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 22, 2022

Some Nightmares Before Christmas Or Thereabouts Pt 2

The seasonal countdown of horror movies continues, with werewolves as romantic metaphor, the horror of adolescence, and a bunch of films whose place on this list is real unstable.




58. Kwaidan (1964)
55. Tragedy Girls (2017)
54. The Blob (1988)
53. Gojira (1954)
52. Cure (1997)
51. NOPE (2022)

Nope is the first Jordan Peele film I've ever seen, and objectively it should be higher on the list. Subjectively, it's 51.

That's not really a knock on the film, though, so much as a window into the weird, specific process I used to create this list. Nope is a film I expect to grow on me. I certainly haven't stopped thinking about it since I watched it. It's often a little bit bizarre and inaccessible, with elements of the narrative not quite meshing together in direct causal ways. I get the impression that a number of folks assumed the opening scene, where a chimpanzee goes on a murderous rampage through a sitcom filming, was directly connected to what the film hints is an alien menace. Nope! I don't even think that's a *wrong* reading, exactly. The film's language and genre conventions and fixation on the limits of our ability to explain fluke events makes it a perfectly plausible preliminary reading.

I wouldn't characterize the ongoing revisions of those expectations as a twist, exactly, so much as just, you know, the process of reading. It being at 51 on the list is, I suppose, my way of acknowledging how the film makes me uneasy, how that process of reading is going to be an ongoing one. Suspiria 2018 is somewhat higher on the list this year, as I've started to process it more and found myself returning to think about it repeatedly. Last year it would've probably been around here.

There are things about the film that feel genuinely hard to swallow. For one thing, it's tonally strange. Sometimes it's almost horror comedy. If anything, that heightens the moments when violence strikes: swiftly, mercilessly, and often fairly meaninglessly. An awful lot of people die in this movie in a way that genuinely makes my skin crawl, and the worst part is the whole time I found myself thinking "ok but SURELY he's not gonna just-". Dear reader. He absolutely is gonna just. The film is also laden with potential hooks for analysis. It feels self consciously about Hollywood and celebrity as a kind of consuming maw, in a way that resonated with me precisely because Jordan Peele is one of the few contemporary directors who actually does live up to the hype. Is that a distorting feature, that immersion in Hollywood politics and culture? Is it a distorting feature that I go in hyper aware of Peele's place in contemporary entertainment, a place so intimidating that till now I've kept thinking "well, I should hold off watching Get Out until I'm *really in the right headspace to appreciate it*"? I'm not sure how to resolve those questions, and that does intrigue me even as I feel like I'm left not totally knowing what to think of the movie.

I'm finding, weirdly, that as I go through this list it's not the high or low ends that I'm most compelled to write and think about. Those feel like either solved problems, or unsolvable ones. It's this space in the middle where I find films like Nope, elusive but not completely beyond comprehension, intriguing but with a power or alienness that defies easy engagement.

COMPARE:
Little Shop of Horrors
10 Cloverfield Lane
In the Mouth of Madness
Under the Skin

50. Let The Right One In (2008)
49. One Cut of the Dead (2017)

How do you talk about One Cut of the Dead? It's tricky, because this is a film that structurally unfolds, transforming into something completely different from its start. I guess that's a literally flowery way of saying "this is a film with a great big Twist and I don't want to give that Twist away." And unlike Nope I really do think it constitutes a decided Twist (though don't ask me to come up with a strict taxonomy for where the two split apart). I do think it's worth it to experience the film fresh so that you can experience what it's like to piece together how it all fits together. I promise, it's not a let down.

Though, that said, I think that framing betrays a certain nervousness about the film, a sense that maybe if the film's transformations got spoiled it just... wouldn't quite hold up as well. That's how the film seems to have wound up in the middle of the pack here, despite being such a hit, and despite how much I enjoyed the trick in the moment. I got what it was doing, and enjoyed it, and I'm not sure I necessarily need to get anything more from it on a rewatch.

Unless I wanted to show it to someone who had never seen it before.

How the heck would I *sell* a friend on it though? There's always the power of my own immaculate reputation as exemplified by this objectively correct list, but I think it's possible to at least gesture at the experience of the film without going too far into specifics. The film's title already gives away the conceit: it's a single cut zombie horror film. Sorta Blair Witch by way of Evil Dead 2, or maybe the other way around. And then it's something more.

If it's got one trick, that one trick is worth seeing performed masterfully.

