Friends, we're back! WILD THINGS MONTH has ended, but I just want to take another moment to again express my gratitude to Tessa, Aubrey, Kristin, and Sean for their excellent contributions to WILD THINGS MONTH! We're back to the classic MOVIE DIARY 2018 format, and this week's special guest is my buddy from the world of indie comics and being opinionated on twitter, Adam Szym!
Noroi: The Curse (2005)
SPECIAL GUEST WRITER: ADAM SZYM
I get why people don’t like found footage horror movies. At their worst they can be lazy, visually disorienting and immersion shattering slogs that nearly corner you into becoming a CinemaSins style pedant loudly wondering, “Why would they still be filming this?” It’s a genre that demands a lot of its audience’s ability to suspend disbelief. At its rare best, though, found footage can become something special, something that carries you along with the characters like a riptide. I’m about to use the word “apotheosis,” and I am deeply sorry for that, I really cannot apologize enough.
Noroi: The Curse is the apotheosis (!!sorry!!) of found footage horror movies. It takes what was already a dead, beaten horse in 2005, the year of its release, and beats it with implements and techniques that make you think, “Wow, look at how alive that horse is!” It has the gall to actually be imaginative with the format and do something more than just have some schlub carrying a camcorder around commenting on how fucked up this all is.
The movie opens with a shot of a very spooky VHS tape, but not the very spooky VHS tape you’re thinking of. Most found footage horror movies find some way to immediately declare that, yes, this is in fact a found footage movie, so if you’re, like, not down with that? There’s the door. Noroi, however, provides an opening that immediately establishes the sense of dread that permeates the movie as well as its collage-like structure.
We’re introduced to a paranormal investigator and shown his books and clips from a few of his videotape specials. We can see that this is a man with integrity, not a con man, with a face anyone would trust. Then we’re shown his house ablaze. The kind of horrible, nightmarish fire that isn’t just a house burning, it’s somebody’s entire life. His wife is dead and he has disappeared. Suddenly we’re in an editing bay, cold and mechanical, and are told we’re about to watch the investigation that brought him to that place.
It’s hard to put into words how well Noroi establishes its tone, and how expertly and creatively it utilizes the tools in its toolbox. Noroi is a movie soaked in doom. Early in the film the protagonist meets a middle aged woman and her young daughter, and by the end of their scene we are almost casually told that 5 days later this woman and child were dead. In another movie it would be laughable in its brusqueness but instead it feels immediate and shocking, while also making you feel like you already knew they were going to die. Everything in the movie feels inexorable, a tonal feat that few horror movies accomplish but which always elevates them when they do.
Maybe this all sounds run-of-the-mill, and parts of the movie certainly are, but where many found footage movies almost feel embarrassed to be what they are, Koji Shiraishi, the director of Noroi, makes it clear that he feels no such shame. Noroi is a film that squeezes every bit of juice out of the framework its genre pre-establishes for it. He’s having a lot of fun, here, taking the best ideas from other found footage and scrapping the weakest while also injecting flourishes of his own. If watching The Blair Witch Project is like looking at the tiny fold out screen of a camcorder, watching Noroi is like sitting in front of Ozymandias’ giant bank of televisions while his weird leopard thing purrs at your feet.
The movie is relentless in the imaginative and mosaic ways it uses the footage part of found footage. Without holding the viewer’s hand we jump from the protagonist going about his investigation to a TV variety show where celebrities watch children getting tested for ESP abilities. Loud, large font text pops onto screen in the characteristic way of Japanese television. Then, we’re with two comedians on a travel show wandering through a dark, supposedly haunted forest with an actress. Suddenly we pull back and the video we were just watching was being projected on a screen at some kind of live chat show at a bar, and a psychic homeless man covered in tin-foil is assaulting the same actress and telling her to beware of pigeons.
I like that this is at its core a procedural horror movie. It makes us feel like a paranormal investigator digging through archival footage and piecing things together in the editing bay. We follow him as he analyzes sounds picked up by his camera. We sit with him as he meets with folklorists on the trail of something called Kagutaba. It makes us feel like we are the camera man, hired on by the protagonist. But at the same time we’re also privy to hideous secrets about his fate. We know his home will burn, his wife will die, and he will disappear. We’re unable to do anything about this, no more than we can stop the various carriers of latent psychic abilities we meet from accidentally piercing the veil and dooming themselves. We know these things. It feels like a genuine burden because this movie nails its tone with such aplomb.
Underneath all of these flourishes of format there’s a satisfying mystery going on, too, and some really effective and mostly understated scares. It’s a slow burn, and asks a lot of the viewer at times, but it rewards you with a genuinely unique horror movie and one that I think could entrance even the most steadfast found footage hater. Noroi is available on Shudder right now, so get a free month trial (and then cancel it, if you want) and check it out during the Halloween season.
