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The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Bill Hsu presents … High Anxiety: tense, dark films from 2010-2019 (for fans of Robert Aickman and Brian Evenson)

I watch a lot of dark films, some of which cross into the horror genre. Here’s a selection of lesser-known favorites from the last ten years. Most are quiet, abstract, and tense, and low on gore, jump scares, and explanations.

(A longer list is here.)

 

Berberian Sound Studio (2012, dir. Peter Strickland)

A British sound designer (played by the wonderful Toby Jones) is flown to Italy to work on an Italian horror movie soundtrack. As expected (?), the merely awkward situations become mystifying and threatening. Strickland is somehow able to sustain a sense of unease with mostly the gorgeous sound design, and not very much happening. But you don’t have to be a sound geek to enjoy the slow-burn, with all its visual references to Italian horror movies. (“Berberian” is a reference to the divine Cathy Berberian, avant-garde vocalist active mostly in the 60s/70s.)

 

The Duke of Burgundy (2014, dir. Peter Strickland)

“Starting with a surprising, sensual and semi-retro opening credits sequence, Strickland had created a voluptuous exploration of power dynamics in what may be a relationship’s waning days.

“Visually, it recalls a Greenaway, but less smothering and with heat and warmth. Triple exposures, layered reflections, some manic sequences of just moths –  it’s almost a bombardment.” Frank Danay, https://letterboxd.com/bebravemorvern/film/the-duke-of-burgundy/

 

The Endless (2017, dir. Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson)

I’m a big fan of the Moorhead/Benson team; this is not unflawed, but maintains an uncanny tension. It predates Midsommar, and the story has similarities (I’m not a big Ari Aster fan, sorry). Two brothers, who escaped from a doomsday cult years ago, receive a VHS tape inviting them to visit. The awkward social situations quickly take a darker turn.

 

Resolution (2012, dir. Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson)

The Moorhead/Benson team’s first feature opens like a claustrophobic but possibly conventional thriller: the protagonist travels to his friend’s isolated cabin to help with drug rehab, taking a pretty extreme approach. Then the weird surveillance videos and space/time anomalies kick in.

The same team’s Spring (2014) is very engaging and charming (and dark), but quite different from this and The Endless. Their newest, Synchronic (2019), hasn’t seen much US distribution, AFAIK.

 

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010, dir. Panos Cosmatos)

If you loved Videodrome, but hanker for a more abstract approach with minimal narrative machinery, this is for you. Beyond… does wear its influences on its sleeve, with the cold wave synthesizer soundtrack, static-y analog TV, and “Benway” pills. The main character (played by Michael Rodgers) even looks kind of like James Woods in Videodrome! But there’s a lot of gorgeous visual design (see trailer), with some beautiful set pieces (reminiscent of Jodorowsky?), and lovingly detailed sound design.

 

The Blue Hour/Onthakan (2015, dir. Anucha Boonyawatana)

Two Thai boys hang out in an abandoned swimming pool, and encounter a possibly supernatural presence. It’s dark, elegiac, abstract, and sexy: my kind of horror movie. For some reason this has not enjoyed wider distribution.

 

A Dark Song (2016, dir. Liam Gavin)

A smarmy occultist and a woman dealing with loss are trapped together for a few days to perform a magic ritual. This is claustrophobic, intense, draining and messy, the way I think real magic might be.

 

The Man with the Magic Box (2017, dir. Bodo Kox)

A bleak time travel tale without the hardware, reminding me of a less abstract Primer. The wealth of visual details is noteworthy: the uncomfortable, washed-out blue and green tinted scenes, some truly sinister characters, the main female character’s Bridget Riley dress, the recycling center that’s too close to today’s ugly truths. The main actors turn in nice performances as they wander through the cryptic, sometimes discontinuous little scenes in their ultimately charming and sympathetic fashion.