COMPARE:
Evil Dead 2
Night of the Living Dead
Blair Witch Project

48. November (2017)

I got quite a ways into my mental plan for this review before I remembered, oh, right, I should probably mention that the movie's shot in black and white, huh. It sort of slipped my mind. The colorless photography feels fitting for the subject, a medieval folktale about unrequited love and alliances with supernatural powers, not just because the story is about old things and as we all know the past was in black and white. No, it feels purposeful, a way of stylistically focusing on light and shadow and murky twilight, the paleness of snow and the dead that walk and visit the living, the grime of mud that covers a girl that shapeshifts between human and wolf, the shifting boundaries of good and evil.

November is part of this strange contemporary moment we're having of a return to medievalism, an attempt I suppose to understand the "dark ages" not as empty homogenous time acting as the prelude to enlightened modernity but history in its own right. The characters in November are anything but homogenous, certainly not homogenously Christian. Selling ones soul to the devil in order to build a Kratt, a kind of farm-tool-and-bone servant, is standard practice; the protagonist is (without this being remarked upon) a werewolf who consorts with witches... hell EVERYONE seems to consort with witches and the boundary between witchcraft and just practical life skills is decidedly fuzzy. Visiting nobility from Germany are bewildered by these seeming unchristianized, uncivilized peasant traditions. The approach of the film is to take these folkloric elements and go, ok, how would this operate for these characters, assuming the peasantry are, you know, just people, like us?

Mostly, people try to do everything they can to make their hardscrabble lives easier, whether it be through mundane theft or using currants to trick the devil into thinking they've signed their souls over with blood in return for a living tool servant. More often than not, this leads in the long term to disaster. The film is decidedly a tragic one, the mechanisms of its plot slowly winding toward a quietly apocalyptic conclusion. I don't get the feeling that it's passing moral judgment on these characters, really, though. Sometimes shit just happens. Sometimes you get the living avatar of the Plague, and sometimes the Plague gets you. The characters are tragically flawed, but largely sympathetic.

Well, there's one rape scene that I honestly found offputting, kind of weirdly shot compared to the rest of the film, and a bit unnecessary? Look, November is also a fucking *weird* movie. It has an episodic structure, a bunch of odd characters and plot threads running around, and its desire to present the magical elements as simply a part of the lived and natural world of the characters means you sometimes just have to kinda roll with the obtuse shit it's throwing at you. It's the kind of film that I think would benefit from a rewatch. It's also often very funny, in an absurdist folktale sort of way, though never becoming, you know, Python-esque. Early on someone thoughtlessly commands a Kratt to build a ladder out of bread, and the thing gets so upset at the obvious impossibility that it explodes. It's great.

What's the appeal of folk horror at this moment, I wonder? Well, ok, notable: some of the other stuff on this list that feels like folktale or fairytale horror came from the 80s or 90s, and a lot of it is from Europe. This film is based on a frustratingly untranslated Estonian novel. Still, I think it's interesting what the framing opens up in terms of an ability to tell this sort of episodic, weird, wandering tale that gleefully defies the Hollywood Style. I wouldn't say it's remotely *nostalgic* for premodern Europe. But I think it might be for a form of pre-corporate storytelling, and the strange moments of high contrast and muddy greys that are possible through a storytelling that simply follows characters through their lives without trying to color code the world into Good Guys and Bad Guys.

And hey as the rest of this list attests, I'll always make time for a tragic werewolf girl.

COMPARE:
The VVitch
The Company of Wolves
Faust
The Masque of the Red Death
A Field in England

47. Scanners (1981)

I heard this movie, about very autistically coded psychics battling over whose vision for the future of humanity would prevail, was a lesser Cronenberg. It's not! It's got that weird Cronenberg tendency to have plot threads that sort of truncate or go nowhere but comparatively it's a pretty tight film that does actually rely on the strength of thriller intrigue to keep everything working. It's worth checking out!

46. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
45. Tetsuo The Iron Man (1989)
44. Evil Dead 2 (1987)
43. Ginger Snaps (2000)

Jennifer's Body feels like a last gasp of good cinema for a while post-9/11; Ginger Snaps is almost perfectly the last gasp pre-9/11. (Probably notable that Ginger Snaps is Canadian, but maybe less notable than Canadians would have you believe.) It's a grungy, nasty film in a lot of ways. Jennifer's Body gets some catharsis into the mix; Ginger Snaps by the end really is a horror movie, a rolling tragedy that gradually loses all the Heathers-esque snark of the opening for real sincere sorrow.

