Tobe Hooper’s “Djinn”

In 2004, Tobe Hooper returned to cinema after wasting nearly a decade relegated to the thankless job of craftsman in television series and two features that had similar productions, where he exercised little control over the material. Although they should not be totally ignored, neither showed any sort of significant progress in his career, and even when the requirements of the script resembled his own interests, as in The Apartment Complex (1998), the result did not exceed redundancy if placed alongside the masterpieces created in the nineties, such as Spontaneous Combustion (1990) and The Mangler (1995), formally anomalous films which further explicitated the retrograde character of Hooper’s project and its deliberate lack of communication with all contemporary cinema. Not adjusting well to the creative impositions of the medium, to the increasing adherence to all sort of trends forced by marketing necessities, it is only logical that this period of stagnation would take the director to Toolbox Murders (2004), the consequence of profound self-reflection, and Mortuary (2005), which inevitably dragged him to the realm of self-parody, overwhelmed by the ontological obscenity of the genre pictures of its time (despite having several merits).

Toolbox Murders, nominally the remake of a 1978 slasher, restored the director’s power over his work in this opportune period. It is an inversion of the fundamental structure of The Funhouse (1981): the superficial universe, where the characters abide, is no longer dominated by vulgarized representations of horror and (in that case) the central problems of teen movies (which were, in the end, balanced – the discovery of horror and death followed the discovery of sexuality and perversion), and those conventions or fantasies conceived to dissimulate horror vanish as memories in the ruins of that space, a decadent hotel in Hollywood (obviously), which is mainly inhabited by unemployed actors. An accentuated distinction between the damned environment contained in the bilocation and the one where the protagonist lives still exists, but its turning point is the opposite: the protagonist does not enter the place where the monster lives to confront the evil lying behind the disguises (in the funhouse, the assassin hid his deformed face with a mask of Frankenstein’s monster), because it is this alternate universe, as well as home or the amusement park in The Funhouse, that is subjugated to the genre’s formulas, to clichés, it is what restricts the film to the standard procedures of slasher movies and their most despicable properties, like the inordinate graphic violence Hooper always resisted filming (and, when he did, took the proper distance, emphasizing its gratuity).

Toolbox Murders is, overall, a clash between its subjection to an efficient exercise of vulgar cinema and the possibility to formulate, at least partially, a resolution to thematic and formal precepts that were outlined decades before, and in this respect the script proves to be ideal: the artificiality of the building allows the director to devote a major portion of the film to people walking through corridors, to empty rooms, building tension only in its suggestion of offscreen space, along with his usually exquisite work in sound, always revealing new edges by exploring the limitations of the frame, in short, Hooper’s mastery, the more an environment is studied, the more mysterious and enigmatic it seems, thus demonstrating he is Jacques Tourneur’s greatest heir.

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Finally we get to Djinn (2014), which again marks the director’s return after a long (involuntary) hiatus of eight years, after another brief passage through television with two films for the Masters of Horror series (where, at least, he had creative freedom). For better or for worse, just like Tourneur, the filmmaker assumes his position as a metteur en scène commissioned to meet the requirements of someone else’s project, at last accepting to develop his personal discourse within the demands of the producers or the screenplay, in a sense, it is a counterpoint to Toolbox Murders, his approach no longer makes the distinction between what is determined by trivial populist exigencies (the clichés) and a particular insight. So, when it gets a proper distribution, due to the widespread intellectual slothfulness of contemporary critics, it is probable that Djinn will be promptly dismissed (perhaps ravaged or ridiculed would be better terms), as has been the reception so far with screenings in a few festivals. It is an easy target and it is clear that such critics made no effort to look beyond its categorization as a generic by-product, the bareness of its premise, the troubled production, et cetera. Hooper is completely conscious of these restrictions and makes the most of them, after all it is one of the rare films I have seen in the last few years where there is genuine effort in experimentation with form and that simultaneously attempts to get rid of every excess, taking the B movie mold as a long process of denudation of his own cinema, of revitalization through the discovery of what is essential to it (similar to the work done by other great auteurs in 2014, such as Abel Ferrara and Kiyoshi Kurosawa).

