It Follows (2014) – the hidden meaning of It

What is this monstrous It from this movie? Can it be that it symbolizes something more than what we see on screen? I think so. And let me say this first: for me It doesn’t stand for any physical disease.

I’m going to serve you spoiler avalanche/movie analysis here. If you really want to see It Follows, an independent American horror that both critics and viewers admire, watch it first and then return here for my take on its meaning. But if you’ve seen it or are only mildly interested in it, read the rest of this post.

This special edition poster is the best one.

My first impression wasn’t positive. The movie left me indifferent. “Good idea, but weak execution, and please, enough with these nostalgic shots,” I thought. But I kept thinking about this movie for days afterwards. It is visible that its director, David Robert Mitchell, knows the horror genre and his craft. The cinematography and the script both suggest the depth that reaches behind the simple tale of survival. Then it hit me and I invented my own theory of It. “Meh? More like brilliant!”, were my second thoughts. I’m going to divide them into sections.

Sex is deadly – but not immediately

The movie seemingly follows the familiar horror pattern: everyone who has sex, dies. Jay, a pretty and fragile-looking college student, leads a boring but seemingly satisfactory life in the suburbs of Detroit. Her days seem to consist of sitting around with her sister and close friends, drifting in a small swimming pool, and going out from time to time. Her new boyfriend, Hugh, takes her to the local vintage theater and then starts to act strangely, apparently seeing people that aren’t there. Another night they have sex and then Jay finds out about her boyfriend’s true intentions – he wanted to pass something on to her.

Hugh kidnaps her, straps her to the wheelchair and explains to the terrified girl that she wouldn’t believe him if she didn’t see It with her own eyes. They wait till a naked woman suddenly appears, heading straight towards immobile Jay. Hugh takes her from the spot and says she must sleep with someone else to pass it further, otherwise It will kill her and then return to kill him and the persons before him. This deadly chain cannot be stopped. It walks, instead of running, so you can escape. It can look like anybody, including someone you know.

Time doesn’t matter

The characters seem to exist in the strange world between different eras. We get the objects, clothes, and even hairstyles from 70s, 80s and 90s mixed with mobile devices and talk of the present. This premise isn’t explained. We don’t get to know that the main characters are, for example, collectors of vintage objects. We just have to accept this modern world as realistic when it obviously isn’t. All those time inconsistencies can be seen as tributes to horrors. Especially, Halloween (1978) keeps getting mentioned in reviews. During the interviews the director said he had wanted the movie to be difficult to place in time. My conclusion is that time doesn’t matter – It follows in the same manner in every decade.

A curious mobile device that looks like a compact mirror. The girl is reading “The Idiot” by Dostoyevsky.
A curious mobile device that looks like a compact mirror. The girl is reading “The Idiot” by Dostoyevsky.

Intentionally unrealistic

The movie begins with a familiar “we don’t know what’s happening but it’s creepy” take. I will describe it because it keeps getting omitted in other reviews, even though it sends some important clues right away. A frightened out of her wits girl runs out of her house wearing silk shorts and tank top pajamas. The scenery is a quiet suburban neighborhood in the early morning. She dismisses a neighbor’s and her father’s offers of help and looks desperately around. She runs back to her house, only to return again with car keys, jump in the car and drive ahead. When it’s dark we see her phoning her father on the desolate beach, crying and telling him that she loves him. Cut to the next morning: her mutilated corpse is lying on the same beach. Later we learn about It and may deduct that the girl knew It was chasing her and was going to kill her.

My first choice for shoewear, too.
My first choice for shoewear, too.

OK, it all sounds probable within the horror genre. Now look at her shoes. Not only are they high heels, they are stilettos (about 5 inches high at least). She would be better off running barefoot. Yes, they are very flattering. But they are also any woman’s last choice when it comes to running. Now the question remains, do we believe the director is an idiot for deciding such an outfit was appropriate? Or do we witness another objectification of female body which must look flattering at all times? I would answer “no” to both these suggestions.

Although in the movie there are numerous shots that dwell upon the beauty of Jay or her teenage sister, the camera never seems predatory. Later in the movie the director got a wonderful opportunity for exploitative shots of the protagonist, as she decides to have sex with three men on the boat she sees in the distance. Jay gets into the water. Cut: she drives a car and her hair is wet. Only this subtle clue tells us what happened. Many directors would jump on the opportunity to show a foursome, but here it is unnecessary and I’m glad Mitchell recognized that.

So if the director isn’t just objectifying the female bodies, why the high heels? Notice the color. Red. They sexualize the girl’s appearance and create a stark contrast with the suburbs, her white sleepwear and daddy’s girl image. You can read this scholarly article about red shoes. The shoes point to the facts that: a) we shouldn’t trust the decorations and think rationally about the characters’ behavior (e.g. wonder who would run in high heels or try to shoot at the invisible monster) and b) the whole movie is about the conflict between characters’ personalities and their repressed subconscious feelings.

Who do you see as It? Those you don’t want to.

The whole reason I’m dealing with this movie here is the monster’s appearance which is always very grotesque and dissociated from the surroundings. Let’s look at the forms that It takes and where they appear.

