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Building a Better Bomb: The Alternatives to Suspense

It’s always a bad idea to argue with the Master.

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Alfred Hitchcock

It’s always a bad idea to argue with the Master. Any sensible person will tell you so. On the subject of cinema, there is probably nothing more foolish and outright uncool than to question Alfred Hitchcock. You don’t question Hitchcock; you shut up, listen and learn. The man didn’t just revolutionize the medium, he wrote the official Book of Rules. Every filmmaker since, especially those with dread on the repertoire, builds on the foundations Hitchcock left behind. Steven Spielberg, Alejandro Amenábar, M. Night Shyamalan, Hideo Nakata: they all owe the one who is commonly referred to as the Greatest Director of All Time.

Like I said: it’s always a bad idea to argue with the Master.

Wish me luck…

Anticipating the bang: the Suspense Formula

Why bother telling a story if no one’s interested? Surely, attention is the first thing a filmmaker demands from an audience. It’s easy enough to grab spectators by the collar, but how do you keep them intrigued? A movie must push them to the edge of their seats and gain momentum without running out of steam. Because no one could seduce audiences better than Alfred Hitchcock, his formula for storytelling has been studied and followed over and over. According to Hitchcock, the most powerful means of holding onto the viewer’s attention is suspense.

There it is, the magic word: “suspense.” Whisper it in a room full of cinephiles and watch them get all misty-eyed. Suspense! François Truffaut described it as “the stretching out of an anticipation.” Dictionaries define it as “a state of uncertain expectation,” “a feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen” or “pleasant excitement as to a decision or outcome.” If there is one guarantee for audience involvement, suspense is it. Just trust the Master of Suspense. Whenever he was preparing a script, Hitchcock always put himself in the place of a child whose mother is telling him a story. Whenever there’s a pause in the mother’s narration, the child will always ask: “What comes next, Mommy?” Hitchcock knew that nothing is more fascinating to us than the Next Thing and he taught filmmakers how to dangle that carrot in front of our faces, barely out of reach. That is the essence of suspense: a tantalizing and often threatening hint of what’s to come.

Even though Hitchcock was no stranger to shock (he used it to memorable effect when he killed off his beloved leading lady, Janet Leigh, a third into Psycho), he always thought surprise was the lesser alternative to its twin brother suspense. In Vertigo (1958), his adaptation of the French novel D’Entre les Morts, he even sacrificed the book’s final surprise twist (“Judy is Madeleine”) in order to inject a firm dose of suspense into the story (“When will Scottie find out that Judy and Madeleine are the same person and how will he react?”). Although critics at the time had trouble understanding Hitchcock’s intention for us to watch Scottie unravel, rather than figure out a “whodunit,” and were quick to remark that the director had broken his own rules of dramatic tension by ruining the mystery, Hitchcock reasoned:

“To my way of thinking, mystery is seldom suspenseful. The whodunit generates the kind of curiosity that is void of emotion, and emotion is an essential ingredient of suspense.”

In the book Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock compares the two complementary dread-inducing techniques of surprise and suspense, and makes a convincing plea for the latter. To properly illustrate his argument, he used the setting of the interview itself as starting point:

“We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the audience knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!”

“In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.”

A lecture like that makes a strong point about the limitations of surprise as a means to thrill an audience. Surprise is overrated, so it seems. It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that decades later, Hitchcock’s argument for the superiority of the Suspense Formula still stands. Critics and academics alike continue to find it nearly impossible to punch holes in this mentor’s rock solid reasoning, backed up by a legacy of some of the most forceful films in the history of cinema. When it comes to keeping an audience alert, suspense is simply more bang for your buck, to use a fitting phrase.

So why bother questioning its lonely status at the top? Bear with me, please. Let’s not declare the element of surprise bankrupt just yet. And hold on: let’s not exclude alternative ways of building tension either. There’s no doubt that fear in the face of impending evil, otherwise known as dread, is unique in its way to fuel our immediate interest, but suspense is only one approach. Has Hitchcock’s groundwork really been so all-encompassing that he left no area unexplored for the generations of filmmakers following in his footsteps? I think not. The Dread District went through a couple of interesting changes since a few non-commissioned officers took over the reins. Yes, you heard it right: changes. The fact that Hitchcock practically invented the grammar of the modern thriller cannot stop a language from evolving.

Inside the bang: the Hidden Threat

When Roman Polanski’s Repulsion came out in 1965, it was heralded as a staggering work of suspense. It’s fairly obvious that his film about a young beautician’s descent into madness was heavily influenced by Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), a classic that paved the way for all psychological thrillers in its wake. But is Polanski’s film really a work of suspense? To adequately answer this question, we may have to ask ourselves what suspense is not: Let’s listen to the Master himself:

“It is indispensible that the public be made perfectly aware of all the facts involved. Otherwise there is no suspense.”

According to this assertion, obscuring the facts rules out the very possibility of suspense. If we take Hitchcock’s word for it, as I suggest we do, how is Repulsion able to generate suspense by consistently withholding the facts from its audience? Polanski doesn’t achieve tension by supplying detailed information. On the contrary: Repulsion is all about surprise. A typical example is the scene where Carol, played by Catherine Deneuve, is walking around the apartment that she shares with her sister, unable to sleep. A minute passes by. No anticipatory music, no creepy camerawork, no manipulative cuts. Just the sound of a dripping tap. Suddenly, without a single warning, the wall cracks open with a thunderous sound. That’s it. The scares come from nowhere and catch the audience off-guard.

Hitchcock might have seen the implicit nature of scenes like these as a missed opportunity. Chances are he would have looked for another way of staging its dramatic potential, concrete enough so he could let his audience in on what’s going on and stretch out a few lousy seconds of shock to fifteen fat minutes of anticipation. Yet Repulsion almost categorically refuses to take this route. The only time a genuine moment of suspense comes along is when the audience is offered a glance at the knife that Carol hides behind her back while the landlord tries to come on to her; but this moment is strangely understated, and we are so “repulsed” by his sexual advances that we’re more likely to cheer Carol on to stab the bastard than to fear for his life. So, strictly evaluated from the suspense school of reasoning, Repulsion doesn’t cut it. That doesn’t explain, however, why the film is such a jolly effective nailbiter. How did Polanski pull it off?

Carol’s emerging insanity is the real threat in Repulsion. Much like Miss Giddens in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, she is a danger to herself. We care for Carol’s safety, but cannot predict where this situation will take us, leaving us helpless. Since Polanski forces us to experience the narrative in first person, through the prism of Carol’s psychotic mind, the cause of our dread is not under the table, but all around us: we are inside the bomb. And trapped as we are inside Carol’s head, we lack a clear overview. Our anxiety stems from not knowing what to expect: a Hidden Threat. Under the blinding spell of subjectivity, we don’t know what will trigger the bomb. We’re left with no clue as to when precisely it will explode, because even when we do hear the clock ticking away in the background and nearly smell the skinned rabbit carcass rot in the living room as days pass by, time is nothing but an abstraction, a metaphor for mental regression. The irrational fractures in its dramatic flow give Repulsion a trippy, unnerving mood that gradually breaks down the securities of the audience in perfect sync with the protagonist’s twitchy sense of paranoia. The only thing that becomes clear to us is that we need to get out of that apartment quick, as soon as we realize it is a reflection of Carol’s crumbling state of mind.

When Madame Denise says to Carol: “I can’t help you if you won’t tell me what’s the matter,” she also articulates the reason behind the audience’s sense of unease. It is confusion and a lack of information, as opposed to Hitchcock’s abundance of it, what gives Polanski’s elliptical horror its edge. Repulsion is obviously shocking and masterly executed, but suspenseful it is not. Come to think of it, probably the most suspenseful thing about Repulsion is the chance to watch French goddess Catherine Deneuve in see-through nightgown. What a sly move to make a frigid woman so insanely attractive!

