Ryq Peden

Illumination through Creation

Artist from Bloomington, Indiana.

 

 

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

 

SPOILERS!!!

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) is a highly stylized love story directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. This is her debut as a feature-length director, but her lack of experience rarely shows through the film’s sleek black and white veneer. The fact that this is a vampire movie will inevitably confuse some audience members, as it harkens back to gothic romance more than horror (as do many vampire stories). If you’re looking for big scares, look elsewhere.

The story follows Arash, a young Iranian man working hard to improve his lot in life. He lives with his drug addicted father and a cat (that he “adopts” in the opening scene). He’s not the most virtuous of folks, but in Bad City nobody seems to be. The setting of Bad City provides visual cues about what life must be like for Arash and its other denizens. There’s a conspicuous ditch filled with corpses; and a backdrop of oil rigs mechanically grinding on- unflinching vampires sucking the wealth out of the land itself, leaving the corpse of Bad City to fester.

Unfortunately for Arash, his father’s drug addiction is catching up with them both. A local drug dealer and pimp, Saeed, takes Arash’s prized possession, his slick car, in order to pay back the debt his father has accrued. This enrages Arash, but he only ends up hurting himself by bashing his fist against a wall in frustration.

Saeed’s resume wouldn’t just read: pimp and drug dealer. He’s also a genuinely despicable human being. It’s not enough for Saeed to collect from his exploited employees and clients, we also see him degrade and humiliate one prostitute, Atti. He calls her old and asks about her wanting children (a knife that, undoubtedly, cuts deep). In what seems like a defense mechanism, she sucks his finger and then begins to perform oral sex on him. The act is interrupted by someone watching them; someone that seems to evaporate into the night. Saeed is unnerved, and takes his frustration out on Atti by taking her entire earnings for the night, and physically removing her from the car.

Arash is desperate to get the car back. He had worked so hard for it (“2,191 days,” by his exact count). While gardening for a client, he is called on by Shaydah (the “Princess” of the estate). Her television has lost its signal and she assumes he can fix it. In her bedroom, Arash sees that she has left a pair of expensive earrings lying out in the open. He gets Shaydah to leave the room by exploiting custom- it’s imprudent for them to be together in her bedroom. He hadn’t planned the crime, just rolling with the punches that Bad City threw his way. He takes the earrings to buy his car back from Saeed.

In the meantime, Saeed has met the phantom Girl that was stalking around the car. The Girl follows Saeed back to his house, which is lavishly decorated. After ignoring his guest while tending to himself- as if he’ll get around to her when he’s good and ready- he eventually offers the Girl some cocaine. She lures him in and parallels the action we’ve seen with Atti; but she sucks his finger as a pretense to something other than oral sex. The Girl is a vampire and she bares her fangs. Saeed is too accustomed to having power over women though, and he ignores the fangs at his own peril.

Arash arrives just after the vampire’s attack, and sees the Girl leaving Saeed’s place. Inside he finds the corpse and absconds with the pimp’s money, drugs, and the keys to his beloved car. Again, another crime of opportunity. This is an important survival strategy in Bad City, not a character flaw. After all, Arash isn’t preying on the oppressed or the down-trodden, he is preying on the opulence of Bad City’s oppressors. Oppressors who, importantly, don’t even miss what he has taken.

For all of the obvious cues, this film lets the images and actions inform us instead of telling us what’s-what through exposition. We are free to make associations from what we know, or don’t, of Iranian culture (side note: the film is set in Iran, but it was filmed in California). We see the vampire Girl as a hero, cloaked in a chador and striking back against the oppressive patriarchy that dominates life in Bad City. Some people are going to inevitably see this as all too obvious, too political, too feminist, but they are going to be missing the plot (figuratively and literally).

They might even be too threatened by what this Girl represents to truly reflect upon the importance of it all. This character, this entire film, is punk as fuck. It is breaking taboos in meaningful ways. It is smashing concepts of power and turning them on their heads. It is striking fear into the heart of the powerful, of the exploitive. It pulls this off in a way that can only be described as cool. SO FUCKING COOL!!!

