As the Lenten season hits the halfway mark, we are given the opportunity to reflect upon the decisions we’ve made and what we’ve given up. Per my normal sacrifice, I gave up meat, meaning no beef, pork, or poultry for 40 days. With a diet consisting of primarily grains and vegetables, it often becomes difficult to not think about giving into my body’s innate desire for proteins only animal-based products can fulfill. That being said, I thought about how wildly appropriate it would be to showcase a film about forbidden gluttony in this week’s edition of Fear Needs No Translation.
French director and writer, Julia Ducournau, dives head first into the horror industry with what may be considered one of the most warped and dark tales of the 21st century thus far. Prior to the release of Raw, her cinematic portfolio was almost nonexistent, being made up of a handful of writing jobs, as well as her short film, Junior. Her first feature length film isn’t the standard coming of age story. Drawing inspiration from both Dracula (1931) and Carrie (1976), Ducounrau has crafted a tale whose message is relatable while still catering to the horror aficionado.
Just about every year, a new horror film is unrealistically touted as being “the scariest movie ever made.” While they typically never live up to such hype, many can still contain positive results — 2015’s entry in the battle for horror’s throne, The Witch, immediately comes to mind. This year’s model is Paco Plaza’s Spanish possession horror, Veronica, which flourishes with some nice camerawork and interesting visuals, as well as the added benefit of being (loosely) based on a supposedly “true” story. It’s rather unfortunate, however, that Veronica ultimately lacks a unique enough premise and compelling narrative, while absolutely struggling to produce any real scares. I’m left honestly confused by the high praise and viral sensation surrounding its recent addition to Netflix’s constantly expanding lineup.
Set in Madrid circa 1991, Veronica centers around a 15-year-old girl — can you guess what her name is? Following the sudden death of her father, Veronica (Sandra Escacena) is left to take on the role of caretaker for her three young siblings, Antoñito, Lucia, and Irene, as her single mother works her days away in order to support them. One day, as her classmates and teachers at the Catholic school she attends are viewing a solar eclipse from the school’s roof, Veronica and a couple friends take the opportunity to hastily perform a seance via Ouija board, away from the watchful eye of authority figures. Veronica hopes to contact her father, but the entity that answers her call is something much more sinister.
I cannot think of another name in American horror that has the stature of the late, great Wes Craven. Craven, who sadly passed in 2015, is a name that many of you are likely aware of, perhaps subconsciously, even if you don’t necessarily recognize it in passing. To refresh the memories of those who are scratching their heads at my previous statement, Craven was responsible for some of the greatest and most well-known horror films and franchises ever made, including 80s mega-hit A Nightmare on Elm Street (that’s Freddy, for the less informed), his 70s midnight movie darlings The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, as well as some more obscure hits you may recognize like the Rachel McAdams-led and highly underrated Red Eye and, well, whatever the hell The People Under the Stairs is (has anyone seen that movie, by the way? It’s weird).
But I digress.
What I’ve written about here is what may be Craven’s ultimate masterpiece in my eyes, the 1996 phenomenon that is Scream. Scream is a film that single-handedly rewrote the canon of the slasher film. Scream satirized the many clichés that had made the subgenre as popular as it was in the 80s, while also bringing it forward into uncharted, postmodern territory, ultimately becoming the most successful slasher flick ever at the box office and paving the way for a resurgence in the genre in the following decade. This is where we would see eventually the releases of imitators such as Final Destination, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and yes, even Scary Movie.
Welcome, readers, to the first installment of “Fear Needs No Translation,” a bi-weekly summary and review of international horror. I, Justin Fortes, will be your tour guide, conductor, pilot, and captain through this terrifying adventure. Each week, a different film will be analyzed not only for its plot and visual aesthetic, but also for the underlying socioeconomic and political issues that the work attempts to resolve. As we take this journey through the blood-drenched planes that we call horror cinema, keep in mind that we will be stepping into territories past our own borders. Let’s throw on our cultural sunglasses and buckle up; it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
As our train pulls into the station of our first film, please be aware of zombies rampantly roaming about the platform. In the 2016 Korean film, Train to Busan (originally titled Busanaheng), director Sang-ho Yeon takes on the challenge of reviving the undead of George Romero’s nightmarish hellscape for a new generation of horror-heads. With a resume exclusively composed of animated films prior to Busan’s release, Sang-ho surprisingly entered the international horror scene, storming in and showing no sign of slowing down.
Demon, a Polish-Israeli film written and directed by Marcin Wrona, presents a haunting story centered around a young couple, Zanetta and Piotr (Agnieszka Zulewska and Itay Tyran respectively). Piotr’s an English-born groom just trying to fit in with his new Polish wife’s mildly xenophobic family. His attempts at speaking their language is rather awkward, but still, Piotr perseveres to become accepted in this new culture, including his insistence on moving into and renovating the rural home that the bride had inherited from her grandfather.
Piotr also plans to make a positive impression on his in-law’s by having a traditional Polish wedding reception (something the married couple never experienced because they previously only had a court wedding), which will also take place on the new property. But in the process, Piotr discovers a skeleton in the yard. From here, things progress rather expectedly.
