Writing calmly about Mattie Do’s The Long Walk is difficult. But sometimes you just have to be honest and shout (digitally) about a damn fine film. In all honesty, what I want to do is grab people by the shoulders like a crazed John Carpenter character and say: have you seen the way to horror? It is Mattie Do! But I’m not that creepy and there’s a pandemic on. I will say to you, reader: Mattie Do is everything I want from a horror filmmaker.
Thanks to LAAPFF for programming this film. While Mattie Do is California-born, she lives and works out of Laos and is Laos’ first (and only) female filmmaker (as of the date of this review). Platforming her work is critical to women in genre-filmmaking and the Laotian cinema world in general. The LAAPFF has featured a litany of incredible films all by, for and about Asian women. Effective on regional and global levels, it is a continual joy and inspiration to watch and write about these films. My great hope is that these films play everywhere, not just in festivals. Everyone should see this work.
I like to know as little about a film as possible before I see it. I call it the “Tabula Rosa approach.” No trailer, no reviews, no reading of descriptions or reviews. Genre & country are usually enough for me and occasionally if someone I know says: YEAH, that was awesome, I listen to them.
All I knew about The Long Walk before watching was that it was Laotian and a horror movie. I am BEYOND glad that was all I knew. Deftly written by Chris Larsen and hauntingly lensed by Matthew Macar, Mattie Do’s direction makes this movie a genuine force to be reckoned with.
I’m going to try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible. I don’t want to say too much. Honestly?
JUST SEE THE DAMN MOVIE. IT’S LIKE NOTHING ELSE YOU’VE SEEN BEFORE.
Admittedly, there are some aspects to this movie that make it a subjective hole-in-one for me. So here are a few of my personal sweet spots and why The Long Walk is definitely one of those films that was “made for me” but may not be everyone’s film.
First of all, it has the “told through a kid’s eyes” aspect. I love films like that. Germany: Year Zero (Roberto Rosselini, 1948), Come & See (Elem Klimov, 1985), and Forbidden Games (René Clément, 1952) are all films told through the perspective of a child and films that I consider favorites. They are also some of the. Most. Disturbing. Films. Ever. While this film isn’t Klimov-level, it certainly holds its own and the way Mattie Do utilizes the child’s perspective in this film was a good call. Her sensitivity to innocence and betrayal was perfectly balanced, depicting the kind of confusion and discomfort only a child can feel.
The tragic life of the young boy (played exquisitely by Por Silatsa) is certainly a story we’ve seen before, but it is in the telling that the dynamism becomes real. Do’s regional specifications and temporal involvements of modernization are what drive this part of the film. What would be a simple dysfunctional family story is transformed into grounded work and distinct circumstances in small town Laotian life.
The Old Man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) is one of the great new figures in modern horror cinema. Chanthalungsy’s performance is just mind-blowing. I am desperate for more people to watch this film so they meet him (and, selfishly, so we can talk about his narrative!). Rarely has such a calming character led me on such a beautiful and horrific ride. Inspiring empathy, anger, nausea, pity and frustration, this is a fucking horror movie in every sense of the word.
The Long Walkis a meditation on ghosts (personal and supernatural), death (natural and not-so-natural) and concepts of growth and stagnation. The underlying narrative of technology in the Laotian countryside plays a critical role, upping the ante and bringing different kinds of monstrosities to the landscape. This language might not be making it sound sexy, so like- if you need that kind of review or recommendation? Let me reassure you- this is a scary and messed-up film!
Playing with ideas of horror and science fiction with skillful fluidity, The Long Walk will make genre-rule-obsessed viewers uncomfortable as hell.
To those viewers: Concede the fact that fantastic cinema can work within and between genres. Genres are like gender: fluid as fuck and that’s how they SHOULD be. To produce quality art like The Long Walk, you need to be able to be slippery while maintaining suspense, terror, and the right to whip out OMGWTF moments at the right time.
And I live for those shifts when they are done well. This was absolutely an exercise in How To Do It. Every Western filmmaker who tries (and fails) should take some classes from this film. Big ups on this. It wasn’t exploitative, it was smooth, and it kept on rocking the film. That third act. Hot damn. I shouted at my screen: “OH hell no. What????? No way. Shiiiiiit.” On the other hand, my cat then went into the other room. He may not be a fan.
