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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 It is a funereal salute to a mythic figure retreating into history, a horror story about an outdated evil lurking in the shadows, trying to navigate a world that no longer has a place for it.

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“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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Non-Review Review: Vivarium

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Vivarium is an abrasive and aggressive work of surrealism.

It is very much of a piece with director Lorcan Finnegan’s earlier work, feeling like a clear descendant of his “ghost estate” short Foxes and his “land will swallow you whole” horror of Without Name. Indeed, Vivarium taps into many of those same fears, essentially beginning as a horror story about a young couple going house hunting and ending up lost in a monstrous and seemingly unending estate. It morphs from that into an exploration of a broader set of anxieties about the very idea of “adulthood”, of what young people expect from their adult life and what it in turn it expects from them.

Vivarium often feels like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. It features a small core cast. Although shot on an actual housing estate, Finnegan pushes the production design into the realm of the uncanny so that it looks like a gigantic creepy sound stage. The script consciously pushes its narrative into the realm of the absurd. However, throughout it all, the film remains keenly focused on a simple and strong central metaphor. Although Vivarium operates at an unsettlingly heightened level of reality, and although its populated by a mess of signifiers it never entirely explains, it remains firmly anchored in relatable ideas.

Vivarium is perhaps a little over-extended and little heavy-handed in articulating its central themes and ideas, but it is consistently interesting and ambitious. It’s well worth the time.

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165. Gisaengchung (Parasite) – This Just In (#34)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with guests Graham Day and Bríd Martin, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Boon Joon Ho’s Gisaengchung.

Drafted in to tutor the daughter of a rich South Korean family, the lower-class Kim Ki-woo enacts a cunning plan that will allow his entire family to infiltrate the lavish Park household. However, things quickly spiral out of control, leading to unpredictable chaos and disaster.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 34th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! “The Shining” and the Perfect Haunted House…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine last Friday. Because it was Halloween and because of the release of Doctor Sleep, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a look about at The Shining.

The Shining is my favourite horror movie ever. It is one of my favourite films ever. It is the rare piece of work that offers something new every single time I sit down to watch it. As I’ve thought more and more about it over the years, I’ve been drawn to the way in which the power of the Overlook is one of scale. It is big enough that it can serve as a fun house mirror to the anxieties of America itself, but also intimate enough that the familial anxieties of the Torrance family can play out within it. It is both large enough and small enough to work as the perfect haunted house.

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

Amazing.

Star Trek: Voyager – Persistence of Vision (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.

In some respects, the second season of Star Trek: Voyager can be seen as a conflict over the future of the show.

On the one hand, Michael Piller had returned to the franchise following the failure of the television show Legend. With Ira Steven Behr overseeing Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Piller returned to focus his attention on the second season of the younger Star Trek show. After all, the second season was a disorganised mess, with the production team struggling to get the necessary scripts together on time. Having a safe pair of hands on board to help guide the show might come in handy.

"It's a bridge AND a tanning salon, simultaneously..."

“It’s a bridge AND a tanning salon, simultaneously…”

On the other hand, Jeri Taylor had been around the show since Caretaker. She had taken over the reins after Piller’s departure and had supervised the tail end of the first season. Taylor had arrived on the Star Trek franchise just a year after Piller, and had been a vital part giving Star Trek: The Next Generation its unique voice and mood. Over the course of the second season, it became increasingly clear that Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor had very different visions for the future of Star Trek: Voyager, and those visions were coming into conflict.

History ultimately vindicated Jeri Taylor. The second season of Voyager was the last television season of Star Trek to be directly overseen by Piller, while Jeri Taylor become the guiding light of the third and fourth seasons of the show. Whatever problems might exist with those two seasons television, they are at least more stable and consistent than the first and second years of the show. It is, of course, arguable that Piller never got his own change to exercise his own vision of the show unimpeded – and so that is not a fair measure.

Cutting the Doctor down to size...

Cutting the Doctor down to size…

In a way, the conflict between Piller and Taylor’s versions of Voyager is quite clearly typified in this early run of episodes. The show had breezed through the four episodes left over from the first season production block, and desperately needed ideas to keep afloat. The senior producers rolled up their sleeves and got involved. Piller was largely responsible for Parturition and Tattoo, while Taylor oversaw Persistence of Vision. None of these episodes are perfect, but it is quite clear that Taylor is increasingly the show’s safest bet going forward.

Persistence of Vision is a very flawed episode of television, playing to some of Taylor’s more uncomfortable recurring motifs. However, it is much more interested in actually moving Voyager along than either of Piller’s contributions.

"The teacup that I shattered did come together."

“The teacup that I shattered did come together.”

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Millennium – The Curse of Frank Black (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

The Curse of Frank Black is a phenomenal piece of television, and an episode that demonstrates the raw potential of the approach that Glen Morgan and James Wong have adopted towards Millennium, making the show feel (simultaneously and paradoxically) more intimate and more epic. It is a show about the end of the world, but where the end of the world can be conveyed through the late night wandering of an old man on Halloween. It is a superb piece of work on just about every level.

The Curse of Frank Black is, in a many ways, the perfect encapsulation of many of the themes and ideas that Morgan and Wong have played with over the years. It is constructed in the style of a classic horror film, but is driven by character. As with Scully in Beyond the Sea, Mulder in One Breath, and McQueen in The Angriest Angel, Frank Black finds himself facing an existential crisis at the darkest moment of his life. What will Frank do when faced with the most horrific of possibilities?

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What does anybody do when they are confronted with the end of their world? Morgan and Wong are fond of putting their characters through the metaphorical crucible, seeing what happens when the foundations are eroded and the support framework is taken away. The Curse of Frank Black suggests that there are only two possible options when the world falls to pieces: either you stand safely on your side of the line and watch it happen, or you pick up a bucket of water and start cleaning up.

It is a simple choice, an elegant metaphor, and it sits at the heart of The Curse of Frank Black.

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