Mother! (2017)

*. In 2017 there was a critical and box office success scored by an adaptation of a previously-filmed Ira Levin novel. This was Get Out, a revisioning of The Stepford Wives. Basically, Get Out just switched the feminist angle for a racial argument, but in doing so director Jordan Peele produced one of the best movies of the year.
*. 2017 also saw critical division and a box office flop in an adaptation of a previously-filmed Ira Levin novel. This was Mother!, a revisioning of Rosemary’s Baby. Yes, Mother! was borrowing from a lot more than just Rosemary’s Baby but I think that was the most obvious source and parallel.
*. I guess all I’m saying is that Levin deserves a lot of credit for creating such a pair of durable modern myths. I find his writing only functional, but there’s no denying his ability to get at contemporary social anxieties. His main point seems to be that there’s only ever a thin layer of civilization papering over humanity’s inherent evil: our natural state consisting primarily of cruelty and selfishness. Neighbours may seem perfectly respectable, but of course they’re really monsters. And, in the end, so are we.
*. From this springboard much critical speculation over the meaning of Mother! has been launched. I think this was intended, as it is with any fantasy, but writer-director Darren Aronofsky didn’t want to encourage freestyle interpretation too much. As he put it, “I think it’s OK to be confused. The movie has a dream-logic and that dream-logic makes sense. But if you try to unscrew it, it kind of falls apart. So it’s a psychological freak-out. You shouldn’t over-explain it.”
*. I think this is disingenuous. Mother! is an allegory, a story that’s meant to suggest another story (or various other stories). This makes it something different from what I think audiences were expecting.
*. I’m not saying it’s successful allegory, by the way. Just allegory. There is no “realistic” reading of it that works. There’s a reason none of the characters have names. They’re not characters, but meant to represent abstractions. I mean, a superstar poet? Come on.
*. As I see it, there are at least three main interpretive models available.
*. (1) A feminist take on the myth of the genius artist sustained by his long-suffering doormat of a helpmeet/muse. Behind (well behind) every great man, etc. His poetry will make him a god, while her domestic labour will be taken for granted, ignored, or even despised.
*. (2) A satire on the cult of celebrity, with the vulgar public all wanting to claim a piece of the star, whom they raise up only to destroy with their worshipful fandom.
*. (3) An environmental allegory, with Jennifer Lawrence as Mother Earth and Javier Bardem as the one who despoils her and then re-invents her (over and over) in his imagination.
*. Uniting all three of these is the religious idea. The artist, the celebrity, and the Earth are all objects of devotion. And Mother! duly raids the Bible for a lot of its language and imagery, some of which seems to have been tossed in for no reason at all.
*. While not religious myself, I have to register that I think this may be the most anti-Christian film I’ve ever seen. The savagery of its travesty of various rites and doctrines even outdoes Buñuel. These aren’t the coven of devil-worshipers in Rosemary’s Baby but basically a bunch of good Catholics. Which actually makes them worse! At least the NYC cultists didn’t wreck the damn place.
*. But to what end, all of this? I should say here that I didn’t dislike Mother! I actually liked it better than The Black Swan, which I thought was an even sillier movie. But I didn’t feel as upset or ambivalent about it as many did. I didn’t think the end was too chaotic or violent or hysterical or disturbing. I just thought it went on too long. And as far as the message is concerned (you may pick from the menu above or supply your own), it seemed shrug-worthy to me. Other films have explored these themes with more passion, originality, humanity, and coherence. Ultimately, it’s not that Mother! is about too much, but that it’s about too little.
*. I began by linking this movie to Get Out, and I think the comparison is instructive. Get Out is also an allegorical fantasy, but one whose story is fun just in its own right. By being more abstract, Mother! covers more mythic ground but is far less involving and in the end feels stuck in dream land. What point is it making, aside from the obvious? And how powerfully can it make any point, however simpleminded, when the action and characters are so removed from our own world? Those overhead shots of the house in its clearing made me think of the end of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, another parable that, despite being set on a distant planet, seemed more rooted than Mother!
*. I’m curious as to what will happen to Mother! I could see it becoming a kind of cult film (or whatever passes for a cult film in the twenty-first century). I could also see it being totally forgotten. On balance, I think it’s well worth watching, and I’m glad there are filmmakers so determined to create a cinema of personal expression. I’m just not sure Darren Aronofsky has that much to say.


Quiz the thirty-first: Just a note (Part two)

Don’t put your detective hat away just yet, Sherlock! There are more messages to decipher in this week’s quiz. Who keeps sending us these things? If you can figure out let me know.

