30 September 2017

The State of the Horror Address

Thought on the Horrors of September, "IT: Chapter One," and Aronofsky's "mother!"

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We live in strange times.

I went to see two horror movies in one week...well, that might be a stretch....

I saw a truly great coming-of-age story riding shotgun in a solidly terrifying, if not always original, horror movie.

Then, I saw a claustrophobic fever dream of never-ending extended metaphors in which a movie star makes laps around her house for two hours, the last half hour of which is the most confident filmmaking I've witnessed in a good while.

Both of these movies have been hot topics. Both September releases. Both sold as horror movies. Both offering something way outside the typical norms of the genre. One is a box-office juggernaut and easily in the running for the most popular film of the year. The other has made no money and is simply in the running for most polarizing.

But director Andy Muschietti's adaptation of Stephen King's "IT" takes the early teen "Loser's Club" of one half of King's gargantuan masterpiece, puts them in the late 1980s as opposed to the late 1950s, and casts them with simply the most likable, relatable crew of young actors in years. Think the child casts of 80s classics like "The Goonies" or 90s nostalgia fests like "The Sandlot" or even the current sci-fi favorite "Stranger Things" but in a gruesome, foul-mouthed movie that is both horror and comedy without being a horror-comedy. One that deftly blends the novel's underlying ideas on bullying and child abuse with the fear-induced games of a cackling, monstrous clown called Pennywise (Bill SkarsgÄrd).

It works because not only it is so consistently well-drawn in its characterizations, including Jaeden Lieberher ("St. Vincent", "Midnight Special") as the stuttering Bill Denbrough, grieving the loss of his little brother, Georgie, and the absolute firestorm that is Sophia Lillis as Beverly, the butt of the school's rumor mill, whose home life is more terrifying than any sewer-dwelling monster, but it also is so consistently funny in its teenaged banter. All of "Losers" are sharp characters--Finn Wolfhard's (of "Stranger Things" fame) potty-mouthed, clown-scared wisecracker at the forefront-- and exaclty you'd find in any crew of 9th graders now, in 1989, and forever.

The horror elements are honestly where the movie gets mixed just a smidgen. Honestly, how many times do we need that shimmy-shake run of Pennywise right at the camera? It's the least scary thing about a movie fully of striking, terrifying visions, and it goes back to it more times than I could count.

The movie takes time (too much time) early on to show us every single one of the "Losers" confronted with Pennywise running games on their fears, which is fascinating but just doesn't require seven iterations. It is redundant to say the least. There are three TRULY terrifying encounters with Pennywise and the rest of the fear introduction could've been saved for the BRILLIANT haunted house sequences.

It does a bit better with the human antagonist Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) in only that he is more choosy on whom he launches his terror. Alas, there is a mess here in his characterization as to just how over-the-top the movie makes him. His bullying is more internally psychotic than the somewhat weak payoff near the end would have us believe.

These are small gripes in the grand scheme. "IT" offered me one of the best times I've had at the movies in a long while. It works on the back of its talented young cast and a dream script by Gary Dauberman re-worked from an earlier script by Cary Fukunaga and Chase Palmer, the former of whom was meant direct but backed out over some differences in how dark and gritty the film should be.

Whatever happened with Muschietti at the helm instead worked.

It worked for me because it became more about kids coming-of-age in finding strength in each other in the face of various horrors than about the horror itself.

Darren Aronofsky's "mother!" is not a horror movie. It is a movie about horror.

It is even moreso a movie about the circle of life, religion, fanaticism, destruction of the environment, and quite simply about the feeling of just wanting your house guests to leave.

Jennifer Lawrence plays a woman never referred to by name but billed as Mother. She is re-modeling the rural farmhouse of her husband Him (Javier Bardem) after a fire has destroyed it. Him is an artist, a poet, stuck in a rut of creation. Enter Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), throwing the stereotypical quirks of their names at their hosts (Man's booze and cigarettes and flattery; Woman's spiked lemonade, criticism, and gossip). Mother wants them out. Him needs the distraction.

There you have a sort of picture of contemporary marriage.

But the tone is played in a minor key. There is a sense of horror in the suspense of not knowing what's next...like not even close. The characters are thin, and we can't grasp their pasts. It's all distant. But the camera is close, really close, and Jennifer Lawrence owns that closeness on her face in every single shot. There were moments where I just knew I was a vision not seen before and several times went Wow! under my breath.

