Blog Directory CineVerse: October 2021

Code red horror

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Some of the best horror films of recent vintage thematically focus on grief and emotional anguish related to the death of a loved one. Prime examples include Hereditary, The Babadook, and Midsommar. But these topics were previously explored, to great effect, in Nicholas Roeg‘s suspenseful arthouse classic from 1973 Don’t Look Now. We applied the CineVerse lens to this picture last week and made several key observations (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What did you find interesting, unexpected, surprising, or memorable about Don’t Look Now?

  • Even though most of the film takes place in Venice, the filmmakers choose not to use subtitles, effectively putting us in John’s shoes and helping us better appreciate his feeling of cultural alienation and inability to communicate.
    • The city becomes a character unto itself, effectively establishing the mysterious mood and enigmatic ambiance necessary to disorient our characters and convey an atmosphere of deterioration and ancient secrets. Interestingly, this isn’t a travelogue reel of popular tourist attractions in Venice; the city appears underpopulated, architecturally alienating, and offputting as a remnant of the Old World.
  • Director Roeg is quite innovative and experimental in his editing tactics, often using wordless montage and infusing scenes with flashback and flashforward shots that temporally blend the visuals and create greater emotional depth and resonance. Ponder the filmmakers’ disjointed style that seems to skew time, particularly during the lovemaking scene; we see Laura and John engaging in physical intimacy, but the shots are interspersed with presumably future images of them getting dressed and dining out. Roeg also employs mobile camera shots and zooms to create authenticity and immediacy in his compositions. Some may feel this visual approach is pretentious and overtly arty, but the method is fairly unique and distinctive among other directors, for better or worse.
    • Film reviewer Richard Scheib wrote: “His work is characterized by elliptical non-linear editing and the use of random images edited into the narrative, a frequent fascination with sexual obsessions and a recurring portrait of cultural alienation.”
    • Roeg chooses to emphasize visuals and pure cinema to tell the story, sacrificing dialogue and exposition in the process and forcing the viewer to pay closer attention to better understand the characters and situations.
  • The sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie is, surprisingly tender, loving, and compassionate – not titillating or exploitative. The viewer can interpret this scene as the grief-stricken couple attempting to conceive another child, or, at very least, expressing their unconditional love for one another physically despite their emotional traumas. Not only is this sequence longer than expected, but it is relatively graphic and visually candid, requiring the actors to expose themselves and engage in positions and sexual simulations that look like real intercourse.
  • Arguably, the ending is unsatisfying when you consider that it’s not very plausible for the serial killer on the loose to be an adult little person in a red raincoat – least of all, one who could successfully slash John’s throat. 
    • On the other hand, it’s ironically satisfying that John’s death “can be regarded as a self-fulfilling prophecy: It is John’s premonitions of his death that set in motion the events leading up to his death,” wrote Roger Ebert.

Major themes

  • The power of grief and psychological trauma. This couple is forever haunted by the tragedy of their daughter’s drowning and, although they don’t speak about it, they must feel culpable because the death could have been avoided with greater supervision. The recurring motif of the color red, particularly the reappearance of a childlike figure in a red raincoat, emphasizes how inescapable this grief is.
  • Language barriers and the inability to effectively communicate. It’s appropriate that this story primarily occurs in Venice, a foreign location for John and Laura, two fish out of water who are trying to maintain a normal, productive life despite the recent tragedy.
    • It’s also interesting that the women in this tale can communicate better than the men. Consider how John, the bishop, the hotel manager, and the police inspector have a harder time connecting and making themselves clear to one another, while Laura appears to sync well with Heather and Wendy as well as the matriarch at her son’s boarding school.

