Periodically, I like to return to my Pendleton, Oregon, roots virtually by reading the web-version of my hometown paper called the East Oregonian. Reading the local news has instilled in me a sense of local pride, not so much in the city’s Western history and Rodeo traditions (though I do have a close connection with these characteristics) but more so because of the terrific work that folks who are from and of my community have gone on to do. Many of my friends and family have been a part of a local arts renaissance, creating their own bands, exhibiting their art, and bringing in talent from out of town to share their work.
Several folks have ventured outside of the community to produce interesting media as well. This post pertains to those individuals, whose work has surprisingly intersected with my own interest in horror. Reading the East Oregonian today, I was intrigued by the story of Michael Clinkenbeard, a former Pendleton resident who worked his way up from production assistant driving around Anthony Hopkins to owner of an upstart production company called Tempest Entertainment, which specializes in low budget horror films. Below is a trailer for their film Phantoms.
According to the EO article, Dario Argento complemented the above trailer. I’m not sure how much stock I’d put in such praise due to Argento’s latest work. Still, the trailer shows some visual flair through slick shot compositions in spite of the low quality sound.
And speaking of sound, another former Eastern Oregon native, my good friend Christopher Thomas, is building a name for himself as a film composer. Some of his earliest credits have been on horror films. Closest to my heart is his score for the documentary Zombie Girl: The Movie, which follows girl horror filmmaker Emily Hagins of Austin, Texas as she directs her feature-length zombie film, Pathogen. See the trailer of Hagins’s film below followed by the Zombie Girl trailer featuring Thomas’s score:
I look forward to seeing what Chris will do next, and I hope he doesn’t stray too far from the genre I love.
In several previous posts, I have featured clips of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s reviews to contextualize the reception of a movie up for discussion. Of course, this should come as no surprise given the influence of their long-running programs: with hundreds of movie covers sporting the “Two thumbs up!” quote like a badge of honor, Siskel (RIP) and Ebert became and remain household names, notwithstanding Richard Roeper.
My relationship with these two critics has always been a tense one. This started during childhood when my family would deliberate over our choice of rentals. “This one says ‘two thumbs up’,” my dad would say. Invariably, us kids would hate the movie and swear never to fall for the Siskel and Ebert endorsement tool again. Still, as my movie fandom developed, I could not help but gravitate toward At the Movies when it played on its awkward early Saturday evening time slot. Watching their reviews gave me the language to talk about film and a bit of insight into understanding its production (though certainly, Shawn Levy‘s reviews in the Oregonian also played a critical role for this Eastern Oregon girl). With the language of film criticism, I could dispute Ebert and Siskel with my own evaluations of films, and eventually, I found myself writing movie reviews for pleasure and eventually a few for my school newspaper.
As a film scholar in my adulthood, my interest in popular criticism persists but in a slightly different fashion. I see the video recorded ramblings of these two men as fascinating artifacts that tell us a little about the public discourse surrounding movies of the past. It helps that some of my favorite film scholars–particularly Carol Clover–have used Siskel and Ebert to discuss the horror genre. In her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, she challenges what she calls “the Siskel-Ebert position” that the rape-revenge film I Spit on Your Grave “makes rapists of us all” (228-229). Such a hysterical reaction may seem like an overstatement, but when you actually take a look at the footage, it’s not far from the truth: Siskel and Ebert regularly deemed horror films an abomination to humanity, in effect implying that audiences failed to see the camp or irony of such movies.
But here, I present to you the most hysterical of Siskel and Ebert reviews: the famous “Women in Danger” episode from 1980. In three parts, here it is:
Siskel and Ebert make legitimate points about the problematic nature of these films. I especially agree that the slasher genre at times exemplifies a backlash against the women’s movement; still, the critics cleverly pick and choose which films to discuss and which clips to use as evidence for their thesis without fully contextualizing these moments. Rhetorically, these omissions benefit the argument but at the expense of the facts. For example, Ebert characterizes the first-person camera angles often used in the slasher as a device strictly used for the purposes of identifying with the killer; he neglects to mention, however, that it also generates suspense by obscuring the killer’s identity (as is the case in Friday the 13th, discussed in the second clip). And speaking of Friday, I love the way Siskel uses Easy Rider as a counter-example of men behaving risky and evading punishment…even though those characters get murdered in the end. They also fail to mention that men get killed in these films, and sometimes, it’s the final girl that does the killing in the end! Sure, they use Halloween as a token positive example, but they fail to notice that some of the qualities they like in Halloween (i.e., strong women who get the killer in the end) persist in the movies they decry, while some of the qualities they loath about the slasher (i.e. the alignment between sex and violence) can also be attributed to Halloween.
