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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Crazies (2010): Conservative horror?

I was entertained by Breck Eisner's remake of George Romero's 1973 The Crazies, but I ultimately didn't care much for it.

Less consequentially, I think it suffers from being a good idea lacking in follow-through. I occasionally accuse sci-fi plots of starting with a good concept that gets dropped along the way. For example, I felt that Tony Scott's Déjà Vu had a pretty interesting time travel thesis going on, until it got dropped for explosions and an obligatory romance plot. The Crazies keeps Romero's concept of a virus that induces a murderous frenzy. In the original film, this creates rabidly violent victims, not unlike the experimental combat drug in Jacob's Ladder (1990). Eisner departs from this mold by allowing the infected to retain their composure, so that the virus compromises something else. Perhaps it creates paranoid delusions? For whatever reason, the film departs from its pseudo-zombie movie predecessor, giving us calculating killers instead of mindless hordes.
And that'd be fine, except that it is later shown that the infected are capable of setting traps and working as teams. Now, zombies don't kill one another, because they only hunt the living, and their compatriots are dead by definition. But why wouldn't the infected in this film attack one another? And go as far as to establish camaraderie?

Anyway, we're pretty well familiar with hippie horror as a liberal institution, if you elect to read Romero's original film as part of post-Vietnam disillusionment and a critique of government and military. So now it kind of makes sense that the new American radicals, conservatives and Tea Partiers, take up the same protest imagery to convey their impressions of "big government."
Liberal horror, when it addresses government and military, tends to criticize how America treats the outsider, calling upon injustices of foreign wars and general xenophobia. Romero's The Crazies comments on the American war practices against the Vietnamese, as well as the treatment of American soldiers as expendable. That film shows the tables turned, as the military is deployed against its own citizens, and even features a self-immolation, referencing the powerful imagery of Vietnam-era protest.
Liberal antiwar protest always seems to target an individual character, calling out the president on "war crimes" or what have you, and staking a hope for reform on the ousting of this specific character. The 1973 film gives faces to the politicians and military leaders responsible for the catastrophe, which demonstrates a belief in personal responsibility and accountability. This isn't particularly noteworthy until we consider the remake.

The 2010 version of The Crazies portrays the government in the absolutely most negative possible light. As an entity, the leadership remains entirely faceless, but we are able to see through its eyes by way of "big brother" spy satellites, which zoom in to the action on the ground periodically. This imagery is very similar to the telescope view used by the mutants in the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, which shows the stranded family as always being watched by their stalkers and murderers.
This is where I see a libertarian bent to this film: The government is portrayed as a malevolent entity, not as something human, accountable, and reparable. You can't vote those spying eyes out of office.
Counter to the faceless government and its faceless gasmasked drones are the regular, ordinary folks, led by the small-town sheriff, who would be capable of seeing after themselves if it wasn't for big brother's interference.
The selection of school and hospital as key battlegrounds comments on the political struggle for the control of these institutions. In the remake, the school is repurposed as detention center/hospital. The public school system has always been a contentious topic, but the hospital is relatively new, perhaps serving as a commentary on "Obamacare." We see that in this hospital, everyone is treated the same. The infected are strapped down alongside the healthy, because the authorities aren't interested in sorting through the patients. It is later revealed that those who were quarantined and the others who were shipped out met the same fate either way. Sound like "death panels" to anyone?
Finally, I think the "crazies" themselves have a political role to play. The characters are not portrayed particularly sympathetically. I think it would be fair to interpret the crazies as the political opposition to the central "conservative" characters. After all, it is technically the fault of the infected that the big bad government invaded the town to deal with the situation created by rampant psychosis, which of course, was created by the government when it leaked a toxin into the water supply. Compare this to an image of American social programs where the government has to clean up, for example, the homelessness problem, at the expense of the taxpayers, to solve a problem that the government helped to create in the first place.
At one point in the film, the infected become the arm of government agenda. In scene where the restrained patients in the hospital are systematically skewered by a crazy with a pitchfork, let's remember that it's essentially the fault of the government, first for not posting any security in this wing of the building, and secondly, because this maniac is achieving the same goal the military personel were going to carry out anyway. As in, when socialized medicine takes away your doctor and forces you to see someone else, the pitchfork man is the new doctor you can't trust, who kills you in your bed along with everyone else because you can no longer get the treatment you need.

Did anyone else get this vibe?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Flower of Flesh and Blood, ethics, and the ontology of the body

Guinea Pig 2: Flower of Flesh and Blood (1985)- if you're not trying to do something academic with it, there's absolutely no reason to watch this movie, beyond satisfying a curiosity.
My friend Kara posted a comment on an older post, asking how exploitation fits into a definition of the horror film, and citing the Guinea Pig series as a possible example of pure exploitation.
I had never heard of this film. Perhaps you haven't either.

The film begins with a man chasing and choloroforming a young woman. When she awakens, she is bound to a bed in a bloodied basement. He beheads a live chicken and says something to the effect of "This will be you!" He then drugs her, and explains to the camera that she now feels no pain, and perhaps even feels pleasure. Then, using various implements, and in great detail, he dismembers her. In between amputations, he describes the body poetically, building on the theme of a "flower of flesh and blood."
When he is finished, he explains that he is adding her to his collection, and pulls back a curtain to reveal an area where he embalms some body parts and composts others.
Famously, actor Charlie Sheen, believing the movie to be a snuff film, contacted the MPAA, who contacted the FBI.
The entire runtime is about 40 minutes.

This film is very unusual, and defies a lot of expectations. With it's reputation in mind, I fully anticipated the possibility of having to turn it off for being revolting or offensive. Instead, I noticed that my heart rate did not accelerate at any point during the film, not because of some desensitization, but because of the very unusual presentation of violence.
The early scene where the captor threatens his victim by beheading the chicken is kind of an anomaly, for he does not otherwise seem to wish her any ill will. By drugging her, he ensures that she will feel no pain. The film therefore is extremely light on sadism and suffering. Compared to The Last House on the Left and Irréversible, two films that will always stand out to me for provoking strong reactions, Flower of Flesh and Blood is in some ways much easier to watch. It reminds one of surgical television programs, with a lot of gore narrated in serious tones. Because there is a lack of suffering or sadism, there is no suspense. For the majority of the film, the stakes are very low. Sure, she gets murdered. But painlessly? Not a bad way to go.

Perspective on the body
Occasionally, I happen into a weird perspective of what the body is. It cropped up a while back in another blog in a debate about teleportation, where I argued a perspective that comes from trying to describe the body in as "realistic" a way possible, removing the identity and considering the constituent elements. Sometimes a film can put you in touch with this distanced perspective. A scene from Tony Kaye's documentary Lake of Fire shows a doctor concluding an abortion by taking stock of the excised tissues. The footage is unsettling, but I found that it affirmed my belief in the right to choose. Abortion highlights the ontological problem of staring into the doctor's dish and describing what you see. It is somehow both a person and a conglomeration of tissues. The two impressions compete, and inform our ethics. In that tiny, disarrayed body, we can see something vile and wrong, but we can also see the wonders and curiosities of the chaos of biology.
Despite the fact that you are your mother's child, you may find yourself awakened to the fact that the raw materials of your body have always been the raw materials of something else, perhaps as one-time parts of innumerable other living things, and before that, they hurtled through space as stardust. At a distance, your body is composed of the same heterogeneous clay that forms everything else.
If we let this perspective compete with our ethics, we can explore Flower of Flesh and Blood. Surely it is wrong to murder, but beyond that, is it wrong to marvel at the body as one would appreciate a flower? Is it immoral to admire the way that blood blooms from a wound, to sniff the heavy bouquet of decay, or taste human blood, simply for the sake of experience?
In the murderer, Flower of Flesh and Blood presents an interesting study in motivation. By my interpretation, the murderer kills not because he wishes to murder, but because murder is an incidental prerequisite to his actual goal, which is to commune with the living body freely. Somehow, he blurs the boundaries of psychopath, naturalist, pervert, and transcendentalist poet.
This mirrors Patrick Süskind's novel from the same year (1985) Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which was adapted to film in 2006 by director Tom Tykwer. The lead character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is born with a superhuman sense of smell, and no scent of his own. He learns the perfuming trade, and endeavors to craft the perfect scent from the essence of virginal women. His experience of these women is sensual and exploratory, and totally divorced from the ethics of committing murder.
Flower of Flesh and Blood bears another interesting relevance to real events. Jeffrey Dahmer once gave an interview where he detailed the drives and desires that pushed him to commit his crimes. He expressed great regret and discussed hating having to murder on the way to satisfying those drives. The complexity of the pathology evokes some sympathy, as we see a man who killed not out of greed or a disregard for human life, but because he was coerced by some curious sickness, perhaps indeed a sickness of curiosity.

