Not Sure About “Shirley”

My reaction to Shirley–the quasi-biographical film focusing on one of our greatest writers of American Gothic, Shirley Jackson–is decidedly mixed. There is a lot that I really liked about director Josephine Decker’s 2020 effort. The performances are superb; Elisabeth Moss unsurprisingly shines as the title scribe, and brings Jackson to onscreen life in all her moody reclusiveness, eccentricity, and complexity (Shirley proudly declares herself a witch, yet also appears wounded by her shunning by the Bennington, Vermont, community). Michael Stuhlbarg (Arnold Rothstein in Boardwalk Empire) gives a terrific performance as Stanley Edgar Hyman, Shirley’s overbearing, lecherous professor of a husband. I also enjoyed the dramatization of Shirley’s struggle to write her next book (after becoming a cause célèbre for her controversial–and now-classic–story, “The Lottery”). The film’s behind-the-scenes glimpses of the development of the novel Hangsaman make for some compelling sequences.

At the same time, there were aspects of the movie that I found problematical. While I had no issue with the interpolation of a fictional couple (the graduate assistant Fred and his pregnant wife Rose) into the Jackson-Hyman household, I was bothered by the fact that the film presents Shirley as childless. In reality, the author’s uneasy role as mother/homemaker was a key aspect of her life and writing (leading to such books as Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons), so the absence of children here seemed like a convenient deviation from biographical truth. My bigger issue, though, is that I was never quite sure how the film wanted the viewer to respond to Shirley, whether to feel sympathy for her or to recoil from her rough edges (for Shirley, there’s a very line between a smile and a sneer). This ambiguity no doubt is part of the point, illustrating what a multifaceted and not-easily-understood figure Jackson was, but I nonetheless found it tough to find my emotional footing throughout.

At times, Shirley doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be–a possible murder mystery (Hangsaman is based on the disappearance of a young girl from the same college at which Stanley taught); a lesbian romance (the strange bond developed between Shirley and Rose); an indictment of the sexism of the times and the small-mindedness of small-town communities. The plot tends to meander, with no clear through-line, and Decker grows over-reliant on artful, enigmatic imagery. It’s not that I was expecting to watch a suspenseful thriller, or even a standard biopic, but I do wish the film had proved a little less obtuse and muted (I suspect that Susan Scarf Merrell’s source novel provides a more accessible narrative).

For fans of the author Jackson or the actress Moss, Shirley (now streaming on Hulu and also available to rent or purchase on Amazon) is definitely worth checking out, but the film ultimately serves as a quintessential example of the sum adding up to less than the parts.

 

Del Toro Post Mortem

Don’t be alarmed by the post title: renowned filmmaker and author Guillermo del Toro is alive and well. He also recently did a terrific interview for the podcast Post Mortem with Mick Garris. Over the course of 79 minutes, del Toro delves into such topics as: how his Catholic upbringing spurred his monstrophilia; his early influence by legendary make-up artist Dick Smith; the challenges he faced in the industry as a Mexican filmmaker; the difficulties of shooting Mimic for Miramax; his upcoming remake of the carnival noir film Nightmare Alley. I find del Toro a fascinating speaker for his wonderful accent alone, but this interview also demonstrates the immense erudition he possesses when it comes to genre films in particular and the arts in general. A must-listen for fans of his work.

 

Decayed Flesh Freshened

The 2019 zombie film Blood Quantum (now available for streaming on Shudder) has a lot to recommend it. The buildup to the outbreak is handled very effectively (creepiest use of salmon I’ve ever seen in a movie). The gore effects are shockingly good for a film that didn’t have a summer-blockbuster budget. And there are some really inventive zombie kills (yet the carnage never descends into mood-spoiling campiness).

