Saturday, July 27, 2013

Don't Go in That House: The Conjuring

By Thomas Puhr

*Spoilers Abound*
          As soon as the screeching, melodramatic violins nearly overpowered the theater’s speakers while the film’s title, in large, yellow, retro lettering, spread across the screen, my prayer that The Conjuring would be an old school, tension-focused horror film was answered. Indeed, director James Wan has ditched the gore-soaked trappings of his 2004 debut, Saw, for a film that is more focused on building steadily-rising tension and dread. Until the over-the-top, action-oriented finale somewhat derails the suspense, The Conjuring almost perfectly captures the tone of such horror classics as Poltergeist and The Exorcist. It is probably the best American horror film since Ti West’s 2009 offering, The House of the Devil, another film that understands the fundamental truth that a creaky, old house is a thousand times more terrifying than any CGI-produced monster.

Building Suspense

          Wan proves to be a deft craftsman at slowly increasing a scene’s suspense until it becomes nearly unbearable. In one of the film’s best sequences, Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) explores her recently-acquired house at night, while her daughters are fast asleep, and plays a terrifying game of cat and mouse with the entity occupying the house. We first hear family portraits being knocked off the stairwell wall (we only see the aftermath of the destruction), then we hear the ghost clapping (mimicking a hide and seek game the family plays), and then we finally see the spirit in action, opening and slamming doors. This game leads Carolyn into the previously boarded-up basement, where a bouncing ball provides an unexpected jolt. Finally, all of this tension leads to the instantly-classic shock moment when disembodied hands clap behind Carolyn’s head (a truly terrifying moment that was unfortunately spoiled by the trailer). Upstairs, one of Carolyn’s daughters sees a demon-like woman perched atop an old, creepy dresser.
          There is a natural, unbearable progression here to Chad and Carey Hayes' script; the audience goes from hearing the force’s actions (the portraits being shattered / the clapping), to seeing the results of its actions (the broken portraits, the opening doors, the bouncing balls), to seeing part of the actual presence (the hands), and, finally, to seeing the entire demon herself. Instead of immediately revealing the demon woman, Wan plays with our senses, piling on detail after detail, slowly revealing more about the malevolent force occupying the house.

Watching the Fuzzy TV
          Although The Conjuring obviously owes a lot to films like The Amityville Horror (a haunted, secluded house, basements holding murderous secrets) and The Exorcist (possession, demons), its primary influence is Tobe Hooper’s 1982 classic, Poltergeist, to which Wan and the Hayes brothers make frequent allusions.
          Similar to Hooper’s haunted house tale (and, admittedly, many other horror films), The Conjuring portrays children (especially little girls) as having a natural, psychic connection to the spiritual realm. And, similar to poor Carol Anne famously being sucked into the TV, one of the girls in this film seems, at one point, to have been sucked through a wall. Also like Hooper’s film, a group of ghost hunters, this time led by Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), moves into the haunted house to help the ailing family, sets up audio-visual equipment in an effort to capture footage of supernatural phenomena, and eventually seems to become a surrogate part of the Perron family.
          The allusions are seemingly endless. There’s the large, gnarled, monster-like tree in the backyard, a child fearfully peering under her bed (which, though it’s been used a thousand times in a thousand horror films, is still terrifying), a haunted doll (in Wan’s film, a creepy, clown doll has been replaced with a creepy, American-Girl type doll), and people being dragged around the house by unseen forces. Hell, Wan even includes an extended shot of a fuzzy TV screen, which, for any horror fan, should immediately call to mind Poltergeist’s Carol Anne pressing her palms against the snowy TV screen, transfixed by the forces dwelling within it. 
Mixing Genres
          The Conjuring
is, in many ways, an amalgam of many different horror subgenres. First and foremost, it is a classic haunted house tale; Wan makes excellent use of classic haunted house tropes, such as creaking doors, blowing leaves, foggy lakes, and clanging wind chimes to ratchet up the suspense. Save for some random scenes and a subplot involving Ed and Lorraine’s daughter, more or less the entire film is set in the Perrons’ large, dilapidated, secluded home.
          Yet the film also owes a lot to William Friedkin’s 1973 classic, The Exorcist. Toward the end of the film, the story shifts from the haunted house subgenre to the possession and exorcism subgenre; Carolyn is possessed by a demonic spirit that is bent on murdering the Perrons’ children, and Ed Warren is forced to perform an impromptu exorcism on her.
          Finally, perhaps in deference to a modern audience’s sensibilities, Wan even throws in a few found footage scenes, such as documentary clips of previous cases solved by the Warrens and an extended, admittedly-creepy exploration of the Perrons’ basement that is shown entirely through the point-of-view of a video camera.
          Despite the many subgenres Wan enthusiastically mixes together, The Conjuring does not come across as a tonal mess. Unlike the disappointing Sinister (2012), which similarly tried (and failed) to mesh haunted house, demonic, and found-footage conventions, The Conjuring, for the most part, successfully juggles all of these conventions and styles. It must be said, though, that the exorcism portion of the film is disappointing in comparison to the earlier, haunted-house passages, partly because the big reveal of the evil force is inevitably a letdown in comparison to the suspense leading up to it, and mostly because Wan unfortunately reverts to jumpy, confusing camerawork and editing during the exorcism scenes.

