Senseless horror: Critical reviews of “A Quiet Place” and “Bird Box” (2018)

On its most basic level, horror engages the senses. We watch a horror flick and our skins creep and our hearts race, all inspired by the sights and sounds onscreen. The clichés are clichés because they work, from creaky doors to rotting faces suddenly filling the screen. So imagine this blog’s surprise when two films–well publicized ones at that–came out last year that each sought to remove one of our trusted horror sensations from us.

This blog is hardly the first place that noted the synchronicity of last year’s “A Quiet Place” and “Bird Box.” In fact, people have argued “Bird Box” ripped off “A Quiet Place” because it came out later, or that “Quiet Place” was the ripper offer because the book “Bird Box” came out before either of them. But who ripped off who isn’t the point. I mean, they both probably ripped off the Frittening of Shetland Islands folklore. Or something. I don’t know. The point is how these films utilized their novel approaches to horror movie making.

Summer blockbuster “A Quiet Place” removes our ability to hear each other when a race of animalistic and eternally hungry aliens crash land on earth. Invincible, for all intents and purposes, and attracted by sound, they wipe out Earth’s defenses in weeks. Now, a pregnant woman (Emily Blunt), her husband (John Krasinski, who also directed and wrote the film) and their children are one isolated family struggling to survive silently in the aftermath of the invasion.

Netflix holiday fare “Bird Box” also concerns a mother (Sandra Bullock) who is trying to get her creatively named children–“Boy” and “Girl”–to an alleged safe haven in a world where society has fallen apart. The catch is they have to do it blindfolded because they are being stalked by monstrous entities that, as soon as looked at, either drive one insane or drive one to suicide.

The similarities between the films seem rather obvious. Both are post-apocalyptic horror films with a female lead, a splash of motherhood and the well-handled weight of guilt. But this ain’t “Rosemary’s Baby.” The real bridge between the two is the way they play with the senses: sound in “Quiet” and sight in “Bird.”

In theory, this is nothing new. Horror films grow still to surprise us with a shocking sound, and they withhold the appearance of the monster to build suspense. One could argue that “Quiet” is actually using a very old tactic, unfolding like a silent film. And, if one wanted to be cheeky, one could say that “Bird” is just riffing on the “Eye of the Beholder” episode of the original “Twilight Zone.” But I digress.

In practice, each of the films takes its tactics to an extreme, and they both do so rather ingeniously. “Quiet” doesn’t just shock us with sudden sound; it delves into what a world devoid of noise would look like, from carpeted everything and sizzle-free cooking to a very creative use of fireworks. Likewise, “Bird” is about more than don’t look–don’t look–scream! It shows us squabbling survivors blacking out windows as they try to figure out how to avoid an enemy they never want to see.

Where the films really start to differ is in execution. “Quiet” is the smoother operator. The monster design is solid, Krasinski’s camera is solid (cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Chistensen), Blunt’s necessarily physical performance is fantastic and veteran horror composer Marco Beltrami’s score has an appropriately classic feel.

“Bird” is a little less engaging. Bullock’s character is not an easy person to get to know, and her development, either by design or delivery, is somewhat stagnant. Perhaps that’s the point, given she’s had to toughen up to survive the apocalypse and everything, but it still makes for murky viewing. Oddly enough, the supporting cast (John Malkovich, B. D. Wong, Lil Rel Howery, Tom Hollander, pretty much everyone else) express more despite appearing less.

Also, “Bird” can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a dystopian sci fi or a psychological horror film, and accordingly, it never packs quite the punch you would expect. “Quiet,” on the other hand, is perfectly comfortable being a monster movie, although it gets a little too comfortable at the end. Still, even someone easy to disappoint–like me–can put up with a single exaggerated shotgun pump after 89 minutes of effectively tense horror.

From a technique standpoint, there is a clear difference. It is this blog’s boringly repeated opinion that movies are a visual art form. Anything that remembers, enhances and utilizes that is fine film making; anything that detracts or withholds that—particularly for the duration of a film—is probably not. Accordingly, wrapping the camera lens in fabric is an interesting gimmick, but robbing an audience of dialogue and focusing on tense and tender images is far more cinematically satisfying.