What really distinguishes Blood Quantum, though, and makes it such a significant entry into the zombie film subgenre is the fact that the story is told through the perspective of Indigenous peoples–the inhabitants of the Mi’gmaq reserve of Red Crow in Canada. For whatever strange reason (the film doesn’t delve too deeply into explanation), anyone of First Nations blood proves immune to the plague that causes the rest of humanity to revive as the carnivorous undead. Immune, however, does not mean safe from harm, as the film’s POC heroes are still vulnerable to sheer savaging by the fast-moving hordes of “ZEDs.” The violent encroachment of white people onto native land allows the film to make an interesting colonial critique, and to director Jeff Barnaby’s credit, such subtext is woven in seamlessly and never verges on preachiness.

Blood Quantum isn’t a perfect film, for certain. In the middle third (when the time jumps “six months later” in the apocalypse), the plot tends to meander. There are also some brief animated sequences interpolated into the live-action that end up being more distracting than they are worth. The acting won’t receive any Oscar nods, but overall this is an entertaining zombie film, one that provides a fresh perspective onto a traditional scenario. Not settling for typical cannibalistic excess, Blood Quantum gives viewers plenty of food for thought.

 

Iconic and Oft-Copied

Yesterday marked the 85th anniversary of the release of The Bride of Frankenstein (here’s a cool article commemorating the occasion). A terrific film overall, it is perhaps best remembered for its climactic unveiling of one of the greatest monsters in the history of horror movies. Though she only graced the screen for a few minutes before perishing, the Bride unquestionably has left an undying mark. Here’s a pictorial ode to the most famous fright hair ever styled by a Hollywood studio–a look that has since permeated pop culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

@#$%&!

As I’ve discussed in a previous post, I am not a big fan of The Exorcist. But I do recognize its historical significance as a horror film, and was definitely intrigued when I learned it would be the subject of the first episode of the Cursed Films series that recently premiered on Shudder. I never knew that The Exorcist had much of a reputation for being cursed; after watching the documentary, though, I realize there’s not much reason to think so.

The episode begins promisingly enough, sharing an eerie anecdote about how a fire broke out during filming, destroying the sets yet leaving Regan’s bedroom mysteriously untouched. But I started to lose faith when the episode addressed the injuries that the actresses Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn suffered in the course of filming–stunts gone wrong are an everyday and easily explained part of moviemaking and don’t create a sense of some supernatural curse. Nor does the fact that an extra in The Exorcist went on to commit a murder years after the film was made. There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of material for Cursed Films to draw on here, which perhaps explains the questionable decision to spend nearly a third of the episode interviewing a real-life, modern-day exorcist and showing his performance of the ritual for the purportedly possessed. Much more interesting is the idea of how The Exorcist became a bane for Linda Blair following its release (her life made hellish by audience identification of her with her demonically-possessed character). Unfortunately, this topic gets glossed over, in no small part because of Blair’s own refusal to discuss details of her ordeal when interviewed for the episode.

Cursed Films gets off to an inauspicious start, but subsequent episodes in the five-part series do prove more rewarding (I particularly enjoyed the coverage of Poltergeist and The Crow). I think this project might have been better served, though, by being condensed into a single documentary rather than divided into individual segments (that tend to be filled with distracting tangents).

A final sidenote: The Exorcist episode relates the claim Billy Graham made at the time that the devil existed in the very celluloid of the 1973 film. Naturally, I dismissed Graham’s notion as a bunch of evangelical babble. But as I was streaming the episode of Cursed Films, it suddenly skipped ahead to the next episode with five minutes still remaining, and no matter how many times I tried, I couldn’t get the first episode to replay. Cyberspatial snafu or a big FU from Pazuzu?

 

Wednesday’s Best

I have to admit, I was a Munsters kid growing up, and never really got into The Addams Family. Nor did I pay much attention to the film adaptations of the latter that came out in the 90’s. Recently, though, I watched both The Addams Family and Addams Family Values, and absolutely loved both movies. The cast is uniformly terrific, but my favorite is Christina Ricci as Wednesday Addams. She’s adorably mordant in the first film, and steals the sequel with her deadpan delivery of a slew of gags. Here below are some of her best lines from the films.