There is a powerful scene involving the Girl and a Street Urchin. The child is important to the story in a few key ways, but here he is another potential victim. The Girl stalks him down, and confronts him. This scene speaks directly to the males in the audience; directly to us at our most vulnerable. The Girl asks the young boy, “Are you a good boy?” She then proceeds, “I can take your eyes out of your skull and give them to dogs to eat.” But she isn’t just terrorizing the boy, she is earnestly trying to impress upon him a virtue. She adds, “Till the end of your life, I’ll be watching you. Understand?” As if she were girding the young boy’s conscience.

When Arash and the Girl finally meet, we see Arash in a state where he is every bit as vulnerable as the Street Urchin. He’s just come from a club, dressed as Dracula of all things. He is on drugs- something he wasn’t interested in doing, but did to impress or appease Shaydah- and he is lost. He needs the Girl’s help. Yes, a man asks a woman for directions, and he thinks nothing of it. He needs her. And she, it seems, needs him too. They go back to her place, and the Girl puts on some music.

The soundtrack of this film is truly amazing. It lends great force to the scenes. There is one sequence that immediately calls to mind Ennio Morricone and his work for Sergio Leone. But, even the pop tunes propel scenes to new heights of emotion and meaning. In many cases, providing a voice to unspoken elements.

When the Girl puts on music for Arash (see the scene here), we begin to truly see the efficacy of Ana Lily Amirpour’s deft hand as a director. Everything comes together, the set decoration, the acting, the framing, and, of course, the music. In one shot, we see the Girl facing the extreme edge of the frame, with ample negative space behind her. This empty space gains more and more gravity. Arash finally, slowly, like a stalking Nosferatu, fills the space. He crosses to the Girl, there’s tension as Arash’s neck is bared to the Girl, and then they embrace.

Arash and the Girl both face archetypes of the masculine and feminine in Bad City. Arash views his Father breaking down and can no longer tolerate that his Father has abandoned him for drugs. He gives the junkie an impromptu intervention. The Father chooses drugs over his son. Arash sends his Father away with some of the money and drugs stolen from Saeed, as well as the cat. Meanwhile, the Girl watches Atti vandalize what she thinks is Saeed’s car. She follows her home and discusses Atti’s life and choices. The Girl seems to understand Atti, and she sympathizes with her.

The lovers meet near a power plant. Arash offers the Girl a hamburger to eat, and this highlights a serious problem. The Girl is not human, she doesn’t feed on hamburgers she feeds on people. Arash attempts to get to know her better, by asking about what the last song she listened to was. She replies with a song that has lyrics like “I long to see the sunshine in your hair.”

Arash then presents the earrings he had stolen, using the opportunity to show he knows something about her- the Girl’s ears are not pierced. So they pierce her ears, a ritual often associated with birth or naming ceremonies. She confesses that she has done bad things, but Arash doesn’t think that changes anything. Something that will be put to the test later in the film.

Arash’s Father, freshly kicked out of his home, goes to Atti. He forces her to use drugs with him. He has taken the cat with him from home, and it seems almost like the Girl has watched the scene unfold through its eyes. She springs into action and takes Arash’s Father as her next victim. Atti helps her drag the body into the street.

Arash finds his Father’s corpse, and he decides to leave it all behind. He goes to find the Girl to make their escape from Bad City. She is reluctant, but this is their chance for life, for love, for something better. She begins to pack, and the cat emerges. Arash seems to know what this means, after all he saw what the Girl did to Saeed.

It pulls at his conscience, but they leave together. Driving out of Bad City, Arash has to pull over in order to make a final decision. He knows the Girl has killed his Father, but maybe it doesn’t change anything between them. Indeed, love carries the day (or, night as it were).

This is a very difficult film for me to review because it is one of my favorites. It speaks directly to the romantic in me, while forcing me to confront aspects of myself. It asks me to examine my relationships with the women in my life, and those I meet in passing. There are clear nods towards some of my favorite directors (e.g. Sergio Leone and Federico Fellini). It has an amazing soundtrack that motivates emotion. It relies on action to move the story along. The dialogue avoids exposition and achieves moments of poetic grace. The film is both clever and bold.

It offers a lot to talk about. Issues that we need to address. Some will take away something political. Others will want to bring this up in a gender studies course. Some might even dwell on how a vampire movie spends such little time focusing on these supernatural creatures. The real take away- the one with the potential to speak to each of us on a human level -involves the struggle of rising above what we are offered in life, and choosing to find love in a cruel world.

