Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Simon Abrams and I continue our exchange, here and at his blog Extended Cut, on American Horror Story's first season. This week we're digging around the guts of the pilot episode, and Simon has responded to my initial post, published only this morning, with more thoughts. Catch up with the entire conversation by scrolling down on clicking on the following links:



I understand your trepidation, Dennis, and I appreciate that you're trying not to spoil the shit out of this conversation, you old so-and-so. But, if I may be so arrogant/bold, I feel like the fact that we're both coming at this show from different perspectives will only make our conversation more interesting. I also watched Kolchak: The Night Stalker (Love McGavin and the snappy dialogue, but yeah, it's kinda like Supernatural Mad Libs, huh?) and more of the original Twilight Zone than The Night Gallery (Jeff Lieberman just told me a funny story about how Rod Serling actually wore a red carnation when he first met Lieberman!). So yes, the anthology show format is one I also rather like. But I'm positive that you've seen more of this type of show than I have. I dabble, mostly; I'm a dabbler.

Also, I'm also coming at some issues from relative positions of ignorance. I've never watched Glee and I don't think I know anyone that suffers from Down's Syndrome. I only bring up the latter point because I feel that lack of perspective may have only served to de-sensitize to me to the representation of handicapped or autistic people. I mean, I did recently watch The Sentinel. And, after seeing that film's demeaning parade of pinheads, I essentially thought, "Eh, it's exploitative, but so what?" So, y'know, that lack of sensitivity is also a factor to consider.

At the same time, yes, let's get into Lange's wonderful performance as Constance. I think, as you said, her sensitivity to her daughter is starting to show pretty early on, as in the scene where she threatens to break Vivien's arm after distractedly apologizing for her daughter's unthinking rude behavior. Part of this is a matter of clever direction: I couldn't help but notice that Constance only threatened Vivien once Addy was out of the room. But it's also a matter of delivery. I feel like Lange does a superb job of managing the abrupt tonal change of saying, "I'm so sorry for all of this," and then, boosh, threatening to break Vivien's arm.

That having been said, I feel like we are both having an allergic reaction to the pseudo-modern style of this show. I feel like it suffers from Alan Ball Syndrome, a hipper-than-thou attitude that is evident in a show like True Blood and was earlier established in Six Feet Under. Alan Ball Syndrome is my admittedly inadequate way of describing an irony-intensive, and iruptive-ly sarcastic style of humor that selectively undermines aspects of a TV show's more flamboyant or just despicable characters. It's camp gone wrong and I think that's what distinguishes it from, say, Paul Verhoeven's style of vamping, which I feel is a good counter-example of why that style is not inherently wrong. Murphy and Fulchuk's smug style put me on edge here however because their tone is a bit disproportionately glib, I feel.
The Ball-y tone of "Pilot" is apparent from the show's pre-credits cold opening with the two ginger kids. These kids get what they deserve by going into the house. This understanding is standard Grand Guignol-style morality: you break a taboo, you get punished. But there's an unabashed glee to the way Fulchuk and Murphy build up to these kids' demise. One crows, "I hate trees," and the other barks at Audrey, "We have bats!" Then they run through the house breaking shit with said implements of destruction while a gay (you know what I mean) version of "Tonight You Belong to Me" plays.

This scene is a table setting scene, and that's not necessarily encouraging. Fulchuk and Murphy are paving the way for several little hiccups of inappropriate humor, which again, is not a bad thing. If done right, that drive towards constantly pulling the wrong out from under an unsuspecting ideal viewer could make such a pomo horror show really fun in a nasty kind of way. But here, these little moments of humor just feel...timid? I guess? Maybe I'm jaded (don't answer that, not a question!), but I feel like this kind of provocative sense of humor needs to go farther to be truly effective. Take for example the scene where young Moira succeeds, on her second try, at seducing Ben. Before she unbuckles the clasp connecting her garter to her stockings, Moira pouts, What are you afraid of? Your wife's not home. She's probably at pilates." This is a joke. I recognize this as a joke. I do not find it funny however because, well, it's just not that perverse, is it?

Likewise, I'm not sure what to think about Tate's probably fake daydream of shooting up his school. Using the theme for Twisted Nerve that Bernard Hermann composed and was later sampled in Kill Bill is unintentionally unnerving. I get it, I'm not that dense, don't hit me: what is the point of this scene if not to unsettle the viewer, right? But try to look at this scene from my perspective: given the limited information available to me, this scene is effectively jarring but it's also very hard to parse. This is the trouble with reviewing a serial narrative in piecemeal form, but I feel like it's necessary to consider how that narrative is formed in parts. And as such, I'm really not sure what to make of a scene like this or how it's presented.

Also, going back to my earlier point about how I feel Fulchuk and Murphy are biased in Vivien's favor, I think this is most apparent in some of their (possibly intentionally) top-heavy dialogue. For instance, some of this dialogue doesn't give me much to take away except for an aggravating sense of smug self-satisfaction. I do not like the exchange Moira has with Vivien when Vivien bemusedly asks Moira, "Do you ever get tired of cleaning other peoples' messes," and Moira indefatigably says, "We're women: it's what we do. I just get paid for it." Oh, piss off, puhlease, pffft, puke-o-rama.

