In the Earth (2021)

Understandably, there have been hundreds of attempts to make timely COVID-era films over the past year and a half. Most of these productions are on the level of Doug Liman’s Locked Down: throwaway novelties of limited scope & budget that’re only worthwhile as cultural time capsules of the minor inconveniences and quirks of daily life that define this never-ending global pandemic for most people surviving it. I’m interested in this burgeoning exploitation genre the way I am with most fad-cinema novelties of the past: disco musicals, aerobics-craze horrors, sports dramas about skateboarders, etc.  There is something especially cynical & dark about exploiting COVID-era “lockdown life”, though, since this particular global “fad” comes with a real-life bodycount in the millions.  From what I’ve seen so far, there have only been three works of COVID cinema that have really grappled with the grief, isolation, and exhaustion of the pandemic: the “screenlife” cyberghost story Host, the Bo Burnham video diary Inside, and Ben Wheatley’s psychedelic folk horror In the Earth.  This is likely a cinematic subject we’ll be unraveling for the rest of our lives, since it affects every last person on the planet, but genuinely great films made in the thick of this ongoing crisis have so far been in short supply.

For its part, In the Earth smartly reflects on the maddening grief of COVID-19 indirectly, from a distance. Its characters discuss the social isolation of quarantine and the bureaucratic discomforts of routine testing, but they never specify the exact scope or nature of the virus they’re protecting themselves from.  It’s less about the specific daily safety measures of COVID in particular, but more about how a year of social & spiritual isolation has permanently remapped their brains in chaotic, fucked up ways. By stepping away from the lockdown restrictions of city life to instead stage its COVID-flavored horror show in the woods, it recontextualizes this never-ending global crisis as a dual Man vs. Nature and Man vs. Man struggle, attempting to document something a little more philosophical about the absurdity, violence, and emptiness of living right now.  Its two central villains are trying to directly bargain with Nature through science and through religious mysticism, respectively, as if all our modern ills can only be solved by radically overhauling the way we live among each other on this planet (which feels right, even if nearly impossible).

A field researcher is guided by a park ranger into the thick of British wilderness, searching for a rogue scientist who’s gone off the grid and off the rails in her recent experiments.  They eventually find the mad scientist, who is directly communicating with trees trough a convoluted system of strobe lights & synthesizers she’s arranged in the woods like a sinister art instillation.  In her mind, this human-to-Nature line of communication could potentially unlock some great, authentic power that will help us better understand (and potentially command) our place in the global ecosystem.  The philosophical counterpoint to her experiment and the main obstacle on our journey to her is an axe-wielding maniac who stalks the woods.  His plan to reconnect with Nature involves local folklore rituals that honor the elder god Parnag Fegg, The Spirit of the Woods.  The advocate for science and the advocate for religion are both violently insane, of course, but they have a way of luring in the two new interlopers in the woods with calm, disarmingly kind demeanors that make them vulnerable to their respective extremist rhetoric. These are extreme times, after all, and the social isolation of the past year has made us all a little batty in our own special ways.

I can’t tell you exactly what Ben Wheatley was trying to communicate with this gory, psychedelic horror show, nor do I really want to hear the specifics of his intent.  As a horror movie, it’s perfectly entertaining & unsettling mix of sci-fi, folk horror, and woodland slasher genre tropes.  The surgical details of the axe wounds are just as effectively upsetting as the psychedelic freak-outs of its strobe light centerpiece.  As a nightmare reflection of our collective, COVID-era mindset, it’s much more difficult to pin down exactly what it’s doing except to say that it’s impressively strange, upsetting stuff considering its limited scope & budget.  So many movies being made in and about these times are so caught up in the mundane, practical details of daily life that they never transcend the novelty of its setting.  In the Earth is a rare example of COVID Cinema that aims for something a little more intangible and indescribable — something that captures the existential horrors of current life rather than the logistical ones.

-Brandon Ledet

A Classic Horror Story (2021)

C’era una volta, Italy was a world power … in horror. Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava, Michele Soavi, and of course my beloved Dario Argento were i re of horror cinema. But in the year 2021 … non così tanto. After all, there’s a reason that recent giallo throwbacks like Knife + Heart and Berberian Sound Studio don’t take place in Italy itself (the former) or, if they do, why they are set during the height of Italian horror exportation (the latter). When it comes to domination of the international horror market, Italy is a failed state.  So when Italy exported the recent Una classica storia dell’orrore, I was excited. And although A Classic Horror Story couldn’t live up to that legend, it does live up to its title. 