In response to Kara's question, I believe that this film is not an example of "pure exploitation." The exploitation film draws its audience by exploiting a specific interest the audience holds. This works like a form of advertising. For example, the "blaxploitation" films of the 1970s were produced specifically for black audiences. Exploitation is a method to get people into the theater. Pornography is another exploitation genre that exploits a certain (obvious) interest. The Guinea Pig series is exploitation aimed at the facet of horror fandom compelled by graphic depictions of gore. But is there such a thing as "pure exploitation?" I think that a film's content is separate from its exploitation techniques, which I would describe as "meta-content." That its content is particularly relevant to x audience population is irrelevant to the film's ability to stand on its own, and to be judged for better or for worse by its merits. Therefore, the film that is "pure exploitation" would necessarily be one that doesn't exist, but is nonetheless advertised! It could be well-argued that the "Royal Nonesuch" show from Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn could qualify, a near non-event that continues solely because of the patrons' desire to see their friends and neighbors similarly conned!

Not to give too much credit...
For 40-odd minutes of monotonous carnage, Flower of Flesh and Blood somehow yielded a lot to discuss. But it is not my intention to find merits where they shouldn't be found. Learning about biology from studying roadkill isn't a reason to laud the careless driver that ran it over. The film has some interesting sub-text, but it always borders on the faux-philosophical edge of bad filmmaking. Just because the film has something to do with the aesthetics of murder doesn't make it Se7en. The film reveals the intent behind it by bending to some of the more distasteful genre conventions, to the detriment of anything worthwhile therein. Already mentioned is the chicken scene, a preposterous attempt to create suspense. Furthermore, and quite egregiously, the eventual beheading scene is undertaken in slow-motion, and the head adopts a laughable and wholly unrealistic trajectory, splatting against the wall dramatically. This is very poor filmmaking with a marginal element of luck.

Gore can be fun. Consider any of makeup artist Tom Savini's work: there's always an element of good-natured joviality in each instance of "Wow!/Gross!" His hard work pays off, and it's clear that the crew had a good time putting that moment together, compared to the film in question, which reeks of unpleasantness.
You could watch this movie on a dare, but don't expect to be entertained.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Soraya M. and a new definition of horror

On a professor's recommendation, I sought out The Stoning of Soraya M. (2008), a dramatization of Freidoune Sahebjam's 1990 novel La Femme Lapidée, based on a true story.

This film presented me with a problem. As I have mentioned previously, I maintain a list of horror films I have seen. Keeping this list raises questions of what films qualify for genre classification. A previous post discusses my mode of definition. In that discussion, I decided that the central requirement of the horror film is that it horrifies the viewer.

When Soraya M. was finished, I faced a conflict of whether to include it as a horror film on my list. On the one hand, the film was certainly horrifying. It tells the true story of a woman vicitimized by a conspiracy to abuse Islamic law in 1986 Iran. Part of me felt that categorizing the film as horror cheapened the real-life tragedy behind it. This aroused a concern that I may be harboring a prejudice that horror is inherently cheap, which compromises the integrity of this blog.

It appears that the classification of this film will be the ground upon which I must again discover and defend my disposition towards this genre.

The Story
The Stoning of Soraya M. has a lot in common with The Stepford Wives (1975). Stepford centers on two women banded together to modernize their position in their male-dominated community. These women uncover a plot by the men in the community to murder their wives and replace them with animatronic slaves.
Soraya and her aunt are a similar pairing working towards a similar goal. The aunt uses her good standing with the men of the community to protect Soraya, finding her a job looking after the home of a widower. The aunt uncovers a similar murder/replacement plot, here with the men spreading a rumor of adultery, so that Soraya can be executed under Sharia law, leaving her husband free to marry a young girl.

It is somewhat uncomfortable to say that The Stoning of Soraya M. and The Stepford Wives have similar "plots." It seems offensive to the memory of the real Soraya and other victims of oppression. Still, in a vacuum, both films tell similar stories.

Why Now?
One standard question that pops up when reviewing films is "Why now?" When the source material is not contemporary, it helps to ask what is so relevant about the story to warrant attention today. What anxiety or sense of injustice does this film appeal to?
Just to deal with cynicism quickly, it should be noted that Sahebjam, the novel's author, died in March 2008. This film of his most famous work was produced in 2008 and released in March of 2009. Barring a great coincidence, the filmmakers could have used Sahebjam's temporary resurgence into the public consciousness as free publicity, with his passing as an impetus to produce this film quickly. Less cynically, one could view the film as a tribute to the life of the author, though I'm not convinced the industry often works that way.

Considering the actual stoning as a civil rights issue, the film is not necessarily a call to outrage over the death of this individual. When the film was realeased, Soraya Manutchehri had been dead for 23 years, and Sahebjam's novel had broken the story 19 years prior. Rather, the film seems to be part of the West's attack on Islamic culture.

It is not my place to weigh in on the civil rights of women under Islam, but the foremost criticism in recent years has been against the burqa, as a symbol of the oppression of women. But to me, it seems that outrage over the burqa is just another path to attack Islam itself.
The film concerns religious law, and how it can be abused to horrible effect. But the film doesn't just criticize the law and the men who twist it. It targets Islam as the culprit, and portrays the faithful in a very negative light, not unlike cultists of the horror canon (compare the mob's cries of "God is great!" to the "Hail Satan!" of Rosemary's Baby). In fact, by the end of the film, the women are almost secular characters. Soraya never invokes God in the scenes leading to her death. Instead, she appeals to her aunt to keep her memory alive, which is the closest thing to a secular afterlife. Soraya's apparent lack of faith seems purposeful. Having her invoke God before her execution would have been the classic opportunity to differentiate moderate Islam from fundamentalism, but instead, the film has nothing good to say about the faith at all.
Furthermore, I am made suspicious by the cover of the film, which proclaims "From the producers of The Passion of the Christ. I suspect that the audience targeted by this credential is an audience that is looking to have their fears of Islam reinforced.

Figures of Myth
To counter my worry that it is disrespectful to address a factual story like a fiction, I look to other films that should raise the same quandry. There are many dramatic films that rely upon factual misfortunes, but in those films, the characters are mythologized. It could be argued that the way a historical person is mythologized into a character is essential to human culture. They become the malleable elements of oral history. In the same way that George Washington was remade into a paragon of honesty, or how Ed Gein has been repurposed into many a glorified campfire story, Soraya Manutchehri has been transformed from a victim to a martyr, and, if my analysis is credible, perhaps into a weapon against her own faith.
I conclude then that the burden of classification in these films falls to the filmmaker, and where I may recognize an intent to horrify, I am justified.

A New Tripartite Definition of Horror
There are three senses of horrified. The most common form is the experience form, like riding a rollercoster, or a jump-scene in a scary movie that tricks you for a moment into believing that your are in actual danger. The second form is experience-emotional, which uses the experience of the film to draw you in, where that emotional investment brings you in touch with some greater anxiety (for example, the audience's committment to Alex is essential to the realization of the dystopic horror of A Clockwork Orange. The third sense of horrified, simple emotional horror, does not apply to the horror film. This is witnessing the horrific without the distance of the movie screen. News footage or a snuff film could never qualify for the genre.
The Stoning of Soraya M., because it is a dramatization, cannot be the authentic, third sense of horror. Regardless of how accurate it may be, it will always be a movie, an image crafted to evoke an effect. Because I was horrified, I recognize it as a horror film. When I sat down to compose this, I intended to explain why the film was not horror. But I've convinced myself otherwise, and have added it to the list at #289.

1. The execution sequence is truly horrific, more on par with The Passion of the Christ than with the typical execution scene in other dramas, which always seem to keep their distance and minimize the graphic depictions of suffering. In contrast, Soraya M. horrifies by drawing out the sequence, embellishing the throwing of each stone, and even employing a first-person perspective. This film is about the horror of this scene, unlike the memorable and affecting hangings of Capote which are nonetheless incidental to the greater story.

