Propelled forward with an excruciating need to communicate, yet filled with so many thoughts clogging up his brain that he can only sputter out half-baked sentence fragments tethered together by apologies, Keith Sontag (played by Dore Mann) is the socially maladjusted main character of Frownland. The pivotal question any viewer has to ask before watching this uncompromising independent feature by first-time director Ronald Bronstein is whether they would want to spend even sixty seconds in his company.
He’s self-described as a “troll from under the bridge”, and the opening twenty minutes of the picture has this borderline incoherent creature desperately trying to connect with his catatonically depressed girlfriend Laura (Mary Wall).
In real life, we’d probably run away from Keith as quickly as possible. Even as a movie experience, Frownland presents as much a challenge to the spectator as getting into the world of Carol White in Todd Haynes’s Safe—and that film was an easier sell inasmuch as the halting, listless bourgeois housewife Carol was mostly framed in wide shots that set her against the backdrop of her sparse apartment or various banal landscapes. Frownland careens you around with Keith in extreme, distorted close-ups with a wide-angle lens. Shot in 16mm with unflattering naturalistic lighting and palpable grain, Frownland is underground cinema at its most feverish and spontaneous. When Laura disappears from Keith’s life, he throws himself at other unsuspecting friends-as-victims, who in various ways try to rid themselves of this pest.
It’s like watching Frankenstein’s Monster clumsily trying to make friends in an urban hell zone. Let’s pretend for a moment that Frownland, which might be described as a downbeat indie drama or a pitch-black comedy of embarrassment, is neither of those things, but instead a horror film. Even though there is no element of the supernatural and no mounting body count (unless you count the number of friends Keith loses during the running time), the mortifying events that unfold are of watching a monster walk among us. If we have sympathy for monsters, it’s because we recognize in them the most extreme limit of our own humanity.
Bronstein openly acknowledges the creature feature aspect of Frownland—the opening image is of Keith watching a B-movie monster flick on late night television. When you look at Keith in the tradition of monster protagonists, his misunderstood nature and desperation for love achieves a kind of pathos. That doesn’t necessarily mean we love him and want to hug him, either. We aren’t coddled by any cute or friendly tics in Keith, and we’re not invited to feel superior and mock him. Bronstein presents him, warts and all, and allows the viewer space to form their own conclusion.
A little over the halfway point of Frownland, the monster is temporarily abandoned in favor of a long digression following Charles (Paul Grimstad), Keith’s ego-centric roommate, who takes to the streets in search of employment after failing to generate any income to pay his bills. As Charles endures his own humiliations, it deepens our perspective on Keith. “At least he can survive in New York City, pay his bills,” said a colleague, in a tone of begrudging respect. Frownland doesn’t tell us what to think, or where to place our empathy, but it does ask challenging questions about our attitude towards others. By the climax of Frownland, are we rooting for Keith as he makes his last stand for self-respect, or do we want to see the villagers pick up torches and burn him? What are these attitudes of fear and repugnance, and why is it so uncomfortable to examine that part of our selves?
Made on an ultra-low budget with a crew of friends and cast largely comprised of non-actors, Frownland is also a testament to the integrity of do-it-yourself filmmaking. The scrappy film look immediately brings to mind cinéma vérité, and Bronstein cites George A. Romero, Frederick Wiseman and Mike Leigh as inspirations. The scenes were constructed during a lengthy, improvisation-based workshop that continued throughout the two-year plus process of making the movie. It was rewarding to discuss the process with Bronstein, as well as Frownland’s compelling themes. The filmmaker proved to be most sensitive, contemplative and articulate about this powerhouse debut.
How did Frownland come about?
When I got out of school, I felt pretty bankrupt sitting around trying to formulate or devise projects. I was going down the dead end path of comparing my work to what everyone else was doing, and figuring out how I could top it. I could never clear my head and tap into what represented me, and all the things I naturally brood about when I walk down the street. I’m not interested in straight autobiography, but I tried all these various methods to tap into something personal. I even got to the point where I was tape recording my life with a hidden microphone and transcribing the experiences I had that I thought were dramatic, and seeing if they had any life. Slowly, I started to find patterns with what I wedded to the page.
I had a wretched run in my twenties in New York. I don’t know if it’s my nature or if there’s something about living in a city like this that ferments how I feel about the world. You’re young, and surrounded by so many people, which can be dehumanizing. On the one hand, you’re crying out to connect, or you want a girlfriend. On the other hand you’re smushed in with people so closely that if you’re on the subway and someone’s arm rubs against you, it can feel repugnant. The operative traits in my personality at that time were insecurity and intolerance. Those things do not work together. They are working against one another. On one hand I was really judgmental of others, and on the other I was wanton of other people’s attention, and I wanted to explore that in my work.
I wrote this script, and that whole period was marked by a growing disenchantment with script writing in general, mostly because I am interested in capturing inflection, and how inflection forwards communication. Whether it’s my limitations as a writer, or limitations in the form itself, the script process is good for getting concepts and ideas down on the page, but I found it was impossible to capture the subtle dimensionality on the page, especially over ten different characters. The script felt leaden, and the thought of making an actor read that script felt humiliating, so I backed off of it.
This led to a kind of workshop where you developed the script using actors and non-actors, building characters, scenes and situations with them.
I decided I want to be as surprised by the process of making a movie as I am by life itself. I found people that I thought were suited to the roles, and would feed the ideas to them and build the characters and concepts with them. Through massive amounts of rehearsals I would flesh out those scenes and the ideas of those scenes—how best to communicate those ideas through their natural speech patterns—and then I would go home and transcribe those rehearsal sessions. I ended up with hundreds and hundreds of pages, which I would then pare down, so it was like writing with somebody’s brain instead of writing with a pen. Once I met Dore Mann (who plays Keith), he became the perfect conduit for whatever that sort of twisted inside-out insecurity was that I felt. This guy represented it much better than I could. He is an amazing guy, and is not the guy in the movie. It’s a performance, but he’s still tapping into something in himself.
Can you navigate me through your process? How did you work with these actors during the workshop?
In early Mike Leigh films, the performances he gets are the [high water mark] for me. They have a heightened, grotesque quality, but it’s so loaded with nuance that it feels real. It’s actually hyper-real. But he’s very tight lipped about his process. You hear he works for several months with actors doing character building, then he networks them, and there’s not much more that we know. I sleepwalked into my own version of that, working independently with each actor, going down all sorts of weird back alleys.
We talked about their job histories, personal histories, emotional histories, how they speak, how they think about the world, taking certain traits that are in the actual performer in real life and exaggerating them and bleaching away other ones that didn’t suit the movie’s needs. You got to the point where you could wind up the actor and send them off in any situation, and they would be able to react in character. After six months of work, you end up having this fully formed character that can react to any form of stimuli you throw at them.
As you’re building one character up, unbeknownst to that person, you’re building another character up in a way to insure that when you network them together, there will be friction. If I’m building up Keith’s character, and having him be hyper-neurotic about whether he will be able to pay his bills, you build up another character [in his roommate, Charles] that is almost pathologically cavalier about these things and feels a kind of entitlement about not paying his bills. When you put those two people together, you have instant conflict that you build into the rehearsal. This leads to the same kind of drama that was in the script, but it unfolds with much more subtlety.
Did non-actors take to these improvisatory methods?
If you look at the full gamut of human characteristics, most of us, myself included, exist in the middle. That’s what makes people functional members of society. Every once in a while you run into those who exist on the margins. They’re more intense, unstable, sensitive or stronger than you are. Those are the ones that, when you put them on the screen, will make the audience feel something, the way life makes us feel something. You can find that in someone who wants to be an actor, or in somebody who didn’t. It might even be harder, in some ways, to find that in professional actors. I’m looking to sculpt characters out of raw personality, rather than try and knock a square peg through the round hole of whatever character I have pre-conceived. Dore is an insecure person, but very confident about expressing that insecurity in front of a camera. He was hell-bent on taking what he felt were the ugliest sides of his personality and purging them in the movie.
How did you develop the relationship between Keith and his girlfriend Laura?
I wondered what kind of girl would want to spend time with someone like Keith? I figured it would be a younger person, someone in high school that was also a misfit. Keith presents himself so poorly in real life that I had them meet online. On the Internet, a relationship has an easier time growing, but on more false grounds. People have an easier time seeing what they want to see in the other person than they do when they are face to face. They started meeting online every night, with me supervising and setting up the time. She had her little AOL profile, and Dore contacted Mary online, in character, and before I knew it that relationship sprung to life. I have a couple of hundred pages of transcripts of all their emails and instant messaging and all that nonsense. It got to the point where this was getting interesting, and they decided to meet.
Again, in character, Dore was very nervous and excited about this, but the second that they met, everything started to fall apart very quickly. They just had no rapport, in a way that was interesting. I decided the entry point for them in the movie would be at a point where the relationship was beyond resuscitation. That’s what happened. Once something terrible happened with them, to the point where he thought he would never see her again, the movie starts at exactly that point where she shows up.
Frownland was excruciating for me to sit through at first, especially during that first 20 minutes. I was having a really tough time—and I can tolerate a lot. I can watch the slowest Iranian film where almost nothing seems to happen. I wouldn’t have bothered watching the rest if my editor hadn’t advised me to stick with it, and ultimately I’m glad I made the commitment. But plugging into Frownland is a huge challenge. Now, I understand that to some degree the movie was shot in sequence. Was the first thing you shot that handful of opening scenes between Keith and Laura?
For the most part, Frownland was shot in sequence. But that opening was not the first scene we filmed. More or less, each character arc was shot in sequence. It’s funny that you bring up Iranian cinema, or even the more modern equivalent of what is coming out of Asia right now, where it’s this sort of conceptualization of the quotidian. You’re watching somebody move through their apartment, making eggs in real time. But there’s something about those movies where they telegraph their intentions as art from the moment the movie begins. In a way, you feel in very safe hands. If you define yourself as an art enthusiast, you can relax into that because it is all framed under this conceptual veneer, for better or worse. I read this quote from Picasso on the back of a magazine that said good taste is the enemy of art, and feel like orientation is the enemy of art. It can help to be thrown out of your comfort zone a bit, and when a film telegraphs its intentions in a way that can be related to other movies, you can feel like you’re being enriched while at the same time being lulled into a very safe zone.
I was excited by the idea of tossing people into an experience that did not have those kinds of semaphores. Where you ask, “Was this good? Was this bad? Is this inept? Is this intentional? Is this a comedy? Is this a drama?” You’re forced to fend for yourself, in the hopes that it would make the film a more impacting experience. I’m not a cinephile, but there are some films and filmmakers I respond to very strongly, and they are very few and far between. I don’t necessarily look to film for my inspiration, but I am a projectionist, so almost involuntarily I am forced to look at movies all the time. At least, I see them—I don’t necessarily experience them, if you know what I mean. While editing Frownland, I was stuck in terms of where I should jump into the movie. [Around this time,] I was projecting Vertigo, where the opening credits are these spiraling graphics, and the movie is about watching, where for so much of the movie you’re watching somebody else watching something. The opening of that film trains you how to watch the rest of the movie. It’s sort of like the legend at the bottom of a map.
That got you to think about your own intentions of the film, and how you wanted to orient or disorient the viewer.
In life you rely on your intuitive faculties all the time to grasp what is going on around you. If you sit down on the subway and suddenly you’re eavesdropping on a domestic dispute between a man and a woman, they’ve been arguing maybe for 45 minutes before you arrived. They’re not going to back up and give you the information that you need. You end up extrapolating, and hooking in to nuances and inflections to pick up on what they’re talking about. “Oh, okay…they’re talking about this woman… They’re arguing about his mother, who’s maybe staying at their house…” In life, it’s very natural to engage in that process. Movies don’t seem to do that very often. The dialogue is organized to give the viewer information to make sense of it all. Since for so much of Frownland I’m putting the audience in a position where they’re extrapolating what’s happening onscreen, I decided to start with a moment at its most difficult. You have a very intense dramatic situation [between Keith and Laura]. Keith is a character that everybody wants to push away. He communicates so poorly that he’s unable to say what it is that would be necessary for the audience to understand the root of the conflict, and the people he’s with don’t want to give him the time or show him the sensitivity to allow him to get those words out.
You are filming these people very close, almost claustrophobically, with a wide angle lens that is slightly distorting. It makes things uncomfortable for the viewer, putting them right near people they’d generally want to run away from. In much the same way, if you really felt like you couldn’t stand being near those people on the subway, you’d flee. Your film is asking us to give time, energy and interest to someone we might not want to get to know, which is perhaps why several people have said they are frustrated or conflicted about Frownland.
With the subway scenario, unless I felt I was physically in danger, I can’t imagine a situation that I would not want to stick my face into, no matter how ugly it was. I can understand, when you’re dealing with mainstream movies, people are buying a ticket to go on a two-hour vacation, and I don’t mean that in a snobby way. But when you’re dealing with art films, I would hope or think that people want to go to the theater to confront and be confronted. Frownland confronts people with someone they might instantly dismiss, and traps them with that person, and hopefully there would be value to that. (pause) “Trap” sounds so negative…
The audience isn’t trapped, but the movie relentlessly puts the viewer close to Keith and Laura.
Most movies that focus on outsiders, losers or misfits tend to romanticize the character in a way that coddles the sensibilities of the audience, and makes them feel more tolerant of the character than they would be in real life. They appeal to the loser in everyone, and can give little tricks to the character to make them seem sympathetic. I was actively trying to avoid that. You run across people in life who seem off. The reaction this instills in you is almost Darwinian. Anyone who has ever worked retail knows exactly what I’m talking about. The kind of person who would stop you on the street and ask for directions, before you know it, before you’ve even thought about it, you instinctively find yourself saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t live around here,” even though you know exactly where they need to go. You want to get that person out of your territorial bubble. In life you can dismiss someone like that so easily, go about your business, and not really address whether that rejection was justified. By making the viewer spend time with someone like Keith, I hoped they would find grounds for sympathy, but not coerce someone into a sympathetic point of view. I mean, this guy is totally unable to read social cues, which isn’t a saintly quality by any means. But he isn’t a bad guy. He’s more of a lost soul.
Keith is self-described as a “troll under the bridge”, which is a way to view him. I interpreted the whole movie as what might happen if Mike Leigh directed a horror movie. The very opening image is of a monster movie that Keith is watching on television.
Yes, it’s a monster with a Stradivarius in his hand. Again, it’s this trick—can you think of a cheaper way to make the monster sympathetic or human? By throwing this violin into his hands and making him frustrated because his fingers are too oafish to be able to play? Frownland is trying to not make it easy for you in this way, but hopefully I put enough humor into the film to lubricate the experience for the viewer. That’s what I found, in terms of what tiny little cult has coagulated around the film. On repeated viewing, they can ease into it and actually enjoy the humor.
What is that laughter, though? Are they laughing at, or laughing with, or both?
Frownland jerks you around. You mentioned Mike Leigh just now, and there’s a real distinction to be made between his early films and late films.
