Wes Craven’s classic A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is a masterful and horrific exploration of the surreal world of dreams, which also introduced the world to an iconic slasher villain: Freddy Krueger. Krueger and the film’s premise terrified me as a child growing up in the 80s, long before I ever sat through a screening. Now, having seen the film many times, it’s evident that its wealth of bloodcurdling imagery and symbolism could keep a psychoanalyst or film critic busy for days. In this most recent viewing, I found myself preoccupied with subjectivity in the film— which scenes are meant to occur in the dream world and which are real? Whose dreams are whose? Are we to believe the film’s ingénue?, Nancy, in her final confrontation with Freddy, when she realizes that “this was all a dream”—presumably her dream?
It takes nearly ten minutes for the opening credits of John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness to complete their slow, sporadic crawl through the center of the screen. They’re chopped up, delivered piecemeal in a seeming attempt to prolong the inevitable. By the time John Carpenter’s “directed by” credit punctuates the ordeal, we are well aware of whose hands we are in; the brash, electronic score has kicked in, the image is wide and oppressive and the apocalypse has been foreshadowed.
Referring to Prince of Darkness as an apocalypse film is far from novel; the film has long been the center of Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” which begins with The Thing in 1982 and ends with In the Mouth of Madness in 1995. But where The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness rely on an apocalypse brought about from within man, either than manifested in an organism transmitted via blood or one man’s (mis)understanding of reality, the apocalypse of Prince of Darkness is far more epic – and theological – in nature.
A corporate computer named Mother, operated from a control room that suggests a mechanical womb; an android from the same company named Ash, whose sweat resembles something between milk and semen; a wage slave astronaut named Gilbert Kane writhing in agony as a phallic head bursts from his chest, like a horrific pregnancy coming to term…throughout Alien (1979), Ridley Scott imposes human reproductive imagery upon the vessels of an amoral corporation as well as a series of space monsters, neither of which possess any humanity of their own. The result is a Freudian nightmare wherein a business’s greed is equated to an alien’s desire to procreate, culminating in either case with the consumption of human life. Whether it’s a company abusing its employees for profit or a cosmic beast using their bodies as a breeding ground, the inhumane imperative that drives both antagonists is one and the same.
There’s this little moment in Stand By Me that doesn’t need to be there, at least not to move the plot forward. In a film defined largely by the rowdy banter and camaraderie of a group of twelve-year-old boys, we find Gordie Lachance, our narrator and protagonist, sitting alone while the other guys sleep, reading a comic as the sun creeps over the horizon. Suddenly, a deer enters the frame and pauses a few feet from Gordie. The two briefly stare at one another before the deer moves on. There’s no music on the soundtrack, just the diegetic sounds of birds and the quiet noises that signal the deer’s movements. The whole encounter takes only a few seconds, but it remains one of my favorite scenes in the film.
I love it because it’s about atmosphere more than plot. Stand By Me is one of only a few great films about childhood friendship, and it captures so well the heady magic of spending a late summer day or night on an outdoor adventure. Gordie’s encounter with the deer reminds me of evanescent moments from my own childhood (and adulthood) when something just a little out of the ordinary appeared and bewitched me: a multicolored dragonfly alighting on a branch, bats dancing against a dusky sky, a hummingbird seeming to materialize out of the ether to dance in my general vicinity for a while. Sometimes we’re eager to share these moments in conversation, and sometimes, like Gordie, we’re reluctant to. “That was the one thing I kept to myself,” a grown Gordie tells us in voiceover. “I’ve never spoken or written of it until just now.” That Gordie chooses to disclose this cherished, delicate moment with us, the viewers, increases the film’s sense of intimacy and draws us closer to his character as the climax approaches.
The deer scene gives us a moment to breathe after Gordie’s friend Chris breaks down in tears over a remembered betrayal, and before the boys at last find the dead body they’ve been looking for, forcing themselves to face mortality head-on. Director Rob Reiner cuts from a close-up of Gordie to the deer and then back, highlighting the similarities between the two. Wil Wheaton’s large brown eyes and gentle demeanor in this role make it easy to link his character to the deer, a connection that underscores Gordie’s innocence and vulnerability just before the encounter with the body will lay bare his grief over the death of his older brother, and a faceoff with the town bully will test his courage and resolve. This is a coming of age story, and the deer’s appearance emphasizes how Gordie is forced to grow and change. In a bittersweet and nostalgic film about how time refuses to stand still, this brief scene reminds us of the rare magic moments when it feels like it does.
Victoria Large is a Massachusetts-based writer who has also contributed to Bright Lights Film Journal and Not Coming to a Theater Near You.
Things move in the shadows. Equipment is being sabotaged. The temperature outside is dropping, and something wants out of there. One by one, the crew of an Antarctic research facility is becoming infected by a mysterious alien lifeform, which causes the crew to take the shape of those around them. Soon, friends begin turning on each other as paranoia sets in, and credence is shattered. How do you trust what can’t be seen? Who is really who, and what do you believe when the things you see aren’t what they seem? These questions linger on the minds of our characters, and we wind up asking ourselves the same questions long after the final credits roll in John Carpenter’s sci-fi horror masterpiece, The Thing.
Based on the novel of the same name by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 science-fiction epic Solaris engages with some of the most elemental aspects of life. With incredible comprehensiveness and clarity, the film addresses issues of faith, love, loss, memory, grief, anguish, and reality itself. Tarkovsky even includes an especially timely meditation on the rather unnerving possibility that science might not be able to deal constructively with the issues to which science has brought us. This paradox is the deep theme of Solaris; a film, its essence, about a man who travels to the farthest reaches of space and encounters himself.
