Horror Remix at Alamo Houston

27 June 2009 at 16:37 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

As a former resident of Austin, Texas, I regularly crave the horror-exhibition experience offered by the Alamo Drafthouse, a popular regional theater chain voted the best theater in the country. Like many up-and-coming local franchises, the Alamo offers a full restaurant menu for a true dinner-and-a-movie experience. I became familiar with this model while living in Oregon, as the theater pub phenomenon was in full swing there as well. Still, the Alamo sets itself apart by offering innovative programming that further enhances the theatrical experience, which includes its screening of horror films.

The Alamo Ritz on Sixth Street in downtown Austin, Texas.  Image taken from Flickr.

The Alamo Ritz on Sixth Street in downtown Austin, Texas. Image taken from Flickr.

Several years ago, for example, I made it out to a showing of Friday the 13th: 3-D. This third installment of the series capitalized on the popularity of 3-D films with many kills designed specifically to enhance such effects. The drafthouse showing was a one-night event, and it drew a rambunctious crowd of fans. While such fan enthusiasm was new to me at the time, I now know that it’s common at the Drafthouse. I’ve attended many other screenings with similar results. I saw a sneak preview for Hostel: Part 2 in which writer/director Eli Roth was tied up by some dominatrices and whipped. Lower profile events included the midnight Terror Thursday (now Terror Tuesdays at 10:00PM) screenings, which featured various rarely screened horror films. My favorites: Silent Night, Deadly Night, The Hidden, and the best slasher ever, The Stepfather! Such screenings became a staple of the summer between my first and second years of grad school, and I miss those late night treks to downtown Austin immensely. Below is a clip of host Zack Carlson introducing the final screening for Terror Thursday, Black Christmas:

Curious about the state of horror programing at the Alamo, I checked their site and discovered that the Alamo in Houston (operated by different owners than the Original Drafthouse in Austin) has a series called “Horror Remix.” The tagline “All Killer, No Filler,” sums up the concept: the curators trim the excess fat from bad horror films, leaving behind the juiciest half-hour of each title. Films are grouped together thematically, with such titles like “Dummy” (puppet horror), “Shopping” (slashers in malls), and “Death Rock” (no description necessary). Click on this link for the trailer for “Dummy,” which, to be quite frank, looks absolutely terrifying and hilarious to me. Also, here’s the promo for “Death Rock”:

I dig the fan revisionism at the heart of this series, and (shock) I love the way these various sub-genres get grouped together to demonstrate the similarities and differences within these categories. As a result, the screening becomes, on the one hand, a study of formula and genre. On the other hand, it demonstrates the ways in which genre films do not always obey convention, as these movies ultimately must be shaped to fit fan expectations. In essence, this is what I love about the Alamo: it honors film fandom unabashedly, recycling old and forgotten texts for new audiences in a theatrical settling. Sadly, such experiences are rare in this age of corporate theater chains.

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Forget Me Not

26 June 2009 at 18:28 (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

While researching the previous post, I discovered that Carly Schroeder, one of my favorite actors from Mean Creek, has a new horror film in the can. It’s called Forget Me Not, and according to IMDB, it should be out sometime this year. The film stars the aforementioned Schroeder as Sandy, a graduating high school senior whose friends start disappearing. Soon it becomes apparent that the spirit of a deceased girl haunts the group. Here’s the trailer:

As with Sorority Row, it appears that the filmmakers have thrown in plenty of softcore sex to get viewers interested (surprise surprise). Schroeder, by contrast, appears rather chaste in all of her scenes in the trailer, making her an obvious candidate for final girl status. I expect, then, that this will be a pretty formulaic slasher pic.

More interesting to me is the way in which the trailer depicts adolescent female friendships. The intertitles spell out themes of rejection with quotes like, “Remember the friends you had?” and “They remember you,” before closing the trailer with “Some friendships last a lifetime” and “Some last longer.” The trailer itself features a young woman asking similar questions of Sandy, implying that Sandy has left this friend behind for a cooler crowd.

