As promised, I went right out to see Drag Me to Hell, the hotly anticipated new horror film written and directed by Sam Raimi. With my expectations high, I worried that the film might disappoint. It didn’t. The film combined just enough cheesy special effects, make-up, and dialogue with genuine suspense, well staged action sequences, and gross-out moments to keep me engaged from beginning to end.
What’s more, it exceeded my expectations ideologically. The film took a relatively sophisticated approach to identity by taking into account the intersections of class and sex. Of course, it’s treatment of ethnicity left something to be desired. I also noticed that as in the Evil Dead series, the female body remains the sight of much trauma, with an emphasis on the mouth as penetrable orifice:
But its critique of the primary protagonist’s quest for upward mobility delighted me, even though it personalized the issue through a single character clouding a systemic view of the issue. Bottom line: it’s rare to see the nightmarish side of the so-called American Dream of class ascendancy.
Because I’m sure that many readers have their own thoughts on Drag Me to Hell, I am hoping that folks will contribute their own assessments of the film in the comments section. What did you think about the film stylistically? Did the combination of camp and horror work for you? What was your interpretation of the film overall? Your thoughts on the ending? Please voice your ideas here!
Periodically, I plan to feature entries that discuss art and media other than film, since ultimately, the film world is not in a vacuum, but often dialogs with television, internet, recording, and various forms of live performance and exhibition.
To kick off this new column, I’d like to share a clip from one of my favorite reality shows, So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD). Modeled off of American Idol, the show holds dance auditions in cities around the country before narrowing the pool down to 20 dancers. The top twenty compete weekly for phone-in votes that determine the bottom three dancers of each sex. The judges then make the final decision about who should go and who should stay after each dancer performs a solo.
As mainstream reality TV goes, the show offers an astounding breadth of styles. Of course, there are very problematic elements to the show, particularly during the auditions. It seems like every year, genderqueer and plus-sized individuals receive the harshest critiques, even when they exhibit strong technique. Race also tends to shape judge’s expectations of dancer performance, such as when a white ballroom dancer performs hip-hop or a black street dancer learns ballroom. Nevertheless, I’ve found the show to be far more entertaining than Idol, due to it’s experimentation with dance forms, staging, and costuming.
Auditions bring out some of the most interesting performances, such as this pair who invented a style called Mutation.
I’m fascinated by the use of contortionism in this form, as it clearly subverts the standards of grace and fluidity prescribed by more classical forms. In essence, the body is made strange by the dancers’ stilted movements. The concept fascinates me as well, since it draws heavily from goth and science-fiction.
Of course, this melding of horror and dance is nothing new. Who can forget the choreography from Thriller? In case you did, here’s a short dance segment:
Thriller clearly inspired one of my favorite SYTYCD choreographers, Wade Robson, who actually taught himself the Thriller choreography by the age of three. His impersonations of Michael Jackson were so spot-on, he was invited to perform with the mega-star when he was five years old. It’s no surprise, then, that Robson’s work replicates many of the macabre themes of Jackson’s most famous music video. Below is the routine most obvious influenced by Thriller, performed during Season 2:
Such routines keep me coming back to SYTYCD every summer, in spite of the show’s many flaws. I look forward to seeing new, inventive choreography this season, hopefully with some of the same dark overtones of Robson’s work.
My dad is what communications theorists call an “early adopter“–always on the cutting edge of technology, he purchased video cameras, computers, and VCR’s long before these items were standard in American households. For a brief time before I could fully appreciate it, my family subscribed to HBO from which my dad would record movies for all of us to watch. Growing up, these tapes served as our primary video collection, since purchasing manufactured videos cost triple what it does today. To get the most bang for the buck, there would often be three films on a single tape and movies would be recorded over.
This technological savvy and frugality led directly to one of my more frightening movie viewings, Jagged Edge (1985). I must have been about six years old when I decided to watch an old tape of The Nutcracker ballet. Static cut into the movie about twenty minutes in, and the HBO introduction played. Curious about what would follow, I continued to watch the tape. I remember an establishing shot of a house on a dark hill, before cutting to an interior shot of the house. In a bedroom, a woman slept peacefully when suddenly, a masked man emerged from behind her headboard wrapping ropes around her neck.
