Category Archives: Uncategorized

100 Greatest Horror Films

I took part in Slant Magazine‘s 100 Greatest Horror Films feature. Each contributor was asked to submit a list of their 100 favorite scary movies, which were then aggregated to form the overall list. Here’s what I submitted:

1. The Shining

2. Suspiria

3. I Walked With a Zombie

4. Dawn of the Dead (1978)

5. Halloween

6. A Bucket of Blood

7. Rosemary’s Baby

8. Jaws

9. Who Can Kill a Child?

10. Frankenstein (1931)

11. Blood and Black Lace

12. Vampyr

13. The Birds

14. Nosferatu (1922)

15. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death

16. Freaks

17. Deep Red

18. Don’t Look Now

19. Psycho

20. Possession (1981)

21. Kill, Baby…Kill!

22. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

23. Cat People (1942)

24. Spiderbaby

25. Zombi 2

26. Pin

27. Night of the Demon

28. Scanners

29. Nightmare City

30. Haxan

31. Alien

32. Return of the Living Dead

33. House

34. Sleepaway Camp

35. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

36. Day of the Dead (1985)

37. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

38. The Fly (1986)

39. A Taste of Blood

40. The Devils

41. Jigoku

42. The Exorcist

43. Carrie

44. House on the Edge of the Park

45. Black Christmas

46. They Live

47. Blood Spattered Bride

48. The Night of the Hunter

49. Patrick

50. Sisters

51. Deliverance

52. Le Frisson des Vampires

53. Kuroneko

54. Black Sunday

55. Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

56. Razorback

57. Onibaba

58. Martin

59. The Thing (1982)

60. Tetsuo

61. Don’t Go in the House

62. Kwaidan

63. Repulsion

64. It’s Alive

65. Demons

66. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

67. When a Stranger Calls (1979)

68. Dead and Buried

69. Bride of Frankenstein

70. Intruder

71. Kwaidan

72. Maniac (1980)

73. Dead Ringers

74. Daughter of Dr. Jekyll

75. The Last House on the Left

76. The Evil Dead

77. Cemetery Man

78. La Vampire Nue

79. Driller Killer

80. White Zombie

81. Audition

82. Fanatic

83. Blue Sunshine

84. What’s the Matter with Helen?

85. Tenebre

86. Slumber Party Massacre

87. Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out!

88. Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things

89. Wolf Creek

90. The Devil’s Backbone

91. Near Dark

92. In the Mouth of Madness

93. Daughters of Darkness

94. M

95. Images

96. Leprechaun

97. Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master

98. Pontypool

99. Martyrs

100. Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom

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Another look at “Crass consciousness”

Vulgar auteurism. So hot right now.

Presuming the majority of those who will read this blog post are already firmly aware of the hearty debate (or petty bickering, depending on who’s involved) currently transpiring in the world of online film criticism, I’ll forgo any unnecessary preamble and simply instruct those who aren’t in the know to first read this, and then read this.

Now that everyone’s up to speed, I’ll cut to the chase. Back when Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil: Retribution first hit theaters, I penned this piece for the Reader, in which I aired some grievances toward Anderson and vulgar auteurism (henceforth referred to as VA, as is the custom. . . I think) writ large. It didn’t cause much of a ripple, probably because VA had yet to pervade the zeitgeist in the way it has in the last couple weeks—or maybe I’m just a bad writer. I don’t know. I’m not a doctor.

Anyway, the piece has since resurfaced in this thoughtful blog entry posted by Outlaw Vern, in which the following excerpt from my review is quoted: “In the past few years the auteur theory has been perverted by a new school of critics, most of them bloggers, who’ve elevated to the level of high art various studio hacks whose work can hardly be ranked with the classic Hollywood directors.”

Spurred by this mention, and by the overall fervor surrounding the subject, I’ve decided to firmly clarify my position on VA, which is slightly less vehement today but nevertheless anchored in skepticism and irritation. I somewhat regret the hardline stance I took back then, because at the end of the day, I don’t feel any moral, ethical, or philosophical resistance toward VA. Besides, as Outlaw Vern piece aptly points out, VA practitioners aren’t necessarily trying to place the likes of Neveldine/Taylor or Justin Lin next to Hitchcock or Hawks—and even if they are, who gives a shit? After all, this whole film criticism game is only valuable when it’s subjective. The staid, inflexible canonization of, for example, the American Film Institute is probably more disadvantageous to cinema culture than VA’s irreverent, willy-nilly canonization.

