I didn’t plan for this to be a two-part post, but then I read more deeply into a new sci-fi film called District 9, and I couldn’t help but elaborate upon the ideas explored in my previous post. I first saw the trailer over the weekend at a matinee screening of Orphan (more on that movie later). Here’s the trailer:
The film’s setting struck me immediately upon watching the trailer. Western films rarely use South Africa as a film’s setting unless the film examines the history of apartheid. While District 9 clearly draws upon apartheid also, it does so through a story set in the future. The authorities confine aliens to a section of Johannesburg where they can be contained and interrogated, an obvious reference to apartheid-era townships (though truth be told, apartheid reforms did not eliminate the townships, as much of the black population in Johannesburg remains in those underdeveloped communities). It’s yet to be seen exactly how the film will draw upon apartheid, but the marketing for the film hints at some interesting possibilities: a fictional blog by an alien activist, signage declaring “humans only,” and a protest at the San Diego ComicCon all suggest that the filmmakers will be raising some interesting questions with District 9.
So, what’s the connection between District 9 and the films mentioned in my previous post? As in RoboCop and Aliens, the primary antagonist in District 9 is a multi-national corporation. Taking a page from the Aliens book, the corporation appropriately known as Multinational United (MNU) studies the aliens for weapons development. Hence, District 9 critiques the military-industrial complex much like it’s sci-fi predecessors. That District 9 also tackles issues of human (er, alien?) rights gives it all the more potential.
Hopefully, a film about injustice in South Africa will draw attention to the social unrest plaguing the country. In recent weeks, protests have broken out across the country over poor living conditions in townships. One Guardian article declares, “South Africa is sitting on a social time bomb,” due to a 77% poverty rate, one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, and government corruption. While District 9 potentially trivializes these concerns, it also has the potential to powerfully allegorize these problems.
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.
WORD OF WARNING: There’s a lot of screwed up stuff discussed in this post. Beware.
My good friend Kristen sent me a link to the trailer for an indie horror film called Deadgirl. The film screened at various film festivals in the fall of 2008 and will be released at a limited number of theaters across the US tomorrow. Its concept will make many squeamish: two teenage boys discover a dead girl tied up in the basement of an old insane asylum. They soon realize that the dead girl is, in fact, undead and decide to use her as a sex toy. Play the red band trailer below for a peek:
When Kristen initially sent me the link, I wondered if I would be able to see this movie based solely on the description. Watching the trailer, however, made me reconsider. The film appears substantive in its contemplation of the moral and ethical ramifications of the boys’ actions. Like many rape-revenge narratives of the past, it also looks like the boys face grave consequences for their behavior, with the film illiciting sympathy for the monsterous dead girl a la George Romero. In short, this looks like the most promising horror premise since Teeth. But as with Teeth, I expect that Deadgirl will remain relatively obscure to most moviegoers due to the heavy subject-matter.
What most fascinates me about Deadgirl is the way that it echoes famous real-life instances of sexual violence toward girls. Two cases immediately come to mind: The Fritzl case and the Sylvia Likens case. The Fritzl case occured in Amstetten, Austria, where in April 2008 a 42-year-old woman named Elisabeth Fritzl told police that her father had held her captive for 24 years in a hidden basement chamber. During that time, Elisabeth’s father repeatedly raped her, fathering seven children. Thankfully, Fritzl and her six surviving children (three of whom were raised above-ground by Elisabeth’s parents) currently live at an undisclosed location where they receive pscyhological treatment at the Austrian government’s cost. Fritzl’s father received a life sentence for his crimes.
As a film scholar and horror enthusiast, a case like this drives home the limitations of the film medium to capture the lived experience of a person like Elisabeth Fritzl. Film could never, for instance, replicate the experience of being deprived of daylight for twenty-four years. I count this as a positive since such a possibility would give the medium far more power than I am comfortable with it having. Ultimately, film can inspire sympathy, but will always fall short of evoking empathy in the viewer in cases such as this one.