Hooper understands the mediocrity of the script, knows that all its ideas end up underdeveloped, but it is exactly the absence of depth and simplicity of the story that enables the director’s achievements through staging, interpreting the scenario as a general concept to be reformulated according to the diverse nuances he finds, hence the necessity of structural minimalism, the persistence in repetitions, although not extending it to the internal movement of scenes, always meticulously detailed. It is not difficult to relate what Hooper does here with Lucio Fulci’s approach to horror, especially from the eighties onwards, beginning with very close premises, which verged on inanity, abstracting its issues to the maximum, trying to transcend the narrative and going straight to the basic codes of the genre, depurating it to the point where only its primary elements are exposed. Everything that was description, every concept that could not be transfigured in form, should disappear.

As with Fulci, horror is overly physical, and I am not talking about dismemberments, but rather about putting everything in evidence, something that is directly linked to what Hooper realized at least since the nineties, with spatial containment that emphasized a theatrical aspect of his staging, based on reconfigurations of positioning, on rigid and repetitive movement confined to small areas, thus delimiting the characters’ whole existence. The effect used to be anti-psychologizing, more interested in the course of actions than their motivations, but in Djinn our attention is oriented almost entirely to the reactions of its characters, to gestures, subtle details in the performances, following up what was done in the first half of Salem’s Lot (1979), with its fragmentation into multiple narrative blocks that discreetly revealed the city’s corruption by the evil presence through estrangement of the inhabitants’ behavior, horror emerged from the quotidian before being embodied by the vampire, it was covered by a surface of normality. The family drama at the center of Djinn would fit quite well as one of the digressions of that miniseries’ storyline.

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Djinn also is, consequently, Hooper’s most humane film. The fact that it consists almost exclusively in “people walking through corridors”, like Toolbox Murders, makes the divergence in its treatment even more perceptible: he abandons his calculated, sober, functional, structurally rigid style, with perfectly punctuated ruptures, the artificiality of some representations, intentionally caricatural, and his tendency to intellectualism (just notice the difference regarding the editing to The Funhouse or Poltergeist), here the camera is constantly immersed in the perspective of the characters, he denies the conflict between what the frame informs us and what expresses the actor’s performance, which before was abundant, the focus is solely on elucidating what they sense, any distance from the material would be inconsistent with its proposal, which now displays a more affective side, going far beyond his typical pseudo-expressionistic ambitions that brought brief moments of emotional exposure, in Djinn the form must become abstract, raw, primitive, since the rule is frontality when complex emotions are adressed.

Therefore, the extreme adherence to confinement (almost the entire film takes place inside an apartment, in a building where all floors look the same and nothing can be seen on the outside) turns it into the best example of Hooper’s proficiency in temporal and spatial manipulation, because of the text’s debility, all characterization, all meaning is drawn from that. The instant this gets more explicit comes with the sudden change of protagonists, already in the final half, abruptly charging the film with stark contrasts, transforming our whole perception of that reduced universe depending on the adopted perspective, of the wife or the husband. Initially, the most remarkable characteristic of the first part, led by the wife, was certainly the steep imbalance of his compositions, only highlighted in the way it fractures the typically cautious and patient progress of his shots, a way of withholding the development of interactions, of rough dialogues, gradually accumulating tension that is never released. The montage immediately resembles what he had already drafted in the Masters of Horror series, particularly in the most successful episode, Dance of the Dead (2005), but contrary to what was done in that small movie, the resourse here is not employed to be objectively uncomfortable, the disruptions are synthetic and not a nearly complete departure from the extraordinary elegance in Hooper’s command of the mise-en-scène, he takes a step forward, combines the unsettling tension that results from the compressed cuts and constant juxtaposition of dissonant shots with a scenic construction closer to his previous films, far from obvious and direct, but heavily dependent on the power of suggestion. In this part, very little is made explicit, and as the movie advances, the rupture of the established pattern is inevitable, but instead of bringing one instant of respite, stresses even further unrest and suffering.

