Horror fans were met with a typically shocking double bill screened at the Dancehouse last Thursday, thanks to Grimm Up North.
The Manchester horror team’s latest offerings placed two horror films in uncommon contexts: the American A Horrible Way to Die recalls the still nascent ‘mumblecore’ indie movement, whilst the Belgian-French Amer is a homage to the Italian gialli thrillers from the 1970s. The former was also shown ahead of its official UK DVD release in March.
A Horrible Way to Die is aptly titled, though it could also have been named A Horrible Way to Live. Adam Wingard’s seasick camerawork and shuffled pacing is appropriate for both of its very different characters, escaped prisoner Garrick Turrell and recovering alcoholic Sarah. It opens with two scenes – Garrick butchering a victim in the woods, Sarah attending a dimly lit Alcoholics Anonymous meeting – not to contrast characters, but to merge their differing levels of drudgery into one unrelenting atmosphere of despair. From the soft-focus, slanted images to the mumbled, muffled dialogue, it depicts living as much as dying as inherently horrible.
The tonal horribleness is sustained even when Sarah dates her not-at-all-creepy AA colleague Kevin. It’s par for the course to have sex scenes in horror, but only a mumblecore director would portray them as Wingard does here.
Evading the male gaze, Wingard peeps on Sarah and Kevin’s awkward writhing under a haze of lens flares and beer breath; the exertions would be vague were it not Kevin’s bare rear protruding before us. It only gets drearier mid-snooze, as flashbacks stir with Garrick sneaking out of Sarah’s bed – the killer, it transpires, is Sarah’s ex.
Little effort is taken to develop the characters as anything more than familiar archetypes of gloom; their dialogue either stilted by formality (who says ‘I apologise’ instead of ‘I’m sorry,’ really?) or by clichés so familiar they must be deliberately laughable. (“We can hide in the cabin in the woods, no one will ever find us there.”) But as an exercise in horribleness, it is most certainly a success, due in no small part to its deathly ambient soundtrack and with a climax so head-turningly anxious it vindicates A Horrible Way to Die’s chosen title.
Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Amer couldn’t be more different from Wingard’s lo-fi indie. Whereas that was grimy and to-the-point, this is lustrous and oblique. The critics’ comparisons with giallo cinema are slightly inaccurate, as their convoluted mystery plots were not nearly as mystifying as Amer’s tripartite narrative: heroine Ana is played by three different actresses, each segment symbolising childhood, adolescence and adulthood during periods of sexual awakening.
The high point is the first act, in which the child Ana is chased by a mysterious figure around an opulent home, the tension ratcheting up with garish reds and greens streaking the visuals during moments of intense desire and fear. It’s very Argento, but it reminds one of Argento’s later, more supernatural works like Suspiria, rather than his gialli start-outs.
The long second act is never scary, preferring instead to channel Ana’s nervous sexuality as she is ogled by screen-filling eyeballs and her body is subject to fetishist close-ups. It’s not until the final segment, in which Ana encounters a switchblade-wielding psycho, where Amer feels like a slasher, and one you’ll be watching through your fingers.
Neither subtitles or dubbing even necessary, Amer is concerned less with dialogue than with the sounds of doors slamming, keys turning, heels clicking, and heavy breathing to aurally communicate its fascination with sensuality. But it’s primarily a visual experience, scouring the screen as it does with luminous colours and salacious images for little purpose beyond aesthetic rapture. Indulgent perhaps, but when a film this pointless still entices your attention, then it arguably shouldn’t need to do more than that.
It’s too often lamented that the horror genre has been dying, but the multiplex has never been horror’s natural home. Both of these films were far more unnerving than the teeny derivatives that pass for horror there, and the art-deco Dancehouse Theatre had a retro feel befitting the screenings like a cosy glove. There may not have been popcorn, but there was a 25 minute beer break; a stall selling DVDs, t-shirts, and posters; and a free raffle giving away goodies.
Grimm Up North’s upcoming March 16 double-bill is a Roger Corman documentary and Sharktopus (half-shark, half-octopus)…if you’re a horror fan but haven’t been to Grimm Up North yet, then why not?
TRAILER: A Horrible Way to Die (2011)
TRAILER: Amer (2010)