But! The show's cast really helps to make some of the bumpier tonal shifts in "Pilot" work. Which brings us back to Lange, I think. She's so good, Dennis, isn't she? I mean, she's so good that you can really read a shrewd intelligence in an itty-bitty pause. I'm thinking of when she gives Vivien a bushel (A packet? A container? A stick?) of sage. And she says, "It's sage; for cleansing the...spirits in the house." The inflection in Lange's pause suggests not only hesitation but comic disgust too. All in a freaking pause! Wow.

Anyway, anyway, anyway. What do you think about the cast and the show's sense of humor? And about Lange, too?




Right off the top I want to say thanks for indulging with me in this rather ambitious commentary we’ve decided to undertake. I’ve always been a fan of horror on TV, especially anthology shows, but as a fan I’ve always had to acknowledge that though TV has produced classic series in the genre (Night Gallery, Thriller, The Outer Limits, even The Twilight Zone), horror has thrived more in the one-off TV movie format than in series form. (Dan Curtis’ great The Night Stalker begat The Night Strangler, and then of course the short-lived Kolchak series, the enduring fondness for which has more, I think, to do with nostalgia and the legacy of those movies rather than the show itself, which is kind of musty.) American Horror Story exists, as it turns out, as a strange hybrid between the two storytelling formats, something we can discuss later as the attack of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s plan becomes more apparent.

Speaking of which, you and I are approaching this show from different angles—I’ve already seen it nearly in its entirety (I’ve missed now, I think, only one episode), whereas you are at the beginning of your voyage, the pilot being the only episode you’ve seen so far. This presents a challenge for me— to avoid getting ahead of myself and drawing inferences or outright conclusions based on information that has not yet been revealed. I will strive to keep myself (with one non-spoiler-oriented exception in this piece) within the limits of what episodes we have both seen as this discussion progresses.

I like a lot about the pilot—obviously, I suppose, in that there was enough in it for me, much of which you touched on in your previous post, to keep me interested in watching. It’s a hodge-podge in the way that many pilots are, in that they have to quickly and efficiently lay down the groundwork for the many characters and plot strings that will become important as the series progresses. But AHS has the added advantage, being that it is a suspense-horror-oriented story, of the allowance for a sort of allusiveness that in another setting might seem coy. The presence of apparently ancillary characters like Larry, the self-inflicted burn victim who pursues Ben, or even Addy, Constance’s transgressive Down’s syndrome daughter, to whom she callously refers as “the mongoloid,” benefit from existing slightly behind the veil.

There is a sense (at least for me) upon first encounter with this episode that Murphy and Falchuk may have taken on a bit too much, are trying to stuff every darkened nook and cranny of the Harmons’ new old house, which obviously has a storied history, with horrors and rumors of horrors. But even from the start there’s an accompanying sense of method in the madness, that it’s not just scattershot plotting made up on the fly to goose up interest in selling the show (to the network suits or to us). The pilot’s first sequence takes place in 1978—two redheaded brothers, twin punks, trespass into the same house (currently abandoned) the Harmons will buy 35 years later with destruction of property on their tiny little minds. They hatefully disregard tiny Addy, who stands at the entrance and warns them, “You are going to die in there,” and it turns out she’s right—the two little shits meet a bloody end courtesy of the claws and teeth of something in the basement that will make a present-day return appearance before the end of the episode. Quickly, the show reveals one of its big cards, that it will not only be an American horror story, but also a history of this house of horrors, only a tiny fraction of which we will have experienced at episode’s end.

Speaking of Addy, it did give me pause that a character with this kind of physical affliction would be used to initiate goose pimples right off the bat. Only Murphy and Falchuk’s history with Down’s-afflicted characters—there is a feisty girl with Down’s syndrome on Sue Sylvester’s cheer squad in Glee-- made me ease off on the suspicion that this was simple exploitation. But the relationship between Constance and her daughter is a key point of character in the pilot— this mother-daughter relationship is conflicted, to say the least, and that’s one element that will pay off in spades as Constance becomes an even stronger presence in the show. (My one allusion to future episodes has now passed.) But there’s still plenty of Lange to thrill to here (and again, more on her later).

I really enjoyed your pointing out the element of these two just sort of “ambling in” through the doors of the Harmon house whenever they choose. Addy’s obsession with the house, as well as her motivations, are more apparently strange at first—now 35 years older, she still speaks of those dead twins in the present tense—whereas Constance maintains the pretense of down-home Southern hospitality. (When asked, she proudly claims her Southern heritage—“Old dominion, born and bred.”) Of course neighbors making themselves at familiar home in the houses of the main characters is a trope familiar to anyone who has spent any time wandering through the corridors of the Television Hall of Fame, and this is AHS’s sly, sinister tip of the hat to the Mertzes, the Jeffersons and all those who have waltzed through their neighbors’ doors without invitation before and since.

