From the opening shot of The Others, I could tell that Alejandro Amenabar had a very specific aesthetic and motif he wanted to play around with. The religious exposition is directly followed by a blood curling scream from Nicole Kidman as Grace and the mood is set. The story follows Grace as she hires a new set of servants to help taker care of her house and her children who suffer from a deathly photo-sensitivity affliction. As the curtains start closing the tension starts rising as the supernatural mystery plays out.
The film nails it’s aesthetic in every single scene. The lighting creates an murky feeling. There’s always a sense that something unknown is lingering with Grace and the other residents. The scenery outside is constantly filled with fog. Everyone feels cut off and the residents feel isolated from the outside world. The trapped feeling highlights the paranoid feeling that comes from constant feeling that intruders are present and about. This helps the movie feel scary without ever relying on gimmicks that plague a lot of the horror movies coming out now. There’s no gore. There’s no false jump scares. There’s just tension that’s created from the eerie and unknown atmosphere.
Kidman’s acting is on point and she transitions perfectly from manic and paranoid to a religious disciplinarian. Never once do her actions feel out of place and her expressions of pain keep an emotional weight in the movie that help give it very much needed substance. The child actors are also decent in the movie. Their performances never feel too out of place and make more sense as we learn more about how they’ve been raised and lived their lives.
This leads to the main problem with the movie- some of the bigger twists are certainly surprising and are subtly built up in terms of clues, but others feel out of place and disjointed. The film is aesthetically beautiful which helps mask the hollowness of certain story points. At times it feels like the beauty of the film is done to distract us from those flaws and it works for the most part, but by the end of the movie I was left unsatisfied with the way certain key questions were left.
TLDR:The Others is an aesthetically pleasing, suspenseful, ghost mystery. While it’s provocative in it’s Gothic presentation, certain story beats feel hollow and rushed.
Final Rating: 8.4/10. If you enjoy moody horror pieces that focus more on suspense and feeling, this movie should be right up your alley.
Guillermo del Toro’s supernatural piece, The Devil’s Backbone, is a beautiful humanist tale set during the Spanish Civil War. Familiarity with the factions during the war isn’t a prerequisite to watching the movie, but is something a viewer should understand if they want to get more from the experience. The story follows a newly orphaned child, Carlos (Fernando Tielve) as he’s forced to integrate and deal with the supernatural aspects of a orphanage for the children of those associated with the Republicans.
This movie is less scary and more eerie in an aesthetic sense. The first shot is a wonderful indication of this, as it starts as an introspection on ghosts to a missile being dropped into the ground. The real horror of the movie is the violence that people are willing to inflict upon one another for capital gains. In the war, a huge revolution was read by the authoritarians and fascists against the leftists Republicans and anarchists- a battle that served as a precursor to World War II and whose contents are still being fought about in the status quo. The characters proximity to the war helps provide a nuanced commentary on the same, while highlighting the heavy costs of warfare. As such, nothing feels heavy-handed, and thematic victories feel more earned.
Throughout the film, pan shots are utilized to great effect. The distance and layout of the orphanage feels well-realized, and I felt like I had a grasp of the basic floor plan because of how well the space is visualized and traversed. Furthermore, they create this constant sense of dramatic irony. Multiple characters have secrets that get revealed in this way, which helps flesh out the characters and explain their motivations. The transition is never overused, so it feels fresh every-time that it happens.
The movie constantly highlights agency and understanding. Characters stay less powerful when they know less. The children are constantly forced into action and feel like they can’t do anything. The adults feel forced into a situation and war that they hope ends well for them but has slowly taken everything away from them. Even though no character takes Earth-shattering actions, their personal journeys and attempts at regaining control in their lives is interesting and serves as a kind of microcosm of the Civil War going on in the background.
Certain character choices and decisions feel less justified in the third act. Some characters make bad choices, but there are definitely some events that happen that feel like the story needs them to happen as opposed to feeling like an organic response to what went on. Thankfully, these issues mainly show up regarding more of the side characters, but they do impact the story.
TLDR:The Devil’s Backbone, is a well-shot and gorgeous story about the depths of human solidarity . It tackles it’s themes in a poetic way that really take advantage of the story’s setting.
