Praise the Netflix gods, for they have bestowed upon us the second season of AMC’s The Killing, now available on InstantView. I live in a cableless household, so I eagerly await that moment when my favorite programs release their recently finished seasons. The Killing has been on my watch list for new episodes since I wrapped up the first season about six months ago. I’m now moving through season two at a brisk pace, much like the young couple in Portlandia that voraciously consumes Battlestar Galactica to the detriment of all other obligations. The Killing has been especially addictive for me since it combines the whodunit thriller with a procedural crime drama. In short, if Twin Peaks and The Wire got together and made a baby, The Killing would be the child.
The series begins with the death of Rosie Larsen, a beautiful Seattle teenager from a seemingly typical middle-class family. Detective Sarah Linden (brilliantly performed by Mireille Enos) reluctantly takes on the case despite her best efforts to sever ties with Seattle PD so that she can relocate to California to be with her fiance. The taciturn detective reluctantly partners with Stephen Holder (perhaps the strongest performance, by Joel Kinnaman), a younger detective recovering from drug addiction and willing to bend the rules to get information. The two become quickly absorbed in their investigation, which leads them to investigate the Mayoral campaign of a young city councilman as well as Rosie’s own family. These investigations slowly reveal the moral failings of all associated and hint at the various influences that may have placed Rosie in a position of vulnerability. As a result, The Killing undermines the myth of the American dream by presenting it as facade.
Of course, I must stop for a moment to acknowledge the Scandinavian roots of the series. The American version derives from Forbrydelsen, a Danish series that by all accounts follows a very similar plot-line as the American version. One of the series cast members, Michelle Forbes, noted that this geneaology complicates the comparisons I’ve made, stating, “I don’t know how ‘Twin Peaks’ goes by way of Denmark 20 years later and comes back to AMC,” yet even Forbes says that “the similarities are fairly intense” (see the entire interview here). Promos for both shows highlight the similarities:
Notice that both shows investigate the death of an attractive, middle-class teenage girl. Both shows’ detectives investigate all aspects of the community in which that girl lived. In both cases, detectives find that their victims’ lives may not have been as wholesome as they thought. Laura Palmer and Rosie Larsen both associate with individuals who deal drugs, pimp prostitutes, and facilitate gambling. Even geographically, Twin Peaks and The Killing share the same setting in common, with both stories located in the Pacific Northwest, though granted, The Killing‘s urban focus differs drastically from Twin Peaks’ folksy rural town of the same name.
That’s where The Wire‘s DNA becomes a factor. Like that crime drama, The Killing explores the connections between city bureaucracies as does The Wire, which meticulously presents the investigation of Baltimore drug gangs by a special investigative unit. We also see corruption in government that rivals the criminal elements also presented in the show. Season 3 of The Wire in particular parallels The Killing by incorporating character Tommy Carcetti into the show’s narrative. Carcetti, like city councilman Darren Richmond in The Killing, is the quintessential charismatic young politician trying to climb the ladder in city politics. Both struggle to negotiate between their ideals and their desire for political success. At the same time that each shows’ investigations reveal the seedy underbelly of the American dream, the shows’ political subplots similarly suggest that the American political system has a dark side too.
Of course, The Killing has just as many differences as similarities with Twin Peaks and The Wire. Its serious tone and realist aesthetic dramatically contrast the humorously melodramatic Twin Peaks, while it’s plot-driven narrative full of twists and turns feels convoluted in comparison to the slow unfolding that happens in each season of The Wire. Furthermore, The Killing presents some of its characters as unredeemable villains, differing drastically from The Wire’s humanistic approach to morality. I was especially appalled with the way The Killing presents a group of powerful leaders at an Indian Casino as a veritable gang of thugs intent on manipulating officials by insisting on their sovereignty.
But these very differences reinforce my point: The Killing combines the elements of an urban crime drama with a family melodrama and a political thriller to produce a narrative all its own. Within the American context, the resulting narrative operates as a critique of American ideals, exposing the lies that undergird them through the death of one girl.
The revenge narrative structure remains a stalwart of the horror genre despite being one of cinema’s oldest formulas. Well before seventies exploitation films made the rape/revenge formula a sleazy regular of grindhouse cinema, vigilantes populated Westerns and even the great “art house” director, Ingmar Bergman, directed the gorgeously devastating The Virgin Spring that inspired more traditionally generic fare such as The Last House on the Left.
Nevertheless, filmmakers continue to rework the revenge formula for new audiences. Revenge remakes have enjoyed a revival of sorts (see my speculation on one such effort), but new stories have emerged as well. Two recent screenings I attended reminded me of how divergent the uses of revenge can be despite the simple formula. The films, Hobo with a Shotgun and Red White and Blue, both use the revenge formula for a contemporary audience but in drastically divergent ways.