Some things that don’t wash as well for me in this pilot episode: You point out the teen angst of the Violet character, which has plenty of precedent in art and in life but seems somewhat overdone for me here. It may be that this sort of character and all of the attendant smart-ass wisdom that comes along with it is just too well-worn—it’s been a loooooong time since Sixteen Candles. That might sound a little reductive, but so is the sort of knowing shorthand that results in Murphy punctuating an early scene, when Violet discovers that the previous owners died in a murder-suicide on the premises, with a smirk and a “We’ll take it” directed at the Realtor, followed by a cut to the family moving in. This kind of sullen sarcasm that is part and parcel of Violet’s character is an obvious holdover from other Murphy-Falchuk joints (Glee in particular) and it posed a greater roadblock for me in terms of my interest in her story. So did the initial connection she makes over Kurt Cobain and wrist-cutting with Tate, your description of which made me laugh out loud. But it is also a signpost of the relative genius of this show that such resistance was eventually eroded away. (Is that too much of a jump ahead? Oh, well!)

And you’re right-- Ben and Vivien not acknowledging their different perceptions of Moira is puzzling and too convenient. It’s equally puzzling to me, however, why this was not more of an issue for me in this episode, and even as the series played out. It’s a chink of implausibility in the armor of the show, but the dissonance also rather neatly underlines Vivien’s apparently clearheaded point of view, about her relationship and her new digs, in contrast to the shifting sand underneath Ben’s feet. I’ll keep your observation in mind as we trek through the rest of the show, and maybe we’ll come back to this.

Regarding Ben, here’s what you said last time:

I feel like Ben is being made out to be a Jack Torrance-style monster but more in the judgmental style that Kubrick interpreted Torrance than the way he was originally written by King. Ben is, in other words, basically a monster. Which is unfair after a point because that means he's right for thinking that he's basically being set up for failure. Does that make sense?

Here’s one place where I have to be careful. It is interesting that Ben is perhaps being set up for a fate of Torrance-esque proportions, his obvious sex addiction being the crumbling foundation of his sanity. He’s being set up for failure, all right, but it’s the exploitation of impulses that were clearly in play before he arrived at the house that may (or may not) lead to further crumbling of that foundation. At any rate, he’s the weakest link in this family, despite his outward appearance of psychiatric calm and objectivity—which is clearly the primary joke here. (McDermott, however, does strong work, as you observed.) Ben remains interesting not only because of his weaknesses, but because of the self-delusion he maintains about the relationship and his guilt over helping to destroy it, and you just know he’s not gonna hold up well under whatever influence the house is imposing upon him.

And by the way, getting back to the show’s occasional faltering in the writing department, the scene in which Ben and Vivien finally blow up at each other regarding her outrage over his indiscretions and his attempts to rationalize them features the worst sort of over-expositional dialogue in the series. The raw emotion is undeniable, of course, but at some point I stopped seeing Ben and Vivien and saw only Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton, mistaking volume for intensity and floundering with some pretty bad dialogue along the way. I’m sorry. I cannot resist…

BEN: “How long, Viv? How long are you gonna punish me for?”

VIVIEN: “I'm not punishing you, you narcissistic asshole. I'm trying to figure out how to forgive you for having sex with one of your students. You want me to have sex with you? I can’t even look at your face, Ben, without seeing the expression on it while you were pile-driving her in our bed!”

BEN (Yelling): “I screwed up! How many times do I have to say I’m sorry! I was hurting too!”

VIVIEN: “”Oh. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Did the life that was growing inside you die, and did you have to carry that around in your belly, the dead corpse of our baby son?
” (Italics mine-- DC)

Zing! Grunt! Oof! Yeesh. (And what corpse is not dead, by the way?) Yeah, maybe I’m nitpicking, and maybe the improvisational process got in the way here a bit. It’s just that this scene in particular is overstated and bad in a way that I think the rest of the pilot largely escapes. The scene does precede their sexual recoupling, which itself then precedes one of the creepiest “is it rape?” scenes in the history of filmed storytelling, Vivien’s encounter with the Rubber Man, whose function in the story, if any, is not yet clear. (Don’t worry. I’m shutting up now.)

One other semi-random thought: my use of the phrase “filmed storytelling” in the hope of including television and film in a broad sense reminds me about something that occurred in your last post which I thought was somewhat telling. You said at one point, ““I don’t know what to make of the film’s sometimes sarcastic tone” (again, italics mine), which indicated to me you weren’t thinking of this show in the terms typically laid out by the structure of either episodic or long-form TV. The American Horror Story pilot is obviously the initiation of a long-form story, but one that, not unlike the house that is its focus, seems also curiously, claustrophobically contained. There is a sense there that though the story has an arc, it is not one that has been designed to dribble out over several years. (And though I didn’t know it on the first pass, of course this turns out to be true, at least for the moment—the show’s second season will have nothing to do with this one, though Murphy and Falchuk have intimated that they haven’t ruled out returning to the storyline set in motion by the Harmon family’s move into the house.)

There’s a sense of patience here, of sure-footedness, which is maybe one of the reasons why that damned hippity-zippity camerawork and ostentatious editing gets on my nerves in not quite the way it seems, in its Se7en titles-derived way, to be intended. This sort of restless visual style is more the accepted norm in modern television (and movies), but I can’t help thinking that a TV show (damned if I didn’t myself almost type “film” just now!) that depends so much on a creeping sense of disorienting dread might not benefit from a camera that wasn’t so damned primed to unsettle us in the most obvious, and often inorganic of ways.