2. The titling of this film follows a trend noted in John Kenneth Muir's Horror Films of the 1970s. Many '70s horror titles were formulated as "The (some happening) of (proper noun), with a distinct rhythm to the phrase. This began with the like of The Reincarnation of Peter Proud and The Possession of Joel Delaney, and can be found more recently in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Haunting of Molly Hartley, and The Possession of David O'Reilly.
Not that it was necessarily intentional, but The Stoning of Soraya M. follows the pattern.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Irréversible- impressions

When I report that Irréversible is the new most violent movie I've seen, keep in mind that my tally of horror films has hit 271. That's a lot of precedent to overcome. I did not know what I was getting into.

The film is presented completely backwards, like Memento, which presents an unusual problem for someone trying not to give away the ending (beginning?). So here's the essentials in chronological order, spoiling the film.

Alex, her boyfriend Marcus, and her ex-lover Pierre are at a party.
Alex leaves and is brutally raped and battered by The Tenia in an agonizing 9-minute single camera scene.
Marcus seeks revenge, while Pierre acts as the voice of reason.
The pair make their way to a gay SM nightclub to confront The Tenia. Marcus mistakenly fights with another man, who breaks his arm and attempts to rape him.
Pierre steps in to defend Marcus, literally reducing the man's face to its constituent elements with a fire extinguisher while the club's patrons watch.
Pierre is arrested, and Marcus is taken to the hospital.

The above describes the first half of the film. The reverse chronology continues back to the hours before the party, giving insight into the relationship between Marcus and Alex, and her past relationship with Pierre.

Who is The Tenia?
The Tenia is remarkable in that his sexuality is not categorizable. He is described as a pimp and seen in the company of a transgendered prostitute. In the club, he appears to be a patron, but commands the respect of the others, and is shown sniffing amyl nitrates casually at the edges of the larger crowd.
That he rapes Alex presents a paradox. By all indications, he is a homosexual, and even comments during the assault "I don't usually like this." His preference for anal intercourse could indicate an underlying aversion to the female body.
It is my contention, however, that The Tenia does not have a sexuality, homosexual, bisexual, or otherwise. Instead, he is attracted to and satisfied by the infliction of pain and the exercise of his own power over others. His sexual preferences are tied to narcissim and sociopathy. The gender of his target is irrelevant. He displays the same violence towards all with an apparent erotic satisfaction as he asserts himself.

Marcus vs. The Tenia
The Tenia is the most obvious clue to the greater scheme of the film. He is a caricature of beastly instinct, the bare bones of the erotic drive stripped of all empathy. He is the obvious villain, and Marcus is his counterpart.
If The Tenia is the embodiment of pure, cruel instinct, Marcus is only one short step better. He has been socialized into morality, but still lacks inhibition. At the chronological beginning of the film, Marcus' relationship to Alex is shown to be primarily a carnal one. Marcus may be incapable of contributing any other kind of emotional satisfaction besides his playful goodnaturedness. He is bad with money, prone to blurting his sexual desires out of context, and resentful of Alex's continued friendship with Pierre. At the party, he casually uses hard drugs, lies about it, kisses random women, completely disregards Pierre's personal boundaries, and patently ignores all attempts to reign him in. His behavior at the party, bouncing around chaotically, is telling of his larger role: he lacks self-control and introspection, and though his disposition is benign if not amusing, he still has the potential to cause harm.
What separates Marcus and The Tenia is a veneer of civility. The unreigned freespiritedness that attracts Alex to Marcus is akin to the charismatic brutality that makes The Tenia a respected figure among his crowd.

Alex and Pierre
Alex represents the ideal balance between instinct and restraint. She exercises her instinct in the proper venue, relaxing her inhibitions and dancing at the party without giving in to Dionysian debauchery. She has a healthy sex life that gives her satisfaction and enables her to satisfy her partner, and is able to reflect articulately about that aspect of herself.
On the continuum of instinct/restraint, Pierre falls too far into the side of restraint. He is a philosophy professor, and his academic background isolates him from the other characters, who dismiss his attempts to bring rationality to the events of the evening. It is revealed that his relationship with Alex failed in part because he was unable to satisfy her sexually, which is attributed to his overthinking the process and never letting his instinct take over. Though he tries to hide it, he shows himself to be the lonely ex-boyfriend. His friendship with Alex is slightly overbearing, but he attempts serve her best interests, thinking that to be the right thing to do, rather than give in to jealousy, and tries to control the unpredictable Marcus.
Pierre's self-control is a form of repression, and his instinctual side boils below the surface. His participation in the quest for revenge overtly appears to be an attempt to protect Marcus, but it is likely that he could not turn away from the increasingly outrageous circumstances because he subconsciously desired revenge.
Finally, his repression fails when he is called to protect Marcus in the club, and he strikes Marcus' attacker. The necessity of protecting Marcus having passed, the fully rational man should be able to walk away. But in erroneously believing this man to be the rapist, his repressed love for Alex explodes forth, and in a stomach-turning, soul-killing triumph of film technique, he continues to beat the prone man long past the point of actually killing him. His efforts to continue doing so are labored, much like Pitt's finale performance in Se7en, with the rage in him barely trumping his better judgment. The violence spills out of Pierre at irregular intervals, like great physical sobs coming from a man who can no longer maintain his composure.

Irréversible is remarkable in that it is fundamentally an examination of humanity that does not shy away from anything. Though the camerawork is highly creative, the subject matter is honest and unstylized. It captures the prolonged agony of violence without editing it down to something palatable. The film received great scorn for its depiction of violence against women, but I find it more ethically responsible to fully express the cruelty rather than edit it down into the bare minimum excuse for the exercise of revenge-narrative machismo. By telling the story in reverse, the film insures itself against becoming Straw Dogs or The Last House on the Left.

If Antichrist is the exploration of the violent fundamentals of human eroticism through psychology, Irréversible is its anthropological counterpart. In Antichrist, the self-psychologizing of the characters lays the groundwork for future violence. In Irréversible, the violence is shown first, and its explanation is given through studying the behavior of the characters.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Mist: special effects, political correctness

Prepare for spoilers. This is a relatively recent film.

The 2007 film The Mist is based on Stephen King's 1980 novella about dangerous monsters hidden by a thick, inexplicable mist. I had low expectations for this story, because given King's tendency to rehash the works of others, I expected to find justification to my suspicion that this story would rip off The Fog, released by John Carpenter in 1980 as well.

Any similarities or whatever aside, the 2007 film is brilliant. It is difficult for a film to earn my respect when it includes a lot of digital special effects. Usually, no matter how advanced the technology, they don't match the rest of the world. The digital monsters in Silent Hill distracted from any moment of terror I might have felt. In Panic Room David Fincher opts for some impossible photography of digital scenery that I can't understand there being a purpose for. I acknowledge that sometimes you can't tell a fantastic story without fantastic visuals, and I look to Spielberg's 2005 War of the Worlds, a film so awash in cohesive special effects that I never felt distracted.

The monsters in The Mist are not natural-looking. They tend to err on the cartoony side. But what makes this forgivable is the way that the film does not rely too heavily on the monsters to tell its story. The film is not about people fighting monsters. The creatures are a reminder of the stakes of the situation. This film could have been done without the lavish visuals. I can imagine it even being a stage play, where the monsters are offstage. This attests to the strength of the story. The Mist is the heir to Shyamalan's Signs as a film about people, who may happen to encounter some CGI.

A question that you've got to ask when a 27 year old story gets made into a movie for the first time is "why now?" There are two relevant facets to the plot that speak to our era. The first is that of the military saddling the public with something terrible. In this case, the military higher-ups unleashed other-dimensional monsters into Maine. The obvious parallel is the war in the Middle East, where military higher-ups have committed Americans in every possible way to a mistake, requiring continual sacrifices to right that wrong.

The second, and more affecting facet, is the situation with Mrs. Carmody. Carmody is a local pariah, with an alluded-to history of instability. She embodies a fervent Christian fundamentalism, which initially gets under the skin of everybody in the film, especially those she tries to "save." As conditions worsen, her sway over the other characters grows. Rather than leave any possibility for her legitimacy as a prophet, Carmody is portrayed as having her ego strengthened as her cult of personality grows.

Mrs. Carmody's place in the story is that of the most strident, maddening voice you'll ever hear, that doesn't go away and is multiplied by its listeners. She's the film's Glenn Beck or Pat Robertson. She'd be the Sarah Palin if the film had come out a year later. Carmody manifests the infurating feeling of being trapped that we may feel in the political world. It's the feeling of hearing people say horrible things and not being allowed to stop them, because their rights are protected. Mrs. Carmody embodies the feeling of being a guest at a table where the host makes a homophobic remark and everyone else is laughing along, or listening to people defend the murder of Dr. George Tiller on the news. Whenever someone rebuffs Mrs. Carmody in the film, it's a moment of liberation from the tyranny of political correctness. When Ollie tells her to shut up, I feel conflicted, because as much as I want her to can it, I recognize her right to her worldview. When Irene hits her with a can of peas, chiding that stoning is allowed in the Bible, I am conflicted, because her argument is fallacious. But when she and her rabble become murderous and Ollie shoots her dead, I just want to high-five everyone in my apartment complex.