  • A naked woman in the deserted building.
  • An elderly woman wearing a nightgown resembling a hospital gown in Jay’s college.
  • Jay’s best female friend, Yara, on the beach that Jay and her friends (including Yara) were enjoying themselves.
  • A woman who looks like a rape victim, with breasts half-exposed and bruised face, who pees on the floor of Jay’s kitchen.
  • A naked middle-aged man on the roof of Jay’s home.
  • An extremely tall man in Jay’s bedroom.
  • A screaming malnourished kid on the aforementioned beach.
  • A girl in a nightgown (that is probably the girl from the beginning of the movie) on the road from the beach.
  • And finally, Jay’s dad (whom we spotted previously only in a photograph) near the swimming pool.

These are the forms that It takes for Jay (these may not be all, as I could forget some of them).

One of the most terrifying scenes.
One of the most terrifying scenes.

When Jay decides to sleep with Greg to pass the curse, a few days later she witnesses two forms of It following Greg. One is Greg himself in pajamas going into his house. The second is Greg’s mother in an undone nightgown, exposing one of her breasts, knocking violently on the door of Greg’s bedroom. Greg was shown throughout the movie as a womanizer. Jay admits later on she already slept with him in high school. But we can be sure that there was one woman he wouldn’t want to see storming his bedroom at night – his mother. Jay looks mortified as It in form of Greg’s mother kills him while rubbing her crotch against his.

From these images I draw the following conclusion: what Hugh told Jay is not true (just as his name was false), It doesn’t just look like anybody. It personifies one’s deepest fears and repressed sexual desires. Truth be told, if I’m right, it can be seen as the movie’s weakness – Jay shouldn’t just be afraid of anybody passing by, only people that look familiar or/and out of place. Hugh messes up the picture because he keeps seeing girls in normal clothes (yellow dress in the theater), but that can also be a part of his fears and desires.

No one in the movie wants to tell the others what he or she sees as It. The characters subconsciously understand that this would reveal too much about themselves, about the parts of their minds that they don’t want others to know. When Jay’s sister asks “What do you see?”, Jay answers “I don’t want to tell you” while looking at their father trying to attack her.

Greg's death
Greg and It in a form of his mother. I tried to find the least graphic shot.

As to It appearing as Yara – at this moment Jay is looking at this very friend in a swim-suit. Could this mean that there exists an unwanted repressed desire on Jay’s part that It feels and feeds upon?

My interpretation is very Freudian, thus some people may reject it. But as my American Literature Professor used to say, “Freud’s ideas are dated and proved to be untrue. But they are excellent when it comes to analyzing literature and they can still be applied as a literary theory device.” I will stretch it to movies as well. It doesn’t matter if we agree with Freud, we can still spot his ideas in the works of art.

But not all forms of It are sexual. Sexual danger and rape associations appear around Jay’s home (we see both predator and victim figures). But what about the elderly lady? Does she symbolize something sexual? For me no, she is a personification of even deeper fears: the fear of aging, disease and death. No young girl wants to be reminded while wasting hours of her precious youth in the classroom that one day she may look like this. The lady appears crazy walking in a hospital-like gown. She also has knee pads. What kind of scary ghost wears knee pads? Only the one inside your head.

The only It form that I don’t know what to make of is the scary kid on the beach. I hope someone can give a possible explanation of his appearance (other than, well, failure of the script). Edit: thanks to this interesting video I found out that the boy is the kid that regularly spies on Jay. Kudos to the author for close watching, although I disagree with his main idea that It is a demon.

If It is a collection of a person’s repressed fears, one cannot escape It. You can run but It will always find you. Dare I say that the movie could be entitled “Id Follows”?”*

Jeff pointing It to Jay
Look at this jokester. Aren’t you a clever blogger?

To quote the trivia section of IMDb, the director clarified that “the ‘monster’ could potentially board a plane in order to follow the cursed person” and “neither a condom nor same-gender sex would stop the monster and the curse would still be passed.” It suits my theory well.

If the curse is your own mind, you obviously cannot escape it.

What others think

One interpretation I found (read here) is close to mine, but it states that Jay’s father and Greg’s mother appearances suggest previous sexual abuse of their children. While it is possible (Greg recognizes the angry knocking as his mother’s!), I would say that imaginative fear can be as strong as real trauma.

I see others interpreting It as STD (come on, so simple?), fear of sex, reminder of sexual abuse or even adulthood that the movie characters fear (interesting thought). Others see It as simply the personification of death or rather Death that follows us all. Many think that It takes its form after its own victims. That’s why they are often wearing sleepwear – they got attacked at night.

Conclusion

I think it shows the movie strength that we are allowed numerous interpretations that may not even contradict each other. Maybe It is a demon that takes form of one’s subconscious fears and desires? Or maybe It stands just for STD and I am writing the longest post on my blog about the movie that just warns teenagers against sex with strangers? Even if the director is a skillful manipulator that tricked me into believing that his artsy movie is something more, I would still recommend seeing the film.

Any movie that forces you to think and wonder is worth your time. Even if I have to stand another cinematography based mostly on wide-angle camera lenses or another electronic score that “builds an atmosphere” (what it really does for me: it precedes It with basses just like The Imperial March signalized Darth Vader’s appearance)**, I would still watch something similar to It Follows just because it made me think so much about its premise.