The central metaphor of Ginger Snaps--lycanthropy as STD and/or the onset of puberty--feels obvious and on the nose, but the fact that it can't quite make up its mind which of those things it represents makes the metaphor significantly more interesting. This isn't a film that lives or dies on the strength of its metaphorical representation. Rather, it lives (and dies) with the apocalyptically codependent relationship between its two main characters, the titular Ginger and her sister Brigitte. The adolescent sexuality stuff is just the grimy water in which the two girls tread.
 
It connected for me because I was also a weird morbid kid, though I was nowhere near as talented as these two. And god damn they are talented: mostly they spend their time producing extremely elaborate horror movie polaroids of their own murders and suicides. Like, real professional grade stuff. I never felt like the film was pathologizing that impulse in particular, and the film is very interested in Ginger as a tragic figure.

It is also, however, a film primarily from Brigitte's perspective as she slowly comes to terms with a realization I think anyone who grew up with goths and metalheads and people who read Johnny the Homicidal Maniac will be familiar with. It is the realization that the person you thought you were playing a game with does, in fact, mean it. That someone you love might be, if not a bad person, then at least a dangerous one, someone who can and will hurt you. "Toxicity" gets thrown around in a fairly obnoxious way these days, one of the many words the internet discourse has rendered meaningless through overapplication, but the relationship between Ginger and Brigitte turns increasingly toxic as the film goes on and Brigitte realizes that their maxim of "out by sixteen or dead on the scene, but together forever" is less a vow of staying true to themselves and each other than it is, sincerely, a suicide pact Ginger takes very seriously. And like Jennifer's Body, the film is messily wrapped up in queer desire all the more troubling for its incestuous nature.

If Ginger was just a monster, or the love between the sisters was less sincere, the film wouldn't work at all. The murkiness of its metaphors, the absence of straightforward heroes and villains, the way that Ginger, much like JD in Heathers, is plausibly charismatic and relatable, the way it's hard to tell how much of Ginger's bloodlust was always there and how much is the result of her tragic accidental werewolfism... all of these things make the film compelling to think about. But ultimately all this complexity relies on a very simple story: realizing that someone you love might just be a monster, but still not wanting to let go, even at the cost of your own life.

COMPARE:
The Lost Boys
Tragedy Girls
Jennifer's Body

42. Personal Shopper (2016)
41. Dracula (1992) 

You will note that this Dracula, which has a werewolf sex scene, has been ranked twice as high as Dracula (1931), which infamously does not have a werewolf sex scene.

40. Suspiria (2018)
39. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
38. Malignant (2022)
37. In The Mouth of Madness (1994)

I heard this movie, about Stephen King inviting Outer Gods into reality, was a lesser Carpenter. It's not! It's a wild time, one of the best attempts at capturing the vibes of the Weird, the sense of reality inexorably in subtle ways warping into something impossible. It absolutely deserves to be in the horror pantheon if for no other reason than the iconic refrain: "Do you read Sutter Cane?"

36. The Company of Wolves (1984)

I don't understand why this film doesn't have a deranged cult following like that of Labyrinth.

Well, that's not true. I do get it. Labyrinth and The Company of Wolves both are fairy tales about adolescent desire and fantasy, the onrushing terror of the adult world, and, reflexively, about the fairy tales we tell about those things. They're about dangerous strangers and their allure. But Labyrinth tells, relatively, a straightforward story with one protagonist vying against one villain. Company begins in the present day with one character, sinks into a dream world of a medieval village where that viewpoint character takes on the role of a peasant girl, and then is subsumed further into multiple different folk tales recounted to the peasant girl by various characters. Structurally, it's bizarre and can feel disjointed as it pushes and pops between narrative layers.

Company is also a story about werewolves, and in fact is (eventually) a very winding adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood. Labyrinth has some maybe frightening moments, and there is an ever present sense (once you're old enough to see it) of the sexual threat and attraction of David Bowie's Jareth. Company of Wolves on the other hand has a guy clawing his scalded face off and transforming horrifically into a werewolf of naked muscle and bone, and much more directly utilizes its wolves as metaphors for sexual predation.

I can see it being a bit of a hard sell.

Yet. When we finished I said I wasn't sure if Company of Wolves was a "good movie". Sarah replied that if it wasn't, we need to redefine what "good movie" means. It's 36 on this version of the list so I guess I agree with her! There's just something so compelling about seeing a fairy tale that really is for adolescents and adults, like for actual for real. This is a film that gleefully refuses to simply resolve its internal contradictions and difficult moments. It feels like a strange evolutionary bridge from 80s dark fairy tale fantasy to contemporary folk horror (compare: November, The VVitch). Its most mesmerizing story is about a young werewolf girl who can't quite find a place in the overworld of the village, and it shouldn't come as any surprise that it resonates strongly as a trans allegory, as explored in this mesmerizing video essay on it/its pronouns.