I bet that's how prosecuting attorneys turn into conservatives; watching criminals get off on their protected rights must make it feel damn good to put one away when you've finally got some good evidence.

Finally, I love the scene near the end where Ollie pulls a gun and the knife-wielding zealots back off. The gunshots at Mrs. Carmody call them out on their faith. Suddenly, the wrath of God that compelled them to murder isn't quite as serious as a grocer with a revolver. It's like The Lord of the Flies for grownups, except... No, that's exactly what it is.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Fun and Unfun Horror

I recently moved six hours from everyone I know for law school, into an apartment without internet. Knowing no one, I took the opportunity to work through my significant collection of unwatched horror films. Curiously, I discovered that I had no desire to watch certain movies in my collection, opting towards ones that I for a long time had little desire to touch, things like Tobe Hooper's miniseries of Stephen King's Salem's Lot, which I've had for several years.

Most notably, I watched The Blob from 1958, its 1988 remake, Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956, and its 1978 remake. The Blob spawned a mirthful remake, while Invasion's next of kin was significantly less-so.

Keep in mind that a film does not have to be "fun" to be excellent. I wouldn't describe many of my favorites in the "fun" category, because fun usually means not thought-provoking.

I had intended to explore what makes a film fun or unfun, but did not have much of an idea of how to do so. But I was inspired while watching a really cool program reproduced on YouTube called "Horror Cafe" (, wherein several prominent genre heroes discuss their craft over a multi-course meal. John Carpenter gave an analysis breaking plots into "right" and "left," just as you would imagine the political spectrum. According to Carpenter, films belonging to the right are "us versus them" scenarios," while on the left, we have "us versus ourselves." Right-leaning films present a sympathetic tribe combating the forces of otherness, a monster, an opposing, less human tribe, etc. In left-leaning films, the sympathetic characters are often isolated, without a tribe, or the tribe is being threatened from within, not by something inhuman, but something very, unpleasantly human. On the right, we have films that reaffirm group identity and demonize otherness. On the left, films expose the weakness and human flaws; things that the tribe doesn't want to admit.

I like to posit American Psycho as a prime example of the left-hand film. The power I find in this film comes from the sympathetic Patrick Bateman character, who is an exaggerated caricature of human jealousy and hostility, the externalization of everything you think when someone pisses you off.

Both of the original versions of The Blob and Invasion of the Body Snatchers were made in the 1950s, when science-fiction/horror was bound to the pro-military, anti-science paradigm of the nuclear age. As such, both films present threats from space, which terrorize the characters of a small community, and pose a greater threat to the United States at large. Both conclude with successes. In The Blob the monster is incapacitated, and in Invasion the central witness finally has his testimony acknowledged.

Invasion is often interpreted as symbolizing the threat of communism. Outsiders infiltrate America, take over the minds of the populace, and covert America to an empty, efficient way of life. Sounds a lot like the promise that communism would destroy individuality and institute forced atheism. Herein we have a reinforcing of the American identity against the sway of the other.

The Blob is just about space monsters.

The remake of The Blob is interesting, because it's really just the same story, updated to the 1980s. It draws together disparate groups into one communal identity, where the loner/biker character must join with the jocks and cheerleaders. This is a fun film, not in spite of, but because of the high degree of gory special effects. The film doesn't challenge the viewer emotionally, so it's not like the gore punctuates any kind of heart-chilling point the director is making (see this entry for a discussion of the serious use of gore).
Instead, we can revel guilt-free in the labors of the FX guys, who worked hard doing what they love: coming up with the grossest practical joke they could think up. You ever see a nasty effect and rewind it? That's what I'm talking about.

Contrary to this, the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is not fun. Some say it's a commentary on the downfall of American culture. I don't know what it's supposed to be about. I could hypothesize about it, but I'm not comfortable committing. Still, it's not a fun movie. The scene where Donald Sutherland smashes the head of his doppelganger with a garden hoe is really gross, and deadly serious. No music accompanies this act to cue any set response in the listener. The gore punctuates the internal identity struggle of the character, who brings great emotional investment to the dispatching of the imposter. The final scene of the film is the most significant plot difference from the original. In the 1956 version, the main character survives his encounter and successfully warns the world. In the 1978 remake, he is transformed, and betrays his former friend, who may be the last human on earth. In the original, the tribe suffers many losses, but the central figure maintains the tribe. In the remake, what starts as a tribe becomes the struggle for individuals to survive, and the central character eventually loses himself and becomes something else.

Donald Sutherland's character is filled with anxiety about what he could become. Do we sense that in ourselves? Losing our idealism? Betraying those closest to us because we were swayed to something else?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Speculative fiction makes for good horror

As an avid horror fan across all media, I became interested in Old Time Radio while reading Stephen King's nonfiction Danse Macabre, where I found that Bill Cosby's OTR parody "The Chicken Heart" actually parodied a real episode of Lights Out!" I located the show at, as well as other programs that Cosby mentioned in his routine, "Suspense" and "Inner Sanctum Mysteries." From these I eventually got turned onto the science fiction program "Dimension X," which often did versions of Ray Bradbury stories, frequently much creepier than any episode of "Inner Sanctum." After listening to many of these, I realized that I never gave sci-fi enough credit.

The term "speculative fiction" is said to have arisen as a response to science fiction growing too attached to genre convention, sacrificing creativity to retread worn ground. Just because it takes place in space doesn't make a story speculative fiction. Speculation implies an element of "what if?" Ray Bradbury's stories from "Dimension X" have this in spades. What becomes of a smart-home after a nuclear war? Or if an alien invasion is assisted by children? Both were broadcast together as "There Will Come Soft Rains/ Zero Hour."

This satisfies my requirement that a great plot can be great in the abstract, like a philosophical treatise or a thought experiment. I cannot overstate this.

This accounts for my fascination with H.P. Lovecraft. I have spent much more time reading about his work than actually reading it. Though I find his writings inaccessible, the internal coherency of the Lovecraft universe is incredibly appealing to me. His work speculates on the possibility of gods in a realistic way, positing that an actual experience of the incomprehensible could only lead to madness. Speculation about "ancient astronauts," as At the Mountains of Madness is sometimes described, is similarly enthralling.

Sorting through my list of favorite horror films, my first post to this blog, I see that though not all of my films satisfy this requirement. But many do. Se7en is a speculation about ethics, American Psycho about the limits of personality, Antichrist about perceptions of women, and onward.

The horror film is a place to say something. The reason my top 10 horror films is only 9 long is because the genre is polluted by vacuous violence.

Virtuosity in the Horror Film

In keeping up with John Kenneth Muir's I took up his recommendation to see the 2009 film The House of the Devil. It streams on Netflix. Couldn't be more convenient. This film is kind of a problem for me. On the plus-side, it is the scariest movie I've ever seen. I give it very high marks for that. On the other hand, it does nothing else for me. This leads to tonight's topic: virtuosity in the horror film.

Technique, skill, virtuosity. All relate to the same thing. Ti West served as the author, director, and editor of the film, and the unity of vision showcases his virtuosity as a filmmaker. Except for the ending, which struck me as a somewhat derivative letdown, a storytelling weakness, West demonstrates his pitch-perfect technique at crafting suspense that scares the pants off me. A couple of shocks early on set up a slow crescendo, as the audience anticipates more of the same but gets no such release. There is no span of easy breathing.

No doubt, West is a master of suspense. His technique for serving it up is unparalleled in anything I've seen before.

Why doesn't this make a good movie?

Virtuosity is a tough thing. As a guitar player, I've lived in a musical culture with factional relationships to virtuosity. To some, the virtuoso is the highest hero, the fastest, most technically proficient of players (shredders). Others decry virtuosity, arguing that shredding lacks depth and gets in the way of playing with feeling. Shredders respond that "feel" players are bitter about being slow.

I'll say this: in any endeavor, virtuosity alone doesn't cut it. Musical virtuosity can be exceedingly boring, or it can be entertaining but lacking substance. West's film, I think, is wonderfully entertaining, but does lack undercurrent. Every time I see a film with a thought-provoking premise wrapped in a botched execution, I will recall this film and wish that West had helmed the thinker instead.

