Today’s musing involves two recent films experiences. The movies could hardly be more different, but they have made me think again about the wonderful flexibility of my beloved horror genre, a flexibility that extends to swallowing up films that don’t, in theory, even belong to it. Allow me now to elucidate that rather cryptic remark.
The two films in question are Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, currently bitterly dividing art house audiences everywhere. The other is Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994). the former lays some claim to actually being a horror film. The latter does not. And yet, I would submit that Tarr’s film is a much more satisfying horror film than Von Trier’s.
Antichrist, for those who haven’t heard, sees Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg tear each other to pieces as they deal with the death of their infant son. Talking animals, spectral manifestations, and genital mutilation far byond the most gruesome scenes in Hostel are the order of the day. Also present is a misogynist thesis so egregious one can’t help but wonder if Von Trier might not be having us on. If he is, I must confess the joke was lost on me. If he isn’t, he should a) know better; and b) seek help. But the finer (I use the term loosely) points of Von Trier’s argument are fodder for another day. How does the film work as a horror film? Not terribly well. Stephen King thinks Kubrick’s version of The Shining is the work of someone who doesn’t really know (or properly love) the horror genre. I disagree, but I think the description is apt in the case of Antichrist. It isn’t as if Von Trier is completely foreign to the field: his The Kingdom is a terrific slice of horror/soap opera insanity. But Antichrist feels to me, at least on the basis of a single viewing, to be the work of a man far too caught up in his personal demons to work as a horror movie should.
By contrast, Sátántangó does not pretend to be a horror movie. But it does contain a great many pleasures for the adventurous horror buff willing to take on a challenge and broaden horizons. I’m not kidding when I say “challenge” – this puppy is seven-and-a-half hours long. And I must confess up front that I write these impressions based on how far into it I am: closing in on the three hour mark. So these are very rough, first thoughts. I’ll try to report back more fully once I’ve seen the whole thing. But what I have witnessed so far is nothing short of exhilarating. The story takes place in a Hungarian village well on the road to becoming a ghost town. The desperate inhabitants must face the consequences of their actions when two men they had thought (and hoped) dead return. Again, this is not a horror film, and yet the atmosphere is a powerful mix of hopelessness and dread, with a touch of the uncanny. A man is woken one grimy, rainy dawn by the sound of church bells, but the nearest church is out of earshot of the village, and anyway its bell tower has long since been destroyed. As the two men so dreaded by the villagers first appear on-screen, their determined walk away from the following camera is accompanied by a ferocious wind that blows more and more debris about them (see the YouTube clip below). And the village itself, first introduced in a haunting eight-minute shot, feels very much like Silent Hill (the game version, rather than the film incarnation) would just before supernatural catastrophe befalls. The whole thing is shot in a stunningly beautiful black and white, which plays no small part in creating an ineffable, yet no less real, Gothic atmosphere. A stunning achievement. Horror? No, not as such, but eeriness and dread are present in full force. What might seem like the ultimate in self-indulgent pretension (435 minutes!) is riveting, and doesn’t go anywhere near the traps Von Trier has tumbled into.
Let me wrap things up by wishing all and sundry a terrific Halloween, along with a few viewing suggestions for the night. For something spooky and old school, I frequently turn to The Creeping Flesh and Night of the Demon (the 1957 demon film, not the 1980 killer Bigfoot movie). For a superb slasher that isn’t the inevitable Halloween, its predecessor, Black Christmas (the original), is great stuff, even if a little out of season. For something recent: Session 9 (if you want a great haunted building story) and Trick ‘r Treat (which has every right to become a yearly ritual).