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.
Regular readers may have noticed the recent lack of posts. The reason: I’ve spent the last several weeks moving cross-country with spouse and puppy in tow. After several days of ten hours behind the wheel, we finally arrived in Oregon early this week and have been recuperating ever since.
Now that I have landed in the cool, lush Pacific Northwest, I am reflecting upon four years as a Texas resident with mixed emotions. While I certainly detested the dominant conservative views of the state’s populace, I appreciated the brash Texas culture that combined so many influences. I come away from the state with a greater appreciation for western cloths, country music of the Townes Van Zandt variety, spicy foods, and the greatest contraction ever, “y’all.” The place rubbed off on me, and I know that I’ll think back fondly on the many friends I made, SXSW dayshows I attended, bars I frequented (Hole in the Wall!), and daytrips to float the Comal taken over the past four years.
I feel especially blessed to have been in Austin at a time in which horror fandom flourished. I doubt that this blog would exist had I not cultivated my interest in the genre through coursework in media studies, conversations with like-minded friends, and late night b-movies at the Alamo Drafthouse. Because of the Terror Thursday (now Terror Tuesday) series, I saw such gems as The Stepfather, The Hidden, and Silent Night, Deadly Night along with some duds that shall remain nameless. I even saw a few of the genre’s famous faces at special screenings, including Eli Roth, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Joe Bob Briggs.
Most exciting to me was seeing the production of such movies right before my eyes. The fall that I arrived in Texas, Quentin Tarantino and crew were filming Death Proof in a neighborhood adjacent to my own. I actually spotted Tarantino at Jo’s Coffee Stand while looking for apartments in Austin. I reacted by quickly walking past, calling my brother so I could tell someone, and then walking back to the coffee shop to get a closer look. Later, I saw the trailer park of stars and crew assembled on South Congress and witnessed some of the shooting of the film in Guero’s Taco Bar, an early favorite of mine as I became acquainted with the area. Jungle Julia billboards dotted major streets in South Austin, and my bus trips home from UT would often include a drive past shooting locations. The next Spring, I scored tickets to see the regional premiere of Grindhouse with some friends, and we all met up at one of the film’s prominent shooting locations, the Texas Chili Parlor, before the screening. There, we ran into a group of roller girls (The Putas del Fuego), decked out in evening wear with beauty pageant sashes. We learned at the screening that the ladies of the league were honored guests. Better company for such an event I cannot imagine.
What I discovered the longer I lived in Texas was the way in which Grindhouse merely elaborated upon an established connection between the state of Texas and the horror genre. Only after moving to Texas did I discover one of the greatest modern horror films of all time, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. That film’s director and co-writer, Tobe Hooper, taught at the University of Texas’s Radio-TV-Film Department, where I worked on my master’s. He shot the film outside of Austin, capitalizing upon the dry, central Texas terrain to give the film a desolate feel. Horror films continue to use this kind of setting to illicit the same feelings of isolation in viewers.
So, while I may be thrilled to be back home in the Northwest, I will always reflect back upon my time in Texas as particularly formative. It may not have been New York in the fifties or San Franscisco in the sixties, but for me, Austin was the right cultural scene at the right time, and it made me into the horror fan that I am today.
I visited my buddies in Austin for the last time this week before moving my shit out to the Pacific Northwest next week. We had some good meals, listened to some terrific music from Austin’s freshest bands, and best of all, had a lot of good conversation. Still, one of the most fun activities of the weekend was watching Jason X while we stayed at my friend Curran’s place. Curran and his partner Masashi own a ridiculously large collection of horror videos and dvds–they best me in terms of horror fandom hands down.
When faced with the wide array of choices, we decided to watch a Friday the Thirteenth installment I’d never seen: Jason X. I’d caught some of the film on television (back when I had cable) but had not viewed it in its entirety. I found the film to be just as schlocky as expected, and hence, a pleasurable viewing experience.