Finally, while the film features men as the protagonists what hit me hard was that their stories were actually entrance points to a larger exploration of women and women’s experiences. Like horror is wont to do, The Long Walk viciously reveals some of the worst parts of humanity. But it does so in a nuanced and complex way. A road trip of masculinity and growth, this movie takes a scalpel to gender issues and power structures, ripping those bodies open like a drunk mortician, allowing us to revel in the pure unadulterated pain, joy and liberation that exudes from that screen.
Part of theLAAPFF, this film can be seen through the Eventlive link here starting on October 15, 2020. It’s only up for a few days so get on it!!! This film is only available to viewers in Southern California (excluding San Diego County) from October 15, 2020 at 12pm PT to October 18, 2020 at 11:59pm PT
Friendly Interactions & the Comfort of the BIFAN Community
I generally travel solo. Sometimes other people are too wishy-washy about attending events or committing to things and at some point I just decided that I would make sure that I never missed the things that I wanted to go to. No shade on anyone else, it’s a me thing.
Traipsing around on my own? It’s what I did in LA. But Los Angeles has a melancholic and toxic sense of loneliness, it makes you feel shitty being alone. I thought that I liked being on my own there, watching people and reading alone in bars. But I like the independence I have here in South Korea much more. In LA, everyone is a lone alone. Here, people just happen to go out by themselves. It’s a different feeling.
Meeting new friends at the festival felt great! People-watching in Bucheon is top-tier, lemme tell you. And having dinner and drinks post-films can’t be beat! If it wasn’t for Grace I don’t think I would have had 1/10th as good a time. That girl is a miracle.
I only had one night where things went off the tracks. The night after Grace left I got terribly lost in the pouring rain. I walked around searching for the place we had been hanging out for the last few nights, trying to use Naver maps, photos I took, you name it.
I finally ended up crawling into a bbq restaurant when hunger and the downpour got the best of me and simply huddled over my banchan and meat like a wet rat, dripping and grumpy. I had never experienced rain like that in my life. My umbrella was about as useful as my earrings. But I ordered some beer and soju and started eating kimchi. These three items, by themselves or in some combination, can cure almost any hardship. That is fact.
I proceeded to sit there shaking my head and laughing at myself. I looked at my wet dress, my flattened hair, my miserable state. The fact that my ass was stuck to the rubber stool and made a noise every time I moved because…WET. It was fucking hilarious. I felt like I had been thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool. But I considered this: after the films I had seen that day, did I genuinely care about water? To hell with monsoon season. There was meat, beer, alcohol. I was finally out of the pour. It was a phenomenal night. It doesn’t get better than that.
It has been argued that one of the more unique properties of film as an art form is in its modality; how it functions. In particular, it is the experience of moving image exhibition that sets it apart. The projection of time-based media in a theatrical space shifts the identity of individuals from being separate to communal. When the lights go down, that collection of perfect strangers transmogrifies into The Audience. Anyone who’s been to a movie has felt it. You lose yourself into the sea of spectatorship in that theater and it is glorious! It is why theaters are still important. That magic doesn’t happen at home with Netflix.
For those who go to film festivals like BIFAN, it is an experience that, whether each person is aware of it or not, becomes a central part of the Festival Journey and is instantly heightened. Seeing a film, a viewer is part of The Audience for the duration of that singular work. However, should that same viewer attend a film festival, they become part of something much larger- a community. You become Community Audience. More specifically, you are Festival Audience. You see familiar faces at screenings. Volunteers and staff recognize you and wave, you nod at others you have seen sitting near you…you have shed your skin and are no longer The (singular) Audience, you are Festival Audience.
I felt this hard at BIFAN and I kept thinking: yes, this is why I am here. This is absolutely why I moved to Korea. These people- this community of film lovers- these humans who come to this festival and are so joyful about cinema- that is what I have been searching for.
I felt so welcomed. It was remarkable. One of the BIFAN programmers- Jongsuk Thomas Nam- was so kind to me and invited me to two online events and while I certainly felt awkward and a little fangirlish, I still felt like I belonged. I sang Olivia Newton John’s Xanadu at the BIFAN zoom karaoke with a cadre of folks I had never met. While it certainly would have been better if I had been back at my hotel to sing, I just went ahead and did it sitting at the restaurant I was at (don’t worry it was outside). Soju…helped.
