Neo-Revenge in Two Styles

25 June 2011 at 15:16 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

***Spoilers abound***

The revenge narrative structure remains a stalwart of the horror genre despite being one of cinema’s oldest formulas. Well before seventies exploitation films made the rape/revenge formula a sleazy regular of grindhouse cinema, vigilantes populated Westerns and even the great “art house” director, Ingmar Bergman, directed the gorgeously devastating The Virgin Spring that inspired more traditionally generic fare such as The Last House on the Left.

Nevertheless, filmmakers continue to rework the revenge formula for new audiences. Revenge remakes have enjoyed a revival of sorts (see my speculation on one such effort), but new stories have emerged as well. Two recent screenings I attended reminded me of how divergent the uses of revenge can be despite the simple formula. The films, Hobo with a Shotgun and Red White and Blue, both use the revenge formula for a contemporary audience but in drastically divergent ways.

Image take from Wired.com

The more conventional of the two, Hobo with a Shotgun casts the legendary (I don’t banty the term about lightly) Rutger Hauer in the titular role of a homeless man just trying to survive peacefully in a nightmarish urban Nova Scotia landscape. After witnessing the cartoonish cruelty of the city’s thugs, however, he takes up arms against criminal elements. Watch the red band trailer below:

The trailer highlights the stylistic flourishes of the film, harkening back to an eighties action film aesthetic of urban lawlessness (think Robocop or Cobra). The film, in other words, exemplifies pastiche much like related efforts Death Proof, Planet Terror, and Machete. Hobo began, after all, as a trailer for a contest associated with the release of Grindhouse before becoming a full-length feature as did Machete. The results are predictably gratuitous and campy, and while it may have fallen slightly short of my high expectations, it delivered on its promise gory action sequences and hilariously stilted dialog.

Red White and Blue differs dramatically from Hobo in both its aims and execution. The film follows a group of characters all residing in Austin, Texas, beginning with the detached and promiscuous Erica (Amanda Fuller). Despite her reckless sexual exploits, she attracts the attention of the pensive Nate, (Noah Taylor in an impressive turn), whose vague military career and stories of childhood hint at psychopathology. Despite their flaws, the two reluctantly form a bond, violently shattered by the entrance of Franki (Marc Senter), a musician whose tryst with Erica proves life-changing.

What differentiates Red White and Blue from so many other revenge narratives is the way in which complex grievances and motivations entangle the characters. The downward spiral begins when Franki discovers that he contracted HIV after engaging in unprotected sex with Erica. While the implications for his own life prove devastating enough, the impact multiplies since Franki donated blood to his mother who suffers from cancer. Franki and his friends then kidnap Erica. Upon confronting her, Erica admits to the knowledge of her own HIV positive status to Franki, both downplaying the significance of the disease and explaining her behavior in terms of her own sexual trauma. It could be Erica’s vulnerability in this scene that leads to a strange kind of violation: Franki, in a supposed effort to make amends, rapes Erica before proposing to her. (Note: Some viewers might not interpret this scene as rape since Erica hardly resists, but Fuller’s performance clearly conveys a lack of consent; it is a disturbing scene because the violence is as much emotional as it is physical.) After Erica attempts to escape, Franki fatally stabs her, dismembering and stowing away the body with the help of his friends. Soon thereafter, Nate tracks down and brutally attacks, interrogates, and tortures Franki and his accomplices. These scenes of calculated violence reveal the monstrous interior hiding beneath Nate’s tranquil exterior, making it difficult to root for Nate as avenger.

Image take from Impawards.com

Ultimately, then, Red White and Blue refuses to give its audience a character to root for but makes each of its principal players multifaceted and sympathetic (to varying degrees). Hobo with a Shotgun, by contrast, simplifies the intentions of its characters: the hobo along with his sidekick hooker with a heart of gold represent marginalized goodness while crime boss, The Drake, and his spoiled sadistic sons embody evil fueled by unchecked greed. While I found Hobo far more satisfying as a spectacle, Red White and Blue challenged me in its conception of revenge and, in the process, critiqued our culture’s simplistic notions of justice. Red White and Blue showed that the myth of the vigilante portrayed in Hobo may be comforting, but rarely does it translate to life beyond the screen.

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Childhood Cinematic Traumas #5: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

7 February 2010 at 20:27 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , )

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial might seem like a strange choice for this series. One of the most successful family movies of all time, the Spielberg directed film is not generally considered in the company of the horror films I have previously covered in “Cinematic Childhood Traumas.” But in the same way that Fantasia frightened my friend and fellow blogger, Alyx, in spite of its kid-friendly content, so did E.T. scare me when I first saw it at a young age.

The poster for E.T. (1982). Taken from epmediagroup.files.wordpress.com.

I remember the night my family rented E.T. It must have been in the mid- to late-eighties, well after the initial release, but to us kids, the film seemed brand-new. I have a feeling my father had hyped it up, because I remember very clearly waiting in my family’s mini-van in the parking lot of Albertson’s and dad accompanying my older brother excitedly bringing the video out to the car, piquing my interest in the movie.

