A certified “nu metal” horror movie, The House on Haunted Hill caused my hair to erupt in bleached tips, my pants to baggify themselves, and a 40 foot long wallet chain to explode out of my pocket, uncoiling like the weapon of a Mortal Kombat character. Suddenly, wounds were crawling through my skin. I try so hard and come so far, but in the end it doesn’t even matter.

It’s pretty good, overall: a gimmicky but scare-packed film with creative VFX, and even inspiring hints that there may be a real, live human writing the script. I don’t remember much of the 1959 version (except it has Vincent Price), but I remembered lots of things from this one. The pencil through the neck. The theme park ride. The shit with the camera. The other, different shit with the zoetrope (the movie doesn’t trust you to know what that is, they call it an “Saturation Chamber” or something). The waterboarding part. The sheer volume of practical effects was enjoyable. The editing is great, and creates massive amounts of chaos from William Malone’s workmanlike direction. It uses that strobe-pulse fluttery-moth shot-through-a-spinning-fan trick you saw in Jacob’s Ladder, to the point where it becomes a fetish. Don’t watch this if you have epilepsy.

The design of The Darkness (the embodiment of the evil in the house, not the rock band) walks a fraught line between “mediocre late 90s CGI that hasn’t aged well” and “genuinely creative and unsettling”. That one shot where they map an animated texture over a 3D model looks terrible, like a videogame.

…but the more abstract Rorschach-blot design looks excellent.

Casting is, admittedly, not the movie’s strong suite. Geoffrey Rush plays a ludicrously hammy 1950s panto villain. Fun, but what’s the point of updating the movie into the 90s and then writing such an anachronistic character? Xenia Onatopp (or whoever plays his wife) is okay. The camera operator appears to think I really want to see down her dress. Unfortunately he is correct.

The rest of the actors are bland. You will not remember their names. If you deign insert them into your memory, it will be as Reporter Bitch, Camera Bitch, Eyebrows Man, Glasses Man, and Black Man in a Horror Movie (he actually lives to the end. They should award him the Purple Heart for that. He gets characterized as a professional basketball player…one of those NBA pros who’s 1.78m tall, I guess.) Holy boring. Where do they find these people? Were they shipped to the film studio in a packing crate from Boring Actors Inc? They should have ripped the crate apart, painted terrified faces on the wooden planks themselves, and used those in the movie instead. It would have afforded us the illusion of more lively and charismatic actors.

Overall, there’s a lot of great moments here to offset the 90s cheese. I was surprised by how well the film held up.

I did notice some thematic elements that sailed over my head when I was 12, like the Scientology angle. It’s one of the most cartoonishly anti-psychiatry horror movies I’ve ever seen (“Electroshock therapy. Dr Vanacutt liked to zap his patients in multiples of eighteen. More energy efficient.”). Or the moment when Evelyn says (referring to her husband) “His initials are S.P.”

That might also explain this lengthy monologue by Ali Larter’s character, when she attempts to defeat the Darkness using the science of Dianetics.

I think it’s a privilege to call yourself a Scientologist and it is something that you have to earn. Being a Scientologist, you look at somebody and you know absolutely that you can help them. Being a Scientologist, when you drive past an accident, it’s not like anyone else. As you drive past, you know you have to do something about it, because you know you’re the only one that can really help. That’s…that’s what drives me, is that I know we have an opportunity, and uh, to really help for the first time effectively change people’s lives, and uh, I’m dedicated to that. I’m gonna, I’m absolutely, uncompromisingly dedicated to that. We are the authorities in getting people off drugs. We are the authorities on the mind.

I found that a little heavy-handed, but your mileage may vary.

Also, I am pretty sure I reviewed this movie already. Oops.

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Georges Bataille’s prose reminds me of a fairground rubber mask; the kind where you stick your fingers through the eye holes and twist it into hundreds of leering, meaningless faces. He had a vast number of interests—psychoanalysis, critical theory, eroticism, politics, economics, anthropology—and they were intricately woven through his work to the point where you can interpret his books as saying almost anything. The Story of the Eye has been read as Sadean pornography, a philosophical treatise, a Roman a’clef with details drawn from Bataille’s own life, etc, but I’m struck by the sense that nobody really knows what it’s about. Everyone just brings their own baggage to it.

