Whether or Weather

It was a self-inflicted double feature.  I’d been pondering movies about the weather.  Tons of movies have the weather in them, sometimes even as a significant plot element.  Few films, however, take the weather as their central thesis.  These movies verge on horror as the weather is something much larger than we are and which is deadly.  Let’s face it, a film about sunny skies and light breezes doesn’t have much of a hook.  I began by watching The Perfect Storm.  I’d seen it before, of course.  Not much like its book, which is nonfiction, it follows the loss of the sword boat Andrea Gail in the eponymous storm of 1991.  Not all members of the crew get a backstory, and since nobody knows what really happened, it was a chance for special effects to drive the story just as massive waves drive the boat.  The weather, while central, is seldom commented upon.  The characters are motivated by trying to make a living but there’s not enough time to give all six of them adequate stories.  Add to that another boat with no backstory and the movie become disjointed and smoky.

The next feature was The Day after Tomorrow.  Again, I’d seen it before, but you know how one thing leads to another.  Like The Perfect Storm, The Day after Tomorrow introduces more subplots than the movie can handle, even bringing a Russian freighter up Fifth Avenue in order to have a wolf-chase scene that is simply dropped after it’s discovered that wolves can’t climb ladders.  Still, the latter story has an environmental message.  Aware that human activity does lead to global warming, it tries to picture what would happen if it were speeded up into a matter of weeks rather than years.  No  matter how long it takes, the weather will get you.

As I’ve contended before, the sheer scope of the weather practically makes it divine.  Although we live in different climatic zones we’re all tied together under a single, volatile, powerful atmosphere.  Early humans realized that their survival depended on the weather.  Drought kills as readily as sudden ice ages.  The key, it seems, is balance.  Nature isn’t kind to species who assert too much dominance.  One of the means of nature’s control is the weather.  Until the development of meteorology, and even after its first tentative steps, the weather was considered a divine bailiwick.  We may proclaim it entirely natural, but it still commands its share of awe and majesty.  And it can easily claim a few weekend hours searching the skies for some kind of meaning.

Summertime Boos

There are so many of them that it’s difficult to keep up.  Movies, I mean.  And they can be an expensive habit.  As some readers may know, I’ve followed The Conjuring franchise pretty much from the beginning.  That particular film was long anticipated (at least in certain circles), but still I waited until it was available for home viewing to see it.  I always feel kind of selfish going to the movies on my own since they are a kind of event—a form of social outing.  For me, however, horror movies are research, but that hasn’t taken away the thrill of seeing one on the big screen once in a while.  The Conjuring branched off into the Annabelle movies, and I caught the latest offering in the latter series in a theater.  I hadn’t realized that The Curse of La Llorona had been released a couple months earlier, and that it was being considered part of the diegesis.  It was back to the small screen to catch up.

La Llorona is based on a Mexican folktale and is tied to the other films in its universe by a character who recurs from Annabelle, Fr. Perez.  He’s not the protagonist, but he does introduce one way in which horror responds to the present insanity we call the US government—the character who defeats the fiend is hispanic.  In fact, most of the characters in the film are from hispanic families in Los Angeles.  They take down the ghost without the assistance of border guards or any kind of wall.  They don’t need the simpering help of the GOP.  Like most of the movies in this franchise, however, they do make use of religion.

When Fr. Perez can’t offer immediate help to the family beset by La Llorona (“the weeping woman”), he points them to a local shaman.  In this otherwise Catholic world, the truly amazing outcome is that the faith healer does possess the knowledge and ability to stop the evil.  While the backstory of the ghost is well known, the nature of the entity is a bit unclear.  Most Conjuring films feature a demonic presence, so it’s kind of a relief to have a garden variety ghost for a change.  You see, when Ed and Lorraine Warren challenge entities in these movies they do so with religious accoutrements which tend not to fail.  Ghosts, however, traditionally don’t require a religious banishment.  We’re entering new territory here, of course.  And I hadn’t even known about this film until after I’d seen its predecessor.  How can you hope to keep up with spirits?  It’s a full-time job. 

Conjuring Success

I wonder if it’s one of the consequences of success.  While writing up some thoughts on The Conjuring diegesis, I got to wondering how accurate the movies’ portrayal of the occult museum of Ed and Lorraine Warren is.  The museum set appears in multiple films, and in Annabelle Comes Home it serves up a smorgasbord of horror.  Some of these artifacts, such as Annabelle, really do hold places of infamy in the establishment and some are clearly used in the cinematic version to set up spinoffs to keep the franchise alive forever.  Curiosity drove me to the open web—website owners of spaces of reputation now distrust this “open web,” what with its money grubbing and lack of peer review—to peruse some actual photos.  That’s how I learned the museum is permanently closed.  The reason given: zoning issues.  (I presume they don’t refer to the Twilight Zone issues.)

