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.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Some Nightmares Before Christmas Or Thereabouts Part 3

Happy Friday 13th! In the middle of January, we have to face the facts. Halloween indeed... ends. Send the season out at last with my top horror movies of all time.

At long last, the Ghostwatch horror marathon comes down to my top 35 films.

34. The Lost Boys (1987) 
33. Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)
32. The Lighthouse (2019)
31. Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972)
30. Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street (2019)

I previously touched on this documentary about the filming of Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2, in the context of the AIDS crisis, in this article about queer horror.

29. The Wolf House (2018)

This is one of the most mesmerizingly animated films that I probably want to never see again. I'm genuinely unsure how to even describe animation that takes an entire physical building and paints characters and scenes on the walls and furniture. I'm equally unsure how to sum up its contents other than to say this is a fairy tale (loosely based on the Three Little Pigs) about Chilean Nazi-founded cult Colonia Dignidad.

With that summation, my words sort of fail me. How do you follow on a sentence like "this is a fairy tale about Chilean Nazi-founded cult Colonia Dignidad"? There's a reason this film is on a list of horror movies. But I do recommend it, because it really is unlike almost anything else I've ever seen.

The Platform
S He
Mad God

28. Under the Skin (2013)
27. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
26. Jennifer's Body (2009)

I wrote a whole article about how much I liked this movie and how annoyed I was at its unfair cultural reputation! It was called We Were Too Stupid For Jennifer's Body.

25. Faust (1994)
24. Interview with the Vampire (1994)
23. Pulse (Kairo) (2001)
22. The Thing (1982)
21. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Far up the list, it becomes a bit difficult for me to write about these films. They're (mostly) such well trodden territory, after all. Paradoxically, my teeth grip more readily on films that have a bit of texture; masterpieces go down so smooth they end up leaving less critical impressions, or at least less *original* ones.

Maybe I should double check the cultural consensus more, though. Sometimes I find I'm nodding along with everyone saying "well this film is obviously a masterpiece of horror", only to be met with some bewilderment when I start listing the qualities I find masterful.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre feels a bit like such a case. The film is certainly a masterpiece of horror from the perspective of being jarring, terrifying, and disturbing. It disturbed me enough I sought comfort the main way I know how: looking up academic writing on the film. I found a large focus on the sociological, the psychological, and the socioeconomic. This analysis of the characters as symbols and types was insightful, but not necessarily what stood out to me as a viewer: the cinematography, the set dressing as art, the frankly astonishing color schemes, the edits.

It's such an aggressive movie affectively. Torturous at times, and not necessarily the times when someone is being tortured. Long sequences of frustrating people being just a little bit shitty and weird to each other. The film is fascinated with cruelty, but that cruelty doesn't reduce only to hanging people on meathooks, but extends to the cruelty of exclusion or the venting of interpersonal frustration on a friend or loved one.

Maybe it's a red flag that I find myself identifying at times with Leatherface and his corpse artist brother. I'm a goth, I can't help it, I see the artistry in their fucked up taxidermy and bone furniture. I can't quite get behind arguments about the "semiotic void" that Leatherface in particular represents, the notion that he is without character, and the mask reduces him to a kind of nonhuman entity. There's a kind of stealthily nasty privileging of verbal communication in that semiotically focused analysis. We actually get plenty of communication from Leatherface, though it's often ambiguous (is he flailing in frustration in the stunning final scene? Or is he, strangely, dancing?). I keep coming back to the scene after he kills Jerry, whacking him on the head and stuffing the dying Pam back in the freezer. He looks around frantically, wails, runs to the window and casts around desperately. He sits down beside the window, rocking and stimming. He seems to calm down and stares out into the distance. Leatherface is an anxious creature, performing his murders relatively efficiently rather than cruelly. The chaos of the film seems to genuinely disturb him, as does the sadistic treatment by his family. His brother delights in cruelty, but he seems to just be doing his best.

I think approaching the film without talking about its beauty also misses something essential to the allure of the experience. That iconic shot of the solid red wall covered in skulls and taxidermy, for example, which sets off the yellow-green of Leatherface's mask and clothes. I knew of course the film was regarded as having great photography, but I'm still struggling, as I edit this section of this article, to figure out what that horridly beautiful photography means for my actual experience and interpretation of the film

I suppose that's what makes a film at this level a classic: it's a meal you can return to again and again.