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Almost an uninterrupted sequence, the first vision begins when the couple arrives at the hotel, and all the area wherein the action will occur is integrally presented by the husband. Gradually, when revisited, or when the shot is extended for a few seconds longer, the space is estranged. What follows are intrusive sounds, oblique framings, offbeat movements and modulations of light and color in the voids his compositions enhance, always insinuating the presence of something that does not reveal itself, that does not act. With the isolation of the protagonist, the abrupt cuts give way to careful temporal dilation, culminating in the moment that divides the film and its rigorous fragmentation is abandoned, a sequence-shot of her desperate reaction, praying to get rid of the spirit, in the dramatically most elaborate shot of the whole film, proceeding with its single forthright dialogue, right after the character crumbles emotionally, a simple shot-countershot filled by the oppressive hollowness of the apartment that still manages to retain all the expressivity of the actress, even with the body attenuated by the frame, in a confrontation with the past, a process of “denudation”, also formal, as mentioned before.

From this point on, the brief indications of the damned locus to which we have never access disappear (for example, when the woman is seen through an unknown space, indicated by the moldings in wall decorations), Hooper denies his traditional materialization of the bilocation, of the clear divisions that restricted the manifestation of evil by the necessity of an intersection (even in Poltergeist, with which it shares similarities). In Djinn, evil ultimately invades the entire space, and its victims are condemned, from the outset, to reside in it. In the second half we see the denouement of this clash, decomposing the previously established logic, making time elliptical, the repetitions more constant (of situations, of recurring voices and images which determine the actions), the ubiquitous white and light of the apartment are replaced by warm colors and profuse shadows, the voids become chasms, it is the complete disintegration of the place’s definitions, recalling the best days of Dario Argento.

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This section alone should already ensure that Djinn would placed among the few really necessary entries in contemporary horror, bringing to mind the golden era of the genre, yet still capable of exposing new aesthetic propositions, taking risks, exceeding cheap effects and artifices. In fact, one sequence consisting only of this (with an explanatory narration for the origin of the curse followed by a predictable chase scene, inspired by the most banal slashers, the single one with an American tourist, of course) just denotes its rejection of easy mechanisms for immediate sensations in the remainder of the film, such as the scene where the ghost of a relative returns to the apartment, a typical device for creating suspense is utilized, showing the audience something the character does not know, yet its usual objective is thwarted, it is not a means to forge a scare, its unfolding makes the spectator conscious of the tragedy beyond what can be synthesized by expository narration or flashbacks, vague descriptions, even false, of the horror that is later witnessed (the aforementioned sequence concludes in a close of Razane Jammal bidding farewell to her family, nothing could be further from a generic and dishonest trick).

In sum, an anomaly, the result of an unsophisticated project, with modest ambitions, and with all the reported problems of its post-production evident in the final cut (the excessive graphism of the last scene does not help to disguise the studio interference), but Hooper’s rigorous and precise direction, like I had not seen since Eggshells (1969) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), turns it into one his finest works, and the slight irregularity just gives greater prominence to its multiple moments of greatness.

Christofer Pallú

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William Friedkin’s “The People vs. Paul Crump”

Pretentious early documentary from the great William Friedkin. Attempts to portray the problems around the case of Paul Crump, a black man waiting on death row, convicted of murder, using testimonies of people involved with the case (either supporting Crump’s innocence or speaking against the death sentence) as basis for recreations of the actions that led to the conviction.

These flashbacks, a big part of the movie, may be the main problem with this, while surprisingly well crafted, they don’t really serve any function, only as redundant illustrations of what is said in the interviews. Friedkin may have had the intention of investigating the case, but that certainly does not appear on the screen, we only see snapshots approaching the main issues (the legal system, the necessity or ethics regarding the death sentence, police brutality, institutional racism, rehabilitation), it is just vaguely descriptive, and with the staged scenes (besides the incomprehensible focus on the journalist, all of a sudden) only distracting from whatever truth could come out by simply observing the people involved, but there’s one particular shot that is an exception, the unedited monologue by Crump, and it’s probably the only moment in the whole movie where it seems to find the truth it seeks about the situation. It ends up being both ineffective as a crime picture with a message and insufficient as the provocative documentary it wants to be.