*Muahahaha! … *cough* You know, just like Freud’s concept of Id? *exits smoothly*
** Half-serious appeal to filmmakers: there is only one “Drive.” Only one.
Advertisements

Summer and horror movies

Grotesque ground_ shoes _path

The world is beautiful. The weather is nice. You have some spare time. You keep watching Japanese men transforming themselves into gory cyborgs.

Yes, that’s me. And I’m preparing my conference paper on Tetsuo. Academia at its best.

Tetsuo 1989 lovers faces
This is a trilogy of amazing body horror.

As a lover of the grotesque, I had to spot this irony. The sun is shining through my windows, and here I am, shutting them.

Notice how horrors are always advertised before Halloween. It’s like you only watch horror movies that very night. Maybe an average person does it this way, treating it like I treat dressing Christmas trees. You don’t dress one in July, that would be crazy!

Grotesque ground_ shoes _path
Witness one blogger’s brave journey into the wilderness. I was blinded by the sun so I focused on my feet instead.

With horrors, fall and winter seem like the best seasons to watch them. Cold weather, gray faces, early darkness…

No! While the overall mood outside may discourage you from scary movies at first, when a film is captivating enough, you will watch it. It doesn’t matter what happens outside your horror zone, it will be only you and your screen,  you and your book.

Poppies
These poppies want you to go outside. I imagine them screaming “Feed me! FEED ME!” in  The Little Shop of Horrors fashion.

Or you can go out sometimes, as you can witness by a few photos I made two days ago. I’m an amateur photographer, but I will post some from time to time. They feel more personal than stock photos. And I have fun inventing captions underneath.

Yellow flowers heart
These flowers formed a heart when you weren’t looking.

I hope you are spending your summer doing what you like, however seasonal it is. :)

2014 summary (with lots of pictures)

Grotesque Ground summary 2014

Calm down, it’s not another summary of what happened in 2014. I want to share with you a few lists of movies and books that I found important in the previous year. I don’t care about keeping up-to-date with new releases, so it’s going to be the summary of what I actually saw and read in 2014. I think it’s not so much about creating such a post, but about revealing your interests and taste in the process.

I never used so many pictures on this blog. And there are two embedded videos. Let the visual craziness begin!

I also decided to keep things chronologically unless you see numbers. The numbers matter then.

Honorable mentions

Movie that surprised me the most

  • Gösta Berlings saga (1924)
Greta Garbo Saga of Gosta Berling 1924
Stunning Greta Garbo in “Gösta Berlings saga”

I expected a boring but necessary for my movie education experience. I watched a gripping and extremely entertaining historical romance that does not stop its pace for 185 minutes. I cannot recommend it enough for every silent movie fan.

Movie that every blogger seems to rave over and I couldn’t stand

  • Frank (2014)

It totally did not appeal to my taste. It’s not grotesque, but quirky. Nothing bad with quirky, just don’t expect me to like it. Let’s leave it at that because I have only bad things to say about “Frank”.

Three masterpieces that prove Japanese movies are simply fearless

  • "Ichi the Killer' poster. Don't google this film if you cannot stand gore. The movie has plenty of guts (pun intended).
    “Ichi the Killer’ poster. Don’t google this film if you cannot stand gore. The movie has plenty of guts (pun intended).

    Hana-Bi (1997)

  • Koroshiya 1 (Ichi the Killer) (2001)
  • Tetsuo (Tetsuo, the Iron Man ) (1989)

  Movies I have to see again to fully appreciate

  • Pafekuto buru (Perfect Blue) (1997)
  • Papurika (Paprika) (2006)

If you want to know why, just listen to this great song from Paprika soundtrack and try not to go crazy in the process.

Sometimes too much awesomeness is too much to handle. By the way, Inception is said to be an imperfect copy of Paprika.

Movies I recommend

  • Teorema (1968)
  • Prestuplenie i nakazanie (Crime and Punishment) (1970)
  • The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
  • Dreams (1990)
  • Nothing Is Private (2007)
  • Geoul sok euro (Into the Mirror) (2008)
  • Prisoners (2013)
Martin Sheen creeps up on Jodie Foster in"The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane" 1976
Martin Sheen creeps up on Jodie Foster in “The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane” (1976)

 Movies that evoked mixed feelings

  • Shame (2011)
  • Interstellar (2014)

The best documentaryDune_The Emperor's Palace_ Chris Foss

  • Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013) – read my review here

 

 The best movie I watched in cinema

  • Nightcrawler (2014) – read my review here

Nightcrawler 2014 Jake Gyllenhaal

The worst movie I watched in cinema

  • Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

Movies you may be surprised I really enjoyed

john-carter-city 2012
“John Carter”. I regret nothing.
  •     Charlotte’s Web (2006)
  •     John Carter (2012)
  •     We’re the Millers (2013)

The fan favorite I agree with

  • Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Like I wrote on my twitter in August, as a lover of grotesque I always support talking raccoons as badass characters.

The Grand Ones

The best movies I watched in 2014

1. Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face) (1960)

2. The Holy Mountain (1973)

The Holy Mountain Alejandro Jodorowsky hat two women
“The world seems crazy to Jodorowsky and I think that he deliberately shocks to make us notice it.” (my review)

3. Peeping Tom (1960)

Peeping Tom 1960 Karlheinz Böhm kisses camera
The British masterpiece which shows ambiguous portrait of the serial killer. Karlheinz Böhm, here shown kissing the camera, gives an extremely strong performance.