This post relates directly to another from 6-29-10, "Endings: strong, weak, or immaterial." The ending/plot isn't really related to the best aspects of the film. I wish it had been about something else. As rewarding as the suspense play is, I wish it was grafted onto something stronger.

Monday, July 26, 2010

American Psycho 2: Shut up, Meg

The relationship between this sequel and its predecessor is flawed. American Psycho 2 would likely be a better film if it weren't for American Psycho. For the record, the 2000 original is one of my favorite films. Out of context, the dialogue is very distinctive. It is dark, narcissistic, edgy, and often hilarious. In context, it creates an atmosphere where Bateman's insanity is indistinguishable from the backdrop of 1980s superficiality.

Very few people involved in the sequal noticeably give a damn about the original. But as "Brian," Robin Dunne delivers his lines like he belongs in a junior version of the American Psycho world. Frankly, I really appreciate that. This film could not have disappointed me, because I had zero expectations. I wish that as long as these films shared a title, more of the writing and acting could have played along.

For instance, Mila Kunis' narrative segments could have bounced between exceedingly blase and seething intensity, as Christian Bale did as Patrick Bateman. Or Kunis could have composed something unique to subtly indicate her mental disturbance. Unfortunately, I kept hearing Meg Griffin's voice from "Family Guy" and responded the way Seth MacFarlane has conditioned me to.

Except Kunis' character can't afford to have a tell, because in order to hide her crimes, she has to blend in as a typical teen (Yeah, teen. Not many college freshmen can order drinks on a date). The most wonderful aspect of American Psycho is that though Bateman can hardly conceal his madness, his slips go unnoticed in a mad world.

Additionally, it is my contention that the violence perpetrated in American Psycho does not occur in the real-life narrative. Rather, these are fantasies had by a man who has no other way to relate to others. Bateman has no real relationships with other people. He works and plays with the same group, but they are certainly not friends. Thus they are reducible to obstacles and entertainment objects. Like most anyone else, his ability to hate others is not proportionate to his knowing them.

Patrick Bateman is a man in a perpetual state of road rage, but rather than honk and curse, he engages in a violent fantasy. The fantasy alone is innocuous, but the confession at the end of the film could indicate the dissatisfaction and loneliness of a man starved for human contact that is not mediated by superficiality and self-centeredness.

American Psycho 2 invalidates the above theorizing by firmly establishing Bateman as a serial killer. But if that were the simple truth, nothing about the first film would be nearly as interesting. Not to say that the sequel isn't entertaining, but it does not really inherit the legacy of the original in the way a sequel ought to.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Wait Until Dark, and films based on plays

It's time to pay respect to my all-time favorite film, Wait Until Dark, directed by Terence Young from 1967. This picture stars Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman unknowingly in possession of a doll filled with heroin. Trying to locate the doll are three criminals, played by Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, and Jack Weston. These men devise and perform an elaborate con to gain access to the apartment and talk their way to the doll. The film builds to a harrowing climax which takes place in total blackness (the theatrical run carried a warning that the theater was to be darkened to the legal minimum lighting for this scene).

I absolutely love everything about this movie. The performances are captivating and the plot is intricate and detailed. But what I can identify as its greatest asset is the dialogue. Wait Until Dark was adapted from a play written by Frederick Knott, so the task of sorting out what does and doesn't work in the plot had already been tested on live audiences. This results in a finely-tuned film that conserves its resources. The plot is totally dialogue driven, and is supported by visual cues. This style of screenwriting doesn't show up much anymore. It's tough to keep dialogue interesting.

The Big Sleep (1946) comes to mind, where Raymond Chandler's book was adapted as a film that sounded a lot like a book on tape. It's embarrassing to admit to being bored by a classic, but I think we've come away from that mode of storytelling in film for good reason. Wait Until Dark isn't wordy, but it somehow manages to develop its intensity through verbal exchanges, without relying on anything too over-the-top. That makes it lifelike.

Years ago, I started listening to movies to fall asleep (any music keeps me awake). I eventually moved on to old time radio programs from (which I can't recommend enough), but ever since I have heard Wait Until Dark dozens of times. This film has a lot in common with radio dramas, because it's quite possible to enjoy the film without any visual aid. I discovered this when I tried to let Psycho run at bedtime and was awakened in the most horrible panic a third of the way through, every night. Changing over to Wait Until Dark was a good choice.

I typically enjoy films based on plays, because the director recognizes that he has serviceable material on his hands and tends to approach it with respect, so we end up with everything great about the original, plus very tasteful film-only additions, like fully-imagined sets and evocative music. Other films in this style that I can recommend include Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and Dial M for Murder (1954, also written by Knott).

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"Body horror" and dualism

I promise this post discusses horror films. Please be patient with the exposition.


Think about your body. There. We've already proven the point I'm intending to make. You thought "my body." My body.

Let's draw out what makes this phrase suspect. If you are a religious person, you may believe in the soul, a god-given ego. If you are "of a secular mind," you may believe in the mind, another suspicious term. The idea of a dualism between mind and body is old and well-trodden. Philosophers of mind who wish to do away with the notion of the mind attempt to reduce it to functions of the brain. Others endorse the mind and rebuff reductionistic treatments of its mystery.

Regardless of what you believe about the mind or the soul (henceforth called the ego), our culture has 99.9% given in to dualism.

We are divorced from our bodies, and it is evident in our language and behavior. Myriad examples reveal this. We think of our bodies as the chariots of our egos. What is sickness? It is an affliction of our vessel. The naming of disease helps this process by creating distance from which we can address our afflictions. Sometimes the body grows in a self-destructive way. We have a phrase for this: getting cancer. We draw a sharp distinction between ourselves and the part of ourselves that we recognize as a threat. We can easily excise bits of ourselves when they don't suit the project of continually housing the ego in the body.

Perspectives on pregnancy fit this framework. Pro-choice interprets a pregnancy as an outside influence on the mother's body. Abortion is a cure for being afflicted with pregnancy. Pro-life is no different, where the fetus is a visitor to the mother's body to be safeguarded. The fetus is a stranger, something not an extension of, but different from, the body of the mother. Neither perspective is truly a bodily perspective; both are plays at forcing the body to submit to the ego.

Skin versus Flesh

I cannot speak to your experience, but "skin" is a very different word to me than "flesh." Skin has so many uses and meanings, while flesh is a charged word that evokes a sense of revulsion in me.

The colloquial phrase "pleasures of the flesh" speaks to bodily experience and all methods of living through the body, often by way of consuming other bodies. Eating, whether it be plant or animal flesh, is the assimilation of flesh from one body to another, lived entirely in the first person, not with the third-person detachment of the ego. Nonliterally (but still quite literally), sexual intercourse is much the same, as another consumption of flesh, a bodily pleasure derived from assimilation.

But there is another aspect of sexuality, the inability to live it bodily. This is the sexual fetish, which reduces flesh to skin. Skin is a surface, a mental object. Some skin is flesh, to be sure, but other skin no more material than the clothing or makeup it bears. Flesh is the object of bodily experience, but skin is the object of mental desire.

Fetishizing the skin is an intrusion into the bodily experience of the flesh. The sexual fetish makes the partner the object of mental desire, an object cast in skin. The ego then sets about to manipulate the partner's body like a tool, contorting, restricting, and adorning it to satisfy aesthetic requirements, binding or covering the body to modify its shape, or enlarging (perceptually) the foot or the breast.

Bodies are already skin before our egos, though. Modifying our skin, we can change anything outward about ourselves. But flesh refers to something inward.

Filmed Bodies

How does film treat our bodies? Usually, film treats the body as a skin. As a visual medium, it may be impossible to treat the flesh. Any filmed scene is essentially a fetishized experience of the body. There is nothing fleshly about pornography. Filming pornography is another mode of recrafting the body to make it satisfying to the ego. The fleshly encounter of authentic violence, of actual moving through another's flesh, is reduced to an aesthetic skin in film; the idea of the body is recrafted by the knife or the bullet. Hordes of skin-bodies are remade as aesthetic objects in any action flick, cut down in waves to satisfy the demand of the viewer that they visually transition from "alive" to "dead," whatever those terms mean. There is something pornographic to this.

Body Horror

What does "body horror" do in this framework? Body horror is understood as fiction dealing with deformed and deforming bodies. David Cronenberg is the director most closely identified with this subgenre.