Final Rating: 8.8/10. History buffs who know more about the Spanish Civil War would love this. Fans of humanism or empowerment stories would also like this. Go to Page 2 for my spoiler-full thoughts!
Sean S. Cunningham’s thriller, Friday the 13th, is a fun if rather inconsistent trip. The plot follows a group of college counselors who have come to Camp Crystal Lake, to help set up shop for a new camp in two weeks. Unknown to them however, is that the campsite has been the site of multiple horrors – horrors that await them as well.
The movie starts off in an interesting way, with the camera following the unsuspecting victims as opposed to a masked killer. Quickly the victim is slain, but the assailant is unseen. This is one of the more interesting aspects of the movie and keeps the “guess-the-villain” game interesting. The reveal was shocking and fun, even if by the end movie, the plot felt even more convoluted.
The special effects are fun and grizzly, in a shocking but comical way. There were quite a few “out-there” deaths and cadaver placements. Though over the top, they’re quite disturbing in nature, and help unsettle the viewer. Even though I didn’t think some of the scenes were scary, they were adventurous and kept some level of excitement at play.
However, in spite of some changes to the structure of the slasher story, the film feels painfully obvious at other times. There’s no attempt at characterization here, so even though the actors/actresses attempt to act shocked, there’s not a real sense of terror. Everything feels impersonal, but not in a way that requires any form of critical thinking- making the experience hollow. The twists are provocative and welcome when they do come, but they’re far too few and come far too late.
There are certainly thrills and a fun time to be found in Friday the 13th, but don’t come in expecting any significant nuance or depth. The special effects and the roller coaster that is the third act will keep you entertained in spite of the issues.
7.2/10. If you like slasher films or just want a thoughtless horror film with some cool and innovative kills – this movie should be a good time.
Paul W. S. Anderson’s science fiction horror film, Event Horizon, is an ambitious attempt at telling a haunting and Lovecraftian space adventure. The story follows a space response team, sent on a top secret mission related to a star ship, Event Horizon. What follows is an interesting premise that nails some moments quite well, but overshoots and makes other portions of the story feel more like a joke.
The first act was quite interesting and managed to hook me in with it’s mysterious and offsetting nature. We’re presented a series of confusing and gruesome visuals with no explanation which keeps the sense of tension and horror up. When answers finally do come from Dr. Weir (Sam Neil), even more questions are raised. A lot of these early moments are scary because they’re unknown. They seem like delusions and mirages. In fact, one thing the movie consistently does is deliver frightening moments. There’s a lot of gore and unsettling imagery that makes the environment seem like a form of space hell.
Acting from the main leads is great and keeps the tension up the scenes they’re in. Laurence Fishburne makes Captain Miller feel like a confident, in-charge kind of leader. He’s commands a sense of authority and never feels out of place. Neil is also asked to do… interesting things by the script in the third act, and he delivers as serious a performance he could give, given the way the pacing and development of these scenes went. It helped me retain some level of interest, despite the strange and hilarious lows the plot goes through.
If I had to describe the movie, I’d say it’s the cinema equivalent of a roller coaster- very high highs and laughably low lows. The biggest issue with the movie is a lot of the moments randomly go into overdrive- almost like the script said “exaggerate this moment.” There are dreadful and terrifying scenes in the movie, and I wanted to be more disturbed by them, but it’s hard when characters are yelling obscenities like it’s some kind of slapstick comedy. The third act honestly felt like a different movie at some points because of how strange the inclusion of certain pieces of dialogue felt in relation to the tone the movie wanted to establish. I would be scared, then laugh, then incredulously gawk at the screen, and loop this behavior.
The movie also feels a bit gimmicky at times.There’s an inconsistent “power-scaling” of the antagonist in the movies. It feels like they’re invincible in certain scenes but then immediately after, they don’t protect themselves from taking damage despite seemingly having the ability to. There’s also this weird use of Latin in the movie that’s used to explain certain things, but it feels shoe-horned, unnatural, and like a cheap way to get twist scares. I felt like the environment could’ve used a different method to do the same kind of thing.