Let’s use an early film as a reference. In his first feature, Bleak Moments, a mismatched couple is out on a date, eating dinner, and finding it very difficult to have a conversation. There’s a third person eating soup at a nearby table that may be eavesdropping on them. It’s a painfully funny scene, since we’re thrown into a socially awkward situation. I don’t know if I’d venture to say if we are laughing at them or with them, but we laugh because it is so identifiable and human.
You think of those situations in life where you feel so awkward and uncomfortable that you wind up laughing at exactly the wrong moment. It can be very memorable and funny in hindsight. Those are the experiences I turn into anecdotes and share with people I’m close with, and it turns them into almost enjoyable experiences. Leigh films from that early period are studies in that kind of discomfort. Do you remember the scene in Nuts In May when the two main characters coerce that guy [almost against his will] to sing that awful song about going to the zoo? It is completely uncomfortable. Even though I remember it as being funny, I probably didn’t feel mirth when I saw it.
The process of making this movie sounded, in some ways, horrifying. You had some seed money from a job you did in Sweden, came back to New York to start shooting, and quickly ran out of funds. From that point, every five weeks or so you would shoot a little bit more using whatever money you earned at your day job. That sounds like a blessing and a curse. You had the blessing of time, with a committed cast and crew, and the strong foundation of your workshops, but it also seems like an exhausting way of shooting something.
I work as a projectionist, and don’t make a huge wage. I realized if I worked six days a week, every five weeks I could afford to shoot a scene on film, and that meant we could rehearse for five weeks. The scenes would steep, and the characters would go to new and richer places. It was helpful in that way, but I felt like I was constantly feeding the monster. I don’t think I could work that way again. There’s something genuinely debilitating about being moored to the same limited set of ideas for a five-year period. By the end of the process I was drained, and could think of nothing less interesting than these ideas. But on the positive side, I was building a method that I can apply now to future projects. It’s a miracle that I ended up with something that people like, because the whole thing was an experiment and I was feeling my way through the dark.
You make a bold choice halfway through, veering off of Keith’s story and following his roommate Charles. Why did you go in that tangential direction?
Most movies set up their conflicts in the beginning and you’re always one step ahead. I liked the idea of this unwieldy departure, where the audience might wonder if the main character will come back. Also, while I was making the movie, I realized that I needed a break from Keith. But we still needed to move forward and, in some way, have Keith grow. I was able to explore the same themes by following Charles, only instead of being hyper-inarticulate we dealt with someone who was so good at words. By the time we reach the end of this section with Charles, we see the same dynamic we found with Keith. For the audience, maybe it feels good sometimes to see Keith get swatted like a fly, but why does it also feel good to watch the guy who swats him also get swatted?
Let’s talk about your choice to shoot on 16mm. One would assume it would be easier to shoot on video, but film has its own allure and a kind of grainy, raw, smoldering look.
Filmmakers at age 23, 24, 25 were born into a world where video is there as an option. They don’t have to rationalize the aesthetic choice of shooting on video. I’m in my thirties. When I went to school, and started thinking about making movies, there was a different [set of rules]. There was this Sundance model, which is the $30,000 dream—now a completely outmoded thing. You would go into massive credit card debt to make this one film and hope it [propels you forward] into the world of being a filmmaker. By the time I got around to making a film, I never rethought that model. I don’t know if I’m just stubborn and don’t adapt well to new ideas and changes, but I didn’t really feel like I had a choice. I have a relationship with 16mm, especially with the raw, craggy, homemade looking 16mm projects. After years of watching movies and knowing how the industry work, you know the more staunched and uncompromised your vision, the less money you have to make your project. That leads to certain kinds of technical flaws, like going down from 35mm to 16mm, or smaller crews with less time and care put into the lighting and sound. But when you form a relationship to these movies, where you really want to see bizarre labors of love over commercial fare, that technical shoddiness reads as raw, uncompromised vision. You can manipulate that simply by having a look that is raw and unpolished, it joins a tradition of films that stuck to their guns. It was a tradition I wanted to join in.
You worked with a very small cast and crew. What are your Frownland colleagues up to? Some of them are making movies.
[My director of photography] Sean Williams became the chief archivist for [documentary filmmaker] Albert Maysles and started shooting projects for and with Maysles. He’s continuing to do that, and when he returns from shooting a movie in France he’ll be directing his own, which we’ll all help out on. It will be his turn. [Our sound guy] Ignacio Carballo is halfway done with his feature, but he’s on my time schedule, shooting on 16mm and paying for it himself, so I’m not sure when he’ll be done with it. Meanwhile, my wife Mary learned about filmmaking by acting in Frownland and said, “Look, as an experiment, for literally no money, let’s make this script I wrote in five weeks as opposed to five years.” The same basic crew that worked on Frownland worked behind and in front of the camera. The movie is called Yeast, my wife directed it, and it is going to premiere at South by Southwest in competition. It was nice personally for me, you can think you’re a filmmaker because you’re working on one film, but unless you’re making movies, shooting something, or working on something all the time, you’re not really a filmmaker. I was only a filmmaker in name, and working so long on the same project fostered my lack of confidence. Yeast was a way for me as a collaborator with her on this project to hit reset. David Sandholm, who plays Keith’s “friend” has a band called The Roller Treadway, which is sort of taking off. Paul Grimstad (who plays Charles) is a literature professor at Yale right now. Dore has moved away from performing and into social work. He works for a needle exchange program at a suicide hotline. So everyone is off following their own bizarre-muse right now.
Every James Bond Theme Song Ranked
From Shirley Bassey to Billie Eilish, we’ve ranked all 24 Bond themes from best to worst.
Each new James Bond theme is almost as eagerly anticipated as the films themselves. While the franchise’s producers have often thought outside the box when choosing singers to headline each film’s soundtrack, they’ve increasingly skewed toward newer artists like Billie Eilish, who joins the ranks of musical vets like Shirley Bassey, Paul McCartney, and Madonna to provide the theme for the newest installment in the series, No Time to Die.
A willingness to adapt to the times, straying from the established formula of bombastic orchestral pop, has produced both hits (Wings’s art-rock-inflected “Live and Let Die”) and misses (the adult contemporary schlock of Rita Coolidge’s “All Time High”). Occasionally, the producers have returned to the template established by Bassey’s “Goldfinger” with similarly mixed results, from Lulu’s campy “The Man with the Golden Gun” to Adele’s theatrical “Skyfall.”
The world’s most famous secret agent reaches a new milestone with No Time to Die, the 25th film in the official series, tentatively scheduled for release in April after being delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. To celebrate, we’ve ranked all 24 theme songs, excluding the original “James Bond Theme” and the instrumental title song from 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, both performed by the John Barry Orchestra. Sal Cinquemani
Editor’s Note: Listen to our Bond Theme playlist on Spotify.
24. Sam Smith, “Writing’s on the Wall”
Sadly, the writing was on the wall as soon as Sam Smith turned in this narcoleptic take on a Bond song, from 2015’s Spectre. Largely an excuse for the kind of self-loathing romantic navel-gazing (“How do I live? How do I breathe?/When you’re not here I’m suffocating”) and empty showcasing of Smith’s vocal range that have become the singer’s stock in trade, “Writing’s on the Wall” has no real hooks or interesting textures. Instead, Smith relies on generic regal horns to announce an adult contemporary star at their commercial height who drank too much of their own punch. Paul Schrodt
23. Rita Coolidge, “All Time High”
The unfortunately titled Octopussy was the first Bond movie since Dr. No not to have a title track, and understandably so. Its theme, “All Time High,” sounds like an ABBA ballad with the wind knocked out of it. While the song’s lyrics gesture toward triumph and passion, its style is so languid that it leaves little impact even after repeat listens. When Coolidge sings, “Let the flight begin,” she doesn’t conjure the image of a pilot preparing for takeoff, but of a passenger popping a Dramamine. Her voice is soothing and pleasant, but ultimately the song’s greatest fault is that it simply doesn’t feel like a Bond song. Eric Mason
22. Lulu, “The Man with the Golden Gun”
Lulu’s theme for 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun is a pale imitation of Shirley Bassey’s imitable Bond vocal turns. Where Bassey embodied the films’ mix of sex, sorrow, and violence, Lulu sounds like she’s doing a highly unsteady stab at a coquettish burlesque routine—which, to be fair, could also describe the general aesthetic of numerous Bond films. Her attempt at a guttural low range is unlikely to unnerve a house cat, while her backing players try to revive the golden-age Bassey music with results that are quickly forgotten. Schrodt
21. A-ha, “The Living Daylights”
After a sufficient opening in which moody strings swell over a dark, driving bassline, A-ha’s theme for the first Timothy Dalton Bond film falls victim to an irredeemable ‘80s musical trend: a noodling synthesizer riff that attempts “sleek and sinister” yet comes off as a show-offy try-out for an Emerson, Lake & Palmer cover band. “The Living Daylights” never recovers, mostly because A-ha—best known for the unabashed romanticism of “Take on Me” and “Crying in the Rain”—are lovers, not fighters, while Bond is, of course, both. When lead singer Morten Harket uses his upper register to belt the chorus (“I’ve been waiting long for one of us to say/Save the darkness, let it never fade away”), he sounds like a self-remonstrating lost soul, not a hardened international secret agent. Michael Joshua Rowin
20. Gladys Knight, “License to Kill”
The phrase “License to kill”—referring to James Bond’s legal right as an MI6 agent to end the lives of human beings, and serving as the title of one of the grittiest, darkest 007 films—doesn’t exactly evoke the name Gladys Knight. Not just because the legendary Knight’s style is anything but raw and brooding, but also because her theme (as written by Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen, and Walter Afanasieff) for Timothy Dalton’s second and final Bond film in 1989 is fairly forgettable. Sounding more like an overproduced slow-dance number than an evocation of Bond’s rogue mission of revenge, “License to Kill” is only memorable for nicking the famous musical motif from Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” and necessitating royalty payments to the writers of that far better song. Rowin
19. Sheena Easton, “For Your Eyes Only”
Sheena Easton’s soft-rock power ballad matches the glossiness of For Your Eyes Only to deliver one of the franchise’s peak-‘80s efforts—which is to say, forgettable even when it’s viscerally pleasurable. Easton gives her all like she’s trying to steal Pat Benatar’s career, and the hook is catchy, even when the bland come-hither lyrics sound like they’re more appropriate for a Palm Springs timeshare brochure than a major feature film about a guy who kills people for a living. Schrodt
18. Tom Jones, “Thunderball”
After the success of “Goldfinger,” Eon Productions sought to produce another eccentric orchestral pop song with “Thunderball.” In fact, Shirley Bassey was slated to perform the original Thunderball song, “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” which arguably was even more committed to the “Goldfinger” formula than “Thunderball.” However, in a rush to replace “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” with a proper title track, songwriters John Barry and Don Black left Jones with little in the way of compelling lyrical content. The 1965 song would feel like a pale imitation of “Goldfinger” were it not for Jones’s imposing vocal presence and impressive conviction (Jones reportedly fainted while performing the song’s final note). Mason
17. Sheryl Crow, “Tomorrow Never Dies”
Sheryl Crow remains a surprising and controversial choice for a Bond chanteuse. Crow is best known for VH1-friendly rock, and her voice isn’t exactly sultry or powerful, qualities possessed by k.d. lang, whose own contribution to the Tomorrow Never Dies soundtrack was relegated to the 1997 film’s end credits. For her effort, Crow received opening-title honors but also a ton of flak: While appropriately breathy in the verses, Crow sounds strained when reaching for the high notes of the bombastic chorus. Still, “Tomorrow Never Dies,” co-written with producer Mitchell Froom, is a somewhat underrated Bond theme, containing a complex yet classy orchestral arrangement that feels timeless compared to the other electronica-inflected themes of the Brosnan era. Rowin
16. Duran Duran, “A View to Kill”
Synth-heavy and melodramatic, “A View to Kill” is the most deliciously ‘80s Bond theme. Simon Le Bon’s piercing vocals imbue the song with invigorating urgency, elevating an otherwise nonsensical collage of fire and ice and fatal kisses to a new wave banger. Like its accompanying music video, which predicted the advent of drone cameras, what “A View to Kill” lacks in timeless elegance, it makes up for in its undeniable, danceable charisma. Mason
15. Matt Monro, “From Russia with Love”
Matt Monro’s “From Russia with Love” marks the first specifically tailored theme for a James Bond film, though with only two efforts under its belt, the franchise was still refining its trademarks in 1963: Rather than play over the opening titles, the song is first heard within the film and then over its end credits. It also doesn’t possess the qualities audiences would soon come to recognize in Bond theme songs, with a sound more in the romantic vein of Frank Sinatra than in the adventure-oriented vein of, say, Tom Jones. In that sense “From Russia with Love” (as written by Lionel Bart) is a proficient number that nonetheless leaves the listener craving something with a little more muscle. Rowin
14. Louis Armstrong, “We Have All the Time in the World”
If Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in the World” doesn’t sound quite like a James Bond theme, that’s because it isn’t. It’s actually the “love theme” for the most romantic of all 007 films, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and appears during a montage sequence within the film, not during its opening titles. That said, the jazzy ballad (with music by John Barry and lyrics by Burt Bacharach collaborator Hal David) is perfectly lovely and, due to ironically foreshadowing the doomed fate of Bond’s bride and one true love, effectively heartbreaking—a quality made all the more poignant by a tender vocal performance by the legendary Armstrong in one of his last major recordings. Rowin
13. Carly Simon, “Nobody Does It Better”
There are great Bond songs, and then there are decent tunes that happened to become Bond themes. From 1977’s thoroughly dull The Spy Who Loved Me, Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” slots firmly into the latter category, as the low-key singer shows no interest in delivering the jolts or theatrics of the franchise, and a perfunctory mention of a spy in the lyrics comes off as a contractual obligation. But her piano bar-styled, true-to-brand saccharine vocals are undeniably sweet. Nobody does it better, indeed. Schrodt
The 100 Best Horror Movies of All Time
The good horror film insists on the humanity that’s inextinguishable even by severe atrocity.
One of the most common claims made about horror films is that they allow audiences to vicariously play with their fear of death. Inarguable, really, but that’s also too easy, as one doesn’t have to look too far into a genre often preoccupied with offering simulations of death to conclude that the genre in question is about death. That’s akin to saying that all an apple ever really symbolizes is an apple, and that symbols and subtexts essentially don’t exist. A more interesting question: Why do we flock to films that revel in what is, in all likelihood, our greatest fear? And why is death our greatest fear?
A startling commonality emerges if you look over the following films in short succession that’s revelatory of the entire horror genre: These works aren’t about the fear of dying, but the fear of dying alone, a subtlety that cuts to the bone of our fear of death anyway—of a life unlived. There’s an explicit current of self-loathing running through this amazing collection of films. What are Norman Bates and Jack Torrance besides eerily all-too-human monsters? Failures. Success also ultimately eludes Leatherface, as well as the socially stunted lost souls of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse. What is the imposing creature at the dark heart of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu? He makes for quite the presence, but his hungers ultimately lead him to oblivion.
