Is it really that time already? Yes, 2019 is half over and that means taking a gander backward to appreciate the horror we’ve witnessed thus far. Two first film filmmakers leave a mark while three of the greats remind us why they have that ranking.
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Hey, club kids, it’s a Gaspar Noe dance party! And you know what that means: a balls-out psychedelic bacchanal soaked in body fluids, drugs and EDM.
Noe’s usual reliance on extended takes, stationary cameras and overhead shots makes the dance sequences utterly intoxicating, the performers’ energy creating exciting visual beauty and a palpable exuberance for their art. These seductive odes to dance are interspersed with sometimes graphically sexual conversations between the dancers, sharpening character edges and laying down an interpersonal framework that will soon be turned on its head.
In what seems like an instant, suspicion, mob rule and primal desire overtakes the company. The dancers’ movements become monstrosities bathed in pulsating rhythms, visual disorientation, wanton violence and illicit sex.
What spurred this sea change, and who is to blame? Noe turns that mystery into a greater conversation about the opportunity of birth, the impossibility of life and the extraordinary experience of death, and as is his wont, batters your senses while doing it.
4. The Wind
Lizzy and Isaac Macklin (Caitlin Gerard and Ashley Zukerman, respectively) are relieved to see smoke coming from a distant chimney. The only other cabin for miles has been empty a long while, and the prairie does get lonesome.
But companionship and burden go hand in hand for Lizzy, and company won’t chase away all the demons plaguing this harsh land.
Working from a spare script by Teresa Sutherland, Tammi develops a wonderfully spooky descent into madness. Throughout Lizzy’s isolation, Tammi swaps images onscreen from present moment reality to weeks earlier, to months earlier, to a present-day hallucination or specter and back again. The looping time frame and repetitive imagery turn in on themselves to create a dizzying effect that echoes Lizzy’s headspace.
Making a remarkably assured feature debut as director, Lukas Feigelfeld mesmerizes with his German Gothic poetry, Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse.
Settled somewhere in the 15th Century Alps, the film shadows lonely, ostracized women struggling against a period where plague, paranoia and superstition reigned.
It would be easy to mistake the story Feigelfeld (who also writes) develops as a take on horror’s common “is she crazy or is there malevolence afoot?” theme. But the filmmaker’s hallucinatory tone and Aleksandra Cwen’s grounded performance allow Hagazussa to straddle that line and perhaps introduce a third option—maybe both are true.
The film lends itself to a reading more lyrical than literal. Feigelfeld’s influences from Murnau to Lynch show themselves in his deliberate pacing and the sheer beauty of his delusional segments. He’s captured this moment in time, this draining and ugly paranoia that caused women such misery, with imagery that is perplexingly beautiful.
2. The Dead Don’t Die
Jim Jarmusch’s zombie film never loses its deadpan humor or its sleepy, small town pace, which is one of The Dead Don’t Die‘s greatest charms. Another is the string of in-jokes that horror fans will revisit with countless re-viewings.
But let’s be honest, the cast is the thing. Murray and Driver’s onscreen chemistry is a joy. In fact, Murray’s onscreen chemistry with everyone—Sevigny, Swinton, Glover, even Carol Kane, who’s dead the entire film—delivers the tender heart of the movie.
Driver out-deadpans everyone in the film with comedic delivery I honestly did not know he could muster. Landry Jones also shines, as does The Tilda. (Why can’t she be in every movie?)
Though it’s tempting to see this narrative as some kind of metaphor for our current global political dystopia, in fairness, it’s more of a mildly cynical love letter to horror and populist entertainment.
Mainly, it’s a low-key laugh riot, an in-joke that feels inclusive and the most quotable movie of the year.
From a Santa Cruz carnival to a hall of mirrors to a wall of rabbits in cages—setting each to its own insidious sound, whether the whistle of Itsy Bitsy Spider or Gregorian chanting— writer/director Jordan Peele draws on moods and images from horror’s collective unconscious and blends them into something hypnotic and almost primal.
Even as Peele lulls us with familiar surroundings and visual quotes from The Lost Boys, Jaws, then Funny Games, then The Strangers and Night of the Living Dead and beyond, Us is far more than a riff on some old favorites. A masterful storyteller, Peele weaves together these moments of inspiration not simply to homage greatness but to illustrate a larger, deeper nightmare. It’s as if Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland turned into a plague on humanity.
Do these evil twins represent the darkest parts of ourselves that we fight to keep hidden? The fragile nature of identity? “One nation” bitterly divided?
You could make a case for these and more, but when Peele unveils his coup de grace moment (which would make Rod Serling proud), it ultimately feels like an open-ended invitation to revisit and discuss, much like he undoubtedly did for so many genre classics.
While it’s fun to be scared stiff, scared smart is even better, a fact Jordan Peele has clearly known for years.