I got a chance to meet Pierce Conran which was great! We had some absolutely fabulous conversations about mutual friends (Hi Doug!), underappreciated UK noir, Westerns and cinema in general. I was just thrilled to get to nerd out. Again- this reinforced that I was in the right place.
Seeing him around the fest and checking in on movie opinions also made me feel right at home- it’s something I love doing, whether or not a friend or colleague and I agree on a film. Seeing a buddy in between screenings and doing the “what did you think? What did you like? What are seeing next?”- is one of my favorite parts of festival-ing. It made me miss Phil Blankenship and Jackie Greed. I always used to do that “check-in” when I saw them at AFI Film Fest.
While I did spend the bulk of BIFAN on my own, these interactions were so joyful and really highlighted how special the Korean film community is and made me even more grateful to have moved here and been able to experience this festival. I experienced no pretension, no weird looks, no looking-down-the-nose simply because I am passionate about my love for cinema and expressive about it. I felt so happy. BIFAN really made me feel at home.
Then More Movies Happened….
Day Three: Sunday July 12, 2020 The films that I watched this day were: Blink (Han Ka-ram, 2020) – Korea Queen of Black Magic (Kimo Stamboel, 2019) – Indonesia Pelican Blood (Katrin Gebbe, 2019) – Germany
This was a HELLOVA day. I don’t even know where to start. While Blink had no subtitles, I was able to understand it with the basic Korean that I do know and the rich cinema vocabulary that I possess. I wish I could convey that to the filmmaker and actors since I could even reflect on the performances and the manner in which they engaged with the genre (Science Fiction) and its representation of gender and power structures. It was part of a special aspect of BIFAN called SF8, which is an anthology SciFi series from 8 different directors. Normally I’m not a SciFi person- I’m painfully picky about anything in that area- but Blink was incredible. It hit the right chords for me in the strong woman category, the unusually creative homage to Terminator (but not a rip-off! SO GREAT!!!!) and detective stories (I’m a straight-up sucker for a good head-strong detective, especially a woman detective). From that I went right into Queen of Black Magic which was A. Great. Horror. Movie. YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS. But if you hate bugs, that movie is not for you! I may return to this and write about it again because it is a remake of an earlier 1981 film which I need to watch. There were frames of that film in the end credits and I was so enthralled by that. As a film preservationist, it did my heart good to see that and I was genuinely giddy at the way this was just such great horror. But like…I should have known it would be fun and utterly watchable. The name for fun and utterly watchable was right next to the writing credit: Joko Anwar. Here’s the trailer but SERIOUSLY. IF BUGS SQUICK YOU- DO NOT WATCH THIS.
But Sunday’s movie that made me rethink my eyeballs was a German film by a first-time feature filmmaker named Katrin Gebbe. This film, Pelican Blood, ended up winning the Best of Bucheon Award (and deservedly so). I’ve never seen another movie like it. I thought I knew where it was going and then there was a FULL ON NO-HOLDS-BARRED WTF MOMENT where I exclaimed through my face-mask into the theater: “OH. OK. That just happened then.” I didn’t mean to. But it happened. And it wasn’t like in other films where I’ve wanted to talk back to the screen for…reasons. The power of this film triggered some kind of feeling in me that set my vocal chords going and by the time the words formed on my lips I couldn’t stop and then there we were. But Pelican Blood is a film that takes no prisoners and doesn’t give a fuck about you. It’s a film that gives zero fucks, in fact. It’s a naked, raw, terrifyingly brilliant piece of film making that looks at motherhood, childhood, darkness, mental health and all kinds of human pain in a truly extraordinary manner. I LOVED IT. I feel weird about wanting to see again because it made me so uncomfortable but it’s such an addictive film to watch. I cannot believe a film like that even exists and I can’t wait to see what this woman makes next.
Day Four: Monday July 13, 2020 The films that I watched this day were: A Witness Out of the Blue (Andrew Fung, 2019) – Hong Kong Bloody Daisy (Xu Xiangyun, 2019) – China The Hand (Choi Yun-ho, 2020) – Korea
I love Hong Kong action films. And I love Louis Koo. Might not be everybody’s thing but hey- I’m not a fan of peanut butter and most people are so…to each their own, right? Bottom line: A Witness Out of the Blue didn’t have to work hard to please me. But I don’t want to damage the film’s credibility either. It’s a truly funny and enjoyable movie! You can’t tell by the trailer (which makes the film look like a Very Serious Action Movie) but within the folds of this action-packed Hong Kong heist genre pic you will meet a detective who runs a cat shelter, a parrot who is the only witness to the major crime, and a more than generous helping of quirky side-characters and their background stories. If you’re as familiar with Hong Kong and Asian Action Cinema as I am, then you know this to be one of the most delicious aspects of these films. I adored A Witness Out of the Blue and hope you will as well.