This inability to fully identify with a character’s pain raises questions both philosophical and political. I am reminded specifically of Elaine Scarry‘s study entitled The Body In Pain. Scarry contemplates the vulnerability of the human body and the ways in which those who suffer have a limited ability to articulate their experiences of pain. On the flip side, Scarry points out the inability of individuals to fully empathize with those in pain. The recent discussions about water-boarding in the media demonstrate this disconnect and the political consequences of our inability to understand the physical experience of drowning that results from this method of torture (See Chuck Kleinhans’ essay in Jump Cut for further reading). Similarly, while horror films clearly attempt to evoke pain for the spectator, replication will always be impossible.
What all films, including horror, can do is cultivate sympathies for characters, but how they do this and with whom we are to identify can be ideologically fraught, particularly in representations of true crimes. Specifically, the balancing of sympathies between various characters sometimes requires omitting details that occured during the actual events. For example, the 2007 film An American Crime depicts the true crime story of the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens.
In the fall of 1965, Likens died of a brain hemorrhage, shock, and malnutrition while under the care of Gertrude Baniszewski, a single mother with several children of her own who offered to take care of Likens and her sister Jenny while their parents traveled as carnival workers. After an ambulance was summoned and authorities brought to the scene, Jenny relayed the terrifying details of the events leading to Sylvia’s death. Angry at Sylvia for allegedly spreading rumors about her daughters and stealing from her, Baniszewski physically abused Sylvia. The abuse escalated and Sylvia was eventually locked in the cellar where neighborhood children beat her at Baniszewski’s behest. Baniszewski and one of the neighborhood boys carved the words “I’m a prostitute and proud of it” into Sylvia’s stomach with a hot needle, and, most notoriously, Sylvia was forced to masturbate with a Coke Bottle. An American Crime depicts or implies many of these abuses, as you can see in the trailer below:
While the spectator’s sympathies most clearly lie with Sylvia (played brilliantly by Ellen Page), a humanist approach is taken with regard to the perpetrators. Gertrude (portrayed by the talented Catherine Keener) is presented as asthmatic, overmedicated, and struggling to make ends meet. These details reflect the facts of the case and highlighting them provides insight into Baniszewski’s motivations; however, An American Crime omits some of the more grotesque details of the crime. While there may be many reasons for excising certain events (to avoid sensationalism, to keep the audience engaged with the story, etc.), I believe that one reason may be that such cruelties would jeopardize the audience’s sympathy for Gertrude and her children.
In contrast, the 2007 film The Girl Next Door, based on the Jack Ketchum novel inspired by the Likens case, takes an opposite approach in its characterizing of Sylvia’s torturers. The trailer demonstrates this difference:
Ruth (the character based on Baniszewski) lacks any kind of depth or likability. She serves the neighborhood boys beer, preaches misogyny, and abuses the angelic Meg (based on Sylvia) and her disabled sister Ann (based on Jenny). While An American Crime highlights the sexism inherent in the Likens torture and murder, The Girl Next Door takes this element up to 11 by including a scene of rape and genital mutilation. Ruth also dies at the hands of Davey, the film’s primary protagonist and narrator. As a result, Ruth takes on the qualities of a psychopathic killer who must be murdered to stop her violent rampage.
An American Crime easily tops The Girl Next Door in terms of form, content, and sophistication (in other words, I would NOT recommend the latter film). As Carol Clover points out while discussing Hollywood’s coopting of the rape-revenge subgenre, there is something gained in a broader, more nuanced treatment of violence and its social impact, but there is also something lost. At times, I felt like An American Crime tried too hard to make Baniszewski sympathetic; reading the full details of the case, I couldn’t help but see her in the monstrous light in which she was portrayed in The Girl Next Door. While I am more politically inclined toward the aims of An American Crime and find its version of the events more “true to life,” some emotional needs aren’t served with its approach.
Hence, the three films discussed in this entry differ greatly in their portrayals of those who perpetrate sex crimes against girls. Where all three of these films align is through the use of the basement to examine misogyny. That these sexual crimes take place in this underground space speaks to the hidden nature of such real life crimes. But while sexual assaults may often occur in private, the silence surrounding many of these incidents is what truly keeps these sins under wraps. All of these films grapple with the ways in which a group mentality of agreed secrecy and intentional ignorance enables such terrifying acts. I would argue that Americans perpetuate such blindness about sexual assault by refusing to acknowledge the problem. All three of these films confront these issues head-on, attempting to bring these crimes to light, to pull them out of the cellar and onto the screen.
