Skimming Off The Cauldron by Jesse Hilson

Six Six Six: Horror Film Reviews. David Kuhnlein. Bluetick Books, 2022. 47 pages.

Reviewing is an art form by which, often, writing is crafted to allow the reader to see something unseen. You may not have the time to read x number of books but maybe you can slip in (x – y) number of book reviews and gain some glimpse of the unread library just out of reach. Online reviews on Goodreads and Amazon are mostly one paragraph affairs by which you get a coarse understanding of the book and are brought closer to that ultimate decision: whether to buy said book or consign it to oblivion forever, more or less.

Then there are more refined reviews. The reviewer has handcrafted something that is, not parasitically but symbiotically, a work of art that self-justifiably takes sustenance from another, primary work of art. The artistic commentary on a painting could be hanged in its own museum for the delectation of viewers who may never even look at the original. 

The eight movie reviews in Six Six Six are finely carved prose-poetic elevations of the form. They won’t be to everybody’s liking since they apparently use the horror films as jumping-off points for other more arcane meditations. Full disclosure: of the eight movies reviewed by Kuhnlein here, I have only watched two of them—Hereditary and The Witch. While I devoured the horror section of my local video store as a teenager, I am an admitted poseur to the current manifestations of the horror genre. Current horror being a largely unknown commodity to me, but a hot commodity recently nonetheless, with a pop cultural as well as aesthetic weight that makes it ripe for interpretation, exegesis, and commentary. The six other films (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, The Cleaning Lady, Ju-On Origins, Good Boy, Unsane, and Carnival of Souls) serve as bodies of mulch out of which which Kuhnlein grows fungi-essays that he then forages for unschooled viewers such as myself.

I don’t need to have seen the movies in question to appreciate passages like

“I liken Time to an enormous millipede—anus and antennae tickling the distance of past and future. Every once in a while, a hooked leg nestles in my footprint. It’s in that intersection, smaller than a centimeter, where I exit such dreams.”

When you watch a movie with Kuhnlein, you’re watching it with a daring poet given to fits of visceral, hallucinogenic description and association. These are really like poems more than staid, easily-digestible Roger Ebert reviews. The content of the review is hidden behind a milky, translucent membrane of verbal ectoplasm. This may not be to everybody’s taste: if you want to learn something clarified about the movies being assessed, you will have to go somewhere else, because Kuhnlein is boiling the movies in an unholy cauldron and skimming off the top layer of oil for you.

The book is very short, a zine-booklet apparently lovingly hand-stapled and trimmed with low quality printed photographs from the films in question, but it’s really in the writing that you’re taken to other places. The evil dog of Good Boy is likened, in some interpretations, to a “slaughter-proxy, like Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho, a way for [the main character] to stomach her own dissociative attacks…” and we are asked to “imagine what murder might be like for dogs: sharp bursts of chemical odors sped through the tramway of a snout, olfactory maps unfurled, refreshing the nuanced scent of death rattles…” The generational sicknesses alluded to in Hereditary are dispassionately palpated by Kuhnlein’s instruments of cultural critique:

“Even for crystal-sucking millennials idiopathic chronic disease is skyrocketing, which quasi-religious revival might assist, but not if you refuse to subject your psyche to the séance…There are so many embarrassingly misunderstood illnesses medical science disbands with a wave of a hand. Might as well fashion them into a culture, anything better cultivated than what the palm reader’s steamiest coffee enema nourishes.”

Practically each sentence in the book is a Calderesque suspended mobile of distributed ideas on the dark side. A note in the acknowledgements page thanks Sean Kilpatrick for the “attentive edits on many of these pieces,” and if you know Kilpatrick’s work you could imagine where some of the sources might lie for the phantasmagorical, finely etched balance of Kuhnlein’s writing here, although of course the credit belongs to its stated author. You could almost throw a dart at the book and wherever the dart’s sharp point punctures you’d find a syntactical chunk of icy, creepy, dark intelligence.

Recommended.

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