Few films I’ve seen in recent years have made me want to just turn on my heel and go RIGHT BACK into the theater and re-watch the same film, but Bloody Daisy was a film I instantly wanted to watch again. Alternating between scenes of pure drama, action and suspense, this film pays homage to some of the best crime film genres that exist. While the chronology of the picture goes from 1999 to modern day, the life changes, relationship fluctuations and character developments make this a highly charged and multi-layered thriller. The grim nihilism of Hong Kong action films of the 80s and 90s, American film noir and the 70s anti-hero buddy cop films were paid beautiful homage in Bloody Daisy. While I am not certain that the writer/director intended this reading, it is what I received from the film, why I loved it so much and a major reason why I would rewatch it. Aside from the fact that it just rules.
My only criticism (and it almost threw the film for me in certain respects): there is a rather uncomfortable tag during the end credits that has a big thank you to all the policemen working in China, giving all their time and their lives. I find this difficult for me to gauge. It’s very heavy-handed. Therefore, it being China in 2020, I feel a little awkward at this credit sequence message. The feeling towards police globally is not exactly positive and for good reason. On the other hand, Bloody Daisy, an incredible movie ABOUT is not a film about bad cops. HOWEVER the end credit praise was a little off-color for me and didn’t service the film well. I just wondered if he was asked to put that on in order to get the film made or…I have no idea. I don’t want to make any assumptions. It’s uncomfortable.
After Bloody Daisy I went and saw The Hand which was a really fun independent Korean horror short film about a hand that comes out of this guy’s toilet and starts killing people. It was super funny in a Evil Dead kind of way. I stayed for the Q&A which (as with the others I went to) was wonderful, even if I didn’t understand the majority of what was said.
Day Five: Tuesday July 14, 2020 The films that I watched this day were: Sheep Without a Shepard (Sam Quah, 2019) – China Impetigore (Joko Anwar, 2019) – Indonesia
So Tuesday was another strong day. I mean, hell. They were all strong days. Who am I kidding? There were some films that I loved and some films I only liked, but I enjoyed every single film I saw and I cannot believe what a good time I had at BIFAN.
So let me give you these trailers. If you are bothered by horror, do not watch the second one. Also, neither is TOO spoilery but if you think you will see these films (Impetigore is about to be available for streaming on Shudder) I would advise NOT watching the trailer and just going in blind:
So Sheep Without a Shepard knocked my socks off. Enough so that it’s probably going to get its own individual post since it’s a remake of another film and I want to watch that film and do a compare/contrast. As those who know me are aware, I have done a lot of work in adaptations and remakes and that is an interest for me. In my research on Sheep Without a Shepard, I found that the originating material was actually an Indian movie made in 2013. So, that post will come! Bottom line, this film won the Audience Award at BIFAN so…it’s a well-loved film and should be seen.
Now on to Impetigore. The first thing you should know is that if you get the streaming channel Shudder or have the ability to rent it FROM a Shudder-connected platform, this face-melting film will be available to stream from July 23rd onwards according to what I have read here. So the question is…should you? Well, if you like horror films, there is only one answer:
So let’s not disappoint Varla, shall we? But in all seriousness, Impetigore fucking rules. You know when you’re watching a movie and you’re so deeply involved with it that you absolutely forget that you’re watching a movie? YEAH. SO Impetigore. That was my experience. Now, I can’t say that this will happen for male viewers. This is probably one of the strongest horror films I have ever seen with women as protagonists and central figures. I could probably talk about how much I loved this film for hours based on the dynamism of the women characters and the involvement of puppetry alone but…there is just so. much. to. love. about. this. film. I cannot wait to watch it again when it comes out on Shudder. Sure, you can certainly see the influence of films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and more but it’s what Joko Anwar did with the idea of homage that I loved. He translated it into creative intent and unique synthesis not simply repetition.
