Come And See: A Horror Masterpiece?

Very few films are worthy of the descriptor “masterpiece.” It’s not to say that there aren’t many good films. Far from it! I’d like to think that all the films I’ve covered here on VL were at least good, if not great. But how many films have you seen that were genuinely profound?

Moreover, how many horror films are masterpieces in the most commonly understood sense. Horror fans might agree that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a masterpiece in the genre, but you aren’t likely find that one topping the “best of” lists from The American Film Institute. But what about the outliers? Those films that sit outside clean lines of description, that bend genre and film making conventions?

Come and See, directed by Elem Klimov in 1985, in a true genre-bending masterpiece. It is a film that uses the best artistic direction of an era to achieve genuinely horrifying ends. Set in Belarus in 1943, Come and See tells the story of Flyora, an early teen dragged into the Hell of World War 2 on the Eastern Front. Klimov’s portrayal of Nazi atrocities in Soviet Belarus are based on true events, and while the film is not gory in the sense of something like Hostel, it is unflinching in it’s depiction of genuine destruction.

But there are plenty of war films, right? If we are measuring realistic depictions of violence as one yardstick, is Saving Private Ryan a horror film? But violence is not the single end of horror. In order for a film to be a Horror Film, it should evoke feelings of dread or apprehension. At the risk of a tautology, a Horror Film must Horrify. Come and See delivers in this arena like almost no other film. It is a film that is genuinely beautiful and revolting in equal measure.

Klimov made several clever decisions in the creation of Come and See. Following the horror axiom that “what the audience does not see is more scary than what they can see,” the film is not a barrage of one-note gore. Often the most affecting moments occur only briefly, barely on screen for a minute. And when Klimov’s lens does linger, it serves to drive home what our protagonist is forced to handle. Aleksei Kravchenko’s portrayal of Flyora is, for my money, one of the greatest on-screen performances of it’s decade. Klimov uses many tightly framed shot’s of Flyora reacting to the world around him, his face contorting into a mask of sharp disgust or mute terror. The hyper-realism of the incoming bomb raids becomes justified with the surreal.

No joke – a scene of a boy crawling through mud genuinely nauseated me.

A recurring image throughout this film is the presence of German reconnaissance aircraft passing over a scene. Klimov simply does not use the sound of the engines (which would be scary enough,) but blends into it a single droning tone that lingers over the scene. The aircraft ceases to be a mere engine of war. It becomes a harbinger of existential threat, a very real portent of doom. This Lynchian blending of audio manipulation into diegetic sound into a unstylized world is incredibly unnerving.

 “I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.”

  • William Tecumseh Sherman

Come and See is more than a mere collection of horrifying images. There are more than enough films that provide that sort of viewing. Instead, Come and See is a slow burn. It seeks to illustrate the loss of individual innocence and the corruption of a world. It is not enough to see war in a realistic way, and this film seeks to crush the thought that “Total War” can ever be noble. ((An actual note I took during my viewing of the film: “Is it possible to feel like you are committing a war crime by watching a movie?”)  It seems so obvious that attempted genocide and wholesale destruction merely degrades the soul of all involved. But genocides didn’t stop happening with World War Two. Come and See offers a believable proxy experience to brave cinephiles and horror fans. It is not to be missed, underestimated, or forgotten.

Halloween Horror Movie Binge: Some Practical Considerations by Professor L. Yochum of the Villains Live University

To the student body of VLU…it’s nearly time.

As you know, it’s nearly October. And as well know, October is the month long celebration of all things spooky. Speaking personally,  I find it endlessly satisfying to spend the month immersed up to the metaphorical gills in horror. This time of year clearly gives us the best candies, best decorations, and most enjoyable music.

But a sincere horror binge is not something that can be done willy-nilly. While I might personally bristle at the thought of someone telling me how to GET SPOOKY, it does pay to have a plan. I therefore have a proposal. I would like to lay down some simple guidelines for the coming season.