The film begs us to try and understand its characters. Each one is interesting, if enigmatic. Flawed, but recognizable. With such cleverly written characters, we can begin to analyze ourselves. Where would we fit in? Who would we be in Bad City? How, and with whom would we escape?

A horror film that can cause you to reflect on life, love, and identity has truly surpassed the limits of the genre.

This beautiful film walks home with a 9 out of 10

IT Follows

It Follows (2014 debut, 2015 release), is a clever genre deconstruction written and directed by David Robert Mitchell. The story follows Jay, an attractive female college student that chooses the wrong guy to go on a date with. After having sex in the back of his car, “Hugh” goes to the trunk and returns with a cloth soaked with, presumably, chloroform. Jay never sees it coming, and when she wakes up she finds herself tied to a wheelchair.

“Hugh” had acted strange before, but Jay was unable to appreciate why. Now, at his mercy, Jay listens as “Hugh” describes the film’s antagonist. While staying interesting due to Jay’s distress and “Hugh’s” strange ranting, this scene depends on rather clunky exposition to fill-in the audience.

“Hugh” has something following him, and it has lethal intent. Nobody can see it except for him. Now that Jay has slept with him, she will be able to see it and it will follow her instead of him, since it goes after the last person in the daisy chain of sexual partners.

Thankfully, it’s slow, as it only walks. However, it can look like anyone. If Jay were to sleep with someone else, it would follow that person until it caught them, and then it would go back to walking down the previous person.

The rest of the film is how Jay deals with this dilemma. Should she put people between her and it by sleeping with them? Who is “Hugh” and will it help to find him after he abandons Jay in front of her house and then disappears? Will her sister and their friends be able to keep her safe when the adult world couldn’t possibly take this predicament seriously? And, is there any way to stop it?

It Follows is a genre deconstruction of the 70’s-80’s era slasher films. If you aren’t familiar with genre deconstruction, it’s basically stripping a genre down to its core elements and taking these to their natural conclusions. Much in the same way that early slasher flicks could be seen as deconstructions of giallo films. In this case, it’s not exactly timely, as you’d typically find a deconstruction striking out from among its peers as a reaction to the current state of the art. It Follows is a bit late to the slasher party to be an adequate reaction to it.

So, what is a slasher flick anyways? Take a masked villain, make it seem unstoppable, let it prey on teenagers that are trying to find freedom through exploring their sexuality and/or drug use, with adults that are skeptical or absent, and you have a great start. Throwing in some synth ripped directly from John Carpenter’s presets wouldn’t hurt either. And we all know Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers are more into power walking than sprinting.

So, how does It Follows take these elements and deconstruct them?

1.       The villain in this film doesn’t wear a mask, it masks itself completely. Nobody but those on its kill list can see it, and to them it could look like anyone. This is taking John Carpenter’s concepts of The Shape and The Thing to the extreme.

2.       Like The Shape and Jason Voorhees, it walks instead of running; but it doesn’t just walk towards its victim, it NEVER STOPS walking towards its victim.

3.       It doesn’t stalk some particular town or campgrounds, happening upon teens sneaking off to have sex. Instead, it only targets people that have been sexually active with one another. Keeping the strange “morality” that seems part and parcel to many slasher films, but going further to make it an explicit “rule.”

There’s a lot to like about this film. While, it’s late to the party, it’s doing something clever with tropes that horror movies repeatedly return to. The characters are likeable and, even though they are slightly flat stereotypes, the actors handle them well. The cinematography is often inspired and fetching. There are moments of suspense that made my lady cuddle me tight (always a bonus).    

The soundtrack has received a lot of praise. It’s definitely a relief to hear a handcrafted synth-based soundtrack in this age of prepackaged cinema sounds. However, fans of John Carpenter might notice it treads heavily upon turf he’s already covered. It also doesn’t have a lot of coherence between sections, from a composition perspective, other than all of the parts being crafted from synth sounds.

After watching an interview with the composer, who says he never had an interest in horror movies and that he specifically looked to John Carpenter’s work for ideas, I can see why I felt a little let down after so much hype. Even though I can still say that I liked it.

