In terms of film, the horror genre has never gotten the respect that it undeniably deserves. Afterall, some of the most effective trends in cinema (German expressionism, for instance) first had their start in the horror genre. However, most critics seem to be more comfortable just dismissing most horror films as being a bunch of predictable tropes and easy shocks as opposes to admitting that the horror genre is one that is rich with history, subtext, and importance. Right now, there are two horror films playing the art houses of America and they are both more than worth your time. Those films: Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In and Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter.
In The Skin I Live In, a weary-looking Antonio Banderas plays a world-renowned plastic surgeon who, unknown to all of his colleagues, has trapped a young woman in his sprawling estate. With the help of his devoted servant Marilla (Marisa Paredes), he keeps the woman (played by Elena Anaya) a total prisoner while continually experimenting on her in his efforts to create a new type of skin that is immune to bug bites and being burned. However, Anaya — who has been held prisoner for six years — is desperate to escape and is even willing to engage in self-mutilation in her effort to make things difficult for Banderas. Finally, while Banderas is out, Marilla’s psychotic son (a terrifying Robert Alamo) shows up at the estate and, convinced that he knows the young woman, tries to kidnap her for his own.
In between the scenes involving the strange experiments going on at the estate, another story plays out as Antonio Banderas exacts a disturbing revenge on the young man (Jan Cornet) that Banderas holds responsible for the death of his daughter. The film’s two stories eventually intersect in a surprising yet disturbingly logical way.
As a director, Almodovar often pays homage to other, similarly iconic filmmakers and The Skin I Live In feels like a combination of the over-the-top melodrama of Douglas Sirk (right down to the film’s “hero” being a doctor) and the unapologetic sordidness of Jesus Franco. This is especially evident in the film’s big, surprise twist; a twist that manages to be both ludicrous and compelling at the same time. (I should also note that, at the showing I went to, the twist inspired about a fourth of the people in the theater to leave.) The end result is a creepily effective, thought-provoking horror film that is both deliberately absurd and touched with a strain of undeniable melancholy.
As opposed to the baroque The Skin I Live In, Take Shelter takes place in the deceptively mundane American midwest. Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a soft-spoken construction worker who suddenly finds himself haunted with terrifying nightmares of an incoming apocalypse. The nightmares always start with rain and, as the film unfolds, they grew progressively more and more disturbing. Soon, he’s seeing shadowy figures wearing hospital gowns standing out in the rain, waiting to attack him and even worse, he starts to see visions of his friends and family waiting to attack him. Is Curtis seeing the future or has he simply inherited his mother’s schizophrenia?
The genius of the film is that, up until the final scene, you’re not quite sure. I’ve seen a lot of nightmares in a lot of horror films and I can usually spot them long before the inevitable scene of the film’s hero waking up in bed with a shout. Take Shelter is full of nightmares and they all follow the same basic theme but they are so effortlessly woven into the film that they still take you by surprise long after they shouldn’t. As a viewer, you find yourself relating to Curtis because, like him, you’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s just in his mind. The film forces us to try to figure out whether Curtis is scared because he’s crazy or is he going crazy because he’s scared.
The film’s apocalyptic visions reminded me a lot of Peter Weir’s somewhat similar film, The Last Wave. However, both director Jeff Nichols and star Michael Shannon manage to make this story their own. Shannon is in nearly every scene of the film and he gives a performance that’s both dramatic and subtle. In the past, whenever Shannon’s played a mentally ill character (Revolutionary Road, The Runaways), I’ve always felt he’s come really close to caricature. However, in this case, he gets it right and brings a real sense of reality and urgency to the film. Also giving good performances: Kathy Baker (as Curtis’s mother) and Jessica Chastain (who plays Shannon’s wife).
The horror genre may never get the respect it deserves. However, films like The Skin I Live In and Take Shelter are here to let us know that horror remains a vibrant genre that will not be ignored.