After reading about the production issues that plagued the movie, I felt like some of my concerns would have been alleviated if a more true version of the movie had been released in line with the director’s vision, but regrettably those unseen portions of the movie have been destroyed. Given what the movie could have been, it would’ve been great to see it’s more gruesome interpretation. That’s the real tragedy here.
TLDR: Despite being a bumpy ride, Event Horizon, was surprisingly entertaining. Thought the story is best early on, there are more than enough gory and unsettling moments to hold your interest in the more tumultuous second half.
Final Rating: 7.4/10. I personally enjoyed the movie more than the score indicates and will probably watch it again. If you can handle some goofy and cheesy moments and some inconsistent rules, this film might be in your ballpark. Go to Page 2 for my spoiler-full thoughts!
As a child nothing scared me more than “Bloody Mary.” I was only in elementary school when I heard the tale, and the “true stories” of the awful bloody things that happened to their second-cousins-brother’s friend (you know what I’m talking about) , and I promised myself I would never play the game. Even now as an adult, I respect that oath out of the fear of what could happen. After watching Bernard Rose’s supernatural-slasher, Candyman, I have one more name to add to the list of names never to utter in front of any mirror.
The story follows a pair of graduate students, Helen (Virginia Madsen) and Bernie (Kasi Lemmons) as they write their thesis on urban myths. As luck would have it, the Cabrini-Green housing project near them , has experienced a death, supposedly at the hands of the urban myth, Candyman. A murder and a community believing in that the murder was caused by a spirit? That sounds like the perfect location for students writing about urban myths and Helen quickly springs into action learning all about Candyman. Like Mary, he can be summoned by anyone who chants his name 5 times in front of a mirror. Upon being summoned he will brutally eviscerate the one who dared to summon him. Helen, being a firm non-believer, treats the rumor as a myth and proceeds through with the ritual. What follows is a tightly knit tale about gender, race, gentrification, and the mystical nature of belief.
What helps the story work is how real it feels. The community at Cabrini-Green aren’t caricatures of our worst fears of what the “hood” is. They’re heterogeneous and breathe life into a community that gets demonized, not only in the movie, but in real life as well. The shocking reality of social imbalances set in, and the way that characters react and approach different situations highlights those fears. When the cleaning ladies talk about how Ruthie Jean called the police twice about someone coming for her she gets ignored. It’s palpable and reveals just how warped the system has become. Violence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in a community when they’re arbitrarily relegated to the periphery for no other reason than their skin color.
Furthermore, the juxtaposition of Helen, a young white women, and Bernie, a young black women going into a black community was magnificent. They respond to different scenarios in ways to highlight not only character differences, but also social differences. When they enter the downtrodden community, Helen’s primary concern is finding information about the myth, while Bernie scared for her life. The whole way their first interaction plays out during this act only amplifies the way their positions change the way they think about themselves and what can/cannot happen to them. This becomes even more interesting when Helen goes through multiple revelations that complicate her relation to both the community and the legend of Candyman.
Speaking of Helen, Virginia’s performance is nuanced and emotionally resounding. The long reaction shots on her eyes help convey the depth of her emotional state. She goes from confident, to resourceful, to mystified, to paranoid, and so on. At no point do any of these shifts feel out of place or odd. They all feel authentic and make emotional beats in the story feel that much more poignant. After doing some background reading, I appreciated the extra effort she put in. For certain scenes, she actually let herself get hypnotized so that she would look dazed and mystified. Although, after witnessing Tony Todd’s performance as Candyman, and hearing his authoritative but hypnotic voice, I could see how someone could be entranced by him. But make no mistake, he is sinister.
The film is also shot well. The use of long pan transition shots makes the dread feel like it’s moving along. But the most interesting thing the movie does is insert stills constantly. Iconic images from the movie appear at key moments. They don’t feel intrusive, but are provocative and help foreshadow the meaning and metaphysical positions of key characters.
TLDR:Candyman, is a well-woven tale that analyzes multiple pressing social issues without ever feeling preachy or patronizing. It’s provocative and aesthetically haunting.