OK, so—vulgar auteurists aren’t necessarily  saying Paul W.S. Anderson=Paul Thomas Anderson. They’re simply saying we can (and should) discuss Paul W.S. Anderson in the same way we discuss Paul Thomas Anderson—that is, with serious consideration for his personal style. And I’m fully on board with that. In fact, I like to think I did just that in my original review.

But the thing I can’t ignore—the thing that, in my opinion, ultimately reveals VA to be superfluous at worst and cute at best—is the sheer fact that this battle has already been waged and won by critics and cinephiles ten times the likes of anyone currently going to the mattresses for or against VA. Contrary to some of the comments left on my review, I know my film history. I know that the invaluable work done by the young writers at Cahiers du Cinema, the Hitchcocko-Hawksians from whom the self-described Mann-Scott-Baysians* so conceitedly aped their name, widened the parameters of film art discourse by recognizing and analyzing the profound stylistic consistencies present in supposed studio journeymen, all while maintaining a vested intellectual and passionate interest in world art cinema and the history of cinema in general, forever altering the way people think about, read about, and most importantly, watch movies.

And I believe this democratization of quality abides by a single rule: That the director’s personality be foremost in the film. Call it a policy, call it a theory—whatever you want. It’s been the guiding principal for major film criticism ever since. It’s the single notion that proved it was possible for one to approach the work, say, Abel Ferrara and Woody Allen on an equal plane. It’s why I’ve long found it possible to regard Russ Meyer and Ingmar Bergman as equals. Even before I heard the words “vulgar auteur,” I didn’t see anything wrong with enjoying Total Recall in a double feature alongside The Mirror.

I guess that’s why I’m skeptic, even a bit miffed by VA. There’s seems to me an overriding pretense that VA is something new and cutting edge, and I’m wary of such hubris. (Calum Marsh’s thing for the Village Voice, in all its bluster and overconfidence, is indicative of most VA writing I’ve come across, though I’m of the opinion that Pinkerton’s piece is the worst offender here.) Ultimately, I do believe VA can never be anything more than a flash in the pan. Their intentions, though self-serving, aren’t inherently malicious, and I welcome open and thoughtful discussion for any and all films and filmmakers, but at the end of the day, the redundancies are impossible to ignore.

Will VA stick? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. But if I had to venture a guess, I’d say the buzz will die down eventually, if only because the Internet, the wellspring of VA whose trends and customs seem to shift on a daily basis, won’t allow it to proliferate. In other words, if cinephilia is an elementary school, vulgar auteurists are the kids with the snazzy light-up sneakers, which have an fashionably oracular appearance despite performing the same basic function of shoes have performed since time immemorial.

Remembering Roger

Ebert1

In the waning summer days of September 2010, I was assigned by my college newspaper to review Mark Romanek’s sci-fi drama, Never Let Me Go. The assignment required me to attend a press screening on the 16th floor of 70 East Lake Street in downtown Chicago, a private theater where the city’s critics preview all the new releases. The prospect of running elbows with professional film critics was thoroughly exciting, so you can imagine my panic when I found myself running late for the 12:30 PM screening.

I burst into the tiny theater somewhere around 12:35 PM and was relieved to see the film had yet to start. I immediately sat down in the first open spot I saw, in the very back row in the seat closest to the door. As I set my bag down and switched off my phone, one of the press agents who organized the screening tapped my shoulder: “Excuse, you need to move—we’re saving this seat for Roger.”

