Satanic Panic: The House of the Devil

31 October 2009 at 22:07 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

Halloween greetings to all! Before I begin, I want to acknowledge the fantastic work of Kristen, who wrote the guest post about Dead Man’s Bones. I’m glad to finally host another opinionator on the blog besides myself, and I welcome other contributions from interested writers.

Now, on to the good stuff: yesterday, I noticed an especially tantalizing review in the New York Times about The House of the Devil, a well-reviewed horror film released just in time for Halloween. The film set in the 1980’s follows a young woman hard-up for cash who takes a babysitting gig out of desperation. From the looks of the trailer, the high-paying offer devolves into a satanic blood bath:

Beyond the standard review, the Times offered up a slide show illustrating the film’s period mise-en-scene along with audio of director Ti West describing the motivation for the film’s setting and aesthetic. Mainly, West explains the selection of the eighties as motivated by the satanic panic of the era.

Among many other backlashes of that decade, it became somewhat of a trend for prominent evangelicals to suggest that satanic ritual abuse was not only occurring in society but wide-spread. Worse yet, a PBS Frontline episode from 1995 suggests that prominent psychiatrists promoted and exploited the conspiracy theory for professional gain. I recommend digging up a copy of the episode as it presents the frightening possibility that through suggestion during hypnosis, a slew of crazy memories can be implanted into patients seeking treatment for depression.

A related moral panic of the eighties is captured in the disturbing documentary Capturing the Friedmans. The film documents the deterioration of a middle-class Long Island family whose patriarch is accused of child molestation. The film’s presentation of the facts reveals a troubling picture of the kind of witch hunt that can happen when people build a case on a tissue of lies. The trailer below gives hints at what occurred:

All the more reason to check out The House of the Devil. I’m interested to see how the film uses satanic panic and whether or not the film undermines or reinforces the ideas that motivated it. Either way, the film looks like one hell of a scare.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Guest Post: Things that Go Bump in the Night: Dead Man’s Bones in Time for Halloween 

28 October 2009 at 21:31 (Uncategorized)

Dead Man's Bones featuring Ryan Gosling and Zach Shields

This is a guest post written by Kristen Lambert.

I first heard Dead Man’s Bones – a musical project/band featuring actor Ryan Gosling and Zach Shields – several months back when Facebook friends circulated the band’s video for “Name in Stone.” I thought the video was interesting and I admire Gosling’s work (especially The Believer and Lars and the Real Girl – but not The Notebook). Yet little else stuck with me at the time.

Then a month ago NPR’s All Songs Considered did a 2009 Fall Preview of upcoming albums. One NPR staffer highlighted “My Body’s A Zombie For You,” a new song off the latest Dead Man’s Bones album. It is a ghoulish yet fun song, in which Gosling croons about decaying love and bodies – while a children’s choir provides background vocals and sings (almost shouts) the chorus “my body’s a zombie for you!” The song struck me as awkwardly charming and I was delighted to discover that the entire album is Halloween-themed. As someone who appreciates Halloween the way people go nutty over Christmas, I am always thrilled to find music that suits the mood and tone of Fall and/or Halloween.

After listening to the song on repeat for the rest of the day, I decided to do a little research on the band. According to Anti-Records, Dead Man’s Bones and their album happened by accident, when Gosling and Shields dated women who are sisters and were forced to spend time together. By way of this chance meeting the two discovered their mutual fascination with ghosts, graveyards, monsters, and zombies. For both Gosling and Shields their interest in all things gruesome began at an early age. As stated on their site, Shields was interested in ghosts to the point where he was put into therapy as a child. Meanwhile, growing up Gosling’s parents decided to move from his childhood home out of fear it was haunted.

The two musicians attempted to channel their appreciation for the macabre into a “monster ghost love story for the stage” that would be accompanied by songs written and performed by the duo. Though financing fell through for the play, the two decided to carry out the musical aspect of their original plan and released an album. Gosling and Shields cite doo-wap and The Shangri-La’s (as well as The Cure, Misfits, and Daniel Johnston among others) as influences for their sound. Also heavily influenced by musical programs and albums that incorporate children’s choirs, Dead Man’s Bones solicited the help of the Silverlake Conservatory of Music Children’s Choir, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing affordable music education through discounted rates and/or scholarships. One Halloween-aspect of the album involves the cover, which features the Children’s Choir dressed in Halloween outfits (props to Lola dressed as Edward Scissorhands on the left).

