The Babadook (2014)


Old school horror books often focused on plotlines where an inner psychological trauma became manifested in a physical evil. Metaphorically, this plot generates a lot of appeal because it mimics the worst of the human condition: neurotic and blinded to our own inner corruption, we humans have a tendency to act out our psychological dysfunction on the world. The horror story takes this only one step further by mythologizing it, and putting abstract dysfunction into a visual form so we can recognize it, unlike when it remains within us.

The Babadook takes on this plot family — comparable to riff archetype in metal — and makes of it a movie that is one-half tedium and one-half incoherence. It holds up the metaphor reasonably well, but loses sight of its purpose early on, and like many movies with female directors, concentrates on “atmosphere” to the point of making the audience lose sympathy for the characters. Although it brings itself full circle without pandering to the easy options for plot conclusion, such as character insanity or dream, its failure to make sense of the challenge to the main character, Amelia, renders the storyline into gibberish at the end.

The setup is simple: Amelia has a son, Samuel, who was born on the day her husband died. The husband, Oskar, was killed in a car crash on a rainy night as he drove Amelia to the hospital to birth Samuel. Seven years later, she still becomes morbid and withdrawn as the day that Samuel was born approaches. The child, on the other hand, never has a guilt-free birthday party. Working the standard pointless modern job, and struggling with her own inability to snap out of her reverie, Amelia struggles with the more profound problem of Samuel, who acts like a child with severe emotional problems. As the movie goes on, both Amelia and Samuel essentially retreat or are exiled from the world as their increasingly bizarre and dangerous behavior threatens others.

During the midst of this, Samuel finds a pop-up book that tells the story of a creature called the Babadook. The book is written in annoying sing-song rhyme, but it makes its point that is essential to the metaphor of the story: the more you deny the presence of the Babadook, the more he takes over you. The obvious analogy to grief itself, and the inability to escape or unwillingness to give up prolonged mourning, shows us the weakness in Amelia that allows evil to enter… or escape. In some of the most tired plot devices in horror, the book keeps re-appearing after being destroyed or hidden, adding new lines to the rhyme as life falls apart for Amelia and Samuel.

Like many other modern films, The Babadook features characters who are chronically sleep-deprived. This bit of realism resonates with audiences, so many of the newer generation of psychological horror films adopt it. Here it is worn to death and repeated to the point of tedium during the first half of the film. At the midpoint of the film, everyone changes roles. Samuel, the useless and destructive child, suddenly becomes responsible. Amelia suddenly spaces out and becomes useless. Unfortunately for all viewers of this film, the remaining “suspense” repeats the same three techniques very slowly so we understand the atmosphere, and as a result avoids sheer tedium but replaces it with predictability and storyline nonsense as characters undergo brain damage in order to allow the plot to stay together. That and gratuitous (and mostly ineffectual) pet death are supposed to shock us into dropping our iPhones into our arugula salad and calling our husband who are working late at their corporate jobs, in hysterics at how “shocking” it all is. Except that it is not. It is babble.

This film could have been great because the metaphor resonates with us all in this time of intense victimhood. For it to do that, however, it would have to overcome its favorable view of victimhood and get serious about its own metaphor, producing a creature that is believable which mimics grief in its ability to consume people, instead of just making them go crazy and act completely against common sense, which makes it impossible for the audience to identify with them. The plot needed a careful structuring to show the reason for the projection of grief into this creature, and then needed some kind of plot device that defeats the evil. It has neither of these. It hides behind sloppy screenwriting which it justifies with the idea that it enhances the mystery or atmosphere, but it does neither. This script is incomplete and what was there did not stretch for the full length of the film.

The Babadook falls short of not only its own potential, but the standard it would need to meet for the experienced suspense-horror audience, but could easily have achieved greatness. The acting — especially by Essie Davis as Amelia — is very well-executed. Cinematography does not strike an excessive note, nor does it stand out as particularly excellent, but it rises far above mediocre. The problem of the storyline dooms this film. “Atmosphere” serves as a cop-out for what really needed to be done: to tell the story of grief and self-pity with an unblinking eye, and by showing us that psychology as a metaphorical monster, revealing what must be done to defeat that crippling choice and sensation in ourselves.

Proxy (2013)


The genre of psychological horror often gets ignored because it does not deliver the tangible impact that sheer horror does, but unsettles the watcher as in the coming days that person contemplates what he has seen. Proxy attacks psychological horror by combining Swedish introspective cinema with the type of suspense found in movies like Psycho, delivering what is ultimately a biting critique of modernity.

