The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Some Nightmares Before Christmas Or Thereabouts Part 1

Over the last few years, I've watched close to 100 horror movies.

Now, to escape the nightmare of the holidays, I'm ranking them. All of them.



The waning part of the year, with its compounding stressors, layers of psychic damage, and reduced sunlight, broadly sees my mental health take a nosedive. I'll take the autumn over early winter anytime you like, though. In autumn I can at least be extremely Goth about how I'm feeling, without crowds of people following me around singing "there goes Mx Humbug, there goes Mx Grim," and other lyrics of this nature.

For the last few Octobers, a friend of mine has gathered folks together in a chatroom to watch one or more spooky movie every single night. We call it Ghostwatch, after a British horror mockumentary from the 90s. It's a delight; you can get a sense of the experience from Sarah's review video on the films we watched this year. As a result, I have massively increased the number of horror movies I've watched recently. You may have picked up on that, as each movie watching party has produced a few articles from me. It turns out that when you bang a bunch of movies with somewhat related tones and motifs together in a short period, it produces a bunch of unique chemical reactions.

The fruits of those reactions will have to wait--I've amassed quite a few words, but nothing that's ready for publication yet. What to do, though, with all my thoughts on films that couldn't sustain a full article, or were just too obscure to attract readers to a review? Well, I thought, maybe I could put together a number of shorter reviews as part of a whole list... a list, in fact, ranking *every single October film I watched over the last few years?* I won't be writing a review of EVERY film on the list because it's around 90 movies, but the list can give some context to where the fleshed out reviews fall, and the reviews can give some clarity to my ranking process.

How did that ranking process work? Well, I'll tell you, it was simple. I said to myself, making an ordered list is easy. I'll just make the list one movie at a time and simply put each new film in below the films better than it, and above the films worse than it.

Quickly and predictably I realized I had no idea HOW to do that for a lot of comparisons (is Little Shop of Horrors better or worse than The VVitch? Objectively?). Subsequently, I started relying on a sort of gravity effect. I'd start at the top or bottom and shoot rapidly toward the other end until I started meeting cognitive resistance, and then I'd scroll back the other way, and sort of rubber band back and forth until I felt like the film had sort of found its own level. I'm not going to bother justifying this arbitrary and instinctual practice; it's my god damn article and if you don't like it you're free to exit this webpage by following this guide. Oh, also I made another rule, mostly observed: I had to stick with prior decisions. So, over the several weeks where I laboriously ranked films until I got bored, frustrated, or distracted, I repeatedly returned to the list and went, "Wait, I put THAT, THERE? What kind of NITWIT would put THAT, THERE?"

If anyone suggests my opinions are anything less than sacrosanct I'll turn them into bbq. Don't think I won't do it! I'm a great cook and I have a lot of mouths to feed!

There were, however, several films I just couldn't rank.

One, Funeral Parade of Roses, is great. What if Oedipus was about transsexual sex workers? What if it was an experimental arthouse film? If such a thing were the case, I would have no idea how to rank it with a bunch of other horror movies. There's other stuff on this list that strains the definition of horror to the breaking point; this was my hard limit of not knowing what the hell to do. Don't go into this one expecting a happy ending, but it's an astonishing piece of queer cinema, and is truly mesmerizing. I cannot rank it; I can recommend it.

The others--Pink Floyd's The Wall, Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Shock Treatment--are too close to the churning center of my psyche to rank. I've tried unsuccessfully for years now to pull together my reading of these films and others into a comprehensive exploration of the rise of neoliberalism through the lens of Pink Floyd and movies where characters are trapped in the madness of modernity. You can find these articles under the heading "ROOM FOR YOU INSIDE." I've published exactly two in four years. If it wasn't clear, I think these are films all extremely worth watching, but also, I kind of want no one to ever watch them because I'm afraid that people won't like them, and I would take that as a grievous wound to my soul. (Everyone in the Ghostwatch group liked them, though, which is why I'm still here to tell the tale.)

So the list effectively begins with:

UNRANKED:
Funeral Parade of Roses
Pink Floyd's The Wall
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Shock Treatment

Leaving us to begin the list proper with:

93. Halloween Kills (2021)
92. What Keeps You Alive (2018)

I have a theory about broken bones. In the past I suspect it was a little more difficult (though not impossible) to really bend an actor's limb or digit out of shape, particularly if they had to move around a bunch after. When I think of the horror of the 70s through the 90s, I think of buckets and buckets of fake blood. Lots of squirting. I think of horror now as having a lot of cracking and snapping and bending out of shape.

I don't love it! Blood, particularly a good blood spray, doesn't bother me that much, but busted up limbs feel somehow more torturous to witness.