Day Six: Wednesday July 15, 2020 The films that I watched this day were: Fallen (Lee Jung-sub, 2020) – Korea Mrs. Noisy (Amano Chihiro, 2019) – Japan Taro the Fool (Tatsushi Omori, 2019) – Japan The Interviewees (Hwang Seungjae, 2020) – Korea
So I could definitely feel the Film Festival Fatigue by Wednesday. But I kept going. Because HELLO. MOVIES TO WATCH.
I started out with Fallen which Grace had told me about. There was a lot to like about it. But it was a little bit messy. Things I quite enjoyed: the smart way that it mixed the idea of a woman writer, true crime and women’s issues that are very specific to Korea. Fallen examines media exploitation of women, molka, Korean society and its response to queerness, bullying and suicide. It loses the path when it starts to go too deep into the Science Fiction realm. It seemed to be trying to handle too many genres at once which disappointed me because the visuals were strong, the performances great and any 3 or 4 of the things the film had would have worked together but not all 5-6. It just couldn’t hold up under all the multi-genre pressure. Worth watching but just difficult to work with at points.
I loved Mrs Noisy. Ootaka Yoko’s performance alone is extraordinary. It’s hard to talk about the film without saying too much but I definitely have some thoughts. I will try to keep this as vague as possible!
While I may have found myself disappointed with what I saw as a traditional return to domestic values in the third act I don’t believe the film can be chalked up to simple recuperation in that manner. The relationships and discussions are far too complex for it to be that easy.
This sensitive and funny women-centered film examines deeply flawed people and critiques modern parenthood in unique ways. While traditional family values are certainly present, they are not overbearing enough to disregard a film as worthwhile as this. Don’t miss it.
So Taro the Fool. Wow. I’m not a fan of Harmony Korine or Tod Solondz. I just can’t watch their work. And Lars von Trier…well, I like a few of his films but not many. When I got out of Taro the Fool I thought I completely hated it. I thought it was in the Solondz/Korine school of cinema masochism that drives me absolutely insane. And I still think it might be.
BUT DAMN. I couldn’t get that film out of my head for two days. I just kept. Thinking. About. It. I could not stop thinking about it. There are only a few films that I’ve ever had that experience with: Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996), Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971), Germany: Year Zero (Roberto Rossellini, 1948) and Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985).
I am in no way suggesting that Taro the Fool holds a candle to those films; it doesn’t. Whatever Taro the Fool shares with these other films has no name. Taro the Fool wears discomfort and weirdness as a garment, traverses shock, swims through sadness, visits melancholy and returns to revel in awkwardness and anxiety. Sometimes I like films that have all those elements! But used in this fashion…I still can’t decide! The lady in front of me couldn’t hang. She straight-up walked out at the scene that reminded me a bit of Alejandro Jodorowsky (who I adore). I get that. But she missed some heartbreaking monologues that made me think: I don’t know if I like this film, but this scene is some of the most amazing film making and most intense shit I’ve ever seen. I fucking love it. So…Taro is incredibly challenging. I’m still in the “unsure” category. But I sure appreciate it and thank BIFAN for having given me the opportunity to have experienced whatever it was!
My last film of the night was The Interviewees. There was a lot to like about this film since it is clearly based on actual interviews done with people talking about real-life situations in and around employment, happiness, life, death and other day-to-day existential matters and that non-fiction element makes it interesting. But it also weighs down the fact that it is a SciFi film. Much like Fallen, I think this film might have been trying to do too much and maybe couldn’t decide where it was going. On the other hand, I really enjoyed the performances, the structure and the “twist.”
Day Seven: Thursday July 16, 2020 The films that I watched this day were: The Kind-Hearted Man (Yamanouchi Daisuke, 2019) – Japan
I ended the festival with a bit of pink film from Japan. It’s definitely not for everyone so I would advise you look into pink film and decide if that is something that you would be interested in before watching this title. That said, it’s a pretty fun horror film with great scares and SFX make up. So some creepy old dude sex scenes, some kinda hot guy sex scenes, some scenes where I was like: “I don’t know if women’s bodies can actually do tha…oh, um, I guess they can. Learn something new everyday,” and some pretty awesome ghost shit. I’m not going to complain ONE BIT about ending my BIFAN on that note. It was fun as hell!
After the film ended, I went to get some food and joined a bunch of folks for the Zoom online reception. Again, I felt so honored just to be there. People from ALL OVER THE WORLD were on this zoom call. People who are usually at BIFAN. People who were talking about how much they love the festival, the community, how sad they are they had to miss it but they’ll be here next year. Listening to everyone’s updates from Europe, South America, Taiwan…It was truly an incredible experience. My friend Ivy from LA was on the call too (she was one of the only people I knew on the Zoom Karaoke) and it was really nice to see her.
