviewing them. No matter how big or small a production, it’s always a major honour for me to be asked by filmmakers and their publicity teams to take a look at their work. Getting a screener is like Christmas for me!
But it’s even better when these shorts are actually solid pieces of cinema. Usually, I receive requests for horror movies, seeing as how my website is (for the most part) fairly horror-based. All the same, I find many genres wind up in my inbox.
Director-writer Kim Barr’s most recent short, A Late Thaw, is less a horror – though it contains the essence of creepiness most of the time – and more a drama-fantasy. Better yet it reminds me of contemporary Gothic Literature, honestly. You could almost say it’s one long hallucination with bits of reality peppered in. No matter how you define it – perhaps dark fantasy might work best – Barr executes an innovative little screenplay to make 14-minute film into something magical, otherworldly, and excruciatingly personal. More than that, this short examines grief, how people deal with it, when they do, and how that grief can reach out from a person’s past to either strangle or give way to their future.
The cinematography is beautiful, at times quite surreal. Very much dig the fantasy elements, as they’re woven around the story fairly well. When Tara (Helena Marie) walks through the house and the snow is falling, frost is on the doorknob, you feel in an entirely other reality. The snow-covered stairs, the hallway shrouded with foggy, blowing snow; each moment is like something out of a dream. And then soon comes the paranoia, which includes great little sound design thrown on top of everything else. The score sits perfectly beneath all the camerawork. It pulls the viewer in with an ambient sound, swelling, fading, and helps to put us in a nostalgic frame of mind while we continue to watch on, wondering what will come next: dreams, or reality. These elements come together to create a strange atmosphere; strange in a good way. Barr’s directorial choices work well alongside the cinematography to create a space that feels like one step in a different direction through this house will take you to a whole other world. Short films by nature only have a limited window to take you inside their universe. A Late Thaw immerses us into this story so easily, so quickly, that it’s a seamless transition. One minute you’re here, the next you find yourself walking through this dreamy, cloudy house, snow falling, the air thick. A remarkable aesthetic overall, which is something I’m big on. Although the story is excellent, it could’ve been only half decent an the technical work on this film would still make it highly enjoyable.
When it comes to the titular thaw, we find out Tara has been trying to move on from a previous tragedy. Only now, with the new house and all its happiness, her old grief is thawing and working its way up to, and out of, the surface. The film’s imagery with the snow and all the frostiness is so dark without needing horror. This personal drama about a woman is moving in that it explores very touchy, tragic memories. Certainly the snow and all that are partly representative of the old lover and their apparent death on a mountain, climbing somewhere; it’s as if that atmosphere has moved itself into her house, mentally and visually we see it literally. At the same time, the snow buries, it covers up and conceals. So the further things progress in the film, the more snow covered and cloudy things become, until even Tara finds her own face and eyes covered. In a way, the snow is also grief.
Further than that those memories are evoked with interesting images and writing. For instance, at first you’ll believe the wall climbing scene is something out of place. I did, and found myself questioning what exactly was the purpose – other than to look neat – to have this woman and her friend at a rockwall climbing spot. Then as the short moves by and gets closer to the end you begin understanding why Barr decided to include this moment, as it becomes totally relevant to Tara’s plot. Even better, there’s a terribly creepy scene which sees Tara sort of falling further and further into the hole of memory, calling back the climbing. This is one of my favourite moments, it is so unique that I felt the scene stick with me long after the film finished. Again, there’s no outright horror here, yet Barr lets the psychological terror seep through the drama at the center of this story to make everything edgy, uneasy, hard to predict. The imagery is so damn powerful, I had to go back and watch this a couple times after my first viewing.
Personally, this is one of my favourite short films I’ve ever seen. There are a handful or two of shorts that are just near perfect in my mind; this is one of those movies. Kim Barr is definitely talented, and it may be her work in other areas before coming into her own as director which helped shape some of her style. I’d dig a full-length feature from Barr because if this is any indication of her talent, any studio would be glad to have someone with the writing skills she possesses, along with the fact she has a knowledgeable grasp on her role as director. Keep an eye out – if you get the chance to see A Late Thaw, do it. You will not regret these 14 minutes. And maybe, like it did me, the film just might leave a mark, too.
Eraserhead. 1977. Directed & Written by David Lynch.
