The Horror List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

An ongoing survey of the Criterion Forum membership to create lists of the best films of each decade and genre.
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colinr0380
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Re: The Horror List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#2276 Post by colinr0380 » Sun May 15, 2022 7:32 am

Our House (Anthony Scott Burns, 2018)

After finding out about the short films and music of Anthony Scott Burns a little while ago I tracked down his debut feature Our House and gave it a watch. This turns out to be more a film about coming to terms with loss and moving on (for everyone's sake) than a horror film particularly, although the final act does take a turn for the overtly scary and spooky.

The plot involves college kid Ethan doing experiments to try and discover a potentially groundbreaking source of harnessing and transmitting electrical signals but who finds his life upended when his parents die in an accident and he has to leave college (and his girlfriend/co-inventor) behind and take a customer service job in an electronics store to support his younger brother and sister and keep the house going. A lot of the first section of the film is about everyone in the family being trapped in stultifying routines of trying to continue life as it was in the 'before times' and prevent too much more upheaval for the youngsters. But despite the continuity of existing in the same space of the family home still it is a very strange situation of absent parental figures for everyone who remains, perhaps most pronounced for Ethan as he is both in a new situation of being the primary carer and struggling with it a bit, and of being the person whose beginning life as a separate being away from the family home was suddenly cut short to drag him back there.

There is a nicely sketched in opening scene of Ethan bringing his girlfriend (who his family get on well with) to dinner but getting into a bit of an argument (or rather disappointing his parents by letting them down, which is far worse!) over his wanting to leave early to do an illicit lab experiment after dark on the university campus with his machine. This is a scene which really nicely bookends with the final scene of the film, as the re-formed family in an all new home sit down to a similar happy family meal. But it is also there to act as the prompt for some guilt, as Ethan not being there the next morning to take his sister Becca to her swimming practice is what leads to his parents going to pick her up instead and ending up in their (thankfully not shown for easy drama) fatal truck accident. This leads to a bit of a conflict between Ethan and his younger brother Matt later on, when in his angry grief at seeing his brother getting obsessed all over again with tinkering with the machine that had led to him not being there when they needed him (which feels cathartic and a much needed explosion at the same time, just to get it out there rather than bottling it up), Matt throws the idea that if Ethan had just been there it would have changed the course of events entirely (and by implication have sent Ethan under that truck instead?), and that it was Ethan's selfishness that caused the death of their parents. Which is of course not really correct, and Ethan tries to explain that but gives up, but it shows the way that people often try and search in their minds for a way to find sense of events and make loss 'explainable' and 'understandable' in some fashion, because the idea that such horrible events can occur by random chance can be too upsetting to contemplate. Questions of "What if I had done it differently? Would there have been a different outcome?" can be the bane of the existence for those left behind trying to make sense of the senseless.

There is a sense in this early section of the film, and particularly in the argument scene, of ideas of fate and if there is some ability to avoid it. As well as the snowballing of minor actions into having major consequences. Although this is a story about people constantly looking backwards on things they have lost and seeing the moment that everything changed. So they can pinpoint where 'fate' intervened in their lives but, like all of us, only in retrospect (As an aside, this may actually be the primary appealing theme of the whole time traveling genre because in those stories people get to omnisciently control fate by holding all of the answers to a past situation. Although of course we know that many time traveling stories get more complicated than that with their butterfly effects of altering previous events often having unintended consequences! The moral lesson often being just to accept things the way they are and not tamper with the set course of events!). That argument between Matt and Ethan is really the climax of the first section of the film which has been showing the attempt to continue family routine being undermined by grief: being unable to get out of bed; doing things in the wrong order, or forgetting to pick the kids up from school because your mind is preoccupied; spacing out at work, etc.

