Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Purple State of John
Thoughts of a wordslinger…
By definition, you would think, the art house horror movie has to fail. No other genre seems so ill-suited to the white gloves and truffle treatment. Great performances? Witty dialogue? Rich and complex plots? Layered meanings? None would seem to have a place in a form that seeks, at its best, to scare the living hell out of the viewer.
On Tuesday night, watching the Spanish horror film El Orfanato, or The Orphanage, produced by Guillermo Del Toro, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, I experienced a contradiction in terms. The movie rose above its art and terrified me. The story starts with familiar elements, slightly skewed: children play a game of hide and seek in the bucolic yet unsettling environs of an old house; a couple with a sick child move into the house; a strange old woman shows up without warning and starts digging on the grounds.
Horror is a weaponized form of cinema. When it works, it penetrates our armor of skepticism and disbelief in ways that other movies can’t. Some scare flicks perform the operation with blunt force, striking us down with a single moment of pure shock. Others seep into the system like poison, disabling us in quiet.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho works on several levels, but it succeeds at the most primal level thanks to the famous shower scene, the unexpected murder from which we never quite recover. We feel the knife. We go down the drain with Janet Leigh.
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, another groundbreaking movie, is even more physical. We can’t quite believe what we’re seeing at first, and from one scene to the next, we’re almost running with the cast, trying to get away, looking over our shoulders at the reanimated corpses shambling our way. When the zombies start to eat the living, we experience the bite.
The Orphanage is the liquid variety of horror. Its sense of doom envelops us one heartbeat at a time, successive images circulating like blood through the brain. In my experience, it ruins the concessions experience. Raisinets go uneaten. Mountain Dew becomes suspect.
Seeping dread is the key. While watching, I thought of Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Takashi Miike’s Audition, all of which work on the principle of the morphine drip. By the time the movie’s over, we are in a different state; our minds have been hospitalized.
I don’t want to give away too much of The Orphanage. Strictly defined, it is a ghost story, but it wanders through the material as if for the first time. When Geraldine Chaplin makes an appearance late in the movie, almost stealing it, she evokes a scene from another famous spooky flick, Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, and seems to steal that one, too.
I walked out a bit dazed. By the time I finally sat down to watch Romero’s latest installment in the living dead series, Diary of the Dead, his attempt to bring his subject into the digital age, I may have been spoiled. Romero long ago decided to embrace the notion that his movies were especially cerebral, and they do have unmistakable political and social subtexts. This new one is the most self-concious about the fact.
At his best, Romero leaves the brainy stuff—unlike the brains—to the discretion of the viewer. He doesn’t push. Rather, he visualizes his conceits and leaves us to sort them out. The second in the series Dawn of the Dead takes place in a mall, and we understand viscerally that the movie has consumerism on its mind. One or two lines of dialogue reinforce the point.
In Diary of the Dead, I’m sorry to say, Romero has added his own exegesis, as if he shot the movie to be accompanied with its DVD commentary track. It’s a near fatal mistake. We dont need to be told a dozen times that it’s wrong for our protagonist to film the carnage. In any case, the sermons don’t work. They have no weight. Once the plot starts to move, they begin to feel like throwaways, and then they start to seem dishonest.
That the movie continues to haunt me even the slightest bit is a testament to George Romero’s power as a filmmaker, but it may be time–and I say this with a sigh of regret—for the grand old master of the zombie movie to hang up the corpse.
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