My mind still reeling from my mad dash to the screening, a single thought entered my brain: “Who the fuck is Roger?” I sighed, collected my bag, and plopped myself down in the seat directly in front of me. Finally settled, I surveyed the scene and saw I was surrounded by some of the best critics in the business—Scott Tobias, Michael Phillips, and J.R. Jones, among others, were each on hand. Eventually, I thought to myself, “I wonder if Roger—”

It hit me like a sack of bricks. “Who the fuck is Roger?” Roger fucking Ebert, that’s who. Just then, the door swung open, and the man himself entered the room. A few people waved, some said “Hi, Roger.” He waved back, gave a thumbs up, and sat in the seat I had just vacated—the one in the far back row, closest to the door. His seat.

Now directly in front of him, I sunk as far into my chair as possible. I was embarrassed, for starters, but I was also going to make damn sure I didn’t impede on one iota of his vision. This was Roger Ebert, after all. The film started (we always wait for Roger) and I spent the duration fully aware that one of the most—if not the most—important people in the history of film criticism was sitting directly behind me. Somehow, I made it through.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the last time I saw a film at 70 East Lake. As such, it wasn’t the last time I saw Roger. For a while there, he was a weekly fixture in my life. Obviously, we never exchanged words, but as I became a more familiar presence in the screening room, he often made a point to nod and wave my way. Once, I even got a thumbs up—after a screening of I Am of Number 4, of all things. I felt the warmth, compassion, and good nature so many people have mentioned since his passing. He made me feel like a peer.

The surreality of the whole thing was never lost on me. Roger was larger than life. Here was a guy whose work I admired fiercely, whose pragmatic and inspiring words adorned my cork boards and countless notebooks. Here was a guy who took thoughtful film discussion and made it cool, who went on TV and talked about things that I wasn’t hearing anywhere else. And here he was, just another guy in the screening room.

In my time as a critic, I’ve been sent to press junkets, interviewed the likes of Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and Ed Helms—the only time I’ve ever felt starstruck, when the sheer scope of what was happening seemed beyond my comprehension, was when Roger Ebert came into the screening room that afternoon in September. It’s a day I’ll never forget. I’ll miss him.

Grappling with The Master

The general consensus of the initial reactions to Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master could adequately be summed up as, “I need to see it again.” Indeed, this story of an unhinged WWII vet named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Pheonix) who falls in with a cult and has his existence challenged by its enigmatic and charismatic leader (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is fiercely cryptic in theme and narrative. Between the allusions to L. Ron Hubbard and the birth of Scientology, the references to the shifting cultural conscience of America post-WWII, and the equivocal nature of the characterization, The Master doesn’t make for lite watching—it does, however, make for easy watching, which isn’t exactly the same thing.

By easy, I mean “easy on the eyes.” Ever the stern formalist, Anderson has officially joined the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky and Hou Hsaio-hsien as a master of the long take. Many of the best sequences in the film play out in a single camera track, which were made all the more stunning thanks to the film’s screening in the epic 70-millimeter format. (I share my thoughts on that over on the Bleader; while you’re there, make sure to read J.R. Jones’ nuanced observations of the film, in which he surmises that he, too, will need a second viewing). The crispness of the image and the tangibility of its contents were nothing short of remarkable. With any luck, the film may be the final word in the whole digital vs. celluloid debate—whoever runs the North West Chicago Film Society Twitter account said it best: “The characters construct a reality; the hyperreality of 70mm & the enormity of the big screen let us see through it. DCP? Hm!”

So if the narrative is impregnable, consider the visuals transformative. But in getting back to the narrative, Anderson has said the film is simply a story of a WWII soldier who falls in with a cult after the war—and I agree. Allusions to Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard are certainly present, but The Master is less concerned with the construction of a religion (or cult or following or whatever) and more concerned with the susceptibility of the human mind when faced with mass trauma. This theme ties The Master closer to 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love more so than Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood (2007), with which it shares only superficial similarities—both films are period pieces about larger than life figures framed in a historical context that they ultimately transcend, but there’s a deeper current of human behavior present in The Master. If Punch-Drunk Love reads like an examination of the Agitated Modern Man, then The Master depicts the birth of the Agitated Modern Man.

