Archive for the Dark Musings Category

Dark Musings: The Art of Homage

Posted in Dark Musings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2016 by smuckyproductions

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.

Through the Cracks (2): A Brief History of Psychological Horror

Posted in Dark Musings, Updates with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2016 by smuckyproductions

 

After an age of remakes and jump-scare-laden ghost stories, the indie world has seen a resurgence of a classic genre: the psychological horror film. I personally find this genre to be the most rewarding, not only because of its inventiveness and surrealism, but also its ultimate truth. CHAOS THEORY fits firmly into this arena, and because of this, I’d like to explore the history – to further trace my own work’s origins.

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Psychological thriller/horror films involve the deterioration of the character’s reality, often as a result of some deep-seated fear or anxiety. The cinematic medium works fascinatingly for this type of plot – the audio-visual tricks can place an audience inside a character’s head, using fictional sight and sound to create a disturbingly realistic mindscape. While this genre has developed in literature for some years – the classic Gothic novels, Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw” are prime examples – films only began fitting this mold in the 1960s. There are, however, a few early efforts at the genre, mainly Val Lewton’s infamous films such as “Cat People” and “I Walked with a Zombie.” In spite of their B-movie titles, Lewton’s work always used their macabre elements to express real anxiety.

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The 60s saw a surge of psychological horror and thrillers. Monsters became your next-door neighbor, a contrast to the atomic and alien nightmares of the 50s. This can, perhaps, be attributed to Alfred Hitchcock’s massive success with “Psycho” – a dread-filled vision of mundane madness with a killer twist. Many subsequent films, such as William Castle’s “Homicidal” or Hammer’s “Scream of Fear” (one of dozens produced by the company at that time), adopted those same elements.

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As the decade moved forward, a number of directors made their own unique stamp on the genre: Robert Aldritch with “Baby Jane” and “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte;” Robert Wise with “The Haunting,” an adaptation from psychological genius Shirley Jackson; and Roman Polanski with “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” These films not only made the mundane frightening, but also explored taboo fears – the deterioration of an aged mind, pathological anxiety, and the horrors of being a woman in a patriarchal society. At the decade’s close, Ingmar Bergman – the master of psychological drama – even added his own addition to the genre, 1968’s disturbing “Hour of the Wolf.” This film was admittedly personal for him, an exorcism of an artist’s demons.

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The 70s saw a shift to occult and gruesome horror, yet in many cases the psychological elements remain. “The Exorcist” is visceral, but even more so for its depiction of a mother’s darkest fears; “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” only seems violent because of the characters’ mental torment – there is hardly a drop of blood in it. When slasher films became popular in the 80s, psychological terror became scarce, but choice films still display its influence: namely Kubrick’s “The Shining” and John Carpenter’s paranoid take on “The Thing.” These classics still found their roots in the human mind, with monsters and blood acting as a manifestation of that dark territory.

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With slashers dying out, the 90s marked an exploration of psychological thrillers – decidedly less nebulous and surreal than their horror counterparts. Thrillers (in my view) are more mathematical, with a distinct set of clues and a path to the end. The psychological aspect comes into play when these clues affect the character’s mind. Notable examples include “The Silence of the Lambs,” and “Jacob’s Ladder” and “The Sixth Sense” – both films that popularized the twist ending. The new millennium continued this trend, with a smattering of mind-bending stories that required a twist at the end. These include “Donnie Darko,” “Memento,” “Se7en” and “The Machinist.”

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When writing “Chaos Theory,” these recent films were at the front of my mind – but my process took me closer to the psychological horror of the 60s. I wanted to embody horror, and I didn’t want to subscribe to a clear twist ending. My film became far more surreal and unexplained as a result. It excites me, then, to see other films following these same guidelines – such as “The Babadook,” “The Witch,” and upcoming releases like “Trash Fire.” We are exploring the dark corners of the mind again.

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Join the CHAOS THEORY RELEASE EVENT to keep up on trailers, articles, and the film’s release on April 14th! Help support this return to psychological horror.

Dark Musings: Queer Contributions in Horror Fiction (An Incomplete Thesis)

Posted in Dark Musings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2016 by smuckyproductions

 

I’ve rattled this notion around in my head for some time, and though I don’t have a fully-formed argument yet, I have mused long enough to know that I’m not wrong. There is not enough conversation about queer contributions to the horror genre.

