Under the Skin
Updated: Oct 30, 2021
Spooky season might be coming to an end, but there’s still room for one more movie night.
The horror-averse Lyvie Scott continues her search for diverse stories with a list of the chilling films she’s been watching lately. Each film covers melancholia, madness, and mourning in some way — all with people of color at the center.
The Green Knight (2021)
The Green Knight is based on an Arthurian legend — an epic poem, really — that no one with any semblance of an English major has ever been able to avoid reading. I managed to put it off to my last year at school, and even then I barely skimmed it. However, had I known that at that very moment, director David Lowery was probably filming a sexy adaptation of that very poem, I probably would have retained a plot point or two.
The story follows Sir Gawain (which does not sound the way it’s spelled, and I still don’t know why) — just Gawain, in this adaptation — King Arthur’s whorish nephew with major “I just can’t wait to be king” energy. He might not yet have his eye on the throne, per se, but he for sure wants a seat at the (round) table, and he will do anything… literally, probably anything… to become a knight.
His mother, played to sumptuous perfection by Sarita Choudhury, knows Gawain’s motivations better than anybody. Whether that intuition stems from her maternal instincts or her oracular witchy powers, she wants the same future for Gawain. So she does what any witch-mom would do: summon an immortal tree-man to challenge Gawain to a duel one fateful Christmas morning. What follows is a quest that will change the trajectory of Gawain’s life, and teach him more about glory and honor than he ever wanted to know.
I am approaching this review from such a clinical angle to avoid any lust-fueled rants about Dev Patel. Instead of addressing the fact that, throughout the film, Patel wears a medieval smock-type thing that shows off his entire chest and he is almost perpetually wet... I will discuss the brilliance of his character.
Gawain is a hero for this insane, end-of-days era we seem to be stuck in. He is flawed, deeply flawed, a total coward really, and chomping at the bit for that aforementioned glory. He is not necessarily a hero anyone would be aspiring towards; he almost always makes a terrible choice. He is constantly running headlong into a shameful consequence, and enthusiastically pivoting only to run into another. He’s a medieval softboy, actually (is that why we’re so obsessed with this film?) but because it’s Patel we root for him. We so desperately want him to get it right, just once.
And, not to spoil, but he will. He’s Dev Patel, how could you ever doubt him?
Before Alex Garland directed films like Ex Machina and Annihilation, he was mostly a screenwriter. A damn good one, too. And while Sunshine is at times insanely weighed down by a myriad of existential threads, Garland still manages to get under our skin as easily as he can today.
Sunshine starts off as a promising, introspective suspense film in space, following a group of scientists traveling to the sun. The star is dying, creating a second Ice Age back on earth, so the crew of the Icarus II have to drop a literal atomic bomb into the sun to help restart it.
I have only explained the first 10 minutes. It gets even more insane from here.
Icarus II is actually mankind’s second attempt (hence… the name) to “restart the sun.” The crew of the first Icarus disappeared years before the events of the film, and their unknown fate throws a discomforting omen onto the whole mission. There is already so much pressure being mankind’s last hope and all. But the added pressures of surviving in space, especially against an unseen force killing off the crew members, turns this suspense tersely into the lane of horror by the end of the second act.
It’s so wacky. Literally the exact type of film I want to make. Highly recommend — just keep an open mind, as the third act is a bit polarizing.
Wander Darkly (2020)
Wander Darkly’s most-liked review on Letterboxd describes the film as “A Ghost Story on crack and set in Hell,” which, while a little hyperbolic, sums it up better than I can. At times frantic, at times morose, simultaneously evasive and confrontational, Wander Darkly is just one of those films that’s actually more of a vibe — but it has so much to say about loss, memory and trauma that I couldn’t help but include it.
The film is about an estranged couple, the kind that decide to have a baby in an attempt to rekindle the love they once felt for each other. Nothing at all is working between them, but they’re sticking it out despite daily squabbles and jealous exes lurking at every turn. Suddenly — in the middle of a fight, actually — a brutal car accident seems to catapult them into a shared out-of-body experience.
As they retrace the rickety timeline of their relationship, uncovering good moments buried under fights and addressing issues they never could before, they realize they have important choices to make. Do they choose life, choose each other? Do they give up on the relationship, on existence as a whole? Love always seems to conquer all in movies like this. But Wander Darkly shows that sometimes, it isn’t always that simple.
Attack the Block (2011)
Guess what? This is a perfect film.
Coincidentally, it’s also the film that made John Boyega (my actual man, current Dev Patel obsession notwithstanding) a star. And for once I’m not exaggerating: J.J. Abrams fought tooth and nail to cast Boyega in the Star Wars sequels based on his performance in this film and nothing else.
Attack the Block is an alien invasion flick that fuels my sick little fascination with British culture in the healthiest way possible. John Boyega is an aspiring hoodlum named Moses who leads a merry band of lost boy thuggos up and down the streets of South London. In the middle of literally robbing a white woman trekking through their neighborhood, an alien crash-lands nearby, derailing the entire transaction — and what at first seems like a one-off incident quickly spirals into a calculated attack on their housing project.
The whole thing is really a commentary on marginalized communities and systemic racism, despite the immediate threat of aliens. The boys still have to reckon with police brutality, with societal pressure, with their own mortality — but ironically enough, they were forced to grow up long before the invasion that rocks their estate. They know how to survive, just not against forces like these, and not with the compounded, inherent struggle of life in a black body still nipping at their heels as well. Is that all that makes a film like this so compelling? No… but it’s certainly part of it.
Perfect Blue (1997)
As a certified horrorphobe, I’ve had to find creative ways to sidestep into the genre. This is what most experts call “cheating,” but I am a wuss — we know this. I have to go gently.
