Of all the films I watched last year, We Need to Talk About Kevin proved to be my favorite in the horror genre. Some might challenge that label: the director, Lynne Ramsey, never helmed a slasher flick or monster movie, but instead displayed a unique aesthetic with her debut film, Ratcatcher, which portrays a young Scottish boy, striving to escape his gritty existence in 1970′s urban Glasgow (see my overview of the film here). Nevertheless, both Ratcatcher and Ramsey’s second feature-length, Morvern Callar, both deal in dark themes of death and existential crisis, despite their “art house” credentials, with both films’ primary protagonists’ coping with a violent death through most of (if not the entire) film.
We Need to Talk About Kevin, however, deals with death of a different sort. Whereas Morvern Callar starts with the aftermath of the title character’s boyfriend’s suicide, and Ratcatcher’s James struggles to process the accidental drowning of a young friend, Kevin focuses upon Eva Katchadourian (played brilliantly by Tilda Swinton), a formerly vibrant travel writer reduced to a hollow shell of her former self. Through a series of situations in the present and flashbacks to the past, we learn that Eva’s son, Kevin of the title, committed a terrible act that continues to haunt her in the present.
We learn that Kevin challenged Eva as a mother from the very beginning. As a baby, Kevin seems to cry uncontrollably in her presence alone:
As he grows older, his hostility becomes more overt: he resists toilet training, glaring at Eva with great intensity while intentionally defecating just after being changed. In this particular incident, Eva loses it, handling Kevin roughly and accidentally breaking his arm. Kevin uses the incident to manipulate Eva, reminding her about the injury when she initially refuses to take him to a toy store. Eva relents, knowing Kevin could easily tell his father about the real cause of his broken arm (he lied to to his dad about the incident, presumably to gain leverage over his mother). We then see Kevin in his teens, continuing the same pattern of defiance.
Kevin could be a case study in violent psychopathy. Just prior to seeing Kevin, I read Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, which humorously details the history of psychopathy as a diagnosis. Individuals suffering from psychopathy fail to feel any sense of empathy or genuine emotional connection, even with their closest relatives. Instead, a psychopath sees such relationships in opportunistic terms, manipulating those around him for his own gain. Nevertheless, psychopaths often exhibit a kind of magnetic charisma that can be mesmerizing to those who are unaware of the duplicitous nature of the act (see also Martha Stout‘s The Sociopath Next Door). Throughout Kevin, the title character illustrates these characteristics, simultaneous charming his father while at the same time playing games with his mother.
All the while, Ramsey and Director of Photography, Seamus McGarvey, shoot the film beautifully. From the very first shot of Eva at La Tomatina Festival in Buñol, Spain, red dominates the mise en scene. The Blog Fishmuffins of Doom nicely summarizes Kevin and illustrates the use of red in this nice series of screenshots:
As these stills show, the film uses red in a variety of contexts. Red literally covers Eva as she revels in the experience of a tomato fight in the film’s first shot. It’s also the color of the paint that Kevin splatters all over her map-papered office walls. In short, red represents Eva’s passions as much as Kevin’s resentment of those desires. It also casts a haunting glow over the film’s present, in which Eva copes with the aftermath of her son’s violence. Red, then, is the color of guilt.
This guilt makes Kevin so compelling as a portrayal of mothering a psychopath. The film shows Eva at every turn struggling with choices that many professional-class mothers must make: whether to continue a career or forego it, whether to live a metropolitan life or go suburban, whether to have an additional child or focus on the one you have. At each turn, Eva makes the conventional choice in spite of her own desires, but still faces her son’s ire. At every turn, Kevin plays upon Eva’s guilt to evade punishment for his own bad behavior. Eva alone recognizes her son’s true nature, but fails to take action because she feels responsible for it.
Kevin, then, is less about the horror of Kevin’s final violent act and more about the burdens placed on mothers in contemporary society. Kevin’s psychopathy merely brings these tensions to light more dramatically than a typical family drama, but in doing so defies the tendency to easily resolve such conflicts.
In this way, the filmmakers of Kevin use the generic elements of horror along with sophisticated cinematography and fine performances to portray the complexity of mother-child relationships in contemporary, middle-class households, to devastating effect.
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.
Previously, I posted about how highly I anticipated Splice, a sci-fi/horror film written and directed by Vincenzo Natali and starring Sarah Polley and Adrian Brody. A friend tempered my high expectations by telling me that some reviewers panned the film, but I went to see it last night anyway with hopes that the film would prove strong. I am happy to report that Splice may be this summer’s Drag Me to Hell, in terms of high quality, provocative, mainstream horror. You simply must see it.
