The undead have daddy issues: A critical review of “Maggie” (2015)

So apparently I do not like zombie movies. I was reminded of this the other day when a friend of mine and I were talking about horror films, and he was about to mention something when he hesitated, then told me what I did and didn’t like. This is, of course, a flagrant lie. I don’t not like zombie movies. I just…haven’t liked one very much since 1943’s “I Walked With a Zombie.” All right, so I don’t like zombie movies. But I’m not a hater. I’m just wildly picky.

Case in point, I recently watched “Maggie,” the directorial debut of title designer Henry Hobson. And I didn’t hate it. I didn’t like it much either, but I gave it a shot in spite of my lack of feeling for zombie flicks. In fact, I might have watched it because of my lack of feeling, since “Maggie” was supposed to be quite different from your run of the mill Romero rip off. And it was. “Maggie” was an effort to humanize what is, by its nature, an inhuman genre, an effort at showing us what a zombie apocalypse might look like not in real time but in ordinary people’s time (the script, by John Scott 3, is another freshman effort). “Maggie” is to the zombie genre what John Cassavetes’s “Faces” was to independent cinema. So how does that probably inappropriate comparison work out?

“Maggie” is about Maggie (Abigail Breslin), a typical American teenage girl except that she occasionally feels the need to go into the woods and eat live prey. Actually, in this not too distant future, she’s not that unusual. A virus has spread across the country and people have had to learn to cope with it. While in other films that would mean a lot shotgun blasts to the sternum and skull gnawing, here it means more heavy sighing and inevitability. When Maggie’s father (Arnold Schwarzenegger) snaps a zombie’s neck in the first five minutes of the film, that’s not a vision of things to come. Pay less attention to the sound effects and more to the stern look of disappointment with the way things have turned out on Schwarzenegger’s face.

Still, the film almost works. The cast works. Schwarzenegger is no stranger to thoughtful thriller. Remember “Total Recall”? The original, obviously. His co-stars seem to be pulled from the more interesting side of horror TV–Breslin was on “Scream Queens,” and Joely Richardson (playing Maggie’s icy stepmother) was on “Wayward Pines.”

The film pulls off its goal visually as well, although it does vary a bit between shots (Lukas Ettlin was the cinematographer). Some of the prettiest photography is of the burning fields of farmland, the sky all apocalyptic gold to gray. But a little while later, close ups and blurry slow motion at an over-night teenage get together give us the awkward sensation of home movies. But perhaps that was the point.

There is a curious mixture of hominess and horror in the film. A knife that Richardson is using to chop tomatoes is used a few minutes later to chop off necrotic fingers. The house itself takes on the weird sensation of existing halfway between a home and a mortuary, much like it titular inhabitant. It’s an interesting concept, and one it’s that’s not often mined in zombie cinema.

Some of the best tension in the film doesn’t come from watching a monstrous Maggie vanish suddenly on a backyard swing; instead, it happens while her father is making her laugh at the dinner table. In a family drama, it would be pleasant filler; in “Maggie,” it’s a failed attempt at respite since, despite her giggling, we can see the lines of infection drawn around her face. Like father like daughter, perhaps. Lines of shadow from boarded up windows cross Schwarzenegger as he moves around their house. The visual is repeated later, this time with the shadows cast from drawn blinds on Breslin in a doctor’s office, strengthening the bond between the pair.

The question of the nature of the virus is examined throughout “Maggie,” but not as it normally is in these films. Instead of a scientific approach, the film takes a humanistic one. It’s less interested in how a theoretical zombie virus might work and more interested in the philosophical question of what happens to the infected, as well as how people respond to them. Early in the film, we pass some post-apocalyptic graffiti. “We are human,” reads one piece; right next to it, another asks “Are we human?”

Later, one of the family’s neighbors, who also had an infected child, talks to Schwarzenegger about the fine line between human and monster. “‘Avoid touching subject without gloves,'” she says, cynically repeating instructions given by a doctor about how to care for her child. “Never once said her name. ‘Julia.'”

A less sympathetic approach comes from Richardson. “I’ve loved her like she was my own,” she tells Schwarzenegger, “but she’s not her anymore.” The notion of zombie as illness is hardly new, but it takes on a particularly melancholy air here, recalling Scottish psychiatrist James Brown’s book “Freud and the Post Freudians.” In it, Brown suggested that the difference between psychological and physiological illness is that a psychological illness is one in which the person doesn’t seem like the same person anymore.