Similar works

  • Films by Alfred Hitchcock, including The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Marnie, and Frenzy
  • The Changeling
  • Hereditary and The Babadook
  • Audrey Rose
  • Who Saw Her Die?
  • The Psychic
  • The Haunting of Julia
  • The Appointment
  • The Fourth Man
  • The Ring

Other films by Nicholas Roeg

  • Performance
  • The Man Who Fell to Earth
  • The Witches


The devil is in the details

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

It’s an age-old question that horror filmmakers have to resolve at some point in their production: To what extent do you show the monster or evil force in your story? The easy answer is “as often as possible,” which many assume is what genre fans prefer. But one credible school of thought maintains that overexposure of a creature character and the decision to reveal a monstrous creation too early in the movie can backfire. Which begs the question: Was it a mistake to so graphically visually depict the titular figure in Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (also known as Curse of the Demon), especially considering the rubber suit/puppet-like nature of the special effects? Our CineVerse club pondered this quandary when analyzing the film last week. Read on for more insights and observations discussed (to listen to a recording of our group chat, click here).

What is it about Night of the Demon that you found fascinating, intriguing, unexpected, refreshing, or otherwise?

  • The movie focuses on black magic, witchcraft, and a satanic cult, making it a rarity up to this point (1957) in cinema history. Previously, only a handful of films touched on these topics or types of characters, including Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), The Black Cat (1934), and The Seventh Victim (1943).
    • Turner Classic Movies essayist Jeff Stafford wrote: “Only a handful of movies have succeeded in convincing an audience to suspend disbelief and believe in the unbelievable. The titles that come immediately to mind are genuine classics of the genre - Cat People (1942), Dead of Night (1945).
  • Director Jacques Tourneur, famous for his film collaborations with RKO producer Val Lewton in which supernatural elements were only suggested, not overtly shown or evidenced, proves to be the appropriate craftsman for the story. Despite the reveal of an actual demonic figure, Tourneur employs many of the effective techniques used with Lewton, including high-contrast lighting and pervasive use of shadowy cinematography, the Lewton “bus” (in which a jump scare is created by punctuating a scene with a sudden loud sound effect or noise), and imbuing the narrative and its visuals with a foreboding sense of dread and doom.
    • Film critic Richard Scheib wrote: “Tourneur bends the film cleverly – the normal daylight scenes, which are equated with reason, are directed with a monotonic flatness as though Tourneur had only the most rudimentary interest in them. However, this proves to be a subtle ploy as Tourneur is lulling us into a false sense of relaxation, for when the night-set scenes of the supernatural come, the film becomes edgy – the eruptions of the supernatural are seen only momentarily and the camera lens becomes distorted as though the film itself were undergoing the hero’s journey from rationalism into panicky emotion.”
  • Arguably, the story would have been better served if they either didn’t show the demon creature at all or waited until the end to serve up the demon. That would have given the central tenet of the film, the debate between rationality and the paranormal, more weight and relevance. However, many film critics, scholars, and fans say that the artificial and over-the-top imagery of the demon puts the viewer on notice immediately that this isn’t something that can be merely explained away, and the creature’s schlocky rubber suit and puppet-like attributes give it an otherworldly, offbeat appearance.
    • Legend tells it that the movie’s producer force the inclusion of the demon in the film, to the strong objections of the writer and director; other accounts hint that Tourneur was possibly in favor of showing the monster.
  • Probably the best performance in the film is delivered by Niall MacGinnis, whose character of Karswell is the juiciest and most colorful. He plays this personality against type and expectations, demonstrating that he can be both menacing and well-mannered/polite.

Major themes

  • Science versus superstition and reason versus belief. This film firmly insists that witchcraft has power and the supernatural is real, despite giving us a pragmatic and evidence-driven protagonist who is convinced otherwise. By the end of the story, skeptic John Holden gives credence to occult powers and admits he was wrong.
  • A battle of wits and determination. This story essentially pits Holden versus Karswell and depicts their clash of egos.
  • A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, especially when it comes to the mysteries of the universe. A telling line in the movie is “maybe it’s better not to know,” which Joanna tells Holden after Karswell is killed. Holden agrees, suggesting perhaps that, while human beings should put their trust in facts and reason, some unknown and unexplained phenomena in the world could usurp what we’ve come to know and rely on.
  • Karmic comeuppance. It’s pure poetic justice that, by the conclusion of the story, Karswell’s magic, which he has used for malevolent purposes, turns on him and leads to his demise.