For those who missed my previous post, Splice follows a couple of scientists, Clive and Elsa (Brody and Polley, respectively) tasked with creating animal hybrids in order to extract proteins for gene therapy. They succeed in developing strange, penile like creatures for this purpose, calling the pair Fred and Ginger. Riding the high of their success, Clive and Elsa propose an even more radical experiment involving the incorporation of human DNA, much to the dismay of the executives of their company. Despite orders to refrain from using human DNA, Elsa and Clive move forward with the project in secret with plans to abort the egg once it proves viable. The egg, however, grows more rapidly than expected. In an intense scene, Clive and Elsa extract the creature from it’s fetal tank. The animal ages rapidly starting out looking like a fleshy tube with a bulbous appendage at one end and becoming more human-like as time passes.
With wide set eyes, chicken-like legs, and a tail with a stinger, the creature (which Elsa names “Dren”) looks uncannily human, yet behaves with the unpredictability of an animal. As Dren grows, she becomes more difficult to hide from other workers in the lab and Clive and Elsa decide to move her to a secluded farm house where they keep her locked in a barn. Meanwhile, the “Fred and Ginger” project takes a disastrous turn when Ginger changes sex and the two kill each other in front of the company’s shareholders. The couple must develop the proteins demanded by the company using DNA samples. Elsa extracts DNA from Dren, successfully reproducing the protein demanded by the company.
But work seems the least of their worries. Rather, the film’s final third revolves around tensions amongst Dren, Clive, and Elsa. Dren rebels against the mother figure Elsa while Clive and Dren become closer. The emotions between Clive and Dren quickly become sexual, and Dren successfully seduces him. Elsa walks in on a freaky intra-species sex scene, one of the film’s more shocking moments. Soon thereafter, Dren appears to grow sick and die; however, Dren rises from her fresh grave, transformed into a male. After killing Clive’s brother and one of the executives sent to investigate, Dren attacks Elsa and rapes her. Clive impales Dren, but Dren kills Clive with his regrown stinger. Elsa, however, finishes the job by smashing Dren’s head with a rock.
Months later, Elsa makes a deal with the company to enter phase 2 of the Dren project. The now clearly pregnant Elsa agrees to carry her baby to term despite the personal risks and ethical implications. The film ends without reassurances, fading to black with the image of a female executive embracing Elsa.
This last image of an older woman holding a younger woman draws attention to the mother/daughter dynamics central to the film. From the time of Dren’s birth, Elsa relates to her like a mother to a child, protecting Dren from danger and, as she grows, teaching her new skills and praising her for her accomplishments. Along with skills, Elsa passes along lessons of femininity, giving Dren a Barbie-like doll, adorning her in dresses, and as she matures, teaching her how to use make-up. These lessons in femininity contrast Elsa’s own accounts of her relationship with her deceased mother. Elsa tells Dren that she hid her doll from sight because her mother would not allow her to play with dolls; Elsa also explains that make-up was forbidden because, her mother said, it “debased women.” Elsa’s mothering of Dren, then, contrasts her mother’s approach.
I interpreted these generational differences in terms of second-wave feminism and third-wave feminism. In other words, Elsa seems to be lashing back at her mother’s strict definitions of female empowerment by embracing a more traditional notion of femininity. This clash reminded me of a terrific article by Kathleen Karlyn about the ways in which the Scream series grapples with mother/daughter relationships in very similar terms. Elsa uses Dren to rework issues unresolved between herself and her mother, which becomes particularly interesting as Dren matures into a sexual being. In one of the film’s most disturbing sequences, Dren nearly kills Elsa after being scolded for killing a cat; Elsa then proceeds to knock Dren out and restrain her, removing her clothing before cutting off her stinger. Clive later states that he believes that Elsa channeled her motherly impulses into Dren because as a scientist, she believed she could have greater control in an experimental setting–the scene confirms this suspicion, with Elsa referring to Dren as a subject and specimen, reinforcing an illusion of scientific objectivity. In short, Elsa struggles with memories of her own controlling, abusive mother, channeling similar impulses into her relationship with Dren with disturbing effects.
Dren’s relationship with Clive proves just as interesting. Clive struggles with the moral and ethical implications of the project from the very beginning, regularly insisting on terminating Dren but ultimately relenting at Elsa’s behest. Yet, Clive ultimately reciprocates Dren’s advances, in part because she physically resembles Elsa (a fact that leads Clive to conclude that Elsa contributed her own DNA for the project). Thus, Clive (like Elsa) conflates his desires for Elsa toward Dren. Splice, then, portrays parent/child relationships as complicated by transference.