OK, we’ve covered a lot of highfalutin’ ground for an Arnold Schwarzenegger zombie flick, but it’s more appropriate than you might think. Because, while “Maggie” is not an entertaining film, it is an interesting film. And sometimes, an interesting film is better than an entertaining one. Certainly within the confines of both the zombie genre and Schwarzenegger’s career, the film is impressive, even if it fails to make an impression.

Of monsters and monasteries: A critical review of “Nightbreed” (1990)

Writer-director Clive Barker’s “Nightbreed” (adapted from his own novel “Cabal”) is the kind of movie that could only have come out at the end of the 1980s. A few years earlier, and it would have lacked the kind of overblown pathos it exhibits; a few years later, and it never would have been financed. Indeed, the movie was fraught with creative control issues, particularly commercial ones, and it has gone on to rival “Blade Runner” in terms of different prints available. Still, whichever version you find yourself watching, you will be viewing a flawed, albeit interesting and intelligent, piece of horror cinema.

Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer, who ends up in “Hellraiser: Inferno”) thinks he’s better now. His nightmares of an otherworldly city called Midian are on the back burner thanks to some pills he’s popping that have been prescribed by his psychiatrist, Dr. Philip K. Decker (David Cronenberg, yes, that David Cronenberg, who ends up directing “Naked Lunch,” “eXistenz,” et al). Of course, he’s not better, because what kind of movie would that be? Instead, Boone has become fascinated with bizarre murders that he believes he’s been pulling off. Maybe he has. The cops think so, because they end up gunning him down outside of an abandoned cemetery just outside of town.

After Boone is killed, Lori Winston, his girlfriend (Anne Bonny, who ends up voicing Brigid Tenenbaum in the Bioshock series), steps in to investigate. She discovers that neither Aaron nor the cemetery are entirely what they appear to be; indeed, the cemetery houses a secret city of monsters who, after centuries of pressure from humans, have chosen to separate themselves from the rest of the world to live in strange peace and contemplation. Of course, the presence  of Winston shakes up the city of monsters, attracting unwanted attention and quickening their ultimate purpose.

I want to quickly mention the music, which is by the always solid Danny Elfman and is suitably big, brash, Gothic and fun. I actually didn’t know going into the movie that Elfman–one of my favorite film composers–wrote the score, and I liked it before I realized he was the man behind the baton. I always find it rewarding when something like that happens.

Also, the cast is familiar and oddly brilliant. Cronenberg is a great choice; as a kind of mad scientist, he’s a perfect mix between dispassionate and informative. Doug Bradley—you know him as Pinhead—is buried underneath makeup, but his presence is well felt.

So in case you couldn’t tell, what we have here is classic Barker. The direction is solid, the photography is clean and professional (the cinematography is by Robin Vidgeon, another Hellraiser series alum) and the costumes and creature effects could keep a monster fan happy for days. In fact, you could watch the entire film for that and be satisfied, but you’d be missing out on Barker’s intelligent, if scattered, script.

Barker is commenting on marginalized groups in this film–how society marginalizes people, how they form groups accordingly and react to marginalization–but he’s also creating a mythology. Created mythology courtesy of Barker tends to go one of two ways: it’s either elegant and compelling, as in the novella “The Hellbound Heart,” or it’s messy and confusing, hopefully as much to the author as to the audience, as in some other works I could mention. Although the mythology presented in “Nightbreed” seems like it ought to go south, it never does. Perhaps it helps that Barker seems to be taking cues from 19th century English artist and poet William Blake. Like Blake, Barker’s mythology here is not strictly dualistic but polyistic and cyclic.

Regarding religiosity, the film is not anti-faith or pro-faith per se. Again, like Blake, Barker seems to be suggesting that in order to understand our place in the cosmos, we need to toss off the shackles of organized religion’s more militant and senselessly ritualistic elements to get at the real heart of the matter. The seed of religion is more compelling than any kind of garden we can prune it into. This is relayed through the small but intriguing character of an alcoholic priest (Malcom Smith, who was not in any of the Hellraiser movies) who loses one faith only to pick up another, far older, one in the final act of the film.

Which is perhaps part of the problem with “Nightbreed.” Not its outlook, but its evolution. Barker is toying with these great themes, but he seems hesitant to discuss them; however, once they’re in the open, he shoves them forward in a rush. Coupled with some slightly flat characters, “Nightbreed” suffers from a case of style over substance perhaps…but I’ve always been a style man, and what a style it is.