So many films, particularly American ones, tell us that we can be whatever we want to be, and that people who don’t achieve their desired self-actualization are freaks. The horror film says: Wait Jack, it ain’t that easy. This genre resents platitude (certainly, you can count the happy endings among these films on one hand), but the good horror film usually isn’t cynical, as it insists on the humanity that’s inextinguishable even by severe atrocity. Which is to say there’s hope, and catharsis, offered by the horror film. It tells us bruised romantics that we’re all in this together, thus offering evidence that we may not be as alone as we may think. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: Click here for a list of the titles that made the original 2013 incarnation of our list.
100. Raw (2016)
As in Ginger Snaps, which Raw thematically recalls, the protagonist’s supernatural awakening is linked predominantly to sex. At the start of the film, Justine (Garance Marillier) is a virgin who’s poked and prodded relentlessly by her classmates until she evolves only to be rebuffed for being too interested in sex—a no-win hypocrisy faced by many women. High-pressure taunts casually and constantly hang in the air, such as Alexia’s (Ella Rumpf) insistence that “beauty is pain” and a song that urges a woman to be “a whore with decorum.” In this film, a bikini wax can almost get one killed, and a drunken quest to get laid can, for a female, lead to all-too-typical humiliation and ostracizing. Throughout Raw, director Julia Ducournau exhibits a clinical pitilessness that’s reminiscent of the body-horror films of David Cronenberg, often framing scenes in symmetrical tableaus that inform the various cruelties and couplings with an impersonality that’s ironically relieved by the grotesque intimacy of the violence. We’re witnessing conditioning at work, in which Justine is inoculated into conventional adulthood, learning the self-shame that comes with it as a matter of insidiously self-censorious control. By the film’s end, Ducournau has hauntingly outlined only a few possibilities for Justine: that she’ll get with the program and regulate her hunger properly, or be killed or institutionalized. Bowen
99. A Bay of Blood (1971)
Compared to the other giallo films that comprise most of Mario Bava’s canon, A Bay of Blood (also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve) represents a more stripped-down and economic filmmaking from the Italian master. Notably absent are the supernatural undertones and fetishistic sexuality, and Bava even suppresses the vigorous impulses and desires that drive his characters to exteriorize their feelings in vicious bursts of violence by offering no valid (or convincing) psychological explanation. Despite being one of Bava’s simpler works, or perhaps because of that very reason, A Bay of Blood has proven to be the foremost progenitor of the slasher film, the one in which the Jason Voorheeses and Ghostfaces owe their blade of choice to. But it’s only the basic tenor of a psychopath slaying victims one by one that’s remained intact within the subgenre in the 40-plus years of this film’s existence. It’s in this film’s elementary plotting that Bava, by withholding information and leaning more on animalistic themes dictating bizarre character motivation, unveils a deceptive depth that the film’s acolytes can’t discern among the copious amounts of blood spilled within its frames. Wes Greene
98. Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
Throughout Alice, Sweet Alice, Alfred Sole paints a rich and febrile portrait of how society enables dysfunction on multiple fronts, from the domestic to the religious to the psychiatric. (The police are shown to be restorers of order, though they serve that function almost inadvertently.) The filmmaker also invests his narrative with references to classic horror films, most notably Psycho, though his own direction lacks Alfred Hitchcock’s polish, which in this case is a blessing. In the film’s best sequences, particularly the moments following Karen’s (Brooke Shields) murder, Sole allows for tonal inconsistencies that reflect the true shock of violence. In such instances, Alice, Sweet Alice turns momentarily shrill, with actors screeching their lines almost directly to the camera—a device that expresses pain and refutes the fashions with which many horror directors rush through the grief process haphazardly in order to move the narrative along. In other moments, though, Sole’s directorial control is magisterial. Annie’s (Jane Lowry) near murder, when she’s stabbed on the stairway, is framed in a prismatic image, with a mirror reflecting the assault back on itself and suggesting, once again, the intense insularity of this world. Bowen
97. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
“See me. See me now,” Gary Oldman’s undead vampire intones, so as to magically compel virginal Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) to turn his way on a crowded London street. The two wind up at a cinematograph, “the greatest attraction of the century.” The intersection of vampire and victim in front of a labyrinth of movie screens is telling, as Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the classic Bram Stoker material winds up collapsing history and cinema together. Coppola shunned budding CGI technology in favor of in-camera techniques such as rear projection (as when we see Dracula’s eyes fade in over the countryside, overlooking a callow Keanu Reeves) and forced perspective (such as trick shots using miniatures of castles, which seem to loom over the full-sized actors and coaches in the foreground). However flagrantly artificial and constructed, the whole film feels uniquely alive. Dracula has “crossed oceans of time” to find Mina, and Coppola shows how the cinematically preternatural similarly finds and seduces audiences—how movies offer their own sparkle of immortality. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is noteworthy for how un-scary it is, and yet Coppola’s fanciful movie tool-box conceits, in perfect sync with Oldman’s deliciously over-the-top performance, exert an overpowering sense of the uncanny. Like the vampire, the film infects us and offers an illusory respite from death. Niles Schwartz
96. Blood for Dracula (1974)
The horror of Blood for Dracula derives in part from director Paul Morrissey’s unique ability to meld social critique, gonzo humor, and gore into a genre piece that’s ambivalent about the passing of eras. Udo Kier’s Count Dracula, unable to find virgin blood amid the sexually active women of a 19th-century Italian family, finds himself quite literally poisoned by change. As Dracula vomits up non-virgin blood like water from a fire hydrant, Morrissey films Kier’s convulsing body not for campy laughs, but to highlight its anguish and deterioration. The opening shot, set to Claudio Gizzi’s tragic score, holds on Dracula in close-up as he delicately applies make-up. The film, far too strange to be flatly interpreted as a conservative lament for lost sexual decorum, convincingly focuses on the body as the root source of all humankind’s tribulations, whether in pursuit of pleasure or gripped in pain. Clayton Dillard
95. Martyrs (2008)
Writer-director Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs leaves you with the scopophilic equivalent of shell shock. The gauntlet that his film’s heroine, a “final girl” who’s abducted and tortured by a religious cult straight out of a Clive Barker novel, is forced to endure is considerable. Which is like saying that King Kong is big, Vincent Price’s performances are campy, and blood is red. Laugier’s film is grueling because there’s no real way to easily get off on images of simulated violence. The film’s soul-crushing finale makes it impossible to feel good about anything Laugier has depicted. In it, Laugier suggests that there’s no way to escape from the pain of the exclusively physical reality of his film. You don’t watch Laugier’s harrowing feel-bad masterpiece—rather, you’re held in its thrall. Abandon hope all ye who watch here. Simon Abrams
94. Night of the Demon (1957)
With Night of the Demon, Jacques Tourneur pits logic against the boundless mysteries of the supernatural, focusing not on the fear of the unknown and unseen, but the fear of accepting and confronting the inexplicable. After asking Dana Andrews’s comically hardheaded Dr. Holden how can one differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind, Niall MacGinnis’s wily satanic cult leader conjures up a storm of epic proportions to prove to the pragmatic doctor that the power of the dark arts is no joke. But the warning doesn’t take. Later, when a man is shredded to pieces by a demon, onlookers debate whether the death was a result of a passing train or something more nefarious, to which Holden retorts, “Maybe it’s better not to know.” Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, sometimes the easiest way to deal with the devil is to pretend he doesn’t exist. Derek Smith
93. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Guillermo del Toro’s films are rabid commentaries on the suspension of time, often told through the point of view of children. A bomb is dropped from the skies above an isolated Spanish orphanage, which leaves a boy bleeding to death in its mysterious, inexplosive wake. His corpse is then tied and shoved into the orphanage’s basement pool, and when a young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), arrives at the ghostly facility some time later, he seemingly signals the arrival of Franco himself. A rich political allegory disguised as an art-house spooker, The Devil’s Backbone hauntingly ruminates on the decay of country whose living are so stuck in past as to seem like ghosts. But there’s hope in brotherhood, and in negotiating the ghostly Santi’s past and bandying together against the cruel Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the film’s children ensure their survival and that of their homeland. Ed Gonzalez
92. Let the Right One In (2008)
Not unlike Matt Reeves’s American remake, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In is, in its color scheme and emotional tenor, something almost unbearably blue. When Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a 12-year-old outcast perpetually bullied at school, meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), the mysterious new girl at his apartment complex, one child’s painful coming of age is conflated with another’s insatiable bloodlust. The film treats adolescence, even a vampire’s arrested own, as a prolonged horror—life’s most vicious and unforgiving set piece. This study of human loneliness and the prickly crawlspace between adolescence and adulthood is also an unexpectedly poignant queering of the horror genre. Don’t avert your eyes from Alfredson’s gorgeously, meaningfully aestheticized vision, though you may want to cover your neck. Gonzalez
91. Black Cat (1934)
Based loosely on one of Edgar Allen Poe’s most disquieting tales, 1934’s The Black Cat is one of the neglected jewels in Universal Studios’s horror crown. Edgar Ulmer’s melancholy film is a confrontation between two disturbed World War I veterans, one warped by an evil faith and the other a shattered ghost of a man driven by revenge, and the young couple that becomes entangled in their twisted game. It’s a fable of modernity darkened with war, obsession, and madness. Much like the other tone poem of the Universal horror series, Karl Freund’s gorgeously mannered The Mummy, Ulmer’s deeply elegiac film is a grief-stricken work, a spiraling ode to overwhelming loss, both personal and universal. Josh Vasquez
90. Brain Damage (1988)
Throughout Brain Damage, Frank Henenlotter’s images have a compact and gnarly vitality. He frequently cordons people off by themselves in individual frames, serving the low budget with pared-down shot selections while intensifying the lonely resonance of a man set adrift with his cravings. Bria’sn (Rick Herbst) degradation suggests the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and the threat and alienation of AIDS lingers over the outré, sexualized set pieces, especially when Brian cruises a night club called Hell and picks up a woman, who’s murdered by Aylmer (voiced by John Zacherle) just as she’s about to go down on Brian. The most hideous of this film’s images is a shot of the back of Brian’s neck after Aylmer—an eight-inch-or-so-long creature that resembles a cross between a tapeworm, a dildo, and an ambulant piece of a shit along the lines of South Park’s Mr. Hanky—has first injected him, with its cartography of blood lines that are so tactile we can nearly feel Brian’s pain as he touches it. Such moments hammer home the unnerving simplicity of the premise, likening drug addiction to volunteer parasitism, rendering self-violation relatable via its inherently paradoxical alien-ness. Bowen
89. Gremlins (1984)
Outlining his customary commentary on American society via an artistry informed by influences ranging from B horror films to Looney Tunes, Joe Dante satirizes our neglect of rationality under rampant commercialism through the nasty titular creatures. All raging id, the Gremlins want nothing more than to indulge in every vice that our increasingly corporatized culture has to offer. The resulting anarchy unleashed by the Gremlins during the yuletide season is appropriate, considering they were created when Zach Galligan’s Billy, like an official advocating free-market deregulation, ignored foreboding warnings that terror would occur if he had just stuck to the three simple rules of caring for Gizmo, the cutest of all Gremlins. Wes Greene
88. Angst (1983)
Gerald Kargl’s Angst is a 75-minute cinematic panic attack. Body-mounted cameras, high-angle tracking shots, amplified sound design, and a bone-chilling krautrock score swirl together to create a manic, propulsive energy that’s as disorienting to the viewer as the implacable urge to kill is for Erwin Leder’s unnamed psychopath. Angst elides all psychological trappings, instead tapping directly into this all-consuming desire for destruction on a purely physiological and experiential level. Kargl’s camera prowls around Leder’s madman like an ever-present ghost—a haunting, torturous presence that captures every bead of cold sweat, each anxiety-ridden movement, and the agony of all his facial expressions as he tracks his prey. Angst is as singular and exhausting an account of psychopathy as any put to celluloid, thrusting the viewer helplessly into discomfiting closeness with a killer without attempting to explain or forgive his heinous acts. Smith
87. The Devils (1971)
Ken Russell brings his unique sensibility, at once resolutely iconoclastic and excessively enamored of excess, to this adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s nonfiction novel The Devils of Loudun, which concerns accusations of witchcraft and demonic possession that run rampant in an Ursuline convent in 17th-century France. Like Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General, and set in roughly the same time period, Russell’s film serves as an angry denunciation of social conformity and the arbitrary whims of the political elite that effectively disguises itself as a horror movie. By brazenly conflating religious and sexual hysteria, and depicting both with his characteristic lack of restraint, Russell pushes his already edgy material into places that are so intense and discomforting that the film was subsequently banned in several countries and is to this day still unavailable on home video in a complete and uncut version. Budd Wilkins
86. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Before the flourishing digital age paved the way for social-media naval-gazing, YouTube, and selfies galore, The Blair Witch Project foreshadowed the narcissism of a generation, its success unsurprisingly paving the way for an army of imitators that failed to grasp the essence of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s terrifyingly singular and effortlessly self-reflexive genre exercise. The heartbreaking fall from sanity experienced by the trio of naïve filmmakers preys with ecstatic precision on our most instinctive fears, building to a rousing crescendo of primordial terror that’s arguably unrivaled by anything the genre has seen before or since. Rob Humanick
85. Who Can Kill a Child? (1972)
Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? takes its time building a mood of palpable dread, eking menace out of every social encounter faced by a British couple, Tom (Lewis Fiander) and Evelyn (Prunella Ransome), vacationing on the coast of Spain. When they charter a small boat and travel out to a remote island village, the streets are curiously empty and the only residents seem to be sullen, introspective children. Ibáñez Serrador methodically draws out the waiting game, and as the kids gather their sinister forces and close in on our unsuspecting couple, a moral conflict arises. The adults are forced to contemplate the unthinkable, doing battle with the little monsters and struggling with the notion that they may have to kill or be killed. Tom manages to get his hand on a machine gun, and he carries it around with him protectively as the audience wonders to themselves how he’ll answer the question posed in the title. Whether or not the answer surprises us during these cynical times, the aftermath is as disarming as it is disturbing. The closing 10 minutes come from a different era in filmmaking, when horror movies could spit in the eye of the status quo and say that good doesn’t always prevail, no matter how much we’d like it to. Jeremiah Kipp
84. The Haunting (1963)
Cacophonous knocking, inexplicable coldness, and doors that have a habit of opening and closing when no one’s looking—the horrors of Hill House are almost entirely unseen in Robert Wise’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s famous novel The Haunting of Hill House. But they’re nonetheless chillingly tangible, brought to life by The Haunting’s supercharged production values: Elliot Scott’s dazzlingly florid interiors; Davis Boulton’s swooping, darting wide-angle cinematography; and, most of all, a quiet-loud-quiet sound design that suggests the presence of the spirit world more forcefully than some corny translucent ghost ever could. The film’s oh-so-1960s psychosexual subtext may be slightly under-baked, but that only serves to heighten the verisimilitude of its supernatural happenings. After all, there are some things in this world even Freud can’t explain. Keith Watson
83. Häxan (1922)
Near the conclusion of Häxan, an intertitle asks: “The witch no longer flies away on her broom over the rooftops, but isn’t superstition still rampant among us?” Such a rhetorical question is in keeping with the implications of Benjamin Christensen’s eccentric historical crawl through representations of evil. Though the film begins as something of a lecture on the topic of women’s bodies as a threat, it morphs into an array of sketches, images, and dramatizations of mankind’s fundamental inability to conceive itself outside of power and difference. Contemporary footage of insane asylums and women being treated for hysteria confirms a truth that’s still with us, nearly a century later: that the horrors of the past are never so far away. Dillard
82. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
John Carpenter’s 1995 sleeper is a lot of things: a noir, a Stephen King satire, a meta-meta-horror workout, a parody of its own mechanics. Carpenter can’t quite stick the landing(s), but watching his film twist and turn and disappear inside of itself as it twists its detective thriller beats into a full-on descent into the stygian abyss proves consistently compelling. Perhaps the best tack is that of Sam Neill’s driven-mad investigator, pictured in the film’s final frames hooting at images of himself projected in an abandoned movie theater. Perhaps the best way to enjoy In the Mouth of Madness is to relinquish your sanity, losing yourself inside of its loopy, Lovecraftian logic. John Semley
81. Near Dark (1987)
The zenith of a career phase defined by sneakily subversive genre films, Kathryn Bigelow’s melancholic Near Dark remains a singular milestone in the evolution of the vampire myth. It’s a delirious fever dream grounded periodically by masterfully constructed scenes of carnage and the rooting of its mythology in the period’s twin boogeymen of addiction and infection. An excellent cast of pulp icons—Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen are particularly unhinged—bring restless energy to the story of itinerant vampires cruising the neon-soaked highways of a beautifully desolate Southwest. It’s Gus Van Sant through a Southern-gothic haze, thrumming with an urgency bestowed by Tangerine Dream’s score and thematic heft alike. Abhimanyu Das
Every Janet Jackson Album Ranked
We took a look back at the icon’s catalog and ranked all 11 studio albums from worst to best.