Similar works

  • Burn Witch Burn
  • The Devil Rides Out
  • Drag Me to Hell
  • D.O.A.
  • The Omen

Other films directed by Jacques Tourneur

  • Cat People
  • I Walked With a Zombie
  • The Leopard Man
  • Out of the Past
  • The Comedy of Terrors


A lasting picture shows us golden truths

Sunday, October 17, 2021

The Last Picture Show, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, turns 50 years old this week. What makes this movie so relevant and resonant on its 50th anniversary? Consider the following points, which give credence to the film’s longevity and legacy.

Why is The Last Picture Show worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It still matters because it endures as a fascinating time capsule of a specific time and place: a small town in Texas between 1951 and 1952. The Last Picture Show stands as both a work of timeless Americana while also feeling like an elegy and farewell to an epoch in our nation’s history now forgotten by many – an age that had its good and bad points. Many Americans thought of the years following World War II, particularly the decade of the 50s, as a kind of golden age, one filled with greater prosperity, more creature comforts, and pop-culture excitement with the coming of rock ’n roll and the increasing popularity of television. But the way that Bogdanovich and company portray this culture is through a lens of loneliness, disaffection, heartbreak, and impermanence. It’s hard for viewers to believe that lives and relationships in Anarene will progress and prosper; those who choose to remain in this town will begin to fade from relevance and history like Sam’s movie house did.
    • In his review of the movie, Roger Ebert wrote: “The film is all about an evocation of mood. It is about a town with no reason to exist, and people with no reason to live there. The only hope is in transgression, as Ruth knows when she seduces Sonny, the boy half her age.”
  • It has stood the test of time thanks to its impeccable design and aesthetic realism. The littlest details feel period-authentic, from the country music and television programs that were popular at the time to the clothes, hairstyles, colloquialisms, and mannerisms of the townsfolk. Consequently, we believe that life in a small town in the early 1950s is depicted accurately: the ennui, the mundanity, the close-knit nature of the community, as well as the simple pleasures townsfolk pursue.
  • It’s this level of honesty and the film’s sexual frankness that continue to make it significant today. The Last Picture Show remains believable by virtue of its fine performances, fine script and quality dialogue, attention-getting and slightly shocking in its carnal content, and thought-provoking in its themes and messages.

In what ways was The Last Picture Show influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?

  • Bogdanovich was part of the breed of up-and-coming new Hollywood filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, William Friedkin, Robert Altman, and Steven Spielberg. Many of these directors strived to make bold new, modernist statements, tell cinematic stories in daring new ways, and deviate from classic Hollywood filmmaking. Bogdonovich, however, was more of a neo-classicist steeped in the traditions of old Hollywood masters like John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Orson Welles. He pays homage to all three in various ways, including by using Hawks’ film Red River as the actual last picture show feature; casting John Ford stock company actor Ben Johnson, known for appearing in many westerns, in a key role; cutting efficiently within the camera, as Ford did, which means filming shots and sequences to make editing easy; by reintroducing each character and corresponding actor right before the end credits roll, as Citizen Kane does; and by including a thematically important monologue that evokes an important memory – Sam the Lion’s recollection at the fishing hole, which recalls the Bernstein monologue in Kane in which a memory of a beautiful woman with a parasol is remembered.
  • The Last Picture Show is more of a melancholy and nostalgic piece, a period movie that looks back instead of looking ahead or exploring modern-day themes that would have perhaps been more relevant in the early 1970s when the picture was released. It’s considered a cousin to Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons in that, like Welles’s film, a community and its way of life is transformed due to emerging technology – in this case, the advent of television and the increasing emergence of highways that could serve as swift escape routes out of town.
  • Still, Bogdanovich did push the envelope and defy expectations. For instance, he took Orson Welles’ advice and shot the movie in black-and-white, which was a rarity for an early 1970s film. Secondly, The Last Picture Show was frank in its sexuality and dialogue, featuring oodles of aberrant sexuality, including teenage promiscuity, adultery, homosexuality, and pedophilia.
  • Also, it uses popular country music of the period as its soundtrack as diegetic music that sometimes comments on the characters and situations; no proper soundtrack was written for the film.
  • The filmmakers further deserve credit for indirectly influencing cinema by helping to propel the careers of several then up-and-coming as well as overlooked actors, like Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ellen Burstyn, Cloris Leachman, Eileen Brennan, and Randy Quaid. The ensemble cast here is one of the best ever assembled, all the more impressive considering how few of these names were known to audiences at the time.
  • This also helped kick off the retro craze for 1950s culture in the 1970s, or “decades-displaced nostalgia.” Think about how many popular works released in the 1970s hearkened back to two decades earlier, or the previous generation: films like The Lords of Flatbush, Grease, and American Graffiti as well as TV shows such as Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and the Sha Na Na variety show.

