It’s Halloween (cue spooky organ music riff du-da-duuuuuuu dudadalududu), so we all know what that means. Bwog’s Cinematic Summaries Bureau Chief Mark Hay is obligated by law (specifically, the infamous Carpathian Dracula Convention of 1935) to conjure up a spo-o-o-oky Halloween Netflix list, with three spine-shivering tales of the supernatural. Bwa-ha-ha-ha!
The Orphanage (2007)
The Orphanage is the final answer in the contest between dread and surprise. Director Juan Antonio Bayona has every opportunity to make his audience scream and bolt with a rush of adrenaline, and he knows it. He knows that his story, his imagery, and our horror film culture have all set us on the watch for the ghost or demon behind the stairs. We try to steel ourselves against it – but Bayona refuses to deliver it. Instead he favors slow, lightly eerie scenes, building a tie between audience and character, forcing the horror junkie to wait – holding his/her breath and chair with equal force. And then he delivers – and it will scare the daylights out of even the horror adept – and quickly sinks back into the walls, leaving you to wonder what just happened. Was it even real?
The story is the limited narrative of a Spanish woman named Laura (Belena Rueda) who, with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and son Simon (Roger Princep) returns to the orphanage where she grew up. She intends to renovate the place as a school for children with disabilities, but the house is isolated and strange and the conversion takes some time. It is only natural, she feels, that her son should create some imaginary friends to help pass the time. But when Simon draws these friends and they strike a chord with Laura, when Simon finds out that he is adopted and dying of a terminal disease and tells Laura that his new friends revealed this to him, and when these friends become a little more tangible – and Simon disappears – the fun begins.
Or does it? This film is the work of Bayona, but the presence of Guillermo del Toro is strong here – the perspective comes only from the mind of one distressed and desperate mother. All the paranormal is ephemeral and fleeting and may be explained away by some other means. Selectively shocking and breathlessly suspenseful, The Orphanage is as much about scaring you forthright as it is about forcing you to question your perceptions, certitudes – your eyes and your memories – and leaving you alone, terrified and without answers by that token as well.
To say that Nosferatu will scare you – the modern viewer – would be a lie. But to say that Nosferatu does not deserve mention on a list of horror films would insult the genius of F.W. Marnau. Nosferatu was a pioneering film – one of the first to use intercut montages, and full of neat tricks like a scene in which the negative footage for a scene in the forest is used to present ghastly white trees against a pure black sky. But these nifty little tricks no longer shock and awe audiences like they did in the 1920s. Still, Nosferatu, even if it is not outright scary, is haunting. The memory of that initial fear lurks in the back of every Dracula movie, every vampire film, made between then and now. But whereas we know Dracula – how to defeat him, what to expect from him – we know nothing of Nosferatu, the animalistic and deformed Bird of Death. There’s nothing of the suave sexuality of Bella Lugosi or even Gary Oldman here, but rather the original – a bestial, rapacious, obsessive love of blood and death unmitigated by human emotion.
Not much need be said of the story itself. It is the plot of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with a few additions and alterations and name changes to avoid a lawsuit from Stoker’s irate widow. Basically, man from German town (Gustav von Wangenheim) is sent to sell real estate to Transylvanian Count Orlok (Max Schreck). Man realizes Count is a bloodthirsty demon sustaining himself on the soils of Black Death graveyards. Man and wife (Greta Schroeder) attempt to defeat the demon before he can suck the entire town dry. Fairly simple.
But simplicity and foreknowledge aside, the film continues to haunt audiences. Your reviewer unoriginally credits this highly towards the character acting of Max Schreck, who became a vampire for this role – whose bulging eyes, sudden risings, shuffling and stilted movements are not what we expect from a vampire, but seem all the more real and rational coming from him (note: this performance is so iconic that it inspired E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire (2000), in which Williem Dafoe is Max Schreck is Count Orlok is the actual Count Dracula and a real vampire feeding on John Malkovich/Marnau’s crew). And this strange man, this beast, is all the more fearful for the silence of the film, and its blunt, beautiful symbolic cutaways – a spider consuming its prey, a Venus fly trap. It is a bad dream, and the horror genre has never since woken up.
Let the Right One In (2008)
Even on Halloween, it appears, your reviewer cannot pass up a great, imperfect love story. Let the Right One In, a vampire movie less about vampires than about youth and the hardships of adolescence in an uncaring, often sadistic, world and the strange alliances that form in that space, breathes life into a listless and undead genre. But whereas most coming of age films have an air of lightness and youth about them, director Tomas Alfredson’s film has none of that – all is bleak and grim, set against the unabating cold and monotonous imagery of a long, dreary Swedish winter. There is no light here, yet there is love.
Adapted from John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel of the same name, Let the Right One In is all about Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) and Eli (Lina Leandersson). Oskar, torn by his parents’ divorce and distance, tormented by bullies, has turned to isolation and a fascination with death and violence. One night while stabbing a tree with his knife, Oskar meets Eli, the new girl in the apartment complex who walks through the snow barefoot, who wears a look of haggard distance, and a slight spark of fascination with the troubled youth she has stumbled upon. It does not take long for Oskar to realize the truth – that Eli is a vampire. But as she allies with him against his bullies, grows close to him, he loses his initial apprehensions and begins to fall in love. “Will you be my girlfriend?” “Oskar, I’m not a girl.” “Oh.”
It’s not entirely clear what this line means. One shot suggests that Eli (a strange and androgynous name for a Swede, I am told) may actually be gender neutral, but perhaps she just identifies more with her demonic side than any human gender. The novel explores these secrets – the nature of the strange relationships between most characters, often unexplained in the film. But for your reviewer’s taste, the blunt assertion of the unsettled, and the acceptance of the unrevealed, the love fostered amidst brutality and gore and the strange and unexplained, makes this story, while sadistic and bizarre, all the more sweet and sympathetic. It’s a very creepy Halloween love story, and one of my favorites of all time.
Posters from IMDB.com