Festivals: Scary Movies 9
Scary Movies, the annual horror festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, runs through November 5. Darling plays on Tuesday, November 3 and Frankenstein (followed by Paperhouse) on closing night, Thursday, November 5.
When it comes to revitalized creatures, few are reanimated as frequently as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Adapting the 19th-century novel to modern Los Angeles, director and writer Bernard Rose practically aspires to enacting a miracle on film, with all the cracked, unheeding Proselytism of a mad scientist. Lest the idea of “Frankenstein in L.A.” conjure the unintentional horror of Crime and Punishment in Suburbia, Rose’s film finds refuge in the voice and narrative of Shelley’s original text.
“I wanted to give the story back to Mary Shelley,” the veteran of horror (Candyman, Paperhouse) told FILM COMMENT. Featuring voiceover adapted from the novel’s first-person chapters, the film ratchets disturbingly between eloquent, impassive narration and scenes of jarring violence. “The Creature’s voice in Shelley is essentially Lord Byron’s. Refined, but childlike. Complete innocence. I wanted my monster to sound like that.”
For Rose, the vast history and ritual of Frankensteiniana were never far from mind. “Obviously, the James Whale films radically changed the reading of the book, and the Frankenstein myth, in an iconic way. They became part of the book,” he said. “I also loved the Christopher Lee ‘Hammer’ film, The Curse of Frankenstein, which has a nice, salacious quality to it, and Andy Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein in 3-D—a sort of extreme campiness.”
Whale’s vision lives on in the innocence of Rose’s monster, whose brutality is born of fear rather than malevolence—and who, like Candyman before him, emerges as a figure of pathos rather than dread. Once birthed by Dr. Frankenstein (Danny Huston) and wife (Carrie-Anne Moss) from a human 3-D printer, life is not easy for the Creature (Xavier Samuel), whose skin begins to denature. This prompts a rejection by his Creator—cue Huston, in one of science-fiction’s better pseudo-explanations: “There is a problem with the cells.”
Whirring saws, swinging light bulbs, and panting figure in the ensuing action, as do police chases, straitjackets, barking, and spattered blood. A kindhearted blind beggar appears (Candyman’s Tony Todd, in the novel’s De Lacey role), thrilling the Creature, to say nothing of the audience. (There remain those of us who would watch Todd recite the alphabet.) The film infuses tried-and-true stories with fresh horror: Innocent Meets Civilization (Wild Child, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Being There), Human and Creature Bond (Iron Giant, Terminator), and Hoboes Unite (The Kid, The Road, Bubbles and Sherrod). The Creature, trenchcoated, festers apace, budding Botoxy protuberances—and evoking, by turns, Darkman and David Gest.
The enduring power of Shelley’s Frankenstein lies in its affirmation of human imperfection—that life is precious because it is brief, and unknowable. Cryopreservation and Transhumanism are futile, Larry King be damned. Violators of such Eternal Law will be dealt with. Rose’s Frankenstein knows this. It’s alive.
In Mickey Keating’s menacing new psychological thriller Darling, we meet the titular character (Lauren Ashley Carter)—sporting an innocent flip haircut, silk jabot, and Karina-in-Alphaville raccoon eyes—as she assumes care for an old Manhattan townhouse. It “really is a lovely old house,” the owner (Sean Young) deliciously and beguilingly informs her. “It will take care of you.”
If only it were so simple. Soon, we hear rumblings of previous suicides, devil worship; Darling finds an inverted cross, and happens upon a locked, inner-lit white door. A nameless Gentleman caller (Brian Morvant) pursues, then is pursued by the increasingly unhinged Carter. Whispers and squeals proliferate, and Darling’s nightmares and reality merge, giving way to loss of self, isolation, dread, and paranoia.
In addition to Keating’s disquieting collage, strobe effects, and disorienting shifts in perspective, Darling draws its eerie atmosphere from a score by Giona Ostinelli. Featuring staccato string trills, piano groans, glitches, static, resonance, and white noise, the mix frequently culminates in moments of authentic, deity-invoking terror.
“We wanted each room in the house have its own breath, its own voice,” Keating said. “We used bells, waterphone, contact microphones, and, as reference points, artists like The Black Angels, George Crumb.”
Though it tempts cliché to cite a home, or city, as a “character,” Darling’s apartment is, if not a persona, then certainly an entity. Shot in the verticalizing, claustrophobic aspect ratio of 1:1.66, the interior, at times, seems to verge on 90 percent wall.