Final Rating: 10/10. Anyone who wants to experience a beautiful commentary on social positions/issues while also being scary, in a more visceral way should watch this movie. It’s a masterpiece.
In this analysis I’ll be taking a look at Nina’s (Natalie Portman) journey through Black Swan. I’ll be analyzing why the swan is so important and the philosophical underpinnings that make Portman’s transformation so haunting. NOTE- this is a spoiler zone. I will be talking about plot deals intricately so if you haven’t watched the movie yet, but plan on it, don’t read past this.
The film starts off with a shot of a girl doing ballet. We focus on just her feet, noticing her precise and technical execution. The background is dark- there’s almost a supernatural aspect to the dance happening. The camera encircles Nina and her partner- then as quickly as the dance begins,it ends. It was only a dream.
This first scene establishes the story of Swan Lake as the backdrop by which the film operates. Nina is the white swan, pure and innocent and what follows will be her tumultuous journey towards becoming the black swan. But the scene has a dual function- on top of establishing the perceptual metaphor of the movie- it highlights the significance of the play in Nina’s life. The role of Swan Queen is quite literally something she idolizes. Why? Because ballet is quite literally the only thing Nina has going for her.
The Repressed Subject
Art is a form of escape for Nina. As a subject she has been restricted in almost every avenue- forced into a scenario that necessitates action and urgency. She’s 28. At this age it’s make or break and can determine how far her career can really go.
The narrative set up establishes just how repressed every other aspect of her life is. Despite being an grown adult, she still lives with her mom. That by itself isn’t the problem – it’s that she and her mom have a relationship akin to one a mom has with an child about to go through puberty. It feels unnatural and highlights the way she’s been conditioned and brought up.
Erica is abusive. You can debate on whether or not her overprotective tendencies are partially justified, but she does more than enough to suggest that she’s been emotionally and psychologically damaging her daughter. She constantly insinuates that Nina’s sexuality must be protected. Sexual pleasure and questioning has been prohibited- cast aside by the parental Other that determines the boundaries the child is and is not allowed to cross. Every-time Nina has a sexual experience it turns into something horrifying. Symbolically, the loss of this sexual innocence marks a passage into an adult- so by restricting it- Erica can ensure her daughter stays attached to her at all times.
This is evidenced at multiple times:
1. Nina’s room doesn’t have a lock – which is why she’s had to come up with a make shift solution to keep her mom’s prying eyes out. This is also why she’s so sexually withdrawn. She never had a sense of privacy long enough to engage in that sexual discovery that happens in adolescence.
2. Whenever Nina goes out with Thomas, her mom insinuates that he’s touching her or abusing her. While the accusations become more and more accurate over time, her tone doesn’t feel like it comes from a place of love as much as possession. It feels like Nina’s sexuality is a possession that only she is allowed to control.
3. She literally slaps her daughter for saying that she had sex. Instead of trying to comfort her daughter or ensure that she was okay post experience, her first response is one of anger and indignation.
On top of this, we see through the mother-daughter interactions that Nina’s not allowed to disagree. When she makes Swan Queen, Erica buys her a cake to celebrate. Nina doesn’t want to eat it because she feels nervous- that’s understandable. But instead of responding like a normal parent should, Erica lashes out – threatening to throw the entire cake. It’s passive aggressive behavior meant to guilt and shame Nina.
Regardless of Erica’s motivation, the result is an alienated child- Nina never got a chance to grow up and has been reduced to ballet. But ballet also becomes an escape. She stays later and later at the practice hall, because it’s better than coming home to the rules and dictates that make it impossible for her to find herself. Ballet here is a line of flight- a break through the madness and shackles imposed upon her by her mother. By becoming a star she can leave- maybe her career can flourish and she can financially escape. Or maybe in the act of becoming a true star, she can feel a sense of self- one strong enough to resolve the anxiety and loathing she’s internalized and experienced. Whatever it is – it’s freedom. It’s the only thing she can control anymore.