I’ve gone to a lot of after-parties, tons of receptions in my life. I grew up in the industry, on film and TV sets. It’s not that filmmaking or filmmakers in particular make me feel all geeky it’s just that I have a lot of respect for people like the group that were on this closing night zoom call. It was so obvious that it was a huge international collection of human beings who create genre work and REALLY LOVE THE CINEMA and that awed me. I just love people who love the movies and these people love the movies. BIFAN seems to bring those people out and…how magical is that?
I closed my evening at this small restaurant where I got a chance to meet a few of the volunteers who had been smiling and waving at me throughout the festival. I seemed to go into their particular theaters more often than others. Sometimes that just happens during a festival- you end up watching movies in only house 3 and 10 for two days!
Talking to these young women was so much fun. First of all, it was a really good chance for me to actually speak Korean (I rarely get a chance to speak Korean where I work and live- it’s basically all foreigners/English speakers). And I didn’t do as badly as I thought! I only used Papago when I needed to say really MAJOR things and for a word here and there. Also numbers. I am awful at the number system. Both native and sino-Korean. Don’t judge.
Festivals could not happen without volunteers. And these folks basically don’t even get to see most of the movies! So they were on their way out and I asked them to sit (they weren’t sure at first) and then they did. They asked what movies I preferred (I told them), then we just talked about Korea and why I’m here, how much I love it and random other things. It was one of the best parts of the festival. I loved being on the Zooms with the people who made the films for BIFAN. I loved Zoom Karaoke. I loved seeing the Q&As and I loved the movies. But I really really really loved talking to these three women who worked so hard to make sure that everyone stayed safe, healthy and happy at the festival.
That was a tough job. I watched. If you think being a volunteer at a film festival is hard…trying adding the additional aspects of temperature taking for each film, bracelets, ID form filling out, and monitoring all that information when guests go into the theater. I was so proud just to be able to thank them and talk about movies and have some laughs with them on my last night in town. It was the best way to end my first, and certainly not my last, BIFAN.
And thank you again to everyone who made this festival possible, from festival director and staff to programmers, jury members and other attendees. It was a dream come true. I am still floating 6 feet above the ground in happiness from this experience. BIFAN has made me the most ecstatic film nerd in the north of South Korea. Until next year film friends….
Right. So I missed the first night. In the spirit of the season, you should forgive me. I was busy hanging out with new friends, watching a National Geographic special about submarines in South America that attempt to smuggle cocaine into the US, a mini-documentary by David Schmoeller called Please Kill Mr. Kinski, and a police training film by the Milwaukee Police department called Surviving Edged Weapons. I have to say that this was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend the 1st night of Chanukkah, considering there are really no “Chanukkah” movies.
So, aside from that wondrous evening, I realized that I really enjoy Christmas movies, and being that I have a platform to tell everyone what my favorite ones are and why…I should do so.
In the most Jewish way possible.
So here we go. Starting late (hullo Jewish Standard Time), I shall now give you…
Sinaphile’s 8 Nights of Cinema for the 12 Days of Christmas
1. When I think Christmas, I think: IF THIS PICTURE DOESN’T MAKE YOUR SKIN CRAWL, IT’S ON TOO TIGHT.
Yeah, When I think Christmas, I think Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974). I can’t remember the first time that I saw this, but I think that it was probably some crazy after-hours screening around the holidays, and it had to have been probably a little under 10 years ago. I remember being utterly, completely, GLORIOUSLY and GUTWRENCHINGLY terrified. It made me so happy!!!! See, movies don’t scare me. This one did. It’s on the list of the three films that have ever managed to truly creep me out or scare me in my lifetime as a movie-watcher. That experience was the best gift that Clark could’ve ever given me.
Original poster for Black Christmas aka Silent Night, Evil Night
Since that first time watching it, I have watched it many, many, many times over. And the best part? It still scares me. Bob Clark was an amazing filmmaker and a truly talented man. The fact that he died so early and in such a horrible way (he and his son were tragically killed by a drunk driver in April, 2007) still saddens me.
