Cocktail Party: Five hyper-stylized horror films
Elevated horror has become quite the subject among recent debates on contemporary cinema – a category that is simply supposed to place the genre on a higher level, an attribute that should make the difference between a movie like Mother! (d. Darren Aronofsky) and a mainstream horror. However, it automatically raises the question on the actual need of such a pointless term – how does another label help these movies that are made with the whole purpose of not bearing labels? Given that horror (especially allegorical, psychological horror, etc.) has gained ground with the proliferation of psychoanalytic theories in cinema (Hitchcock being one of the pioneers of the phenomenon), it’s no longer considered a convenient, trivial genre. Hyper-stylized horror, another category in this area that we’re discussing (associated with the idea of bombastic visuals, and less emphasis on the narrative), is the subject of the never-ending cocktail below, which comes as an extension of this past Halloween weekend: it starts from a Dario Argento giallo, Deep Red, and goes all the way to the horror of the year, Possessor, Brandon Cronenberg’s film.
Thirst (2009, dir. Park Chan Wook)
It’s a reinterpretation of the 1869 novel Thérèse Raquin, also adapted by Marcel Carne in 1953. This one here, though, is light-years away from Émile Zola or Carne – in this naive-pale-maleficent-powerful romance, a gentle and gracious priest offers his body, at the height of a bubonic epidemic, to medical research. It doesn’t take long and he crosses to the unseen world – but shortly afterwards, he miraculously returns among the living, after receiving a transfusion. Apparently, he’s transformed against his will into a vampire, and the only cure for the grotesque boils that cover his body is drinking blood. Father Hyun is not only overwhelmed by his lust for blood, but also by his carnal desires – and here he is, caught between his religious principles and his animal instinct. Like any vampire story, there’s also a love story in the middle – Hyun and Tae-Ju and their victims sometimes live together, but only in their vibrant hallucinations; the fact that they can fly over the buildings and live their anguished romance is nothing new. Nor the fact that, in the end, eternity is self-destructive: in the last scene, their shoes fall perfectly on the ground, scattering the fragile ashes of their bodies cremated earlier by the morning rays.
The Lighthouse (2019, dir. Robert Eggers)
Two men with ill-defined identities (the first one played by Robert Pattinson, and the second by Willem Dafoe) end up living together in a shabby little room on the edge of the world, while watching over a lighthouse. If the first man keeps to himself, the second one is like a broken record; everything that Pattinson’s character lacks, Dafoe seems to make up in abundance (he farts, gets drunk, sings and tells sea tales; last but not least, he’s a Neptune creature who, out of anger that his partner doesn’t appreciate the way he cooked the lobster, could invoke all the sea gods to punish him). In this monochrome macho fest, shot in a claustrophobic 4: 3 format, the two end up drinking without reason to forget about hunger, loneliness and, finally, each other – the obsession with reaching the light of the lighthouse (otherwise associated with a female figure) it’s the equivalent of escaping the mystical delirium they both engage in – they are two men trapped in a huge phallic figure, where its control tower is forbidden. In a similar way, Bates’ house in Psycho was a forbidden place – because it hid the protagonist’s insanity. It’s the same case here – the expressionism of the two, who end up humiliating, fighting or barking at each other, comes as natural in a universe where neither can get rid of the other – is the horror scenario of what would happen to the last two men left on this planet after the apocalypse.
The Neon Demon (2016, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
With an obsessive electro score by Cliff Martinez, built around the noise made by popping bubble wrap, Nicolas Winding Refn does a voodoo portrait of Los Angeles in The Neon Demon – a twilight world, full of Machiavellian alliances, where the models seem to have made all the Faustian pacts for the sake of beauty. In this place, a blonde, naive and provincial creature like Jesse (Elle Fanning) has no chance to make it out alive. Her competition hunts her for her unusual beauty – that’s the only way one can stay in the game, with fresh blood. The Neon Demon goes so far stylistics-wise that it resorts to a leopard in a hotel room, Lynch-inspired velvet and a cocktail party with illuminati symbols – however cynical and skeptical it may seem, the film becomes quite comic towards the end – a real treat for any De Palma fan or moviegoer with a taste for camp cinema, and probably one of the movies that is most hyped on fashion overkill.
Deep Red (1975, dir. Dario Argento)
Considered almost unanimously as the best giallo ever made (very briefly, giallo designates a subgenre of Italian horror derived from crime novel, from the writings of Agatha Christie or Edgar Wallace, usually in yellow hardcover – and, basically, the source of inspiration for American slashers), Deep Red focuses less on the narrative logic, and more on the random logic that exists in dreams. In Argento’s words, it’s “a nightmare, where all events are exaggerated”. Long story short, Deep Red is about a murder that a pianist (David Hemmings, the protagonist of Blow Up) sees from a window and wants to investigate (he snoops around the crime scene, where he notices a painting that starts to obsesses him throughout the film); the murderer is a woman that Argento reveals in the very first quarter of the film, it’s not even a big spoiler (Argento fetishes her identity, with all sorts of extreme close-ups on her garish makeup, her leather gloves, her long coat, etc.). Basically, the film demolishes the myth to which women are soft and sensitive, and thus inferior to men, as the protagonist is so keen to believe – without placing any visible emphasis on it. The emphasis is instead on a crowded decorum, on fetishising the objects within the frame, on the obsession with colors/fabrics, and on the already emblematic music by the progressive rock band Goblin.
Possessor (2020, dir. Brandon Cronenberg)
In Brandon Cronenberg’s new film, Possessor, a mix between Francis Bacon’s and Nickie Zimov’s art, which seems to be a timid attempt at refreshing the eternal motif of malignant technology, turns into a hyper-stylized delirium about dissolving identity. An espionage organization uses paid assassins, who get in hyper-sophisticated capsules and then into other people’s brains, taking control over them and making decisions that affect the future of the companies they are subscribed to. Without necessarily becoming a corporate horror, it’s ingenious how Cronenberg Jr. imagines the pinnacle of advertising – a company that enters people’s homes and studies their behavior, the color of their curtains or the carpet pattern, while the inhabitants just go about their business, without even suspecting they are being watched. And a technology like this, which deals with the brain, can’t always operate properly based only on algorithms – in one case, the host and the guest inhabit each other – in moments of confusion when they both come out at the same time, wrapping around each other. Possessor is impressive – and shows an author who’s not afraid to take over the legacy left by his father, the body horror – Cronenberg’s trademark, and reinterpret it at will.