We meet young lawyer Elisa (Matilda Lutz) as she is preparing to return home to “visit” her parents, but in reality she is leaving her current city to seek to terminate her pregnancy and recuperate afterward with family before heading back to work. To get home, she is carpooling in a small camper with vacationing couple Mark and Sofia (Will Merrick and Yuliia Sobol), unfriendly doctor Riccardo (Peppino Mazzotta), and their driver, the nerdy and talkative Fabrizio (Francesco Russo). It isn’t explicit, but later dialogue between Mark and Fabrizio, in which the latter expresses annoyance with cultural assumptions that northern Italians make about southern Italians (in short, that everyone in the south is involved with the mafia), suggests that they are travelling from the north to the southern coast. Fabrizio plans to film parts of the trip for his YouTube channel, entitled “Friends of Fabrizio,” and asks the four riders to introduce themselves to the camera, saying that it’s important that his audience come to like them, even stocking the camper’s minifridge with beers to act as a social lubricant and get everyone to come out of their shells. Elisa is pressured into taking a sip but immediately falls ill, forcing them crew to stop by the roadside. While Riccardo argues on the phone with his recently estranged wife, a now inebriated Mark forces his way into the driver’s seat, and insists that he drive the rest of the way. The others accept that he cannot be talked out of it, and he does a fairly decent job for a drunk driver, even bonding with Fabrizio along the drive, until he swerves to avoid a dead animal in the road. 

It’s daytime when Elisa awakes, and the camper is now in a vast field, encircled by forest. Mark’s leg is broken and there are no signs of civilization other than a rustic cabin that also occupies the clearing. Riccardo and Fabrizio set out to look for the road, but seemingly trace a great circle instead, ending up back at the site where the camper and cabin are located. Another venture into the forest also results in the discovery of some kind of pagan altar to “three knights,” including pig heads on stakes. After their initial reluctance, the group (minus the still-immobilized Mark) enter the cabin looking for a way to contact or locate help when its door opens with a mysterious creak. Inside, they find ritualisting paintings that relay a local legend that Fabrizio summarizes: the tre cavalieri are Osso, Mastrosso and Carcagnosso, pagan deities who blessed local land in exchange for sacrifices, and that these sacrifices involve the ritualistic removal of individual victims’ ears, eyes, and tongue. The only other decorations in the cabin are photos of what appear to be generations of people wearing animalistic masks, or who perhaps have actual animal heads, as the result of their devil’s deal with the Cavalieri. When the clearing is bathed in a saturating red light while ominous sirens sound, Riccardo, Fabrizio, Elisa, and Sofia take shelter in the cabin’s attic, which gives them a bird’s eye view of three masked entities dragging Mark from the camper to the cabin and securing him to the table within and mutilating his eyes before killing him. As if this weren’t horrifying enough, they also discover a child in the attic in a cocoon made of sticks and straw; the group asks for her name, but she is unable to answer, as she has no tongue. 

The group makes another attempt to escape through the woods during the day, discovering a graveyard of abandoned vehicles that imply that this kind of sacrifice has been going on for a very long time. One of the vehicles belonged to the young girl’s family, and she reveals her name, Chiara, to Elisa by recovering her diary from within it. She also implies that they are all in some kind of inescapable purgatory, which is supported by their failure to escape the woods once again; worse, when they return to the clearing, the camper is gone. 

It’s all but impossible to talk about this much further without getting into major spoilers, so here ye be warned: spoilers abound from here on out. 

Elisa wakes in the night to discover that Ciara, Riccardo, and Sofia have been dragged out of the cabin and into the clearing, where a crowd of animal-headed cultists watch with rapt attention as Osso, Mastrosso and Carcagnosso take the older victims’ eyes and ears, respectively. Elisa is rightfully terrified, and when Fabrizio reappears in the cabin saying that they have to escape, she all but collapses into an embrace with him. As they hold one another, however, she can hear a small, tinny voice … as it gives Fabrizio instructions over his earpiece. 

There is no sacrifice or ritual here, at least not in service of harvest gods. All of this has been of Fabrizio’s design, as he seeks to craft a classic horror story. He bemoans the state of contemporary Italian cinema, which consists entirely of insipid comedies and brainless YouTube fluff, and wants to make a new Italian classic. Oddly enough, he doesn’t invoke the names of the three giants of giallo cinema that I cited above, and instead draws on comparisons to extremely American representations of the genre: Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Titanic is also mentioned for good measure). The Osso, Mastrosso and Carcagnosso that he mentioned are actually the supposed founders of the three Mediterranean crime families, tying back to his repeated references to the mafia, including a joke that he told to break the tension and lighten Chiara’s spirits during a particularly grim moment. Not that she actually needed this, of course; she’s still alive, and has been in on it the whole time. 