Anyway Ethan gets his machine mysteriously delivered (by the girlfriend? :-k ) to the family home and begins tinkering with it in his spare time, maybe trying to recapture a sense of his stunted ambitions as much as anything else. I felt that the most interesting thing about the middle section of the film was that as the device begins to work and invoke ghostly apparitions within the house the two halves of the family go in different directions, but they are all trying to reclaim their past lives in some ways. Ethan is trying to get back to his experiments and ambitions that he had in college and his approach to the device is as a technical challenge of boosting the power (with the help of his electrician neighbour, more on whom a little later!) and he is oblivious and then dismissive of the ghosts at first; whilst Matt is retreating to their parent's untouched since the accident bedroom and along with Becca gets the chance (or assumes that they get the chance) to have their parents back. I do really like that sense in this section that there is the creator who is just interested in (and maybe blinded by) the challenge of whether they can do something; whilst you have the audience for the device who actually are impacted by and experience the effects (positive or negative) the most directly, and add the human dimension to the technological breakthrough, but who themselves may be interpreting things wrongly.

Then once the presence of the ghosts becomes undeniable Ethan himself gets caught up in turning his device from one which has was intended to have a wider practical purpose into joining his brother and sister in fully committing to figuring out how to make the device more powerful in order to bring their parents back from the other side. In some ways Ethan gets overwhelmed yet again by the family home and his responsibilities (to his siblings, and to his absent parents) that take priority over his more worldly ambitions.

But the twist here is that:
SpoilerShow
its not the parents that the device is bringing back. Or maybe not just the parents? The film leaves it a little ambiguous, but I more lean towards the idea that it was other ghosts 'playacting' as the parents for Becca all along. Especially because (giving the title extra meaning) it appears that the only ghosts who appear are those of people who had died violently in the radius of the machine's signal. The parents had died somewhere else in their car crash, so their spirits presumably could not have been inhabiting the family home. The subplot with the electrician neighbour is key to this, as the neighbour had mentioned to Ethan early in the film that he had also lost someone and it turns out in the final section that it was his wife to suicide in their home and that once boosted the radius of the machine's signal had been wide enough to have accidentally extended beyond Ethan's house into that of the neighbour and provided him his own encounter with his (unfortunately vengeful) wife.

Instead of their parents, the ghosts inhabiting the family home (playing with Becca) turn out to have been a previous occupant Alice who was a girl murdered by her stepfather Henry, with Alice seemingly being forced by Henry to play with Becca (and to a lesser extent Matt) and pretend to be their parents in order to get them to boost the signal of the machine to get back into the real world. The climax involves Becca being kidnapped and whilst Matt and Ethan's returned girlfriend try to reach her, Ethan himself has to get to the neighbour's house to try and retrieve the machine the neighbour stole to selfishly try and bring his wife back to him. Which interestingly undermines the neighbour's attempt to sympathise with Ethan early in the film about the pain of loss never entirely leaving but it changes into something that can at least be lived with, as he shows through his actions that as soon as there may be a chance to get a lost person back, he would go for it. I think that the neighbour is by far the most tragic figure in the film as whilst Ethan and his family move away Poltergeist-style for a fresh start at the end of the film the neighbour remains trapped in the house that his wife killed herself in, and that violent encounter with her spirit shows that even if he could bring her back there are anger issues on her part there towards him that had probably led to her actions of committing suicide in the first place! Sometimes it may be better to live on without the knowledge that your loved one that passed away probably hated you rather than conjuring them up again and confirming that theory for certain! And of all films I had the neighbour subplot in American Beauty come to mind the most in the characterisation of the neighbour here as seemingly having it all together when viewed from the outside, but hurting just as badly as Ethan and his family are behind closed doors.

This final section was really interesting and reminded me surprisingly (in addition to Lucio Fulci's The House By The Cemetery, especially in the way that a child is used as a conduit and placed in the most danger by the apparitions. Although this film is far less bleak - not to mention in no way as gorily violent - than the Fulci!) of that Nigel Kneale TV play The Stone Tape. In both The Stone Tape and Our House the main character is trying to research a new technology which accidentally bridges the gap between the spirit world and real world, then somewhat charmed by the notion of communication across that divide decides to fully commit to their new direction and see what results. And in a similar final twist The Stone Tape reveals that beyond the 'surface layer' of seemingly benign ghostly apparitions there is a much older, dangerous layer of vengeful spirits waiting to be uncovered. Because only evil, hatred and anger seem to be emotions that keep a spirit tied to a place rather than being able to move on.