Maybe this is a generational thing? The horror movies I grew up with, the ones I tend to cherish most, didn’t have the available technology to overamp their visual style out of existence and had to rely a bit more on a quieter, less ostentatious approach. I’d like to see an American Horror Story come at the material this way and see what might happen.

Well, I have overstayed my welcome and have to move into the light of the everyday, workaday world, so I’ll save some stuff for later. I know we’ll get there—How can we not?—but I can’t wait to talk a little more in depth about Jessica Lange and what she’s doing in this series. We could touch on it this week, but again, using my prescient voice, I suspect there will be ample time to dig into her glorious work here as we moved into subsequent episodes. I’ll leave you with the line she leaves us with at the close of the pilot, as she shoots a withering look at Moira (Frances Conroy version), with whom she obviously shares some juicy history: “Don’t make me kill you again.” One of the best dialogue teases ever, and so masterfully delivered by this actress who, back when she sat in Kong’s palm, was presumptively written off as a bimbo, and then ignored again when she moved out of her perpetually Oscar-nominated leading lady phase in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Thankfully, she’s back, and with considerable vengeance.


Monday, July 30, 2012


And so begins this 12-week project, in which I and Simon Abrams, who writes for the Village Voice, Press Play and his own blog Extended Cut (among other venues), backtrack over season one of the Emmy-nominated American Horror Story, leading up to the October release of the series on Blu-ray and, of course, the advent of the show's radically rejiggered season two. Each Monday Simon and I will alternate recapping the next episode and discuss throughout the week what we saw, what we think we saw and anything else that seems germane regarding this fascinating new entry into the television horror genre. The recaps and discussion will be published on both blogs. Simon kicks off our first session with a look at the pilot episode.


In "Pilot," the not-so-imaginatively named first episode of American Horror Story, show-runners Brad Fulchuk and Ryan Murphy quickly but unhurriedly introduce us to the show's protagonists' and their world. The Harmons, Vivien and Ben (Connie Britton and Dermot Mulroney), move into a spooky old/new home with their misanthropic/teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga). Vivien and Ben have hit a rough patch in their relationship after she had a miscarriage and he subsequently had sex with a co-ed.

Ben, a character who has a more active subplot but is also paradoxically less well-defined as a character, is also treating a troubled teen named Tate (Evan Peters)--Ben is a psychiatrist, by the way. Ben tries to tell the authorities about Tate, who says he has recurring daydreams of killing his friends at school. But Tate is a liar (he lies about being on medication) so this is probably just a story. On top of that, Ben gets caught in the Web of Patriarchal Bureaucracy and conveniently cannot reach anyone that he can talk to about Tate. Probably because Tate is dead (idle speculation, not a spoiler!) and the shows' writers want to make it easier to reveal that later in season one.

Ben is just a rough sketch of a character right now because he's predominantly defined by feelings of pent-up frustration. For instance, he knows he screwed up by sleeping with someone other than Vivien, but by now, he just wants Vivien to forgive him already. Which is what makes the contrived, Dark Shadows-level introduction of Moira O'Hara (Frances Conroy!!!!!), the Harmons' home's regular house-keeper, that much more contrived. Moira will obviously take on a bigger role later on in the show (I'm guessing; I haven't seem anything but this pilot). But for now, she is creepy sex-bait for Ben, the contrite brute defined by his aggression and resentment.

Meanwhile, Vivien, being primarily defined in this episode by her own resentment of Ben and her household encounters with the charmingly creepy Constance (Jessica Lange!!!) and Constance's equally creepy but not as charming daughter. Constance and her kid have an unwelcome habit of showing up unannounced. They don't quite "break in" to the Harmons' home since "breaking in" implies a level of force that's not being used here. They just sort of amble in to the Harmons' home without being invitee. And Constance insinuates things at Vivien but doesn't pay attention much to what Vivien replies. Oh, and there's a rubber bondage suit in the attic, by the way.

Anyway! Vivien resents Ben, right? And she's also rally concerned with what chemicals and pills she uses. I like this detail about her. It's what makes her more than just an attractive and attractively well-lit shrew. Vivien thinks about what she wants now that she's alienated from her body. That point is only further accentuated when Vivien inevitably yells at Ben that he can't know what it's like to give birth to a small corpse.

Finally, Violet is an angsty teen: she takes to the new house as soon as she hears that a murder-suicide committed in the basement. The tone of Violet's subplot is thus a weird mix of ironic distance and immediate sympathy. Violet takes to hanging out with Tate after she gets hassled at school by a pushy popular girl. She and Tate bond (You like cutting your wrists, too? No way, let's listen to Kurt Cobain! Oh, how young and stereotypically disaffected we are!). But he turns out to be something creepy and inexplicable, too. And that's the pilot! I mean, "Pilot."

I don't know how in-depth I want to get in this opening salvo, Dennis, but I do want to sketch out some general thoughts:

-I like the fast pacing of this episode a lot. In terms of its plot, its dense but rarely felt top-heavy or rushed.

-I don't like the weird hiccup-quick editing style that's used in scenes like the one where Ben is chased and then actively chases the creepily-scarred peeping tom Larry Harvey (Denis O'Hare).