The photo used for the cover of Dead Man's Bones latest album

The connection between Dead Man’s Bones and cinema goes beyond the band’s fascination with characters and themes from the horror genre and Gosling’s involvement in the project. The band adhered to strict rules and principles for creating and recording their album – principles akin to those of Dogma 95 – an avant-garde filmmaking movement associated with such directors as Lars von Trier (Antichrist) and Lone Scherfig (An Education). Gosling and Shields avoided using a click track or doing more than three takes, allowing their mistakes to become part of the music making process. This is reflected in the moments when the singers or the choir stray off-key and the ways in which rehearsals were included on the album. For instance towards the end of “My Body’s A Zombie For You” the song devolves into a chant as the children’s choir spells out the word “z-o-m-b-b-i-e” while keeping rhythm with hand-claps.

Gosling and Shields also played every instrument regardless of whether they were familiar with it or not. Moreover, Dead Man’s Bones incorporated various objects in their music such as tin foil to create the sound of rain, ripping up paper to mimic the sound of thunder, creaky doors, waves, and “werewolf” howling – all to infuse their album with a rich background of haunting and unusual sounds.

All these elements – from the inclusion of a children’s choir to the purposeful DIY style of music making – result in an album that offers a unique listening experience, one that involves dance-friendly songs, spoken word poetry, and brooding ruminations on eternal love and longing beyond the grave. Some of my favorite tracks include:

“Dead Hearts” (see the video link below) – a softer song that builds into a crescendo of breaking glass
“In The Room Where You Sleep” – the most dance-able track on the album
“My Body’s A Zombie For You” – like the Eurythmics‘ “Love is a Stranger,” I appreciate any song that compares love to the undead
“Pa Pa Power” – in the chorus the Children’s Choir sings, “We will not destroy you, no we will not destroy you,” lines that are both soothing and utterly terrifying at the same time (think Children of the Corn type of children – or the little girls chanting in Nightmare in Elm Street recycled in the remake)
“Dead Man’s Bones” – in the title track Gosling obsesses over the fact that dead man’s bones are buried six feet deep and apparently they are everywhere (in the pavement, in the schoolhouse, even in the water . . . yikes!)

Dead Man’s Bones promises to incorporate the album’s enthusiastic spirit into their live shows. The band uses short Youtube videos to introduce themselves and list tour dates (here is video one and two), and they also put out a call for anyone with a special talent, from magicians to sword swallowers, to participate in a Dead Man’s Bones Talent Show as the opening act.

Overall, I recommend incorporating Dead Man’s Bones’ latest album into the music mix for your Halloween party or simply enjoying the album on a gloomy day. If you have any Halloween-themed albums (including awesome soundtracks) that you want to recommend, please leave a comment. Happy Halloween everyone!

Image Credits:
1. Dead Man’s Bones featuring Ryan Gosling and Zach Shields – image courtesy of last.fm
2. The photo used for the cover of Dead Man’s Bones latest album – image courtesy of LA Weekly

Permalink 4 Comments

Peter Jackson’s Girls: The Lovely Bones and Heavenly Creatures

21 October 2009 at 19:18 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

Upon reading Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones when it was first published, I recall fantasizing about writing the film adaptation. Like so many contemporary books, the prose mimicked the cinematic in terms of narrative and imagery. In all likelihood, the screenplay had already been scripted by the time I read the hardback. Seven years later, we have the film’s debut to look forward to over the holiday season and trailers such as the one below to fuel our speculation:

While I’ve appreciated Peter Jackson’s previous work (Lord of the Rings Trilogy included), the trailer for this latest effort does little for me. Maybe it’s the thematic similarity, but I keep thinking about the painful family outing back in 1998 to see the saccharine, CGI-laden What Dreams May Come. Maybe it’s my Catholic upbringing, but the idea of an afterlife in which all your fantasies can be realized seems rather hokey and convenient for the movie makers who aspire to generate them…fantasies, that is.

Nevertheless, I am heartened by the fact that The Lovely Bones revists some previously explored territory for Jackson: the crime mystery meets girlhood coming-of-age story. Jackson co-wrote and directed Heavenly Creatures, a film based on the actual crimes of two young girls in 1950s New Zealand. While hugely problematic for its stereotypical treatment of lesbianism and criminality, the film is notable for the following reasons:

1) Acting – Young actresses at the time, Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet (in her first film) gave amazing performances as the primary characters whose strong friendship produces both a luminous fantasy world and a dark obsession.

2) Visual effects – The film uses a variety of special effects to animate the world created by the girls. Some of this appears in the trailer here:

In my opinion, the effects in Heavenly Creatures appear far superior as opposed to the hyper-digitized The Lovely Bones trailer; I’m a little new old-fashioned that way.

3) Mood – The film shifts smoothly between some incredibly disturbing material to more lighthearted, even comical, moments. As a result, the film portrays its protagonists complexly, resisting the impulse to simply demonize the girls for their horrendous acts.