Of course, the story goes downhill from here with the events that transpired now a part of family legend. Intensely engaged in the film, I found the scenes in which the sick E.T. comes under medical surveillance and dies heartbreakingly sad and alarming in their implications. As my siblings watched, I snuck out of the family TV room and into my bedroom where I attempted to cry discretely. Of course, a child’s subtlety is typically fairly obvious to an adult. My father found me in my room and attempted to console me. I told my dad I was upset that E.T. had been captured and died, but my dad reassured me that in fact, E.T. would live and escape their clutches. With this reassuranced, he was able to coax me out of my room for the remainder of the screening.

Unfortunately, the film’s final scenes left me no less emotional: I remember a sniveling young Drew Barrymore saying goodbye to E.T. as he flew off in his spaceship and being even more upset by this result.

In the intervening years, I somehow avoided the film in spite of its popularity. I’d see it on television and make it no further than the scenes in which the kids first discovere and become acquainted with E.T. My negative associations were so strong that when theatrical promos for the 20th anniversary reissue appeared, I immediately felt tense and on the verge of tears, much to my family’s amusement. Keep in mind that I was born the same year as the movie, putting me into adulthood when these trailers screened.

Soon after I started the “Childhood Cinematic Traumas” series, the idea occurred to me that I should finally rewatch the film in earnest. Upon doing so I discovered that the film continues to resonate for me in spite of the many years that have passed since I first watched it. While I found some of the familial melodrama a bit obvious, the film’s portrayal of childhood wonder defying the modern impulse toward scientific scrutiny retains its power.

Like any good kid’s film, E.T. is all about the absurdity of the world as adults run it. From the very first series of shots, grown-up characters tend to be framed from the torso down. There are a few exceptions to this rule, of course: the overworked single mom (Dee Wallace) and the scientist (Peter Coyote) who seems to identify with Elliott’s awe over E.T. are both humanized through close-ups on their facial expressions. Several scenes of the scientists and government agents also film these characters’ faces for pragmatic purposes. Otherwise, the film represents teachers, scientists, and government investigators as faceless authority figures.

By contrast, E.T.’s short stature lowers him to the height of the child protagonists, making him physically relatable. In other words, E.T. is less alien to Elliott and company than the majority of adult figures that populate the film. The scene in which government officials donning space suits invade Elliott’s house drives home the point that E.T. poses little threat by comparison to adult-created and maintained institutions.

E.T.

E.T. face-to-face with Draw Barrymoore due to his short stature. Image from Virginmedia.com.

The scene that struck me most during my recent viewing was the frog dissection scene. I had not thought of it for ages, but as I watched it, I suddenly remembered it. While in science class, Elliott (the impressive Henry Thomas) impulsively frees the frog he is about to dissect and inspires his classmates to do the same. The scene crosscuts to E.T. watching television, specifically a scene in which a man grabs a woman by the hand and pulls her in for a kiss. The film jumps back to Elliott doing the same, and even stepping upon a classmate to rise to the appropriate height to do so, once again drawing our attention to stature.

That scene foretells the disturbing intrusion of the scientists, who use medical apparatuses to study E.T. and preserve him as a specimen just as the science teacher instructs the students to anesthetize and cut open their frogs. It also anticipates Elliott’s efforts to free E.T. with the help of his brother and friends, which easily prove to be the most affective in the film. John Williams’ score, the gorgeous shot of the kids biking across a sun-filled sky, and fast-paced, high-energy mood all prime you for the emotional kick in the ass that is E.T.’s departing thereafter. This is where I lost it: E.T. and Elliott, face-to-face and confronting the realization that E.T. will depart never to return; E.T. touches Elliott’s finger and says “ouch,” knowing this to be a painful exclamation, and Elliott repeats it also.

Elliott escapes with E.T. Image from solasfilmfestival.com

Of course, none of this is to say that E.T. is a perfect film. In the context of the Reagan Era, one might read the film as a neo-liberal critique of government interference in our lives, a pretty conservative message. To compound that, the product-placement throughout the film reminds us that multi-national corporations run the culture industry. For that reason, the moments when Elliott introduces E.T. to the name brands that compose his world make me cringe. I also hated the CGI adjustments made to the 20th Anniversary Version–just like George Lucas, the re-issue mucks with a good thing in order to advertise this version as “new and improved”–not necessary.

Still, the film suckered me in with its gorgeous cinematography, amazing performances by child actors, and touching moments. Watching it again proved to me that my emotions as a kid were strong because the film itself was designed to illicit such a response. While I am better able to control my response as an adult, E.T. remains a film that pushes all of my sentimental buttons in spite of receiving an education in the mechanics of film in the intervening years.

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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.