And move on Ethan and his family do, as Ethan destroys his device, they sell the family home (giving up the last tangible connection with their parents) and all move with the girlfriend (whose character is actually utilised really well in this, as a sidelined figure for the majority of the action but probably the most sensible character, and her return to the story late in the film suggests that she is the final piece of the puzzle to enable the family to re-form itself into something new, and move on) to a new place that is both closer to Becca's swimming pool lessons and with the suggestion that Ethan might be returning to college himself.
I ended up really enjoying this film. It is dealing with a very heavy topic of grief and loss but in a really sensitive manner and seems to care for all of the characters involved. This also makes me curious about seeing the 2010 film Ghost From The Machine (or Phasma Ex Machina), which Our House is apparently a bigger budget remake of, especially as the Shout! Factory Blu-ray released in the US only has an eight minute featurette and the trailer, so there may be scope for a more comprehensive special edition of this which could include that earlier film for comparison. My assumption going by the footage in that trailer is that it appears that Ghost From The Machine may focus more on the Solaris-style relationship between the neighbour and his inexplicably returned suicidal wife rather than using that aspect as a background, albeit resonant, subplot as in Our House.

Come True (Anthony Scott Burns, 2020)

"I read that in one sitting. Couldn't put it down. It's really good. There was a kind of... a haunting sadness to it. You should definitely buy it. Have you read much Phillip K. Dick? He's completely paranoid. Genius concepts though. Stuff that will make you think."

A young woman plagued by disturbing nightmares and seemingly estranged from her mother and left sleeping on park benches and at friend's houses signs up for a sleep study both for a place to lay her head and a way of looking into her problem. But she finds the researchers become more and more shifty and evasive about their true intentions, whilst her nightmares become more intense and cause vivid bodily reactions.

This is a really difficult film to talk about without spoilers, as it is one of those stories where the situation becomes more inexplicable and enigmatic until the final moments put everything into context. But what a beautiful ride! Lots of films came to mind during this: the slowly emptying world of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse; the researchers experimenting on unwitting 'volunteers' made me think a little about the end of Martyrs, but also of course early Cronenberg; and especially that Ken Russell segment of Aria, mixed with a bit of Shinya Tsukamoto's Haze and Kore-eda's After Life ("You guys, I'm sorry but we have four more of these [interviews] to do until I get to go home and sleep"), although that may already have said too much! There also feels to be a big influence from the 'walking simulator' games (Dear Esther, What Remains of Edith Finch, Layers of Fear, etc) which are all about constant, linear, perpetual movement through bizarre worlds that gets contextualised here into nightmare sequences and wonderfully a literal climax involving sleepwalking. I like the dream sequences themselves but even better is the seamless way that they keep transitioning from the waking world into the dream one (my favourite is the second sequence of Sarah surreptitiously entering and leaving her house with her mother calling her name but only seeing the fluttering curtains at the open window (which itself its heartbreaking in retrospect) before going to sleep on the park slide again, with the stars above winking out before the dream begins), which only gets more complicated during the sleepwalking sequence as the two worlds are layered on top of each other.

It interestingly feels as if it is the mirror opposite from Our House. Where in that film we are looking from the outside in at ghostly apparitions, instead here the characters are inside the situation which seems more vivid than the increasingly empty and devoid of life outisde world. It is as if they are the ghosts walking through a dream of their lives. And the idea of a collective dream state is a fascinating one: that we all share a kind of a collective set of imagery that at a deep primordial level can be shared between dreamers. One of the things that I particularly loved about the film at the mid-point is that it goes from alluding to abusive families and exploitational researchers to a kind of love story as however scary the nightmares are, there is a kind of solace that can be taken from not feeling alone (In that sense I was reminded a little of Paperhouse too in the central relationship between two people who find solace in sharing, and shaping, the same dream world together, enjoying the ability to play at vampires together), before even that proves to be rather illusory and a deeper reckoning needs to occur.