4. Ichi the Killer (2001)

Ichi the Killer 2001 - Tadanobu Asano Kakihara smoke
Tadanobu Asano as Kakihara is the best psychotic antagonist in recent cinema history.

5. Stoker (2013)

Stoker 2013 Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker
Every shot in this movie is perfect . All performances are superb. Here Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker.

6. Ugetsu monogatari (Ugetsu) (1953)

Ugetsu Monogatari 1953
Beautiful fantasy about old Japan when ghosts walked among people.

7. Gösta Berlings saga (1924)

Gosta Berlings Saga 1924 Lars Hanson Greta Garbo
Lars Hanson and Greta Garbo expressing great emotions. Today’s romances and adventure movies could learn a lot from The Saga of Gosta Berling.

8. Accattone (1961)

Accattone 1961  Franco Citti
Can a movie about a pimp be beautiful and fascinating? Of course, if Pier Paolo Pasolini is directing.

9. La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty) (2013)

La grande bellezza The Great Beauty 2013 Toni Servillo
Accused of being Fellini’s copycat, I see this movie as a distinct and very interesting voice.

10. Tetsuo (1989)

Tetsuo 1989 lovers faces
This movie is insane! David Cronenberg’s fans will love it. But I don’t recommend it to unprepared viewers. A movie that deserves R rating.

Grotesque involved

Grotesque masterpieces

  • The Holy Mountain (1973) – my review here
  • The Day of the Locust (1975) – my review here

Grotesque movies I should also review

  • Tetsuo (Tetsuo, the Iron Man ) (1989)

  • Koroshiya 1 (Ichi the Killer) (2001)

  • Ubu król (King Ubu) (2003)

  • Den brysomme mannen (The Bothersome Man) (2006)

  • Papurika (Paprika) (2006)

  • La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty) (2013)

 

2014 Reading list

Grotesque favorites

  • Saki – The Best of Saki – read my review hereMiss Lonelyhearts The Day of the Locust Nathanael West cover
  • Nathanael West – Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)
  • Nathanael West – The Day of the Locust (1939)
  • Flannery O’Connor – The Violent Bear It Away (1960)
  • Thomas Pynchon – The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

Bestsellers I recommend

  • Kathryn Stockett – The Help (2009)
  • Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl (2012)

The most entertaining book

  • Boris Akunin – The Winter Queen (1998)The Winter Queen Azazel Boris Akunin cover

A skillfully crafted mystery novel that successfully imitates 19th-century style of writing. Very funny at times. And full of surprises. I think I will read more of Erast Fandorin’s adventures soon.

The best fantasy series

  • Michael J. Sullivan – The Riyria Revelations (2008-2012)

I just ended “The Emerald Storm” (which is book #4 out of 6). I hope for even more action and drama in two last books. And if I won’t have enough of the adventures of two rogues who always end up in troubles (and political intrigues), the author also wrote two prequels.

Riyria Revelations covers Michael J. Sullivan
Six books of sheer fun in three volumes.

The best gritty books

  • Robert Penn Warren – All the King’s Men (1946)
  • Hubert Selby, Jr. – Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964)
  • James Dickey – Deliverance (1970)

The best academic read

  • Noël Carroll – The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart (1990)

I think it deserves a post on its own.

 Ultimate choice

The Crying of Lot 49 Thomas Pynchon cover
So much going on in such a short book. I had read it before and will read it again in the future.

The best books I read in 2014

  1. Thomas Pynchon – The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
  2. Saul Bellow – Herzog (1964)
  3. E. L. Doctorow – Ragtime (1975)
  4. Hubert Selby, Jr. – Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964)
  5. Flannery O’Connor – The Violent Bear It Away (1960)

These five books are so good, no short descriptions could give them justice. They all happen to be classics now, so I think you will find them in your local library. All are worth your time. I own three copies out of five at this point.

Herzog_Ragtime_Last Exit to Brooklyn_The Violent Bear It Away_covers

You may notice the discrepancy between movies and books in this post. What can I say? I read 60 books in 2014, but many of these are simply OK, neither so good I can recommend them, nor so bad I should warn you against them.

 ***

I drew a few conclusions after writing this post.

  1. I seem to cherish great movies with serial killers/murderers/troubled people as main characters.
  2. I breathe the 1960s air. At least in terms of books.
  3. I respect Japanese cinema immensely.
  4. Only TWO movies on my best list are in English. And Peeping Tom is British while Stoker is UK/US coproduction. American cinema, although I watch it most frequently, failed to impress me in 2014. Even Nightcrawler couldn’t be included on the list, as I regard each film on the list a better one than Jake-Gyllenhaal-fest.
  5. All the grotesque movies I could review are not in English. *sigh* As I get the most readers from the United States, it seems I try to sabotage my own efforts. :D On the other hand, I cannot hide the fact that I consider cinema as international art and I watch movies from all around the world. And to be honest, the blog stats are unpredictable. Most popular post on my blog is The Holy Mountain one (this one).
  6. This year Pier Paolo Pasolini became one of my favorite directors (in this post you could spot Accattone and Teorema).
  7. I read way too many fantasy books that I didn’t include here.
  8. Weirdness and great script/plot are not incompatible.

eyes_without_a_face_franju

 I hope you liked this lengthy sum-up of my very subjective pursues. I certainly enjoyed creating all these categories. If you have similar posts or want to share your favorites/least favorites picks of 2014, don’t hesitate to post them in the comments below. I would love to hear about them!