Bataille is God’s gift to people who want to sanctify some mad theory they brewed in the radiator with vague Smart Person quotes. “As seen through the lens of [dead French philosopher]’s [out-of-context theory], Beyonce has more rizz than Cardi B”—if you get paid to write stuff like that, Bataille’s your guy. But would Bataille have agreed with these theories? Some surrealists sculpted worlds like private gardens and gave outsiders no way in. Bataille is the reverse. His books are often all key and no lock.

Blue of Noon is typically obscure. My impression is that it’s a pornographic narrative dealing with the underclass of society, and the way they essentially preview death before the rest of us (lucky bastards). It starts literally in the gutter—a couple of drunks laughing and fighting and embarrassing themselves—and ends with fascism looming, the Hitler Youth marching in the street, and nations about to topple into abysms of war and fire.

There’s a kind of symmetry there. Bataille wrote the book in 1935 or 1939 (I have heard both dates), but it wasn’t published until 1957, long after World War II had ended. Like a doctor’s warning to quit drinking that got held up in the mail and arrived after the patient had died of liver failure.

We begin mise en scène. Perhaps mise en abyme. The setting is mid-30s London. Henri Troppmann (“Drip Man”??) and his girlfriend Dorothy are getting drunk at some dive. They are both feverishly sick—lengthy prose descriptions emphasize their filth, their depravity. They are alive in a consumed, rancid, rotting sense that closely resembles death. Their conversations are mad and unmotivated nonsense, such as Dorothy’s garbled memory of her mother on the elevator. We’re watching two lost people who are circling the drain. Dorothy is incontinent, and Henri is sexually impotent. They are unhappy together or apart.

The word for these characters is “abject”. They are at the bottom of society, like the figures Bataille wrote about in his famous essay Abjection and Miserable Forms. The filth and vomit are status markers counting them “out” of respectable bourgeoise society, just as a fine suit is a marker counting you in.[1]Are they really abject? They seem to have a lot of money—Henri bribes some service workers into to helping Dorothy after she soils herself, for example. I’m struck that a lot of Marxist … Continue reading

The ultimate form of abjection, of course, is death: which is the book’s main subject. It’s filled with subtle, and not so subtle nods, that Henri and his friends might be close to the end—or perhaps even beyond it. Like this:

Before being wholly affected by drink, we had managed to retreat to a room at the Savoy. Dirty [Dorothy] had noticed that the elevator attendant was very ugly (in spite of his handsome uniform, you might have taken him for a gravedigger.)

Later, Henri receives a letter from his wife. It’s very strange, worded in a way that suggests he is already deceased.

Lazare took me home. She came in with me. I asked her to let me read a letter from my wife which I found waiting for me. The letter was eight to ten pages long. My wife said she couldn’t go on any longer. She blamed herself for losing me, yet everything that had happened had been my fault.

There’s no reason to write a letter to a dead man, and his wife knows he’s alive (she later attempts to phone him), but “she blamed herself for losing me” is a striking choice of words But it seems to me that most of the characters aren’t meant to be humans so much as the embodiment of societal, historical, and psychoanalytical concepts. Such as when Henri dreams he is trapped in a dystopian Russia—a barren wasteland of factories and warehouses, ruled by a woman called “Lenova”.

(As a child, I’d always heard that “Lenin” meant “man of iron”, and Stalin had adopted his own name—”man of steel” to upstage him. But apparently both sides of that are wrong. “Iron” in Russian is железо/zhelezo, and Lenin’s name comes from the river Lena, in the land of his Cossack ancestors. The reason for Stalin’s choice of name is unknown but was probably just a homage. Nothing to do with the book, of course. I just thought that was interesting.)

I guess you’re getting a sense of how Blue of Noon is written: very dreamy and slipstreamy and loose. Characters are impressionistic studies. Events are freighted with symbolic baggage. It’s only 150 pages long but feels accordionlike, as though it could be collapsed far smaller, or expanded far longer, without really becoming any different. Take it for what it is: a weird, out-of-focus snapshot from a man staring off the edge.

Neither the wife nor Lenova appear in the story. Many other women do, though. One is Dorothy. Another is Xenie. Another is a “skinny, sallow-fleshed Jewess” called Lazare, whose name reminds us of the Biblical figure of Lazarus. That figure, of course, is famous for not being dead, and Lazare is the book’s most conspicuously living figure. She’s a saber-rattling Marxist activist who Henri seems terrified by, as though she’s a light shining into all his hollow spaces. But even she seems haunted by death. After all, where did the Bolshevik revolutions end up?

