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My Top Five Classic Horror Films

After watching The Innocents the other night, I was trying to figure out what my top five classic horror films would be. The list I came up with is not terribly surprising, and I feel like I must be leaving something out (no Vincent Price, how can this be?!), but here it is:

5. The Bride of Frankenstein
There’s no denying that The Bride of Frankenstein is a wonderfully campy monster movie in its own right, but what really puts this one on the list for me is the amazing double-casting in the prologue, with Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelley.

4. Black Sunday
This one is pure absurdity from Mario Bava, but it features a lot of my favorite gothic tropes–spooky old castles, witches returning from the grave to wreak havoc, and double casting in which the gorgeous love interest in the present day mysteriously looks identical to some long-dead malevolent ancestor.

3. Night of the Demon (Curse of the Demon)
Pretty much everyone (including director Jacques Tourneur) seems to agree that this one is undermined a bit by its ending, but if you just pretend the last, like, five minutes of the film don’t exist, it’s very much a horror story of suggestion, rather than explicit scares. Plus, its shout-out in the Kate Bush song “Hounds of Love” will always endear it to me. (Close second is another Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton production, I Walked With a Zombie.)

2. The Innocents
As I mentioned the other day, The Innocents is chilling and atmospheric and wonderfully English. The Victorian trappings of this Henry James adaptation are gorgeous, and Deborah Kerr is both sympathetic and creepy–though no one could possibly be as creepy as Peter Quint and Miss Jessel.

1. The Haunting
My absolute favorite, now and forever. Such a fantastic mix of wit and absolute terror. The Haunting is a resolutely slow movie, and it succeeds primarily by suggesting the source of its horror. In fact, Hill House may be one of the most unconventional haunted house I’ve encountered on film; while the movie relies on some familiar ghost tropes (cold spots, for instance), most of the really scary bits come from very unexpected places. I also love all four of the principal actors, but especially Julie Harris and Claire Bloom as Eleanor and Theodora, who have terrific chemistry. And of course, who can forget Mrs. Dudley’s  immortal speech . . . “In the night. In the dark.”


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The Innocents

The Criterion Collection’s 3 reasons for watching The Innocents. I rewatched it the other evening, and it’s just as gorgeous and creepy as I remember. It’s right up there with The Haunting amongst my favorite vintage horror films–not outright terrifying in the way The Haunting can be, but highly unsettling and highly atmospheric in very similar ways.


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Dinner & a Movie: Miso Ramen & “Byzantium”

Last night I made miso ramen with butternut squash and cabbage and Susan and I watched Neil Jordan’s Byzantium. Both were great.

photo-1The soup was a really lovely combination of flavors — the sweetness of the squash with the rich white miso flavor,  the cabbage  crunchy and just a little brown from the oven. Yum.

I made this recipe with udon noodles instead of ramen, because that’s what I was in the mood for, and added a poached egg on top just for kicks.

The whole thing was tasty, definitely a recipe I’d make again, but possibly the most revelatory part of this whole experience was the discovery it’s very easy to poach an egg in the microwave! I read this Bon Appetit microwave poaching tutorial very skeptically, particularly since the instructions are basically just “crack an egg in some water and microwave it”, but it worked really well. I think it may be time to learn how to make a proper Hollandaise.

After dinner, we watched Byzantium, which has been on my to-watch list for a long time, and Susan and I both agreed that we were sorry it’d taken us so long to see it.

This is, in many ways, my ideal sort of movie. It’s a supernatural story but it’s not strictly horror. It’s about powerful women working outside the established system. It’s atmospheric and beautifully shot. And it seamlessly interweaves past and present, dream and illusion and reality. What more could I ask for?

The situation of the characters isn’t much of a secret, but it unfolds in a way that is a pleasure to see, so I won’t spoil too much about it, but in short: Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and Clara (Gemma Artertone) are a small family, immortals surviving on the fringes of society, living on the run. When they’re forced to leave the city they’ve been staying in, they return to the seaside town where their stories began, and their situation quickly becomes increasingly complicated — by love, death, and perhaps the most dangerous force of all, the truth about their past.

Storytelling plays a central role in Byzantium. Eleanor longs to tell the truth about herself, but she doesn’t fully comprehend the potentially fatal consequences that doing so may entail — in part because Clara, who is perfectly aware of how dangerous the truth can be, chooses to keep her secrets and has never told Eleanor about certain parts of her history. Clara lies to protect Eleanor, both to keep her safe and to preserve her innocence, because she cares for her, but ultimately it’s Eleanor’s innocence that puts them in danger. It’s about family histories especially, and the way what one generation can’t bear to remember comes to color how the next generation sees the world. In this way, Byzantium is not just about the lies we tell to obscure the truth and simultaneous fear of and desire to reveal that truth, but also about the way lies of omission can leave us vulnerable, as well.

