Friday, September 15, 2023

Notes on Film: The Horror of Identity

 by Anthony King

Discovering ourselves through scares.

More than any other genre, horror seems to find comfort in exploring identity. A trio of new horror films have made this quite apparent to me. When confronted with fear, we're stripped away of all pretense. We're at our most vulnerable. And it's in these moments that the reality we once knew becomes distorted, if not completely disappearing. The reality of old is replaced with something otherworldly, our new reality – our real reality.

In Landlocked (2021), writer/director Paul Owens explicitly explores the worlds of both realities plus the gray space in between. Starring Owens' real life brother, Mason, and featuring the director himself as well as his other brother, Seth, and his father, Jeffrey, the story is about discovering who we really are through the past. But is the past we remember (or see) the real reality? Mason receives a tape in the mail of his father saying their childhood home will be torn down a year after Dad has died. Mason goes back to the house, now abandoned, and begins rummaging around. He comes across an old video camera and quickly realizes he can see the past while looking through the viewfinder. Obsession quickly sets in as Mason tries to record as many memories as possible. Eventually he enters sort of a prepossessed state and he (and we) begin to question what's real and what's not.
Landlocked is in the small class of films that have actually scared me. I was watching Saturday night while my youngest son was in bed and my wife and oldest son were out. When the garage door opened I literally jumped. Made on the cheap, but not necessarily cheap-looking, the film gives off an eerie feeling from the very beginning. A sense of dread hangs over all 75 minutes like a lurking evil specter. When reality begins to shift I found myself questioning everything that I'd just watched the previous 60 minutes. A minimal score, static shots, and a cast composed of three brothers and their dad send this tiny indie film into the stratosphere. Landlocked premiered at Salem Horror Fest in 2021 followed by screenings at Chattanooga and Sydney, Australia the following year. It was unceremoniously dumped on Tubi (thank you, Tubi) this year, but deserved a home like Shudder. Nevertheless, Landlocked is a remarkable film you can watch for absolutely free. Stay through the credits and you'll notice our very own PB in the thank yous!

Speaking of Shudder, Stewart Thorndike's Bad Things (2023) premiered on the streamer earlier this year. Gayle Rankin stars as Ruthie, a young woman who has inherited her family's now-vacant hotel. One snowy weekend Ruthie and her friends head to the hotel to relax and reminisce. Things come to light, Ruthie begins to lose her grip on reality, and she (and her friends) question who she really is and where she came from. I describe Bad Things as a lesbian The Shining with a slasher in a CPAP mask. If this doesn't sell you, then there's no hope for you. Plus you get appearances from Hari Nef (groundbreaking trans model) and Queen Molly Ringwald.
Ruthie is grieving a loss throughout the film. Whether it's the loss of her grandmother, her mother (is she dead?), or the hotel, everything is revealed at the end. As someone who has experienced the loss of a parent, I've recently found an odd kinship with characters in movies or books who have also lost a parent. While the grieving process is a wholly individual thing, and the circumstances surrounding the loss of a loved one are, of course, unique to each circumstance, there is this unspoken bond between people who have experienced that sort of loss. And in that grief one goes through a bit of an identity crisis. For me, it didn't come to a head until I was sitting on my roof last year cleaning the gutters. I was working my step 9 of Alcoholics Anonymous, and I had something to say to my father who had been dead nine years at that point. A cardinal landed within a foot of me on the roof and just stared at me. I stared back and was overcome with the feeling that I was supposed to talk to my dad at that point. (I realize my dad wasn't the cardinal, but I took it as a sign.) There, on the roof of my house, staring at a goddamn bird, I unloaded all the things I was holding onto about my dad. I said all the things I'd wanted to say to him for the past nine years. All the while the cardinal just stayed there, staring at me. When I was done, I said I love you, I thanked the bird, and I shit you not, the thing flew away. Now, while I didn't expect to end up like Ruthie or Jack Torrance had I not expressed my grief in words, I felt like a completely new (and mentally healthier) person after saying what I needed to say.

Finally, I watched Mark Jenkin's Enys Men (2022), currently streaming on Hulu. It follows Mary Woodvine as a conservationist living on an uninhabited island off the British coast. She is tasked with recording changes (or not) in soil structure and plant life around the rocky coastline. All alone, The Volunteer (as she's credited) does the exact same thing every single day. Slowly, she begins to go mad. Hallucinations dominate her day. Are the things and the people we're seeing real? Were they real? Is The Volunteer alive? The island is a world of drab grays and browns and greens, yet a bright red rain coat, a brilliant blue sky, and stark white flowers punctuate a seemingly dreary but actually beautiful land.The crackle of the single radio communication device breaks through the monotony of the crashing waves, whipping winds, and constant drone of a gas-powered generator.
While a simple life such as the one being led by The Volunteer may seem appealing to some, the film shows that cracks eventually form in the peaceful solitude. Quickly The Volunteer starts to question reality. Who is she? We get insights into who this woman is. A long scar cuts across her abdomen, leaving the viewer to question what happened. When lichen begins to appear on first the flowers then her scar we begin to question the reality being shown to us. Is this what this woman is meant to be doing? We see a young girl and a man at points, leaving the viewer wondering if these were the woman's family? Who is this person? Is she running away from something? While I was asking these questions about this woman I was watching, I realized these are questions that I've asked and some I continue to ask of myself. Some have compared Enys Men to Skinamarink (2022). This is a terribly unfair comparison. While both have minimal dialogue or story, Enys Men is far more pleasing to look at the Skinamarink.

Sadly, I can confirm our questions of identity never stop. I go to a meeting with a gentleman in his 80s and he constantly talks about who he is and what he's supposed to be doing in life while all the other 60-, 70-, and 80-year-olds shake their heads in agreement. So I guess we're doomed to never know our life's purpose. On the flipside, this could be an exciting opportunity to never stop learning, exploring, and growing. The horror genre has since the beginning and continues to explore the topic of identity. While most horror films aren't explicitly stating, “This movie is about discovering oneself,” look at most of your favorite horrors and you'll discover that, in fact, they are about the exploration of one's identity.

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