In short, while Siskel and Ebert couch their arguments in terms of gender politics, the core of their dispute with these films has more to do with quality than content. Notice the way that they discuss Halloween in terms of John Carpenter’s authorship (side note: I love the way that Siskel and Ebert deem these films sexist in one breath and then use the masculine pronoun to describe “the artist” in another). What really offends them, more than anything, is the way in which the content is presented, rather than the content itself. Compound this with the fact that Sneak Preview aired on PBS, a public venture notoriously steeped in problematic notions of middle-classness according to Laurie Oullette (confession: I love public TV and radio in spite of this tendency–what can I say? I’m a white, liberal intellectual).
The politics of taste become more interesting when Ebert and Siskel review so-called “art house” horror movies, like Blue Velvet below:
Here, Ebert protests the exploitation of actress Isabella Rossellini while Siskel defends the film’s content for its critique of small town life. For Siskel, the artistic intent trumps concerns about gender. By contrast, Ebert assumes that poor Rossellini must have been ignorant of David Lynch‘s artistic intentions (since he is the one with all the control) when she exposed her naked body before the camera–the two were only dating at the time, so I’m sure she knew nothing of the content filmed after her scheduled appearances. Once again, Ebert bases his “feminist” arguments on masculinist assumptions, while Siskel finds that the artistry and commentary override such concerns.
In terms of discomfort with content, a role-reversal between the critics occurs in the clip below reviewing Crash:
Here, Ebert schools Siskel about the film’s commentary on the eroticization of violence in cinema. I actually agree with Ebert and find Siskel’s observations incredibly obtuse, but I do find it hilarious that both men seem to imply that if the scenes were erotic that this would somehow be a bad thing. Again, one reviewer takes a principled stance against the content, while the other defends it on the basis of artistic merit.
In short, Siskel and Ebert’s work on horror films (both of the “exploitive” and “art house” variety) demonstrates the class and gender politics that film critics often engage in as arbiters of taste. Of course, I’m not making a new point here, but its one worth reconsidering, especially when examining the horror genre.
In film studies proper as well as everyday discussion, the concept of the auteur (or director as author) persists despite the knowledge that filmmaking requires the collaboration of multiple parties. Moreover, both academic and journalistic writers can overlook the impact of industrial concerns such as monetary resources and profit motivations when attributing authorship to the director. Even as someone conscious of these limitations to authorship, I regularly refer to directors of films and sometimes neglect to mention the writers, rarely if ever mention the producers, and often fail to credit important players in the film making process, such as cinematographers, set and costumer designers, and editors. In short, I sometimes perpetuate the concept of the auteur in spite of my awareness of its fallacy.
In an effort to counter this tendency, I am kick-starting a series called Undermining Auteurism. The idea of the project is to identify artists that have played an important role in shaping the horror genre but do not hold the title of director. The first example I bring forward: Bernard Herrmann, the highly influential composer whose Psycho score remains highly influential in the genre. Other films of note: the original Cape Fear, Taxi Driver, and Sisters. Notice that several of these films have big-name directors at the helm such as Brian de Palma, Alfred Hitchcock, and Martin Scorcese, directors who regularly get authorial credit for their work. Yet, Hermann’s work in each of these films can be credited for dramatically impacting the mood by generating tension. Here are a few choice examples:
Of course, one could not discuss Bernard Herrmann in relation to horror without talking about Psycho, a film which has often been described as a precursor to the slasher genre. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the squealing strings characteristic of the soundtrack have become musical shorthand for terror and psychological instability. Just watch the Psycho title sequence:
Now, here is the sequence for the 1985 cult classic Re-Animator:
The latter bears an uncanny resemblance to the former. Other slashers, such as Friday the 13th, also draw heavily from Herrmann’s style. Just watch the beginning of The Final Chapter (scored by Harry Manfredini) alongside the shower scene from Psycho.
The comparison demonstrates the powerful influence of Herrmann’s work on the horror genre, particularly the slasher sub-genre. Still, the same way that Herrmann’s role as a composer undermines Hitchcock’s status as an auteur, it would be a mistake to oversimplify Herrmann’s power as a composer. In other words, the composition could not come to fruition without the labor of studio musicians, sound technicians, and orchestrators.
I hope that by looking beyond the director’s credit, this series reveals the intricacies of the filmmaking process. In particular, I expect that these entries will show that the shapers of the horror genre need not only be its directors, but also those who play more particular roles in shaping these films.
The dirth of posts is a product of: 1) Crazy work schedule (11.5 hour days at work kill ones creativity); and 2) Completing graduate school applications (just one more left).
