Month: July 2018

The sadist in me loves to watch Wait Until Dark with the lights out.

I luxuriate in the cruelty of its conceit. From the moment Susy Hendrix taps her way into her apartment, unaware of the three intruders who watch stoically in the shadows, to the violent, final showdown between her and Alan Arkin’s knife-wielding psychopath, the film is crammed with bleak nods to human wickedness, all of it popping out from within the confines of a boxy kitchen-sink thriller.

Not only do Susy’s tormentors take advantage of her handicap, but I do. I’m often way ahead of Susy and am always able to exploit her. Her panic, for instance, after she detects smoke in the air, when I know it’s just a cigarette butt burning itself out. Or when the scarf she throws around her neck disturbs wisps of hair belonging to a dead girl hanging from her wardrobe door that only I know is there (a mouth-wateringly morbid touch). I’m an accomplice, invited by the filmmaker to participate and revel in the systematic abuse of a well-meaning anorexic woman living with blindness.

I can’t stop watching because the cruelties, both slight (like when Mike sounds out a phone number while dialling a different one) and extreme (like when Roat cuts the phone line) are so engrossing. It’s akin to a cat’s primal desire to injure and kill. I don’t want Audrey to die – the party is over when the bird stops moving – but I can’t help but claw and mark her up a bit, if only to see how much she can withstand. I know why these three guys are here and what they’re doing – I’ve been explicitly told – so the only question is how much cruelty can they impose upon her before she figures it out.

I could pretend that I spend the entire movie shaking my head at the inhumanity of it all, but that’s not how I watch Wait Until Dark. And if you’re like me and re-watch it every year, then you’re waiting for those little moments of pure savagery; the blonde suspended in the wardrobe, the cloth that Roat dangles menacingly over Susy’s face, the matches and gasoline, the panic attack Susy has after discovering the phone line’s been cut and she’s boxed herself in.

And, of course, there’s the knife attack; Roat digging his blade into the floor as he closes in on Susy, her futile tugging on the refrigerator’s power cord as Roat staggers to his feet until finally, with a single chilling scream, the room is plunged into darkness.

What really makes the sadism fun is how cute and dopey Audrey Hepburn is as Susy. She starts out as this exceptionally needy person who makes bad jokes and is terrified of being alone. Recently blinded after a car accident, she is still reluctant to do things for herself and even tries to manipulate her husband into breaking an appointment so he can stay in with her. He, on the other hand, is always making her do things for herself. At one point, exasperated, she says, ‘Do I have to be the world’s champion blind lady?’ To which he says, with equal conviction, ‘Yes!’

Even once he arrives to his ransacked house after Susy’s just fought for her life, he still insists that she ‘find her way’ to him. Whilst being an obvious (and clumsy) bid for symbolism, in a film that so keenly celebrates sadism, it’s a moment that works.

Conversely, when Mike (the villain) shows up masquerading as a friend, he’s always offering to do things for Susy. He puts out the fire, gets the phone, checks the blinds, looks for the doll. It figures that, in a film this misanthropic, the bad guys are superficially helpful while the ones who love her won’t lift a finger ‘for her own good’. I guess the message, if a message can be found in a film with such a vicious point of view, is that sometimes you have to be a little cruel in order to be a little kind.

Hereditary is out in wide release and audiences are less than impressed. So it was with The Witch and The Babadook. While reviewers swoon, everyone else is scratching their heads.

Hereditary is the latest in a wave of ‘serious’ horror movies that have moved the genre from the heart to the head. And true horror fans need the heart. They want to feel the blade whipping past their ears. Hereditary is intellectually dense – to be sure – but is it thrilling? Thrills have become passé. These movies don’t even try to scare us anymore; they aim for a mounting sense of dread and stop short of terror, which begs the question: Is this movie good or just good for you?

God help the movies if they can no longer thrill audiences without being labelled cheap. Critics raved about The Exorcist and Jaws. Both scared up major box office and left audiences white-knuckled. But these days sophisticated horror films don’t bridge the gap.

Transgressive video nasties (like The Evil Dead), which were once championed by the underground film movement and reviled by critics, are now embraced by the very faction who once dismissed them as junk. The genre has been hijacked by academics. If these movies are no longer subversive enough to put off critics, then do they even rate as horror?

With a 93% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a D+ on CinemaScore, Hereditary is underwhelming almost everyone I know. A margin this wide makes sense if we’re talking about mother!, which was experimental and not intended for mainstream audiences. But Hereditary is a popcorn horror movie that’s psychologically complex, graphic, disturbing, with some knockout performances and a few jump scares.

The problem is that there’s also a heavy-handed subtext about mental illness. True horror films tap into subconscious fears. Killer dolls and possessed children and flesh-eating zombies and hillbilly cannibals don’t mean much on the surface. They aren’t wearing their symbolism on their sleeves. It takes hindsight to process why they penetrated our consciousness and tapped into our underlying fears. Should horror movies be as symbolically ‘neat’ as Hereditary? Toni Collette’s act of self-mutilation is so naked a metaphor that it distracts from the sheer horror of it. We ‘think’ it rather than feel it, and the horror evaporates.

Perhaps I need to look at what Hereditary isn’t before casting it aside completely.

For one thing, it isn’t a James Wan shocker, where a few inspired scare sequences are intermingled with poor characterisations, orchestral stabs, silly expository scenes and unfocused plotting. Hereditary reaches for something purer; the supernatural element develops slowly as the characters psychologically disintegrate. A James Wann film is a giddy experience that makes us feel over-caffeinated. Hereditary is just bewildering and faintly unpleasant.

Hereditary also contains no levity. It’s interesting without being fun and it doesn’t let you sigh with relief after a big scare. One dread-inducing scene is followed by another. Director Ari Aster sustains suspense for two hours – and ends his film on a rather perplexing note. There’s an explanation for what we’ve seen, but it doesn’t all gel. It raises more questions than it yields answers, but this is clearly the filmmaker’s intention. Jaws, The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby lost none of their power with declarative, rousing endings. Hereditary finds an ending, but is it satisfying? I thought so. Many people do not.

The D+ score might hurt the film’s box office, but it was made for $10 million and almost doubled its budget over it’s first weekend. I wonder if people will come around to it, or if the movie’s slow-burn power is lost on a culture obsessed with instant gratification. Maybe our chronic consumption of hyperactive Marvel films and James Wan cheapies has given us an allergy to cinema that breathes. Maybe we don’t have the patience for substance anymore, just a few boo-gotcha! moments. Or maybe this movie is too concerned with ‘saying something’ instead of just scaring the shit out of us. Audiences have loved horror movies for a lot longer than the critics. They know when they’re being duped.

This month we are smashing every lightbulb in the studio as we explore Terence Young’s 1967 domestic thriller “Wait Until Dark”.

This podcast is non-profit and has been broadcast for educational purposes. Excerpts from the following material has been included to enhance the listener experience:

The Birds (1963) dir. Alfred Hitchcock, USA
Wait Until Dark (1967) dir. Terence Young, USA
Panic Room (2002) dir. David Fincher, USA

“Wait Until Dark” [score] (1967), w & p: Henry Mancini


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Luke Kane: http://www.letterboxd.com/overbreakfast/
Damien Heath: http://www.letterboxd.com/jedikaos/

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Thanks again for checking out Celluloid Junkies. We’ll see you next time with a close-up, in depth look at Patty Jenkins’ phenomenal serial killer biopic “Monster”.

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