Thursday, March 17, 2022

Two very different horror films: 'X' and 'Master'

    Contemporary horror has gotten meaty enough that I'm sure it has inspired doctoral theses wherever film studies are taught. Thanks in large part to Jordan Peele (Get Out and Us), racial prejudice has joined the world of horror movies. You can include the recent Candy Man in that category, as well.
  Then there's the world of horror served straight no chaser, movies that are more aligned with the history of horror than with any topical issue. These movies require that we know that filmmakers are keenly aware of horror conventions and precedents. Such films may be violent and even vile, but we're expected to be in on the joke. 
    Let's start with a movie that's both a riff on previous efforts and an attempt to deliver an alarmingly  sleazy helping of horror. 
  X walks in the bloody footsteps of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and a variety of other movies that aficionados will easily identify. 
   Director Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) also takes a bow toward Boogie Nights as he tells the story of a group of young folks who gather at an isolated farmhouse to make a porn film. The year: 1979.
    The cast includes the porn movie's female leads (Brittany Snow and Mia Goth) and a young woman (Jenna Ortega) whose original job involves the production's sound. Ortega's Lorraine eventually decides that if she's going to work on a porn film, she might as well be in one. Porn seems less a matter of talent than of a simple decision. Yes or no? The women decide.
   The men are represented by Martin Henderson as a low-rent impresario with few illusions about what he's doing. He's joined by Owen Campbell as RJ, an aspiring filmmaker who deludes himself into thinking he's making an independent film. Kid Cudi plays the well-hung Jackson, the male star of the porn film which is given silly a throwback title, The Farmer's Daughter.
    Trouble, of course, lurks. The crew has rented a facility from a farmer and his wife, characters we instantly recognize as lethally dangerous. Both are old to the point of desiccation with leathery skin that looks as if it might have been preserved in formaldehyde. 
     I won't get into spoilers but you should know that West doesn't skimp on gore or nudity. He tries to serve two masters: an audience that's hip to horror ploys but also wants to be creeped out and shocked.
     He does a bit of both in a movie that adds thematic weight to its blood-clogged pores, much of it centering on Pearl, the farmer's wife. Pearl laments the loss of her beauty and sexuality and, therefore despises, a youthful crew that has turned sex into something that requires only consent.
     The old woman wants nothing more than to be desired, the one thing age has denied her. West occasionally photographs her with backlighting that seems to liberate her from time and hints at how she might once have looked.
     (I haven’t named the actress that plays Pearl but suggest you look it up after you’ve seen the movie.)
     Occasionally, we see a preacher railing about sin and hellfire on a black-and-white TV in the farmer's house, a detail that yields an unexpected payoff before the movie ends.
     West does a reasonably good job of mixing skin and gore, although the movie's willingness to kneel at the altar of contemporary horror keeps it a bit hemmed in: We know we're watching a movie -- albeit one that inhales deeply and breathes sleaze.
       Whether you want to breathe along with it remains an open question. Know this, though, X may not transcend its horror  niche but it embraces it with unwavering commitment.
    In Master, director Mariama Diallo takes a different tack. Diallo has made a horror film in which the characters are haunted by institutional racism at fictional Ancaster College.
      The prestigious school has a tarnished history.  In its early years, a woman was hanged for witchcraft. Since then the students have perpetuated a legend: Every year, the witch's ghost selects a freshman whose soul she will steal on the anniversary of her death.
      Enter Jasmine (Zoe Renee), a high school valedictorian who we instantly know will be the witch's next target. Along with her roommate Amelia (Talia Ryder), Jasmine is assigned to Room 302, which has a history of turning at least one of its occupants into a victim. 
       It's less a room assignment than a sentence.
       At Ancaster, Jasmine faces both supernatural and social threats. The student body isn't welcoming. 
       A fine performance from Regina Hall as a housemaster and tenured academic helps raise questions about the price a black student pays to prove worthy in an institution steeped in white bona fides.
       Amber Gray plays Liv Beckman, a Black professor who pushes wokeness on her students. Jasmine's paper on  The Scarlet Letter earns an F from BeckmanPoor Jasmine. She failed to connect Hawthorne's story to critical race theory.  
      The film also makes room for a mystery about a woman who insistently phones Hall's character and, of course, there's the ghost.
       Master might be a case in which the horror could have been dropped to good effect. Racism in academia remains a valid and important subject and it might have benefited from a bit more subtlety.
        Eerie manipulations and obviousness aside, Master still manages to hit some powerful notes about the endemic persistence of racism in the so-called "best of circles."


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