See also: Quiz the twelfth: Just a note (Part one).

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Diary of a Madman (1963)

*. After the titles play we get a quote from the story by Guy de Maupassant that this film was inspired by, “The Horla.” The Horla was actually the movie’s original title, but they probably figured that would confuse people. As it is, the story is changed so completely that if they didn’t actually name the demonic spirit the Horla then I doubt anyone would have got the connection.
*. You might think that with such a literary forebear the script might be pretty good. It isn’t. The dialogue is stiff and expository, to the point of humour. An early example has the police chief angrily saying “Murderers. They’re all the same. Humanity would be much better off without them.” Then there is plot, which is the usual Vincent Price material. Yes, once again he is a man left mooning over the memory of his dead wife. And once again he finds himself trapped in a burning building. Talk about formula.
*. What all this adds up to is a film with a really simple little idea: a man is possessed by some kind of evil spirit that forces him to kill. You might take something like that and make it into one of the entries in a horror anthology, running around 20 minutes. To blow it up into a feature invites a lot of dead air.
*. If it had been a little tighter it might have been scarier as well. As it is, how many times do we have to see Simon Cordier’s French windows blow open? Couldn’t he try fastening them shut?
*. Then there is the voice of the Horla. Director Reginald Le Borg was disappointed by this. He wanted something that sounded more distorted but the studio had trouble understanding what it was saying so they gave it what the New York Times reviewer called “a voice like a toothpaste commercial and a disconcerting giggle.”
*. Actually, you could defend the voice (which was provided by Joseph Ruskin, who went on to have a very long and productive career in Hollywood as both an actor and a producer). If you take the point of view that the Horla is just a figment of Cordier’s imagination then it does have the same kind of smoothness as Price’s own inimitable voice.
*. Did Ozzy Osbourne get the title of his debut album from this film? It’s not a totally idle question. Somewhat idle, I’ll grant you, but not totally. Apparently Black Sabbath (Osbourne’s earlier band) took their name from the Bava film, which was released the same year as Diary of a Madman. So . . . it’s possible.
*. I really didn’t understand the business with the mirror. Cordier looks in a full-length mirror and doesn’t see his reflection. As the invisible Horla puts it, “common sense tells you that the reason you can’t see yourself is that someone stands between you and the mirror.” But if that were the case wouldn’t Cordier notice something else wrong with the image in the mirror? He shouldn’t be able to see anything past the Horla, which is still invisble. Or actually he wouldn’t be able to see the mirror at all because the Horla would be standing in the way.
*. Let’s end with what stuck with me. Nancy Kovack looks gorgeous. The one (yes, there’s really only one) big kill scene is pretty extreme, at least for the time. Vincent really has to stick Kovack with the knife quite a lot. And what he does with her head is pretty darn gruesome. I don’t understand why he does it, but it’s gruesome.
*. And that’s about it. It’s a very typical production of its time, with a story that’s hard to pay attention to once you realize that it’s not going anywhere interesting.

Feed the Light (2014)

*. I usually begin these notes by saying something about sources, and that seems to me to be an interesting, if not very enlightening, place to start here.
*. The DVD box cover tells us Feed the Light won the prize for best feature film at the H. P. Lovecraft film festival and is “based on a story by H. P. Lovecraft.” It doesn’t say which story.
*. If you watch the short interview with director and co-writer Henrik Möller that’s included with the DVD then you learn that the source or inspiration was “The Colour Out of Space.” This is nice to know, because if there is any relation between “The Colour Out of Space” and Feed the Light I’m not sure what it is. Without being given a heads-up, I don’t think even the biggest Lovecraft nerd could make the connection.
*. “The Colour Out of Space” is about a meteorite that crashes in a farmer’s field, releasing a vampiric mist of an unearthly hue. After laying waste a patch of countryside and driving mad the farmer and his family the alien force (mostly) goes back into space.
*. It’s a story that’s actually been filmed several times, as Die, Monster, Die! (1965), the segment “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” from Creepshow (1982), The Curse (1987), Colour from the Dark (2008), and Die Farbe (2010). The last named is a German adaptation considered by at least one Lovecraft expert to be the best Lovecraft film adaptation ever made. It is shot mainly in black and white, except for the alien force itself, which is in colour. That may have been the biggest inspiration for Feed the Light, which is also in black and white except for splashes of blood and the unearthing of the light at the end.
*. For whatever reason, Lovecraft has proven to be a difficult author to take from page to screen, though not from lack of trying. I’ve mentioned this before (see, for example, my notes on Necronomicon). Most of the best-known adaptations have been very loose indeed. So in that respect at least Feed the Light is in good company.