Ultimately, Splice depicts a heterosexual couple producing a monstrous (but sympathetic) being, resulting in the kind of dysfunctional family unit described by Freud a century ago–we even get a primal scene in the film. I expect that such an outcome would please the late Robin Wood despite Dren’s queerness (see my review of Orphan for more about Wood).
Of course, Splice does exhibit flaws, particularly in terms of dialog and mise-en-scene. Elsa’s repeating of the phrase “What’s the worst that could happen?” failed to illicit the laughs intended. The whole self-proclaimed nerdiness of the characters seems contrived, especially since Elsa and Clive initially dress like hackers in a late-nineties computer thriller. I expect that some folks (the true nerds) will scoff at the liberties taken with science, but in a fantasy film, I tend to let this slide.
The fact of the matter: Splice held my attention from start to finish, unnerving me and leaving me with much to ponder. I can’t make that claim about most of the films I have seen this past year. Can you?
***Before I begin, I want to pat myself on the back since this is the one year anniversary of my first blog post. 78 posts later, Dark Room is stronger than ever with May 2010 on track to be the highest traffic month in the blog’s history. Thanks especially to guest contributors and fellow bloggers Alyx of Feminist Music Geek and Kristen of Act Your Age, both of whom regularly plug this blog. But thanks to everyone who has checked out the site and to all of my friends and family who have encouraged me to continue writing.***
Playboy magazine broke another boundary this week, publishing its very first 3-D issue (2 color glasses included). I can’t help but wonder if Playboy has been taking notes while watching the latest 3-D offerings at the cineplex, including the 3-D horror films released since the development of RealD technology. Such films intensify the male gaze with their emphasis on shapeliness highlighting the benefits of 3-D technology.
To be sure, 3-D technology is not a necessary component to structure the male gaze, and analysts have identified such patterns in films that predate the advent of 3-D technology. But 3-D films have an incentive to constantly draw your attention to the novelty-factor that results from these films creating the illusion of depth, and boobs (always a hot seller) seem to be one of the quickest ways to remind viewers that they are getting a different kind of exhibition experience for their extra $5 per ticket.
With horror films in particular, there are additional factors that ramp up the expectation that a 3-D horror film will include voluptuous, naked female bodies. In particular, the genre has a well-known history of representing sex alongside the violence. The extent of this objectification, however, surprised me when I saw My Bloody Valentine 3D when it came out in January 2009. That film included a sex scene followed by a prolonged chase sequence in which the actress ran around naked. Below is a very short part of that scene:
I wish I could find a clip of the scene–it was so outlandish that the audience howled with laughter. The next big 3-D horror film, Piranha 3-D, appears that it will also use the female body for laughs as well as to draw attention to the technology:
With an absurd premise (ancient piranhas emerging from a crevice after an earthquake) and deliberately campy, referential casting choices (Elisabeth Shue, Ving Rhames, Christopher Lloyd, Richard Dreyfuss, and Eli Roth all make appearances), I expect that Piranha 3-D will walk the fine line between pastiche and parody, rather than playing it straight. The spring break component of the film’s plot plays nicely into this comedic approach. The filmmakers can have their cake and eat it too, poking fun at the excesses of the spring break ritual as codified by MTV while also taking advantage of all the hot bodies to spotlight the 3-D.
Still, a more blatant attempt to fuse horror, nudity, and 3-D technology can be found in the aptly titled Big Tits Zombie 3-D, a film likely more famous in the United States for it’s trailer rather than the full feature length version (I’ve yet to find an actual review). Here’s what’s been floating around the internet:
Pop Matters has a nice little piece about the trailer which points out the obvious irony of the clip. I agree that this film seems to be more about self-mockery than any kind of earnest effort at horror; in other words, it’s camp in the most deliberate sense.
It’s no wonder that these campy horror films use 3-D as a means of calling attention to the excessive bodies ever-present in our culture, given that camp aesthetics often include exaggerated bodies that emphasize the grotesque. Check out Divine, for instance, in the John Waters directed Pink Flamingos:
But the question–it’s always the question with irony–is whether or not these recent appropriations subvert or reinforce the very cultural standards they gently mock. With the particular trend of 3-D boobs, I lean against the possibility of subversion, especially with such self-promoting celebrities like Heidi Montag supposedly jumping on board–The Hills “star” told People Magazine that she is “making the first 3-D beach comedy about a shark that attacks a small beach town and I save the day with my 3-D boobs.” She claims to have cast Dolly Parton in a cameo role. In other words, there’s more yet to come on the 3-D boob front. Brace yourself!
