The Director’s Chair – Alfred Hitchcock

There are many filmmakers that people can point to as the ones who molded and shaped the horror genre into what it is today; Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Sam Raimi, and Joe Dante being among the most noteworthy.  But if there was someone who people consider the grandfather of modern horror, the name of Alfred Hitchcock comes to mind.  Which itself is strange, because Hitchcock was not exactly a horror filmmaker.  Only one of his movies could be considered a horror film, his iconic 1960 thriller Psycho, but it was such a high water mark for the genre that it would change horror film-making, and cinema for that matter, forever.  But, apart from that, Hitchcock’s true title in Hollywood was “the Master of Suspense,” which he had earned over the course of his career having directed some of the most exhilarating and tension filled movies that were ever committed to celluloid.  Murder mysteries were his main foray, as the majority of his filmography was devoted to crime dramas and whodunits.  But it wasn’t just the suspense that made him an icon as a director, it was the way he presented it.  Always an innovator, Hitchcock would find new ways to keep his audience on edge, and that included introducing untried techniques that for their time were cutting edge.  These included gimmicks like the long unbroken takes in the movie Rope (1948), the dolly zoom in Vertigo (1958), or the frantic cutting of the shower scene in Psycho.  He was a director that always played by his own rules and he thankfully found success making the kinds of movies that he wanted to make; which was a rarity in the Hollywood system during his heyday.

What’s also interesting about Hitchcock is that while there is a distinct character to all his films, since he rarely strayed away from the suspense genre, there are also definable phases to his career too.  He started out in his native England making spy thrillers like The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), and Foreign Correspondant (1940), which garnered the attention of Hollywood.  He was swayed to cross the pond by mega-producer David O. Selznick to produce a series of dramas for his independent studio.  The first one was the Oscar winning Rebecca (1940), followed by Suspicion (1941) and Spellbound (1945).  While the movies under Selznick Pictures are still expertly crafted and feature some of the director’s best work, you can also tell that Hitchcock was feeling a little handcuffed at the same time, as these movies were more or less his most mainstream and micro-managed films of his career, with Selznick having much oversight over the final products.  After the Selznick partnership, Hitchcock made his way to Universal Pictures, where he would remain for the rest of his career, leading to his most prolific run of movies.  At Universal is where Hitchcock became the director that we know today, with full, unwavering confidence in his abilities as a director.  And the movies are one classic after another; Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), Rope, Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds to name a few.  He even became the face of suspense thrillers, as Universal also produced an anthology TV series called Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with the director appearing in front of the camera to introduce each episode.  Because of all this, Hitchcock had become a new kind of filmmaker, which was one who had become a household name.  Some directors had become noteworthy in their time, but only the name of Hitchcock could be immediately identifiable in every American home, and that was quite a feat for his time.  Even to this day, Hitchcock is still one of the most celebrated, analyzed and frequently imitated filmmakers in cinematic history.  What follows is a couple of elements that are uniquely a part of the Hitchcockian style, and what helped to define him as a a filmmaker.

1.

THE WRONG MAN

Hitchcock would often return to tropes that had served him well in the past, and he would manage to rehash them again and again without making it seem like he was repeating himself.  One of those tropes that is unmistakably Hitchcockian is that of the “wrong man” scenario.  Hitchcock liked nothing more than to have his protagonists thrown into a situation that they are ill equipped to take on.  Most of the time this would involve the protagonist either by accident or by unfortunate ill judgment ending up in the middle of a larger conspiracy that they had no previous knowledge of.  This trope goes all the way back to his early years, with his main characters in The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps both finding themselves involved in the middle of a plot, which they never expected to be in.  For the former, it happens when the villain (played marvelously by Peter Lorre) kidnaps the child of the hero (Leslie Banks), and the latter is when the hero (Robert Donat) is falsely accused of murder as part of a cover-up.  Hitchcock favored this trope because he found it as a good way to build his protagonist’s character over the course of the story, allowing them to learn as we follow along with them in the story.  It’s a great way to spotlight the charm and wit of the character as well, and he often liked to give some of Hollywood’s top leading men these kinds of roles, including Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart being among his very favorites.  And just to show how aware he was of his own style, Hitchcock even made a movie called The Wrong Man (1956), with Henry Fonda playing the titular role.  Despite being a long standing trope within his full body of work, there is probably no better use of it than the thrilling classic North by Northwest, with Cary Grant literally being the wrong man, at the wrong place at the wrong time.  Of course, it’s not the trope alone that carries the movie, but what Hitchcock does after that makes the movie such a classic, taking Grant on a cross country adventure as he grows from simple business man to death-defying spy by movie’s end.  It’s understandable that he continued to return to the same trope over and over again, because it served him well.

2.