Poster for Forget Me Not.  Taken from horrornews.com

Poster for Forget Me Not. Taken from boxofideas.com

While I find such representations of female friendships troubling because they perpetuate negative stereotypes about women and girls, I also feel that such films portraying female friendship and rejection resonate with me emotionally. My life has been marked by ugly female-friendship-break-ups from pre-adolescence until just after college. These experiences have been more emotionally traumatic for me than any one of my break-ups with a boy. You can read all kinds of queerness into this fact, and it also seems to bear out Adrienne Rich’s theory put forth in her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” In that piece, Rich suggests that women (and I’ll add girls) have long been discouraged from forming cohesive friendships, in part out of fear that these relationships might become sexual. She also suggests that such relationships threaten males in power, who would rather divide and conquer females than face a united front.

According to Rich, films like Forget Me Not are part of the problem, and I agree whole-heartedly. Still, I can’t help but hope that this movie might help some women contemplate the consequences of their actions toward the women in their lives. Unlikely as it is, pleas don’t fault my optimism.

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Growing Up in the Shadow of Death

24 June 2009 at 19:27 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

Last night, I watched a Scottish film called Ratcatcher (1999) written and directed by Lynne Ramsay. The film belongs to a genre near and dear to my heart: the coming-of-age film. It follows a boy named James, who lives in a working-class neighborhood of Glasgow during the 1970s garbage strike.

In one of the earliest scenes of the film, James accidentally contributes to the drowning death of his friend Ryan and races away from the scene of the incident before being noticed. Though James’ secret remains largely under wraps, the death of Ryan haunts him periodically throughout the film as he hears of Ryan and returns to the canal. The film repeatedly uses water imagery, again referring to the death of Ryan as a defining incident for James’ story.

Ratcatcher’s use of accidental death reminded me of several other films with adolescent protagonists that also witness the death of a peer. What function does death serve in such films? What imagery and themes link films that use such incidents in the coming-of-age tale? And how does class impact this usage? (Other identity issues also come into play since race, gender, age, and sexuality all play important roles in developing these characters. While I would love to delve into each of them, I will set them aside for the time being to focus on class)

In the case of Ratcatcher, Ryan’s death seems to be linked with James’ working-classness. With the majority of the film’s action taking place during the garbage strike, the film’s cinematography highlights the filth that piles up in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, James’ family regularly discusses their application to move into a brand-new housing project, a plan implicitly derailed when James allows the application’s evaluators into the family’s messy apartment while his father is recovering from a hangover. James’ desire to leave the neighborhood is further highlighted when he takes a bus trip to a neighborhood under construction outside of the city. In the sequence below, James clearly relishes the open space of the field outside of the house:

Such lucid, dreamy scenes stand in stark contrast to those in the garbage-littered neighborhood, where older boys bully James’ friends and sexually assault a girl James loves. These everyday occurrences become linked with the murder spatially, as they generally occur near or at the canal where Ryan drowned. As a result, the death can be seen as a manifestation of urban danger, something that James’ family strives to escape through class ascendence.

Class plays a similar role in David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000) in which several kids in a poor rural North Carolina community cover up the accidental death of a friend. As with Ratcatcher, the cinematography emphasizes the poverty of the kids’ surroundings, but George Washington lacks the class-ascendence plotline. Instead, each character’s actions following the death differ dramatically, and it’s unclear if or how any of these incidents might be linked to the accident. The title character, for example, saves a child from drowning at the local pool at his own risk, while another boy simply disappears without a word. In general, the death weighs less heavily on the remainder of George Washington as compared to Ratcatcher, though the film does hint that the incident will impact the course of some of the characters’ lives.

Mean Creek (2004) takes the opposite approach of George Washington through the use of melodrama. The trailer nicely captures the tension amongst the characters:

Unlike George Washington and Ratcatcher, the death in Mean Creek occurs late in the film, and all of the action that follows is somehow a consequence of that defining moment. Specifically, the characters at first agree to cover-up the incident, but ultimately, the majority of the group decides to fess up to their role in the death. The one decenter is Marty (played by Scott Mechlowicz), the lone working-class kid in the group. He decides to rob a convenience store and make a run for it rather than face the authorities. As with his counterparts in George Washington and Ratcatcher, Marty’s class seems closely linked to a distrust of those in power, a characteristic used more radically in the two other films than in Mean Creek.