*. The bottom line is that the film never explains what is going on anyway. Apparently, after initially being planned as a short, the script was developed as a much bigger project that would have provided the foundation for a miniseries. Möller then did some radical pruning and left us almost entirely in the dark. He says in his DVD interview that the idea was to have the alien light being used as a power source, like a battery, to operate the underground warehouse, but that it then begins being worshipped as a god. There is no evidence for this in the film, and indeed I don’t see where it even makes any sense out of what we do have.
*. Of course, none of this has anything to do with Lovecraft. In Lovecraft, to take just one example, people get sick from what seems to be a kind of radiation poisoning. Here they age at a faster rate because time operates differently underground.
*. I call it a warehouse because that’s the word used in the film itself as well as what Möller calls it. I wonder if there’s some problem with translation. This is obviously not a warehouse.
*. Another thing I said is that the use of black-and-white and colour was probably inspired by Die Farbe. It also made me think of The Human Centipede II, another movie, like this, that was shot in colour and then converted to black-and-white, with blood and other elements showing up in colour.
*. Things start out on a familiar note. A jumpy sequence throws us into the action in a way that may be meant to disorient us. Then we get some horror clichés: the hand-on-the-shoulder jump scare, the flickering fluorescent lights. It’s a shaky start.

*. After this things settle down a bit though, and it becomes easier to enter into the spirit of things. The narrative spine (and that’s really all it is) takes the form of an allegorical journey into the underworld, or multidimensional labyrinth, in order to save a soul (Sara’s daughter). Simple stuff, but it gives Möller something to riff on. Even when we get the dog-man’s leaky rectum scene we can still feel like we’re holding on to something.
*. Speaking of holding on to things, Sara seems to drop her string an awful lot. I don’t see how she manages to get back out.
*. Saying there’s a narrative spine (or thread) is about all you can say about the story though. There’s not much here. What is actually going on in the “warehouse” is left obscure, even to the point of not knowing who the good guys really are. About halfway through I started wondering if they could have made this as a silent movie. What would we miss?
*. Obviously there was no budget whatsoever, but there are still a few interesting moments and Lina Sundén is really very good as Sara. Finally, as I was watching it I was reminded of The Void, another vaguely Lovecraftian horror film that came out a couple of years later. Basically these are experimental horror films that see what they can do just by playing around with a minimal plot and weird effects. As such there are a lot of sketchy parts, but overall I think both films are better than you might expect.

Die Farbe (2010)

*. H. P. Lovecraft’s story “The Colour Out of Space” has been frequently adapted for the big screen, but what I find interesting is that it has traveled so well, in time as well as place.
*. As with so many of Lovecraft’s best-known stories, it’s set in the eldritch environs of the New England town of Arkham. In Die, Monster, Die!, however, the cursed farm is moved to England, and a gothic, moorland manor. In The Curse we go back to the U.S., but Tennessee instead of Massachusetts (in a film that was an Italian-American production, with a strong Fulci flavour). Colour from the Dark is set in Italy during the Second World War, while Die Farbe takes place in Germany (and also, partly, in the 1940s). In Feed the Light (the most recent, and by far the loosest adaptation) we’re in a warehouse in Malmö, Sweden.
*. I guess it’s just a universal tale, so these adaptations are sort of like setting Hamlet in the Himalayas or The Tempest in outer space. And like all such universal tales it has a certain amount of elasticity. About the only thing all of these movies have in common is something coming from space that has a toxic effect on the environment, including humans. Such a basic premise can be made to cover a lot of ground.
*. That said, Die Farbe is a remarkably faithful adaptation of Lovecraft, keeping most of the original story with only a few cosmetic adjustments made for the different setting and a slight twist at the end. But overall I think it’s the closest thing we have to “The Colour Out of Space” on screen. Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi, quite an eminent authority, calls it “the best Lovecraft film adaptation ever made.”

