Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Top Ten for 2013

I haven't watched enough movies, heard enough albums or read enough books to do a proper Best of 2013 list so I'm going to do something much more personal (or self-absorbed, depending on how you look at it): I'm going to list my ten favorite experiences from the past year. I've already written about several of them on this blog so I'm including links to past posts where appropriate. And yes, Blake Berris makes the list twice, cause he's just that awesome (or I'm just that obsessed, depending on how you look at it). I didn't rank my experiences - that would be too difficult - but they are listed in chronological order. Without further ado . . . 

1. Nick Cave at the Ryman
I almost always think any concert I've just seen is the Best. Concert. I've. Ever. Seen so this might sound a bit disingenuous but, seriously, this is the Best. Concert. I've. Ever. Seen. I knew Cave was a brilliant singer and lyricist but he is also a highly charismatic performer. His stage persona is equal parts Old Testament fire and brimstone and raw, animalistic magnetism. If Nathaniel Hawthorne had been a rock star and injected massive amounts of heroin in his younger years he might be something like Nick Cave. I'm sure part of the reason the show had such an impact on me was that it was my first time ever seeing Cave live. He'll be coming back to the states next summer and I've got a date with him at DAR Constitution Hall in July. Will be interesting to see if the experience packs the same punch the second time around. I'm inclined to think it just might.

2. Frida & Diego at the High
Frida Kahlo has been a favorite artist and personal hero of mine since I was in college. Her private life, especially her tempestuous relationship with Diego Rivera, is the stuff of legend. It was fascinating to see Kahlo and Rivera's work displayed side-by-side at this impressive show at Atlanta's High Museum. While I find Rivera compelling in his own right he does not fascinate me the way Kahlo and her work do. Her self-portraits are so intimate that they are essentially visual diary entries on canvas. Seeing several of them all at once was an indescribably emotional and powerful experience.

3. Leonard Cohen at the Fox
Mom and I saw Leonard Cohen for the first, and second, time in 2009 and this third show at Atlanta's Fox Theatre was every bit as great as those first two. Cohen has seemingly boundless reserves of energy and his shows last longer than many of those by artists half his age. He seems to derive so much genuine pleasure from sharing his music with an audience. And he has one of the best backing bands around. Cohen is an absolute treasure. For my money he is the greatest living songwriter on the planet. And easily one of the best performers.

4. Colorado & ABQ Trip
This was one of the longest vacations my husband and I have taken together and definitely one of the most memorable. Every day was a blast but the highlights for me were our drive through the Rockies, our visit to the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center and our side-trip to Albuquerque, where we were able to see some of our favorite Breaking Bad filming locations. There was so much we wanted to do that we didn't get around to doing so I hope there will be time in 2014 for another trip out to this beautiful and awe-inspiring part of the country.

5. Meeting Blake Berris in Atlanta
After loving and obsessing over Nick Fallon for years I finally had the opportunity to meet the man who brings him to life, Blake Berris. I could never have imagined that Blake would be so charming, kind and gracious in person, which made the experience all the better. I have a lot of celebrity crushes but meeting Blake puts him in a class by himself. I just adore him. 

6. Meeting Blake Berris in Birmingham
And then I met Blake for a second time! And introduced him to my mom! And he was charming, kind, gracious and awesome all over again! 

7. Whitfield Lovell at the Hunter
It's been more than a decade since I first encountered Whitfield Lovell's beautiful, tactile mixed-media portraits at the Knoxville Museum of Art so it was great to finally get an opportunity to see an entire show of his, which included an impressive site-specific installation. Lovell combines his portraiture with found objects and multi-media to create a haunting, immersive and entirely memorable experience. 

8. The Breaking Bad Finale
The greatest television show I've ever seen ended its triumphant run this past September. It was everything I wanted it to be and I feel fortunate that I got to watch it with some dear friends who are also huge fans.

9. Baltimore & DC Weekend
A short but very fun trip up to Baltimore and DC, where Mom and I were able to spend time with some of our very best friends. 

10. Overnight at LeConte Lodge
The only thing better than a day spent in the Smokies is an overnight adventure in the Smokies. It's great to fall asleep in the mountains and to wake up there the next morning. Staying at LeConte Lodge is like staying at Sleepaway Camp. It's rustic but comfortable and everyone is having a great time getting to know each other. This was the first of what I hope will be many stays for us up on the mountain.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Bethlehem in Knoxville

walk through bethlehem walk through bethlehem walk through bethlehem walk through bethlehem Downtown's Church Street United Methodist Church goes all out every December for their Walk Through Bethlehem. They turn a portion of the church's interior into a bustling marketplace scene and members of the congregation dress up as merchants and craftsmen. The effort they put into this annual event is admirable and impressive and the high attendance numbers are well deserved. 

Some years we walk through the marketplace to get the full experience and some years, like this one, we just stop by and visit with the animals on the church grounds. The donkeys are usually the highlight for me but this year the camels made the biggest impression. Usually they are standing and I never get too close to them, because I find them kind of imposing. The camels we saw yesterday, though, were lying down and they seemed very laid back and approachable so, for once, Mom and I went over and petted them. They are really wooly and soft and beautiful. I liked them a lot. I kind of want one of my own.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Fantasy of Trees

fantasy of trees fantasy of trees fantasy of trees fantasy of trees Knoxville's Fantasy of Trees has been around for forever but it's a relatively new tradition for Mom and me. It's a great way to kick off the Christmas season and get some inspiration as I tackle (and I mean that affectionately) my own holiday decorations at home. As of right now I have pretty much everything finished except for the back porch lights and the live tree, which we'll purchase this coming weekend. Then I can print up my cards (design is still being finalized) and get them in the mail. What a hectic time of year but it's an awful lot of fun. To be honest I wasn't sure I was up for all the unpacking and decorating and Ho-Ho-Ho-ing this year but now that I'm in the thick of it I'm having a blast. I'm still bitter about missing Rudolph last Tuesday (when has Rudolph ever aired before Thanksgiving? It ain't right) but Charlie Brown is on tonight, which softens the blow a little bit.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Andrew Saftel at Bennett Galleries

andrew saftel - where water meets land

andrew saftel - where water meets land

andrew saftel - where water meets land

andrew saftel - where water meets land
Andrew Saftel is an absolutely astounding (and remarkably prolific) artist. His new show, Where Water Meets Land, currently on view at Bennett Galleries, is comprised of several new paintings, created in his now-recognizable style. Saftel works on large pieces of wood, carving text and images into the surface of each piece, embedding found objects, affixing pieces of ephemera and covering the surface in layer after colorful layer of acrylic paint. His paintings are like visual treasure troves; bursting with warmth and life, these pieces tell stories that are both personal and universal.

Saftel is an artistic Renaissance man. In addition to his paintings he also creates sculptures and prints (and examples of each are also on view in this show). The most exciting additions to this particular exhibit, however, are the large digital photographs that are on display. The images for these pieces were collected on a visit to Bangladesh and they are the most straightforward, journalistic work that the artist has produced. Saftel layers images together, blending his subjects with their surroundings in unexpected and aesthetically pleasing ways. They remind me very much of Dan Eldon's work, which detailed the lives of his subjects but was always filtered through his own artistic vision.

I have had the pleasure of participating in two workshops taught by Andrew Saftel and he is as generous and kind-hearted as he is talented. His desire to collaborate and his genuine enthusiasm for other people's work is heartening. He is a great artist and a great man.

