Tag Archives: pacific rim

Horror vacui

Beware of spoilers.

 gogo 8the-conjuring-exclusive-poster-131169-a-1364403294lead

Recent movies have me musing about a favorite topic, death. That, and horror. In particular, why do we like to watch death and horror on the screen? What does it do for us? Are we seeing more death and horror, and enjoying it less?

Other than the frightening box office success of “Grown Ups 2,” (beating out the extraordinary “Pacific Rim,” $42.7 to $ 38.2 million) Hollywood of late can’t be credited with anything as scary as – well, I think the last time I was really scared at a big studio movie  was at “Alien” (1979), although the eerie indie “Berberian Sound Studio


( which played recently at the Brattle Theatre in an inspired twin-bill  with Dario Argento’s wonderfully nutty, hallucinatory “Suspiria”)

gogo 467859-suspiria04

opened up the doors to an existential horror similar to that of “The Tenant”

gogo 8 The-Tenant

and “Mulholland Drive.”

gogo 8mulholland-drive-michael-j-anderson1

As for “Upstream Color

gogo 8 Upstream-Color

I sometimes have the feeling I entered that movie and never returned.

Otherwise, perhaps I have become jaded. Except when they go after animals, especially cats, not even the extreme, graphic violence of the “Saw” gets to me any more. “Maniac” and “Aftershock” – eh. But then they didn’t have any menaced cats.

So is horror a dead, so to speak, art? Can it be revived by a return to basics? That seems to be the appeal of “The Conjuring” from “Saw” co-creator (along with Leigh Whannell) James Wan. He has graduated from sadism and graphic mayhem and has been trying to frighten people the old fashioned way, with the classic scare tactics of creaks, false shocks, and the creeping, unseen unknown. His first film taking this approach, “Insidious” (2011)

gogo 8insidious_2010_4-1024x576

drew on a combined haunted-house-plus-possessed-child combo with forays into David Lynch weirdness, but it elicited mostly laughter from the critics at the press screening I attended a couple of years ago. 

But there wasn’t as much laughter at the screening of his new film “The Conjuring,” and indeed some critics confessed it gave them the willies. I can’t say I was one of them. Instead I found it predictable, dithering, and dumb.

Once again Wan returns to the haunted house and that old horror standby of the family who moves into a new residence, all sunshine and optimism,

gogo 8 welcome

and then discovers that they have entered the gates of Hell.. Or if not hell, then maybe a more stimulating-than-average episode of “Most Haunted.”

Based on a true story, one from the case files of Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren, real-life paranormal investigators, or, as Ed puts it modestly, “Demonologists,” “The Conjuring” relates the harrowing experiences of the Perron family, Roger (Ron Livingston), his wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and their four – or was it five? – daughters, who in 1971 moved into their dream home in rural Harrisville, Rhode Island. We must forgive the Perron’s their naivété, as they have not yet been able to witness the next four decades of haunted house horror conventions, up to and including the “Scary Movie” franchise. But really, they should have at least paid attention to the poor dog when he refused to step over the threshold (the dog’s fate, as might be expected, affected me more than anything else in the movie).

So six females and one guy – that’s a lot of estrogen, and you know that can’t be good. Soon enough some weird things start happening, like somebody trying to sleep and having her leg pulled by some disembodied joker, unusual bruises appearing on Carolyn’s body, and strange noises mounting to a crescendo along with the soundtrack and then turning out to be nothing at all.

Not yet, at any rate.

To his credit, Wan has talent at putting together a creepy mise-en-scene. The house, toured in part via streadicam from the p.o.v. of family members, first with excited expectations, then with uneasy curiosity, and finally with growing alarm, dread, and panic, is wonderfully beat-up and creepy. I was hoping they would spend more time sorting through the interesting crap piled in the basement, which the Perron’s find boarded up and then, violating the basic rule of how to survive in a horror movie, proceed to unseal, enter, and poke around.

gogo 8 The-Conjuring basement

Big mistake, of course. I won’t disclose what happens, but it will scare the pants off you, especially if you haven’t been to a movie since “The Sound of Music.”

Desperate, her fears initially dismissed by Roger (who really should spend more time at home with the family), Carolyn attends one of the Warrens’ lectures at a local college, and begs them to come by the house and investigate. They agree, Ed reluctantly, because he fears that Lorraine, who is the psychically sensitive one of the duo, might go over the deep end, as apparently once happened before during a previous exorcism that had gone horribly awry.

Using primitive equipment

gogo 8 02-the-conjuring investigation

— as compared to the spook-hunting equipment on cable TV today or the gizmos in “Ghostbusters” – they find that the place is crawling with spirits and demons. Apparently, a witch who lived in the house a century or so ago, Bathsheba by name, had sacrificed her son to Satan and then hung herself from the creepy tree in the front yard.

 gogo8 The-Conjuring-Banner 2 feet

Her baleful influence has spawned a series of suicides and murders over the years, and now she’s stuck to Carolyn’s back like some giant, ectoplasmic tick!