Janet Jackson’s music career can be easily partitioned into three eras, with her commercial peak (from 1986’s Control through 2001’s All for You) bookended by her early, pre-breakthrough period on one side and the years following her infamous Super Bowl performance in 2004 on the other. There’s perhaps no better testament to the power of Janet’s breakthrough album, Control, as a quintessential statement on personal and artistic self-actualization than the still pervasive misconception that it’s her debut, with 1982’s Janet Jackson and 1984’s Dream Street relegated to the singer’s “prehistory.” But while it should surprise absolutely no one that the quartet of albums that Janet released during her imperial phase handily top this list, her most recent effort, 2015’s Unbreakable, was an understated return to form, reuniting the artist with longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
Janet’s follow-up, Black Diamond, was scheduled for release this year before the Covid-19 pandemic dashed those plans. While we await word on the fate of Janet’s 12th studio album—and accompanying concert tour—we’ve decided to look back at her catalog and rank all 11 albums from worst to best.
11. Dream Street (1984)
Before Janet struck multi-platinum with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, she briefly partnered with another famous production pair, Giorgio Moroder and Peter Bellotte. With the exception of the title track, though, the legendary disco duo’s contributions to Janet’s sophomore effort, Dream Street, fell far short of their iconic work with the likes of Donna Summer. Janet’s least successful album isn’t without its pleasures though: Produced by brother Marlon, “All My Love to You” successfully apes Off the Wall-era Michael, while the sexy, nearly seven-minute “Pretty Boy”—courtesy of Jesse Johnson, who, along with Jam and Lewis, was part of the Time—provided a glimpse of things to come in Janet’s own oeuvre. Sal Cinquemani
10. 20 Y.O. (2006)
20 Y.O. was the first Janet album that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis produced (this time only in part) after moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. As a result, their ice-cold beats melted into a lugubrious, lukewarm pudding (at under an hour, it still feels almost twice as long as janet. and The Velvet Rope). I don’t know what co-producer and Janet’s then-boyfriend Jermaine Dupri thought he meant when he said he wanted 20 Y.O. to sound like an old Human League record, but I’ll readily admit that the evidence on display suggests he was the only one with the foresight to come up with some new old ideas, even if none of them work to Janet’s advantage. The album’s desperation is that of a dance icon who once sent one hot track after another to the top of the charts and is now deciding she liked the idea of being at the top of the singles charts better than creating immortal dance music. The grindcore “This Body” brings the fugly with surprising abandon, throwing hissing industrial clatter atop an admirably tuneless dirge (you hardly realize it’s a way-late bid in the chopped n’ screwed sweepstakes until the 16 RPM guest rap drops in). “Enjoy” is a seamlessly smooth step groove aboard R. Kelly’s “Step in the Name of Love” boat, but its presence here only makes the likes of “Get It Out Me” and “Roll Witchu” seem all the more opportunistic. Eric Henderson
9. Janet Jackson (1982)
If on its own terms Janet’s self-titled debut has nothing on what was to follow, it’s nonetheless a pretty solid snapshot of the post-disco boogie sound. At least, that is, for the duration of side one, where singer-songwriters René & Angela (best known for their steamy funk workout “I’ll Be Good”) serve Janet with three equally perky-cute dance-pop ditties, and one halfway decent ballad. Janet was clearly still finding her voice, but the snappy backing track of “Say You Do” could easily have slotted into the Jacksons’s 1980 album Triumph, and “Young Love” has the confident pristineness of a Patrice Rushen jam. Things get pretty generic on side two, but two or three deep cuts from an artist who came out of the gate only half-formed ain’t half bad. Henderson
8. Discipline (2008)
The title of Discipline was encouraging for those who prefer Janet taking control and cracking the whip (both as leader of her rhythm nation and the boss of her bedroom) over the vapid, single-girl come-ons of her previous three albums. Disappointingly, though, the title track doesn’t hark back to the self-empowerment of Control, but rather the S&M of The Velvet Rope. Lyrics like “Daddy, I disobeyed ya/Now I want you to come punish me” invite all kinds of psychoanalysis that only grow more disturbing when you remember who her daddy really is, which would be fascinating if she hadn’t already written the sexier (and less creepy) “Rope Burn.” If one were to try to identify some kind of evolution in Janet’s latest bout of dirty talk, it might be sex with robots. Throughout the album, she talks to and interacts with a rather compassionate computer DJ named Kyoko, and her voice is robotic and synthetic on tracks like “Feedback” and the Daft Punk-sampling “So Much Betta”—not necessarily such a bad thing for an artist whose vocals often consist of unintelligible murmuring. Cinquemani
7. Damita Jo (2004)
At some point during the afterglow of adolescent sexual discovery, most people realize that there are more important things in life than getting off. Like Marvin Gaye, Janet got it backward, spending most of her post-Rhythm Nation career searching for, publicly relishing, reflecting on, and then lamenting one giant, decade-long orgasm. The singer’s eighth album, Damita Jo, features a slew of the gooey, structureless sex ballads that had become her staple, including “Warmth,” three-and-a-half minutes dedicated to describing how Ms. Jackson If You’re Nasty gives a blowjob (and yes, she’s a method actress, whispering sweet nothings with her mouth full). Even the dance numbers don’t stray from her topic of choice. Janet’s infamous wardrobe malfunction is commonly cited for her career’s precipitous decline, but her inability to evolve beyond her sex kitten persona is more judiciously to blame. Cinquemani
NewFest 2020: Dry Wind and Alice Júnior Take Aim at the Patriarchy in Brazil
It’s a provocative juxtaposition for Dry Wind to stage its queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.
Daniel Nolasco’s Dry Wind and Gil Baroni’s Alice Júnior, both screening in the international section at this year’s NewFest, are refreshing in no small part because they find two Brazilian filmmakers telling stories set in regions of their country that are cinematically underrepresented and largely unknown to international audiences. Dry Wind, for one, takes place in the rustic countryside of the state of Goiás, known for its cowboy iconography, livestock music festivals, and extremely conservative politics. It is, then, a provocative juxtaposition for Nolasco to stage his queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.
Dry Wind follows the routines of a community of factory workers in the rural city of Catalão, where sex between soccer-loving men who wouldn’t hesitate to call themselves “discreet” always seems to be happening or about to happen. These torrid trysts mostly take place in the woods, on bare soil or parked motorcycles, and involve piss, ass-eating, and face-spitting. Throughout, Nolasco’s frames are also filled with much hair—hairy faces, butts, and backs, suggesting a queer sexuality cobbled together with the coarseness of the men’s local environment, despite the clearly foreign influence of Nolasco’s hyper-stylized aesthetics. The film’s drama lies in the decidedly Brazilian-ness of the arid landscape, the provincial accents, and the scruffy faces framed by a mishmash of international visual references whenever horny bodies escape to act out queer desire: from Tom of Finland to Tom de Pékin, from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle.
Nolasco alternates between explicitly sexual, neon-colored sequences that veer toward complete dreamscapes and the kind of European-film-festival-courting realism that Brazilian cinema is known for. The contrast can be quite bewildering, so much so that viewers may wish that Dry Wind would remain in the realm of reveries. Instead, Nolasco often tries to reassert Dry Wind as a film with an actual plot. In this case, it’s one that has to do with jealousy, or the impossibility of intimacy in such queer configurations where sex is public only if it’s clandestine but affection must be refused for the sake of social survival. Apart from a needless plotline involving a homophobic assault, it all makes perfect sense. But the film’s most interesting moments emerge precisely when it surrenders to the presumably illogical strangeness of erotic fantasy.
For instance, when Sandro (Leandro Faria Lelo)—who regularly has sex in the woods with a co-worker, Ricardo (Allan Jacinto Santana), after their shift at the factory—happens upon what looks like a leather bar, the place turns out to be an empty construction site where queer archetypes—the harnessed master, the puppy slave, the drag-queen hostess—are there to perform for Sandro and Sandro alone, in a mix of silent performance art and interactive pornography. In another moment of poetic-pornographic license, an evident nod to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, a generically bearded hunk (Marcelo D’Avilla) with chained nipple clamps comes out of a man-made lake, ready to take Sandro into the water for an ecstatic drowning.
Significantly more comedic, Alice Júnior focuses on a trans wannabe influencer, Alice (Anne Celestino), and her perfumer of a father, Jean Genet (Emmanuel Rosset), who move from Recife to a small town in the south of Brazil. Subtlety isn’t Baroni’s aim, which is clear in the film’s social media-like sense of pace and aesthetic bells and whistles, as well as in the obvious trans metaphor built into the narrative premise. Alice and her dad have to move down south because he wants to develop a new fragrance using pine cones local to the region, whose fruit only comes out if the person blowing through the cone has discovered the pine cone’s real essence.
One becomes accustomed to the film’s initially annoying incorporation of social media language into its aesthetic, such as the emojis that pop up on the screen whenever Alice does something or other, because it mirrors the interface through which contemporary teenagers animate everyday life. But Alice Júnior visibly struggles to differentiate itself from a soap opera. The over-the-top acting (the villains speak like Cruella de Vil) is technically in line with Baroni’s animated Insta-grammar, but it becomes a problem when the film tries to tap into something other than its cute flamboyance. The film reaches for pathos only to find tinsel instead.
As fun as Alice Júnior can be, it’s at its core a typical Brazilian kids’ movie, in the vein of on-the-nose fare about enjoying life but not doing drugs that Brazilian megastar Xuxa put out in the 1980s and ‘90s, except queered by its trans protagonist and the visual language of the times. It wears its pedagogical message on its sleeve but is betrayed by a lack of substance. Alice is at once a naïve little girl yearning for her first kiss from a boy and a queer activist with an arsenal of didactic one-liners at the ready. This means some of the plot doesn’t feel credible, as Alice masters LGBTQ resistance discourse perfectly in her interactions both on and offline, but prefers pissing her pants during a class exam, which naturally becomes a viral video, than demanding her right to use the women’s restroom. At times she’s a woke warrior, and at times she’s a helpless little girl.
Alice Júnior only manages to transcend its sparkling surface in a few sequences where it pitches itself at grownups. In one, Jean Genet gets drunk with Marisa (Katia Horn), the kooky mother of one of Alice’s gay classmates, and they start being a little too honest about what they think of their own children. The social media histrionics have nothing to offer in these incredibly entertaining scenes, which finally bring the film closer to Starrbooty than Clueless. These moments are fabulous precisely because they’re unfiltered—queer in attitude, not in wardrobe. Jean Genet and Marisa don’t toast to their kids because they’re decent human beings fighting heterosexual patriarchy, but for being the “devilish bitch” and “dirty-mouthed trans” that they are.
NewFest runs from October 16—27.
The 15 Best Smashing Pumpkins Songs
The Pumpkins have transcended any one moment or movement, instead reveling in the entire tessellation of 20th-century art.
As Greg Kot of Guitar World once quipped, “the [Smashing] Pumpkins remain an island unto themselves.” That was in 2001, when the band had spent a decade carving out an impressive art-rock niche, and long after a shortsighted music press had once smacked them with unenviable and laughably off-base label of “the next Nirvana.” But even to this day, the two bands are often clumped together as vanguards of the scathing, grungy brand of alternative rock that defined the early ‘90s. And yet, there’s little doubt that the group is much more than some also-ran grunge outfit chasing Kurt Cobain’s shadow. Indeed, with 11 studio albums and dozens of EPs, compilations, and soundtrack contributions, Billy Corgan and company have proved to be expert evocateurs, stitching together their melodic pastiche from a diverse litany of musical, literary, and visual sources. Armed with a mosaic sound that includes hat-tips to glam rock, art nouveau, psychedelia, goth, vaudeville, new wave, and Victorian romanticism, the Pumpkins have transcended any one moment or movement, instead reveling in the entire tessellation of 20th-century art.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article was published on July 21, 2013.
15. “Knights of Malta”
The sweeping opening track of 2018’s Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1/LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun bears the hallmarks of vintage Pumpkins: Bill Corgan’s melodic whine, Jimmy Chamberlin’s formidable drumming, and the intricate layers of guitar courtesy of Corgan, original guitarist James Iha, and Iha’s one-time replacement Jeff Schroeder. Everything about the song feels grand and triumphal—right down to the lyrics, in which Corgan sings, “I’m gonna fly forever/We’re gonna ride the rainbow,” as if he’s approaching the gates of rock n’ roll Valhalla.
14. “Set the Ray to Jerry”
As complex as the band’s arrangements and conceits often are, the Pumpkins frequently hit paydirt when relying on Corgan’s ear for crafting simple melodies. “Set the Ray to Jerry” is that principle in practice, as a two-note guitar riff and constantly rumbling snares come together with Corgan’s plain, passionate declaratives (“I want you” and “I need you”) to form a lucid, seductive nighttime jam.
13. “For Martha”
Corgan’s mother inspired plenty of animus throughout the Pumpkins’ catalogue, but none quite as conflicted and harrowing as the kind that fills the song sharing her name. Inspired by her passing, “For Martha” is an eight-minute dirge of gothic piano that bursts into a wave of crying, razor-edged guitars at its halfway point. At the height of it all, Corgan finally delivers his raw, teary-eyed eulogy: “Long horses we are born/Creatures more than torn/Mourning our way home.”