So, until I muster some mor gusto, I have a suggested read for you all courtesy of Kristen, who wrote the piece on Dead Man’s Bones way back in October. She alerted me to a New York Times article about a recent re-release of a Japanese haunted house film from 1977 appropriately called House. It sounds and looks (see picture below) AMAZING, and it will be run theatrically this year before its DVD christening by the Criterion Collection.
I am crossing my fingers and hoping beyond hope that I can get to Austin or Houston or someplace nearby to see this. Until then, I’ll just ogle the details.
The past ten years have not been the finest. The Bush administration did a number on this planet with its aggressive wars, assertive deregulation of banks, and passive response to tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina. 2009 seems to have been the culmination of these mistakes, and for that reason, I look forward to two of the right digits rolling ahead instead of just one.
Reflecting back, it seems that the horror films of the past ten years say much about the turmoil suffered and survived in the decade we’ve only recently decided to call the aughts. Rather than place an artificial limit on how many films can make the cut, I’ve selected 27 films total and separated them into tiers. The top tier represents the films of the highest quality and horrific impact of the decade, the definitive picks that everyone should see. The second group includes films highly recommended for viewing. The third tier includes honorable mentions–films that may not fully fit under the horror banner or may be fundamentally flawed but offer significant commentary on the human condition and/or entertainment value. This list is less of a generic “best of list,” since it is with an eye for my column that I have developed it. As always, I play fast and loose with the term horror: social evils can supplant demonic killers and a momentary shocking act can replace a string of murders. Ultimately, my assessment is my own, a gut instinct and many individuals will not identify with my tastes. For that reason, I encourage lively debate and suggestions for revisions. For now, here’s my list:
TOP TIER FILMS
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007, Poland, Dir. Cristian Mungiu) – A woman (Gabriela, played by Laura Vasiliu) attempts to terminate an unwanted pregnancy in Communist-era Romania with the help of her college friend Otilia (the brilliant Anamaria Marinca). The events that transpire reveal the cruel consequences of anti-abortion policies. Most disturbing: the manipulative dealings of a backroom abortionist, the unpleasant duty of disposing of the fetus, and, in the midst of all this drama, Otilia’s obligatory visit with her boyfriend’s bourgeois parents. The film unnerves through subtle suspense and a realist aesthetic that draws attentions to the details of everyday life. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is a quiet but powerful movie.
Audition (2000, Japan, Dir. Miike Takashi) – Some might simplistically describe this as a Japanese Basic Instinct, but such a crude comparison elides the dramatic, aesthetic, and structural complexity of this twisted romance. What starts as one widower’s quest to find a new wife by holding a fake audition leads to a terrifying confrontation between the man, Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi), and the much younger woman he pursues, Asami (Eihi Shiina). In the process, the film critiques traditional rituals of courtship that reify standard definitions of femininity and masculinity. The famous final scenes (no spoilers intended) raise questions about the relationship between love, power, and violence in a profound and frightening way.
Caché – (2005, France/Austria, Dir. Michael Haneke) The Parisian host of a literary television talk show (Georges, played by Daniel Auteuil) receives surveillance videos from an unknown source. His desire to discover the identity of the sender leads Georges to reflect upon a troubling past incident in which he accused a young Algerian immigrant (Majid, played by Maurice Benichou) adopted by his family of misdeeds. Georges’s recollections of the incident and confrontations with the now-adult Majid parallels the tensions that persist in contemporary France over race, class, and ethnic identity.
Drag Me to Hell – (2009, USA, Dir. Sam Raimi) – In many ways the most apocalyptic horror film of the year, Drag Me to Hell struck the perfect balance between entertaining generic treat and ideological critique. The film follows Christine (Alison Lohman), an up-and-coming loan officer at a Los Angeles bank who makes the unfortunate mistake of denying an old gypsy woman an extension on her loan payment. The remainder of the film follows Christine as she attempts to rid herself of the curse, which stands in for deeper anxieties surrounding gender, class, and race. The punch to the gut ending subverts Hollywood notions of appropriate resolutions based on viewer identification with the so-called “hero,” which the film reminds us is based in great part on American capitalist notions of individualism and upward mobility.
Mulholland Dr. – (2001, USA, Dir. David Lynch) – Like Drag Me to Hell, Mullholland Dr. takes place in the city that signifies all that is right and wrong with America: Los Angeles. Appropriately for the location, the film follows the ambitious Betty (Naomi Watts) as she arrives in Hollywood to give the movie business a go. In the process, she comes upon a beautiful woman suffering amnesia (Laura Harring) who takes the name Rita until she and Betty can determine her origins. Of course, Lynch complicates this seemingly standard plot-line with bizarre happenings, strange subplots, and major shifts in character half-way through the film. These twists require work on the part of the viewer not usually required in a film viewing experience. The final product manages to both satisfy and puzzle. This is not to say that Mullholland Dr. lacks flaws; quite the opposite, actually, given the film’s problematic alignment of lesbianism with criminality. Still, the pleasure of the enigma put forth by the film cannot be denied.
