Writing Autopsy: Oh, For Fuck’s Sake, The Neon Demon

Every week or so, we like to sit down and examine a film or TV show from a writer’s perspective, digging deep into the not-always-obvious mechanics of plot and character. Sometimes the exercise is an attempt to understand greatness. Other times – as in this week’s installment – it’s quite the opposite.

I should start things off by saying I didn’t finish Drive. I don’t remember disliking it, or particularly liking it. I just never finished it. Take that as you will.

But Neon Demon (let’s just put our cards on the table) is a pretty rough watch given the level of enthusiasm that greeted Nicolas Winding Refn’s first film. To call this one “half baked” would be an insult to collapsed cakes. Its theme is interesting, but the execution of that theme manages to be offensive and insulting. Its setting is trite, but workable. Its structure is a little weird, though not entirely broken. But the devil here is really in the details, because Refn has tried to direct a kind of horror film, but seems to have missed most of the key elements of what makes horror work.

Neon Demon is a film that completely eliminates suspense. It almost seems like an art project towards that goal. It’s not that you know what’s going to happen – the problem, actually, is that you don’t know enough about what’s going to happen.

Okay though, wait, rewind. Let’s start from the beginning here.

On Art Films and Abstraction

Some will certainly argue that this is not a movie where ‘writing’ should be a matter of focus. It’s an art film, people will say. And I’ll say look, having a lot of unnecessarily long takes does not make it an art film. The world’s great art films, while often not conventionally plotted, are usually incredibly well written/structured (same thing).  Holy Mountain, Naked Lunch, Drawing Restraint 9: These are, I want to say symphonies, but maybe more like frantic, jagged jazz masterpieces.

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Phantasm, Wu-Tang, and the Power of Suggestion

Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm is a conundrum. It makes an immediate impression of amateurism, mostly thanks to the naïve style of the untrained actors. That’s reinforced, as the film progresses, by the seemingly random progression of unexplained, though effectively ominous events – a murder in a graveyard, a funeral overseen by a menacing mortician, a sightless medium inexplicably speaking through her apparently psychic (and affectless) teenage granddaughter.

A seasoned aficionado of the weird will, by the middle of Phantasm, feel pretty sure that they’re seeing something like an inferior American version of Suspiria, complete with unexplained murders and mounting signs of a conspiracy, motivations just barely hinted at. Unfortunately, Coscarelli doesn’t have anything like Argento’s visual flair (or that amazing Goblin soundtrack – though Phantasm’s theme weakly echoes Suspiria’s), and the movie’s long setup comes dangerously close to flatness.

But what Coscarelli lacks in painterly excess, he quickly makes up for with a sense of the bizarre that dwarfs Argento’s. Suspiria is memorable for how it looks – Phantasm is memorable for its utterly uncanny events. Argento’s witches would certainly fall into Lovecraft’s category of “old,” unscientific horrors, alongside werewolves and vampires. But the relentless, cosmically inscrutable force at the center of Phantasm – the Tall Man, with his army of horrific dwarves – defies both tradition and categorization, and is all the more menacing because it occupies an apparently human body.

It all comes together in one moment of sublimely realized cosmic horror that holds the movie’s dream-logic together. The young protagonist, in pursuit of the Tall Man, slips through a dimensional portal and glimpses the corpse-dwarves at some utterly opaque form of slave labor, on the surface of a resolutely alien world. The place is desolate – nothing but an expanse of rock all the way to the horizon – and with a red, fiery sky. In the next instant, Mike is snatched back through the portal, and we never see the place again.

It is a total shift in visual tone from the muted aura of the rest of the film. And while the effect of the planet’s surface itself is not exceptionally refined, the fact that we only see it for a matter of seconds leaves it to resonate in our heads, not just for the rest of the movie, but (if you’re of a certain morbid cast) long after.

The moment reminds me, in a strange, oblique way, of the 2000 Wu-Tang Clan track “Careful.” Despite the weirdly blingy video, the track is totally haunting, slow, and sparse. It came out a year after RZA did the transformational “Ghost Dog” soundtrack, and could easily be an outtake.


At about the 3:40 mark, as the song is about to end, RZA drops a horn sample that transforms the entire song. It’s a three-note traditional soul/funk hook. It’s beautiful, funky, rich. It gives heart to a track that’s ice cold – but instead of using it to climax the song, or under the hook, RZA laces it in all the way at the end of the song, twice – and then returns to the bare-bones original beat.

It’s a stunning bit of artistic restraint. Every time you remember the song, the loop floats over the whole thing, not just the last few seconds. Every time you listen to the song after that, the loop haunts it.

You’re waiting for it. It hangs on in its own absence.

It’s a strong parallel to Coscarelli’s gesture in Phantasm, and to the brief flashes of revelatory truth that define almost all works of weird horror. The glimpse of the alien planet looks like it might be an explanation of the inexplicable, a source of order, if not security, in the face of seemingly random terror. Coscarelli does offer some logic – but just the barest wisp, ultimately just a further tease to enrich the wanderings of our own brains.

Phantasm is not by any means as rich a mine of illogic as, say, Inland Empire, or El Topo, or Trash Humpers. It’s structured as a traditional horror movie, with a villain, and a hero who overcomes it (at least temporarily). But the nature of that monster – scientific rather than supernatural, and yet at the same time totally inexplicable – makes it an inspiring manifestation of the weird by a determined auteur working without much money, but with a fierce dedication to his own singular ideas.

Zulawski’s Possession: Most Insane Lovecraft Movie. Ever.