If you are free this Saturday (November 16) please consider attending his artist lecture at Bennett at 3:00 PM. It is sure to be a blast.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Old Sugarlands Trail

old sugarlands trail

old sugarlands trail

old sugarlands trail

old sugarlands trail
We hiked a portion of Old  Sugarlands Trail last year and I was keen to go back and complete it. Early Saturday morning we rounded up a couple of friends and did just that. This trail is just under four miles and runs the distance between Newfound Gap Road and Cherokee Orchard Road. It is a fairly easy trek though there is a portion in the middle that climbed steadily and caught us a bit off guard. But the trail is wide and fairly smooth and the return trip was all downhill, which made for a pretty easy-going experience. The LeConte Creek crossing (towards the end, just before Cherokee Orchard Road) is storybook beautiful.

This coming weekend we will hike the Alum Cave trail up to the LeConte Lodge where we were able, at the last minute, to snag a cabin for Saturday night! We visited the lodge several times last year but this will be our first time staying overnight on the mountain. It will be cold, cold, cold but I am so excited! Better invest in some new long johns before we head out!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Happy Anniversary, Fallonator!

Seven years ago today Blake Berris debuted as Nick Fallon on Days of Our Lives. Even though we lost him to Salem's Statesville Prison for a few years I still think his anniversary date is a cause for celebration. This time last year I was on the verge of disowning Nick. That was before the amazing Smith Island Story this past May. And before I met Blake not once but twice at Days fan events. So it's safe to say that, at this point in time, I'm feeling pretty invested in the character again.

November Sweeps are upon us and things are getting nuttier in Salem by the day. Nick continues to be delusional and duplicitous and his actions will no doubt result in him hurting himself and probably a whole bunch of other people. I don't want Days to lose him but I have to consider the possibility that the show doesn't intend for Nick to be a long-term presence in Salem (and that Blake himself may want to devote more time to other projects). I'm trying not to think about that, though, and just enjoy the wild ride while it lasts. 

Nick continues to be one of the most entertaining and compelling characters on the Days canvas and Blake continues to make him more sympathetic and rootable than he really has any business being. He is such a gifted performer and I am truly thankful for every day that I get to see him on my tv screen.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Conjuring

After you read what I have to say please mosey over to Final Girl and see what other folks think about this terrific movie.

Horror movies rarely scare me. When I was a kid, sure, I was frightened by a lot of stuff but I can't think of a single movie I've watched since college (when I first saw The Shining) that has genuinely gotten under my skin. I can think of a handful of specific movie scenes (The Others and The Innocents spring to mind) that have unsettled me but the movies as a whole have not. That's no slight on the movies themselves, mind you, I enjoy being kind of creeped out or grossed out, too. I just think it takes a certain kind of talent to make a truly scary movie. And I think, with The Conjuring, director James Wan has proven that he's got that kind of talent.

I heard great things about The Conjuring before I watched it, so I went in with high expectations. It exceeded them. This is a movie that the MPAA slapped with an R rating not because it's violent or gory but because it's so freakin' scary. For once I am in total agreement with the MPAA's assessment. This movie is scary from the get-go and the tension and fear only escalates as the story progresses. I watched it just after dark, with only my Halloween lights plugged in and only my dog, Charles Edmund, for company and I was a wreck (and by the end, so was Charlie). I jumped in my seat and screamed out loud repeatedly. I was out of breath the entire time I watched. Seriously, this was like a cardio workout. I got so scared I nearly stopped watching. And I was loving the movie! Loving it! But I was so shaken that I really considered turning it off towards the end. That is one of the greatest compliments I can think to give to a horror movie. If the goal is to scare the audience, this one gets an A+.

The Conjuring is the "based on actual events" story of the Perron family, who buy a farmhouse at auction and discover after they have moved in that the place is overrun with spirits. While most of the entities in the house are benign or, at worst, mischievous, there is also something more sinister and dangerous lurking in the Perron home. Something that means the family great harm. Matriarch Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) eventually reaches out to Ed Warren and his wife Lorraine (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), a celebrated pair of paranormal investigators, in the hopes that they can help her distraught family. Ed and Lorraine are an interesting couple. Ed is knowledgable in an academic sort of way but Lorraine is the one who is really "in touch" with the spirit world. Once they are on the Perron property shadowy entities and visions of past tragedies manifest themselves before Lorraine's eyes, even though they are not visible to her husband or the Perrons. Because she is so attuned to the other side, Ed is protective of Lorraine and concerned for her well being. The work the Warrens do affects them both but it clearly takes more of a toll on Lorraine. 

By offering their assistance to the Perrons the Warrens inadvertently put themselves and their own daughter in harm's way. As Ed explains it the Perrons' problems cannot be solved simply by relocating. The forces in the house have latched onto the family and will continue to torment them no matter where they go. Now that the Warrens are in the house as well what's to keep them safe from the same dark forces?

Sound familiar? Sure it does. But while it's certainly derivative of other stories The Conjuring works because it borrows the most effective moments from its predecessors. I saw traces of The HauntingThe ExorcistPoltergeistThe Sixth Sense and The Amityville Horror (The Amityville connection should come as no surprise considering the Warrens investigated the strange things going down at the infamous house on Ocean Avenue just a few years after they helped the Perrons). I think all of those titles are worthwhile but none of them really scare me. The Haunting puts me on edge in a great way but it does not terrify me. The Sixth Sense and Poltergeist have alarming, frightening moments but I consider them to be family dramas with supernatural elements rather than horror movies so it makes sense that they aren't wall-to-wall fright fests. The Amityville Horror has some effective scares too but it just goes overboard towards the end. The Exorcist is deeply unsettling and a masterpiece but the effects, impressive though they may be, strain credulity. I don't for a second believe that's what an actual demonic possession looks like. The effects in The Conjuring are far more subtle and because of that I find it far more effective. Look, I have never ever entertained the notion that demonic possession was something I should be worried about. After The Conjuring I'll confess I thought to myself "Maybe? Maybe there's something to it after all." And that weirds me out.

The more believable something is to me, the more frightening it becomes. Subtle, almost plausible effects will always scare me more than the over-the-top stuff. This movie is loaded with subtle scares and a quiet sense of menace. Sometimes I'll watch a movie like The Haunting or The Innocents and I'll get wrapped up in the gothic romanticism and find myself wishing I could have some sort of supernatural encounter. The Conjuring does not make me feel that way. It is nothing that I'd want to experience in real life. And that, combined with the understated effects approach, is precisely what makes it so effective. And so great. It helps that the acting is superlative and the characters are people I really cared about. Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston are terrific as the beleaguered Perrons. I felt for them and their daughters. I was scared for them. I wanted them to be alright. Patrick Wilson is compelling as Ed Warren. I was really fascinated by his practical, no-nonsense approach to paranormal investigation. And the always amazing Vera Farmiga is completely awesome as Lorraine Warren. She radiates empathy and compassion and strength. She's just wonderful.

The Warrens are much-maligned given their association with Amityville, a case that many people are quick to dismiss as a hoax, but I don't think you have to believe the Warrens were legitimate paranormal experts to enjoy and appreciate The Conjuring. Just enjoy the movie in its own right and appreciate it for what it is: one of the most well-crafted and frightening tales to grace the silver screen in ages.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Suspiria

Dario Argento's Suspiria is the ultimate argument for style over substance in filmmaking. I've heard complaints that the plot makes no sense but I've never understood the argument. The plot makes perfect sense, it's just incredibly thin. Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American ballet student, relocates to Germany in order to train at a world-renowned dance academy in Freiburg, on the edge of the Black Forest. After she arrives she discovers that her new school is a front for a coven of witches. That's it. But onto this bare bones frame Argento builds one of the most outlandish, gruesome and beautiful horror movies ever made, a technicolor, art deco wonderland of a movie with terrifically over-the-top death scenes and a chillingly effective musical score that adds to the sense of unease every bit as much as the lurid visuals. It's sensory overload from start to finish and I adore every single minute of it.

