Spring 2022 – Week 7 in Review

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. This week I’ve been munching through a whole lot of comfort food, chewing my way through a variety of horror attractions, and also starting a new book simply because I wanted to read it. Everyone online seemed to love Gideon the Ninth, and so far I’m having a great time with it too, while also just savoring the feeling of reading for pleasure again. I know I’m the least appropriate person to impart this lesson, but you really do have to keep some of yourself for yourself, and not turn absolutely everything into content or profit. Of course, with me being me, I expect I’ll still be roused to ramble about Gideon once I’ve actually finished it – but for now, let’s just run through some fresh new films. Onward!

The crown jewel of this week’s screenings was a fascinating ‘60s feature, Michalengelo Atonioni’s Blowup. The film follows Thomas (David Hemmings), a professional photographer dancing through the decadence of London’s swinging sixties. Though he enjoys professional success and acclaim, Thomas seems distant from his own life, more an observer than an active participant. Distracted from his daily work, Thomas seeks inspiration in a local park, where he takes some photos of a couple enjoying a private trist. But upon developing those photos, he discovers he’s captured more the throes of romantic passion – in the fine margins of his film stock, he may well have discovered a murder plot.

Blowup is captivating in the ways it contorts and toys with its central mystery, offering none of the satisfying payoffs you expect from a thriller. Rather than a mystery-driven roller coaster, Blowup is instead a murder-tinged character study, with its central crime mostly serving to illustrate the nature of Thomas himself. Early on, Thomas is indifferent to his success, but also secure in it – he understands his role as an observer of life, which provides confidence if not genuine satisfaction. When Thomas’ mundane life accidentally threads into a potential murder plot, he is greatly disoriented, but also genuinely alive for the first time in years. You can hear the gleeful thrill in Hemmings’ voice when he calls a friend, proudly declaring that he potentially foiled a murder plot through his accidental presence. No longer just commanding the frame, Thomas has entered the picture at last!

If this were a conventional thriller, Thomas’ discovery would lead to direct involvement in the police investigation, and perhaps even a tense confrontation with the would-be killer. Instead, Thomas gets distracted by other concerns, and puts the murder out of his mind, and only later returns to the pictures, realizing that he didn’t actually stop anything. There, in the final photos, right behind that hedge – there is the body itself, the proof of Thomas’ identity as a spectator. And after Thomas actually confirms the death of this man, he returns to his apartment to find his treasures stolen – his negatives, prints, and blown-up detail shots all ripped from the walls, returning him to the furth.

Never again does Thomas come so close to the electric wire of genuine action and consequence. For a brief moment, his life touched on the stuff of nightmares; a shadowed face in the brush, a loaded gun in the negatives. We never learn who the dead man was, or why he was murdered; when a friend asks who was killed, Thomas can only shrug and say “someone.” But having brushed so closely against this vital terror, having taken a step forward from behind his camera tripod, Thomas cannot easily return to his position of confident authorship, from which he once directed the motions of life’s active players. In the film’s final moments, he literally takes on a stage role, helping a pair of mimes by “throwing back” their invisible tennis ball – a choice the initial Thomas would likely scoff at, too attuned to theater’s artifice to enjoy its pleasures. By leaving both Thomas and the viewer with only unanswered questions, Blowup erases the safe, sanitized distance of the camera frame, forcing us to consider our true distance from the chaos of reality. An exceedingly clever and triumphantly discomforting film.

Our next screening was Phantasm, a ‘79 horror film about a boy who discovers the local undertaker is doing something sinister with his town’s dead bodies. The film is a defiantly odd duck, evoking something akin to the family adventure tone of a film like Gremlins, but with far too much violence and nudity to actually recommend to families. As a narrative, it’s unfocused and absurd; the first act takes far too long to get moving, there’s frequently no connective tissue between scenes, and the ending is a total copout. Additionally, the fact that it mostly stars amateurs is clear in their every unconvincing gasp, dash, and line read.

For all that, I had a perfectly fine time with Phantasm, owing entirely to the strength of its horror concepts and design work. The alienating marble corridors of the local funeral home feel like a haunting dreamscape, bringing to mind the unsettling visions of something like Twin Peaks. The villain’s metal orb of death is a marvelously demented invention, like a collaborative design by the italian gore hounds and the cenobytes. And the ominous “Tall Man” himself is a wondrously bombastic, instantly iconic villain, with his Vincent Price-like presence livening every scene he features in. I wouldn’t call Phantasm a “good” film, but like with many horror features, I personally felt its weaker elements were a fine price to pay for its outstanding ones.