-I am also on the fence re: the show's use of weird mini-crash zoom-ins and -outs. This can be seen when Tate says, "If you love somebody, you should never hurt them." Then a hiccup-zoom. Then: "Never." And another hiccup-zoom. What do you think of this, Dennis? It was also used in Ronald W. Moore's recent Battlestar Galactica reboot and I think it worked there. Don't know if the context of this show's content suits that style though...

-I love Jessica Lange, but I also really like the rest of the cast. Even Mulroney delivers a thoughtful performance; he brings an appreciable level of anguish and constipated anxiety to his role.

-I think I like Rubber Man. He's creepy!

-I also like the subtle attention to reversals that this episode semi-subtlely establishes at the end. I'm specifically thinking of the way Larry is ultimately pursued by Ben. Also, how Larry noticeably smiles after pouring on the tears when he warns Ben to move out. I think that's what sets Ben's story arc apart from Vivien and Violet's stories: they are being sincerely driven away from the new home and Ben is probably being pushed towards staying. I may be reading too much into this but I feel there's something about Ben's story that reminds me of The Shining's Jack Torrance.

-I'm not quite sure what to make of the film's sometimes sarcastic tone. I feel like Ben is being made out to be a Jack Torrance-style monster but more in the judgmental style that Kubrick interpreted Torrance than the way he was originally written by King. Ben is, in other words, basically a monster. Which is unfair after a point because that means he's right for thinking that he's basically being set up for failure. Does that make sense?

- I think the shows' writers have a noticeable preference for Vivien, which can be seen in the way that her dialogue scenes are much more reliant on reaction shots of her, well, reacting expressively (and incredulously!) to creepy shit. Or how about the added emphasis that's put on certain sentiments she expresses in conversation with Ben (ex: the triumphal way she sarcastically yells, "My hero!" in response to his BS line about the statistics of men that cheat after a miscarriage).

-I am not bothered by how illogical the show's plot is yet (how have Ben and Vivien failed to acknowledge what Moira looks like to each other in some way? This is awfully convenient.). But I suspect I will later on. And by "later on," I mean very soon.

More to come but I'm very curious now: whatcha think, Dennis?


Thursday, July 12, 2012


Writer-director Nicholas McCarthy’s The Pact goes about harvesting its many shivers the old-fashioned way—it earns them. What’s perhaps most immediately striking about this ghost story, which takes some pleasurably unexpected turns in acknowledging the breadth of its influences, is that for all its obvious modernity The Pact is at its heart chillingly, pleasingly retro. It moves to scare its audience through means which are often in direct contrast to some of the extremist trends (including unlimited effects budgets) currently at play in the horror genre. The Pact allows for the sweet release of screams that seem to start from the toes and jangle all the way up to and out of the throat, but where McCarthy is perhaps at his best is in the remarkable control he exhibits (this is his first feature) to seize the audience in a pleasurably persistent state of teetering on the precipice of a scream.

The Pact started life as a character-based short which the director screened at Sundance (I wrote about it briefly in January 2011), and it is this short, reconfigured and streamlined, that essentially remains the starting point for the feature, which tantalizingly expands on themes of repressed horrors, mysterious motivations and the blackest familial secrets at which the 11-minute film could only hint. Yet the feature-length The Pact marvelously sustains McCarthy’s obvious pleasure at teasing out mystery—it’s as if the movie is tacitly acknowledging what we all seem to understand is best about films like these, that the journey is often the scariest part. The director doesn’t entirely avoid the sense of letdown that is also commonplace once what’s really going on is revealed, but he does manage to generate questions that are just as much fun to chew on afterward. Thankfully, there is no psychologist played by Simon Oakland in the aftermath of The Pact ready and willing to explain it all for you.

Two sisters, Nicole Barlow (Agnes Bruckner), a drug addict who may not be entirely clean, and Annie (Caity Lotz), still angry over an apparently unhappy childhood, return to their nondescript San Pedro, California childhood home for a reluctant reunion upon the occasion of their mother’s death. After Nicole disappears during a Skype chat with her daughter while in the family home, and their cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins) also vanishes from the house the very next night, Annie is compelled to begin searching for clues not only to the whereabouts of the women, but to the strange occurrences now happening to her within its walls. What accounts for the compelling presence Annie feels inside the tiny house, which leads her to discover a secret room that she never knew of growing up? Annie gets some help from a detective (Casper van Dien) to find answers, but it’s her invasive nightmares and an encounter with a lonely, blind psychic (a marvelous turn by young actress Haley Hudson, seen above) that lead her to begin to believe that even her worst imaginings might not come close to encompassing the true horrors shuttered with the house’s modest, yet sinister interior.

