There is a tendency among film critics, programmers, and academics to dismiss filmmakers who work within genres as entertainers, not accepting them as artists. Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Douglas Sirk, and other classical Hollywood directors have engraved within the fabric of their films a uniquely personal form of expression, breaking through the impersonal conventions of classical Hollywood. But over the course of the last sixty years, the auteur theory initially envisioned by the Cahiers critics in the ’50s as a way to recognize great Hollywood filmmakers, has mostly been forgotten. Now, the auteur narrative has changed: one must work independently outside of the system, away from what appears to be Hollywood’s hegemony. Vulgar auteurism was a backlash against this thinking, but the movement was eventually dismissed because of confusion and straw man arguments. I firmly believe that movies can be great no matter the mode of filmmaking, the circumstances under which they are made, and the type of spectators being addressed.
The Lure (5.5/10) is a mermaid/vampire/musical/horror film from Poland that is simultaneously gonzo and conventional, a pastiche you’ve never seen with a story you’re already tired of. Two mermaid-vampires become strippers in a night club, where one of them falls in love, risking the exclusivity of their friendship. Eventually, they must find blood; they risk blowing their cover as civilized humans when they cave in to their desires for violence via seduction.
With vague world-building, characters that quickly enter and exit the narrative, and detached scenes of brilliance, the film is as inspired as it is as frustrating, as disjointed as it is coherent in its vision, and as different as it is formulaic. The events inside the club do nothing to contextualize anything that goes on outside. At times, people are shocked during the mermaid’s transformations, but in others they gaze at them without asking any further questions. Are the citizens of this world aware of mermaid-vampires, or are they just taboo? Because the film relies so heavily on our already established mythology of vampires and mermaids, the specifics of its world are unclear.
With a male gaze and fetishized violence, The Lure is the antithesis of what Rob Zombie’s most passionate proponents claim about his work. Having seen only one of the director’s films, I’m trusting a friend’s word when he calls his work subversive, anti-violent and formally rigorous. But 31 (5/10), his latest film which premiered in the ghettoized midnight section, only has mild glimmers of a critical vision that separates itself from horror tropes. 31 indulges as much as it withholds, failing to find a throughline in between the brilliant opening and the confounding closing shots.
Where we might have expected a younger and sexier ensemble, we follow a group of middle-aged hippies during the ’80s who are abducted and put into an arena where they must survive obstacles and hitmen sent to kill them over the course of a night as rich, bourgeois sadists observe. Without any characters or psychology in which to root the violence, the deaths in the film are fetishistic and devoid of any lasting sting. As the film critiques the genre by having a group of rich outsiders bet on the odds of the character’s survival, it borders on self-loathing, inadvertently indulging in the very thing it despises. The messy editing and cinematography during the dialogue sequences especially undercut any half-baked ideas the film might have about our desire to devour graphically violent images.
Under The Shadow (7/10), which is being called the next The Babadook, is an Iranian horror film that is simple but mostly effective, relying on the implication of violence and eerie practical effects like Poltergeist. The claustrophobia felt by the female protagonist is the focal point, rather than any severed appendages; it’s about the mutilation of a mind, not a body.
Borrowing the structure from formerly compared Australian horror film, Under The Shadow starts off as a domestic drama about a woman intellectually, emotionally and physically imprisoned in Iranian society, suppressed to the four walls inside her home. As a war rages and thunders outside, cracking the windows and walls of her home, all she can do to change her environment is tape the collapsing structures. With her husband sent on an assignment near the front lines, the resilient woman is left to care for her fragile daughter. At a certain point that is difficult to pinpoint, the film shifts from being socially realistic, into an impressionistic hell: the things that go bump in the night are nearly indistinguishable from the barrage of bombs outside the home. The bomb shelter becomes a haunted basement, a short staircase feels like an infinite spiral leading nowhere, and the entire building is a fighting force trying to keep her oppressed inside.
Derivative and far from radical on a formal or thematic level, I was always a step ahead of the film, circling around and waiting for it to catch up in nearly every moment. It’s metaphors are obvious and the trajectory of the narrative is apparent from the beginning. With the exception of a few jump scares, the film is serviceable scary and bolstered in real-world conflict: the best kind of horror.
Although I think Operation Avalanche has the most innovative and interesting appropriation of genre at Sundance, these four other movies use trite conventions intriguingly, if not always successfully. With Yoga Hosers being the last genre film I will see at Sundance, I doubt this year’s slate will have a standout like The Babadook or The Witch.