But while Mean Creek differs substantially from the other films, it does share Ratcatcher’s fixation with water imagery (thus the name), which suits the themes of both films. Waterways work nicely as a metaphor for passage of time, and in films largely about maturation, such motifs nicely complement the action. All of these films are gorgeously shot, well acted, and emotionally complex, making them required viewing if you have any penchant for the genre. But what sets them apart from the typical entry is the way in which death is contemplated so seriously, giving these teenage characters a degree of intelligence that many films fail to do.

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Childhood Cinematic Traumas #3 – The Gate

20 June 2009 at 15:03 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

When I was about five years old, my younger brother Paul and I often went to a babysitter down the street after school. Her house was a great place to hang out because things were pretty relaxed: there were arcade games around for amusement and the most bad ass, giant jungle gym, which clearly rivaled my own family’s rickety, aluminum swing set. It was a place where we could get away with a lot of shenanigans, but where we were generally safe and secure. However, things occasionally got out of hand. One time I attempted a cherry drop from the bars of the jungle gym and ended up bumping my head. Paul managed to fall headfirst onto a metal bowl full of popcorn and cut his ear so bad that he needed stitches. I have a feeling that such incidents would be frowned upon in this age of helicopter parenting in our hyper-litigious country, but they were pretty run-of-the-mill occurrences at our babysitter’s place in the late eighties.

Similarly, the regulations around TV and movie watching seemed much more flexible than my household’s rules, which is why I write this entry about The Gate, a 1987 Canadian film starring a very young Stephen Dorff. I must have been about six years old when I saw this PG-13 horror film at my babysitter’s house, yet I remember my response to this day.

The poster for The Gate.  Image taken from MovieGoods.com

The poster for The Gate. Image taken from ImpAwards.com

The basic plot: a young boy, Glenn, (played by Dorff) and his older sister, Al, stay home alone while their parents go on vacation. Through a series of random events, Glenn and his friend Terry accidentally open a gateway to a hellish world through a hole in the backyard. In their vulnerable state, little creatures terrorize the kids. One scene in particular sticks out in my mind as particularly terrifying: in the midst of their distress, the parents show back up unexpectedly much to the kids’ relief; however, the parents turn out to be demonic mirages used to trick the kids. I also vaguely recall a scene where the telephone melts in the older sister’s hand. All of this frightened me because it played upon my fear that if left alone, bad things would happen to me. Here’s the trailer:

Today, I wonder if a movie like this marketed to children would even be feasible. When first released, The Gate fared well at the box office, earning about $13 million according to Box Office Mojo and justifying a sequel. Poltergeist, Critters, The Witches, Gremlins, and their sequels also featured kid protagonists and/or puppet creatures attractive to children. With PG or PG-13 ratings, these films were easily accessible to young viewers and parents could feel comfortable letting their kids watch them. Such movies seem to have dwindled as the nineties progressed, possibly due to the increased concerns of parents or merely due to changes in taste. These days, an animated film like Coraline most closely resembles this kind of kiddie horror, and the similarities between the two are slight.

The kiddie horror genre, embodied by The Gate, may have been a product of the growing phenomenon of the latchkey kid during the Reagan Era. The film itself reflects the anxieties that a latchkey kid might have: concerns about safety and the ability to reach parents in a time of need pervade the film. The Gate shows its age in other ways: eighties fashion (i.e. crimped hair, spandex, and neon colors), politically incorrect insults (i.e. “retard,” “fag”), and vinyl records abound. The special effects verge on hilarious, with claymation monsters dominating the latter half of the film. I do appreciate, however, that the film uses actors in their teens and pre-teens, something you see infrequently in horror films these days.

On the whole, watching The Gate brought back a lot of memories, but failed to impress me, aside from the brief uses of surrealist imagery. Admittedly, the film may have been somewhat compromised by how I viewed it–a DVD copy of The Gate is difficult to come by, so I watched it on YouTube–but more likely, the film’s clunky pacing and silly plot twists prevented me from engaging with it entirely. The elements that did interest me, such as sister Al’s struggle to define herself in terms of teenage femininity, failed to develop into anything substantial. Still, the film reminded me of the specificity of my childhood viewing experiences to my socioeconomic conditions, and for that, it was well worth a revisit.