AMERICANA

When Hitchcock came to America to make films for Selznick, I don’t think he initially realized the impact it would have on the rest of his career.  The English-born director not only became a naturalized citizen of the United States, but he would also use his newly adopted homeland as a thematic element in most of his latter films.  There is a strong presence of Americana throughout his movies made in Hollywood; some more overt than others.  For one thing, Hitchcock loved to use distinctive American landmarks in his movies as important settings for moments in his films.  These include the Golden Gate bridge where Kim Novak’s character nearly drowns herself in Vertigo; the climatic confrontation in Saboteur (1942), where Norman Lloyd literally hangs by a sleeve on the outstretched hand of the Statue of Liberty; and of course the epic chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest.  But Hitchcock was not spotlighting American landmarks out of some newly found patriotic fervor.  They were part of his interesting introspection into the underbelly of America.  He put these moments around landmarks just to show how extraordinarily out of place such a moment would be around these icons.  He also distinctively tried to explore American society in the micro as well.  Long before David Lynch would do the same with Blue Velvet (1986), Hitchcock explored how a seemingly peaceful suburban American community could be hiding something sinister underneath with the brilliant Shadow of a Doubt, which Hitchcock considered one of his favorites.  Even Psycho follows in that same vein, with a seemingly unassuming little roadside lodge, typical of contemporary American travel culture, turning into a house of horrors by film’s end.  Hitchcock was both a filmmaker that was fascinated with America and critical of it as well, and it provided him with a careers worth of interesting stories to tell, all of which have appropriately become American classics.

3.

THE ELUSIVE BLONDE

On the flip side of his trope of the “wrong man,” there is another character type that has become a part of the Hitchcockian style.  And that type almost always is portrayed by a blonde haired beauty.  People have often claimed that Hitchcock was playing out a fetish in movies by always having his leading ladies be blonde and impossibly beautiful, but that I think is a misreading of him as a director.  In a way, Hitchcock cast his lead actress by the distinctive hair color because he felt that it represented a more angelic aspect to their character.  It was also something that became more common once he started making movies in color, as his previous leading ladies from the black and white era like Ingrid Bergman and Joan Fontaine had distinctive brown hair.  It started with the casting of Grace Kelly in Rear Window that Hitchcock became enamored with blonde female leads, and we would see a distinct through-line of leading ladies for the next decade, as Doris Day, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, Janet Leigh and Tippi Hedren all followed in Grace’s footsteps.  But, what is also noteworthy about the use of blondes in Hitchcock’s movies is that they are often drivers of the plots themselves; sometimes in tragic ways.  Sometimes they are there as an accomplice to the male lead, like Grace Kelley in To Catch a Thief (1955) or Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, but oftentimes they would also be put into the path of peril.  To Hitchcock, blonde was a sign of purity and having a blonde lady fall victim to violence only made the deed more tragic.  He was probably fully aware of his obsession, since he made Jimmy Stewart’s protagonist in Vertigo so fixated on the blonde beauty that he tragically lost, to the point that he forces another woman to look just like her.  It’s a fascinating aspect to his filmography that is unmistakable once you become aware of it.  Hitchcock had a type in mind, but there is no doubt that the most important blonde lady in his life was his wife of 54 years, Alma Reville, who was his closest collaborator and creative confidant as well.  And she was far from elusive.

4.

BERNARD HERRMANN

Apart from his wife, Alma, Hitchcock never had too many close collaborators over his career.  His crews were often interchangeable depending on which movie he was making; he worked on scripts from a whole variety of screenwriters; and his production teams were often specialists specific for the different new experiments that he was trying to take on with each new film.  But if there was one collaborator that did leave his mark on the work of Alfred Hitchcock, even if it was for a short amount of time, it was film composer Bernard Herrmann.  Hermann was already a well established composer by the time he arrived in Hitchcock’s stable.  He started in the business in a big way, scoring Citizen Kane (1941) for Orson Welles.  For the next decade and a half he had worked up nearly 20 film scores, but once he met Hitchcock, things would take a very dramatic turn.  Starting off with The Trouble With Harry (1955), Herrmann would score 7 total films for Hitchcock, the most of any film composer; and some are often cited as among the best ever written.  His haunting love theme from Vertigo is one that instantly leaves an impression on it’s audience, and the rousing North by Northwest theme is a jaunting adrenaline rush.  But perhaps Herrmann’s most brilliant work was saved for the movie Psycho, which some have proclaimed as his best overall.  The main theme, with it’s off-kilter harshness is itself an already standout piece, and it does probably the best of any Hitchcock movie score to set the tone of a film.  But Herrmann’s most brilliant choice as a composer is the one that seems the most deceptively simple.  Instead of having the legendary shower murder scene play silently with only sound effects, as Hitchcock initially wanted, Herrmann composed an underscore of shrieking violins, which assault the viewer almost like they’re the ones getting stabbed.  It’s a genius choice of music and is probably just as much a part of what has made that scene legendary as Hitchcock’s own direction.  In many ways, it’s also probably the most imitated film music score of all time, which is a testament to Herrmann’s input.  Hitchcock would have still continued to be an influential filmmaker, but who knows how different his career may have been had his movies not included Herrmann’s music in them.