Polanski was the first to follow his own example, with the bastard child Rosemary’s Baby (1968) as the diabolical result. Slowly, other directors followed: Nicolas Roeg personified a couple’s sense of loss over their drowned daughter in the shape of a mysterious dwarf in a red coat in Don’t Look Now (1973), Paul Verhoeven surreally depicted the Catholic revelations of an alcoholic, bisexual writer in De Vierde Man (1983), Adrian Lyne blew life into the paranoid hallucinations of a dying Vietnam veteran in Jacob’s Ladder (1990) and Christopher Nolan turned time backwards for a brain-crushing representation of amnesia in Memento (2000). No one has explored the twisted territory of the Hidden Threat more thoroughly, however, than David Lynch. While Repulsion carefully balances on the line between fantasy and reality, Eraserhead (1977), Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001) blur the same line into a shadowy region of its own. Lynch even dares to sacrifice his own story logic and leaps back and forth between present time, flashbacks, wish fantasies and foreboding nightmares to submerge the senses in the subconscious. If little Alfred would ask his Mommy “what’s next” two thirds into Lost Highway, I’m not sure the answer would clear things up. After all, his mother isn’t really telling him a bedtime story. She’s just talking in her sleep…

Facing the bang: the Revelation Response

The opposite to a threat lurking in the shadows is the kind that taps you on the shoulder and thrusts its tongue in your mouth. In the suspense camp, this kind of frontal assault is seen as more or less a dead end. “There is no terror in the bang,” Hitchcock said, “only in the anticipation of it.” Hitchcock experimented with subtle gore in his time, but as a rule he believed suggestion had greater impact. What could be creepier than one’s own imagination?

Well—maybe a lack thereof. A new breed of filmmakers was less convinced of the public’s ability to form their own picture and filled in the gaps for them. And it has to be said: some of all time’s most terrifying movies could not for the love of God be typified as “less is more” material. The tolerant spirit of the ‘60s and ‘70s opened up the door to new levels of carnage and exploitation, spawning a wide range of cinematic subgenres, from the zombie flick and the splatter movie to the Italian giallo and the occult thriller. Some of them were grounded in harsh realism, while others delved deeper into the fantastique for some old-fashioned grand guignol. Unapologetic nasties like Night of the Living Dead (1968), Straw Dogs (1971), The Last House on the Left (1972), The Exorcist (1973) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) pretty much put aside the idea that implying is more effective than showing. Across the Atlantic, European shock maestros Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento dispensed with suggestion altogether by serving piles of gore on a platter. No anticipation there: the audience is thrown before the wolves barely halfway into the first reel. Just the grueling details—on the double please!

Whereas Hitchcock usually chose to keep his audience in the know at the cost of revelation, this radical movement excelled in what Clive Barker, writer and director of Hellraiser (1987) and Nightbreed (1990), called “the Revelation Response”: the appeal of the morbid and surreal. “Appeal” may seem an odd word in reference to horrors designed to appall, but this paradox is integral to a concept that no longer strictly revolved around throwing the monster out, but embraces the monstrous as a part of ourselves—or in the case of Barker: invites a bunch of them over for an orgy in the dungeon to celebrate “the intricacies of perversity.”

This time, Hitchcock’s bomb under the table is exploding right before our very eyes and we’re forced to witness the anatomy of destruction. Hell unfolds in slow motion as we face the biggest threat of all: the Bitter End. We see body parts twitching, we smell the stench of burned skin and we hear the victim next to us utter his last breath. This is as close to a rendezvous with the Grim Reaper as we can get without actually having to stop living for it. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this is just the introductory scene. If our stomach is up to it, we can stick around to watch the decomposing corpses transform into flesh-eating creatures of the night…

Needless to say, this no-holds-barred mentality could not count on a lot of affection from the refined critical establishment: hence the generalization that an inordinate application of the gross and grotesque indicates an incapacity for building tension. That’s about as crude a statement as saying that pornography is unable to arouse. What it all boils down to, like it frequently does, is taste. There is plenty of tension left in the explicit, and the tremendous anxiety these graphic confrontations generate in the spectator can be attributed to our ambiguous response to the question: How much farther will this movie go, and do I really want to go there? Sure I do! Like hell I don’t! The Revelation Response taps into our darkest hopes and fears and beguiles and disturbs in equally extreme measures. Exactly the kind of push-pull attraction that keeps the hardcore crowd coming back for more. For recent evidence, look no further than Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000), Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002) and James Wan’s Saw (2004).

Echoing the bang: the Pavlovian Minefield

The element of surprise made an unexpected comeback in 1976, when audiences around the world were treated to the mother of all shock endings in Brian De Palma’s Carrie. It is fascinating to see how different De Palma’s surprise tactic was to the way suspense is achieved. Instead of building tension by feeding expectation, it sets the viewer at ease until it seems there’s nothing left to fear.

After a bombastic climax in which Carrie subsequently unleashes her full telekinetic powers at the high school prom to quite deadly effect, causes a fatal car crash, impales her God-fearing mother with a set of flying kitchen knives and gives up the ghost during an apocalyptic inferno, things finally seem to calm down. The night fades to black and sunlight appears, introducing the obligatory epilogue. Composer Pino Donaggio lays over one of his most soothing adagios as good girl Sue Snell, played by the angelic Amy Irving, strides towards us in a slowed-down pace. Sue is dressed in white, lensed in soft-focus, with her long, wavy hair lit up by magical backlight. Tears well up in her almond-shaped eyes as she bends down to lay some flowers on Carrie’s grave. We’re almost completely reassured: the nightmare is over… And just when a sigh of relief escapes our lips, Carrie’s bloody arm shoots out from the gravel and grabs Sue by the elbow. Then we wake up. And just like our reminiscence of an actual dream, it is only in hindsight that we recognize the surrealism of the scene.

It wasn’t until two years later, however, that surprise fully emancipated itself from the degradation it got from Master Hitchcock and evolved into a technique that deserves a category of its own. Halloween (1978) was danger stripped down to its bare essentials and taken to its extremes at once: Michael Meyers, a faceless, unstoppable murdering machine without a motive, was out on the loose. Turn the wrong corner and he’d be there to slice you to threads. Like Carrie, Halloween had its feet firmly planted in classic suspense, but it had more up its sleeve. While De Palma saved the best for last, John Carpenter was in a generous mood and perforated his narrative with “popcorn flyers” from beginning to end. He multiplied Hitchcock’s bomb under the table and changed it into a minefield, where every step you take can be your last. The trick payed off. Whereas Hitchcock mainly concentrated on the period leading up to the bang, Carpenter exploited the aftermath of the explosion. In the book John Carpenter: Prince of Darkness, he explained his method as such:

“I always thought that you could also have another effect on the audience if you blow the table up suddenly. If you do it suddenly, everything after that is changed a little bit. You won’t trust the movie anymore, and you will have doubts about what you think it will do. So you have a different level of suspense.”

Here is an example where suspense is generated by the apprehension of surprise. In a way, it’s the best of both worlds. The repetitive use of meticulously timed jumps as a tactic to evoke a nerve-wracking atmosphere has a lot in common with the famous way that Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov got his dogs to salivate at the ring of a bell, just because it was the sound they heard each previous time food was served. In the course of just one movie, Carpenter conditions his audience to recognize repeating patterns, like a catchy yet creepy musical cue or a slow crawl of the camera followed by a shock appearance of the killer, to elicit a trained reflex. By echoing what led to a bang before, the Pavlovian Minefield stimulates a feeling of dread that turns spectators into petty little Pavlov puppies, masochistically awaiting the next jolt to give them that much-expected rush of adrenaline. It is this roller coaster aspect that has made the Pavlovian Minefield so commercially lucrative. Halloween spawned not less than seven sequels and became the definitive blueprint for the slasher genre, resulting in highly popular franchises like Friday the 13th (1980-2001), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984-1994), Scream (1996-2000) and countless others.

Beyond the bang: the Cerebral Spiral

The next step in the evolution of cinematic tension came in the form of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). That may seem a bold statement now, but it was completely in line with expectation at the time. Kubrick, the genius director who redefined science fiction, black comedy and just about any other genre he cared to touch, was to adapt a bestselling novel by the new King of Horror, Stephen King. What could possibly go wrong?

Boy, were some people in for a disappointment. Sure, there was plenty to marvel at in Kubrick’s The Shining—the gliding Steadicam shots, the larger-than-life production design and a bone chilling score are the vivid marks of a master filmmaker working at the top of his game. But all the technical and artistic joie de vivre in the world can’t revive a graveyard of missed opportunities. Or can they? Critics called the film stagy, muddled, heartless, wordy, deliberately paced and poorly contrived; while many fans of the book simply found Kubrick’s adaptation not scary enough. Stephen King himself accused Kubrick of having no apparent understanding of the genre, and not entirely without reason. Here was a horror film with no suspense hooks, no cheap thrills, no gratuitous gore, no snappy editing, no catharsis—what in bloody hell was Kubrick thinking he was adapting: Jane Austen? King compared the film to “a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside. You can sit in it, and you can enjoy the smell of the leather upholstery—the only thing you can’t do is drive it anywhere.”