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Grace as the latest Otesánek

18 June 2009 at 22:34 (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

In a rush to catch up on the current horror buzz, I almost completely forgot to write about a recent release on the indie festival circuit called Grace. My always-on-the-lookout friend Kristen mentioned the film to me when it played SXSW, and my composer friend Chris also brought it to my attention while I visited LA. He gave the film rave reviews, and the trailer seems to bear out that positive word of mouth.

I’m particularly jazzed to see Jordan Ladd in the starring role. She was terrific in Cabin Fever and used to lesser effect in Hostel: Part II, Death Proof, and Inland Empire. To my knowledge, Grace is her first lead role, and what a terrific part!

Of course, the content sounds totally screwed up, what with the demonic baby who appears to bite her mother’s breasts. The poster alludes to this horrific concept as well:

The poster for Grace. Taken from collider.com

The poster for <em>Grace</em>.

Of course, there’s nothing new about the theme of the monstrous baby. In her book The Monstrous Feminine, Barbara Creed devotes a chapter of her study on horror, gender, and psychoanalysis to the ways in which the womb has been portrayed as an incubator for terrifying creatures. Creed mentions films such as Demon Seed and The Brood, among others, as examples of films that carry on a much longer tradition of stories in which motherly love goes too far. Grace clearly belongs in this discussion.

Though I’ve yet to see the film, Grace also seems closely aligned with the story of “Otesánek” (Little Otik), which I would describe as a fairytale version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This Czech fairytale by Karel Jaromír Erben was adapted into a film of the same name, directed by surrealist filmmaker Jan Švankmajer. The film follows a husband and wife unable to have children. Desperate for a baby, they adopt a tree stump with human-like features, treating it like a child. While initially inanimate, the stump gradually comes to life and literally begins to consume what surrounds him. The trailer hints at this motif of consumption:

Like Grace, Little Otik is a baby willed to life by characters who just won’t let go of their parental aspirations. In both cases, the baby produced mirrors the parents’ hunger for an object of affection with its on voracious appetite for human flesh. But while Otesánek presents this willing to life as a collaborative effort of mother and father (though certainly, the mother is presented as most invested in Otik’s survival regardless of the cost), Grace takes a less nuanced approach to gender by removing the father from the picture and making the mother the sole instigator. This parallels the films discussed by Creed, which so often present the fatherless birth as a mutant one.

Needless to say, the idea of a mother’s desire for children resulting in a demonic baby is problematic from a feminist perspective; still, I appreciate the problematizing of parenthood in an age when too many from the (dare I repeat this incredibly problematic term) “Millenial Generation” get ruined by coddling. It’s just too bad that in Grace, it’s the mother that solely raises the monstrous progeny.

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Beyond Film #2 – “The Darker Side of Light”

15 June 2009 at 13:29 (Uncategorized) (, , , )

I’ve just returned from the Los Angeles area, where among other things, I visited the UCLA Hammer Museum. While the permanent collection primarily features 19th Century French art, a visiting exhibition entitled “The Darker Side of Light: Arts of Privacy, 1850-1900” displayed a number of unusual prints and sculptures. According to the exhibit’s description, “such works of art were not an evident part of one’s day-to-day environment, like a picture on the parlor wall. Rather, they were subject to more purposeful study on chosen occasions, much like taking a book down from the shelf for quiet enjoyment.”

Why the discretion? As the exhibition’s title suggests, the subject matter of such works tended to be unusual, sometimes violent or supernatural in nature. Edvard Munch’s “Vampire II,” for example, presents a woman placing her mouth on the neck of a man–an image that might be initially perceived as a loving gesture, but whose title suggests might be a violent act.

Edvard Munchs Vampire II, one of many prints on display at the Hammer Museums Darker Side of LIght exhibition.  Image taken from sanditan.com.

Edvard Munch's "Vampire II," one of many prints on display at the Hammer Museum's "Darker Side of LIght" exhibition. Image taken from sanditan.com.

Another striking print by Swiss artist Eugène Grasset presents a woman carrying a cup of liquid as its subject. Aside from the stoic expression of the woman, the subject matter appears innocuous, until you read the print’s title: “The Acid Thrower.”