Since the middle of last week, I’ve been working on a post about a new indie horror film and some true crimes that may have inspired it. Like many of my previous posts, it’s become a sprawling stream-of-consciousness kind of piece already exceeding 1000 words, and I still have another film I would like to incorporate into the entry. So, rather than expedite that post, I decided to wrack my brain for something a bit more manageable to write about in the mean time, and I remembered this incredible film I watched several months ago called The Innocents.
This 1961 film based on the theatrical version of Henry James‘ The Turn of the Screw and adapted by Truman Capote stars Deborah Kerr as a young governess to two orphaned children adopted by their wealthy uncle. The uncle tells Kerr’s Miss Giddens that she will be sent to his country manor where the children live with a few staff, and that he expects not to be bothered with any matters relating to the children. Undeterred, Miss Giddens travels to the estate where she meets Flora, the niece, while the nephew Miles attends boarding school. While Miss Giddens settles in and gets to know the charming Flora, she receives a letter from Miles’ boarding school indicating that he will be sent home due to bad behavior. Oddly, however, Miles acts much like his sister when he returns, quickly winning over Miss Giddens. But strange things start to happen around the estate, such as the scene below:
The figure of a man also begins to appear to Miss Giddens, and after some investigation, she learns that the children’s previous governess, Miss Jessel, and the groundskeeper, Quint, died under strange circumstances. She also finds out that the couple carried on a sexual relationship, and that their lack of discretion may have perverted the children. As a result, Miss Giddens attempts to purge the children of the demons that she believes possess them. Her efforts to draw out a confession from the children ultimately result in tragedy. Miss Giddens traumatizes Flora, prompting the housekeeper to take her away, and upon forcing Miles to admit that Quint possesses him, Miles dies. Here is that final scene:
The Innocents intrigued me in part because it deals explicitly with children and sexuality. Specifically, the film’s protagonist believes in ideological constructions of childhood as a period of innocence and psychological vulnerability. As a result, the discovery that the children may have witnessed sexual acts proves deeply troublesome for Miss Giddens. Interestingly, it’s Giddens’ cure that kills Miles in the scene above, rather than the ghosts themselves. I prefer, then, to read The Innocents as a cautionary tale about the damaging impact of adult paranoia with regard to children’s sexuality. Obviously, I’m reading somewhat against the grain, given that the text seems invested in presenting the space of the house as genuinely haunted, but I believe that the film’s outcome supports my interpretation.
The kiss at the end of the above scene also proves to be a fascinating element of the film. According to IMDB, the film’s executives worried about how audiences would react to the scene. I wonder what it means that Miss Giddens, after prodding the child to admit that he sees the ghost, kisses him so intensely. The moment seems filled with regret, leading me to wonder if Miss Giddens questions her insistence on confronting the children.
Despite my reading, the film’s trailer replicates the very discourses of childhood innocence that I believe fuel the protagonist’s paranoia:
Notice that the trailer explicitly labels the film as “A new and adult motion picture experience” (my emphasis). Given that pulpy horror films of the fifties often appealed to children and teenagers, it makes sense that the film’s advertisers would seek to establish the film’s artistic credentials by labeling it “adult.” But I also see the label as a warning to parents: you can attend this film, but please don’t bring your impressionable children. Again, the mentality that the film may corrupt children in the same way the ghosts supposedly possessed “the innocents” create an odd parralel between the text as narrative and the film as exhibited material.
Of course, horror films have gone on to explore this very notion of text as destructive force within the narrative. One famous example, the American version of The Ring actually uses audio from The Innocents in the cursed tape that dooms the film’s protagonist. Here’s that tape, and you can hear Miles’ muffled singing about 40 seconds into the clip:
That the filmmakers of The Ring used portions of The Innocents was likely an intentional alusion to the latter’s themes of corruption through witnessing lewd acts. While The Ring and other films such as Videodrome explicate the themes implied in the trailer for The Innocents, neither specifically refers to generation as making victims more vulnerable to the images presented in the tapes. It’s the generational factor and the film’s focus on sexuality that distinguishes The Innocents from other texts concerning haunting.