Storytelling is also central to the formal conceit of the film. The film begins as a story told by Eleanor — she is writing out her life story on the page, narrating it to us in voiceover — but ultimately only Clara can fill in the gaps, and the moment when she steps in as narrator is both chilling and exhilarating.

The casting here is about as flawless as one could hope. Saoirse Ronan is wonderful as Eleanor, but it’s Gemma Arterton who really stands out. She’s sensual and sinister and stunningly fearless as Clara, who knowingly trades on her sexuality for power and refuses to look back with regret. There are moments, as we see the character of Clara come into her own, where Arterton’s self-assurance and strength are almost preternatural, embodying a perfect mix of rage and wonder and delight. Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller, and Tom Hollander also take excellent turns here, though their roles are comparatively small.

The last thing I’ll mention is the cinematography and score, which work together to create a startlingly beautiful gothic atmosphere. The seaside town of Hastings has a strong presence in the film, beautifully run-down, its long concrete promenades and stony beaches lit with the carnival glow of boardwalk neon. There’s a tension here between the natural world and the man-made — dewy fields of cabbages at dawn and murmurations of birds casting shapes on the sky presented in stark contrast to cold, impersonal council flats and hospitals. As Eleanor walks through town, she realizes that none of the buildings she’s passing existed when she was last there, but time can’t quite cover up the past, which keeps rising up to trouble her, memory seamlessly interpenetrating with the present. Sitting on the beach, she sees herself walking past as she once was, and hears the echo of the songs she used to sing. (The use of “The Coventry Carol” here is particularly eerie, along with a couple of other traditional songs and a haunting score by Javier Navarrete.)

I think what I liked best about Byzantium — besides the fact that it’s a gorgeous and unflinching feminist vampire story — is the way it embraces the wonderfully unreal as contiguous with the realities of the present day. The mysterious and arcane don’t disappear into the past, aren’t incompatible with modern-day logic. The unreal coexists with the real, sometimes uncomfortably, sometimes painfully, but never in a way that suggests one is better than the other, or that one will win out over the other. And the truth, when it’s finally revealed, is more mysterious, more complicated, than anyone could expect.


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Review: Girl Most Likely

I decided to see Girl Most Likely on impulse earlier this week and caught a matinee by myself in a nearly empty theater.  Going to the movies alone in the middle of the day is actually, I’ve decided, really nice, but it also probably suggests that I’m about as close to this film’s target audience as you can possibly get.

Which is to say that Girl Most Likely, about a once-promising playwright who has a mental breakdown and is forced to move back home to New Jersey to live with her family, hit kind of close to home.  It’s not that Kristen Wiig’s Imogene and I are exactly the same person (thankfully, for instance, my mother is a lot more reliable than Imogene’s gambling addict mother, played with aplomb by Annette Bening), but there were definitely some similarities.

Perhaps most significant of these is that Imogene and I (along with a lot of other women of my generation), live in what Anne Helen Peterson calls the “postfeminist dystopia”: a world that recognizes the failure of the idea that women can “have it all” through consumption, self-objectification, and romantic coupling. In other words, the era of the romantic comedy “happy ending” has been tested and found wanting.

When the film begins, Imogene seems to be living the kind of life that is the light at the end of the average rom-com tunnel: she’s attending stylish Manhattan parties with her rich friends and her handsome husband.  Everything appears to be perfect.  She’s got the kind of cosmopolitan lifestyle that women who came of age with Sex in the City dream of.  But it’s all, ultimately, a fantasy.  Her husband doesn’t have time for her, and her friends shun her when she’s in crisis. Imogene’s dreams of living an intellectual life in the big city crumble, and she’s sent back to New Jersey with her mother after staging a suicide attempt so overtly performative that it can’t even be called a cry for help. (The scene, in which Imogene primps and puts on her sexiest lingerie and artfully positions herself on the bed beside a spilled bottle of pills, may be one of the most overt call-outs of dead-woman-as-sexualized-object I’ve seen in a while.)  Once Imogene is home, of course, she comes to realize that the life she’s built for herself is not a good fit for her (as she puts it, she was just an impersonator), and once she finally comes to terms with this, she’s freed up to write again — in her own voice.

One thing I especially appreciated about this story was that Imogene’s story isn’t resolved romantically.  She does have a love interest (the slightly-too-young-for-her Darren Criss, who is admirably charming in what may be the most cringe-inducingly awesome use of a Backstreet Boys song in contemporary cinema), but that isn’t the main problem Imogene has to deal with.  So often women’s problems in movies are resolved by hitching their wagon to some handsome man, but for Imogene, what’s much more important is coming to terms with herself, her sense of her own worth, and her relationship to her art.

Like Girls, Bridesmaids, Bachelorette, and Young Adult before it, Girl Most Likely explores the ways in which the narratives of feminine success encountered in the mainstream media are destructive to women living in the real world.  Is this film the most stringent critique of the post-feminist dystopia?  Probably not, no.  But it’s a charming, good-natured film about a woman who’s trying to figure out her place in the world on her own terms, and we can always use more of those.