Eugene Grassets The Acid Thrower, another print from The Darker Side of Light.  Image taken from Japan Times website.

Eugene Grasset's "The Acid Thrower," another print from "The Darker Side of Light." Image takenf from Japan Times' website.

Other images include a man struck by lightning on a country road, a skyline filled with the angels of cholera victims, and illustrations for Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” among others. Etcher Charles Méryon, who died in an asylum after years of mental illness, created this strange representation of the Paris skyline:

Charles Méryon's Le Styrge, inspired by the gothic statues on the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Charles Méryon's "Le Styrge," inspired by the gothic statues on the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Image taken from images.artnet.com.

I appreciate the meticulous details of the etchings, which often lend these works an ethereal quality. As still images, I also enjoy imagining the events they represent in motion: what happened to prompt the woman to throw acid? Who is she targeting, and why? The medium requires imaginative work on the viewer’s part, but with such provocative images, it’s easy to get carried away.

The images also remind us that artists have always been interested in dark subject-matter, as have the collectors of such work. In other words, films–the medium I typically write about–merely carry on a tradition as old as humanity by representing supernatural horror. That’s not to say that nothing has changed; the limits of representation continue to be stretched, and the medium of film clearly requires different kinds of imaginative work from its viewers. Still, these prints represent a tradition which continues in horror films, albeit in a very different form and style.

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Queer Fear: the children of Orphan and Joshua

10 June 2009 at 13:23 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

The monstrous child is making a comeback in recent independent horror films. For instance, the upcoming film Orphan features a young recently-adopted girl who harbors a deep dark secret and terrorizes her new family. Adoption advocates (including Leonardo DiCaprio) have protested the film, which initially used the tag-line “It must be hard to love an adopted child as much as your own,” a line uttered by the film’s primary antagonist. The tagline has since been changed and the line of dialog replaced, but pro-adoption groups remain frustrated by the film’s concept, title, and marketing.

The new poster for emOrphan/em.  Image taken from joblo.com.

The new poster for <em>Orphan</em>. Image taken from joblo.com.

At this point, I feel that taking a stand on Orphan would be premature–I’d like to see the film first and get a sense of how the text grapples with the hot-button issues. Texts like this can be incredibly tricky to pin down, and readings against the grain are often possible. When I watch the trailer, for instance, I can’t help but immediately interpret Esther as a queer figure in her traditional family, and I am curious as to whether or not such interpretations support or refute the concerns of adoption advocates.

Orphan reminds me of a similar film called Joshua, which plays on many of the same themes of the alienated child within the nuclear family. The film stars Sam Rockwell as Brad and Vera Farmiga as Abby (she is also in Orphan), parents who have just had their second child, a baby girl named Lily. Their older son, Joshua (portrayed by Jacob Kogan), struggles to adjust to his new sibling, while Abby worries that her severe post-partum depression after Joshua’s birth will recur with their new baby. Though these worries seem unfounded initially, tensions in the household rise because of Joshua’s peculiar behavior. For instance, during a game of hide-and-seek, Joshua takes his baby sister from her crib, causing his mother to panic. After much searching, Abby returns to the crib to find Lily safe and sound, and Abby wonders if the whole scenario was hallucinated. These strange incidents persist, gradually leading Brad to believe that Joshua may be a sociopath. After Brad’s mother dies under mysterious circumstances while watching Joshua, Brad asks a psychologist to visit with Joshua. After the session, the psychologist expresses concerns that Joshua is being physically abused, which Brad denies vociferously. At the climax of the film, Brad takes Joshua and Lily to the park, where Joshua taunts his sister by stealing her pacifier. The scene ends with Brad beating Joshua publicly, prompting his arrest and the children’s placement with their uncle, Ned.