I cannot remember anything else after that except my shocked reaction. For years thereafter, I feared that my room might be broken into and that I could be murdered. I also worried about a stranger hiding behind my headboard (which I now realize to be totally absurd since there’s not enough room behind it to hide). One time, my brother Paul hid under my bed and grabbed my ankle as a joke, to which I screamed and cried in response
Last weekend, I re-watched Jagged Edge over the internet, confronting the text head-on. The first scene (the only one I actually watched as a child) differs greatly from the way I remembered it. The killer does not emerge from behind the bed to strangle the woman, but rather ties up the victim with ropes before opening the front of her night gown and holding a knife up to her chest. I must have repressed this detail, because to me as an adult, it was the most frightening part of the scene. The next shots show the crime scene being examined by police officers. Above the bed, the word “bitch” is scrawled in blood, suggesting the killer’s misogynist intentions.
Click this link to view the trailer.
These overtly sexist details struck me most as I re-watched Jagged Edge. The film centers on the investigation of the crime the opens the story, with Jeff Bridges playing Jack Forrester, the husband of the victim and the prime suspect. Glenn Close plays Teddy Barnes, a high-powered San Francisco attorney who reluctantly takes on the case; however, soon enough she becomes convinced of Jack’s innocence, and the two sleep together as they prepare for trial. Information revealed during the trial tests Teddy’s faith in Jack’s innocence, but ultimately she believes him and successfully argues for his acquittal. After celebrating the verdict, Jack and Teddy have sex once again, but Teddy discovers crucial evidence in Jack’s home that links him to the crime. In the final scene, the masked man threatens Teddy with a knife, and she shoots him and before pulling off his mask to reveal Jack’s face.
This film clearly falls into eighties feminist backlash territory in spite of Teddy’s intelligence and success as an attorney. Ultimately, Jack manipulates Teddy into believing he is innocent before attempting to kill her, revealing that in spite of her power, she remains vulnerable as a single woman. What’s more, the film problematically contains several scenes in which Teddy’s two children openly complain about her separation from her husband. These touches seem to signal that Teddy is influenced by feminism to some extent, but they also suggest that she has put her career ahead of the happiness of her children, and, in part, her divorced status puts her at-risk for Jack’s manipulation. What might be most insulting about Jagged Edge is the implication that working women will put aside commonsense standards of professionalism (i.e. DON’T SLEEP WITH YOUR CLIENT…WHO IS ACCUSED OF MURDER) for the sake of romance. In summary, the film seems to be a product of its era in the vein of Fatal Attraction (also a Glenn Close film).
There’s also some interesting white guilt going on in the film. Teddy in part chooses to represent Jack to challenge an old colleague from her time as a DA named Thomas Krasny, who represents the state in the case against Jack. Early in the film, Teddy attends a funeral for a man named Henry Styles that she helped put away with Krasny but who she later found out was innocent. Henry’s mother, who is black, scolds Teddy for showing up at the burial. After the verdict is announced, Teddy proclaims Styles’ innocence to the press, explaining that Krasny suppressed evidence that would have exonerated Henry. While the film deserves credit for presenting an injustice by white people in power against a black man, it seems like the subplot’s primary purpose is to create tension between Teddy and Thomas, and to present Teddy as a principled person. The film does not explore the issue any deeper, nor does it explicitly mention race as a factor in Henry’s discrimination.
Still, I must admit that I enjoyed Jagged Edge in spite of its ideological problems. It captures a particular era stylistically and ideologically with a splendidly convoluted plot, melodramatic performances, and lots of sex and violence. The writer, Joe Eszterhas, also penned Basic Instinct (1992), a similarly problematic but pleasurable film. While Jagged Edge lacks the knowing wink of Basic Instinct, its twist-and-turns plot does offer some moments of suspense, and Close and Bridges perform the material well. It may not have aged well, but that’s part of the fun of watching it: you’re horrified by the ideologies, rather than staging of the murder.
The first slasher movie I ever saw was Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. This viewing occurred in the basement rec room of my parents’ house when I was about twelve years old. I was with my ten year-old brother, Paul, and the two of us were trying to keep ourselves entertained on a Saturday night. Our parents allowed us free-reign over the tv as long as we could choose a program amicably. Often, we would stay up until one or two in the morning on weekends cruising the various cable offerings. It was in these circumstances that we came upon Jason Lives.
Up until that point, my experiences with horror films had been limited and unpleasant. I had watched a few movies as a youngster that made me fearful of the genre (more on those later). I worried about nightmares and was particularly concerned that my reactions in social situations (i.e. slumber parties, etc.) would be embarrassing. As a result, I typically avoided scary movies and protested when they were played at friends’ houses.
