Sunday, April 22, 2012

With a Willing Heart

Two films I watched over the weekend, one just released by Kino Lorber's Redemption line and the other set to pop on April 24, show that the horror genre has an interesting range when it comes to instilling the audience with feelings of hopelessness and despair. I'm not sure if this could be considered an undervalued goal for horror, but it's certainly one that, in cinematic terms, is rarely talked about, but it's part of the whole package. Nowadays, you do see it, in films like Martyrs, say -- in other words, very extreme movies where despair is linked to the graphic destruction of the characters, and the possible physical discomfort of the audience. This can be legitimate, as I'd argue is the case with Martyrs, but you might also end up with Frontier(s), with that dumb-ass parenthetical "s", and that's just a waste of your life.
The common line on modern horror films that has the nerve to not take gore as its sole purpose for existing is that such films, if I may be vulgar, are chickenshit, and are nothing more than, at best, the result of some sort of commercially-minded compromise. But 1972's The Asphyx -- which hit stores last Tuesday -- would like to offer up a word of protest. The Asphyx, the only film directed by Peter Newbrook, a regular camera operator for David Lean, and shot by Freddie Young, who won three cinematography Oscars for his work with Lean, chronicles the quite rapid devastation of a family, headed by patriarch Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens), a relentlessly cheerful scientist who, around the turn of the 20th Century, is preparing to marry Anna (Fiona Walker), as well as to marry off his adopted son Giles (Robert Powell) to his daughter Christina (Jane Lapotaire). Everyone is meeting up at Hugo's sprawling home, joined as well by Hugo's other son Clive (Ralph Arliss), and things are quite sunny. Hugo has great plans on the career front, too, which involves both his early adoption of then-current photography and filmmaking technology, and his investigations into the possibility of capturing the image of a dying person's soul as it leaves the body.
Things are looking so up, in fact, that tragedy cannot possibly be far away, and indeed it is not. Death strikes the family with great suddenness, as well as a touch of absurdity, when both Anna and Clive are killed in a boating accident while posing for Hugo's camera -- the filmmaking type of camera -- and later, as he morosely yet desperately works to develop these images he finds something else there, something that he comes to believe is his son's asphyx, which is some mixture of ghost, soul, and angel of death. From there he deduces that the physical, as opposed to merely on film, capturing of a dying person's asphyx would result in that person becoming immortal, and this becomes Hugo's obsession.
There are many logical leaps of the "What's that smudge next to Clive's head?" "Maybe it's his asphyx" variety throughout the film, but once you realize that The Asphyx is, in fact, essentially a remake of Frankenstein it becomes quite a bit more interesting. This is perhaps counter-intuitive, because you'd think a film could only become really interesting once you discover that it's striking out on its own, but The Asphyx is part of the last gasp of this particular kind of horror movie. The kind in question is the kind where a scientific quest to defeat death is met with tragedy, disaster, and ethical blindness, not to mention that never-considered horror of immortality itself. These films were thick as flies back in the old days, with Boris Karloff himself, starting with Frankenstein, being responsible, in the thespian sense, for a good dozen all by himself. Another way to categorize this subgenre would be The Horror of Good Intentions, and it's a rich and interesting vein to mine, but when was the last time anybody tried? Fuckin' Flatliners? May God have mercy on us all.
The Asphyx goes far beyond thematic similarities to Frankenstein, however. There is a creature of sorts, though its function is entirely different from that of Frankenstein's monster -- the asphyx itself is made to appear malevolent, but narratively it works about the same as the electricity in the James Whale films. But look: a scientist forging a path in a controversial, fringe arena experiences sudden family tragedy which leads him to try to use his scientific knowledge in this fringe arena to find a way to conquer death so that no one, specifically no one he loves, need ever die again, only to find that his attempt to tamper in God's domain makes everything endlessly worse and more tragic. Leading to only one option, which Frankenstein and Hugo pursue differently, based on their own situations.
Like Frankenstein, The Asphyx is ripely melodramatic, which is entirely fine. Robert Stephens is asked to play almost nothing but emotional extremes, which even when pulled off successfully can seem exhausting, but somehow he makes Hugo's emotions play as the fuel that drives him. Off the cliff, eventually, but the point is that Stephens is quite good here as a man whose life becomes one of infinite sadness. He carries the film through some rough patches, which include a rather...curious? Okay, a rather curious make-up job at one point, but part of why that unfortunate make-up is easy to shrug off is because it involves the film's bookend scenes, which take place in the present day (or 1972, the present day then), a fact which gains significance pretty quickly. But boy are the implications of those scenes almost shockingly merciless. It's as soul-crushing a fate (never mind the further implications of what actually happens here, and what must follow) as one could imagine. And all without the horror staples of boobs and gore.
Which is why we have Justine: The Misfortunes of Virtue, due on DVD and Blu-Ray this coming tuesday. Based on a novel by the Marquis De Sade, Justine is an exploitation film that is maybe not as, er, philosophically faithful to De Sade as Pasolini's Salo, but it certainly comes closer than Quills, the sort of biopic of De Sade that depicted the man as a depraved yet principled antihero, as opposed to simply depraved, full stop, the end. Justine is a horror story as picaresque, an unusual structure for a horror film, I think we can agree, and you might think for a while that for all its roughness and off-kilter sex, the filmmakers, director Chris Bolger and screenwriter Ian Cullen, approach to De Sade is to view him from the sporadically popular view -- I'm not sure where we are with him right now -- as the author of Fifty Shades of Grey, but from a long time ago. He was like the original E. L. James! Except that no. Justine, the character, played here by Koo Stark, is an innocent, one who takes her virtuousness seriously, but who is met at every turn in her life by debauchery and libertinism: at the convent where she lives early on, from the nuns and priests, from her sister Juliette (Lydia Lisle) who views a debauched life as necessary for independence, until the force of it all carries Justine into a brothel where, with Juliette, she's expected to give up her virtue for money (this section features Barry McGinn as the coked-up house stud, in a performance that made me wonder if I was even going to be able to finish this thing). But she flees, straight into the mouth of hell.
The horror of Justine reminded me of a moment in Neal Stephenson's novel Quicksilver. I don't remember the context too well, but at one point one of the main characters is on a ship at sea that is attacked by pirates. The pirates take the ship, and a minor character -- an unlikable man, as I recall -- is casually, almost in the background of the scene's main action, raped by on the pirates, has a weight tied to his ankle, and is thrown overboard. All of this is presented in one, maybe two sentences, ones not overly burdened with detail or description. I don't imagine Stephenson expected this to have the effect on any of his readers that it had on me, but I've never been able to shake it because I think of that man going from a state of safety, and maybe feeling smug about it, to being raped and tortured and thrown without care into the sea to experience a death that will take however long it takes. What got under my skin about this was not the pain of it, nor even the fear, but the confusion, and the fact that the man had nobody there who thought enough of him to say to the pirate "No, don't." This is something like the tone that Justine will eventually come to adopt. And the message, which I don't believe Bolger and Cullen are necessarily interested in delivering, but which is somehow delivered anyway, is that no one will ever help you. Have a good one.
By the time Justine: The Misfortune of Virtue (also known by the less particular title Cruel Passion) came out in 1977, the world had already been treated to The Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and all sort of other movies of that general type, but, more than at least the most famous of those, Justine offers you nothing to think about by the end, nothing to intellectualize, and no hope. The Last House on the Left wants you to wonder "Hey, what about revenge, though?" and in Texas Chainsaw Massacre Sally may have lost her mind, but she got out. Being the first film ever shot by master cinematographer Roger Deakins, Justine is obviously not cheap-looking enough to be praised for its grimy realism and thereby follow Texas Chainsaw Massacre into MoMA, nor thoughtful or glossy enough to function as European art film depravity. Its a progression of horrors that mocks the very ideas of innocence or virtue, just as De Sade would have wanted. All Justine has to offer is one word: No.