*. The signature conceit is that it’s a black-and-white film with the only instances of colour being that of the alien force. This is represented as a kind of bright pinky mauve, and most of the time doesn’t appear that threatening. It does have one creepy appearance though, where it makes some uncomfortable snacking sounds.
*. The sense I had was that this was less of a traditional horror film and more something in the “weird” genre. Adding to this is Huan Vu’s direction, which gives the proceedings the feel of a Denis Villeneuve film. It has that same spirit of quiet dread infusing it, and it builds slowly but effectively to a couple of stand-out moments.
*. I mentioned Joshi’s judgment that this is the best Lovecraft adaptation ever made. I haven’t seen them all, but from what I have seen I’m inclined to agree. Though I immediately want to rush to add that this is setting a very low bar. The only competition I can think of would be Re-Animator, which has very little Lovecraft in it. I don’t think much of the other Lovecraft adaptations I’ve seen.
*. Is it so effective because it stays closer to the source story? I don’t think that’s it. The thing is, it’s both the most faithful adaptation of “The Colour Out of Space” there’s been and the most original. Other adaptations have been content to take the story in more traditional directions, like the old haunted-house version, or the It Came From Outer Space template. Vu disposes of convention in offering his own imagining of Lovecraft’s story, coming up with something wholly new in the process.

Colour from the Dark (2008)

*. Colour from the Dark is another kick at the classic H. P. Lovecraft story “The Colour Out of Space,” and in my estimation it’s the worst of them all.
*. Why this particular story has been adapted so many times, when (as in this film) it is so loosely adhered to, is a mystery to me. Leaving that mystery aside, what we have here is the story of a small rural Italian homestead during the Second World War that awakens an evil force from the bottom of a well.
*. Two significant changes to the source story will have been noticed in just this brief description. In the first place there is no meteorite bringing the “colour” to Earth from “out of space.” Second: this is an evil force. Not just unhealthy, like the apparently radioactive glow in Lovecraft, but corrupt in a spiritual sense. The force doesn’t make humans sick, it possesses them and makes them spit on crucifixes and attack priests.
*. Just to expand a bit on this second point, I’ve written before about the almost comical inefficacy of religious officers in the battle against evil in recent films concerned with demonic possession. But the priest who comes to peform an exorcism in Colour from the Dark really outdoes himself, turning tail and running away as soon as he determines that “the devil is here.” Not a good showing for the Church, padre. Unfortunately, for him, he comes back and, despite being better prepared for his battle with the devil, gets stabbed in the head with his own crucifix. So much for God! In Italy even!
*. I can’t say much good about this one. It had no budget and tries too hard. I’ve read some people praising the photography but to me it looked like a telenovela. The script is a mess, full of people behaving in incredibly stupid ways and cluttered with extraneous plot elements that just distract us from the main story. The acting, espcecially by the male lead, is terrible. There’s far too heavy a reliance on dream sequences, to the point where you give up trying to figure out if something is “really” happening until you’re absolutely sure they’re not going to cut to the character involved jumping up in bed covered in sweat.
*. But I think the real problem is the one I mentioned about trying too hard. Director Ivan Zuccon is firing in too many different directions at once. Why make Alice a mental case? Why bother with the doll? Why have so many dream sequences? Why include all that stuff about the corpse in the forest? Indeed, why set this story during wartime at all?
*. Well, it’s not totally without interest. Not totally. The transformation of the farm into a dessicated wasteland looks OK, and the ending, though a downer, isn’t bad. But honestly, I think you really need to have some time to kill to want to waste any of it on this one.

The Curse (1987)