I love stories about witches almost as much as I love stories about haunted houses. And have I mentioned that I love unsettling stories about ballet dancers, too? So how could I not love Suspiria? Everything about it makes me supremely happy. I'm basically euphoric the entire time I watch it and I have watched it many, many times. I like that the creepy supernatural vibe isn't confined to the walls of the dance academy. From the very first frames of the movie, when she arrives at the airport late at night and hails a taxi during a horrific rainstorm, it's as if Suzy's surroundings are already conspiring against her. Everything looks brighter, more colorful but also more menacing than it does in the real world. The hypnotic, disconcerting score by Goblin kicks in on the soundtrack and it sounds like a music box possessed by a demon.

Every location in Suspiria ought to feel dangerous considering that the power of the witches extends beyond the academy. Anyone who uncovers their secrets or crosses them in any way meets with a horrible end. Student Pat Hingle (Eva Axen) uncovers the true nature of the dance school and is brutally murdered that same night. The school's blind piano accompanist, Daniel (Flavio Bucci) gets into an altercation with instructor Miss Tanner (a wonderfully creepy Alida Valli) and is killed hours later when his own service dog viciously turns on him. The witches themselves never get their hands dirty but they seem to be able to summon dark supernatural entities to do their bidding at a moment's notice. And these things don't mess around. Although all the deaths in Suspiria are memorable (Stefania Cassini's Sara actually falls into a room filled with razor wire - a whole damned room filled with razor wire) Pat's is the most over the top and unforgettable. Stabbed through the heart, strung up by an electrical cord and plunged through an enormous stained glass skylight, it is relentlessly brutal but also garishly beautiful.

I guess you could argue that the resolution to Suspiria feels a little easy. The witches appear to be all-powerful but wispy little Suzy is able to defeat them fairly quickly in the film's final moments. I think the storybook ending works, though, because the entire movie kind of plays like a dark fairy tale (Argento's color palette for the movie was even inspired by Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves). Despite its barbaric, surreal nature Suspiria ends on a triumphant note. One that is probably as close to a "Happily Ever After" as you're going to get in a horror movie. 

Fabulous Fall Color Near Newfound Gap

newfound gap AT (between newfound gap & indian gap) AT (between newfound gap & indian gap) AT (between newfound gap & indian gap)
As promised, the color in the higher elevations of the Smokies is exquisite right now. The drive from Chimney Tops to Newfound Gap is especially impressive. The trees are aglow in various shades of yellow, orange and gold. It is so beautiful and impossible to describe adequately. When we visited Saturday the park was, quite possibly, the most crowded we'd ever seen it. Despite the congestion it was great to see such an overwhelming show of support now that the shutdown has ended.

We only hiked a mile, on a narrow little stretch of the AT between Newfound and Indian Gaps. The elevation gain, slight though it may have been, was relentless and more than we were looking to undertake, seeing as how we're so out of shape! We'll get back on track soon, though, so that we can hike up to LeConte Lodge before they close for the season. I cannot believe it's been almost a year since our last trek up there!

The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh

Leon Leigh (Aaron Poole) moves into his estranged mother Rosalind's home after she dies. They're estranged because Rosalind was involved in a religious cult (one specifically devoted to the existence of angels) and Leon was a nonbeliever. Rosalind's devotion to her faith is matched by her son's firm belief that it's all a bunch of hooey; since neither will waver they eventually grow apart. Leon is an antiques dealer and he returns to his mother's home to inventory her possessions, of which there are many. Seriously, if I hadn't enjoyed anything else about The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh it still would have been worth watching for the interiors alone. Rosalind's house is a marvel. A fortress-like stone exterior opens onto heavy wooden interiors where every available surface is covered in all manner of religious iconography and knick-knackery. There are Madonnas, Christ statues, Pre-Raphaelite paintings, gilded mirrors, taxidermied animals (the white peacock that adorns the stairwell is especially exquisite), doilies and angels, angels everywhere. This is the little old lady house of my dreams.

Rosalind is played by Vanessa Redgrave. Though it would be more accurate to say she's voiced by Redgrave since we only catch fleeting glimpses of Rosalind during the movie. Nevertheless her presence looms large because she narrates the story. Leon is the only character who receives significant screen time (he's in practically every frame) and Rosalind's home and garden are the only locations. Leon communicates with the outside world over the telephone. The closed-off atmosphere of The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh primarily creates a sense of melancholy rather than dread, even though creepy things occasionally happen. Rosalind was in the habit of embroidering strange sentiments and displaying them all over her house. Leon spies one that proclaims "If you drop a knife on the floor, a man will come to visit. If a spoon, a woman will come. If a fork, it will be neither man nor woman." After he drops his fork during dinner Leon receives a late-night visit from someone claiming to have known his mother. Although the voice sounds male we never actually see this stranger. Is it a fellow believer from Rosalind's close-knit angel cult, anxious to bring Leon into the fold? Is it an actual angel? Or is the visitor something else entirely? Later in the movie there's mysterious knocking at the front door and two masked figures appear in the yard, then abruptly disappear. And on more than one occasion Leon spies a large, ragged looking creature lurking in the garden. The mysterious animal shows up on the home's security camera footage and eventually find its way inside the house, where it torments Leon while he sleeps.

Is any of this real? Or is Leon's isolation and the overwhelming atmosphere of his mother's home having some sort of effect on him? Up until the last shot I think the movie makes equally compelling arguments for both scenarios. The final moments of the movie would suggest that Rosalind was right to believe and that the soul does go on living after the body has expired. Leon seems to sense this but he still turns his back on his mother, denying her the reconciliation and absolution she so desperately requires, even in the afterlife. But I am willing to admit that I'm getting all of this wrong because the first time I watched The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh I couldn't quite make sense of it. When it ended I felt like I'd seen the first two-thirds of a pretty good movie that abruptly ended in a dissatisfying manner (my take-away after my first viewing was that ghost-Rosalind imagined the entire scenario, which, for me, entirely undermined everything about the story). After I went back and watched the last half a second time I felt differently. I felt much more compassion for both Rosalind and Leon. And I found their estrangement from one another to be incredibly heartbreaking.

This is a movie that I think might become more satisfying with repeat viewings. It's incredibly subtle and I look forward to revisiting it and looking for tiny details that I missed the first time around. Though I was very slow to warm to Leon I think Aaron Poole does a great job with a challenging role. And Vanessa Redgrave imbues Rosalind with so much remorse and regret that I found it impossible not to feel for her. My one problem with The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh is the weird CGI beastie that stalks Leon. Even shrouded in shadow I didn't believe for an instant that he was real so every time he showed up I was taken out of the story. That's a minor quibble, though, considering he's used sparingly. I am really pleased that Stacie Ponder chose this one for Final Girl Film Club. I probably wouldn't have watched it otherwise (I'd never even heard of it) and I'm very glad that I gave it a shot because it's a worthwhile and unique ghost story.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Open for Business

fall color from alum cave bluff
One last picture to celebrate. The government shutdown has ended and the National Parks Service is up and running again. Fantastic news. Cannot Wait to visit the Smokies and check out some beautiful fall color this weekend.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Pact

Adult sisters Nichole and Alice return to their childhood home after their mother dies. When first Nichole and then a family cousin, Liz, go missing, Alice attempts to find them. During her search she uncovers ugly truths about her family and their sordid past. 

