Saturday, July 5, 2008

Scream to Scream: Inside the Really Unreal

Directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, 2008

When people say a movie like Inside is really, really gory, they generally mean that the horror has been conceived and executed convincingly, as opposed to merely expertly, substituting for the typical reassurances of irony and self-conscious, endearing ineptitude, a fatalistic remorselessness borrowed from real life. Inside is the antithesis of the American vogue for horror best represented by Wes Craven’s Scream. Its brutality is never leavened with comic effect, its mise en scene neither highly keyed nor brightly colored. The producers of this French slasher wanted a story by someone who not only liked the genre but understood it, and sought in a director someone who could pull it off with some amount of credulity. Given the laughably clich├ęd confluence linking the film’s two heroines, credulity in the case of Inside would appear to indicate a commitment to seeing the various conceits of the film’s artistic ethos to their foregone conclusions.

The movie has a slightly anemic, unsaturated look reminiscent of vintage television news footage, a persuasive verite realism. The villain’s face first appears as if captured by Zapruder’s camera, her features grainy, hollowed out suggestion. It sometimes feels as if things are happening without recourse to a script. Typical of the closed set mentality of a film shoot, the actors, interviewed off camera, were in complete denial. They didn’t seem to think they were making a comedy, but they prickled at the suggestion they were doing anything with, say, the gravity of real time tragedy. Asked about the violence of the story, Beatrice Dalle, the movie’s killer, remarked that anyone who turns on the news will see a much more horrific arrangement of events than Inside presents. A woman like Inside’s final girl “could stumble on scissors,” Dalle shrugged, “or she hits a wall, or her baby falls when she wasn’t expecting it.” Dalle’s naive rationalization for the film’s brutality misses the point. Inside borrows meticulously from real-life, inexplicably theatrical atrocities, confronting rather than avoiding them. The horror isn’t mediated by its existence in some parallel universe of fantasy. Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which traded in panic by evoking Ed Gein, Inside burrows out of the filmic and into the unthinkable everyday, recreating the murder of Sharon Tate.

The film dispenses quickly with expository detail. What possible reason could anyone have to kill pregnant Sarah (Alysson Paradis, sister of Vanessa)? You won’t find any clues in the set-up. Nor does this protagonist seem particularly vulnerable. Inside presents a victim isolated by the unhappy removal of her husband, much like the situation at Cielo Drive, where Polanski was an absent presence, palpable but removed. Sarah rejects her mother’s attempts to dramatize her situation or state of mind, avoiding conversation, pity, or character development with a derisive shrug. Polanski was in Europe the night of Tate’s death, putting together a movie deal. Sarah’s husband has died in a car wreck which very nearly killed her unborn baby as well. Outside her house, Paris is rioting. It’s Christmas Eve. Sarah is scheduled to induce labor the following day. Her editor has agreed to pick her up at six a.m. Her mother might stop by to check on her. She shuts herself in for the night. Like her, the house lacks distinguishing psychological features. No effort is made to establish setting. Simply put, it’s a location where things take place. White couch, beige walls, empty bedside table. Settling down for the evening, Sarah falls asleep in a rocking chair and dreams of a violent birth, the baby forcing its way out of her mouth. She wakes to the sound of the doorbell.

Linda Kasabian described seeing victim Wojtek Frykowski on the porch at Cielo Drive. He’d stumbled out after being shot, beaten, and stabbed, and stood there uncertainly, a dimly outlined figure, before falling into the hedge. Moments like that, evocative details which persist from accounts of the Manson murders, find their way into the film. When Sarah peers out the peephole and sees Dalle’s vague silhouette, the image registers on a variety of levels as something you've seen somewhere before. At one point, looking out the kitchen window, Sarah sees a string of lights arranged on a neighboring house. This point-of-view shot could be Tate’s, confirming various reports regarding the Christmas lights strung along the fence at Cielo Drive, left there by the former occupants, Candice Bergen and Terry Melcher. The movie continually insinuates itself into collective ideas of the murders this way, subtly and not so subtly referencing real events and half-remembered public record.

