Friday, October 13, 2017

The Halloween List: Raw and The Void

Raw (2017) (AKA Grave)

Julia Ducournau’s gift to us from French-Belgian cinema, a riveting and intimate portrait of a vegetarian who has her first bite of meat and suddenly can’t stop craving more. It’s an abrupt addiction, not a satire mocking vegetarians, but a pathological Horror story about her descent.

Justine is just starting at a veterinary school with harsh hazing rituals. Her bed is tossed out her window, and she has to crawl on her knees through the courtyard, and her seniors force her to swallow a rabbit kidney. Ever afterward she finds herself ravenous, and biting into meat on a shish kabob makes her forget the rest of the world exists. Those cravings quickly darken as she watches boys around campus. As a vegetarian, she argued human life wasn’t any more sacred than that of animals. If anything, she’s consistent.

There’s a temptation to read Raw as a metaphor for a girl discovering herself at college, recognizing her sexuality, or succumbing to the temptations of hedonistic culture. I don’t buy any of these theories. Rather, her hunger is one irrational outlier in an otherwise very grounded film. It’s shot with great care and acted with even greater naturalism – Garance Mariller does an astounding job of going from a naïve newcomer to a disturbed predator. It’s not a movie that’s arguing meat is toxic or the youth are going to Hell. Although Justine tries dressing up, and sex, and foods for the first time, her cravings are tangled up in those things, not a metaphor for them.

The tone of the film is about as coherent as something this disturbing can get. It views everything at veterinary school as mundane. Tranquilizing a horse, dissecting a dog, and giving a cow a rectal exam are all unromantically shot. When she and her sister have a night of gossip and pissing contests, they come across as goofily gross in a way women aren’t usually allowed to be in film. They set the tone for how someone might slip into a desensitized space, especially with how hard the other students party, seemingly letting off the enormous stress of their work.

The students are largely awful to Justine, and after twenty minutes of them imposing hazing crap on her, you’re ready for her to turn into a Slasher killer. It shows great restraint on Ducournau’s part that her film doesn’t devolve into body count. To the last frame, every bite counts. Every life even suggested to be on the market can make you squirm, especially as you try to suss out exactly how Justine is changing.

One also has to praise the film for not reducing Justine to secretly being a werewolf, vampire, or other standard creature. She doesn’t wake up one day with demon horns and visions of Satan. What’s going on is profoundly personal, and through suggestive filming with very little exposition, Raw defines her condition from scratch.

The Void (2017)
If The Void had come out in 1985 instead of 2017, it would be a cult classic, appearing every week on some site’s listicle of Greatest Eldritch This or Best Practical Effects That. It has the look and feel of those eerie 80’s gore fests like Warlock and The Thing, with acting on the campier side. It’s also one of the best Lovecraftian stories film has yet seen, although that’s a low bar to clear.

The setting is a small town hospital still recovering from a terrible fire. Most patients are sent to the nearest other institutions, although the lights are on for emergencies. A state trooper finds a man passed out on the road and brings him to the uncannily empty hospital, where his wife is one of the doctors. Never mind the strange figures walking around outside in white robes and masks. Then patients start going missing, or outright turning into nightmarish beasts, and the hospital becomes a battleground. But it’s what lurks in the burned remnants of the hospital’s old wing where the real secrets lurk.

There’s a remarkable ambition around this movie, which its ability doesn’t always match. The practical effects for the monsters and the outrageous gore are mostly great, and if you cheer at screening of John Carpenter’s The Thing, you’ll be right at home. But the skirmishes can be awkwardly shot and edited; there’s one point when a man is dragged off and you can barely tell what’s happening.

Which is the kind of junk we overlook in 80s cinema all the time, and The Void is so faithful to its inspirations that it’s easy to give it a pass. The intrigue and gore never let up, so you fall right back into the action. But it is funny to see a modern film be awkward in this way. Major studios all but force this sort of stuff out; their movies are more likely to suffer from blandness. And smaller pictures like The Transfiguration or Raw suggest that scene’s deftness with editing is only improving.

I’ve been waiting for a movie like The Void. It’s a crowdfunding success, turning some $82,510 on Indiegogo into a gross gem of a film. Movies like Prometheus and Alien: Covenant disappoint us in part because we have films like Alien, made on smaller budgets by people who were more resourceful (or in Ridley Scott’s case, who made the most of their resources). With all the great videogames coming from Kickstarter, I’ve been waiting for a great film to emerge from it.

I’ve watched The Void four times now, and I’ll be back again. It is a schlocky highlight of weird filmmaking, and at least the best Lovecraftian film since In the Mouth of Madness.

Up Next: The Devil's Candy, The Disappointments Room, and Lake Mungo

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