Late for Nowhere

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Three films to curdle your blood

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These film reviews are another one of my contributions to the supernatural-themed issue of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine:

Nosferatu the Vampyr (1979)

It might be hard to believe, but there was a time when vampires were depicted not as hipster teens with glittery skin but as frightening, degenerate denizens of blasted heaths and crumbling castles beyond the margins of human civilization.

Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyr offers just such old-school creepiness combined with stunning cinematography: from the unsettling documentary footage of mummified corpses at the beginning; to the ominous arrival in Wismar of a coffin-laden ship, the crew missing and the dead captain lashed to the wheel; to the juxtaposition of Count Dracula’s tortured grotesqueness (played by über-oddball Klaus Kinski) and the ethereal beauty of fang-magnet Lucy Harker.

The basic narrative is based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897), and the film pays homage to WF Murnau’s 1922 silent movie Nosferatu.

But Herzog – who also wrote the script – injects his own hefty dose of mystery into the story, creating a film that examines the enigmatic interface between reason and superstitious belief.

Toward the end of the film, as Lucy stands alone in her conviction that a vampire is responsible for the eerie occurrences in Wismar, Enlightenment guru Dr Van Helsing pronounces that “science has refuted the superstitions you’re talking about”.

Lucy, girding herself to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to rid the city of darkness, retorts, “Faith is the faculty in men which enables us to believe things we know to be untrue.”

It’s a brainteaser for which the smug Van Helsing has no response.


Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Set in Spain in 1944 during the early years of the fascist regime, Pan’s Labyrinth tells the story of Ofelia, a young girl who tries to shut out the horrors unfolding around her in favor of focusing on a quest – perhaps real, perhaps imagined – to return to her previous incarnation as the princess of an ancient underground city.

It is tempting to dismiss Ofelia’s obsession with fairy tales as simple escapism, but the film’s theme might more accurately be described as the search for varied versions of utopia: The brutal Captain Vidal seeks a “new, clean Spain” where everything runs according to his personal stopwatch, while guerrillas in the forest fight for a world where everyone is treated equally. Ofelia’s mother Carmen, meanwhile, seeks refuge in the notion of family.

These ideals collapse under the pesky, corrupting influence of reality, and Ofelia finds that the obstacles she faces in her quest are not so different from those offered by the world of adults. One of her tasks, for example, is to destroy a monstrous frog who – in the proud tradition of tyrants around the world – shamelessly grows fat while leeching off the dying tree where it lives.

Later, a pile of shoes in the vault of the child-eating Pale Man evokes the heaps of discarded belongings found in Nazi death camps at the end of World War II. Even Faun, the mythical Pan sent to help Ofelia return to her kingdom, reveals a fascist streak when he demands that the girl “do everything I say, without question”.

Like Nosferatu, Pan’s Labyrinth delves into questions about loss of faith, particularly as we grow older, and wonders whether something might still exist even when nonbelievers are unable to see it. An insect in the forest might just be an insect – unless it’s a fairy.


The Babadook (2014)

It might be impossible to convince anyone unfamiliar with goofy-sounding Australian words that they could get the heebie-jeebies from watching a movie called The Babadook. But there’s menace aplenty in this film, whose title is actually more onomatopoeia than Oz-ism.

In the tradition of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, the story works as both horror and psychological thriller. Protagonist Sam is a troubled boy whose obsession with monsters prompts him to build weapons with which he breaks windows and threatens other children, eventually resulting in his removal from school.

Meanwhile, Sam’s disturbing pleas to his mother Amelia – “I don’t want you to die”– can be seen as foreshadowing the appearance of the long-dreaded monster, but might also be a manifestation of the fear of abandonment not uncommon in children who have lost a parent at an early age. Sam’s father, you see, died in an accident while driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to their son …

Sam has difficulty sleeping, and Amelia reads fairy tales to him at bedtime in an effort to soothe his mind. But then an ominous book titled Mister Babadook appears on the shelf. Alongside the scary drawings of a top-hatted devil, the poetic text invites readers to “come, come see what’s underneath” and promises, “the more you deny, the stronger I’ll get”.

Once Sam can label his fears with the name “Babadook”, the simmering tension builds steadily and relentlessly until, as the saying goes, all hell breaks loose in the household.

Having isolated themselves, mother and son must face the man in the shadows on their own, and of course no one outside the house believes in Mister Babadook. When a doctor treating Sam for anxiety assures Amelia that “all children see monsters”, she shakes her head and, in an almost comical understatement, deadpans, “Not like this.”


Written by latefornowhere

March 19, 2015 at 3:50 am

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