This awareness is meant to start us into projecting our own ideas into the lack of characterization and the lack of story, in general. We are watching a sequence of events fully fabricated with no sense of reality, though very really felt, as some sort of dream, shocks to the system, metaphors urging reader (audience) response and laughing in the face of our need to be entertained.

Why is this movie so confined to this one space? Where is this house? Is it even a house? Or is it merely a symbol, a stand-in? Are Man and Woman Adam and Eve? It seems that way, especially when their two sons enter. Or are they just annoying house guests, in-law types? Is Mother actually Mother Nature? Or is she Mary? Or is she just a woman taken for granted by her husband? Is Him actually God? Or is he really a struggling poet? Is this movie about creation or evolution or both? Is it about the horrors and divisions in our country today? Or is it simply a movie that wants us to ask questions and then try to answer them?

Yes. That's it.

It is all of those things, whatever you want it to be, and it culminates, as previously mentioned, in the most confident, visually terrifying nightmare imaginable.

It treats the audience like a teenager trapped in a movie where his fears come to life.

But we're not teenagers. We're adults. And the fears are larger and recognizable in real life. They are on our news in the morning, in the beliefs we have...or don't...or part of the religions we cling to...or not.

And in the end, it's the simplest, most perfect thing ever, if you're okay with not knowing what it all means. If you're not okay with that, then you will hate this movie.

Either way, Aronofsky, and the major movie studio that backs him and this project, doesn't seem to care. They want you to be an audience with questions, even about the way you see movies.

I put it best, most likely, in my Letterbox'd diary entry in which I decided a full five stars was the right call only to write, "Or 1 star. At one point or another this movie is every star." It, like Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice," the last major studio movie to blow my mind like this (though in completely different ways) defies traditional movie scoring or rating systems.

No matter how you score it, for me, it is one of the very best movies of the year.

As for the State of the Horror Movie, I believe it to be alive and well, both old and new, and, now, working as a representation of not only the tricks our fears play on us but also a representation of the horrors of the world we live in, whatever they are to you.

And it's only just now October.

★★★★  out of ★★★★★

Screened at Regal Riviera 8 in Downtown Knoxville on Wednesday, September 20th.


★★★★★  out of ★★★★★

Screened at Regal Pinnacle Stadium 18 IMAX and RPX in Knoxville on Wednesday, September 20th.


  1. Great reviews, man!

    I loved It. I've never been so frightened by a film. In my opinion, the standouts of the film were Jaeden Lieberher (who has redeemed himself here after the awful film from earlier this year The Book of Henry), Bill Skarsgard, Sophia Lillis (who will definitely be a star soon), & Finn Wolfhard (who I can't wait to see back in season 2 of Stranger Things).

    So... Mother! I'll get to what I have to say about this film in a minute, but I have to use 2 quotes. The first is from my friend, who jokingly stated this after I told her the plot of the film: "I'm sorry, but not even drugs could result in this film." The second is from Roger Ebert, who stated in his review for the 1994 film North, "I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it."

    Now... on to my thoughts on Mother! (which I will not say much as my review will be coming soon). This is by far the worst film I've ever seen. This is finally a film that we disagree on where I hated it & you loved it (all the other times we've disagreed on a film, I've loved it & you hated it). The acting is ok (but they did the best they could with the material they were given), the direction is all style over substance, the screenplay is a complete catastrofuck, the editing is awful (it made me feel like I was stuck in the theater for 4 hours), & the sound design is just too jarring. There's too many metaphors in this (hence the style over substance). Don't get me wrong, I like films that are WAY outside the mainstream, but this just went WAY TOO FAR to the point of overkill. It's absolutely disgusting.

    1. I think Mother! is just a movie that you either love or hate. I found it to be incredibly challenging, alarming, and highly entertaining. The camera work alone is worth watching the movie.

  2. Great reviews! I was so hyped for It and it lived up to my high expectations. My only big complaint was moving the setting from the 50's to the 80's, but I had known that all along so I had time to hate it less.

    mother! was something else. I thought the last 20 minutes or so was messy AF but I still cannot stop thinking about that movie.

    1. Thanks! I like the 80s vibe. There is no amount of 80s nostalgia that would be too much for me. And it's pretty subtle here really. The 50s could've been cool though. Barely remember the TV movie, so... this works for now.

      That messy last 20 is my favorite thing about it. Like WTF? Loved it!

  3. I've heard good things about IT and mixed reviews about Mother. Actually Mther sounds like a waxked out drug fest which I will probably see and say, after, WTF??