VIFF 2019: The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, 2019)

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Oh! dream of joy! is this indeed
The light-house top I see?
Is this the hill? is this the kirk?

Is this mine own countree?

We drifted o’er the harbour-bar,
And I with sobs did pray—
O let me be awake, my God!
Or let me sleep alway.

Robert Eggers is a maker of myths. Not in the interconnected serialized myth-making of Disney’s corporate franchises, the Marvels and Star Warses and other princesses. Rather in that with The Lighthouse, as with his last film, The Witch (The VVitch if you’re nasty), he exploits cinema’s love for grotesque ambiguity in tapping into the oldest, weirdest currents of New England culture, digging into the primal fears that lurked underneath the Puritan world. Quite literally with The Witch, set as it was in the 17th century among a family of too fundamentalist for the Puritans farmers. The Lighthouse is set some two hundred years later, give or take, but the fears and repressions of New England culture are still deeply felt. With allusions to everything from Moby-Dick to Coleridge to the story of Prometheus, Eggers weaves an allegory of guilt and rebellion, of a man (Robert Pattinson) under the yoke of a tyrannical and loving God (Willem Dafoe) that he cannot hope to understand, and how that lack of understanding costs him his soul.

But just as importantly, The Lighthouse is a movie about a pair of our greatest actors trapped together for 110 minutes in a square, black and white frame, covered in beards and torrential rain, railing away at each other in impossibly ornate old-timey monologues of fire and damnation. As a pure horror film, it’s more successful than something like Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, which conversely has it beat in terms of religious allegory. The hamminess of the two stars’ performances is deeply pleasurable, especially Dafoe, who in a just world would finally win an Oscar for a role that might have just been talking like a pirate and acting drunk, but instead oscillates brilliantly between power and weakness, between an imposing, all-powerful god of the sea, and a frail, lost old mariner.

The comparison to Mother! is especially apt (thanks to my colleague Melissa for bringing it to my attention), as Eggers and Aronofsky appear to be on a similar track. Both Mother! and Aronofsky’s Noah dig into biblical stories in search of the more primal human fears and desires that gave birth to them. But while Aronofsky tells the stories relatively straight, following the familiar plot points more or less closely and using the tropes of horror cinema to flesh out the emotions, Eggers is treading newer ground, still after those same basic emotions, but building newish plots around them. He also, at least with The Lighthouse, finds pre-Christian parallels for his myths, as in the story of Prometheus (who stole the secret of fire from the gods and as punishment had his liver eaten by an eagle every day for eternity). The result is an even more elemental kind of fear and guilt, as old as the weather itself, but one that doesn’t parse nearly as coherently. The Lighthouse could be “about” a lot of things, which is a weakness as much as it is a strength, depending on your point of view. They aren’t fables, defined in the end by a clear moral statement–myths are necessarily more ambiguous, and more entertaining. At its best, The Lighthouse recalls the primal mythologies of great films like Conan the Barbarian (the closest we’ve ever come to a Gilgamesh movie) or Excalibur (which similarly freely mixes Christian and pre-Christian myth in the service of cinematic weirdness). 19th century New England had a nightmare, and it dreamt of Willem Dafoe.

The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)

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This guest review comes courtesy of critic Jaime Grijalba.

John Carpenter seems to be the most prominent living horror director, even if he hasn’t made a film since 2010. His presence in the modern landscape of the genre is mostly due to his legacy, and the permanent mark he’s left behind with his films, from classics like Halloween, which defined the slasher genre, to cult films that have marked generations like They Liveand Big Trouble in Little China. His presence is unavoidable on the landscape of horror to this day, from his constant touring in support of his fascinating musical abilities, to his more active association with films associated with his brand, like the new Halloween, a continuation of the original, directed by David Gordon Green, for which he served as executive producer and score composer.