What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)

Really good movie ruined by its promotional campaign. Don’t search for the poster (if you can) as it spoils the fun. Who allows such a thing? Why? Even the title gives a big hint which is not known from the start. The very sentence appears exactly in the middle of the movie… Very bad marketing.

But even if you saw the poster or photos while looking for this film, still watch it. It’s a surprisingly good, though literally unknown, gem with great acting, costumes and atmosphere of the 1930s. There is something in this decade that attracts the grotesque! (“The Day of the Locust”).

Helen (Shelley Winters) and Adelle (Debbie Reynolds) are two women whose sons commited a gruesome murder. The case is widely known, their faces appear in the media. After two young men’s conviction, the women move to Hollywood, change their names and open a dance school for girls. Pretty standard for anyone who wants to start anew: move to Hollywood or Las Vegas. At least that’s what American movies taught us.

Both women share similar names, but they personalities and appearances differ. Helen is calm, religious, anxious, and superstitious while Adelle is energetic, free-spirited and practical. One looks like an average, overweight middle-aged woman while the other is a slim and sexy dancer who is still in her prime. The two become friends because of their dark secret. While Adelle decides to move on, Helen is stuck in the past. Moreover, there seem to be a stalker nearby who wants the women to pay for their sons’ crime.

Whats the Matter with Helen_Debbie Reynolds___
Debbie Reynolds looks fabulous as a platinum blonde. Notice the costumes (nominated for an Oscar).

What’s the matter with the grotesque here, you may ask.

Firstly, 1930s child stars. “Toddlers and Tiaras” is nothing new. The appeal for child stars actually started with the growing popularity of cinema. With megastars like Jackie Coogan or Shirley Temple (and their small fortunes), the need for child actors increased. And so did the ambitions of many children’s parents. As shown in many satires of the time (again, “The Day of the Locust”), the past show business did not really differ much from the present one. Most of the children taught by Adelle are as untalented and oversexualized as contestants of today’s reality TV shows.

Whats the Matter with Helen_Mother and daughter
“Remember, the Warner Brothers are in the front row.”

A girl (pictured above on the right) is stylized as Mae West and sings “Oh, you nasty man!” and “Shame”! while wearing full makeup and a padded adult dress. All the time her moves are mimicked by her mother behind the scenes.

Secondly, the violence is shown in a grotesque way. Helen gets more and more disturbed. Every sharp object reminds her of the way her husband died.

“We were going to have a ride on the plow. And we started out. And then the harness seemed to come loose. And he got off to fix it. And something frightened the horses. And I couldn’t hold them. And the blades of the plow, they’re big and much sharper than they look. He fell. He fell. And Lenny saw it. He saw all of it and blamed me ever afterwards for not being able to save his father.”

The scene actually shows the bloody body and Winters’ delivery is memorable.

Whats the Matter with Helen_Debbie Reynolds_Shelley Winters
Adelle (Debbie Reynolds) and Helen (Shelley Winters).

If you remember my review of a Christmas movie “Whoever Slew Auntie Roo” (link here), you know how great Shelley Winters is when it comes to horror. “What’s the Matter…” came in the double DVD box together with “Whoever…” and they are an amazing double feature for any Winters fan. She plays two totally different, though undoubtedly troubled, characters. It’s worth noting that both movies had the same director, Curtis Harrington, who seemed to work exceptionally well with Winters.

This is a very female-centered movie: you’ve got two female protagonists and a bunch of mother and daughters are constantly at the background. What is more, two boys murdered a woman and were sentenced for this crime.

Women are always portrayed as victims. Victims of circumstances and of their (failed) roles as mothers. Victims of early sexualization. Victims of seductive men, stalkers and murderers. Finally, victims of madness and unfulfilled desires.

There appears a very strange scene when the handsome father of one of the girls, Linc Palmer (played with ease by Dennis Weaver), takes Adelle on a date. They are sitting in the club and the orchestra starts playing tango. She obviously wants to dance, but he says that he cannot. He spots a gigolo nearby and gestures him to come over. Then he pretends to agree upon the man asking her out to dance. They dance very passionately (it’s tango, after all), all the other guests stop and watch them. Linc observes it with a big smile as Adelle ends the dance in the contrived, semi-violent pose. I smell a connection with the pose of her son’s victim, who also has arms stretched out and actually looks like she is dancing. Given the fact that Adelle’s son blamed her for focusing on her dancing career rather than fulfilling her duties as a mother, these associations may not be accidental.

Whats the Matter with Helen_murder_victim
The murder victim.

 

Whats the Matter with Helen_Debbie Reynolds_tango
The creepy tango scene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the same time, I would not say that this movie is biased against either men or women. It just presents a coherent vision of reality that is psychologically, socially and historically justified. It also loves to throw a bunch of red herrings here and there. Not bad for a horror movie not many heard about.

Third grotesque aspect is religion represented by Sister Alma. She appears in flesh, but more often as a voice from the radio that Helen constantly listens to. She is judgmental and condemning while running a strictly commercial organization. An almost identical character appears in Day of the Locust. I found out both characters were actually based on a real person, Aimee Semple McPherson (also known as Sister Aimee), an evangelist and media celebrity in the 1920s and 1930s who was active in Los Angeles at that time. For those interested in this topic more, here is a good website dedicated to her (controversies included): http://www.aimeemcpherson.com/.

