Velvet Buzzsaw: Putting the Art in Arthouse Horror

I saw Velvet Buzzsaw, Netflix film about haunted paintings and outsider art for a few reasons, foremost among them the fact that my forthcoming novel,A SPECTRAL HUE mines similar territory and shares some tropes.*

The movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Toni Collette and Rene Russo as dealers and critics in the contemporary art world. It starts out as a roman a clef/satire of that scene. Gyllenhaal plays a critic (loosely modeled on Jerry Saltz). Russo is an ex-punk rocker turned arts dealer, a nod to Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, and Collette plays a cutthroat curator. There’s no small element of camp in the performances and writing of these characters, as they pretentiously prattle on about the arts on display, some of which is shown in the film. (Which includes incomprehensible abstract art, and, most notably, a horrific robotic homeless person).

Russo’s put-upon underling (and Gyllenhaal’s secret affair), played by Zawe Ashton, sets the plot in motion when she discovers a cache of disturbing paintings left by her deceased reclusive neighbor. The discovery of the paintings resembles the discovery of Henry Darger’s work. (Darger’s epic novel and collage-based paintings were found after his death by his landlords). Vetril Dease, the artist, wanted his canvases destroyed, but the culture vultures ignore the directive and a feeding frenzy starts, as the dealers, curators and critics rush to promote the work as the Next Hot Thing.

Henry Darger piece

That’s when the supernatural element comes into play, and Velvet Buzzsaw turns into a moralistic slasher film. The death sequences are inventive, but the actual haunting—its rules and mechanisms—are not explored. There’s an under-developed subplot about Dease’s mental instability and possible murderous activities. All of that takes the backseat to the stylish comeuppances. 

As a ghost/horror story, the movie didn’t work for me. As an over the top jeremiad against the contemporary art scene, the message is muddled. For all that, I’m glad that it was made and the performances were entertaining if a little too cartoonish.

*A SPECTRAL HUE features an art critic and haunted  outsider art work, but goes in a completely different direction and mood. The Outsider art in the novel is partial inspired by the quilt makers of Gee’s Bend.

Existential Horror, 70s-Style in Richard Kelly’s ‘The Box’

I recently saw The Box, a movie by Donnie Darko’s director Richard Kelly, and starring Cameron Diaz and James Marsden. It was on TV, interrupted by commercials for inane things, so I didn’t get the full immersive effect. I don’t think it was a great movie, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was very, very disturbing and mind-trippy.  I won’t rehash the plot, which expands a Twilight Zone style idea/moral quandary, complete with a MacGuffin.

It’s set in the 70s and evokes the feel of the horror movies of the 70s, not just in the costumes (feathered hair, leisure suits) but also in the pacing and the exquisitely crafted mood of dread. The film is wan and washed out and there’s a kind of cinema verite flatness to the acting. Frank Langella, as a Satan character, is terrifying both in his disfigurement and his understated menace. Weird scenes of possession combined with vintage sci-fi effects (sterile, all white labs, portals of hover water) are a complete homage to such horror classics as The Exorcist, The Omen and even Trilogy of Terror. The horror is existential, as the sinister back-story is slowly revealed, and as a viewer, you have to put some of the pieces together.

The Box is not a great film, but it does stick with you.

Conjuring Subtexts: thoughts on the movie The Conjuring

I finally saw the horror movie The Conjuring this week. It had all of the things I love about good horror movie.
▪ Atmospheric
▪ Slow build with lots of plausible deniability
▪ The handsome Patrick Wilson
▪ The brilliant Lili Taylor (whom I sat near in RL in a restaurant; ask me about it sometime)
Like Sinister and Insidious, The Conjuring proves that you can scare people with a minimum of gore. I hate violent and slasher films. I can’t watch torture porn, like the Saw and Hostel franchises.

My main criticism with the movie is with the third act, when the mystery is revealed. I actually think it would have been scarier if the line between actual possession and mental disturbance was blurred. We all have dark, atavistic urges and voices hidden deep within our brains.

Annabel doll
Annabel doll

One of the tropes that The Conjuring (and Insidious and Sinister) keep returning to is the idea of possession. An exorcism is the dramatic denouement of most of these films. When I was a child, I couldn’t bear to watch the mother of all demonic possession films, The Exorcist. An innocent person taken over by an evil entity doesn’t really terrify me, per se. And the staples of possession: ravaged, tortured voices, blasphemous oaths, levitation and puking don’t bother me, either. What scared me as child, and still scares me, it what happens to the possessed spirit. Insidious is the only movie I know of that explored the limbo where the ensnared soul was housed.

I am also disturbed with the whole Christian rites as being the only panacea against such evil. What happens if you get possessed and you’re an observant Jew, or are Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim? One of the subtexts of this subgenre is that Christianity is inherently good, something I don’t believe. In The Exorcist, the devil uses a pagan entity, Pazuzu, to get into Regan. According to Babylonian myth, Pazuzu, despite (or even because of) his scary appearance, could be used to drive away other evil spirits. This whole subtext of Christian hegemony kind of spoiled The Conjuring for me.