Yet, somehow, my brother and I ended up watching enough of Part VI to get completely freaked out. I say “enough of” because we didn’t watch the film from start to finish; we likely parked on the channel for a minute or two–long enough to see a scene in which Jason mercilessly kills a couple after they get a flat tire. I remember in particular the killing of the female character, who opens her wallet, credit cards spilling out, in an attempt to buy Jason’s sympathy. Of course, Jason dispatches her without hesitation, and the filmmakers heightened the kill’s impact with a first-person camera angle from the victim’s perspective.
Years later, this scene stuck out in my mind as the one that frightened my brother and I so much that we attempted to watch Disney’s Cinderella as a corrective measure and, when that failed, slept in my parents’ bed; however, my brother reminded me recently that another more disturbing scene scared us shitless. It features a teenage couple (post-coitus, of course) driving down a road in a camper. The male drives recklessly, while the female passenger stumbles about the camper before Jason pulls her into the bathroom. Again, I remember clearly the way the scene was shot: an extreme high angle reveals Jason in the cramped bathroom covering the girl’s mouth before jamming her face into the camper wall; the film then cuts to an exterior of the camper, where an impression of the girl’s screaming face emerges from the steel. Back in the interior, Jason exits the bathroom and walks slowly toward the male driver, who can’t hear Jason approach because of his loud rock music. Jason then stabs the driver’s head, and the film cuts to the camper flying over an embankment and crashing. Jason, of course, rises from the wreckage unscathed and the terror continues.
That I had repressed this scene speaks to its power, but that I recalled it so easily once I was reminded of it also suggests its impact was indelible. I could remember the camera angles and shot sequences so clearly. Normally, a film’s construction was of little import to me as a kid, but studies on perception of time actually show that a our senses during times high stress heighten, allowing us to perceive of time as passing more slowly. Something similar happened when I saw Part VI, as I recalled particular shots and editing patterns years after the fact.
While the camera angles contributed to my stressful response, the sexual overtones in the latter scene scandalized my inhibited pre-teen self. The implication that Jason punished the teens for their sexual activity played into my belief that sex was dangerous. Carol Clover and others have written about this element of the slasher at length, so I won’t revisit that discussion. Instead, I invite you to watch Alice Cooper‘s video “Man Behind the Mask,” a song written specifically for Part VI that perfectly captures these themes of puritanical justice:
I’ve since revisited the Friday the 13th series, watching Part VI about a month ago. The film begins with Tommy Jarvis, who killed Jason in Part IV, digging up the grave of the deceased villain with intentions to burn Jason’s corpse. Instead, a bolt of lightening revives Jason and kick-starts a blood bath. Tommy alerts the local authorities of Jason’s resurrection, but his pleas are dismissed and Tommy is jailed. Meanwhile, Jason kills a trio of paintball players, a drunken gravedigger, and a slew of camp counselors. Luckily, the sheriff’s spunky daughter develops a crush on Tommy and springs him from jail to pursue Jason. The two track Jason down and lure him into Crystal Lake, where they first shred his face with a boat propeller and then chain him to the bottom of the lake with a large boulder as an anchor. In spite of the triumph, the film concludes with an ominous shot of the submerged Jason opening his eyes, suggesting that he will return for yet another sequel.
As the plot outline suggests, Part VI is a campy affair. More surprisingly, it understands its status as trashy entertainment. The dialog alone demonstrates the writer’s humorous take on the project. For instance, after Jason’s presence becomes known at the re-opened Camp Crystal Lake, one sarcastic young camper asks another “So, what were you gonna be when you grew up?” There are more than a few knowing winks at the audience, with lines like, “I’ve seen enough horror movies to know any weirdo wearing a mask is never friendly.” Such lines anticipate Scream’s self-referential humor and nods to fandom. This humorous approach, along with bad acting, 80s mise-en-scene, and cheesy music make Jason Lives my favorite installment of the series.
Which brings me back to the disparity between my initial response and that upon re-viewing the film years later. As a pre-teen, I’d not yet accumulated the cinematic experiences that allowed me to see Part VI as merely a product of generic formulas that could be anticipated and mocked. Having seen many slashers since, I can now laugh at Jason Lives even as certain scenes disgust me. I have some mastery over these texts, and I must say, that’s a very liberating feeling.
While researching horror films in grad school, I came across a few interesting articles that took an ethnographic approach to the genre. One such article interviewed college students about traumatic childhood experiences of watching scary films; interestingly enough, subjects reported frequently about the impact of watching movies like The Exorcist, Jaws, or Halloween at too tender an age.