5.

THE MCGUFFIN

All us cinephiles are pretty aware of the term McGuffin by now.  The term is used to describe an object that is central to the plot of a film, but inconsequential to the story.  Famous examples could include the Maltese Falcon from the 1941 film of the same name; the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); the briefcase from Pulp Fiction (1994); you could even point to the six Infinity Stones as the McGuffins of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.  But it might surprise you that the term actually came from Hitchcock himself.  He didn’t coin the term (that was screenwriter Angus MacPhail), but he was the one who defined it.  In Hitchcock’s own words, the McGuffin is “the thing that the characters are after, but the audience doesn’t care.”  In other words, it’s the motivator for the human drama, and carries little significance apart from that.  The McGuffin is just there to passively exist, so that the characters can go through all the highs and lows of the plot in order to find it and obtain it.  The first true example of this plot device appearing in a Hitchcock movie is in The 39 Steps.  What are the 39 Steps; just a list of spies names, a detail you don’t know until the very end of the film, and that’s not what’s important.  It’s the fact that the bad guys are after it and the hero must find it before they do.  Similar McGuffins also factor into the plots of Notorious and North by Northwest as well.  Hitchcock even uses a McGuffin as a brilliant misdirection as well, as he does with the money Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals in Psycho.  Once she is killed off halfway through the movie, the money no longer plays a factor, despite having been a major motivator in the plot so far.  Had Hitchcock never defined and popularized the term, we probably would have coined a different, less distinct term for such a thing in movie plots, so we have him to thank for giving these elements a name that is characteristically unique in the way that only someone like Hitchcock could have done.

Alfred Hitchcock was not a horror film director, but he certainly has become a beloved icon of the genre nonetheless.  Perhaps it’s because there is an aura of danger and mystery that spans throughout all his films.  Apart from Psycho, his intent was never to horrify his audience, but instead to always leave them in suspense.  To him, the threat of death was always underneath the surface and it was always his intent to mine that dark side of human existence as a part of the drama within his films.  All his movies either involve a plot to kill, or the investigation into a killing, but rarely does he ever indulge in blood and gore.  That’s probably why Psycho was so shocking for it’s time, because it was even a stretch for him to take things as far as he did with that film.  But macabre themes aside, what has also made Hitchcock revered even to this day is his bold cinematic vision.  He was a director in full command of his art-form with enviable support from a major studio.  What’s even more remarkable is the fact that he reportedly never put his eye up to the camera itself, trusting he crew completely to capture the image that he had planned for.  Numerous filmmakers today, including the likes of Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, and others take inspiration from the unparalleled work of Alfred Hitchcock.  With a filmography spanning nearly 50 years, he is one of the most prolific filmmakers ever, and probably without peers in the whole history of the industry.  And still to this day, the name Hitchcock remains a household name; still carrying weight in the realms of mystery, suspense, and even horror.  His legacy is as well preserved as the Bates Manor House that still sits on the Universal Studios Backlot to this day, nearly 60 years after it was first built.  Whether you know him by name only, or from that familiar portly silhouette that he began every episode of his show with, he is an indispensable part of cinema history, and a true Hollywood icon in every sense of the word.

 

Monsters Among Us – Why Movies Don’t Have to Scare to Be Terrifying

Horror can be easily described as a genre defined by blood and gore and a bastion of monsters and murderers.  But, that’s mostly been a result of more recent entries in the genre that have leaned more heavily in the direction of graphic violence.  In reality, the horror genre has gone through a significant evolution through the whole history of cinema, dating all the way back to the silent era and all the way up to now.  And what you’ll discover about the horror genre by looking back on it’s history is that it didn’t always need to spook it’s audience in order to make them terrified.  For the most part, most horror filmmakers weren’t allowed to go as far as they are now with depicting blood and gore on screen, so they often relied on using cinematic language to suggest terrifying elements within their movies.  Looking back on some of the first horror films ever made, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922), it is quite amazing to see how well they are able to convey a feeling of absolute terror with only light and shadow, as well as some truly Gothic imagery.  They still remain some of the most terrifying films today, even almost 100 years later, and that shows just how powerful the visual image is at conveying terror.  Though the filmmakers were certainly working under limitations, it still enabled them to be creative and allow imagination to fill out the gaps.  Movies that give the audience the opportunity to imagine the unseen horror often stand out more as the most terrifying kind of horror movies, because nothing on screen could ever match up to the worst things that we can think of.  Our imagination can go into surprisingly dark territories when put to the test by these kinds of horror movies, and one thing that I’ve noticed in more recent horror films is a return to that kind of interplay between the filmmakers and the audience.