The Lovely Bones certainly has the potential to replicate these same qualities. Mostly, I’m hoping that the film retains the book’s liberal take on teenage sexuality. If Heavenly Creatures, with its scenes of overt lesbian experimentation, is any indication, The Lovely Bones should tackle the subject head-on. With that, I’ll close with a fan-edited video of Heavenly Creatures with Katy Perry on the soundtrack. I’m not a fan of Perry or “I Kissed a Girl,” but I’m always interested to see fan appropriations of a text, and this just seems to appropriate to pass up:

Permalink 1 Comment

Link-Ups

13 October 2009 at 22:05 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

I’m going to stop apologizing for the lack of posts, because otherwise, this blog’s going to be a downer to read. Who wants to read my confessions of a lack of time/motivation/energy? I can only assure you all that this low crop yield will not last forever–probably just until January or February when life resumes a more rested pace.

In the meantime, I want to hook y’all up with some funny twisted links that you all might enjoy–a bit gimmicky and lazy on my part, but at this point, I don’t have much else to contribute.

First up: Huffington Post is currently featuring a slideshow with some hilarious kiddie Halloween Costumes. Included among them are a child dressed in a chicken costume with the Alien creature popping out (see below), a baby dressed as a lobster being carried in a pot, and a child dressed as a shark consuming a child.

My future first borns Halloween costume.

My future first born's Halloween costume.

Secondly, a coworker recently brought this blog by horror photog Joshua Hoffine to my attention. While his stunning and distirbing photos offer plenty in an of themselves, what makes the blog so fascinating is that Hoffine features behind-the-scenes pictures with explinations of the staging, make-up, and inspiration behind the photographs. He also has a pic of himself with Herschell Gordon Lewis, the cutest old horror director ever. If you prefer to view the puppets without seeing the strings, check out his website here.

A photograph by Joshua Hoffine.  Taken from inspirationbeyondreason.blogspot.com

A photograph by Joshua Hoffine. Taken from inspirationbeyondreason.blogspot.com

Finally, I present another blog geared around women in horror film: Pretty/Scary “celebrates creative, innovative, intelligent, and awesome images of women in horror, sci-fi, and fantasy films, literature and art.” It’s always nice to see venues for women to discuss horror.

Any other suggestions? Please post them in the comments section.

Permalink Leave a Comment

A Serious Man: Sound and the Coen Bros.

4 October 2009 at 22:52 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

By now, I’m sure most folks who read this blog have heard about the latest offering written and directed by the Coen Brothers, A Serious Man. The film, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and opened this weekend, garnered rave reviews. I’ve glanced through a few (it’s my custom to keep some distance from the the press on a film before actually seeing it) and know enough to feel excited about seeing it asap (knowing my local theater, ASAP may mean waiting until it comes out on video).

But I didn’t have to read a single review to get revved up for this one. The highly effective trailer was enough for me to feel like this latest film might be the best helmed by the Brothers Coen:

This clip’s masterful use of sound reminded me that the Coen Brothers’ entire body of work reveals an appreciation of this crucial element in the cinema. It’s often taken for granted, but sound plays an important role in creating atmosphere in a narrative. My friend Alyx over at Feminist Music Geek has recently taken to posting paradigmatic clips in which pop music plays a central role in the scene. For the Coen Brothers, I would point to The Big Lebowski as a text riddled with such segments. My favorite would be the “Gutterballs” dream sequence, accompanied by “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition:

With a different song, the scene would change irrevocably, as it is clear from the editing, camera movement, and action that the visuals have been perfectly tailored to the music. The effect is so powerful that upon hearing the song on the radio recently, my mind immediately called up the corresponding visuals from the scene (e.g. the xylophone interlude triggered the memory of the dude dancing down those checkered steps). In the same way that a Busby Berkeley number (which this dream sequence clearly references with its sets and staging) operates as a spectacular excess, so too does this scene from the The Big Lebowski and others like it in contemporary film.

Fargo exemplifies another type of musical excess through its use of heavy scoring. The opening sequence, a long take of a car driving down a snow covered highway, couldn’t be less remarkable. Yet, the score by Carter Burwell swells from a gently plucked melody into a full orchestra of strings in a minor key that suggests ominous happenings await the audience. Listen to the opening track called “Fargo, North Dakota” below:

The soundtrack plays an important role in setting the dark tone for the film, offsetting the film’s frequent use of humor. In essence, it ensures that the film’s melodramatic qualities do not go unnoticed.

While, I could certainly point to a number of other Coen Brothers films for their use of sound (particularly O Brother, Where Art Thou? with its phenomenally successful soundtrack), I end with the contrasting example of No Country for Old Men. The film uses non-diegetic music sparingly, instead focusing on diegetic sounds within the story to build suspense. Below, find the scene that prompted me to comment upon leaving the theater, “That movie had killer sound!”