The riffs on “Tristessa” are some of the most efficient the Pumpkins have ever crafted. With four simple notes, Corgan and fellow guitarist James Iha lay down a bouncing, whiplash guitar hook that’s strong enough to carry the song through its shattering conclusion, proving along the way that the band had two other weapons in their arsenal besides panache: power and rhythm.
Serving as a kind of thematic unifier for David Lynch’s Lost Highway soundtrack, “Eye” was Pumpkins fans’ first taste of the band’s post-alternative offerings, where the remnants of their baroque, neo-Victorian rock tastes met Corgan’s new obsession with Pro Tools. While that formula would meet with mixed success on the subsequent Adore, “Eye” remains a sublime slice of electro-goth, pairing Corgan’s understated performance with a litany of chilling instrumentation—not to mention the wonderful angularity of that crisp drumline.
In which the Pumpkins conclusively prove that great art comes from great pain. Purportedly on the verge of suicide, a desperate, perhaps somewhat deranged Corgan penned “Today,” a facetious, goodbye-cruel-world lullaby that, when draped in the band’s trademark cloak of mellow fuzz, becomes a triumphant middle finger to the crippling effects of depression.
There are many points on their 1991 debut, Gish, where the Pumpkins seem caught between their early metal influences (Black Sabbath, Judas Priest) and the art-rock band they ultimately aspired to be, but “Snail” isn’t one of them. The track is perhaps the most obvious foreshadowing of the ambitious plans Corgan had for his group: sweeping, unapologetically romantic, and cinematically paced, its verse, bridge, and chorus structured in such a way so that the ultimate catharsis—in this case, a climbing sub-melody full of unbridled optimism—comes bursting through quite dramatically in its final minute.
Interview: Garrett Bradley on Exploring Human Dimensionality in Time
Bradley discusses how the forces of collaboration and intuition inform her filmmaking process.
Garrett Bradley’s films assume grand proportions through their sweeping titles: America, Alone, Like, and, now, Time. Her work expands our notions of concepts and institutions central to contemporary life by interrogating the audiovisual imprints that define them in the public consciousness. These explorations expand the meaning of their thematic subjects by injecting Bradley’s deeply intentional imagery into the conversation.
The filmmaker’s latest, Time, is as much about the ineffable passage of its titular concept as it is about the cruel duration of a prison sentence. Through a delicately woven tapestry of decades-old home videos shot by self-proclaimed “abolitionist” Fox Rich over the years while her husband, Robert, was in prison and more recent footage shot by Bradley and her crew, the film captures time in all of its contradictions. When cut between commonplace scenes of Fox interfacing with the bureaucratic maze of the carceral state, the rushes of her past feel both tantalizingly close and also impossible to reclaim—all while her future with Robert appears indeterminate. Bradley’s frequent deployment of stirring piano solos by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou may give Time the aura of a fairy tale as Fox faces down a seemingly insurmountable system of oppression in the name of love, yet the film never loses grounding in the everyday realities and inhumanities made normal by mass incarceration.
I spoke to Bradley shortly before Time became available worldwide on Amazon Prime. Our conversation covered what the documentary might have looked like without Fox Rich’s video archives, why she didn’t feel the need to explain racism in the film, as well as how the forces of collaboration and intuition inform her filmmaking process.
I’m blown away that such a central component of the film, Fox Rich’s personal video archives, weren’t baked in from the beginning. When she gave you that archive on the last day of filming, was it a matter of her fully trusting you? Had she forgotten they existed? Did it just dawn on her that they might make a great addition to the film?
I had no idea. When you’re working with someone so closely for a period of time, it presents all sorts of interesting emotions and challenges. At least from a filmmaker’s perspective, you’ve got all sorts of reasons why, eventually, you have to walk away from production. What I can say is it was, to my knowledge, the last day of shooting. It was in the evening, and I just remember saying to her, “I’m going to come back and show you a cut.” She was on the phone with Robert, and I remember her saying, “Hold on a second, let me get you something.” She handed me this bag of all of these mini DV tapes that ended up being about 100 hours of footage. She had not seen or looked at that footage since she shot it. I remember getting in the car, shipping it out to get transcoded and being so incredibly nervous about the fact that there were no backups for it. It was a real testament to her to her trust. But why, at that moment, I can’t say.
Without these tapes that so poetically give us a glimpse into Fox’s own history, would your film really have been Time? I can imagine it’s tough to speak to a project that was never realized, but what form and shape would your film have taken without them?
When I initially started shooting, my intention was twofold. One was to think about this film, which I was conceiving as another 13-minute Op-Docs short, as an extension of Alone, a sister film to this other film that had already come out. The intention behind that was to say, “How can I extend the conversation around incarceration, from a sort of black feminist point of view, from a familial point of view? From a point of view that that illuminates the effects of the facts.” Fox is, actually, briefly in Alone. I met her in the process of making it. And she’s a very different person than Aloné [Watts] and was navigating the system in a very different way. She was 18 years into the process of navigating the system, whereas Aloné was in the very beginning stages of that. I think, at that point, my head was really about, again, extending the conversation in a way that showed the diversification of experience within the same issue.
But then also, uniquely to Fox’s own story, I really focused in on her daily life as a way of saying if there’s anything that I’m able to illustrate in this film, if I have to stop shooting tomorrow, it’s to show how deeply embedded the system puts itself in daily life. There’s no separation between your work life, your personal life, your home life, your relationship with your children, your mother, yourself, your partner. There’s no separation between that and the system. It really unequivocally embeds itself into every element of your day.
That was my initial intention, and a lot of the footage was there. Part of the challenge in the edit when looking at it was, wow, this actually feels really two-dimensional. It feels like we have no way of my proving as a filmmaker what I knew, which was the holistic nature of who we are as human beings. We are 360-degree beings. We have context, we have history, we have experience that informs how we maneuver the present moment. How do I show that? That’s ultimately the challenge of making films, you can only tell stories and say things one frame at a time, from one dimension. I think that the film would have focused in on one element of life. It would have been very different, that’s for sure.
The film talks about how Fox’s story demonstrates the power of love as a tool of resistance. How do you convey such a radical notion without coming across naïve?
That’s a great question. Basically, it’s like, how do you make something good or bad, right? I have to say, I think in my experience, it’s been making sure that vulnerability and intention are intrinsic parts of the process. Vulnerability on all ends, as a filmmaker, as a collaborator. That there’s trust. I think the bottom line of that and respect are the ingredients of making something that I think can live outside of the opaqueness of what you’re describing.
In everything from the title of your works to the images contained within them, you maintain such a focus on redefining the way we think about giant structures and institutions in our lives. Is this a goal that you consciously set out to achieve when embarking on a new project, or are you discovering the way in which your work interacts with these notions and ideas?
I think it goes back to this idea of the sort of cinematic challenge of trying to allow things to feel as they do in the real world. Context, history, and multiple dimensions are so intrinsic to that. I think the same can be said for the macro and micro experience. That’s what we live in. We have our individual lives, but we’re a part of a larger system. And depending on who we are and how we’re moving through space, that can become oppressively clear or something that one has the privilege to forget. I think I always enter a project first from the personal. I don’t think that’s a rule though. There are other projects that I’m working on or thinking about where I’m coming at it actually from a larger scale first. I think it changes from one project to the next. But you’re right, ultimately, there’s always going to be for me a conversation between the two. The great meaning comes out of the conversation between the two.
Did you feel a need to rescue or shelter Time from the tropes of social realism or the journalistic point of view that normally pervades stories about mass incarceration or the prison-industrial complex?
There were certainly questions in the edit around how literal we wanted it to be, how much we felt the film needed to explain the minutiae of the crime, the trial, the legal system, the sentencing. Myself and Gabe Rhodes, who edited the film, as we were talking through a lot of that, I found myself feeling that to really explain it was also then to try to explain racism in America. And I’m not really sure that the film is particularly obligated to do that. Because it’s for people, and made with people, who inherently understand that and live it every day. And so when we think about obligations around certain forms of explanation, or sort of a literal proof of an explanation of the why, it can also be coded language. This idea of universality becomes coded language for who we’re actually speaking to if a majority of the people in the country are, in one way or another, affected by this issue. So, I didn’t feel that we had to do that.
How did you conceive the film’s coda? There’s something both comforting and tragic in the notion that cinema—and only cinema—can both preserve and reverse time.
I wish I had a profound answer. I struggled with this question a little bit. Because it was really at a point in the editorial process where we were just working off of instinct and emotion. And there was, riffing off of your last question before, just not even needing to have a literal reason for why we ended it the way we did. It just felt right. It felt like we were able to work with the images in a way that directly responded to what the entire film was about without having to say it in any other way. I think for some people, it works. For some people, it doesn’t. I wish I could say something more profound than that, but it was just pure instinct.
So much about this film feels like it was almost fated to come together: discovering Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbro’s music through YouTube algorithms, Fox Rich giving you her archive and transforming the project, the cosmic parallels revealed in the edit between the footage you shot and her videos. Has this transformed the way you think about artistic ownership and authorship at all?
I think my work has always inherently been collaborative. My work always starts with a series of questions, and the answers come out of conversations that are happening with people in my community are what inform a lot of the aesthetic choices. There was another project, for instance, that I was commissioned for the Whitney Biennial 2019, called A.K.A. That was me really having questions about classic American cinema and race relations between women. My instinct was to go to women that I knew and to ask them questions that I myself had, and a lot of their answers literally shaped the scenes, the camerawork, the lenses. I think Time is an extension of that same love I have for working with people.
The 75 Best Horror Movies of the 21st Century
These are the films from this millennium that have most shocked us by plumbing our deepest primordial terrors.
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
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 10, 2018.
75. They Came Back (2004)
They Came Back is a triumph of internal horror, and unlike M. Night Shyamalan’s similarly moody freak-out The Sixth Sense, Robin Campillo’s vision of the dead sharing the same space as the living isn’t predicated on a gimmicky reduction of human faith. Campillo is more upfront than Shyamalan—it’s more or less understood that the presence of the living dead in his film is likely metaphoric—and he actually seems willing to plumb the moral oblivion created by the collision of its two worlds. Though the fear that the film’s walking dead can turn violent at any second is completely unjustified, the writer-director allows this paranoia to reflect the feelings of loss, disassociation, and hopelessness that cripple the living. It’s rather amazing how far the film is able to coast on its uniquely fascinating premise, even if it isn’t much of a stretch for its director: Campillo co-authored Laurent Cantet’s incredible Time Out, a different kind of zombie film about the deadening effects of too much work on the human psyche, and They Came Back is almost as impressive in its concern with the existential relationship between the physical and non-physical world. Ed Gonzalez
74. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Jalmari Helander, 2010)
Santa is one bad mamma jamma in Writer-director Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a yuletide fable that’s equal parts sincere, silly, and scary. Helander’s direction is assured in a manner that inspires flattering comparisons: his softly lit scenes of adolescent fear and fantasy, and of father-son estrangement, recall early Spielberg; Pietari’s (Onni Tommila) trinket-adorned room and makeshift alarm clock (involving keys, sweater thread and a basin) resembles Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s whimsies; his compassionate black comedy evokes Joe Dante’s work; and his eerie snowbound setting and premise harkens back to John Carpenter’s The Thing. This last comparison is also apt in terms of aesthetics, as Helander and cinematographer Mika Orasmaa’s widescreen compositions capture a sense of unsettling scale and unseen terror as well as, in domestic sequences, a warmth and intimacy that helps compensate for somewhat sketchy characters. Nick Schager
73. The Monster (2016)
In The Strangers, Bryan Bertino exhibited a masterfully lush style that owed quite a bit to the elegant camera pirouettes of John Carpenter. Here, the filmmaker utilizes his command of medium for more individualized purposes. By the time that The Monster reveals itself to be a horror film, we’re so engrossed in Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and Lizzy’s (Ella Ballentine) pain that the arrival of the titular menace strikes us as an authentic violation of normality, rather than as a ghoul arriving on demand per the dictates of the screenplay. The film has an eerily WTF arbitrariness that should be the domain of more films in the genre. Chuck Bowen
72. Cam (2018)
When Wilhelm Reich developed the concept of “sex economy” in 1931, he had in mind something like the way societal expectations or advertising may compel someone toward compulsory masturbation. Almost 90 years later, compulsion is but one of an array of factors informing Cam, Daniel Goldhaber’s lithely satirical and startling take on the present state of online sex work. Based on screenwriter Isa Mazzei’s own experiences as a cam model, the film is neither plainly sex positive nor outright cautionary in its depiction of Alice (Madeline Brewer), an up-and-coming streamer whose account is hacked and stolen by someone appearing to be her doppelgänger. Even as Cam gives new meaning to “ghosting” when Alice watches “herself” online, the film’s strengths come from an intimate familiarity with the anxieties that accompany a life predicated on thriving in a gig economy still owned and operated by impenetrable customer service mechanisms and corporate channels of older, sweaty white men. Cam is also one of the first American films to grapple with the realities of being doxed to family and friends, further demonstrating its primary acumen as a check on the social pulse of a particular strain of U.S. conservatism that continues to think about and patrol sex work, and those who participate in it, in even pre-Reichian terms. Clayton Dillard
71. The House That Jack Built (2018)
Like Bob Dylan in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Dont Look Back, Matt Dillon’s serial killer in Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built flashes cue cards to the camera while standing in an alleyway. If Dylan’s narcissism, and Pennebaker’s giddiness to capture it, suggested a cultural turn toward celebrity worship, then Dillon’s psychopath is the bizarre complement. He’s neurotic, self-obsessed, and as devoted to mythologizing his own “body of work” as he is psychologically impenetrable and unknowable. A house built of corpses is both a provocation and an invocation of documentary footage taken from Auschwitz and Katyn. It’s also yet another allusion, this time to Alain Resnais and Dušan Makavejev, who are perhaps the two European filmmakers most devoted to reckoning with manmade catastrophe through montage and the carnivalesque, which are von Trier’s chosen aesthetic modes here. Despite having nothing fashionable in either its politics or its preoccupation with the egotistical artist, The House That Jack Built is one of the most forward-thinking films of 2018 for how it proposes an unruly resurrection of the past, and one’s past self, in order to grapple with its significance. Dillard
70. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)
The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a sad, macabre integrity. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and writer-director Oz Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in the film, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair. Bowen
69. Unsane (2018)
In 1959, Georges Franju’s masterpiece Head Against the Wall used a man’s confinement at a sanitarium as an analogy for the listlessness of French youth—a generation old enough to remember the degradations and traumas of World War II but now confronted with the promise of a passive, consumer-driven middle-class existence. Steven Soderbergh’s down and dirty Unsane functions in a similar way, using the experience of institutionalization to probe the mores around mental health in a privatization-mad America. Few if any Hollywood-adjacent filmmakers have put as much brain power into making the digital revolution work for them as Soderbergh has, and even Unsane’s most ridiculous moments coast on the sheer energy of aesthetic gamesmanship. Shooting on an iPhone 7, the filmmaker continues finding economical solutions in a pinch. Soderbergh remains a major artist at the peak of his powers, fascinated by the textures of the contemporary world—the actual one, not the one we usually pay to see at the movies. Even if he’s just flexing a new mode of production, the result is still 98 minutes of shredding, analeptic cinema. Steve Macfarlane