And, look sorry to keep coming back to Labyrinth but, while trying to avoid spoiling anything, the two films have *essentially the same ending*, but whereas the Labyrinth is an empowerment fantasy where its protagonist realizes her conjured fantasy man has "no power over me", Company concludes with a vision of wolves rampaging through a mansion and the sense that fantasy has broken its borders and burst terrifically/terrifyingly into the real world. I don't think this is a condemnation, however. Rather, the film luxuriously expresses the full danger and thrill of fantasy, the way a folktale or legend or passed on wisdom can turn and twist and take on new, scary morals. It doesn't hurt that the film feels like a panacea in an age of awful lighting imposed on actors standing in front of green screen cgi sets. Everything from giant mushrooms and oversized toys to werewolf snouts protruding horrifically from a human's mouth are lush, practical, real, lovingly hand produced.

I still don't know if The Company of Wolves is good, and it's certainly one you shouldn't go into expecting easy morality or comfortable situations. But I think it might just be great.

COMPARE:
November
The VVitch
Ginger Snaps
The Wolf House

35. The Mariners vs The Astros (2022)

Like the old saw, this experience was long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. The Mariners vs the Astros is a grueling nightmare, but ultimately an earned and satisfying one. I think there's a rather crude tendency to associate horror with fear specifically as its one and only affective register of note. This always bothers me. Of just primal affects horror can run the whole gamut, not just through subgenres like horror comedy but through a careful use of disgust, contempt, sadness, (impotent) fury, and so on. When paired with the phenomenology of a film's duration and modulation, they can become whole complex experiences of grief, anticipatory dread, desperation, exhaustion, or escalating schadenfreude. 

Somewhat inevitably, a six hour long game of baseball between the protagonists of the sport, the Mariners, and the seemingly unstoppable arch villains, the Astros, would have to be a complexly modulated experience. The nature of such a thing is to fluctuate wildly between moments of hope and despair. 

Granted, usually those moments don't come in the context of 18 scoreless innings. 18 innings. An absurd record that feels like it can only be explained with scripting, as a kind of performance art exploration of audience directed hostility and performer endurance, or maybe a kind of practical joke. As a work of contemporary horror, it wasn't lacking for the broken bones I find so characteristic of the moment: one of the protagonists, Cal Raleigh, endured the closing moments of the game with a broken thumb, which he ignored to bat repeatedly. Endurance feels like a characteristic of 21st century horror. In that sense, The Blair Witch Project feels to me like a marker of things to come, a film about watching a bunch of miserable people just slowly get harangued into defeat by supernatural evil. How else could you characterize a game against the Astros?

But whereas boredom and terror is kind of the whole of Blair Witch and so many other contemporary endurance horror experiences, the Mariners vs Astros game had constant moments of elation and hope. Six hours of one note would be a lot to endure, after all. And it didn't hurt that I watched the game simultaneously with a bunch of friends online tuned into the finale between a double feature of Rocky Horror and Shock Treatment (we had expected the game to be over long before the first movie started), and also with a small cadre of actual people, our friends in Seattle. Actual people, in our apartment, that we've now been living in for a year after struggling with eviction and homelessness and what sometimes felt like constant misfortune! Somehow, we survived. Somehow, the damn Mariners made it to the playoffs to become the last line of defense against the unstoppable force of the Astros.

The Mariners vs Astros game succeeded in capturing an energy the first two Halloween reboot films struggled to articulate: the sense that just enduring in the face of an implacable force like Michael Myers or the Houston Astros is itself a victory. Any defiance is, by definition, a victory in itself. 

A+ baseball. I will be watching again in the new year. And I'll also be concluding this list in the new year. I'm glad to see it, after everything, with all of you out there.


This Has Been

Some Nightmares Before Christmas Or Thereabouts Part 2

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Some Nightmares Before Christmas Or Thereabouts Part 1

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1 comment:

  1. The way that I interpreted Nope, Gordy the Chimp isn't directly connected to Jean Jacket, but they parallel each other: Gordy and Jean Jacket are both animals that have a relationship with a human who (1) intends to use them for entertainment purposes and (2) drastically misunderstands what they are dealing with. Gordy and Jean Jacket both kill an entire audience, not because they are evil murderers but because they're wild animals.

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