Spotlight is the perfect kind of self-serious Oscar bait that the Academy loves to pat themselves on the back about, a toothless statement on an atrocity put out too late to make any actual impact, but with this second viewing I kind of feel like maybe there was another level to the self-own of the Academy selecting this as the Best Picture in 2016. So much of Spotlight is remembered as these dogged journalists doing some hard investigating to uncover the scandal of the Catholic Church protecting priests who’ve been molesting children, but really what this movie is about is reporters finding out that people have been giving the paper all of the stories for the last twenty years and that no one seemed to have thought that it was worth their time. It’s a story about a massive failure of investigative journalism, and looking back I think it’s kind of funny that the perception of Spotlight is sort of a misremembered one. I mean, I guess it’s still also about publishing that story against a potentially huge backlash and what that story did to shed light on this scandal, but the real gut punch of the movie here is that victims had been coming forward for years and no one was doing anything about it and then all of a sudden Mark Ruffalo rides in like, “WE GOTTA NAIL THESE SCUMBAGS!” Yes, dog, but also you had your chance like twenty years ago when people first started telling the paper about all of this, anyway, glad you’re all finally onboard, let’s nail these scumbags.
The House of the Devil (2009)
I remember really liking this around the time that it came out. It’s an 80s throwback movie, and director Ti West treats that VHS horror look with a lot of reverence. But on this later view, I think I was a little bit less in love with it, though I’m not sure it’s entirely the movie’s own fault. Maybe it’s 80s throwback fatigue. I feel like this movie came out right before popular media started returning full force to 80s nostalgia? It felt like a fun vibe nine years ago, but now there’s just no escaping it, and things are creeping towards a 90s revival faster and faster. Why are we doing this to ourselves? Is it because things suck so much today? Anyway, The House of the Devil is fine, I’m just being a grump about how this aesthetic has become super widespread and more de rigueur than novelty. The plot is mostly kind of quietly plodding, successfully creating a sense of dread over outright fright, but personally I could have used a little bit more payoff to all of that dread to break things up a bit during the first two thirds of the movie. I mean, that part where Greta Gerwig gets shot in the face is exciting and horrifying and I remembered the movie starting to pick up the pace from there, but really it feels like there’s another half hour of our main girl just kind of bumping around an empty house and getting jump-scares from a phone ringing before Tom Noonan and his awful Satanist family show up to make sure that the plot actually moves forward in the last bits of the movie.
Reality Bites (1994)
Ok look. I’d never seen this movie, and going into it I remembered there’d been a lot of back and forth on VH1’s I Love The 90s about how Ethan Hawke’s character is a jerk and Ben Stiller’s character is actually the better choice, but please allow me to offer two thoughts. 1) Do you remember being like 22 and just out of college? I guarantee you made some bad choices with your relationships back then, so Winona Ryder ending up with Ethan Hawke at the end of this is fine and believable. 2) Troy (Ethan Hawke) and Michael (Ben Stiller) actually both suck as relationship prospects. Troy sucks because he’s a pretentious asshole with a shitty band, he can’t hold down a job, he’s a mooch, and he’s selfishly lashing out at his friends and using his dad’s cancer as an excuse. But he's a bad boy! And he's hot! A hot bad boy (My spicy opinion on this is that Ethan Hawke has been riding on his charisma and hotness in this movie for almost 25 years now)! Michael is kind and sensitive and is nice to Lainey so it may seem like he’s the better choice, but he’s also soooo laaaaame. He takes Lainey’s documentary to his network — without her initial consent! — and allows them to chop it up into something completely against her vision. Then when she sees this pilot and storms out, he tries to bargain with her about cutting out the dumb pizza graphic thing and leaving the rest in, signalling that he wants to use Lainey’s documentary as more a career stepping stone than a way to give Lainey a platform for her art. They break up over it, and what does he do? He goes on to just completely rip off Lainey’s documentary and convert it into an awful scripted teen melodrama that I would have totally been into at the time. He's lame and he just does not get it. Sidenote: It’s probably doubly embarrassing for Lainey at the viewing of her recut documentary to see her work get butchered and also to be forced to see how outsiders see her and her friends as vapid slackers going nowhere. I feel like Troy would never expose her to that kind of public embarrassment, but that’s also mostly because Troy would never be in the position that Michael finds himself in, namely having a job. Anyway both Troy and Michael suck as romantic prospects, and Lainey’s idea for a documentary about her friends embodying some sort of universal look at post-college life seems like exactly the kind of trite idea that someone who’s just graduated from college would think is an idea with legs, but it’s clear that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have and what they know, which lends a kind of poignancy to how badly everyone is fucking up. I like it. Super relatable.
Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (46-Okunen No Koi) (2006)
Ichi The Killer (2001)
Three Takashi Miike movies that I'd never seen before! I'm not going to write about them here though, because this is a space to plug my appearance as a special guest on the only movie podcast in the world, Travis Bickle on the Riviera! Check it out to hear me and former MOVIE DIARY 2018 special guest, Sean Witzke, talk about violence, kinks, incels, and that one time I went to a test screening of The Social Network.