68. Suspiria (2018)
Luca Guadagnino knew that a successful remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria would need, at the very least, to take the material in a completely different direction. And he winkingly acknowledges that belief in an early scene from his remake when Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton, err, Lutz Ebersdorf) underlines the word “simulacrum” in a notebook. The new Suspiria is, especially in visual terms, anything but a simulacrum, as its palette is more reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Walerian Borowczyk’s films than Argento’s neon-tinged original. Guadagnino’s remake is, above all, a film about the terror that lingers in a European city long after its been blitzed by various catastrophes. Guadagnino uses Argento’s original as a launching pad for interrogating how the old, whether in dance or politics, often corrupts the new. Heady though it is, the film also more than delivers the genre goods. It strikes a delicate aesthetic balance between hysteria and control, most evident in an unforgettable scene in which Susie (Dakota Johnson) dances for Madame Blanc (Swinton), much to the bone-breaking detriment of the Markos Dance Academy’s former star. Dillard
67. November (2017)
In André Breton’s writings on surrealism, he envisions, and prescribes, a mode of fairy tale for adults rooted in juxtapositions so poetic and strange that they seem only possible in dreams. Or in the work of Rainer Sarnet, who crafts the uncanniest of fables in November. Based on a novel by Andrus Kivirähk, this gorgeously shot film is an intrepid portrait of an Estonian village inhabited by greedy old men, wise toothless hags, ghostly lovers, and anthropomorphic creatures made out of human hair and metal coils. November respects the logic and temporality of the unconscious. As such, it’s difficult to tell if the story takes place in medieval times or some dystopian future. Its impenetrable storylines take shape like most of its dialogue, bearing the enigmatic sparseness of poetic stanzas or ancient spells. There’s more to be enjoyed if one gets lost in the bewildering rhythm between eerie sounds and the black-and-white imagery, instead of trying to detangle the various strands of the surreal narrative. Diego Semerene
66. Train to Busan (2016)
When divorced of message-mongering, the film’s scare tactics are among the most distinctive that the zombie canon has ever seen. The zombies here are rabid, fast-moving ghoulies that, as Train to Busan’s protagonists discover, are attracted to loud sounds and only attack what they can actually see. This realization becomes the foundation for a series of taut set pieces during which the story’s motley crew of survivors manipulate their way past zombies with the aid of cellphones and bats and the numerous tunnels through which the train must travel. The genre crosspollination for which so many South Korean thrillers have come to be known for is most evident in these scenes (as in the survivors crawling across one train car’s overhead luggage area), which blend together the tropes of survivor-horror and disaster films, as well as suggest the mechanics of puzzle-platformer games. Gonzalez
65. In Fabric (2019)
Peter Strickland’s films are fetish objects that rue the perils of fetishism. The British filmmaker’s characters are walled off from others, channeling their longing into various acts of aestheticism, which parallels his own obsession with emulating the stylistics of the giallo, softcore pornography, and classic European chamber dramas. In Fabric finds Strickland doubling down on these qualities, mounting a gorgeous and lonely horror film that expresses emotion via a series of increasingly abstract motifs. Strickland allows his dreamy atmosphere to take over the film, as the characters are eaten alive by their hungers and uncertainties, though this free-floating reverie has a moralistic streak. Bowen
64. 28 Weeks Later (2007)
28 Weeks Later rolls in like a poisonous dust cloud of nihilism. The everyman hero this time around is Don (Robert Carlyle), who thinks he and his wife (Catherine McCormack) are safe in their wee rural cottage when the rage virus transforms most of mainland Britain into shrieking, blood-vomiting zombies that sprint head-on at their victims. 28 Days Later is a tough and uncompromising horror film, but it’s all sunshine and laughter in comparison to the sequel. The thesis of 28 Weeks Later is that the War on Terror is ultimately a self-destructive one for all concerned, from the bullying authority figures to the demoralized combat soldiers to the fractured family units. Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo seems to place his empathy with the recently infected. Much like Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there’s an understanding for what it means to be human—and the magic that is lost when that humanity is stripped away. Jeremiah Kipp
63. 1922 (2017)
In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Molly Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs Stephen King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force. Bowen
62. 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 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
61. 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. Schager
60. The Neon Demon (2016)
Nicolas Winding Refn puts his monogram on his film’s title card. So did D.W. Griffith. The Neon Demon is about narcissism as a form of artistry and, girl, is it ever. Boasting color that would make Mario Bava blush and proffering hilariously conceited exchanges that oscillate between farce and bone-dry awkwardness, each successive scene loudly announces Refn’s turn of the screw. Refn finds the fabric of hidden cultural demons, and not the sorts of spirits that can be dismissed by an exorcist. Check the wallpaper behind Gigi (Bella Heathcote) after she barfs up an eyeball; it’s covered in swastikas. The appropriative and racist legacies of Los Angeles and Europe find women as only food or sex while in the crosshairs of these wide-eyed, well-dressed hounds. The lure of lights, the bass of electro, the will to power, the kino eye—what hath this delight in pleasure and knowledge wrought? Dillard
59. The Hole in the Ground (2019)
Quite a bit of the fun of The Hole in the Ground resides in guessing how Lee Cronin’s shopworn signifiers fit together, as he offers a smorgasbord of portentous elements that include a crone by the roadside, the aforementioned hole and the woods, a pointed reference to Sarah’s (Seána Kerslake) medication, and Chris’s (James Quinn Markey) newfound sense of inhuman formality. There’s also, of course, a past atrocity that haunts Sarah and Chris’s new residence. Yet the film gradually becomes something more than a mixtape of horror gimmicks, as it homes in on a frightening real-world subtext. Chris’s changing behaviors, which include chillingly crawling on the floor of his room like an animal and eating a large spider, are rooted in the distance that comes between Sarah and Chris after they leave Sarah’s abusive husband. There’s an unspoken sense that Sarah’s arising revulsion with her son may be rooted in how he reminds her of his father, and there’s a particularly moving scene where we see Sarah’s disgust with Chris as he eats spaghetti, which Cronin frames in a cruelly unflattering close-up. Bowen
58. Neighboring Sounds (2012)
Of course this upstairs-downstairs portraiture plays out with the tenor of horror. The class war is an inexhaustible source of terror—particular here, in Recife, Brazil, an affluent coastal town whose middle-class comforts are quite literally built up and around its history of poverty and oppression. Less social critique than abstract deconstruction, Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Neighboring Sounds is very much about the power of the cinema not to deliver, but to portend, and to that end its gears are always turning. Its sublime sound design, emerging at the intersection of ambient noise and musique concrete, offers a case study for how to suggest the existence of horrors we never see. Filho understands that an atmosphere of palpable dread sustains tension better than more sensational explication, and his commitment to withholding is, without exaggeration, worthy of Hitchcock. That it more or less forgoes the spectacle of an anticipated resolution is a necessary consequence of its methods; in other words, for Filho, process rather than payoff is the point. As Recife’s idle rich flaunt their privilege as lowly laborers circle them like sharks, conflict seems a guarantee. But the bubble of complacency in which these characters live doesn’t need to be punctured by violence. The status quo is damning enough. Calum Marsh
57. 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
56. 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. Gonzalez
55. Hereditary (2018)
The first half of Hereditary establishes Annie’s (Toni Collette) grief and decades-long mental illness to set up the arrival of Joan (Ann Dowd), a Caligari-like figure who preys upon Annie’s vulnerability. Although Joan seems like an honest and empathetic woman, she’s actually a deceitful minion of Paimon, an avaricious king whom Annie accidentally helps to conjure from the dead. Hereditary is chock-full of citations to other classic horror films (most notably Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining) that take as their themes the manipulation of women as mothers and wives. When Annie, deep in the haze of misbegotten conviction, tells her son, “I’m the only one who can fix this,” she’s trying to rectify the sense of maternal guilt she feels for her daughter’s death. She’s also invoking Donald Trump’s claim from a July 2016 rally, when he said in reference to law and order: “I alone can fix it.” Fallen prey to the circumstances of her own deception, Annie speaks the self-defeating logic inherited from her manipulator. Dillard
54. 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. Marsh
53. 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
52. 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
51. Us (2019)
Jordan Peele’s Us suggests C.H.U.D. for the Trump era. Even though it’s not as tidily satisfying as Get Out, it’s both darker and more ambitious, and broader in its themes. This film’s African-American characters also come under assault not in the inner cities of the white imagination, but in supposedly safer upper-class suburban spaces. But Us also moves past such racial themes. The shadow vengeance meted upon the Wilsons is in fact a plague, and it’s one that touches every family in Peele’s film. In Us, Peele is less concerned with blackness than he is economics, as the howling, homicidal doubles that torment the Wilsons represent an avenging under class. “What are you people?” Gabe (Winston Duke) asks when the terror begins. “We’re Americans!” his wife’s double (Lupita Nyong’o) hisses. It’s tempting to read these Americans as the embittered Trump base, rising up to destroy the false idyll that was the comfort—for some, at least—of the American status quo. Henry Stewart
Interview: Cooper Raiff Talks Shithouse, Nostalgia, and Being There for Others
The filmmaker discusses how Shithouse reflects the specifics of a certain life experience.
“Bet you won’t click on this link and then email me,” read the tweet from college student Cooper Raiff to indie film maven Jay Duplass that began the journey of Shithouse. Raiff had directed and shot a film about a homesick freshman and a savvy RA called Madeline & Cooper over spring break with $300, two friends, and stolen equipment from his college. Duplass responded, both emotionally to the film and literally to the message, and helped mentor as well as support Raiff through making a more professionalized iteration of the film linked to in the fateful tweet. That new film, Shithouse, won Raiff the grand jury prize at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival at just 23 years old.
Tempting as it might be to ascribe a master plan to Raiff’s rise, the Shithouse multihyphenate—actor, writer, director, editor—evinces no evidence of being a calculating wunderkind. Raiff remains as affable and easygoing as his film, a leisurely but lofty college-set tale of two young people coming to terms with the personal baggage that weighs on them. Madeline and Cooper from the original scrappy feature become Maggie (Dylan Gelula) and Alex (Raiff), who navigate similar emotional terrain but within a larger personal and social framework that encompasses fellow students as well as Alex’s family at home in Dallas.
Shithouse recalls the best of Richard Linklater, not only because Raiff already proves his adeptness at mastering the director’s trademark “walk and talk” two-shots. He also shares an appreciation the unique window provided by the collegiate experience to focus on self-actualization. Raiff’s film recognizes the ability for extended conversations to soften characters’ emotional guards and expose real vulnerabilities, and it’s all conveyed with a distinctively Texan sense of casualness and compassion.
I spoke with Raiff over Zoom the week prior to Shithouse opening in select theaters and on demand, a scale of release that thrilled him but by no means felt inevitable. Our wide-ranging conversation covered why he doesn’t think about cinematography when envisioning a film, how writing makes him a better person, and where he wishes he’d been more precious in editing his personal but not autobiographical character. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to start our time by raising a personal connection: Raiff and I both attended small high schools in Texas that played against each other in the same athletic conference. Recognizing that bit of shared kinship led to Raiff revealing a number of ways in which Shithouse reflects the specifics of a certain life experience in addition to the story’s broader applicability.
Alex in the movie is wearing a Greenhill Wolves sweatshirt. But if I recall, the real Greenhill is the Hornets. I’m betting that Greenhill didn’t lend you the mascot?
No, I just wanted to have the stuffed wolf. I had this thing where I wanted it to be Alex’s dad, but for it to be a wolf dad. I really cared about it being a wolf, but it’s really funny because a lot of people think it’s a dog, so it doesn’t even matter. I also wanted it to tie back to high school. I wanted it to have that mascot. I think, at the end of day, I could’ve gotten permission, but I didn’t have the time to ask. I made a sweatshirt instead and made it so that if I said something…there’s actually a scene where I talk about Greenhill, and not that I shit on it. I say really nice things about it, but I just didn’t want any kind of legal thing to get in the way.
In terms of developing a passion for film or movies. I’ve heard you say that you don’t consider yourself a filmmaker. If watching movies wasn’t pushing you into making them, how were they acting on you and influencing you?
When I was directing for the first time, I realized just how deep into my bones movies are. I don’t watch a ton of them. I’ll also turn a lot of them off because I just know when one isn’t going to land with me. But when they do, I can’t stop thinking about them. It wasn’t a stretch to figure out how I was going to film Shithouse, because even if I direct a ton of movies moving forward, I like coming from this place of always just caring about these characters and themes that are coming from these characters. Where I come from is always: I’m obsessed with these two people, and I want to write scenes where these two people are gonna have the most fun. At the end of the day, the most important things to me are what their personalities say about life. The way that Maggie and Alex are such perfect foils for each other, I think, says something pretty universal about the way that two different people look at the way we relate to each other and our interconnectedness.
At what point did you did you know that the story that you were working on would have resonance for other people?
Like, a couple months after SXSW when more people started watching it. I think I knew that it was universal, but I didn’t know if I communicated that well enough. You never know until people see it. But I knew that I would love it. I knew that my family members and my ex-girlfriends would love it. On set, being in the scenes and watching Dylan play Maggie, I just knew that all the scenes were working so well, and it had the magic that I wanted. It felt special in the way that I wanted it to feel special. I knew that I was going to always love the movie. But it’s so small and quiet, so I didn’t know how many people were gonna really meet it. Because, and here’s the thing: Shithouse requires you to meet it where it is. It’s a movie that you have to really go there for it in a way. Most great movies are just there, like you don’t have to work hard to immerse yourself in it. And Shithouse is very comfortable with not being seen by a lot of people, it just comes across that way. I think it’s been so nice hearing that more than 10 people went there, enjoyed it and felt it the whole way through.
As someone who’s not all that different from Alex, I didn’t feel like I had to travel far. It was very much kind of like, “How dare you make this biopic of my life freshman year?”
Yeah, but even then, because Alex is such a specific character that I didn’t know how relatable he would be. Because Alex is myself stripped away a ton. I have, way deep down, this really huge, massive caring bone in my body. I just want to love and like taking care of people. I think realizing that people are relating to that part of Alex is awesome, and it feels really cool.
Are you someone who needs to parse the events of your life through art, writing, or creating something to feel some sense of closure or finality in the experiencing of it?
No, I never thought of this movie as cathartic while writing it. Honestly, when I was acting in it, it was pretty cathartic because there were certain scenes where I had never really gone there. I don’t think of my writing as therapy in that way. But I will say that as a writer—I think I realized this recently because I’ve been writing a ton again—it does make me a better person. Naturally, obviously, because it’s about trying to understand and have empathy for people. I don’t go to a script saying, “I have to figure this shit out.” But I am realizing that it does inform my life in the biggest way, where I didn’t think that before. I thought it was just something that I was doing and meant a lot to me, but it was a separate thing. I think it really informs who I am because I’m spending all day just thinking about other people and getting their interior lives. I think that’s who I am is someone who just moves about that way.