Media binging is obviously not a new concept. Since the arrival of wide-spread on-demand media, many prefer to not absorb media in episodic format. Consider for a moment how many times you or a loved one have spent an entire weekend watching one show. Binging is applicable to film franchises, premier TV, even podcasts! But Halloween media is more than mere movies. Halloween media is multi-disciplinary, multi-platform media.  As such, our approach must be multi-faceted.  

 

Part One: Right Environment

When is it appropriate to watch a horror movie, much less many horror movies? Should the room be dark? And should you have your phone nearby? The greatest minds of the 20th and early 21st century have been debating this since the release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. (My intensive, evidence-based research of Google has shown that the first Blu-Ray of The Cabinet in 1955 caused quite a furor.)  A comprehensive recipe for optimal binge-watch environments is outside the scope of this brief lecture. However we should acknowledge some possibilities for this upcoming season.

For example: should a film prominently featuring daytime scenes be watched during the day or the night? Or whether or not snacks/beverages will improve a film going experience. Silly as such small contrivances may seem, they are questions worth addressing.

Many horror purists, such as The Scaredy Cats podcast, have put down the rules that horror movies must be watched at night, uninterrupted, without the presence of phones. And while I respect the expertise of the podcast’s hosts, I respectfully argue that this approach is ultimately incorrect. All of this is good for a singular film, but it is not feasible if you are planning on watching multiple films in a single sitting. I would argue that the film should match the environment as best as possible.  Black and White classics such as the original Night of The Living Dead are best absorbed at night, where the desaturated colors are easier on the eyes, and immersive in their tones.  Phantasm, on the other hand, lends itself to early evening on the account of it’s surreal, hallucinatory tone.

And to the point of refreshments, I wholeheartedly endorse their consumption during film during any film, and especially during a binge. The longer your experience goes, the greater your need for supplemental nutrition will become. Furthermore Halloween binging is a pre-written excuse for consumption of Halloween candy and themed cocktails or sodas. Again: multi-disciplinary and multi-media.

 

Part Two: Franchise vs. Curated List

So what are we watching? Astute students of horror will know the stress of attempting to have the right films for the occasion.  So should you give in to the simple desire to pick a pre-arranged franchise of films, or should you do something more personally intensive?

This decision seems to be largely a matter of the time you have available to freely dedicate. For instance, one could easily spend nearly half a month dedicated the Halloween franchise.  At 13 films, this offers you a seemingly simple guidepost.  Or if you want this time frame more compacted, there are 10 Hellraiser films.  That is an easy way to spread a massive dose of horror over a mere handful of days.

However, that approach has it’s flaws. Academic communities have raged with argument over whether or not Halloween 3 should be included in the canon of the Halloween franchise. And that says nothing of the religious schisms caused by the Hellraiser entries that de-emphasize Doug Bradley as Pinhead.  

As an alternative, curated lists of films are an option with profound flexibility.  One could easily create a list such as “Roger Corman Productions,” or “Slashers from the 70s and 80s only.” This list approach offers a profound degree of personalization options. The exchange, however, is in that it requires time and effort to create these sorts of lists, whereas film franchises have strict guidelines.

 

Part Three: 31 for 31

Arguably the greatest challenge available for horror fans is the 31 Days of Halloween, or sometimes called “31 for 31.” Put simply, the goal is to watch 31 horror movies in the month of October, potentially watching a single horror film every day of the month of October. Like the pre-hibernation eating of bears to the onset of Winter, this approach offers horror fans the ability to carry a dose of Spooky with them throughout the remainder of the year.

But 31 for 31 is a daunting challenge.  It requires dedication and grit.  Students of VLU are no doubt accustomed to the rigors of serious horror study. (See my maddening discussion of Folk Horror, if you have somehow shaken off the trauma of that initial experience by now…and stop emailing me to pay your therapy bills.  The Court’s Orders are clear in their rejection of your claims.)  The decision to watch this amount of horror is reserved for either the foolhardy or most iron willed.