The last grotesque aspect is the twisted ending. I won’t spoil it as I’m not a member of the marketing team of the movie and it seems it was their job to do. Let’s just say the ending remains as creepy as it was over 40 years ago.

***

P.S. I hate to start anything with apology, so let me apologize you for my absence at the end of this post. I was gone for three months partly because a lot happened in my life recently (PhD studies, here I come!), but also partly because blogging turned out to be more demanding than I expected.

There is also this feeling of writing “into the wild”, that no one is reading this (even though I see that the stats are improving). Well, I chose to write about the topic that is not very popular, but I feel strongly about it. So I have to do my best. I won’t be blogging about lifestyle, cooking or fashion. So I cannot expect a huge readership.

At the same time, I feel responsible for what I write since literally no one blogs exclusively about the grotesque. It paralyzes me so much that I have a few posts that I never finished because I felt I had not done those movies or books the justice they deserve.

Still, I hope you can stay with me and come here from time to time to see what movies and books I recommend and what’s the matter with the grotesque. :) I thank you for reading, subscribing and commenting, it means a lot to me. I respect several real followers more than a thousand fake ones, especially since I write about such a narrow subject. Thank you for staying!

“The Devil-Doll” (1936)

The Devil-Doll poster_1936
Contrary to the popular belief, the devil doesn’t appear in the movie.

This charming old gem is not a well-known horror. Its director, Tod Browning, is famous for “Dracula” from 1931 and “Freaks” from 1932. Still, “The Devil-Doll” is worth-watching for a few scenes that are ahead of its time.

The plot is not complicated. The protagonist, Lavond (Lionel Barrymore), is a banker who was wrongly convicted and received life sentence. He escapes after 17 years and seeks revenge against three men who framed him. What follows is a series of events that create a planned and cruel revenge. Three men are pursued one by one. The banker also tries to reconcile with his adult daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan). She feels deepest remorse towards her father. Lavond cannot tell her the truth of his innocence since he changed his appearance as the police are after him. He uses for his revenge the devices invented by his cellmate friend, Marcel, who escaped with him, but died shortly afterwards. Meanwhile the daughter hesitates when it comes to marrying her boyfriend because of her family past.

Normal stuff, murder, revenge, family relations, and justice mixed in a deftly driven plot.

Yet to describe the movie this way is to deprive it of all that makes it so special.

Many times you hear the characters who act crazily and say crazy things, yet it does not destroy the movie’s logic.

Lavond, my friend, millions of years ago the creatures that roamed this world were gigantic. As they multiplied, the earth could no longer produce enough food. Think of it, Lavond: every living creature reduced to one-sixth its size. One-sixth of its physical need. Food for six times all of us!

(Marcel talking to Lavond)

Riight. So now let’s look at grotesque motifs in the film:

1. Main character in full drag

Lavond is dressing up as an old woman in order to deceive the police. And he succeeds. I mean the wig, long earrings and even fancy black fingerless gloves included. Lionel Barrymore proves that his movie family’s fame is justified as he is really convincing both as the embittered rough man and as the gentle, kind old lady. Years before “Tootsie” or “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

Lionel Barrymore in The Devil-Doll 1936
Lionel Barrymore as Lavond

2. The miniaturized humans

Remember the scientist friend from the gallows? He invented a method to reduce living creatures to stiff, six times smaller, toy-like objects that can be controlled by human thought. I know how it sounds, but stupider concepts were successfully made believable in movies. Fortunately, here the idea also suits the plot.

The sequence with the title devil-doll (actually a “half-wit” female servant who got transformed not only into a “doll” but got sexier in the process) is a great cinematic achievement.

female doll in The Devil-Doll 1936
Furniture climbing

The doll is in the house of one of three men Lavond wants to harm. As Lavond watches her through the window, the doll obeys his orders. She sneaks out of a sleeping girl’s hug and tiptoes to the man’s bedroom. The cinematography is very impressive and at times the illusion is complete.

3. Bride of Frankenstein/Marie Curie character

The widow of the scientist looks like the combination of these personas. Just look at her and tell me it’s not intentional.

Malita_The Devil-Doll 1936
Did someone say science?

She wants to continue her husband’s work (also a nod to Curie) not because of Lavond’s revengeful plans. She fears that the world is getting overpopulated and the only solution is decreasing the size of humans. This way we can survive with present food supply. How come no one thought about it before…

Her passionate scientific zeal is as obvious as her limp, but her victims, both animals and humans stop thinking on their own because their brains got smaller. These hopeless dolls wait for commands from their masters. Scientific fanaticism, even if derived from noble intentions, is a danger that became especially evident in the 20th century. Still, the figure of Mad Scientist keeps reappearing in culture, from Dr. Frankenstein, through Dr. Moreau to Dr. Brundle from Cronenberg’s “The Fly.”

These three grotesque features are not the only thing that attracted my attention to “The Devil-Doll.” Tod Browning is famous for “Freaks”, but I see traces of his fascination with subjects that the society considers abnormal in this movie as well.

