the battery

Great Debuts by Directors Named Jeremy: Murder Party (2007) and The Battery (2012)

Before Jeremy Saulnier solidified himself as one of the most exciting American filmmakers working today with Blue Ruin and Green Room, he made this gnarly, no-budget dark comedy about a loner who stumbles across an invitation to a “Murder Party” and makes the unfortunate decision to attend. Although crude by the standards of his later movies, Murder Party showcase Saulnier’s unique voice. It’s how he blends shocking violence with dry wit. It’s how he finds humanity in hero and villain alike. It’s how he takes a typical movie scene (a chase, a fight, a murder), takes a step back and asks “But how would this actually happen in reality?” The answer to that question is “with a lot more hilarious desperation and unnerving slapstick.” Saulnier’s films may have grown more refined, but his love of throughly incompetent heroes and villains began here.

There are too many zombie movies, which means that every new entry in this genre needs to find a way to justify its existence. Jeremy Gardner‘s The Battery sidesteps this altogether by not being a zombie movie at all – it’s really just a drama that just so happens to be set in the zombie apocalypse. Gardner and Adam Cronheim star as two baseball players who were far from home when the world ended. With their families and friends gone, these two teammates, who weren’t friends to begin with, have now become companions, trekking through the desolate remains of civilization and surviving day-by-day. There is very little violence in The Battery and surprisingly little zombie action. Most of the running time is dedicated to these two men hating each other, loving each other, bickering, drinking, fighting, getting along, road tripping, and reminiscing. This is not a zombie movie, but rather a movie about a relationship that blossoms and falls apart and blossoms again under harsh circumstance. Gardner’s work is observational, subtle, and surprisingly lovely. Like the two men at the center of his movie, he finds common ground between genres and ideas that normally wouldn’t gel together at all.


Silent, Perfect: Nosferatu (1922) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

You could go watch F.W. Murnau‘s silent masterpiece Nosferatu on YouTube right now. It’s in the public domain and you can pick from one of dozens of uploads. However, this is a film best appreciated on the largest screen you can find. It demands to be watched alone, in the dark. Although not scary by modern standards, this unofficial adaptation of Dracula (names were changed when the rights to Bram Stoker’s novel couldn’t be acquired) remains undeniably creepy. Nosferatu speaks an antiquated cinematic language, which only makes it more unsettling. It operates like few other horror movies by its very nature, feeling more like a bad dream than a narrative. Long after most movies have vanished from your brain, it lurks in your subconscious, the cinematic equivalent of a lingering bad feeling, a cosmic reminder that there are things that go bump in the night. Nosferatu is a masterpiece.

The Phantom of the Opera is the Universal Monster movie everyone forgets about. Because it’s a silent film and because Frankenstein would redefine the horror genre forever six years later, this tale of a masked maniac who falls for a young opera singer and terrorizes the rest of her company often doesn’t sit on the same pedestal as the more iconic classic monster movies. And that’s a shame, because silent of not, everything about this film aligns with later masterpieces like The Wolf Man and The Mummy. There’s the eerie, gothic cinematography. There are the deliberately artificial sets, which evoke strong feelings of unease. Most importantly, there’s Lon Chaney‘s titular character, a heartbroken, wounded monster driven to violence for reasons that are painfully relatable.

the innkeepers

The Ti West-athon: The House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011)

Not much happens in the the first hour of The House of the Devil. A broke college student takes a babysitting gig offered by an eccentric couple in an isolated house. She wanders aimlessly from room to room. She orders food. She finds ways to pass the time. And then, out of nowhere, everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong and her night turns into a living hell. But what’s remarkable is just how intense and terrifying all of that “nothing” truly is. Writer/director Ti West teases just enough violence, offers just enough peeks behind the facade of this seemingly innocent situation, to let us know that something truly horrible is coming. And he makes us wait for it. That wait is excruciating and tense – we know what’s coming and we want it to arrive. We need it to arrive. Our nerves can’t take it. And yet he keeps on toying with us, stringing us along. When he does unleash the third act upon us, the wait is worth it.

Like The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers dabbles in nothingness before getting around to business. But unlike that film, the calm before the storm isn’t an exercise in slowly rising tension, but a laugh-out-loud workplace comedy. Sara Paxton and Pat Healey play the underpaid, impossibly bored employees of an old hotel that’s set to close in a few days. With the manager out of town, they slack off, engage in lengthy conversations, put up with their few customers, and, oh yeah, they try to finally track down the ghost that supposedly haunts the place. Spoiler alert: they do find that ghost and this slacker comedy instantly transforms into a supernatural tour de force that thrusts its painfully under-equipped heroes into life-or-death situations. The Innkeepers spends its first half making you love these characters through wry comedy and then forces you to watch them fall apart over the terrifying second half. It’s riveting work.

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