The Vast of Night (2019)

The Vast of Night is a film that went somewhat unnoticed since its release, on the Amazon Prime platform (is that why?) during 2019, but it certainly stands out for its cinematography, production design, and snappy narrative, despite the large amount of dialogue that makes it up. Within the narrative possibilities within the film genre, I believe that films like The Vast of Night (as well as Hereditary, a film we reviewed previously) fall into what I would call “punitive films”, I mean films where the protagonist has to pay a high price for his moral and psychological failures (as opposed to a normal film, where the protagonist ends up learning a lesson and overcoming the difficulties). In this sense, the film directed by Andrew Patterson follows the ancestral logic of “curiosity killed the cat”, with negative consequences for both the protagonist and his loved ones (John Truby would be proud of this story).

Okay but… What is “The Vast of Night” about? The story centers on one night in a small town in America during the 1950s. The main characters are, Everett Sloan, who is the local radio announcer and his friend (love interest?) Fay Crocker, a radio operator (she actually communicates phone calls). The thing is, Fay intercepts a strange sound that is sneaking in between the phone conversations, causing the communications to be cut off. The same strange sound is picked up on Everett’s radio transmission, which is why Fay decides to warn Everett about the noise. When Everett hears the strange noise, which is disrupting communications, he decides to record it and broadcast it on his radio program, with the intention of arousing the interest of someone who knows where the sound is coming from. This action prompts an ex-military man to contact the radio and deliver information about the sound, it is visitors from another world and they are in the sky over the town tonight. The news adds to a slew of people calling Fay, warning about something strange they’ve seen in the sky outside of town. Initially, Everett thinks it’s either Soviet Union planes or spy satellites, and it piques his interest, as he wants to become famous enough to leave town and pursue a radio career in California. It is for this reason that Everett embarks on a hunt for information, along with Fay (who wants to be with Everett and support him) that leads them to find a secret tape, to retransmit a message similar to the sound of the transmissions, to make “contact” thanks to the retransmission and then, inevitably, to learn the truth and to pay a high cost for their curiosity.

Beyond the science fiction aspects, which are interesting in themselves, I think the story rests mostly on both main characters, a duo that at times can remind us of a young Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (The X-Files), they show a similar couple dynamic, although Everett has less empathy for his partner than Mulder (at times his lack of concern is annoying), although he makes up for it in charisma and enthusiasm. This character arc is extremely interesting, especially as it takes place in the space of an hour and a half, which is the length of the film and also the actual time within the story, which occurs during a basketball game, where most of the people in town are gathered in one place. Everett starts the story as a kind of teacher for Fay, teaching him the art of being a radio announcer while they go around the basketball stadium interviewing people, then they head to town, which is practically deserted because of the basketball game and they say goodbye to each other to go to work. However, since Fay intercepts the strange noise, Everett appears again and again (each time worse and worse) as a person blinded by the desire to get an exclusive regardless of the consequences (which Fay asks about several times). During the midpoint of the story, which is when Everett rebroadcasts the signal and the aliens cut the power at the radio station (in what is clearly a warning of the danger of the whole thing), Everett reacts by grabbing a portable recorder and continues transmitting, leaving Fay behind and showing no concern for her or the situation. It is not until Everett and Fay interview Mrs. Blanche and get the truth about what is going on that Everett realizes the gravity of the events, although, by that point, he can no longer back off (in part because he has managed to bring more people into the affair) and this leads him to inevitably fall into the clutches of the aliens.

As I said before, the events that are recreated in the film are presented with a great emphasis on dialogue, it is a constant and frantic search (mostly because of the fear and strangeness of the situation) to know what is happening, for the opportunity presented to an ambitious but irresponsible character, to make contact with forces that are beyond the ordinary. I think the film is 80% expository dialogue, something that all screenwriting gurus have pointed out ad nauseam as an amateur mistake, but which here works to perfection. What does this tell us? Well, to me it means that the problem is not in writing or not writing expository dialogues, but that there are situations in which it works and situations in which it doesn’t work. I mean that there are types of information that can be interesting to hear in expository form, such as paranormal events that provoke the imagination, which is different from when a character tells us about something he has just done (explaining it), which is the most common way to use expository dialogue wrongly.

