Ick Flicks

Three Halloween horrors: Saw, Enduring Love, and Eyes Without a Face.

If you’re too scared to ruminate on the election this Halloween weekend (and you’re not working—and you ought to be—to GET OUT THE VOTE), you might try a relatively soothing S&M horror picture: At least the people being tortured and/or killed on camera aren’t real Americans or Iraqis. For hardcore sadists and masochists, see Saw. For sadists and masochists with a penchant for pretentious art flicks, attempt to endure EnduringLove. For sadists and masochists with a poetic French bent (and a tolerance for graphic surgery footage), eyeball Eyes Without a Face in a spanking-new Criterion DVD.

Still from Saw
See Saw!

Like many 21st-century horror pictures, James Wan’s Saw is less a classical narrative than an ingenious machine for inducing terror, rage, and paralyzing unease. The movie starts with a start: A young man (the hot-dog screenwriter Leigh Whannell) awakens in a tub of brackish water to find himself chained by the ankle in a big, dank, shit-stained lavatory. Across the room is another man, a doctor (Cary Elwes), also chained. Between them, out of reach, lies a festering, half-naked body, clutching a revolver, in a pool of sticky blood. Hidden around the chamber are various props/devices intended to enlighten, addle, and torment these trapped souls: audio tapes that hector them (in a mechanically deepened horror-movie voice) about their situation and their sins; photos of their loved ones bound and gagged; and, finally, a pair of saws—inadequate for cutting heavy chains, but strong enough to hack through flesh and bone (one’s own).

Wan is an ostentatiously acrobatic filmmaker, and he and screenwriter Whannel generate a ton of tension out of just these two men and their uneasy byplay. Could one of them be the villain in disguise, enjoying a front-row seat? The doctor claims to know the fiend behind their abduction because once he was a suspect himself: This must be the work, he says, of the “Jigsaw Killer,” whose specialty is punishing the “ungrateful.” That’s the cue for a series of flashbacks (and flashbacks-within-flashbacks) in which two detectives (Danny Glover and Ken Leung) examine what’s left of the victims, whose ordeals are helpfully illustrated in fast-motion bombardments of gory imagery. A fat man who once attempted to kill himself with a razor is imprisoned, in his underwear, in a thicket of blades, through which he must crawl if he wants to survive. A junkie prostitute (Shawnee Smith) must choose between having her head crushed like an egg by a steel helmet or disemboweling a man rendered unconscious after swallowing the key. The woman is taunted by a truly blood-freezing character in a wooden, birdlike mask with spirals for eyes.

The industrial-rot Gothicism is pure Se7en and the syntax tricky in the Pulp Fiction/The Usual Suspects mode, so that your cerebellum is tickled as your bloodstream fills with adrenaline. It’s a virtuoso Grand Guignol brew with boffo shocks and mostly terrific performances, especially by the criminally underused Shawnee Smith. Even the bad acting works to the film’s advantage: Cary Elwes is able to keep us on edge with his lousy American accent and false notes of high emotion. But Saw pushes the envelope on sadism, becoming so punishingly brutal that even this hardened horrorphile cried, “Hold! Enough!” I think what finally got to me—even beyond the scene in which a little girl is tortured—was the lack of distance between the psycho and the filmmakers. The killer devises labyrinthine pain contraptions and so does the screenwriter. The killer exults in the suffering of his victims and so does the director. It’s one thing for horror filmmakers to collude with their monsters (as, prototypically, Hitchcock colludes with Norman Bates), another to manifest such relish that they effectively celebrate their atrocities.

Still from Enduring Love
A close shave with a stalker

The psycho of Enduring Love, on the other hand, is as beatific and as large-souled as any in Christendom—as a matter of fact, he invokes Jesus constantly, he’s conscientiously Christlike. His name is Jed Parry, and he’s played by the 6-foot-4-inch Welshman Rhys Ifans as a fool for love: his eyes moist, his lips struggling in vain to form the words for what’s in his heart. He even warbles “God Only Knows What I’d Be Without You” in the sweetest little quaver. It would be so much simpler if the protagonist, Joe (Daniel Craig), skipped off into the sunset with his ardent stalker. Alas, being mortal and inconstant (and living with a woman, played by Samantha Morton), Joe doesn’t know how to react to this looming blob of need who stands outside his apartment in the cold rain, beseeching.