These articles fascinated me in part because I had similar experiences. For years, I avoided horror films in part because of a few psychologically scarring incidents as an impressionable youth. Case in point: my brother and I caught snippets of Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI on cable, and afterward, Jason Voorhees frequently appeared in my nightmares. Even after I started watching horror films in middle school, I refused to watch Friday the 13th movies until I was in college.
But in the interest of self-reflection and maybe a little therapy, I’ve decided to revisit my most traumatic cinematic reception experiences from childhood. I’m interested in better understanding my frightened responses, and also reflecting on the ways that these films may have shaped my later viewing experiences and tastes. What’s more, I plan to use this exercise as a way of demystifying those texts which previously had so much power over my imagination–what may have seemed frighteningly realistic as a child might now come across as gloriously campy. Finally, this series will give me a chance to consider the ways memories can be impacted by emotions, since I expect that much of what I recall about these initial viewing experiences won’t quite jibe with the text as I see it now.
These entries will likely be a combination of confessional tales, film reviews, and self-reflection. First up will be the aforementioned Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI. Check back for the entry soon.
In my previous post, I discussed three of the more exciting horror entries in competition at Cannes, including von Trier’s since premiered Antichrist that has the press in a tither over its scenes of genital mutilation, graphic sex, and talking animals. Of the responses I have read, Manohla Dargis of the New York Times seems to take the fairest approach, meeting the film halfway by viewing it as largely ironic.
But while industry critics continue to reel over von Trier’s inflamatory film and grandiose statements, some films screening out of competition are quietly making a different kind of statement. Specifically, Sam Raimi‘s latest film, Drag Me To Hell, has piqued my interest for its perfectly-timed foreclosure themes. The director of the Evil Dead series takes a break from Spiderman to return to his roots with a horror entry starring Alison Lohman as a loan officer who is cursed after denying an old lady an extension on her home loan payments. Here’s the trailer:
Talk about tapping into the cultural zeitgeist! The conceit has a lot of potential to critique America’s ownership society, though I worry that the centrality of the Lohman character will personalize these issues in a way that depoliticizes them. Then again I like the framing of Lohman’s motivations as an effort to move up the corporate ladder, and the trailer seems to deliberately reference gender biases by mentioning a male rival with less experience. Still, I’m wary of how the film will approach issues of class and ethnicity, given the old woman’s Eastern European accent and grotesque make-up. But a peak at the film’s poster suggests that the film may be socially aware:
I’m struck by the background images of large, sepia-toned houses, as well as Lohman’s business-attire wardrobe. Such details point to a conscious effort on the filmmakers’ parts to comment on the role of excess in the flailing economy.
It’s exciting to see a filmmaker translating the current economic crisis into a horrific fable, and the buzz from preview showings has been universally positive. Luckily for me, I won’t have to wait long for this one to hit theaters: Drag Me to Hell is slated for release May 29th after its Cannes screening.
This year’s Cannes Film Festival features plenty of familiar faces directing the competition’s films. Previous Palme d’Or winners Jane Campion, Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, Ken Loach, and Quentin Tarantino all have films competing for prizes this year, demonstrating what a high caliber affair the festival continues to be. Of the many fascinating entries this year, the supernatural-themed films excite me the most, and surprisingly, there are quite a few to consider.
Gaspar Noé’s latest film, Enter the Void, focuses on a brother and sister, who move to Tokyo and work as a drug-dealer and stripper, respectively, to survive in a new country. When the brother dies in a drug-bust, his soul refuses to leave the world in order to fulfill a promise to his sister that he never leave her. According to the synopsis on the Cannes Festival website, the brother’s ghost “wanders through the city, his visions growing evermore distorted, evermore nightmarish. Past, present and future merge in a hallucinatory maelstrom.”
To be honest, I’ve yet to see any of Noé’s previous films, which most famously include I Stand Alone and Irreversible. These previous works seemed too racist and misogynistic for my taste, though I’ve never completely discounted them. Enter the Void, however, sounds relatively more socially conscious than his previous work, and I am particularly interested in how the brother-sister relationship is portrayed. On top of that, the stills available on the web look terrific. I’m hoping the film lives up to the fascinating concept and neon aesthetic.
Another supernatural entry comes courtesy of South Korean director Chan-Wook Park, the director who helmed Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Old Boy, and Lady Vengeance. Of his films, I’ve only seen the latter two of the vengeance trilogy along with his short film in the Three…Extremes anthology, and I’ve found that while his work is stylistically compelling, the stories fail to engage me on a gut level. It was only after a second viewing of Lady Vengeance that I really appreciated the emotion behind the complex narrative and realized that Park’s attempts to deconstruct the revenge genre ultimately enhance it.