Without giving away the plot, this movie involves the tendency of people to project and transfer their own psychological drama onto others, centered around the idea of family. In this film, people treat others like objects of their own egos, which creates secondary consequences that render characters unable to stand themselves. Through prolonged psychological exploration, including an insight into the way the world appears to those who are intensely lonely, this film explores the sources of modern alienation and why this society starts us out as alienated isolates from within our own families.

Filmed with more of a sense of intense subjective awareness than an objectivity which the camera always betrays, Proxy explores the confrontation between detached and disaffected young women and their attempts to start their own families. It shows how people project, or live vicariously through others by assuming their role in a narcissistic conception of self, and then undergo transferrence, or conditioning their own happiness or sadness on the acts of others. These conditions like PTSD and other mental afflictions follow a binary progression, in that the person holds on to the reality they can parse for as long as they can but when it cracks, it does so violently and leads to a culmination of violence and emotion that are perfectly paired into poignant yet devastating circumstances.

Like any movie tackling the inner workings of the human mind, this film touches on subjects which many of us would rather not witness because they reveal too much to us of our own fears. In particular, it has a sense of being Generation X art, reflecting the wave of children who growing up under manipulative families tended to wall off huge areas of life and stick with only what they know and trust, probably because their own parents viewed them as accessories for showing off (or blaming) like owning a British motorcar. The characters in this find no peace and no contentment as they rage through life, tricking their own perception into creating what seems like what they desire, only later finding the hollowness within, and the rapid transition to danger caused by illusion and its collapse.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)


The best horror films combine all of the elements of a good tale with a dark journey — violence, terror, suspense, quasi-supernaturalism, a lone protagonist — and balance them so that variety coexists with a clear narrative. The Town That Dreaded Sundown creates a compelling tale in which the horror is a feeling of helplessness and paranoia as one might have when facing a mythological evil.

Centered in the divided town of Texarkana, which exists in both Texas and Arkansas and has duplicate governments, this film explores the cultural attachment to a serial killer from two generations before. Using shots from a 1976 movie which documented those killings, The Town That Dreaded Sundown begins its story with the possible return of that original killer or a copycat.

While the storyline itself is well-known, this 2014 film makes the best interpretation of it possible and keeps the origin mysterious throughout the film, which heightens the suspense. Its strength is in its idiosyncratic but expressive cinematography, which features odd angles, indirect focus and often room-encircling pans that create a sense of urgency and lack of control. The plot accentuates this instability by like a good Stephen King book showing human denial at every turn, enabling evil to thrive while a lone protagonist confronts it. The film uses violence and gore sparingly enough to make them shocking, and with high contrast created by film technique, allows suspense to predominate so that expectation of the horror is greater than the acts themselves.

Antiviral (2012)


Antiviral (2012)
Directed by Brandon Cronenberg
108 minutes

Death metal and horror films go hand in hand. Screaming victims, howling chainsaws, death and destruction, subjugation and helplessness, existential angst and nihilistic outcomes. But what about death metal and a film that crosses horror, suspense, sci-fi and disturbingly investigative psychological tension?

Brandon Cronenberg, the son of edge-of-insanity filmmaker David Cronenberg, directed Antiviral which hit the screens in 2012. Following in the family tradition, he peels back the layers of justification and shows us a metaphor for our psychology in this odd and disturbing modern time. Unlike his Dad, Brandon offers more of a sense of personality horror; this is abundantly character-driven in addition to being concept-driven.

In this tense film, which seems to be set in an alternative present, celebrity culture has reached a peak mania. People are so besotted with the celebrity experience that there is a lucrative trade in infections that have their origin in celebrities. A specialized industry contracts with celebs for their diseases, harvests those diseases and then reproduces them so that ordinary people can infect themselves and share an experience with the stars of the big screen.

The biggest of these stars is Hannah Geist, a starlet of comparable stature among the fawning life-dropout masses as Jennifer Lawrence back in our reality. She is worshiped by the herd and represents top-notch product for those who wish to sell diseases. Cronenberg emphasizes this with shots of people who act like slow-motion zombies, lost in an orgiastic reverie of union with celebrities, the focal point of social interest in the culture.

