doorways

What’s scarier than reading uncanny stories all afternoon? Reading uncanny stories all afternoon, then looking up to realize that the darkness has encroached all around you, leaving you in a pitiful little pool of light spilling from your screen.

Scarier than that: with the goosebumps from those spooky stories still riddling your arms, tiptoeing down to the laundry room, unbalanced by heavy sacks of towels and sheets, flipping on the switch and knowing that some of the lights in that dark, dank basement suddenly fizzled. Scarier: having to tread down those stairs into that half-dark, around the turn at the landing into a room you can’t yet see, knowing that the dark in the spandrel just a few feet to your left is almost total.

Scarier than that: coming back upstairs and seeing your front door open — not just open, but swinging to and fro — and asking yourself “Didn’t I close that? I’m sure I closed that.”

Scarier than that: feeling foolish, knowing that the breeze (breeze? what breeze? the air is stifling still on this sticky, humid, unmoving day) must have nudged it open, entering the apartment door (which you’re sure YOU CLOSED). Then, feeling even more foolish, quickly and casually patrolling the few spots in your tiny home where an interloper might hide: peep into the kitchen, crane to see the bedroom corner closet, glance into the living room. Approaching the shower curtain, stop for one quick second to think of the sheer futility of this inspection. If there were someone something lurking there, they it would surely make quick work of you.

Scarier than that: having cleared the tiny apartment, sit down and prepare to laugh at yourself, closing the door firmly behind you. The laugh dies in your throat as the door pops itself off the latch and slowly creeeeeeeeaks open, inch by inch, letting the darkness ease in. Tell yourself it’s just the humidity swelling the jamb and playing havok with the latches, and I’m sure it is just the humidity. Just the humidity.

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The Woman

Let me be very, VERY clear: The Woman features brutal, unflinching violence and disturbing — even traumatic and triggering — themes. This is not a film for everyone. It’s hardly for anyone. But it struck a chord in me — hit it so hard and so relentlessly that I spent the second and third act rocking back and forth on the couch trying (and failing) to suppress my cries of second-hand anguish.

[note: I’m imbedding the trailer, but it edges closer to spoiling The Woman than my review does.]

In the first few minutes of The Woman, we see a feral woman striding surely through the woods, clad in rags and streaked with mud. She is powerful and fierce, commanding even the wolves. Cut to a jolting contrast: a neighborhood barbeque where we meet the Cleek family: mom Belle (Angela Bettis, the riveting star of director Lucky McKee’s May and Sick Girl) with her tight smile and flashing eyes, sulky daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter, Premium Rush), quietly obedient son Brian (Zach Rand), and twinkly little Darlin’ (Shyla Molhusen), and the chipper, chirpy, casually controlling dad, Chris (Sean Bridgers, “Deadwood”). It’s inevitable that these two scenes will collide, and also inevitable what will happen when they do: the patriarch captures the wild woman and spends his free time trying to subdue her. And in this simple, brutal story, Lucky McKee taps into and articulates an anguish and an anger that lurk within me — and maybe within you.

The power of The Woman comes from its ability to surprise us even as it plays out the story that we know is coming, the story that we dread. McKee gives that dread its due, never turning from the stark horror of her subjugation. The sexual violence — and of course there is sexual violence, though smug, self-satisfied, self-congratulatory Chris takes his time building up to it, telling himself that he’s civilizing his charge, not imprisoning her— is not titillating or stirring, never framed for the audience’s scandalized pleasure. This is rape, plainly presented. It’s stomach-turning.

The Woman showcases McKee’s perfect grasp of sexualized horror tropes and reclaims them with flawless ironic aplomb, stirring up fury and horror and grief and empathy instead of fear and perverse thrills*. Some critics complained that The Woman is outrageous, dehumanizing, sickening. And those complaints are right, in a very limited, obtuse way: it is an outrage. Abuse and rape — and even worse, the way our culture conspires to shame victims of abuse and rape — are dehumanizing. The sheer beaming smugness of an abusive patriarch secure in his role is sickening. It’s not the movie that makes them so.

This viciously, mercilessly graphic film expresses something I’ve long felt in my heart: that misogynists, and those who support misogyny by standing silently by, aren’t just denying women’s abilities or intelligence or rights: they are denying our very humanity. They are arrogating the mantle of full humanity to themselves and denying it to me and to other women based purely on anatomy.

Before the film started, your editor remarked “Angela Bettis is in this! You like her! … but she isn’t The Woman.” Not very many minutes in, I wondered “… isn’t she?” I think she is. I think daughter Peggy is The Woman, as well. I think that — to a certain, all-too-common class of misogynist — I am. Misogynists aren’t just denying us some rights, they are dehumanizing me — and if you’re a woman, they’re dehumanizing you, too. And that’s terrifying. Once a person persuades themselves that you are less than fully human, they can allow themselves to do anything to you.