Perhaps because there isn’t a blatant, obvious, easy connection. But if one looks under the surface, there are lines drawn everywhere. Historically, an impressive number of contributions have been made to the horror genre by rumored or open queer people.

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Mary Shelley – with encouragement from her husband, known to be bisexual, and who may have been bisexual herself – wrote “Frankenstein,” the tale a repulsive creature who just wants love. Bram Stoker, rumored to be gay, brought “Dracula” – an undeniably sensual monster who sucks the blood (by penetrating their flesh! Come on!) of other men. Oscar Wilde created what must be the first openly bisexual devil, Dorian Gray, in a novel about the excess of desire. Even Henry James, long rumored to be bi- or even a-sexual, weaved the horrific story of a governess battling morally deviant spirits to save the innocence of her wards.

It doesn’t stop at classic literature. Two of the best horror films from the early days of cinema, “Frankenstein” and “Nosferatu,” were directed by gay men. Is it any coincidence that both films adapt works mentioned above? With one monster hunting blindly for love that is never returned, and the other a pestilential nightmare that sucks people’s vitality while they sleep (predating the terror of contaminated blood during the AIDs epidemic), I think it’s hard to deny the connection. The trend continues into modern culture – with Clive Barker’s “Books of Blood” and the revolutionary “Hellraiser,” which is a dark hymn to ‘unnatural’ sex; even to popular TV shows, like “Penny Dreadful” and “American Horror Story,” which explore queer identities in a much more open light.

These sexually ‘aberrant’ individuals, forced into hiding because of the prejudiced societies in which they find themselves, created works of fiction about beings seen as abject and dangerous, as freaks. In the confines of those stories, they are undoubtedly monsters. But the idea transfers to the way societies project gay identities. As unnatural, as other, and perhaps as deadly. In one way or another, gay people become monsters.

Authors and filmmakers tell stories for many reasons, but a major one is the need to purge emotions – often devastating, unstated. It makes sense that artists who grapple with identity would write about monsters. The ‘heroes’ who battle the beast are not created in the artist’s own image – it is the beast itself that becomes the mirror.

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Horror, too, is one of the most unconsciously cathartic genres in all of fiction. It engages a part of the brain that no one wants to activate in reality – primal instincts of terror, danger, and flight from death – but it does so in a controlled environment where no danger is actually present. Thus, it releases emotion that otherwise would boil and rage unchecked.

So, is it an accident that these queer artists gravitated toward horror? Of course it isn’t a universal trend. It is present enough, though, that I think it deserves recognition. In a community that struggles with self-loathing and self-disgust even today, in our supposedly liberated world, these releases of emotion are necessary. To see a monster on screen or in print and understand its origin, its heart, is to find a piece of one’s self, and give it a name.

Family-Friendly Horror in GRAVITY FALLS

Posted in Dark Musings, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Last night witnessed the finale of television’s greatest modern kid’s show, GRAVITY FALLS. Had someone pitched this to me and said “it’ll be a massive hit for Disney,” I would have laughed at them. How can a family-friendly Twin Peaks with hints of X Files and Lovecraft become a hit? As awesome as that sounds, today’s market for kids has become so PC and watered down that we would never expect Disney to greenlight such a dark premise. And yet, here we are.

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One of the contributing factors to this show’s success was its older audience. Millennials, people in their twenties, latched onto Gravity Falls and made it their own. In addition to attracting the Disney demographic, its intelligence and darkness widened the audience ingeniously. I think that’s a great sign.

I fell in love with this show because it was clear that Alex Hirsch loved the same things I did. He offered a part to David Lynch, references Lovecraft and John Carpenter all the time, and was not afraid to make things freaky. I’ll never forget the Summerween Trickster or Bill Cipher’s horrible laugh. Seriously, how did those things get into a kid’s show? Didn’t it traumatize people? Yes, it probably did – but I forget that I had my own traumatic content as a kid, too. And I loved it.

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Kids are far more resilient than we tend to believe. My generation grew up with safe  bubblegum shows too, but we also had Tim Burton, Scooby Doo, Snow White, Harry Potter and much more – all brands targeted at children, but featuring some seriously messed up shit. And I’m pretty sure we turned out fine. Being frightened in this controlled way taught us about darkness, and also taught us how to overcome it. Sure, we were still protected by a TV screen, but we understood what fear meant. That’s vital.

