Saturday 12 November 2016

We Don't Go Back #12: Two Cult Movies

The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995), Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

(This post should also be considered Cult Cinema #0)

OK, so imagine you're a filmmaker. Here's a story: a young adult escapes a sequestered cult and winds up staying with a couple in an isolated, wooded place; the protagonist is so messed up by the cult that they aren't equipped to cope; it doesn't end well. Your homework is to make a film about it.

What does your film look like?

Obviously, this is where I demonstrate that you can take that premise whole and get two entirely different films out of it.

One of the things I've wound up doing with my folk horror watch is to investigate what an American folk horror idiom might look like. I think it translates: you can have low-key, slow-burning movies set apart from the city, where weird religious beliefs and folklore tangle up in people's lives in ambivalent ways.

It strikes me that white American folklore is generally modern; it draws on legends and fears from a more recent time, and that's not really surprising. While much of the British folk horror idiom draws on the seventeenth century in some way (A Field in England, The Blood on Satan's Claw, for example), the USA has a more recent (as in 19th century and onward) equivalent of the secretive puritans, and that's the cult. Or the New Religious Movement, if you want to be more accurate. The American fringe religious movement has had its fits and starts, and occasional brushes with respectability. Some of the earliest fringe groups have ended up becoming forces in their own right – the Church of the Latter Day Saints, the Jehovah's Witness, the Christian Scientists – and some have become horror tales. Jim Jones who made all his followers drink poisoned Kool-Aid. The Heaven's Gate Cult. David Koresh and the Branch Davidians of Waco. These groups exist. They recruit. People are afraid of them. They are the rural pagans of the American psychogeographical imagination. They are the witches.
I need to get my head in order.
In Philip Ridley's film The Passion of Darkly Noon the Waco siege, still in its popular aftermath, is a touchstone. Darkly Noon (Brendan Fraser), named after the "through a mirror, darkly" line in the New Testament (weirdly given the wrong Scripture reference in the film) escaped a massacre that is described – from the viewpoint of a cult member – so exactly like the one at Waco that it might as well be the same one. He collapses on a forest road.

Jude (Loren Dean) finds him and takes him to the home of carefree Callie (Ashley Judd) and mute, brooding Clay (Viggo Mortensen). Callie nurses him to health.
A pain. In my heart.
But it doesn't work. He cannot cope with the forest. He cannot cope with Callie and Clay living in sin. He cannot cope with his lust for Callie. He meets Roxy (Grace Zabriskie), a toxic, lonely woman who lives in a trailer in the woods who tells him that Callie is a witch. He sees the bloodied ghosts of his parents. It ends in blood and fire.
Callie is wreathed in gold throughout the film.
The Passion of Darkly Noon is a wilful, awkward sort of film. As in Philip Ridley's preceding film, The Reflecting Skin (which I considered for this series, but found that I hated it too much) everything is hypersaturated, the sun painting everything in gold, particularly Callie, who is an angel wreathed in sunlight. Her body is fetishised to an uncomfortable degree that I'm inclined to consider deliberate, considering Darkly's growing lust for her (in one particularly squirmy scene, he watches her through a crack in a wall and guiltily masturbates).

Weird, painterly tableaux appear; a giant silver shoe floats down the river. Later it will be used to give a dog a Viking burial.
This actually gets a rational explanation of sorts, right at the end.
Ghosts, their faces riddled with gaping bullet holes, pass on the word of God.
Maw and Paw.
Philip Ridley is much more prolific as a novelist and playwright than as a filmmaker, and it shows. Characters deliver portentous speeches, or exchange expository dialogue that would be fine on a stage but which falls flat on the screen. There is nothing naturalistic about the film. Everything is stilted and melodramatic, Gothic even, and the ending is overblown and harrowing.

I don't think I'm selling this movie, and that's not fair. I actually like it. It is beautifully constructed and shot; its music is great. It is full of ideas and drive. But it's on that painful edge between highly wrought and a bit silly, and if you're not on its wavelength, parts that are designed to inspire awe might instead create nervous laughter (as they did when I watched it again this morning with one of my lodgers, who found the ending pretty funny).