          The Conjuring
is a love letter to classic horror films as much as it is an example of such films. Despite some undeniable flaws, The Conjuring is unabashedly old school; the early scenes, especially, are chock full of wide-angle shots, extended tracking shots, and slow zooms. Wan even includes a Hitchcockian dolly zoom, to great effect. The period setting (1960s and ‘70s) and the screeching, Penderecki-esque musical score (echoes of the soundtracks for The Exorcist and The Shining) further distances the film from most contemporary horror offerings. By capturing the look and feel of ‘70s through‘80s-era horror films, Wan has crafted the most stylistically-satisfying horror film in some time.
          Also, by drawing from the universal human desire to protect one’s family at all costs, Wan has also crafted one of the most emotionally-satisfying horror films in some time. Admittedly, protecting one’s children from evil forces is nothing new to the horror genre, but Wan approaches the family drama with such un-ironic sincerity that he won me over. There’s a reason this trope is used in countless horror films: it works. Most importantly, and most fundamentally, The Conjuring is genuinely scary, and it admirably relies on suspense over gore (I don’t see why it couldn’t have gotten away with a PG-13 rating; it is really no more violent than Sam Raimi’s PG-13 Drag Me to Hell, although it is more straight-faced and grim than Raimi’s film) in order to generate its many scares. Call me a convert; Wan can craft a hell of a horror film.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

“Look at My Shit!” Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers

By Thomas Puhr

*Spoilers Abound*

It’s meant to be about surfaces. The culture is about surfaces. It’s meant to be like candy. . . . If it makes people angry, that’s fine. If people love it, that’s…great. There’s no right or wrong way to interpret this film, or anything that I do. It’s all just perfect.           
–Harmony Korine

Is Spring Breakers an indictment of this generation masking as a hedonistic, sex-filled romp? A neon-saturated celebration of this generation’s excesses? A satire of the pop-culture obsessed, material-driven population that consumes the former, kid-friendly work of its Disney stars (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens)? A sick joke on pre-teen girls looking forward to “that spring break Selena Gomez movie”? A feminist statement? A cautionary tale?

All of the above? None of the above?

Well, according to the above quote by Harmony Korine, any and every response to the film (anger, laughter, horror, disbelief) is valid. It can be viewed from many different perspectives and angles; any interpretation of the film slips through your fingers in light of another possible interpretation. The film is, by turns, sexy, terrifying, beautiful, exploitative, (intentionally) repetitive, surreal, hilarious…the list goes on. One thing is for sure, though: it is never boring.

Let’s start out with the surfaces. If anything, the film is a beauty to look at. Korine fills the screen with a dizzying, feverish assemblage of fast-motion, slow-motion, neon colors, grainy video footage, and beautiful, dream-like locations. The bright colors (lots of reds, blues, yellows, and pinks) pop off the screen. Indeed, Korine himself said that he wanted the film to look like it was “lit with Skittles.” Which takes us back to the above quote; is Spring Breakers just the cinematic equivalent of a sweet, colorful piece of candy?

Spring Breakers as a Song

Maybe the movie is more musical…or experiential than it is…traditionally narrative. So it’s like a stew or a chemical…reaction.
-Harmony Korine

In some ways, the narrative structure of Spring Breakers does feel more like a song than a typical plot or story thread. Throughout the film, specific scenes, lines, and images are replayed multiple times. In some cases, short lines are repeated three, four, sometimes five times within the very same scene, almost like the repeating chorus of a pop song. For example, the line “spring break forever,” repeated throughout the film, could easily be the chorus of an innocent, Disney pop song.