It makes you wonder what kept the engine running in King’s relentless page turner. The answer isn’t hard to find. As one of the finest practitioners of literary suspense, King never made a secret of it how much he values characterization. To use his words: “You have got to love the people… that allows horror to be possible.” Such a notion goes right back to the principles of Hitchcock, who frequently stressed that “fear depends upon the intensity of the public’s identification with the person who is in danger.” Audience identification: quite possibly the most fundamental ingredient for suspense. Identification? With these people? Kubrick makes it almost impossible for us to connect with the characters in his version of The Shining. Jack makes a pretty bonkers impression from the moment we lay eyes on him (not surprisingly, since Nicholson inhabited Milos Forman’s Cuckoo’s Nest five years earlier), and there isn’t a great deal to admire about his spouse Wendy either, who is neither pretty nor clever, and curiously devoid of female intuition. Sure, we care about the kid, but Danny’s split personality conversations with Tony—the boy that lives in his mouth—freak us out just as much. It’s not for nothing that King chose to portray Danny’s imaginary friend as a separate entity; that made his youngest character easier to like. And as far as the instantly sympathetic Halloran is concerned, well, you remember what happens to him…

It is evident that Kubrick had no intention to conform to expectations. He was following his own compass and waved a lot of the novel’s scare tactics good-bye. The question is why he seemed intent on poking fun at the rules of the genre, when he had such a fine example at his disposal. Such was King’s frustration that he initiated a four-and-a-half-hour TV mini-series that stayed faithful to the source material, aptly called Stephen King’s The Shining (1997). Nevertheless, even though King’s traditional emphasis on myth and psychology worked wonders for the novel, the same approach made the mini-series remarkably unremarkable. In fact, it only testified to the brilliance of Kubrick’s adaptation. Sometimes a different medium benefits from a different approach.

Since its initial lukewarm reception in 1980, the reputation of Kubrick’s film has steadily improved. Two decades after its release, British movie magazine Empire called out The Shining as the Scariest Movie of All Time, describing it as “the only horror film that gets scarier the more you see it.” The magazine had a point there: Repeated viewings of scary movies usually suffer from the Law of Diminishing Returns, but The Shining’s fear factor tends to grow with age.

True innovation always takes some getting used to: Kubrick’s film so drastically deconstructed the genre in which it operated that it falls flat when judged by conventional standards. That doesn’t mean it is a failure; it just means Kubrick once again altered the form to fit his idiosyncratic sensibilities. In this particular case, he moved the horror film beyond the primarily visceral level to the cerebral. What he ended up with in many ways represents the antithesis of King’s fiction. Taken on their own terms, though, the film and the book are equally frightening in a diametrically opposed fashion. Whereas the novel built suspense by means of interior monologue, Kubrick externalized the conflict and let his images do the real talking, the way a true visual stylist should.

Kubrick’s creation is open to an infinite number of readings, of course, but it’s fair to presume it is less about an all-American family being torn apart by a malevolent supernatural force than it is about, say, the trappings of social convention or one man’s struggle with his own insignificance. Jack suffers from some good-old existential angst, doomed as he is to aimlessly wander the inscrutable paths of Destiny’s maze, forever and ever and ever. Who can blame him, really, with the evil Overlook as his hermetically sealed universe. In nearly every shot, the hotel and its surroundings loom large over the Torrances, at once intimidating and claustrophobic. Kubrick frames the lobbies, rooms and corridors with an obsessive eye for realism and geography, consistently showing both the floor and the ceiling of each area through wide-angle lenses, as if we’re looking into a kid’s diorama. In sharp contrast with the almost reassuring use of darkness, shallow depth of field, skewed angles and subjective points of view that have become stereotypical of the Gothic haunted house flick, Kubrick disorientates the viewer with labyrinths bathed in broad daylight, crystal clear symmetry and curiously objective camerawork, evoking a distanced, Brechtian feel that in a substantial way discourages emotional involvement—the very purpose of suspense!—, and urges us to focus on the grander scheme of things. Meanwhile, page after page of dialogue is recited in long, lingering takes that would make Andrei Tarkovsky blush, giving the spectator oodles of time to contemplate the Big Picture. When Jack finally goes after Danny and Wendy, it’s not the sudden crush of his axe splitting through the door that forces an emotional response in us, and it’s not so much the apprehension of the kill or a lust for blood that gets us excited. Trivialities like these would only distract from what Kubrick sees as the real horror of the situation: the very idea of a father fucked-up enough to murder his own family. This Cadillac can drive alright; we just didn’t notice it moving.

Kubrick’s The Shining is constructed like a Cerebral Spiral that draws the spectator in with the kind of slow-burning tension that gets under your skin in retrospect, exactly because it appeals to sluggish thought processes rather than immediate instincts. By using our minds to trigger emotion, its scare tactic is considerably less direct than others, but those who are willing to take the detour are in for a long and bumpy ride. The thing about Kubrick’s bomb is that it’s not under, but on top of the table, where everyone including the protagonists can see it. We can try to defuse it, but we don’t know which wires to cut. We can try to escape the building, but we’ll get lost in its mazelike architecture looking for the Exit. And what’s more: that bomb on the table… it never goes off. Whereas the wicked in King’s novel comes from an external factor blown to pieces in the last act (along with the lost soul corrupted by its power), Kubrick’s film doesn’t offer such relief. Jack and the Overlook Hotel are not purged and destroyed in a climactic resolution, but literally frozen in time. There’s no release to the tension, no re-established status quo; Kubrick guides us all the way into his maze, offering endless possibilities for speculation, and then leaves us alone in a permanent state of uncertainty. Are we safe now or is the bomb still ticking? The epilogue only amplifies this lack of closure. When the camera closes in on Jack Torrance’s smiling presence in a group photograph taken in 1921, hanging in a corridor of the Overlook Hotel, does that mean he has found in reincarnation an escape route to the past, that his spectre has been absorbed by the hotel, or does Kubrick imply that time is of no relevance in purgatory? (Remember the words of Delbert Grady: “You have always been the caretaker.”) No matter what the answer is, the characters in The Shining are caught inside a perpetual loop, and each time we revisit their story, we enter a little lower on the downward spiral.

Few filmmakers had the balls to pick up on Kubrick’s groundbreaking experiment in fear, but some names should be mentioned. David Cronenberg’s filmography shifted from visceral to cerebral in the ‘80s and ‘90s, although the Canadian director never turned his back on the fetishistic body horror of his early work, which typically falls under the aforementioned Revelation Response category. Videodrome (1983), Dead Ringers (1988) and Crash (1996) flirt with cold existentialism in their own bizarre ways and share The Shining’s distancing storytelling techniques. So does the austere and highly disturbing Safe (1995), in which Todd Haynes terrorizes Julianne Moore as well as the viewer with a thought-provoking concept called “environmental illness.” To this day, the Cerebral Spiral remains the most easily misunderstood alternative to suspense. During a press-screening at the Venice Film Festival, Jonathan Glazer’s metaphysical Birth got booed by an audience that took its risqué subject matter at face value. Seasoned auteur Paul Schrader went through the humiliating process of having his finished film Exorcist: The Beginning rejected and completely remade by Renny “Deep Blue Sea” Harlin, for being introspective and cerebral instead of fun. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” Morgan Creek executive James G. Robinson told L.A. Weekly about his odd decision, “this is the entertainment business.” Coming from the man who brought us Freejack and Soldier, this is a notion decidedly scarier than the released end result.

Augmenting the Dread Palette

Fair enough: In the realm of audio-visual pyrotechnics, it is doubtful that filmmakers will ever discover a better recipe for gun powder than good old suspense. On the other hand, with a larger variety of alternative recipes to mix and mess around with, the door to a more lethal combination is still wide open. Hitchcock spent an entire career pioneering and developing devious cinematic devices as a means to thrill his audience in the most effective way possible. The thought of four daubs of extra paint on his Dread Palette might not have been so disagreeable to the Master of Suspense after all.

Alternative tension-building techniques like the Hidden Threat, the Revelation Response, the Pavlovian Minefield and the Cerebral Spiral do not undermine the strengths of the golden suspense formula, but they do enrich the filmic vocabulary. It is precisely this enrichment—a wider range of choice rather than the individual potential of said alternatives—that can be seen as progress. And progression is what this medium needs, for as any Latin professor can assure you: a language that stands still is a dead one.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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Review: Downtown 81 Celebrates a Bygone New York’s Creative Energy

This time capsule of bohemian New York distorts its representation of the city for reasons more loving than lazy.

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Downtown 81
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Todd Phillips’s Joker takes place in 1981, in a Gotham City meant to evoke the New York City of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s: garbage-strewn, violence-ridden, institutionally broken, on the brink of anarchy. But this vision of New York as a place where people live in perpetual fear is a cliché, a detail-absent caricature derived mostly from other movies, with Taxi Driver its most obvious reference and inspiration. Ironically, though not surprisingly, Joker can only simulate pre-gentrified Manhattan in its quest for “authenticity.”