Starring Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph, Jeanne Bates, Judith Roberts, Laurel Near, V. Phipps-Wilson, Jack Fisk, Jean Lange, Thomas Coulson, John Monez, Darwin Joston, T. Max Graham, Hal Landon Jr., & Jennifer Chambers Lynch. American Film Institute/Libra Films.
Rated R. 89 minutes.
One of my consistently favourite filmmakers is David Lynch. The first of his films I’d ever seen was Lost Highway. Then I moved to Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart, and finally went for Eraserhead, his groundbreaking and eternally confusing feature-length debut. This started out as one of those old late ’70s midnight movies, not expected to draw out a huge crowd. Until it did. Today, it’s one of the most talked about debuts of any film director in the history of film, right up there with Citizen Kane. More than that, and especially due to the coy attitude of Lynch, it has remained one of the most inexplicable, hard to pinpoint films ever made. While part of its mystery can sometimes piss me off, mostly it is impressive. Because many artists, film or otherwise, are so eager to let the world know what their art means. In opposition, directors like Lynch, Michael Haneke, Bruno Dumont, they challenge what we see as regular art by often defying any sort of ready made explanation. Not that there aren’t explanations. Likely, someone has guessed the meaning of Eraserhead, only Lynch prefers never to confirm, nor deny, and likes to let his audience determine meaning on their own. But to sit down and try extracting some type of definitive meanings from this movie is futile. Sure, like any great artistic experience there can be parallels, allusions, metaphors, many instances of symbolism. Here, though, Lynch keeps things just weird enough as to elude the easy grasp of definition. And in the process, properly disgusts, disturbs, as well as horrifies us on a physical and existential level all at once.
Obviously there are major portions of the film influenced by Lynch, his own personal fear of becoming a father, which also has to do with his daughter having trouble with clubbed feet after she was born. It’s easy to read this angle of Eraserhead. But there’s more than simply the fear of fatherhood. In our main character Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is the overarching existential fear of life, the different phases, the various expectations which come along with it. Particularly when it comes to lower class living. Henry and his wife live in a veritable ghetto of industrialized America where the smokestacks rise up and spew their filth into the air, infecting both the atmosphere and the people surrounding it. So in a way, Lynch’s time in Philadelphia certainly plays a part in the story, and the bits of discernible plotline. The fear of giving birth to a mutant child is both a normal fear of fatherhood, as well as a fear of our external environments bleeding into the internal components of our life. As if all the fear and anxiety and horrible pollution of the outer world is expressed directly in Henry’s monster baby.
Above all, the fear of fatherhood is the fear of creating life. The fear of casting a new life you’ve made into the dark abyss of the modern world. All the terrors of becoming a parent by bringing life into a miserable world are on display; a dreary, filthy, industrially driven world that Lynch pushes forward both with the industrial city visuals, as well as the constant sound design of background sounds rattling and banging, the whistling of the radiator, a non-stop hum of white noise, the sounds of a partner’s teeth grinding in the night, an eye being rubbed as the socket bubbles around at the skin.
But the imagery concerning parenthood is downright frightening. First we see pups suckling at their mothers teets, the sound of them whining and sucking and trying hard to get at the milk is unnerving, as it’s right out in the open. Then there’s the baby itself, which is like an animal fetus and some sort of alien mixed together. Altogether a foreign object, as many children feel to parents after their birth; they feel unnatural, almost like a screeching little animal. Lynch personifies that sentiment here with a hideous, deformed creature.
And then later, one of the most significant fear of fatherhood images comes to us in the form of Henry’s head falling off, then erasers being mined from his brain. Whereas the pencil is the creator – a.k.a the penis, the organ which creates life – the brain is the eraser, in the sense that the brain is meant to be able to outwit the dick re: any big decisions, such as getting a woman pregnant, for instance. So, in effect, Henry’s eraserhead should have scrubbed clean the decision to have sex with Mary, clearly with reckless disregard, as it eventually led to the birth of a monster.
There are so many striking images in the film, it’s hard to pick one that is the most intriguing. The Man in the Planet by the window, pulling levers; a hideous, ugly god behind the scenes? Pulling levers in his sickly condition, running things below and putting people through the motions of their horrible lives in an industrial, almost toxic environment.