Attributing any more praise to the excellent first season of Netflix’s Stranger Things is basically impossible for me. When I originally wrote about it late last summer — following a binge in which I devoured it in its entirety within a 24-hour period — I declared the show “the best television [I’d] watched all year.” Since, I’ve only grown to better appreciate and love that original season over re-watches and discussions, but even more so now in light of the very recent release of its lackluster follow-up. While the new, monstrously-anticipated sequel is dubbed Stranger Things 2,perhaps a more accurate title would be Stranger Things 1.5.
To be fair, I still managed to consume Stranger Things 1.5’sStranger Things 2’s nine episodes within a day, and I was never disinterested in seeing it through to its underwhelming conclusion. Perhaps my increasing inclination to browse social media during the season’s second half is most succinctly indicative of my feelings on Stranger Things 2 as a whole. The first half is fine, good even, effectively unfolding a genuinely interesting narrative over its first few episodes with the same lovable cast as before, adding a number of potentially engaging side characters into the mix at the start.
The latter episodes, however, have nearly soured me on the entire experience. The original season was almost entirely derivative of fan-favorite 80s films to its own benefit. Being 80s kids themselves, The Duffer Brothers plucked out the best concepts and characters ranging from King’s horror novels to Carpenter’s sci-fi flicks to Hughes’ teen movies, all in order to construct their own story that’s nearly on par with the best the 80s had to offer. In comparison, Stranger Things 2 outright fails in this regard, barely becoming more than just a monotonous retread of its predecessor without building upon its countless inspirations.
For my final review of October, Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999) is going “under the knife” to receive a proper dissection — this dissection being necessary to finalize our horror timeline, and to bring the intent to fruition. Audition is another psychological horror (akin to my previous review for Jacob’s Ladder), but with elements of a thriller and “sadistic horror.” The “sadistic horror” elements being the film’s most influential and most “revered” moments, although, they only occur in the latter half of the film.
In comparison to the other film’s I’ve written about this month, Audition‘s filmic elements are more subdued. The film emphasizes climactic horror, with a build-up in narrative that is far from anything else in the horror genre. In addition, this build-up is slow-paced with an atmosphere heavily dependent on the sets and the somber score, showing a difference of extremity between the first and second halves (romantic half/horror half). These two halves have versatility, having the ability to stand alone as separate entities and, I would argue, as separate films.
I believe this type of horror film is an embodiment of a Venn diagram, in my mind, with the “halves” being one of most obvious contrasts within the film. Even so, I believe the Japanese film poster is indicating such, with the wire being in the shape of one and having Shigeharu Aoyama placed on one side of it.
It almost seems that Netflix was well aware that the new film adaptation of Stephen King’s IT would be the massive success that it has come to be, amassing over $600 million worldwide and becoming the second-most successful horror film ever made. With Gerald’s Game and 1922, Netflix has adapted two lesser-known King stories on modest budgets, releasing them both in the aftermath of IT’s box-office reign, likely in hopes to cash in on the writer’s name when it’s especially hot (that’s as if it is ever cold, mind you). While I cannot yet speak for 1922, Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game is mostly a great success, presenting a horrifying scenario and highlighting tremendous output from its veteran stars.
Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood co-star as an aging couple seeking the needle to stitch the love that’s been slowly slipping, before they become another forgotten percentage added into the U.S. Census Bureau’s rising divorce statistics. Gugino plays Jess, who’s a handful of years younger than Greenwood’s titular Gerald — although not technically “young” herself — and is particularly unenthused about their blatantly failing marriage and unsure whether they can recover. Gerald, on the other hand, gets the idea to bring the two of them out to a secluded lake house for a weekend getaway; a sort of last-ditch effort to hopefully turn things back to how they were at the beginning. The beautiful house is stocked with expensive wines, no-joke Kobe beef steaks, and two legit pairs of handcuffs.
Next up on the horror docket are the sub-genres of psychological and surrealist horror. These are some of my personal favorites in horror, which made them inevitable for dissection this month. With that said, I had to choose a film that incorporated both of these two sub-genres to discuss them. So I searched through my memory and had an immediate revelation that Jacob’s Ladder (1990), directed by Adrian Lyne and starring Tim Robbins, was the film to display such genres. The reason was simple: I had a fond memory of this film and was stricken by its elements the moment I saw it. So this made me not only want to review it, but I wanted to understand the film. I wanted to understand why the film had such a powerful effect on me and the average viewer in general.
To define these genres briefly: psychological horror is a film that deals with the psyche of characters in order to horrify (ex. A person devolving into madness). Surrealism is a genre that relies more on imagery or experiences that are out of this world (ex. Creature being cared for as if an ordinary child).
I dare you to try and find a film more bizarre than Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 haunted-house horror-comedy — and adequately titled Japanese production — House. While the synopsis of the plot is rather straightforward, what transpires in this absolutely bonkers 88-minute roller coaster of gores and goofs is anything but ordinary, and barely even comprehensible. However, this is what makes House such a one-of-a-kind experience that deserves to be seen and (hopefully) adored by a larger audience. Merely describing the overview of House does it no favors, nor would it necessarily make you want to watch it. It’s a fairly simple set-up, after all. What makes House so watchable, so unique, and ultimately so great, is its unbelievably kooky execution and intentional surrealism.
I truly have never seen a film as weird as this one.