Teeth – (2007, USA, Dir. Mitchell Lichtenstein) One of the most inventive horror films of the aughts, Teeth contemporizes the myth of the vagina dentata in the guise of a teenage girl. Dawn (Jess Weixler) attempts to lead a chaste life as the leader of her school’s pro-abstinence group, but when her boyfriend attempts to sexually assault her, she discovers an incredible defense mechanism: teeth in her vagina. While this mutation (adaptation?) would function as a gimmick in a lesser film, the filmmakers of Teeth use it to reveal the anti-intellectualism that fuels ideological debates over education. No wonder Texas serves as the film’s setting, given that it is ground zero in troubling debates over public school curriculum.
SECOND TIER FILMS
Capturing the Friedmans (2003, USA, Dir. Andrew Jareki) The convenience of home video has enabled families to document their most precious moments; the flip-side, however, is the ability to record the most troubling events with unprecedented verisimilitude. Capturing the Friedmans does just this by assembling interviews and footage taken by the Friedman family, a middle-class Long Island clan whose patriarch is accused of child molestation in the 1980s. The audience becomes a witness to the family’s painful destruction as a result of the community’s witch hunt.
The Descent (2005, United Kingdom, Dir. Neil Marshall) – A horror film in the vein of Alien, The Descent follows a group of women on a caving trip. The claustrophobia-inducing setting is made all the more so by impressive set and lighting designs, but its the nicely paced plot and intense action sequences that make this film a thrill to watch. If you haven’t seen it, go in completely blind lest you ruin the shocking twist that occurs about mid-way through the film. In other words, don’t watch the trailer below.
Elephant (2003, United States, Dir. Gus Van Sant) Van Sant’s interpretation of the Columbine Massacre captures the existential angst of the teenage years through the exploration of the mundane and an avoidance of cliches. He films the violent acts of his teenage killers in a cold and detached manner that avoids sensationalizing the events while still packing an emotional hit.
Fat Girl (2001, France, Dir. Catherine Breillat) Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), an awkwardly overweight young adolescent, witnesses the romance of her beautiful older sister during a family vacation. Breillat uses this story to explore the violence of seduction through both quiet contemplation and shocking horrific moments.
Mysterious Skin (2004, United States, Gregg Araki) Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives one of my favorite performances of the decade as Neil, a teenage hustler who survived childhood sexual abuse at the hands of his handsome baseball coach. The character’s response reveals the emotional complexity that accompanies such traumas, as does the parallel story of Brian (Brady Corbet), a nerdy kid obsessed with UFO’s and convinced of his own abduction. The film does not shy away from the subject-matter, confronting it with both sensitivity and intensity that will leave you devastated.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Spain, Dir. Guillermo del Toro) – Don’t let the quaint cover art for this film fool you: the dark subject-matter of Pan’s Labyrinth reminds us that fears lie at the heart of most fairy tales. In this case, the Spanish Civil War serves as the bloody backdrop as young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) copes with her mother’s remarriage to a cruel general in the fascist army.
Taxi to the Dark Side (2007, USA, Dir. Alex Gibney) The aughts proved to be an excellent decade for political documentaries. Taxi to the Dark Side might be the best with its meticulous examination of the torture policies of the Bush administration Post-9/11. The film effectively makes the case that torture not only fails to yield the intelligence it purports to extort but also distracts us from obtaining the facts necessary to fight terrorism and damages our reputation abroad.
THIRD TIER FILMS
28 Days Later… – (2002, United Kingdom, Dir. Danny Boyle)
Bowling for Columbine – (2002, USA, Dir. Michael Moore)
Coraline – (2009, USA, Dir. Henry Selick)
Dogville – (2003, Denmark, Dir. Lars von Trier)
Ginger Snaps – (2000, Canada, Dir. John Fawcett)
Grindhouse Anthology – (2007, USA, Dirs. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino)
High Tension – (2003, France, Dir. Alexandre Aja)
Hostel – (2005, USA, Dir. Eli Roth)
Let the Right One In – (2008, Sweden, Dir. Tomas Alfredson)
Mean Creek – (2004, USA, Dir. Jacob Aaron Estes)
No Country for Old Men – (2007, USA, Dirs. Ethan and Joel Coen)
There Will Be Blood – (2007, USA, Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Three Extremes Anthology – (2004, China/Japan/South Korea, Dirs. Chan Fruit, Park Chan-Wook, Miike Takashi)