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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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Childhood Cinematic Traumas #2 – Jagged Edge

27 May 2009 at 18:03 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

My dad is what communications theorists call an “early adopter“–always on the cutting edge of technology, he purchased video cameras, computers, and VCR’s long before these items were standard in American households. For a brief time before I could fully appreciate it, my family subscribed to HBO from which my dad would record movies for all of us to watch. Growing up, these tapes served as our primary video collection, since purchasing manufactured videos cost triple what it does today. To get the most bang for the buck, there would often be three films on a single tape and movies would be recorded over.

This technological savvy and frugality led directly to one of my more frightening movie viewings, Jagged Edge (1985). I must have been about six years old when I decided to watch an old tape of The Nutcracker ballet. Static cut into the movie about twenty minutes in, and the HBO introduction played. Curious about what would follow, I continued to watch the tape. I remember an establishing shot of a house on a dark hill, before cutting to an interior shot of the house. In a bedroom, a woman slept peacefully when suddenly, a masked man emerged from behind her headboard wrapping ropes around her neck.

Jagged Edge poster.  Taken from Answers.com.

Jagged Edge poster. Taken from Answers.com.

I cannot remember anything else after that except my shocked reaction. For years thereafter, I feared that my room might be broken into and that I could be murdered. I also worried about a stranger hiding behind my headboard (which I now realize to be totally absurd since there’s not enough room behind it to hide). One time, my brother Paul hid under my bed and grabbed my ankle as a joke, to which I screamed and cried in response

Last weekend, I re-watched Jagged Edge over the internet, confronting the text head-on. The first scene (the only one I actually watched as a child) differs greatly from the way I remembered it. The killer does not emerge from behind the bed to strangle the woman, but rather ties up the victim with ropes before opening the front of her night gown and holding a knife up to her chest. I must have repressed this detail, because to me as an adult, it was the most frightening part of the scene. The next shots show the crime scene being examined by police officers. Above the bed, the word “bitch” is scrawled in blood, suggesting the killer’s misogynist intentions.

Click this link to view the trailer.

These overtly sexist details struck me most as I re-watched Jagged Edge. The film centers on the investigation of the crime the opens the story, with Jeff Bridges playing Jack Forrester, the husband of the victim and the prime suspect. Glenn Close plays Teddy Barnes, a high-powered San Francisco attorney who reluctantly takes on the case; however, soon enough she becomes convinced of Jack’s innocence, and the two sleep together as they prepare for trial. Information revealed during the trial tests Teddy’s faith in Jack’s innocence, but ultimately she believes him and successfully argues for his acquittal. After celebrating the verdict, Jack and Teddy have sex once again, but Teddy discovers crucial evidence in Jack’s home that links him to the crime. In the final scene, the masked man threatens Teddy with a knife, and she shoots him and before pulling off his mask to reveal Jack’s face.

This film clearly falls into eighties feminist backlash territory in spite of Teddy’s intelligence and success as an attorney. Ultimately, Jack manipulates Teddy into believing he is innocent before attempting to kill her, revealing that in spite of her power, she remains vulnerable as a single woman. What’s more, the film problematically contains several scenes in which Teddy’s two children openly complain about her separation from her husband. These touches seem to signal that Teddy is influenced by feminism to some extent, but they also suggest that she has put her career ahead of the happiness of her children, and, in part, her divorced status puts her at-risk for Jack’s manipulation. What might be most insulting about Jagged Edge is the implication that working women will put aside commonsense standards of professionalism (i.e. DON’T SLEEP WITH YOUR CLIENT…WHO IS ACCUSED OF MURDER) for the sake of romance. In summary, the film seems to be a product of its era in the vein of Fatal Attraction (also a Glenn Close film).

There’s also some interesting white guilt going on in the film. Teddy in part chooses to represent Jack to challenge an old colleague from her time as a DA named Thomas Krasny, who represents the state in the case against Jack. Early in the film, Teddy attends a funeral for a man named Henry Styles that she helped put away with Krasny but who she later found out was innocent. Henry’s mother, who is black, scolds Teddy for showing up at the burial. After the verdict is announced, Teddy proclaims Styles’ innocence to the press, explaining that Krasny suppressed evidence that would have exonerated Henry. While the film deserves credit for presenting an injustice by white people in power against a black man, it seems like the subplot’s primary purpose is to create tension between Teddy and Thomas, and to present Teddy as a principled person. The film does not explore the issue any deeper, nor does it explicitly mention race as a factor in Henry’s discrimination.

Still, I must admit that I enjoyed Jagged Edge in spite of its ideological problems. It captures a particular era stylistically and ideologically with a splendidly convoluted plot, melodramatic performances, and lots of sex and violence. The writer, Joe Eszterhas, also penned Basic Instinct (1992), a similarly problematic but pleasurable film. While Jagged Edge lacks the knowing wink of Basic Instinct, its twist-and-turns plot does offer some moments of suspense, and Close and Bridges perform the material well. It may not have aged well, but that’s part of the fun of watching it: you’re horrified by the ideologies, rather than staging of the murder.

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