At the same time, we aren’t seeing horror films with graphic violence and supernatural monsters going away either.  IT: Chapter Two is still performing well at the box office, and that movie is what you’d expect as the atypical Hollywood horror flick.  It’s got scary monsters, jump scares, and a whole lot of blood and gore.  At the same time, it’s also apparent to the viewer that it’s not an entirely scary movie.  In fact, I’d say that half of the movie works as a comedy.  Is the film entertaining, yes; but not all that scary.  Sure there are some genuinely terrifying parts, but I don’t think that you’ll fnd anybody who’ll describe it as the most terrifying movie that’s ever been made.  It’s interesting to note how this contrasts with another Stephen King adaptation, The Shining (1980), which is described by far more people as the most terrifying movie ever made.  The Shining, though it works with the same standards of gore and violence as IT, comes through as far more consistently terrifying.  Why is that?  I believe it has to do with more consistency of tone.  IT bounces back and forth between the goofy and horrific, while The Shining builds it’s feeling of dread towards it’s ultimately horrific ending.  Most filmmakers tend to not like that slow burn style of storytelling and prefer to grab a hold of their audience right from the outset.  But what Stanley Kubrick revealed through his own telling of Stephen King’s classic novel is that by allowing the audience to absorb the movie before pulling the rug out from under them, you intensify their sense of terror as the movie goes along.  It’s that slow march towards the horrific that feels all the more rewarding, because as the movie goes along, the audience grows more and more anxious, knowing that something right around the corner will come out to shock them.

There are two schools of thinking that have developed around how you approach a horror movie, and they follow that divide that we’ve seen between the differences in the aforementioned Stephen King adaptations.  There are some filmmakers that choose to withhold moments of terror in favor of building up the atmosphere, while there are others that don’t waste a single moment in showing you every horrific thing it can.  The latter is usually what you’ll find coming from the major Hollywood studios, because they are the safe and predictable choice.  Taking the former approach is not as ideal for studios to invest in, because it requires far more faith that the audience will jump on board and accept the unpredictable.  But, playing it safe when it comes to horror has it’s pitfalls too, because if there is one thing that a horror movie fan hates, it’s complacency.  You scare someone once, they become guarded for what comes next, so if you just repeat the same kind of scares over and over again, they audience just grows numb to it.  You could see this play out very clearly in the decade long glut of slasher flicks that we got during the 2000’s, with movies like Final Destination (2000), Jeepers Creepers (2001), Valentine (2001) and many others trying perhaps way too hard to follow in the footsteps of Scream (1996).  Eventually the box office returns for these kinds of movies dried up and the studios began abandoning them.  It wasn’t until Blumhouse Productions stepped in the 2010’s that we’ve seen a revitalization for the genre, thanks to the indie producer’s more manageable production budgets.  And by setting the genre on more grounded footing, it allows for more filmmakers to experiment with the pacing of their horror, which itself garners up some interesting results.

One of the most interesting things about horror as a genre is how it’s very much driven by cinematic vision.  Indeed, the success rate for a horror film is determined by how well the filmmaker uses the medium to convey terror on screen.  This is where the groundwork of the pioneers of early cinema becomes so important, because they are the ones who wrote the language of visual horror in the first place.  We have visionaries like F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, James Whale and Tod Browning to thank for making us afraid of what lurks in the shadows at night.  Even when the genre shifted to more graphic violence thanks to the slasher flicks of the 1970’s and 80’s, the influence of those early films can still be felt.  Just look at how John Carpenter lights Michael Myers in Halloween (1978), almost completely in shadow with his mask being the one illuminated element.  Whether we know it or not, we are conscious of the rules of horror film-making, and adhering to those rules is what can make or break the effectiveness of a horror movie.  It’s especially interesting to see this play out in horror franchises, when the cinematic vision is dramatically shifted between films.  For instance, there is such a dramatic shift in tone between William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and the John Boorman directed sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977).  The original Exorcist is deliberately paced, almost procedural drama that smacks it’s audience hard when it arrives at it’s most horrifying moments, while Exorcist II is overblown, showy and decided less terrifying.  One director wanted to take his time building tension while the other wanted to show off, and that difference shows just how important it can be to give you audience the chance to absorb the film before being terrified.  This is one example of where a franchise was derailed by loosing it’s grip on subtlety, but more recently, we’ve seen an example where the opposite was true.  In 2014, Universal and Hasbro made the very cynical move of turning their Ouija board game brand into a horror film franchise.  The result was a standard, cliche ridden mess that did nothing to help promote the game nor make a splash within the genre.  However, when they planned to make a sequel, they turned to an actual horror filmmaker named Michael Flanagan who had previously won raves for his breakout film Oculus (2013) and he crafted a far more subtle, well thought out, and more importantly, scary follow-up with Ouija: Origin of Evil, which was far better received by critics and audiences.