The soundtrack of course is wonderful and really the film's entire reason for existing in the state that it does (incidentally if that particular song seems familiar, Electric Youth also did the song "A Real Hero" that featured prominently in Drive). Along with the beautifully moody original score I really loved that it uses the dreamy Coelacanth for its two sequences of looking at dreamers from an outsider's perspective, which previously appeared during the tiger stroking sequence in Michael Mann's Manhunter film.
SpoilerShow
So it turns out this is all about a person in a coma with everything in the film, not just the dream sequences, being a projection of her mind. Which would explain why the trip to see a cinema showing of Night of the Living Dead gets reduced to abstracted screaming, because that is perhaps just what stuck in Sarah's mind about the film.

It is a relatively simple, even obvious, story but I absolutely love that I have so many questions after that ending. Is her friend Zoe also briefly in the coma-world with her (did they get into an accident together?) and that is why she is briefly around for the first half before entirely disappearing? It makes that scene in the waiting room of the film suddenly become very moving ("I've been coming here since I was 5. Aaron and I go way back"; "I was 16 when I started coming here. I guess old Meyer just loves to see us sleep"), with the idea that for some (many?) being in a coma-world is a blessed relief from the pain and horror of reality, and that is why the figures constantly on the edges of perception and paring people rudely away are so irritating and upsetting, because they stand for the end of the reverie, for better or worse.

How come there are more guys in the study? Are men more prone to getting into comas?

We eventually get layers of dreamstates on top of each other without warning in the final section, as prompted by the shared confidences of witnessing Jeremy's own dreams the main couple make love but that causes Sarah to fall into a coma within a coma - a deeper level of consciousness - and prompts the final sleepwalking section as those who remain of the researchers (who themselves are trying to look for a way out through scientific and experimental by proxy means) are reduced to just following her through the woods until she reaches a doorway (presumably the doorway to death) that she is able to be 'woken up' from and turn away from at the very last moment. Then the return through the woods brings both her and her companions into contact with the shadow figures, who I presume are the abstract representation of waking life and the painful jolt into consciousness that Sarah and most of the rest of the characters have been recoiling from in terror in subconscious knowledge of what they represent.

Which makes Sarah 'saving' Jeremy from the figures at one point, and keeping him in the dream world both an unwittingly selfish move in preventing him from returning to terrifying consciousness but also a way to keep her connection with him and continue their burgeoning romance too. The implication in her 'killing' him once she comes out of the coma within a coma (in which she gets her phone, and thereby her communication with the outside world and her mother, back) is that she has helped him to leave his own coma, and the appearance of her vampire teeth from their shared dream is showing that Sarah is coming to an awareness of her waking world being an illusion itself - one that she can have a more conscious control over rather than just sleepwalking through or suffering the depredations of - and that Jeremy is still alive out there somewhere. It is kind of a more hopeful version of the relationship between DiCaprio and Marion Cottilard in Inception in that sense!

And I love that beyond Sarah's individual story that it doesn't negate the idea of a collective dreaming subconscious that everyone maybe shares and can be tapped into. She and Jeremy (as with the characters in Paperhouse) are able to connect across space and eventually form a relationship that provides a respite against everything else. And the technology is not a malign evil here, as it often is in many horror or sci-fi films, but is being put to a therapeutic use! I wonder if now that Sarah has come to the realisation about the nature of her world and that she has agency within it she will wake up, or spend some time in the coma still to enjoy her powers to shape the dreamworld and maybe help fellow coma suffers within it she may run into?
I love that it seems hopeful rather than despairing, and that for a film that starts out as a horror or dark sci-fi film (or an abstract film about dealing with familial abuse, or men taking advantage of women, which are all notions that are raised subliminally but eventually reveal themselves to be stand ins for other themes) it eventually feels to be much more about the love story. Certainly one of the most fascinating films of the decade so far, and another great example of ambitious psyche-exploring Canadian sci-fi to rank up there with Cube and Beyond The Black Rainbow.
Last edited by colinr0380 on Sun Aug 07, 2022 2:25 pm, edited 8 times in total.