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“Symphony No. 4: Con Sublimata”

I’m trying to gather my thoughts about The East, but I’m failing.  I may try again in a day or two, but right now, all I can say is: this is what I want to be when I grow up.

No, not an eco-terrorist or a double agent.  I want to write the kind of subtle, human genre stories Brit Marling so excels at.  The Sound of My Voice and Another Earth (both of which Marling was involved in writing, and the latter of which she also directed) both take on science fictional themes with an intensely intimate, indie sensibility, and The East gives undercover intrigue the same treatment.  What is so incredible about her work is that she takes genre subjects seriously, paring away all the overwrought trappings of bigger-budget genre films and telling speculative stories with an almost hyperrealist sensitivity and nuance.  Because, as much as I love genre writing (be it SF or mystery or whatever else), and as much as I reject the distinction between “literature” and “genre writing,” the fact remains that genre stories that are about people instead of ideas is still relatively rare, in my experience.  These are stories not just about neat concepts, or unique worlds, but about the human consequences of new technologies and outlandish events.

And that — that is exactly what I have been trying to do in my own writing.  I don’t know how often I succeed, but it’s reassuring to know that it can be done, and done well.

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Review: Haywire

Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire has been on my Netflix queue for a while now.  Yesterday I finally got around to watching it, and I have to say it was a real pleasure.

It seems appropriate, in a way, that Haywire sat on my proverbial shelf for so long.  It’s the kind of film that sneaks up on you.  It’s understated, almost small, despite being a continent-hopping spy thriller.

Gina Carano stars as Mallory Kane, a spy-for-hire who is burned by her employers and sets out to find out who betrayed her.  Carano doesn’t exactly have superstar verve, but she’s capable and charming and handles herself beautifully in the elaborate fight sequences.

As far as the violence in this film is concerned, it’s pretty intense.  It’s not graphic, exactly, but the fights are inventive and complex and they just don’t stop.  The choreography is not your average jab-jab-hook; nobody is downed with a single expedient blow. Interestingly, though, Soderbergh is fairly unsentimental about these sequences, documenting the carnage extensively without sensationalizing it too much.  It was sort of refreshing to see a woman kicking ass without being overtly sexualized in exchange (with the obvious exception of a scene where Mallory chokes an opponent between her thighs).  Carano’s career as an MMA fighter means that she performs her on-screen bouts in a workmanlike way — with exquisite agility, but also with total comfort, as if this is something she does as a matter of course.  Which is true, both for Carano and her character Mallory.

In fact, it’s this workmanlike quality that appealed to me most about Haywire.  It’s a very stylish film — in many ways, it’s very much an homage to classic ’70s espionage thrillers (a fact that is particularly evident in David Holmes’s gorgeous, brassy score)  — but it’s also devoid of the showboating of some of Soderbergh’s other films.  This doesn’t have the flashy charm Ocean’s 11, nor is it the high camp of Behind the Candelabra.  Haywire is pared down.  It gets right to business.  There’s not much fussing about backstory or psychological explication.  Very little time is even spent explicating the twists and turns of the plot.  It treats the events of the film in much the same way Mallory herself does, as ordinary occurrences.

You might expect this to undercut the suspense in the film.  After all, if Mallory trusts can handle herself, how can we ever really feel a true sense of risk in all the conflicts she endures?  Well, we don’t, really.  There’s never any doubt that Mallory can handle herself in a fight, or even that she’ll come out on top.  But the film isn’t without tension. That tension, though, arises not from the will-she-or-won’t-she anxiety of the fight, but rather from the acute attention to detail, the way the film forces us to linger in the moment with Mallory.  This is especially true of a couple of long chase sequences, one where Mallory is running down a suspect and another where she is fleeing her attackers.  These scenes refuse to gloss over the action, giving us little respite: for what feels like ages, we watch Mallory run (and run and run) after her quarry; later, she walks down a sidewalk while a man tails her, and we wait and wait for the moment she will be able to break away, and it seems that moment will never come — until, finally, it does.  Where another, slicker film might cut straight to the firefight, fast-forwarding to the “good bits,” so to speak, Haywire holds us in place and refuses to let us look anywhere else.

Haywire may lack some of the explosive panache of bigger studio action films, but I think that works to its advantage.  This film is unassuming and subtle, but nothing short of capable.  They say that’s the mark of true confidence, after all: someone who’s really skilled has no need of bravado or showing off, because their skills will speak for themselves.

Haywire (2011), dir. Steven Soderbergh.  Starring Gina Carano, Channing Tatum, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, and Anthony Banderas.  Currently available on Netflix Instant.


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Today I read:

You can apparently make an endless collection of high-priced action flops and everybody says “win some, lose some” and nobody decides that They Are Poison, but it feels like every “surprise success” about women is an anomaly and every failure is an abject lesson about how we really ought to just leave it all to The Rock.

— Linda Holmes, “At The Movies, The Women Are Gone

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