The Scared Brain: Favourite Cerebral Scares
Considering I’ve written some 300 short stories in the genre of the fantastic, I feel that stories in which one’s inner doubts and fears are made irrefutably solid is the bravest choice to make aesthetically.
Psychological stories achieve a unique level of catharsis but shocking images must be yoked within the service of powerful ideas. The stripping back of artifice and the abandonment of sentimental hope to create a cathartic release is hard to pull off. The language of film was not a Hollywood invention but has since been bastardised into a catalogue of physical confrontation, weapon fetishism and aggression seemingly connected to settler mentality, the need to stake out territory. The majority of cerebral films function without recourse to the same language.
One could argue that Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ is the most cerebral story of all because it is unknowable. While crime and mystery stories have neat explanations, fantastical works mine psychology depth and don’t need them, which is probably why Kafka and Camus remain two of my favourite writers.
Readers often ask me about my favourites, so here are a few that immediately come to mind.
Folk horror is paradoxically attracted to and repelled by pagan religions. It offers an idyllic return to nature so long as an unpalatable payment is extracted. In the novel ‘Harvest Home’ author Tom Tryon suggests that a heteronormative fantasy requires rules and punishments. It’s no surprise that folk horror made an appearance after the hippie dream had soured. The restored cut of ‘The Wicker Man’ (UK) plays like a free folk concert/ love-in right up until the doors are locked, and ‘Midsommar’ (Sweden-US) lives in its shadow. Clearly Catholic guilt clearly exists in unorthodox religions too.
There were numerous walkouts during early screenings of ‘New Order’ (Mexico), an urban Lord of the Flies riff in which a dark-skinned underclass rises up against their lighter-skinned foes.
The end of a political regime, and by implication civilisation itself, is depicted through the eyes of the privileged white 1%. A glamorous wedding reception is interrupted by the sights and sounds of rebellion; the throwing of paint and gunshots. The proletariat has finally risen, but who do you side with when you’re the intended target and the rebels prove as corrupt as the old order?
‘High Rise’ (UK) offered a violent variant, taking the class war into new areas of discomfort. The idea that society is a thin veneer that can easily be stripped away runs through all such films.
Ben Wheatley’s controversial breakout feature ‘Kill List’ (UK) started as a neo-realist drama and morphed into something more fantastical as two morally bankrupt thugs attempt to live normal home lives while facing ethical choices within their own codes of behaviour. Like the protagonists of his previous film ‘Down Terrace’, they are middlemen, doomed to forever follow orders like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It never occurs to either of them that they might be part of a larger game over which they have no control. As they work their way through their client’s kill list they fail to spot its most obvious implications, and face a very dark night of the soul.
‘Let The Right One In’/ ‘Let Me In’ (Sweden/UK) explored the true meaning of vampirism – the deceitful use of another human soul for one’s own infinite selfish needs – in both versions of this chilly thriller, set in midwinter on a snowy housing estate. Because we trust the youthful protagonist and believe in the notion of redemption through love, we blindly ignore what’s really happening and are helpless to prevent it. How better to depict age-old evil than through innocent children, as in ‘The Innocents’?
On the surface ‘Spoorloos’ aka ‘The Vanishing’ (Holland) appears to be a missing girl crime story, but the heroine and her boyfriend were disconnected before she vanished in a crowded, sunlit service station. The boyfriend doubts his own motives for needing to find her and the abductor, terrifying because he is so selfishly conformist, pursues a fateful resolution unseeable from the outset, one that we do not wish to see. The result is a film that continues to unsettle through the years, and like ‘La Madre Muerte’ (Spain) has discomfiting moments of dark humour.
In the B-movieish ‘Penumbra’ (Argentina) a condescending estate agent becomes the subject of a #MeToo escalation that she doesn’t see coming, even though we’re filled with dread from the outset. Rushing to sell her mother’s gloomy flat to an ominous stranger, she gradually loses control of a male-dominated situation. The panicky slide from arrogance to victimhood can be seen as a magnification of what occurs in everyday life, and the sense of dread is equal to that of Toni Collette’s in ‘Hereditary’.
I wondered how long it would be for someone to link black experience with cinema of unease. ‘Us’ (US) Jordan Peele’s follow-up to ‘Get Out’ can’t quite top that smashing debut but combines satire with a fantastical premise to terrific effect. A suburban middle-class family faces its doppelgängers in a riff on ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ that suggests alien invaders come from somewhere much closer to home. The ‘tunnels and rabbits’ explanation jettisons credibility but by that time we’re prepared to go all the way with the premise.
In ‘Wake In Fright’ (Australia) a teacher heads to Sydney for a holiday, but after losing all his money he’s adopted by a group of men from a bar who drag him into increasingly macho standoffs, starting with drinking games and progressing to an astonishing night-time kangaroo hunt.
The outback men don’t understand why he questions their alcohol-enforced friendship. At one point a character asks; ‘Why’s he sitting over there talking to a woman?’ to which the sarcastic reply is, ‘He’s a schoolteacher’. Australians were horrified by their on-screen portrayal as drunken vulgarians and the film flopped. Despite its selection for Cannes and becoming a hit in France it was lost until a team of film researchers restored the original negative.
‘Get In’ aka Furie (France) is a virtual mirror-image to ‘Wake In Fright’, suggesting that the call to ‘man up’ can work all too well, and once unleashed cannot be reversed.
In ‘The Advantages of Travelling By Train’ (Spain) a wife regretfully commits her husband to a mental home. On the train, her doctor tells a story that leads to other tales of love and cruelty. One involves the secret world of dustmen, another (the darkest) reduces a kindly woman to canine status after meeting her dog-obsessed husband. Surreal twists turn everyday conversations into awkward, disturbing encounters. The great Luis Tosar turns up in drag with one arm. The message is clear; people are unknowable, none of us can be trusted.
Bacurau is a quilombo, a settlement founded by escaped slaves many years before. While the audience takes a stroll around the place, the townsfolk start popping hallucinogens – and did you just see a flying saucer pass by? The pieces of the puzzle are surreal but a master plan becomes clear in time. There are signs and portents; the schoolteacher discovers that Bacurau has vanished from his GPS and that the phones have stopped picking up a signal. Riderless horses, a water truck riddled with bullet holes, coffins piling up…the sheer impossibility of understanding what you’re seeing keeps you off-kilter even when explanations arrive. ‘Bacurau’ is the winner of over 50 international film awards.