Some of Friedkin’s preferred themes and stylistic tendencies are already present, but it lacks any of the depth. His 1992 thriller Rampage would revisit a good part of this and not show much improvement, although the free manipulation of a fictional narrative allows him to be a little bit more insightful both in the trial, the circunstances and impact of the crimes on society in general, but his thing just isn’t straight political filmmaking.

Christofer Pallú

Johnnie To’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2”

The reason I got way less excited about this sequel than everyone else is probably due to watching just one day after discovering the original, a masterpiece, nothing less. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 has great scenes, but mostly redundant great scenes, it is, almost entirely, a repetition of the first movie (which was already filled with repetition), with small variations (sometimes too obvious, such as the inverted images), and that is not the problem in itself, but the fact that it doesn’t present a new vision about that world or those characters, what it does instead is to turn subtext into text.

Those magic episodes of the past, the hypnotic images they produced and obsessed the characters are now a delusion that prevents them from engaging with reality, what was before revealed by cinema, to the audience, is now observed by the characters themselves, with a uncomfortable distance (they get doubles who repeat their mistakes, but can’t avoid getting involved), and this tactic is especially disappointing coming from Johnnie To, always so humane and careful in portraying broad emotional conflict, because sometimes it all seems overtly calculated to get a message through… One example: Much intensity is given to the delayed face to face encounter between Yuanyuan Gao and Louis Koo, but Daniel Wu, the future husband, disappears in the city where his building is being finished, he is only a name on a cell phone and a face on a computer screen while we follow the short story of a relationship that exists to mirror the previous one, Wu’s character (more evidently, but the same goes for the others) is reduced to a device, and has only real presence at the ending, on the top of the monument he built to a romance fantasy, it finally crumbles, the martian must return to where he started, ceasing to exist, again on an empty place with empty bottles, and his reflection, the brother, goes down on the same path.

Very unlike Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, which never concealed the gaps between those dreams/obsessions and reality, or how they impact the characters’ lives in many ways, or, a better comparison, Romancing in thin Air, this acknowledgment of superficiality of the onscreen romance and its manipulations appears to be forced, to take the high ground, to be safe, so it is not confused with vapid and deceptive entertainment. Maybe I saw it all wrong, but this dry conclusion almost made me forget the genuinely affecting moments achieved in a few spots.

Christofer Pallú

Michael Oblowitz’s “The Ganzfeld Haunting”

“I love the smell of cocaine in the morning.”

This is the kind of decadent shit I wish we would be seeing from the recent neo-grindhouse trend, that instead of adopting outdated conventions with a mocking tone, is more true to the spirit of those movies and so becomes a perfectly conscient product of vague appropriations of ugly, ridiculous and immoral images from contemporary low culture. It could be the intersection between late Lucio Fulci, Tony Scott and the poor, heavy-handed stylization typical of the DTV world, the result of a simplistic good idea done by people with enough knowledge of the genre’s tradition to create a mostly fascinating abomination.

Surprisingly, it is a damn lot better when the director forgets it was supposed to be a narrative film and seemingly just starts improvising. The scenes with the ghost are the worst, intrusive and laughable (they look like a concession to justify the “Haunting” in the title and make it more marketable), and the best moments come when it assumes a more free-form mode, playing with its fragmented use of the found-footage style in contrast to what is left unframed, the weird interactions it captures in a few places.

The suggested images, a fundamental part of the experiment performed, become estranged memories, a result of bleary associations with what is disclosed first on TV screens, without context, and the characters gradually become dependent on these images, mediating their present or past experiences. The protagonist ends up alone only with the experimental equipment and the cops find the camera still recording (as the rule goes for the subgenre), the crime scene is a complete mystery to them, what they see contradicts what we have seem previously and there is also talk about the “remains after someone dies” as small evidences of an unknowable truth… I guess this should be associated with the reason behind the strange montage, the real point of interest here.

