Mon. May 23rd, 2022

Hey folks, and welcome the heck back to Wrong Every Time. My housemates and I are pushing towards the endgame of Elden Ring at this point, which has opened up our schedule for a wide variety of film screenings. As a result, this week’s post will be something of a lightning round, as we roar through a wide variety of features at the greatest possible speed. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel at this point; I’ve beaten all but one of the game’s secret bosses, cleared out all the side quests I can, and conquered every dungeon except the road to the ending. The big question for next week will be how I readjust back to post-Elden Ring life, but for now, let’s power through some goddamn movies!

Having now watched both the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its most recent revival, we decided to fill in some gaps in our chainsaw memory, screening both Texas Chainsaw 3D, and also the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre film. Lotta massacres, I know. Honestly, you’d expect films with both “chainsaw” and “massacre” in the title to be grotesque bloodbaths, but outside of the most recent film and its busload of minced influencers (mincefluencers?), they’re generally not too different from other slasher movies, and nowhere near the celebration of violence that defines, say, the SAW franchise. The franchise is the closest that any recurring slasher gets to folk horror, lingering in the weeds and rust of abandoned Americana, and at its best exemplifying an entitled, resentful rage that feels inherent to the American spirit.

Whether any specific entry actually demonstrates those evocative qualities is another story. Texas Chainsaw 3D is an absolute failure on that front, replacing any sort of gritty aesthetic sensibility with objects that jump at the camera, and hitting narrative beats closer to an action movie than a tragedy. The inherent degradation of sequelization is embodied by this film, which at one point sees its Leatherface-descendant heroine pass him a chainsaw and shout “do your thing, Cuz!” An eminently skippable attraction.

Fortunately, the 2003 version of the saga fares much better. Billed as a remake of the original story, and with original director Tobe Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel on as producers, as well as original cinematographer Daniel Pearl picking up the camera again, this one comes far closer to capturing the aesthetic of the original. The skuzzy home-movies style camerawork, the ominous low-angle shots, the hazy filter painting everything in heavy dust; this version feels Texas Chainsaw, demonstrating that continuity of purpose can often be found more in aesthetic choices than narrative ones. That the film cannot choose between the senseless chaos of its predecessor and the more structured violence of its slasher contemporaries is unfortunate, and results in perhaps the stupidest series of decisions by a “final girl” that I’ve ever seen, but I’ll take any number of compelling structural misfires over meeting the rest of Leatherface’s extended family.

I then hunted down a very different slice of horror history, as I checked out the 1987 experimental short The Black Tower. Largely conveyed as narration over a series of still shots, The Black Tower follows a London man as he realizes he is being “pursued” by an ominous tower in the distance. Originally dismissing this phenomenon as a trick of perspective or construction schedules, he soon finds himself haunted by the strange edifice at every turn, unsure whether it’s a fragment of his imagination or something more sinister.

Goddamn do I love the concept of hostile architecture! I loved the brief flourish of it near the end of Relic, I could not get enough of The Backrooms, and I greatly enjoyed The Black Tower’s take on it too. There’s something uniquely unsettling about the structures of our world moving with malevolent purpose, or perhaps even no purpose, simply hewing to a set of principles beyond our understanding. I feel a weird unease when I find myself in a space that seems almost accidentally designed, as if its walls and intersections were fitted programmatically, their angles offering no explanation to human intruders. Such spaces speak to a fundamental inhumanity in urban design, and to an inherent sense of loneliness in once-purposeful but now abandoned architecture, while further capitalizing on the disorientation of boundary lines, liminal spaces where one architect’s mind uneasily greets another. There is profound horror in architecture; in fact, I think it may be the most under-exploited vein of horror cinema.

After that, we checked out two variations on the same theme: “what if the government distracted us from the decaying quality of American life with ultra-violent bread and circuses?” The first entry in this vague genre was the original Death Race 2000, starring David Carradine as racing legend “Frankenstein.” In a totalitarian future America, our leaders maintain control through the Transcontinental Road Race, wherein five larger-than-life characters must cross America, gathering points all the while for running down pedestrians. Meanwhile, shadowy forces work behind the scenes to overthrow this oppressive regime, while even Frankenstein’s true motives remain hidden.