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Gravity Falls finds its boldness in its willingness to frighten, to thrill, and to break hearts. The monsters in this show are not easily defeated – the lead villain manipulates people’s minds and reveals their darkest desires, for God’s sake. Even I, a horror film maniac, got chills from some of these episodes. Carpenter’s The Thing makes an appearance, ghosts turn people into trees, and a dimension of nightmares opens to wreak havoc on a town that we’ve come to love.

And through this, Hirsch builds a story about growing up, familial bonds, and the prevailing strength of friendship. He couldn’t tug at our heartstrings so painfully without raising the stakes. So, against the normal child-safe mold, the Falls finale becomes a life-or-death fight for humanity. The plot structure is brilliant and the unfolding is shockingly terrifying. Without giving away the denouement, though, I’ll say this – Hirsch does not play it safe. He ends his show with tenderness, but also tough truth. And through that realism, the viewers feel what it means to grow, to change, and to celebrate those things. It’s not hackneyed or cheap – Hirsch earns these themes.MABEL, DIPPER

I could ramble on for several posts, but I’ll leave this one here. I hope that the success of Gravity Falls allows children’s media to explore the dark, the serious, and the scary – because it is important to encounter those emotions. Let this usher in an era of smarter and deeper content. Kudos to you, Alex Hirsch, for giving us this amazing series.

A Tribute to Free Love in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW

Posted in Dark Musings, Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, an occasion on which monogamous couples are encouraged to celebrate their union and romance. In many ways it’s a paean to heteronormativity – it’s meant for a man and a woman who are solely bound to each other.

Rather than feed into this, I want to talk about THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW – one of cinema’s purest celebrations of free, uninhibited love and pleasure.

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Most people know of this film as a crazy, hilarious, purposefully bad sendup of 50s sci-fi films and musicals. It’s a midnight classic, still screening around the world with shadow casts and costumed fans who have memorized the lines. But even more remarkable is its depiction of sex and love. There is a Bacchanal sense of madness to the film, and an unabashed queerness, with men dressed as women, people sleeping with the same and opposite sex without qualm, orgiastic pleasure… All hot topics in social culture today. Only Richard O’Brien crafted this show forty years ago, when this was still a dangerous idea.

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RHPS is bold and overt in its dissection of traditional love. We begin with the wedding and proposal, played with grotesque, pure excitement; but it’s not long before we’re sucked into the frenzy of Frank ‘N Furter’s world. This is a character who completely destroys gender boundaries. His fabulous wardrobe, his ever-selfish dominance, and his obsession with Charles Atlas are his own, creating an identity independent from societal constructs. The wedding between Frank and Rocky is a terrific parallel to the opening scene. It would be seen as a perversion of that ceremony if it wasn’t so passionate, so free.

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What follows is a sexual awakening for Brad and Janet, whose sexuality was so clearly repressed. Frank initiates a renaissance for both of them – while they protest at first, they give into the pleasure and realize what they were missing. Janet’s tryst with Rocky is funny, sure, but she also finds her own identity in the act, as bold as Frank’s.

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And (SPOILERS!) the big number, followed by the orgy in the pool, ties it all together. “Don’t dream it, be it” – a hymn to all of those who felt their identities locked away, too ashamed to explore them. Frank might be hedonistic and bizarre, but he is liberated. His liberation carries over to Brad and Janet, too. They find their own happiness in sexual freedom because there is no longer fear. To anyone who has ‘come out,’ that experience is universal.

The ending has always struck me as far more tragic than the bulk of the film would justify. Frank is murdered for living his dream, seen as a perverted lifestyle by his own servants. His final song is heartbreaking in this context. And at that time, this was a reality. Anyone who did not fit into the societal definition of ‘normal’ was targeted for hate and violence. Is it a coincidence that O’Brien, who identifies himself as a third sex, concludes his show in this manner?

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It might end in sadness, but even so, Rocky Horror is wholly liberating. It presents these themes and ideas without batting an eye. So, rather than indulge in films that promote the image of ‘normal’ romance this holiday, I want to celebrate Frank ‘N Further’s message. Allow yourself to find your own identity and embody it to the fullest extent. As opposed to forty years ago, today, there is not nearly as much reason to fear.