Since I first heard about the Karyn Kusama directed and Diablo Cody-scripted Jennifer’s Body, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the trailer. For those with short memories, Cody wrote the screenplay for the ridiculously successful Juno. Contrasting Juno somewhat, Cody’s follow-up script takes a humorous approach to the horror genre. Like Juno, the film focuses on the transformation of the adolescent female body, but rather than pregnancy as the cause, demonic possession is the culprit. Here’s the trailer for a taste:
My good friend Alyx over at Feminist Music Geek made some pointed observations about the trailer, noting the soundtrack, dialog, and representations of gender and sexuality. I agree with Alyx that the trailer’s hints at Jennifer’s bisexuality raise interesting possibilities AND concerns about using bisexuality strictly for titilation. These elements of the film will be interesting to dissect upon its release.
What I find especially fascinating is the way in which the film draws upon actress Megan Fox’s burgeoning star persona in its depiction of her character Jennifer’s monstrosity. Again, I draw from an entry by a friend of mine named Annie at her blog Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style. Among other elements of Fox’s celebrity image, Annie discusses the ways in which Fox has been photographed for various magazines. Many of these photos emphasize Fox’s mouth by showing it partially open or by portraying her in the act of eating. Here’s an example:
Interestingly, the trailer above similarly emphasizes Fox’s mouth as an orifice with the potential to enact pleasure, but also suggests it to be a horrific weapon. In other words, Jennifer’s mouth both seduces and destroys. One of the movie’s poster’s perfectly combines these seemingly paradoxical uses perfectly:
(Side note: this poster seems like a big rip-off of the True Blood promotional posters–see previous post for example.)
It should be no surprise that the filmmakers use the mouth in this way, given the long history of horror literature and films with similar iconography. Vampire stories, for instance, draw upon the lethal and sexual possibilities of the mouth. My academic hero Barbara Creed connects such imagery to the myth of the vagina dentata (translation: toothed vagina) common to cultures around the world. These myths illustrate male fears of castration and anxieties about women’s sexuality. While modern societies may have seemingly dispensed with the notion, the anxieties surrounding women’s sexuality remain and thus filmmakers continue to use images that echo the vagina dentata to horrific effect.
I find it fascinating, though, that a young celebrity who has already established herself as a sex object through such orally fixated images will soon be associated with the more violent side of the mouth. For me, this demonstrates just how multivalent this orifice can be. Horror films will continue to use it to inflict pain, while the GQ crowd will continue to allude to it’s possibilities for pleasure.
Slate.com’s excellent women’s blog, Double X, ran a story last Friday entitled “Vampires, and the Sluts and Virgins Who Love Them” by contributor Latoya Peterson. Just as Bitch Magazine argued in its most recent issue, Peterson points out that The Twilight Series problematically depicts the relationship between primary protagonists Bella and Edward as chaste, with the threat of Edward’s vampirism not so subtly aligning sex with violence.
Peterson also discusses the HBO series True Blood as perpetuating these same stereotypes and uses Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a point of contrast because it depicts its heroine as physically strong, sexually assertive, and generally independent. Before I proceed any further, I want to admit that I have not watched Twilight or read the books, nor am I a huge fan of Buffy in spite of required viewings in my Feminist TV Criticism course. I did, however, recently complete the first season of True Blood, and having seriously considered the series, find Peterson’s assessment of the show’s gender politics to be quite simplistic. Thus, I would like to make a few points in defense of True Blood and its characterization of human/vampire relations through the characters Sookie and Bill.
First, a brief plot summary for the uninformed: True Blood takes place in a speculative world in which vampires can live amongst humans due to the wide availability of synthetic blood. As a result, some vampires choose to go “mainstream,” such as Bill Compton, a soft-spoken vampire transformed during the Civil War. He encounters Sookie Stackhouse, a young waitress in a Louisiana town. Sookie takes to Bill immediately, and their relationship quickly becomes romantic. Because many humans still see vampires as dangerous, Sookie faces ridicule because of her association with Bill. Meanwhile, a serial killer terrorizes the small community where Sookie and Bill live, targeting women who have been sexually involved with vampires. Sookie attempts to find the killer, fearing that she may also be at risk.