More recently we’ve been seeing movies that have followed that pattern, straying away from fright by the minute tactics and choosing to use atmosphere and tension to terrify their audiences.  One company in particular that seems to be delivering that example is independent outfit A24.  Their catalog of films spans a variety of genres, but what is particularly interesting is how they are delivering in the horror genre.  They seem to favor very artistic horror films, with a very deliberate directorial stamp on them, helping them to stand out among others in the genre.  Indeed, it really is hard to compare an A24 film with anything else in the genre.  They were the ones who put out Kevin Smith’s foray into body horror film-making with Tusk (2014); they released the Robert Eggers period set The Witch (2015); and most recently they made a splash by putting out Ari Aster’s controversial cult movie Midsommar (2019).  Midsommar in particular stands out within the genre, because stylistically it goes against so many horror film-making rules.  Nearly the entire movie is bathed in sunlight, eliminating any use of shadows to hide terrors hiding within view.  It’s also a movie that doesn’t rely on jump scares or significant moments of graphic violence.  It instead plays by the same principle that movies like The Shining and The Exorcist built their moments of horror on, which is to build a sense of growing terror over time, allowing the audience to grow comfortable with the movie before the terror begins to envelop them.  By the end of the movie, the audience has reached a level of unease that may not have shaken them to the core, but nevertheless has left them emotionally drained and petrified.  It’s that kind of horror that really appeals to filmmakers, because it makes the film stick longer in the audiences memory.  Like I said before, audiences grow numb to consistent scares thrown at them, but slowing pulling them into a state of unease is something that leaves a lasting impact, and that’s something that Midsommar relishes in doing.

However, it may surprise you that a movie doesn’t even need to be about something supernatural or horrific to be terrifying.  Sometimes, a real life moment can create a sense of terror that is equal to what we see in any horror movies.  I can tell you that one of the most tense experiences that I had watching a movie this year was in watching the documentary Free Solo on an IMAX screen.  The movie is just about a free solo rock climber named Alex Hannold who tries to be the first person to ever scale the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, without the assistance of safety ropes.  You know already just by the fact that the movie exists that he made it through alive, but even while watching the movie you feel this sense of dread that he could fall to his death at any moment, and that just fills you with this feeling of absolute dread while watching the movie; helped greatly by the you are there with him placements of the cameras.  And that’s just a movie that feels like a horror movie while being something else entirely.  There is another movie I saw this year that on the surface wouldn’t typically be looked at as a horror movie, but to me was absolutely the most terrifying thing I’ve seen all year.  That movie would be Gaspar Noe’s new film Climax.  The French auteur is notorious for breaking cinematic conventions and assaulting his audience will sometimes overwhelming imagery.  With Climax, he presents a very unconventional horror movie by mixing it into the world of dance.  Imagine if Step Up (2006) had a drug trips in it, and that is basically what Climax turns into.  Members of a dance troupe discover that their after party punch has been spiked with LSD, and the remainder of the film becomes something of a bad trip turned into a nightmare, and Noe never holds back.  You feel the overwhelming dread that spreads throughout the movie as the characters are trapped in their inescapable drugged state, and you are right there in the middle of it too.  That to me was more horrifying to watch play out than anything in IT: Chapter Two, and that’s because it’s rooted in a very human horror of a waking nightmare that you can’t escape until it’s run it’s coarse.

Sometimes I’ve found that the most terrifying movies ever made are the ones that are grounded in reality, which is probably why those kinds of movies endure longer than others.  Some of the greatest examples of the genre in fact ignore the cliches of the slasher killer or the supernatural monster, and instead remind us that the worst monsters of all are the ones around us.  To this day, only one movie from the horror genre has won Best Picture at the Oscars, and that’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  Lambs on the surface isn’t exactly a horror movie by traditional standards.  It’s more of a police procedural, with FBI agent Clarice Starling hunting down a serial killer.  Though there are graphic elements in the movie, there are also very few onscreen deaths as well.  Most of the gore is shown after the fact, with only one scene in particular that you would describe as traditionally horrific; Hannibal Lector’s escape scene.  This is a prime example of not playing tricks with the audience, but instead allowing them to absorb the movie and take in the growing tension before it’s released.  When we think of The Silence of the Lambs, the most terrifying moments to us are not the scary moments, but rather the quiet dialogue scenes, where the camera is uncomfortably close to Anthony Hopkins face as he stares directly at us.   Again, it’s using atmosphere to deliver the best effect for the moment.  A similar approach also resonated in David Fincher’s Seven (1995), where much of the terrifying elements are suggested to us and never shown.  We never do see what’s inside the box, but we can paint a terrifying picture in our mind, and that’s just as effective.  It’s all about knowing that right balance to get the audience to feel the dread even when they are not seeing all of it.  And in turn, it shows how we are still using the shadows to deliver the most terrifying of frights on the movie screen.