Brandon offers more contrast-based filmmaking than his father. Where the elder Cronenberg relishes the organic, the younger relishes the symbolic and the disturbingly out of place. He films in a kind of breathless patience that is moving full speed ahead to notice everything, which requires a manic (Adderall-like) focus on stillness and the smallest of events. He shows characters confronting their own limitations and fears, and as a result, has characters who do more than act out an experience. They grow, even if in dubious ways.

Much like the fiction of William Gibson, Antiviral is heavily metaphorical and reveals some unsettling truths about our rather mundane world through an exotic one. In doing so, Cronenberg creates an atmosphere of the surreal and disturbing that infiltrates all thoughts of comfort and stability and upends them with a view of the dark rotten core of own celebrity-crazed culture.

Autopsy – Macabre Eternal

The last couple of years have seen a artistic renaissance of a genre that throughout the best part of the mid- to late 90′s, and the early reaches of the millennium, was perceived to be a ghost that had long outlived it’s most glorious moments of artistic clarity. Great quantities of ‘gore’ and ‘brutal’ Death Metal acts have over the last two decades, dumbed down the mystical perversity that gave a genre the likes of Blessed Are The Sick, Legion, Cause Of Death, Onward To Golgotha, Imperial Doom, has in years past given way to acts that aim principally for shock value, sidetracking any of the compositional and dynamic attributes that were the essence of what made Death Metal so vital in it’s 1989-1993 heyday.

It’s great that Autopsy should record such a gem as this, as it serves to vanquish the plasticity and dross that once great acts such as Morbid Angel and Deicide have spluttered forth. Not only does it filter out these negatives, but it also does great justice to many artists who embrace an archaic yet craftsmanlike and refreshing interpretation of Death Metal.

In addition to having put out the excellent ‘The Tomb Within‘ EP last year, Autopsy have eschewed the notion of ‘re-recordings’ or filtering previously released material onto this new record. Instead what we have is a colossal, quite lengthy record, lasting greater than an hour but never straying from momentum and vibrancy.

It wouldn’t be unfair to say that in terms of intricate song structuring, Autopsy have perhaps even upped on what they originally achieved on Severed Survival and Mental Funeral, with a more obvious sense of grandeur. This exhibits itself on tracks such as ‘Bridge Of Bones’ and ‘Sadistic Gratification’, which sound somewhat like a logical conclusion of what was being hinted at on their second album. Eric Cutler’s riffs and modes are the usual tritonal, Black Sabbath meets Hellhammer-esque death dirges, which occasionally recycle patterns and forms familiar in early material, yet also giving the album a renewed sense of consistency. It is this grasp of orthodoxy within the metal genre which always makes for contributing to the collective framework of the artists work, which Autopsy fulfill here.

This is however not to say that there are flourishes of ‘experimentation’. Luckily the band have played a good hand of cards, and have not fallen into the ludicrous corner of ‘evolving for the sake of it’. Particular songs on ‘Macabre Eternal’ show the band using greater song lengths than before (‘Sadistic Gratification’, ‘Sewn Into One’), and also display a greater sense of direct melodicism (‘Dirty Gore Whore’). Whilst Autopsy have never been associated with playing at fast speeds, large stretches of this album are more uptempo.

Chris Reifert is on top form as a vocalist. His ability to evoke majestic visions of dismemberment and perversion seem to contain a greater dynamic than usual, as to suggest that nearly fifteen years of prolonged absence has only allowed his strengths to re-accumulate.

Though certainly not a complaint on behalf of the reviewer, what may potentially put off some fans of earlier material is the production, which is undeniably modern in tone. Whilst Chris Reifert’s drumming is still top notch the only minor complaint being that the compression on his drumkit seems to somewhat nullify the sense of ability, flair and aggression that a more analogous production would bring out. Whilst Macabre Eternal possesses all of the right atmosphere and conviction worthy of great death metal, the more aesthetically orientated listener will notice that the overall tonality is not as analogous as what was committed to tape in the 80′s and 90′s.

In spite of this minor specific, this album is superb, and rightly deserves to be considered a beacon of the revivification of a dark and morbid art form that until the turn of the new millennium, was considered a dead horse. Hail the new dawn. Not only in terms of structural and grandiose perversion does this album triumph, but fragments of it’s lyrical scope only serve further as to compliment the metaphysical and transcendental nihilism that death metal eternally symbolizes.

“Under the sign of a skull faced moon

We rise from abysmal embryotic doom

Existence as torment, yet locked in a grave

A sick fragile cycle from which no one is saved”

Within the recent decade, this is the best ‘comeback’ release that has emerged from any of the elder practitioners of the genre. Undoubtedly, this shall also be a worthy contender for being the best album of the year.