*Hey, I’m not knocking perverse thrills. There are a lot of movies and a lot of movie-watchers, and there’s a place for almost everything. But seeing an on-screen rape presented uncomplicatedly as a rape was weirdly, jarringly reassuring to me: a reminder that, despite our culture’s reliance on rape-as-drama or rape-as-redemption or rape-as-plot-catalyst, the actual act is just a brutal, painful act of personal terrorizing.

the playthings, slowly, slowly

From the original Etsy posting:

I love this! It is what appears may have been a soft children’s ball at one time that has hardened over the years. It has a kewpie-like face and lots of personality. There is a stamp that is no longer legible and an indent to the back.

slowly, slowly
To me, that — and especially “There is a stamp that is no longer legible” — sounds like the opening of a story written in partnership by E. Nesbit and H.P. Lovecraft.

… Yeah, it does, doesn’t it? There are worse sources for inspiration.

The Playthings, Slowly, Slowly
Chapter One (and possibly Chapter Only)

Amanda leaned in closer to the cracked surface of the doll’s head, peering at the tiny spidery writing on the once-soft rubber. Adding the maker’s name and a year of production to the item’s description could raise the asking price, maybe double it. The box of goods from the estate sale was a jumble, mostly worthless, but this doll head was promising. It might draw a collector’s eye, even in its damaged state.

Amanda trained the desk lamp closer on the antique toy and squinted, trying to mouth the sound of words she couldn’t… quite.. read. Absently, she muttered. “Rev. Riv. Hmm. triple, tribble, truffle. Rise. Rise!”

Encouraged, Amanda drew a battered jeweler’s loupe from the desk drawer, seated it expertly in her eye, and looked closer. Slowly, slowly, she deciphered the thready letters — not stamped, she now saw, but hand-inscribed finely and in rusty-colored paint, all but invisible against the sienna of the painted-on hair.

She read it out slowly, slowly, hesitating over each word. “‘Riven trifles, rise and gather?’ Huh.” Disappointing. Not the maker’s mark she’d banked on. Not even the name of the child who owned the doll, a sentimental touch that might nudge up the appeal for the right buyer. Just this nonsense, painted so delicately, so carefully, and for no apparent purpose.

Amanda read it again, hoping to squeeze some sense from it. “Riven trifles, rise and gather.” She tried it a third time, lilting the syllables brightly as if she could wring meaning out of the mere sound. “Riven trifles, rise and gather.” Nothing. It was nonsense, it was no sense, it made no sense.

A heavy thunk came from the office closet, startling her in the quiet of the night. She sat in the dim office, its one bright light trained on the flat brown of the doll’s nape, and tittered at her own nerviness. Something toppled from a shelf, one of the many old game boards or half-dressed dolls or boxes of grimy wooden blocks, one of the pieces of yard-sale detritus Amanda had stashed away, planning to clean it up and sell it off to a buyer motivated by nostalgia or sentiment or irony.

Smiling wryly at her skittishness, Amanda tucked the loupe back in its drawer, switched off the light, closed the office door, and went to brush her teeth. There were no great treasures in that jumbled stash of toys and trinkets. Tomorrow was soon enough to check on them, to face the mess behind those doors. She forgot all about the thunk, the sudden thump of something falling, until later.

That thunk was the start of it all. That thunk was echoed for miles around. Thunks and thuds and rustles and wriggles, whispers and stirrings and scratchings. Everywhere, small noises of escape and unearthing.

All night long and slowly, slowly, in all corners of the city, discarded toys shudder and rise, slowly, slowly, from their resting places, from attics and toychests, from middens and cellars, from under long-abandoned beds and cluttered closet floors. Slowly, slowly, they gather their broken bits — their sundered limbs, their shattered glassy eyes, their sprung battery hatches — and they start to walk. Slowly, slowly. Stumbling on their shattered legs, rolling on crooked wheels, or jerked along on marionette strings that rise up impossibly with no hand to guide them, they shuffle and scuff along, all drawn in one direction, all headed toward a single destination. Slowly, slowly, the scatter of shambling toys and games and dolls draws closer, gathering into an ever-tightening band, pulled inexorably closer to the voice that uttered the words.

[Thanks to Jagosaurus for bringing this Etsy item to my attention. It should be obvious that all details of the story, including the seller’s name, their selling practices, and the history of the item, are completely fictionalized.]

scrape

The scene: you’re sitting cozily under a blanket drinking your coffee on Sunday morning. Suddenly, you hear something scraping — repeatedly, insistently, roughly — against the ice and wooden planks of your front porch. Your mind fills in the blank by guessing:

A. the giant claws of some unknown, unseen beast that dares to venture out in the day only because it knows a warm and tender morsel is curled up inside the house, waiting helplessly.

B. It’s the guy they hired to shovel snow and ice, shoveling snow and ice.

If you chose B., carry on. You’re fine.