That’s all I’ll say about The Vast of Night, one of those films that stand out only for the masterful narrative work, in the dialogues full of sense and humanity, in solid performances that deliver all the necessary information, in the minimalist use of science fiction paraphernalia. The best, in my opinion, of the whole film appears in Everett’s character arc, a well-built character, with personal ambitions and a charismatic personality but full of flaws (mostly lack of empathy) that lead him straight into the trap of the antagonist and that, even worse, endangers a person who cares about him and a baby! Ohhh the humanity!

Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary is the film that launched Ari Aster, director and screenwriter, to fame as one of the greatest current exponents of the horror genre and together with Yorgos Lanthimos (director of The Lobster) marks the return of European culture to Hollywood. Along with this return of European culture to mainstream Hollywood, I feel that both directors also mark a return of magical and religious thinking (even reaching as far back as the Greek tragedies in the case of Lanthimos), in short, of the ancestral narrative that now appears as a refreshment in the face of so many “modern” films that have neither feet nor head, much less the mystique that can be extracted from the ancestral culture.

Well but… What is Hereditary about? Basically, it’s about a grandmother who was part of a satanic cult, worshippers of King Paimon (a demon of great power), they need Paimon’s soul to pass into a male body. However, this grandmother’s son commits suicide when they try to put the demon in him, so now she needs “new children”. In order to satisfy this need for a new child, the grandmother tries to take possession of her daughter Annie’s (the protagonist’s) first child, but she does not allow it. The guilt that comes from taking the grandmother away from her first child leads Annie to allow her to get close to her little daughter Charlie, who acquires Paimon when the grandmother dies. However, the problem persists, Paimon needs a male body and the only solution is to find a way for Annie’s first child to be possessed by the demon. It is then that, through the great guilt that Annie feels towards her son (whom she did not want to have) the dead grandmother and the members of the satanic sect manage to manipulate her to make this possession happen. But in between, a lot of events happen that put a lot of pressure on the protagonist and prevent her from seeing things as they really are until it is too late.

Annie’s character can be described as the artist who prefers to be alone to concentrate on her creations rather than worrying about her family, this is the main problem she faces, because for each negative event that happens in the story, she closes herself more and more, demonstrating again and again her inability to share with the rest of the family, especially with her husband. This defense mechanism that she demonstrates comes from her initial impulse, her desire to be free, which comes from having lived with a controlling and manipulative mother, but it leads her to assert guilt for all the harm she causes her loved ones. Worst of all, when she decides to talk to others, she does it in an aggressive and unempathetic way. Proof of this is in one of those tense scenes in the film (I know, there are a lot of them) where the husband prepares the meal so that everyone can gather to share, after Charlie’s unexpected death. Faced with Annie’s constant refusal to confront her son Peter, who is the accidental cause of his younger sister’s death, Peter forces her to say something, anything, and she responds aggressively, further alienating her son and losing her husband’s sympathy.

But let’s get to the horror, is this movie really scary? Well, it is difficult to answer that question. The first time I saw it, I feel that it caused a constant impression of discomfort in me, especially because of the soundtrack and some scenes that I found extremely tense, especially the one of Charlie’s death. What the film achieves masterfully is to build an atmosphere of constant danger, of always being closely watched. Some images achieved with beautiful cinematography manage to evoke a spiritual sensation that adds further tension to the events that are taking place. On top of all this, the acting of the main characters, especially Toni Collette (Annie) and Alex Wolf (Peter) keeps us anchored to reality for much of the story, especially when it comes to the reactions to the paranormal events that occur. And these paranormal events are also anchored to certain reactions to be expected in human beings when faced with situations of fear or great suggestion, such as the alert reactions to the environment that occur when the person is suggested about the existence of dangers that cannot be seen. Another thing is the iconography that is used in the film that subtly explains the influence and cult of this King Paimon, although obviously only a person with a high knowledge of demonology could recognize such symbols. For the rest of us mortals, I feel that the symbols used bring back memories of both movies like The Blair Witch Project (stick-built elements) and pagan culture (I know it’s a very broad term but I’m referring to European folkloric roots).