The sexual panic that plagues Punch-Drunk Love‘s Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is comparable to the sexual aberrations that plague Freddie, particularly in the way both afflictions inform virtually every aspect of their behavior. Anderson often harvests this maniacal and erratic behavior for humor: laughter filled the Music Box throughout the film, even during scenes that arguably weren’t designed to be comical. Like Punch-Drunk Love, whichis structured as a romantic comedy, this humor stems from a place of deep anguish. In spurts, both films occasionally resemble a sort of demented Jerry Lewis film, the psychological underpinnings rendering the humor uncomfortable and even a little disturbing. (There’s also the interesting parallel of Hoffman, who acts as Barry’s reckoning and Freddie’s, well, master.)

Furthermore, a desire for belonging and familial structure can be found in each of Anderson’s films, dating all the way back to his 1996 debut Sydney (aka Hard Eight), a riff on Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flembeur. The surrogate family of Boogie Nights (1997) appears most analogous to Dodd’s motley crew of wayward souls. Boogie Nights is yet another humanist examination an impressionable soul (Mark Wahlberg) whose behavior is governed by sex.

Placing the film within Anderson’s oeuvre at large is simple—placing it in a larger context, not so much. He’s always shown a penchant for sprawling stories, filled with diametric characters that exhibit inscrutable behavior. An Anderson narrative has come to be defined by the confusion and conjecture they inspire. This doesn’t speak to a lack of authorial control—no filmmaker as meticulous as Anderson would let anything fall by the wayside—but it is indicative of an author intent on requiring, well, a need to “see it again.” Like a good novel, The Master is likely to only grow richer with repeat visits.

“Henceforth, there is cinema…”

And the cinema is Nicholas Ray—at least according to Jean-Luc Godard, who bestowed this honor upon Ray in his review of the 1957 masterpiece Bitter Victory. Today is Ray’s 101st birthday—although the Lacrosse, Wisconsin native is essentially ageless: As the director of such films as They Live By Night, Knock on any Door, and, of course, Rebel Without a Cause, he’ll always be remembered as a harbinger of youth culture, a defender of the wayward souls lost in a world that refused to understand them. His sensitive yet bracingly honest depictions of contemporary America went grossly underrated for the bulk of his career, but today we recognize Nicholas Ray as one of the cinema’s greats who told classic stories of the misunderstood.

But as masterful a storyteller as he was, Ray wasn’t married to his scripts. In fact, like most classic Hollywood directors who were worth a damn, he frequently revamped and reconstructed the screenplays he was assigned to direct. His greatest film, 1952’s The Lusty Men, was virtually made on the fly; Rebel Without a Cause was similarly produced, as he said in 1970, “[It] was being written all through the shooting… I didn’t even follow my own camera placements.” Ray would go on to say in the same interview that “the relationship between improvisation and the script usually begins with the director’s dissatisfaction with the way the scene is coming alive.”

Indeed, Ray’s films have a distinct air of discovery in them, as if what’s unfolding on screen is the result of a director who’s unsure of what will happen next. You get the sense that he’s feeling out the scenarios much in the same way the audience is, with each scene exacting some sort of nuance or sense of subtext in a way that feels organic and realistic. Sometimes he simply observed the action; other times, he gripped it by the throat, as in the climactic scenes of films like Johnny Guitar and Bigger than Life. A Ray narrative is unpredictable, but it has distinct respect for the viewer, both for its intelligence and its desire for emotion, resulting in a sort of harmony wholly unique to his artistry. Watch as he details this approach quite plainly during scene in 1950’s In a Lonely Place, a movie I, like so many others, am rather obsessed with:

A black cat and a blue beard

Edgar G. Ulmer, one of Hollywood’s most eccentric and evocative film stylists, is mostly known for directing two films: the poverty row noir Detour (1945) and the Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi Universal horror The Black Cat, which screened twice at the Gene Siskel Film Center screening in a brand new print. The inky black-and-white photography of The Black Cat looks better than ever, but if you ask me, it’s not the Ulmer film that’s most deserving of such a thorough restoration.