“The house was inspired by Ferrara’s Ms. 45—a big, open New York City apartment. In 1:1.66, it came out quite tall, gained symmetry,” Keating said. “The family was quite nice about letting us move in and spill blood everywhere. Probably a lot in that house cost more than the entire crew’s lives.”
Like his Scary Movies peers, Keating sees Darling as a linear successor to horror history: “I wanted this to be a love letter to Sixties experimentalism, the ‘descent-into-madness’ movies. Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy: Repulsion, The Tenant, Rosemary’s Baby. Altman’s That Cold Day In The Park. Kenneth Anger, Eraserhead. Hollis Frampton, Stan Brakhage. The Innocents. The Haunting. I wanted to create a nightmare. A hallucination, without smoking dope.”
For Keating, who’s already at work on his next film (the sedately titled Carnage Park), horror has been less a choice than an object of sacred, ascetic reverence.
“I started making movies when I was 10. If I wasn’t directing, I would be walking the Earth,” he explained. After an internship at Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix, Keating began his career in earnest, leading to fruitful cross-pollination with Fessenden since; Fessenden has a cameo in Darling as a police officer. “I’ve been a fan of his movies, and Glass Eye in general, since I was a teenager. When I was in college, I found their number on the deepest part of Google, which was young then, cold-called, and begged them to be a gofer. Over time, I would always hound him to watch my short films. He’s a tremendous inspiration, and I’m delighted to call him a friend.”
As in The Innocents, and many horror movies before it, Darling wisely declines to specify the roots of its lead character’s undoing—whether psychosis, or demonic possession. At Darling’s denouement, one is left wondering: do caretakers ever fare well? There must be better ways to pay the rent.
Canted crookedly against the skyscrapers of giallo, body horror, gothic, and slasher lies the quaint lean-to of Cabin Forest Horror. Spanning films as various as Evil Dead, Friday the 13th, Antichrist, Troll 2, and Friedkin’s wonderfully unwatchable The Guardian, the genre meets a fascinating new aspirant in Corin Hardy’s The Hallow. Shot in Connemara, West Ireland, the film follows botanist and tree doctor Adam Hitchens and his wife Clare (Joseph Mawle and Bojana Novakovic, poised and winning) as they relocate to the Irish countryside, earning the inexorable irritation of assorted forest spirits.
“Our early pitch was Straw Dogs meets Pan’s Labyrinth,” Hardy said of The Hallow, which the director presented in Scary Movies on Saturday (in costume!) and which opens this Friday. “The horror of the wild, the claustrophobia of home invasion.”
Although it dabbles in Miyazaki-style idyll worship, Hardy’s onslaught of demonic fungi, invasive flora, and extensive hissing offers a persuasive argument for Irish deforestation. Hitchens marks trees for destruction. Faeries, banshees, and baby stealers awake. Babies, perhaps unsurprisingly, are stolen.
The film’s bustling mythology is culled from multiple sources, from fungal science to Irish folktale—Ireland’s notorious Book of Invasions—all of which culminate, yes, in the inevitable arrival of an ancient, branch-bound book.
“All good horror movies have a ‘book,’ a Necronomicon, and Invasions is the original, the Bible. It’s of the first-ever fairy tales, and it’s a survival manual,” says Hardy. “I also saw a documentary on Cordyceps, a parasitic ant fungus, and was really struck by the idea that a plant could spread itself by infecting the brain of an ant and control it. The Hallow’s myth is part biology.” (The film’s final credit goes to its Fungal Research Advisor.)
For Hardy, who marks his debut with the film, and spent a childhood shooting Evil Dead knock-offs and horror shorts, the sovereign duty was to elude the Horror Gods’ discontent. “I had read Fangoria since I was 12. I love The Fly, Alien. I was thrilled by Rob Bottin’s work in The Thing, Stan Winston—Predator and Pumpkinhead. We tried to emphasize practical effects as an homage to them, films that were made without any CG in the Seventies and Eighties. The passion and love of the work.”
Though it meets criteria as Forest Horror, The Hallow’s pleasures and excesses arise from its dutiful bricolage of horror—undead, home invasion—and a loving familiarity with the genre’s habits, from car-trunk entrapment to hectic boarding-up-of-windows. And Hardy’s film delivers warnings anyone would do well to heed—on the rapaciousness of man, the fundamental unpredictability of nature, the error of placing one’s child in a closet.