It is intriguing enough, but far from satisfying, and I can imagine what this material would turn into if it was in the hands of someone like Rob Zombie or Pascal Laugier, a horror director from this generation that can be much more than just an appropriate aesthete, someone capable of elevating this script, balancing the horror with the other aspects (think of The Lords of Salem, this has similarities), instead we have a couple of very good scenes lost in a largely mediocre movie that manages to maintain its strange and demented atmosphere until that (possibly very gratuitous) ending, which again reminds me of Zombie’s movie, only more confused and inhumane. A big mistake, this should have at least one character in it more interesting than cardboard annoying teenagers.

Christofer Pallú

Nicolas Roeg’s “Cold Heaven”

A profoundly Catholic reversal of Vertigo?

I am very familiar with Roeg’s work and nothing here is atypical in the context of his filmography, so why did I end up so surprised and fascinated with this film in particular? At the beginning I was more bothered than interested, a very simple plot is presented but the movie seems to deny its development with each subsequent scene, the drama of marital problems soon gets overshadowed by indications of a more fantastic story driven by the protagonist’s attempt to deal with guilt, so the tone is ill-defined (and over the top) from the start and the sudden intrusion of the supernatural obscures even more the movie’s direction, it’s just too hermetic and impenetrable to captivate at first (those typical elements in Roeg I shouldn’t estrange, especially considering his brilliant past collaborations with Theresa Russell), until it ignored anything resembling a more grounded drama and, again, challenged my expectations. This is a straight narrative, but as usual for the director, even when he eschews fragmentation, a mysterious space is left where the real motivations of the characters are hidden, their actions aren’t justified by reasonable causality, it starts embracing more and more the protagonist’s extraordinary experiences in a very visceral way (no matter how absurd they can get) and the result is a movie that’s pure emotional confrontation that in its final minutes turns into some kind of apotheosis of film melodrama.

It is the first melodrama I watch from Roeg and it’s surprising I had never noticed how his inclinations are absolutely appropriate for the demands of the genre, and of course, I should have figured that out since Don’t Look Now, because what really stayed in my memory were exactly these aspects, Cold Heaven is just the logical conclusion. I still don’t know if it’s an overlooked masterpiece or if I’m being too kind to the film for its peculiarity and overt conviction of what needs to be shown (which is a rare thing), beyond good or bad, this is truly exceptional and rather beautiful.

Christofer Pallú

E. Elias Merhige’s “Suspect Zero”

I understand the comparisons with Seven, as a product, but this is very different in intent, form and overall atmosphere. On the positive side, unlike David Fincher, Merhige seems to have genuine interest in this very confused project, trying to bring to the surface the few ideas contained in a terribly written script, concerning not only justice (as Seven believed it discussed) but mostly the devastating impact of the procedures on all those involved (and maybe the only time since Manhunter where the parallels between murderer and investigator don’t seem forced, but are the center of the movie), and not making the mistake of using it as a vehicle to exhibit your ability to paint pretty pictures and audience manipulation with plot twists that are nothing but easy effects. To bring that comparison further, if later in his career (in more mature movies) Fincher would observe and try to understand the underlying horror through superficial information, Merhige delves directly into the madness it suggests.

The problem is: Merhige, as a narrative director, is still stuck with literalness, with a mise-en-scène too dependent on symbols and conceptual abstractions (like his previous, more experimental works Begotten and Din of Celestial Birds), and never finds a balance between the straightforward thriller and these short interruptions where his ideas are fleshed out only through images, sometimes it ends up feeling like a disjointed music video, with little aesthetic coherence, his motifs or digressions are too emphasized for the whole movie to feel organic. And what is the point in hiring Michael Chapman if you want the movie to look like shit? It has a kind of a 70s’ exploitation feel, so it would probably work a lot better as a no-budget feature, shot in 16mm and all, at least would get rid of a few stylistic affectations or demand more craft with the stuff heavy on ugly filters and distortions that, again, do not help in visual cohesion. Also, Eckhart has the Jack Nicholson problem of looking insane right from the start, so any transformation is unconvincing at the end. But I still enjoyed this, gets more sympathy for commitment and general weirdness.

Christofer Pallú