That The Conjuring franchise has proven remarkably successful hardly requires footnoting.  With The Conjuring 3 due out next year, a total of eight films will have been produced over seven years, currently and it currently stands as the second most profitable horror franchise in history.  For anyone wondering why I wrote Holy Horror, such numbers may help explain.  Now what of these zoning issues?  I wonder if it’s not the number of visitors drawn by the films that have created a problem.  (Those with questions aren’t purchasing Holy Horror, that’s for sure!)  Since the Warrens have now both passed away, the New England Society of Psychic Research runs the museum and is seeking a new place for it.  (We have space in my garage, just sayin’.)  And hey, Gettysburg isn’t too long a drive from here!

Success, I suspect, does come with its price tag.  People are drawn to those who’ve captured the interest of the big screen, and what with everyone dying death is a growth industry.  I suspect part of horror’s appeal is just that.  We all have to face it some day and while many run from it screaming some use this opportunity to prepare.  But I’ve also got to wonder if it can maintain its level of fear.  I recently watched the current iteration of It and found little that was even frightening about it.  But then again, clowns have never bothered me that much.  The bullies are the scariest thing in the film and Washington DC’s full of them.  Talk about success and its consequences.

Ghouls and Dolls

It was my plan—as if plans ever really work out—to see Annabelle Comes Home on opening weekend.  July got away from me but I finally found my way to the theater yesterday.  My current book, Nightmares with the Bible, deals with demons in cinema.  One of the chapters covers The Conjuring universe, and since this is the sixth film in that diegesis (with one tangentially attached spin-off) watching the movie was as much research as it was fun.  While the demon utilizing the doll Annabelle is clearly the main villain, the film, as in most of the franchise, interjects any number of entities.  Ed and Lorraine Warren, in real life, kept a museum of occult objects in their house.  This room contained items that had figured in their cases—they maintained demons didn’t possess objects, but people—including the doll Annabelle.

The new film maneuvers three girls (Judy, the Warrens’ daughter, her babysitter, and a friend) into the house alone.  One of the girls releases Annabelle from her blessed case, and a nighttime of terror ensues.  The demon behind Annabelle animates several of the haunted objects, so the girls have to deal with many ghoulish threats.  The film knows it is following tropes such as a car breaking down by a cemetery at night, and the idea of a babysitter being attacked by monsters, and at times it gives a slow wink to fans of the genre.  Still, there are plenty of genuinely creepy moments and a few jump startles.  It also shows the clearly demon in its “true form” at the climax of the film.  When it does so, it matches traditional renditions.

Set to become the highest grossing horror series of all time, The Conjuring universe mixes films that claim to be “based on a true story” and others, such as Annabelle Comes Home, that use real settings but without claiming to follow actual events.  What I found engaging about this particular movie was the fact that the youngest girl, Judy Warren, was the one who figured out how to re-capture the demon.  There are holes in the plot, of course, but featuring a young woman not requiring a man’s help to trap a demon is somewhat unusual in a Catholic diegesis.  True, she doesn’t perform an exorcism, but Judy does contain the evil without a priest, or even her father’s direct help.  As this diegesis wends its way into American folklore, moments like this are increasingly important.  Even though there are demons here, the women don’t require men to do the heavy lifting. 

Sighs

Suspiria is a movie intentionally difficult to follow.  The original 1977 version was an Italian film about witches posing as dance instructors.  After watching it, I felt I didn’t have enough backstory to understand the action.  Then a remake was released last year and I felt I needed, like a dancer, to try again.  I have to confess I’m not a dancer.  Luca Guadagnino’s remake left me scratching my head again, although it underscored a point I make in Holy Horror: in horror films with remakes the role of the Bible changes.  Now, it’s been years since I’ve seen the first Suspiria, but I don’t recall the Bible appearing.  It does, however, in the 2018 remake.  The protagonist, Susie Bannion, is an American enrolled at a German dance school.  She is, in the remake, a Mennonite from Ohio.

Not only does this situation allow religion to take once again an important role in a horror film, it is also the opportunity to show the Bible visually.  Susie’s mother, who objects to her daughter engaging in such a showy profession as dancing (and given the performance of Volk in the film, the nature of this objection can be easily guessed), is dying as the film begins.  Her Mennonite community watches and prays over her, sitting with Bibles clutched in their hands.  To take a page from Holy Horror, this suggests that the Good Book is powerless to save.  While the movie itself is a little confusing on this point, it seems that Susie’s mother dies as her daughter becomes the head witch of the dance academy.  Since Holy Writ famously contains verses condemning witches, the impotence of Scripture is underscored.