Near the end of the book, when it’s obvious that war is coming—a rictus spasm of violence that everyone fears and secretly relishes—Henri overcomes his impotence, and has sex with Dorothy over a graveyard, while pondering his own death. I was reminded of the way the penis of a corpse will fill with blood. Soon, with Germany firmly Nazified, Henri tries to flee…to France. That was funny. He can’t run. Not from Nazi Germany, not from death, not even from who he ultimately is.

The book moves at whirlwind pace, although it’s not always clear where it’s going. There are little flashbacks and side stories and detours. It really captures how memories feel from a time when you were drinking heavily: like a card deck shuffled out of order. There’s quite a few references to then-contemporary things that would have seemed quite out of date by 1957, like Austrian singer-actress Lotte Lenya, and the Bal Tabarin cabaret in Paris’s 9th arrondissement, and even the eruption of Krakatoa, which was still within living memory in 1935/1939.

Blue of Noon contains necrophilia. Henri has sex with his mother’s dead body (or attempts to). This bizarrely pathological act (which doesn’t even appear on the page) seems to be the one thing people know about the book (the way that nobody remembers a damned thing about The Master and the Margarita except Belphegor the cat). But what’s more interesting is the way Henri behaves toward his own necrophilia: while bragging about necrophilia, he also lies about it to Lazare, hiding the identity of the corpse. Even while admitting to something horrendous, he’s still spin-doctoring the truth; trying to salvage his reputation. I suppose that’s true to how people behave in real life. If you’re caught stealing a million dollars, admit to stealing nine hundred thousand. Who knows, you might still make out with a hundred large!

The book takes stabs at politics. It also takes stabs at body horror and dysmorphia and the dissolution of boundaries and many other things. It’s prime-time Bataille, in other words, firing ideas around like lethal buckshot. There are fantastic runs of surrealist prose. There’s also a sense of gutter-mouthed profanity that reads more like Tropic of Cancer than anything. Did the translator take liberties with the book?

Bataille’s prose seems to teem with wild horses, stamping the ground, nostrils flaring, ready to gallop in any direction. Perhaps over the reader. Yet if you have a strong stomach, Blue of Noon is worth reading. It’s a strange and surreal look at the past. Maybe the present and future, too.

The excessive descriptions of bodily fluids might be off-putting, but really, it’s like a fractal: you zoom out, but the picture remains the same: a diseased churn that foretells approaching disaster for everyone. The body starts to die, the nation starts to die. An act of vomiting is a match cut for the Beer Hall Putsch. Like Sade, Bataille was good at taking the affairs of the body and expanding them outside it, projecting them onto society at large. Hangover diarrhoea is caused by a drinking binge. But you did not go on a drinking binge for no reason, but because you were, on some deep level, unhappy. A person who puts poison into their body is a person who wants to die. And what causes that feeling, apart from (ultimately) the society you live in? Everything in the world is twisted together, a braid tightly-woven from the obnubilation of shadow. It’s often unclear what’s wrong with the world, but once you start throwing up, it’s undeniable that there is something wrong.

Maybe that’s the core of Bataille’s whole deal. He studied abjected things. The waste, the filth, the rejectamenta of body and society. The haruspices of Ancient Rome sought to learn deep truths by inspecting entrails. Bataille was a haruspex of society’s shit and vomit.


1 Are they really abject? They seem to have a lot of money—Henri bribes some service workers into to helping Dorothy after she soils herself, for example. I’m struck that a lot of Marxist critical theory is left in an odd position by capitalism, where theoretically anyone with money can buy their way into society, regardless of what status markers they do or don’t have.
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Are they leaning into the “Pixar mom” meme at this point? I only ask because Little Bo Peep has a dump truck four times as big as the rest of her body.

Anyway, it’s another Pixar movie starring toys and crap. All your favorites are here, and they’ve never looked better. The animation is just stupendous. Look at that god damn rain at the beginning—relax, guys. I kind of feel like you’re showing off at this point. The human characters look great, full of warmth and personality and emotion. The biggest weakness of the Toy Story franchise was how the people tended to resemble plastic toys themselves, and that’s no longer the case.

But I think I’m over Toy Story. Let’s face it, there’s exactly three stories you can get out of this concept—toys lose their owners; toys are no longer wanted; toys confront an existential crisis—and after four movies, Pixar has explored them all. Everything on the screen provoked a reaction of “yep, seen that before.” It’s well-animated and as sharp and funny as ever, but it’s all getting a bit too comfy at this point.

