Saturday, November 2, 2019

Listener Sam Reviews: Wounds, The Visible Filth

Babak Anvari’s Wounds is, without a doubt, my most anticipated horror movie of 2019. It’s also a film that has been tantalizing me all year, like a carrot dangled from a string -- seemingly close but constantly moving further away. It premiered at Sundance on January 26, 2019 (my birthday, no less) and was slated to release to Netflix on March 29th.

I tuned in on the 29th thrilled to watch it, but it never showed up. It took a few days to learn that it was shelved, but there was little-to-no other explanation. Now, after a six-month wait, it’s somehow managed to slink over to Hulu, where it’s being released on October 18th. I’m not quite sure what chain of events led to this, but I’m thrilled to finally have had a chance to see this.

Wounds is the film adaptation of Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Visible Filth,” A 73-or-so page novella that is one of the best pieces of horror literature I’ve ever read. If you’re unfamiliar with Ballingrud, now’s a great time to begin catching up on his back catalog.

Ballingrud currently has two published short story collections. “North American Lake Monsters: Stories,” is his debut collection, published in 2013. He followed it up with “Wounds: Six Stories From the Borders of Hell” just this year. “The Visible Filth” also received its own standalone printing in 2015, but it’s also included in Wounds, and the collection is worth it for the other stories. The Butcher’s Table, in particular, is a unique piece of pirate-horror and is an absolute triumph. It deftly manages an ensemble cast, creates an amazing sense of dread, builds incredible mythology, and crafts a wholly unique and alien vision of hell.

In addition to his books, and Wounds (the film), his first collection has been picked up by Hulu and is being made into an 8-episode series. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that Ballingrud is a new horror master, and I’ll read anything he writes without a second thought.

Before I go on, I want to mention that I’m writing this article in two parts. The first half is on “The Visible Filth” and is being written before seeing Wounds. The second half will inevitably be about the film, analysis, my thoughts, and comparisons to the book.

Ballingrud’s stories explore humanity at its worst, and while the supernatural elements are terrifying in their own right, much of the horror comes from the human-ness of the characters, their broken lives, and their awful, desperate, and pathetic actions and inactions.

The stories in his collection, "North American Lake Monsters" often delve into the fragility of the working-class. While he’s by no means a feminist author, his stories often portray the absolute worst elements of masculinity, and his protagonists are often as pathetic as they are testosterone-driven.

“Wild Acre” is about the aftermath of a man’s failure to stop a werewolf from killing his friends. “SS” hauntingly follows the initiation of a lonely teenage boy into a white supremacist group. “The Good Husband” tracks the fallout after a man fails to stop his wife’s suicide attempt. All his stories feel dangerous and transgressive. They fill the reader with a sense that they are experiencing something forbidden, and they evoke a variety of primal fears. Fear of loss. Fear of rejection. Fear of responsibility.

The Visible Filth is no exception.
The story centers on Will, an affable deadbeat who tends a bar at a filthy New Orleans dive. One night, some underage kids stumble in, and Will serves them regardless. Not long after, a regular, Eric, gets into a fight where he takes a broken bottle to the face. He wins the fight, thoroughly pummeling his assailant, but his face gets mangled.
Throughout this, Will does nothing but mop up the blood. While doing so, he finds one of the kids’ cellphones and takes it home with him.
The fight eventually gets broken up, no thanks to Will. The kids flee. Eric’s attacker flees. Eric refuses treatment -- he can’t afford the bill -- instead, he drags his ruined face out of the bar and to his apartment on the building’s second story.

Horror tropes lead us to expect that these teens are future hapless fodder for whatever horror lurks in the stories pages. “The Visible Filth” subverts that. Instead, Will begins receiving text messages on the phone from someone named Garret, who begs him for help. Will chooses to do nothing. He silences the phone and goes to sleep. He awakens to find more pleading texts, followed by a picture of a pile of bloody teeth.

That’s where Will’s strange journey begins.

