Dark Musings: The Art of Homage

Returning from Sitges International Film Festival, I realize that three of the eight films I saw were explicit homages – SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL; THE LOVE WITCH; and THE VOID. If you get liberal, you might be able to throw THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE in there as well. These films make a point of visiting a bygone age of horror not only through style, but through plot, character and theme. LONELY GIRL is a psychosexual Gothic thriller with cold, beautiful imagery and a frail protagonist straight from the 70s; you could actually convince me that LOVE WITCH was filmed in the 60s, aside from the final act (more on that later); and THE VOID feels like a Carpenter film that never got made.

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This is no surprise – in fact, it has become almost commonplace. So many of the horror films we see today either feel like or are constructed as throwbacks to other eras. CRIMSON PEAK revisits Roger Corman and Mario Bava. THE CONJURING sits right next to THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and POLTERGEIST. WE ARE STILL HERE is a stylistic and thematic marriage of Lucio Fulci and H.P. Lovecraft, who had come back into vogue in the 1970s. We hear synths in the scores again, we see long and patient zooms, we find practical effects favoring CGI (for the most part).

This is, in many ways, a positive thing. Many fans would argue that these eras were the best, partially due to techniques that we seemed to have forgotten about in the early 21st century. To see them coming back into play is thrilling. It just means that many of the films feel like something that came before – there isn’t much originality going around. For the most part. Alongside the homages, there have been some incredible feats of meta-cinema. These are the films that continue to reshape and invigorate the genre.

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One of the best horror films to hit the screens recently was IT FOLLOWS – an homage in its cinematography, plot and score, all of which are masterful. But it also feels deeply rooted in this generation. The films it draws from (HALLOWEEN, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) mostly operate on the idea that sex leads to death, a classic slasher cliché. The plot of IT FOLLOWS reflects this – have sex and inherit a supernatural entity that stalks you until it catches you – but also inverts the idea completely, because in order to survive, one must continue having sex. The story is also rendered so uniquely by David Robert Mitchell’s direction and Maika Monroe’s heartbreaking performance. Rather than going for camp and cheese, Mitchell and Monroe create a portrait of trauma. The disease is horrifying, world-changing, but no one else can see it… until they experience it. Sexual shame and assault are much the same.

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Similarly, THE LOVE WITCH exists staunchly in the world of 60s soft-core cinema. The titular witch uses her brews and spells to seduce men. But, here’s the catch – this is not a supernatural film. Anna Biller, the director (and costume designer), recreates the aesthetic and atmosphere down to the quality of light; but the story does not follow quite as faithfully. Within the first ten minutes, someone calls the protagonist out for her old-fashioned views – her continual insistence that “We must give men what they want.” The film spends its running time dissecting dangerous ideas of idolization, romanticism and delusion, eventually proving that these ideas end only in tragedy. What could have been just another sexploitation pic becomes a commentary on the themes it embodies.

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These are not the only films that transcend homage, but they stand out vividly as an example for future filmmakers. It is possible to pay tribute to another era without falling into its trap and feeling like a replica. Horror has always been rich in theme and commentary, and much of past cinema explores ideas that are relevant in our era. Going back to those decades can unearth their commentary and make it fresh. WE ARE STILL HERE uses its 70s atmosphere to dissect grief and mob mentality; or THE WITCH, revisiting the occult obsession of the 60s and 70s, finds feminist themes that feel vital today. Here we find filmmakers who respect their cinematic history, but do not fall into its stagnant clutches. Art must always move forward.

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Then, of course, there are films that feel (to me) entirely of this generation – Mattie Do’s sociological Gothic chiller DEAREST SISTER; the already-infamous WE ARE THE FLESH; and Richard Bates Jr.’s TRASH FIRE, which, while taking grotesque cues from BABY JANE, still exists in the 21st century. They free themselves fully from nostalgia, in the process finding new themes and styles that invigorate the genre. They might be rarer, or less celebrated, because that nostalgia is such a strong pull (as evidenced by the success of THE CONJURING and STRANGER THINGS); but they give evidence that, one day, filmmakers may pay homage to the style of this decade.

It is a thrilling time for horror cinema, both of the past and present. New filmmakers must make the choice, though – exist in bygone eras or create something new, something of their times. For fans, it is enough to have a bit of both.

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