Make It, Don’t Fake It

Trash Humpers is a difficult film to talk about without people dismissing it as, well, trash. Shot on VHS and edited in part on a pair of VCRs – sometimes blindfolded – it follows an anonymous gang of misfits in rubber old person masks1 as they traipse around Nashville, TN and film themselves doing a bunch of weird shit, like humping rubbish bins. Right from the second shot of the film, they hump rubbish bins, and fences, and trees, and whatever other inanimate objects strike their fancy. (They hire some sex workers at one point, but mainly to play drums on their asses.) It’s vulgar, strange and unsettling. It has less than no plot and almost no sense of linear time: the only thing that suggests any particular order to the events is the fact that some scenes are taped over others. 

“It’s not for everyone” is a cliché and a truism, but the audience of people both able and inclined to enjoy a film like Trash Humpers is vanishingly small. Some of that is the weird sex stuff, sure, but Pink Flamingos features unsimulated blowjobs, sex scenes involving live chickens and a guy who makes his asshole sing “Surfin’ Bird”, and it has a thousand times more popular appeal than Trash Humpers ever could. When we talk about taste in art, I feel like there’s a tendency to try and sort people into “types” or “taste profiles” or whatever. Usually on the basis of genre – the horror fan, the action fan, the romance fan – or, increasingly, based on weird, niche stereotypes like the “IMDb 250 fan” (a subject of derision in many online film communities for reasons that remain unclear to me) or the many varieties of “bro”. But our tastes are a lot more granular, specific and individual than that. I am, in theory, the target audience for a film like Hell or High Water. I love Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster and Chris Pine. I love westerns. The premise – two brothers rob the bank that duped their late mother into getting a reverse mortgage – fits me like a pair of moulded leather gloves. I wish at least 800% more films were about the recession and earnestly believe that movies should depict as many bank robberies as possible. But I don’t like Hell or High Water. It’s not a bad film, and there are lots of things I like about it, but it left me cold in the end. When I look back on it now, my overwhelming memory is how its desaturated colour grading reminded me of watery dilutable orange. It’s simply not to my taste. 

I don’t know if I could ever explain exactly why Trash Humpers appeals to me, but it does. In spite of all the reasons to find it mindless or boring or ugly, I just love this little film. It’s beautiful and funny and scary and moving. It rules. 

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Notes on The Conjuring

This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, The Last Jedi.

The Conjuring was a smash hit on release in 2013. It tested so well with audiences that Warner Brothers moved its release from the February dead zone to the summer blockbuster season. It was the first horror film to get an A from CinemaScore, who calculate an average score based on surveys of cinema audiences (and have been since 1979). It’s inspired an entire cinematic universe of sequels, prequels and spin-offs, with three more in the works. It was critically praised, too: reviews routinely described it as a classy throwback to films like The Exorcist, a kind of slow-burn horror in marked contrast to James Wan’s directorial debut, torture porn pioneer Saw.  

The problem with this, of course, is that The Conjuring sucks. Here’s why. 

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Don’t Tell Mama: Women’s Body Horror in Sharp Objects

Body horror is a genre characterised by what Ronald Cruz calls the “manipulation and warping of the normal site of bodily form and function”. It is a genre which unsettles us through its disregard for the human body as it assaults audiences with distortions of the familiar sights, sounds, movements, and functions of the body. Throughout the eight episodes of HBO’s gothic thriller Sharp Objects (2018), there is a growing unease regarding the body which erupts in moments of supreme shock and disgust. The three central characters – Camille Preaker, her mother Adora and sister Amma – all display the genre’s “gruesome disregard for the human body” in various ways as they exist within the narrow confines of femininity permitted in the small town of Wind Gap, Missouri. The female body in Sharp Objects is the site of the series’ most shocking moments of horror and the driving force of the entire mystery plot: the horror it endures and produces is the horror of the series.

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You Should Watch More Short Films

Tragically, since I last broached the subject, the world hasn’t responded to my plea to watch more short films. “Dining Room or There Is Nothing” hasn’t taken the Internet by storm, the commentariat has yet to return the great “Chaplin/Keaton/Lloyd” debate to its rightful place at the heart of public discourse, and no one in my life has bought a boxset of subtitled Jan Švankmajer films I can borrow. I have no one to talk to about that Scott Barley short, “Hinterlands”, and how I think it’s good, but I feel desensitised to it because the colour palette reminds me too much of elements of the YouTube found footage horror series Marble Hornets.

All I can do is try again. I’ve tried a more populist approach this time: we’ve got a war movie and some horror films, a lovely sentimental children’s film and a cute little rom-com, a couple of animated classics and one of Martin Scorsese’s least Jesus-y films. (In the interest of clarity: I like my Scorsese Jesus-y. I recognise that I’m in the minority on this.) And if this doesn’t work, I’ll just have to go hard experimental for the next round.

Here’s another ten short films – covering seventy-odd years – that you should watch.

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In a Mirror, Grimly

When historians look back on the horror cinema of the 2010s, Mike Flanagan will undoubtedly be considered one of the decade’s most influential filmmakers. Though he lacks a distinct breakout hit, Flanagan has quietly built a reputation as one of the finest directors working in horror today, and if 2017’s Gerald’s Game isn’t considered the best of the recent glut of Stephen King adaptations, it’ll only be because he outdid himself with Doctor Sleep, his upcoming sequel to The Shining.