The Pact is a decent little movie. It is understated and has some genuinely creepy moments. I liked the acting by Caity Lotz, who plays Alice. She creates a heroine who is guarded, owing to her traumatic upbringing, but also determined and resourceful in the face of adversity. I also enjoyed Haley Hudson as Stevie, a clairvoyant that Alice enlists to help her unlock the awful secrets hidden inside her childhood home. I was sorry we didn't see more of Nichole, because she's played by Agnes Bruckner and I enjoy her whenever she turns up in something I'm watching.

The Pact is part ghost story, part mystery and part crime thriller. My only real problem with it is that it isn't quite enough of any one of those things. This is a feature film that grew out of a short and I wonder if the material wasn't stretched a little thin. I'm not sure, exactly, what it's missing, maybe it's more that the different story elements don't entirely fit together to form a cohesive, satisfying whole. I enjoyed it while I was watching, mostly for the performances, but I wanted more from it.

Day Sixteen

office - le conte lodge
Finally, after fifteen days, a bit of good news: Great Smoky Mountains National Park will reopen this morning and remain open through the weekend. It's a wonderful announcement for park enthusiasts like myself and local businesses that have been hurting due to the closure but, sadly, it's still just a temporary solution.

I wondered whether I should bother with a picture this morning, since some of the park lands are now available to the public, but I think I'll just keep posting each day until this thing is settled and all the National Parks and monuments have reopened for good.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Day Fifteen

midnight hole

The Haunting

Robert Wise's The Haunting is the grandaddy of haunted house flicks. Adapted from excellent source material (Shirley Jackson's brilliant The Haunting of Hill House) it satisfies on every level. Beautifully filmed, terrifically acted by the small cast and genuinely frightening, this is the haunted house movie by which all others should be measured. I have never seen its equal.

The film opens with an introduction to Hill House and its wretched history. The imposing home was built by Hugh Crain, as a gift for his wife, who is killed in a carriage accident in the driveway, just moments before she would have first set eyes on the house. Crain and his young daughter, Abigail, move into the home and Crain remarries. His second wife also dies (after taking a tumble down the main staircase) and when Crain himself dies while abroad Abigail inherits the property. She lives to a ripe old age and dies in her bed, while trying to summon her live-in companion, who was out on the veranda canoodling with a gentleman from the nearby village and did not hear her employer pounding her cane against the wall in distress. The companion inherits the house but eventually hangs herself from the landing atop the spiral staircase in the library. After her death Hill House passes to a distant relative, Mrs. Sanderson, who maintains the property but opts to live elsewhere. 

The strange and tragic history of Hill House attracts Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), an anthropologist and paranormal enthusiast intent on documenting actual proof of supernatural phenomena. Markway asks permission from Mrs. Sanderson for he and a carefully selected team of assistants, hand-picked by the doctor because of their own dealings with the paranormal, to stay in the house and record their experiences for a scientific study. Sanderson reluctantly agrees to the request but insists that Luke (Russ Tamblyn), her nephew and heir, accompany the team. The two men are joined in the house by Theodora (Claire Bloom), renowned for her psychic abilities, and Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), a fragile woman who has spent most of her adult life caring for her recently-deceased invalid mother. Markway tells Eleanor he chose her based on an alleged poltergeist incident from her childhood, when stones rained down on her family's house for three days. Eleanor tries to deny the incident ever occurred, even though it was witnessed by both neighbors and members of Eleanor's family. 

A married couple, the Dudleys, work as caretakers at Hill House. Mrs. Dudley prepares meals and serves as housekeeper for Markway and his team but, as she is quick to point out to Eleanor and Theodora when they arrive, once the sun sets she and her husband head for the village a few miles down the road. Hill House has something of a reputation in town and none of the locals want to be anywhere near it after dark. During the night, our intrepid team of ghost hunters will be very much on their own. From the moment she arrives at Hill House Eleanor senses that something is not right. She fights her recurring urges to back out of Markway's experiment, though, because, frankly, her involvement in his project is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to her. Finally free from the responsibility of caring for her ailing mother, Eleanor is anxious to make a fresh start and create a life of her own. She's also hungry for human connection and longs for the acceptance of Markway, Theodora and Luke. Wise uses voice-over narration extensively in The Haunting and Eleanor's every fear and insecurity is made abundantly clear to the audience. As frightened as she is of Hill House Eleanor also feels as if she belongs there, a feeling that grows stronger the longer she stays. 

Markway and his team begin to experience strange occurances almost immediately after their arrival at Hill House. Some can be explained by the design of the house itself: Hugh Crain, it seems, was both sadistic and misanthropic and intended his house to be disconcerting and unpleasant as opposed to welcoming and homey. All of the angles are slightly askew, creating an off-kilter sensation for the people inside. None of the doors are hinged properly and after they're opened they swing shut of their own accord. But nothing in the design of the house explains the loud, angry knocking sounds that Eleanor and Theodora hear outside their bedroom doors on their first night there. Or the strange, dog-like creature that Dr. Markway spies in the hallway and pursues onto the grounds, where it disappears. Or the chalk lettering on the hallway walls that spells out "Help Eleanor Come Home." Whatever's in the house has set it has sets its sights on Eleanor and it intends to keep her.

In order for The Haunting to be effective it has to work as both a character study and a ghost story and it succeeds, on both levels. The dynamic between the four principle characters is fascinating. Alliances are created and then shift from one instant to the next. The relationship that forms between Theodora and Eleanor is especially interesting. At times they are friendly and affectionate towards one another but at other times they squabble like spoiled children. Although Eleanor's motivations are clearly presented in Julie Harris's voice-over it's harder for me to suss out exactly what's going on with Theodora. I believe that she is genuinely fond of and concerned for Eleanor but I also think she allows her annoyance for the other woman's naïveté to sometimes get the better of her, which causes her to act out in childish ways. Luke, more light-hearted and skeptical than the others, is often her partner in crime, with Markway acting as a surrogate father of sorts to the diverse little group. Eleanor is attracted to Markway almost immediately and, despite the fact that he is married, he does seem to return her feelings to a degree. Or maybe he's just especially fascinated by her because of the way the house reacts to her. Of course all of these relationships might be misrepresented to the viewer, since the story is essentially told from Eleanor's point of view and she may not be the most reliable of narrators.

Eleanor's instability may very well explain away some of the strange phenomena (she could very well have written on the wall with chalk herself, for example) but not all of it can be attributed to her. There is definitely something going on with the house. Markway says it's not so much haunted as diseased. It's a house that was "born bad" and does seem to possess a sort of malevolent consciousness of its own, one that feeds off of the energy that certain people provide for it. People like Eleanor.

This is such a sad, unsettling and fascinating story. The cast is just terrific. It's always a pleasure to see Russ Tamblyn and his Luke brings a few moments of much-needed levity to an otherwise intense story. Claire Bloom is gorgeous and fascinating as Theodora, a role that is celebrated for its positive depiction of a lesbian character. At times aloof she is also warm and highly intelligent. I found Richard Johnson's Markway to be both charming and compassionate. His scenes with Eleanor are especially captivating and sensitive. But the movie belongs, rightfully so, to the brilliant Julie Harris. There's something so genuine and open-hearted about her presence onscreen. I always empathize very strongly with the characters she creates. Eleanor can be frustrating at times but Harris makes her so raw and so genuine that's impossible for me not to feel for her.

