Nevermore (part one)

There’s two ways of interpreting that word in Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem (I’ve heard it read by Vincent Price, Christopher Walken, James Earl Jones, Basil Rathbone and Abel Ferrara), arguably the most famous poem ever produced by an American poet — it either means nothing or it means everything. For Guy Davenport, the raven’s reply is entirely without meaning, representative of a predetermined clockwork universe. As devil’s advocate, I’ll argue that each of the raven’s replies is in fact the truthful answer to the questions the narrator puts forth. Either way the outlook is grim. This is worth noting as it’s not only the title of the one man show performed by Jeffrey Combs and directed by Stuart Gordon, it’s also the last piece Combs recites, the piece he’s been promising the entire show, and as Poe always saw his legacy as a poet more than a storyteller it’s hardly an arbitrary choice. It’s such a famous poem, in fact, that it’s hard to hear without the cruft of the classic interfering with the actual purpose of the poem, the anguish at the passing of a loved one. In Nevermore, Combs helps put this at the fore by reciting Annabel Lee, Poe’s final poem, before The Raven. Poe is someone who knew a little something about the death of a beautiful woman at an early age: his biological mother Eliza died at the age of twentyfour, the same age at which Poe’s wife (and cousin) Virigina died of consumption. By this point in the show, Combs’ Poe has regaled us with overheated (and increasingly drunken) readings of his work, paeans to Sarah Helen Whitman (whom Poe tried to woo, without success), jabs at his peers (particularly Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whom Poe accused of plagiarism) and a really impressive pratfall right off the stage: apart from looking remarkably like Poe, Combs gives an impressively physical performance), but the show does a well-executed beat change to make clear that when Poe writes about loss, it’s something he knows in his bones, something he takes with the highest seriousness, and it’s in that spirit that the reading of The Raven takes place.

(more on this soon, but let me say right now: if you have a chance to see Nevermore, DO IT. Re-Animator junkies will need no encouragement, and those of you who saw Combs portrayal of Poe in the Masters of Horror episode The Black Cat (which played right before the show and is excellent) will know what they’re in for, but I honestly was blown away.)

October Horrorfest: The Revenge

To round out our month-long horror celebration, Darren and I decided to each curate a night of films for one another. While we still haven’t gotten around to Darren’s picks (we’ve been busy, so tomorrow is unofficially October 33rd), we plowed through my choices on Sunday night. In order to be able to even narrow down “horror movies I want to watch with Darren” to four movies, I went with my favorites of the past ten years; partly because there have been some downright amazing horror films produced in the last ten years, and partly because I knew Darren’s knowledge of current horror cinema isn’t as vast as for those produced before 1980. So without further ado, here’s what we watched.

Them (2006) is, in my opinion, one of the most overlooked horror films of the past decade. Made in France in the middle of the New French Extremity, Them offers very little (if any) blood; instead, it relies on the terror of solitude and the unknown to unsettle the viewer. Clementine and Lucas are French expatriates in Romania; Clementine works at a French school, and Lucas is (sort of) writing a book. They live in the middle of nowhere, in a huge rented house. Clementine comes home for the weekend, they hang out some, and go to bed. Then, they start hearing noises. And her car disappears (and the Romanian police are very unhelpful). And the lights go out. And then it’s a solid 40 minutes of intense action. The movie is a sparse 77 minutes; I really appreciate that, as they cut the fat out completely. I don’t care about Clementine and Lucas’ relationship, really. All I care about is them getting terrorized. I am a huge fan of movies where intruders come to your house and try to kill you for no reason (except Funny Games, which I fucking abhor), and an even bigger fan of creepy Eastern European houses with giant attics. Them is a good, quick scare, a perfect start for the night.

As Them ends with a bit of underground claustrophobic panic, The Descent (2005) was logically up next. The first time I ever saw this film was my senior year of college; I had ordered a Region 2 DVD of the film, because I was so excited about it, and it wasn’t due to come out in the States for another few months (I also protected myself from the terrible American edit this way). After a late, late party night, I came home wired, and decided to pop the movie into my computer to fall asleep to. Bad idea. I ended up terrified, up until 8am with my muscles tensed, afraid cave monsters were going to eat me. It’s that intensity that I love about the film. So, you think it’s about women getting stuck two miles underground in a secret cave? Well, it’s also about blind, cannibalistic cave monsters. And then the women start turning on each other. Every time Neil Marshall ramps up the panic on one scenario, he adds another. Darren apparently didn’t love the film the first time he saw it (he didn’t appreciate the gratuitous jump out of your seat moments), but I’m glad he gave it a second chance, as he appreciated it much more the second time around. I love the jump out of your seat moments: even after seeing it several times, even when I knew a monster was going to be around that corner, I still was startled. I love even more the subtlety that Marshall gives the characters. They’re a group of women with personalities that exist outside their relationships with men, virtually unheard of in horror film. If you haven’t seen it, I don’t know why you’re still at the computer.

Carrying on the theme of “horrific car crashes will kill everyone you love,” Inside was next. I have a personal interest in films, particularly horror films, about the terror of motherhood. I read about it, I write about it, I absolutely love to watch it. So while I do wish that Inside was a little more than it turns out to be, it’s still a film I greatly appreciate and love. Like Them, Inside cuts the fat and basically gets right to the story: after her husband/boyfriend dies in a car crash, Sarah sulks. She’s going to have her baby on Christmas (heavy-handed, yes), so on Christmas Eve, she makes plans for her boss to take her to the hospital tomorrow, and settles in for the night. Then a woman knocks on the door, who knows all about her. She seems to leave after the police arrive, but she definitely hasn’t. Then, there’s bloodshed. Lots and lots of bloodshed. Even the blood lake in The Descent really can’t compare with the body count in Inside. Beatrice Dalle, one of my all-time favorite actresses for her ballsiness and willingness to do absolutely anything (see also: Trouble Every Day, which I considered watching in this “program”), and that gap in her teeth, plays the unnamed woman who wants Sarah’s baby and will do anything to get it. There’s a lot of stuff happening here, all in the dark, claustrophobic setting of Sarah’s house. It gets a little silly towards the end, and I really didn’t need any CGI shots of the baby, much less all of them, but it’s incredibly effective in unsettling the viewer and satisfying any bloodlust.

My final choice (which we unfortunately didn’t finish – it was late by this time!) is probably my personal favorite horror film of the past decade, Ti West’s The House of the Devil (2009). I wanted to be sure to get an American film in – which goes to show you how strong European horror has been recently – and this fit perfectly. I liked having a “strong lady” vibe going, plus the black mass in this film is not to be missed. Every performance is awesome: Jocelin Donahue is pitch-perfect as Samantha, and Tom Noonan is equally amazing – his creepy phone voice gets me every time. Plus, it’s great to see Greta Gerwig (my biggest ladycrush) in just about anything. The movie delves into 80s horror tropes and mimics them exactly, without ever slipping into self-referentiality or mockery. West clearly loves horror, and it shows. The House of the Devil is slow, and not a lot actually happens, but isn’t that what great horror is about: the waiting?