20. Mad God (2022)
19. Dawn of the Dead (1977)
18. Young Frankenstein (1974)
17. Mandy (2018)
16. Shin Gojira (2016)
15. Woman in the Dunes (1964)

It feels a bit glib, or maybe a bit lowbrow, to open a review of a Japanese New Wave classic beloved by film critics with a statement like "this film makes sand... scary!" Yet the strange transformation of sand into a terrifying, indifferent force overwhelmed me as I watched this film. Much of the film is, after all, shots of sand--sand blown by the wind, sand shifting, insects struggling and slipping in sand. The metaphor of the last one is obvious: the film is about a man on vacation who finds himself tricked into a sand pit and forced to mine out the sand for the nearby village to sell to cement manufacturers. If he doesn't, he and the titular "woman in the dunes" who acts as bait will simply be buried alive.

This film, like Michael Clayton below, is a film I went into looking for horror, due to its contextual placement in a horror movie marathon. I didn't have to look hard to find it, though. Its emotional register is one of creeping dread and suffocation. The woman of the title is a widow, her husband and child buried somewhere, invisibly, near the hut that is one of the film's only sets. The possibility of simply vanishing without a trace into the crushing weight of particles weighs on every moment of the film. Most disaster movies come nowhere near this movie's achievement, of making such an innocuous feature of the landscape into a nightmare force.

It's so effective in part because the film is also suffused with an existential dread. The longer the film, and the man's imprisonment, stretch on, the more his conceptual world shrinks to the confines of the pit and the creeping sand defines his existence. It's remarkable, I think, that the film winds up in a place of more acute dread than much deliberately fucked up contemporary does, by way of exploring a psychological state and an existential question about imprisonment, and through its endless shots of shifting, drifting, smothering sand.

The Platform
Any Romero zombie film
Sam Was Here
10 Cloverfield Lane

14. Michael Clayton (2007)
13. Belladonna of Sadness (1973)

The murky pool of social media periodically burps up another trending hashtag about how animation is for adults too, and I'm always disappointed people mean "I'm 30 and think Inside Out is High Art" rather than films like Belladonna of Sadness deserve more attention. This is assuredly an Animation For Adults, a dark fairytale whose inciting incident is the gang rape by a king and his courtiers of the titular heroine. She responds by making more and more dramatic pacts with a phallic devil to ultimately become a witch.

The film is profoundly psychedelic. Much of the music is solidly late 60s/early 70s pop music, but will at moments of extreme crisis or action spin out into a full on early Pink Floyd style freakout (and indeed, some of the visuals in the film are suspiciously similar to animations and designs in The Wall). The music is nothing compared to the visuals, though, which range from panned-over still storybook illustrations used to provide visuals for long narration passages, to astonishingly fluid painterly animation, to strange collaged visuals. There are moments in the film that are like nothing else I've seen, attempting stuff like animating the pure negative space obscuring the action. It's a film bound to rewrite your conception of what is visually possible.

I wouldn't recommend watching it on psychedelics, though, what with all the sexual violence, regular violence, and plague death. It is at times a somewhat harrowing movie, though it always feels like it has a *point*. What point that is can be complex--Jeanne is a complex antihero, and the film at times seems to take on the perspective of her persecutors. She is, after all, a witch who consorts with demons. Part of the fascinating push and pull of the film comes from moving beyond knee jerk moralizing to see her--much like The Bride in Kill Bill, or Female Prisoner Scorpion--as heroic and cool as hell. And without spoiling it, the film absolutely takes the long view of the fable and its place in history, in a way that might be a little baffling but is a real gutsy thematic swing.

The film was a commercial failure that bankrupted its studio. As a corrupt priest in the film proclaims, however, the soul of a witch killed while she still retains her pride will live on to haunt the world. Belladonna of Sadness feels like it haunts works like Revolutionary Girl Utena and its countless followers, living on in the deep unconscious of contemporary comics and animation.