In addition to excellent acting the production values on The Haunting are first-rate. Wise is able to create more terror and suspense with well-placed sound effects than any number of lesser horror movies do with overblown CGI bells and whistles. It is a perfect example of less is more. The rich black and white photography creates deep, ominous shadows in the enormous, opulent rooms of Hill House. The film is gorgeously shot but every frame inside the house is oppressive and melancholy. The whole thing feels stifling and claustrophobic. It's a beautifully constructed nightmare.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Dead of Night

Dead of Night is my favorite anthology horror film. It's a movie that can be tricky to hunt down (and it is crying out for a remastered DVD release to clean up that muddled sound) but if you have Turner Classic Movies they are very good about including it in their Halloween line-up each October. One more reason to love TCM! The movie consists of five supernatural tales and a wraparound story to tie them all together. It opens with an architect, Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns), arriving at a country estate for the weekend.  Craig has never visited the house before but he has dreamed about it. Inside he's greeted by the other guests. He's never met any of them, either, but they show up in his recurring dream too. Craig is overwhelmed by a sense of foreboding. Based on the fragments he can recall from his dream he is sure that something horrible is going to happen. Though Craig feels he should leave the other guests encourage him to stay and, in order to assuage his fears, they decide to exchange their own tales of encounters with the supernatural.

The first two tales are the shortest and are both pretty standard ghost story fare (which is not to say they aren't enjoyable, because they are): in the first story a race car driver has an encounter with a spectral carriage which turns out to be the harbinger for a future tragedy, in the second a young woman meets and comforts the spirit of a forlorn, lonely little boy who was murdered by his sister. The third story is about a haunted mirror. There may be other stories out there about haunted mirrors but this is the only one I've ever seen. In it a woman, Joan, buys her fiancé Peter an ornate antique mirror. At first it behaves like a normal mirror should but, over time, it begins to show the surroundings of its former owner in its reflection. This alternate interior is only visible to Peter, who sees himself within the surroundings every time he gazes into the mirror. Joan begins to notice changes in her fiancé's personality and becomes convinced that the vengeful, murderous spirit of the mirror's former owner is attempting to control him. The fourth story, about rival golfing buddies who fall for the same girl, is the most lighthearted offering, even if it does contain a suicide and a visit from beyond the grave.

The fifth and final tale in Dead of Night is the longest and the most celebrated. It features Michael Redgrave as Maxwell Frere, a talented ventriloquist whose dummy may or may not be running the show. Redgrave is spectacular as Frere. His beleaguered showman is both tormented and terrifying. It's likely that Frere is suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, sometimes he's himself and at other times he becomes his dummy, but the story leaves just enough wiggle room for us to consider the possibility that his malevolent doll is acting of its own accord. The movie concludes with a resolution, of sorts, to the wraparound story that is both amusing and unsettling.

In fact, amusing and unsettling pretty much describes the overall tone of Dead of Night. It's not especially scary and at times it's downright playful but it is unsettling, even, I think, in its most light-hearted moments. It's got an incredible ensemble cast, all of whom are delightful, and a beautiful location. I'm probably a bit biased because I have a weakness for English countryside settings and movies made during the forties. If I had to live in a horror movie it would probably be Dead of Night. The malice in the movie is met with a fare amount of merriment and, if that's something you appreciate like I do, this one is definitely worth watching.

Day Fourteen

hike to rainbow falls

alum cave bluff
And one for day thirteen, too.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Day Twelve

icewater spring shelter

Friday, October 11, 2013

Day Eleven

almost there

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Day Ten

little river trail

May

Lucky McKee's May is one of the first titles that springs to mind when I think about my all-time favorite horror movies. I make a point to watch it a least once a year during the month of October. Sometimes I bust it out at other times during the year as well. Its influences are easily recognizable (the most obvious being Carrie and Frankenstein) but its quirky characters and visuals, punchy dialogue and kick-ass soundtrack make it a unique and very worthwhile viewing experience.

I found out about May via the late great Roger Ebert, who wrote a glowing review complimenting the movie's many merits. Although other critics were also buzzing about May Ebert was the only one whose site I looked in on regularly. Were it not for his enthusiastic and compassionate reaction to this movie I might never have known about it. His high praise certainly made me want to check it out.

When May came out about ten years ago I was hesitant to watch it, even though I really wanted to see it. The reviews I read suggested a high ick factor and I just didn't know if I could handle it. Just like I did with this year's new Evil Dead I waffled when it came to actually seeking out May and watching it for myself. Instead I did lots of homework in an effort to psyche myself up for it. I'm pretty sure I knew about every bad thing that was going to happen, in great detail, over the course of the movie long before I actually watched it. Fortunately May isn't really the sort of story where prior knowledge of the plot spoils the viewing experience. The outcome is projected in the movie's harrowing opening shot and the resolution seems logical, even inevitable. Plus, like CarrieMay is very much about the emotional and psychological journey of its titular protagonist and her interaction with the somewhat thoughtless but essentially decent people she crosses paths with over the course of the story. 

Like Carrie White, May Canady's had a weird and lonely childhood. We get a glimpse of it during the movie's brief prologue. May is an adorable little tot with one small physical imperfection: she has a lazy eye. Her mother is an obsessive perfectionist (the sort who gets mad when you tear into the paper on your birthday gift instead of methodically removing the wrapping so it's not ruined) and it only takes a few minutes of screen time to figure out that growing up with a woman this tightly wound might cause serious damage to a young person's psyche. May's mother is clearly horrified that her daughter is less than perfect. May must wear an eyepatch at all times, which perplexes her classmates, but that seems like less of a hindrance than a mother who instills in her young daughter the sense that she is flawed and should be ashamed of her physical appearance.

After the concise backstory the movie shifts its focus to May as an adult (played to perfection by the fantastic Angela Bettis). She works at a veterinary hospital and, owing to her lack of squeamishness, is excellent at her job. Her social life, however, is nonexistent. May is a shy, awkward young woman who lives alone and spends her spare time sewing and confiding in Suzy, her childhood doll and only friend. Suzy was made by May's mother and she is kept in a glass display box, because she's special. It's worth noting that May's parents don't seem to have any sort of presence in their adult daughter's life but, even now that she is on her own, May still abides by her mother's rule that "special" Suzy cannot come out of her box. It's sad enough that May's only friend is a doll but it's sadder still that it's a doll she's never even been able to hold in her arms.

Although she only appears in the first few minutes of the movie the presence of May's mother looms large as the story unfolds. As an adult May, like her mother before her, is obsessed with physical perfection and is dismayed by anyone or anything that does not measure up to her exacting standards. One day an auto mechanic named Adam catches her eye. May confides to Suzy that Adam is perfect and she fixates, in particular, on his hands, which she thinks are beautiful. May wants a real friend and she's decided it should be Adam. She visits an eye doctor who fits her with contact lenses to correct her lazy eye and then, through a series of awkward, hilarious, staged "chance" encounters, she gets Adam's attention. 