The creature(?) itself is super cool. It has the unstoppable stalking power of The Shape (Halloween 1978), combined with the paranoia-inducing stealth of The Thing (1982); making it a very effective monster, and also the biggest John Carpenter rip-off since the It Follows soundtrack (sorry, I couldn’t resist kicking it while it was down). The monster (or, curse?), works very well when it conforms to its own logic. However, there are many times when this logic breaks down.

“Hugh”/Jeff tells Jay that it never stops stalking, and that it is slow but smart- so it will use the appearance of people she knows to get close to her. But it doesn’t really demonstrate either of these aspects very well. It often stops stalking (e.g. standing around on a roof to look more disturbing, or long breaks where it apparently took a few days off). Some of the people it “imitates” don’t look like they typically do, so that’s not a very smart tactic to get closer to its victims (e.g. many of the people it imitated looked like zombie versions of themselves, and it even imitated a girl that was already part of the group on the beach).

This rule-breaking isn’t the only issue with the film. The pacing is all over the place. There are many unnecessary shots that, while pretty, break the focus of the film. It seems like someone let the DoP edit parts of the film, keeping superfluous shots that look like they are pulled from camera ads or stock footage. This is a shame because there are many excellent shots that adequately add a very polished and skillful look to the film, without mucking the pacing. 

The plot also takes a weird turn when they talk about Detroit on the way to have a final showdown in the pool. I guess they had some favors to return to the city for filming there, but it seems completely random to start talking about where the city begins and their suburb ends. I was actually bracing myself for an Eminem song to drop.

Where did they park anyways? Why park so far away if you have to carry typewriters, hairdryers, and lamps? Why bring the lampshades along if you are just going to throw the lamps into the pool anyways? I'm not sure the idea even seemed coherent, but maybe I missed something.

The ending is a bit of a letdown. While “it” typically plods straight towards its victim, it decides to avoid the pool (I guess going by screen-time, it had “eaten” within the previous 45min), and begins throwing things at Jay, who is wading alone in the pool. This seems strange and doesn’t jibe with what we’ve seen of it previously. Sure, it did throw things through windows, but it was always intent on getting hands-on with its victims. Why didn't it attack Paul when he was shooting it, since it attacked him when he tried to intervene previously?

Paul decides shoots it at point-blank range. Nothing seems to happen, but moments later Paul shoots it again in the water. For some reason this shot seems to stop it (werewolves need silver bullets, so maybe it needs two bullets, or to be shot while in water?). Unfortunately, this never really sets us up to expect that it really is all over. So, when we get to the final scene and see something behind Jay and Paul as they walk, we really aren’t surprised. Ending it that way leaves us feeling a little like things weren’t resolved.

I suspect that’s the point. Jay and Paul were each other’s first kiss. Finally, they have gotten together, but Jay’s past is still there following her. More commentary on teenage sexuality courtesy of the “male gaze” that is also found in many slasher films (I wonder if this is conscious on the part of the writers, but it really doesn't matter either way). These concepts haunt this film as much as the antagonist haunts Jay. But, with nothing really resolving, even if that’s symbolic or commentary, the film just ends.

So, what’s the score? Well, it’s a cool idea, but there’s issues. There are scares and suspense, which make it very much a decent horror movie. However, it seemed to be trying hard to be more than that. It's unique, but it doesn’t rise above the genre. It begs you to think about the subtext, but if you think about it, there’s logical holes in the premise.

Just consider this, how did these series of events get past the first unsuspecting person or two? Seems like they wouldn’t have thought too much about someone they know walking up to them. Also, how did “Hugh”/Jeff figure out the rules he tells Jay, or get chloroform? Perhaps the slightly weird (and not very smart) choices it made when deciding who to imitate helped keep these events going (maybe it liked the fear it generated, or needed to keep the cycle going?). These appearance issues may have kept the writers from better integrating the whole The Thing style paranoia- of who can be trusted.  

A decent, but flawed, horror flick with some unique aspects that make it worth the watch. It wants you to think about it, but don't think about it too hard or it starts to unravel. After all, when it’s just being entertaining, it’s a great little horror gem; but, unfortunately, when it’s trying to be high-concept and artsy, it doesn’t follow, it drags.

7 out of 10

Do you disagree with my assessment, or have something to add? Comment below!