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Re: The Horror List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#2277 Post by therewillbeblus » Sun Jun 26, 2022 12:43 pm

Revisited the Scream series over the past week to catch up with the latest entry (except for the third movie, because life is short), and I was surprised to find that I loved Scre4m the most by far, surpassing the second film as the best of the series. What it has to say about the stimulation of digital fandom transcends some cheap shot at dopamine hits, and likens this ubiquitous and tragically-warping psychosocial evolution vis segregating media broadly toward a fear of fatalistic antisocial tendencies growing from this unstoppable, developing beast. That the film manages to pull this off without condescending to Gen Z or youth in particular, and takes care to engage with the zeitgeist's wavelength on the allure of influencers and their low-effort/high-reward outcomes, is an admirable strength. The movie pushes the first film's ideas about fame further and deeper into relevant spaces than that film did because instead of commenting on a fear-mongering idea of media's influence on consumers, it prays on the relatable experience of everyone who hasn't been living under a rock for two decades.

The newest film, unfortunately, is saying nothing- posturing at ideas about comparing 'elevated horror' of A24 and other indie studios to classics but never following through on its promises, because it doesn't know how. Nor do I, as it's a pretty empty concept if you look past the relevance of horror's arthouse appeal, as everyone making this movie should have done after its pitch. The film basically tries to do what the fourth movie does in establishing motives of inherent societal thwarted belongingness prompting a murderous drive to be a 'part of' non-social ideas - though it's also trying to ape the second's merits of self-parody too, only sloppily, unnecessarily, and worse of all, sincerely without creative wit. The fourth movie already accomplished this right out of the gate in its incredible Russian Doll opening -especially the gag with two terrific blonde actress cameos. That was economical and imaginative, but the fifth film attempts to engage in similar basic meta-fare with a tired and overstated explanation by the killers in its final act that makes no sense and is no fun. Just go watch Scream 4 twice. Also, how dare you waste Kyle Gallner's talents like that

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Re: The Horror List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#2278 Post by therewillbeblus » Wed Jul 06, 2022 1:07 pm

Mr Sausage wrote:
Wed Dec 23, 2020 1:33 pm
The Funhouse (Tobe Hooper, 1981)
It’s tempting to see this as a transition point for Hooper between the grating, raw nerve style of his more exploitation-esque 70s films and the slicker, more traditional, more straightforwardly comical horror work of the 80s. So there’s a share of grime and shrieking, but also traditional jump scares and well-orchestrated suspense and stalking sequences. But of course Salem’s Lot was pretty traditional, so, dunno. The carnival feels authentic; there are no hackneyed attempts to make it creepy or unsettling in a filmic way. The low rent, broken down atmosphere of a real backwoods carnival is allowed to stand on its own. As slasher films go, this is a mostly restrained effort, emphasizing atmosphere, build up, and suspense over violence and gore. I’m not overly impressed with Hooper’s post-Texas Chainsaw work, but this particular movie is to his credit.
At first this felt like Hooper playing it safe with an extremely loose narrative approach and decisive dive into ambiance via isolated set pieces, which risked disengagement from lack of direction or surrogate investment. However, it's a quietly ambitious skeletal strategy, for by the time the film was well into its last half-hour, it had cast a spell on me in revealing itself to be something I didn't expect: less an involving slasher than a fill-tilt exercise in voyeurism. While a film like Rear Window constantly interrupts our spectating opportunities for deviating attention to gravitate us back to a multidimensional and relatable protagonist in an economic, predictable flow, Hooper will just plant his canvas characters in a position to observe and then leave us there for an irregular length of time, prompting some disorienting whiplash when we return to the vague and trivial focal point of these vapid principals. Now, this is no Hitch, and his masterpiece has more to say and ignites deeper reflection with its fine-tuned methodology of editing and overall thematic construction. Still, I found myself impressed with how far Hooper pushed his structural conceit and how, through elisions, it slyly has a lot to say about how we got lost in depersonalization from objectively active voyeurism reflecting a subjectively passive approach of engagement with our surroundings.