I like strange movies. This is a strange movie. It deserves your time. Good luck finding a copy, mind. Mine is an American copy, with a pretty lo-fi pan-and-scan transfer. You can't legally get a UK edition right now.
Martha Marcy May Marlene couldn't be more different. But although it's a quiet, understated piece shot in a very American Indie Movie idiom, it is absolutely chilling. It is terrifying. 

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) walks away from a house full of young people and, after a fraught and slightly odd exchange with one of her housemates who looks like he might bring her back but lets her go, calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who picks her up and takes her home to the fancy bespoke house designed by Lucy's wealthy, brittle architect husband Ted (Hugh Dancy).
I am a teacher and a leader.
Martha won't say what was wrong, and later you realise that she can't, that she was in a cult and the process of brainwashing she's experienced – brainwashing which unfolds in quiet flashback – has stripped her of the ability to communicate what she has experienced. The language to describe the two years of battering her spirit has taken was stolen from her. She can barely function at all, particularly with respect to boundaries. She gets into bed while Lucy and Ted are in flagrante and doesn't understand why that's weird; the scene segues into her experience of normalised sexual bullying and repeated, constant gaslighting. She got out, but she didn't escape.

She parrots the words she's been given to describe herself. She is a teacher and a leader, she says, but she doesn't even know what that means, and nor does her increasingly frustrated sister. She has no words of her own. She is a blank, a hollowed out shell containing only fear and guilt.

Patrick (John Hawkes), the charismatic, creepy, but absolutely convincing cult leader has renamed all the women in his control. He strips away each young woman's identity in layers, like an onion, and then she enables him to do so to others still. Martha becomes complicit. She grooms other young women to be part of Patrick's harem, slips drugs in their drinks.

Everyone is afraid of Patrick. Hey, Patrick, they sunnily say as he joins their conversations, but he brings an assurance with him that they do not have. And sometimes a casual conversational brutality. He can destroy and rebuild with a word.

Early in her experience Patrick sings a song about her: she, she is just a picture, just a picture on his wall. It sounds like a love song, but it has an undertone of ownership. She is a picture on the wall. Part of a collection. It's interesting to see how gender informs Martha and Darkly's experiences. Darkly is repressed, his sexuality sublimated in violence; Martha becomes a vessel for sexual use, a possession.

The title itself is a progressive schema of Martha's depersonalisation. In the cult, Martha is Marcy May; to outsiders, all the women are called Marlene. Martha, reduced to Marcy May, reduced to Marlene.
She's just a picture.
As the film develops, Martha's memories of the cult become progressively less benign. The happy outer shell, the shades of control within, leading to the very worst abuses. By the end of the film, you become as nervous as she is. And you know exactly why.

Have they found her? What will they do when they turn up on her doorstep? She becomes terribly afraid.
But she is not alone.
The ominous promise of the film transcends whether or not Martha's fears of being tracked down are founded. Is she imagining it? It doesn't matter one bit. Lucy, who it's clear was never close to her sister, genuinely cares but doesn't have the tools to cope. To Ted she's a massive inconvenience.
This is the single scariest shot in the film. Believe it or not, it is very scary.
A film like this requires a strong performance to carry it, and Elizabeth Olsen sells Martha at all the stages of damage, in all her weirdness and paranoia.

Some critics have suggested that two years isn't enough to induce all the trauma that Martha seems to have undergone; they don't, I respectfully submit, really understand how groups like this work. How effective they are.
Elizabeth Olsen portrays so much damage. So much terror. She closes up before you.
I think that's why Martha Marcy May Marlene is so genuinely unsettling. It is real. It's a genuine folk horror, the nearest any American film I've seen gets to the quiet internal geographies of folk horror: unconscionable beliefs that lead to violence; haunted landscapes; internal fears.

I think you've probably gathered that I think Martha Marcy May Marlene is a better film than The Passion of Darkly Noon. But both films are worth your time, both explore the nature of cult beliefs. They're very different, but both are works of art. And both fit beautifully in my list, each in its own way, each with something to offer about the intersection of extreme faith and righteous violence.