After this film, Ari Aster delved deeper into the idea of Scandinavian lore with Midsommar, which proves his broad influences and interest in European lore and pagan and ancestral religions. As a film, Hereditary is undoubtedly the best attempt at mainstream horror since perhaps “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and just like that film, it manages to build an atmosphere that supports the genre and really produces this sense of discomfort that leads you to think, to imagine, if all these demons and hellish creatures really exist. For that and for reconnecting with ancestral culture, I feel Hereditary is a film that is completely worth seeing.

The Walkind Dead (2010)

The Walking Dead is a television series whose first episode aired around the time television broadcasts began and whose last episode will be televised eons after the end of human civilization. I’m serious! Figuratively, actually. It just feels like TWD has been on the air so long that it’s almost impossible to imagine television without this very long story about a group of survivors of a zombie apocalypse. I haven’t actually read the comic by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard, so I can’t speak to this version of the story, but as far as its TV namesake goes, what I can say and what I feel is mostly relevant, far above the concept of revived corpses walking around and eating people, is that TWD establishes an ideal setting to create a multitude of dramatic situations that border on desperation and the desire to live, which constantly erases the moral lines in pursuit of survival, except one, the essential one in this series, the unrestricted protection of the family as an affective nucleus, but also as the only possibility to survive the end of the world.

This concept of family is not something new in TV series, in fact, I honestly feel that TWD is a clear successor of the series Lost, in which the drama revolved around a similar premise. Jack Sheppard, the protagonist of Lost, said in one of the first chapters “Either we learn to live together or we die alone”, a phrase that you could hear in any episode of TWD. And the fact is that, throughout its 10 seasons, TWD has explored to exhaustion themes such as trust, betrayals, compromises and sacrifices for the common good that lead to suffering and loss but also lead to the greatest expressions of humanity and bravery. I remember that one of the premises of Lost was to have a place where infinite situations could occur between characters, such aspect is completely replicable in TWD, with an equally diffuse plot in explanatory terms. I don’t think the nature of the infection has ever been specified, although it’s not as if it matters, since the dynamic of the series is not focused on detecting the origin or causes of the apocalypse (something that happens in World War Z) nor on fighting the infection and healing people. In TWD the characters quickly learn that the only valid option is to find a way to survive for as long as they can, and this survival time increases each time the “family” becomes stronger.

One of the high points of TWD is undoubtedly Andrew Lincoln’s performance as the cop Rick Grimes. And long is the journey we make with him during the 9 seasons in which this character appears in the series (Lincoln left the series during the ninth season). The story starts with Rick waking up in a hospital, after being shot, in the middle of the apocalypse (very much in the style of 28 Days Later). This beginning for the character is very interesting because of the reasons why he is alone, it turns out that Rick has problems with his wife Lori, they are on the verge of separation before the beginning of the end of the world. When the zombies attack, Lori takes refuge in Shane, Rick’s best friend and it doesn’t take long for the two to start a relationship. Now, when Rick returns with his wife and son (Carl Jr.), Rick’s attitude is somewhat peculiar. Instead of staying with them, he decides to go on a bunch of adventures to save other people in the name of justice and what’s right. It’s Shane who, even though his return hurts him in front of Lori, explains to her that in this new world the only thing that matters is protecting your loved ones. And Rick pays for his mistakes a bunch of times before he realizes that Shane is telling the truth. Not that it’s established, but I feel like, at least for the first few seasons of the series, Rick is learning how to be a father. He makes it explicit himself on one occasion when he tells another character that “these people look to me and expect answers, it’s something I wouldn’t want to happen but it does and I can’t do anything about it.”