Heavy handed horror?: Critical reviews of “Annihilation” and “Unsane” (2018)

When a film is particularly unusual, it’s very common to grasp at what’s similar to it in order to come to grips with what it is. The fairly unusual sci fi thriler “Annihilation” got this treatment, getting compared to “Under the Skin,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the original “Solaris,” as well as personal favorite “The Fountain.” One film that didn’t come up a lot was the “Ghostbusters” reboot, a film that was surprisingly polarizing and decidedly controversial, both for its female cast and its social media handling.

“Annihilation” (written and directed by Alex Garland, the “Ex Machina” dude) spins a weird tale, part cosmic horror and part philosophical sci fi drama, of Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist who is volunteers to investigate the “Shimmer,” an alien world that has mysteriously sprouted up on Earth. The exploratory team–all women–includes a medic, a physicist and, perhaps tellingly, a psychologist. All are aware that no team has returned alive from the “Shimmer.” What they aren’t aware of is Lena’s own connection to the place.

So why the comparison to “Ghostbusters”? After all, “Annihilation” is an infamously obscure film, almost an art film, and “Ghostbusters” is a popcorn flavored reboot. However, for better or worse, the all female leads make it easy to draw uneasy parallels. It might not be a powerful point of entry, but it’s worth some examination.

This blog speculated on “Ghostbusters” when it was still in production, and we’re sorry to say we were right to speculate. As a horror film, it wasn’t scary; as a comedy, it fared a little better, but there was a self consciousness to it that was wholly unnecessary. There was a lot of hand holding in the script, something it didn’t need to worry about. The film’s leads were all experienced comedy alums. Rather than worry about them being funny, the script should have spent a little more time giving the film an identity outside of its cast.

Despite also featuring excellent actors, “Annihilation” did not suffer the same problems, in no small part because there is so much else going on for it than its mono-chromosome casting–psychological and philosophical themes, genuine tension, even its intriguing design. In fact, although a variety of reviewers did comment on the film’s female leads, they were just as likely to talk about its alien beauty and impenetrable plot.

“Annihilation” did very little to remind you that its cast was most female, and in doing so, avoided a lot of female stereotypes it could have walked into. It had other things to talk about, and it preferred treating its characters like people rather than props. The film even made a quick comment on it. When the team realizes it’s been codified, Lena notes it’s comprised of “all women.” The team physicist, Tessa Thompson’s Josie Radek, adds: “Scientists.” Enough said.

Another film that was as impressive in its handling of its themes as its execution was “Unsane,” director Steven Soderbergh’s psychological horror flick about a young woman (Claire Foy) who has relocated to evade a stalker. After a therapy session, she inadvertently checks herself into a mental health facility. When she tries to leave, she realizes she cannot because she signed a waiver to stay. And when she thinks she sees her stalker working there, her behavior only grows more erratic, and the staff is even less likely to let her leave.

“Unsane” was shot by Soderbergh on an iPhone 7 and edited on an app, which fits its claustrophobic and paranoid atmosphere perfectly. It would have been easy for the film to be all about the technology, and indeed, a lot of critical attention was lavished on how good it looked considering its compact genesis. But critics were just as liable to latch onto the solid performance by Foy (who, believe it or not, we have talked about before–why is this article becoming an exercise in blog nostalgia?). All this is saying nothing about the film’s themes.

Mental instability and horror go hand in hand. It’s a given that you’ll touch on crazy in a psychological horror film, but it’s hardly a given that you’ll do it well. Films that try to handle mental illness sensitively, or at least intelligently, are rare–Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split” perhaps stick out as movies that make an effort at authenticity. “Unsane” can join their ranks not only for looking at mental illness, but also for looking at the mental health system.

“Unsane” tackles the issue of mental illness not only from the patient’s perspective, but from a bureaucratic–and insurance–point of view as well. People do indeed get lost in the mental health system, and that can be just as serious for the afflicted as the notion that what they see might not be seen by everyone else.

But what ultimately anchors “Unsane” is that, by the end of the film, it is a well made thriller. An interesting technological experiment, of course, and an earnest effort at exploring an often overlooked element of mental illness in cinema, but an engaging thriller throughout.