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?
When I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road last summer, its post-apocalyptic story seemed like pure fantasy. In the cool confines of my air-conditioned apartment or lounging next to my apartment complex swimming pool, the story seemed worlds away from reality. Since then, the global economic recession hit like a sack of bricks, and government collapse and environmental disaster seems more imminent than ever.
For the above-mentioned reasons, the film adaptation of The Road could hardly be more timely with its October 16th release. The trailer now screens with the latest cinematic features, giving us a little something to taste. Click on the picture below and it will link you to the trailer:
I have been eagerly anticipating this film since I learned about it last winter. I’m especially excited about the casting of Viggo Mortenson as “the man,” and Guy Pearce and Robert Duvall in smaller roles. I have mixed feelings about Charlize Theron in the roll of “Wife,” given her glamourous star persona with the odd exception of Monster. Oddly, the trailer suggests the wife to be a significant character in spite of the book’s marginalization of the Wife to just a few short passages. Of course, the promotional materials could be playing up Theron’s role in order to capitalize on her name-recognition, but if it is the case that the Wife plays a more prominent role, I am interested to see whether this will be to the film’s advantage or not.
The opening moments of the trailer annoy me more: in Day After Tomorrow fashion, the trailer shows fires, floods, tornadoes, and avalanches with intertitles stating “one event will change the face of the planet.” This seems to contradict the spirit of the novel, which leaves the full nature of the apocolyptic event a mystery. Again, these could be shots that don’t actually exist in the film, but if The Road explicates the disaster, it will betray McCarthy’s vision of a truly post-apocolyptic road movie.
Of course, the film still has much potential, and I will definitely do my best to resist my biases (which will be difficult, considering the subtle product placement in the trailer–REALLY?). No matter what, The Road has to be better than the other apocalypse-themed film screening a trailer right now, Legion (click the poster below):
Screen Gems continues to be the white elephant gift that keeps on giving (see my previous post on their sacrilegious slasher remakes). Then again, the demon grandma at thirty seconds has to be one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a trailer this summer, so Legion could be the surprise comedy smash of 2010. Bring on the arm- and jaw-extending demons!
Coming attractions have taken on a greater importance now that I have a blog to maintain. With a limited number of new movies to comment upon, trailers provide a source for speculation about what’s next in cinema. Saturday, I attended the very entertaining film The Hurt Locker, and the following trailer screened much to my delight:
Shutter Island is a horror buff’s dream-come-true: Martin Scorcese directing a thriller with a kick-ass cast that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Max von Sydow, Jackie Earle Haley, and Emily Mortimer! Casting and directing aside, the concept looks intriguing with questions of psychosis providing opportunities for surrealist hallucination sequences.
Reading further into the production, I also discovered that the film contains flashbacks of World War II concentration camps. Of course, drawing upon the holocaust is nothing new to film generally and the horror genre specifically, and often times, such references are problematic. We need only watch the national news to see how easily Nazism can be thrown around as a political scare-tactic. Something similar can happen in horror films whereby the Holocaust becomes short-hand for pure evil, rather than something to be reflected upon or questioned. This seems to be the case with The Unborn:
The Unborn features flashbacks of Nazi experiments performed by Dr. Mengele on twins in a story about a girl haunted by her twin who died in utero. While I’ve yet to see the film, I find it difficult to grasp how a contemporary story of posession can be aligned with Nazi experimentation. This additional information feels superfluous to the plot and thus cheap and exploitive.
Another recent film brought to my attention by my friend Kristen refers more specifically to World War II with its premise of Nazi soldier zombies:
Dead Snow, a Norwegian production, clearly grapples with issues surrounding national identity and generation. The middle-aged local man critiques the excesses of the vacationing youth by explaining the region’s history in relation to World War II. This narrative could go both ways for me. On the one hand, the representation of the World War II generation as self-sacrificing and the current one as ungrateful seems overly simplistic and a bit conservative; on the other hand, I like the capitalist critique at work. Either way, Dead Snow should provide great fodder for critique!
It remains to be seen exactly how Shutter Island will utilize the war in its narrative, and the trailer gives very few hints. The setting of the mental hospital does suggest, though, that trauma will play an important role in character and plot development. I am hopeful that Shutter Island will utilize memories of war to comment upon the oppressiveness of other institutions.