Old black-and-white horrors may not scare you to death (unless you watch “Nosferatu” or “The Phantom of the Opera” at night, though the second one when the Phantom is not on screen may put you conveniently to sleep). But they have a charming precision and are often not afraid to combine darkly funny scenes with terrifying ones.

“The Devil-Doll” is not a horror comedy but it can entertain you for its 78 minutes running time despite its stereotypical plot of revenge. And I think I will never forget the dolls’ wild dance. To quote IMDb: “dolls are costumed as members of vicious street gangs known as the Apache (pronounced ah-PAHSH), who were involved in theft, prostitution, and the occasional murder in pre-World War I Paris. The dolls even perform the Apache dance popularized by the gangs, in which extremely close steps alternate with seemingly brutal punches, kicks, hair-pulling, spins, and throws; it was usually danced to the Valse des rayons (aka Valse chaloupée) composed by Jacques Offenbach. In the 1930s and 1940s, this dance was still performed by professional dancers and can be seen in several films and even cartoons of the period.” Devil dolls indeed!

Finally, the concept that you shouldn’t be afraid of a mythical monster, but of a seemingly harmless old lady is very modern and has been readapted again and again since 1936.

Lionel Barrymore in The Devil-Doll_1936
“My work will help three men die.”

“13 Beloved” (2006)

"13 Beloved " ("13 game sayawng") (2006) - posterYou are desperate. You need money. Then you receive a phone call: “Do 13 things we tell you to do and you will get the money.” Do you agree?

This simple premise is extremely effective. The posters of  “13 Beloved” (also known as “13: Game of Death”)(original title being “13 game sayawng”) suggest a slasher movie. The film is indeed gross and gory, but it also tries to expose the fragility of human morality. What are you willing to do for money? Is there anything that would stop you?

It truly deserves the R rating. And I strongly advise you not to eat anything while watching it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The main hero loses his job and his car. His girlfriend dumped him and he is in serious debt. He fails in every area of life that an adult man is supposed to succeed in. And then he answers the phone and gets the offer from “the game show.”

There is a fly buzzing around you. Kill it.

He does it. That’s the first task. And immediately 10,000 baht (about 300 dollars) appear on his bank account. The amount of money will grow with each completed challenge. But here’s the catch: he will lose everything he earned so far if he stops. He also cannot tell anyone about the game. The total prize is 100 million baht.

The second task? It’s great you killed the fly. Now swallow it.

"13 Beloved" ("13 game sayawng") - Eating the fly
To eat or not to eat the fly

If these are the first two, you may ask: what comes next?

“13 Beloved” is a gripping spectacle of violence, dark humor, and disgust. It does not leave you indifferent. And the fact that it is a movie from Thailand does not change the way I perceive it. The story is absolutely universal. It is both modern and timeless. On the one hand, we have cell-phones and the Internet as crucial parts of the plot. On the other hand, the protagonist yearns for splendid goods and financial security, which people have always longed for.

The main character is played by Krissada Sukosol (aka Krissada Terrence) and his performance is excellent. It is interesting that the actor was a member of the pop band before and sang sweet ballads. He believably portrays his character’s transformation from a shy and average guy at the beginning into a blood-thirsty lunatic at the end.

"13 Beloved" ("13 game sayawng") -  Krissada Sukosol (Krissada Terrence)
Krissada Sukosol

What seemed to bother many people who watched “13 Beloved” were comic episodes intermingled with serious ones. Some even saw the whole movie as a parody. I think that the whole movie is constructed as a dangerous and exciting game with set rules. Like a TV show or, more appropriately, an Internet show. Comedy is a part of this aesthetic. The neon sign at the beginning says: have some fun. And this neon sign is written in English. It could represent the whole Western pop culture that the movie successfully mocks, at the same time resembling it. My favorite comic character is a madman with an unconventional fashion sense.

"13 Beloved" ("13 game sayawng") - Mad Man
You need clues – I’ll be your guide!

I think that David Fincher is a director who could successfully remake this movie, as its tone fits his style. Unfortunately, the remake is being made as “13 Sins” (yuck! Did they even watch the original?). It is directed by Daniel Stamm (the man behind “The Last Exorcism”) and looks like a cheap and dull straight-to-video (even if it gets released in cinemas) kind of movie which even my hero, Ron Perlman, cannot save. It makes me sad to see such potential wasted. But on the other hand, this Thai movie does not need a remake to stay remembered by its fans.

The ending can be interpreted in many ways. Some viewers felt confused by it. For me the more grotesque, the better, so I enjoyed it even more. I see it as partly accusing the viewer of the game. Thus accusing me and you, the audience. Do we enjoy watching people suffer for our entertainment? Maybe we are as guilty as the person who would agree on the deal of 13 tasks.

Do not let this movie fall into obscurity. I’m not the only one who feels that this movie need more appreciation. Sound On Sight chose this movie as #2 of “Top 10 Overlooked Horror/Sci-fi Films of the Decade” while Blake Vaugh included it on the great list “Some Horror Movies You’ve Never Seen (But Should!)” on his blog. Perhaps the site Collider.com summed it up best, saying: “Be the first cool kid on your block to get hip to this cult hit waiting to happen.” And if you do, let me know what you think in the comment section below.

“Classics of the Macabre” by Daphne du Maurier

RomanaC - Hipster Guys Owls
This image fits the book perfectly.