Original Black Christmas film advertisement, "first run" for the Conestoga Four Theaters in Grand Island, Nebraska
Clark had called the film Stop Me initially, but that was clearly not where it ended up. He retitled it to Black Christmas but the film was originally released as Silent Night, Evil Night for the US theatrical release then changed yet again to Stranger in the House for television broadcasts (although that ended up getting nixed due to it being “too scary” for TV). As shown, Black Christmas had a very indirect route to its title. Shot in Canada, it managed to do pretty well on release. While the critical reviews at the time were poor, it has since gotten to be more of a popular title, even spawning a remake a few years ago (which I categorically refused to see).
While Christmas time may seem like a time of happiness, joy and giving, jingle bells, snow and cider-y goodness, it warms the cockles of my heart to know that there’s always a good ol’ piece of classic slasher cinema there for me to dig my eyeballs into and get creeped out by. It makes me happy.
And if this trailer doesn’t get you…well, I’d do something about that skin.
In 1956, Nicholas Ray made a film that was such a departure from the rest of his work that people still speak of it today. Just one year after Rebel Without a Cause (a film that did remarkably well, snagging not one, not two, but three Academy Award nominations), Ray had leverage. As a result, he could do a film based on drug addiction and, more or less, get away with it. Sure, films had been done about drug addiction before (in the same year as Rebel, Otto Preminger’s Man with the Golden Arm had been nominated for three awards) but none had utilized drugs and addiction in quite the same way; ripping open the very fabric of the American dream, showing it to be what it really was: an American nightmare.
Did it do well at the box office? Not entirely. Is it interesting anyway? You bet!
Bigger Than Life starred, was produced and co-written by James Mason, and like many other films or television programs of the time, it was “based upon a real incident.” In 1955, New Yorker magazine had published an article entitled “Ten Feet Tall” which was penned by a medical journalist named Berton Roueche. Shortly thereafter, this particular entry of their “Annals of Medicine” column became translated into Nicholas Ray’s epic, full-color CinemaScope piece, Bigger Than Life (1956). The originating article is a familiar story- a cautionary tale about the horrors of drug addiction and how it can destroy a family from the inside out. Nicholas Ray’s film, on the other hand, was much less polite (if addiction could ever be called polite). It skinned American suburban life like an animal and revealed it to be the diseased and fractured monster that it truly is, underneath all that smooth so-called “perfection.”
I would argue that, in many ways, Bigger Than Life could be viewed as a horror film. It functions on fear, ideas of masculinity and the monstrous and postulates that true terror is catalyzed by the volcanic eruptions of a figure whose conflicts are drawn out by a severe chemical addiction. The lighting, color use and Joseph MacDonald’s cinematography only serve to enhance this, and the fact that it is a CinemaScope film makes it even more horrifying with every frame. As you watch this film, both the narrative and the visual sensibility will tell you that it lives up to the title- this film really is Bigger Than Life.
I was lucky enough to see this film at the TCM Film Festival this past year, complete with a Q&A with Robert Osbourne and the leading lady, Barbara Rush (who was simply fantastic and looks like a million bucks!). I have to say- for the first viewing of this film, view it big or as big as possible. I’ve seen many other ‘Scope films that look great but didn’t use the lens as a narrative tool. Nicholas Ray knew what he was working with, knew what he could do, and he did it.
Because of the sheer magnificence of the CinemaScopic vision, a shot that would normally be passed off as simply the "happy car ride" becomes almost oppressively happy due to its epically large and colorful flavor. While the tone of the film at this point is a happy one, it should be noted that the claustrophobic intensity of this shot is not accidental.
The shattered masculine image plays a huge part in the narrative. This shot emphasizes it even further by showing him staring at his own reflection in a vulnerable physical stance.
Mirrors are powerful objects in this film, and in this scene more than any other. Once more, we have the glory of the sophisticated technologies ('Scope lenses had only been being used for about 3 years when they made this film, so it was still pretty new!) to hammer in the point even more clearly: he knows he has become the monster, and he doesn't like it. But, like every other chemically-involved-monster (Jekyll/Hyde, Invisible Man), he bought a one-way ticket, and there's no going back now.
While this film could have been shot in black and white and an alternative aspect ratio, this shot is a perfect example of the power that Ray had by making the choices that he did. His experience in black and white and noir enhanced the shadowy/terror-like aspects while still wanting to keep the colored/lit bits for a balance. This is one of the most terrifying and visually stunning scenes in the film. This forced perspective shot also underscores the "Mason-as-Monster" theme, seeing as forced perspective shots are not unfamiliar territory within monster films!