What Keeps You Alive loves the sickening crunch of a broken bone or a bashed skull. It loves having the camera and mic follow the butch protagonist as she's dropped off cliffs, struggles to crawl on busted limbs, gets drowned in a bathtub, and so on. This film is an extended torture session where you get to watch a gay woman get repeatedly brutalized for... pretty slim reasons, frankly. The gimmick... is that she's being brutalized by her *wife* instead of her husband. The serial murderer Bluebeard figure bringing a helpless woman out to the woods to kill her is a LESBIAN this time! Woah dude! What a twist!

Except this antagonist is less a wife than she is a... husband whose actor dropped out, causing the director to recast him with an actress. Nothing else much seems to have changed, though, resulting in a film that feels like it's in the gay uncanny valley. On screen we see women trying to kill each other but it never feels as queer, even in the abortive attempt at a sex scene, as the baseline vibes of even something like Lost Boys or Ginger Snaps. Maybe the director wasn't comfortable with the protagonist, played by his girlfriend, getting too intimate with another woman? The camera seems at times suspiciously into the violence though.

The filmmakers seem to have put considerably more thought into methods of lesbian torture than some of the basic mechanics of the film. The title comes from an anecdote with the moral "you only kill what keeps you alive." Do you? Is... is this meant to be ironic? Because the villain of the film does just sort of kill for the thrill of it... but also for the life insurance money which she's collected from like 8 former wives. I thought there was going to be at least a LITTLE cannibalism given the anecdote is about her father teaching her to hunt and kill, but there was none. Can't fake a death if you eat the liver, I guess, which would make a certain amount of sense if the title of the film didn't hinge on a description of "using every part of the animal". No reveal in the movie has the nightmare impact of, say, Abigail Hobbes in Hannibal discovering that a pillow has been filled with the hair of her father's victims. To so revoltingly poison everything good in a character's life, that character first has to *have* a life, and given how rapidly the film simply jumps to the reveal (by having the hero get shoved off a cliff) there's just no time to establish that life, or seeming interest in doing so.

I have another theory, and it's that gruesome snapped bones is all some of these ostensibly elevated horror films have got. They don't have the wit or inclination to transgress politically or socially, and so they've really got one direction to go in: shock through violence. This is maybe an inauspicious way to start a horror movie list. Let me give you a preview of some later entries: 21 is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which of course needs no introduction, 40 is Susperia 2018, which also employs breaking bones to a much more nauseatingly protracted effect in an early scene I found genuinely difficult and upsetting to watch, and 45 is Tetsuo the Iron Man, which features all sort of metal being jammed in places it doesn't belong. I hope this suffices to demonstrate that it's not gore and brutality and the impact of hard objects on bone that I object to in and of themselves.

What these films have got that What Keeps You Alive lacks are things like a sensible plot, character motivations, chemistry or at least a kind of volatile antipathy between characters, some sense of a coherent understanding of tone, themes, a coherent through line with its major symbols such as the god damn title quote, or a clear reason to exist at all. I suppose I went into the films expecting something like the seething love hate relationship between Hannibal and Will, or Louis and Lestat. Instead I got to watch a guy film a butch dyke get brutalized and tortured.

If I wanted to entertain myself with sickening violence against queer people, I could just spend more time on twitter.

COMPARE:
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Home with a View of the Monster

91. Blood Orgy of the Leather Girls (1988)
90. I Was A Teenage Serial Killer (1993)
89. Inferno (1980)
88. Daughters of Dracula (1972)

This film is so low on the list because it's sort of not a movie. The guy that created it was a real churner of schlock and had a habit of filming multiple movies at once and recutting footage. Consequently the film doesn't have much in the way of plot or characters, though it does have lesbian sex scenes. Don't get too excited, they're almost totally without passion and bewilderingly out of focus. An entire chat full of queers all concurred: this film makes women biting and sucking on each other remarkably, almost shockingly tedious.

And yet there's still some shots in the film that manage to look good. Is that just the power of real film stock used in the era when you had to actually light a movie instead of just editing the digital image in post? Probably. It's enough to get this higher up than Halloween Kills or What Keeps You Alive. It's not offensive. It's just boring.

COMPARE:
Cat People
Invasion of the Bee Girls

87. As Above So Below (2014)
86. The Stuff (1985)
85. Sam Was Here (2016)

If there's a "worth it line" in this list, it might be somewhere around here. The fact that it's so low is a testament either to what good taste our movie viewing group has collectively, or a testament to my own willingness to recommend weird nonsense to people. Lower than this and you're in the zone of films that are actively offensive, or not actually movies, or both. Higher than this, there's a range of maybe ten or twelve movies that either can't pull their ideas together, or can't (or won't) elevate them.

