Sick Girl (U.S., 2006) * * *
D: Lucky McKee
You see, for a while there was this series called Masters of Horror, and horror fans worldwide were really excited about it. It was to be a one-hour anthology series devoted to the so-called "masters of horror" (a group of genre directors that would gather in L.A. occasionally for dinners and conversation), and it was to be on Showtime, so there would be no censorship. The first season debuted in late 2005, to a mixed-but-optimistic response. Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep) contributed the season premiere, "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road," which was pretty good, and fairly creepy, but no better than your standard Tales from the Crypt episode. Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) received more enthusiastic reviews--particularly from H.P. Lovecraft fans--with his faithful Lovecraft adaptation, "Dreams in the Witch-House." But then there struck a tremendous divide between critics and genre fans. While fans reeled in disappointment with the Tobe Hooper (Texas Chain Saw Massacre) episode "Dance of the Dead"--it had been thought Hooper might be making a "comeback" until he actually came back, with this and The Toolbox Murders--the installment "Homecoming," directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins), and depicting what might happen if American soldiers of the Iraq War started returning from the dead, played at Cannes to glowing reviews. Film Comment fell just short of declaring Dante's anti-war satire a masterpiece. It seemed that this was the only episode most critics watched, however; fans--who may or may not have responded to the left-wing politics of "Homecoming," grew increasingly grouchy about what their idols were contributing to the anthology series. I wasn't one of them: I enjoyed most of the first year of Masters of Horror, and only found the second to be a tremendous disappointment (despite genuinely "masterful" episodes by Joe Dante, John Landis, Brad Anderson, and Stuart Gordon, whose work stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the episodes that season). One of the highlights of the first season was an episode by a novice director few would call a "master of horror," except perhaps Roger Ebert, who was one of the champions of his first film, May. The director is Lucky McKee, whose trademarks, in his short career, include strong female characters asserting their individuality against strict, conformist hierarchies. In May, that was the title character (Angela Bettis) attempting to retain her quirks in a brutal dating scene; she eventually decides to assemble her idealized boyfriend by hand. In The Woods, his second feature, it was a teenage girl versus the prim witches of her secluded boarding school in the 1960's. And in "Sick Girl," his Masters of Horror short, it's Angela Bettis again, this time as Ida Teeter, a young, lesbian entymologist who can't find a date who will tolerate her enormous pet insect collection. Unexpectedly, Misty (Erin Brown, aka "Misty Mundae"), the girl who always hangs out in the lobby, not only likes her but likes her insects. This is less of a coincidence than it seems, as the plot pans out, but in the meantime--and for practically the first forty minutes--it's nothing but a swooning love affair between the two, each with their considerable social awkwardness providing a small barrier between their unrestrained lust. Well, that's most of the first forty minutes: there's also the small problem of Mickey, the gigantic insect which Ida has just received in a package from an anonymous donor. While she struggles to identify the creature, it gets loose in her apartment and nests in her pillow. It bites Misty, to truly bizarre results. McKee's film is a satire with some horrific elements that only lately press upon the narrative. He's clearly more concerned with the relationship between Ida and Misty, which is both steamy and very funny. He also makes some very sharp points about the current social conflict between queer culture and the "mainstream"; as gay men and women gain greater confidence and raise their visibility, society at large--in particular an older generation--seems less willing to accommodate them than it had seemed to promise. Old prejudices also die hard. The chief villain of "Sick Girl" is the elderly landlord, who, when she learns that Ida and Misty are lovers, automatically shields her granddaughter from them. "All this time you were looking at her like she were a piece of meat!" It's to McKee's credit that when this villain is disposed of, it's not a cathartic, crowd-pleasing moment, but an ugly reckoning of which Ida disapproves: the granddaughter is now orphaned, and this microcosmic society is still damaged. He does provide an idyllic happy ending, a proposed utopia, in the final scene, but it's the ultimate inversion of the traditional nuclear family.