Rush said that this film has been shown at various Film Noir festivals. I could see that, however I am still more on the side of the horror genre when it comes to Bigger Than Life. Without spoiling too much of the film, I would like to bring up a few issues through which I believe that this film can be ultimately defensible as a piece of horror.
Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931), The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933) and most versions of Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde are recognized as parts of the horror film canon. They helped to establish a visual and narrative iconography which, in turn, built the monster world. I would contend that in certain ways, Bigger Than Life is meant to inspire just as much terror as any of these monsters ever did. Nicholas Ray’s film plays to those monsters and their individual characteristics, features and attributes. The “monster” in Bigger Than Life calls up some of our greatest fears which were revealed in the early 30’s by the great horror masters and places them squarely in front of us, just as Whale or Fleming did. Horror is a device that exposes the ugliest and most devastating issues within society and the humans living within that society. By that definition, I believe that Ray has succeeded in making a horror film.
In Bigger Than Life, James Mason’s character, Ed Avery, becomes less human the greater his addiction. At first, the cortisone appears to be having a positive effect on his life- he’s stronger, has more energy, is filled with enthusiasm for life and everything in it. As the pill-popping increases, Ed Avery seems to disappear and The Monster comes out. The Monster abuses his wife and child, gets into virulent arguments at the workplace and eventually has himself convinced that there is only one way that this series of events that he has put in motion can go- it may not be good, but it’s right because The Monster couldn’t be wrong.
Meanwhile, his suffering wife Lou is playing a dual role- the victim of the nightmarish happenings as well as the “Fritz” or lab assistant in the creation of The Monster. In her own addiction to codependent behavior, she is no better than her husband with the exception that she finally comes to terms with her own “monstrous” behavior and, in doing so, is able to try to effect change on her son’s behalf (as well as her own, I would imagine).
Ed Avery’s flipping between personalities and wild unpredictability gives him somewhat of a Jekyll/Hyde sense. While we are aware that it is dependent upon the pills he is taking, the levels which he reaches throughout the film are so grand that by the climax of the film, it has almost become Grand Guignol-type behavior, shown by his ludicrous propositions to Lou. I think that this may be one of the main reasons I’ve heard the film referred to as “campy” or “cultish.” By the time the tension has built, the surreal energy in combination with the elaborate colors and shot structure make it seem almost…too much. And yet, I don’t believe that it is too much. From where I sat, the ending seemed like a nightmare bathed in a fever-dream, but one that you may not awaken from.
Terror, pure and simple. And the terror came from the multi-faced monster of addiction itself. Addiction- addiction to substances, addiction to conformity and normalcy against the betterment of one’s family (Lou’s line “We musn’t let Bob think Ed is still sick!” gave me the chills), addiction to abuse, addiction to codependency and, significantly, addiction to power.
In James Whale’s The Invisible Man, the title character (played by Claude Rains), states simply, “The drugs I took seemed to light up my brain. Suddenly I realized the power I held, the power to rule, to make the world grovel at my feet. ” If one were to look at Ed Avery in Bigger Than Life, he seems to be saying precisely the same thing. What is most terrifying in Nicholas Ray’s film (moreso than Whale’s, in my mind) is that there is always a certain level of uncertainty that the chemical supplement is actually the issue in the long run. Sure, Avery’s an addict. Sure, he’s getting more crazy and abusive due to the drugs. But when he looks at himself in the mirror in the shots shown above, and sees the shattered image, there is something that he recognizes- a fractured Monster Image that he sees with ultimate clarity. Somehow, this made for an even more uneasy scene. What if that Monster was really there behind the man the whole time? That kind of ambiguity is the scariest there is. It means that perhaps it isn’t so much that the drug creates the Monster, but reminds the Monster of what he knows is there all along.
Bigger Than Life‘s goals were to present a picture of the American family and suburban life that wasn’t quite standard for the time. To a certain extent, this trajectory was a little like Billy Wilder’s Ace in The Hole, due to its cynicism and biting social critique. While the film may not have fared well in the box-office back then, it has more than made up for that now in the fact that the horror and nightmarish-ness of each frame remain as singularly beautiful and terrifying as they were in 1956. Thank you, Mr. Ray, for this exquisite vision into the depths!