Although his fourth theatrical outing, The Fog, was commercially successful (more due to the very low budget it had), it was far from being critically well-received at the time, and even if it warranted a lackluster remake in 2005, it still remained one of the least discussed films in Carpenter’s filmography until recently. Now, thanks to a restoration done by Studiocanal in 4K and a re-release through Rialto Pictures, there’s a way to re-experience or enjoy for the first time on a big screen the Lovecraft-inspired and Stephen King-flavored horrors that are still completely owned by Carpenter.

The film opens, fittingly, with an old man telling kids some ghost stories, which fits the overall tone of the film, which follows the events of the 100th anniversary of Antonio Bay, a coastal town in California. In the same way as the old man tells these old tales, we are introduced to a voice that seems to narrate the life of the town, DJ Stevie Wayne (played by Adrienne Barbeau), who has a radio station at the lighthouse that she also commands. Her tone, verging on eroticism while at the same time assured of her position of power (she’s “above” the town, as she’s on the lighthouse, and at the same time separated from it), accompanies various characters that will eventually come together under the threat of the fog.

And it’s the DJ, from her vantage point, who is the first to see the threat of the fog, as it approaches a nearby ship, just as midnight strikes. Through clever parallel editing, all of it linked through her voice, we see many supernatural events happen around the town, from the discovery of an old diary written by one of the original settlers of Antonio Bay, to the shattering of all the windows on a truck, all of which builds up to showing what’s behind the bright fog that envelops the coast: vengeful ghosts that a hundred years ago were killed by the founders of the town, and not only that, were robbed from the gold they carried on their ship, which eventually was used to build the church and the rest of the structure of the village.

So, the film becomes more an exploration on the subject of moral living, which resonated with me in ways that I wouldn’t suspect. What’s our responsibility to our ancestors, colonizers who killed or displaced people that originally lived there? Is there any moral dwelling possible in colonized territory? Now, of course, in the story of The Fog, the vengeful ghosts weren’t actually living in the territory of Antonio Bay, but it’s as if it were the cause. We see the next night a massive event in which the founders are honored on the 100th anniversary, and knowing what we already know, we can feel the rage of these ghosts as they maim and kill and gut people, maybe not strictly related to the founders, but it’s their way of exacting revenge on a town that doesn’t know on which crimes it was founded, and even celebrates those who committed the murders.

Visually, the film is a treat, and even with the low budget it manages to create a chilling atmosphere that goes beyond the idea of just pumping lots of fog onto exteriors and interiors. There’s a blue tone that, I assume, the new restoration will hinge on to bring forward the spooky imagery of the shadowy figures that in a brute manner slit throats, decapitate heads and dismember bodies. Much like in Halloween, Carpenter conjures a sense of dread out of the emptiness of the frame, devoid of human figures–we often just see empty streets, houses and the church from outside, slowly being surrounded by the bright fog, just as we see the sea, flowing, coming and going. We only hear the tones of Carpenter’s magnificent score, as if it were the fog itself, creeping into the frame, slowly building toward the final confrontation.

What one appreciates more about a film like The Fog is that although it is only 85 minutes long, it seems to live beyond the opening crawl and its final frame, the town exists beyond this horrifying event, and what helps build that is a sense of place, which is built through the landscape shots as well as the assured nature of the performances, where we seem to know everyone from the moment they open their mouths and that’s because they know each other beforehand. The only progression the film has, as it barely even has what one could call a character arc, is with the two characters that meet each other on the midnight of the anniversary, played by Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Atkins.

Beyond their travels, in which they first find each other (him, a truck driver, her, a hitchhiker looking for a ride) and then find out what’s happening in the town, the film is pretty much free-form, as it seems to be made out of patches of lived life in town, a special day that is, but one that is given its sense of normalcy through the voice of the DJ that keeps on commenting through the night, through the attacks and even is confronted with the ghosts themselves as she is both at a point where she can give information to others, but at the same time is alone and isolated, incapable of defending herself. It’s that lived-in quality what gives the supernatural a child-like wonder that makes it one of the most fascinating horror films of the 1980s.