The Babadook VS. Goodnight Mommy (Ich Seh Ich Seh)

If you didn’t watch both films, don’t read on unless you want me to ruin the experience for you.

SPOILERS!!!

The Babadook VS. Goodnight Mommy

Ok, so both of these films were widely touted as being some of the scariest films of each respective year (2014 & 2015). They used highly effective trailers to entice horror fans, and both have been said to be genuinely scary and disturbing films. Some fans have gone so far as to say “scariest film ever.” That said, in my mind, one of these films is far superior to the other. Which do you think is the better film?

The Babadook had an excellent trailer that preyed upon our childhood fears. In it, we see a mother tucking in a child and reading him a rather dark story, Mister Babadook. The mother is surprised by the mysterious appearance of the book. The trailer shows them checking under the bed while the Mother reassures her son “nothing bad is going to happen.”

But the child knows grief, and he asks his mother if she told his dad the same thing… before his father died!

The trailer then picks up the pace and shows you almost everything that happens in the entire movie!

Damn.

The film itself seems to be about grief and the characters' inability to cope with it. It succeeds because it manipulates the audience very well. We can identify with childhood fears, we can sympathize with loss and grief. Instead of lazy jump scares, we experience genuine tension and suspense. It begins to become an almost gothic-styled cousin of The Shining (1980)- where family members threaten, supernatural elements lurk, and we aren’t sure what is fabricated in the mind and what is tangible.

The film has really good cinematography that matches up well with the art director’s style and the editor’s rhythm. This is important for telling this particular story effectively, since atmosphere is everything for this film. It almost succeeds in helping us get past HOW MUCH WE HATE THE ANNOYING CHARACTERS!!!

The actors do a good job with the characters, but there’s just nothing to like about any character in the film. The kid is beyond annoying, and the mom isn’t any more likeable. The rest of the characters are stock and flat. While the trailer promised a strong child protagonist building weapons to defend his mom, the movie delivers us an insufferable caricature.

The Babadook itself, as a creature effect, is mostly successful. It's crouched in shadow, and when it moves it is stiff and unnatural. Its askew proportions are unsettling- with long fingers like Nosferatu (1922), and a distorted face like the famous creepypasta Jeff the Killer. This all works well within the neo-gothic atmosphere of the film. Unfortunately, they do resort to some overused techniques that take away from the overall effect (more on that later).

The book might be the coolest element of this film. It is amazingly illustrated in a style reminiscent of the German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). It is so cool, in fact, that it overshadowed the rest of the film. Would you rather have a copy of the book from the movie, or the movie itself? I’d take the book.   

This is actually a smart film that is built upon primal psychological issues. It plays with our sense of who the characters are and what is actually happening. It puts vulnerable characters in danger, and we can feel the tension ourselves. It might seem like a winning film on both a psychological and visceral level…

but, it isn’t.

The movie is pastiche. We’ve seen it all done before, and better. While the trailer was evocative, the movie is tedious (e.g. "don't let it in, don't let it in, don't let it in, don't let it in"). It addresses serious concerns, but in a way that is forced and elementary. It has an amazing opening that visually informs us without spoon-feeding us exposition.  However, it immediately undoes its own artistry and inventive storytelling by cramming unnecessary exposition down our throats (e.g. the kid at the grocery store explaining his daddy died when he was born).

By the end, our hopes for a great horror film are slowly let down. We miss out on a truly momentous encounter with a villain that the filmmakers allowed to be too cool. If it’s supposed to be symbolic of grief, you probably don’t want the audience identifying more with its coolness factor than with the characters we are meant to experience the grief through. It’s obvious that grief doesn’t just go away, but the confrontation that transforms a menacing presence into a basement pet happens with little moment- which leaves us feeling flat.  

The film is held above water by its attempts to address meaningful issues and its technical qualities; but it succumbs to its own generic trappings. The promise is there but it is handled in the most pedestrian of ways- a shallow treatment of deep issues. After all, nothing has really happened. There are few consequences or developments, except for the poor dog. Cheap shot!

5 out of 10

Goodnight Mommy has a creepy trailer, but coming on the heels of The Babadook, it seemed almost generic and derivative. Judging purely by the trailers, it seems to be the inferior film. There’s elements of body-horror (the Mom’s mysterious surgery), there’s bug eating (hey, why not?), there’s a weird scene of the mom undressed in the woods with that stupid blurry face effect we keep seeing (this goes all the way back to Jacob’s Ladder, 1990- please let me know if there is an earlier example of this effect).