To add to this loose, cyclical narrative, Korine also incorporates a number of recurring visuals. A slow-motion, music video-esque montage of teens partying on the beach, spraying beer all over the place, sucking on popsicles, etc. is revisited throughout the film, as well as a strangely-haunting shot of one of the girls’ pink ski masks floating in a pool.

Korine also jumps freely/chaotically/gleefully among past, present, and future. In one scene, Cotty (Rachel Korine) is shot in the arm during a drive-by shooting. Korine generates suspense by jumping back and forth between Alien (James Franco) and the girls driving around aimlessly and Cotty crying in pain, bleeding. He continues to jump between the present and the immediate future in this scene until the two violently converge. Faith(Gomez)’s voicemail message to her grandmother (about the nice, innocent fun she’s having) is also looped throughout the film, sometimes in ironic contrast with the on-screen violence.

Spring Breakers as a Horror-Comedy

Spring Breakers is littered with unexpected, disorienting tonal shifts, swinging wildly from the safety of broad comedy to the edge of pure horror (sometimes within the same scene). Some moments are clearly meant to be funny, such as Alien’s hilarious, much-talked-about “Look at my shit!” speech, in which he rants and raves to his bikini-clad friends about all of the great stuff in his house (machine guns, cologne, nunchucks, tanning oil, Scarface on repeat). Alien’s tirade is by far one of the funniest moments in any film this year.

Other moments, however, teeter uneasily (and sometimes ingeniously) between comedy and terror. Right after delivering his hilarious speech, Alien is confronted by two of the girls, who shove loaded pistols in his mouth and demand he beg for his life. The scene is brimming with suspense. And then, inexplicably, Alien begins to suggestively suck on the barrels of the guns. Afterwards, he proclaims his love for the girls. Alien’s actions in this scene (and in many others) are so unexpected and ridiculous, I did not know whether I was supposed to laugh or recoil in horror. I’m assuming that such a response is exactly what Korine is going for. He does not let his audience off easy by blatantly telling them how they are supposed to feel; these uneasy, strange tonal shifts (from laughter, to horror, and then back to laughter again) add to the film’s dreamlike quality.

Spring Breakers as a Dream / Nightmare

Ultimately, Spring Breakers feels like a dream that eventually descends into a nightmare. Just as Alien proudly proclaims himself as a man not of this world, the neon-saturated party world that the girls enter does not feel like Florida, or any other earthly location, for that matter. Instead, it looks and feels like a candy-coated nightmare.

In the film’s climactic scene, Alien and his girls lead an assault on the fortress of a rival gangster named Archie (Gucci Mane). This scene is bursting with color and beauty: the girls’ neon-yellow bikinis against the night sky, the pink glow of the pier leading to Archie’s mansion (itself a giant slab of vibrant pink), and, of course, the pink of the girls’ ski masks. This sequence exists in a place and time that does not even begin to approximate reality. We have officially entered an exotic, violent dream world.


The visuals are clearly the driving force of the film, and they are indeed very beautiful and hypnotic. But for all of Korine’s visual skills, Spring Breakers is also a pretty frustrating film. Korine is clearly not interested in linear stories and plots, which is absolutely fine. But the dialogue in the film is sometimes cringe-inducing, and I can’t help but wonder whether or not Korine always means it to be taken as such. James Franco turns out to be the only actor with any memorable dialogue to chew on, and he definitely takes full advantage of the Alien character. Nevertheless, most of the dialogue, though minimal, is dispensable. I love the idea of having a film that feels more like a nightmarish pop song than a straight narrative, but Korine doesn’t quite deliver this time. To use a musical metaphor, the song sounds gorgeous, but the lyrics need some work.


Korine, Harmony. Interview at 69th Venice International Film Festival. myETVmedia. myETVmedia, 2012. Web. 5 April 2013.

---. Interview by Vice. Parts I and II. Vice. Vice, 2013. Web. 5 April 2013.  

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Not Fade Away: What Do You See in the Clouds?