A collection of six best short stories by Daphne du Maurier is a must-read for any horror and grotesque fan. This book will bring you nightmares. Alfred Hitchcock and Nicolas Roeg felt compelled to adapt two of these stories to the big screen. After reading them, you won’t wonder why.

Daphne du Maurier's "Classics of the Macabre" book coverAs you might have noticed in my first post about Edgar Allan Poe’s “King Pest,” I love reading short stories. And I mostly agree with canonical rules that Poe established in his “The Philosophy of Composition” in 1846. Especially the one about “a distinct limit… to all works of literary art – the limit of a single sitting.” Simply put, a short story should be short! The number of characters should be limited and the whole story should have singular focus. However, there are some short stories that are more complex but are still able to captivate me in their worlds. Daphne du Maurier’ stories do it with ease.

I am going to discuss the stories from the oldest to the newest one and encourage you to read them without giving away any spoilers (as there are spectacular twists in some of them!).

The Apple Tree (1952)

An old man feels at last alive after his forever nagging wife died. But the twisted apple tree in the garden starts to make him uneasy as it hides the sun from a sweet young apple tree… The story concerns topics like guilt, love and appearances. Is the long-lasting marriage a really happy one? What does it mean to care for someone?

It is not my favorite, but I‘ve got a feeling I may appreciate this story more as I grow older.

The Birds (1952)

Hitchcock's "Birds" - birds waiting
Still from the movie “Birds” (1963)

An epic short story which will always be read thanks to a classic Hitchcock’s adaptation. Nevertheless, it must be said that the movie and the short story have only one thing in common: the title birds and their violent behavior. The protagonist in the short story is a WWII veteran who tries to save himself and his family from an invasion that no one is prepared for. The style is simple but full of gripping details: “He felt the thud of bodies, heard the fluttering of wings, but they were not yet defeated, for again and again they returned to the assault, jabbing his hands, his head, the little stabbing beaks sharp as pointed forks.” The story has a more political overtone than the movie, but remains universal at the same time. How is one to protect oneself from the enemy that can be anywhere?

The Blue Lenses (1959)

Daphne du Maurier "The Blue Lenses" book coverMy favorite one and the most grotesque of the six. A woman is a patient of the expensive clinic after the eye surgery. The nurses and doctors take good care of her, everything seems fine. But after she has bandages removed, she sees other people heavily distorted…or not?

Basically, she sees everyone with a head of some animal in spite of a human head. Her nurses are a cow, a cat and a <spoiler removed>. Her doctor is a terrier. But her visiting husband turns out to be…

The mixture of human and animal features constitutes a basic element of grotesque imagery. It frightens and disturbs us. It goes back to ancient mythologies. Various cultures believed in creatures (or gods) of both humanoid and animal characteristics (centaur, manticore, Horus, etc.). However, when the mix is unexpected, it is a source of horror (think “The Island of Doctor Moreau” which I will certainly review some day). Animal heads in this short story possess mainly a symbolic meaning, giving away the true nature of each person.

It is a very ambiguous story, as the explanations for apparent sight malfunction may vary. It bases on psychological fear rather than physical repulsion, though a few disgusting elements also appear. I wonder why it isn’t more well-known. It certainly deserves it.

The Alibi (1959)

A seemingly normal middle-class man decides to murder somebody, it does not matter whom. He meets a desperate single mother in a desolate tenement house and decides she will be his victim. He begins to rent the room in her apartment. He pretends to be a painter, considering it the best alibi. But he cannot foresee everything…

Sometimes we may get a wrong impression that the end of the 20th century invented cold-blooded, perverse murderers and psychopaths as main characters. But literature always described sick individuals and their misdoings. I think that a sick human mind is one of the main focuses of art in general.

“The Alibi” remains shocking, even if we read similar stories, not only in literature, but also in the news.

Don’t Look Now (1970)

A married couple starts to recover after their small daughter’s death. They are on vacation in Venice. They meet a pair of strange-looking twin sisters. One of them is a blind prophetess who says that Christine, their daughter, worries about them and wants them to leave Venice immediately. They intend to leave but the skeptic man keeps seeing a figure of small girl in a red raincoat who seems to be in danger…

"Don't Look Now" the girl
Still from the movie “Don’t Look Now” (1973)

The movie by Nicolas Roeg is one of my favorite horrors, yet I enjoyed the short story. The adaptation differs in some details from the story, and the husband, played by Donald Sutherland, is in Venice because of his job. Also there is an infamous, rather explicit, sex scene which is only referred to in two sentences in the short story. Aw, the cinema of the 1970s!

The story is more ironic than the movie. I suggest you check both.

Not After Midnight (1971)

The weakest one in my opinion, still captures the sense of uneasiness in a strange land. The land is Crete, an island in Greece, where a lonely teacher decides to spend his holidays. He meets an odd American couple. The wife invites him to their house but “not after midnight.” The myth of Dionysus takes an important part in the story as the teacher discovers that the previous inhabitant of his house drowned. And he visited the couple beforehand.Theatrical masks. Roman mosaic from the 100s BC.All of du Maurier’s stories in this volume feature ordinary characters in the ordinary setting (home, garden, hospital, holiday resort) who face extraordinary, or even surreal, challenges.

I get the notion du Maurier says that while you fear the unknown, you should fear the known more. It may surprise you.