Nothing like an overdone effect to make the horror dilettantes know that what they’re watching is supposed to be creepy. The Babadook also stoops to this level of laziness (as I mentioned) with the jitter crawl on the ceiling, and staccato cuts to make its motion towards camera more jarring.  

This film, like the other, examines grief and our inability to come to terms with it. It also demonstrates a dysfunctional parent-child relationship. However, this film builds its story slowly- a pace that might be too slow for some. While starting slow, it crescendos into a level of violence that sets it apart from the more atmospheric The Babadook.

The film takes place on a large and remote property owned by a semi-famous television host. She lives there with her twin sons. She has had surgery on her face and, while recovering, haunts the house; occasionally terrorizing the boys. She seems to favor one of the boys, who spend their time causing mischief. The boys begin to believe that the woman, hiding behind bandages and malice, may not be their mom after all.

The opening scenes show us a series of events that seem to suggest something has happened to one of the boys. There is a setup for a twist here, but it is so obvious that I think everyone sees it coming. This might dismay some folks, as it did me towards the beginning of the film, however this could be intentional chicanery. It’s as if we are meant to think “this is so obvious, I’ve figured it out.”

There’s a second twist setup as well. The mom might have a twin. In fact, the son is concerned that the twin has taken over his mother’s place. While we were busy congratulating ourselves that we had figured this film out, it slowly developed other intrigues. We are now dealing with a character study, and maybe not even noticing the psychological projection that is occurring. Unfortunately for the mother, we learn that she nurtured this for a while (playing along that the dead boy is still around), before becoming confrontational about the issue: one of the boys is dead.  

The actors do an excellent job with a light script. Instead of clunky exposition we are treated to genuinely engaging action. As I mentioned, the film is slow, but it isn’t boring. It creeps up on you, appropriately enough, since we are watching a child’s mind slowly breaking down and his desperation snowballing. We are witnessing grief and confusion being transformed into blame and anger; then blame and anger being transformed into violence.

There are moments where you aren’t sure if what you’re seeing is real or a dream, and it’s important to separate the two in order to parse out what is going on. This is where the trailer did a terrible job. It’s as if the trailer is for some other generic horror film and not this highly original character study.

By the end we find ourselves not overly concerned that we had figured out the twist, since other questions have arisen. Our deduction of the plot twist becomes of little consequence in light of other issues.

And that’s a really distinct dividing line between the The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy: consequence. By the end of this film, we may still have questions (especially if you noticed what happened while the firefighters were distracting you), but we know that there were consequences derived directly from the characters’ actions. 

The film isn’t perfect. It suffers from too few characters. The few that do enter add little to the story. There is also a dream sequence where the mom goes into the woods. This is a device meant, apparently, to make us question what is going on with the mom, but it feels out of place in this film. The real issue most people will have is how obvious the “twist” is, but there’s so much more going on that, even if the filmmakers meant for this to be genuinely surprising, it really isn’t a game changing fumble.

Others have complained about the level of violence, but I see this as an important element that works in the film’s favor. I'm not a fan of tedious torture scenes, but the struggle we see here, with the boy brutally torturing and then tenderly mending his mother, is both touching and disturbing. It feels genuine in a way that few films capture. The actions we see are indicative of the child’s psyche torturing and tearing itself apart. The suffering is transformative, the character development being shown in graphic fashion.

There’s a lot to miss in this film, and that’s a credit to how well written it is. Like a well-played hand of poker: we think we know the odds, but we find ourselves trying hard to read the face (which happens to be surgically reformed and wrapped in bandages), and we are still shocked at the consequences when we find that we were too hyper-focused on a single detail. 

This is one of the best horror films of this decade. It isn’t the scariest, but it is so well played, shot, acted, and edited that it comes close to transcending its genre. The violence is poetic, not excessive as some might say. The consequences are captivating, if enigmatic. We can understand why characters are making the choices they make, even if it breaks our hearts.  

8 out of 10.

The Babadook is playing a solid game of checkers, while Goodnight Mommy is setting up a Kubrick-like chess game.