I could say so much about the politics of the series, given the obvious allegorical relationship between vampires and homosexuals (a church billboard in the credit sequence states “God hates fangs”), but instead, I will keep this entry focused on the issues raised by Peterson. Below are some of her statements followed by my remarks:
1) “In [Sookie’s] case, being a virgin marks her as different in the Southern town of Bontemps, where sleeping around is one of the few recreational activities available.” – I agree that Sookie’s virginity distinguishes her from her peers. Still, Peterson omits a related difference between Sookie and her friends: Sookie can hear people’s thoughts at will. In fact, Sookie’s telepathic gift is presented as the primary reason for her virginity. Because Sookie can hear what people are thinking, she is particularly sensitive to the male gaze. In one episode when she explains her chastity, a montage depicts Sookie on several dates with men who objectify her mentally, causing her to recoil. Inherent in this moment is a feminist critique of the objectification of women. Of course, the series itself uses camera angles and costuming (or lack thereof) to objectify the female body, but Sookie’s resistance to the male gaze should not be discounted for that reason alone. Furthermore, because the series presents Sookie’s virginity as a consequence of her powers, it resists the impulse to portray virginity as a strictly moral choice; in other words, Sookie has no qualms with premarital sex in principle, it just hasn’t worked for her personally.
2) “Sookie frequently finds herself the subject of Bill’s wrath while he is trying to protect her.” – I did not find this to be the case in True Blood. In general, Bill is a mild-mannered guy with an almost antiquated sense of good manners. I can only recall one scene in which he expresses anger toward Sookie, and that occurs when he discovers her with another man. This seems to be a reasonable time in which to express anger in any romantic narrative. I am sure that Buffy’s lovers expressed anger toward her–that’s the way that romance rolls. Conflict creates drama and keeps the story interesting. Bill and Sookie’s relationships seems pretty typical of similar romances in fantasy films, regardless of Bill’s status as vampire.
3) “After a relatively celibate Season Three, Buffy proceeds to sleep with three more men (two human, one vampire) before the series closes. . . . This seems unlikely for Sookie.” – The series hints at possibilities for romance between Sookie and her manager, Sam. The implication that Sookie is blind to other possible relationships seems to be without any merit.
4) “In the end, as much as I immerse myself in the worlds of True Blood and Twilight, I still find myself longing for Buffy Summers. She’s the one who subverts the generally accepted paradigm of what a woman should be and how she should behave. She manages to be both tough and vulnerable, but is still recognized as an object of desire.” – Peterson implies in this statement that Sookie follows “the generally accepted paradigm of what a woman should be and how she should behave” and does not “manage to be both tough and vulnerable.” In fact, Peterson’s own caveat earlier in the piece contradicts such implications: “Sookie, who sleeps with her undead suitor Bill, ends up marked as bad, although she ultimately gets the upper hand on the killer.” Hence, Sookie does “subvert the generally accepted paradigm” of proper female sexuality in the show’s fictional world.
I would also like to point out that while Sookie can be vulnerable, she also exhibits a toughness and intelligence that enables her to outsmart various criminal elements. After her first encounter with Bill, she saves him from a couple who try to steal his blood so they can sell it as a drug. I also noticed that in the final fight of the season, it’s Sookie who seals the kill, even though Sam assists her. On the flip side, Bill often exhibits vulnerability as a result of being a vampire. Sookie rescinds her invitation allowing him to enter her home; Sookie must untie him from silver wire that burns his skin; Sookie helps save him after he walks into daylight. These moments undermine the implication that Sookie is merely a damsel in distress. Here’s that first scene I mentioned:
Of course, this scene does reveal problematic elements in the series and in the relationship between Bill and Sookie. Notice, for instance, Sookie’s classist language throughout the scene (the criminals are “low rent,” whereas she is a “lady”). Bill also comes off as threatening in these early scenes with his comments about his capabilities as a vampire. But I love that in spite of Bill’s posturing, Sookie never shrinks back. She even laughs in his face when discovering that his name is Bill, rather than something more exotic. In essence, the interaction demystifies Bill’s vampirism and reveals Sookie’s courage in spite of his difference.
