Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Halloween List: Thelma, Annihilation, and The Endless

Previously: Pyewacket, The Meg, and Hold the Dark.

Today I have three winners for you. Helping get the taste of Hold the Dark out of my mouth are three masterfully made movies, and two of the best Cosmic Horror films ever made. After years of people wishing for anything close to In the Mouth of Madness, we got both Annihilation and The Endless in the same year. And yet I'll come across as ungrateful and say that as much as I enjoyed them, it's Thelma that stuck with me the longest.

Thelma (2017) 

Somewhere between Carrie and The Omen lies Thelma. This Scandinavian movie follows a young woman who’s going off to university for the first time and discovering herself – and discovering that something is wrong with her. Over the course of a superb slow burn we learn about strange events that happened during her childhood, and how her parents insisted on quietly doing nothing about them. It seemed to work at the time; those events seemed to stop.

Those events aren’t repeating, and with them seemingly safely in her past, Thelma has a chance at a life. She goes out to party, meets a girl she immediately crushes on, and starts to become an independent person. There are hours of class, and she has to deal with jackasses for the first time, but she’s adapting. It’s the beginning of a promising life, one interrupted by sudden seizures and nightmarish delusions. These things are starkly different than what we learn happened in her childhood.

This is all shot and scored with a classic tone that reminds one of the paranoia in Rosemary’s Baby. It’s easy to invest in her and root for her because whatever terror she goes through is palpable, carried particular well by Eili Harboe’s lead performance as Thelma herself. A good chunk of the movie is a guessing game as to how the possible paranormal events of her childhood relate to the plausible medical trauma she’s experiencing now. Even her visions seem like things someone suffering an aneurysm could experience. Whatever is happening to her grows more intense the more she pushes away from her family.

For the first half of the film, it seems like her sexuality is going to be problematic. Her attraction to another girl is shrouded in the same dread as everything else, and it would be easy for the film to make her sexuality part of her evil and tempted nature. Especially with Thelma being so much about the stress of wanting things that might hurt her, I could see gay viewers skipping the movie outright. But it’s clear that her internal struggle is over a conservative Christian upbringing and the specter of her father’s suppression of everything he’s seen in her. The struggle for accepting what she wants and how to live with it is darkly cathartic in a way that you shouldn’t miss.

It’s neither a Carrie tragedy nor a mere Omen rise of a Satanic figure. Thelma is something else. It’s a third option that Horror has been suffocating waiting for.

Annihilation (2018)

This is a great movie, based on a great novel. Take it in whichever medium you prefer, and then if you like it, go get the other version.

Part of the United States has been engulfed in a mysterious aura called “Area X.” Nobody that the government has sent in to explore it has come out, and satellites or drones have been able to capture data of what’s inside. However, some people sent inside will reappear far away – across the country, or across the planet. There’s no record of them leaving, and these survivors have no memory of how what happened. Lena (played by Natalie Portman) discovered her husband (Oscar Isaac) had returned just like this, and it’s what drove her to the program, to find out what happened and help him. That means venturing into Area X herself.

The movie oozes atmosphere. A small group of women are given gear that should work and doesn’t, and within a day they’re blacking out and losing time. The sound design of the place makes it feel wrong, and the visual effects give great distortion over this place. It feels like anything could happen, and the fight is to find the reasoning. Impossible plants are all around them. Any argument over this qualifying as a Horror movie is gone after they have a run-in with an alligator that has features like that of a shark. And wait until you hear the bear.

Like any good Cosmic Horror story, this centers around trying to comprehend what you’re in the face of. Whatever this place is, and whatever caused it, we shouldn’t be here. That it hasn’t killed them all suggests it either doesn’t care, or is after something bigger. Especially after the team starts losing hours of time into the ether, there’s a great ticking clock that what befell Lena’s husband will come for them.

There’s a needless controversy over changes from the book. Jeff VanderMeer’s novel is excellent, but as someone who read and liked the book long before the movie, the changes don’t bother me. They made a slightly more comprehensible story, with characters who have more obvious connections to each other, because the rest of the story is so out-there. It is true to the premise and tone, and VanderMeer himself likes it. The real shame is that the studio sent the movie directly to Netflix around much of the world, and gave it a limited release in the U.S., so it never got exposed to a large audience. It’s a heck of a movie, and it deserved better.

The Endless (2018)

If you’re like me and constantly griping about the lack of good Cosmic Horror movies, then they made The Endless for you. The Endless lands just behind In the Mouth of Madness and The Void as one of the very exquisite Cosmic Horrors. It’s an indie film about an otherworldly entity that’s warping time and space around a cult, and it wrings everything it can out of its tiny budget.

Aaron and Justin are brothers who escaped what they thought was a suicide cult. But some time later, the cult hasn’t collapsed, and life in the outside world is grueling on them both. One of them misses the simplicity of that small farm life, and the other won’t let him go alone.

The cult is exceedingly friendly, welcoming them back and immediately offering to feed them. It seems like things are going great here, and some of the people on the farm haven’t aged a day, although our brothers feel like it’s been years. There are even arguments between locals and one of the brothers over whether they ever were a dangerous cult or a commune, which keeps things fuzzy as we realize whatever they were, they’ve gotten the attention of a higher power.

At night, there are two, or sometimes three moons, which the locals claim is a trick of the atmosphere. It’s the first of several strange effects that the movie squeezes out of a limited budget, most of which help create with a sufficiently weird atmosphere.

But the real star is the tease. When the boys go fishing, there’s something enormous under the lake that we can’t make out even from a wide shot. Some characters seem to be distraught with longing for people who left recently, or for people who were never here at all. Even the games they play at night, like pulling a rope attached to something far out in the darkness, suggest there’s a presence here. When The Endless works, it works because there are several circles of people out in this logic-forsaken wilderness, each trapped in their own pocket of Cosmic Horror, which you get to piece together in hopes of figuring it all out before they do. The coda is a woman who wandered out from a mental hospital and into the cult, who’s stayed ever since because what she observes of this place feels more natural to her than the rest of the world.

Cosmic Horror with perspective and pluck. I’m so glad this trippy thing came out.

Come back this Friday for reviews of two mini-series to binge over your weekend! Ghoul and Erased are next.

1 comment:

  1. I'll have to track down The Endless.
    Annihilation was a mind-bender and very eerie. I couldn't get through the book and thought the movie was much more interesting. Definitely worth watching once.


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