Tag Archives: psychological horror

Review: Ringu

Theatrical Release Poster

To celebrate the end of Halloween and my 2019 Movie Marathon, I decided to close off with one of the most important horror movies to me, on a more personal and nostalgic level. When I saw that Arrow was releasing a Blu-ray restoration of this 1998 classic, I had to buy it and after watching it, I can say that it was worth each every penny. Everything looks crisp and serene and only made the impact of each and every scene more evocative.

Hideo Nakata’s direction and Hiroshi Takahashi’s screenplay serve to make their adaptation of Koji Suzuki’s original book, Ring, more mysterious and eerie. For those of you not familiar with the general plot, the movie follow a Reiko, a reporter researching a story about a cursed videotape that kills anyone who watches it within 7 days. As her investigation continues, she uncovers some disturbing facts, and has to race against time to figure out how to stop the curse.

This film is a great slow burn. The first scene drops the audience in the moment, immediately drawing them into the lore. The lighting in the scene sets the tone- an eerie one at that. As the scene progress, the tension grows, and even upon the end, the lack of resolution and presence of ambiguity kept me on edge. That’s something that’s true of most of the movie. It stays creepy. There’s something that doesn’t feel right as you watch it and on more than one occasion I turned around to look behind my shoulder.

The use of sound makes the journey to certain realizations more dramatic and unsettling. Large portions of the film are in silence, so it feels like anything can drop out. But then when there’s a fearful affect around, the music turns to match that. It never feels cheesy or over the top.

On top of this, the film never uses sound for jump scares. Every scare is “natural”. You see something unnerving on the screen and that’s that. You’re forced to process the phenomena and make sense of it. This helped keep the movie realistic, which is it’s strongest selling point. The characters act urgently because they only have so long to resolve the curse. It’s like a bomb scene in an action movie- but scarier because it’s unknown which neutralizes the normal certainty we have that the problem will actually get resolved. This in conjunction with how nuanced and fleshed out the character interactions are makes us actually care for what’s going on to everyone so their race becomes that much more tense.

One of my favorite parts about the movie is how subtle it is. A lot of dialogue scenes are shot with all relevant characters in frame. I’m used to the over the shoulder dialogue shot or the screen cutting between two characters and the film does do that, but it does so more sparingly. The focus is always on showing the characters interacting with each other. The way they position or respond to each other. A lot of the relationships between characters are never explicitly stated until past the half-way mark of the movie, but, because of excellent direction and writing, they feel rich and reveal a lot. As the film kept going on, I felt like I kept having an epiphany about how something else had just made sense- like a series of light-bulbs were going off – and it made the whole experience thematically more resonant to me.

I only have a few minor complaints about the movie. Because the movie doesn’t adapt the backstory of the book, there’s a ton of mystery and ambiguity regarding the reason for why things are happening. This is fine, and as evidenced by my reviews (ex: The Lighthouse) , I actually love that. However, in the case of this movie, the unresolved issues feel more important to resolve certain thematic points. There are hints at them throughout the film, but they don’t add up enough for my liking. There’s also a lot of exposition in the movie from Ryuji. I know there’s a lot that needs to be explained, but later scenes in the film proved that Nakata had creative ways to do the same, so I wish he did more of that.

Rating

TLDR: Ringu is provocative, beautiful, and eerie. Even after having seen the movie multiple times, I’m scared of my T.V. after a late night viewing.

Final Rating: 9.7/10. One of the best horror movies. If you like psychological films or like horror movies that use subtle well-crafted scares, this film is the best.

This review is also part of the Ring series- spoiler analysis will be posted in a longer article at a later point.


Review: The Lighthouse

Theatrical Release Poster

Wow.

I’ve been excited for The Lighthouse since it’s release at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019. Robert Egger’s previous 2015 work, The Witch, is one of my favorite horror movies of the past decade so describing my state of mind as excited might actually be putting it a tad lightly. After watching the movie, I’m happy to say the movie not only delivered, but exceeded expectations. Bravo.

