This weekend, the Carolina Theatre in Durham presents once again the Nevermore Horror, Gothic & Fantasy Film Festival, for which the festival organizers have assembled a heady mix of films that you’ll probably have no other chance to see on Triangle screens.
That’s certainly the case, it’s safe to predict, of what is for me the highlight of the festival: a screening of a 35mm print of William Castle’s 1962 Mr. Sardonicus. After the 2001 remake of Castle’s deliriously kitschy Thirteen Ghosts, it may be high time for a full-fledged Castle revival. Castle’s gimmicky horror films of the late ’50s, like Macabre (1958) or The Tingler (1959), fed the austerely creepy B-movie ambience Hitchcock sought to capture in Psycho (1960), and Castle’s own post-Psycho films push even harder, perhaps to try to reclaim some of the thunder Castle probably thought Hitchcock stole from him. It’s not fair to call Homicidal (1961), Castle’s own cross-dresser slasher movie, merely a Psycho rip-off, though that’s what it is. Castle pioneered, over a series of films, some of what Hitchcock perfected in his masterpiece–like envisioning the bathroom as a site of nauseous, tawdry horrors in The Tingler, an idea Hitchcock took to its logical conclusion in Psycho‘s shower murder.
I haven’t seen Mr. Sardonicus since a TV screening I caught when I was 13, but I remember it as Castle’s most original and distinctive film, and one of the oddest. By way of Paul Leni’s 1921 classic film version of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, the plot concerns a man whose greed freezes his face in a permanent grimace. The sight of that terrible grin, both uncanny and absurd, haunted my nightmares for years, and the film has a great camp turn by Oscar Homolka as well as some ashen, funky imagery that’s hard to shake off. It also has, of course, a gimmick. Homicidal boasted the “Fright Break,” a countdown interval just before the ghastly climax, to enable the fainthearted one last chance to flee the theater and spare themselves the final onslaught. Mr. Sardonicus offers the “Punishment Poll,” giving the audience the chance to determine the fate of the villainous yet intermittently sympathetic protagonist. Be warned, though: The deck is stacked.
Nevermore is anchored by two other quasi-classics that will need no introductions among the festival’s target audiences: The Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2. In their tales of weekending teens who inadvertently unleash diabolical forces, they’re among the most influential haunted-wood parables since our first Gothicist, Poe’s predecessor Charles Brockden Brown, relocated the European Gothic to the American forest, and they pioneered steadicam shooting to put across their atmospheres of qualmish portent. (In this respect one could argue that their influences have been disastrous.) They also seem more contemporary than, say, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left or the Friday the 13th films, in combining overtones of caustic humor with visceral gore.
Despite the pedigree conferred by these revivals, Nevermore stakes its biggest claim on its slew of premieres that fall under the rubric of “Horror, Gothic and Fantasy.” Take the breadth of that umbrella seriously; though a defining sensibility favoring sleek visuals, exigent camp, and lavish but affectlessly displayed gore emerges in the selections, only a couple of the entries can really be called horror pure and simple.
The French Canadian Maelstrom manages to combine the somber cerebration of Kieslowski with the cryptic, sententious, post-Godardian playfulness of someone like Olivier Assayas (or, for that matter, Canadians Claude Jutra or Atom Egoyan).
In Final, a psychological chamber drama, a man confined to a mysterious institution begins to suspect he’s been the victim of a cryogenic experiment in which his seemingly humane therapist may be complicit. Claustrophobic and a bit stagy, it’s an actor’s film–directed by the actor Campbell Scott–and Denis Leary, as the victim, makes up in the intensity of his performance some of what is lacking in variety.
Wendigo is one of the pure-and-simple horror movies–though a lot simpler than it is pure–and in the context of the festival it seems like a bit of a throwback in its humble, straightforward aspirations. A New York City family drives upstate for a rural vacation; in wintry darkness they hit a deer with their car, and run into a mob of indignant, Deliverance-style locals. The vacation, predictably, goes bad. In the first half, the film harks back to early Wes Craven or Tobe Hooper in counting on shoestring visuals to generate tottery effects of foreboding. In the second half, a Native American stand-in for the gypsy woman in the old Wolfman movies passes on a mysterious totem to the family’s son (elfin Jake Weber of Malcolm in the Middle), and the movie lopes into overdrive as a Shining wanna-be without the Oedipal kick. In the end the film’s take on horror is so old-fashioned that, despite its adverse ending, it’s almost comforting.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the two most high-tech enterprises on view, France’s Brotherhood of the Wolf and the South Korean anime sequel Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust. As a premiere, Wolf is perhaps the festival’s biggest coup, considering the international press the movie has been getting. The film combines the brooding atmosphere of a neo-Jacobean graphic novel–and darkish echoes of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow or American Westerns–with the importunate girdling of a Hong Kong actioner (by errant way of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) in its tale of wolf-hunting in pre-revolutionary France. It inherits some of the woolly mysticism of its sources, as well as the grandiose visionary thrust, but offsets these qualities with a healthy dose of straight-faced camp.
