Festivals: Scary Movies 8
A song by the punk cabaret troupe The Tiger Lillies begins with ringleader Martyn Jacques cackling in his inimitable falsetto: “I could’ve been a killer.” You might say many of the protagonists in this year’s Scary Movies are living the dream. In the series’ eighth installment, there’s a killer who kills in canals, a home-invading killer, a killer who just wants to leave home, a killer who kills everyone at home, and a killer who murders just because.
Among the Living
Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, the directors of Among the Living, are to splatter what Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani are to giallo. Their latest film is a perverse pastiche of Seventies exploitation and Eighties kids adventures: three boys stumble upon an abandoned film set where a gas mask-wearing father sics his hairless, hulking, paler-than-pale freak-child on them. With their latest, as with Inside (07) and Livid (11), writer-directors Maury and Bustillo embrace artifice, stripping horror of any semblance of character depth or logic. They value its brute mechanics: shock, disgust, madness, fury, abjection. Men, women, and children are summarily dismembered—meat puppets, one and all. The filmmakers shove morality out the door, leaving only a relentless, pulverizing spectacle.
Dick Maas’s Amsterdamned (88) was one of this year’s revivals of rarely screened films. A detective (Huub Stapel) tries to track down a wet-suited killer lurking in the Dutch city's canals, in a film that melds slasher and detective thriller, with some broad comedy thrown in. The fusion could have been a jumble, but Maas controls the shifting tones that accompany those genres—and doesn’t pussyfoot around. The editing is precise, allowing no time for pauses; gestures are split-second, creating dynamism within each shot. The film keeps moving, moving, moving all the way up to and including a speedboat chase that rivals anything in Bullitt or Friedkin.
When Animals Dream is Amsterdamned’s opposite: a slow burn. For his debut feature, Jonas Alexander Arnby entwines moods of desolation and sensuality, which are only undermined by some uneven rhythms in the editing and needless cut-ins. Marie (Sonia Suhl) is a teen living on a Danish island in a fishing village with her catatonic mother and caring father. When overwhelmed by emotions or driven by impulses, she undergoes mutations: bulbous fingertips and bleeding fingernails, a patch of hair on a breast, and (during sexual climax) yellow eyes.
In other words, her coming-of-age is to become a werewolf, and this creates a problem for the community. At first, POV shots put us in Marie’s shoes, but with the film’s second half, as the villagers try to destroy Marie, the focus widens. Everyone knows she’s a werewolf, even if the word is never spoken in the film—she is the foreign body in this homogeneous community and therefore must be eliminated. Despite some formal hiccups, When Animals Dream makes a fine addition to the werewolf genre by using it as a vessel for ideas about ostracism and discrimination.
A Reflection of Fear
William A. Fraker’s A Reflection of Fear (73) doesn’t backload its killings, spreading its mysterious murders at a mansion throughout the story. Neither a mystery nor an “old dark house” film, the film falls in a void between the two. Played by a 29-year-old Sondra Locke, Marguerite is a teen with an ethereal voice and elfin face. She wears white lace dresses, looking like a figure in Renoir’s paintings. Her mother and sister shelter her from the outside world; without friends, Marguerite only has her dolls for company. When her estranged father (Robert Shaw) arrives, strange, incestuous, and deadly goings-on follow. “A haze of fear” is a more appropriate title: here is what happens when an esteemed DP (Fraker shot Rosemary’s Baby) recruits another esteemed DP (László Kovács). You get lush, soft-focus images for every shot; light twinkles off doll’s eyes or a cross around Marguerite’s neck. That look, together with a gentle editing tempo reliant on dissolves, give the film an oneiric quality. Fraker balances full shots of the mansion’s deep space with decentered close-ups of faces in fright or anger. If Marguerite Duras had made a horror film, it might look something like this.
This year’s Scary Movies closer, Angst (83), follows a serial killer (Erwin Leder) as he murders a family in rural Austria. He’s a bug-eyed man, acting on impulses. To be sure, he’s calculating, but his desires sidetrack his plotting. Besides a pre-title sequence in which an omniscient narrator recounts the killer’s backstory, Angst occurs in the moment, capturing the killer’s erratic actions. Shots either evoke a detachment or a nauseous intimacy, or both: floating high above the killer as he runs through woods or stalks through the rooms of his victims, or inches away from faces, eyes, lips, and skin. The camerawork creates the sense that the killer lives in his own world, to which we bear uncomfortable witness. Meanwhile, in voiceover, we hear the killer’s stream of consciousness as he recalls his horrid childhood and plans his next moves.
In one scene in Torn Curtain, Hitchcock showed the messiness of killing, the sheer exhaustion and exertion it induces. Angst extends such a concept to an entire film: for 83 minutes, you’re with the killer, witnessing the planning and execution of murders for his own mad, obscure reasons. Morality is gone, and its absence is deafening.