The man-made chickens – everything man made, including children, are bound to be fucked up in this Lynchian version of industrial Hell on Earth. So it’s no surprise there are some genetically modified, bloody chickens in here. As if to symbolize everything born is, at its core, a disgusting thing, from babies to chickens.
Finally, the image of the Lady in the Radiator onstage, singing, dancing, then stepping on the strange sperm-like creatures, maybe fetuses. This one is as striking as it is unsettling. My take is that this represents his inner mind, the voice speaking to him deep down. While she stomps on the strange fetuses, then sings “In Heaven everything is fine” this can be seen as the inner urge in Henry to kill his child; those dark, unmentionable feelings of wanting to shake a screaming child that’s disrupting life, making everything worse. As if in Heaven, the child will be fine. So stomp on it like those fetus things. And of course after dreaming of his head falling off and being mined for erasers, the Lady in the Radiator egging him on, Henry goes and kills the baby after removing its bandages. After Henry tries erasing his failed love life, but is effectively rejected, all his miserable failures are compounded by the laughing baby. He even sees himself as the hideous alien-like monster baby several times, once involving the woman across the hall with whom he imagined escaping the dreariness of his old life. So if he can’t figuratively erase that old life with Mary, the rest of his unhappy existence, he decides to be rid of the monster for good. That way, he also rids himself of the hideous part in him. But in doing so, Henry may just have killed the last remaining light in him, too, which is ultimately signified by the breakdown while he tries to kill it.
Yet after all is said and done, everything is fine for Henry, in Heaven, with the Radiator Lady. Because everything is fine, when you’re dead.
If there were maybe a few more concrete moments, Eraserhead would be flawless. While I love mystery and elusiveness, sometimes this movie gets frustrating, even as I love it to death, simply because there’s so much defying explanation. It is well filmed, acted with unsettling subtlety. The sound design and the mysterious of the imagery is all beyond compelling. A 4&1/2-star masterpiece of weirdness, that spans both a fantastical aspect, as well as a straight up examination of personal psychological horror. Do not think my explanation nor that of anyone else will get to the bottom of David Lynch’s debut masterpiece. Explanation, at least definitive and sure explanation, is basically futile. This experience is about taking away from it what you will, answering your own questions. Because Lynch only asks them, giving us the contents of his horrified mind in relation to the world around him through cryptic and usually eerie imagery. I’ve sat through this movie many a time and still can’t get a full grasp on it. Part of it makes me frustrated, yes. Most of it makes me happy to have a director and writer out there like Lynch, probing the dark heart of our cinematic minds one picture at a time.
The Descent. 2005. Directed & Written by Neil Marshall.
Starring Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone, Oliver Milburn, Molly Kayll, Craig Conway, and Leslie Simpson. Celador Films/Northmen Productions/Pathé.
Rated 18A. 99 minutes.
Personally I’ve enjoyed Neil Marshall from his debut, Dog Soldiers, and then he came on with this film and it all but cemented him as a solid horror filmmaker; hell, filmmaker in general. Since then he’s done two underrated movies – Doomsday and Centurion, neither of which are amazing, though, they are better than their reputations – a couple episodes of Black Sails, Game of Thrones, and one whopper of a Hannibal episode in the 3rd season “The Great Red Dragon“. He’s also got a segment titled “Bad Seed” in the upcoming Tales of Halloween I cannot wait to see!
What I enjoy about Marshall is that he’s not just a director with a neat way of looking at things, he’s also, what I think is, a pretty wonderful director in terms of form; he simply films things in an interesting way. There’s nothing boring about his films or the episodes of television series’ he has directed. The reason so many filmmakers, particularly in the horror genre I must say, fail to really get over with their work is because their style is either a) too bland in terms of story/character/et cetera, b) too flashy (with no substance), or c) it’s just not overly enjoyable to experience visually. With Marshall, and I’ll single The Descent out from his work as the best example, he doesn’t opt so much to jump scare you here in order to create that feeling of action, or horror (or whatever he happens to be going for at the moment). His visual style helps to keep you rooted and then everything else just builds on – the drama, the horror, the suspense and tension. In this film, there’s plenty of imagery, a good lot of horror, and the characters help make things fun (even in the grim sense). Marshall’s movie can easily be considered as one of my top 10 horror movies since 2000, I’ll say that without hesitation.