What’s the moral of the story here? What messages or themes are built into The Last Picture Show?

  • The need for human connection, compassion, and dialogue. Ruth Popper is an excellent example of how unhappy life in this small town can be for its citizens. And Sonny is aching for a physical and emotional relationship with a real person who cares about him.
  • The passing of old values and traditions, as embodied by the transition of a small town in Texas between 1951 and 1952. This period chosen is significant, as it marked the increasing shift and audience loyalty toward the vapid medium of television and away from movies watched in a theater, as well as the onset of the Korean War and the Cold War, conflicts in which cowboys like Sam and the rugged frontier values they stood for became anachronisms that didn’t fit in.
    • The fact that it depicts the movie house is dead and the small screen is blossoming tells us that this already insular town is about to get a lot more insular and its people will become more alienated and withdrawn; the legacy of the boom of television was that small towns and communities started to lose their unique culture and eventually became more and more homogenized.
  • The inevitable demise of a close-knit culture or small-town community, as embodied in the sudden passing of Sam, who serves as the town’s moral hub, and the demise of the movie theater.
    • Hence, one can more easily decipher the message of the film’s poster: “Anarene Texas, 1951: Nothing much has changed.” This is an ironic tagline, as plenty has changed by the end of the film (including the deaths of Sam, the movie house, and several relationships), yet the fates of many of these townspeople probably won’t change.
  • The younger generation vs the older generation.
    • Ponder the contrast between Sonny, Jacy, and Duane versus Sam, Lois, and Ruth. The older generation represents a regretful, trapped, or obsolete bunch whose lives and opportunities have passed them by; despite being more attractive, hopeful, and yearning, the younger breed seems doomed to repeat the mistakes of the older generation and remain stuck in this town, with not much to anticipate or bank their futures on.
    • The only true mature adult in the bunch is Sam the Lion; the other grownups appear to be living arrested developments as kids who never properly matured.
    • Both generations are waiting for life to start getting exciting, but few dreams become reality in this restless, lost town.
  • Beauty is truth, truth is beauty. This Keats truism resonates in how Sonny discovers that real beauty is found far beneath the skin, in the form of a warm and caring partner like Ruth, not a shallow and selfish looker like Kacy.
  • Youth is hampered by inexperience and naïveté. Characters like Sonny, Duane, and Jacy are looking to end their virgin status and start living more mature lives like the adults they model from. The boys’ ineptitude as athletes-- such as their inability to play football well-- serves as a metaphor for their sexual greenness, which older men in the town tease them about and rebuke them for, saying things like “you just never learned the fundamentals. You know, blockin’ and tacklin.’”

Who did this film appeal to initially when it was released in 1971, and who does it appeal to today?

  • Film critic James Berardinelli wrote: “The Last Picture Show is a rare movie that plays differently, but equally well, to members of separate generations. For those born in the mid-1940s and earlier, this is a nostalgia trip – a journey through memories unearthed in the nether spaces of the mind. For younger viewers, those who came into being after the Second World War, the last picture show is a time capsule of an era that, while not that long ago, is unlike anything that came after.”

What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?