Fox said...

I wanted to mention that your mentioning of QUILLS made me laugh.

jokes, jokes, jokes...

I also think you're "chickenshit" comment is a fun one to discuss.

For instance, when I saw SILENT HOUSE (which I thought was dreadful, but...), most of the complaints I heard walking out of the theater had to do with lack of gore. Granted, the kind of claustrophobic, real-time horror that the directors were aiming for was poorly executed, but my guess is that the audience would be just as displeased with the much more well-done Spanish original.

And I know when you bring up hopelessness and despair, you're referring to the feelings of the audience, but I think just the depiction of those extreme emotions on screen can work on us in a frightening way as well. Despair that is depicted in a film's characters, I think, can really frighten. Even though there are some garishly disgusting depictions of physical violence in a movie like TROUBLE EVERY DAY, I think it also frightens in the depiction of hopelessness in its two "monsters".

Hell - and I'm willing to concede that this may be a reach - I think a movie like SHAME (a film you recently Tweeted about) can offer some horror in the despair clearly seen on Fassbender's face. There's horror in us not knowing where his shame and resulting behaviors generated from. There is hint of it from Carey Mulligan's character and the reaction from Fassbender when she brings it up was, in my opinion, pretty scary.

I'm sorry that I don't have anything to offer on THE ASPHYX or JUSTINE, but I haven't seen either one. I will, however, be renting THE ASPHYX this week.

bill r. said...

I'm really put off by the argument that a horror movie given anything less than an R rating isn't real horror. This most often comes from fans, ones who often proclaim to be fans of classic horror movies from the 40s and so on. So they should know better, yes? No.

I agree that the depictions of hopelessness and despair can be be frightening, but I don't think you can extend that too far in terms of genre. I mean, TROUBLE EVERY DAY is already a horror film. SHAME isn't, but even in that case I found the film more sad than frightening. Which is not to say it wasn't also disturbing, but let's not go nuts and start calling it a horror movie. I feel like you're dangerously close to saying that. Dangerously close.


Fox said...

Yes. They SHOULD know better. It took me a long time to see the Bela Lugosi/Tod Browning DRACULA, but once I did, I found it more frightening than most modern horror. I don't know what that movie would be rated today, but I think it's far to say it wouldn't be rated R.

If I got dangerously close to calling SHAME a horror film, I didn't mean to walk it in that direction. But... I think it's fair to say that I felt more turmoil inside myself than from, heck, any horror film from the last year.

I agree, I wouldn't classify it as horror, nor would I classify Bergman's SHAME as horror, but both of those films do horrify me. Or maybe the word is "harrowing".

Adam Ross said...

Very impressed with The Asphyx, it really is a movie that feels out of place being made in the 70s. I loved how from the beginning there's the vibe that everything will go completely wrong. It's also kind of wacky how the Asphyx Containment System is kind of like a Victorian version of Ghostbusters (or whatever time period that was called).

It's on Netflix now so hopefully it will get some more fans.