Okay, let’s back up. Maybe I should lighten up, not be so analytical and just have fun because it’s just a movie! Well, I tried, but I just couldn’t get into Wan’s creaky, retro scare tactics. And maybe I”m trying too hard when I point out some seemingly innocuous film’s racist or homophobic or misogynist subtext.

But, come on: a household that includes a mother and five daughters, females who stir up a pandemonium of dormant evil entities, the chief demon being a Satan-worshipping, child-murdering harridan whose malignant spirit possesses a woman who then seeks to kill her own kids?

gogo 8 bad mom

Then top it off with a sadistic exorcism sequence,

 gogo 8 Conjuring_02 exorcism

performed by Ed


filling in at a pinch for the local priest, who’s tied up getting an official okay from the Vatican.

The Vatican? Not so subtly Wan poses the Church as the last bastion of goodness against a seething netherworld of female and female-possessing malignancies. Now I don’t have any beef against Catholics per se, being born, raised, and baptized one myself. But it is the biggest and most powerful institution of retrogressive patriarchal practices and beliefs on the planet.

Upon reflection, “The Conjuring” reminds me of another recent film in which a similar problem arises in a household of females led by a patriarchal figure, Christian Mungiu’s “Beyond the Hills.” Here, too, one of the women starts acting wacky, and so the good Father in that film also arranges an exorcism of sorts, with a different outcome. 

gogo 8 beyondthehills1-470x260

Now that was a scary movie.

— Peter Keough

Doomsday scenarios

gogo 7 pacific-rim intro

Having just been overstimulated by Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pacific Rim,” I think I’ll settle down a bit by comparing it to the other  models of catastrophic destructiveness posed by the summer movies so far.

But first it occurred  to me while that with its  swirling, smashing, and hard-to-distinguish underwater action, an immersion that at times has the hypnotic effect of staring into a washing machine,

gogo 7 pacific-rim-27

“Pacific Rim” looked a lot like  Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s, avant garde documentary about a fish trawler, “Leviathan,”

gogo 7 big_visnja-leviathan

though with a $180 million budget. Or like “Transformers,” though with irony, wit, subtlety, and a twisted sense of the absurd. I don’t think Michael Bay would have, say, the poetic eye to show a tiny girl in blue cowering in the ruins of Tokyo as seen from the point of view of a robot as tall as a skyscraper. Spielberg maybe, though the girl in red in “Schindler’s List” loses points for self-conscious artiness and manipulation.

Be that as it may, how does “Pacific Rim” measure up to the summer’s other blockbusting blockbusters? Here are some comparisons,

In “Man of Steel,” the bad guys are, literally, supermen, the ubermenschen posited by Nietzsche and embraced by the Nazis and just about every other morbidly adolescent, narcissistic power freak up to and including neocons besotted by Ayn Rand. Decked in cool, black, latter-day SS regalia,

gogo 7 zod and co

these refugees from Krypton unleash a 90 minute smash-athon as they prepare to terra-form our world to their liking  before  wiping out the indigenous inhabitants. Only another super being, Clark Kent /Kal-el /Superman, from the same alien race, can save us. Mere untermenschen, we puny humans can only cower and wait for the outcome of the titanic struggle.

Body count? Though no actual deaths are depicted, you’ve got to think that wiping out both Metropolis and Smallville is going to leave a mark.

gogo 7 earth thumper

On the bright side, though, Kal-El (or whatever he goes by) does rescue Lois Lane from a nasty fall.

A  fascist elite also causes trouble in Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down,”  though in this case they’re coming from the inside, not from outer space. A conspiracy of traitors, abetted by nutters, nihilists, and neo-Nazis, more or less turn the powers of the executive branch against itself. Coming to the rescue is the forgotten man of our day, the middle class schlump, who also, fortunately, happens to have elite skills from his time served in the Special Forces. And then there is the ultimate weapon, a brave little girl waving an American flag on the White House lawn as rockets glare redly and bombs burst in air and the harried President wields an RPG from the back of an armored limo.

Casualties and damage assessment: the Capitol bites the dust in spectacular fashion, and the White House is not looking good either. Plus the Secret Service is pretty much wiped out, as well as a few Seal teams and other military assets. The collateral damage among gawkers and hapless civilians is not so bad – again, we don’t see any actual carnage, but the bomb in the Capitol atrium alone must have taken out a few busloads of tourists.

In “World War Z,” (check out Henry’s shrewd assessment here) the situation is somewhat reversed. Here, the elite are the good guys, their skills and intelligence the last hope of the human race, and the hoi polloi, the horde of lumpen consumers as represented by the rabid zombies, are the problem. Complicating matters is the fact that you can change from endangered smart guy to mindless, angry consumer with a single bite, the equivalent in real life of an extended exposure to Fox News. Death toll? Billions, I’d guess,

gogo 7 more pilesworld-war-z-movie-poster-42

with piles and piles of corpses, either ambulatory or burnt to a crisp. But do zombies really count as dead people when you kill them the second time?