Horror goes through it’s many different phases over the years, but in the end, several principles still endure to help keep it in line with it’s roots.  That’s the reason why even the silent era movies still manage to scare even all these years later.  The loosening of standards has helped filmmakers get away with a lot more, but as we’ve seen, sometimes it helps to show restraint as well when making a horror movie.  Indeed, one thing that has proven true over the years is that trusting your audience to fill in the gaps has been beneficial to most horror movies, and that by trying to force a scare through too much will end up dulling their senses over time.  That’s why movies like The Shining, The Exorcist, The Silence of the Lambs and Seven are still terrifying today, no matter how many times people have seen them.  They give their audiences a full experience, and reward them for their patience.  I am encouraged to see movies like Midsommar try to follow that example.  Sure, there are the standard Hollywood horror films that serve their purpose, but the real force driving the horror genre into the future are the ones that are being produced on the fringes.  They show that a horror movie can come from any type of style and can be just about anything, like the movie Climax has shown.  Just chasing after scares is not the way to succeed in horror film-making.  It’s finding that right balance between terror and atmosphere, and also just having a story worth telling in the end.  And most of all, it helps to have a genuine human connection, because as real life has shown us, horror is all too real in our lives, and sometimes the worst kinds of nightmares are the ones that we dream up ourselves.

Joker – Review

The last decade has given us a huge variety of movies about superheroes.  But, what we have yet to see is a movie about a supervillain.  Some have argued that Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War (2018) fits that criteria, as it primarily focuses on it’s central antagonist, Thanos, but at the same time it’s also an Avengers movie, meaning that it essentially is an ensemble where the villain gets a huge chunk of the screen time.  What hasn’t been seen yet, however, is a movie that puts the villain front and center, telling their story from their point of view.  It’s a tricky kind of story to pull off because you can run the risk of humanizing the villain too much to where they become sympathetic in the eyes of the audience.  There are plenty of villainous characters out there whose stories are rich enough to delve deeper into, especially in the realm of comic books.  DC Comics perhaps has assembled the most robust rogues gallery that we’ve ever seen in any medium, both cinematic and literary.  It’s no surprise that in their desire to compete with their rival Marvel on the big screen and tell stories that will garner them a bigger audience, they looked to one of their most iconic characters who just also so happens to be their most notorious villain; the clown prince of crime, Joker.  Joker has certainly left his mark on the silver screen, with cinematic iterations that almost try to one up each other in their increasingly dark takes.  Jack Nicholson’s performance in Batman (1989) was a beautiful balance of menace and humor, while Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008) was so iconicly chilling that it won him a posthumous Oscar.  But as much as their versions stood out, they were only section of the grander tapestry of Batman mythos that their respective films were trying to portray.  What kind of movie do we get when a character as unfathomably evil as the Joker is pushed front and center in his own movie.

To do a movie about the Joker, setting the tone the right way has to be the most important factor.  There are so many ways to get this kind of story wrong.  Joker has evolved over time to become the most sinister and disturbing villain in the history of DC Comics; which has no doubt been helped by Nicholson and Ledger’s chilling performances.  If you take the wrong approach to a character like this, you run the risk of creating too much sympathy for the character and this can on occasion lead to an un-healthy self-reflection with the character for some in the audience.  It’s not a bad thing to be a fan of the character.  The Joker has been a popular villain for good reason, and he’s often one of the most widely cos-played characters in the entire DC canon, or for all comic books in general.  Joker fandom for many people is just good old fun, but there are those who unfortunately take things a bit too far.  The powerful imagery and personality of the Joker has sadly also been adopted by fringe segments of society who view the Joker as their patron saint.  These kinds of people can run as varied as anarchists, internet trolls, incels, the alt-right and just flat out terrorist thugs.  These groups in no way are endorsed or promoted by DC or it’s comic writers, but sadly the Joker has been turned into this political lightning rod because of real world villains using him as their inspiration.  The tragic shooting at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado in 2012 by gunman James Holmes brought nationwide attention to this problem, as Holmes tried to emulate the demented clown in his rampage.  The threat that this might happen again has brought controversy to DC’s recent attempt to dramatize an origin story for the Joker on the big screen.  Some theaters have beefed up security just in case, and the same theater in Aurora where the shooting took place has chosen not to screen it at all (which is understandable).  But, the question remains; is a Joker movie deserving of all this controversy?  Is he really that dangerous of a character, and ultimately, is a telling of his story justified in the end?