Have you ever wondered what it might be like for a woman miscarrying a tentacle monster fetus in a subway station?

Well, wonder no more.

This moment of learning comes to you courtesy of Polish director Andrzej Żuławski and his 1981 unrelenting anxiety-fest Possession. It’s a Lovecraft movie in all the important respects, except that A) Lovecraft didn’t write it and B) Lovecraft could never quite have written it, because he kept his fear of intimacy and sex fiercely repressed throughout his entire life.

There are no children and no women in Lovecraft’s work – but Zulawski made a film that found in relationships exactly the same sort of bottomless horror that Lovecraft found in evolution, time, and space. The psychology of the film is profound, at least for anyone who’s ever been cheated on or just plain manipulated by someone they’ve made the mistake of loving. And the monster at the center of it all is perfect, crafted by Carlo Rambaldi, also responsible for the creature effects in Alien.

But the real power of the film isn’t in its plot or its monster, but in the way the disjointed, surreal script makes the viewer constantly question and dissect everything they’re seeing. There seems to be some vague, suggestive resolution at the end, but the whole thing remains decidedly up for debate. I love this sort of film (or book), disjointed in such a clearly careful way, suggestive rather than explicit, evocative and mythic rather than beat-driven.

It’s a goal I’m a long way from in my own creative writing, where my journalistic and academic background push me constantly towards precision. But I’m sure I’ll be revisiting Possession for pointers.

‘True Detective’ brings together Burroughs and Lovecraft to make the darkest television ever.

“Death made time for what it kills to grow in.”  That’s the dialogue thought-bomb Matthew McConaughey dropped near the end of Sunday’s True Detective. I knew I knew the line. It comes from William S. Burroughs, from Cities of the Red Night, from a passage celebrating Ah Pook, The Destroyer.

True Detective is already getting attention for its references to weird legends like Thomas Ligotti and Robert W. Chambers and, indirectly, H.P. Lovecraft. And now it’s making references to William Burroughs. That connection hasn’t been widely made, but it’s one that has always struck me. The putrescent aliens and rabid gore and giant centipedes of Burroughs’ Interzone echo the body horror that pervades Lovecraft, and True Detective, with its nihilistic, degraded detective protagonists and its degenerates running through the woods worshiping demons, brings the two worlds together in a way that gets at the heart of both.

Both Burroughs and Lovecraft saw that the world was something to be feared and hated – Lovecraft, through his maladjustment, Burroughs, through his cynicism and superiority. Cohle, the darkly damaged figure at the center of True Detective, carries Burroughs’ world-weariness, and moves through a world, like Lovecraft’s, ruled over by powers he can’t see or fight.

The explicit references are one thing, but above all, the tone and message of True Detective are more faithful to the weird than any Guillermo Del Toro spectacle.  There are no tentacles in True Detective (at least not yet), but there are monsters. It trades in one of Lovecraft’s great tropes, pitting the forces of order against a chaos personified by the poor, downtrodden, and in this telling, irreparably corrupted.  But True Detective takes this easy dichotomy and tumbles it, by making its protagonists not just broken or weak, but in their own deep ways malevolent.  That’s the Burroughs talking.

This show is dark beyond dark.  For Lovecraft, for Ligotti, for Chambers, the malevolent world beyond the veil often hunts ciphers, investigators who stand in for our own uncertainty. True Detective forces us to wrestle with figures of ourselves that are not simply neutral, but, Like Burroughs’ junkies and murderers, bear the malevolence of the indifferent universe within them.

10 “Horror” Movies That Will Leave You Truly Shaken (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of the post I started yesterday.  Here are five more movies that will leave you not just scared, but scarred.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre StillThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Admittedly this is a gimme, but it still stands alone in its class. We see the absolute nadir of what could be called ‘human,’ and it all starts with a simple little sledgehammer to the face.

Funny Games: I have seen neither the American nor the German versions of Michael Heneke’s ultra-controversial film, because its synopsis makes it sound like a complete nightmare, and the execution is said to be merciless in both cases.  I have, however, accidentally seen one scene, involving blood splattered on a TV screen, and I am working hard to forget what exactly was going on.

Audition: What makes this movie so audacious is its use of tone and genre in a completely unexpected way.  In most horror movies, you can tell exactly what’s going to happen from the opening scene, and the ominous music and fake-scares along the way (think the cat in Alien) keep reminding you that SOMETHING SCARY IS GOING TO HAPPEN.  Some say this builds tension, but for me it always made things predictable. So what if a movie started off, in every possible way, telling you that it was a slightly melancholy romantic comedy? What would it feel like for it to suddenly turn into something unspeakably horrific?  I can tell you – it would feel way, way more deranged than an average horror film.

Mulholland Drive StillMulholland Drive: Another horror movie that’s not really a horror movie.  But the emotional desperation of the the main characters, David Lynch’s mind-bending story structure, and the frequent eruptions of strange violence, mean that this will leave you equal parts distraught, confused, and paranoid.

Happiness: Also not really a horror movie, but worse than anything that ever featured Jason Voorhees. There are a few horrible people in this film, but the one who will always be remembered is the pedophile who rapes his young son’s friend during a sleepover.  He’s depicted as entirely human – and even empathetic. Ultimately, the most horrifying part of this movie is how you’re likely to react. I first saw it when it was released in theatres, and I was roaring with laughter at it deeply uncomfortable comedy.  I was on a date at the time.  No, things did not go so well.


It turns out I have too many movies to make this just a top ten.  I’ll be posting on similar topics soon, about movies like El Topo and Ichi the Killer.  Stay Tuned!