The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)

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There’s something fitting about the new restoration of John Carpenter’s The Fog rolling onto Seattle screens the day after Halloween. Everything about it is just a little off the beat, a little bit odd. Which is, of course, what makes it, almost 40 years after its release, continue to be one of his better works. It lingers in the back of your brain, long after its brief running time has elapsed. Clocking in at a mere 89 minutes, and taking place over a single 24 hour period in the life of a small coastal community, The Fog is the leanest work of modern Hollywood’s most efficient great director (one of the many qualities that links him to Howard Hawks).

It begins at a campfire, with a village elder (John Houseman in old-timey fisherman drag) telling the story of the tragedy that accompanied the village’s founding exactly one hundred years earlier. Quickly we will learn the truth behind the legend, that the ship that tragically crashed in the fog one night was lured there intentionally, part of a scheme by the great men of the town to steal gold from a rich leper and his diseased companions: they murdered them and built their town atop their ruins. One hundred years later, the dead men return to balance the karmic scale.

Arrayed against the forces of darkness are Jamie Lee Curtis (a hitchhiker passing through town), the solid blond guy she hooks up with, Janet Leigh (wife of a fisherman and leader of the town’s anniversary festivities), Adrienne Barbeau (single mom from Chicago and operator of the town’s radio station/lighthouse) and Hal Holbrook (drunken priest whose grandfather was integral in the murders and whose diary tells the whole secret). They’re all pretty quick to figure out what is happening, though each of them has only a piece of the puzzle. The fog itself, what with its eerie glow and hidden frozen sailors, is pretty obviously the danger.

It’s a simple story built out of small, perfectly crafted suspense sequences. And while a lot of the horror movies of the era, including Carpenter’s own Halloween, seem to be designed in response to second wave feminism and The Pill, with their Final Girls surviving while their more promiscuous friends get the knife, The Fog is part of another strand of New Hollywood horror, one inspired more by the crises of the 1960s (the Vietnam War and its attendant atrocities in particular) and a kind of generational awakening to the sins of America’s past. Nightmare on Elm Street about a suburban lynching, Poltergeist about building suburbia on the graves of our ancestors, and so on. The Fog equates the foundation of the American community with the literal theft of capital, a town built on blood money. But then Carpenter complicates it further. In the film’s final moments, the priest reads the next few pages of his grandfather’s diary and finds out that the conspirators were actually betrayed: they never even got the money they were trying to steal. Their murder was ultimately pointless, their conspiracy undermined from within. But they founded the town anyway. That’s America for you: immoral, cruel, murderous, hypocritical, and totally incompetent.

Goldbuster (Sandra Ng, 2017)

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In her directorial debut, veteran comic actress Sandra Ng gives us a goofy farce, a compendium of horror movie tropes and references, and a sappy tribute to the underdog spirit of Hong Kong’s working class in the days of hyper-capitalisim and real estate speculation. She plays a ghostbuster hired by a handful of families to protect themselves from the evil spirits haunting their dilapidated apartment building. The ghosts are a scam, a scheme by a developer to get the last remaining tenants of a property to sell so he can tear the building down and make something new (the pull-away shot revealing the location is striking: a lone run-down concrete block surrounding by a massive ditch separating it from the city itself all CGI skyscrapers and hazy lights, an island of the real in the middle of an urban fantasy). Ng, no stranger to con games herself, quickly deduces the scam and helps the residents out-scare their ghosts, a game of horror movie one-upsmanship that turns into a full-scale zombie invasion.

Ng has been one of Hong Kong’s brightest comics for over two decades now, equally at home in slapstick, grotesquerie and wordplay, and while her film doesn’t have the classical misanthropy of Michael Hui or the blinding verbal games of Stephen Chow, it does recall her own Golden Chicken films in the way it explores how the feeling and ideology of a place can be expressed through the stories it tells itself. In Golden Chicken and its sequel (from 2002 and 2003), she plays a gregarious prostitute who recalls her life story in parallel to the history of Hong Kong, political and pop cultural, from the late 70s through the immediate post-Handover era. Goldbuster isn’t as expansive, but rather explores how stories of the supernatural can paralyze us and how fear is manipulated by ruling elites to bend us to their whim, Scooby-Doo as Marxist allegory.

