Discomfort in the Arthouse
The Witch was the best horror movie released in 2016 it’s bound to infuriate as many viewers as it wins over. Robert Eggers‘ directorial debut refuses to hold your hand. Its 17th-century Puritan characters speak with thick accents and utilize often inscrutable language, no easy answers are offered, and it refuses to present this family’s conflict with the witch in the nearby woods as a straightforward battle between good and evil. While Christianity is often portrayed as the ultimate weapon against the forces of darkness in horror movies, Eggers presents this family’s faith as a hypocritical liability that distracts them from the true threat at hand. Is young Thomasin better off seduced by Lucifer himself (“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”) than she would be living with a family whose views debase her on a daily basis? It’s an uncomfortable query, but The Witch revels in discomfort, slowly dipping the viewer into a pool of unpleasantness. Before you know it, you’re submerged and you have no idea how things got this far.
Speaking of inscrutable, Nicolas Winding Refn‘s The Neon Demon is a perfect example of a director making a movie purely for himself – if other people happen to like it, hey, that’s okay. It’s the kind of film that would make ordinary audiences riot and that’s half of the appeal. Refn leans heavily on nightmare logic to sell a cavalcade of ideas connected through imagery rather than plot: the male gaze, the nature of celebrity, and the female pursuit of physical perfection are all picked apart, their bloody entrails left lying on the floor. Refn walks the fine line between fine art and trash, looking to infuriate and frustrate, titillate and disgust, enrapture and hypnotize. The Neon Demon isn’t a movie you watch so much as experience. Whether this particular brand of glossy acid bath is for you is a question only you can answer.
However, the inscrutability of The Witch and The Neon Demon have nothing on Na Hong-jin‘s The Wailing. It has everything you’d expect from a South Korean horror movie: it’s long, it’s violent, and it rejects the commonly accepted reality to build its own little pocket nightmare, thank you very much. The sick beauty of the whole thing is that it starts off with a pretty accessible mystery: a strange plague has hit a small community, turning the afflicted into murderers. And then, over the course of an increasingly surreal 156 minutes, the film goes off the rails in the best way possible. By the fifth or sixth game-changing twist, you look down and realize that this train is flying over the ravine and won’t land safely and that nothing will be answered or wrapped up. It’s all going to end in flames and confusion and terror…but what confusion and terror, because The Wailing is an unnerving puzzle box worth exploring. It ends up speaking a language you cannot understand, but the words creep under your skin and linger.
In contrast to these other movies, The Eyes of My Mother is a fairly straightforward experience: disturbed young girl grows up to be disturbed young woman; disturbed young woman searches for self-esteem and happiness in murder. Shot in stark black and white, Nicolas Pesce has crafted a demented gem. Call it sympathy for Leatherface – a bracingly intimate, often tragic examination of a character who would be a cartoonish, backwoods psychopath in any other horror movie. We spend nearly every moment of The Eyes of My Mother with the shy/murderous Francisca and while the film never offers excuses for her loathsome behavior (this is a deeply unpleasant movie), it allows us to see this monster as a human being with recognizable urges and emotions. It’s disquieting. It’s fresh. It’s not something you forget easily.
Hear No Evil, See No Evil
2016 offered an accidental and unlikely double feature in the form of Hush and Don’t Breathe, two completely unconnected movies with concepts that act as mirror reflections one another. In one corner, you have Mike Flanagan‘s Hush, a home invasion movie about a woman terrorized in her isolated country home by a masked killer. It’s a concept that we’ve seen a couple dozen times before, but with a twist: the victim here is deaf, which puts her at an immediate disadvantage against a sociopath who seems to be having the time of his life stalking a victim who can’t hear him. While Hush is a very effective slasher movie when it has its heroine on the run, it becomes something really special when she is able to turn her weakness into a strength and use her disability as her chief weapon against the man who wants to kill her. There’s not a lot of meat on the bone, but this is a delicious snack, perfectly executed and best consumed late at night.
While Hush is about a deaf woman pursued by a home invader, Don’t Breathe is about a blind man pursuing home invaders. Fede Alvarez‘s follow-up to his Evil Dead remake is a slick and nasty piece of business, having more in common with the brutal horror movies that have been coming out of Europe over the past decade-plus than your average Hollywood film. There’s no fat on this lean, monstrous piece of work: three crooks break into a blind man’s home, not counting on him being a former soldier with a dark secret to protect who knows his home better than they do. Things proceed to get really bad and Alvarez spares us nothing – every creak of a floorboard is as startling as a gunshot, every punch feels like a stab, and every stab might as well be breaking our own flesh. Don’t Breathe is a punishing experience hellbent on leaving you battered and breathless. It succeeds.