If “Annihilation” curiously recalls “Ghostbusters,” then “Unsane” recalls “Get Out,” another thriller with a social conscious. The difference is that, while both films handled their social issues intelligently and organically, “Get Out” started to enter rather ridiculous territory in its third act while “Unsane” maintained its nature through its climax. Perhaps it all comes down to confidence. While all these films had their subjects in hand, “Annihilation” and “Unsane” felt certain enough in themselves to let their themes do the talking while the films played out.

Early signs of madness: A critical review of “The Avenging Conscience” (1914)

If you ask someone what their favorite old horror movie is, they might say something like “The Exorcist” or “Night of the Living Dead.” While those aren’t exactly new, they’re hardly the oldest horror films out there. Universal and RKO both produced scads of famous and infamous horror films in the 1930s and 40s, far before Friedkin or Romero were rolling out their own brands of thriller.

But there are also plenty of Gothic horror films in the silent movie category, courtesy of melodramas like “The Phantom of the Opera” and grotesque experiments like the Thomas Edison produced “Frankenstein,” which predates Universal’s film by 21 years–and maybe a few of your friends, feeling suddenly embarrassed by how recent their favorite “old” horror movie was, went straight for the “Nosferatu.”

So what about psychological horror? One might think that a style of cinema so theatrical and visually oriented would not lend itself to the nuance and intimacy of psychological horror. But, surprisingly enough, the film that is apparently the first feature length American horror film is also arguably the first genuinely psychological thriller.

“The Avenging Conscience” tells the morbid tale of a young man called only the Nephew (Henry Walthall) who lives and works under the watchful eye of his eye patch-wearing uncle, Uncle (Spottiswoode Aitken). He is content with his lot, until he meets and falls in love with a young woman, his Sweetheart (the coincidentally named Blanche Sweet), who his uncle absolutely forbids him from marrying.

Still, love will find a way, even if it involves firearms. Caught in an emotional whirl, the Nephew plots to kill his Uncle, ensuring his inheritance falls promptly in his hands and his path is clear to his Sweetheart. But once the deed is done, he realizes that his peace of mind has become harder to hold onto.

“Conscience” is a good film to discuss on the 210th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe because it plays like fan fiction of that author’s works. Writer/director/producer D. W. Griffith was clearly a fanboy. He had already shot a couple of Poe related shorts, and his script shows obvious influence from “The Tell-Tale Heart,” as well as echoes of “Annabelle Lee,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat.” Poe’s face even pops up for a second on the back of a book the Nephew is reading.

Of course, it’s not enough to simply slap the name and handsome visage of the master on the picture and call it psychological horror. There has to be something more, and there is. Walthall does a fine performance as the Nephew losing his grip on sanity. He goes a little overboard at the end, but he builds to it at least, something that most silent performers didn’t grasp.

The special effects sequences also build, starting with some images of a ghostly Uncle and then heading in some interesting territory involving the risen Christ and animal-headed demons. Even some of the more obvious flaws therein–the clumsiness of some of the editing and the primitive nature of the some of the matte shots–seem to add to the surreal flair of the film’s second half.

Although the special effects and pacing are typically praised, the ending is a bit more divisive. It’s a twist ending that’s either innovative and intriguing or an annoying cop-out, depending on your mood. But the twist is followed by a conclusion that is a total left-field non sequitur. It’s bizarre, antique and, whether you like it or not, pure Griffith.

Most people prefer to focus on the animal imagery in the film’s first half. It’s most obvious when the decision to kill crosses the Nephew’s mind–it’s punctuated with images of the savagery of the insect world–but also take a look at the caged bird in the background of the murder scene. The Nephew may think he’s free with his Uncle dead, but he’s just as trapped as ever.

Perhaps the most interesting visual display occurs before any of that happens. When the Nephew and the Sweetheart are talking in a garden, they are framed by a gazebo in the background and cradled by a fountain with an Asian dragon spouting water in the foreground. It’s a beautiful shot and an intelligent shot, for sure, but there have been other beautiful and intelligent shots in the history of cinema.