If you chose A., maybe lay off the Lovecraft for a while. And the caffeine. And get some sleep. But in the meantime, come sit over here by me. I’ll make coffee.

rationalizing

Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s not-a-prequel to the Alien stories (but, c’mon, it’s totally a prequel) left me cranky and exasperated. Writer Damon Lindelof sets up an artificial opposition, just as he did in “Lost,” of science vs. faith, but it seems clear that he doesn’t understand, y’know, how science actually works: by wedding strict protocols and routines (to foster reproducibility and objectivity while protecting both personnel and irreplaceable samples) to unfettered creativity of intellect and appetite for knowledge.

That’s hard to reconcile that with the scientists of Prometheus, who fluctuate wildly between dull-eyed incuriosity and appalling recklessness, who seem to have little sense of the magnitude of the work they’re undertaking, and who are colleagues and equals only in the sense that they are all equally incompetent.

As we watched, I came up with several geeky [non-spoiler-y] ways to rationalize the stupidity and endless bungling of Prometheus’ entire scientific task force:

1. Realize that these people are scientists the way that Giorgio Tsoukalos of “Ancient Aliens” fame is a “scientist.” (“I’m not saying it was aliens, buuuuuut…. it was aliens!”)

2. Remember the B-Ark from Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the massive spaceship full of incompetent, inane, unnecessary, and otherwise ineffectual bumblers who were packed up together and shipped off to a distant wasteland, all the while believing themselves to be boldly striking out as the vanguard of a whole planet’s survival? Yeeeeeah, the “scientists” of the Prometheus might as well be so many telephone sanitizers.

3. Peter Weyland, the posthumous underwriter of this bajillion-dollar expedition, was the Howard Hughes of his generation: brilliant and driver, but also tragically unbalanced and fantastically wealthy enough to do anything he wishes. His obsessions were fed by the poorly researched, blinkered speculations of the archaeologists who shape the mission, and the entire scientific team is selected with the same slapdash passion-above-protocol agenda. Any scientist likely to interfere with the mission by insisting upon, I dunno, following established procedure or maintaining rigorous standards during this monumentally historic event is summarily rejected in favor of a bunch of bungling pushovers.

4. Maybe arising from those cryo-suspension pods is like rousing from an long midday nap: you wake up all muzzy-headed and disoriented, and as often as not, the rest of the day is shot to hell. (Though that doesn’t explain why the flight crew, who also underwent cryo-suspension, appear to be thinking clearly and sensibly.)

5. They have developed SPAAAAAAACE MADNESS. Or maybe just a really bad (and highly transmittable) case of space-dumb.

Les Diaboliques: a review

In the first shot of Les Diaboliques, a rattletrap truck putt-putts its way through wet streets. As it enters the shabby grounds of L’Institution Delassalle, the truck runs through a deep mud puddle, crushing a small paper boat left drifting there. In that moment, master director Henri-Georges Clouzot (Le Corbeau, Wages of Fear) presents the two themes at the film’s core: that we should watch the waters, and that we will see the fragile and the frivolous crushed underfoot.

M. Delassalle (Paul Meurisse), the headmaster of this rundown boarding school, treats his students and staff with equal (and crushing) disdain, but he saves his true sadism for his women. His brassy mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret) first appears wearing sunglasses to hide a bruised eye. After his delicate wife Christina (Véra Clouzot) cannot force herself to choke down the spoiled fish served in the dining hall (as “an example” for the students), we hear her pained squeals as Delassalle administers her punishment.

The early minutes of the film show us that Delassalle is loathed by all, from the tippling teacher he humiliates at the dinner table to the dawdling student he confines to school for the weekend vacation, so when the two women who’ve suffered at his hands for years team up and hatch a scheme to rid themselves of the brute, it’s no surprise. But trust me: Les Diaboliques does have plenty of surprises for its audience.

At its release in 1955, the film caused a sensation, and it remains a spine-chilling classic of suspense cinema. Les Diaboliques‘ pervasive influence on generations of thrillers to follow may make its twists and turns feel familiar, but it is just as haunting on the 20th viewing as on the first; the film stands as a masterpiece of mood and tension.

The pervasive corruption of the story is evident in every aspect: the muddied splash of the truck, the untended and grassless school grounds, the stagnant swimming pool, the spoiled fish, the slightly grubby hotel room to which our heroines repair, the broken-down laundry basket upon which an early suspense scene turns. The dirty waters of the first scene hint at the insinuating, encroaching quality of creeping evil. Water seeps into the film at every turn: stale in the streets, spitting from the sky, banging through pipes, trickling down drains, and spilling every which way.

Even the sweetly timorous Christina, whose long shiny plaits, gingham dress, and winsome half-smile make her look like a barely-grown Dorothy Gale still in a daze from her trip to Oz — even she is blemished; her weak heart is a metaphor for her moral weakness. If Christina can sink to the depths she does, the film seems to ask, who in this world can stand against moral corruption?