Finally, we arrive at “Pacific Rim,” which combines many of the above elements but with the added madness of Del Toro’s chimerical brilliance and fallen Catholic world view. The Kaiju,

gogo 7 pacific-rim09 beast on carrier

the giant beasts from another dimension that are laying waste to the planet, are an homage not just to Godzilla and the old guy-in-a-rubber-suit goliaths of Toho Studio, but also draw on primordial behemoths like H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu  (Del Toro agreed to direct this film only after his hope of adapting Lovecraft’s “In the Mountains of Madness” faded), as well as the ancient world-destroyers of pagan myths and the Bible, especially the book of Revelations.

The peril is not just cataclysmic, but apocalyptic, which is what the leader of the human resistance, who goes by the loaded name of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba),points out in an otherwise uninspiring speech rallying the troops. A kooky pair of scientists (played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman in hilarious, hyperactive performances that almost make up for the total lack of personality of the rest of the cast) go on to explain how these creatures have been sent to our plane of existence by a predatory race seeking to eradicate the locals so they can move in (shades of “Man of Steel”). And, in fact, humans have done a lot of the work for them, as global warming has already transformed the environment into something more to the invaders liking.

Well, it all sounds a little clunky to me, sending in monsters to do the job any self-respecting aliens would enjoy doing themselves. Equally unwieldy is the human countermeasure of creating “Jaegers,” monumental humanoid robots operated by mind-melding humans in a kind of ultimate Wii video game. I mean, is punching the Kaiju out more effective than a couple of tactical nukes?  But these gimcracky devices do allow Del Toro to insert a subversive subtext, or at least according to my tortured reading of the film.

Once again, the potential salvation of the planet lies in the hands of an elite – the uniquely talented pilots of the Jaeger. They’re regarded by the public as rock stars, doing talk shows and endorsement deals, and they sure look cool because in this movie it’s the good guys, not the evil invaders, who get to wear the sharp-looking, crypto-Nazi duds.


They also have the talent to meld minds, entering a state of “drift,” a psychological swirl of mutual memories, by which they bond with each other and with their machines.

gogo 7 Pacific-Rim-Robot-Pilots

As with the technology in “Avatar,” this process is a video gamer’s dream, allowing any nerd to plug into a system that lets you grab, say, a beached ocean liner, or whatever else is handy, and knock around some monsters. They’re like Ripley suited up in the loader in “Alien” doing battle with the alien queen, except the experience is about $100 million in special effects bigger and better.

gogo 7_187WeaverQueen

However, there is a downside. For one thing, the Jaegers’ titanic battles with the Kaiju have the opposite of the intended effect – the more successful they are, the more formidable the foe becomes, increasing in size and number.

Secondly, melding with the machine takes an insidious toll on the human operators, reducing them to components; despite their superstar status, they are just cogs in the machine. Becket, for example, the ostensible protagonist, is pretty much a cipher. It only takes a few seconds of his “drift” flashback montage to reveal all the cliches that make up his character. Nor does he get much more interesting when he quits the Jaegers after a bad experience and joins the masses who are laboring on an ill-conceived “wall of life” designed to keep the Kaiju out. I was hoping he might get more cynical and down-and-out, giving up the Jaegers, say, for Jaegermeister…

As it is, though, Becket and the others serve Del Toro’s purpose, which is not to detract from the magnificent machines and the stupendous Jaeger vs. Kaiju battles. Del Toro doesn’t need characters to develop his theme of dehumanization when the f/x, set designs, imagery, and mise-en-scene convey it with such spectacular impact. In the world of “Pacific Rim,” everything is retro and broken down and crummy; it’s a place where the human spirit has succumbed to the regimentation of an inhuman, mechanical universe.

gogo 7 grubby Idris-Elba-in-Pacific-Rim-2013-Movie-Image

The monochrome masses of the lumpen poor in the crowd scenes, the Gothic caverns of the Jaeger hangars, and the big rusty doors, enormous machine fragments, and other greasy detritus lying around evoke the dismal “desert of the real” of “The Matrix.”

gogo 7 matrix-baby

At other times the settings seemed straight out of “Metropolis”

gogo 7 Metropolis-metropolis-1927-15539888-2560-1804

and “Modern Times,”

gogo 7 ModernTimes_1

silent classics about the perils of an industrialized society.

Or, as mentioned above, they resemble the documentary “Leviathan,” in which a factory-like fishing trawler takes on the aspect of a Moloch-like devourer. As horrific as the sea monsters are in “Pacific Rim, they are only the distorted reflections of the inhuman giants that oppose them.