While the novella includes disquieting depictions of violence and trauma, it’s Will’s actions that seem most despicable. Though relatively charming at face value, he’s so listless that while he may not be the arbiter of the awful things that come to pass, his constant, pathological inaction either leads to the story’s horrors or exacerbates them. Even the few times he takes action, it’s wrongheaded and narcissistic. Yet, even though he’s inarguably a bad person, Ballingrud crafts such a compelling story around him that it’s impossible to turn away. 

Ballingrud excels at making degenerates compelling, and we sympathize with Will as his situation becomes increasingly worse. Because of his charisma and charm, and because his situation isn’t quite his own fault, we feel for him as a protagonist. We want things to turn out alright for him in spite of himself. We want him to take control of his life, rather than following the stories tumultuous currents like flotsam in a hurricane.

Ballingrud doesn’t just excel at plot or character. The man writes horror stories that at times feel as gritty as a Jim Thompson novel and leave you feeling outright filthy while maintaining compelling and unique prose. At times, his words are downright beautiful. “The Visible Filth,” for example, begins by describing cockroach mating season at a seedy New Orleans bar:

“The roaches were in high spirits. There were half a dozen of them, caught in the teeth of love. They capered across the liquor bottles, perched atop pour spouts like wooden ladies on the prows of sailing ships. They lifted their wings and delicately fluttered. They swung their antennae with a ripe sexual urgency, tracing love sonnets in the air.” (p.1)

The prose remains fantastic throughout, using unique examples of simile and metaphor that are surprising but still manage to come off naturally. The effect is at its best, perhaps, when describing violence and the stories (almost titular) wounds.

“The right side of Eric’s face was a Technicolor nightmare of scabbed and torn flesh.” (p. 20)

This prose among the many reasons I’m so excited for the film. While a face full of scabbed and torn flesh is easy to imagine, I’m excited to see how Babak Anvari decides to depict the “Technicolor” part. This segment alone isn’t the only bit of surreality in Ballingrud’s depictions. Much of the imagery depicts surreal and impossible events, and while I’ll let you discover the true horrors of “The Visible Filth” as a reader, the central terror that Will discovers is nightmarish, and I’m thrilled to see it depicted on screen. 

I’m not too concerned with the presentation. Babak Anvari’s previous film, Under the Shadow, demonstrates some serious horror talent. While the subject matter is significantly different, Under the Shadow is beautiful, and delivers excellent scares and tension. It also contains some amazing production design and does a fantastic job with its limited setup.

With Under the Shadow, Anvari also shows an excellent attunement for the weird. The previous film delivers scares through clever unsettling imagery, without relying on too many special effects. Sheets floating through the air, a naked man lurking in a doorway, a girls face becoming one gigantic mouth, it’s an aesthetic that could lend itself particularly well to “The Visible Filth,” which shares a similar weirdness.
I have a lot of confidence in Anvari, and it helps that the trailer looks gnarly in the best possible way. The cockroaches are present in droves, and the wounds look downright nasty, and it shows things that aren’t explicitly in the book, but seem to be a perfect fit in the world and ideas laid down by The Visible Filth.

Seriously, just go read this story. It shouldn’t take more than an hour, and I suspect you’ll be compelled to read more of Ballingrud’s work. If you do like it, a few stories that I’d recommend most highly are: “The Butcher’s Table” and “The Atlas of Hell” from Wounds and “Wild Acre,” “North American Lake Monsters,” and “The Good Husband” from North American Lake Monsters. If you’re interested in sampling, he has a few stories published online:

And now, our feature presentation.

I watched Wounds the night of its release to Hulu, brimming with excitement. I’d spent the last two weeks poring over the source material and couldn’t wait to see it on screen. I watched Babak Anvari’s previous film the night before in anticipation. I’d been trying to avoid them, but I’d seen that Wounds had been getting some mixed reviews, but that didn’t bother me. I was ready.

Around 9:00 pm, I hit play.

And I watched it.

I wish I could say it lived up to my expectations.

It did not.

It’s plain to see that Anvari is a technically impressive filmmaker. He understands the craft and directs admirably. With Wounds, he delivers a smoldering slow burn that tracks us down the path of Will’s plunge into narcissism, obsession, and madness. 

