Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Horror Lexicon #2: The Car Won't Start


Why won't it start? From Silent Hill (2006)
This week in reviewing the horror film lexicon -- the common visual/thematic language of the genre --we gaze at another trope that frequently appears in scary cinema.  In "The Car Won't Start (or Runs out of Gas)" composition the only means of escape -- an automobile -- proves a possibly fatal disappointment to the protagonist, usually a final girl on the run.  Like that hero, we are stranded in battle, with an enemy nearby.  We are vulnerable.

Amy Steel cranks it, to no avail, in Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981).
The Car Won't Start trope usually consists of a series of tight compositions in the following sequence: a close-up of the desperate protagonist getting into the car and drivers' seat, and then insert shots of a key twisting in the ignition, and perhaps wheels grinding uselessly in the mud, or dirt

This sequence of shots often repeats itself two or three times in quick succession in order to fully express the futile nature of the enterprise.  Sometimes, the Car Won't Start trope also ends in success...at the very last moment (The Fog [1980]).  The car suddenly starts, and the protagonist zooms away from danger (only, usually, to find another obstacle somewhere close by, ahead...). 

The Car Won't Start trope -- a tightly-edited, tense montage of short moments -- is designed to express the significant idea that technology is undependable in the face of a crisis.  We take for granted the idea that our cars will start up on command, and that we can travel wherever we want.  We're a mobile people, and we live by this very belief.  It's at the heart of our economic survival, and even connection our to our communities and food supplies.  In horror cinema, however, technology is undependable and twitchy, prolonging the state of suspense/terror.  Sometimes the villain has sabotaged the car.  Sometimes the environment -- mud, again -- mitigates the advantage technology provides. 

Ash turns the ignition over and over, in The Evil Dead (1983)
Many Car Won't Start moments are featured in the 1980s slasher milieu and that is so because slashers are almost supernatural predators who appear to operate above our laws of nature and beyond the reach of our cultural infrastructure. 

Jason in the Friday the 13th films, for instance, is frequently associated with nature, with thunder storms and lightning.  His presence often coincides with power shorting out, and if the car won't start, it's a good guess that he is nearby, ready with the machete.

In the horror films of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s there are well over 75 examples of moments wherein technology fails, and our preferred mode of transportation fails or stalls.  

The wheels are spinning. From Jeepers Creepers (2001).
Some of the prominent horror films that feature this familiar and common visual language and situation are:

The Hearse (1980), Mother's Day (1980), Dead and Buried (1981), Friday the 13th Part II (1981), Halloween II (1981), The Howling (1981), Friday the 13th Part 3 in 3-D (1982), Hell Night (1982), Madman (1982), Cujo (1983), The Evil Dead (1983), Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984), Silver Bullet (1985), The Hitcher (1986), Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), Creepshow 2 (1987), Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987), Leatherface (199), Night of the Living Dead (1990), Leprechaun (1992), Sleepwalkers (1992), Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993), Urban Legend (1996), Phantoms (1998), Jeepers Creepers (2001) and Silent Hill (2006)

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Guest Post: A Simple Favor (2018)




Nancy Drew and the Case of the Gone Gossip Girl

By Jonas Schwartz

Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor is a deliciously twisty comedy-thriller in the Hitchcockian vein with two delectable performances by Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively.

Square, single mom Stephanie (Kendrick, Into The Woods) tries just a little bit too hard to please. Her dull life turns upside down when she meets the dynamic Emily (Lively, Gossip Girl) through their little boys. Stephanie is instantly bewitched by the fashionable, flip sophisticate. They drink dry martinis London style and reveal dark secrets. Then one day Emily asks for just a simple favor, for Stephanie to pick up Emily's son from school. After that call, Emily vanishes. Her husband Sean (Henry Golding, Crazy Rich Asians) hasn’t heard from her at all, and her work doesn’t seem to notice she’s gone. Stephanie leaves it to herself to solve the mystery. The once buttoned up neurotic blossoms due to the excitement as she chases old secrets to their roots.


Feig plays homage to the French '60s neo-noir thrillers of Claude Chabrol and Francois Truffaut, who, in turn, had been kissing up to their portly Hollywood mentor, Hitch.  Feig sets the tone with a ravishing soundtrack containing post-modern French songs by Serge Gainsbourg, Brigitte Bardot, and Françoise Hardy and an enveloping score by Theodore Shapiro.  The costumes by Renee Ehrlich Kalfus mock trends of the 1960s with couture female tuxedos and hostess dresses in bright suburban colors.

The script by Jessica Sharzer, based on Darcey Bell's 2017 novel, follows the tropes of the scheming femme fatales and the good girls who climb into the mud after them. The characters are wickedly smart which makes both Stephanie and Emily worthy adversaries. Some of the strings do unravel, in particular the character of Emily's fashion empresario boss played by Rupert Friend could have been woven more into the mystery to add menace. Even without charting new territory, Sharzer keeps the audience on their toes, but still allows them to think they're two steps ahead of the script only to be dead wrong often.


Feig's cast has been obviously schooled on the conventions of the 1940's noir characters they tease, so that they're able to follow the established form, but also make the characters their own. Kendrick, who began her career on the stage as a child, is a winning protagonist. Her insecurities and constant babbling illustrate a woman desperate to belong. The script clues the audience in immediately when Stephanie reveals to her mommy vlogger audience that her best friend that she’s known for ONLY A FEW WEEKS has gone missing. Kendrick may be a pigeon, but audiences empathize with her loneliness and isolation. Lively plays Emily as a force of nature, a commanding presence who manipulates for the same reason other people breath. Like in Crazy Rich Asians, Golding projects an irresistible sexiness, but he unselfishly allows the dominant women surrounding him to take full focus in the film. Feig fills his cast with great supporters like Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack, and Aparna Nancherla as the gossipy school parents, and Olivia Sandoval and Bashir Salahuddin as two over-jovial but heavily suspicious detectives, she for the insurance company, he for the police. Jean Smart as a boozy piece of the puzzle is a hilarious gem as always.