The more conventional of the two, Hobo with a Shotgun casts the legendary (I don’t banty the term about lightly) Rutger Hauer in the titular role of a homeless man just trying to survive peacefully in a nightmarish urban Nova Scotia landscape. After witnessing the cartoonish cruelty of the city’s thugs, however, he takes up arms against criminal elements. Watch the red band trailer below:
The trailer highlights the stylistic flourishes of the film, harkening back to an eighties action film aesthetic of urban lawlessness (think Robocop or Cobra). The film, in other words, exemplifies pastiche much like related efforts Death Proof, Planet Terror, and Machete. Hobo began, after all, as a trailer for a contest associated with the release of Grindhouse before becoming a full-length feature as did Machete. The results are predictably gratuitous and campy, and while it may have fallen slightly short of my high expectations, it delivered on its promise gory action sequences and hilariously stilted dialog.
Red White and Blue differs dramatically from Hobo in both its aims and execution. The film follows a group of characters all residing in Austin, Texas, beginning with the detached and promiscuous Erica (Amanda Fuller). Despite her reckless sexual exploits, she attracts the attention of the pensive Nate, (Noah Taylor in an impressive turn), whose vague military career and stories of childhood hint at psychopathology. Despite their flaws, the two reluctantly form a bond, violently shattered by the entrance of Franki (Marc Senter), a musician whose tryst with Erica proves life-changing.
What differentiates Red White and Blue from so many other revenge narratives is the way in which complex grievances and motivations entangle the characters. The downward spiral begins when Franki discovers that he contracted HIV after engaging in unprotected sex with Erica. While the implications for his own life prove devastating enough, the impact multiplies since Franki donated blood to his mother who suffers from cancer. Franki and his friends then kidnap Erica. Upon confronting her, Erica admits to the knowledge of her own HIV positive status to Franki, both downplaying the significance of the disease and explaining her behavior in terms of her own sexual trauma. It could be Erica’s vulnerability in this scene that leads to a strange kind of violation: Franki, in a supposed effort to make amends, rapes Erica before proposing to her. (Note: Some viewers might not interpret this scene as rape since Erica hardly resists, but Fuller’s performance clearly conveys a lack of consent; it is a disturbing scene because the violence is as much emotional as it is physical.) After Erica attempts to escape, Franki fatally stabs her, dismembering and stowing away the body with the help of his friends. Soon thereafter, Nate tracks down and brutally attacks, interrogates, and tortures Franki and his accomplices. These scenes of calculated violence reveal the monstrous interior hiding beneath Nate’s tranquil exterior, making it difficult to root for Nate as avenger.
Ultimately, then, Red White and Blue refuses to give its audience a character to root for but makes each of its principal players multifaceted and sympathetic (to varying degrees). Hobo with a Shotgun, by contrast, simplifies the intentions of its characters: the hobo along with his sidekick hooker with a heart of gold represent marginalized goodness while crime boss, The Drake, and his spoiled sadistic sons embody evil fueled by unchecked greed. While I found Hobo far more satisfying as a spectacle, Red White and Blue challenged me in its conception of revenge and, in the process, critiqued our culture’s simplistic notions of justice. Red White and Blue showed that the myth of the vigilante portrayed in Hobo may be comforting, but rarely does it translate to life beyond the screen.
Mothers play such an important role in the modern horror film that it would be remiss not to do a little post on Mother’s Day about all of the crazy moms in the genre. We have Freud to thank for this demonization of motherhood–it was he, after all, who suggested that our attachments to our parents drive our psycho-sexual development for better and for worse–it’s the “worse” that the horror film relishes to the point of cliche.
Of course, modern serial killers also seemed to confirm Freud’s theories, particularly Ed Gein, whose hyper-religious mother resembles the mother of Carrie. Like Gein’s mother, Carrie’s mother asserts that women are the source of all evil and associates Carrie’s menarche with sinful behavior. In other words, Carrie’s mom doesn’t take the news of her daughter’s first period well:
Of course, a film that drew heavily from the Gein playbook would have to be Psycho since the film’s killer, Norman Bates, seems abnormally attached to his mother as was Gein. Gein also expressed a desire for a sex change, an idea which Psycho plays upon due to Norman Bates’ assumption of his mother’s personality. In the end scene, it becomes clear that Norm has been fully subsumed by the “mother half” of his self:
While you might be able to argue that the mother of Bates’ mind is merely a projection, the sadistic matriarch in Mother’s Day is flesh and blood, provoking her sons to acts of rape and murder. I’ve yet to see the film, but the trailer suggests a fairly standard rape-revenge plot with the added bonus of the crazy mother for camp value:
Other mothers in the genre set out to take revenge for the past wrongs committed against their children. Most memorable of these would have to be Pamela Voorhees from the Friday the 13th series. Her reign of terror kicked off the series before Jason became its iconic killer. Below, final girl Alice fights Mrs. Voorhees.
Just as with Psycho, a kind of telepathic connection occurs between child and mother, this time with the mother taking on the child’s persona. In such cases, the close (too close?) bonds between parent and progeny come under scrutiny.
Of course, some mothers get a bad wrap in horror for the opposite reason: Nancy’s mom in A Nightmare on Elm Street, for instance, is presented as a neglectful alcoholic whose desire to protect her daughter from the truth of Freddy’s existence may have caused more harm than good (to be fair, fathers also behave in misguided ways throughout the series).
