In an earlier Killtoberfest 2 review, I talked about what makes sci-fi and horror such a rewarding mix. This pair of movies presents a rarer, but equally fascinating genre mash-up: fantasy horror. Both of the following movies live in this strange little niche, where dark supernatural narratives are played more for lyricism than for fear. To accomplish this requires not just a delicacy with tone but, I think, a strong, focused vision for the story. As you’ll see, it may also require a surprising amount of empathy, a comprehension of the impulse that leads a person to reach out and touch something that shouldn’t exist.
First, let’s talk about Guillermo Del Toro’s first movie, Cronos (1993).
Del Toro has made several other fantasy horror films (The Devil’s Backbone is the best of them). Each of them shares this quality of empathy, an attitude allowing the same thing (like a dead little boy) to be both scary and sad. The same thing is true for his non-horror work, which allows for things like a heroic monster (Hellboy) or destructive beings which are nonetheless fascinating and awe-inspiring (Pacific Rim). The unknown and uncanny may be frightening, but that fear does not always preclude other, positive connections to them. If Del Toro has a consistent thesis, it’s that the things we fight and the things we fear are like us, and we are like them. We always were.
Cronos, one of the finest of all vampire movies, works by staking out a territory seldom visited by other stories in the genre: the vampire’s immortality. How alluring it is! Especially to the elderly, who must soon face their own death. Yes, it comes at a price; but what is life, the film argues, but a series of negotiations over how much suffering we will endure to get the things we want? This theme rings throughout the story, from the main character’s vocation (a seller of antiques) to the beautifully written and performed character played by Ron Perlman, who has spent his whole life doing ugly and distasteful things in the hopes of inheriting his uncle’s wealth. We don’t always get what we want; and sometimes when we get it, we find that we didn’t want it after all, and we never realized how much it would cost us. Caveat emptor.
Cronos‘ story could, in other hands, have been a straight horror film. It concerns a strange and magical device constructed by an alchemist centuries ago, a device which extends its owner’s life indefinitely. In present day Mexico, the device is sought after by a very old, very rich man; he possesses the instructions but not the thing itself, while Jesus (an aging antiques dealer) discovers he has accidentally bought the device but has no understanding of how to use it. The conflict between the two men, expressed via Perlman’s dutiful thug of a nephew and sometimes including Jesus’s granddaughter Aurora, makes up the bulk of the plot. The narrative, however, is mostly focused on Jesus’s experiences as he uses the device to become younger–and finds himself becoming more and more vampiric over time.
The difference between what Cronos is and what Cronos-as-horror would have been is the film’s empathy for Jesus. Unlike the other film in this double feature, Cronos doesn’t bother to establish concrete reasons why Jesus fears aging and wishes to be young again. Why would it need to? It’s such a universal feeling that it’s enough for the film to pair Jesus with Aurora, his young, silent granddaughter, and observe the difference between their ages. We get it when he starts using the device. But, like Jesus, we are soon given reason to doubt the wisdom of that choice. What the film does in its second half is transition into more overt horror (the classically uncanny use of the backwards suit, for instance) but also more overt tragedy. Ultimately Jesus’s real problem is his fear of death, and he doesn’t find peace until he learns to accept his own mortality. It’s not necessarily a happy ending, but it’s a good one.
Cronos is lyrical and stylish, with many small touches that make it feel unique and new. Del Toro does not always deliver for me, but here, in his first film, he absolutely did. The Ariels–Mexico’s non-union Oscar equivalent–agreed, giving Cronos nine awards, including Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay. Perhaps it was their equivalent of Silence of the Lambs? Or maybe down south they recognize the artistic value that can hide within genre work. At any rate, I suggest you take their recommendation and check this out if you get a chance.
Next, an adaptation of one of the best children’s novels ever written: Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983).
Bradbury wrote the screenplay for this film before it underwent a tortured production process that would see its director sidelined, its editor replaced, and scenes cut, added, reshot, and rescored before finally being released in April of 1983. The result of an attempt by Disney to move into darker children’s films, Something Wicked ended up making back less than half of its $19 million budget. It’s easy to see why–while the movie is utterly charming and really quite good, it doesn’t seem very marketable. Plus, releasing such an autumnal movie in April? Come on.
The story of both novel and film concerns two boys alike in age but not in temperament, the sweet, blonde Will Holloway and his dark-haired, impetuous friend Jim Nightshade. They live in a pleasant, peaceful little town in the kind of era Bradbury made a career out of evoking, an ageless, nostalgia-soaked Midwest. Into this warm little place comes Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival: rides, concessions, freak shows and peep shows, the Hall of Mirrors and the forbidden carousel, the horrible Dust Witch, the odious Mr. Cooger, and of course Mr. Dark himself, who knows just what you need.
Again, the key factor here is empathy–not with the source of the horror, Mr. Dark and his carnival, but with those who visit it. The barber who yearns for his days of high school football heroism; the schoolteacher whose beauty is decades past; Will’s father (a fantastic Jason Robards), who wants to be young enough to share in his son’s life; and Jim Nightshade, who wants to be older. Not only does the film make these plaintive dreams feel real to us, but it also makes clear the allure of the carnival itself, the allure of magic. It’s a boy’s adventure as thrilling as it is scary–perhaps most so in the film’s glorious heart, a long and theatrical scene where Mr. Dark and Will’s father contend their ideologies in the town library while Will and Jim shiver, hidden in the stacks.
The performances are vital to the film’s success, and (a few moments with the kids notwithstanding) the cast is equal to the task. Jonathan Pryce’s Dark is arrogant and cruel, but also charming and somehow amused by the story he’s in. The film surrounds him with a gaggle of creepy freaks and minions; meanwhile, Robards’ Charles Holloway rivals Peck’s Atticus Finch for cinematic depictions of wise and gentle fathers.
At once literal and allegorical, Something Wicked This Way Comes embodies the spirit of lyrical fantasy horror, mixing beauty and darkness, fear and longing. The special effects are charmingly dated but effective, the cinematography is lush, and the direction is perfectly clear and vividly outre. If ultimately the movie doesn’t reach the heights of Bradbury’s novel, it also features a more streamlined, sensible plot that distills the essence of the book’s lovely passages into sharp, strong scenes. This is a wonderful little movie worth watching with your own children, who no doubt understand better than you the excitement and terror of growing up.
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