Queer elements of the text distinguish Joshua from the standard monstrous child movie. Joshua, with his perfectly coiffed hair, slightly effeminate mannerisms, impeccable wardrobe (he’s always wearing a tie), and interest in music and art, easily reads as queer. Joshua’s relationship with his gay uncle, Ned, reinforces this reading. Joshua gravitates toward Ned whenever he is present, and they share their love of music together by playing duets on the piano. During one of the film’s more effective scenes, Joshua performs “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” periodically hitting flat, high pitched notes that twist the songs angelic sound. While Joshua’s parents look puzzled by the performance, Ned appears moved by the rendition and says he’s hitting every note perfectly. By rendering this lullaby strange, the performance is essentially “queer” in the sense of “differing in some odd way.”

While these touches might make Joshua a queerphobic text since Joshua is both queer and monstrous, a more nuanced reading could also be drawn. While the film heavily implies that Joshua is disturbed, it consistently denies the viewer of scenes which show Joshua enacting violence. When Joshua’s grandmother dies from falling down a set of stairs, for instance, the camera cuts away so that the viewer never knows for certain whether Joshua pushed her or if she simply slipped. Scenes which do show Joshua saying or doing strange things never rise to the level of blatant violence. The aforementioned hide-n-seek scene, for instance, doesn’t really show Joshua physically hurting anyone, but merely playing a game that could be perceived as manipulative. In other words, one could argue that much of the hysteria surrounding Joshua results not from Joshua’s particular actions but from the projected emotions of the adults that surround him.

The final scene could support this assertion: Joshua, now living with his uncle, performs a song of his own creation called “The Fly.” The song’s lyrics refer to the parents’ efforts to save Joshua, and the uncle’s feeling that Joshua “never missed a note.” Here’s a video of the song performed by Dave Matthews (who wrote it specifically for the film):

On the one hand, the lyrics could be interpreted as an acknowledgement of Joshua’s sadistic impulses (e.g. tearing the wings off a fly for pleasure); on the other hand, there’s something genuinely touching about the song’s references to a lack of acceptance by the family and a feeling of acceptance from the uncle. In essence, it’s a lullaby expressing desire for a queer family and rejection from the traditional straight family.

There’s validity to reading Joshua as a story of queer monstrosity, but I also believe one could see the film as a quest for a queer family. These readings are not mutually exclusive, but operate in tandem, complexifying the text and offering a range of meanings to the viewer. Ultimately, Joshua demonstrates that even the monstrous figure can illicit empathy and complicate ideological readings of a text.

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Sorority Slashers

6 June 2009 at 09:53 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

The sorority has been effectively used in slasher films since the sub-genre formed in the early seventies. With the trailer for fall 2009 release Sorority Row playing in theaters and all over the internet, it seems like a good moment to reflect on the use of the setting in previous horror films.

One of the earliest slashers, the Canadian film Black Christmas (1974), featured a serial killer terrorizing sorority sisters staying at their house over the Christmas break. That film’s effective use of first-person camera angles, disturbing music, and a strong cast (Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, and Andrea Martin) set the bar high for Greek-organization horror. The trailer (one of my favorites for a slasher) captures the creepiness of the film, particularly its crank calls:

It’s difficult to understand just how influential Black Christmas was in developing the slasher genre. It clearly drew from Italian giallo films, which often featured groups of women being terrorized by a serial killer. Other conventions–the crank phone call, the first person camera angles–now come standard in the horror genre but were fairly unique at the time. The sorority house itself plays an important function in simultaneously bringing these female characters together to create tension between them and isolating each woman from the others to make her vulnerable. The attic becomes a sort of nest for the killer to gather his prey in one place, and, in a grim kind of female homosociality, allow their cadavers to commune. Black Christmas, then, portrays the female space of the sorority house as prone to victimization. (A largely panned remake of Black Christmas was released in 2006.)

The House on Sorority Row (1983), recycles elements of Black Christmas’ plot. The film follows a handful of graduating sorority sisters as they plan their last hurrah before entering “the real world.” Right from the beginning, the film plays up the girlishness of the sorority space with a credit sequence that features a montage of feminine practices (Start the video below about two minutes in to see the sequence):

As the film progresses, there are scenes of queer female-bonding, such as the one starting about nine minutes into the video above. Of course, this homosocial paradise devolves into a blood bath after bad girl Vicki gets caught having sex by the house mom, Mrs. Slater. After a poorly planned prank ends with Mrs. Slaters’ death, the women try to cover up the accident before getting picked off by a killer that may or may not be Mrs. Slater. Of course, the women are presented as careless, petty, and cruel (with the exception of the “final girl” character). The trailer emphasizes the promiscuous and violent behavior of the women:

Obviously, the film’s regressive sexual politics bothered me as did the lack of creativity and poor execution. The House on Sorority Row felt much longer than its ninety minute running time, in part because it failed to develop compelling characters and lacked suspense.