I don’t fault Peterson for taking issue with True Blood and it’s mingling of sex and violence; I do fault her failure to fairly evaluate the text on its own terms. By simply lumping it together with Twilight, Peterson fails to adequately account for the differences between these very different portrayals of heterosexual romances between the undead and the living.
Much ink has been spilled over the years about the recent surge in film remakes, and the horror genre is not immune to this trend. On the contrary, horror films trade in recycled products, revamping old franchises (Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street), as well as producing unnecessary sequels and prequels (Exorcist: The Beginning). Obviously, there are crude business reasons for utilizing old materials for new products: name recognition, easy access to screen rights, and speedy replication of previous written material all make such productions a no-brainer investment. But such motives for film production often generate a comprimised product, lacking in originality or creativity.
Which brings me to the prime example of problem remakes by production company Screen Gems. This subsidiary of Sony remade two of the worst horror films I have seen in the past year, When a Stranger Calls and Prom Night, and is poised to release The Stepfather, which looks to be an abomination as well. Here’s the trailer for the latter:
Like its Screen Gems predecessors, The Stepfather remakes a cult slasher film of the same name. The original The Stepfather may be one of the most radically feminist, anti-conservative slasher films of the 1980s, and academics Isabel Cristina Pinedo and Patricia Brett Erens have said as much. The original stars Jill Schoelen as Stephanie, the teenage daughter of a widowed mother recently remarried to Jerry Blake (played perfectly by Lost‘s Terry O’Quinn). The somewhat rebellious Stephanie resists Jerry’s efforts to get closer to her, in spite of his projected image as the perfect family man. From the start, though, the audience is in on Jerry’s secret, as this opening sequence below demonstrates:
While such carnage may give away Jerry’s identity as psychopathic dad, it allows the audience to empathize with heroine Stephanie, who faces Jerry’s rage most acutely when he discovers her kissing a boy. From the trailer above, it appears that the new film’s protagonist, now a male named David, faces a similar rebuke; however, the nature of this parental criticism changes because of David’s sex. Instead of David facing criticism, his scantily clad girlfriend becomes the problem. In essence, it seems that the remake’s stepfather finds fault with the relationship based on the girlfriend’s sexuality, rather than the son’s.
Another interesting change: the new mother (played by Sela Ward) is not widowed but divorced, bringing David’s father into the equation. Thus, while the original film challenges the idea that a manly presence is necessary for a stable home, the new version seems instead to be a struggle between various males for domination within the family. These changes do not bode well for the film ideologically, and if the previous Screen Gems remakes are any indication, the stylistic “upgrades” will not likely make up for these alterations.
When I speak of aesthetic changes, I refer to the slick packaging of these films by comparison to their originals. Take the remake of Prom Night, for instance. The original who-dunnit set at a 70s-disco prom remains a classic for its camp value. Check out this rad dance sequence:
Who knew Jamie Lee Curtis had such killer dance moves? Now, check out the trailer for the remake:
Notice the attention to mise-en-scene, with emphasis on stylish dresses, extravagent sets, and smooth camera movement. It’s as if the filmmakers translated MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 into a slasher, and not a very good one at that. With a PG-13 rating limiting the gore to implication rather than depiction, Prom Night‘s kills lack impact. Worse yet, filmmakers could work around these limitations by generating suspense in the manner of Drag Me to Hell (also PG-13), but produce a predictable series of cat-and-mouse games with a bland as white bread killer. Hence, the remake of Prom Night sucks the life (i.e., camp, suspense, gore) out of the original.
Screen Gems’ When a Stranger Calls suffers from the same afflictions. Of these three remakes, When a Stranger Calls is probably my least favorite in terms of source material, but the first ten minutes of the film in which babysitter Jill (played by Carol Kane) fields calls from a creepy killer who, it turns out, is actually inside the house, generates tension as does the closing scene in which Jill encounters the killer once again as an adult.