The real New York of 1981 is the setting and subject for Downtown 81, a low-budget time capsule of bohemian Manhattan that distorts its representation of the city for reasons more loving than lazy. Like the city then, the film’s history is messy and beleaguered. The brainchild of French designer Maripol and her Swiss-born photographer husband, Edo Bertoglio, the film was written by cultural critic Glenn O’Brien and conceived in order to document the vibrant New York avant-garde scenes of the time. With a hip locale and cast, which included a pre-fame Jean-Michel Basquiat and several post-punk bands, it seemed primed for underground success, but post-production funding dried up and the film, originally titled New York Beat, was left incomplete until 1999. Unfortunately, in the intervening years the original dialogue recordings were lost, and since Basquist had died 10 years earlier, Saul Williams was hired to dub his voice, and the film was released to the public in 2000 as Downtown 81.

Downtown 81 frequently mythologizes its time and place. The “Once upon a time” prologue establishes this with a dreamy glide through the clouds and a female narrator intoning, “Any resemblance between the characters and the events depicted here and reality is purely magical.” The action occurs on a Lower East Side of demolished buildings and boarded-up windows that Jean accurately characterizes as looking “like we dropped a bomb on ourselves,” but while Jean is clear-eyed about the perils of the concrete jungle (“You can get anything you want here if you try,” he explains in voiceover, “You can get plenty of what you don’t want, too”), his adventures are often depicted as a series of urban whimsies through which he saunters as insouciant flâneur and DIY artist. He wakes up in a hospital for reasons unknown, gets evicted from his apartment, and encounters muggings, robberies, and hustles, viewing it all with utter nonchalance. The city takes care of its own, the film seems to say, and its moral and architectural degradations merely create occasions for reappropriative creativity, especially when Basquiat applies his absurdist graffiti to already heavily tattooed walls.

Like its occasionally wonky dubbing, this fairy-tale aspect of the film is sometimes endearing, sometimes irritating. Much of Downtown 81’s charm rests on having captured the thrill of art being created by like-minded weirdoes in their natural, incubating habitat, which means viewers get to see a Fab 5 Freddy rap session and a scintillating performance by James White and the Blacks, with White doing his best James Brown-by-way-of-Richard Hell routine. (Also performing in the film are DNA, the Felons, the Plastics, and King Creole and the Coconuts.)

But that charm fades in several frivolous asides, including a silly ending that has Debbie Harry transforming from bag lady to fairy godmother in order to provide Jean with a suitcase of money. This is supposed to resolve the film’s underdeveloped conflict—in which Jean must come up with roughly $500 to pay his rent, all while chasing a European model (played by Anna Schroeder) who might be his romantic and financial salvation—but it also marks the point where Downtown 81’s devil-may-care exuberance slides into a preciousness, and a sidestepping of reality, that’s no less juvenile for being 38 years old.

Other episodes work better, including one in which Walter Steding, of obscure No Wave band the Dragon People, recounts, in satirically mopey fashion, the indignities of life on the fringes of the music industry, vowing to never play again just before getting roped into another show moments later. And of course, there’s Basquiat himself, whose commanding presence as a neo-Beat wanderer and perceptual genius pervades every frame he’s in. As our guide, the easygoing yet street-wise Jean allows us to see the early-‘80s New York that’s been both romanticized and abandoned for its ubiquitous danger as a place where actual people lived, worked, and even thrived, his run-ins and shit-shootings with artist friends proving that New York City is more ragtag community of guarded aspiration than despair-plunging cesspool.

Ultimately, and despite its blind spots, Downtown 81’s gritty optimism in the face of unpleasant surroundings is a welcome reminder that, to quote Kurt Braunohler (which I admittedly learned from an NYCLink kiosk), “a true New Yorker doesn’t get ground down—he gets polished.” This is also a New York of the imagination—but a creative, not destructive, one.

Director: Edo Bertoglio Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 75 min Rating: NR Year: 2000

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Review: The Kill Team Seeks to Dispel the Illusion of a Clean War

This battlefront thriller has a clearer moral sense than other cinematic attempts to cope with the War on Terror.

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The Kill Team
Photo: A24

Based on true events from 2009, writer-director Dan Krauss’s The Kill Team suggests that the war in Afghanistan—America’s longest by an unhealthy margin—long ago reached the state of a self-perpetuating feedback loop. The story concerns a group of soldiers whose frustration and rage at the death of colleagues was channeled into a campaign of terror in the Kandahar countryside. Led and allegedly manipulated by a rogue commanding officer, the unit executed randomly selected villagers, framing them after the fact as insurgents by planting weapons next to their bodies and concocting false battle reports.

The Kill Team opens with the death of the team’s commanding officer, Sergeant Bruer (Zackary Momoh), who’s killed by an IED while offering candy to children. Throughout its telling of this and other events, the film sets up Private Andrew Briggman (Nat Wolff) as the audience’s surrogate, an eager and sensitive recruit who observes his fellow soldiers’ actions almost from an outsider’s perspective. He doesn’t smoke hash with his fellow soldiers, and he doesn’t, like them, begrudge the locals their differing traditions and language. He also doesn’t relish the opportunity to fight and kill. After Bruer is killed, his unit is assigned a new commanding officer, Sergeant Deeks (Alexander Skarsgård), an imposing, stone-faced figure who begins cultivating insecure attachments with the men under his command, bestowing and withdrawing favor at a whim in order to make them dependent on his approval.

While Krauss’s film examines the way that the young men’s subsequent embrace of an amoral warrior’s mentality leads to inhuman consequences, its reflection on both the inherent violence of war and the loss of a sense of mission among the occupiers remains incomplete. This battlefront thriller has a clearer moral sense than other cinematic attempts to cope with the conflicts formerly known as the War on Terror, such as Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, but it achieves this clarity largely by finding confining itself to a scenario with a clear moral dichotomy: that between the relatively innocent Briggman and the icy madmen Deeks.

In Deeks, the fictionalized version of the real commanding officer convicted of encouraging the young men to view all Afghans as animals, Krauss captures the sociopathy of a truly committed warrior. To play a killer who entices young men to join him in almost ritualistic slaughters, Skarsgård deploys the coldly attractive moral nonchalance familiar from his role as the vampire Eric Northman on HBO’s True Blood. “We kill people. That’s what we do,” Deeks explains softly and plainly to the uncomfortable Briggman at one point. Briggman averts his eyes, attempting to square the apparent truth of Deeks’s warrior philosophy with the “hearts and minds” mission his unit has often been sent out on.

Deeks turns missions into hunts, compelling the men under his command to find an Afghan man to be shot. In these scenes, which frequently cut away from the actual act—to, say, Briggman coming across the men discussing their cover, or to the body of an Afghan man lying on the ground behind them—we can see one end of a thread tying together American forms of authoritarian violence. The murder scenes captured from Briggman’s perspective on the margins, or just after the fact, strike an overtone that resonates with the police shootings and cover-ups that have triggered unrest at home while our Mideast wars have been raging.

The Kill Team gives us snapshots of a rural Afghan population whose hearts and minds are, as of 2009, very much not won over. Men and women alike shout fruitlessly in Pashto as their loved ones are pulled aside by the American soldiers. The trembling, battered face of a man picked up from the road outside the U.S. base, and whom Deeks attempts to convince Briggman to torture, is a powerful image that could stand as an indictment of the war itself. But the story limits its perspective to the experience of Briggman as he struggles internally, and in messages back home to his father, with what to do about the situation. The film’s focus on the private only becomes more acute as the circle around him tightens, the group of killers growing concerned that he will rat on them. The lives of the villagers killed becomes of secondary concern, as suspense in The Kill Team is increasingly driven by the question of whether Briggman will survive or be betrayed and murdered by his compatriots.

Krauss’s evident outrage at the commission of war crimes is something that’s sorely lacking in what meager public discourse about our continuing wars exists, but it doesn’t follow this outrage to what seems its logical, if radical ends. As the sergeant not entirely inaccurately asserts, the Army is there to kill. Given such a directive, perhaps liberal fantasies of a “clean war” are untenable. Warfare breeds bloodthirst; it produces people like Deeks. But despite glimpses of a larger critique of the American project in Afghanistan, and of the psychological and social sicknesses cultivated by two decades of continuous warfare, The Kill Team lets us escape from the horrors of war before it finishes demolishing the illusion of a clean one.