Perhaps the most terrifying kind of mother in horror is the one who uses her reproductive power for evil. Such a mother embodies the montrous-feminine, which I have discussed at length in previous posts. While there are many of these types, the mother from The Brood stands out as a prime example. In that film, Nola undergoes psychiatric treatment called “psychoplasmics” in which patients manifest psychological symptoms physically. For Nola, who fights over custody of her daughter Candice, the therapy results in her ability to give birth to deformed children and through telepathy (once again!) send them out to do harm to various people who have wronged her in some way. Here’s one such scene:
You’ll never look at kids in snow suits the same way again! The climactic scene shows Nola giving birth to these creatures (described as “the children of her rage”) in quite a grotesque fashion. Below is a clip from Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movies, describing the film’s affect:
In the end, Nola is vanquished, but the concluding shot implies the Candace has inherited her powers.
It goes without saying that such portrayals present a problematic image of motherhood. In the process, mothers get blamed for the horror that takes place on screen because they have mothered excessively. Fatherly equivalents do exist especially in more mainstream genres, but such paternal figures seem far fewer in the horror genre than their maternal counterparts. The reason: horror’s interest in notions of the body makes motherhood particularly–dare I say it?–pregnant with possibilities.
I do not currently have a cable subscription, so much of my “television viewing” has been limited to shows available via the internet (welcome to the 21st Century). For that reason, I am a frequent visitor to the Comedy Central website where I can get a dose of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert when a little political comic relief is needed. Of late, these shows have featured promos for the latest animated series on the network called Ugly Americans.
Now, I am attaching a huge caveat to this post up-front: I HAVE NOT SEEN A FULL EPISODE OF THE SHOW. Unlike The Daily Show or the Colbert Report, Comedy Central does not provide full episodes online. It does, however, provide clips from the series that offer a glimpse into it, and from what I can tell, it’s your classic fanboy fantasy cartoon with adolescent antics mixing equal parts body humor and body horror.
The series envisions a world in which grotesque monsters from lore both old and new live amongst typical human beings. To deal with the inevitable conflicts that might arise, social workers like the series’ protagonist Mark Lilly assist the monsters with assimilation into society (he works for a fictional “Department of Integration”). This basic premise calls to mind True Blood since both shows play with the idea of monsterous archetypes living openly in society. But while True Blood takes that concept and explores all of its political implications, Ugly Americans seems less interested in a progressive critique of contemporary political realities and the fantastical world it envisions.
The promos do suggest that the show lampoons multiculturalism and its underlying goal of inclusion. The monsters sit around a circle in group therapy with Mark lamenting the ways in which they feel slighted in a human world. A siamese-twin like monster decries the lack of “double-assed toilets” in Manahattan, for example. While Mark sympathizes with the monster’s plight, the complaint is meant to illicit laughter from the audience due to its absurdity. Descriptions of the show also highlight its emphasis on assimilation, with the Comedy Central page explaining the following:
There are easier tasks than weaning vampires off of blood, socializing land-whales, and housebreaking werewolves, but Mark is up to the challenge. Between his stressful job, a zombie roommate, and a demon on and off girlfriend, Mark’s lucky if he can sneak in a few minutes of sleep. But who can sleep when there’s a drop-dead gorgeous Mermaid sitting at the bar?
The final line brings me to my last observation about the show: it’s obssession with fantasy female bodies and what Barbara Creed calls the monstrous-feminine (read my post on Grace for more another discussion on the topic). Clip after clip literalizes the monstrous-feminine through the character of Callie Maggotbone, the boss and love interest of Mark and self-described succubus. Click on Callie below to see a clip:
In short, Callie represents the soul-sucking (literally), power-hungry, professional urban woman. Here’s the Wikipedia description in case you needed more evidence:
Mark’s immediate superior, and also his on-again/off-again girlfriend. In between stealing Mark away for bathroom rendezvous, Callie is berating him for being so soft. She’s the typical 20-something girl who doesn’t know what she wants, but is also bona fide hellspawn, as her father is a high-ranking minion of the Devil. However, since Callie is the product of that demon’s union with her waifish human mother (who was drugged by a cult), Callie is frequently conflicted by her human side. She is drawn to Mark the nice guy, but feels in her heart that she will inevitably end up with someone like Twayne the Bone Raper… after all, it’s what daddy wants. Unfortunately for all of us, such a union could potentially lead to the apocalypse. She also does not like her father, seeming to be more turned on to Mark after believing her father hated him.
Need I say more about how problematic I find this character?
Other female characters prove to be less dangerous but more troubling sexually, like the woman with a face on her crotch and about a dozen breasts on her chest. Even Callie’s yonic abnormality receives attention on the show. The show, then, manifests both fear and awe over female difference through its monstrous-feminine figures.
While I’m not surprised to see Comedy Central churning this stuff out, I’m just a little bit disappointed that the show seems so obviously targeted toward the fanboy with little interest in the fangirl. Gone, it seems, are the days of animated shows like Daria geared toward adolescent and young-adult females. When will producers of such cultural products recognizes that the sex of genre fans isn’t always male?