Following my exposition above, I require that authentic "body horror" portray the deformation of the body in question sympathetically. That is to say, I include, for example, Cronenberg's The Fly but not Carpenter's The Thing, because the Thing's malformed flesh is always inhuman, only resembling the human figure.

I suggest that body horror offers a special interaction with the dualism of ego and body, specifically that it at once recovers a sense of the flesh while simultaneously obscuring it.

Cronenberg's 1979 film The Brood is an example of the recovery of flesh in body horror. In the film, a woman's negative emotions manifest as asexually produced mutant children who channel her rage into violent acts. The film rejects dualism by showing a direct relationship between emotion and body, so that her rage is not lived mentally, but bodily. Furthermore, these children are not "children" in a conventional sense, understood as sovereign entities. Rather, they are the flesh of the mother (with no father to muddle the equation), extensions of her flesh, and she lives through them in part, just as much as she lives through her hands.

For the audience to experience a recovery of the flesh, the film has to circumvent the expectations of the audience. In a conventional horror film murder, the surface of the body conforms to the trauma like a tool purposed to receive the blow. Body horror goes further, peeling back the skin to expose the flesh. What lies beneath the skin represents chaos. We cannot predict what we cannot see, so in a sense, the flesh is illogical. That is what is unsettling. It is the simultaneous allure and revulsion of the flesh. The complexity of taste is, in all honesty, a mystery. At best, taste is familiar, but always unique. Looking at the flesh beneath the skin of a film character is uncomfortable, because for all we recognize, respond to, and perhaps even desire of the skin, the chaos of the flesh is hidden. Until it isn't.

Experiencing revulsion in watching flesh exposed in a Cronenberg film is a recovery of the understanding of flesh. The revulsion is not bound to the ego. It is an empathetic bodily reaction to another's bodily experience. You don't think your reaction to such a scene. You feel it.

But through body horror the audience also loses the sense of the flesh in the moment following the initial revulsion. Almost immediately, the exposed flesh becomes the new skin. We're back in the world of surfaces, where the malformed body is an affliction on the vessel of the ego. When the audience has the opportunity to react to the transformation as a new state of the body, it is reduced to just that, a state that the body is in, as temporary as any skin.

Pasolini's 1975 film Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, a transplanting of de Sade's writings into fascist Italy, expresses the vantage of the ego, embodied by the fascist tormentors, who experience their captives as malleable fetish objects. The film also portrays the vantage of the body through the victims. As the victims are systematically reduced to objects by their tormentors, their suffering is increasingly lived bodily as resignation to the minimal level of survival sets in. Pasolini lets the audience experience both. When you sympathize with the victims, you feel that experience, and if you give this ugly film enough respect to actually think about why the antagonists commit these acts, you feel that experience too.

To paraphrase Martin Heidegger, the hammer appears as a tool for the possibility of hammering, and only when it is broken does it reveal itself as a real object of metal and wood. Showing the human body in chaotic disrepair recovers a sense of what we really are and how we live through these selves. But at the same time, we react by problematizing our bodies as objects to be repaired or otherwise overcome.


What of the real-life relationship between flesh and skin? Flesh-desire intersects with skin-desire to shape the fit between the ego and body. To satisfy these intersecting desires, the ego crafts the solution. The bodily desire to create is met when the ego sets towards art, or perhaps child-rearing. The bodily desire of lust is met when the ego and body conspire to come as close as possible to the object of attraction, stopping just short of becoming it, knowing it fully. Two examples from horror come to mind, where the ego composes a practical solution to the bodily desire for transformation: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's Leatherface and The Silence of the Lambs' Buffalo Bill don guises crafted from human skin, a material that is simultaneously flesh and skin.

What then of dualism? I now feel that ego and body define two realms of behavior/experience, somewhat distinct, but entirely inseparable.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Strangers: please let me revise it

Spoilers. Seriously.

When I first viewed The Strangers, I was psyched like I don't remember being for a contemporary horror movie. This was because of the promotion. I love the poster, which manages to evoke suspense in the print medium. I'm a huge fan of tasteful, restrained promotion in horror. Though I haven't seen the film, this trailer for Hostel: Part 2 nails it.

And this one for The Shining... well, I've watched it dozens of times. I think the music in this trailer is relevant to the track "Kubrick" off of John Scofield's album A Go Go.

As for the film itself, The Strangers didn't disappoint, until the ending. As I've suggested before, I think the last few minutes are superfluous to an already taught, intense, and appropriately brief film. Consider the difference between ending on "because you were home," versus ending on Liv Tyler's bloodcurdling shriek that recalls the obligatory closing shock you can find in so many films. With obligatory closing shock, you jump and scream, and as you catch your breath, you start to laugh, because OCS has no context; it's a practical joke on the audience, and once you've been had, you laugh it off. I think that after all we've been through, The Strangers deserves to be scarier than that. Recall the line "because you were home." When that line is delivered, your heart should be about in your gut, sick and helpless.

Now let's try a new ending. The same musical tone sustains under the last scene as Tyler asks, "why are you doing this?" The music sharpens to a hiss and pinches off with a whisper as the intruder replies, "because you were home." Black screen. Credits.

You say "ugh" as you stand up from your seat.

Here's what I love about this film:

I can imagine the rest of the film arising from the scene where the intruders turn on the record player to disguise their location in the house. The director asks himself, "what else can I do with sound in this film?" and the movie delivers dissertation on the sound of suspense.

First, silence. In Psycho, the infamous Mother theme begins after the appearance of the mother in the shower scene. Curtain, cue music, start stabbing. Then for Mother's next appearance at the top of the stairs, the music begins slightly before she steps into the hall, throwing the viewer into a panic because the suspense of Arbogast mounting the stairs is still not resolved, since Mother has not actually appeared yet. The delicate moment that happens between the music and the appearance of Mother shows that the threat and the different and deserve special attention. When the male intruder first appears in the long shot in The Strangers, it recalls the appearance of the black shape coming closer to the curtain in Psycho. I'm sure that most contemporary directors would have added an audio cue to that figure stepping into the living room, like a low bass rumble or a single screech of strings, but Bertino recognizes that it's essential to let the audience find him themselves and let the shock really hit.

Now the sound. Bertino does his best to score his film with natural sounds, rather than audio cues. The jumpy scenes depend on a lot of loud banging is terribly effective, and doesn't remind the audience that they're in a theater the way incidental music does. The incorporation of the record player is inspired. For a film that relies so heavily on sound, turning on the record player is the equivalent of turning out the lights. And when the record begins to skip, the repitition of that musical phrase disguises the actual passing of time, trapping the characters and the audience in the disorientation of having each moment resemble the last because the sound is so intrusive that it becomes impossible to focus on how close the killers are getting.

Watch this movie again, in headphones if you can, and just for fun, stop the film at the right moment and see how you feel. Absorb the moment before returning to the movie and letting the real ending roll.

Endings: strong, weak, or immaterial

There are pretty much two kinds of horror films: ones that build up to something and ones that don't. Usually, you know when you're getting into a film that isn't building up to deliver something special at the end. That something special is usually a resolution to ongoing suspense, and at its best, it's a thought-provoking discovery.

There are tons of films that resolve the suspense with a finale worthy of the buildup. My all-time favorite film, Wait Until Dark comes to mind, or Psycho's twist ending. Others leave you with something to carry home with you, like where American Psycho builds up to its most interpretable material, or Martyers, which concludes with a philosophical rumination trapped somewhere between the Cartesian and the Lovecraftian. Then there are those films that don't resolve in the most memorable of ways. Most slasher fare is very formulaic, and you can usually tell by the box it came in what you're in for. These films aren't all bad, by any means. But instead of getting engrossed in the story, you can appreciate the film for the special moments it dishes out, like a great jump scene, a suspenseful buildup, or something you've never encountered before.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one such film, which established the slasher formula that we've learned to anticipate. The pacing and presentation of the film engrosses you, so that even today, I can still find people who don't know the film and say, "you have to see this!" The Shining is another presentation-driven film. The plot is fairly static, and the characters sort of act as outlets for the hotel's hauntings. When the drama is over, you don't really notice that the characters have left the hotel; the movie wasn't really about them anyway. It was about what that creepy July 4th photograph represents, which is enduring spookiness, plain and simple.

I really resent a film that tries to build up to something special and then tanks at the end. It prevents me from appreciating the positive qualities of the film. One way to do this is to give a twist ending that isn't logical (High Tension...). Hide and Seek does the same thing, where I feel let down by the twist, not because its illogical in this case, but because the only thing the movie had going for it was its effort to take me by surprise, which it totally failed to do.