Ripping Corpse – Dreaming with the Dead

Though the barrier of moral pretense that’s raised in the minds of those who live in fear of this world can be seen as the work of social or religious conditioning, it isn’t necessarily intrinsic to systems of thought that wish to superimpose theories of order upon nature. Rather, the impulse is an artifice of the ego, in assuring it’s own physical safety and metaphysical sanctity, whether the origin of this is ascribed to a divinity or otherwise and then marketed to the masses. This monochromatic rendering of a world half engulfed by the shadow of such a barrier disregards the interdependent balance of elements, the opposite and equal value of death to that of life, and begins to symbolise a holy war against the unknown, just as the actual structure has represented conflicts throughout human history, from Hadrian’s Wall to the West Bank. Maybe Demoltion Hammer one year later recorded the soundtrack to the destruction of these architectural demarcators but Ripping Corpse pinpointed the mental plane with one of the apex recordings of both these tri-state bands’ style of corpse-shredding Speed/Death Metal.

Dreaming with the Dead doesn’t so much harmoniously reconcile life’s opposite extremes, though, as it reveals their arbitrary placement on the spectrum of phenomenon and deconstructs such division with the characteristic absurdism of Death Metal and Lovecraftian inhuman consciousness. The thematic outline of the album is even marked by a transition from the pulp ‘escapism’ of subconscious terrors on one hand to social commentary on the other, as though returning from the Abyss to expose the hypocrisy of so-called civilised men who indulge in normalised forms of depravity while pouring scorn over uncivilised ‘savagery’. The musical elements that Ripping Corpse fuse on the album illustrates this idea further, overlaying the quasi-neoclassical shredding posibilities opened up by European Speed Metal bands such as the socially conscious Destruction with perverse melodies and sequences of increasingly fractured riffing typical of Death Metal at the time.

Although the adverse effect of retaining such past influences would be that some later songs still structure themselves around anthemic choruses – a burden that most of Ripping Corpse’s contemporaries had already evolved far beyond – the band manages to employ enough compexity in their compositions to keep up with the demands of their vision. The sound of the guitars may be construed as being weak or mixed poorly, but this lighter texture lends itself well to the progression of riffs from measured punctuations of rhythm to insane variations by way of fucked up artificial harmonics and blastbeaten tremolo sequences. Tempo blurs the lines of what is considered primitive, though the act may be embellished with the jewels of modern society or justified in the name of some ideology. As layers of humanity are removed from the conscious mind, lead guitars erratically and uncontrollably rip through passages and bring a microcosmic level of culmination within a song, like the fleeting screams of demons being exorcised from a long tortured soul.

There is some continuity to be heard in the first album of Erik Rutan’s much later Hate Eternal, which is a far more sizeable contribution than his involvement in Morbid Angel, however, Ripping Corpse clearly struck an evolutionary dead-end with Dreaming with the Dead. Yet for all it’s antiquated aspects, the focus and engineering of the music manages to highlight the illusions which obstruct mankind from understanding the world around him because he chose to no longer belong in such a world.


Windham Hell – South Facing Epitaph

Darkthrone managed to conjure something far more stimulating to the imagination when they were inspired by horror and science-fiction movie soundtracks to create vast journeys of cosmic Death Metal. Windham Hell’s first album also follows from the deeper recesses of popular culture and cinema, fucking with the senses and expectations of the Metal listener through this Lynchian maze of psychological horror and ominous mortality. The first thing that’s evident about the musicians at work here, particularly the late Eric Freisen on guitars, is the uncustomary level of formal training demonstrated in these pieces, which bear close stylistic resemblance to the famous concertos of Antonio Vivaldi. The riffs that make up the bulk of actual Metal songs on this erratic album are nothing spectacular or unconventional but formed with the lead guitar in mind, acting much like the movie samples and vomitory vocals do to provide a kind of ambient feeling of suspended horror and panic that the leads then magnify through their virtuoso performances, building on the looming fear with sporadic outbursts of mental excitation. The rest of the album is a feast for those who would enjoy the subversion of popular culture through a post-modernist cutting and pasting of morbidly curious voices bridged with Classical flourishes, although may lose the attention of others. There is enough tastefully executed technique on show to keep this as engaging as possible, and a far superior album to the following Window of Souls.