The "characters" disappear for extended stretches of time and when we finally get a glimpse of the masked killer and then cut back to the group, I forgot we were even supposed to be watching the scene from their perspectives, let alone that the film was supposed to be a slasher! The film is reflexively ungrounded in narrative form like a funhouse, and has an unhealthy distance from its characters, which aids its structuralist refutation of holds that we require to secure us to a linear, predictable path. Hooper isn’t implementing technique in particularly novel ways like Hitchcock’s film, but instead is breaking introductory rules of cinema to unexpectedly heightened effect, which in turn showcases how much we rely upon them during rote voyeuristic practice. The most glaring example is that, had Hooper used simple continuity to glance back at his group of kids while they watch what they watch, any commentary or higher Art reading would be muted, but because he refuses to provide such a basic service to his audience, the narrative breaks are hypnotic and transitions back are jarring.

There’s an arrhythmic tempo that's unnerving as window dressing attractions feel securely-placed but are always threatening to become plot devices that intrude in on a hazy hangout movie (and eventually do in the final act!), but that rollercoastering course itself is part of the amusement. The film establishes itself as a slasher from the deliberate Halloween/Psycho homage in its opening, then tricks us into losing ourselves with confusion first ('Is this going to be a slasher?') and then surrendering into whatever this 'is', passively disengaging from the main group and accepting whatever is gracing us across the screen. Then, just when we're comfortably relaxed in a voyeuristic routine of observing portmanteau arcs with detachment from self, Hooper reminds us that, wait, his film is going to be a slasher after all, and abruptly casts its group members into those slasher roles at the last minute for some acute action to expedite the necessary killings. It's also cheeky how the kids watch the masked killer emasculate himself sexually, which subverts the dehumanizing monstrous nature of the role's intimidating presence with an opportunity to carefully survey and mock from afar, only for the killer to come back and violate these kids in the exact ways they, like we the audience, assumed they were safely shielded from when statically perched in an aloof dimension of attention for... basically a whole hour with minimal activity?!

The final moments meditate on how traumatized the final girl is, mirroring our own delayed cognizance to what the F just took place, but even when she's in the thick of it, the tone is especially perturbing for a slasher film due to a polarized rationale compared to typical intragenre fare. We've had no exposure to aligning with this woman, and she's taken a backseat to become one with the passive audience instead of the other way around.. so when she's thrust into an actual narrative of threat, screaming and confused, it's as if Hooper is coercing the audience into a position they didn't sign up for- despite signing up for that very experience at the beginning, pre-desensitization to a new rhythm; a coaster switching tracks on its patrons.

I can see how and why this film would fall completely flat for some audiences, but I think it's far more intelligent than what it flaunts at us on its shallow surface, redistributing vacuous vehicles into place on a ride that gives them dense subjective meaning for the viewer vis horrific sensations that range from physiological to psychological to existential. I wonder how it’ll play on revisits now that I’m aware of the central anti-slasher gimmick, if you can call it that, for part of the fun is in acclimation to what’s happening here. Though perhaps like Rear Window, knowing how things end will allow me to allocate more attention to the richness of Hooper’s grammatical detail and process, cultivating a deeper appreciation. Okay, now I’m ready for the board to throw tomatoes at me for comparing a forgotten Tobe Hooper B-movie to one of Hitchcock’s greatest.

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Re: The Horror List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#2279 Post by colinr0380 » Fri Aug 19, 2022 10:02 am

I really liked this: every Gemini Home Entertainment video (at the time: there have been two more videos since) played simultaneously. Aside from the general tone starting normal and then darkening there were some fun to note sync ups of imagery, text and content are quite striking when viewed in this manner.

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