Cast: Nat Wolff, Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Long, Jonathan Whitesell, Brian Marc, Rob Morrow Director: Dan Krauss Screenwriter: Dan Krauss Distributor: A24 Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Black and Blue Provides a Quick Fix of Action-Movie Catharsis

The film’s command of action defuses concerns about whether it offers a thorough social critique.

2.5

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Black and Blue
Photo: Screen Gems

Deon Taylor’s Black and Blue is an intensely political, niche thriller that, if it generates much mainstream discourse, will likely spark angry boycotts from those on one side of the aisle and searing hot takes from those on the other. Step a few feet back from its fast-paced saga of a valiant solitary policewoman hunted through the streets of New Orleans as she attempts to return incriminating body-camera footage to her precinct and you’ll see a narrative that construes a cop as a Black Lives Matter hero simply for using her mandated body camera as she should. This is a major-studio film that may go further than many others, including Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, in implicating police forces as systemic perpetuators of white supremacy, but it’s also one that handles the representation of poverty clumsily at best.

What’s more, Black and Blue’s action-movie tropes redirect its characters’ mistrust of authority into a narrative that tacitly approves of the militarization of the police and society at large. These same tropes, though, are part of what defuses such concerns about whether the film offers a thorough social critique. Despite its real-world trappings, Black and Blue comes off as fantasy, a story with the exaggerated features and simple satisfactions of a dream. Crooked cops will get their comeuppance, prejudices will be upended, and those not yet beyond redemption will be redeemed. Beyond the film’s spurious messaging about finding a middle ground between being black and being “blue,” its extended chase through New Orleans’s 9th Ward might offer simple, effective action-movie catharsis to those who’ve been outraged by this decade’s flood of videos of police offers shooting unarmed black people.

Perhaps unintentionally, Black and Blue’s setting and action reminds us that, with the advent of body cameras, the sci-fi dystopias depicted in various films from the 1980s and ‘90s have come true. Resembling the A plot of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, the film’s main action is jump-started by the mafia-style execution of a young black man by police, an explosive event that’s captured on video by a woman wearing a camera. And in Black and Blue, that woman, rookie cop Alicia West (Naomie Harris), is also the one tasked with delivering the footage to the authorities. The shooting, committed by narcotics detective Terry Malone (Frank Grillo) and his circle of drug-dealing police officers, takes place in a scummy, abandoned factory, and when the assembled perpetrators notice the wide-eyed rookie filming them, they repeatedly shoot her. West unexpectedly survives, and so the film also brings to mind Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, another sci-fi classic that hinges on a piece of incriminating video footage.

Mostly shielded by her body armor but grazed by a bullet on her side, West somehow slips away from the murderous cops. Black and Blue tends to solve such narrative impasses via the magic of montage: We see West stumbling away down a passageway but don’t see exactly how she escapes. Now pursued by the extensive cabal of officers, she makes it to a convenience store where a childhood friend, Mouse (Tyrese Gibson), reluctantly helps her patch herself up. Mouse and the tight-knit community of the nearby Kingston Manor apartment complex, the film makes clear, don’t like cops; an earlier scene has Mouse and his sister, Missy (Nafessa Williams), refuse to acknowledge that they know West, who’s recently returned from two tours in Afghanistan after growing up in their neighborhood. As seen from the perspective of West and her partner, Kevin (Reid Scott), this impoverished area is full of shifty-eyed gangsters, and Black and Blue veers into problematic terrain early on when it lays ominous bass notes under close-ups of black men slinking around in and out of the cops’ view.

The filmmakers, though, deploy such hammy racism mostly to undermine it. Deacon Brown (James Moses Black), an officer who saves West from one of the aforementioned black youth, is quickly revealed to be part of Malone’s conspiracy, and therefore complicit in the murder of unarmed men and the attempted murder of West herself. While Black and Blue indulges some of the worst stereotypes about black poverty, the dehumanizing practices of the police are portrayed as the truly pernicious social force. And West must ultimately reintegrate herself with the film’s black community: After skirting from place to place within the 9th Ward, her ultimate recourse is to bring the body camera to Kingston Manor and let the people there, including the hot-headed local kingpin, Darius (Mike Colter), see the footage for themselves.

What follows is a fun, if muddled, climax that upends some of the expectations set by the bulk of the film. While Black and Blue is much more comfortable dispatching the gangsters who are trying to kill West than the cops shown to be their moral equivalents, the intense showdown at Kingston Manor proves that the film’s typical action-movie ethos of violent retribution can also extend to figures of authority. And while it settles in a place that offers a less probing critique of the status quo than its makers might be intending, its over-the-top climax provides a brief, cathartic release from the real-world issues its story raises.

Cast: Naomie Harris, Tyrese Gibson, Mike Colter, Frank Grillo, Reid Scott, Nafessa Williams, James Moses Black Director: Deon Taylor Screenwriter: Peter A. Dowling Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

These are the films from this millennium that have most shocked us by plumbing our deepest primordial terrors.

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The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century
Photo: Focus World
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 10, 2018.

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. Budd Wilkins


Them

50. Them (2006)

Hoody-clad sadists attack a couple, alone in their country home. That’s all the setup that co-writers/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud need to dredge up some uniquely discomfiting chills. You won’t be able to shake Them after seeing it because it’s scary without being grisly or full of cheap jump scares. Instead, it’s a marvel of precise timing and action choreography. The silence that deadens the air between each new assault becomes more and more disquieting as the film goes on. Likewise, the house where Them is primarily set in seems to grow bigger with each new hole the film’s villains tear out of. To get the maximum effect, be sure to watch this one at night; just don’t watch it alone. Simon Abrams


Black Death

49. Black Death (2010)

Grim aesthetics and an even grimmer worldview define Black Death, in which ardent piousness and defiant paganism both prove paths toward violence, hypocrisy, and hell. Christopher Smith’s 14th-century period piece exudes an oppressive sense of physical, spiritual, and atmospheric weight, with grimy doom hanging in the air like the fog enshrouding its dense forests. His story concerns a gang of thugs, torturers, and killers led by Ulric (Sean Bean), a devout soldier commissioned by the church to visit the lone, remote town in the land not afflicted by a fatal pestilence, where it’s suspected a necromancer is raising the dead. Dario Poloni’s austere script charts the crew’s journey into a misty netherworld where the viciousness of man seems constantly matched by divine cruelty, even as the role of God’s hand—in the pestilence, and in the personal affairs of individuals—remains throughout tantalizingly oblique. Nick Schager


The Invitation

48. The Invitation (2015)

The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan


Midsommar

47. Midsommar (2019)

Anybody who’s seen Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man or similar folk horror films will hardly be surprised by any of the plot turns in Ari Aster’s Midsommar. From early on, there’s no doubt that the pagan rituals at the film’s center will spell doom for the group of friends who visit rural Sweden in a quasi-anthropological attempt to observe a cult’s summer solstice festival. The film masterfully builds itself around the inevitability of a mass terror, aligning our foreknowledge of that with the anxiety felt by the main character, Dani (Florence Pugh), in the wake of a recent family tragedy. The result is a deeply unnerving film about the indissoluble, somehow archaic bond between self and family—one more psychologically robust than Aster’s similarly themed Hereditary. And it’s also very funny. Pat Brown


Mulholland Drive

46. Mulholland Drive (2001)

David Lynch’s meta noir Mulholland Drive literalizes the theory of surrealism as perpetual dream state. Told as it is using a highly symbolic, ravishingly engorged language of dreams, this bloody valentine to Los Angeles naturally leaves one feeling groggy, confused, looking forward and back, hankering to pass again through its serpentine, slithery hall of mirrors until all its secrets have been unpacked. Whether Mulholland Drive anticipated the YouTube Age we live in (and which Inland Empire’s digital punk poetics perfectly embody) is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that this movie-movie will continue to haunt us long after Lynch has moved on to shooting pictures using the tools of whatever new film medium awaits us—tools that he will no doubt have helped to revolutionize. Ed Gonzalez


Sinister

45. Sinister (2012)

Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Calum Marsh


Maniac

44. Maniac (2012)

Made in collaboration with Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, and with the sort of fearless artistic freedom often allowed by European financing, Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac begins with a psychopath’s synth-tastically scored stalking of a party girl back to her apartment, outside which he cuts her frightened scream short by driving a knife up into her head through her jaw. The film deceptively delights in capturing the mood of an exploitation cheapie before latching onto and running with the conceit only halfheartedly employed by William Lustig in the 1980 original, framing the titular maniac’s killing spree—this time set in Los Angeles—almost entirely from his point of view. A gimmick, yes, but more than just a means of superficially keying us into the psyche of the main character, Frank, an antique mannequin salesman played memorably by a minimally seen Elijah Wood. As in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, this approach becomes a provocative means of sympathizing with the devil. Gonzalez