  • You can make a case that the filmmakers could have chosen to downplay the sexual attractiveness of Jacy and, by extension, Cybill Shepherd. For instance, in the sequence where she seduces and surrenders herself to the oil rig worker Abilene, she appears quite comely, and these shots are meant to titillate. Likewise, the strip scene in the pool builds sexual excitement, even though we feel her awkwardness. On the other hand, it was important to show how an attractive character like Jacy would be coveted by many boys and men of different ages in a small town, and how she learned to use her sexual charms to manipulate men and follow in the footsteps of her mother.
  • Besides that possible problematic aspect, there aren’t many other examples of things in the film that haven’t aged well or don’t feel plausible or faithful to that era. This is practically an unimpeachable movie in that it’s difficult to find faults 50 years later, which is a testament to the stellar work of everyone involved in the writing and production.

What is The Last Picture Show’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • One of its greatest gifts is its sexual honesty and forthright approach to depicting matters of carnality, particularly teenage sexuality and the awkwardness that can accompany it. Rarely before had a mainstream Hollywood film attempted to so genuinely portray the clumsiness, embarrassment, and discomfort that can accompany foreplay and intercourse. Except for that scene involving Jacy and Abilene, which conveys the excitement and pleasure of deviant sex—albeit one that ends in disillusionment—every tryst or sexual exchange involves either disappointment (like when Duane can’t perform with Jacy in the motel room or Billy is berated by the town whore Jimmy Sue), monotony (such as when Sonny fondles his girlfriend in the truck), inelegance (case in point: the creaky mattress springs in Ruth Popper’s bedroom), or perversity (as evidenced by the preacher’s son kidnapping the little girl with evil sexual intent). This film could not be remade the same way today, as Hollywood is much more sensitive when it comes to how it depicts sexual situations nowadays. That’s why a feature like The Last Picture Show remains so refreshing and revealing about the imperfect sexual moments experienced during young adulthood.
  • Its second greatest gift is the range of wonderful performances given by an extraordinary cast with a deep bench. This could be Cloris Leachman’s finest outing; it’s certainly Ben Johnson’s best work, and arguably Eileen Brennan’s, too. But you also think of the incredible acting by the unsung Timothy Bottoms, who breaks our hearts near the conclusion when, in tears, he admonishes the insensitive throng with the line of the movie, “He was sweeping, you sons of bitches, he was sweeping,” after which he delicately lays Billy’s dead body down on the sidewalk, covering him with his jacket. The fact that Bottoms didn’t become a bigger star with further memorable parts in important films feels tragic. Rarely has Ellen Burstein been better in a part that almost seems custom-made for her, and a young Jeff Bridges shines as Duane, demonstrating what he was capable of in much bigger and more important turns later in his career. Robert Altman once said that directing is 90% casting, and that adage feels appropriate here – not to diminish the talents of Peter Bogdanovich or his collaborators, but The Last Picture Show would have certainly faded to black prematurely with a weaker roster of actors.


It's still alive! Celebrate Frankenstein's 90th birthday with Cineversary

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

In Cineversary podcast episode #40, host Erik Martin has a monster of an interview with Boris Karloff's daughter Sara Karloff and David Skal, a highly respected horror film historian and author of the book Fright Favorites. Together, they commemorate the 90th anniversary of the 1931 Universal horror classic Frankenstein, examining why the film is worth celebrating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the movie in 2021, and more.

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast using Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotifyGoogle PodcastsBreakerCastboxPocket CastsPodBeanRadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at and email show comments or suggestions to


Ushering in a new wave of gothic horror

Monday, October 11, 2021

The legacies of both Vincent Price and Roger Corman benefited from a serious bump in prestige thanks to their collaboration on the Poe cycle of films for American International Pictures, beginning in 1960 with The Fall of the House of Usher. While not the most faithful of story adaptations, this movie manages to stay relatively true to the spirit of the Poe source material while also showcasing Price’s indispensable ability to personify a disturbed and malevolent character in the gothic tradition. Our CineVerse tribe plunged into Shocktober Theater mode with full gusto last Wednesday and concluded the following about this film (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion):

What did you find surprising, memorable, impressive, or curious about The Fall of the House of Usher?

