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Non-Review Review: The Nightingale

The Nightingale arrives as Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to The Babadook, and represents a slightly different sort of horror.

The Babadook was one of the best horror films of the decade, a creeping and unsettling look at a mother’s depression as she tried to work through her complicated feelings towards her own son. The Nightingale is something quite different, essentially a frontier western about a woman who sets out to avenge herself upon the British soldiers who inflicted a terrible suffering upon her and her family. As Clare tracks these men through the wilderness with an aboriginal guide named Billy, she finds herself confronted with the true nightmares of colonial Australia.

Eyes frontier.

The Nightingale belongs to a rich tradition of Australian westerns including modern classics like The Proposal, stories that play on the frontier myth and explore the country’s deeply troubled and unsettled history. Kent’s direction is tense and claustrophobic, refusing to ever let the audience look away from the horrors inflicted upon the continent by the European settlers who presumed to claim it as their own. The Nightingale is a bleak and cynical piece of film, one that is occasionally suffocating and dizzying in its portrayal of man’s capacity for inhumanity.

However, perhaps the most striking aspect of The Nightingale is how – for all its unflinching brutality and refusal to offer trite sentimentality – the film advances an argument for intersectionalism. As Clare journeys deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness, she discovers that the suffering inflicted upon her and her family is just one expression of a more primal and insidious violence, and that perhaps she has more in common with Billy than she might originally think.

Not so hot to trot.

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Non-Review Review: Pet Sematary

The horror in Pet Sematary is primal and ancient, both literally and figuratively.

The tropes that power Pet Sematary were already familiar and old-fashioned by the time that Stephen King published the book more than a quarter of a century ago. Indeed, there are extended stretches of the novel when Pet Sematary feels like a game of Stephen-King-related mad-libs: a dash of paternal anxiety here, a sense of existential dread about the American wilderness there, a familiar older character to provide exposition thrown in, and a climax where everything gets very brutal very quickly.

“You just take a left at the Pet Seminary.”

Even beyond the sense of Pet Sematary as a collection of familiar Stephen King elements blended together, the novel riffed on familiar genre elements. There was more than a faint whiff of The Monkey’s Paw to the basic plot, the story of a seemingly wondrous device that could resurrect the dead only for the person responsible to realise that their beloved had come back “wrong” – or, as Jud helpfully summarises, that “sometimes dead is better.” (The novel alluded to this more directly with the story of Timmy Baterman, which is consigned to a newspaper clipping in this adaptation.)

Writer Jeff Buhler, along with directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, clearly understand that appeal. The script for Pet Sematary makes a number of major alterations to the book’s plot, but most are logical and organic, rooted in the realities and necessities of cinematic storytelling more than the desire to change things for the sake of changing them. For the most part, Pet Sematary revels in the old-fashioned blend of Americana and horror that defines so much of King’s work, the mounting sense of dread and the decidedly pulpy sensibility.

The purr-fect villain.

Pet Sematary only really runs into trouble in its third act, and this is arguably a problem that is carried over from the source material despite the major branching choices that the script makes leading up to that point. The issues with the third act are not those of character or plot, but instead of tempo and genre. In a weird way, these third act issues make Pet Sematary feel like a spiritually faithful adaptation, carrying over something of the essence of the book, for better and for worse.

Pet Sematary is at is strongest when building mood and mounting dread, when offering its own shading on the familiar iconography of a haunted and untamed wilderness. Pet Sematary is at its weakest when it is forced to shape that dread into a more conventional horror movie climax.

Shades of grey.

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Non-Review Review: Hold the Dark

“Do you have any idea what’s outside these windows? How black it gets?”

An enlightening piece of work.

In the American consciousness, the frontier is a haunted place.

In some ways, it is a concept distinct to the United States, at least in contrast to Europe. The boundaries within Europe were established centuries ago; although they might shift and bend, the contours of the continent have been known to the people who inhabited it for millennia. In contrast, to the settlers who arrived from Europe, the North American frontier was a mystery and an enigma. The frontier is distinct a border space. A border implies a point of collision that might be crossed, the neatly delineated boundary between one place and another.

Let Bisons be Bisons.

The frontier is something entirely different. It represents the edge of reason, and limit of what is knowable. To reach the end of the frontier is to reach the end of “the West.” In geographical terms, off the western shore of the North American continent lies “the East.” In more abstract terms, the American frontier is an imaginary space rather than a literal one. After all, Jeremy Saulnier’s previous film – Green Room – suggested that the frontier could be found somewhere  surprisingly close to urbanity, only a few hours away from the familiar comforts of Portland.

Hold the Dark takes place in a decidedly more remote environment, against the snow backdrops of Alaska. Saulnier goes to great lengths to illustrate the isolation of that environment, paying particular attention to how long it takes Russell Core to reach the small Alaskan town that serves as the starting point of the story before venturing out into the real wilderness. At another point, Vernon Slone stops by an old hostel on his travels. Asked for his point of origin, he’s informed that there was no road connecting the two places. “Not directly,” he clarifies.

Shedding some light on the matter.

As with the snow-covered western wilderness in Wind River, there is a sense that Hold the Dark unfolds against the very limit of the American frontier, at the point where the continent has ceased to provide for the settlers and instead has become something harsh and unforgiving. It is a place that has been settled by humans, but is perhaps untouched by humanity. If Green Room allowed Saulnier to explore the vipers coiled underneath familiar rocks, then Hold the Dark is a story about the animals that hunt at the very edge of civilisation.

Green Room was effectively a cynical and grim take on the familiar horror plot that warned of the dangers lurking off the backroads, just out of sight. Hold the Dark is the story of a hunt for a dangerous predator in a harsh environment. In both films, the monster looks very familiar.

Mask appeal.

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95. Into the Wild (#180)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Jack Hodges, 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. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode thrown in.

This time, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild.

Christopher McCandless abandoned a comfortable middle-class life in pursuit of something greater. His search would take him across the United States, impacting the lives of those he met along the way. His search would eventually lead him into the Alaskan wilderness.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 180th best movie of all-time on the Internet Movie Database.

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The X-Files – Detour (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.

Detour is a wonderfully traditional little episode in the middle of a somewhat eccentric season.

Although it lacks the off-kilter improvisational madness that drove much of the fourth season, the fifth season of The X-Files is a rather strange beast. With The X-Files: Fight the Future already filmed, the show was somewhat limited in what it could and couldn’t do in the fifth season – preventing the series from doing anything as dramatic as throwing Memento Mori into the middle of the run. Nevertheless, the fifth season features a variety of experimental and off-format episodes. Stephen King and William Gibson contribute scripts while Darren McGavin pops in as a guest star.

The woods are alive...

The woods are alive…

Detour was broadcast between Unusual Suspects and The Post-Modern Prometheus. Unusual Suspects was an episode headlined by the Lone Gunmen, while The Post-Modern Prometheus was broadcast in black-and-white as an homage to James Whale’s feature film adaptation of Frankenstein. As such, Detour feels like a rather conventional and old-fashioned episode, with Mulder and Scully encountering something strange in a rural setting, getting trapped in the wilderness, and encountering a monster threatened by the expansion of civilisation.

The beauty of Detour is that the episode’s decidedly traditional aesthetic feels out of place and almost novel amid all the off-format episodes surrounding it. Detour represents something of a literal detour – away from the more eccentric episodes of the season and towards something more familiar and safe. This allows Detour to have the best of both worlds – it feels at once traditional and quintessential, but also distinct from everything happening around it. Detour is a refreshingly old-fashioned episode of The X-Files, a reminder of just how much fun the show could have in its comfort zone.

Back to nature...

Back to basics…

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