The Pact is, on one level, a haunted house movie that manages to generate fear despite its absolutely mundane setting, which is a remarkable achievement. (And like that mysterious room Annie suddenly discovers after so many years, The Pact reveals itself, with palpable pleasure, to be something more complex and disturbing.) By the end of the film the audience has been guided so expertly through the geography of the house, by McCarthy, cinematographer Bridger Nielson and editor Adriaan van Zyl, that we feel every bump, nook and irregular cranny among its ostensibly welcoming, harmless surfaces, and each one glimpsed or lurched past suddenly has the potential to make us hold our breath or gasp for air. McCarthy’s cinematic vocabulary, enhanced no doubt by myriad genre touchstones which he accesses nimbly without the movie ever collapsing into a game of spot-the-references, gets a real workout here—he has a lot of fun with the idea of “things that go bump in the night,” tracing with almost fetishistic abandon the paths of several pairs of vulnerable feet and what they encounter in the shadows, but also touring the claustrophobic halls of the Barlow estate and slowly accruing a smothering sense of dread along the way. In comparison, a delight like Ti West’s The Innkeepers seems slight, as if it were squandering the obvious opportunity to generate fright within the halls of an old hotel that is far more picturesque and potentially foreboding than anything seen in McCarthy’s movie. In The Pact, even an eerily lit establishing shot of the exterior of a nondescript motel gave me the creeps.

McCarthy is clearly playing on a field designed by past masters like Dario Argento and John Carpenter, whose best movies know the value of delayed gratification as well as gratuitous shocks, but by doing so he risks The Pact being mistaken as too slack or uneventful by audiences weaned on horror movies that have been agitated into visual incoherence in the editing bay. However, this director has a couple of grand “gotcha!” moments in his bag too, which would not be as effective were they not so well-prepared for by the surety of style that surrounds them. (I consider myself a hearty veteran of horror and I found myself on the floor, safely behind a row of seats, more than once.) Perhaps the most cheering thing about the awful nightmares exposed in The Pact is how McCarthy avoids breaking faith with the audience-- for viewers of the feature and those of us who fondly remember the 11-minute film— and the degree to which he commits to the value of understating the secret of what's behind the door and beyond the walls. He’s lucky to have such a talented cast to back his vision too. Lotz has a very expressive face and uses it well to draw us into those moments where she has no dialogue, only her increasing disorientation and terror to rely on, and she plays well against van Dien’s surprising empathy—this sun-burnished, slightly bedraggled cop probably thinks he’s seen it all, and he’s certainly seen better days, but van Dien makes us believe that he’s willing to believe, even against his better instincts. But Hudson is the real find here. Her psychic, Stevie, is at once captivating, sympathetic, eerily, strangely beautiful and inexplicably sad. Hudson’s presence—she’s only in the film briefly, but she makes a hell of an impression-- made me think of Barbara Steele more than once.

At a time when it's so obvious that many filmmakers shrug off horror or, worse, use it cynically as a stepping stone to what they "really" want to do, a movie like The Pact emerges even more strongly as a valuable, solid and genuinely frightening addition to the tradition, but also as a gesture of faith, not only in the genre but in the audience's potential to respond to a movie that isn't designed simply as a cheap shock machine or a self-congratulatory exercise in deconstruction. The Pact, like its maker, is the real deal.


In the interest of full disclosure, Nicholas McCarthy is a friend and a fellow Horror Dad who I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for a couple of years now. Nick has an encyclopedic knowledge of horror, which makes his resistance to trotting out every bit of that knowledge in relentless nods to his beloved genre in The Pact even more salutary. (The nods that are there enhance the film, they don’t distract from it.) But he’s also a filmmaker who recognizes that his work is fair game for intelligent scrutiny and criticism, as well as the less thoughtful comments of those who just want to get their licks and kicks in first. In that spirit, I never felt the need to “like” the movie more in an attempt to avoid hurt feelings or unpleasant confrontation, and I feel sure that had my honest reaction been less enthusiastic he would have survived the momentary blast with no ill effects. It’s a great pleasure to be able to recommend The Pact, as another Horror Dad, Richard Harland Smith, did last week (and with much more panache than I have), as a genuine gem of a ghost story.

And I am not above taking advantage of my connections. Nicholas is on the East Coast promoting The Pact but was kind enough to answer a few questions via e-mail in anticipation of the movie’s Los Angeles premiere tomorrow night (Friday the 13th, thank you very much). I asked him about horror trends, growing up a fan of monsters and ghouls, and what it means to him to introduce the movie tomorrow night at Boston’s Coolidge Corner Theater.

DC: The Pact seems unusually confident, especially for a first feature, in the audience’s capability to respond to deliberate pacing, understated exposition and the cumulative effect of silence and atmosphere. It doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel, but instead to get back to the roots of what made horror movies scary before we learned to wink our way through them. Why is it that a lot of horror movies right now seem so desperate either to shock, or to “deconstruct” the experience of being scared?

NM: The choices I made with The Pact didn't come as a response to anything, they just came from my instincts as a filmmaker. I have nothing against shock, or deconstruction, or anyone else's choice of how to tell their story. But I've always felt that regardless of what seems new or hot, really what the genre comes down to is people wanting to be scared, and ideally, absorbed. Shock is part and parcel with horror, from those awesome pre-code horror movies up to recent movies like Hostel. The deconstruction of the genre I thought has been done best with comedy, probably starting with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Shaun of the Dead was probably the most fun dissection of the genre in a while, because it laid bare the conventions of a particular sub-genre and told a dramatically satisfying story.

DC: Colson Whitehead recently reported on his “psychotronic childhood” in The New Yorker, and it was a report that probably sounded familiar to a lot of us. Is there a key moment in your “psychotronic childhood” that you can point to as one that made you recognize what you wanted to do with your life?