There are other interesting characters within the series that help maintain and diversify the drama. Among them I think the most important are the ones that make it to the infamous episode 16 of season six “Last Day on Earth” (Negan’s first appearance). Among them are Daryl, Carol, Glenn, Michonne and Maggie. I feel like the series does a really very interesting job of creating the different dynamics between all of them. It’s just a matter of watching the first episode in which each of them appears and the last one to notice the incredible evolution they’ve had. Of course, there are also some exceptions, for example, Daryl appears for the first time as a not very interesting character (perhaps not very well established). It is later in the series that we pay more attention to him, when his value within the group becomes visible, beyond his skills as a hunter. I mean his values as a person, it’s as if he becomes the gum that keeps the group cohesive, always willing to sacrifice himself for others. One character that does have an interesting change from the beginning of the series is Carol, who goes from being a woman abused by a violent husband to become perhaps the best zombie hunter of the group and seeing this transformation really is a great achievement for TWD.

All that about the drama implicit in the story, but what about the more explicit elements? Let’s start with this zombie thing. And I feel like, it’s definitely the least interesting aspect of the whole plot. And I guess the writers of the series also realized this, because the inquiry about the phenomenon is left behind after the second season. There are some chapters in which Rick’s group is in a facility where a guy is investigating the causes of the infection, from this we learn only that all the charac… wait, I think this is a spoiler. The thing is, after this, it’s never talked about again. There is a moment, during the ninth season, where it seems that the lore about zombies is going to be expanded, when a new kind of zombie appears, capable of anticipating attacks and moving faster. However, everything is left behind when we learn that they are actually people disguised as zombies (and I personally feel that, from this moment on, the plot goes to hell). Beyond that, the zombies are nothing more than an unpleasant obstacle that appears every so often in the story. The real source of conflict in the series are the human antagonists and it is here, except for one small problem, where we find the real danger for Rick Grimes’ family. I remember in one episode, Carl Jr. asks his father if they are still the good guys, this because of the amount of murders they have to commit to survive. The first important enemy in the plot is Shane, Rick’s friend, who quickly loses his moral compass because of his love for Laurie. This character is the first major obstacle for Rick, the first test to find out if he is willing to do what it takes to save his family. Then come other enemies, most notably “the mayor” and Negan (perhaps the best-known antagonist of the series). The problem between the two characters is that they are not different enough to feel an evolution in the story. In fact, they both harm the group in a similar way, killing one of them in front of the others.

That’s what I can say about The Walking Dead, a series that has a very interesting character in Rick Grimes and a story about characters who don’t know each other and come to form a family together, as the only way to survive an apocalypse, having to make difficult and desperate decisions in between. Perhaps it’s true that the series has lasted much longer than it should have, already by the time they had defeated Negan it felt like every episode (except for the most important ones) was more of the same. That’s why I prefer to stick with the memories of the first seasons and the most important parts of the battle against Negan. The rest is forgettable, but it doesn’t take away from the dramatic value that the good parts have, moments where you can truly realize why this series was such a phenomenon for so many people.

The good stuff:

  • Rick Grimes!
  • The first four seasons are pure gold.
  • Last Day on Earth.

The bad:

  • The series goes on too long and gets repetitive.
  • The zombies are nothing more than a nuisance.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

I think that if there is one movie that should be shown during Easter week it is “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”, forget about those old stories about the death of Jesus or the Ten Commandments, no, no, no. None of those movies have the ability to persuade you to give the Christian religion a chance like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a movie that takes inspiration from the case of Anneliese Michel, a German girl who was apparently a victim of possession, a case that gained fame for having occurred during the modern era, which put religious doctrine directly against scientific thought and resulted in the conviction of Anneliese’s parents and the priests who performed the exorcism to prison for the girl’s death. This real-life case shares many beats with the story of the film and just like the real case, the film is also framed in a discussion between religion and science, a key element that makes this audiovisual piece an emotionally charged story that could convince more than one agnostic about the existence of the realm of the supernatural.

As usual in this blog… Let’s start at the beginning! When I re-watched the movie, before doing the review, there was something that caught my attention about the beginning of the story. It’s what Lagos Esgri calls the “point of attack” or the moment the writer chooses to begin the story. In the case of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the story starts in two different ways, the first is during the moment of Emily’s death, which is the beginning of the story of Father Moore, who is accused of negligent death. The second point of attack in the story is the first scene in which the protagonist, Erin Bromm, the lawyer who takes on the task of defending Father Moore, appears. In the first scene in which Erin appears, she is working in a bar, while her colleagues are all celebrating. The thing is, she is the one who has something to celebrate, she has just won an important lawsuit (she saved a person accused of murder) and yet, instead of celebrating the success, she decides to keep working. Now, I think it’s an interesting point of attack that screenwriters Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman have chosen, as they could have chosen to start the story from Emily Rose’s point of view or perhaps the first time Father Moore encounters the case. But they have chosen the optimal point of attack for the development of the plot they want to tell. For the film is a supernatural crime thriller and the story centers on the trial against Father Moore. So, it is very convenient that the story starts with the father being accused of the murder and his lawyer (reluctantly) taking on the case.