Flanagan’s first success, the film that made him a director to watch, was 2013’s Oculus, and, for my money, it’s still his best work. Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is released from the psychiatric hospital where he’s lived since the deaths of his parents: the official version of events is that Alan, his abusive father, killed his wife, Marie, and was about to kill his children before Tim shot him in self-defense. Years of therapy have convinced Tim of the official story, but his sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan), is not so persuaded. She uses her job at an auction house to get her hands on what she believes was the true cause of their parents’ deaths: a cursed mirror called the Lasser Glass with a long history of death in its wake. She invites Tim back to their childhood home to document the mirror’s deleterious effects on the human mind, prove the innocence of both Tim and her father, and then destroy it.

Suffice it to say, despite Kaylie’s extensive precautions (three cameras filming the mirror at all times, temperature monitors in every room to detect paranormal activity, alarms to remind her and Tim to eat and, most famously, an anchor suspended from the ceiling that will smash the mirror if a manual timer isn’t reset every thirty minutes), things don’t go according to plan. The mirror can completely warp human perception, even erase memories. In one of its simplest but most effective gotchas, Kaylie takes a bite from an apple, only to see the mirror has tricked her into eating a lightbulb, which then immediately turns back into an apple. Though broadly well-received, a small but vocal minority criticised the films’ ending, which leaves the viewer completely uncertain which of the film’s events, if any, actually happened. But I have the answer.

None of it actually happened. It’s a movie.

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What is Beyond the Frame

M. Night Shyamalan knows that you know who he is – or, at least, that you think you do. He’s the twist guy! His early work, particularly The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, received such acclaim that Newsweek declared him “The Next Spielberg” in a cover story published three days after the release of Signs. It’s a cliché of latter-day Shyamalan coverage to contrast this praise with the direction of his subsequent career, as the diminishing returns on his work turned him from wunderkind to has-been.

He’s since made a proper comeback, with the runaway success of Split, which sucks, but back in 2015, he was still a joke. A literal punchline, a memetically bad writer and director, whose most recent movie, After Earth, was a sterile, indulgent pile of crap based on an idea by star Will Smith, operating at the height of Smith’s ego. His previous three films – Lady in the Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender – regularly appeared on lists of the worst films ever made. But, most importantly, he was the twist guy. So the story goes, he got so much praise for the genuinely brilliant twists of his early work that he couldn’t stop chasing the same high, trying to outdo himself with each film. It doesn’t matter that this isn’t true – it’s astonishing how many people have made fun of the twist in The Happening, a film that does not have a twist – because it quickly became the totalising narrative of his career. Particularly on the Internet, his shittiness and this specific explanation for his shittiness became the conventional wisdom, in much the same way that memes and groupthink convinced people Nicolas Cage is one of the worst actors in the world, rather than the best of his generation.

M. Night Shyamalan is the twist guy. Except he’s not. But he knows you think he is. So, back in 2015, he decided to play a prank on everyone. It’s called The Visit and it was his best film in fifteen years, so obviously it got wildly mixed reviews. People’s brains just go all wobbly when it comes to this guy, for some reason.

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Things Like This Are Not Supposed to Happen in Our Neighbourhood

The Purge franchise is one of the stranger phenomena in modern popular cinema. Its financial success is unsurprising – it is virtually impossible not to profit on a wide-release horror film – but it receives constant commentary far outstripping its popularity. All but one installment of the Insidious franchise, Blumhouse’s other four-film horror series, outperformed the corresponding installment of the Purge franchise by a significant distance, but barely made a blip in the cultural discourse. There’s just something about The Purge that inspires furious fits of hot-takery.

Obviously, part of what makes it such a popular topic is that it’s just about as overtly political as horror comes. No one needs to tease out subtext when they’re writing about The Purge, because there is no subtext. Everything is helpfully signposted by the filmmakers. The official rationale for the Purge – a 12-hour period every year when all crime, including murder, is legal – is that it promotes social harmony by giving everyone a sanctioned time and space to “purge” their negative feelings. They credit the Purge with producing extremely low crime and unemployment rates, less than one percent, and they’re right to do so. But it’s not because everyone’s working out their anger issues by murdering each other. It’s because the wealthy are able to fortify their homes to protect themselves from the Purge, while the poor are not only without protection, but actively hunted by the wealthy, who can also afford to arm themselves better than the poor. Every year, rich people spill into the streets of this dystopian future America and murder the impoverished and vulnerable en mass. It’s not psychology, it’s eugenics. The Purge could let you work this out on your own, but it doesn’t want to leave any ambiguity, so the first film is peppered with news reports where this point is made explicitly. Lots of reviewers criticised the lack of subtlety: we get it, we get it. The Purge is about class warfare.

Except it’s not. Not really.

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Double Features #1: See Them and Weep

The double feature dominated popular cinema for thirty-odd years, back when a night out at the cinema was actually a whole night out. After sitting through a mix of newsreels, shorts, serials, cartoons and advertisements, the audience would watch two films. First, the B-movie, shorter, cheaper and uglier, with nobody actors and hacky writing, and then the main feature, with its big stars and exquisite Hollywood production values.

Nowadays, unless you’re a professional journalist, seeing multiple films in one day is, unfortunately, an extravagance. Apart from just wishing people could just see more films more often if they want, my own experience of irresponsibly blowing all my money on going to the cinema, especially around awards season, has often resulted in me discovering movies that pair wonderfully as double features, because of similar subject matter expressed in different aesthetics, opposing or at least disparate takes on the same themes, or a combination of both.

It’s not the same kind of magic as those you stumble across on your own, but I have suggestions of double features that would make a great night in. Two of them were spontaneous discoveries (the ones where both films came out the same year, obviously) while I developed the others from the highly scientific method of watching a film and thinking “huh, that would pair well with this other film I like”.

Fair warning: these are all pretty heart-wrenching movies.

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