In this time of the coronavirus pandemic, the value of gallows humor grows more evident. Black comedy can offer release/relief–we make light of death because it is such a grim and inescapable reality. Death is a relentless bill collector that dogs us from the moment we’re born, but that doesn’t mean we can’t lead him on a merry chase!

 

Wednesday: Pugsley, get in the chair.
Pugsley: Why?
Wednesday: So we can play a game.
Pugsley [climbing into electric chair]: What game?
Wednesday: It’s called…[straps Pugsley in]…”Is There a God?”
(The Addams Family)

 

Girl Scout: Are you sure they’re real lemons?
Pugsley: Yes.
Girl Scout: Well, I’ll tell you what. I’ll buy a cup [of lemonade], if you buy a box of my delicious Girl Scout cookies. Do we have a deal?
Wednesday: Are they made from real Girl Scouts?
(The Addams Family)

 

Margaret: What are you, darling? Where’s your [Halloween] costume?
Wednesday [dressed in her usual outfit]: This is my costume. I’m a homicidal maniac. They look just like everyone else.
(The Addams Family)

 

Wednesday [standing on the roof, and holding her baby brother Pubert]: Pugsley, the baby weighs 10 pounds, the cannonball [Pugsley is holding] weighs 20 pounds. Which will hit the stone walkway first?
Pugsley: I’m still on fractions.
Wednesday: Which do you think?
Pugsley: The cannonball.
Wednesday: Very good. But which one will bounce?
(Addams Family Values)

 

Morticia: Children, this is Miss Tellinsky, your new nanny. What do we say?
Wednesday [holding a blowtorch]: Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Debbie: Look at you, all cooped up in this house with a new baby. That’s not easy, is it?
Pugsley: No.
Debbie: Why, I bet sometimes you wish it was still just the two of you.
Wednesday: Or less. [turns and stinkeyes Pugsley]
(Addams Family Values)

 

Amanda: Hi, I’m Amanda Buckman. Why are you dressed like that?
Wednesday: Like what?
Amanda: Like you’re going to a funeral. Why are you dressed like somebody died?
Wednesday: Wait.
(Addams Family Values)

 

Morticia: Wednesday’s at that special age when a girl’s only got one thing on her mind.
Mrs. Buckman: Boys?
Wednesday: Homicide.
(Addams Family Values)

 

Amanda: Is that your bathing suit?
Wednesday: Is that your overbite?
Gary: Now one of you will be the drowning victim, and the other one gets to be our lifesaver.
Amanda [eagerly]: I’ll be the victim.
Wednesday: All your life.
(Addams Family Values)

 

[Pugsley shoots and kills a bird during archery practice at summer camp]
Becky: It’s an American Bald Eagle!
Gary: Aren’t they extinct?
Wednesday: They are now.
(Addams Family Values)

 

Ambiguity in Black and White

Admittedly, I am late to the party when it comes to The Lighthouse. I somehow missed the film in theaters, and then the DVD remained stuck at the top of my Netflix queue due to lack of availability.  Having finally seen this acclaimed sophomore effort (following The Witch) from director Robert Eggers, I now understand why there was such a long wait. Allow me to wax ecstatic about the film for a few paragraphs…

While written by Robert Eggers and his brother Max, The Lighthouse feels like a collaboration between Herman Melville, H.P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King. Broadly allusive, the film gives nods toward such classic texts as Moby-Dick, “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and The Shining. For all the homage it pays, though, The Lighthouse still manages to work its materials into a startlingly original mix.

The black-and-white film’s stark visuals are astounding; a sense of creepy and inhospitable place is clearly established. A storm-pounded, barren moonscape of an island (seemingly devoid of life save for the flocks of evil seagulls that torment with their pecks and squawks) furnishes the sinister setting. Wind howls spiritedly, a foghorn repeatedly bellows in the background with the tenor of an ancient saurian beast, and the towering light sweeps across the seascape like some revolving, cyclopean eye.