Though it’s ostensibly a movie about the precipitous decline of popular culture, and how cheap thrills can promote a soft prison of illiteracy, Death Race 2000 is gleefully guilty of every crime it diagnoses. Sex and violence are the order of the day, with Carradine’s stoic commitment to his ridiculous material serving as a firm hand on the wheel. Roger Ebert gave this film zero stars when it came out, reflecting grimly on how its tasteless, senseless content was clearly being pitched directly to children. He’d later mention it as part of the classic tradition of cheesy drive-in movies, a swerve that seems to indicate finding some peace with film’s increasingly debased spectacles. I wonder what Ebert would make of today’s blockbusters – if we’re closer to a breaking point on denouncing cinema’s decline, or if he could find something to love even in today’s factory-produced franchises?

Speaking of cinema’s decline, our follow up was the similarly themed The Purge, wherein criminality is famously resolved through the introduction of one “Purge Night” where all crimes are legal for twelve hours a year. I couldn’t resist the roast of that transition, but to be honest, The Purge isn’t too bad at all. Its main crime is in not exploiting the full potential of its premise; rather than city-scale anarchy, it instead centers on one specific, relatively conventional home invasion.

That said, as far as home invasions go, this is a relatively good one. Ethan Hawke is a fine lead and Lena Headey is a better one, rising convincingly from a worried mother to the absolute badass of her usual roles. The film acknowledges its own subtext right from the start, with a news announcer explicitly wondering “isn’t this just a way to kill all the poor people and undesirables,” and some smartly suited Young Republicans hunting the film’s only black character. The critique is there, but I wish the film went further; Hawke never really grapples with the significance of his role in this process (he sells security systems designed to keep the “right kind of people” safe), and the ending is muddled by some clumsier material featuring their nasty neighbors. The Purge succeeds well enough as a home invasion feature, but it leaves so much thematic meat on the table that I was still left somewhat unsatisfied.

We finished off the week with another grand Hollywood epic, screening Cecil B. DeMilles’ The Ten Commandments. As you’d expect from DeMilles’ last feature, The Ten Commandments is utterly staggering in its scope, featuring sets of extraordinary scale and many hundreds of actors. Charlton Heston brings a great sense of gravitas to the role of Moses, while Yul Brynner steals every scene possible as the proud Ramses II. It’s pretty much the most extravagant and indulgently casted interpretation of Moses’ tale that you could imagine, which only serves to further emphasize its core issue: the story of Moses isn’t a very good one.

The problem with the story of Moses, and presumably a lot of other biblical tales, is that it’s designed more for harsh moral instruction than dramatic satisfaction. In every version of this story, the first third or so is easily the best part, as we follow Moses from his foundling origins to his time as a proud prince of Egypt. This young Moses possesses compassion and intelligence, but also pride and fallibility; his disagreements with his brother have a personal edge to them, and when he is confronted with both his heritage and the true face of Egypt, there is a great and relatable anguish in his final meeting with his royal family.

Unfortunately, Moses the human being dies when he is confronted with the burning bush. Having received the direct word of God, his future actions all reflect his role as God’s instrument, rather than any recognizably human emotions. And if you’re not already excited about swearing allegiance to Moses’ God, the second half of the story is unlikely to convince you. This story’s God is cruel and capricious, expressing vast hypocrisy in the nature of his dictates, and unfathomable inhumanity in the scale of his punishments.

With Moses reduced to God’s megaphone and God himself an asshole, the second half of this story always feels more like The Tragedy of Ramses than The Triumph of Moses. It is Ramses who attempts to rekindle a relationship with his brother, Ramses who expresses human rage and grief, and Ramses who suffers the consequences of God’s arbitrarily chosen favor. The climax of all interpretations of this story (and this one too, in spite of its attempts to find something worth articulating in the ludicrous golden calf anecdote) is the final plague, and that final plague carries one resounding lesson: “obey our God, or he will murder you without justification or pity.” A fine line for promoting your new religious order, but not much of a satisfying dramatic theme.

By admin