While, pointedly, Goldbuster‘s location is never specified, it could technically take place in any Chinese city, that seems more a concession of vagueness for the Mainland market than any real conviction. In tone and purpose this is a resolutely Hong Kong film, where stories about housing complexes and tenants’ wars with their landlords have a long tradition, a byproduct of the housing shortages which followed the influx of massive numbers of refugees in the post-World War II and Civil War years. Chor Yuen’s House of 72 Tenants almost single-handedly saved the Cantonese language film from extinction in the early 70s, and in recent years as speculation and real estate bubbles have made affordable housing increasingly hard to find, the subject has become ubiquitous. Comedies like Temporary Family, which played here at SIFF in 2015, and last year’s Sinking City: Capsule Odyssey address it head-on, while Goldbuster folds the crisis into the fabric of its gonzo vision of a city driven to apocalypse by decades of unease and overdevelopment.

Each of its characters, generic types all of course, are refugees in some way from the past twenty years of economics and pop culture: scientists scammed out of their patents; a webcam girl; over-the-hill Triads, one of whom (the great Francis Ng (no releation) thinks he’s a cop); a doctor who failed to save his wife from some illness. The latter is the most melodramatic character, afflicted as he is by an adorable son and a penchant for whininess, obsessed with finding his wife’s ghost and somehow atoning for her death. This is the paralytic state the tenants find themselves in: trapped by fear and overcome with superstition, surrounded on all sides by rapacious capital. Only with the wit and heart of a scoundrel like Sandra Ng can they hope to defeat the forces waged against them. Another victory for the indigenous scrappiness of Hong Kongers against the powers of vague superstition and vampiric elites.

Daguerrotype (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2016)

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Halloween may have passed but it’s always a good time to watch a creepy movie by a great director, and that exactly what Daguerrotype, by Kiyoshi Kurosawa is. The artiest of the filmmakers to emerge in the J-Horror boom of the late 90s, or at least the one most likely to win awards at Cannes, Kurosawa’s formal precision and methodical rhythms have earned him comparisons to the usual suspects (Kubrick, Tarkovsky), and films like Cure and Pulse are indeed a far cry from the free-wheeling genre hysterics of Takashi Miike and Sion Sono. This isn’t his latest film (that would be Before We Vanish, which premiered this year, at Cannes), but rather the one that premiered last year, at Cannes, around the same time his other 2016 film, Creepy, was playing here at SIFF. It’s not getting a local release here in Seattle, but will be available on-demand starting on November 7.

Daguerrotype finds the director working in France, in French and with an all European cast (the French title, Le secret de la chambre noir gives a much better sense of the film’s eerie vibe). Tahar Rahim plays a young man who gets a job assisting a photographer (Dardennes regular Olivier Gourmet) at his suburban mansion (or “old house with some land”). The photographer uses 19th century equipment and techniques to create life-sized and disturbingly like-like photographs of his daughter (Constance Rousseau), which require dressing her in old dresses and locking her into place using a terrifying brace so that she can remain totally immobilized for the inordinately long exposure times the daguerrotype process requires (they start at an hour and get longer as the film goes along). He previously used the process on his wife, now deceased and possibly haunting the house. The young man falls in love with the daughter, who wants to be a gardener, and so a real estate scam begins. The movie is essentially a film noir, except instead of Lana Turner seducing a working class guy into murdering her husband, it’s a ghost (or two) doing the seducing. Call it “The Ghost-man Always Rings Twice”.

