The Doom Generation

"A heterosexual film by Gregg Araki" according to the credits – an in-joke aimed at a former producer who teased Araki about how gay people hated his queer punk movies so he'd be better off making a straight one instead. And even then, as Araki says himself, the film is extremely gay – with very long smouldering shots between the two male leads, who flirt far more with each other than with Rose McGowan. The campy sensibility may be what saves the film from otherwise being a prurient exploration of nihilistic 90s teenagerdom. The outrageous set design, cartoony violence and deadpan humour add a lightness to the film's tone, which otherwise would make the whole thing rather gruesome and unpleasant to watch.

Araki doesn't want to go into the details of what inspired the film when he reflects on it all these years later. He calls it his Nine Inch Nails movie, made in the aftermath of the anger and anguish caused by the AIDS crisis, which created a "warzone" mentality where you didn't know which of your friends would die next. Araki drove his location scout crazy trying to find suitably apocalyptic places in which to shoot. The Doom Generation works within the couple-on-the-run genre (Bonnie and ClydeBadlands) where the rejection of social mores creates its own kind of twisted celebrity. But in Araki's film, the people around the lovers are probably more bloodthirsty and deranged than the lovers themselves. There's hardly any notoriety to be gained when the entire world is spinning off its axis.


The VVitch: A New England Folktale

Although Mark Kermode strains very hard, ultimately I think it's difficult to sustain the interpretation that the witchcraft is all happening inside the family's heads. The subtitle highlights that this is a "folktale" – where magic and fantasy are used as instructive metaphors. The fact that the witch preys on the tensions and divisions within the family doesn't mean it's an apparition that grows out of those tensions and divisions. Belief in witches doesn't create the witch. The roots of the family's downfall are deeper than that.

They are probably doomed from the beginning. The father finds the Puritan plantation too religiously lax for his tastes and chooses exile for his family. They are forced to eke out a miserable existence on marshy ground at the edge of a wood, and it doesn't go well. All the rigours of the faith don't stop the father William from lying to his wife – selling an heirloom to buy traps when the crop fails. His weakness is revealed when he implicates his children in the lie. The mother also wishes to basically sell the eldest daughter Tomasin into servitude, partly to remove a source of temptation for her younger son Caleb – a cruel separation for the two children.

The inflexibility of faith is the central problem. William realises too late that by casting out his family he was himself guilty of the cardinal sin of pride. A rejection of society is a dangerous thing, and the witch doesn't give him enough time to correct the error. Caleb's developing sexuality doesn't have a healthy outlet, leaving him open to the witch's temptations, and he dies in a rapture praying to Jesus in the most lascivious terms.

Tomasin's dilemma is the most interesting. She is the most powerless member of the family – patronised, overworked and at risk of being cast out. In a key early scene, she finds that the idea of being the witch gives her a taste of power for the first time, which she exercises effectively against her bullying younger siblings. She is also aware of her parents' own inability to provide for her – telling her dad that he's only good for chopping wood. At least the devil offers richer rewards – butter, dresses and living 'deliciously'. Finally a patriarch that can deliver.

The extent to which this is a feminist parable is uncertain. The forces of evil destroy Tomasin's entire family before she turns to the dark side – she doesn't have an alternative at that point. But the final image in the film, where Tomasin ascends to the heavens, is one of sinister triumph against the restrictive family and society she was situated in when the film began. In contrast to her introduction as a character, where she's asking God to forgive all the sins she has committed in thought, at the Witches' Sabbath she is cackling along with the rest of them. The inhibitions fall away, bad faith is abandoned for a dark transcendence. The film's conclusion may be that the society of witches is the only route to self-actualisation for women in 1630s New England.


The Mask

I loved Jim Carrey's mid-1990s streak of comedies when I was a child. I didn't quite understand how cruel and offensive Ace Ventura was at the time, I just rolled with the slapstick clowning and catchphrases. It's notable that Carrey has a writer's credit on that film, and a lot of it feels like a succession of comedy routines bolted onto a mystery plot that doesn't make a great deal of sense. The Mask, on the other hand, is more coherent. The plot is equally ridiculous, but there is some shape and purpose to the film – one that is moulded to Carrey's strengths, even though he didn't actually write it.

As the ridiculous TV psychologist explains – we all wear masks that help us conform to the expectations of society and allow us to get on in life. Carrey's character Stanley Ipkiss wears one all the time. He's a self-described nice guy who finishes last, helpful to the detriment of his own interests or desires. The magical mask he finds, imbued with the Norse god Loki's mischievous spirit, allows the repressed id to come out and play. Wearing the mask means liberation from your inhibitions, and all those social masks you wear in real life.

Ipkiss is set up as a hopeless romantic obsessed with cartoons, and the superhero he becomes is a reflection of that bedrock in his character. There is an unexpectedly smart twist part-way through the film when the intrepid reporter who we think will become the genuine love-interest is revealed as a sell-out. Meanwhile, the mob boss's doll, who we suspect may be out to entrap Ipkiss, turns out to be just another hopeless romantic. This was Cameron Diaz's breakout role, and she's cast very well as a kind of modern day Marylin Monroe bedazzling all the shmucks around her. There's a winning earnestness to her character that the Farrelly brothers would seize upon for There's Something About Mary.

If anything, Carrey's buffoonery as 'the Mask' is the least enjoyable part of the film when watching as an adult. Far more fun is seeing how Stanley gets trod all over in his regular life while fundamentally remaining a decent guy – essentially the same set-up that would win Carrey plaudits for The Truman Show. While Ace Ventura is crude, mean and horrifically homophobic and transphobic, there's a fairytale quality to The Mask that makes it hold up far better 20 plus years later.