A trio of friends – Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Beth (Alex Reid), and Juno (Natalie Mendoza) go rafting on the river; their idea of vacationing. On the way home, Sarah sits in the passenger seat of a vehicle while her husband Paul (Oliver Milburn) drives, and their daughter Jessica (Molly Kayll) sits in the backseat. All of sudden, though, they meet head-on with another vehicle – Sarah survives, but Paul and Jessica are horribly killed.
One year later, Sarah, Beth, and Juno, along with a bunch of other adventure seeking women, go on an expedition to a cave system in the Appalachians, somewhere in the U.S. Deep in the woods they eventually find their cave, making their way in. However, after a little while things start to get dicey. First, their climb starts to go wrong little by little. But then soon enough it’s apparent to the women they aren’t alone in the caves.
Deep underground, stuck beneath the vast and reaching Appalachians, the group of friends find themselves in a fight for their lives against terrifying, human eating monsters, adapted to their environments below the earth. They’ll have to fight hard in order to make it out alive; if that’s even possible.
So for me, and no doubt many others, what makes The Descent so incredibly effective is the sense of isolation and claustrophobia almost built into the setting. Furthermore, once the women get trapped after a tunnel caves in, this gets even worse as – plot point – Juno (Mendoza) has taken them all into an unknown cave, not in the correct system they’d all planned on, and so essentially even without any outside forces these women might have never made it out of the caves regardless. I think that’s one of the most interesting parts about this film is that you could easily have seen this as simply a dramatic thriller about a bunch of women heading into the caves, including the dynamics between Sarah (Macdonald) and Juno, in terms of what happened to the former and her family and how it connects with the latter.
Instead of being simple and dark, Neil Marshall has written a fantastic screenplay. Whereas a movie like The Cave (which I honestly enjoy as a popcorn flick even though it isn’t great) is lower common denominator for horror, more like a Michael Bay equivalent in the genre, The Descent opts to be more cerebral, and in turn when the visuals and the horror get thick things become pretty visceral, too. The characters here are complex, they aren’t one-dimensional type women. Which is another point, that Marshall has given us a bunch of excellent female characters and the man character, dare I say the heroine, she’s an ass-kicker. I like that it’s not the typical formulaic horror including women, such as the male dominated film with a “Final Girl”. Even though, yes, Sarah can be considered that “Final Girl”, it’s not the overused scenario, the same tired place where we’ve expected the plot to develop. Marshall brings all these women together, each different, and doesn’t need any men in order to instigate the horror, or any of the action. The faceless/featureless crawlers in the cave only bring further terror. Even while that whole KILLER V. VICTIM dynamic is playing out, as it usually does in one shape or another throughout the horror genre, I like that these female characters can inhabit a filmic space where these featureless monsters are the attackers, not some slasher, a deranged male who hates women; rather they’re simply the horror beneath, the unknown below.
More than that, these creatures also represent a symbolic sort of theme. Clearly the buried secrets between Juno and Sarah, concerning the former’s relationship with the deceased Paul (Milburn), are being unearthed; it’s possible without their predicament, the descent into the cave and into madness, this might never have come out. So in a way, these crawlers down in the cave are the literal, material embodiment of the ideas surrounding those buried secrets. They say secrets can eat you alive, right? Well in The Descent, this sentiment comes alive, in a brutally literal sense with secrets making their way out of the realm of ideas and into reality.
There are a few wonderful bits of imagery in this film, both in terms of symbolic/dreamy images and straight up horror visuals.
Right after the opening sequence, where Sarah’s husband/daughter die, there’s the beginning of a dreamy moment which crops up over and over, though not to overkill. Sarah has these short visions of a birthday cake with her daughter’s name on it, the candles lit up – I love the way these shots come to us, brief, really dark with what looks like natural lighting, and it has this eerie quality to it. What I enjoy is that these dreamy bits don’t feel particularly happy, more like the morbid remembrance of a dead child instead of anything happy. So there’s this really melancholy feeling I find struck in the character of Sarah without even much effort from Macdonald as an actor, although she’s great in spite of that making the role better for it. This is a striking visual Marshall uses a few times throughout the film, and while I say it’s melancholy there’s still part of it which sort of drives Sarah at the same time. Great, great stuff.
