starring Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Cary Elwes
written by Sophia Takal & April Wolfe
directed by Sophia Takal
starring Andrea Riseborough, Demián Bichir, John Cho, Jacki Weaver
screenplay by Nicolas Pesce, based on the film Ju-On: The Grudge, written and directed by Takashi Shimizu
directed by Nicolas Pesce
H.P. Lovecraft's Color Out of Space
starring Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Tommy Chong
written by Richard Stanley and Scarlett Amaris, based on the short story "The Colour Out of Space" by H.P. Lovecraft
directed by Richard Stanley
by Walter Chaw The horror genre is one that's particularly suited for remakes. At their best, scary stories deal in archetypal images in pursuit of exorcising essential concerns. They're fairy tales, fables. They're warnings carrying lessons for the survivors. I think they're how the bulk of human culture was transmitted and instrumental in our species' survival, offering explanations for why sometimes people don't come home if they're caught out in the night or wander off the trail or split up from the safety of the pack. They talk about outsiders, alien threats, and other invaders infiltrating from without and within: the dangers of transgression and the failures of denial. They are Jungian shadow projections made grotesque by their repression. They grow like obscene toadstools in the soft earth of our subconscious. A good horror story should be remade for every generation. Jack Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a prime example of a premise made fresh across several decades--each time, each new film adaptation, a different social anxiety grows into its central metaphor, so it becomes a touchstone evergreen in the development of our understanding of the dangers of the greater world. Horror movies, good ones, have something to say. If you listen.
With all that in mind, let's talk about Sophia Takal's Black Christmas. The second updating of Bob Clark's seminal, feminist thriller has as its hero college student Riley (Imogen Poots), whose recent "life of" includes a date rape at a notoriously predatory fraternity. One night she and her friends stage a flirty dance number at this same frat that begins as a thing that's humiliating and ends with Riley accusing, on stage, her rapist, Bryan (Ryan McIntire). It's the scariest moment in the film--at least the one with the most emotional resonance--and Poots carries off her character's trauma and courageous attempts at confronting it with the kind of complexity it deserves. (I love Imogen Poots. She's good in everything she's in and continues to be so here.) Riley has a clear arc in Black Christmas, but I admire more the little moments where she asks friends to text her when they get home at night, or worries that it won't still be light out when something ends. We have these conversations with our teenaged daughter every single time she leaves the house. The world is terrifying.
At its best, Black Christmas creates a male-dominated environment that is built around a system of acquisition, dominance, and the inevitable victimization that comes with it. Worried about a friend who no longer answers her texts, Riley encounters dismissal in useless campus rent-a-cop Gil (Mark Neilson) as well as condescending lit prof Gelson (Cary Elwes), who announces his villainy by reading, without contextual curation, Camille Paglia to a room full of bored freshman. Their college was founded by a slave owner, and his traditions have taken on a supernatural cant, possessing in a literal rather than just ideological way the boys of Delta Kappa Omicron. The picture's atmosphere of white male supremacy and privilege feels hostile and familiar. Its ideas about secret "Skull & Bones" type men's groups, where networks are forged and nefarious plans hatched, are no longer fanciful, alas, but it's worth it to have the conversation all the same. Much of the immediate disdain for this film from critics and audiences parallels the immediate dismissal of Riley's attempts throughout to convince anyone that her intuition is superior to their hardwired bias. Yes, the dialogue is obvious and direct about what it's about. And, no, we don't get to be tired of this conversation until we no longer need to have it.
By ending on a note of female empowerment that veers into wish-fulfillment fantasy, however, Black Christmas lost me. Its handling of a "feminized" black love interest, Landon (Caleb Eberhardt), is loaded and tricky, too, and ultimately left as a mini-redemptive arc I found to be unnecessary and mishandled. There's oodles to unpack in how to handle an African-American man who: joins a white frat; pursues a white woman; and becomes a heel when he's briefly seduced by a toxic culture but then extricates himself once the Confederate statue is toppled... It's a lot, and I worry that it may suggest something about tokenism, actualization, and assimilation the picture does not have the time or the attention to deal with well. But the breaking point for me is the idea that the trauma of what's come before--and this environment of oppressive and violent sexism--can be explained as something "other" rather than something entirely intrinsic to our national character. I love the mass murder of a bunch of rapist Kavanaughs as much as anyone, believe me, though I'm not sure the catharsis it proffers is anything but temporary--or, worse, merely palliative.