Fabrizio’s biggest problem is that, for all his supposed learnedness about the nature of horror, he forgot about one of the genre’s most important features: the final girl. After a brief interlude in which we learn that Fabrizio has the support (or at least the indifference) of local politicians and police, Elisa escapes from the wheelchair to which her hands are nailed, and she turns the tables on Fabrizio and Chiara, and she’s kind enough to film the whole thing before escaping into the woods and eventually finding her way to a beach, where horrified onlookers are briefly stunned by the bloody girl in their midst before they immediately take their phones out and begin to film her. 

The first hour or so of A Classic Horror Story isn’t anything to write home about, being more “serviceable” than “good.” But the final 35 minutes more than make up for the water-treading of the first and second acts. What’s also praiseworthy here is how much it fits with what I want to see more of in horror: wherein we are first led to believe that something supernatural is afoot, before we get the important reminder that all evil in this world is done by humans. There’s a genuine eeriness that permeates the proceedings as soon as the travellers find themselves in the clearing, especially with the apparent presence of pagan deities and sacrifices in creepy masks, as well as the strange lighting and the wailing sirens. Unfortunately, those elements suffer from appearing in a film that was released so soon after the higher-budgeted Midsommar, especially given that the source imagery from which both films are borrowing are similar. It’s not identical, of course, but neither are Garden State and Elizabethtown, which didn’t stop contemporary critics from making the same note about the short time between those similar releases. There are very similar scenes of an outdoor cultist feast with our heroine at the head of the table, and it’s even present in the various lodgings, which don’t look alike precisely, but which are both juuust unconventional enough to lend an air of uncanniness to the proceedings. 

I truly didn’t see that final act twist coming, and my opinion of the film took a sharp increase as it drew to a conclusion. It didn’t turn this into the instant horror classic that it was aiming for, and there’s an extension of its metacommentary into the end credits that I have mixed feelings about (it’s kind of dumb but the final moment of self-deprication amused me). That’s the element that I think will age the most poorly, but then again, only time will tell. A Classic Horror Story is streaming now on Netflix. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Midsommar (2019)

“For Dani, it is a wish fulfillment fantasy. A fairy tale.”

About a week after seeing Midsommar, the friend with whom I attended a screening featuring a post-film Q&A with director Ari Aster turned to me as we were hanging out and asked, “Boomer, did you actually like Midsommar?” And I replied, “Yeah, of course I did. Didn’t you?” To which he responded, “I’m not sure. I think that Q&A kinda ruined it for me.” And I have to admit, as soon as the film ended, I was fully ready to do my write-up, only for my excitement to dwindle as Aster and Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League swirled mostly-empty rocks glasses and chuckled. At first, I was mostly concerned for Aster’s feelings (I’m a softie like that); when I saw Hereditary, there wasn’t a single guffaw or chuckle from the audience with whom I sat in the dark and partook in a somber meditation on grief (at least until the very end, but I’ll circle back around to that), but in the sold-out audience for Midsommar, there were laughs within the first 5 minutes, leading to out-and-out peals of laughter until the film’s closing moments. I worried that Aster would hear this reaction and determine that we were a theater filled with bumpkins and deviants–and not the fun kind–who didn’t appreciate his work.

This was not the case, or if it was, Aster did a good job covering his disappointment, engaging in the good natured ribbing of the characters’ foibles, noting that if a viewer didn’t think the film was intentionally comedic by the time an older woman was manhandling the male lead’s buttocks and helping him thrust, then he must not have done his job. Comedy was his real interest, he stated, and he had gotten sidelined into doing horror because that seemed to be of greater public interest. And that is one of the beautiful draws of Midsommar: it is hilarious. I needn’t have worried at all it seems; I wrote in my Hereditary review about “a moment close to the end of the film that sent much of the auditorium agiggle, despite being one of the creepiest sequences,” but Aster stated that he himself found that scene hilarious, and it was intentionally comedic.