Like a rich, French meal, A Simple Favor savors its flavors, creating an appetizing treat that's a tastier whole than its parts may suggest on their own. Already adept at skewering the conventions of the spy thriller (Spy), the buddy cop comedy (The Heat), and the girl's-day-out comedies (Bridesmaids), director Paul Feig shows his flair for subtlety and intrigue without the gross-out elements upon which his earlier comedies relied.

Check out Jonas's other reviews at www.theatermania.com/author/jonas-schwartz_169 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Horror Lexicon: "The Stay Awake" Shot


As I've often written, the horror film possesses a visual vocabulary all its own.  At the basis of this vocabulary or lexicon, is film grammar, the agreed upon language filmmakers deploy to vet their cinematic narratives.

Director Tobe Hooper explains further (in Jeffrey Horsting's Stephen King Goes to Hollywood, New American Books, 1986, page 20):

"Brian De Palma actually coined a phrase, 'film grammar,' which refers to the way particular shots are put together by particular directors in order to tell the story....You build sequences, such as a shot of someone coming through a doorway who looks at a table across the room.  On the table, there is a dagger, and as the subject approaches the dagger, the camera dollies back across the long room with the subject approaching the table.  And cutting to that person's point-of-view, which would be a moving shot traveling toward the table, getting closer and closer to the dagger...that's grammar."

Film grammar is the basis upon which all (good) films are constructed, and certain compositions or "sentences" of film grammar are virtually guaranteed to make audiences feel specific emotions or feelings.  You are already familiar with this lingo, at least sub-consciously.  A high angle shot (looking down) makes our heroes look small...vulnerable.  A low angle shot (peering up), makes a villain seem huge and menacing.  A subjective point-of-view puts us inside the body and eyes of a specific character.  Hand-held camera-work makes the action feel more immediate and urgent, and so forth.

In this new type of post here, called "The Horror Lexicon," I'll be spotlighting and examining the horror film's distinctive visual language, the language we all understand, at least psychologically.


I've written previously about the "Stay Awake" genre convention in Horror Films of the 1980's and Horror Films of the 1990's.  In those two instances, I cataloged at least 125 instances of this particular visual in 1980s and 1990s horror cinema.   A favorite of director Brian De Palma (Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Raising Cain), the "Stay Awake" shot represents a visual shorthand for post-traumatic stress, and the fall-off ofter a crescendo of highest dramatic intensity. 

The "Stay Awake" shot (named by me after a very bad 1987 film called The Stay Awake) is what I term "the trademark" composition of the once-popular rubber-reality horror film.  The Stay Awake  shot most often (but not universally) features a close-up of the beleaguered protagonist, all sweaty and bothered, awaking from a traumatic dream, usually on a bed or in a sofa.  You will see the shot frequently in A Nightmare on Elm Street films, which explicitly deal with nightmares.

The Stay Awake shot often arrives immediately after a horror film has tricked us with a sequence in which the protagonist appears to be in inescapable danger.  At the moment of greatest jeopardy and terror, we suddenly cut to the Stay Awake, as the protagonist comes to conciousness from the disturbing phantasm.  We have been tricked by the harrowing action too, and identify with the character's relief (and fast-breathing, perspiring demeanor).  The Stay Awake composition builds an important link between protagonist and audience. It portends universality (we've all had bad dreams), and we've both, in this instance, been tricked.

Many directors and film scholars have compared the act of watching a movie to dreaming, only with our eyes open.  The Stay Awake shot seems to be a self-reflexive, mirroring of this dynamic.   We're actually watching a character on screen dream within a dream, as we are observing the larger dream of the film itself.

Sometimes, the Stay Awake shot is a movie's final, climactic sting (think Carrie [1976], Dressed to Kill [1980]), and sometimes, when a director is being exceptionally playful or mischevious, the audience is treated to a double Stay Awake (a second dream within a dream; as in the case of Prince of Darkness [1987].)  Sometimes, the awaking figure clutches dream wounds, further evoking a feeling that the dream was physically dangerous.

Below are some well-known post-dream, post-traumatic "Stay Awake" shots of the horror cinema.  Again, consider how here one shot alone has become part of horror's communal language, a critical part of the horror director's quiver.


The Stay Awake a la Cameron: Aliens (1986)


The Stay Awake a la John Carpenter: Prince of Darkness (1987)


The Stay Awake a la Tobe Hooper: Lifeforce (1985)


The Stay Awake a la Brian De Palma: Dressed to Kill (1989)


The Stay Awake a la Neil Marshall: The Descent (2006)


The Stay Awake a la Mark Pellington: The Mothman Prophecies (2002)


De Palma redux: Carrie (1976)

See also these prominent examples: Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984),  George Romero's Day of the Dead (1985), Alan Parker's Angel Heart (1987), Sam Raim's Evil Dead 2 (1987),  Ken Russell's Lair of the White Worm (1988) Don Coscarelli's Phantasm 2 (1988), Mary Lambert's Pet Sematary (1989), Kathryn Bigelow's Blue Steel (1990), Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder (1990), Richard Stanley's Dust Devil (1992), Taylor Hackford's The Devil's Advocate (1997) and David Koepp's Stir of Echoes (1999).