The hubby and I watched Robocop this weekend. Though I’ve seen it before, watching it in the context of the current political discussion about a “big government” takeover of health care helped me to see the film with fresh eyes. In case you were wondering, I have no qualms about a public option or a single-payer system for that matter and find the concerns about too much government involvement misplaced. Robocop and many other similar sci-fi/action hybrids of the eighties argue that big business may be the true enemy, a point conservative naysayers rarely acknowledge in the health care debate.
In Robocop, a corporation called Omni Consumer Products (OCP) finances and manages the Detroit Police department. In its efforts to clean up the city before building a high tech development known as Delta City, OCP creates a crime-fighting robot called ED-209. When brought before the company’s CEOs for a demonstration, things go horribly awry with ED-209:
The biggest proponent of ED-209, Dick Jones, considers this incident a minor setback, but the company’s president disagrees. As a result, young opportunist Bob Morton proposes that another weapons development program be given the green light. This new program creates a cyborg officer called RoboCop out of mechanical parts and the salvageable remains of Alex Murphy, a young police officer who meets an unfortunate end at the hands of cartoonish criminals only to be resurrected as RoboCop. While Murphy initially remembers nothing about his previous life, he gradually recalls the past with the help of his former partner, Anne Lewis. He also uncovers a vast conspiracy in which Jones works with the very criminals who initially destroyed Murphy, but avoids charges by pre-programming the RoboCop to let all OCP employees go. In the end, Murphy reveals the conspiracy to OCP’s president, killing Jones at the film’s end. RoboCop‘s message seems simple: with a huge corporation in charge of law enforcement profit motives outweigh basic principles of justice, enabling corruption and criminal activity.
This critique of American capitalism continues to be relevant over twenty years later. I’m particularly reminded of Naomi Klein‘s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. In it, Klein reveals a pattern in which disasters, real and/or manufactured, allow proponents of free market capitalism to force their policies onto a vulnerable populace. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina offers an excellent example that’s close to home, but Klein also explores how countries such as Chile, Bolivia, Poland, and Russia, deployed the shock doctrine.
The Detroit of Robocop seems similarly positioned; while the film does not allude to a natural disaster or political upheaval, the decline of the Rust Belt seems to be an unspoken cause of the rampant crime and urban decay depicted in the film. OCP takes advantage of this weakened state, particularly in terms of law enforcement, to justify the development, manufacturing, and selling of law enforcement weaponry.
Other sci-fi films of the eighties also convey a distrust of corporations. I think specifically of Aliens. In Aliens, Ripley, the lone survivor of the original film, assists a group of marines on a mission to explore the now-inhabited planet where her crew initially discovered the creatures. As the body count quickly mounts, Ripley learns that the corporation involved in the investigation, known as Weyland-Yutani Corporation, hopes to bring an alien specimen back from the trip for weapons research by allowing Ripley and a little girl, Newt, to be impregnated and then frozen on the return trip. She also learns that the colonists of the planet were encouraged to look for the aliens after Ripley told the company of their existence. Ultimately, these actions wipe out all but one colonist, most of the marines, and not so surprisingly, the company’s corporate lawyer and chief instigator of the company’s actions, Burke.
Burke, by the way, epitomizes the sleazy, pip squeaky type. The same goes for Morton in RoboCop, though his is the more hedonistic variety (he literally does a line of coke off of a woman’s cleavage). Nevertheless, both men’s senses of masculinity strongly contrast the toughness demonstrated by the working men and women employed to further their causes. Early on in RoboCop, Nancy Allen‘s Anne Lewis show’s herself to be “one of the guys” by beating up a disorderly male perpetrator. Similarly, Vasquez (played by Jenette Goldstein) displays her ripped muscles and quick wit in the scene below:
This may seem like a digression, but these scenes demonstrate an action ethos in which those who work for the state–the cops, the marines, etc.–represent strong, working class masculinity, regardless of the sex of the character. By contrast, the corporation’s representatives exhibit feeble qualities that compromise their masculinity; instead of manifesting their power corporeally, they do so through cunning schemes that compromise the safety of the workers they employ. Clearly, there is a class critique at work here, and gender becomes the primary signifier of class differences.
The class critique is symptomatic of a broader concern that both films have with the role that corporations play in shaping public policies and managing disasters. While both films set their plots in futuristic worlds with technologies yet to be realized, the critiques they make could not be more contemporary.
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!