Another bounty-hunting genre hybrid, Bloodlust is among the most impressive of the few animes I’ve seen. In a post-apocalyptic Euro-pastoral-metropolis nowhere, “D”–half vampire, half human–is commissioned to rescue a rich family’s abducted daughter from another vampire. He travels through landscapes that alternate arcadian panoramas and urban decay with hypertechnology, suggesting a world in which dizzying advances in machinery somehow spring up amid general ruin. Anime is uniquely equipped to convey the feeling of this environment, since its defining feature is its mixture of extreme visual sophistication with committed primitivism. The film, in turn, alternates breathtaking 3D effects with simple dihedral compositions in which foreground and background seem like homemade cutouts being moved by hand in opposite directions. By contrast to the fluidity of so much current mainstream animation, motion within the frame in anime has progressed little since the old Astro Boy or Speed Racer TV shows that were crucial progenitors of the form, but this primitivism contributes to the poignancy of anime’s lyric mode, and with its dynamic, high-tech underpinnings, produces a very distinctive aura–equal parts romanticist goth, dystopian punk, and utopian nihilism.
Another of the festival’s revivals, the cult actioner Shogun Assassin, is a cornerstone for the Asian cadre at Nevermore. Tell Me Something, from South Korea, is a Hollywood-derived serial-killer police-procedural, heavily in debt to Seven, especially in its atmosphere of dank, neon menace. The plot’s twists are put across with the same acrid solemnity as the compulsive images of dismembered corpses, perhaps as a guard against the charge of exploitation, and the film’s dominant feeling is paradoxical: ascetic sensationalism.
The same can be said of Audition, a film from Japan that will be the buzz of the festival if its reputation precedes it. In Los Angeles, it became the talk of the town after a relatively unheralded premiere at the American Cinematheque, and was brought back to many theaters by public demand for cult-style midnight runs in honor of the movie’s excruciating acupuncture job on the nervous system.
The film concerns a man seeking a wife who lures candidates by tricking them into thinking they’re trying out for a TV show, and the protracted revenge of an auditioner who feels betrayed. It’s Ozu meets DePalma in negative: The first half pursues a very slow build, with detailed attention to domestic ritual; the second half displays lengthy, meticulous torture, with a scrupulously unflinching gaze. Like Tell Me Something, it seems to deconstruct horror’s traditional template of male violence against women simply by reversing the gender roles–though, at least in Audition, plot twists handily reframe the issues as quintessentially male concerns after all.
A turning point in horror came at the Toronto Festival of Festivals in 1979, with a retrospective of work by American horror directors like DePalma, David Cronenberg, George Romero and Larry Cohen. The program produced a pamphlet by the great critic Robin Wood called “The American Nightmare,” in which Wood argued that these seeming examples of schlock were really eloquent social criticisms that revised classical horror by relocating the basic threats to within the American family. Now, more than 20 years later, comes a documentary called The American Nightmare, on view at Nevermore. It steals Wood’s ideas, down to his title, without attribution, and presents them as if they were new. The film intercuts the yammerings of some talking heads, filmmakers (including Romero and Cronenberg) and scholars, with shock-cuts of film clips and, undistinguished from the clips, stock documentary footage of real social horrors. Even if the fustian of the talking heads were not self-evident, it would still be undermined by director Adam Simon’s decision to juxtapose it so harshly against the scrappy urgency of the cut-in footage. Though Wood’s pamphlet has long been unavailable, much of its content can be found in Wood’s book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, and any page of it is worth this whole film.
What the documentary does suggest, inadvertently, is how the genre has changed since the ’70s and ’80s. It may still allegorize social ills, but in films like Wendigo or the Mexican film The Devil’s Backbone, another high-profile premiere at the festival, father figures are potential saviors, not monsters. The family, and patriarchy itself, no longer seem to be the main sources of horror. So what is? With its cross-section of current horror-fantasy, Nevermore is the place to find out.