Adam is played by Jeremy Sisto. Although Clueless is almost twenty years old I still think of Sisto as the obnoxious Elton every time I see him. He does a good job in May, though, of being kind of cool and sexy in a shaggy sort of way. I can see why May would be attracted to him. Adam is a horror movie aficionado. He has a particular fondness for Dario Argento's work. He tells May that he thinks she's weird but that he "likes weird." Unfortunately for both of them Adam's threshold for "weird" is nowhere near as high as May's so it's not long before Adam, initially so intrigued by our heroine, becomes creeped out and breaks things off with her. May tries again and again to connect with the people around her. Her outrageously oversexed coworker Polly (a hilarious Anna Faris) practically throws herself at May but she seems to come onto every attractive woman who crosses her path with just as much gusto. If It's a serious, committed relationship that May wants she won't find it in free-spirited Polly. May thinks she's found a friend in Blank (James Duval), a mohawked punker with a Frankenstein tattoo and a weakness for JuJu Beans but he, too, is easily freaked out and quick to want to distance himself from the offbeat young woman.

Every person May encounters has a perfect part. Adam's hands, Polly's neck, Blank's arms. "So many perfect parts, no perfect wholes" May muses at one point. It's not surprising when this lonely, unstable young woman decides to take the parts she covets and combine them to create one truly perfect friend. That is literally what happens in the third act of May. Again, like CarrieMay plays as an increasingly quirky character study with unsettling overtones for the first two-thirds. After May is rejected, in one way or another, by all the people she reaches out to she finally comes undone and the consequences are, ultimately, tragic for both May and many of the people who've crossed her path. All the ick I was so worried about comes at the end of the movie. There is quite a bit if blood but it's Kool-Aid colored and not especially scary to see. The movie is scary not because it's gross but because Angela Bettis fully commits to the role of a woman who is pushed to the brink and then goes, enthusiastically, over the edge. It is heartbreaking and horrifying to witness. 

Much as she might scare me I identify so much with May. I relate with her obsessive nature and, to a lesser degree, her desire for perfection. I feel for her in her handful of encounters with Adam. She's never had anyone she cares about return her feelings and it's obvious that her emotions overwhelm her when she's around him. When he rejects her it's not surprising that she begins to unravel. I relate with the world of the movie on certain levels, too. The soundtrack features several tracks by the Breeders and The Kelly Deal 6000. The Deal sisters were pretty important to me when I was in college and I get a bit nostalgic when I hear them. I also love the aesthetics in May's crafty little apartment. All her well-ordered sewing materials and doll parts remind me of the types of things I collect around my house for art projects. I guess what I'm trying to say is that even though the world McKee constructs in May is specific and idiosyncratic it speaks to me on a personal level. And May herself speaks very clearly to me. And that is both satisfying and terrifying, which is what you want from a good horror movie. Isn't it?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Day Nine

descending le conte

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Day Eight

very foggy fall color

The Innkeepers

Ti West's The Innkeepers is the movie I wanted Insidious: Chapter 2 to be. It's eerie and funny and incredibly understated. You can count on one hand the number of genuinely scary scenes but that's part of what makes it so effective. The bulk of the story is straightforward, bordering on mundane. The underwhelming atmosphere just ratchets up the tension for me. When nothing much was happening I couldn't help but think to myself "something is about to happen." The longer I had to wait for that something the more freaked out I became. Martin Scorsese, in the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, talks about the effectiveness of the bland locations and people in Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining. He says you can tell something bad is coming because of the way everybody dances around it. The tension builds and builds until the evil can no longer be tamped down (I'm paraphrasing here - wildly). The same kind of thing is happening in The Innkeepers.

There are other similarities between The Shining and The Innkeeers. Both are set in near-empty hotels that boast violently tragic pasts. Both feature hotel staff protagonists and at least one character who is attuned to the bad vibes that the hotels are giving off. And in both stories there is a suggestion that the hotels are conscious on some level and are creating scenarios that will allow them to "keep" their protagonists forever (in much the sane way that Hill House wants to "keep" Eleanor in Shirley Jackson's exquisite The Haunting of Hill House). 

Speaking of protagonists, I love Claire, the adorable, awkward, hyper and completely dorky heroine of The Innkeepers. Here's the movie's premise: The historic but floundering Yankee Pedlar Inn is closing its doors for good. It's the last weekend that they will be open and front desk workers Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are holding down the fort. Luke has created a website dedicated to the tragic history of the inn and the alleged incidences of paranormal activity that have occured there. The problem is he's never really captured any great footage of the hauntings. Luke and Claire know that this final weekend is their last chance to get some good, concrete evidence to support the claim that the inn is haunted. They take turns manning the front desk and wandering from room to room with recording equipment, hoping for an encounter with the ghost of Madeline O'Malley, the young bride who hung herself in the honeymoon suite after her husband abandoned her. 

Luke and Claire are joined in the inn by a handful of guests. There's the grumpy young mother and her son, the sad old gentleman who insists on staying in the honeymoon suite where he and his wife spent their long-ago wedding night and, most interesting of all, former TV star turned medium Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis). Although she initially clashes with Claire, Leanne eventually offers to help the girl "make contact" with the entity that resides in the Yankee Pedlar. Leanne explains that her gift allows her to see things that will happen as well as things that have happened, although the chronology of the events is not always clear to her and, as a result, it's sometimes difficult for her to correctly interpret the messages she's receiving. 

I love well told haunted house (or hotel) stories. I like a slow burn and lots of hints and suggestions and atmospherics. I like it when there are unanswered questions at the end, instead of tidy, thorough explanations. Not every style of storytelling benefits from ambiguity but haunted house stories, a lot of the time, do. I like unreliable narrators and the hint, just the hint, that maybe the events that are unfolding are just inside that narrator's head. The ShiningThe Haunting and The Innocents are three of my very favorite horror films. They all feature unstable people knocking around inside great big, foreboding, imposing locations. That, to me, is a formula for success. The Innkeepers may lack some of the atmospheric elegance of these earlier works but it's got a quirky charm of its own. I think it's a solid addition to this subgenre. Think of them as a family. If The Shining is the overbearing father, The Haunting is the fragile, long-suffering mother and The Innocents is the melodramatic spinster aunt then The Innkeepers makes the perfect goofy teenage daughter. It's great fun. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Day Seven

view from cliff tops

Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn

Evil Dead II was my introduction to the Evil Dead franchise. I first saw it in college and I thought it was ridiculous and bizarre and completely hilarious. Rubber-faced Bruce Campbell really cracked me up. Every time I watch this movie I feel the same way. This is one of the most effective contributions to the comedy horror subgenre. The effects are superlative. There is plenty of gore but it's presented in an entirely unrealistic, slapstick manner and the aim is clearly to tickle the funny bone rather than tingle the spine. Campbell's performance is high energy, high camp and highly amusing. 

As much as I appreciate and enjoy this movie I don't love it like I do Raimi's original The Evil Dead. It has nothing to do with the movie itself, which really is damned-near perfect, it's just that I prefer the genuinely unsettling creepiness of the first film to the Three Stooges-style antics of the second. The original features some fun, campy moments but for the most part it is gloriously gross and disconcerting. The only scene, for me, in Evil Dead II that comes close to capturing the spirit of the original is the one where the stuffed deer head and all the appliances in the cabin become animated and Campbell goes a bit mad and starts laughing like a maniac in the middle if the room. It's funny as hell but it's odd and uncomfortable. The humor in that scene is tinged with insanity and the tone is just a little bit darker than anything else in the movie.

