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“Your Reminiscence”: Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear”, Nostalgia, and Parental Anxiety…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Goodfellas. This week, we’ll looking at Casino. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but the season skips over large swathes of Scorsese’s filmography. So I thought it might be worth taking a look back at Cape Fear.

Cape Fear is often overlooked in terms of Martin Scorsese’s filmography.

It falls in the gap between the instant classic Goodfellas and the sleeper masterpiece Casino. It shares that gap with The Age of Innocence, which is one of the films in Scorsese’s filmography that has been begging for a reappraisal and seems more likely to receive critical attention than a trashy remake of a pulpy sixties thriller. (The Age of Innocence recently received a re-release as part of the high-end Criterion Collection.) Indeed, Cape Fear seems designed to be seen as disposable in the context of Scorsese’s filmography.

At best, Cape Fear is typically seen as a curiosity – and potentially a worrying one. While Roger Ebert praised the film, he lamented “a certain impersonality in a film by this most personal of directors.” There was a whiff of moral panic to Kenneth Turan’s review, which asked, “Are we, perhaps, too quick to heap praise on films just because they are expertly done, shrugging off the troubling nature of the content? Is an audience’s increasing avid addiction to increasingly twisted thrills any justification for cheering on the people who provide them?”

However, there’s a lot interesting happening in Cape Fear. Most obviously, the film is a vehicle for Scorsese’s love of a certain style of directorial technique. The original Cape Fear had been directed by J. Lee Thompson, who had worked as a dialogue coach under Alfred Hitchcock. The film arrived two years after Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and the influence of Hitchcock is obvious on Thompson’s work; it’s scored by Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann, editted by Hitchcock veteran George Tomasini and features art direction from Robert Boyle and Alexander Golitzen.

However, what’s particularly interesting about Cape Fear is the way in which it actively translates the original movie from the early sixties to the early nineties, playing not only on the same underlying fears that informed the original, but also understanding that they existed in a different context during the nineties. It’s a movie that cannily and shrewdly transposes those two times, tapping into the same fears, but in a way that demonstrates both how those fears have evolved – and also how they haven’t.

Cape Fear is a lurid b-movie thriller, but in the most interesting and unsettling ways. It is a film fascinated by what lurks beneath the surface.

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Non-Review Review: Antebellum

Antebellum never seems entirely sure whether it wants to be a biting social commentary or a pulpy genre exercise.

To be clear, this is a false dichotomy. One of the most interesting aspects of horror is how frequently it can satisfy both of those objectives. Get Out is perhaps the most obvious recent example of this, and it is telling that (like so many modern horrors) Antebellum markets itself as “from the producers of Get Out.” However, this has always been a feature of horror, as demonstrated by the films of directors like Wes Craven and John Carpenter. Antebellum shouldn’t have to choose between being socially relevant and being an effective horror, but it insists on doing so.

Shining some light on the matter.

There is a good movie buried somewhere in Antebellum. It is very clear that writers and directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz have a good idea that resonates in the current moment. Indeed, Antebellum hammers that point pretty heavily. It opens with a quote from William Faulkner, reminding audiences that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In case the audience doesn’t get how that applies to the movie’s set-up, a character repeats it about forty minutes into the runtime. Antebellum has things to say, and is not shy about saying them.

However, what Antebellum is trying to say is muddled by a number of awkward structural choices. Antebellum is a film that is consciously built around a number of developments that are intended to wrong-foot the audience and catch them off-guard, to invite the viewer to ask questions about what is happening and why, and maybe even add some compelling gif-able content for the film’s marketing. This structuring of Antebellum is wrong-headed on a number of levels, but most profoundly in the way that it reduces the movie’s biting thesis to a cheap narrative hook.

Burning unease.

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196. The Terminator (#245)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Joe Griffin and Emmet Kirwan, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, James Cameron’s The Terminator.