 

The Strange Color of your Body’s Tears (2013, dir. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani)

I believe this is familiar to some DLs. The “plot” is really not important, kind of like a Robbe-Grillet novel. But it’s a visual feast with its saturated colors, and nods to Argento and Italian horror movies.

 

Depraved (2019, dir. Larry Fessenden)

The latest from the indie horror mainstay is a smart updating of Frankenstein, set in modern day Brooklyn. It’s thoughtful and beautifully executed, with some sly bromance moments.

Fessenden’s earlier movies, such as Habit, are well worth checking out.

 

The Deeper You Dig (2019, dir. Toby Poser and John Adams)

My favorite from Another Hole in the Head 2019. It’s a standard death and revenge story arc, but there are clever, surprising ideas, and some vicious black humor (see annoying radio, and the hilarious toilet sequence, for instance). It’s largely a family production; the directors’ daughter plays the teenage daughter, and does an excellent job both living and dead. Some beautiful cinematography of snow scenes, and a lovely crazed seance sequence.

 

The Invitation (2015, dir. Karyn Kusama)

The protagonist and his girlfriend are invited to a party thrown by old friends and ex’s. The opening section does a beautiful job of evoking being trapped in an excruciatingly uncomfortable social situation. Things of course go downhill from there. Excellent menacing performance from John Carroll Lynch; check out also Nick Antosca’s Syfy series Channel Zero. (I almost excluded this movie because of the bloodbath ending, but everything before that is well worth seeing.)

 

Coherence (2013, dir. James Ward Byrkit)

Another dark science fiction-ish movie without the hardware, this is centered on space/time anomalies, one of my favorite tropes. A nice sense of unease and the uncanny throughout.

 

The Incident (2014, dir. Isaac Ezban)

Yes, more space/time anomalies, without hardware. This is gritty and obsessive and painful, like they should be.

 

The Untamed (2017, dir. Amat Escalante)

Dysfunctional interpersonal relationships, some beautiful visuals, and that thing in the cabin in the woods.

 

Jamie Marks is Dead (2014, dir. Carter Smith)

Finally, a relatively straightforward atmospheric ghost story, but there are some beautiful visuals, the interactions between the living and dead boys are nicely done, and most questions are left unanswered. Adapted from Christopher Barzak’s novel One for Sorrow, which is more queer than the movie.

 

 

*

p.s. Hey. Mighty Bill Hsu uses this weekend to give us a thrilling-looking set of filmic suggestions for things to immerse your eyes within and thusly make your homebound lives a heck of a lot less uneventful. Please join me in finding and watching stuff herein. And enjoy. And give feedback to Bill in some way or other if you don’t mind. And thank you. And thank you, Bill! ** David Ehrenstein, Yep, practicing panic phobia is a capitol (capital?) suggestion. I went out for the first time yesterday and, whoa, it is spooky and scary out there. End of the world-like. Like a movie backlot version of Paris between productions. Very, very few people anywhere, almost all of them wearing masks, glancing fearfully at each other like potential murderers. So quiet you can practically hear people’s footsteps a block away. It was the first time since this started that I had to fight off a bit of panic. Man oh man. ** Tosh Berman, Hi, Tosh. I don’t know about LA, but it’s impossible not to feel very isolated here what with the necessity of proving the essentiality of your every step outdoors and police asking to see your papers and stuff. I can’t imagine the US would ever stand for this kind of complete government control, but I sure hope it doesn’t come to that for you guys. It’s intense. You can’t daydream your way away from the cold reality of it over here. ** Bill, Hi, B. Thank you, thank you so much for this rich and salvation-like post! Seriously hoping your soft lockdown works like a charm. You don’t want to go through what we’re going through, seriously. I certainly would be thrilled to bits to get a Tsai Ming-liang post from you if your downtime leads you to have fun, etc. doing that, you bet! Big project, ooh! I like the sound of that. We got the grant! We were very surprised because the committee seemed quite suspicious of our very non-conventional intentions, but apparently Zac and I managed to charm them during our cyber meeting/grilling, so big yay! ** Quinn R, Hi, Quinn. No, thank you. Your piece on Lonely’s book was great and by far the best thing out there. Yes, it’s a wonderful book. He’s such a good writer. I’m okay. As explained above, it’s pretty intense and ominous and stuff here. But I’m remaining myself for the most part, working, maxing out what my apartment has on offer. The lockdown doesn’t really effect the film since we’re just applying for grants right now and can do that from home. I’ll go find that Anne Boyer piece. I like her work. I’m not a Zizek fan, so his take’s paucity is not a surprise to me. Great about the forthcoming LARB piece, and on Madonna no less. Please give my very best back to Edmund when you interact with him next. Also great about the job offer. Honestly, I think there’s a real chance that Europe is going to still be a locked down dead zone in May, at least to some degree. It feels that way. So waiting a bit to come might be the best solution anyway. Warm regards from France to you, sir! ** Corey Heiferman, Hey! Interesting. I love American English vowel sounds, or, well, the vowel/syllable combo. But I guess if I didn’t, I’d be in trouble. Netanyahu does seem to be giving Putin a real run for his money. So sorry. And so sorry to hear about the worrisome situations with your family members Stateside. Obviously hoping they all end up on the sunny side. As I told Bill, we got the grant! So I guess it went really well. It didn’t feel like it was going all that well, but maybe the other director applicants were boring. ** alex rose, Mr. Rose! I’m still about, oh, 90% sane as far as I can tell. I unfortunately don’t do spaced very well. My brain is a bee hive. No, I haven’t/hadn’t seen that. The video. Your beloved beater. I’ll dig into him shortly. Looks sweet. You stay sane and spaced if you do spaced well too. It’s really nice to get to talk to you anytime and under these conditions even more joyfully. Love, me. ** Misanthrope, Hi, G. Very happy you liked the poems and the books that enclose them. Under normal circumstances, I check in on International CNN, BBC, CNBC every couple of days, but I’m staying far away and speed scrolling through the maniacal news sharers on FB and using the pick-and-choose Google News site exclusively. Oh, going to the park with friends … sigh. I remember when I could do that. Yep, use your sequestering to get that novel right. ** Jeff J, Hi, Jeff. They’re all goodies, those books. Joyelle’s might not be entirely out, I’m not sure. I got an early look. Johannes Goransson’s new book is a top priority read for me. It’s in the post. Yes, I think, now that I’ve remembered it, that people I know were very ho-hum to much worse about the Kathy doc. I still need to see it though. Hey, talk to you in a while! ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Dude, wait to talk to your doctor and get tested or whatever before you self-diagnose. You do have a tendency to assume the ultra-worst, you know. I hope you get clarity and very good news ASAP. ** Barkley, Hi, B. Your little avatar is always such a nice perk up. You played that goose game? Ooh. I’ll definitely get it then. I’m pissed because the truly awful, unreliable French mail service didn’t bring my Switch yesterday, but they had better deliver it today or else. The ‘Zelda’ is my number one want-to-play. I’ve loved every Zelda game to bits. And of course the new Mario too, ditto. I played the first ‘Animal Crossing’ and its addictiveness was too much for me, as much I loved it, so I avoid ‘AC’ games ever since like I’m sober and it’s whiskey. Yes, ‘Bresson on Bresson’ is a completely fantastic book that I pick up and reread in parts regularly. You sound pretty wonderfully squared away. I’m as good as one can be given the world I have to work with. Take care! ** Armando, Hey. Thank you! We got the grant, so it went very well. A Switch is the current Nintendo game console. I don’t use standard metrics when writing poems, I try to invent my own. Thank you for the poem. As always, writing the p.s isn’t a situation where I have the concentration to read anything literary with any care, so I will take it offline. ** Okay. Bill has got you all covered until Monday. Follow his leads, please. You won’t be sorry you did, I’m pretty damned sure. Survive and more your weekends, and I’ll see you on Monday.

15 Comments

  1. Corey Heiferman

    March 21, 2020 at 12:09 pm

    Wow Bill, excellent capsule reviewing! It’s a real art form. I’d even call it the poetry of movie reviewing.

    Congratulations on the grant. Getting one grant opens doors to even bigger and better financing, right? Thank you for the good wishes. Since the shock of rough family news last night I’ve been thinking that I’m lucky at least to have people in my life to worry about, if that makes sense.

    I found about writer/comedian Steven Wright from a new interview with Michael Silverblatt, who was the most enthused I’ve heard him in a while. Haven’t picked up the book yet but have greatly been enjoying the standup.

    https://www.kcrw.com/culture/shows/bookworm/stephen-wright-processed-cheese

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjbtqmAW0Ew&list=PL2MtElzTEi6kbz0q-1zP_obe1eVTShlX_

    I’ve had some guest post ideas on the back burner for a while. Most notably Israel at Eurovision and harpsichordist Scott Ross. Maybe other ideas will pop up. What better time than now to finally write them?

    Stay well. Hope the Switch arrives swiftly.

  2. “The Blue Hour” is quite lovely.

    We’re allliving through a dark intense movie right now. The police have nothing to do here in L.A. as everyone is shut down indoors with no intention of going out save to the store. It’s all very The World The Flesh and The Devil

  3. Bill thanks for the film recommendations here. I suspect that I will have time to look up these cinematic works. Congrats Dennis on the grant! The one thing I have noticed since Los Angeles is closed is that it is quiet, but since I live in a dead-end street by a vacant hill, young people or couples have been meeting up there. Late last night, a group of young men was together. Smoking, talking and standing very close together. I suspect I will see more of that, then less of that. Teenagers and young people are not skilled at staying home unless they’re Otaku or reading addicts. Your description of Paris right now is pretty intense. We are living in an amazing period. It’s important to record it for the present and the future of course.

  4. @ Bill, thank you for these tense and dark film tips. I’m a fan of Peter Strickland, whose newest effort In Fabric I rate as being his best. You seen that? It’s a weird giallo-informed black comedy that was my fave film of last year.

    I was able to keep my Saturday routine going today by taking part in the regular Tai Chi class, only today it was done by virtual session on Zoom software! We could all see each other doing the moves and our instructor could provide us with suitable encouragement. It’s good to know we can keep it going with this method.

    I heard a coronavirus joke today via the Popbitch mailout:

    Panic buyers in Paris have left the supermarkets looking like bomb sites.
    De brie is everywhere.

  5. Dennis, thank you for the opportunity to share some films that I’ve enjoyed. Everyone, look forward to your thoughts and your darkest favorites when I can see comments later!

    Congratulations on the grant coming through! Hope your Switch arrives soon.

    I’ll start collecting information for the Tsai post this weekend. It’s not like I can go out drinking or to a movie or something, haha.

    Steve, hope the healthcare inquiries result in reasonable outcomes for you…

    Bill

  6. hi bill, thanks for this post

    ive seen ” a dark song ” its one of the very rare films that captures and then shows the ritual and initiation of a calling, the boredom and pain of a summoning

    dennis, all okayish here, yester i was told that the girl downstairs has c19 so i kinda panicked, opening the door with my knees and wrecking my brain as to when i last spoke to her, i think it was two weeks ago, she’s a hefty lass so she’l weather it

    tmr im uphome again to hang out with my mum and try to finish my stuff for the norway solo show for gaahl which uugh, no one knows but it will keep me occupied

    thinking of you in all positive ways, alex,x

  7. Yes, I’m a pessimistic drama queen. But I’ve talked to my doctor twice in the past 2 days. I still might have COVID – he thinks it’s possible after hearing my symptoms – but i suddenly realized today that I misplaced my anti-anxiety medication a few days ago due to my eyesight and was likely going through withdrawal. I have started taking it again and hope to feel as normal as possible under these circumstances again.

    The paranoia really gets to me outside. I’ve interacted with the laundry and deli around my block in the past few days, and their employees want to keep as much of a distance as possible while still working with you – body language changed overnight. A lot of people seem to have vanished from my apartment building. A large package for my next door neighbor has been sitting in the middle of the hallway awaiting her pickup since Thursday.

    Thanks to Bill for making this list. I’m fond of THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY, A DARK SONG & THE INVITATION, in addition to the films on it I’ve brought up here before.

  8. Thanks for the kind words, Corey!

    David, I agree that The Blue Hour is a lovely film. Can’t understand why it’s not getting more love.

    Bill

  9. Ha ha, I’m glad the Heathcliff avatar could be of service. My Animal Crossing copy got delayed so I understand your pain, here’s hoping your Switch arrives to you today! Me too, I’ve always enjoyed how different in tone and style each Zelda game has been. Breath Of The Wild is possibly my favorite entry in the series yet. I know exactly what you mean in regards to Animal Crossing, ha ha. Ah, you’ve read it! Awesome! It’s been giving me even more appreciation for his work, which I already greatly respected. And thanks to Bill for the film recommendations, hadn’t heard of quite a few of these.

  10. Bill, Thanks for this! An excellent overview, and loads for me to catch up on. I love your take on the films too. Hope things are okay over your way and in HK.

    Dennis, Well, I guess there goes that Japan trip for now… But seriously, hope things are okay over there. Tokyo seems like a strange mix of strict closure and blasé at the moment. Limited testing but good medical care for serious cases and elderly. Schools closed early for the semester, and universities were off anyway because of the school year (Glad to say getting work done on my novel regardless). Now it looks like we’re not going back to teaching until the end of April. But as the weather warms up, and the cherry blossoms bloom, the parks are as crowded as ever, and nothing’s officially closed. It’s a strange kind of niceness seeing Japanese kids and teens running around the streets without strict study timetables, and then there’s kids left alone hanging out while parents are at work. Hard to know what will happen with the Olympics too… But still some people buying up stuff like elsewhere… 

    Weird start to the year. Take care everyone. Love to all!

  11. Hey, Dennis!!

    I’ve been thinking of you so much lately and I didn’t know how to start this letter after such a long absence so I’m starting simply by asking the most important question, so how are you doing? How are you holding up?
    I’ve read how crazy strict and ghost town-like everything is in Paris and it must be absolutely surreal and overwhelming – the whole situation is, it’s really hard to wrap my head around the fact that this is something the whole entire world, well at least here on Earth, is dealing with right now.
    We’re not in full lockdown yet, we can still go out and travel if we must but I think we’re headed that way. It’s just starting to get grim and serious over here.
    The bookshop has closed on Monday so I’ve been home for a week now and really, this form of self-isolation is exactly how I live my life on any given day by choice (or whatever) so I’m not overly upset about not being able to go to many places but the uncertainty is getting to me, the not knowing when this will end, the worrying about my loved ones all over the world, the not knowing when, exactly, I’m safe or unsafe. And, of course, as soon as someone tells me I MUSTN’T go out, I immediately want to.
    My brother got kicked out of his apartment in Amsterdam (and really, what kind of human being does this to another in such a situation?) but after two canceled flights he managed to come home. We live together now, ’til he can go back, so there’s a little stress about whether or not he got the virus at any of the airports, etc. (there was no check-up at the Hungarian airport to see if he’s infected, they just ask everyone if they came from Italy and that’s it…) but I’m so immensely relieved and grateful that he could make it home safely, it way outshines my worries, to be honest. We hope for the best.
    So: how are you? How’s Zac?
    And apart from this madness, how’s everything been in your life? Does your new novel have a publisher yet? I really, really hope so! Really, I’m curious to hear about absolutely anything and everything!

    At a certain point during my most recent self-exploratory journey (which I’m happy to share with you, but maybe next time? I feel like this letter is already growing out of proportion…) I came to the realization that I live in a bubble, in such complete self-isolation and among such narrow little routes of interest that I lack this… I’m struggling to explain this… this wider reference system? Yes, maybe this comes the closest. Like I have zero idea about politics or art, really, or philosophy or society or… ideas about the wider world that surrounds us, that we live in. So now that I have so much time on my hands, I decided to start reading – and here comes the question. Reading what. Foucault? Sartre? Simone de Beauvoir? Camus? Marquis de Sade? Kathy Acker?? Who? How do I start to build this… knowledge up? This still-relevant knowledge. Gah. If you have any idea about what I’m trying to say (and I’m honestly not sure if I could express myself): do you have any names and/or specific books you’d recommend to… start with?
    If anyone else here has tips or recommendations or anything, I’d be very grateful for those as well!
    (This is yet another “world’s SECOND oldest teenager” moment.)

    Okay. This is really long now, hah.
    I really, really hope you’re safe and doing as well as possible, Dennis! I’m sending you tons & tons of love!!

    P.S.: thank you, Bill, for all these movie recommendations! They’re seriously life-saving right now!!

  12. Tosh, Barkley and everyone, thanks for checking out the list. Hope it provides some diversion this weekend.

    Black Acrylic, I enjoyed In Fabric, especially the beautiful set pieces and cryptic rituals, but I missed the tighter focus of Berberian and Duke of Burgundy.

    Alex, we’re both fans of A Dark Song! Hope things go well with preparations for the Norway show. Do share work when you’re ready.

    Steve, hope you’re feeling less anxious over the weekend. Yeah, part of the complication is (as I heard in a Guardian interview with a psychologist), many of the COVID-19 symptoms are similar to… anxiety. And this being major hay fever season for me, I have nervous moments everyday. Hang in there! Yeah I think you’ve seen many of the films on the list. I’m a big fan of the three you mentioned, though I wish The Invitation hadn’t exploded into the hackfest near the end.

  13. Bill, thanks for day!! I am able to stream The Duke of Burgundy and The Endless for free. I´ll watch them this week and will DIG DEEPER later on.
    Thank you again. Fine collection!

  14. Dennis, thanks for your words on friday! I´ll stay positive!! Promise!
    I started reading the autobiographical books of Thomas Bernhard again this year.
    At the moment when the virus hit Europe and the apocalyptic mood began I was reading “The Breath” and “In the Cold”:
    Thomas Bernhard talking about his feelings on sickness, his self-observation of his body and his lunges,
    the incompetence and dullness of the doctors, the terrible hospitals. I felt myself more and more uncomfortable and a little sick myself.
    Was my breathing still normal? But in the end Bernhards black humor beats the anxiety. Intense reading experience.
    I love “In the Cold” most. The last 15 to 20 pages with more philosophical and abstract themes add something new to the cycle and were very stimulating for me.
    The next and last will be “A Child”.
    I am not sure about you having a post on these books by Bernhard on the old blog but I think I learned to know them from here/there.
    Or was it Wittgenstein`s Nephew?

    All the best,
    Uli

  15. Hey Bill – Thanks so much for this! I know and love the Strickland movies but a large number of these had slipped past me and a few others I wasn’t sure about. Appreciate your take on these films and excited to check out a bunch of them. It’s very well timed, too. Much appreciated.

    Dennis – really great talking with you this weekend. Hope the Switch arrived today and offers some relief and distraction.

    I was able to write a bit today, first time since this pandemic hit full stride. Watched Rohmer’s ‘Love in the Afternoon’ which I’d never seen. Zouzou is so great in it. I’m guessing you’ve seen it, yeah? Started reading Roberto Piglia’s ‘Target in the Night’ which is intriguing so far. Do you know his work?

    Have to go out tomorrow to take the cat to the vet and get her tested for possible heart problems – hoping it’s nothing or easily addressed.

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