The plot follows Epharim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) , a young man who’s sent out to join and work under Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) as a wickie. From the start of the movie we can see friction between our two main leads. Pattinson is reserved and wants to keep to himself. Dafoe on the other hand is a authoritative, talkative, alcoholic who constantly seeks to get Pattinson to open up and join along. The rest of the plot is just the ensuing dialogue and the results of staying on an isolated island. Despite this, there was not a single moment I was bored or uninterested with what was going on. Every interaction, every visual, every little outburst kept my attention glued to the screen.

The movie constantly plays with your emotions . One moment might be ripe with violence and cause you to feel tense about what’s going to happen. Immediately, a humorous scene will follow creating a perverse laughter. There’s no way to predict what’s going to happen next which makes every moment feel like an experimental must watch. This is fueled by both the respective leads phenomenal acting. Pattinson goes through a wide range of emotion and watching his development from an aloft and quite wickie, to a man losing his sense of self and sanity is a treat. Dafoe is a perfect compliment to Pattinson and conveys a mythical authoritative figure while simultaneously taking pleasure in farting/fart jokes. Yes you read that right- the film even has fart jokes. I’ll take “Setups I’d never see in a horror movie” for 500, Alex. Once certain twists and reveals are set up, the film becomes even more nuanced and allows for different and nuanced takes from the audience. You could watch this with a group of friends and everyone could take something different from the plot.

Aesthetically the movie shoots everything out of the ballpark. Camera movement is fluid and never draws outward attention. Instead, it almost feels like it operates seamlessly in the background. Pan and tilt shots move geographically through the lighthouse, but based on twists in the movie might indicate something else entirely. The black and white nature of the movie makes the extreme shadows and radiance of the actual lighthouse that much more bright. It helps amplify the difference between them but also makes the film feel like it was filmed in the late 1890’s early 1900’s. Mark Korven’s score is also precise- it’s bombastic and loud when it needs to be, but it also plays a subtle calming role in other scenes. It only ever accentuates and never feels out of place.

Rating

TLDR: The Lighthouse is a beautiful, wholly original piece that’ll have you asking what’s real and what’s going on for a lot of it’s run time. It has fun with itself and it’s ambiguous and mystical nature lends it to multiple interpretations post viewing.

Final Rating: 10/10. This is the best movie I’ve seen so far in 2019. Eggers beautifully merges horror, comedy, and psychological introspection and delivers it in an aesthetically rich package. If you want to see one of the years best, or enjoy psychological movies that play with reality/religious mythos this movie is right up your alley.

There’s no spoiler section- I’ll be posting a more full analysis and a discussion of the movie with friends at later times.

Becoming Swan: A Film Analysis of Black Swan

Introduction

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 Swan

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.

Duality

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.

Becoming-Swan

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.

Review: Black Swan

Theatrical Release Poster

Let go. Maintain control. The two impulses seem diametrically opposed to one another. Letting go implies a sense of giving in to drive and impulse, but maintaining control is always portrayed as a denial of the same. Perfection is the balance between two and Darren Aronofsky’s psychological-thriller, Black Swan, follows Nina (Natalie Portman) as she attempts to find that balance in her upcoming ballet performance in Swan Lake.

The first shot of the movie is phenomenal and sets up both the surreal and phantasmic nature of movie , but also places Nina’s life squarely in the context of Swan Lake. She is the white swan- placed in the position of the pure and innocent. Incredibly fragile. It’s the first thing we see her thinking about- her ability to perform in the piece is something that is constitutive of her and her sense of being.

Portman’s performance is haunting and shows the strain and anguish that comes from the pressure to achieve perfection. She feels like a child- diverting her eyes away during conversation, whispering to herself, and crying in fear. Watching her brutal and tense transformation feels that much harder because of how well the anguish is shot and portrayed. Every injury and bruise feels visceral and hard to keep looking at. I could not stop clenching my wrists during certain tense scenes.

Mirrors are utilized with precision. They’ve always been symbolically associated with ourselves. A way of ascertaining our identity- looking into our true selves. Every scene with a mirror in this movie feels like it has a purpose- not just in a superficial “identity is multifaceted” kind of way – but as thought they represent a deep inner conflict between multiple inner selves. They also represent duality which reinforces the divide and conflict between the black and white “swans” Portman must embody.