Before the “lock in” (the so-called fighting decision), which occurs 15 minutes in, we already know more or less what the whole movie is going to be about (at least between which poles it is going to move), in part because of the conversation between the two trial lawyers in the case. In this part of the story, Ethan, the prosecuting attorney, indicates that he is Catholic, even asking for a glass of water when Erin invites him for a martini (thereby assuming a moral superiority to her), but then indicates that if it were up to him, Father Moore would go straight to jail, according to the law. This statement surprises Erin, as she had assumed that Catholic people had a strong sense of compassion and forgiveness. From this moment on, we witness the trial against Father Moore, in which the two poles of the plot are intensely debated, the scientific aspect, supported by Ethan and the prosecution, and the religious aspect, assumed by Erin (although she is not religious, but declares herself agnostic) after her first strategy fails (her initial strategy is to discredit the medical evidence presented by the prosecution). The struggle reaches the midpoint of the story when Erin finally assumes that the events that occurred could in fact be the product of the supernatural realm, after meeting Dr. Cartwright, the doctor who was present during the exorcism, and from here on out the film moves intensely towards this version of events, giving us several convincing arguments for the possibility that demons, and therefore God, exist. In fact, one of Emily Rose’s iconic lines is one in which she argues that people say God doesn’t exist, but how can they think that if she shows them the devil? She comes to this conclusion in one of the most emotionally (and cinematically!) powerful scenes in the film, the moment when she understands why this whole demon-possessed thing is happening to her.

The ending of the film is not at all bombastic and I think it’s good that it is so, what it does is that it shows a small change in the attitude of the protagonist, Erin Broom, who goes from being agnostic to being a believer (in a very symbolic but subtle way). Father Moore is found guilty of “negligent death”, but the jury makes a recommendation to the judge, they ask for a “sentence served”, acknowledging his guilt but considering that he has already paid for his crime.

Now and before I finish, I can’t but talk a little bit about the horror aspect of the film. And I feel that this is the weakest point in it I remember the first time I saw it, this aspect made a great impression on me, but this time I have to say that it felt rather forced. In the end, the demonic aspect of the possession is nothing more than a bunch of guttural screams and incidental music, but in the visual aspect it leaves much to be desired. Maybe it’s because that effect where people’s faces transform into demons has been used ad nauseam in thousands of youtube videos and the like. I don’t know, it makes me think of another film that I think has achieved a better visual section on the satanic theme, The Ritual (2017). Some of the visual effects in The Exorcism of Emily Rose I don’t think have aged well with the passage of time.

I think that’s all I can say about The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a film that presents interesting arguments about the possible existence of the realm of the supernatural and really leaves you wanting to know more about it. The main character, Erin Broom, is also a very interesting one, especially because of the great performance of Laura Linney, who gives great intensity to the argumentative sequences during the trial. Perhaps also because her antagonist, Ethan (Cambbell Scott), plays an equally intense role during these scenes. And let’s keep in mind that this movie has a lot of dialogue and is also very entertaining and quick to watch, something that is definitely not easy to achieve. It is for all these reasons that I feel Emily Rose is the perfect movie to watch during Easter week, or as Emily says, how are you going to deny the existence of God if I show you the devil?

The good:

  • The performances of Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson and Campbell Scott.
  • The arguments for the existence of the supernatural realm.
  • The scene where Emily understands why all this possession stuff is happening to her.

The bad:

  • The horror parts don’t make as much of an impact as before.
  • The use of animals to represent evil (come on! If animals are so good!).

In summary… see next to the chocolate eggs.