Sam Was Here and the slightly higher on the list Berberian Sound Studio are both in the specific category of "short film adapted and fleshed out into a longer film that forgot the final act entirely." (The film is only an hour and 15 minutes long and does feel like it's missing another 15 minutes or so.) Sam Was Here rolls along compellingly, full of solidly composed shots, a successfully oppressive and weird vibe, and hints at compelling themes... right up until it just sort of, stops. In one sense, the film leaves a lot of its central questions unanswered. The titular protagonist, a door to door salesman of some sort, finds himself alone and hunted by a universally hostile desert community, hounded by a talk radio host, and framed for a range of heinous crimes. Why any of this should be the case is never directly explained. There's no clarity on what the baleful red star in the sky at all times might or might not be. Who's the right wing talk radio guy who seems to have the community under an almost godlike sway? Shrug!

But there's enough material that at times it feels a little overexplained, or at least there's enough "clues" that it's easy for Redditors to put together comprehensive and disappointingly predictable readings. Stop me if you've heard this one: the whole thing is an internal dream conflict between the protagonist and his split personality (a murderer and child molester)! This feels a little unsatisfying to me. If it's what they were going for, I think elements of the film like a maid cleaning up a motel room after the action has concluded, or the unexplained red star, make the theory messy at minimum. And also, I just don't find it to be a particularly compelling plot, I suppose. It has the tendency to reduce everything before The Reveal such as it is to a lot of stakeless faffing about. If it's NOT what they were going for... well... what WERE they?

There's hints, I think, though I feel a bit like I'm groping in the dark for something to hold onto. I was convinced for most of the runtime that they were going in a very specific direction with the red star: it was obviously, I said excitedly to Sarah, the red air traffic light on top of the radio tower from which Sam's persecutor broadcasts.

If that's indeed what it was, there's no indication in the film itself.

And yet I can't shake the feeling there's something there. There's also the strange chopped and screwed conversation Sam has with the radio man, audio from the rest of the film remixed on physical tapes by a never fully seen figure to respond to Sam's furious and frantic interrogation. In its best moments, the film produces a dreadful sense of oppressive surveillance and media spin, the hapless individual incapable of fighting back against an entire society invested completely in the anonymous voice that tells them what to do, who to villainize, who to kill. Maybe that's the reason for all the creepy "Secret Child Killer??" maybe red herring stuff: it allows the film to explore the pathos of someone being gradually gaslit into believing himself a monster. Or maybe he really is a monster and I'm completely off! Whatever!

The film, then, is frustrating but fascinating, a work that feels unevenly cooked, overdone in some places, still raw in others, and critically missing just another 15 minutes.

COMPARE:
Berberian Sound Studio
Mulholland Drive
Michael Clayton
Cure
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

84. Halloween (2018)
83. Dracula (1931) 
82. Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973)


81. Dracula (1958)
80. Our House (Watashitachi no ie) (2017)
79. Train to Busan (2016)
78. The Wave (2015)
77. Berberian Sound Studio

I talked about this one previously in this article no one read.

76. Cat People (1982)
75. Blood Quantum (2019)
74. The Host (2006)
73. Hellraiser (2022)

Sorry gays. I had some problems with this one. Expect an article on my frustrations with this film at some point.

72. The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
71. Suspiria (1977)
70. Jacob's Ladder (1990)
69. A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 (nice) (1985)


68. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
67. The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Shoutout to this film for essentially being a multiverse crossover event of a bunch of Edgar Allen Poe stories. It's decidedly more on the camp end than the outright horror end, but Vincent Price is a delight, and the sets are to die for. What gothic horror got to be colorful?



66. The VVitch (2015)
65. S He (2018)

I just want to quickly give some more information on this as the title doesn't quite do it justice on its own. Though, ok, in fairness, I'm not sure what title COULD explain this movie, a stop motion gender and body horror film entirely starring shoes in a nightmare handicraft world. This is a film about violence and exploitation, often sexual in nature. On the whole the abstracted and deeply alien physiology and biology of the setting actually heightened, for me, the queasy nightmare of its themes. But it also renders the film fascinatingly obscure. It's a film that I feel like I should revisit, but I'm also not sure I want to. If you can find it, and can stomach scenes like this one in the trailer of a high heeled shoe unzipping and stepping into the corpse of a black loafer, it's well worth checking out.

COMPARE:
The Wolf House
Mad God
Belladonna of Sadness
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Precinct 41

64. Army of Darkness (1992)
63. eXistenZ (1999)
62. Day of the Dead (1985)
61. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
60. The Platform (El Hoyo) (2019)

The Platform is one of those high concept horror movies that always has me thinking, not long in, "now how are they possibly going to resolve this?" It's a question of significance for both the plot proper, and for the theme and politics, as they're all typically tangled pretty inextricably.