They meet uncute in the film’s breathtaking opening scene, a hot-air-balloon accident in a verdant field outside Oxford, England. Joe and a group of other bystanders try to keep the wind from carrying off a young boy, finally letting go when a gust from on high carries them all into the air. The man who doesn’t let go—the most constant of them—is rewarded with a long, long fall to earth. Standing by the broken corpse, Jed looks on Joe as his deliverance. In the novel, by Ian McEwan, Jed Parry is less a flesh-and-blood character than a device for exploring Joe’s guilt at having let go—the letting go, of course, a metaphor for our human incapacity to love unto death. (For a while we think the stalker might even be a figment of Joe’s imagination.) The film eliminates that question because Ifans’ Jed is made of too too solid flesh.

Directed by Roger Michell (Notting Hill, The Mother, Changing Lanes), Enduring Love is an immaculate piece of moviemaking, with an extraordinarily plaintive classical score by Jeremy Sams and magnificent performances all around. Daniel Craig—a sniveling weasel in Road to Perdition, a broodingly self-absorbed Ted Hughes in Sylvia, a feckless stud in The Mother—shows off his uncanny versatility by making Joe a bespectacled intellectual at arm’s length from his own life. The great Ifans is a force of nature, unnatural only in context, and there is stellar support from Morton, Helen McRory (as the dead man’s spouse), and the happily ubiquitous Bill Nighy. (With his whimsical timing and that snorty little laugh, Nighy has quickly become my favorite presence in movies.)

Enduring Love is effective at making you nuts, but for all the Sturm und Drang (and the arty framing), there’s not a whole lot here. The movie is an improvement on the novel, one of the rare McEwan books that comes a-cropper (and Atonement is one of the best novels I’ve read in the last 25 years). But with its academic musings on the impermanence of love (Craig’s Joe lectures on the subject, helpfully), this slender, increasingly monotonous stalker plot feels ludicrously overintellectualized—full of hot air. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a balloon is just a balloon.

Best to stay home this Halloween with Georges Franju’s 1960 Eyes Without a Face, still among the most disturbing horror films ever made and now luminously complete on that Criterion DVD. The storyline is your standard obsessed-mad-doctor saga, one step above a Poverty Row Bela Lugosi feature. (It was initially released in this country in a dubbed, butchered version as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus.) But it’s Lugosi by way of Cocteau and Ionesco. After a road accident caused by Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a renowned surgeon, his beautiful daughter Christiane (Edith Scob) doesn’t merely lose her looks: She is left, in effect, sans visage. Now, the doctor’s former patient (and lover) Louise (Alida Valli) follows and befriends a series of beautiful, lookalike young women, who are drugged and brought to the doctor’s basement operating room. The legendary centerpiece is a scene in which Génessier and Louise literally remove the face of a young woman on an operating table—a long, graphic, unblinking take, without music or cutaways (apart from the aforementioned face).

It’s the mixture of the clinical and the poetic that gets, er, under your skin. Is there a more haunting disjunction in horror than that over-literal operating room sequence, which sits side-by-side with the image of Christiane, quite mad, in her strikingly lovely white mask, as she drifts around the baronial mansion, a mute accomplice to her father’s crimes? Scob gives a performance of ineffable delicacy and sadness—her fragility heightened by the mask that gracefully conforms to her bone structure, the birdlike tilt of her head, and those huge, liquid eyes peering out. Maurice Jarre’s music has two themes, both in waltzing, three-quarter time: a carnivalesque stalking number, and a lighter, sadder motif for the prisoner of the mask, Christiane. The music reinforces that this isn’t a tragedy but a morbid comedy of blind, obsessed fools who kill and kill in vain: eyes without a face, and faces that don’t see.