When it comes to the horror of Marshall’s film, several scenes and moments stick out ahead of the pack. I love how Marshall includes the first very close-up view of a crawler through the perspective of a camera in night vision. Why do I love it? He doesn’t use the camera as a gimmick other than, really, two or three times in the entire movie. It comes into play organically, with purpose, instead of simply being a way for Marshall to creep us out without doing the legwork. In opposition, the choice uses of the night vision camera shots make things creepy, knocking us off balance and in the case of the first time it’s used the effect amps the film’s pace up to a roar. The next couple times, again it’s not forced into the plot and works well. If the night vision was being used more frequently, as is the case in many found footage efforts trying to capture The Blair Witch Project magic in a bottle, there’d be a case for saying it was gimmicky, that it served no purpose and got jammed in for lack of ideas. Instead, Marshall uses this technique to his advantage and creates tension with how the handheld camera captures the monsters in the dark and the creepy environment of the cave. Plus, this is a director who doesn’t need any kind of trickery, he does well enough with his own sensibilities in terms of shot composition and overall visuals without having to settle for cheap scares.
Once the crawlers are out in the open, being seen full-on by both characters and viewers alike, there are some almost trippy visuals happening. There’s one incredibly tense scene where two of the women are hiding together, a crawler moving along by them, and their watch eventually goes off – all the while Juno is wandering alone, calling out to the others – and there’s this green filter over the two women/crawler (not really a filter; they’re using a huge glow stick), then for a few seconds we cut to Juno whose shot is bathed in a red light. There’s something about this which raises the tension. Not only that, the angles at which Marshall has things framed specifically while the two women hide from the crawler, it’s an unsettling, unstable sort of feeling it draws out; literally, the frame is askew, we’re off-kilter, not balanced, and the crawler coming at them sort of feels like he’s coming right at the viewer.
Furthermore, I have to say the effects – blood and gore, the monsters, et cetera – were at times really subtle, and other times (think: pool of blood scene) totally gnarly and in-your-face. My favourite honestly is the scene where Sarah finds herself in the blood pool, fighting off the crawler and stabbing it in the eye. Not only is it just wildly savage and bloody, the low lighting and the blood casts everything again in that red glow, so you’ve got two types of imagery – very visual in the sense of colour and visual in the way of actual physical nastiness, the blood and kills.
Overall, though, it’s the way Marshall manages to use the darkness to his advantage and he doesn’t make it dizzying. While some horror, mostly found footage these days, has your head swirling with the darkness too often being used to cover up a project’s low budget (or lack thereof), unless used correctly, Marshall manages to make things claustrophobic but doesn’t annoy us with how he accomplishes this feeling. It’s because, even when shots are frantic and full of chaos, he’s not making it seem so by having the camera itself being shaky, only the characters, their lights in the dark create the effect. He keeps in tight to the characters, putting us with them and in their perspective as much as possible without, for instance, putting us right in their video camera’s view while they run from the crawlers. Again this comes back to Marshall using that video camera perspective sparsely, when a lesser director may have exploited it too much to try and immerse the viewer. The way this film plays out in the dark and uses it appropriately is a big part of its effectiveness as a tensely frightening modern horror movie.
With truck loads of horror, both blood/gore and emotional terror, an impressive visual style, a solid script with real and well-written female characters, Neil Marshall’s The Descent is pound for pound a 4.5 out of 5 star film. There’s very little to say, in my mind, against this movie. There are so many other horror movies out there in the post-2000 landscape of film which go for bargain basement plots, silly characters with even sillier and less thought out dialogue, cheap jump scares and pointless (as well as badly done) gore. Marshall doesn’t do anything typically here, he crafts a genuinely scary, emotionally testing and at various points traumatizing horror. There’s a feeling in me each time I watch this, for a little while afterwards, as if I’ve been through an ordeal. It’s one of the closest experiences I’ve personally had to the one I have when viewing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which is still my pick for scariest horror movie ever made, and pretty much my top favourite.
So if you’ve not yet seen The Descent, do yourself a favour and search it out soon because it’s worth your while to experience its dread and tension, its inescapable horror and wild plot. I also thought the sequel was an all right movie, though, it’s not near as amazing as this one.