NM: It was Spielberg's Duel, which I saw at about age 9, that really spun me. Here was a movie with very little means that painted a whole world and created a lot of tension. Then a couple of years later I saw Night of the Living Dead, and a couple of years after that, the original Evil Dead, both of those in 35mm. Each movie I liked better than the last, and they were getting cheaper and cheaper! That quality they all had of making something out of nothing energized me. I'll never forget how Evil Dead, a movie that looked so cheap and terrible that people were laughing at it, slowly turned its audience into putty. That was a power I wanted to have.

DC: You’ve said that The Pact is a movie full of cinematic influences. What would be one that might most surprise the more seasoned horror aficionado in the audience?

NM: There's a scene in a park that's actually directly modeled on Blow-Up. The second act of the movie really came out of a giallo influence, this kind of mystery plotting with fetishy close-ups of clues, and I put that Blow-Up reference in there because that movie feels like a big influence on that sub-genre. At one point Caity just stops walking, we're staring at her back, she doesn't move for a long time. Nothing at all is happening. But there's a sense that something will. That uncanny tension that Antonioni's movies all have is really impressive to me and I was trying to challenge it there.

DC: There’s a deliberate attempt in The Pact to lend a spirit of dread to the very mundane interior of the home in which the movie takes place. How did you go about getting so much atmosphere out of what appears to be so little?

NM: All of us behind the scenes had a real particular vision about the house and what we wanted it to be. My production designer Walter Barnett did incredible work. We both had these memories of houses just like that, and we agreed that they could not only be sad but sinister. My cinematographer Bridger Nielson understood we needed to make the light beautiful to expose that quality. Only through the contrast do you get this kind of amplification of that place.

DC: You’re introducing the movie Friday night, July 13, in the very same Boston theater where you grew up watching horror movies as a child. What are you most looking forward to about that experience?

NM: The journey of making this first movie has been pretty amazing and having it play a date at the Coolidge is a little bit of an end to it for me. There will be a couple more appearances and I'm interested in making sure the DVD/Blu-ray has some cool stuff, but after the next few weeks the movie will live on without me. Which I'm happy for, because I'm just about to make another one. I just hope someone comes out to the Coolidge who is scared by it and has the same kind of experience I had with so many films at that theater.


(The Pact is playing in New York City right now and opens in Los Angeles, Boston and other cities tomorrow, Friday, July 13. It is also available on iTunes, IFC Video on Demand and the PlayStation Network, among other online venues. But I highly recommend that your first experience with The Pact be in a theater, hopefully crowded with other horror fans who are ready to scream. Because you all will. - DC)


Wednesday, July 04, 2012


The United States is “my country, right or wrong,” of course, and I consider myself a patriotic person, but I’ve never felt that patriotism meant blind fealty to the idea of America’s rightful dominance over global politics or culture, and certainly not to its alleged preferred status on God’s short list of favored nations, or that allegiance to said country was a license to justify or rationalize every instance of misguided, foolish, narrow-minded domestic or foreign policy. I believe that patriotism entails honesty, a willingness to celebrate not only the energy and enthusiasm of living in a society like ours, but also confronting the enduring implications of its wildness, its inequities, its self-delusions, its diversity, its restlessness, its brutality, its paranoia and its political and social mythologies.

So as “go-to” as a movie like Yankee Doodle Dandy might be on July 4, my cinematic tendencies on this holiday run more toward films that look to examine the quality of a land that is more than ever bursting at the seams, in both the positive and negative, movies that attempt to grapple with America and all the shades of its messy, imperfect grandeur. I want to see movies that shed light on the dark corners which might somehow reflect back a heightened clarity about how we got to this point in our history, where increasing understanding of people who have been marginalized in this country for centuries still coexists with alarming, religious-based bigotry, intolerance and fear, and where belief in hard work and dreams of prosperity are continually dampened and smothered by economic hardship and unparalleled greed. I love movies about America that deal with its blissful possibilities, the transcendent and potentially dangerous fireworks of its culture, the slumbering animal located under the surface of the country's self-image that occasionally awakens and wreaks political and social havoc.

Most of all, I love movies about America that celebrate its orneriness, its pugnacious worship at the altar of an ever-shifting notion of togetherness, movies that recognize the cheerful comedy of our self-aggrandizement, that suggest the greatest myth about this country might be that of our collective loss of innocence, landmarked by whatever chosen, significant social event, as if there was ever any innocence to lose. Here then are eight double features, some unlikely combinations perhaps, that begin to encompass, for me, the vast wonder and folly of life in America over the past 236 years, the movies that make me grateful for the freedoms of artists who aren’t afraid (occasionally, anyway) to see America for what it is and also what it isn’t.