More along my vibe is Nicholas Pesce's entry in the now fourteen-films-long Ju-On series. Known simply as The Grudge, it continues the series' mythology of some places--a single house, usually--being possessed by the strong emotions of someone who has died either in the grips of, or as a result of, a "deep and powerful rage." The curse, as it's called, sticks to anyone who enters said house, and will sometimes follow them around until the hapless victim has perpetuated, or become the victim of, murder most foul. I like the idea of violence as a contagion. Pesce takes that premise and layers on issues of miscegenation, reproductive rights, end-of-life patient rights, and even, obliquely, Redlining as factors contributing to suffering, exploitation, and sometimes violent death. Its conclusion, at odds with that of Black Christmas, is the opposite of cathartic. The Grudge suggests that things are fucked beyond repair, and likely to stay that way. Aaahhh, that's the stuff.
The central figure in this time-skipping anthology is Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough), who's investigating a corpse found in a car in the middle of the woods that appears to have been there for a while and suffered greatly prior to death. It leads her to the home of William and Faith Matheson (Frankie Faison and Lin Shaye), a home that married realtor team Peter and Nina Spencer (John Cho and Betty Gilpin) will later try to sell despite the shady events we're about to watch unfold. None of the people in this film are "traditional" in the white-person-married-to-a-white-person-in-an-upper-middle-class-tri-level-attractively-furnished sense. Muldoon is raising her kid (John J. Hansen) on her own, while the Mathesons (black man, white woman) and the Spencers (Asian man, white woman) are both interracial couples. More, the Mathesons are dealing with Faith's advanced dementia and have hired end-of-life counsellor Lorna (Jacki Weaver) for support and to potentially assist in Faith's suicide. The Spencers, on the other hand, are dealing with a bad diagnosis for their unborn baby and working through whether they want to abort their child or have it despite all the pain and suffering that would entail, for the child and for them.
Mainstream films that may want to deal with even one of the issues presented here would likely revolve around that issue. In The Grudge, they're all of a piece, with the central "curse" that now takes on the dimension of possible metaphor for any number of traumas. That they're to a one centred around a single house takes on further baggage in that conversation about how living in specific areas could have less to do with free choice than buyers imagine. Again, it's a lot. Pesce handles it by giving everything an equivalent gravity and providing opportunities for each storyline to work its way through the bramble in a character-based way. Consider a talk between the Spencers where Nina asks, frightened, if Peter is angry with her for their child being ill. Pinning his frantic reassurance is a subtle moment where Cho gets to go through a range, lightning-fast, of possible responses. Of course he's mad. Of course it's not at her. He definitely wants her to have an abortion. He definitely wants to be a dad. Gilpin gets her range of emotions, too. I don't know that I've ever seen another film express this exact interaction in exactly this way before. It's a tremendous surprise to see it in the thirteenth sequel of a Japanese horror franchise.
I love, too, when William tells Lorna that he welcomes the presence of the little-girl manifestation haunting their home, because it gives him hope of an afterlife where he and Faith might reunite. That it is, in fact, the only hope he has left. And then there's unimaginable horror, and Pesce, who previously made The Eyes of My Mother and Piercing, doesn't look away when these people we've come to like are reduced to terrified, bloodied, mortal pieces of meat. It is precisely what a horror movie can be, in my mind, clear about the atrocity of living and clear about the reality of dying. Are we haunted by death from our first drawn breath? Well, of course we are. Muldoon's partner is grizzled, destroyed Goodman (Demián Bichir), whose former partner, Wilson (William Sadler), is now residing under constant restraint at a psychiatric hospital. Goodman wants very much for Muldoon to stop asking questions and to focus on her son. She doesn't listen, and right when it seems like Pesce is going to give Muldoon one of those hero moments that dispel the curse once and for all...he doesn't. I've seen films more gory and violent than The Grudge, but I haven't seen very many that are more brutal.