How did movies both prepare and fail you for college? Movies set at school, and college in particular, don’t really make a ton of space for stories like this about someone who’s feeling very alone and isolated.
I haven’t really seen a lot of college movies, honestly, but I’ve seen many movies that do little scenes from college. It’s always just written from a place of nostalgia. I think writers see college as a playground for them to write whatever they want. But, for me, when I knew I was gonna make a movie about college, there was really only one thing that I could write about, and it was the pain of leaving home and growing up. Just the fact that no one prepares you for how hard it is to fall asleep that first night under a new ceiling. Also, the pain of your parents dropping you off and driving away and leaving you there, it’s just horrendous.
But I think movies always fail people because they’re trying to be good instead of trying to say something. I’m not even saying entertaining, because I want everything to be entertaining, but I wanted to communicate something while being as watchable and entertaining as possible.
Even though the film feels very loose, it’s my understanding that Shithouse is highly scripted. How do you write for college students? Because, on the one hand, sometimes the way they talk seems very on the nose. But, then again, they’re all kind of taking their cues from movies or the idea of what it means to be in college.
Yeah, I totally agree with that. So, Alex is very much based on me, Maggie’s very much based on someone I’m with right now. Her name is Madeline, and the movie’s based on our relationship, so I know exactly how she talks. I know exactly what she’s gonna say, always. My mom, even more so. The roommate was a combination of every single guy friendship that I’ve ever had. I just picture them talking. I write a lot of like’s, and I write a lot of um’s. But with the script, I always tell the actors that they can rewrite whatever they want to rewrite. I never want something to sound false or feel uncomfortable coming out of their mouth. I don’t say, “You have to say the like right here, or you have to say the um right here,” but the like’s and the um’s in a line will just signal to the actor that it’s not as well thought out. He doesn’t exactly know what he’s saying here. That’s why there’s a lot of like’s and um’s. I always want my actors to know that I’m not precious about any of the lines or anything. I just wanted to get across that there’s gonna probably be some like’s and um’s in this one this big line.
As actor, director, and editor of Shithouse, how do you keep yourself from getting too precious in your performance? I was recently talking with Kirsten Johnson, the director who did Cameraperson and Dick Johnson Is Dead…
[eyes light up] I am obsessed! If you look on my Facebook page, a still from Cameraperson is my cover photo. I’m obsessed with that movie.
So good! She mentioned an exercise she does with her students at NYU. She will have them film each other talking about their fears about their thesis project and then edit both themselves and the other person in the conversation. She said, inevitably, that the edit of the other person is so much more interesting because they can just see something in these little moments. The version of themselves they present is so sanitized or watered down that they become boring. I caught so many little moments of Alex in Shithouse that made me think you really didn’t fall into that same trap.
It’s really tricky because I think there’s a story that the character is so close to me, but it’s really not. I don’t feel like Alex at all. I mean, obviously, that’s a slippery slope. I did have another editor who came on to make sure I was seeing everything. But so many people have talked about not having another perspective. And because I think there’s this thing where people think there’s four different movies: the movie that’s written, the movie that’s on the set, the edited movie, and the movie that the audience receives. And I think being in charge of all the things really collapsed it in a way that I really liked. Even with the editor, I wasn’t just coming in and saying, “Hey, do whatever you want.” I was trying to communicate, “Hey, this is exactly what I want. I want you to help me out with getting this certain thing and this certain quality.” It didn’t feel like the barrier that I think a lot of people think it was.
To answer that specific question about not being precious with the character, I always did feel like I was acting as Alex. If I could go back, I think I probably would have been more precious. Just the response that people are giving, it seems like they just think it’s me. If I had known that’s what would have happened…I just didn’t think this movie would have a big audience at all. And not that it does, but I thought it was just going to be my friends and family who all know that I’m certainly not so much like Alex. But experiencing so many people kind of even just talking about it in terms of “this is the filmmaker,” it’s like, “No, I’m not writing emotional propaganda!” I did write a character, and I drew upon my life in a major way as everyone does writing something personal and original. But I wasn’t precious with it at all.
Throughout Shithouse, a lot of the characters opine about the nature and meaning of college. I don’t want to assume that the characters speak for you, but did thinking through these questions give you any clarity on the questions?
Yeah, I mean, I still don’t really know what the thesis of college is, but I know the arguments. I think what I wanted to say about college was that it’s the first time for me without a safety net. I was so dependent on my family members, and they were so rock solid that I got to college and felt like I was without oxygen for the first time. And then you have Maggie, who’s been without a safety net for a long time. That’s just how she was raised. I think that’s why she’s crushing college. But I think what I wanted to say was that going to your second home, it’s kind of the most selfish time of your life. You’re really trying to figure out who you are separate from the home that you were raised in for so long.
But the other thing I wanted to say is, yes, I think we should be looking out for each other, and I talk about that so much in Shithouse. I hope people get that in order to take care of people and look out for each other, you have to first take care of yourself. Figure out your shit, make your bed, take responsibility for your actions in a way that you’re moving or not moving. I think Maggie’s line is, “Just because your life’s shitty doesn’t mean you can make other people feel like their life is shitty.” Alex is so harsh about the way that people are just trying to survive because he’s not doing a good job of surviving. But he thinks, “Oh, everyone should be having this hard time, you just need me to help you out.” Where it’s like, “No, no, I don’t need you.” But then there’s like that whole thing where, yeah, you do. You can’t not depend on people.
I remember an older friend of mine told me in my first year at school, “I think your biggest problem is that you are over college and you are already a freshman.” But at the same time, I was still 19 and immature. Holding those two thoughts in your head about how equipped you are to handle the experience is definitely challenging, and I think it is a very unique struggle that Alex goes through.
Have you seen the movie Liberal Arts?
I have, but it’s been a long time.
There’s a line in there where [Elizabeth Olsen’s character] is talking about how she can see herself in the future, and she feels like a rough draft version of herself. But she has the wisdom to know that she’s not there. You just have to live through certain things and experience certain things—and also experience certain pains—in order to get there. I think the people that don’t have that wisdom, it’s not a bad thing. They’re just turning on that part of their brain because sometimes it’s not useful to have that knowledge too soon. That’s Alex, and I think a lot of people probably deal with that. But they choose to drink instead.
You’re having such a strange version of the rising star director narrative: Your debut feature wins SXSW but you never get to experience the film play before that crowd, you do the “water bottle” tour of Hollywood, but it’s all over Zoom. Where does that leave your mental state and how you want to move forward making something else?
I was just talking about this. I’ve had a lot of Zoom meetings. I’m young and don’t know anything, so I’m not good at not doing the scrappy, singular thing. I’m having these Zoom meetings with [people asking] like, “What do you want to do?” I have these ideas, and I have literally scripts where I’m like, “Here’s what I want to do.” The reaction is always, “That’s small.” And I’m like, “Yeah, it’s small!” I don’t think I’ll make a big leap after this at all. I’ll probably do a very similar thing. But in terms of the Zoom thing, it’s been really nice because I don’t have to drive in a car to go all these places.
It’s just weird to be in a lot of interviews or Zooms where people are asking you to talk about yourself for so long. I hope to God I’ll never stop thinking about how weird it is. Like, no wonder people get so self-absorbed because all it is is me talking about myself. I’m trying to keep telling myself that. It sucks that it didn’t premiere at SXSW, but I wasn’t expecting much. I’ve never been to a film festival, and I didn’t have all these dreams and hopes for it. So when it got cancelled, it was kind of like, “Oh.” But everyone’s response to it getting canceled was so nice, and people really wrapped their arms around the movies in such a kind way.
When I saw your background when reading about Shithouse, I thought the odds were low that you’d be able to talk to someone on a press tour who’d be able to talk about both the film and the specific Texas private school background it comes from.
Yeah, it’s been so nice! The thing is, I’ve just been talking so much about how it’s universal. Everyone leaves home, because not everyone goes to college, but never would I think about someone connecting to the very specific private school to college [journey] and just how special that small school makes you feel. Not special in terms of you’re the one or something, but special in terms of like, we’re just like such a community. I think a good example is if someone’s sitting down crying at Greenhill, no matter what, in five seconds tops someone would be over there making sure they’re okay. But if you go to college, even Occidental, and someone’s crying, no one is going over to say [something]. It’s just understood that people are going through their exorcisms, and you leave them alone. And with Greenhill, I think there was this constant sense of like, no, I need to be there for my fellow peer or my fellow students.
Starring Joan Crawford on the Criterion Channel
The myth of Joan Crawford’s life and career is inseparable from what she did on screen.
The myth of Joan Crawford’s life and career is inseparable from what she did on screen. Though she worked with many fine directors across her career, all of Crawford’s films are essentially about her, and they need to be seen in terms of her unending thirst for publicity and attention, which still bears fruit and fans more than 40 years after her death. Crawford arouses sympathy and repulsion by turns, and the hilarious tunnel-vision focus that made her the ultimate camp totem is also what makes her lovable, in spite of the increasing warrior-hardness of her face, her often-monotonous intensity, and the sometimes off-puttingly aggressive way she offered her psychic battle scars to the camera.
Staring October 11, the Criterion Channel celebrates Crawford’s work with a career-spanning, 25-film retrospective. The earliest film in the series is Tod Browning’s still-potent silent horror classic The Unknown, in which a beautifully striking Crawford, then around 20, stars as a neurotic carnival girl who Lon Cheney’s circus freak is obsessed with marrying. By the time you get to Ranald MacDougall’s 1955 noir Queen Bee, in which Crawford delivers one of the greatest slaps in the history of the movies, that big-eyed, hopeful girl from Clarence Brown’s 1934 pre-Code drama Sadie McKee has been completely buried in the granite of obsessive self-preservation. Crawford went from shop girl’s delight to Queen of the Zulus in less than 20 years, a rags-to-riches American dream turning into a vodka-soaked, paranoid nightmare.
Crawford, born Lucille Fay LeSueur, was brought up in shady circumstances that are still shrouded in mystery and conjecture. Rumors that she made a few stag films before 1925 have never been verified, but sex was clearly the weapon that Crawford used to pull herself out of the gutter she came from. She made her first impact at MGM as a loose-living jazz heroine of silent films like Harry Beaumont’s Our Dancing Daughters, dancing clunky Charlestons in her scanties and all but broadcasting, “I’m the easiest lay in the world!” Such sexual abandon never really left her, and she had to pay for it time and again on screen in the ‘30s and beyond.
Crawford was sometimes cast as society girls, but usually her characters started out in a factory or a department store or a kitchen. In Sadie McKee, a highly refined bit of trash that stands as an archetypal ‘30s Crawford vehicle, the actress’s kitchen maid sticks up for herself against a snobbish family and remains true throughout to a wayward man played by Gene Raymond. Crawford’s films are filled with funny contrasts and incongruities, and Sadie McKee is no exception: Even when Sadie is so down and out that she can’t afford a decent meal, she wears a stylish black suit with fur cuffs, and when she gets angry, Crawford drops her piss-elegant, strained diction and suddenly sounds like a tough broad trying to run a laundry.
In Frank Borzage’s Strange Cargo, from 1937, we get a very tough Crawford facing off against the elements, Peter Lorre, and one of the actress’s best screen partners, Clark Gable. Her tense performance as a cranky cafe entertainer and prostitute in a town near a French Guiana penal colony is tiresomely one-note until she tries out that certain glamorously de-glamorized look out in the jungle, but the spiritual regeneration angle of the script does not suit a woman whose supposed last words were, “Don’t you dare ask God to help me!” Crawford’s image as star and woman is a matter of carefully nurtured bitterness; she’s as unforgiving as Ingmar Bergman and just as narrowly preoccupied with slights and sexuality.
Criterion’s series includes another Borzage film from 1937, Mannequin, which is notable for Crawford’s proletarian heroine’s opening walk up the stairs of her ugly tenement, reversing the logic of Seventh Heaven’s idyll: Sometimes there are staircases to hell as well as heaven. In the ‘40s, the actress landed at Warner Bros. and make the holy trinity of films—Mildred Pierce, Humoresque, and Possessed—that would cement her legend, after which she would quickly start to amp up the camp across a series of films, both high and low.
In Charles Walters’s Torch Song, Crawford was at her latter-day, bulldozer best as tyrannical musical comedy star Jenny Stewart. Throughout, Crawford’s emphatic way of talking makes even the most ordinary lines of dialogue sound like camp epiphanies. Throughout, Crawford dances stiffly and lip-synchs some songs, including one jaw-dropping number, “Two-Faced Woman,” that she inexplicably performs in blackface (which might explain why the film didn’t make this retrospective). It isn’t Al Jolson blackface either: Crawford retains her bright red lipstick mouth and even wears rhinestones in her eyebrows. Surrounded by side-splittingly listless chorus girls, also in half-ass blackface, and a bunch of adoring chorus boys who I hope were well-paid, Crawford goes through with this insanity as she did everything else, with completely oblivious chutzpah.
Such is Crawford’s deluded grandeur, however, that she has several scenes in Torch Song that are somewhat touching, especially when her eyes tear as Tye Graham’s rehearsal pianist tells her that she will soon become a “cheap, vulgar has-been” and eventually turn to “the bottle.” Crawford wasn’t a fan of self-awareness, to put it mildly, but surely she could feel the truth in those harsh words, and predict the final descent into Berserk! and Trog and all the rest of her contributions to the hag-horror genre. Crawford’s refusal to face facts from beginning to end makes her a quintessentially American icon. Dan Callahan
Below are some of our favorite films in the Criterion Channel’s retrospective.
Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932)
Why make a film with both John and Lionel Barrymore, to say nothing of Crawford and Greta Garbo, when you could make two films separately with each of them and, presumably, make double your money? This was the company line that Irving Thalberg found himself at odds with when he decided to cast all four (and more) in his adaptation of William A. Drake’s Broadway smash Grand Hotel. Thalberg’s revelation was one of decadence, allowing the audience to luxuriate in those monumental visages all at once, but the film only works because director Edmund Goulding gives his spaces the same power and art-deco glamour as his performers. Garbo and Crawford are patiently unveiled, as they should be, but the director frontloads the film with his male stars and their various plotlines in immediate and immediately engaging montage, only to further introduce the pulp of the film’s expertly weaved narrative with a bravura lobby sequence that makes stunning use of overhead crane shooting by famed cinematographer William H. Daniels. Chris Cabin
A Woman’s Face (George Cukor, 1941)
The air of grievance that marks Crawford’s face in Borzage’s Strange Cargo is wonderfully used by George Cukor in A Woman’s Face, and even given a visual correlative: Crawford plays the first half of the film under ugly scar make-up covering one side of her face. This disfigurement really suits her, giving a context to her character’s anger. When she slaps around a mean, pretty woman (Osa Massen), Crawford looks like an enraged animal going in for the kill, yet Cukor gives her several close-ups where her vulnerability comes to the surface, and it isn’t the too-heavy, needy vulnerability we see in some of the actress’s lesser work. These real glimpses of her pain make Woman’s Face one of her most moving performances. It’s a film that explains who Crawford was better than just about anything else she did. Callahan
Humoresque (Jean Negulesco, 1946)
Humoresque is jam-packed with classical music recitals, the usual cultural sauce that Warner Bros. dribbled all over their ‘40s soap operas. During most of these programs, where Isaac Stern does John Garfield’s violin playing for him, we’re left to look at Crawford’s enraptured, sometimes sexual, always nakedly emotional reactions to her beloved’s playing (she even gives her program a hand-job while she stares at him). Never before or since has a player made love to the camera so blatantly, and cinematographer Ernest Haller’s lens seems to respond viscerally to Crawford’s shamelessly auto-erotic ardor as it creeps up closer and closer. Basically, Humoresque is a film about Crawford’s face, that marvel of early make-up call architecture and brutal star self-will. Dedicated to making drunken self-loathing as glamorous as possible, Crawford’s Helen, dressed in a glittering black Adrian sheath with football-player shoulder pads, eventually takes an awe-inspiringly silly 10-minute death walk into the sea, accompanied by Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.” Humoresque is overlong and artificial, but Crawford and Haller make it into a dreamy wallow in velvety masochism. Callahan
Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945)
Distinguishing Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce from many noirs is its disarmingly and modernly casual sense of the reliable humiliation of life as a woman in a man’s world, particularly a woman determined to carve out her own niche in the work sector. The film represented for Crawford what Rocky later represented for Sylvester Stallone: a do-or-die stab at survival in Hollywood that subsumes the star’s autobiographical struggles metaphorically into the narrative. Mildred’s unexpectedly successful quest to reinvent herself mirrors Crawford’s transition from washed-up ingénue into one of the great powerhouse poets of the Hollywood melodrama. Crawford lets her work show, allowing you to feel her desperation to be iconic—her self-consciousness investing her super-stardom with weirdly relatable humanity. Crawford brings to light what a true star does: informing our weaknesses with operatic heft. Chuck Bowen
Possessed (Curtis Bernhardt, 1947)
Crawford plays Louise, a chilly nurse who nurtures a fatal passion for David (Van Heflin), a wastrel engineer. Like a bad penny, David keeps coming back into her life and tormenting her. Eventually, she starts hearing noises in the night, hallucinating all over the place, chattering irrationally and breaking into laughter for no reason. It’s hard to care about Louise or David, but Possessed does have a few very good insights into the self-abasing aggressiveness of unrequited love. The film is at its best when it’s most subjective, putting you into Louise’s mindset, and at its worst when it slows its pace down to a crawl in back-and-forth dialogue scenes. Crawford went to mental institutions to meet and observe some patients before shooting the film, and this preparation paid off. In her best scenes, she shows her character’s illness subtly and accurately without going over the top. Crawford saw that mental illness shows itself above all in the eyes, in the way they seem to stare inward instead of out at the world, and she replicates this quite strikingly. Callahan
Autumn Leaves (Robert Aldrich, 1956)
Robert Aldrich is always doing unexpected things with the camera. He often zooms in almost imperceptibly to create a feeling of imbalance, and he juts his camera up close to Burt (Cliff Robertson) and Millie (Crawford) when they kiss for the first time, not caring that the lens is getting wet. Burt pounds on the camera lens itself by the end, as if he wanted to bust out of Autumn Leaves. Though Aldrich is having a field day with his camera, he’s very attentive to his two outstanding lead actors. There are fleeting moments of camp in Crawford’s performance. However, perhaps because she’s reacting to someone else’s pain for a change, her narcissism doesn’t hold her back. Crawford sometimes comes through, but mostly we’re watching Millicent Wetherby. Crawford is sensitive, operatic, and quite touching, especially when Millie first lets her guard down. This is arguably her best performance. Callahan
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962)
It’s no secret that Crawford and Bette Davis envied and openly despised one another; there’s abundant anecdotal lore that testifies to the myriad ways these divas one-upped and punked each other during production. That undeniable off-screen friction only helps grease the wheels of the film’s compulsive forward momentum, supplying a crackling energy to scenes wherein, among other gothic horrors, pet birds are served up for supper with relish. But the torment on display isn’t exactly a one-way street: As relentlessly as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? at first positions Baby Jane (Davis) as the sadistic malefactor, later scenes sow seeds of pathos and even pity that will blossom just in time for the bitterly ironic finale. There’s an end in sight for Blanche’s (Crawford) longsuffering predicament, just as Jane finally finds her place in the sun. Emphasizing the quietly apocalyptic nature of this denouement is its placement: a rocky stretch of strand that supposedly supplied the surging surf against which Robert Aldrich staged the explosive conclusion of his gumshoe breakdown Kiss Me Deadly. Budd Wilkins
Strait-Jacket (William Castle, 1964)
From a script by Psycho novelist Robert Bloch, Strait-Jacket stars Crawford as an ax-murderer returning home to her now grown daughter. The weird mix of pathos and gore and sentimentality and inanity are more of a piece here than in William Castle’s earlier Homicidal with Crawford at the center. One doesn’t have to go mining for subtext: Crawford’s murderer is the same somewhat self-martyred control freak she played in a number of more famous roles, and the horror-movie tropes bring her out further, seemingly completing her (she always seemed to be in a horror movie anyway and it tells you something about a film when an ax-murderer played by Crawford is its most sympathetic character). The Psycho associations would go further than anyone might have expected: Psycho II, nearly 20 years later, features a setup identical to Strait-Jacket. If there’s one regret here it’s that Crawford’s ego supposedly botched the ending, which now has her sobbing on a porch in the fashion of a woman’s issue movie from the ‘40s. The original ending, of Diane Baker screaming behind the door, is considerably harder to shake. Bowen
‘70s Horror on the Criterion Channel
In the ‘70s, a new wave of horror film presented terror as a messy, brutally honest implosion from within.
All American horror films that really matter can be separated into two time periods: before and after Vietnam, an event that epitomized an era and transmogrified the nation’s concept of “horror” forever. Whereas the horror films of yore would invariably depict true red-white-and-blue protagonists dealing xenophobically with foreign evil (vampires and cat people often represented all of Eastern Europe), a new wave of horror film presented terror in America as a messy, brutally honest implosion from within.
Vietnam seemed to be the cataclysm that ended the idea that America was the world’s “control group,” at least for a while. Typically, Psycho is referred to as the film that sliced horror history in half along socio-political lines, but for all its subversions of the rules of horror, the film still faithfully presents mainstream American society (as represented by Vera Miles) as the norm. No, it took a series of social uprisings, the gradual unraveling of a deceptive image that American soldiers were swaggering like pimps in Vietnam, and a seemingly endless cycle of political assassinations to fuel a new breed of scare-mongering films. And they exposed and subverted everything America held true—open spaces, machinery, industry, and country-gravy hospitality—and amplified the nation’s capacity for superior terror.
This month, the Criterion Channel celebrates this wild, weird, and far-out era of genre filmmaking with their ‘70s Horror series. In their words: “This tour through the 1970s nightmare realm is a veritable blood feast of perverse pleasures from a time when gore, grime, and sleaze found a permanent home in horror.” For more about the 29-film series, which collects some of the grimiest, goriest, and most inventive horror films from the decade, click here. And below is our list of our favorite films in the series. Eric Henderson
10. Ganja & Hess (Bill Gunn, 1973)
Ganja & Hess is both a highly personal reconstruction of the vampire myth (many cite it as the “anti-Blacula”), as well as a Godardian broadside, allowing us to imagine that Bill Gunn was actually thumbing his nose at the way the industry was shaping up for African-American directors in the ‘70s, thanks to films like Gordon Parks’s Shaft. Blaxploitation, now responsible for whole forests’ worth of thesis papers, carries a dual appeal: Films that fall within the genre’s framework often have an insoluble blackness that white audiences can never completely absorb, which, paradoxically, is part of their appeal. Ganja & Hess, which has been retroactively, circumstantially cast as a berserk dash toward career suicide on Gunn’s part, is so singular, so opaque, that it doesn’t even have the draw of commerce-friendly exoticism. If Shaft is Barry White and Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is the Sex Pistols, then Ganja & Hess is John Cage. Jaime N. Christley
9. The Crazies (George A. Romero, 1973)
Like Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies concerns a plague that explodes America’s suppressive (and suppressed) tensions, though the monsters are left almost entirely off screen in this case, as George A. Romero foregrounds the sociocultural textures of martial law. The Crazies reprises Night of the Living Dead’s mercilessly propulsive editing while introducing a bold comic-book palette that would be refined in Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow. The film also abounds in inspired sketches of madness and infrastructural collapse, from the military’s dehumanizing uniform of black gas mask and white hazmat jumpsuit to an irrational image of an insane woman sweeping a battlefield with a broom. Even Romero’s self-consciously lyrical touches intensify the film’s textured canvas. The Crazies ironically understands fascism as being inherent in both the preservation and revolution of society. Chuck Bowen
8. Images (Robert Altman, 1972)
Images might not immediately strike one as a genre exercise, as it’s a subjective dramatization of a fragile woman’s psyche, following a famous children’s author, Cathryn (Susannah York), as she seemingly loses her mind and commits murder. Utilizing a fractured narrative, the film proffers an unreliable reality that underscores the greater tenuousness and chaos of human existence writ large. It’s an art film that follows a codified set of traditions that were particularly in vogue in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Robert Altman is less interested in emotion and psychology than in emotional and psychological gamesmanship—in mind-fucking that has a rich tradition in the more obsessive and political films of Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergman, Roman Polanski, and Joseph Losey, to name just a few of Images’s influences. Bowen
7. Deathdream (Bob Clark, 1972)
A grindhouse threnody for the Vietnam generation, Bob Clark’s emotionally overwhelming Deathdream is a raw nerve radiating pure shock and grief, as evidenced by the reunion of Faces’s Lynn Carlin and John Marley to play the parents of a young private who, after apparently dying in battle, returns to their doorstep. With echoes of “The Monkey’s Paw,” it gradually dawns on the initially relieved family that Andy’s purple heart may no longer beat, and yet he thirsts for blood, which would be horrifying enough if the film didn’t also seem to be suggesting that, whether soldiers return home from war decorated or draped by the flag, they never return as they were before. Henderson
6. The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976)
The masterful final panel in Roman Polanski’s remarkable “Apartment Trilogy,” The Tenant surpasses even Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby in its portrayal of claustrophobia and dissipating sanity. Casting himself as Trelkovsky, a meek Polish wanderer whose new Paris residence comes equipped with sinister neighbors, mysterious hieroglyphs, and mystical intimations, the great director employs a comically escalating sense of dread to crystallize a worldview in which weaklings and barbarians jostle for power and everyone is an outsider, as powerless against bullying as they are to helping the suffering of others. A master class in ominous, insinuating mise-en-scène, this is the ultimate Polanski skin-crawler and one of cinema’s supreme paranoid fantasias. Fernando F. Croce
5. The Brood (David Cronenberg, 1979)
The longing and the sense of tragedy that were beginning to peak through at the end of Rabid are allowed to blossom in The Brood. David Cronenberg’s interests aren’t quite as explicitly psychosexual in nature as usual, as he turns instead to the cycles of damage, repression, and abuse that originate in the nuclear family. The film marks the beginning of his career as a significant formalist, though it’s also as raw and primal as anything he’s made. The pent-up emotional turmoil suggests at times what Bergman might’ve done with a horror film, and it features one of Cronenberg’s most audacious metaphors: a group of vengeful mutant children who’re conjured from the rage of a deeply troubled woman. This woman passes her psychic torment on to everyone even peripherally in her path, most devastatingly of all to her young daughter, who may soon begin to grow her own creatures, born of inescapable, inexpressible anger that’s provoked by the seemingly predestined trauma of life with family. Bowen
4. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)
Throughout Invasion of the Body Snatchers, one of the subtlest and most extraordinarily fluid of American horror films, Philip Kaufman crafts textured scenes, rich in emotional and object-centric tactility, that cause our heads to casually spin with expectation and dread. Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter fuse paranoia, eroticism, and flippancy to arrive at their own distinctly flakey yet intense genre-movie style. The filmmakers have gone out of their way to devise scenes which are set in places that have rarely hosted a horror-movie set piece before, such as a dry-cleaner’s, a book store, and the creepy swamp-colored spa that provides their film with one of its shock centerpieces. The soundtrack is particularly unnerving when we get a prolonged glimpse at how the pod people hatch out of the flowers blooming all over the city, which Kaufman stages as a simultaneous birth and rape. Bowen
3. The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)
A film that’s become synonymous with British horror, The Wicker Man follows a conservative Christian policeman (Edward Woodward) seeking a missing girl on a Hebridean island inhabited by pagans. The first half has an (intentional) air of the faintly ridiculous about it, embodied equally by Christopher Lee’s gloriously campy portrayal of the cult’s leader and the life-on-the-island sequences that are Pythonesque in their absurdist look at culture clash. But the film’s impish wit and soft, Arcadian glow belie its cruel streak. The gathering clouds of unease building into a shocking third act that’s aesthetically and structurally reminiscent of the end of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, possibly the highest praise one can give to the conclusion of a horror film. Abimanyu Das
2. Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
Don’t Look Now is driven by a crushing sense of emotional desolation. The phrase “psychic thriller,” which was used to market the film, is technically true, but misleading, given that psychics are normally used by directors as springboards for action set pieces or as agents for ushering forth the explicit arrival of ghosts. There are certainly ghosts in Don’t Look Now, and maybe even the kind that populate traditional horror stories, but the prevailing specters here are those that people come to know through disappointment or tragedy as allusions to things lost or desired, which have a way of suddenly opening mental portals to the past, and, in the case of this film and quite a bit of supernatural fiction, the future. Don’t Look Now suggests a ghost story that Faulkner may have written, as it offers characters who’re at the mercy of their streams of consciousness. There’s barely a present tense here at all, as it’s swallowed up by what’s already happened and what will happen. Bowen
1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)
Opening in utter darkness illuminated by sudden, dreadful flashes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre begins with a police report describing a violated corpse as “a grisly work of art,” a term that also applies perfectly to Tobe Hooper’s legendary grindhouse masterpiece. A rough-hewn American Gothic canvas, the film charts the trajectory of a batch of youngsters from a clammy van to the dangling hooks of an abbatoir run by a cannibalistic clan. Materializing in the middle of the horror genre’s most transgressive decade, this is a cacophony of piercing shrieks, metallic clanks, and roaring machinery that looks back to Psycho’s view of ingrown monsters even as it outdoes the older film in sheer, visceral impact. Snapshot of Vietnam-era outrage? Indictment of all-devouring capitalism? Blood-spattered redneck Theater of Cruelty? Yes to all, plus the screen’s most grueling portrait of mushrooming terror. Decades of sequels, remakes, and imitators can’t take away its scabrous power. Croce
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