  • This is an extreme widescreen film, shot in CinemaScope at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, a very wide framing that may or may not work to the film’s advantage. Many believe this aspect ratio hurts the picture, as it keeps the action at a distance and reveals ample dead space, preventing more intimate views of the four characters. On the other hand, it lends cachet and gravitas to the look of the film and makes the house appear ominous and sprawling, with many places for its creepy characters to hide.
  • Price is well cast in this role of an oversensitive aristocratic control freak who uses a hushed tone and reserved temperament to characterize this tortured, twisted soul; he’s not hamming it up here and chewing the scenery as he is accused of doing and other productions. Additionally, his bleached white hair and lack of familiar mustache give Price a unique look that deviates from his expected countenance.
  • This is probably the truest Hollywood adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story, at least up to that point – certainly it’s the most accurate version of a Poe tale within Roger Corman’s Poe cycle of eight films. However, the filmmakers alter things a bit by changing the character of the narrator to the fiancé of Madeleine and making his attempt to persuade Madeleine to leave, to the objection of Roderick, the central conflict.
  • In this version of the story, it is more strongly suggested that there are supernatural elements at work, such as a truly haunted house that is trying to kill the outside interloper and ensure that the last of the Usher line, as represented by Roderick and Madeleine, will not escape, nor will its secrets. As Corman said to the film’s producers in his attempt to get them to greenlight the picture, “the house is the monster.”
  • Arguably the worst element in the picture is the casting and performance of Mark Damon as Philip: a pretty boy face, but an actor with the worst tendencies and timing.
  • Corman, who’d already demonstrated for years with AIP that he was an extremely efficient director (sometimes shooting films in as quickly as a handful of days), proved how industrious, inventive, and resourceful he truly was by convincing the studio to choose a story in the public domain – one that any high school student would likely be familiar with – and by shooting on the fly of the location scorched by a forest fire to capture the opening sequence when Philip arrives. Some shots of the concluding house burning sequence were filmed at a remote California barn scheduled to be torn down but which Corman burned instead.
  • Corman was obviously motivated by the impact of Hammer Films and its reinvention of gothic horror tales like The Curse of Frankenstein and The Horror of Dracula, which were filmed in color, showcased fairly opulent sets despite a low budget, showed red blood to moviegoers for the first time, and featured voluptuous actresses. Corman copies this template in this, the first in his Poe series.

Major themes

  • The sins of the father are visited upon the son (and daughter). Roderick and Madeleine come from a cursed lineage and bear the psychological and biological burden of their family’s tainted line. One subtextual reading of this tale is that the Ushers are an inbred clan in which incest and sexual depravity have scandalized and weakened the genes and reputation of this family. There’s more than a hint here that Roderick has a secret sexual relationship with his sister.
  • The unhealthy symbiotic relationship between a dwelling and its inhabitants. The house of Usher stands as an externalization of Roderick’s id and a physical manifestation of his unhealthy thoughts and corrupted mind. It’s no surprise, then, that the house increasingly cracks and crumbles as Philip persists in attempting to lure Madeleine away from Roderick, who is determined to keep her in the house and prevent the Usher line from continuing.
  • The unavoidable power of the death drive. According to Wikipedia, “In classical Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the death drive is the drive toward death and destruction, often expressed through behaviors such as aggression, repetition compulsion, and self-destructiveness.”
  • Blood is thicker than water. Despite Philip’s admirable love for and devotion to Madeleine, his will, youth, and determination cannot prevail against hereditary forces and familial ties.

Similar works

  • The Haunting
  • House on Haunted Hill
  • The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Tomb of Ligeia – two other Poe films similar in theme and design
  • Hammer horror films of the 1950s and 1960s
  • Great Expectations
  • The Shining

Other films directed by Roger Corman

  • Subsequent movies in the Poe cycle, including The Pit and the Pendulum, Premature Burial, Tales of Terror, The Haunted Palace, The Raven, The Masque of the Red Death, and The Tomb of Ligeia
  • The Little Shop of Horrors
  • A Bucket of Blood
  • The Trip


I've got you under my skin

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Sci-fi-flavored horror is a hybrid subgenre represented by several excellent works, including Alien, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. A worthy addition to that list of exemplary films is Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer and starring Scarlett Johansson. The CineVerse faithful carefully evaluated this picture last week and arrived at the following observations (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here):

What got under your skin about “Under the Skin,” good or bad?