Two of my top worst let-down endings are in Frailty and The Strangers. Frailty had me riveted through the whole film. I think that reductio ad absurdum is no way to hold a real debate about religious fundamentalism, but it is a perfect method to devise a quality horror plot. But at about the last possible moment, we lose the whole stream into an absurd twist, the motivation of which I simply cannot discern.

Similarly, I was thrilled by The Strangers, right up through "because you were home." Closing on such brilliantly nihilistic dialogue whould have been stellar, in my opinion, but then we're subjected to a few more minutes of aimless cruelty and the obvious preparatory moves to allow for a sequel. Ambrose Bierce wrote that the definition of a novel is "a short story padded." Already brief, The Strangers could be tighter.

This is the end of this post. I think it had its moments, but I don't have anything special for a closer.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Two versions of The Thing

Doing comparisons between a film and its remake seem to be a fruitful path.

Howard Hawk's 1951 film The Thing From Another World carries with it a theme particular to horror and science fiction films of that era. It appears that following the deployment of the atomic bomb in 1945, America came to villify science and scientists in its cultural output. The postwar period saw the birth of science fiction, and horror moved away from the gothic tales that had defined the genre. Film traded vampires for mad scientists.
But America was still on the upswing following WWII, and the military was commonly favored as the heroic saviors of mankind. The Thing From Another World presents a claustrophobic play between soldiers and aliens, yes, but also a subplot between soldiers and scientists. The scientist insists that The Thing be preserved alive for the sake of science, throwing the rest of the camp into peril. The soldier characters must overcome the meddling scientist and prevent him from abetting their more dangerous adversary.

This pro-military, anti-intellectual theme is reversed in John Carpenter's remake from 1982, simply titled The Thing. Concurring with other horror films from the post-Vietnam era (George Romero's Day of the Dead comes to mind), Carpenter portrays the military characters negatively, mired in the chain of command and divorced from the well-being of anyone they outrank. The film portrays scientific knowledge as an exponent of rationalism, which constantly conflicts with the irrationality of the soldier-types.
Curiously, the 1951 feature concludes with victory, while the 1982 remake ends with the almost certain failure of the characters to preserve themselves, or the rest of humanity. This certainly reflects our countries major military conflicts. In 1951, America was unbeaten and invincible, thanks to military bravery. By 1982, Americans had felt defeat in Vietnam, and the country was left feeling defeated and used. Because most conflicts since have played out in largely the same fashion, many horror films since have fallen between two poles of nihilistic resignation to certain doom (sad endings) and reactionary revenge fantasies (happy endings, see last entry).

Also, it is a great honor to have John Kenneth Muir as a "follower" of this blog. Please check out his pages!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Last House on the Left + remake

I happened upon the synopsis of Wes Craven's 1972 film The Last House on the Left in John Kenneth Muir's Horror Films of the 1970s, and was intrigued by how such cruelty, which seemed unfilmable as written, could have been filmed. So I found out.

I have a lot of ethical problems with Last House. A little background: Craven made the film under the financing of a drive-in theater owner, to be shown in double features. Craven has admitted that he was on drugs during much of the writing and filming. This doesn't leave a lot of room for artistic integrity. Additionally, this film is a direct copy of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, which itself is an adaptation of an old European story of revenge. The best that can be said for Craven's film is that it is a secular reboot of Bergman's film, which concludes with a religious resolution. I ask, is there a point to presenting that which has already been done? I don't think it's necessary to keep repeating an ugly story if the moral is already established.

It should be noted that this film is about rape, murder, and other torturous abuses. At one point in the film where one victim cries as the other consoles her, it's real. The girl did not want to continue shooting. That's kind of sick.

For years I considered Last House to be among the most offensively distasteful films I've seen (coupled with Alexandre Aja's Haute Tension [High Tension]). Then the remake came out in 2009, and warped my whole perspective.

The remake of The Last House on the Left is the same story as told before. But there is one key difference. In the original film, when the parents take their bloody revenge in a bout of passionate rage, they are left feeling empty and sick, shocked at what they have committed. But in the remake, the revenge is portrayed completely as a heroic effort. It's not even done in the heat of the moment. Instead, as two characters make their escape, the father remains behind to perform a torturous execution on the villain, who has been kept as a captive.

So where I cast aspersions on the original for making half-assed and possibly irresponsible moralizations about ethics and guilt, the remake does less than that. This shows that the moral question is essential to the story, and the remake completely disrespects the legacy of its predecessor and cops out to the model of summer movie mindlessness.

PREDICTION: I predicted when this film came out in 2009 that with the incoming Obama administration, the Last House remake would be among the last horror films to center on revenge. I find the total lack of moral questioning in this film and the justification of the most brutal brand of revenge to be complicit with American jingoism and the libertarian bent of mainstream conservative politics. My hope is that with President Obama as the new face of American culture, our cultural output will lose that Toby Keith, boot-in-your-ass, individualistic, revenge-justifying quality that leads to films like this.

Reflecting on parents in horror

Happy Fathers' Day! In honor of the occasion, I reviewed my horror list for fatherhood-themed possibilities, but in addition to noticing that I have not included the dad vs. stepdad Domestic Disturbance, I didn't turn up much else.

This prompted a rumination on the roles of mothers and fathers in horror films. I've noticed that fathers tend to fall into two categories: knights and dragons. Domestic Disturbance shows this nicely. The stepfather is a wolf in sheep's clothing, a monster, while the dad is a hero who comes to his son's rescue. Both of these roles are fairly clean-cut, without a lot of depth. Whether good or evil, the father role typically relies on strength, either as the stength to protect the child or the strength to harm it. Whatever his motive, ultimately the father must do some kind of battle.

On the other hand is the role of the mother, which comes in more forms. While the mother can be the knight or the dragon (Jolie in Changeling vs. Bates in her quasi-motherly role in Misery), these roles are few compared to the other character available to mothers: the kinds of monsters that breed monsters, psychologically (Psycho, Carrie) or literally (The Brood). This could be because horror tends to center on male characters, which sets the stage for Oedipal mother-son relationships. I think there's a lot left to mine out of father characters besides muscle. And in addition, I'd like to see someone take a different approach to the father-son, father-daughter, mother-daughter, and mother-son relationships that are so rooted in tradition that we can see them coming a mile away.

Defining Horror

Before this blog rolls on much further, I believe it is important to lay down some ground rules about what constitutes a horror film.

In high school, I picked up a book from the public library by John Kenneth Muir titled Horror Films of the 1970s. I love this tome and have checked it out many times. I was fairly sheltered growing up, and my parents kept to a pretty hard interpretation of MPAA guidelines. So I was allowed to see much in the way of scary movies until my junior/senior year. That summer, I picked up Muir's book, which was a pretty satisfying way to work through the films, synopsis by synopsis. The description of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre caught my interest pretty good, and I tracked down an old VHS copy. I think the way I imagined some of the film based on the review was more effective than the movie, but still, a classic. Then my folks eased up, and I started making up for lost time, using Muir's book as a model for my Netflix queue.

I was in the IB program in high school, and for my Extended Essay, I crafted a 17 page treatise on visual/artistic elements of Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, drawing heavily from Muir's book, as well as an IFC documentary titled The American Nightmare.

Studying horror films, and especially with keeping a list of them, requires some guidelines on what qualifies for the list and what doesn't. Muir's book includes non-traditional horror titles, such as A Clockwork Orange and Deliverance. At first, I just took his word for it, but I have a solid defense worked up.

A Clockwork Orange is so broad that it's tough to define. Our victims and antagonists swap roles at some point. What ties them together is the cruelty of the film, but that doesn't make it a horror picture by itself. But ACO does serve the definition of "horrify."

The difference beween terror and horror is that terror is the fear that something will occur, while horror is a reaction to something that has occured. ACO horrifies not by putting a character at stake, but by putting morality on the line. The plot of the film is a play that sets up the treatment Alex receives, which robs him of his ability to make immoral choices. This kind of Christian tyranny is a dystopia that threatens us more deeply than our bodies. That can horrify an audience.

Boorman's Deliverance will never be found in the horror aisle of a rental store. It's a drama and an action/adventure film. One thing I love about Deliverance is the relationships between the main characters. In the opening voiceovers, it's easy to believe that these men are real-life best buds. This makes them remarkably human, by movie standards, and extra vulnerable. They are not action heroes. This is essential.