A far better example (stylistically) of use of the sorority house in horror would be a scene with Sarah Michelle Gellar in Scream 2 (1997). Gellar portrays Cici, a sorority sister assigned to stay home on a Saturday night so she can drive her sorority pals home safely. Of course, the assignment makes her vulnerable to the film’s killer in the scene below:

The film does not take place exclusively in a sorority house, but Greek life does play a role in the film since it is set on a college campus. Scream 2 perpetuates many of the stereotypes of sorority sisters as shallow and ditzy (particularly in scenes where a group of sisters attempt to recruit the primary protagonist of the film, Sydney), but interestingly, the film avoids the temptation of exploiting the sorority house setting to show women at odds with one another, instead choosing to isolate one character in the house in order to make her a victim of the killer. In other words, Cici is specifically targeted because she is alone, and her status as sorority sisters seems coincidental.

Sadly, most sorority horror films depict women in groups as incapable of working together, and at worst, pit the female characters against each other when utilizing the sorority house setting. This appears to be the case with the remake of The House on Sorority Row, now abbreviated to Sorority Row. The trailer, for instance, begins with a unified effort by its female characters to avenge a cheated sister, but as with the original film, the prank turns deadly:

Of course, efforts to cover up the accident fail, and the terror begins anew during graduation. It’s difficult to say just how problematic Sorority Row will be, but if the trailer’s last line–“Don’t think I’m a afraid of you, I run a house with fifty crazy b…”–and the hints of soft core sex are any indication, Sorority Row will likely carry on the regressive tradition. I’d love to see something that exploits the queer elements of the sorority house and portrays women making a unified effort to overthrow a killer, but that film has yet to be made.

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Cinema Apocalypse

3 June 2009 at 22:15 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

This post is really a shout-out more than anything: I love the Minneapolis public access show Cinema Apocalypse! The show’s host, Scott Williamson, reviews “foreign, cult, genre and independent films” with a fanman fervor that I find infectious. What’s more, he chooses terrific films from all over the world to discuss in his stream of consciousness rant/reviews.

I first discovered Cinema Apocalypse while I was researching Spanish horror film Who Can Kill a Child? It had been recommended to me by Netflix, and the concept intrigued me enough to seek out a trailer via YouTube. Instead of finding the trailer, I found Williamson’s hearty endorsement of the film about a British couple vacationing on a Spanish island who realize that the children there have killed all of the adults. Here’s the full clip to get a sense of his style:

The show’s other segments (there are usually about four or five per episode) follow pretty much the same pattern: a three minute clip of the film followed by Williamson’s commentary. The clips typically illustrate the film’s style and tone, giving you a good sense of whether or not it will suit your tastes. The films tend to fall into the horror genre but are anything but monolithic. In one episode, Williamson might review a Hong Kong zombie film and an Italian giallo. The films also range from arty to low-budget, and either style is just as likely to fuel Williamson’s enthusiasm or rancor.

Here are some of my favorite of Williamson’s reviews:

Sure, this stuff is pretty typical fanboy–I’d love to see more female fans do this kind of thing!–but I appreciate Williamson’s earnestness and attention to detail. Go check out more clips through the Cinema Apocalypse YouTube page.

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Abortion and Palindromes

2 June 2009 at 17:51 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

I gasped when I read the news on Sunday about Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider from Wichita, Kansas, who was shot and killed before Sunday services at his local church. Dr. Tiller was one of only two doctors in the country to perform the highly controversial late-term abortion procedure, and as a result, the man was plagued by lawsuits, media attention, and protests by anti-choice activists. Dr. Tiller’s death demonstrates the risks taken to provide women with the option of abortion, and I suspect that he will be seen as a martyr by the pro-choice movement for years to come.