Jason X (2002), by the way, stars that irrepressible, hockey-masked villain, Jason Voorhees, in the tenth installment of the series. In this version, a company attempts to transport Jason to a research facility to better understand his ability to survive any form of execution. Of course, everything goes wrong, and Jason and incredulous scientist, Rowan, both succumb to freezing after a cryogenic tank breaks. Nearly five hundred years later, a group of researchers discovers the two frozen beings and takes them aboard a funky looking space ship (more on that later) where they thaw out and all hell breaks loose. It’s like Alien meets Terminator meets…well, Friday the Thirteenth.
It may shock you to know that Jason X does not presume to be a serious entry into the horror genre, but revels in poor acting, lame dialog, and the worst CGI since Jaws 3-D. Here’s the trailer:
Here are ten things about Jason X that will keep you laughing from beginning to end:
1 Writing – Much of the film’s attempts at comic relief rely upon the lowest form of humor: the pun. After one unfortunate victim becomes impaled upon a large drill, one of his comrades says, “he’s screwed.” One character cries out, “this sucks on so many levels” when (surprise, surprise) being sucked out of a ship after Jason punches a hole into the outer wall. Some of the kills seem built entirely around the punny line that follows.
2 Animation – The film uses CGI to create the world of outer-space, but apparently the $11,000,000 budget couldn’t buy much in the way of quality. The ships portrayed look completely ridiculous, like someone tried way too hard to come-up with something unusual.
3 Costuming – Along the same lines, the characters wear the most ridiculous, lurid clothing throughout the film. The odd textures, colors, and layering fail to evoke a consistent style of the future, except in that the ladies tend to bare midriff and/or cleavage. This still gets at what I’m talking about it:
4 Kink – The film also uses kink as a source of humor. Android Kay-Em 14 dresses like a dominatrix when facing off against Jason, but my favorite thing: a sex scene between a female student and male professor featuring a pair of tongs used to twist the teacher’s nipple. As a orgasms, he cries out: “you passed!”
5 Weird Science – The film portrays a future in which limbs can be reattached in a jiff and bodies frozen for four-hundred years merely need be covered in ants to reanimate. Yes, ants. This technology also benefits Jason, who despite being shot up into a chunky paste by Kay-Em 14 inexplicably reemerges as a cyborg. The script makes few attempts to explain how this technology works, which actually seems more honest to me even if it makes for perplexing entertainment.
6 Characters – Besides the final girl, Rowan, everyone else in this movie is pretty unsympathetic. Both annoying and idiotic, you will not mourn the loss. The Professor Brandon Lowe, who learns that Jason will likely snag him a lot of money, exudes the same kind of sleaziness that Paul Reiser did in Aliens but without the subtlety. One death after another feels like it belongs in the Darwin awards.
7 Kills – The kills are ridiculous: getting sucked into space through a grate; dipping a girl’s face into liquid nitrogen and shattering it; the famous sleeping bag kill with two simultaneous victims. Ugh.
8 Plot – The twists and turns prove to be both imaginative and nonsensical. Why, for example, do Jason and Rowan’s bodies lie untouched for nearly five hundred years?
9 Action Sequences – The face-off against Kay-Em 14 proves more hilarious than heart-stopping due to the silly stunts:
This clip highlights the final hilarious thing about Jason X
10 Acting – Sure, the writing stinks, but the delivery is worse. The actors frequently overact, miss their beats, and provoke unintended laughs.
I could easily come up with more hilarious things about the movie (the score, the ending, etc…) but that would ruin my whole X/10 parallel. Besides, the many surprises along the way may be the most entertaining thing about Jason X, and what kind of fan would I be to give all of that away?