In 2029, Los Angeles is a burning hellhole. In 1984, it is not much better. In the dead of night, two soldiers from an apocalyptic future escape into the urban landscape. These mysterious veterans of a coming war make their way across the City of Angels, with only one name on their minds: Sarah Connor.

At time of recording, it was ranked 245th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! On “The Terminator” as a Slyly Subversive Slasher…

I published a new piece at The Escapist earlier today. I rewatched The Terminator recently, and got thinking about the film as a horror movie rather than a science-fiction film.

The Terminator is often considered a landmark science-fiction film, and understandably so. However, The Terminator also works as a horror movie. It’s a slasher movie about a relentless force chasing a young woman through a nightmarish Los Angeles lit in shades of neon blue and green, so as to evoke a sense of insomnia. However, Cameron does more than just embrace the tropes of the slasher movie. He engages with them, and puts a subtly subversive twist on the standard rules of the genre.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

191. Sunset Boulevard (#64)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Charlene Lydon and Rioghnach Ní Ghrioghair, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.

Screenwriter Joe Gillis is found floating upside down in the pool of silent era film star Norma Desmond. As the authorities begin to piece together exactly what happened, Gillis’ corpse narrates a sordid tale of desperation, resentment, lust – and Hollywood haunted by its own past.

At time of recording, it was ranked 64th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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“There’s Nobody Left But You”: The Existential Horror at the Heart of White Heat…

Last weekend, on the podcast I co-host called The 250, we discussed James Cagney’s 1949 gangster classic White Heat, with the wonderful Carl Sweeney from The Movie Palace Podcast. I’ve been thinking a lot about the film since, and so had some thoughts I just wanted to jot down.

White Heat is a gangster film, starring James Cagney.

It’s frequently discussed in relation to The Public Enemy, which makes sense. Both White Heat and The Public Enemy are mid-century gangster films starring James Cagney. It also merits comparison to The Roaring Twenties, another gangster film starring James Cagney and directed by Raoul Walsh. There’s a tendency to lump these sorts of films together, to examine them as part of a greater whole. It certainly makes sense in this context. After all, a huge part of the appeal of White Heat at time of release derived from seeing James Cagney playing a gangster once again.

However, there’s something altogether stranger about White Heat. It isn’t a film that fits particularly comfortably into the gangster genre, despite the obvious trappings. James Cagney plays the role of Cody Jarrett, the leader of a vicious gang introduced conducting a train robbery and who go on to plot a chemical plant raid at the climax. There is all manner of betrayal and violence, backstabbing and revenging. There are cops in dogged pursuit of the criminals, while Cody demonstrates that nobody should underestimate him.

Still, there’s something simmering beneath the surface of White Heat. As much as the film follows the structures and conventions of a crime film, it plays more like a melancholy monster movie. It is a funereal salute to a mythic figure retreating into history, a horror story about an outdated evil lurking in the shadows, trying to navigate a world that no longer has a place for it.

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189. White Heat – w/ The Movie Palace – Independence Day 2020 (#—)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released Saturdays at 6pm GMT.

This week, a special crossover episode with The Movie Palace Podcast, a film podcast hosted by Carl Sweeney taking a look at the classics of Hollywood’s golden age. Carl suggested a crossover episode taking a look at the list, and particularly some of the classic movies listed on it.

So this week, Raoul Walsh’s White Heat.

Fleeing the authorities after a train robbery that resulted in two murders, Cody Jarrett latches on to an unconventional scheme to evade detection. Jarrett turns himself into the authorities for a crime he didn’t commit, earning a lesser sentence and putting him in the clear. However, things are changing rapidly for Cody, and the ground is very quickly shrinking out from under him.

At time of recording, it was not ranked on the list of the best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! On Jennifer Kent’s “The Nightingale” and the Frontier as a Prison…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. This week, we’re trying something a little outside the usual remit of the column, with a huge thanks to editor Nick Calandra for encouraging it.

Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale remains one of the most harrowing and uncomfortable films that I ever seen. It’s brutal and horrifying, but in a way that is very deliberate and very pointed. Kent is effectively playing off the tropes and conventions of the western, but playing with the way in which these stories are told. Kent imagines the frontier not as the embodiment of freedom or potential, but instead as a prison in which all of its characters are trapped.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: M.o.M. Mothers of Monsters

M.o.M. Mothers of Monsters is an ambitious and clever piece of indie horror constructed on a tight budget.

It marks the feature-length narrative directorial debut of Tucia Lyman. Lyman has a variety of experience in horror, particular on television shows like Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files, Ghosts of Shepherdstown and Ghosts of Morgan City. With that in mind, it makes sense that Lyman’s first narrative feature should borrow a lot of the language of paranormal reality television. M.o.M. is essentially a found-footage horror film, with the audience navigating and assembling a collection of seemingly raw video files into a cohesive narrative.

Will he snap?

There is something inherently old-fashioned about the found footage horror template. The format was all the rage in the early years of the twenty-first century, perhaps informed by the use of first-person camcorder footage to document events like 9/11. It arguably reached its apotheosis with the release of the security-camera home haunting horror Paranormal Activity in 2007. Contemporary horror has moved back toward more traditional approaches, prompted by the success of films like The Conjuring, making M.o.M.‘s found footage approach feel decidedly retro.

M.o.M. is occasionally a little clumsy and heavy-handed, sometimes stretching its premise a little too far and struggling to balance sharp tonal shifts between heightened sensationalism and grounded domestic horror. Still, there’s something endearingly committed and energetic in this low-fi horror thriller, an infectious and gleeful embrace of its more absurd elements.

Receiving a dressing gown.

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“I Simply Am Not There”: The Existential Horror of Eighties Excess in “American Psycho”…

My name is Patrick Bateman. I’m 27 years old. I believe in taking care of myself, and a balanced diet and a rigorous exercise routine. In the morning, if my face is a little puffy, I’ll put on an ice pack while doing my stomach crunches. I can do a thousand now. After I remove the ice pack I use a deep pore cleanser lotion. In the shower I use a water activated gel cleanser, then a honey almond body scrub, and on the face an exfoliating gel scrub. Then I apply an herb-mint facial masque which I leave on for 10 minutes while I prepare the rest of my routine. I always use an after shave lotion with little or no alcohol, because alcohol dries your face out and makes you look older. Then moisturizer, then an anti-aging eye balm followed by a final moisturizing protective lotion. There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman. Some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me. Only an entity. Something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours, and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable, I simply am not there.

American Psycho is twenty years old, and somehow more relevant than ever.

To be fair, the film signposts this strange relevance. Towards the end of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, Bateman takes a moment to muse on Trump Tower, admiring it as it stands “tall, proudly gleaming in the late afternoon sunlight.” Throughout the film, Bateman and colleagues are obsessed with Trump. “Is that Donald Trump’s car?” asks Bateman while riding with his fiancée in a taxi. Later on, out at dinner in a low-rent restaurant, he tries to catch a colleague’s interest (and maybe his own) by asking, “Is that Ivana Trump?”

Without ever being directly present in the film or the novel, Donald Trump haunts American Psycho. Ironically, that weird relationship has only deepened in the years since the novel was published and the film was released. During his presidential campaign, Trump famously boasted, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” It’s an argument that has become worryingly central to Trump’s campaign, with even his lawyers advancing the argument that he couldn’t be prosecuted for it as part of an argument over his tax returns.

American Psycho makes a similar argument about its protagonist. Bateman spends the entirety of the book and movie openly boasting and threatening characters with death and dismemberment, only for everybody involved to remain either willfully or accidentally ignorant of what Bateman claims to be. Bateman confesses his crimes repeatedly and openly, only for colleagues to laugh it off as a joke or shift the conversation or reveal that they weren’t really listening. American Psycho unfolds in a world where nothing is real and nothing matters. It is closer to our world than it seems.

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