As such, your trusted professor has decided to undertake this challenge.  I set down some simple parameters for my attempt.

  • The films on the list must represent a broad stroke of genres and time periods.
  • The list should be a mix of familiar favorites and films I’ve never seen.
  • Roughly half of the list must be at the suggestion of my most esteemed colleagues.
  • No direct sequels. Thematic sequels are acceptable, but numbered/titled sequels are stictly forbidden.

As such, I present the Professor Yochum 31 for 31 Challenge of 2020.  This list is in a mostly random order, and presented as a way to cover as much ground in a month as is possible.

  1. Colour Out Of Space
  2. Midsommar
  3. Event Horizon
  4. Videodrome
  5. The Platform
  6. Audition
  7. Circle
  8. Suspiria
  9. Inferno
  10. The Spiral
  11. Halloween
  12. #Alive
  13. Castle Freak
  14. Nosferatu
  15. Mandy
  16. The Mummy (the Boris Karloff original)
  17. Dark Water
  18. The Ninth Gate
  19. Tigers Are Not Afraid
  20. Phantasm
  21. Chopping Mall
  22. The Autopsy of Jane Doe
  23. The Witch
  24. The Wicker Man
  25. Night Of The Living Dead (original)
  26. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
  27. As Above, So Below
  28. Ju-On: The Grudge
  29. The Changling
  30. Horse Girl
  31. Hell House LLC

So, to our dear students, we here at VLU look forward to hearing how you intend to spend the month of October.  Please remember to share your notes with fellow students.

Threads Movie Poster

Threads

Sometimes I scan to see what’s on Shudder.  This past weekend I found Threads.  The subject of nuclear apocalypse has always interested me.  It’s dark, real and the biggest lesson I’ve learned from books and movies is that you do not want to survive.  Surviving is so much worse than just being blown away in the initial blast.  This movie did nothing to sway me from this opinion.

I want to start by saying Threads is amazing. It’s well done, the story is convincing, and the actors are so believable in their roles that by the end of this movie I needed to watch a comedy.    I went into this film fairly blind.  I read the description, saw the cover, and committed to seeing where it lead.  It takes me back to the days of visiting the video rental store.  Threads hit me hard.  Like a sucker punch to the stomach.

The movie begins with normal everyday people living their life and this is how the movie sucks you in.  You follow the lives of different people for the first half of the film.  We have a young pregnant couple, multiple families, and public servants.  You see them all react to the news of escalating tensions between the US and Russia in Iran but since we as the view knows what’s going to happen.  It’s all a matter of when.

Everybody is so damn pleasant and average.  Trying to do their best and displaying various levels of concern for a possible nuclear attack.  The civil servants are doing what they can to prepare for an attack.  People flee cities or stock up on groceries. It’s what you would expect to see.  Then the alarm sounds.  This is where the second half begins.  This is where the gut punch comes in.

As the description in the film states the bomb falls.  The people we’ve grown to love and care about are now in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  The depiction of what happens is accurate and brutal.  This is actually though where the film shines.  It doesn’t hold back and shows the brutal reality of what would happen if a nuclear bomb were to detonate.  Massive deaths occur early one but those are the lucky ones.  It’s the survivors who have the worst of it.  It’s a slow painful struggle that still results in death for most of them.  It just takes longer.  There’s radioactive dust everywhere, polluted water, and no food.  All of their homes are demolished and the fallout creates cold freezing temperatures even in July.  They flee to other cities but as you can guess are not treated very well.  Whew!  It does not get easier and the movie ends appropriately on a down note.  Just look at Ruth below is dead in her 30’s.  Radiation does a hell of a lot of damage as you can see.

Ruths Death - Threads

So here’s the final verdict.  Threads is an amazing movie, incredibly well done, but brace yourself if you’re going to watch this.  This movie is not easy, it doesn’t let up, and it actually gets worse from that image above.  It is, however, worth watching and just know if a nuclear bomb is heading your way, run out to catch it.