But to get to this freedom- Nina has to master the duality inherent to the role of Swan Queen- a journey that requires a mastery of herself. As evidenced by her early characterization and mannerisms- we know why she’s so effective as the white swan. Her childlike innocence combined with her pressures causes her to remain innocent but fragile. However, the black swan is the diametric opposite to these attributes.
The black swan is seductive, alluring, and chaotic. As Thomas repeats, portraying it requires an dancer to lose themselves in their routine. He notes that the issue with Nina’s performance is not in its technical execution. Her technique is flawless. Rather, what’s missing is an emotional intensity. A pure burst of affect moving across the scene. Technicality demonstrates a mechanic kind of mastery, but in order for art to cause a kind of catharsis in the audience, it has to have an emotional resonance to it that can’t be described or explained- only felt. This is why Nina struggles- because she’s been stunted of experiences and interaction- she can’t tap into those feelings. How does one understand seduction without understanding love and loss of love?
Shadow Nina is her mind’s response to this lack of information. The doppelganger serves as the inner projection of what Nina thinks the black swan is. It’s her minds attempt at creating a persona of what she needs to master and embrace. But because it’s so different from her, she runs from it and is scared of its presence. However, she eventually “overcomes” this fear.
Instead of trying to control and be timid towards the situations stunting her she lets the intensity of her emotions to serve as the catalysts to her action. These manifest in her actions and her delusions. From an early scene in act one, we see a shadow Nina come about. This serves as the inner projection of what Nina thinks the black swan is.
When Erica starts to yell at her when Lily comes over, Nina stops trying to argue with her mom. Instead of cowering away from her and giving in she acts like a teenager and acts rebellious. In this moment of symbolic growth she gives in to her frustration and angst and decides to experiment and try new things. Since Lily’s introduction into the ballet troupe, Nina has come to view her as a stand-in for the black swan. Unlike her, Nina is free-flowing and flexible. Her personality matches the aesthetic of her dance. She’s flirty, seductive, and playful.
When Nina comes home and gets slapped- instead of cowering from her sexuality, she uses her rage to have “sex” with Lily. The scene might be steamy, but where it really shines is in its symbolic meaning. We know Lily isn’t real in this scene- she seems to be the same shadow delusion Nina has seen the whole film. She transforms from Lily to Nina back to Lily and then Nina again at the end. The point isn’t just to highlight how tenuous Nina’s relationship with reality is. Rather it shows how she’s forming her “black swan” self. Lily is a template for everything the black swan represents. Having sex with her is opening her up to the influence, The constant transformations reflect her absorbing the perceived characteristics .
This is also why Nina sees Lily having sex with Thomas during the night of the performance. It’s most likely a delusion- but needs to happen. If Lily was the white swan, and Thomas was her beau, then the story dictates that he’s “stolen” by the black swan, Lily. Nina’s projection is necessary to cement her place and to drive her transformation fully forward. Now that the white swan has seen her partners infidelity, she must die. Nina must allow herself to die, so that “black” Nina can be born.
At the end of the second act, Nina walks into her dressing room and sees a delusion of Lily getting ready to take her place. In a jealous fit of rage, Nina kills Lily and then drags her body elsewhere. What really dies in this scene is the barrier between the white and black halves of Nina.
In killing Lily, Nina has rid herself of the black swan proxy. She no longer needs Lily there to learn from because she’s finally assimilated the perspective and feelings of the black swan. Even the weapon of choice here is a shard of the destroyed mirror- the mirror between the dual sides of Nina. She literally uses the shattered symbol of her multiple selves, to destroy and absorb the sensual and chaotic side of herself.
Her makeup becomes more realistic- her feathers feel like they literally are growing off of her. In this moment, Lily isn’t the held back and repressed child, incapable of taking her own actions. She has become the literal embodiment of the swans. Careful and meticulous but filled with a frenetic energy. Both white and black – by removing the barriers between the sides of her identity- she has become pure artistic experience. It’s why the violence and pain she goes through at the end don’t affect her. It’s why her eyes are in a daze as Thomas stares at her in awe.
For a few moments, she had transcended all limits, and gave way to a beautiful, but fleeting performance.
Zombies- check. Misanthropy- check. Examination of alienation – check. Awesome music – double check.