Richard Stanley adapts "The Colour Out of Space," H.P. Lovecraft's favourite of his own stories, as the de-anglicized Color Out of Space, doing an exceedingly faithful job of it. The narrator of the story is now a hydrologist named Ward (Elliot Knight) who, while taking samples of well- and groundwater from the Gardner farm, correctly determines that no one should be drinking it. A meteorite has crashed there, you see, and become absorbed into the ground more rapidly than it should have, infecting all the plants and wildlife with some sort of intelligence that, the story surmises, merely wants everything here to be something it's familiar with instead of something it finds weird and scary. This is bad news for alpaca rancher Nathan (Nicolas Cage), his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson), teen kids Lavinia and Benny (Madeleine Arthur and Brendan Meyer), and young Jack (Julian Hilliard), who witness the meteorite smashing into their front yard one night and then bear witness to all hell breaking psychedelically loose immediately after.
A slow-burn that announces its heart of madness at the one-hour mark when Cage goes full Vampire's Kiss, Color Out of Space is South African auteur Stanley's triumphant return after years in exile following his legendarily disastrous attempt to direct The Island of Dr. Moreau and wrangle, in the process, an insane Val Kilmer and an even madder Marlon Brando. He cut his cult bona fides with a pair of underground classics, Dust Devil and Hardware--films I loved as a younger man that have lost their charm for me as an older man. Color Out of Space seems almost polite or timid in its build-up and then unstrung to the point that it feels more chaotic than planful. It's fun, in other words, including a scene it shares with The Grudge (practically to a beat) in which a deranged woman chops carrots a bit too aggressively and for too long. But I'm not sure it's much more than fun. Fun is enough, don't get me wrong, yet Color Out of Space could be more.
I'm thinking of the early reveal that Theresa has recovered from a cancer that has left her feeling "tarnished." Nathan wants to make love to her again--it's been six months since her procedure--and has to coax Theresa back into the sack with tender protestations of her beauty and his love for her. It's really good. The night of their first marital coupling in half a year coincides with the arrival of the meteorite, a thing Nathan hilariously confesses unprovoked to first responders, and the stage is set for the film to explore the coming mutations with cancer's metastasis. I'm going through a couple of things with cancer right now. One with my mother, another with a friend. (Cancer, as it happens, is also what's claimed Detective Muldoon's husband in The Grudge.) I'm the target audience for a body-horror film that makes not recognizing a corporeal self ceded over to a monstrous, alien interloper. Alas, Color Out of Space is not that. What it is, instead, is an almost event-for-event retelling of Lovecraft's classic tale, substituting the source's perspective from a future point in time after these events have resolved for the atrocities unfolding in real-time. The last hour of the film is what you would expect, with weird animals and plants eventually leading to weird and terrible things happening to the hapless Gardner family. And that, for as sloppy and inventive as it gets, is that.
Horror is alive and well. I would even offer that it's thriving in this time and that it always thrives in periods of historic unrest. I had a thought once that you could always tell where the walls were coming down by the quality of the horror the culture was producing. I still think horror is like an indicator species in a swamp: the first, and most sensitive, to exhibit signs of contamination. If we have a future, cultural anthropologists should be able to reconstruct the elements in our ecosystem that have led to the current genre slate. It's not a trick to figure out what was worrying us in the 1950s, and it's still not all that useful. Nevertheless, figuring out what our horror films are reflecting about us right now could possibly serve some function besides autopsy and eulogy. We're not very good anymore at looking at our stories for explanations and warnings about who we are and where we shouldn't go. Our inability to read tea leaves doesn't mean there aren't tea leaves. Anyway, good luck to us. I can't lie to you about our chances, but you have my sympathies.