I'm in no way suggesting that the first Evil Dead is better than the second. I know a lot of people prefer the sequel to the original and it's not hard to understand why. It's cool that two entries in the same series offer such contrasting experiences for the viewer and I'd say both movies are well-worth any horror fan's time. I applaud Raimi and Campbell for making bold choices with the Evil Dead films (that includes Army of Darkness, which takes the story in another entirely unexpected direction). They are to be commended for their innovation and their artistry.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Day Six

le conte lodge

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Day Five

charlies bunion

Friday, October 4, 2013

Insidious: Chapter 2

There's a great exchange between Professor Grady Tripp and his student, Hannah Green, in Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys. Grady, who experienced great success years earlier with his first novel, has been struggling to complete his second book. In the process his sophomore effort gets away from him but Grady just keeps writing, in the hopes that the end will present itself eventually. Hannah finds the enormous, unfinished manuscript and begins to read it. When Grady asks for her input she tells him the book is beautifully written but that it gets far too complicated with things like the genealogies of various characters' horses. Hannah tells Grady that storytelling is about making choices, deciding what to include but also what to omit, and that, reading his novel, she feels like he didn't make any choices at all. 

I felt the same way yesterday when I was watching Insidious: Chapter 2. It is well-made. It features fine performances. Patrick Wilson and Barbara Hershey, in particular, are great. And, like its predecessor, it has great jump scares. Some people hate jump scares but I adore them. They make movies scary in an entirely fun, visceral way. I felt fully engaged every time someone walked towards a darkened closet, or entered an empty room where, moments earlier, a piano had been playing. Horror movies like this don't have to be innovative and groundbreaking to be effective and enjoyable. They just have to work properly. The little scary moments in this Insidious sequel work really well. It's just the great big, lumbering mess of a plot that gets in the way of the fun.

I can appreciate a good homage. One of the things I loved about the first Insidious was its strong resemblance to Poltergeist. But with this second installment it feels like Lee Whannel and James Wan felt like they had to go bigger (and, honestly, they went a little too big at the end of the first one, too). And, in their world, bigger must mean throwing every reference to everything you've ever loved into one big, outlandish story. Poltergeist? Check. Astral projection? Check. Domestic violence, a la The Shining? Oh hell yeah. Serial killer with a controlling mother who dresses in drag to dispatch his victims, a la Psycho? Big time. Masses of peevish dead folk congregating around one of the heroes in terrifying fashion, like in Carnival of Souls? That's in there, too. It all kind of works on a certain level but, taken as a whole, it's just too damned much. There's too much explanation, too much tidying up. Ambiguity is not something you want in some movie experiences but in a supernatural horror film it actually works in your favor sometimes if you let the mystery be. 

The truth is, I got so bogged down trying to keep track of which spirit was inhabiting which character and who was alive and who was dead and which plane of consciousness everyone was existing on that, by the end, I just felt kind of exhausted. Did I enjoy this movie? Absolutely. Do I like that it appears to bring closure to the long-suffering Lambert family? Yes, I like that a lot. One of the things I disliked about the first movie was the fake-out downer ending. I'm glad it's resolved. I even liked the tease at the end that suggests the series could continue with new characters and new settings. If there are more entries in the Insidious franchise I will gladly give them a gander. I just think this one could have been so much more if the filmmakers had tightened their focus and given us less.

Day Four

le conte lodge

flame azaleas - gregory bald

the jump-off

spiderweb - arch rock
Peak fall color is happening right now in the Smokies as well as several other National Parks across the country. Unfortunately, the parks are officially closed until our government shutdown is resolved. For every day that we cannot experience the beauty of the parks firsthand, I will share a picture from a past visit, and continue to hope that this ordeal will soon be behind us.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Carrie

Disclaimer: I have seen the 1976 adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie several times but I never realized, before last night, that William Katt, who plays love interest Tommy, was the same guy who starred in The Greatest American Hero. I am apparently the last person on the planet to figure it out and I am deeply ashamed, since I loved GAH when I was a kid. If you're still interested in my thoughts on Carrie, given how clueless I am about basic things like the cast, then keep reading.

How horrifying is the shower scene that opens Brian De Palma's Carrie? It is vicious and heartbreaking and Sissy Spacek's bewildered terror is palpable. This scene, where Carrie gets her first period while showering in the girls locker room, mistakenly believes she's bleeding to death and is bombarded with feminine hygiene products by her classmates, who find her frightened cluelessness amusing, sets all the events of the sad story of Carrie White into motion. Gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), furious with her class for their callous treatment of the vulnerable Carrie, sentences the students to one week's detention. Anyone who gets out of line will be banned from the upcoming prom. Bad girl Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) mouths off on the first day of detention and has her prom privileges revoked. The angry and vindictive Chris masterminds a wicked plan to exact revenge; not against Miss Collins, but against Carrie. 

As Chris is plotting to destroy Carrie, good girl Sue Snell (Amy Irving) is trying to help the outcast. She convinces her sweet boyfriend, Tommy Ross (William Katt), to take Carrie to the prom. Tommy agrees because he loves Sue and wants to make her happy. As he spends more time around Carrie it becomes obvious that he has developed genuine feelings for the shy, awkward girl. In the end, though, none of that matters. Thanks to Chris, Carrie is humiliated in one of the worst ways imaginable at the prom. Believing everybody in attendance was conspiring against her all along, and with the words of her abusive, religious zealot mother (Piper Laurie) ringing in her head ("they're all gonna laugh at you"), a stunned and horrified Carrie taps into her newly discovered telekinetic powers and makes the whole school pay for what's been done to her.

This is such a great movie. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie both garnered much deserved Oscar nominations for acting. To this day theirs are two of only a handful of horror performances to ever be recognized by the Academy. In addition to their formidable work in the movie Carrie also boasts terrific performances by its supporting players. Betty Buckley is great in her feature film debut. Her Miss Collins is smart, sassy and compassionate and her exchanges with Spacek's Carrie provide some of the most heartfelt moments in the movie. Nancy Allen's Chris is the perfect high school mega-bitch. She's spiteful and bossy but also determined and seductive. It's easy to see why her friends and her meathead boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) agree to pretty much anything she demands of them. Amy Irving's Sue doesn't have quite as much to do. Her character's motivations are better explained in King's novel and go beyond her simply wanting to atone for the way she's treated Carrie. In the novel King explains that Sue feels genuine remorse for her actions but she also wants to test the limits of Tommy's love for her by seeing if he'll agree to take Carrie to the prom. Sue is testing the boundaries of her power over Tommy just like Chris is testing Billy. Everything that happens in Carrie stems from the actions of the female characters, who are all asserting their power over the other characters in the story in one way or another. Miss Collins decides and delivers the appropriate punishment to her students when they misbehave. Carrie's mother, Margaret, raises her daughter as a single parent and calls all the shots in the White household. And of course Carrie discovers, over the course of the story, her own unique power and puts it to use, with devastating results.

Carrie, the novel and, I assume, by extension, its many adaptations, has been accused of misogyny and it's not hard to see why. It's easy to interpret the story's message as "Female power is scary and when women assert themselves bad things happen." While some of the characterizations and motivations are off base and outdated I don't have a problem enjoying the story and the characters. That has a lot to do with De Palma's direction and the fine acting of his cast, Sissy Spacek in particular. Spacek's Carrie White hardly matches King's physical description of the character, who is described in his novel as overweight and acne-ridden. With her strawberry blonde locks, fair, freckled complexion and large, expressive blue eyes Spacek's Carrie is absolutely breathtaking. She's as beautiful, if not moreso, than all the other girls in the movie. This doesn't undermine her performance, though, because Spacek plays the role of the timid, awkward, lonely outcast so well. She's so fragile and uncertain that it's often uncomfortable to watch her. Once she begins to understand her telekinetic abilities her confidence increases and that is satisfying to see. The bullying aspect of Carrie feels especially resonant now, given the horrific accounts of classroom bullying that seem to frequent our nightly news reports. I want the abused outcast Carrie to thrive and I root for her every time I watch, even though I know she's every bit as doomed as her tormentors.