But, like any film noir or horror film, to reduce it to its plot is to highlight its essential absurdity. Daguerrotype is far more mysterious an object than that, a black hole of a movie that sucks you in with the gravity of its deliberate movements, then revels in the terror that is the absence of explanation. Possible interpretations of the facts of the film abound (perhaps too many), but mostly it seems to come down to an act of revenge against the impulse to freeze things in time place, to stop the gradual process of change, both men ultimately driven by an obsolete patriarchal desire to lock women down, as wives, daughters, lovers, subjects. The entropic destruction of the father is inverted in the panicked scheming of the worker, both leading to their inevitable and not especially surprising doom. But perhaps most upsetting is that there’s no satisfaction to be found in this revenge, no cathartic joy at the destruction of an immoral system. The ghosts seem to be just as scared as we are.

Vampir-Cuadecuc (Pere Portabella, 1971)

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In 1970, Jesús Franco made Count Dracula, a vampire movie starring Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski and Herbert Lom. It was a mostly faithful telling of Bram Stoker’s story: a naive and handsome man travels to Transylvania to conduct a real estate deal with an aged Count, becomes trapped and escapes back to England just as the Count arrives and begins sucking the blood of a young woman, who happens to be the best friend of the young man’s fiancée. Led by a scientist named Van Helsing, the young man and three other men figure out what the Count is, kill the woman who has herself been turned into a vampire and then go back to Transylvania to kill the Count. Franco was a director of notorious reputation, one who frequented the low-budget, pornier corners of European cinema for most of the 160+ films he directed. Count Dracula is the only one of his movies I’ve seen, and it isn’t terrible, but neither is it particularly good: Lee is terrific, as always, and there are some nice atmospheric moments. But the movie progressively becomes dumber as it goes along, either straying from Stoker’s original or cutting out the connective tissue that in the novel help the characters’ actions make some kind of sense. By far the best thing about the movie, though, is that Catalan experimental filmmaker Pere Portabella was there to chronicle its making.

Far from a conventional behind-the-scenes documentary, however, Vampir-Cuadecuc is more like a stealth remake of the same movie, using not only the same actors, but the same takes. It’s shot entirely in black-and-white, with a creepy soundtrack composed almost entirely of drones and ambient noises (passing trains or airplanes, workers hammering away): the world as it might sound from inside a coffin. The black-and-white is grainy and high contrast, with brilliant whites and deep blacks, bringing an eerie edge to scenes that in the conventionally flat-lit, color photography of the original are bland and somnolent.

The film follows the chronology of the original almost exactly, cutting out some of the more useless parts (including the entirety of Kinski’s one-note performance as the lunatic Renfield), filming the scenes as they are being filmed, but from unintended angles, such that we see the lights or cameras or behind the stage walls. Similarly we see the actors before and after their performances, getting into and out of character or simply walking around the set looking beautiful (Soledad Miranda lights up the screen in a way she just can’t as the zombified Lucy in the Franco film), often accompanied by jaunty elevator music. At the most basic level, the difference in quality between Franco and Portabella’s films can be seen in the fact that (in the version I saw, there are different cuts) Franco’s runs a seemingly endless 96 minutes, where Vampir-Cuadecuc is a very nice 69 minutes long.

By removing all of the dialogue and stripping out the extraneous plotting, Portabella captures the fundamental anxiety of horror cinema, spooky sounds and images that harken all the way back to Murnau’s Nosferatu and Dreyer’s Vampyr. The only spoken words come at the end, with Lee reading from Stoker’s book itself, a far better conclusion than Franco’s limp and silly climax. It’s the stripped down, elemental adaptation of Stoker’s text counterpart to Francis Ford Coppola’s blown-up, operatic version. Taken together, there’s no reason for anyone to ever make another Dracula movie.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (Paul WS Anderson, 2016)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
                               —William Butler Yeats “The Second Coming”