The man in question is Kris Kelvin, played by Lithuanian actor Donatas Banionis, a “space psychologist,” whom Tarkovsky introduces in the opening shots of water weeds beneath the surface of clear undulating water. A leaf glides gently across the surface, setting a tone of softness. Solaris moves in such slow tracking shots throughout its duration. Indeed, it is one of the stylistic cornerstones of Tarkovsky’s filmmaking. The camera gradually moves up to show Kris, whose visage is inexplicably grief-stricken. It then cuts back to the weeds waving in the current, an image to which the film will return in its closing sequence, and finally the film zooms in on the weeds that seem to be moving in slow motion. As the weeds move underwater, they take on the appearance of human arms or fingers, almost longing to express something but hindered by the water. Now in a field of wildflowers with a low fog hanging over it, we see Kris again. While the tenderness of the camerawork emphasizes the beauty of the natural world, the landscape takes on an otherworldliness, as though Kris were on a foreign planet. This tension is driven further by an aura of alienation and detachment that Kris emanates into his surroundings. Banionis’ enigmatically stoic expression transmits loneliness beyond the frame.
(Due to copyright issues, please view the clips on YouTube)
By Larry Cherkasov
Stalker (1979) slips in and out of science fiction film typology, and in this scene, it becomes slasher. Not one of the Stalker-Writer-Professor trio is sliced into gore and bits or screams, but the buildup to the point at which the cameraman grows tired and rests in the abandoned vehicle suggests an ineffable sinister force—the Zone—stalking its prey.
The camera closes in on the broken-down car, replete with tangling weeds and scrap metal garbage, biding its time once inside. No soundtrack plays, but the slight crunching underfoot signals the presence of a set of feet, two or perhaps five, slowly creeping in on whatever resides inside that little frame that the car’s left center window forms. The Stalker rears his head to volunteer himself as victim, followed by the Professor, who suddenly lurches backwards, staring right into the center of the camera, eyes wide and confronted with his mortality. The two men are joined by the Writer, who whispers out “Lord!” thus either greeting his God, or invoking Him.
The film at large is not a slasher, but its techniques create an effect that shares the genre’s self-awareness and playfulness in its use of camera as character. The camera in Stalker not only plays the creep in this scene, slowly but confidently moving around with impunity, but also at the film’s beginning, inching, or rather millimetering, into the box-shaped room, panning across the faces, of the wife, then the child, then the Stalker, tracing their features out in relief. If in the former scene, the camerawork assumes at least an earthly predator, who needs feet to stalk, the opening scene reminds the viewer that the Zone evades categorization, hovering in impossible shots and peering in on intimate moments at angles of its choosing. When mysteries reserved for the physical location of the Zone pervade the Stalker’s own home in the final scene, Tarkovsky reminds us one final time of the Zone’s chilling abstraction.
Larry Cherkasov is studying English in his final undergraduate year at Harvard College, focusing on the literature of poverty in the early twentieth century.
Certain films seem to exist outside time. They’re so enchanting that they suspend time’s steady march forward. Even after the ending, they leave the viewer feeling less like they just watched a movie and more like they traveled to another place. They create a world so enduring that it lingers and lives in the viewer long after its life on the screen. This has more to do, perhaps, with the mood–an inexplicable aura–of the film than any narrative elements. If these qualities were used as a sort of litmus test for the longevity of a film, then Badlands, Terrence Malick’s first feature-length film, would succeed wildly.
Directed by Sergio Martino, Your Vice… is a loose adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Black Cat. The story involves an alcoholic writer, Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli), who regularly abuses his unraveling wife Irina (Anita Strindberg). After a string of murders leaves Oliviero the prime suspect, Irina becomes complicit in helping to dispose of a corpse so that more suspicion doesn’t fall on him. As paranoia and infidelity cause the couple’s psyches to dissolve, they begin plotting to kill each other. The film reaches a series of successive emotional heights in its final act, deviating wildly from Poe’s writing with a scene where Irina finally murders Oliviero.
If this plot sounds familiar, that’s because Kubrick has translated it into the iconic “All work and no play” scene of The Shining (1980). While The Shining (1980) is notorious for its dramatic alteration from the source material in favor of original expression, the final product feels so singular that it may come as a surprise to some viewers that parts of the film are as a matter of fact borrowed images.
Lucio Fulci left behind a legacy steeped in horror—dozens of films ranging from sex romps, spaghetti westerns to science fiction socio-political fables—after his death in 1996 from complications with diabetes. Coined the godfather of gore alongside maestro Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci can be instantly recognized by fans of horror for his contribution to the ever-fluctuating zombie genre with Zombi 2, a 1978 spiritual successor to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, titled Zombi for Italian audiences. Fulci followed up Zombi2’s box office success—grossing more internationally than Dawn—with City of the Living Dead in 1980 and The Beyond in 1981. Both tackle themes of religion and the supernatural, and showcase some of Fulci’s more inspired splatter moments; a power drill through the brain, a face doused in acid. For fans of giallo—a genre blending mystery, murder, and psychological elements with that of the slasher genre—Lucio Fulci had been a household name since 1969’s One on Top of the Other; a film that heavily prefigured the shift into erotic thrillers of the 1990s, such as Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct. However, his garish visual flare and the sleek stylistic choice of the giallo genre wouldn’t stalk hand-in-hand until Don’t Torture a Duckling; Fulci’s lambaste of the Catholic Church. Dealing heavily in the sin of sex, Duckling would ultimately find itself blacklisted all around Europe, marking it as Fulci’s most controversial examination of religion.