  • It casts Johansson, renowned as a voluptuous and alluring actress, but downplays her nude scenes as quite matter-of-fact and non-titillating.
  • The narrative is decidedly enigmatic and opaque, refusing to provide context, backstory, or explanation about why these aliens are here, the relationship between Laura and her motorcycle handlers, or exactly why she deviates from her presumably assigned course of predatory behavior.
    • Note that, in the novel upon which this screenplay is based, the female alien’s mission is to entrap men who will be served up as a culinary delicacy on her home planet.
  • This movie abandons all the trappings of a traditional science fiction film, which you would expect to showcase snazzy special effects, spacecraft, interstellar travel, and futuristic technology.
  • The opening sequence, which reminds the viewer somewhat of 2001: A Space Odyssey in its style and strange visual approach, is distinctively offbeat: Are we witnessing the birth of Laura as an automaton-like creature who is being programmed? Is the circular object an eyeball or a distant planet/star?
  • The filmmakers adopt a guerrilla-style neorealism approach by filming, with hidden cameras, non-actors being propositioned and invited into the van by a disguised Johansson. This technique creates realistic, natural, and spontaneous engagements between the actress and these unsuspecting passersby.
  • It’s rare to see a non-X-rated film featuring full-frontal male nudity, including erections.

Major themes

  • The hunted becomes the hunter, and vice versa. This is a reversal of the expected paradigm in which men are the predators and women are the prey. In many ways, this film could open male eyes about what it feels like to be a victim of sexually predatory behavior.
    • The Mary Sue writer Kristi Puchko wrote that Under the Skin “creates a reverse of contemporary rape culture where violence against women is so common that women are casually warned to be ever alert for those who might harm them… By and large men don’t worry about their safety in the same way when walking home late at night. But in the world of Under the Skin, they absolutely should.”
    • Film essayist Sarah Mirk wrote: “As an alien, Johansson was fearless. As a woman, she realizes that while her body is certainly powerful, she is vulnerable in this strange world.”
  • The extent to which women are seen and considered as sex objects by men. Interestingly, by the film’s conclusion, the tables have turned and a more empathetic Laura is pursued by a man bent on sexual violence.
    • Slant magazine writer Ed Gonzales wrote that Laura is “aware of her appeal to men, views sexual fulfillment as an abstraction, and when she allows herself to be penetrated by a comforting stranger, her reaction sends her spiraling into an oblivion not unlike that into which she drops her victims. She’s still not of this Earth, but now her alienness is a marker of her naïveté, of a very recognizable sense of estrangement. And in a haunting sojourn through a woodsy gulf between fantasy and reality that’s as bracing as the story’s ellipses, the existentially uprooted Laura seems to understand herself in the way she does her victims, as commodity, and recoils from the horror of her sentience manifesting itself from sexual initiation and, subsequently, degradation. And that, the film articulates through its abstract movie-ness, is no way for a girl to come to understand her body, regardless of what’s under her skin.”
  • The universality of the human condition. The alien Laura appears dispassionate, cold, and uncaring about the fates of her male victims until she starts to develop empathy after putting herself in the shoes of a disfigured man she releases and following her discovery that she possesses female genitalia and a body that brings pleasure and excitement. Despite her extraterrestrial status, we see how she becomes curious about what it’s like to be human – wanting to eat cake and engage in lovemaking. And we also witness how, even though she is “under the skin” an extraterrestrial, like human beings she can feel empathy, confusion, loneliness, fear, pain, and lack of dignity.
  • The unavoidable power of the death drive. According to Wikipedia, “In classical Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the death drive is the drive toward death and destruction, often expressed through behaviors such as aggression, repetition compulsion, and self-destructiveness.”

Similar works

  • The Man Who Fell to Earth
  • Starman
  • Species
  • My Stepmother is an Alien
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • 10
  • Red Road
  • Monster
  • Her
  • The Elephant Man
  • Ex Machina

Other films directed by Jonathan Glazer

  • Sexy Beast
  • Birth
  • The Fall


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