Contrasting with the protagonists are the hillbilly antagonists. These characters are not regular villains of the drama and action genres. They are monstrous, no far cry from the inbreds in the Deliverance-inspired Wrong Turn or Aja's remake of Craven's The Hills Have Eyes. They are monstrous because they are not human like the protagonists. The villains are unreasonable and vicious, and totally unsympathetic. Consider an action villain who is motivated by money or power. That's a sympathetic vision. You can always root for Darth Vader, who makes villainy cool, but the adversaries in Deliverance are savage and unpredictable. You can't relate to it, so you recoil from it.

This is important to understand my take on two films: Zodiac, which didn't make my list, and The Passion of the Christ, which did.

Fincher's 2007 film about the Zodiac murders promised to be a pretty scary ride, but viewing it again, I realized that this isn't a film about a murderer. It's really about the protagonists. The murders are almost incidental, like a natural disaster. These men never actually come into conflict with the horrific element. Instead, we're treated to something like All The President's Men, which is not really about President Nixon, nor is Zodiac really about the Zodiac killer.

Gibson's The Passion of the Christ begins in media res, which totally limits it, in my opinion. I saw the film as a companion to the Biblical account of the execution of Christ, but it doesn't stand on its own, because it depends on a knowledge of scripture to be relevent. Furthermore, Gibson's film is horrifically gruesome, right on par with the most violent offerings (offings?) in the horror canon. I submit that the motive behind the film is to horrify, as a means to cultivate sympathy, yes, but by way of sickening the viewer. The Passion is certainly an exploitation film as well, building its audience by exploiting a religious conscience, regardless of the stand-alone merit of the presentation.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Antichrist- everything you need in horror

I first read about Lars Von Trier's 2009 film Antichrist while browsing Wikipedia during a night class. I read a synopsis, and a few days later found a streaming version online at some illegal hosting site or another. This film flashed "TEST" and the time periodically, and the sound was off from the action by about 3 seconds and I still sat through the whole thing. I was that impressed.

Von Trier brings a special style to the whole thing, but that's apparent in the first 3 seconds. Just watch the film. Netflix will stream it, which is much better than the way I first watched it.

My dad taught me, when we were watching The Others together when I was in the 6th grade, that the scariest movies work religion in somehow. I reckon he learned this in the 1970s, when The Omen made a big impact on him. Antichrist has this in spades, but also works in the subject my dad wasn't ready to broach yet.

I would suggest that sexual undertones are more powerful than religious ones in horror films. As a viewer, its tougher for me to get into the state of mind that I'm willing to accept demonic possession as a premise. Like anything else supernatural, the film has to make it seem natural to hook me. The Shining: ultimate haunted house story. Jeepers Creepers: you had me until he grew wings. C'mon.

I don't have a sophisticated way to relate sex and death, but it's there. Georges Bataille's book The Tears of Eros develops this topic carefully through a discussion of art. The book makes horror films make quite a bit more sense. Von Trier's film weaves sex and violence together in a similarly natural and sophisticated way.

A good horror story, to me, works like a philosophical paper, as a treatise on a particular topic. Antichrist could probably be just as effective on paper as on screen, as an investigation of what it means to be a woman. Charlotte Gainsbourg's character is writing a dissertation on gynocide, the murder of women, through history, and falls under the sway of its theological roots. This premise places man against nature. On the side of man is God, while nature is presented as the Church of Satan. As man made his way into the wilderness, he had to establish manly order as a bastion against the chaos of nature. Man's power over woman stems from her alignment with nature and Satan, as evidenced by her bodily cycle, over which she has no control. Thus, she is an instrument of Satan and a site of natural evil, and it falls to man to overcome her.

What a premise that is! It sets up one of those films that gives you something to think about. This is like a Nietzschean genealogy of power!

As you try that on for size, soak up what seals Antichrist for me. This film presents what it must have been like to be a settler of a strange land. Even the grass is threatening. The power and danger of nature haunts every shadowed tree, recalling an awe of nature lost in its modern subjugation. To watch this film and become afraid of the trees is what it would be like to experience the oldest horror of all, the kind that left paganism in its wake.

The violence in this film will make you recoil, but try to keep to the theme of the film and see those bodies as part of nature, living and dying in a flow. Then, once you feel that, apply it to the sexual content. It's as unsettling as it is amazing.

Two versions of The Shining

I recently had the mixed pleasure of viewing Mick Garris' 1997 television miniseries of Stephen King's The Shining. King was displeased by the liberties taken by Stanley Kubrick with the 1980 film adaptation of the 1979 novel, and guided Garris' version to be more accurate to the book.

I laud the miniseries for managing to remain compelling for three nights worth of entertainment. I am a fan of made-for-tv horror because the format forces the pacing to deliver thrills at specific intervals (right before commercial breaks). So every fifteen minutes or so, no matter what dull exposition may be underway, you're guarenteed a good jolt to bring you back to the story. I learned this from the 2000 tv movie Someone is Watching, which I loved, and got at Target for a buck.

Kubrick's Shining corners the market on creepy, but Garris' version may be scarier. Roger's wolf mask had me panicked in several scenes, and the scene in Room 217 packs a special punch. But the film left me longing for Kubrick's atmosphere. The Timberline Lodge is much creepier than the Stanley Hotel (which originally inspired King's story). The Timberline is enormous, and dwarfs the people inside, making it seem much more ominous and omnipresent. Also, the apparations in the 1980 film are much more detached from the action into which they intrude, making them appear much more bizarre than the 1997 ghosts, awash in green light before fading out of existence.

The apparitions that Kubrick deploys are much more haunting. My special favorite is the hotel guest in the bear mask preparing to service a man on a hotel bed. What in the hell is that all about? Not knowing what that signifies lends to the spookiness, and adding eroticism to the mix makes it seem all the more wrong. And it strikes me now that this may be paralleled by the fliratious roleplaying between Roger and Derwent in the Garris series, which may be fleshing out what Kubrick only hinted at.

What Kubrick's film shows is that his eye for horror rivals Stephen King's. When I read The Shining as a sophomore in high school, the scene in Room 217 scared me to death. I marked those pages carefully so that I would never inadvertently turn to them as I read the rest of the novel. That is the height of King's horror mastery, as far as I am concerned. But he also deployed those ridiculous topiary animals, which frankly do not work in any medium. Garris' film almost pulls it off by adding faces to the living lion bushes, but when the CG animation kicked in, they lost me. The snow being shaken off the animals isn't just clue that they are coming to life. It's an indication that animating moving snow is difficult/expensive.

I wish Kubrick had made more horror films, but maybe his not being a "horror director" is what allowed him to do what he did.

I want to share my experience of Room 217. When I read The Shining, I had up to that point only stayed in one kind of hotel room- the small, cheap kind. In these rooms, the door opens into the bedroom, and directly to the left is a coat area and the bathroom door. It is important to note that the bathroom door is only 5 feet from the front door. Inside the bathroom (poorly lit) is a sink, a toilet, and a grungy tub that accounts for exactly half of the space of the room. This is where the attack on Danny took place for me. As soon as that decaying woman stood up, she was on him, because there was no room to run. Sure, he can fall backwards, which literally clears him from the bathroom, but there's nowhere to go after that, because he's already at the door. And since the bathroom is its own room, as Danny scratches at the door, looking over his shoulder, there's the experience that makes hide and seek impossible for me: waiting for your inevitable, abrupt discovery. Waiting for her to attack is not the measured tension of watching her come through a large room, knowing how many paces she is from your position. This scene is just waiting for her to turn the corner. You know she will, but not when. This made Kubrick's scene in 237 (changed from 217 because the Timberline was afraid they wouldn't be able to rent that room ever again) disappointing for me. Garris' 217 was an improvement, by degrees, showing a smaller bathroom in a marginally smaller suite.

An introduction

My name is Jackson. I am a law student with a BA in Philosophy. I also have a passion for horror and a lot of time on my hands, at present at least. My intent is to offer my take on the horror genre, taking my analysis as deep as I can.

What differentiates me from the myriad horror fans haunting the web is that though I love the horror genre, I will be the first to admit that almost all of the films I see are terrible. It takes something very special for me to actually like one.

As a means of introduction, I present my top 10 horror films:

1. Wait Until Dark (Young, 1967)
2. Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960)
3. American Psycho (Harron, 2000)
4. Se7en (Fincher, 1995)
5. Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968)
6. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper, 1973)
7. Antichrist (Von Trier, 2009)
8. Deliverance (Boorman, 1972)
9. Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991)

See? I don't love enough of them to put a #10.

To date, I have seen 237 horror films.

If you are reading this, thank you. I appreciate your time.