Depraved

43. Depraved (2019)

What does a Frankenstein figure look like in 2019? According to Larry Fessenden’s Depraved, he’s a guy with war-addled, once-noble intentions set adrift by male ego and shady benefactors. He’s a white man grasping for control in a world coming apart, a cog in a machine who hasn’t broken free so much as changed the machine’s function—from that of war to that of the pharmaceutical industry. The film, Fessenden’s first feature as both writer and director since 2006’s The Last Winter, paints multiple psychological portraits that are sad, angry, and strangely beautiful. It shows us the mind of not just PTSD-afflicted field surgeon Henry (David Call), but also that of his prototypical sewn-together “monster,” Adam (Alex Breaux), and his assistant and Big Pharma bankroller, Polidori (Joshua Leonard). Throughout, the film it remains firmly focused on its thesis of Frankenstein as a lens for examining modern society. Fessenden catalogues what personalities and power dynamics have shifted and what hasn’t changed at all. He diagnoses the rot of our era through these solipsistic men that pour their prejudices and their insecurities into Adam, an open book eventually read back to its authors with a violence they cultivated themselves. Steven Scaife


28 Days Later

42. 28 Days Later (2002)

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is a post-apocalyptic zombie movie indebted to the traditions of John Wyndham and George A. Romero, opening with its young hero wandering abandoned streets calling out “Hello! Hello!” into the void. A marvel of economic storytelling, the film follows a handful of survivors that evaded a deadly “Rage” virus that tore across England, the riots and destruction that ensued, and the legion of infected victims who roam the streets at night for human meat. A bleak journey through an underground tunnel brings to mind one of the finest chapters in Stephen King’s The Stand; similar such references are far from being smug in-jokes, but rather uniquely appreciative of previous horror texts. The Rage virus itself feels particularly topical in our angry modern times. But maybe the more appropriate metaphor is that anyone who’s struggled through a grouchy, apocalyptic mood during 28 days of nicotine/drug/alcohol withdrawal will find their hostile sentiments reflected in this anger-fueled nightmare odyssey. Jeremiah Kipp


Piranha 3D

41. Piranha 3D (2010)

Piranha 3D tips its cap to Jaws with an opening appearance by Richard Dreyfuss, yet the true ancestors of Alexandre Aja’s latest are less Steven Spielberg’s classic (and Joe Dante and Roger Corman’s more politically inclined 1978 original Piranha) than 1980s-era slasher films. Unapologetically giddy about its gratuitous crassness, Aja’s B movie operates by constantly winking at its audience, and while such self-consciousness diffuses any serious sense of terror, it also amplifies the rollicking comedy of its over-the-top insanity. Aja’s gimmicky use of 3D is self-aware, and the obscene gore of the proceedings is, like its softcore jokiness, so extreme and campy—epitomized by a hair-caught-in-propeller scalping—that the trashy, merciless Piranha 3D proves a worthy heir to its brazen exploitation-cinema forefathers. Schager

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Review: Zombieland: Double Tap Shrugs Toward the End of the World

Behind the film’s self-awareness and irony is a hollow emotional core.

1.5

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Zombieland: Double Tap
Photo: Columbia Pictures

“Double tap,” the belated Zombieland sequel’s namesake, refers to the rule of shooting a zombie more than once in order to ensure that it’s dead. Like the rest of the rules devised by the series’s dweebish protagonist, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), it’s spelled out in large on-screen text, an amusingly self-aware touch in the original 2009 film that has, a decade later into our irony-poisoned present, lost its luster.

Part of that is because the sequel highlights these rules more frequently and prominently, injecting them with flashy text effects that are more distracting than funny. But it’s also because self-awareness doesn’t feel nearly as refreshing as it did in 2009, with seemingly every big studio movie nowadays winking and nodding at audiences, trying to swaddle us in layers of protective irony (that writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick went on to script the vacuous Deadpool films is no accident). Zombieland: Double Tap effortlessly operates in the same groove as the original, but that’s less a compliment than a measure of a failure to evolve.

Revising the world of Zombieland feels like returning to a television program you gave up on watching; though the cast has aged, the character dynamics remain largely the same, if slightly more exaggerated and perhaps overly familiar. Boisterous gunslinger Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) is a little more cartoonish now, while Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) is all grown up. She’s more than old enough to drive, and thus old enough to run away with a pacifist hippie, Berkeley (Avan Jogia), prompting Columbus, Tallahassee, and conwoman Wichita (Emma Stone) to track her down. They’re a makeshift family now, despite still referring to one another by the city aliases that were meant to prevent getting too attached.

A newcomer to their group still goes by her real name, Madison (Zoey Deutch), and as a caricatured dumb blonde, she typifies much of the film’s easy, uninspired comedy. The supremely overqualified cast powers through tiresome, pop culture-laden exchanges via sheer charisma; Stone, though unfortunately reduced to playing a “jealous girlfriend” type, is particularly expressive. But returning director Ruben Fleischer, despite pairing with the usually excellent cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, too often shoots the actors in close-up, robbing much of the film of the chemistry that the actors display in wider shots.

Double Tap also plays unthinkingly into the zombie fantasy as survivalist gun porn, even going so far as to add a Gen Z commune of idiot pacifists who melt down guns into peace symbols. This sequel, however, is too mediocre for such an idea to register with more than a shrug. The film isn’t using the concept to make a point, after all; behind the self-awareness and the irony is merely a hollow emotional core, a lack of anything to say because saying something would require ambition rather than complacent winks and nods.

Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone, Rosario Dawson, Zoey Deutch, Avan Jogia, Luke Wilson, Thomas Middleditch Director: Ruben Fleischer Screenwriter: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Dave Callaham Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Transforms Thorny Folklore into Fluff

In transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product.

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Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“Once upon a time…or perhaps twice upon a time, for you may remember this story,” begins the voiceover narration of Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. To its credit, the film opens by addressing the elephant in the castle: that we, as modern filmgoers, surely know this story well, through all its incarnations as old-fashioned fairy-tale romance and as insipid CG action-fantasy. But this sequel’s attempt to deflect attention from its own tiresomeness only highlights the cynicism of a corporation that insists on franchising the reboots of its adaptations—on repeating the process of filtering the imaginative irrationality of folk tales through layers upon layers of calculation.

Angelina Jolie returns as Maleficent, once one of the most deliciously evil villainesses in the Disney canon, who now—like Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West—has been reduced to a mildly grumpy environmentalist. Disney has erected a mythos around the character to explain her malevolent deeds—or rather, to expose them as truly good. Channeling themes of historical revisionism and post-colonial white guilt, the Malefi-verse positions its title character as defender of the marshlands known as The Moors and its multifarious magical inhabitants, the Dark Fey, against the incursions and crimes of the late-Renaissance Europeans who live nearby. In the film, whose subtitle has virtually nothing to do with its plot, she’s supplied with an army of fellow Feys primed to resist the destruction of their native lands by greedy humans. The deviousness suggested by Maleficent’s occasional wry, sharp-toothed smiles and curling horns is hardly on display in her actions, which have thoroughly virtuous motivations.

Mistress of Evil posits a “true story” behind the official one recorded in the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, as rather than persecuting the princess subsequently known as Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent has adopted her and raised her. Aurora (Elle Fanning), though she’s grown up among the Fey, has fallen in love with Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). Throughout, we’re given little evidence of their mutual attraction beyond the fact that they’re both young humans, though Joachim Rønning’s film does attempt to elicit our sympathies for their union with an early scene that stages a YouTube-ready surprise proposal. Though she harbors doubts about this union, Maleficent initially tries to play the good mother, reluctantly accepting the match. But then, at the engagement dinner, Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), frames Maleficent for the sleeping curse that befalls King John (Robert Lindsay). Wounded in the subsequent confrontation, Maleficent flees and finds herself in an enclave of other vulture-winged, goat-horned Feys, led by Borra (Ed Skrein) and Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

As played by Jolie, Maleficent is less a character than a pose. Rather than suggesting potency and confidence, the character’s impassiveness conveys indifference, a disinterested neutrality that emanates from behind Jolie’s green contacts and prosthetic cheekbones. Neither Maleficent’s anger at the humans who framed her nor her muted concern for the oppressed Fey succeeds in selling the clichéd plotline concerning indigenous rebellion. As debate rages in the ranks of the outcast Fey regarding a prospective uprising against the murderous humans—the screenplay, of course, makes Conall’s plea for a moderate response to creeping genocide more appealing than Borra’s call for a revolution—Jolie’s perpetually cool persona fails to anchor our feelings in the fate of the forest’s denizens.

