Spooky Science at the Movies!: Week 3

Environment, Film, horror

By Christy Tidwell

This week’s recommendations stick with the emphasis on ecohorror introduced last week. Instead of presenting monsters like Godzilla or crocodiles, though, these two films find both wonder and horror in exploring the agency of the nonhuman world. How do other species communicate? How do they act upon us and shape our actions?

Classic Movie #3: Phase IV

Saul Bass is best known as a designer, not a filmmaker. He designed famous movie posters and title sequences, including for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), West Side Story (1961), Big (1988), and Goodfellas (1990).

This short video – “Saul Bass: The Art of the Title Sequence” – shows many of his famous title sequences and tracks his influence in graphic design for film.

Phase IV (1974) is the only film that Bass directed and it shows off his eye for design and visual style. The style is definitely shaped by its 1970s context, however. Rather than the sleek midcentury style of his 1950s and early 1960s title sequences, Phase IV features a more psychedelic combination of playfulness and paranoia. For instance, the film, which is about human scientists’ attempts to understand ants (and ants’ attempts to manipulate those human scientists), gives the viewer an ant’s-eye view on more than one occasion. This is both visually compelling and a meaningful way to undercut the typical human perspective of film. Combining this with timelapse photography and electronic music, the film is very 1970s. I love this about it, but it might not be to everyone’s taste!

Phase IV is less scary than some of the others I’ve recommended (leaning more on science fiction than straightforward horror), but it is an unsettling challenge to our sense of human superiority – especially if you view the original ending, long lost and replaced by a briefer one.

The original trailer for Phase IV.

Contemporary Movie #3: In the Earth

In the Earth (2020), directed by Ben Wheatley, inherits some elements from Phase IV, including some trippy cinematography and music, central characters who are scientists trying to understand and even communicate with a part of the natural world, and a focus on small, overlooked things becoming scary – or at least greater than the human. I don’t want to give away too much, but there are elements of folk horror, ecohorror, and body horror in this movie. (Note: If you are sensitive to body horror, some parts might be a little hard to watch, but this isn’t the biggest element of the film.) In the Earth is honestly one of my favorite recent horror movies.

Official trailer for In the Earth.

Both of these movies might require a little more viewing patience than other recommendations in this series, but they are beautifully filmed and absolutely fascinating.

If you missed them, check out the earlier installments in this series: Part 1 and Part 2.

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