What makes the image particularly fascinating is that it fades to black, cuts to a b-plot of two other lovers, and then cuts back to the darkened image of the Nephew and Sweetheart, then back again. That the b-plot is kind of goofy and unnecessary is unimportant. What is important is that no one made movies like this, with an understanding that film can be structured with an abstract, nonlinear rhythm that plays with time, space and narrative. Few people make movies like that right now. To paraphrase Orson Welles, some of Griffith’s work was old even then, and some of it we’re still figuring out today.

Just in time for the holidays: A critical review of “Hold the Dark” (2018)

Well, we began the year with a round of Netflix reviews (sort of), so we might as well end it with one more. Besides, we just hit the longest night of the year and Christmas, and New Years is on the way. What better way to spend it than with wolves of the two and four-legged variety?

A woman in a very, very remote Alaskan town (Riley Keough) writes to naturalist Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), requesting that he track down the wolf that killed her son. Despite being an author rather than a hunter, Core hops on a plane and heads up. Unsurprisingly, he starts uncovering some dark secrets from the get go. The woman’s husband (Alexander Skarsgard) is also in town, recently returned home from military duty in Afghanistan. When he learns of the fate of his son, he goes on a rampage, and Core is caught tracking a different kind of predator.

“Hold the Dark” is based on a novel, and it shows. The film is leisurely with its pace and with its various epiphanies. While it’s slow to get off the ground, once it does, it tends to move–a battle between rural police and a lone shooter with a chain gun stands out as a tense and intense sequence–but even then it’s with more of a sense of dream-like wonder and fascination than sense of urgency.

The narrative also skips around a little bit, as if the screenplay has been reformatted from chapters; it was adapted by Macon Blair, who has worked with director Jeremy Saulnier a number of times as an actor, although perhaps the film’s pace owes more to editor Julia Bloch, who has a very interesting resume.

Director Jeremy Saulnier has helmed a couple of thrillers I’ve meant to see and a couple of episodes of “True Detective” I have seen, so he gets a pass; the cinematography, by one Magnus Nordenhof Jonck, perfectly pairs the relentless mood with nature-documentary prettiness.

The actors are a little less successful with this approach. Wright, who has the most to do as a truly literate hero, gets stuck playing a grumpy grandpa for most of the film. Well, maybe he is a grumpy grandpa by now. He does do it well. But just about everyone else in the cast is left playing characters that feel oddly shallow–but perhaps they’re less shallow than they are symbolic, like bullet points on a list of required ingredients for an alchemical equation.

“Dark” is a little esoteric–convoluted might be the right word–but there’s always something going on onscreen, so viewers shouldn’t get bored trying to figure out what’s going on off screen. The photography is as majestic and temperate as an iceberg, and both the script and the shots are layered with enough cryptic symbols to make Carl Jung choke on a pretzel. It’s the kind of film that rewards re-watching, assuming you want to re-watch something so downbeat. Whatever holding the dark means to you, this film has it covered.

Ultimately, “Hold the Dark” is obscure, bleak and cold as a wolf’s teat. It’s a little long on time and short on diversity of mood, but its constant atmosphere manages to be ominous, oppressive and chillingly beautiful. If that’s not a metaphor for the holidays, I don’t know what is.

Frozen in place: A critical review of “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” (2015)

It’s Christmastime, when most horror fans start turning to chilly films and wintry fair like “The Shining,” “The Thing” and “Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The One with Mickey Rooney.” Of course, not all of us are that classically oriented. Some of us must always stay behind. There are those of us who brave “The Blackcoat’s Daughter.”

A bunch of girls who all dress like pilgrims at a Catholic school in New England are supposed to be going home for a February break. However, Rose (Lucy Boynton) and Kat (Kiernan Shipka) find themselves slightly stranded. Kat suspects her parents have been killed in a car crash; Rose has lied to her parents about the vacation dates so she can figure out her suspected pregnancy. Neither is going home right away.

As the girls figure out their respective situations, Rose casually suggests that the skeleton crew of remaining school nuns are secretly devil worshipers. But when she starts to see some strange things in the boiler room downstairs, she actually starts to wonder what is going on when the school is supposed to be shut. Off campus, a young woman (Emma Roberts) has apparently escaped from a mental facility, and she’s making her way to Bramford, the same school town where Rose and Kat are stuck.