“TOAD ROAD” and NO-BUDGET HORROR

Posted in Dark Musings, Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2016 by smuckyproductions

 

Very few people have heard of “Toad Road,” let alone seen it, but we all know its ilk – a no-budget film, mostly improvised, that is content to explore ideas rather than follow a story. There is a reason these types of films rarely grace the mainstream screens: they frustrate and infuriate viewers who want to see plot, drama, and emotional beats. Yet, they still find their place – and it is vital that us filmmakers celebrate their existence.

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“Toad Road” is the brainchild of Jason Banker, documentary specialist, who built a film around the urban legend of the Gates of Hell in York, Pennsylvania. Into the framework of this legend he places a group of drug-addicted friends – actual friends and non-actors who he found on MySpace – and simply films them interacting. Interspersed in their verite scenes are moments of horrific poetry, glitchy cameras and bloody faces, surrounding the idea of the Gates. There is something of a story, too – one of these friends gets a girl addicted to this legend (and a number of drugs), and ends up walking through the gates with her, but only one of them returns.

It’s all very nebulous, and one might compare it to a student film – after all, it’s as unglamorous as you can get, and the actors aren’t acting. But that’s what sets it apart. Banker orchestrates his non-cast so realistically, using his documentary instincts, and not a moment of their friendship seems false. It’s more visceral than any found-footage film because it is, essentially, real. (It must be noted, also, that the lead actress passed away before the film premiered – a tragedy that makes a mark on the film itself.)

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So most viewers will despise it. I can’t say I thoroughly enjoyed it myself – but I fell in love with the idea of it. In this money-guzzling industry, where it’s near impossible to get financing for your film, there is nothing wrong with shooting a film in the style of “Toad Road.” Why don’t more people do it? And why is it not encouraged in film school? Filmmaking is not about earning a paycheck (though at some point it becomes so) – it is about creating art, telling stories. “Toad Road” does this in its own way, and the effect is lasting. Even if its plotting lacks, its atmosphere, visuals and characters are drawn with skill.

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Films like this remind me of “Blair Witch” and “Marble Hornets,” even the original “Evil Dead” – you can see the tatters and the seams, but who cares, because the entertainment value is so damn high? The challenge with these films becomes getting people involved – convincing them that it’s worth the time. Because people don’t place much value on these no-budget efforts. I want that to change.

“Toad Road” left me with one vital emotion: inspiration. I wanted to go out and make something like this even while I watched the film. And so, forces willing, I intend to do just that. We live in the age of the internet, a free distribution platform – we must take advantage.

Winter Traditions: Ghost Stories by the Fire

Posted in Dark Musings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2015 by smuckyproductions

 

Our Western culture often associates December and its holidays with cheerfulness, light, and warmth. These are defenses against the long nights and cold winds that otherwise would haunt us. We forget, however, a tradition predominant in Victorian Europe, one that ran alongside the cheery tidings: winter ghost stories by the firelight.

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Evidence of this tradition exists throughout Victorian literature. Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is arguably the most famous, and the lightest-hearted – but many authors contributed darker tales. M.R. James, for instance, was famous for writing out his chilling stories by hand and reading them in utter darkness to his holiday guests. Other authors, such as Sheridan LeFanu, Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell, followed this tradition as well.

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These stories are far from cheery, designed to create dread and uncanny fear in the reader. Coming from these talented scribes, the effects are considerable. They spin for the fireside audience spectral evil, cursed objects, and decaying churches where wicked creatures hide. Sometimes the protagonists escape with only rattled nerves; other times the supernatural prevails. Rarely, however, do the stories end in upbeat morals, in the form of “A Christmas Carol.” They are purely written to frighten and make listeners question the existence of ghosts.

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Where does this tradition come from, then, and where has it gone? We have shirked ghost stories and shivers for sentiment and comedy. I think, though, that these opposite moods serve a similar purpose. They both present a distraction from that dreary dark outside. Whether laughing or shaking, the entertainment is harmless – these ghosts don’t haunt us as they do the characters. It is the momentary catharsis, the communal chills, that make the ghost story an important part of the Christmas tradition. Perhaps, one day, it will reinstate itself.