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Monday, 23 May 2016

A Cinephile Diary - Serious young cinephile Shaun Heenan discovers horror classics House, Eraserhead and Eyes Without a Face

This week I watched three films from Fandor’s streaming selection of ‘Midnight Movies’ from the Criterion Collection. These are inherently divisive films, with their deliberate weirdness making them something a viewer will either embrace with glee or just roll their eyes at, depending on the individual. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to this divide in reactions; it’s just a dice-roll against personal sensibilities. I got unlucky with two out of the three.

The bizarre horror-comedy film House (Nobuhiko Obayashi, Japan, 1977) was apparently the result of a studio mandate to make a film like Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). How this film came from that idea, I will never understand. In this film a group of schoolgirls with names like ‘Gorgeous’, ‘Kung-Fu’ and ‘Fantasy’ decide to spend summer vacation at an isolated house owned by one of their aunts. Things seem fairly normal until one of the girls disappears and her head is discovered down a well in the yard. Things get weirder and weirder as the house itself seems to come alive, killing the girls one by one.

House is presented in the too-happy style of some Japanese commercials, with big fake smiles and giant personalities based on single traits. The editing is rapid and there is a lot of hand-drawn animation on the screen. The movie begins at an already-manic pace, and only gets crazier and less coherent as it moves towards a conclusion. I can see the appeal on an academic level, since there is nothing in Western cinema which resembles this even remotely, but I found it utterly draining. It’s too full-on for too long, despite only running for 88 minutes, and I completely lost interest about halfway through. I greatly enjoyed a film in this style at the Sydney Film Festival a few years ago called The Warped Forest (Shunichiro Miki, Japan, 2011), but that film doesn’t seem to have been released on DVD (even in Japan), it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, and it has just 41 ratings on IMDB.

I bounced off the widely-loved Eraserhead (David Lynch, USA, 1977) in almost exactly the same way. This was David Lynch’s first feature film, and it serves as the purest example of his unique brand of surrealism. I have never connected with that style, and I suspect I never will. For reference: I like the first two hours of Mulholland Dr. (2001), I nearly like Wild at Heart (1990) and Lost Highway (1997), and I hated every second of all of his short films. Inland Empire (2006) is a strong contender for my least-favourite film of all time. The Elephant Man (1980) is probably my favourite of his films, mostly because it leans away from his usual tone of frustratingly-vague strangeness.
The plot, which is (at best) tertiary to the style, follows a man who discovers his girlfriend is pregnant, and then is tasked with looking after the monstrous creature she gives birth to. The film’s photography is its greatest asset, offering occasional beauty or interest, and distracting us from the utter tedium. Lynch thinks it’s creepy to let shots run on, in stillness and silence, for truly uncomfortable amounts of time. Scenes end, and then we sit there watching nothing for ten… twenty… thirty seconds. This film requires more patience than I was willing to give it. I found it utterly unrewarding.

After watching two films like that back to back, I found Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, France/Italy, 1960) to be a wonderful breath of fresh air, with its natural pacing and wonderfully clear plot. Part mad-scientist horror movie, part mystery, the film shows the aftermath of a horrific car accident, which has left a young girl’s face disfigured. Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) tries to atone for causing the crash, attempting to source and surgically attach a new face for his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob). The film is unusually specific for its time when it comes to describing and depicting the act of kidnapping young girls and surgically removing their faces. The film impresses by rising above its potentially B-movie subject matter, offering complex characters and believable dialogue.

The film is a visual treat. Edith Scob looks otherworldly and angelic walking around her large, empty house in a featureless mask, while her father’s collection of stray dogs barks and howls in the background. The film also shows a pair of detectives attempting to solve the disappearances of the young women, and while their scenes are less visually iconic, the investigative aspects of the plot are still compelling. Eyes Without a Face is the best film I saw all week, and not just because the other two were total duds.

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