Sent to work (which might just be another way of saying “stranded”) on this rocky speck of a setting are a pair of lighthouse keepers whose enforced intimacy in such close and unhomely space breeds paranoia and deadly rivalry. Complexly drawn, these two characters carry the film. Both Willem Dafoe (as a crusty old sea dog prone to delivering speeches of Ahab-ian grandeur) and Robert Pattinson (as a taciturn assistant with a dark past, and a thoroughly unreliable viewpoint) give nothing short of career-defining performances.

It’s on the level of plot, however, that The Lighthouse most fully resonates. This is a film where the viewer is never quite knows where it is heading–and still isn’t sure where it arrived at when the closing credits start rolling. Making fine art of ambiguity, The Lighthouse encompasses multiple interpretations, and can be approached through a variety of explanatory frameworks: the natural (excessive alcohol abuse–ultimately including kerosene-and-honey cocktails–is bound to lead to derangement), the psychological (madness results from extended isolation from civilization, not to mention the churning guilt over past misdeed), the supernatural (Ancient-Mariner-type curses; cosmic wonders too awfully sublime to behold), the mythic (symbolically–and perhaps literally–the shapeshifting Greek god Proteus forms a key figure here), and the existential (the idea that hell is repetition isn’t limited to the Sisyphean drudgery of lighthouse-keeping labor).

Arguably not since Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw has there been a work of horror that has made such masterful and captivating use of ambiguity. Yet this is no genteel ghost story, and brimming with earthy humor, the film proves not just artsy but (actually) fartsy. The Lighthouse haunts with its imagery and implications alike; it is a beacon to fans who enjoy smart evocations of the macabre (that don’t yield up easy answers), and a shining example of why the present-day horror film genre has entered into a golden age.

 

Mob Scene: The Addams Family

From its Karloffian butler Lurch to a winking instance of dead-frog revivification, the latest film version of The Addams Family clearly invokes James Whale’s 1931 film FrankensteinThe Addams Family, though, also hearkens back to Universal horror in its featuring of a pair of mob scenes.

In the film’s opening, the nuptials of Gomez and Morticia are interrupted by angry villagers–a horde of crusty rustics wielding torches and pitchforks and decrying the presence of such “monsters” and “freaks” in the area. This being a children’s animated film (rated PG for “macabre and suggestive humor, and some action”), the proceedings do not turn too grim (the sword-wielding Addams fend off the villagers by causing the latter’s pants to fall down around their ankles). Nevertheless, such expressed intolerance chases the Addams from the Old Country, forcing them to relocate to New Jersey (“Somewhere horrible. Somewhere corrupt. Somewhere no one in their right mind would be caught dead in!”).

There the Addams convert a former asylum for the criminally insane into the family mansion looming remotely on a hilltop. But after thirteen years of relative isolation, the Addams come into contact with the locals and soon discover that the persecution of perceived otherness exists in the New World as well. In the film’s climax, the roused rabble (led by duplicitous designer Margaux Needler) nearly destroys the Addams home with a boulder-launching catapult. These rabid neighborhood watchdogs eventually repent, and help repair the damage caused, yet this happy ending does not blunt the film’s skewering, American Gothic sensibility. The seemingly idyllic slice of suburban engineering dubbed Assimilation (a community that works to eradicate difference rather than accept it) is shown to have various shades of darkness underlying its Day-Glo veneer.

The Addams Family is a mordantly witty and extremely enjoyable film, whose skillful inclusion of mob scenes aligns it with eminent animated horror films such as Paranorman and Frankenweenie.

 

Horror in Store

Yesterday, I published a post compiling year-in-reviews for 2019, but it’s never too early to start looking ahead. Here are a couple of links to articles previewing the the top works of horror set to appear in 2020:

Lit Reactor: The 20 Most Anticipated Horror Books of 2020

Bloody Disgusting: 31 Horror Movies We Can’t Wait to See in 2020

It looks like 2020 is going to be the perfect year for dark visions!