I'm pretty fond of stories set in high schools. And I have a particular weakness for high school dance scenes. Carrie contains one of the most bizarre, disconcerting, fascinating and heartbreaking high school dance sequences ever committed to film. I'm talking about the part before the prank with the pig's blood, when it's just Carrie and Tommy together. Their one and only slow dance is so well-filmed and so well-acted. It may be the one true moment of happiness that Carrie experiences in her brief life and you can see that it overwhelms her. In that moment I understand exactly how she feels, so the scene overwhelms me, too. The camera swirls around the couple on the dance floor and the tone is both romantic and unhinged. Everything is about to go pear-shaped, in the worst way imaginable.

Carrie combines so many of my favorite elements into one great story. It's got strong, compelling female characters, supernatural shenanigans and teen angst. It's got fantastic seventies clothing and hairstyles. It's got Piper Laurie's unhinged Margaret referring to breasts as "dirty pillows." But more than anything it's got one of the best protagonists in any horror movie, ever. Like Dr. Frankenstein's creation, Carrie is both the monster and the victim in the tale. She holds my interest and has my sympathy from start to finish.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Pumpkinhead

Happy October! Once again I have set myself the lofty goal of watching a horror movie a day throughout the month, to celebrate the Halloween season. I will write about as many of them as possible here. I have my tried and true favorites but I will work in new titles as well.

Last night I started the celebration with 1988's Pumpkinhead, which I'd never seen before. The plot combines elements of the slasher genre with a folk tale. The tone is sombre but also campy. The movie has a lush, comic book aesthetic that I really enjoyed. It's like the prettiest episode ever of Tales from the Crypt. The story centers around a single father, Ed Harley (the great Lance Henriksen), who owns a country store in a rural community and cares for his beloved only child, Billy (Matthew Hurley). A group of teenagers on a camping trip stop in at Harley's store. One of the teens gets on his dirt bike and accidentally mows down little Billy, who subsequently dies from his injuries. A grief-stricken Harley pays a visit to Haggis, the local witch, and pleads with her to resurrect his son. She cannot. But she can summon the demonic Pumpkinhead, who will avenge Billy's death by dispatching the negligent teenagers, one after another, in brutal fashion.

Pumpkinhead was the directorial debut of esteemed visual effects maestro Stan Winston. It's no surprise, then, that the creature effects in the movie are top-notch. The titular monster looks amazing, even after all these years, and effectively creepy, especially when the viewer is only allowed to catch fleeting glimpses of him. As the movie nears its conclusion we get a better look at the big bad and, impressive though he may be, I found him scarier earlier on, when I saw less of him and my mind was allowed to fill in the blanks. Although the movie is fairly restrained when it comes to gore the death scenes are effectively brutal. One girl falls to her death after being pulled into the highest branches of a tree and then dropped by Pumpkinhead. Another is dragged through the woods and onto a rooftop by the beast before expiring after her head is violently smashed through a windowpane. 

The fact that these are a decent group of kids for the most part (with the exception of the delinquent creep who killed Billy) should make their deaths more heart-rending. Unfortunately my one real complaint about Pumpkinhead was that the teen protagonists were underdeveloped and, for the most part, annoying as hell. It's possible that that was an intentional decision on the part of the filmmakers, designed to keep the focus on Harley and his plight. Harley realizes after the first couple of kids are killed that he was wrong to exact this kind of revenge. Unable to call off the monster, he sets about trying, by any means necessary, to destroy the creature and save the remaining teens. Lance Henriksen is such a capable actor and I found Harley to be an incredibly sympathetic character. I think the story would have been more powerful if I'd cared about the teenagers half as much as I did Harley. 

Despite the lack of character development this is an incredibly enjoyable movie. Technically, it's just gorgeous. I love the sets and locations and the lighting is terrific. There are so many great exterior shots, shrouded in shadows and fog, that create a fantastic sense of apprehension and dread. Watching Pumpkinhead is kind of like going through an old-fashioned haunted house, or listening to your dad tell you a ghost story before bed. It's not particularly frightening but it's fun in a round the campfire kind of way. I think it was the perfect choice to kick off my Halloween season.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Don't Cry For Me, Albuquerque

This past Sunday night, Breaking Bad came to a close. I feel so fortunate that I had the opportunity to watch it with a handful of dear friends who are also fans. Like my husband and me, some of them were late to the party. Thank you, Netflix, for giving us lollygaggers a chance to catch up. Thank you, especially, to my friends who watch and also smoke. I really needed cigarette breaks during the commercials, because the entire finale overwhelmed me so completely. 

I've mentioned Breaking Bad on here a few times but I've refrained from really saying much about it. Partly because, now that the series has ended, everyone everywhere is weighing in and I don't really have any new insights to add. But also because anything I manage to say can't possibly come close to expressing what I feel for this show. My husband and my friends tease me about my enthusiasm for the things I love and the number of things I love. I've gushed on this blog about other television shows, shows I truly love, but, I can't help saying this, even if it just comes across as me being caught up in the moment: of all the television shows I've watched, Breaking Bad is easily my favorite. What a deeply satisfying viewing experience. In five seasons I don't think it makes a single misstep. I have never, ever been more engaged, challenged and impressed by a dramatic series. 

I am fascinated by Walter White. He has infuriated me, disgusted me, terrified me. There are moments when I've declared aloud while watching Breaking Bad that I hate him but five minutes later I'd find myself feeling sympathy for or even empathizing with him. After every selfish, horrible thing he's done I'll admit I was on his side one hundred percent during Sunday night's final episode. There was no way Walt could undo all the damage he'd done to all the people he cared about but I love that, at the eleventh hour, he did his best to atone for his sins. Vince Gilligan promised an ending with Walt going out on his own terms. He did. And that's as it should be.

Unlike Walt, I was never conflicted about my feelings for Jesse Pinkman. I can't remember if Jesse had already become my favorite character by the time I saw "Peekaboo" but if he wasn't before that episode he certainly was afterwards. From that moment on my loyalty to Jesse never ever wavered. Every bad thing he did I rationalized or overlooked. Every good thing he did just made me love him more. I was so sure we were going to lose him. I was afraid, before Sunday night, that Jesse was too broken to live but I realized, watching his final scenes, that Jesse is a survivor. He's stronger than his detractors gave him credit for being. He's stronger than I gave him credit for being. I am so pleased that Vince Gilligan spared him. And I'm especially thrilled that Walt was the one to save him. 

I'm glad Walt was finally honest with Skyler about his motivations. At long last he admitted to her that he cooked meth because he enjoyed it and was good at it. He didn't do it for the family, he did it for himself. Walt and Skyler's final scene was one of the most heartfelt and staggering exchanges between two characters that I've ever seen.  I'm glad Skyler and the kids are safe from Lydia. I'm glad Jesse was able to take out Todd, his sadistic jailer and tormentor. I'm glad Walt scared the hell out of Gretchen and Elliot. And I'm glad we got one last scene with Badger and Skinny Pete. 

Thank you, Breaking Bad, for being so awesome. I will miss you but I admire you for ending exactly when you needed to end. All of television should aspire to your standards. Like Walt's signature blue meth, you make everything else look shoddy by comparison.