The movie never spends too much establishing detail- there’s always a suspicion that certain things are afoot- characters are more perverse than they let on. Not focusing on the details does help create the fleeting artistic feeling which accentuates the transformative nature of the movie . Personally I liked how certain things were more open ended, but if you like everything clear cut and laid out for you- this may not be your cup of tea.

However, this does cause a weird sense of lack to develop. Certain subplots are brought up to help accentuate themes, but they don’t get resolved which makes them feel like plot devices as opposed to natural interactions. These inconsistencies also stick out more given the lengths the early portions of the movie take to make the environment “dark”.

Rating

TLDR: Black Swan is a beautiful tale of the price of perfection that will have you questioning what you’re really seeing. There are some slight narrative “forces”, but they don’t detract at all from Portman’s haunting and disturbing performance.

Final Rating: 9.4/10. If you enjoy deep character takes or movies that play with reality vs fantasy this movie should be right up your alley. I felt tense the entire film and was left speechless at the ending.

In lieu of the usual spoiler page, click here, to read my spoiler intensive analysis of the movie.

Review: Joker

Theatrical Release Poster

Todd Phillips’s “comic book” film, Joker , feels less like a comic and more like a serious study of a man’s slow descent into a nihilistic force of violence. The film follows Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, a man neglected and relegated by society until he finally snaps and embraces his persona as “Joker”.

Phoenix is the star of the show and is magnificent in his portrayal of a relegated pariah who slowly loses all hope. What makes the performance so haunting is the genuine sense of how real it feels. Arthur is constantly hopeful, someone trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps- trying to live the “American Dream.” Joaquin evokes a man, desperately trying to live out some dreams- to get back up in spite of everything. This was necessary, because without it the transformation from Arthur to the Joker would be more villainous and less sympathetic.

Furthermore, the laugh he emits due to his “illness” is genuinely haunting. It has a choking sound to it and completely reveals Fleck’s emotional state. Phoenix constantly manipulates and utilizes the laugh with different “intonations” to highlight the undercurrent of the characters state of mind. This helped chronicle Fleck’s progression from down-trodden dreamer to nihilist psychopath.

The humor in the movie is perverse. It never feels right because it comes about through a sense of awkwardness. I kept laughing during my viewing, along with the audience, at scenes that were unsettling, but I couldn’t stop. It’s like the absurdity of Joaquin’s laugh or the unsettling nature of whatever scenario was on the screen necessitated a laugh as a response. There are genuine moments of black humor that don’t rely on perverting the disturbing, but they’re more spread out through out the movie.

The movie is shot beautifully- everything feels gritty and realistic. The usage of different color palettes really helps make certain transformations more mesmerizing, but also help cast doubt on the reality of the situations. In fact, the movie plays a lot with reality and interpretation. Very early on, the film sets up a fantasy sequence of Arthur in a comedy show. It helps inform the audience that Arthur is prone to engage in delusion, but because of the way it’s placed in the narrative with no kind of “announcement” that this was no longer reality, the audience no longer has any expectation that what they’ll see on the screen is real. This tinges the movie with the idea that things might just be hallucinations. The feeling is maintained well until a certain juncture in the movie which feels a bit too heavy handed. It ruined the immersive and unnerving feel the movie had had up till that point.

Thematically the movie falls a bit flatter than I thought it would. The progression of the riot and the protest movement feels rushed and is something I wish was more fleshed out. The themes of class consciousness feel a bit more muddled and become even more confusing given the film’s attempt at cutely including actual Batman characters. Like having Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) in the movie is cool, but he feels like a big bad as opposed to some artistic depiction of the character from the comics- so the feeling doesn’t play out as well.

Rating

TLDR: Joker is a beautiful deep dive into the psyche of a broken and battered man. Phoenix’s performance is mesmerizing and the theme is provocative , even if slightly inconsistent, in the questions its asking.

Final Rating: 9.4/10. Joaquin ‘s performance justifies the price of admission by itself. One of the best movies of 2019. If you can handle some painful scenes, buckle up for one of the wildest rides.