The Platform contends with both that nailed ending requirement, and also a need to do fresh things with its premise, which can be best summarized as "what if Snowpiercer went up and down instead of sideways". The setup: two people are assigned to a cell within a vertical tower, and get fed through a slowly descending platform covered in a feast. The beat: by the time the platform gets to the lower cells there's not enough food left. The punchline: every month the cell ranking is randomly reassigned so you never know whether you'll wake up to literal feast or famine. The big innovation on the Snowpiercer model really is that the cars get moved around, and also everyone's subject to gravity. You see what I mean about high concept horror?

There seem to be a lot of films like this bouncing around, and a lot of them seem most interested in making fairly facile observations about "human nature", people getting along, how we're all a little prejudiced and everyone making moral claims is a hypocrite and so on. The Platform is refreshing in that it constantly keeps in view the fact that this is an engineered scenario (though its actual purpose is extremely unclear even to the bureaucrats who participate in its operation) designed to vex attempts to improve the conditions of anyone inside. I can't help but feel like it being a Spanish film helps. A lot of the worst "human nature" offenders are resolutely White Dude Hollywood American, just about as far from "human nature" as you can get.

It seems to actually take the world building seriously enough to ask what kinds of characters might end up here, and how might they try to game the system. Everyone can come into the prison with one item of any sort; some frivolously bring entertainment or sentimental items, others weapons, and one character significantly brings a rope to try and climb up. There's also a fascinating unreliability to the story. A lot of characters make an awful lot of claims but things like the limits of their own knowledge or their penchant for cannibalism render those claims suspect. I'm still not entirely sure if the final sequence of the film is, in point of fact, real. It's that kind of movie.

Does it do it though? Does it pull off the ending? Ah, well, hm. Maybe? I can't say I was entirely satisfied but then, I'm genuinely not sure what a satisfying end would look like.

It does remind me of Snowpiercer in that its conceptualization of an exit from the conditions portrayed rests ultimately on a vague hope that future generations can build a better world somewhere outside the system after all the current protagonists are gone. It's not that I don't sympathize with this apocalyptic view, and it's sure better than milquetoast reformism, but there's also this feeling like well the one thing we *can't* do is just attempt proletarian revolution! There seems to be a basic post-Neoliberal, post-68 acceptance that our possible political horizon cannot extend beyond the architecture we've inherited. It's easier to imagine the end of the world &c. &c. Oh, and it also sort of felt like it wanted to be a little bit longer, a miniseries maybe, to just flesh out some of the later characters. It's just increasingly compressed as it goes along, relying on thinner and thinner sketches of the characters as though it's scrambling to fit in all the permutations of its premise it can come up with. Again, I'll take that over a film not knowing what to do with the premise at all.

The Platform is an imperfect film, and it's definitely going to remind you of other films, part of a whole speculative fiction tradition of "wouldn't it be fucked up if we lived in a society?" Its strength derives from its pairing of solid bones--great character work acted well, a sharp script, and a continuous reinvention of the stakes as the film progresses--combined with a meaningful resonance derived from, as Bong Joon Ho put it, our transnational citizenship in the country called "capitalism". If it can't imagine a world beyond this country's borders, well, surely I can have some sympathy for a fellow citizen.

COMPARE:
SHe
Dawn of the Dead
Train to Busan
Woman in the Dunes
Beyond the Black Rainbow

59. Home with a View of the Monster (2019)
58. Halloween Ends (2022)
57. The Beast Must Die! (1974)

The Beast Must Die semi-famously includes a "Werewolf Break" where the film just sort of stops for a minute for the audience to ponder who of the six suspects in the film is, in fact, the Werewolf. Weirdly, I think the film would probably stand better without the gimmick that made it famous, as it does, in the words of director Paul Annett, stop the film dead in its tracks. The film around it doesn't really *need* the gimmick, is the thing: it's got a bunch of great character actors (Peter Cushing and Charles Gray are in this!) in a mansion playing an assortment of weirdos who all could plausibly be a secret werewolf, brought together by a rich eccentric megalomaniac.

The rich eccentric in question is a prize game hunter convinced that the final threshold is to bag a true werewolf, played brilliantly by Calvin Lockhart. Eat your heart out Robert Downey Jr stans, Lockhart is a real master of capturing the tension between the character's clear megalomania and how charismatic and compelling he is to watch as his quest drives further and further into the realms of madness. Which makes it so frustrating that Lockhart is another black actor, very comparable to Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead, whose filmography includes far less leading roles than he, frankly, earned. Well, maybe that's anachronistic: both men were accomplished theater actors as well, and I'm sure that starring in horror films was, comparatively, slumming it.

I can't help but feel, though, that while The Beast Must Die isn't a masterpiece of horror, it's been unfairly overlooked, and with it a very compelling lead I'd put up there with many more popularly known antiheroes.

COMPARE:
Night of the Living Dead
Masque of the Red Death
Night of the Hunter

And next time we'll delve more into the weird messy middle where so many of the films I'm excited to talk about sit.

This Has Been

Some Nightmares Before Christmas Or Thereabouts Part 1

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