Suspiria (1977)
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41
The Wolf House
Jennifer's Body

12. We're All Going to the World's Fair (2022)
11. Mulholland Drive (2001)
10. Reanimator and Bride of Reanimator (1985, 1989)

Surprise, it's a science fiction double feature! And fittingly, the antihero of these movies, Herbert West, Reanimator, is a little- well, look. It's going to be hard to get through this without using ANY slurs but I'm going to do my best. Technically West isn't even the "hero". That's Dan, the young medical student who becomes West's roommate, and who West gradually seduces into his macabre innovations in raising the dead. The films run on West's performance: he's cruel, arrogant, prone to doing ill advised things when he thinks it will further his ends or, frequently, when he's simply bored, and clearly besotted with Dan. He is played with electrifying camp, and it should come as no surprise that he's become a bit of a Bad Queer Icon (at least, he has among MY friends). Come for the ludicrous amounts of fake blood; stay for all the ways Herbert is constantly communicating with Dan by clinging to him, touching his shoulder, &c.

Both films are a blast, and they've wound up stitched together in my mind. I can't help but parse West's jealousy and possessiveness in the first film in the context of the carrot he dangles in front of Dan in the second film: the creation of a frankensteined together perfect woman for him. The second film probably isn't as good, for whatever that's worth, as the first--it's got a bit of a meandering plot and often lacks clear character motivations. But it's maybe more interesting and poignant than the original, centering after all on the production of The Idea Female, in explicit defiance of God, by a character who's aggressively queer coded. Moreover we get to see a delightful variety of freaks, the result of what Dan derisively calls Herbert West's "morbid doodling", a pair of words that feel immediately iconic.

An awful lot of contemporary horror, even horror that features seduction or deals with metaphorical or literal devils, seem not to understand why anyone would WANT to, say, summon a Cenobite and get shown such sights. These films are so high on the list precisely because they take such ghoulish delight in their subject matter. Herbert West has his offputting moments but he's also a delight to watch, fun in a way that retains an edge a lot of more self consciously goofy horror comedy lacks. In a time when horror films often feel more like DARE lectures or after school specials than jaunts into the darker part of human experience, it feels refreshing that these films carry out their morbid doodling with glee and, sometimes, jaw dropping bad taste.

I am, of course, my own frankensteined together perfect woman, or at least I'm trying to figure out what that means as I construct myself on the fly in response to a load of social pressures and expectations, so there's also a layer of pathos in the climactic creation of Dan's bride in the second film. But also, what can I say? The top tier of this list is full of films that run very close to the metal in the circuitry of my brain. Herbert West belongs on my kin wheel, a character that prompts for me questions like "could estrogen have made her worse?" These are films at their heart about being a weird little freak. I guess it's true what they say: representation matters.

Halloween Ends
In The Mouth of Madness
Interview with the Vampire

9. Akira (1988)
8. Hellraiser (1987)
7. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Oh man what a great movie. My dad turned this on recently, spent the first 15 minutes scoffing at it, and dismissively turned it off. "Schlock." Mortifying. I don't know, horror is a profoundly subjective art form. I don't know why it is that I seem to have less natural defenses to it, an overactive imagination that heightens the terror. I don't know why I also return to the things that scare me over and over. Maybe the lack of defenses is precisely what makes horror work for me as a genre: a certain susceptibility that smooths over awkward acting or amateur cutting or moments of camp. Maybe Night of the Living Dead is a bit schlocky. It's number 7 on MY list though.

every other zombie movie ever.

6. Possession (1981)
5. Halloween (1978)
4. A Field in England (2013)
3. Annihilation (2018)
2. Crimes of the Future (2022)

Oh you'd better believe I plan to talk about THIS one at some point.

1. Ghostwatch (1992)

Really? Number one horror, of all time? Yeah why not.

Really though, why not? I suppose it comes with some historical baggage, of course. Infamously, like most good things produced in England, it was sharply criticized by the usual suspect (angry mums; shitrag newspapers) and the producers had to apologize for, essentially, producing a good horror movie. The thrust of the critique lay with its conceit: the entire film is framed as a live BBC special investigation into a haunted house, complete with a live studio and call board, and a number of actual BBC reporters playing themselves. It's another film that employs the methodologies, then, of found footage, though notably it predated The Blair Witch Project by seven years. Actually, it's a particularly remarkable example of the genre because so much of its runtime is played completely straight as a BBC live broadcast. All of this heightens the terror as the film slides into chaos.