***Many spoilers follow, so if you’ve not yet seen the original ISOYG, skip this review
Of all the horror films to remake, 1979′s I Spit on Your Grave (also known as Day of the Woman) seems a somewhat unlikely choice. That brutal, rape-revenge film made waves upon its first release with the likes of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert who critiqued its prolonged scenes of sexual assault. It also featured problematic portrayals of the working class and mentally disabled. Though the linkage between lower-classness and sadistic violence remains acceptable mainstream fare, negative representations of disability seem more touchy these days. In short, an I Spit on Your Grave remake seems like a huge risk. Check out the original trailer and see for yourself:
Then again, I Spit on Your Grave does fit in nicely with two concurrent cycles in American horror: torture porn and remakes. As you can see in the trailer, the film involves the gang-rape of Jennifer, a big city writer renting a cabin in a rural area. After surviving her ordeal, Jennifer hunts down each of her attackers, dispatching them with gruesome precision. Based on the IMDB synopsis, it appears that the remake retains much of the original’s basic structure with a few adjustments that I will discuss below. But first, the trailer:
A few observations:
1) Night and Day Aesthetics – Hand-held camera work seems to have replaced the more detached cinematography of the original. The overall color-scheme feels darker than the original, with lots of night scenes and a heightening of blues and greens (probably through filters). This change interests me, given that one of the more shocking elements of the original was the way that the gang-rape occurred in broad daylight. From all appearances, the new film presents Jennifer’s rape as occurring at night and following a break in into her home. My guess would be that filmmakers felt these changes would be a) more realistic to today’s audiences and b) more creepy and atmospheric.
2) Context? – The original ISOYG contextualizes the violence against Jennifer in terms of tensions based on class and gender; the male perpetrators regularly make sexist remarks and criticize Jennifer’s urban sophistication. Surprisingly, the trailer for the latest ISOYG provides very little information about what motivates the rapists, instead focusing on Jennifer. I wonder if the remake will make these connections between misogyny and rape clear or merely assume them to be implied.
3) Targeting – Siskel and Ebert claimed that the audiences that attended screenings of the original consisted primarily of men who cheered on the perpetrators during the rape scenes. While I have some skepticism about Siskel and Ebert’s accounts, I imagine that it’s highly likely that men attended these screenings more than women due to the cultural presumptions about the appropriateness of violent films for women. The remake’s trailer, though, seems targeted primarily toward lady viewers by encouraging viewer identification with Jennifer (generally, Hollywood marketers assume that women identify with women characters and men with men). This doesn’t surprise me, given the recent marketing research that suggests women comprise the majority of horror audiences.
In the end, I am pretty lukewarm on this project, primarily because of my mixed feelings about the original. Given the involvement of the original film’s producers and director, I expect that the motivation for revisiting this material has more to do with cashing in than fleshing out the implications of the original. I hope the new film proves me wrong, but with the tagline “It’s date night,” I shudder to think.
As discussed in Part 1, the home invasion narrative (exemplified by Straw Dogs among other films) sometimes places the spectator in the uneasy position of identifying with a flawed, bourgeois hero. The same proves to be true for the French film Ils and the similarly conceptualized American film The Strangers. Like À l’intérieur, these films focus on middle-class protagonists whose peaceful existence suddenly becomes threatened by unwanted intruders. Below are these films’ respective trailers:
Both films depict the terrorization of a couple occupying a country house. As with À l’intérieur, the film titles prove significant in understanding the conflicts within the film. Ils, translated into English as Them, immediately calls to mind the opposing pronoun of “us.” The Strangers even more blatantly connotes the specter of otherness and the unknown with its title. In short, both films hinge on the fear of encroachment by mysterious outsiders.
And what is being attacked? The house as symbol immediately signifies bourgeois ideals of wealth, ownership, and domestic spaces designed for privacy and leisure. The heterosexual couples central to these narratives also embody these values. In the case of The Strangers, issues of matrimony come to the fore as a result of the female protagonist, Kristen (Liv Tyler) rejecting the proposal of her longtime boyfriend, James (Scott Speedman). James’s parents’ vacation house where the film is set was to serve as a celebratory getaway, but the rejection deflates that intention. As the film progresses, the couple (initially headed toward an inevitable break-up) becomes united through their shared trauma. The film hits us over the head with this point when Kristen puts on the engagement ring she had previously declined just before the strangers repeatedly stab the couple, who are bound to chairs side-by-side. In short, Kristen ceremoniously accepts their status as a mature couple just before the two are (literally) ripped apart.
The antagonists of both Ils and The Strangers dramatically contrast this sense of adulthood by aligning their terrifying actions with youthful games. In Ils, the assailants taunt the couple with loud music, noisemakers, and the blaring headlights of their cars. It’s no surprise, then, when we learn in the final shots that the couple had been attacked by a group of teenagers. Similarly, Kristen and Kate face three young attackers whose faces we never see–one has a sack over his head while the other two wear cartoonish masks. In both films, the assailants claim that they wanted to “play” with their victims, again aligning childhood games with sadistic torture.
