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Posted on January 13, 2021

Uncanny Reflections: How Past Terrors Haunt Modern New Horror Cinema

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Part One

Nosferatu reaching out his heart-stopping hand via Robert Eggers’ upcoming remake of the silent classic to grip the hearts of a new generation is not the only shadow of the past arising during the current renaissance of sophisticated scares. Movies like Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Midsommar, Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria or The Lodge by Austrian directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala testify to a macabre recurrence of morbid motifs from early European speculative films. Some referential contemporaries evoke distinct characters like Jennifer Kent’s pathologic parenting parable The Babadook did with its titular villain: Dr. Caligari’s top-hatted, cloaked silhouette overstepping from sharp-shadowed expressionist storybook-setting into a reality which might be lunatic delusion. Some reassemble structural, visual and narrative tropes like Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night with its black-and-white landscape of urban despair, preyed upon by vampiric and human bloodsuckers.

man stares at his head in a box

Vampyr (1932)

Some recreate a specific scenery and mood like Trey Edward Shults’ gloomy tale of moral breakdown in a setting of bottled-up paranoia, pain and pestilence, It Comes At Night. Or they establish similar settings where the occult, egregious parades in broad daylight like Midsommar’s world of unflinching brightness is reminiscent of the hazy sunshine in Vampyr. Others dive into the stylistic peculiarities, sinister themes and sardonic mannerisms of their predecessors, like The Lighthouse. A preliminary paradigm of retrospective attributes, Robert Eggers’ sailor’s yarn about doubles, drink and damnation marks the ever increasing immediacy of this trend. Said revival of a specific mode is not driven by fashionable revisionism or arbitrary nostalgia but outside historic forces – much like the classic canon that modern horror cinema innovators draw from. For their semblance and the feelings they triggered those classic films may be labeled uncanny. This denotation also addresses their origin in the artistic traditions of Dark Romanticism, a style period which anticipated defining tropes of uncanny cinema. Dark Romanticism’s obscure, often sexually charged imagery, exalted scenery and metaphysical subjects directly inspired groundbreaking early European filmmakers. To understand their work’s influence on the present requires a closer look at its spooky sources. Read more

Posted on December 17, 2020

Ten Classic Movies to Unlock the Uncanny

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Seemingly normal, yet subtly menacing surroundings, anticipations of looming evil, the creeping notion of something or someone being not quite right – perhaps you … A new heyday of sophisticated horror, led by the likes of The Babadook, The Witch, Midsommar and Get Out, brings back a cinematic conception which not only predated the horror genre but helped incite it. The uncanny is rising to new screen prominence. Even before Freud wrote his eponymous essay about it in 1919, movie theaters had already begun to capitalize on its captivation. Uncanniness or Unheimlichkeit shaped a number of early European movies which are psychologically twisted and phantasmagoric. Unheimlich is a weird, complex perception, not simply a milder touch of fear. To be unheimlich something has to appear basically nice, comfortable and familiar while at the same time feeling a bit off. Better than listening to explanations of the uncanny is the experience of it. This list takes a closer look at the cinematic roots of the uncanny. Read more

Posted on September 27, 2017

IT’s Homely Horror: What to Do with a Haunted House

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While praising the cast of Andy Muschietti’s 2017 adaptation of IT, A. O. Scott repeats a comment my friends keep saying about the film: it’s old horror hat gone wild. Scott, in his New York Times review, specifically argues that with the advent of CGI in modern horror films comes artistic repetition:

“Movie monsters resemble one another more and more, and movies of distinct genres feel increasingly trapped within the expected.”

Yet, beneath the expected jump scares, the uptick in gore-filled moments, and what some call the over-exposure of the titular monster, IT brings the horror mode under critique. Unlike Scott, I argue that Muschietti is engaging in a rather nuanced play on the stock elements of horror that so bothered reviewers. In short, that feeling of being “trapped within the expected” is exactly the intent of the overt and arguably overused horror in this adaptation. Muschietti’s film turns the conventional images of horror against the audience, forcing us to work through our own expectations operating within the genre. In this way, IT becomes more concerned with how horrific imagery can be used to hide and deflect from the reality it represents.

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