By limiting the action shown to the space occupied by one character (Llewelyn Moss, played by Josh Brolin) sound becomes increasingly important by indicating movement outside the confines of the frame–we hear the phone ringing in the lobby, foot steps approaching, the beeping of the tracking device, before finally being startled by the pop of the lock. The film works very hard, in other words, to keep us on our toes with sound playing an important role.

These examples demonstrate just how varied the use of sound can be in film, and in particular, the ways in which films written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen have deployed these various tactics. From the looks of it, sound will be similarly important in A Serious Man.

Permalink 3 Comments

Jennifer’s Body and the Hell of Teen-Aged Girlhood: The Review

1 October 2009 at 07:19 (Uncategorized)

Hell is a teen-aged girl.
-Needy, Jennifer’s Body

I know it, I can feel it
Well, I know it enough to believe it
And I know it, I can’t see it
But I know it enough to believe it
Bitter you, bitter me
My better half has bitten me
Bitter you, bitter me
Sleeping with my enemy
Myself
Myself
The pieces of Jennifer’s body
”Jennifer’s Body,” Hole

The lyrics of “Jennifer’s Body” speak to many of the same themes explored in the recently released film of the same name: betrayals, abusive relationships, and self-deception all come to the fore in a film about a problematic friendship exacerbated by supernatural forces. While these themes certainly capture the horror that can be female friendships, the film’s treatment of the subject lacks depth. The film never quite finds its voice, and as a result, it feels unfocused, amateurish, and overwrought.

The film follows Needy (Amanda Seyfried), an awkward high school girl whose best friend, Jennifer (Megan Fox), possesses all the physical qualities that appeal to young men. This imbalance of sexual capital parallels Jennifer and Needy’s relationship: when Jennifer beckons Needy follows, as enamored of her friend as the boys who ogle Jennifer at school. As a result, the film establishes Jennifer and Needy’s relationship as both toxic and queer from the outset. When Jennifer becomes possessed by some sort of supernatural force, these dynamics become intensified. Jennifer seduces and literally consumes several horny teenage boys much to Needy’s horror even as the two kiss intensely. At the film’s climax, Needy attempts to save her boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons) from Jennifer’s evil clutches and ultimately destroys Jennifer. In essence, heterosexuality wins and homosociality loses!

Jennifer and Needy in Jennifers Body.  Image taken from ScreenCrave.com.

Jennifer and Needy in Jennifer's Body. Image taken from ScreenCrave.com.

Needless to say, I don’t agree with the New York Times’ description of the film as “designed with both feminists and 15-year-old boy in mind.” I do, however, agree with writer Diablo Cody’s quote from the same article calling the film “crazy” and “chaotic.” Unlike Cody, I don’t mean this in a positive way. The film falters on so many levels aside from the dissatisfying plot that it’s hard to know where to begin.

My biggest qualm would have to be the dialog. Whereas the quirky quips of Juno felt a bit precious, the string of punny slang that passes for conversation between the primary characters not only lacks any kind of credibility but rarely succeeds at humor. More than anything, it draws attention to its attempts at hilariousness, making its consistent failure awkward to witness. A similar problem occurs at the visual level as well: the at-times garish costuming, self-aware cinematography, and obvious special effects feel cheep and uninspired. This style feels as desperate a try at coolness as Jennifer’s attempt to seduce a cute guy with patriotic layered shots.

And really, Jennifer’s Body does feel like the class poser when it comes to films about the violent side of teenage girlhood. As I watched it, I kept thinking about far superior films that predate it. Most obviously, I thought of Heathers, which also centers around a series of murders that occur at a high school. Here’s the trailer:

Unlike Jennifer’s Body, Heathers uses its premise to critique high school hierarchies and trends. Jennifer’s Body attempts such a satire, but falls far short of cleverness.

I also thought of The Virgin Suicides when Needy uttered the “Hell is a teen-aged girl” line. It echoed the exchange early in The Virgin Suicides between a middle-aged doctor and a young girl recovering from an attempted suicide. He says, “What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.” She responds, “Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.” Both The Virgin Suicides and Jennifer’s Body explore the difficulties of girlhood during the teenage years, particularly in relation to social standards of beauty. Yet, the latter film does so by essentially confirming the worst stereotypes about pretty girls while The Virgin Suicides presents a more complex portrait of the ways in which attractiveness can be powerful and oppressive to girls with “good looks.”

Finally, I thought of Teeth, a solidly feminist horror film that like Jennifer’s Body examines myths aligning female sexuality with violence toward men. Here’s that trailer:

Teeth successfully critiques such myths through a character that subverts them while ultimately embracing the power of her mutation (adaptation?). Jennifer’s Body merely reinforces what it attempts to overturn.

In the end, Jennifer’s Body mirrors its insecure female protagonists in its style and substance. What a shame considering the potential of such concepts as revealed through the counterexamples above.

Permalink 2 Comments