There’s only one truly original idea: the fork. Woody’s new owner Bonnie makes a weird misshapen figure out of a plastic fork, a popsicle stick, and a pipecleaner, writes her name on its feet, and it comes to life. Which pokes at a neat idea: what makes a toy a toy? Woody and Buzz are expensive branded products, but really, all that separates a “toy” from anything else is a child’s belief. Forky is made of random junk, but Bonnie has decided that he will be a toy. However, the resulting character makes no sense: changing from a near-silent lobotomy victim to wisecracking comic relief as the movie progresses. (There’s a sequence where Forky, believing himself to be trash, keeps trying to throw himself away. Randy Newman, tasked with writing music for this, screwed up his brow in concentration, came up with a song called “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” and then patted himself on the back for a hard day’s work.) Sadly, Forky ends up becoming yet more clutter in a movie that’s already overstuffed with characters, most of whom wrapped up their arcs several movies ago and have no reason to be there.

Buzz is the prime example. It’s honestly funny how the writers have zero idea of what to do with him and basically write him out of the movie. I mean, his arc is resolved. His whole deal in Toy Story (1995) was that he was delusional and actually thought he was a space ranger. He is no longer delusional, no longer thinks he’s a space ranger, so what are we doing here? Buzz Lightyear is a character past his sell-by date, the equivalent of when you tell a funny story to someone, and instead of laughing they ask “…and then what happened?”

There’s also the issue of what’s not in the movie: a compelling villain.

Sid was great in the first movie, and I have a soft spot for Al McWhiggin. By contrast, Gabby Gabby doesn’t do the business. There’s an idea there (soft-spoken madness), but they don’t push it as far as they need to. The dial’s stuck on 2. They end up giving her a cloying, overly sympathetic backstory (to the point where she basically is forced to become a good guy), leading to the most obnoxious and unearned heel-face turn since Cletus “Gator Molester” Shithat betrayed his best friend Billie-Bob Grunklefuck in the Floribama Swamp-Ass Grand Wrasslin’ Championship of 1993 (classic match, I’m sure you remember it) and becoming a good character. If the first Toy Story had been written this way, we’d get a 20 minute flashback showing how Sid is secretly a nice child who gets yelled at by his dad. Can this studio grow some balls and write a proper villain again? The glory days of Hopper and Syndrome seem far behind us.

Toy Story 4 is not a bad movie. It is a deeply pointless one, however, which may be worse—I love many bad movies, but cannot love a waste of time. I’ve long felt that Pixar is a rat in a Skinner box that pressed a button a few times, received massive amounts of food, and now they’re just senselessly hammering that button forever, regardless of whether food is coming out.

Now they’re making a Toy Story 5. Okay. I have some creative story ideas they could use:

  • Woody gets washed out into the Pacific Garbage Patch. Alone and isolated, he goes mad under the hot alien sun, worshipping a god sculpted from plastic drinking straws. At night, he dreams of high-density polyethylene pellets melting and sliding down the stark walls of the sky, like the pale sperm of some celestial progenitor. He starts laughing dementedly, realizing that nature is a powerless fraud, and the world is controlled by the forces of manufacture and industry. In the final scene, he dives suicidally into the ocean, deliberately choking an endangered dolphin with his body while praying to return to the necrotic plastic heart that beats at the planet’s core.
  • Woody’s voice-box begins to break. When he pulls the string, the words slur and distort. There’s a sneak in my boot! Someone poisoned the warble-hole! The speech swiftly becomes incomprehensible, melting into a garbled wreckage of sounds, but sometimes, almost-audible messages can be heard, as though something with a thousand tongues is trying to communicate through him. One day, his voice box crackles to life on its own. “Don’t look for it in the garden.” What could this mean? When the toys explore the garden, Hamm finds a single tiny black flower growing beneath a canopy of wisteria and bougainvillea . The toys uproot the flower and dig a hole straight down: two feet under, there is a small, unmarked wooden box with a lock on it. They take the box inside, and Slinky Dog, working alone for several days straight, manages to pick the lock. “What did you see in the box?” Woody asks. “Nothing,” Slinky Dog says, glancing nervously at the ground. “The box was empty.” Immediately, he runs out of the house and out onto the road, where a car smashes him to pieces. The horrified survivors take no more chances with the box. They slam it shut (taking care not to look inside), re-lock it, carry it back to the garden, and bury it again. They promise each other that they’ll forget the incident. But one day, Woody pulls his voice-box string, and hears a distorted recording of Slinky Dog…
  • A weird change overcomes the toys. They fall into bestial rages. They are consumed by a hunger that only warm, living flesh can satisfy. Jessie is shown eating a dead bird with her teeth. Mr Potato Head’s hollow shell starts filling up with bloody mouse bones. They start communicating through glottal grunts and roars. Only Rex is unaffected. Researching the problem, he realizes that all of the toys are made of plastic, which is made of petrochemicals, which come from petroleum, which comes from ancient decayed biomass that includes dinosaurs. Essentially, the toys are now possessed by the souls of dead dinosaurs, and Rex is immune because he’s already a dinosaur. He doesn’t know what to do, and lifts up his arms in comical horror as the dinosaur-possessed toys assemble around him—blood dripping from their plastic mouths and hands—and kneel, awaiting his command.
  • Bonnie grows to adulthood. Puberty runs her down like an 18-wheeler truck. Confused and impressionable, she makes some friends online, and them some other friends. They introduce her to right and wrong. She cuts her hair, and dyes the remnants in variegated colors. She manufactures an edgy online persona, given to ranty, sweary, pop-feminist dialectic. By age 17, her Twitter pfp shows her with one eyebrow quirkily raised, sipping from a mug with “MALE TEARS” on it. But smugness gives way to guilt. She is a white-presenting person living in the wealthiest nation on Earth, and she feels absolutely horrible about. She was born in sin. Her parents were manspreaders, whitesplainers, and possibly even misgenderers. She seeks to escape who she is. She changes pronouns six times. Her mastectomy is booked for July. Maybe if she destroys the guilty girl, piece by piece, she’ll escape the sense that she’s evil and corrupt. She remains fond of her childhood toys, but realizes that she cannot go on owning Woody—he’s modeled after a Wild West sheriff, and 👏 we! 👏 don’t! 👏 do! 👏 that! 👏 anymore! The final straw comes when she watches the Woody’s Roundup puppet show. Not once does Woody acknowledge that he’s living on Chiricahua Apache land! Horrified, she burns Woody on an open fire, hoping to purge her sins. Woody screams as his face melts. He screams and screams.
  • A new toy joins the gang: Murdilator the Deathslayer. He’s pretty cool, particularly his brain-vivisector attachment. But beneath the MADE IN CHINA sticker on his foot there’s a compartment, and inside the compartment, Buzz finds a rolled up scrap of paper. It’s a handwritten Mandarin message. 救命啊!我被困在玩具厂里了!“HELP! I AM TRAPPED IN A TOY FACTORY!” Murdilator consents to have his brain-vivisector attachment damaged on purpose, so that Bonnie’s mom will return him to the story, which will then ship him back to China. The toys sneak into the return-parcel, and one week later, they’re being unpacked at a factory at Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. They want to find the imprisoned man and save him, but they’re in for a shock: all the workers at the factory are that man! They have arrived at a dismal Dickensian sweatshop. Thousands of dead-eyed contract workers sit in rows, performing Q&A inspections of worthless plastic dreck for brutal hours and starvation wages. Even death is not an escape. The factory doors are locked, and anti-suicide nets are strung under every window. An overseer walks up and down the benches like a slave-driver at a galley, and snatches up the damaged Murdilator from the packaging. With vindictive swiftness, he identifies the worker who signed off on this particular toy, and docks him a week’s salary. The man starts weeping. He has a family. The toys are left heartsick by what they’ve done: they haven’t helped the man, they’ve made his lot in life even worse! The rest of the movie is Murdilator the Deathslayer sitting on a therapist’s chair with Hamm, trying to overcome his guilt. Eventually, he has a breakthrough. He leaps into the air and cheers, and we end on a blissful reprise of “You Got A Friend in Me”.
  • Bo Peep is sold to a new owner. Unfortunately he’s an anime fan. The camera’s focus tightens around her terrified face, like an ensnaring net. From somewhere out of frame, we hear heavy breathing, and the sound of pants unzipping. The camera goes mercifully black.
  • A crossover, where Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber explain Christianity to the gang. Who’s mightier, God or the Boogie-Man? Does the Bible really tell us to forgive our enemies?
  • Really, they should probably just not make the movie at all. Enough’s enough.

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