Go to Page 2 for my spoiler-full thoughts!

Review: Saw

Theatrical Release Poster

I put off watching this movie for so long because of its branding as an awful torture porn series. Thankfully, at least in this first iteration of the Saw Franchise, Saw, the gore is never a huge issue. Instead, James Wan attempts to tell a psychological mystery story- an exploration into the morally ambiguous. The plot follows Lawrence (Cary Elwes) and Adam (Leigh Whannell) as they find themselves trapped in a sick twisted death game – forced to figure out clues in a race against time.

The plot here is messy, but fun and thought provoking. There are red herrings. There are flashbacks within flashbacks. New twists and turns constantly appear. This in turn had me constantly asking why. Why were the characters in this situation? Who is Jigsaw and why was he doing what he was doing? As more information is revealed, my view and ideas on what was going on to and around the characters become more nuanced- almost like a jigsaw puzzle (wink wink). However, the constant information dump does feel messy at times.

I like how experimental the film is. The main villain, Jigsaw, teeters on the edge- not fully evil, but certainly not good. The juxtaposition between his selection process and stated purpose will have you asking if he’s morally ambiguous or just straight up a psychopath.

The scenes inside of the run down bathroom were shot great. Whenever the camera focused on Lawrence, it stayed steady- like his character. However, when it shifted to Adam, it rocked, highlighting his erratic nature. However, a lot of the action scenes were choppy and felt out of place. There were too many jumps and it felt like the whole piece would’ve been stronger without them.

Rating

TLDR: Saw, is an interesting journey that plays out a lot like a puzzle. The journey is disorienting at times, but watching Lawrence and Adam try and piece everything together is incredibly suspenseful and gripping.

Final Rating: 8.1/10. The movie is ambitious, in spite of its flaws. Anyone who likes a good mystery or wants a movie with a nuanced villain should check this out.

Go to Page 2 for my spoiler-full thoughts!

Review: The Silence of the Lambs

Theatrical Release Poster

“Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside of your head.” Though Dr. Chilton (Anthonly Heald) gave the warning to Clarice (Jodie Foster), it almost felt like a subtle warning to the viewer. The beauty of Jonathan Demme’s psychological-horror, The Silence of the Lambs, is that most of the scares in the movie come from the uncomfortable nature and presentation of the characters and their motivations. The film follows the FBI cadet, Clarice, as she attempts to get advice and help from Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), an incarcerated cannibal, to stop mass murderer, Buffalo Bill.

The movie plays on the viewers engagement and understanding of each of the characters and their respective motivations. During dialogue scenes, the camera usually fully focuses on whoever is talking with no distractions. This helps create the effect that the characters are talking to us and generates a deeper investment into the characters and the story.

Claire’s treatment also highlights the way our gazes constantly reinforce and generate certain expectations. Despite being intelligent and qualified, she is often treated as eye candy by almost every male she meets. This creates a voyeuristic juxtaposition which highlights and makes the horror more palpable. Because we relate to and understand the character more we feel her plight. But because we’re also outside viewers it becomes easier to watch the way society objectifies her. Simultaneously, a subject and an object- the identification made me feel unnerved by revealing my own biases while watching.

Scares here are less visceral and more subtle. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins steal the show here and their lengthy dialogues are tense and informative. Even though they spend most of their time just talking to each other, the delivery and pacing, made the scenes feel far more “impactful” than traditional dialogue. Since the human psyche here is the battlefield, it makes sense that the action comes through best in the intellectual probing battle,as both characters try to feel each other out. Horror here mainly comes from thoughts and suggestions. There are some disturbing images through the movie, but they’re used sparingly to preserve impact and to highlight the psychological terror.

Rating

TLDR: The Silence of the Lambs is a terrifying romp through the human psyche. It forces us to confront our own biases and asks us uncomfortable questions about the way we act in this world.

Final Rating: 10/10. If you enjoy psychological movies or like shows like Mindhunter or Criminal Minds, then you’ll end up loving this. This might be one of the most unnerving movies I’ve ever watched and I know I’ll come back to it eventually.

Go to Page 2 for my spoiler-full thoughts!