Our next feature was Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a fairly straightforward haunted house story. Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce star as a couple renovating a spooky-ass mansion, whose lives are complicated by the arrival of Pearce’s eight-year-old daughter Sally. Having been tossed from one indifferent parent to the other, Sally feels distrustful of both her new caretakers, but sadly doesn’t extend that same level of suspicion to the creatures begging her for friendship and teeth.

You could sum up Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’s pitch as “what if the tooth fairy is real, he has a box cutter, and he’ll go for your ankles if you don’t give him teeth.” Its mansion is haunted by devious little gremlins wielding all manner of pointy objects, and the film makes a point of having its human characters lean much too close to grates and heating vents at basically all times, practically begging a long nail or pair of scissors to greet them.

Guillermo del Toro both produced and co-wrote the film, and you can see his influence in the ornate gothic style of the film’s architecture, the fairy tale framing of its monsters, and its prioritization of the mental lives of children. Unfortunately, he didn’t also direct, meaning the cinematography is simply passable, and the film’s tension sputters when it reveals too much of its signature monsters. Still, generally solid performances, a uniquely twisted premise, and a couple standout moments of brutality make for an altogether spooky and reasonably accomplished ride.

Next up was the ‘78 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, starring Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams as employees of the San Francisco Health Department, who slowly come to realize their friends and neighbors are being replaced by emotionless impostors.

Body Snatchers is a slow, agonizing ride towards oblivion, with much of its tension contained in the increasingly alien affectation of its half-glimpsed background characters. For most of its first act, there are only vague hints of anything seriously wrong, while the film’s excellent script and accomplished leads play out a genuinely engaging romantic drama. The fact that you’re not quite sure if anything has happened slowly bleeds over into a roiling panic, and then suddenly it’s too late to do anything at all.

Body Snatchers manages this slow boil of uncertainty masterfully, evoking the paranoia of being gaslit as tangibly as Rosemary’s Baby. Watching Sutherland’s early attempts to explain away Adams’ distress are agonizing, not because he’s brutishly ignoring her fears, but because it’s so clear that both he and Adams wish there were some other answer. Their mistakes all come from sympathetic human instincts, making it all the more painful watching their world surrender to alien indifference. With excellent supporting turns by Jeff Goldblum, Leonard Nemoy, and Veronica Cartwright (whose screams of despair made me instantly recognize her from Alien), Body Snatchers is a compelling personal drama and heart-thumping horror feature in one, resolving in one of the most iconic shots in cinema.

Our last film of the week was a recent Shudder exclusive, the Argentinian horror feature Terrified. Terrified is set on the most cursed street in all of Buenos Aires, where spirits whisper, the dead walk, and ghouls watch over you while you sleep. The film’s kitchen sink approach to paranormal phenomena actually felt quite refreshing; rather than being bound by the conventions of some specific antagonist, the general umbrella of “this street cursed af” allows Terrified to embrace a vast and creative variety of spooky phenomenon. Of course, “more spooky shit” is only a boon if a given film can meaningfully execute on those concepts – fortunately, Terrified nails basically every conceit it touches, making for one of the most genuinely frightening films I’ve seen in years.

It’s a little hard to pin down, but something about Terrified’s approach to horror strongly reminded me of those classic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. Because the film is centered around a haunted street rather than any single character, it’s free to offer what resembles an anthology of short horror films, presenting each of its cast members with a unique take on the supernatural. And frankly, I think short stories or films fit horror better than any other medium – just one slow burn of anticipation into a horrifying reveal, with no time frittered away on character arcs or context.

Terrified effectively repeats this process four or five times across its run, presenting one bone-chilling tale of possession after another. Each is defined by one single, ominous concept or motif – the first haunting’s persistent “thump, thump,” muddy footprints marking a dead child’s return home, a yawning crack in the wall. Individually, they’d all make for fine entries in any horror anthology; collectively, they ratchet up a sense of dread until it resolves the only way it can, with our heroes gasping for air as the devils approach. Terrified understands precisely how to build a sense of distrust or sickness in an ostensibly mundane environment, that particular queasiness of knowing your conventional world has been stained by some outer influence. It matches that sensation with sturdy fundamental concepts, a keen understanding of what not to show, and cinematography that’s nearly as beautiful as it is unsettling. An absolute gem of the Shudder collection.