By contrast, the new film’s attempts at suspense fail in much the same way that Prom Night does. The expansion of the first ten minutes of the original film into the bulk of the remake’s running time feels stretched at best and monotonous at worst. As in Prom Night, the mise-en-scene becomes the focus while characters and suspense fall by the wayside, leading one to wonder why on earth Screen Gems filmed a single reel.
Of course, the reason is very simple: moolah! Both films debuted on top of the box office during their opening weekends quickly making back expenses and then some. Critics hated these films, but neither held advance screenings to mitigate the backlash. But while their originals will continue to have fan followings for years to come, I expect that many of these Screen Gems remakes will fall into obscurity.
Last week on Savage Lovecast (the weekly podcast for the syndicated sex advice column Savage Love), host Dan Savage mentioned that many callers requested that he address the recent death of actor David Carradine. For the ill-informed, Thai police discovered Carradine’s body in a hotel room with a rope tied around his neck, wrist, and genitals. These details suggest that Carradine engaged in a practice known as erotic asphyxiation (EA for short). Savage, generally an ardent supporter of kink and a defender of bondage practices, cited an article from Slate.com as demonstrating the practice to be inherently dangerous. While Savage decried the press’s conflation of EA with bondage, he stated that EA cannot be performed safely and should be avoided.
I checked out the Slate article, and indeed, it makes a compelling case. It brings up a slew of cases in which supposed suicides may actually have resulted from EA. It was speculated that a “suicide” in my own hometown was the result of unintentional strangulation during masturbation. More rare, it seems, are publicized cases of EA with a partner unintentionally killing a lover by strangulation. The Slate article mentions the case of composer Frantisek Kotzwara, who died after hiring a prostitute to assist him with EA (she was tried for his murder, but ultimately acquitted). I’m sure that similar cases exist, but few have been discussed in relation to Carradine’s death and discussions of this fetish, and at least one film should be brought into this discussion about this sexual practice.
Specifically, the Japanese film In the Realm of the Senses depicts a famous incident of death by EA. In the mid-1930s,Sada Abe, a former prostitute, takes up with a hotel owner named Kichizo Ishida. The two become sexually obsessed with one another to the point where Ishida leaves his wife and family so that they can be full-time lovers. As the film progresses, so does the violent nature of their sex together, with Ishida requesting that Abe strangle him during love-making. This leads to Ishida’s accidental death at Abe’s hands. In a final obsessive act, Abe castrates Ishida’s corpse and writes “Sada Kichi the two of us forever” in blood on his chest.
The film, which was written and directed by Nagisa Oshima, inflamed controversy with its explicit depictions of sex and violence. Indeed, the film’s rare combination of eroticism, violence, and aesthetic sophistication render it both gorgeous and disturbing with the relationship at the center of the film simultaneously romantic and psychotic, as becomes evident in the screen capture below:
While the film concludes the story with the castration, the actual Sada Abe’s life continued to be just as fascinating after Ishida’s death. Once authorities discovered Ishida’s body, the story become nationally known and a manhunt ensued. While she ultimately spent five years in prison for her crimes, she became a folk hero of sorts. Her story even influenced an art movement in Japan called Ero Guro Nansensu (erotic grotesque nonsense), which according to Wikipedia, “puts its focus on eroticism, sexual corruption and decadence.” Below is an example, taken from a blog called Cabinet of Wonders:
Sada Abe’s story and In the Realm of the Senses should remind us that pleasure and pain can be nearly indistinguishable. For David Carradine and other practitioners of EA, a flirtation with death only heightens sexual experiences in spite of the risks. While I certainly agree with Dan Savage that the dangerous reality of EA must be acknowledged, I see a film like In the Realm of the Senses, and these acts become metaphors for all romantic relationships, which in spite of mutual love necessarily contain moments of agony.
(Author’s note – While I took great care in this article to paraphrase all information obtained from other sources, I want to acknowledge that much of the information about Sada Abe and Ero Guro was obtained through the linked Wikipedia pages, rather than based upon personal expertise.)