Ace in the Hole (1951; Billy Wilder) and Used Cars (1980; Robert Zemeckis)

Two masterpieces on the dissection of American hucksterism. Wilder’s brutal drama blisters upon first touch, an examination of the extremes (which if anything have become even more extreme) of our culture of rubbernecking and appropriation of tragedy as journalistic entertainment. Zemeckis and cowriter Bob Gale perhaps don’t cut as deep as Wilder does, but their vision of the gleefully pervasive nature of corruption in small-time American business and politics (which is, of course, a reflection of the big time) is just as cynical and difficult to refute. The added bonus comes in the release of all those toxins in the form of the bitterest of belly laughs.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976; Robert Altman) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1969; Sergio Leone)

A great American iconoclast examines the legacy of a great blowhard of the American west, locating the nexus of personal celebrity and national self-delusion, while a great Italian iconoclast tempers his romantic vision of that same West with an unblinking nihilism and digs deep into the iconography of a nation’s self-created mythological underpinnings. (It’s amusing to remember that Altman’s film, one of the bitterest comedies about America, was his bicentennial gift to the nation. America thanked him by largely ignoring it and heading out to a big summer picnic. And Leone’s movie didn’t do too well over here either.)

The General (1925; Buster Keaton) and The Right Stuff (1983; Philip Kaufman)

Technological progress in American history, courtesy of Keaton, in which he tours the landscape of the Civil War (and the first hints of the industrial revolution) while on a great locomotive chase that keeps him in dire straits and treacherous contortions for the entire hilarious ride. Likewise, Philip Kaufman’s treatment of Tom Wolfe’s brief history of the space program finds satirical purpose in sending western-infused American can-do integrity up against the well-oiled machine of patriotic promotion in contrasting flight pioneer Chuck Yeager with the Mercury astronauts. The two movies reflect ideas about the purpose of and control over the machines that helped make this country with brashly distributed energy and vision and not just a little insouciant charm.

The Godfather (I & II) (1972, 1974; Francis Ford Coppola) and Nixon (1995; Oliver Stone)

American history writ large, through the fictionalized saga of the Corleones’ rise to and fall from power, and the factually based, but also intensely speculative history of one of the country’s most reviled political figures. (Who knew RMN would have, less than 30 years later, such vigorous competition for that standing?) The tangled, bitter roots of the American dream have rarely been traced with the emotional gravitas that Coppola brings to his film, and Stone’s patented political hysteria (and surprising empathy) has never resonated more deeply or as sharply as it does here.

Mandingo (1975; Richard Fleischer) and Fall from Grace (2007; K. Ryan Jones)

Fleischer’s lurid adaptation of Kyle Onstott’s lurid novel of degradation in the 19th-century American slave trade remains the great, underappreciated movie on the subject. (I wrote about it here in 2008.) And Jones’ searing documentary about Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church is all the evidence you’ll ever need that hatred and intolerance are alive and well and just as inexplicable in the 21st century. Seen together, in a semblance of art and reportage, the two comprise a despairing vision of a country that can claim some progress on the (overt) racism front but which remains hard-pressed in some quarters to remember that Phelps’ hysterical bile is precisely the sort of religious justification once used to prop up slavery and segregation.

Nashville (1975; Robert Altman) and 1941 (1978; Steven Spielberg)

The damnedest things I ever saw. Altman’s movie is a snapshot mosaic of a country in crisis that recognizes just how often joyous release and crippling despair go hand in hand. (The freeway accident that turns into a tailgate party is one of the movie’s great metaphors.) And Spielberg’s great, graceful mastodon (directed from another Zemeckis/Gale script) glories in how pop culture patriotism is often a disguise for every form of socially acceptable and unacceptable insanity. The two movies, in their form and attack, might seem quite dissimilar, but I think they’re united by a musically informed vision of America as a land where only the slimmest lines of red, white and blue separate exuberance from hysteria, and paranoia from indifference.

Night of the Living Dead (1968; George A. Romero) and No Country for Old Men (2007; Joel and Ethan Coen)

The sleeping beast in residence at the dark heart of the national soul wakes up and takes a lumbering, unstoppable stroll through the countryside. Romero’s brutal, vital nightmare vision of social upheaval and undead onslaught has been widely (and tediously) imitated—Romero himself would never live up to it—and it had ties to just about every crisis of the tumultuous decade from which it came. Nearly 40 years later, the Coens translated Cormac McCarthy’s searing vision of an America of lost dreams and despairing landscapes, accessing imagery derived from movies as diverse as 2001 and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and in the process setting loose a killer who would no more be denied than one of Romero’s flesh eaters. The countries glimpsed through the savagery of these two movies certainly aren’t for old men, and they bode sleepless nights for the young as well.

Quiz Show (1994; Robert Redford) and The Bad News Bears (1976; Michael Ritchie)

The aforementioned myth of American innocence lost gets a good thrashing from these two films. Redford’s movie, from a Paul Attanasio script detailing the televised Van Doren game show scandal of the ‘50s, suggests that while there may have been no real innocence to lose, there sure was a lot of integrity at stake— little of which has seemed to survive television’s ever-increasing hold on the reality-show-obsessed consciousness of a nation more grafted than ever to the electronic teat. Similarly, Michael Ritchie and writer Bill Lancaster operate from the premise that Little League is no field of dreams but instead a scuffed diamond populated with familiar forms of corruption and less than stellar adult role models. It’s the fight in the Bears the filmmakers find admirable, a sense that, now as much as in 1976, there’s something representative of the citizenry in the great American pastime worth fighting for. Quiz shows and baseball have always harbored cheaters and ne’er-do-wells, but these movies suggest there are still ways to win by playing the game. (See also Michael Ritchie’s 1975 movie Smile. )