“Blackcoat” starts off strong. The cast is good. Roberts in particular does not disappoint, suggesting psychological depth with every furtive glance. She finds an appropriate foil in James Remar, playing a seemingly sweet man who offers to give her a ride into town. Whenever the two interact, the tension is clear.

The photography–the cinematographer was Julie Kirkwood–is intelligent and atmospheric. Lingering shots of table settings and snowy school grounds, as well as kitchen utensils and bloody walls, suggest the contrast between polite social manners and harsh reality. The subject of that photography–a basically abandoned school, isolated physically and psychically by winter weather–is likewise like crack to me. The problem is that there is never any kind of payoff.

The writer-director is Oz Perkins, the son of Anthony “I was in the best horror movie ever” Perkins, but then again, he also did “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House,” another slow burning atmospheric horror film, which I’ve seen once and remember little of. Perkins is obviously someone who obviously knows what a good horror film looks like. He knows the aforementioned “Shining,” as well as “Rosemary’s Baby.” The problem is, he seems to have trouble with what a good horror film is supposed to do.

Throughout my viewing of “Blackcoat,” I was always struggling to understand what was going on. I don’t think its because the film was unclear. I think it’s because I didn’t care. There was a distinct disconnect between me and the action onscreen. When it looked like it was thrilling, even when it was beautifully presented, I felt no connection to what I saw. As fascinating as the images were, I was not fascinated with them beyond the level of art school composition.

The movie looks good, but good looks can only take you so far in life. You need personality too, and that is where “Blackcoat” is really lacking. Even at the end, once its mechanics had been revealed, it didn’t feel like the film had gone anywhere because I, as a viewer, hadn’t been taken anywhere.

“Blackcoat” is a film about tension that rises and rises and then falls backwards rather than forwards. Perhaps it would have been better in a different medium. In a painting, its frozen atmosphere and slow burning psychological suggestion would have been something interesting to ponder over. As a movie, it simply refuses to move.

Is it in my head? Critical reviews of “Homecoming” and “Maniac” (2018)

Pioneering psychologist Carl Jung coined the term “synchronicity” to refer to two or more physical and psychic phenomena that coincide in a meaningful way. The meaning could be intimate or cosmic, and it is, perhaps, intriguingly related to observer paradox. Either way, it’s a fascinating concept, and it’s a fancy way of saying I just finished watching two TV shows the other day that seemed weirdly similar.

A little overly intellectual for an into, but I thought it was funny. It may even be appropriate.

There is some interesting overlap between Amazon’s “Homecoming” and Netflix’s “Maniac.” Both deal with that ever popular yet intangible realm of the mind. Both are at least wary of psychiatric drugs. Both ask what constitutes healing. Both are willing to question reality.

Neither is original–“Homecoming” is based on a podcast and “Maniac” on a Norwegian TV series–and both are 10 episodes long but only feature one director–respectively Sam Esmail and Cary Joji Fukunaga (both of whom, for what it’s worth, were born in 1977). To see differences, we have to dive into the shows a little deeper.

“Homecoming” tells two parallel stories. In one, Heidi Bergman is an enthusiastic caseworker at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center, a secretive government facility in Florida designed to with PTSD return to civilian life. In the other, Heidi Bergman is a bitter waitress at a restaurant, who is approached one day by an investigator from the Department of Defense following up a complaint about the Homecoming facility four years later.

As each story evolves, both the audience and Bergman learn piece by piece just what was going on at Homecoming, and how the past and the future are terribly related.

Like Esmail’s delightfully trippy “Mr. Robot,” “Homecoming” is a thriller with healthy doses of government cover up and corporate conspiracy. It’s also well paced, handsomely photographed and brilliantly played. Julia Roberts is rightly touted for her small screen debut, but Bobby Cannavale is also great as her slimy supervisor, Shea Whigam is perfectly cast as the thoughtful, dogged investigator and Stephan James instantly believable as an increasingly uncertain young vet.