Through the closed door, Sarah tells Dalle, as yet unidentified, to go away. Her husband is asleep and has to get up early, she lies. Dalle knows Sarah’s name, and the truth, but she relents, vanishing. Sarah moves into the living room, calling the police on her cell phone. I'm pregant, she informs the operator. Dalle materializes at the sliding glass door. Though she looks, especially in this movie, like an unhappy genetic truce between Angelina Jolie and Sandra Bernhard, Dalle’s scowling, bogeyman expressions and dark hair and dress also visually name-check Susan (aka Sadie) Atkins, one of the more notoriously brutal and conscienceless Family killers, so famously brutal, her remorselessness so photogenic, that after years of parole hearings her incarceration is still, even now that she’s afflicted with cancer and more arguably a victim herself, regarded as lenient. The directors’ insistence that Dalle brought humanity to the character, inspiring compassion in the audience, is a bit like Atkins finding Jesus in jail.

The police arrive and Dalle again vanishes, but when Sarah falls asleep on the couch, her cat senses a presence she doesn’t. Like High Tension, Inside deals with body horror--the premise here is fetal theft--the vulnerability of a person's temple to outside attack, but revolves more specifically around the fear of boundary failure overall. How could Dalle gain entry, when all the doors are locked, and the police have been called, when order’s been restored? It’s as if she’s walked through walls; like a wall is an open doorway. Similarly, what seemed to shock people most about the Tate LaBianca murders was the idea that you couldn’t leave your doors unlocked anymore: people couldn’t be expected not to cross the line. The Family understood that the biggest transgression, the supreme unthinkable, could be as simple as the invasion of personal space, a bogus construct most people took as a given. At the time, personal space was something you were born with, rather than allowed.

“Wherever you go,” Polanski once said, “the seed of evil is within the way the human being thinks, the way he takes things for granted. Certainty, I would say, is the seed of evil.” Having lost his mother to the concentration camps, hostile takeover was something the director understood innately by then. The essential unease of Rosemary's Baby has to do with the permeability of Rosemary’s body, her home, her entire world and way of life. Rosemary’s flat is attached to the Castavetts’ by a linen closet, the door of which had been blocked by a wardrobe when Rosemary and Guy were first shown the place. The former tenant, now dead, had pushed it there in an obviously futile effort to keep her neighbors out. Polanski has Rosemary understand on a basic level that even Minnie Castavetts’ apparently harmless chatter has an insidious persuasiveness to it, rooting inside her head, so that whatever Rosemary thinks is only thought in some relation to what Minnie wants her to. Polanski’s early films possess the same preoccupation with this sort of inexorable seepage. The couple of Knife in the Water invites a hitchhiker into their lives and onto their boat, resulting in a disharmony they’d previously managed to keep under wraps. In Cul-de-Sac, Donald Pleasance and Francoise Deloreac, another unhappy if not miserable Polanski duo, discover, when a gangster happens upon their allegedly idyllic solitude, that their treatment of each other is far more brutal than anything he might do. For Polanski, anyone can take you over at anytime, and a partnership, far from a security measure, is the ultimate form of invasion. Under such circumstances, what’s the use of a locked door?

Going into the LaBianca house was practice for Cielo Drive, yet a natural extension of what the Family had been doing up to then. On creepy-crawly missions, they snuck into people’s homes, just to cross that line, just to freak them out and show how imaginary that line really is. While the homeowners slept the Family moved things around, ate their food, made a mess or cleaned up. Part of living comfortably in the world is security in the belief that in here is safe from out there, that walls and locks and windows and dogs keep danger at bay, that our homes are impermeable to compensate for the fact that our bodies can’t be. True, as Dalle says, you could trip on scissors in your own living room, but you might also wake up one night with a pillow over your face and someone stabbing you with a steak knife from your own kitchen drawer, like the LaBiancas. The movie compounds this lack of separation by making the entertainment you’re watching feel profoundly unstable. Rather than the screen representing an out there which can’t reach you, the action of Inside insinuates itself into your safety zone, collapsing some of the distinction between screen and audience.

