PLOT: Guillermo del Toro curates eight short tales of supernatural horror, mostly from young directors.
COMMENTS: At the start of each episode, Guillermo del Toro waddles in from a pool of darkness and stands before his prop cabinet, pulling out a small item relevant to the plot of the upcoming feature and a figurine representing the episode’s director. In heavily-accented, hard-to-understand English, he chokes out a few stiff sentences about the story. Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock he is not; but fortunately, del Toro proves a much better curator than host.
Other than the esteemed Vincenzo Natali, del Toro and the producers choose mostly up-and-comers to script and direct the eight episodes. Although perhaps it shouldn’t, given del Toro’s Hollwyood pull, it comes as a small surprise that these short features are largely acting showcases. The series standout is Academy Award-winner F. Murray Abraham as a clever but understandably-weary coroner in “The Autopsy.” Tim Blake Nelson, lending an earthy believability and even a little sympathy to his bitter xenophobic caricature in “Lot 36,” is also worth a mention, while “The Outside” is entirely built around Kate Miccuci’s nerdy-but-secretly-sexy persona. Essie Davis, as a bereaved ornithologist, also carries “The Murmuring,” Jennifer Kent’s marital-drama-cum-ghost-story. Then, there are a couple of cameos to appeal to cult movie fans: Crispin Glover in “Pickman’s Model” and Peter Weller in “The Viewing.” The relative star power on display here lends respectability and brings in viewers from outside horror fandom: mainstream critics were particularly drawn to the “The Murmuring”‘s realistic depiction of a husband and wife tiptoeing around their issues while burying themselves in their studies of bird-flocking behaviors on a Bergmanesque island.
When we first saw the names attached to direct, we were salivating over the inclusion of Ana Lily Amirpour and (especially) Panos Cosmatos (as well as the prospect of Crispin Glover in an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation). Those two directors do deliver both weirdness and quality, but the other episodes are all worth watching. Even the least of them have something to offer, usually in the acting department. The Glover episode is “Pickman’s Muse.” As previously mentioned, it’s a Lovecraft adaptation of the “man is driven mad by peering into the Beyond” variety that is eerie and atmospheric, but Continue reading CHANNEL 366: GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S CABINET OF CURIOSITIES (2022)→
After watching Babadook (2014), I am thoroughly convinced that, from here on out, producers need to consign direction of horror films to the girls. They are so much better at it than those dullard boys. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is too good for genre fanboys, whose diet is commonly relegated to sophomoric cravings for trite-tasting tawdry titillation. Kent’s Babadook is for far more refined palates.
In the early days of cinema, when German Expressionism’s shadow still influenced Hollywood, the quality of horror films was such that when a studio assigned a director a horror film, it often meant his status had just been elevated several notches. Unfortunately, the boatload of hacks had their say over the years, dragging the genre to that proverbial barrel bottom. With few exceptions, horror has never recovered, and its wretched reputation today is wholly deserved. Mechanical plots, cardboard characters, blatant misogyny, moronic humor, and deafening assaults pass for imagination to a growing horror audience that has largely forgotten how to even watch a film.
The genre bucks forged an unspoken patriarchal set of genre rules, and it did not take long for the rot of banality to set in. For a brief period, it seemed as if it was on the shoulders of independent filmmakers to offer an alternative tonic. Within mere decades, however, the indies had largely succumbed to imitating the well-cashed trash of the studios, which begs the question: “What then is the point of independent film?” Why settle for a low-budget, generic product that offers the same ingredients as the name brand that preceded it? At least the name brand has a better-looking box and doesn’t cost any more than an indie festival ticket. Given the status and quality of independent filmmaking, Robert Downey Jr.’s recent dismissals and criticisms appear justified.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother, widowed when her husband was killed in a traffic accident while taking his wife—in labor—to the hospital. Amelia’s son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), fancies himself a magician straight out of a Melies film. He is also a perennial misfit, and quite the handful. Samuel happens upon a pop-up book featuring the Babadook; a dark, shadowy figure in top hat. Through deliberate pacing, Kent routes us through the pulse of fundamental, pubescent fears. As children, many of us experienced fears such as the one Samuel finds in a simple pop-up book. Yet, The Babadook hardly stops there. This fear leaves the page and acquaints us (or reacquaints us) with a menagerie of psychological horrors.
Instead of the flash-and-trash 20-frames-per-second pacing often found in 21st century film, Kent and her actress Davis purposefully take us to a tender part of Amelia, still encased in grief and loss. The psychological pacing parallels this. With intelligent intent, the film’s mise en scène informs us as to the character’s psyches. In her dimly lit, cluttered home, Amelia’s journey of trauma grounds us in the experience of what its like losing a partner, and of the fear of a child coming up against the supernatural or inexplicable.
The elaborate sets enhance the visceral eeriness of loss; thinking yourself safe, when suddenly, via divorce or death, you find yourself alone at night in a large house that formerly offered security. A sanctuary morphs into a mausoleum, like an insomniac child imagines a dresser morphing into a monster. The muted scare tactics of Babadook are authentically frightening because the horror is relatable. For a millisecond, your imagination dances with unconscious archetypal fears.
The film abounds with deliberateness: articles of clothing look like the Babadook, the feminine is portrayed in pinks and blacks and, as the horror, unravels, the visual tones darken and engulf. Even Amelia’s sweater blackens in the middle of the night.
Redemption is found in the gift of endurance and feminine pragmatism. Rather than attempting to dispatch a monolithic demon, simply feed it, pacify it, put it in the basement and hope for the best.
*This review was done in collaboration with Aja Eaker.
Celebrating the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, strange, psychedelic, and the just plain WEIRD!