The rebellious Fey recruit Maleficent for the same reason that the humans fear her: the magical powers she possesses. Yet Maleficent’s powers are ill-defined, the magical green tendrils that extend from her hands little more than a reference to visual effects devised for Disney’s classic animated Sleeping Beauty from 1959. But aspects of the magic in Mistress of Evil still draw inspiration from its diluted source material: the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale classic that the animated film was based on. In that story, the wise woman’s curse not only puts the princess to sleep, but also freezes all life in the castle in place and envelops the structure in an impenetrable thorn bush. Many princes attempt and fail to forcibly enter the castle, hacking away at the bushes, but after a century, the brambles open up on their own, at last allowing a prince to enter the princess’s chamber, so to speak.

In Mistress of Evil, we see the character that Disney has dubbed Maleficent deploy similar magical effects to much less metaphorical ends: She freezes a cat in the air mid-pounce to protect her were-raven familiar, Diaval (Sam Riley), and she conjures up spindly thorn branches to shield herself and Chonall from a volley of crossbow bolts. The filmmakers, no doubt, see such references to the original tale as forms of felicitous homage, but in transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product. The film arranges a marriage between fairy-tale motifs and a CG-algorithm-driven plot that’s as bland and arbitrary as the one it stages between its nondescript human couple, processing thorny folklore into smooth, consumable pop culture.

Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Ed Skrein, Harris Dickinson, Robert Lindsay, Warwick Davis Director: Joachim Rønning Screenwriter: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, Linda Woolverton Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: Tell Me Who I Am Feels as One-Sided as the Curated Lie at Its Center

By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the scope of their abuse.

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Tell Me Who I Am
Photo: Netflix

When Alex Lewis was 18 years old, he was involved in a motorcycle crash that left him with a severe case of amnesia. When he awoke in a hospital following the accident, he couldn’t recall where he lived or who his friends were. He didn’t even know his name. As for the woman babbling and pacing around the foot of his bed, he was taken aback to learn that she was his mother. The only thing Alex did remember was that the young man standing before him, Marcus, was his identical twin, and that they had a special connection.

Upon returning to their family estate, Marcus began the lengthy process of reacquainting Alex with the particulars of his life, as well as re-teaching him the basics, like how to tie his shoes. And through it all, Marcus did his best to present a rosy picture of their parents, assuring Alex that their mother, Jill, was “cool” and that they took nice vacations to France when they were kids. It wasn’t until after their parents’ death that Alex began to suspect that their upbringing may not have been as pleasant as Marcus suggested. And after Alex discovered a cabinet full of sex toys in Jill’s room and a photograph of him and his brother naked with their heads torn off, the horrible truth began to dawn on Alex: that he and his brother were sexually abused by their mother. Marcus would go on to confirm the abuse but refused to provide additional details, leaving his brother with questions that would haunt him for years.

Based on a book co-written by Alex and Marcus, Ed Perkins’s Tell Me Who I Am tells the brothers’ story with an Errol Morris-lite mix of expressionistic reenactments and interviews in which the subjects speak directly into the camera. Like the similarly themed Three Identical Strangers, the film parcels out disarming hints and shocking revelations at a steady clip, with a view toward maximizing the emotional impact of the material. It’s undeniably effective and affecting, escalating toward a harrowing confrontation-cum-reconciliation between the two brothers in which Marcus finally reveals the full horror of what they endured as kids: that, in addition to being abused by their mother, they were subjected to sexual assaults at the hands of multiple abusers, in what essentially amounted to an elite pedophilia ring.

In its richer, more rewarding moments, Tell Me Who I Am hints at the complex relationship between memory and identity. Alex relies on photographs to fill in the blanks in his memory, and yet, these seemingly objective recordings of the past, curated for him by his brother, are as conspicuous for what they reveal as for what they don’t. (As Alex muses at one point, “We take photos of weddings. You never take photos at funerals.”) But for a film about the power of getting a full and accurate accounting of the truth, it’s frustrating how little Tell Me Who I Am reckons with its own revelations. By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the sheer scope of the boys’ abuse.

Tell Me Who I Am hints at the brothers having been caught up in a seemingly extensive sexual abuse ring, one involving aristocrats and at least one well-known artist, all of whom remain unnamed. It’s a scandal reminiscent of recently exposed conspiracies of silence that surround wrongdoing, such as those involving Jeffrey Epstein, Jimmy Savile, and the Catholic Church. And while Perkins’s film wants us to believe that the brothers’ saga reaches a definitive conclusion when they tearfully embrace after Alex learns about what happened to him, it leaves the viewer with a host of unanswered questions. Who exactly was part of Jill’s social circle? How extensive was Alex and Marcus’s abuse? Were there other victims?

Even a cursory glance at news articles about the men and reviews of their book suggests how much Perkins has massaged the details of the Lewis brothers’ lives to craft his sleek, emotionally punchy narrative. From watching Tell Me Who I Am, one wouldn’t know that there was at least one other confirmed victim: Alex and Marcus’s younger brother, whose existence the film doesn’t even acknowledge. By forcing Alex and Marcus’s story into such a rigidly linear narrative of redemption, the film ends up losing sight of its subjects altogether, reducing them to mere representations of its core theme: the brother who wants to learn about his past versus the brother who’d rather keep it buried.

That’s why Tell Me Who I Am’s attempt to end on a note of closure—“It’s over finally,” Alex says, as the camera tracks away from the house where he was abused—comes off as phony. Perhaps Alex feels that he finally understands who he really is, but the film leaves us with so many unanswered questions, it’s hard not feel that the picture we’ve been given of these men is nearly as misleading and incomplete as the one Marcus provided to Alex all those years ago.

Director: Ed Perkins Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Gloss of Stuffed Is at Odds with Taxidermy’s Inherent Boldness

Erin Derham’s unadventurous aesthetic inoculates her from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.

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Stuffed
Photo: Music Box Films

Erin Derham’s Stuffed opens with a montage of the various taxidermists she profiles throughout her documentary. This opening lays bare the film’s argument in unmistakable terms: that taxidermy is an art form, closer to the work of Tim Burton than that of Norman Bates. But it also exposes the film’s most unbearable flaw, as Derham supports her hagiographic argument by sewing together her case studies with a relentless, and relentlessly generic, score that speaks to her devotion to formula.

It’s an unadventurous formula at odds with the documentary’s attempts to establish taxidermy as a highly complex, anti-paradigmatic endeavor involving great amounts of scientific precision, as well as creative audacity and whimsical experimentation. Derham insists so much on taxidermists’ labor being more than the mere production of replicas that her refusal to adopt a more playful aesthetic approach as she portrays the quirky imagination of taxidermists feels like equivocation. It’s as if she approached the documentary’s making with thick rubber gloves, thus inoculating herself from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.

This may be the result of a certain courting, conscious or not, of digital streaming platforms through the mimicry of impersonally glossy production values. In any case, it leaves the viewer in a position akin to that of the fussy eater trying to pick unwelcomed ingredients out of their food. We want to savor the taxidermists’ artistry, except the clichéd polish that envelops the film keeps getting in the way. It’s an artistry that’s bold by design, as the taxidermist utilizes dead matter not with the utilitarian goal of resurrecting it, but as raw material to sculpt something altogether new. If the Paris Museum of Hunting and Nature invited artists Sophie Calle and Serena Carone in 2018 to intervene in its collection of retired guns and taxidermic realism precisely because of the unusual juxtaposition of conceptual art and refurbished dead matter, moose in red gowns and all, Stuffed defines taxidermy itself as already marrying fanciful concepts with the illusion of beastly or avian resurrection.

Taxidermist Madison Rubin tells us she loves “seeing the insides and the anatomy of things” as she skins 11 ermines with the meticulousness of a sculptor, or a dollmaker. Others evoke the resurgence of taxidermy, which used to be particularly popular in the Victorian era, in these times of digital de-materialization. And some attest to the specificity of the medium—how no other art form can convey texture the way taxidermy does. Yet Derham seems more invested in glossing over the numerous chapters she’s divided the film’s narrative into than in exploring the depths of her story. Taxidermy and sustainability, taxidermy and climate change, the ethics of taxidermy, taxidermy and museums, taxidermy as a business, taxidermy in fashion—all of these get addressed too rapidly, sometimes in just a couple of minutes.