Bluebeard

His 1944 horror-noir hybrid Bluebeard, which stars John Carradine as a murderous artist who paints portraits of women and subsequently strangles them once he’s finished, is readily available on DVD but in forms that range from egregiously bastardized to merely passable. The best of these can be found in a disc from All-Day Entertainment. Digitally transferred from an archival 35mm print courtesy of the Cinematheque Francaise,this version is, in fact, the complete film—bootleg versions courtesy of Roan Group Archival Entertainment and other such outlets are spliced to hell—but the sound isn’t quite right and the transfer is poor, giving the film a darker look than Ulmer intended

I realize that might seem like a nitpicky critique given Ulmer’s highly expressionistic style. Bluebeard does indeed benefit for a healthy dose of shadows, but it’s the elements of the frame that Ulmer baths in light that suffer the most from this lack of contrast. In particular, the film’s masterfully composed flashback sequence, which Dave Kehr suggests might be “the last full flowering of hard-core expressionism,” appears to suffer from a lack of grain and is certainly devoid of the sort of texture I’ve seen in actual 35 mm prints of Ulmer’s work.

In addition to Bluebeard, the Cinematheque Francaise possesses a number of Ulmer’s 1940s PRC quickies in addition to some of his Yiddish-language films, including The Singing Blacksmith. I’d love to see a retrospective of his work, with each print given the same attention as The Black Cat.

A lack of harmony: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild

In Behn Zeitlin’s debut film Beasts of the Southern Wild, his main character is a precocious, wise beyond her years 6-year-old named Hushpuppy, who spends much of the film detailing the ways in which the universe works. However, her persistent mantra of, “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right” is as accurate as it is flawed: The universe—and by universe, I assume Zeitlin means society and culture—does require harmony in order to function perfectly, but the universe—indeed, society—can never achieve this harmony because of the many disparate perspectives, experiences, and opinions bouncing around it. The relativism that constitutes the human experience can never allow for such a nebulous quality as “perfect harmony” because one person’s definition of a perfection may well be vastly different someone else’s.

I think this conundrum also applies to the film itself and, by extension, the critical reaction to it. The film has been praised and panned with equal vigor, with some praising it “really wonderful” (Glenn Kenny) and “a passionate and unruly explosion of Americana,” (AO Scott) and others panning it for being “enraptured by [its] own imagery” (Richard Brody), or, simply “bullshit” (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky). Underlying the vast and varied opinions is a special issue, one that isn’t addressed nearly enough in current American criticism: What do we expect of our young filmmakers?

At the risk of sounding derivative, there seems to be two sorts of young independent filmmakers working today: Those who have embraced burgeoning technologies and are readily taking advantage of the wealth of resources currently available to them and those who venture outside of their immediate milieu in examination of more lofty themes Neither sect is making anything that I’d call daringly original; in fact, both are guilty, in one way or another, of a sort of myopia: one that narrows their focus to either masturbatory navel gazing or reductive postulation of arcane subjects. In other words, your Joe Swanbergs versus your Duncan Joneses.

The fact of the matter is there’s a line between the investigative and the self-serving, the ambitious and the pretentious. The unique problem with Beasts of the Southern Wild is that it’s each of these things in equal measure, which explains the polemic responses. When you consider their highly disparate opinions on the work of the aforementioned Joe Swanberg, it makes sense that Brody (pro-Swanberg) would reproach Beasts for being “enraptured by [its] own imagery” while Kenny (anti-Swanberg) would praise said imagery for being “striking, surprising and somehow never off-key.”

Beasts of the Southern wild is both exactly what we need in independent filmmaking and everything that’s wrong with it at the same time. The debate it’s inspiring will, ultimately, transcend the film itself and turn into something less categorical than whether or not it’s any good. It will soon become the watermark of where filmmaking is going in the 21st century, the poster child for Joneses or the whipping boy of the Swanbergs.

Personally, I find this disheartening. I think there’s a lot of good in the film as well as in Zeitlin—the fact that he shot the thing on 16mm alone earns him brownie points. His inquisitive nature and aversion to homage is a welcoming beacon among the endless droves of complacency and intertextualism. But at the same time, Beasts of the Southern Wild is so awash with metaphor, so imbued with allegory that it ultimately says nothing of any real substance. I’m no Kaelist, but her infamous takedown of Malick’s Days of Heaven feels somewhat applicable here.

Is there a middle ground? I’d like to think so, but I’m increasingly doubtful. We’d need a perfect harmony, after all.