In learning about the death of this doctor, I immediately thought of Palindromes, the 2004 film written and directed by Todd Solondz of Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness indie fame. Palindromes follows teenage girl Aviva (played by multiple actresses), an awkward suburban teenager who desperately wants to have a baby. After sleeping with a family friend and becoming pregnant, Aviva’s parents manipulate her into aborting the fetus in spite of her wishes.

Which brings me to the key concern of this entry: how does Palindromes portray abortion and the far-right’s response, and what might we draw from this portrayal in terms of the ongoing political debate over choice? On the one hand, I would argue that if you define pro-choice as a female’s right to terminate or carry out a pregnancy by her own free will, then Palindromes qualifies, as it seems to be condemning Aviva’s manipulation by her parents. On the other hand, the film implies that the procedure inadvertantly sterilized Aviva, permanently robbing her of her dream to have a baby. This negative portrayal of abortion as possibly dangerous to a girl’s health (though in reality pregnancy is far more likely to lead to health complications) could be construed as condemning the procedure.

The film’s representation of the abortion issue becomes even more complicated by later plot developments. Aviva runs away from home and after a series of events, accompanies an assassin out to execute the doctor who conducted her abortion. In a movie full of disturbing scenes, this particular moment startled me the most: from outside the doctor’s home the hired assasin spots him playing charades with his family. Pointing the gun at the doctor, the assassin hesitates as Aviva goads him along. Suddenly, a girl stands in the cross hairs just as the gun shots ring out. The child falls before the startled doctor is also shot. Aviva and the assassin race off together.

Aviva and an abortion provider assassin in Palindromes.  Taken from barrettchase.com

Aviva and the abortion provider assassin, in Palindromes. Taken from barrettchase.com

This is the moment from the film that I kept thinking about when I learned of Dr. Tiller. The mundanity of the doctor interacting with his family clashes so suddenly with the violence of the shooting. Palindromes heightens the level of irony with the accidental shooting of the child, the very exemplar of “innocent life” that the sniper intends to prevent from dying with his murderous act. In the end, it seems that the film portrays the murder of the abortion doctor as absurdly futile.

The same sense of futility over executing the abortionist pervades the film in other ways. Aviva’s subsequent efforts to get pregnant, for instance, will fail no matter how often she tries. Even the film’s title, Palindromes, relates to the concept of an unchanging self, as demonstrated by the following quote from character Mark Weiner: “People always end up the way they started out. No one ever changes. They think they do but they don’t. . . . Essentially, from in front, from behind. Whether you’re 13 or 50, you will always be the same.” The same attitude seems to apply to the film’s framing of abortion, and as a result, Palindromes’ politics are difficult to pin down.

If anything might be taken from the film, it could be that while abortions should be safe and legal, they do not guaranty empowerment and could potentially disempower girls and women in certain circumstances (I wouldn’t argue these circumstances are common, just plausible). After settling down from her initial reaction to Aviva’s pregnancy, her mother (played by the wonderful Ellen Barkin) attempts to comfort her daughter by telling her to abort the baby:

The scene reveals a disconnect between mother and daughter over the ways in which they conceptualize her pregnancy: mom sees it as a cluster of cells, daughter as a hypothetical baby. What makes the abortion issue so complicated is that both characters are right. This conflict of ideas reminds me of an interview I heard on Fresh Air of author Ayelet Waldman, who underwent a second trimester abortion. She explained to interviewer Terry Gross that while she valued her right to choose and defends the rights of other women to access safe abortions, she also feels that abortion advocates should face-up to the horrific nature of abortion procedures. I would add that those in favor of abortion rights need to recognize that abortion in and of itself is not an inherent good, but can be abused to a girl or woman’s disadvantage (for further reading on the topic, I recommend Jennifer Nelson’s book Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement). The most extreme example would be a forced abortion for eugenics purposes, but Aviva’s story in Palindromes is a more subtle example of the ways in which abortion can undermine rather than reinforce choice.

As we reflect upon the murder of Dr. Tiller, we must advocate for the economic, social, and sexual empowerment of girls and women so that they may be able to take charge of their bodies without feeling ashamed. Such efforts enable girls and women to truly choose their fates, of which abortion should definitely be an option.

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