The rush feels particularly unfortunate when Derham turns her attention to rogue taxidermy, a Lynchean subgenre located at the intersection of dioramas, cabinets of curiosities, and surrealist art. Here, Calle and Carone’s red ballgown-wearing stuffed roadkill would feel right at home—that is, delightfully out of place in the world. Instead, Stuffed quickly continues in its quest of a happy, peppy denouement to match the pristine porelessness of its sheen.

Director: Erin Derham Distributor: Music Box Films Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Trick Will Treat You to Meatheaded, Commentary-Free Ultraviolence

Patrick Lussier’s film is an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy.

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Trick
Photo: RLJE Films

In the 2000s, a film company called the Asylum flooded Blockbuster shelves with “mockbusters”: cheaply produced, straight-to-DVD knockoffs of box-office dominators with titles such as Transmorphers, Ghosthunters, and Snakes on a Train. Patrick Lussier’s horror mystery Trick feels like an Asylum spin on Todd Phillips’s Joker, as both are about marginalized white guys who paint their faces, start killing people, and become kings of the incels. But where the licensed DC spinoff is an irresponsible and irredeemable pity party for a creep, this cheap lookalike is just an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy, assembled crudely from horror and cop-movie clichés.

Trick opens with a handy list of the dictionary definitions of its title, hinting at the filmmakers’ estimation of their target audience’s intelligence. Trick is also the name of the film’s villain, short for Patrick (Thom Niemann), an 18-year-old who, on Halloween night in 2015, attends a party with his classmates in their Hudson Valley town. During a game of spin the bottle—played with a knife—Trick is pressured to kiss another dude but instead starts stabbing and slashing everyone. (The subtext of repressed homosexuality is never alluded to again in the film.) Incapacitated and brought to urgent care, Patrick breaks free from his restraints and drops more bodies until police shoot him repeatedly in a hallway, knocking him out of a second-story window, neatly alluding simultaneously to both John Carpenter’s original Halloween (the defenestration) and Rick Rosenthal’s 1981 sequel (the hospital setting). Trick staggers to the river and vanishes, presumed dead.

But more killings follow, on or around Halloween, in towns downriver from the first. Detective Mike Denver, the only cop who believes Patrick survived, is played by Omar Epps, who credibly delivers preposterous dialogue like a pro. In the film’s most ludicrous killing, Trick uses a crane to swing the tombstone of an F.B.I. agent (Vanessa Aspillaga) he murdered the year before through the windshield of a car in order to smash a wounded police officer (Dani Shay) sitting inside, a scene Denver sums up to a colleague: “He murdered your deputy with the gravestone of a fed I got killed. Who does that?” Then, after a beat, “What does that?”

Good question. To be scary, a horror villain needs either to be a credible menace or tap into a more primal social fear. But Trick is just implausible. He’s resilient like Rasputin, more violent than a rabid animal. At a time when cellphones and social media are ubiquitous, no one ever got a photo of him, and his classmates can barely even describe his features, just that he was smart as fuck—like, smarter than the teachers. The film shows off his far-fetched cleverness when he kills a different F.B.I. agent (Robert G. McKay) with a Rube Goldbergian guillotine involving a sharp wire, a utility pole, and a bundle of cinderblocks. Its employment makes for Purge-level spectacle without the social commentary to back it up. The beheading is just meatheaded ultraviolence—as inane as any other aspect of Trick.

Cast: Omar Epps, Ellen Adair, Kristina Reyes, Tom Atkins, Max Miller, Thom Neimann, Jamie Kennedy Director: Patrick Lussier Screenwriter: Todd Farmer, Patrick Lussier Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Robert Forster: Winning in the Late Innings

The Oscar-nominated actor brought a sense of honor and dignity to every role he played.

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Robert Forster
Photo: Miramax

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive opens with a nighttime ride into oblivion. A limo drifts through the lightless void of the Hollywood Hills, red taillights burning in the blackness. An enigmatic woman, ebony hair and curvaceous red lips lending her the air of a tragic beauty, sits in the back by herself. The limo pulls over, and after the woman says, “We don’t stop here,” the driver aims a gun at her, but a gaggle of joyriding kids comes speeding around the curve and crashes into the vehicle. The woman climbs out of the wreckage stupefied and traipses into the hills, leaving behind the mangled metal and bodies.

Soon, a stoic detective arrives on the scene. He looks like a lawman, serious, a little sad, his face etched with the wrinkles of time. He examines the cars, offers a few terse observations, gazes out at the nocturnal city sprawling before him. It’s Robert Forster’s only scene in the film, and it’s an indelible one, imbued with mystery and menace, an attempt to explain the unexplainable. Saying fewer than 20 words and appearing in only a handful of shots, he exudes an air of wisdom and weariness—that of an indolent man who’s seen some shit and knows the horrors lurking ahead. In a film of dreamy logic and ineffaceable images, Forster’s taciturn detective acts as the final glimpse of reality before we slip into a world of Hollywood hopes and fantasy.

Forster, who died of brain cancer at the age of 78 this past Friday, was a prolific actor who experienced a remarkable second act in his mid-50s after giving a deeply empathetic and vulnerable performance as a love-struck bail bondsman in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film populated by wounded characters leading unamazing lives, and who aspire to transcend mediocrity. “My career by then was dead,” Forster told the AV Club’s Will Harris in a 2011 interview. “No agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing…I could not believe that he [Tarantino] was talking about the Max Cherry role.”

Like so many of Tarantino’s films, Jackie Brown is replete with colorful, loquacious characters whose banter is clever, trenchant, and self-referential, but Forster’s Max Cherry is reserved and crestfallen, a man who’s settled into complacency and finds in Pam Grier’s flight attendant an unexpected inspiration. It’s one of American cinema’s great unconsummated love stories. Forster is a subtle actor, playing Max as an Everyman who chases people for a living but never seems to find what he’s looking for, and who willingly embroils himself in a dangerous situation because of love. He’s smart, self-sufficient, a decent guy, and yet for Jackie Brown he’s willing to risk his life, or whatever mundane existence he calls a life.

Forster was one of those great actors who appeared in far too few great films. His filmography is rife with bad films, though he was invariably a dependable presence in everything he did. He began his career promisingly, with a supporting role in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, and earned renown for his turn as an ambitious and ill-fated news cameraman in Haskell Wexler’s incandescent Medium Cool. He played a private eye in 1930s Hollywood in the show Banyon (his role in Mulholland Drive almost feels like a brief homage to the short-lived series) and appeared in a slew of genre movies for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s. Of note is Lewis Teague’s Alligator, in which a gargantuan reptile terrorizes a city, William Lustig’s nihilistic grindhouse flick Vigilante, and a rare villainous turn in Delta Force, opposite the indefatigable Chuck Norris.

It wasn’t until Jackie Brown and his subsequent Oscar nomination that Forster reentered the public consciousness. The way Tarantino exhumes old, often “trash” films when crafting his paeans to moving pictures, he also has a preternatural skill for resurrecting the careers of forgotten or faded actors. Tarantino fought for Forster to get the part. When news of Forster’s death went public, the director said in a statement:

“Today the world is left with one less gentlemen. One less square shooter. One less good man. One less wonderful father. One less marvelous actor. I remember all the breakfasts we had at silver spoons. All the stories. All the kind words. All the support. Casting Robert Forster in Jackie Brown was one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life. I will miss you dearly my old friend.”

Forster appeared in a panoply of listless films and television programs throughout the 2000s (his appearance in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants in 2011 being an exception) but became a household face again in 2018, when he took on the role of Sheriff Frank Truman, Harry S. Truman’s brother, on the third season of Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Whereas Michael Ontkean exuded a mercurial youthfulness on the original series, that of a warm-hearted, just man capable of fiery spontaneity, Forster plays the elder Sheriff Truman rather pensively, sagacious and serene. Which is to say, he acts with the wisdom accrued by experience.

Forster also appeared in a season five episode of Breaking Bad, as a vacuum store owner and “disappearer” named Ed who helps Bryan Cranston’s Walt change identities. A stable presence amid the histrionic theatrics that defined the show’s approach to acting, Forster gives an understated performance and a sense of the real-world left behind by Vince Gilligan’s increasingly combustible melodrama. Forster reprised the part this year in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, the actor’s final screen credit. In a film-stealing scene, Forster stands steadfast and stoical against Aaron Paul’s desperate, bedraggled Jesse Pinkman, refusing to perform his disappearing service over a $1,800 discrepancy. The viewer is, of course, rooting for Jesse, yet one can’t help but respect the conviction of Forster’s unruffled professional. The actor brings a sense of honor and dignity to the role, as he did with every role. Forster was a safe, reliable presence, someone you trusted, unflustered, earnest, whether he was fighting monstrous alligators or swooning after air stewardesses.

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