Italian folklore about witches appears to be remarkably robust.  From Strega Nona to Suspiria, the wizened women of society have power against which men are powerless.  Some of the bleakest moments in the film (from the point of view of the male gaze) are when the witches taunt powerless, naked men who cannot in any way defend themselves.  Turnabout, of course, is fair play—at least if folk sayings have any validity.  Here it’s worth considering that if male religions hold females down—the Mennonite women are shown in bonnets and uncomfortable clothes—then being a witch is remarkably freeing.  Indeed, there is the energy of a life-force evident in the dancing of the young women and the academy is closed to men, apart from public performances.  I’m still scratching my head over Suspiria, but it seems that the direct engagement with religion and the power of women makes this a movie worthy of rewatching and attempting to understand.

Universals

It was on television that I met them.  The Universal monsters.  The entire run of films from Dracula to The Creature Walks among Us had been shot, printed, and screened before I was born.  In other words, I’m a late monster boomer.  By the time I was old enough to handle monster movies, they were on television and my early memories of them are tinged with the nostalgia that accompanies what seemed like better times, although each era is about equally difficult.  When I saw James L. Neibaur’s The Monster Movies of Universal Studios I knew I had to read it.  Neibaur goes through all the films in the series, chronologically, encapsulating the Draculas, Frankenstein’s monsters, mummies, invisible men and women, wolf-men, and the gill-man.  As I child I never watched them systematically, being subject to television schedules, among other things.

Not understanding studios or business, and certainly not copyright, I never understood why other favorites such as Jekyll and Hyde, the phantom of the opera, and various assorted ghosts and ghouls weren’t part of the collection.  Nevertheless, this study in discrete, brief chapters, treats the official canon reasonably well.  The line between religion and monsters is sometimes crossed in these movies, which gets at an underlying theme of my own interest—how horror and religion interact—but that’s not Neibaur’s purpose.  That dynamic is, however, the driving force behind my two most recent books.  A tie-in to the paranormal may also be found there.

As I dropped off some promotional material for Holy Horror at an area bookstore recently, the events manager revealed her interest in the paranormal.  In my mental schematic, it’s wedged in there between monsters—which are fictional—and religion, the antithesis of fiction for most people.  What do we do with ghosts and others that don’t fit into the neat lines of a theology that draw a stark line between the supernatural and human?  Universal’s monsters sometimes ran into problems with the Production Code for stepping over that line.  Of course, the Universal monsters are pretty tame in comparison with today’s fare.  Still, they were the monsters who showed, in many ways, what it was to be human.  Neibaur isn’t going for an in-depth analysis here, and his treatment is readily readable by anyone interested in revisiting the monsters of yesteryear.  Some of the descriptions reminded me of movies from my childhood that I’d forgotten.  It is pleasant to relive them for a few moments while the real monsters in the real world lurk not far from my door.

Witch Way from Here?

Häxan is often considered a horror film.  Produced by Benjamin Christensen, it was released in 1922, the same year as Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens.  Both are silent films and the term “horror movie” didn’t exist that early.  Framed as a documentary of sorts, Häxan deals with witches, or more precisely, with ideas about witches.  Taking a remarkably modern view, it presents how the church led to the persecution of women during the witch hunts.  It had been on my “to see” list for many years before I realized it is now in the public domain and is rather easily found on YouTube for free.  It presents reenactments that are still difficult to watch, although silent films have a difficult time scaring viewers used to CGI verging on virtual reality.

Banned in the United States upon its initial release, the movie dares address that sacred ruminant, the foibles of the church.  Christensen was largely correct in placing the blame for harm inflicted on thousands of innocent people—mostly women—on the zeal of a masculine church.  The prolonged dramatization of the destruction of an entire family based on forced confession and trickery, often by well-fed monks, makes the point clearly.  While modern explanations have recourse to the psychological motivations, often unknown to those whose worldview was ecclesiastical, we still haven’t relinquished the misogyny of the Middle Ages.  Considering that Häxan is nearly a century old itself, there’s cause for embarrassment in a world largely run by technology.  We still tend to ban that which causes us ridicule.  

When tragedies occur, it’s only too natural to blame someone or something for it.  Why the burden of that blame was laid on women by a male hierarchy is sadly only too easy to guess.  Häxan is one of those examples of the way horror can cross over between fact and fiction.  Today it can’t be taken as a documentary with any kind of seriousness, but it maintains an atmosphere of dread that finds it classified as horror before the genre itself began.  Movies about witches continue in the genre up to the present, and most are quite aware of the male culpability behind this particular variety of “monster.”  To test if witch trials continue all we need to do is watch how men in power continue to behave toward women.  It’s almost enough to make us believe hexes are real.