The Manson Family scoped out their targets, including Cielo, before breaking in. Witnesses reported seeing them in broad daylight on Cielo the week of the murders, a group of them stuffed into a van. Manson had been to the place before, when Melcher lived there. Melcher, a friend of Dennis Wilson and producer of his record label, Brother Records, had listened to some of Charlie’s songs. They’d cut some demos. Many of the girls were crashing for a time at Wilson’s home. They were like cockroaches. Once you let them in, you couldn’t get them out. They'd passed on to Wilson and others an allegedly pernicious case of crabs. Recognizing the instability of this scene, Melcher eventually tried to distance himself. He drew a line. Stopped taking Manson’s calls, probably. Stopped sleeping with the girls, possibly.

In Hollywood, especially, a gatekeeper relies on your cooperation to some degree. He has what you want, and you have to pretend that your access to him is something he controls entirely, rather than figuratively. Manson was expected to go away, though he knew where Melcher and Wilson lived and likely how to get in. Instead, Charlie went up to Cielo—only Melcher had already leased the place to Polanski. Sharon stood in the doorway as a guest asked Manson what he was doing there. He was treated unkindly. Someone made a derogatory comment about his appearance, slighting him in some way. Presumably, he sent the Family back to stake out the household’s habits with the intention of payback. When did the maid come, when did she leave, who was likely to be visiting at any given time. The motivation of Inside’s killer is just as arbitrary, involving an unfortunate chain of events beyond the heroine’s control: even if you believe that homes are secure and life can be managed to minimize injury or misfortune, you have to admit you’ll run into someone, somewhere, at some point, finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Dalle has watched Sarah’s house before the movie’s action begins, and the film speaks to that fear of having been observed without knowing it; the nightmare of being pursued and controlled for mysterious reasons, by unknown forces, so surreptitiously that you're oblivious to the invasion of privacy.

Once inside the house, Dalle allows Sarah to get in bed and go to sleep without declaring her presence. She goes into the nursery, rips a stuffed animal out of its cellophane, does some violence to it. Dalle, a la the Family, is dressed in black, a form of camouflage which preserves the fallacy of boundaries. The rest of the movie takes place in the house, replicating the night of Tate’s murder through various visual and thematic motifs. Dalle will eventually bring her shearing scissors into Sarah’s bedroom and start to puncture her belly button, intent on cutting the baby out, and though Sarah wakes immediately and struggles free, she makes it only as far as the bathroom, where she’ll spend most of the running time, recalling another popular image, Shelly Duvall’s hysterical entrapment in The Shining. In place of a knife Sarah has a broken shard of glass. Early on, Sarah breaks the mirror, puncturing another kind of screen. At one point, like Nicholson with his axe, Dalle will hack away at the door with her scissors.

Much of the story is taken up with other people’s fateful attempts to rescue Sarah. Various people interrupt Dalle’s efforts to get at Sarah and Sarah’s efforts to keep her out. Sarah’s editor visits, thinking Dalle to be her mother. Sarah’s real mother arrives, followed by the police. None make it out of the house. These virtuosic set pieces recall the murders of Jay Sebring, Frykowski, and Abigail Folger, all visting Cielo Drive the night of the murders. Like Sarah’s visitors, Sebring is said to have played hero, attempting to protect Sharon from Tex Watson and the others. He was hanged, stabbed, and kicked about the head so violently that his face was unrecognizable. Later, back at Spahn Ranch, Atkins told another Family member that Tate “was the last to go because she had to watch the others die.” Sarah’s visitors are killed as viciously as Tate’s guests were, with a mercenary disregard for human life and a reckless abandon for the sanctity of the human body and the viewer's customary detachment.

Sarah’s white bathroom is smeared in blood, as is her face and nightshirt. She has a gash on her mouth which is strikingly similar to the one on Tate's face, a diphthong from mouth to cheek, apparent in the autopsy photos which can now be found on the internet. There’s also a photo of Tate’s body at the scene of the crime, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Inside‘s final image of Sarah. Krenwinkel and others say Tate’s baby was never cut out, but in the mind of the popular imagination the fetus is there on the floor beside her body. Sarah eventually leaves the bathroom. She attacks Dalle, disfiguring her. For a while it looks like she might prevail. That would be the version of a movie which draws a line. Inside makes final attempts to endow Dalle’s character with some amount of pathos, as well, indicating her compulsion is fueled by a form of temporary possession. One of the movie’s strengths is Dalle’s performance, which is both emotionally charged and maniacally detached, re-enforcing the central incomprehension of her behavior.

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