Ironically enough, it was Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) that first opened that door. No, it’s not quite horror, but the group of trippy thrillers starring Natalie Portman is a gateway microgenre unto itself. I might hate scary movies, but I love creepy psychosexual stuff, so it follows that I must love Black Swan. It’s feminine, it’s jarring, kind of violent, borderline feral even (my entire brand, if anyone was wondering). However, it’s hard to enjoy, or even discuss, without acknowledging the clear influence it draws from Perfect Blue, a Japanese animated film from the late 90s that has a lot of say about our current societal foibles.
And I won’t lie to you all. I still have not fully recovered from watching the latter.
While Black Swan focuses more on a woman’s psyche, her repressed urges, her desires, her perfectionism, Perfect Blue addresses so much more. Parasocial relationships, men’s presumptive, possessive nature over female celebrities (over females in general, really), autonomy, and how the degradation of it can drive a girlie mad. To be frank, those issues are much more real for me, much more terrifying because I deal with them daily. I feel as if Black Swan primed me for a film like this, but only just barely. I could never fully be prepared to watch a girl tear herself to pieces to escape her idealized self, to push herself to uncomfortable, dehumanizing limits to prove her worth, to feel like someone is watching her when everyone is — not just her horribly creepy stalker. To be a woman is to feel stalked every day, to feel observed by a million invisible eyes, to hear people talking about you when no one actually is. When everyone is.
That’s what makes Perfect Blue so scary. You’re watching your worst nightmare happen. And fortunately, there is a kind of happy ending (one whose explanation you might have to Google afterward), but it wasn’t enough for me. I still had to put something else on right after, something light and comedic and entirely forgettable — but I get the feeling I could have watched anything after Satoshi Kon’s unofficial masterpiece and I would still feel that film sitting on my chest. After a story like that, Black Swan will feel like a bedtime story.
Just as Perfect Blue was my answer for a more diverse Black Swan, so Cure was my fix for Se7en (1995) — weirdly, another one of my absolute favorite movies (am I a freak?). However, Japanese horror is not a game. I should have known that this unassuming, innocuous slow burn would shake me to my core without ever raising my heart rate — especially considering I watched it immediately following my introduction to Satoshi Kon. It’s a film that keeps you in a daze until it’s done, when the credits roll and you finally begin to process what you’ve just seen.
Cure follows Kenichi Takabe, your archetypal hardboiled detective, as he investigates a series of seemingly unrelated murders. Is it the work of a serial killer? No, not exactly, as each case involves a different perpetrator. Yet the method matches up across the board: they’ve all carved an X across the necks of their victims, even if they kill them by other means, and none of them have any memory of murdering anyone at all.
For personal reasons, I will not be disclosing a single other plot device of this movie. You will not get a clever little anecdote from me. It’s really better if you go in knowing nothing. All I can say is, despite the sense of dread I can feel lingering in my bones to this day, I am glad I bossed up and got through it. Very brave and sexy of me.
No Way Out (1950)
The following is a love letter to Sidney Poitier. If you’re unfamiliar with that name, I’m not gonna say you ought to be ashamed of yourself, but I’ll let the possibility of that statement hang in the air for a moment before briefly introducing him.
Sidney Poitier is a Bahamian-American actor, the first black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, in fact. He — along with others like Harry Belafonte, Diahann Carroll and Ruby Dee — pioneered representation for black actors in Hollywood. They were dogged in their pursuit of roles that subverted stereotypes and restructured the black image with some semblance of dignity. And from his debut performance, as Luther Brooks in No Way Out, I like to think Poitier accomplished that goal.
No Way Out is not a horror. It’s not even really a thriller. It’s actually a noir, one that completely upends interracial drama to create an unparalleled, incredibly nuanced tension. It’s about a doctor (Poitier’s Luther Brooks) working in the prison wing of a hospital. His very first night on the job sees the admission of two men: the Biddle brothers, who’d both been shot and apprehended during a botched gas station robbery. One is catatonic. The other, a man we’ll come to know as Ray, is a vehement white supremacist.
Brooks tries to tend to both brothers with as much detached professionalism as he can afford— but then the former dies on his operating table, and Ray is absolutely convinced that Brooks killed him deliberately.
Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz is a legendary filmmaker — not for No Way Out, sadly, but for the critically-acclaimed All About Eve (1950), which premiered just three months later. Still, this festering, confining film is (again, sadly!) still a very relevant interracial drama to this day. Mankiewicz does a fantastic job of conveying the power dynamic between Brooks and Biddle. Brooks is a free man, a distinguished man, even — a doctor! — while Biddle is a prisoner handcuffed to a bed. All Biddle has is his mouth, but boy, can he run it. Boy, do his words chip away, slowly but surely, at Brooks’s certainty, his confidence, his sanity.
Richard Windmark, who plays Biddle, is (I say reluctantly) an absolute scene-stealer — but it’s Poitier’s measured, unyielding performance that delivers this film out from the shadow of All About Eve. It’s the goodness that shines through in Brooks, this almost-nobility that gives you the strength to sit through the bevy of racial slurs, the disgusting rhetoric. You can watch Biddle attempt to manipulate everyone around him, to destroy Brooks’s life with his words, because you know, you just know that his goodness will prevail.
No Way Out is another one of those films that feels like horror for me. It’s reminiscent of Get Out in the sense that it’s not just a story. Things like this happen, still, every day. Goodness doesn’t always prevail. But I am grateful that Sidney Poitier, way back in 1950, was able to show that sometimes, it can.
To check out the rest of Lyvie’s picks, visit Blossom at Letterboxd.