"The religions come and the religions pass, and the civilisations come and pass, and naught endures but the world and human nature. Ah! if man would but see that hope is from within and not from without—that he himself must work out his own salvation! He is there, and within him is the breath of life and a knowledge of good and evil as good and evil is to him. Thereon let him build and stand erect, and not cast himself before the image of some unknown God, modelled like his poor self, but with a bigger brain to think the evil thing, and a longer arm to do it."
– H. Rider Haggard, She


The Thing

My wife and I spent the first 10 minutes of the film cursing the Norwegian sniper for trying to shoot the very cute dog running through the snow. Little did we know what evil lurked within. The Thing is a creature feature with excellently gross and gooey monstrosities bursting through animal and human flesh. Having watched Alien recently, I thought this had a pretty similar vibe. Like the xenomorph, the Thing is a ruthless and inexplicable killer preying on a crew stationed at the end of the world where nobody can hear them scream. There are some potential sexual undertones (unwanted penetration, a monstrous birth), as well as your standard cosmic horror of an unknowable being of incredible power warping humanity by its presence.

What's more interesting is the idea that the monster is a parasite hiding behind the masks of friends and colleagues. By its very nature it sows suspicion and turns people against each other. The film's ending majors on this theme – the two survivors facing one other uncertain if either of them secretly harbours the beast within. Perhaps that speaks to a kind of cold war McCarthyite paranoia about a communist fifth column within Western democracies. That point may have been stronger if it was revealed that the all-American hero Mac (played with typical swashbuckling style by Burt Reynolds) was an agent of the alien intelligence. As it stands, the political subtext is just suggestion, and for me, Alien holds richer symbolic significance.


A Clockwork Orange

Film lexicographer David Thomson sees this is the clearest evidence of Kubrick's "art director's cinema", where narrative is sacrificed on the altar of set design. I think 2001 is far worse in that respect. That film was state of the art and knew it – lovingly lingering over its innovations and making large sections ponderous and boring to this viewer. 2001's narrative is also less satisfying, being simply a series of repeating grandiose developments that obliquely mirror each other, and are too open to interpretation to really mean very much in the final analysis. The structure of A Clockwork Orange has a more satisfying circularity: the protagonist's actions in the first half of the film coming back to bite him in the second.

Anthony Burgess's Catholicism-inflected worries about the suppression of free will by new-fangled techniques of psychological manipulation come through in Kubrick's adaptation, but aren't as interesting now given that the mass use of aversion therapy for political control has not come to pass. In any case, the film isn't particularly interested in the causes of Alex's sociopathy and addiction to "ultraviolence" – something he shares with the majority of the young (male) characters in the film and seems therefore to be at least partly down to wider currents in the culture. It may reflect contemporary concerns that the lifting of social constraints on personal behaviour in the 60s would unleash the very worst in teenagers and lead to the collapse of all moral authority. Certainly Kubrick believed it – pulling his own film from being distributed in the UK after what looked like a copycat murder.

It's hard to conjure that sense of moral panic now, given today's teenagers appear to be more clean-living than their parents used to be at the same age. What's harder to grasp is the film's critique of both reactionary politicians' attempts to clamp down on lawlessness, and the liberal resistance movement who wish to utilise these new techniques of reforming criminals to institute a kind of inward tyranny, where the freedom to choose is eliminated and people are conditioned to be docile and non-violent. Alex is caught up within the conspiracies of these two tendencies, and the final image of the film is one of dark triumph, showing that neither the police nor the psychologists can dampen the antisocial passions raging in the heart of man.


Get Out

Get Out's title sequence includes a cute reference to the famous part in Dario Argento's Suspiria where the victim is driven through a haunted forest to the sounds of Goblin's demented yowling. That should clue us into what to expect. Argento's film was about a coven of witches lusting after the youth of young girls, and lashing out. Jordan Peele's update isn't really all that different – the family are just that bit more surgical about it.

But it's not just youth, strength and beauty that these villains are after. The blind and therefore (supposedly) symbolically unprejudiced art-dealer wants the talent as well. The most subtle and incisive aspect of the film is that the bad guys admire the social and cultural achievements, as well as the physique, of their black victims. Even when black culture carves out its own space, white supremacy has to carve it right back and get a piece of the action. Because what are the zombified domestic workers but a wry comment on white people trying to get into black people's heads and portray them back to a black audience – and not only failing but royally creeping them out? It's an experience that many black creators must know pretty well.

Peele initially wanted to end the film on a downer, but test screenings and the political context in the USA convinced him that he needed to give his protagonist and his audience a win for once – and one that celebrates black solidarity in the face of horrific and unexpectedly deep-seated racism. The scenes with Roy release a huge amount of tension – the comic relief almost slipping the film into the comedy genre before we return to the Hitchcockian unease of the parents' house. That little see-saw in tone and genre is excellent shorthand for the contrast between being a fish out of water, and being comfortable in your own skin.


   "Wonderful," Lepennon said, and his white skin paled further with pure excitement, "A human society with an effective war-barrier! What's the cost, Dr Lyubov?"
   "I'm not sure, Mr Lepennon. Perhaps change. They're a static, stable, uniform society. They have no history. Perfectly integrated, and wholly unprogressive. You might say that like the forest they live in, they've attained a climax state. But I don't mean to imply that they're incapable of adaptation."

– Ursula K. Le Guin, The Word for World is Forest