By Thomas Puhr

*Spoilers Abound*

The Lives You Could Have Lived: Fame / Douglas and Pat

            Writer-director David Chase seems fascinated by the randomness of life’s fortunes and misfortunes. One life can take so many different paths, yet, ultimately, we are forced to choose one. Toward the beginning of Not Fade Away, Chase’s feature-film debut, Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu), the film's narrator, makes it clear that her big brother Douglas' band, like most bands, will not make it big. In order to emphasize this point, Chase juxtaposes the genesis of The Rolling Stones (in a short, black-and-white sequence, he shows them discussing music as teenagers) with the genesis of Douglas’ band in front of a guitar shop in New Jersey. These scenes, which immediately follow one another, are very similar. The only obvious difference is that everyone knows The Rolling Stones, while no one will remember Douglas’ band. We are not shown the series of events that led to The Rolling Stones making it big. Chase instead opts for focusing on one of the many ‘60s-era garage bands that faded away.
            Although Not Fade Away seems to focus on Douglas and his band, the film’s emotional and thematic core is the relationship between Douglas (John Magaro) and his hard-edged father, Pat (James Gandolfini, who does a lot with a mostly-peripheral role). Chase draws a number of parallels between Douglas and Pat, making it clear that despite surface-level differences, the father and son are quite similar. Just as Pat grew up during the tumultuous time of World War II, Douglas is growing up during Vietnam. While Pat did not serve because his manufacturing job needed him, Douglas does not serve because he does not “believe” in the war.
            Most interestingly, Douglas and Pat are connected by their desires to escape their current lives and to find “better” lives in the West Coast, specifically in California. Douglas wants to go to California to make it big (naturally) and to tag along with his ethereal girlfriend, Grace (Bella Heathcote). In a touching dinner scene between Douglas and Pat, we find out that Pat also has dreams of the West Coast, having recently fallen in love with a woman he met in California while there for cancer treatment. Douglas, overwhelmed nearly to tears by his father’s frankness, assures his father that he could have stayed home with his mother so Pat could be with his dream woman in California. Pat brushes the idea aside; we get the sense that his time is up, that his life is, for better or worse, to remain in New Jersey. Douglas eventually does make it to California and Pat indicates his approval by secretly giving his son some money for the trip. Douglas drives off into the distance with his girlfriend and Chase leaves the camera on Pat for a moment as he stands on the corner, looking after his son. In this wordless, brief moment, watching Pat standing alone in the street, one gets the impression that Gandolfini’s tired and weary face tells more about his character than any line of dialogue possibly can.
            A wordless montage near the end of the film solidifies the parallels between Douglas and Pat. Alone on the couch, sitting next to his cold and distant wife, Pat watches the “Bali Hai” scene from South Pacific and wipes a tear away when he sees the Technicolor beach in the film, no doubt reminded of the life he could have lived in California. In this moment, we understand that Pat came back to New Jersey to stay with his wife so that Douglas would not have to, so that Douglas could pursue his dreams in the West Coast. Chase then cuts from the beach in the film to Douglas and Grace driving toward the beach in California. This short, wordless scene is probably one of the saddest and most affecting scenes of 2012 and is given extra resonance by the haunting lyrics of “Bali Hai”: "Most people live on a lonely island, / Lost in the middle of a foggy sea. / Most people long for another island, / One where they know they will like to be.” While Pat longs for “another island” in California, Douglas, at the end of the film, becomes a “lonely island” himself, separated from Grace and on the precipice of a new, uncertain life chapter. What is a reality for Douglas is merely a dream on television for Pat.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Rod Serling
            Similar to Chase’s groundbreaking series, The Sopranos, Not Fade Away is influenced by the mysteries of philosophy and spirituality. In one seemingly-throwaway scene, Wells (Will Brill), the band’s drummer, attempts to comfort the recently-ousted Eugene (Jack Huston) by paraphrasing the Tibetan Book of the Dead: “There is no past, no future either. Just the now.” Interestingly, this phrase is also the film’s tagline. Shortly after philosophizing with Eugene, Wells has a nearly-fatal motorcycle accident, further emphasizing the unpredictability and randomness of the present. Only Chase would cite the Book of the Dead in a coming-of-age rock film.
            In addition to referring to ancient-Eastern philosophy, Chase also repeatedly refers to one of the most influential and mystical of twentieth-century American personalities: The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling. Early in the film, Douglas recites some of the show’s famous opening lines to himself. Here is Rod Serling’s entire monologue, which has some interesting parallels to Chase’s vision:

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone. (“The Twilight Zone (1959 TV Series)")