The decision to photograph the 2018 sequences in one format and the 2022 in a different one is convenient for piecing the story together, but I’m not sure if it was supposed to be innovative. I suppose one could find it irritating; I found it largely irrelevant.

Despite that one avant-garde affectation, “Homecoming” is intriguingly old fashioned. The series has been called Hitchcockian, and that’s due to more than its theme of an ordinary person caught in extraordinary circumstances. The camera movement is worthy of the director, and the soundtrack is not someone ripping off the likes of Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone–it actually is Hermann, Morricone and more. The series takes all its musical cues from “Vertigo,” “The Thing” and a host of other classic thrillers.

Netflix’s “Maniac” tells about 37 parallel stories, give or take a tale. They mostly originate from the minds of neurotic Annie Landsberg and psychotic Owen Milgrim, who attempt to escape their personal problems by partaking in a medical trial for a drug that will allegedly make therapy obsolete. The trial involves a succession of pills and sessions with GRTA, an intelligent computer, resulting in hallucinatory dreams that are individualized for each patient to work through their issues.

The problem is–go figure–the experiment is falling apart behind the scenes, and the researchers in charge are scrambling to ensure the survival of their project, as well as their patients, while still pleasing their investors. Despite all that, or perhaps happening on a plane utterly removed from it, Annie and Owen keep crossing the barriers between their dreams and finding each other over and over again. Is it magical or mundane? And does it make any difference?

While “Homecoming” teases out its twists and turns, it is basically accessible. “Maniac” is not. The series operates on the level of metaphor as often–if not more often–than it does on the level of anything like reality. It moves from an alternate reality cyberpunk New York to the worlds of 1980s crime thrillers, 1930s old dark house movies and more, each setting dripping with psychoanalytical significance.

Jonah Hill and Emma Stone as the two leads have to pull off a variety of characters in each setting, and they do so amazingly well, Stone in particular. A mop wigged Justin Theroux and chain smoking Sonoya Mizuno are also standouts as the hot and cold controllers of the experiment, and Sally Field has fun as the literal and figurative mother of the project.

“Maniac’s” design, photography and set pieces are excellent, and its indie inspired score by Dan Romer is sometimes quite striking, but what really makes the series stand out is its wicked, madcap sense of humor. Between bathtubs full of intestines, bulletproof fur coats and open mouth kisses for mom, very little is sacred in this series.

So which to recommend? At the end of the day, you can’t go wrong with either show. Both are intelligent, attractive and artistically satisfying. The main difference, deeper even than a preference for conspiracies or metaphysics, is what you want from your streaming experience. If you want a well made and timely thriller, try “Homecoming.” If you’re interested in a cult classic in the making, watch “Maniac.”

A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain” – Episode 13 “Ego”

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of “Serial Experiments Lain,” a cult anime that is still boggling minds decades later. Famous for its abstract narrative and obscure references, each episode (or “layer”) of “Lain” sports a one-word title, which provides a handy entry point for analysis. So, each week this summer, we’ll post an analysis of each episode using its title as a kind of guide to the series as a whole.

First some background. In popular parlance, ego simply refers to the self, if not selfishness itself. In psychoanalytic theory, “ego” is a bit different. Sigmund Freud used the word to refer to a component of the human psyche that evolved as the id–the original, instinctual self–grew to comprehend the outside world. The ego is inextricably bound to the id, but it seeks to distinguish itself from its instinctual counterpart, all while allowing the individual to deal with the real world, which is not interested in the individual’s immediate, instinctual desires.

In case you hadn’t guessed, the Freudian concept of “ego” is complex. However, “Lain” is nothing if not willing to embrace the complex. What are the odds it wants us to take the Freudian definition over the pop psychological one? In fact, one troper suggested that “Lain” is possibly the only TV show that actually got the Freudian definition correct. Considering that part of the ego’s function is to mediate between the individual and reality, it’s not a bad observation.

The first word of the 13th episode is “I.” Said by Lain, it kicks off a small monologue about the scattered nature of her identity. For the monologue’s duration, all we see is Lain, her head filling the screen. Even her environment is the same blue burst of background that begins every episode.

