The Movie Club

It Was an Exceptional Year for Artisanal Horror Films
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 5 2010 3:49 PM

The Movie Club

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Hey all,

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

Last word on Tilda, I promise, but Stephanie: I SO concur that "fashion" commentators who pillory her alien appearance at awards shows, while gushing over the stylist-prepped ingénues in indistinguishable mermaid gowns, display pure philistinism. This is what we have Tilda Swinton for: to look smashing in asymmetrical black charmeuse garbage bags; to haul cinema wagons through the badlands of Scotland; to lead an unconventional and yet enviably serene-sounding personal life; and, I'd argue, to give performances that are fabulously immodest high-wire acts, visible sweat stains and all.

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Dan's roundup reminded me of what an exceptional year 2009 was for what might be called artisanal horror: modestly scaled, low-to-no-budget productions that reminded us what there was to love about cheap thrills in the first place. Paranormal Activity,which was so homemade-feeling it could have been distributed on Etsy.com, disappointed a bit in the final frames (didn't you guys think?), but wow did it get a lot of spooky mileage out of that simple conceit of taping one's own bedroom while one sleeps. House of the Devil, a retro '80s-style babysitter-in-peril slasher movie starring cult-film stalwart Mary Woronov and the criminally underrated Tom Noonan, got the balance of unbearably suspenseful buildup to quick kablammo! payoff exactly right. And the marvelous Drag Me to Hell delivered its catharsis in such a bracing, funny jolt that walking out of the theater, you felt somehow restored to cinematic health. Besides Zombieland, which I didn't get a chance to see but can't wait to catch on DVD, were there other lovingly crafted creepfests that I missed out on this year?

Paranormal Activity.
Paranormal Activity

Lastly, I want to take off on something Wesley said about his irritation at the Oscar-season phenomenon of "giant piece[s] of acting in tiny little movies." I think we all know exactly what he means: awards-bait vehicles in which the lead actor comes off as vain about his or her own lack of vanity. I'd argue, though, that neither Crazy Heart nor Monster, another of Wesley's negative examples, falls into this "bear in a birdcage" category. Both films are not only showcases for extreme feats of self-transformation but intimate and painfully truthful love stories, and both feature supporting actresses—Christina Ricci in Monster, Maggie Gyllenhaal in Crazy Heart—who do way more than just gaze adoringly. I know Roger, like me, is very keen on Monster; it made his list of best films of the decade. If the movie doesn't sing to you, Wesley, there's no way I can make it; but Ricci's character, the fiercely manipulative, desperately enamored and none-too-bright Selby Wall, is at least as great a creation as Theron's Aileen Wuornos. (Colin Firth in Tom Ford's A Single Man is a separate case entirely; he's a monster of an actor in danger of being upstaged by the angora fuzz on his onscreen boyfriend's sweater. To quote Choire Sicha's great line about A Single Man, "If there's anything I'd like people to understand about this movie, it's just how unbelievably expensive Tom Ford products are.")

Oh, oh, I almost forgot about Na'vi sex: Stephanie, even though, to my own amazement, I kind of loved Avatar, I also loved reading your wry takedown of it, with that description of the sacred mother-goddess tree as an outsized fiber-optic lamp from Spencer's Gifts. Of course the most erotically charged interchanges in Avatar took place neither between Na'vi and man nor Na'vi and beast (though I did dig those plug-in braid fronds!), but between the screen and the audience's perceptual apparatus. At its best, Avatar felt to me like one of those visionary sci-fi spectacles, Blade Runner, say, or The Matrix, in which immersion in a stunningly imagined alternate world constitutes a kind of thinking—about technology, identity, the future. At its worst, it felt like competently constructed schlock—but so, at moments, do Blade Runner and The Matrix. Dismiss Avatar as special-effects-driven nonsense if you will, but it's not fair to hold its dialogue and character development to the standard of a character-driven dramatic film. If it succeeds at all, it succeeds as an iteration of that freakish American invention, the blockbuster. Don't compare it to Bright Star; compare it to the Lord of the Rings movies, The Terminator,or Jaws. (On the other hand, don't: What modern movie of any stripe can hold its own against Jaws, the first and perhaps still the greatest of all summer blockbusters?)

Frondly,
Dana