It must be noted that this is meant to be just a version of the Joker, and not any definitive take that will become canon for all time.  This is not the same Joker that Nicholson or Ledger played; it’s a Joker that exists solely for this specific kind of story.  The movie is about a down and out street performer named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) who tries his hardest to earn a living in the hard neighborhoods of Gotham City.  Arthur suffers from a mental condition that causes him to uncontrollably laugh, which further isolates him from society, as people avoid him believing him to be a nutcase.  He lives with his ill mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who remains emotionally distant even as he dotes on her.  Arthur tries his best to cope with the hardships of life, finding solace in comedy, which leads him to pursuing a life as a comedian, a move that is encouraged by his across the hall neighbor, Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), whom he has an attraction for.  Unfortunately, his laughing condition gets the best of him and ruins his first chance at becoming a stand-up.  At the same time, he looses his job and the mental health care he’s been receiving have been eliminated due to budget cuts.  On his way home one day, he is harassed by a group of drunken yuppie businessmen on a subway train.  They push him over the edge and he snaps, pulling a gun on them and murdering all three in cold blood.  The shocking act brings out a feeling inside Arthur, which he initially tries to repress.  At the same time, the poor people of Gotham respond to the crime favorably, because the victims were entitled employees of Wayne Enterprises, and they view Gotham’s favorite son and potential mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and the reason the city has left them all behind.  Meanwhile, Arthur’s bungled stand-up routine becomes fodder for a late night talk show hosted by a favorite performer of his, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) and Arthur is given an invite to appear on his show.  With all the turmoil that Arthur goes through in days after, it leads him to shed off the person he was before and adopt the clown that he now views himself as, asking to go by the name Joker instead.

One thing that will be made clear very quickly while watching the movie is that this is not your typical comic book movie.  There really is nothing left of the tropes that we associate with the likes of Batman, Justice League or any other super hero movies found in this film. Instead, this movie takes it’s narrative and visual inspiration from the career of Martin Scorsese.  Two films in particular of Scorsese seemed to have been sourced as inspiration for this flick, which are Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983).  Both movies chronicle the dangerous mental slide of an obsessed individual on the fringes of society, and both were starring vehicles for Robert DeNiro.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that DeNiro also appears in this movie as well, since I’m sure that the filmmakers wanted to draw that parallel.  Using the Scorsese guidebook is a bold choice to go with as a basis for portraying the rise of a comic book supervillain.  And to accurately portray the Scorsese style in this movie, you look have to look no further than the guy who made The Hangover (2008)? Umm, okay.   Actually to Todd Phillip’s credit, it’s clear that he did his homework as a student of the Scorsese style, because this is a fantastic recreation of a movie from this point of time in the legendary director’s career.  The visuals in particular are stunningly close to movies like Taxi Driver and Mean Streets (1973), with soft focus cinematography and a earthy color palette.  It looks unlike any other Super Hero movie we’ve ever seen, because this genre usually doesn’t play around in this kind of style, and it makes for a perfect match with the character himself.  The visual style, from the opening scene on, puts the audience in this feeling of unease, as the movie takes on this stark realistic hue.  And it provides a perfect juxtaposition with the flamboyance that the Joker represents.  On just the technical merits alone, this movie is superb, and a worthy homage to the Scorsese style as well.

But one thing that will be following the film around for some time is it’s controversy.  By giving the Joker such a profound and captivating origin, people are worried that it’ll cause only more people to sympathize and identify with him, which is what some people believe led to that tragic theater shooting in Colorado.  But, that’s in no way what this movie does at all.  It must be made clear; the Joker portrayed in this movie is no hero, nor an anti-hero.  He is a villain, period.  And I think that’s what make the movie so effective as a cinematic experience.  I should tell you this right now; Joker is not a feel good movie in any way.  It’s intended to make you feel disturbed and horrified.  What Todd Phillips does so well with his telling of this story is to hold up a mirror to society and make us feel ashamed for the ways we contribute, whether we know it or not, to the creations of monsters like the Joker.  Arthur’s decent into villainy is in no ways looked at as a triumph, but as a tragedy, as there are so many points where one direction in the right way could have steered him away from his fate.  But, because of our proclivity to ridicule people with strange conditions, ignore the plights of people in poorer classes and with mental illness, and feed into media frenzies that elevate the profile of mass murderers and serial killers, we bear some of the responsibility for making monsters like the Joker more common than they should.  Hell, the media’s obsession with a possible incident that might occur because of this movie kind of proves that point.  And the movie rightly never lets Arthur off the hook either.  The really effective part of the movie comes in the way it increasingly makes us feel uneasy as we continue to focus on Arthur’s story.  So much of the tension in the later half comes from not knowing exactly what he might do next.  It even makes us question whether or not we should be laughing at his antics later, which is honestly something that even previous versions of the Joker never attempted to ask before.  So, for anyone worried that this movie was going to be a rallying cry for all the anti-social pariahs out there, be rest assured that it is not, but rather an indictment of this kind of individual and the society that props him up for no good reason.

At the same time, because of the unforgiving nature of the movie, it is also going to divide a lot of people as well.  The movie has received a bunch of accolades so far, including winning the coveted Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, which is often seen a precursor for an Oscar win.  But, upon it’s release, it has divided the critical community down the middle, and will probably be reflected in the general public as well.  Like I said, this is not an easy movie to watch, and it will probably test your sensibilities.  But, if there is one thing that I think will garner near universal praise from this movie, it’s Joaquin Phoenix’s performance.  Phoenix is absolutely magnetic in this role, and you cannot take your eyes off of him throughout the entire movie.  What’s especially great about his performance is that he never once makes you think of the character as a comic book creation, nor makes you recall any previous version of the Joker.  It’s an entirely original take that is all his own, and is so enormously layered in it’s complexity.  I don’t know exactly where to rank this among the others, because his Joker is not as scary as Heath Ledger’s nor as entertaining as Jack Nicholson’s, but his version is far more disturbing than the others because it’s the most human that we’ve ever seen this character.  Phoenix’s transformation is really amazing, as he lost a ton of weight to create Arthur Fleck as this emaciated, sickly individual. Even his laugh takes on this disturbing quality because Phoenix really sells the point that the laugh is physically hurting him.  As a result, he does a brilliant job of showing you the real reason why Joker is such a frightening creation, because there’s a human being behind that painted smile; a deeply broken human being.  Phoenix has made a career out of playing troubled, broken people like Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005) and Freddie Quell in The Master (2012).  Arthur Fleck brings those same qualities, but adds this tragic element of an un-redeemable spirit behind it.  Even if people end up finding the movie too disturbing, they’ll still come away praising the hard work that Joaquin Phoenix put into his performance.

While there is plenty to praise about the movie, I also have to point out that it isn’t perfect as well.  Strangely enough, the biggest flaw that the movie has is that it interrupts itself in order to remind you that you are indeed watching a movie based in the DC Universe.  That’s probably a testament to how powerfully told the central narrative is that you forget that this is the same Joker that will one day become the arch-nemesis to Batman.  I almost feel like this movie could have been better if it set itself apart from it’s comic book origins and instead just told this story of an ordinary man who evolves into this notorious monster.  But, unfortunately, this movie still will occasionally drop a reminder of other things going on within the Batman mythos.  The caped crusader doesn’t appear fully formed in this movie, which is understandable considering that it’s many years before that happens.  But, there is a scene where Arthur does encounter the boy who will be Batman, Bruce Wayne (played here by young actor Dante Pereira-Olson) and his caretaker Alfred (played by Douglas Hodge).  It’s not a bad scene by any means, and it does have a chilling creep factor to it, but it doesn’t really add anything to the plot and just reads like a studio note demanding that there at least be some connecting thread to Batman in this.  The other negative that I can point to with the movie is that while the allusions to the work of Martin Scorsese are wonderfully crafted and utilized in the narrative here, it kind of works against the film as well.  It follows almost too closely to the narratives of Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, which robs the movie of any real surprise.  Sure, the film still shocks us once we get to the ultimate destination, but with those Scorsese movies well ingrained into our cultural memory, you pretty much know what to expect, and that in a way makes the finale feel a little less shocking.  Even still, it’s not a fatal flaw that derails the movie; it just keeps it from reaching it’s absolute maximum impact.  What it mainly comes down to is that the movie is at it’s absolute best when it doesn’t remind you of other movies or other versions of this story, and just let’s itself go as it’s own dark, demented tale.

Considering where DC was just a few short years ago, as they were floundering trying to find their way while also catching up to Marvel, it is great to see now that they are not only confident telling stories on the big screen their way, but also taking some brave chances as well.  This R-rated, bleak and unforgiving Joker is in a class all by itself within the genre of Comic Book movies.  I for one am amazed that DC allowed for this kind of movie to be told with one of their characters.  Sure, it’s the Joker we are talking about, but even still, we’ve never seen a portrayal like this that felt this raw and challenged it’s audience this much.  Joaquin Phoenix’s performance certainly doesn’t feel like it belongs in a Comic Book movie and that’s what makes it so great.  He didn’t go into this movie to bring the character off the page and onto the screen; he wanted to bring to life an image of monster that is all too frighteningly real.  In the end, Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix could’ve told this story without all the comic book mythos behind it, and still made a powerful movie.  But because this is about a character as iconic as the Joker, it’s going to bring a lot more attention to this movie, and that’s something that is really worthwhile in the end.  Joker transcends it’s comic origin to become a cautionary tale for it’s time.  As our world becomes ever more divided and violent, and people are more prone to violent ends to either make a point or grab attention, the Joker becomes even more potent of a symbol, and this movie intends to show just how dangerous that can be.  Joker is not some larger than life monster; he’s one of us, all too human.  The movie puts the onus on us the viewer to understand how we as a society contribute to makings of a monster like the Joker, with either our apathy towards the disenfranchised or our ignorance towards an issue.  There’s not one true reason why a Joker exists, but a whole bunch of factors, and this movie tries to help us understand how those factors manifest into something so horrible.  The movie is definitely not a fun little romp nor a rousing adventure, but it’s perhaps the hard medicine that we need right now to understand this moment in time.  And the fact that we get there with a character like the Joker is probably the most surprising joke of them all.

Rating: 8.5/10