I hope that this latest Park film, called Thirst, attempts something similar with the vampire genre. The film features a priest who becomes a vampire after traveling to Africa, dying upon contracting a virus, and receiving a blood transfusion that revives him. The trailer suggests that the film explores biblical themes of sin and resurrection, and vampirism seems to be equated most specifically with adultery.
After three popular films that primarily explored vengeance, I am interested to see Park’s take on these different themes through what sounds like a promising (though possibly problematic) storyline.
However, Lars von Trier’s entry called Antichrist intrigues me the most. Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe, the two play a couple who retreat to a cabin in the woods called Eden (again with the biblical reference) after the death of their only child. Upon arriving, strange phenomena occur apparently involving animals and other natural elements.
Given his previous work on The Kingdom series, von Trier seems to be an ideal director for the horror genre. I’m also intrigued by the choice of Charlotte Gainsbourg as the wife. I found her performance in I’m Not There haunting in its intensity, and the trailer for Antichrist hints at a similar undercurrent of melancholy in her character. Von Trier has been praised in the past for his direction of Emily Watson, Bjork, and Nicole Kidman, and while I question the paternalistic implications of framing the director/actress relationship as such, I am eager to see what the collaboration looks like given von Trier’s track record.
Overall, I’m thrilled to see that so many horror films have made it Cannes this year! This short list does not even take into consideration the latest Tarantino film or a film by Johnnie To called Vengeance about a professional killer avenging the death of his daughter’s family. Could the hard times of economic recession be inspiring this rash of violent movies by the best and brightest directors? I eagerly await their US releases to find out!
Here we go again…the same way that I wrote diaries in fits and starts as a child, I’ve previously attempted to maintain a blog as an adult with mixed results. Thus, it is with a warning that I begin my latest venture in semi-daily contributions to a web-based log: this may not last, and if it does, it may not feature up-to-the-minute coverage on all of my latest ponderings.
What I can promise is some thoughtful reflections on all things film related. About a year ago, I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a master’s in radio-tv-film–no, I am not a director or screenwriter. My degree focused on the criticism of film. I tell people that it’s like an English degree, but instead of reading books, I read films and research about them. My master’s thesis examined horror films with groups of women as protagonists. I analyzed Haute Tension, The Descent, Death Proof, and Hostel: Part II, along with several episodes from the Masters of Horror series and a few entries from the Three…Extremes anthology. Theoretically, I drew from psychoanalytic, queer, and feminist theories to produce readings that examined character development, narrative structure, and formal qualities of the films at hand. It was an exciting project, and I had the pleasure of reading such amazing books as Men, Women, and Chainsaws and The Monstrous-Feminine, among others. I continue to be grateful for this amazing academic experience, even as I’ve found my master’s degree to be of little use in the currently soggy economy.
I come to this blog partially as an attempt to put my ideas to use. Bringing these readings of film to a public forum will allow me to get some feedback on projects in early stages. I hope this feedback will inform my work as it enters the drafting stage. More than this, I’m hoping this blog will motivate me to continually engage with the films that I watch on a deeper level.
With all these goals in mind, I plan to explore a variety of films in terms of genre, commercial success, and distribution. That said, I tend to be drawn to foreign and independent films, particularly those exploring dark themes, so this blog will not be for the faint of heart. This doesn’t mean that comedies and mainstream fare will be entirely off the radar, but they certainly won’t be the norm. The blog entries themselves will vary in terms of format—they may contain fully-fleshed out readings, but they will just as likely be vague sketches of ideas still in gestation. Either way, I invite responses from readers!
Before I end this launch, I must thank my good friend Alyx, whose terrific blog heavily inspired me to give my own another go! Thanks for insisting that I get this thing going! I will do my best to keep this thing breathing.
A few words on the blog’s current title: I’m not married to it, but the idea of “Dark Room” came to me for several reasons. Most obviously, darkrooms are places where photographic images develop, and while the film industry rapidly goes digital, the darkroom remains in use as a space for processing films. This works nicely as a metaphor for my blog as space for developing ideas and readings of cinematic texts. Furthermore, I like that the word “dark” describes the themes that interest me most and will must likely occupy the space of this blog. Finally, it can’t be avoided that “dark rooms” are often the spaces where one views films–I would like to make the reception experience part of this blog’s exploration, and the title nicely acknowledges this.
On that note, thanks reader for stopping in–please don’t leave without contributing your thoughts on the way out.