This metaphor between torture and play brings Funny Games (both the US and Austrian versions) to mind. Written and directed by Michael Haneke, both films depict two clean-cut young men taking a well-to-do family hostage while on vacation. Here are the trailers:
Because these films so clearly side with the couples/families being terrorized, it would be easy to conclude that they take a reactionary stance by portraying youthful rebellion in such sharp contrast to the quaintness of bourgeois living. Dig a little deeper, though, and I think you can actually unearth a more radical reading. Take Funny Games, for instance: the antagonists do not represent an opposing force to white middle-classness so much as another side of the same coin. They dress in their preppiest tennis whites, speak with perfect diction, and regularly make gestures of politeness. These monsters, then, do not represent the repressed other from without but the one from within the bourgeois psyche. They manifest the excess of this lifestyle with their inclination to torture and kill for sport. Like Leopold and Loeb, their sense of superiority leads them to murder.
Ils and The Strangers may not focus on these themes as sharply, but nevertheless, there is a sense in all three films that the perpetrators of these crimes consider torture and murder a form of leisure, which necessarily references bourgeois inclinations. As a result, these films might be read as cautionary tails of contemporary western culture and its excesses, for the very sanctuary (the home) designated as space for relaxation and play becomes appropriated by outsiders for the purpose with horrific results.
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.
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)
As I mentioned in a previous post, holiday-themed slashers have been a staple of the genre since its very inception. Black Christmas, arguably the first slasher ever, takes place on Christmas Eve at a near-empty sorority house. As a result, the typical warm and fuzzy Christmas atmospheric indicators–carols, twinkling lights, etc.–become twisted into ominous signs of the impending doom that the handful of the sorority house’s remaining occupants face. Christmas themes also function subtextually: the killer appropriately climbs into the sorority house attic from the roof like a demented Santa Claus, while the primary character toils over her unwanted pregnancy a la Mary. Black Christmas demonstrated that even the most sacred of holidays could be used as fodder for horror. Once again, here is the trailer:
The voiceover at the end of the trailer drives home my point that holiday horror is all about perverting the quaint holiday traditions that have become cliches. In this way, the holiday horror subversively challenges the notion of tradition.
No holiday slasher does this more than the eighties b-movie slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night. Whereas Black Christmas subtly works in the idea of Santa Claus as serial killer, SNDN derives its entire plot from the concept. To be sure, the killer is not the “actual” Santa of the North Pole but a mere toy store impersonator. Still, the result is a film that plays upon the modern Santa Claus iconography popularized by Coca Cola’s illustrator Haddon Sundblom in the 1930′s. Below is one example of the marketing tactics used for the film:
But beyond the sensational imagery evoked by the poster, the film walks a weird line in its attempts to justify the use of Santa Claus. It begins with the story of Billy, a young boy who witnesses the murder of his parents after the attempted rape of his mother on Christmas Eve at the hands of a robber dressed as Santa. This traumatic event occurs just after Billy and parents visit his grandfather, who explains (in one of the film’s most comical scenes) what Santa does to bad children:
Not surprisingly, the now-orphaned Billy associates Santa with murder and mayhem. The Mother Superior at the orphanage where he subsequently grows up reinforces this connection with a series of harsh punishments that in one way or another coincide with Santa Claus and/or witnessing the act of sex. Years later as an eighteen year-old, Billy leaves the orphanage and begins working at a local toy store. During the Christmas season, the manager enlists Billy to play Santa, triggering his memories of his parents’s murders. When Billy sees one of his coworkers attempting to sexually assault another, he himself becomes the punishing Santa figure, hanging the would-be perpetrator with Christmas lights. A murderous rampage ensues, ending at the orphanage where Billy attempts to kill the Mother Superior before police shoot and kill him. Billy’s younger brother, who witnesses the scene, looks up from his brother’s dead body toward the Mother Superior and concludes the film with the line “Naughty!”