When you hear people tell ghost stories, like actual stories of encounters with Weird Shit, it's remarkably similar to any other anecdote. There might be an extra layer of menace, but unless you can rely on the comforting blanket of a grand cosmic plan to explain everything post facto, life is full of baffling events. How I would tell the story of my sister finding a single cleanly severed deer leg in an abandoned cement mill, or the time I saw a UFO, or sharing a bus with someone in a full devil costume, are not ultimately that different. They're just... weird things that happened. Ghostwatch captures this sensibility well: supernatural events are conveyed with the same sense of beleaguered, shrugging matter-of-factness as real anecdotes about animal cruelty or abuse. The primary difference is whether or not you then have a sneering Professional Skeptic (a job combining the worst qualities of reporters, TED talkers, STEMlords, and people famous for being famous) calling you an attention whore.

This down to earth framing is the engine for the film's terrifying progression, as accumulated anecdotes become a nightmarish system. For The Blair Witch Project seven years later, the pit drop feeling comes after a grinding endurance test. Ghostwatch's moments like this ("You're the expert, what IS happening out there?" "I don't know.") are accentuated precisely because you get to watch characters who all along have continued to play the show as a series of laughs or as an academic exercise realize that something has gone truly, horribly wrong while they weren't paying attention. The live TV broadcast setting perfectly accentuates this, with the vagueries and chaos of production creating a fog of war as events reach their climax.

This makes it a little nerve-wracking on repeat viewing, as awareness of the catastrophe has hit you, the viewer, and you watch it slowly filter through the whole chain of production with agonizing slowness, as reporters try to fill what they perceive as dead air. There's enough detail, enough weird texture and swerves to the narrative, resulting from this commitment to capturing a sense of live chaos, that this repeat viewing becomes rewarding. Oh, and it doesn't hurt that you can play the fun group game of "spot the ghost". Every year I try to spot each early manifestation of Pipes, the central haunting in the story. I get about half.

It's the repeated obligatory viewings (the name of our discord channel comes from this special, if you hadn't put that together yet, and so far we've watched Ghostwatch every year) that have raised it so high on my list. It's a surprisingly elastic film; it holds up to the pressure of repeated observation in a group setting really well. More than that, it's such an interesting point of discussion. Fair warning, Pipes is described as being possessed by another (female) ghost in a way that feels at times uncomfortably similar to the contemporary TERF political disease coming out of England. Paradoxically, this has only made the film more intriguing to us. It feels at times like a lens into every middle class English ex-imperial anxiety and derangement, resulting in a climax that feels like all of this society's repressed fears boiling violently to the surface. It's not unproblematic, but it also grounds the film in a way that feels more significant than either the ploddingly literal approach of horror "message movies", or the rather abstracted approach of much found footage ("what if a fucked up thing happened and we caught it on tape"). Each anecdote in the film is realistically just an odd little incident; the horror is in the hints of a deeper social sickness that the hapless film crew has accidentally brought to the surface.

There's an irony, then, that Ghostwatch found its way so far up the list because of our collective reception of it. There's something special about recreating (totally ahistorically of course given the 1992 broadcast preceded the popular Internet) a sense of collective viewership, the spirit of being drawn into a real Event. This review project as a whole is a testament to how important subjective and collective experience is to my own understanding of films and genre. I'm happy, in this context, to recommend Ghostwatch as my top horror film of all time.

This Has Been

Some Nightmares Before Christmas Or Thereabouts Part 3

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Galaxy Brained: Annihilation and Queer Cosmic Horror

Annihilation: The Ending Explained!!!

We Were Too Stupid For Jennifer's Body

As Jennifer's Body goes from flop to feminist cult classic, its failure gets blamed on lousy marketing. But the film's cynical jokes about 9/11 memorialization suggest the fault was with audiences: we were too stupid for Jennifer's Body.

Some Nightmares Before Christmas Or Thereabouts Part 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.

1 comment:

  1. The Jennifer's Body article link is broken, btw. Ghostwatch is a fascinating thing that lives rent free in my memory. I saw it live on the night but had missed the intro where it was identified as fiction. It took me a while to realise as I watched. Many of the actors were TV presenters I knew from similar (real) programmes.


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