It’s been long enough since Midsommar came out that an extended director’s cut rerelease has already happened, but in case you’ve had the misfortune of missing the film, a brief synopsis: Dani (Florence Pugh), recently having experienced a horrific family tragedy, accompanies her douchebag boyfriend Chad Christian (Jack Reynor) on a trip to Sweden. Ostensibly, this is not a holiday but a research expedition as part of Josh (William Jackson Harper)’s thesis research about Hårga, the commune from which the group’s exchange student friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) hails. However, the inclusion of Mark (Will Poulter), a doofus completely lacking in even the least bit of self-awareness, cements that the Swedish foray exists solely for the purpose of eating a bunch of mushrooms and trying to bed as many commune girls as possible during the Hårga’s titular Midsommar festival, with this year’s being a special kind that only comes every ninety years. And then, as is the genre’s wont, bad things happen. And good things, too. After all, that quote about Dani above? That’s from Aster.

From Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Dead Calm to upcoming Movie of the Month Who Can Kill a Child?, I’m pretty much always on board with a daytime horror movie. Midsommar pushes past the boundary of the “day won’t save you” concept into a completely disorienting perpetual daylight. This starts even before the audience has the opportunity to ask themselves if something’s rotten in the village, when Mark expresses unease upon learning that it is after 8 PM, despite the sun still appearing high in the sky; the film takes advantage of the northern latitudes’ geographically anomalous prolonged days and plays on the effects that could arise from being unaccustomed to such an unusual night/day rhythm. Characters attempt to circumvent community rules under the cover of “darkness” with about the success that you would expect. People lose track of time and then possibly lose track of the concept of time, all under the watchful and unfaltering gaze of the sun. That alone isn’t enough to make the film worthwhile, of course; the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man kept the seminal original’s daytime frights, but lost the core of what made Robin Hardy’s version a classic (although what it lost in the fire it gained in the flood; it’s a romp).

What makes Midsommar work isn’t just the unease that comes from the finding of no safe haven from horror in the light, it’s also the discomfiting nature of lingering on what Aster called “static image[s] of relatively little interest.” It’s been three years since the YouTube channel “Every Frame a Painting” stopped updating, but I have no doubt that they would have a lot to say about the growing Aster oeuvre. His two big features so far have depended heavily on lingering shots of mostly-static settings to convey a sense of displacement and balance. The mainstream horror-going audience has spent over a decade now subsisting on films that depend heavily on unearned jump scares to produce a reaction, but Midsommar and its predecessor instead use the quietness of their presentation to inspire a disquiet of the soul. We’ve been forcefed Baghouls hiding behind open medicine cabinet doors for so long that when lingering shots of pastoral peace are succeeded by calm pans across striking farmhouses or documentarian framing of a Swedish banquet, there’s nowhere for that energy to go; so it just builds and builds until whoops, now you’re wearing a bear suit and boy are you not going to like it.

A friend who is known for his tirades recently produced a new rant about the performative sententiousness of horror fans, noting that many he has met seem to think that horror fans have a kind of ownership of subtextual analysis. And hey, I know I’ve been guilty of that. (Said friend also hated Hereditary, unsurprisingly.) In a way, Aster reminds me of Panos Cosmatos, in that his films act as originals in spite of being pastiches of older genre films; I’ve said before that my favorite thing about Hereditary is how it starts out as an apparent homage to The Bad Seed, before turning into Ordinary People for so long that you gaslight yourself into thinking all that seemingly extraordinary stuff from Act 1 was just in your head, before bam: Rosemary’s Baby all along. In Midsommar we find a movie that, frankly, owes its existence to the aforementioned The Wicker Man (1973, just to be clear), but has a lot more going on than at first meets the eye. You don’t need another thinkpiece on this movie; various outlets have already dove into the apparent pro-eugenics nature of the narrative, an argument that I’ve read four times now and still have difficulty following, and have read the film as a trans narrative and a new camp classic. And if a slightly sloppy Q&A (someone actually gave Aster their contact info on a Drafthouse order card and asked to work on his next project, so the audience was matching the level of “shoot your shot” that the director was putting out, at least) in which Aster admitted under questioning that the 72-year life cycle didn’t actually jibe with the 90-year festival cycle didn’t ruin it altogether, I don’t think anything can.

P.S.: I didn’t even get to touch on my three favorite moments, but here they are:

  1. The paneled cloth depicting a particular Hårga fertility ritual, and each time that something popped up on screen that had appeared in it previously (how Christian didn’t notice that his lemonade was distinctly pinker than anyone else’s is a mystery).
  2. The foreshadowing in Pelle’s scene with Dani, where he tells her that his parents died too. In a fire.
  3. “What game are those kids playing?”
    “Skin the fool.”

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond