I love nepotism — especially after I looked up the word and figured out what it meant — which is why I’m happy to present Ryan Kirby, brother of earlier contributor Megan Kirby! Ryan chose a great Double Feature; an oft-referenced movie and an oft-overlooked gem. A perfect pair, nonetheless. But I won’t waste anymore of your time. Ryan, let ’em have it!
When I first heard about Camera Viscera’s Drive-In Double Feature, my mind was swimming with ideas of films to pair up with each other. Watching films back-to-back often draws comparisons that you wouldn’t see when viewing them individually, and if the right tone is established between the two films it can heighten both of them into something more enjoyable. When I invite people over to watch movies, I often get a kick out of throwing people wildly out of their comfort zone, and for this reason my immediate reaction was to screen a double feature of Eddie Murphy’s Haunted Mansion and Cannibal Holocaust. However, after giving it some thought, I figured it would be more enjoyable to pick two films that I am actually fond of, as opposed to the life-ruining horror of those two movies.
In my Double Feature, I want to highlight two films that I consider masterpieces, but also two films that don’t fit the standard clichés that people think of when they come to the horror genre. I have long since become desensitized to gore and jump scares, and what really gets under my skin is when a director can nail down an atmosphere. There doesn’t have to be grotesque kill scenes or slow-moving slashers to be truly scary; the key to scaring me is a suffocating air of paranoia and anxiety, and when it comes to that, two films jump up in my mind as prime examples of the mood. Incidentally, they both come from Polish directors; Rosemary’s Baby directed by Roman Polanski, and Possession directed by Andrzej Zulawski.
First up on the bill is Rosemary’s Baby, a film from 1968 that is as unsettling as anything released today. The film is often held up as a classic of horror, but I don’t’ hear it discussed as often as its contemporaries such as The Exorcist or Night of the Living Dead. The reason for this might be that any discussion about Roman Polanski in the modern era is loaded with all sorts of disturbing connotations, but for the sake of this article, I’m setting aside any personal feelings about the director and solely focusing on the film.
Rosemary’s Baby is bookended by overhead shots of the apartment complex where the film takes place, and the slow pan-out Polanski employs makes the structure look utterly labyrinthine, a sporadic mess of windows and doorways that seem to extend out into an eternity. The apartment complex may on the surface seem to be mundane, but like all the mundane occurrences that happen throughout Rosemary’s Baby, there is something sinister hiding just under the façade.
We are introduced to Rosemary, played by the young and beautiful Mia Farrow, and her husband, Guy, played by John Cassavetes, as they are guided through their new apartment. They are your standard portrait of a young couple getting ready to settle down and start a family, enthusiastic about the opportunities that await them in New York City, hardly bothered by the previous tenant’s death in the very apartment they are moving into. Before long, we are introduced to their friendly elderly neighbors, the Castevets, two endlessly talkative and hospitable folk who seem to take pleasure in the company of Rosemary and Guy, to the point where it seems they can barely go an hour without one of them knocking on the door for a quick chat or a delivery of a home-cooked meal.
Their constant pestering of the central couple is obviously a bit overbearing, but the context of their interactions is always innocent. If the viewer was not aware of the movie they were watching, the interactions would seem boring, but since it’s impossible to separate oneself from the trajectory of where the film is heading, the viewer is constantly looking for signs of malevolence, giving all the interactions a feeling of paranoia. We know something is wrong, but the Castavets refuse to tip their hand, leaving the audience searching for the motives behind their suffocating hospitality but unable to gather sufficient evidence against them.
This all changes in the movie’s pivotal scene: Rosemary is drugged by one of the Castevets’ delivered meals, and what follows is a surreal, dreamlike sequence in which Rosemary is raped and impregnated by what appears to be a gargantuan, reptilian creature, surrounded by naked old men and women watching her as some sort of cult ritual. In this sequence, the horror is no longer hiding in the margins, we are forced to confront the reality of what is really going on, and the lens through which we view the rest of the film is changed. We have reason to feel Rosemary is in danger, and we have reason to feel distrustful of all other characters in the film. When Rosemary wakes up, her husband tells her that she had a bit much to drink, and claims he had sex with her while she was unconscious. ”It was fun, in a necrophiliac sort of way” quips Guy, as if this is a perfectly acceptable thing to do in a domestic partnership. Soon after, Rosemary learns she is pregnant.
At this point we are about forty five minutes into the film, and the climax has already happened. What follows is a keen awareness of the trajectory of where it’s all heading, and the crippling dissatisfaction the audience feels that there is nothing Rosemary can do to escape it. Everybody in her life tells her nothing is wrong, nobody is out to steal her baby, nobody is conspiring against her, and from the scenes we see, all the interactions she has could pass for standard small-talk and friendly concern. Everything is so subtle that it’s easy to forget that anything remotely evil is at play; had we not seen the ritualistic impregnation earlier, nothing would seem wrong. But our paranoia about life in the apartment catches up to Rosemary. She slowly begins to become distrustful of the seemingly supportive people in her life; The Castavets, her husband, her doctor. The unflinching reassurance from everybody that nothing is at all wrong occasionally puts her at ease, but the insanity wells up inside her. The tragedy is, by the time she finally decides to take action, it is far too late.
By the film’s conclusion, all of the cards have been laid down on the table, and we see the macabre plot at the center of it all. It has been a slow build, but there is a certain relief on finally being let in on the truth. The lies of everyone dissolve, and we see the true monsters lurking behind the nightmare. It is a pessimistic ending, but an effective one. It leaves the audience questioning how much they are in control of their own lives, and how well they can identify forces out against them. And once the damage is already done, what motive is there really left to fight back? The film makes you feel powerless, and it is one of the most effectively chilling narratives I have ever seen committed to celluloid.
Up next on the bill we have Andrezej Zukawski’s Possession, a movie that stands proudly as perhaps the strangest film I have ever seen, and I am somebody that prides myself on tackling the strangest films cinema has to offer. It would be easy to say that, as a double feature, if Rosemary’s Baby is a slow build up to something completely evil and insane, that Possession uses that ending mood as a launching point and rockets down even further into the pits of hell from there, but the truth is that Possession is on a completely different playing field. The film stars Sam Neill, who you may recognize form Jurassic Park, and Isabelle Adjani, who you may recognize from your worst nightmares.
The acting styles employed in Possession are something that I have never seen replicated anywhere else, but for lack of a better term I would describe them as “Nicholas Cage-Like”. I can only assume that every actor in the film was given three key directions to follow for all of their dialogue: number one, make your eyes as big as possible at all times; Number two, scream all the time, and never stop screaming; Number three, flail all your limbs about in a chaotic fashion constantly.
The plot of Possession is borderline incomprehensible, and very little of it seems intended to be taken literally. At the center, we have a failing relationship between Sam Neill’s character “Mark”, and Isabelle Adjani’s character “Anna”. Mark has just come home from a nondescript mission given to him by a shadowy agency that is never expanded upon, and upon return he finds out that his wife, Anna, has been cheating on him with another man. This is about the only detail I can give you in concrete fact, as narrative cohesion flies out of the window when you realize this is the kind of film where characters will regularly stare directly into the camera and talk about how they have lost faith in god.
Enough can’t be said about how over-the-top the acting is in this film, it is something that needs to be seen to be believed. During the opening scenes it may come off as comical, but the film is taking itself one hundred percent seriously and as the body language and inflection of the characters only becomes more insane, it stops becoming funny and starts becoming downright unsettling. Actor’s appendages seem to operate independent of their speech, illustrating their animalistic nature through bizarre flailing that seems to exist completely separate from their own dialogue. In another film, this would be bad acting, but in this film, it actually earned Isabelle Adjani best actress at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980. This is because the insanity of the performances are so universally committed, at no point does it seem that the actors are self-aware of the completely insane method they are using. They seem to be in a trance-like state, and as a viewer you eventually begin to think that anything could happen in this film, including and not limited to the characters violently clawing their way out of the TV screen.
Special attention needs to be given to Isabelle Adjani’s performance, which, while heightened from reality, seems completely raw and naked in its primal chaos, like Freud’s philosophy of the inner-mind is being worn as clothing. There is no better example of this than the film’s most famous scene, “The Miscarriage of Faith”, an extended take where Isabelle Adjani flails her way down an empty subway station with reckless abandon for the safety of her own body.
Adjani reportedly had been embarrassed of her own performance when she finally saw it at the Cannes film festival, claiming that Zulawski’s had captured her very soul on camera, and had no right to. It is said it took her several years to recuperate from this performance, and watching the end results, it’s easy to see why. This is some intense cinema, and a film that has not left my mind since I first watched it.
Analyzing Possession for its deeper meaning seems an exercise in futility. Anybody who pitches meanings to the scenes of the film could easily be refuted by another, and I am not necessarily into the idea of trying to assign my bargain-bin philosophy knowledge to the contents of the picture. What’s important is the overbearing, uncomfortable, surreal, chaotic, and manic mood. Read deeper if you will, but more likely Possession is the one that’s reading you.
And so concludes my Drive-In Double Feature for Camera Viscera. If you haven’t seen either of these films, they both come with my highest possible recommendation. These are not the films generally associated with standard horror tropes, but in my opinion they are classics, and two of the downright scariest pieces of cinema I have ever had the pleasure of watching.
More of Ryan Kirby’s film reviews can be found on Letterboxd, and his short films can be found on Youtube.