“Am I here? Or am I there? Over there, I’m everywhere. I know that,” she says. “But where is the real me? Oh right. There is no real me. I only exist inside those people who are aware of my existence. But this is me that’s talking right now. It’s me, isn’t it?” Both the concept of the ego as integral to identity and being one part of a greater identity are introduced here–and have been suggested repeatedly throughout the series.

Perhaps this episode, as the series has before, tries to examine what something is by observing what it is not. It begins where the last one left off, with Lain and Alice seemingly caught in the clutches of the grotesquely embodied Eiri. Lain observes Alice’s eyes in an extreme close up–a shot usually reserved for Lain–and finds them to be wide open and red rimmed with terror. The eye close up is repeated for Lain, only hers are downcast. “I mess up everything I try to do for you, huh Alice?” Lain sadly asks in one of the most emotionally taxing moments in the series.

A wider angle reveals Eiri is gone and Lain alone is gripping Alice. Whether that suggests Lain-as-deity has erased Eiri or it was all a hallucination is up to the viewer; either way, Lain realizes that her existence is the problem, and she resets reality. This action is more in line with the Freudian superego, the portion of the psyche that contains a sense of right and wrong connected to guilt and obligation. In fact, it is the ego, meditating on behalf of the identity, that stops the superego from directing the individual to kill itself. Lain’s suicide, whether individual or cosmic, represents the superego taking control. The world is better off without Lain, she decides, so her sense of duty prompts her to remove herself.

This idea of showing by showing what is not is perhaps alluded to when, following the reset, the familiar scene of Lain leaving her house and going to school is replayed–except Lain herself is absent from the shots. Her family eats breakfast; the train goes by; even the telephone wires still hum overhead, but Lain is not there. We are reminded of her not by her presence but by her absence.

At school, Alice–seeming to sense something is off–says to her peers, “If you aren’t remembered, you never existed.” And yet, she might mean an ego rather than an entire individual. An ego only exists with an outside world to reflect it; an individual, one that’s more than an id, exists with other people, with society, and relates to it. Since the ego is a reaction to society, it needs it to exist. Here, it is true to say that, without others to observe it, there would be no ego.

Another possible identity for the ego of the series is the Wired itself. Lain, echoing her father, says that the Wired is not an upper layer to reality; she also says that the Wired is merely a reflection of an older, deeper way that humanity used to be connected. In that way, the Wired itself is a kind of ego. It’s a way for the jabbeirng id of humanity–represented by the endless chatter about risqué topics in previous episodes–to interact with a social reality.

But perhaps Lain is the ego after all. In a final climax, Lain and her shadow self crawl through the various locations of the series. “It’d be so much easier if you became God,” the other Lain says in the spot where Chisa first threw herself off the building. “Let’s start everything over again from the beginning!”

This suggestion–which the other Lain ties to the desire to not be hated, which, for the isolated Lain, must be tempting indeed–comes from her id. Our Lain rejects it, and is rewarded by having tea with her father. There has been debate about the identity of the father at the end of the series; recall that, for Freud, the superego was the father figure internalized.

One final thought. In its conclusion, “Lain” has a moment that possibly wraps up its various themes–identity, memory and contentedness. Lain suggests that memory can work both ways–we can recall the past as well as “right now, even tomorrow.” This is followed by a cryptic scene of an adult Alice encountering a still childlike Lain, resulting in a ghost of recognition.

If we exist because others observe and remember us, and our interactions with reality are determined in part by our past experiences and expectations of the future, then memory is a component of ego, something that helps us articulate with reality by remembering the past, informing the present and expecting the future. But memory is also a part of the collective unconscious, the cultural and human web that binds us to each other. Memory is what allows us to connect to others at any moment by simply remembering them. Lain herself is linked to the collective unconscious in the final moments of the series, telling us, “I’m here, so I’ll be with you forever,” and leaving us, not with an image of her, but with the ubiquitous humming wires.

Human identity, like an ego that is distinct from an id and superego, that interacts with an external reality, is a more complex thing than any one part of our psyche. Perhaps that’s one of the final takeaways from “Lain.” Humanity is bigger than it can even comprehend.