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The long-awaited sixth film in Paul WS Anderson’s survival horror saga has finally arrived, and it’s everything his believers could have hoped for. When the last film in the series came out, Anderson attracted a lot of attention in certain quarters as a symbol of so-called “Vulgar Auteurism” sparked by comparison of Resident Evil: Retribution with The Other Paul Anderson’s The Master, released the same week in September of 2012. The White Elephant/Termite art comparisons were irresistible to the wags of film twitter, and thus a movement was born, or at least a trend piece. The next six months or so were abuzz with discussions pro- and contra- Auteurism such as the film world hasn’t seen since the heady days of the Paulettes and the Sarrisites, a veritable Algonquin Roundtable of blog posts and tweet threads. Not above drifting with the winds myself, and binging on contemporary action cinema in a desperate attempt to keep conscious while caring for a newborn, I wrote a multipart essay on the Resident Evil films, Anderson and Auteurism in general, using the director and his films as raw material for an application of the critical method as Andrew Sarris initially described it back in the 1960s. I concluded that Anderson hadn’t quite reached the highest echelons of Sarris’s scheme, because he hadn’t yet established the kind of tension between himself and his material that marks the nebulous “interior meaning” that is the hallmark of personal filmmaking. I therefore placed him in the “Lightly Likable” category and wrote:

Anderson’s films can more rightly be described as competent treading of well-worn terrain. His last few movies, however, show potential, and so I’m unwilling to write Anderson off as an impersonal filmmaker. Perhaps he has it in him to perform the auteurial jujitsu necessary to turn the generic qualities of his movies into virtues, into a truly compelling and original statement about the world and/or the cinema itself, merging the blankness and fungibility of his characters with the schematic structures of their worlds and the interchangeability of their dialogue to say something truly meaningful. But I don’t think he’s made that complete a filmic statement yet.

Well, it’s four years later, and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter is that statement.

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Split (M. Night Shyamalan, 2016)

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Preposterous in all of the best ways, and some of the worst, the latest film from once-overhyped, now underrated auteur M. Night Shyamalan is as confounding as any film Hollywood is likely to produce this year. Ostensibly a horror film of the ‘girls trapped in a basement by a madman’ subgenre, like last year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, it somehow ends up being a rape-revenge superhero movie, like a DC Comics version of Elle. With a barely taped together plot, a streak of goofy black comedy and a cheap, exploitative perspective on real-life trauma, the movie is clearly the work of some kind of a lunatic. But what a lunatic!

Continue reading Split (M. Night Shyamalan, 2016)”

The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)

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A more harrowing or dread-inducing film you’re not more likely to find this year on Seattle Screens than Robert Eggers’s colonial fantasy The Witch. Set in 1630 and with dialogue partially based on diaries from the time, Eggers tells of a Puritan family living alone in a deep dark wood, and the evil that preys upon them there. Long a metaphorical vehicle for all manner of issues (the hunting of witches being analogized most famously as anti-Communism in The Crucible, while more recently witches themselves have become celebrated as free-thinking proto-feminists) or moral lessons, Eggers strips away the subtext of his folktale in favor of an experiential trip inside the mind of Puritan true believers. It is established right from the opening scenes that there are witches and that they are of the purest evil. It remains for us to suffer along with a people whose darkest imaginings are made manifest.
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The Visit (M. Night Shyamalan, 2015)

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After a decade or so of wandering in the big-budget wilderness, a victim as much of hype as hubris, M. Night Shyamalan has made perhaps his most perfect film, or at least his best film since the 1999-2002 run that made him a household name. Ingeniously adapting to the budgetary and compositional constraints of the found-footage horror genre, turning an archetypally generic story into a jump scare machine both hilarious and deeply sad. Two kids, Becca age 15, an aspiring filmmaker, and Tyler age 13, an aspiring rapper, leave home to visit their grandparents for the first time. Their mother (the ubiquitous but nevertheless always great Kathryn Hahn) ran away from home at age 19 and hasn’t spoken to her parents since. But the kids being older now, a rapprochement is in order. The kids head to the country via Amtrak while mom goes on a cruise with her boyfriend. Becca has a dual purpose: she’s also going to make a film about the trip and her family, and this film in progress is the movie we’re watching.

Continue reading The Visit (M. Night Shyamalan, 2015)”