WE DON’T NEED NO STINKING EXPOSITION!
Exposition is one of my least favorite aspects of horror fiction and films. It is almost always clunky by its very nature, and I find myself amazed when people manage to pull off extreme exposition in artful ways that don’t end up showing every seam and zipper. I’ve joked before about the “wise elder” character who shows up to fill in the details about whatever murders or werewolf sightings have taken place up at the old Johnson place. Gah!
For me, it’s really refreshing when artists forgo exposition almost completely, forcing/allowing us as readers or viewers to fill in the blanks and make sense of what is being presented. This can drive some people crazy, which is understandable, but it’s like a magical moment for me when I run across such things.
Three of my favorite non-expository films are:
1. UNDER THE SKIN – Written by Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer, directed by Jonathan Glazer
UNDER THE SKIN is just one big brilliant moment of WHAT THE EFF IS GOING ON HERE?! Scarlet Johansen plays an alien of some sort who is impersonating an attractive human woman, scouring urban Scotland for male victims, who she seduces and lures to a bizarre building where they are engulfed by… something.
It is one of my all-time favorite films because it does not hold our hands for even ONE second, demanding us to observe and make up our own minds. What follows is a creepy, hypnotic look at an alien mind developing a kind of empathy for humanity, purely by sharing our physicality. Amazing.
If you’ve never seen this sucker, and are comfortable with elliptical storytelling, then by all means: CHECK IT OUT!
2. PRIMER – Written and directed by Shane Caruth
PRIMER is a masterpiece of low budget science fiction filmmaking. For any of you interested in the film making process, the commentary track by the director on the DVD version is a mini film school.
It involves two friends (Shane Caruth and David Sullivan) who are engineers by day and part owners of a tech company with two other guys, working out of a garage. They are attempting to find a way to make matter weigh less, so that shipping costs can go down, and accidentally invent a form of time travel along the way. What’s especially magical in this film is that it’s pretty easy to follow for the first half or so, as our two protagonists begin figuring out the implications of time traveling.
And then… it gets REALLY REALLY WEIRD, like, almost seemingly impossible to follow weird. BUT, the cool trick about this movie is that it all makes 100% sense, but is literally a giant puzzle box that refuses to take narrative shortcuts. Different “versions” of the two main characters may or may not show up at various times, and the meaning of revisited scenes changes completely as the story goes on. You’d have to be a Mensa member to follow it all the first time, in my opinion, but once you watch it a few more times (!), it all falls together into a jaw-dropping whole. Brave, intelligent, and super creative.
3. SUN CHOKE – Written and directed by Ben Cresciman
SUN CHOKE is the youngest film in this list, having come out in just the past month or so. It follows a young woman (Sarah Hagan) and her middle-aged caretaker (Barbara Crampton) in an upscale Los Angeles mansion, who have a bizarre, almost ritualized therapeutic relationship.
It becomes apparent early on that the young woman did “something” in the past that was REALLY bad, and has basically been under house arrest ever since, cycling through bizarre treatments under the watchful eye of her caretaker. After earning a bit of freedom through good behavior, she is allowed to leave the house for a few hours each day. This leads to a terrible infatuation and descent into horror.
There isn’t a straight ahead moment of exposition in this film, only a deepening of the mystery as little details are eked out. Once we find out who the caretaker is, things shift. There are swift and creepy flashbacks that provide just enough glimpsed imagery to deepen things, but not enough to explain it all.
In the end, we are left in a state of paranoia and unknowing as viewers, which puts us in a perfect state to watch the unraveling of this poor, damaged woman. If they gave Oscars purely for chutzpah and bravery, then SUN CHOKE would win hands-down. The most impressive performance I’ve seen all year.