Night of the Demon (U.K., 1958) * * * *
D: Jacques Tourneur
Released as Curse of the Demon in the U.S., I viewed the original cut--both are available on a quality DVD in the States. Tourneur was the one-of-a-kind director of The Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, both for producer Val Lewton, who in the 40's sought to make a new kind of horror film, psychological thrillers with a focus on character and unseen fear instead of monsters. Night of the Demon (not a Lewton film) has it both ways: there's a monster at the center of the narrative, but only glimpsed at the beginning and at the end of the film. The rest is a film noir-ish mystery, with Dana Andrews--Mr. Film Noir himself, and veteran of Laura and Where the Sidewalk Ends--playing a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic who likes to debunk superstitions. His skills are put to the test when he investigates a murder, and confronts Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), a Satanist who places a curse on Andrews, giving him three days to live. There are some neat sequences here which heighten the creep factor, even in minor moments such as when Andrews peers into the dark depths of a hallway while nervously walking to his hotel room. And the big supernatural moments--a confrontation with an entity in Karswell's study, a demonstration of Karswell's abilities during a children's party, and of course the final confrontation on the railway tracks--are handled with such wit and class that this film is elevated above most of its genre. Progammers note: it would make a superb double feature with Terence Fisher's The Devil Rides Out.
Let's Scare Jessica to Death (U.S., 1971) * * *
D: John D. Hancock
In the rarified hippie horror genre, one of the best is this Paramount-distributed sleeper from 1971. Three exiles from New York City buy an apple orchard in the country; one of the group, Jessica, is battling mental illness, and was recently released after an extended stay in a hospital. She's shaky and without confidence, just this side of an emotional wreck, but determined to reintegrate herself into society. She also needs to reassure herself that what she witnesses is real (her thoughts are voiced on the soundtrack throughout the film), which is why she grows increasingly perturbed when she begins to see things which cannot be real: a ghostly figure in a wedding dress in the cemetery, a dead body in the woods, and something human lurking in the deep, dark waters of the lake. To further her mental deterioration, there's also a love triangle that she's witnessing from the outside: a red-headed drifter who's seducing both her husband and their friend. Is there a dark supernatural secret in this country town, or is there a plot to drive Jessica into insanity? The first two-thirds can be slow-going, with a few unintentional laughs, but an unsettling mood begins to dominate the story until it builds to a suitably and satisfyingly spooky finale. Kind of a minor cult classic.
Suspiria (Italy, 1977) * * * *
D: Dario Argento
An acknowledged high-watermark for the horror genre, Argento's Suspiria is his best film and his most artistically successful. It's the first in his "Three Mothers" trilogy, each a horror fairy tale centering on a different powerful female witch hidden within contemporary society; the second film is Inferno (1980), which I will be re-watching shortly, and the third is Mother of Tears, which debuted at this year's Toronto Film Festival, and will, I suspect, be going straight to DVD in the States. Suspiria is about Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), who arrives at a prestigious dance school ridden with mysterious deaths and disappearances. Aided by her friend Sara, she begins to investigate the secrets of the school, through whose corridor stalks a killer--but she also begins to succumb to dark magic. Suspiria is notable for its stark Technicolor design: the school is painted in hues of red, blue, and green, which alternate like a spinning color wheel, but also signal changes in emotion and anxiety. Although the film is explicitly violent and almost unbearably intense, it's also a fable, in which the "children" are subjected to nightmarish treatment by the adult/authority figures, all while lost in a deep, dark woods. (Note that in the opening scene, as Suzy Bannion leaves the airport to find a taxi in the stormy night, she passes a simple poster that says "Black Forest"; shortly thereafter we enter that black forest, figuratively and literally.) I accredit much of Suspiria's richness to Daria Nicolodi, Argento's wife at the time, who co-wrote the film with him; but it is Argento who adds the cinematic flourish, from the aforementioned color to the nightmarish staging (I particularly love the curved hallway in the climax, around which Suzy creeps, never knowing when she will be suddenly stumble into something) and the sweeping camera movements. I first saw this film at a midnight screening in Salt Lake City several years ago. The print was battered beyond belief, the colors faded, the soundtrack screeching. It was a "grindhouse" experience, really. But the film was completely effective, undiluted in its essence.