*. Fulci goes to the heartland. That is, if you include Tennessee in America’s heartland. In any event, it’s where debut director David Keith’s farm was located, which is where they shot the exteriors for this film.
*. Apparently Lucio Fulci handled the gore, which you wouldn’t need anyone to tell you. The plastered faces and messes of maggots and worms give the game away. As does the music. There’s no mistaking we’re in Fulci territory.
*. The source for the script is an H. P. Lovecraft story, “The Colour Out of Space,” that for some reason has attracted a lot of filmmakers. I think it was first filmed in the ’60s as Die, Monster, Die! There’s a bit more Lovecraft in this one. The idea of the trees moving without any wind comes from the story, for example, as does the fact that the farm is about to be submerged under a reservoir.
*. Aside from that, this film is more Stephen King than Lovecraft: from the way the poison in the groundwater tears the already dysfunctional family apart, to the mocking of the religious wingnut farmer, all the way up to the failed rescue attempt by the doctor and the collapsing house. (And in fact King had actually starred in another movie based on the same story: “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” segment from Creepshow.)
*. Another influence at work is the eco-horror of the ’70s. Think films like Frogs and Prophecy. We’re not dealing with man-made pollution here, but all the same the oozing meteorite might as well have been an airplane turd (which it is originally identified as) or factory runoff.
*. A final connection I’ll make. Watching The Curse I couldn’t help but be reminded of the now classic so-bad-it’s-good Troll 2 (1990). The same plucky kid (Zack here, played by Wil Wheaton) set against his oblivious family. The same motif of the food converting people into monsters. The fully degenerate mother here even looks like one of the trolls.
*. That’s quite a farm Nathan (Claude Akins) is running. He has horses, dairy cattle, chickens, and apple orchards. No wonder he has to spend so much time crunching numbers at the end of the day.
*. When you see a house that’s so obviously a model you know it’s going to be destroyed at the end. Talk about a giveaway.
*. The gore is all pretty dull. The only good bit of business was the mother sewing the sock to her hand, which was a good idea but not very well realized.
*. I mocked the clichéd crashing-through-the-banister scene at the end of Die, Monster, Die! and here it is again at the end of this movie! I wonder if it was meant as a nod to the first go ’round or if it was just laziness. Probably laziness. I mean, they even follow it up with the old swinging-lightbulb effect for good measure.
*. The Curse is a very bad movie, to the point where I had to wonder (as I wondered at Troll 2) whether it was meant as a joke. I don’t think it was, which makes some of it even funnier. The chicken attack, for example, or the muddy cows. That verrrrry slow-moving meteorite was also comic. But, on the other hand, the whole business with the rotten food was effectively disgusting. Not scary, but disgusting. The mother cutting open the cabbage was a highlight.
*. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone. It’s very typical of low-budget ’80s horror, which was ugly stuff. It’s not without interest, but I prefer my Fulci neat and the same Lovecraft story has been made into better movies. Today I think this version has been mostly forgotten, for good reason.

Die, Monster, Die! (1965)

*. I believe this is the first of what would be many films inspired by the H. P. Lovecraft story “The Colour Out of Space.” It’s usually considered to be a very free interpretation, but as far as Lovecraft movies go I think it’s par for the course. Most Lovecraft movies have only the slightest connection to their source, and basically pretend they’re doing Poe, as here. But there would be other adaptations of “The Colour Out of Space” that would go far further afield than this.
*. Of course there had to be some changes. The hardscrabble Massachusetts farm nobody would want to visit is transplanted to a more cinematic Arkham in England, where it has become a ginormous manor house. They kept the meteorite with its curious radioactive properties that lead to mutation, madness, and degeneration, but introduced a pair of young lovers of the kind that the rather repressed H. P. would never countenance.
*. The young male lead is played by Nick Adams. I thought this name had to be a nod to Hemingway but it’s actually derived from his birth name of Nicholas Aloysius Adamschock. He was a friend of James Dean, and starred as Johnny Yuma in the television series The Rebel (a show I never saw and I’m certain I never will). He died of a drug overdose only a few years after this film was made. I don’t know what he was like as Johnny Yuma but he’s awful here.
*. It was given a lot of titles both generic and silly (at the same time). One working title was The House at the End of the World (or even The Monster in the House at the End of the World). In the UK it was released as, drum roll . . . Monster of Terror.
*. As far as Die, Monster, Die! goes, I love the punctuation but it carries a sense of urgency the film itself never rises to, while leaving it unclear who or what the monster is. I suppose they mean the transformed Nahum Witley, but he doesn’t have much screen time and the title suggests to me a greater level of exasperation than is experienced by anyone.
*. The proceedings are even more generic than the title. It was an AIP release, shot at Shepperton, and looks it. Andrew Migliore and John Strysik, in their guide to the cinema of Lovecraft Lurker in the Lobby, call the movie a “textbook example of the walking-around-endlessly-in-a-big-house school of filmmaking.” That just about sums it up for me as well.
*. It’s hard to overstate just how familiar all this is. When our hero gets off the train in Arkham and asks around town to see if he can get a ride to the Witley place everyone cuts him dead. Once he arrives and begins walking around the big house he sees scary portraits of Witley ancestors, encounters decaying women hiding behind veils, spies creepy figures peering into windows, is surprised by skeletons swinging out of closets, and survives killers smashing through locked doors. The monster in the end crashes through a banister and falls to his death, leaving the heroes to barely escape from the burning house. How many times have you seen this movie?
*. There’s just nothing here that’s interesting. Yes, there’s Boris Karloff, but he’s a bore stuck in a wheelchair. The effects are terrible. Lovecraft is scarcely a presence. The only part I enjoyed was the zoo of mutated creatures kept in the (huge) storage closet in the greenhouse. They were amusing. And seeing as they weren’t in the house when it burned down, maybe they survived. That’s all I was left with at the end.