Instead of following a clear story arc, Chase is clearly more interested in sifting through a collection of memories and moments; a sort-of stream-of-consciousness style of filmmaking (Chase), where the viewer is led through his timeless, infinite imagination. This accounts for the supposed “randomness” of some scenes, such as a funny scene in which Douglas and some of his bandmates get high in a bathroom and one of them accidentally sucks a joint down his throat. Why is this scene in the film? It serves no immediate purpose to the story, and yet, somehow, it just feels right within the film’s progression of images and ideas. It feels like the sort of foggy memory that someone would fondly look back on and laugh at as an adult.
            Not Fade Away is comprised entirely of moments like this. Toward the end of the film, at a party in Los Angeles, Douglas again refers to The Twilight Zone when he asks two hippies if they know where Rod Serling lives. If it seems I am harping too much on the importance of The Twilight Zone, consider the fact that the film was originally entitled Twylight Zones (which is, as it turns out, the name of Douglas’ band). It is interesting to note that “twilight zone” may also refer to “twilight sleep,” that semiconscious moment between wakefulness and sleep (The Free Dictionary 2013). Indeed, Not Fade Away has, in many respects, the qualities of a dream: vaguely connected scenes, snippets of memories, and so forth. Through Not Fade Away, the audience enters Chase’s twilight zone.
            Instead of following the “story” from point A to point B, Chase seems more interested in looking at point A for a while and then making a bunch of pit-stops before eventually finding his way to point B, which turns out (through a recurring image) to sort of be point A again. This recurring image that brings the film full circle is that of a cloud formation that Douglas sees early in the film. He and his buddies argue over whether the cloud is in the shape of a “3” or an “S” and eventually decide that it represents both, meaning “success for the three of us.” At the end of the film, about to begin a new and more-independent life, Douglas sees another strange cloud formation. Instead of offering a tidy and comforting answer, Chase ends his film with a question: What does young Douglas see in the clouds this time?
Looking at Yourself: The Individual
            After spending the entire film searching for solidarity in a group (whether it is with his band or with Grace), Douglas finds himself utterly alone at the end of the film. However, this aloneness is not necessarily presented as a bad thing. In fact, Douglas is shown as finally accepting and embracing his aloneness. This acceptance can be seen when he refuses to get in the car of two suspicious-looking hippies when he is hitchhiking. Instead of getting in the car, he walks off, alone, while the opening chords of the Sex Pistols’ “Road Runner” ring out (a song choice that anticipates the approaching punk rock scene of the ‘70s). Chase himself has even said in interviews that one of the things he wants viewers to walk away with is the idea that sometimes it is okay to be alone (Chase).
            Throughout the film, Chase establishes a self-reflective tone regarding the Douglas character. In one scene, Douglas stumbles upon Grace’s sister, a painter. In an interesting and unsettling editing choice, Chase cuts from Douglas looking toward Grace’s sister (that is, toward the camera; the sister is off-screen) to Douglas and the sister standing together on the other end of the room, the direction in which Douglas was just staring. This juxtaposition of images gives the viewer the strange impression that Douglas is looking at himself standing with Grace’s sister. Chase used this exact same technique in the final scene of his unfairly-infamous finale to The Sopranos.
Final Thoughts
            Not Fade Away is by no means without its flaws. Evelyn’s narration is completely unnecessary and her extended dance at the end of the film is almost unbearable. But despite its faults, Chase’s first big-screen offering is a very interesting examination of the huge role popular music played to an entire generation in the ‘60s and to generations beyond. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the film boasts an incredible soundtrack that includes The Rolling Stones, James Brown, Bo Diddley, and even a few songs written for Douglas’ band by Steve Van Zandt. What sets the film apart from other coming-of-age stories, though, is Chase’s interest in the otherworldly, the metaphysical, the philosophical. Chase’s flights-of-fancy (i.e. Evelyn’s dance) can sometimes be maddening, but these inconsistencies are also part of the film’s allure and charm. Chase’s experiments sometimes blow up, but at least he is trying to do something new with an old story. It is certainly an unusual coming-of-age film (if you can even call it that), which makes it a breath of fresh air. I look forward to seeing which twilight zone Chase takes us through next.

“Bali Hai Lyrics.” ST Lyrics. ST Lyrics, 2002-2013. Web. 26 February 2013.
Chase, David. Interview by Callie Bundy. Star Watch Media. Star Watch Media, 2012. Web. 26 February 2013.

---. Interview by David Poland. The Hot Button. The Hot Button, 2012. Web. 27 February 2013.
“Not Fade Away.” IMDB. IMDB, 2012. Web. 26 February 2013.
“The Twilight Zone (1959 TV Series).” Wikipedia. MediaWiki, 2013. Web. 26 February 2013.
“Twilight Sleep.” The Free Dictionary. 2013.