Danny Boyle’s science-fiction zombie film, 28 Days Later, checks off all the necessities of a great movie, adds on a great deal of nuance and criticism, and wraps all of that in a beautifully shot and scored piece. The story follows Jim (Cilian Murphy) as he wakes up 28 days after a terrifying “rage” virus has spread and destroyed most of England. He eventually meets up with and forms a rag-tag team with other survivors as they struggle to find a way out of the living hell they find themselves in.
I knew I was in for a cinematic treat just based off of the parallels in the opening scene of the movie, and the opening scene on Jim. We start off looking at a monkey, tied up to a series of wires, being forced to take in violent awful media. When Jim wakes up, he’s also covered in wires on a hospital bed causing an immediate association between him and the primate. It beautifully foreshadows his journey as he’s forced to view and deal with gruesome and morbid scenes of violence. It also raises one of the films main thematic questions- what is humanity and how is it different than animality? Based on this opening scene it might be that humans and animals aren’t so different after all. The feeling never really goes away and the film constantly plays with it.
Every camera shot has a purpose in this movie and I was constantly kept off balance by their variation in use. The use of a gritty realistic recording makes the setting feel grounded and haunting. A darker color scheme is used for most of the film so when lighter ones are front and center, it feels intentional. It serves as a visual and thematic pallet cleanser, which for the most part, keeps the movie fresh and invites deeper answers to the questions being posited.
The frequent use of angled shots highlight the upturned nature of the world around them. Any semblance of the social order that they know of is gone. There are a lot of wide open shots that make the characters feel puny in comparison. They feel like ants- showcasing not only our groups’ alienation, but also questioning the general place of humanity in relation to the planet at large. The quick panicked shots when the zombies come in is also jarring and was frightening each time it was used. The zombies being as fast as they were only made the effects more pronounced.
Speaking of that, I love how fast the zombies were. They’re aggressive killing machines and present a real sense of urgency. The film ensures we know of that by having an incredibly tense and shocking zombie/reaction scene out of nowhere, highlighting the absurdity of it- a mistake at any point, even a small one could be deadly. Even a small speck of blood end our protagonists, so every zombie encounter becomes even worse- we’re constantly on the lookout for blood and cadavers because those present as much of a threat as the zombies themselves.
Because the zombies were so threatening I expected them to be the highlight of the film, driving the main source of tension. But the film spends a large chunk of time developing our group. They really do feel like a family, and some of the character moments in the second act are well realized. They help flesh out the characters without feeling out of place with what we’ve learned about everyone earlier.
John Murphy’s sound makes all of the above elements even better than they would be otherwise. He uses music to precisely accentuate the emotional undercurrent of the scene. The music is never just there for the sake of being there. For example, during one scene in the first act, a soft song plays in the background as the characters explore a certain area, but upon the discovery of a deceased couple, the music cuts out. Instead, the audience is left with silence- highlighting the somber and tragic nature of the scene, before the song comes back in- snapping us, and the character who discovered the scene back to real life. Furthermore, “In the House, In a Heartbeat”, is one of the the best horror/theme tracks I’ve ever heard and its use in the third act was chilling.
The ending of the movie feels rushed and thematically inconsistent, even if I personally thought it was a pleasant change of pace from what I expected. Certain character arcs feel like they come out of left field, but are still beautiful symbolically and thematically. The issue is that after setting up a series of expectations that would allow for the rushed characterization to feel symbolically meaningful, the film directly sidesteps what it just did in favor of something else. The end result, is a surprising ending that a lot of people might find unsatisfying. Personally, I liked it and I’ll get into that in the spoiler section, but I’m definitely going to look at the alternative endings to see if they change my view of the movie at all.
TLDR:28 Days Later, is a rich and tense zombie film that’ll have you asking questions about the depraved extents we go to survive. Thought it falters in the ending, it is tense and filled with a sense of isolation that lasts until the very last scene.
Final Rating: 9.5/10. This is the scariest zombie movie I’ve seen. Watch if you enjoy tense and well-paced action scenes, examinations/criticisms of anthropocentrism, or want to watch a beautifully shot and scored work of art.