Wounds is a technically well-made film. The cinematography and set design are both great, particularly the homes of Will and Eric, which both feel lived in and sufficiently right for the characters. Rosie’s bar feels a little too nice at times but is mostly satisfying as the dive it’s supposed to be.

The casting was excellent. Armie Hammer and Zazie Beetz are great, and I particularly loved Brad Henke as Eric and Karl Glusman as Jeffery. The melange of college kids were fantastic and scummy in a way that matched the books. The only let down was Dakota Johnson whose performance as Carrie felt flat and ineffective, but I’ve felt that about her in other roles, and I can accept that that’s her acting style

This film has a lot of cockroaches, and while I suspect that many of them were CG, there were definitely a number of real ones (evidenced by the presence of a roach wrangler, Karen Milliken, in the credits), and they all looked fantastic. 

The other CG and the makeup effects were similarly great. There’s an image of a ragged eyeball that pops up that’s particularly impressive, and when we see it, Eric’s “Technicolor nightmare of scabbed and torn flesh” is impressive made up in grotesque red, black, and yellow. Other, more spoilery imagery looks incredible as well. To that end, I’m inclined to say that the film is worth watching for these few sequences alone. To they extent that they’re included, they provide nice payoffs to the graphic horror sequences in the book.

I wish I could say that all of these things coalesce into a great film, but they don’t. When it comes to telling a good story, Wounds simply falls apart. 

I may have buried the lede when talking about “The Visible Filth.” While the novella has incredibly described imagery, the sequences are few and far between, and much of the story’s horror and intrigue are internal. It’s what Will is thinking and feeling and how he’s reacting to those emotions that unsettle the reader, and the gruesome images help serve to gild the story’s true horror.

Wounds fails as a feature film because it’s too faithful an adaptation. It follows the story almost exactly, to the point where next-to-no new dialogue has been added, and I could count the scenes that don’t appear in the novella on one hand. 

While that may sound great to a purist, it’s important to remember that film is a visual medium. “The Visible Filth” is a 73-page novella that spends much of its time in a character’s head. There’s just not a lot to put onto film. What we get instead are shots that simmer and brood for too long, filling space that would be better served by being trimmed or reconfigured to tell the story through an audiovisual medium.

It’s also important to realize that novellas, short stories, and short films allow for different story-telling structures than full-length novels and feature films. As a society, we’re conditioned to expect certain things in a feature film. We anticipate a beginning, middle, and an end where a character experiences some kind of emotional arc where they experience a fundamental change. 

Short-form media, on the other hand, rarely meets these expectations, and to a degree, we expect that too. Short media delivers a story more like one would deliver a joke -- through setup and payoff. “The Visible Filth” is an example of this. Across its 73 pages, Will remains unchanged as a character. In fact, Will’s resistance to change is central to the novella. 

Without giving too much away, if you were to look at “The Visible Filth” as part of a full-length novel, it would end somewhere in the mid-to-late second act, as Will realizes that he’s broken as a human being and needs to somehow be made whole. Instead, this conclusion serves as the punchline to the joke that is Will’s pathetic life, and in the short story format, it’s excellent and affecting and moving.

There’s also an expectation that in a short story or novella characters may not be as fleshed-out as in a longer piece. This really shows in Wounds. While Will seems like a relatively complete character, neither Alisha nor Carrie has been developed into anything more than a pastiche of a human being, there to serve the plot and nothing else. This works fine in the novella’s 73-pages but leaves us wanting in a feature-length film.

While Babak Anvari remains an impressive director, after seeing Wounds, I’m less convinced of his prowess as a writer, or at least as a writer adapting other media. I understand respecting the source material, but I’m legitimately curious how he managed to turn a 73-page novella into a ~95-page screenplay while changing as little as he did.

The good news is that this film isn’t tanking anyone’s career. I still have high hopes for whatever Anvari follows-up with, and shooting just started on the Hulu series adaptation of Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters. I’m inclined to stay positive, but I’ll certainly temper my expectations next time.

...No excuse me while I reread “The Visible Filth” again.

-Listener Sam

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