While the film’s play on Christmas screams camp value, some critics took umbrage with the film’s depiction of a maniac Santa. Gene Siskel even went so far as to call out the film’s distributors, producers, writer, and director:
Toward the end of the clip, Siskel dismisses the idea that the film might be campy, yet he describes with a straight face the film’s most ridiculous scenes: a topless woman impaled on antlers, another woman killed with a bow and arrow, and one of my favorites, the killer’s presentation of a box cutter as a gift to a child. Maybe the passage of time has dated the film in a way that emphasizes the camp value, but I struggle nevertheless to fathom how anyone could have taken SNDN seriously. Yet the film proved controversial with various parent organizations successfully lobbying for its removal from distribution. Clearly, the slasherization of Santa touched a nerve in conservative 1980s America.
It would be interesting to see how today’s audiences would react to the concept. A remake helmed by French director Alexandre Aja had been discussed for a 2008 release but has not come to fruition. It’s quite possible that thirty years later, the serial killer Santa Clause remains a taboo that even the most audacious distributors will not touch. For the time being, home video will just have to suffice.
Halloween greetings to all! Before I begin, I want to acknowledge the fantastic work of Kristen, who wrote the guest post about Dead Man’s Bones. I’m glad to finally host another opinionator on the blog besides myself, and I welcome other contributions from interested writers.
Now, on to the good stuff: yesterday, I noticed an especially tantalizing review in the New York Times about The House of the Devil, a well-reviewed horror film released just in time for Halloween. The film set in the 1980′s follows a young woman hard-up for cash who takes a babysitting gig out of desperation. From the looks of the trailer, the high-paying offer devolves into a satanic blood bath:
Beyond the standard review, the Times offered up a slide show illustrating the film’s period mise-en-scene along with audio of director Ti West describing the motivation for the film’s setting and aesthetic. Mainly, West explains the selection of the eighties as motivated by the satanic panic of the era.
Among many other backlashes of that decade, it became somewhat of a trend for prominent evangelicals to suggest that satanic ritual abuse was not only occurring in society but wide-spread. Worse yet, a PBS Frontline episode from 1995 suggests that prominent psychiatrists promoted and exploited the conspiracy theory for professional gain. I recommend digging up a copy of the episode as it presents the frightening possibility that through suggestion during hypnosis, a slew of crazy memories can be implanted into patients seeking treatment for depression.
A related moral panic of the eighties is captured in the disturbing documentary Capturing the Friedmans. The film documents the deterioration of a middle-class Long Island family whose patriarch is accused of child molestation. The film’s presentation of the facts reveals a troubling picture of the kind of witch hunt that can happen when people build a case on a tissue of lies. The trailer below gives hints at what occurred:
All the more reason to check out The House of the Devil. I’m interested to see how the film uses satanic panic and whether or not the film undermines or reinforces the ideas that motivated it. Either way, the film looks like one hell of a scare.
I’m going to stop apologizing for the lack of posts, because otherwise, this blog’s going to be a downer to read. Who wants to read my confessions of a lack of time/motivation/energy? I can only assure you all that this low crop yield will not last forever–probably just until January or February when life resumes a more rested pace.
In the meantime, I want to hook y’all up with some funny twisted links that you all might enjoy–a bit gimmicky and lazy on my part, but at this point, I don’t have much else to contribute.
First up: Huffington Post is currently featuring a slideshow with some hilarious kiddie Halloween Costumes. Included among them are a child dressed in a chicken costume with the Alien creature popping out (see below), a baby dressed as a lobster being carried in a pot, and a child dressed as a shark consuming a child.
Secondly, a coworker recently brought this blog by horror photog Joshua Hoffine to my attention. While his stunning and distirbing photos offer plenty in an of themselves, what makes the blog so fascinating is that Hoffine features behind-the-scenes pictures with explinations of the staging, make-up, and inspiration behind the photographs. He also has a pic of himself with Herschell Gordon Lewis, the cutest old horror director ever. If you prefer to view the puppets without seeing the strings, check out his website here.
Finally, I present another blog geared around women in horror film: Pretty/Scary “celebrates creative, innovative, intelligent, and awesome images of women in horror, sci-fi, and fantasy films, literature and art.” It’s always nice to see venues for women to discuss horror.
Any other suggestions? Please post them in the comments section.