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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Reacting to The Human Centipede, or A Horror Fan’s Existential Dilemma

4 May 2010 at 22:16 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

***Note to readers: The subject-matter discussed in this post is probably not appropriate for most people, but it should especially be avoided by children and those about to sit down to a nice big meal. Really, if you’re easily grossed out, go no further.***

Up front I will admit that I have been avoiding writing this post for several days. Since I first heard about The Human Centipede in my “Gender and Horror Film” class last week, I have been dreading having to write about it. But what self-respecting horror film enthusiast goes silent on a movie that some suggest breaks boundaries in the horror genre?

For those of you who haven’t heard, The Human Centipede depicts the demented plan of a German surgeon to create the eponymous creature. The doctor explains to three hapless victims trapped in his basement that they will be connected surgically from mouth to anus to create one digestive system amongst them. The trailer below shows the explanation of this conjoining:

Immediately upon hearing about the concept, I felt totally disgusted. Just the idea as described by my professor made me queezy, so much so that I continued to think about it long after class. I was so bothered that I thought the best thing to do would be to watch the trailer, thinking that the trailer might make the idea more, I don’t know, palatable? Of course, it didn’t–it only made me more consumed by the idea, especially with its trailer’s claim that the film is “100% Medically Accurate.” I hate to admit it, but I even resorted to falling asleep while watching TV to avoid dealing with these thoughts.

My response to The Human Centipede dispels a couple of common misconceptions about horror fans. Often times, critics have depicted horror fans as a callous type, only interested in observing violence with a detached kind of pleasure. I’ve heard of this fan, but never really known anyone who fits the description. Most fans of the genre that I know tend to be highly empathic types, possibly just as sensitive to suggestion as those who avoid the genre.

What distinguishes the horror fan from the horror phobe is that fans take pleasure in fear while phobes do not. Isabel Cristina Pinedo, whom I have mentioned before in relation to this issue, compares watching horror films to riding a roller coaster: both experiences occur within a controlled environment where spectators can assume physical security in which to simulate their dangerous scenarios. She calls this “recreational terror.”

How much is too much? Image from FilmBook.com.

Of course, even the hardened genre fan has limits; for me, The Human Centipede is akin to bungee jumping or sky diving, neither of which I have tried. In both cases, I’m still weighing whether the “thrill” is worth pursuing in light of the associated “risks.” But unlike the aforementioned stunts, The Human Centipede poses an ethical question for me: do I want to want to watch it? To be fair, some have suggested that the film takes great pains to avoid depicting explicit contact, but implication doesn’t seem to have mitigated the nausea factor for some reviewers.

Almost a week has passed since I first learned about the movie and the shock has worn off somewhat. It’s almost more disturbing to me that I’ve become acclimated enough to the idea that I can actually think about it without gagging. I guess in a small way, my response to The Human Centipede explains why humanity functions in spite of the terrors that it creates–eventually, we get used to these ideas so that we can get on with our lives.

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Adventures in Auditing #2: Natural Born Killers

29 November 2009 at 01:19 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

In describing the process of film making, critics invariably draw upon images of violent altercations: the camera “shoots” like a gun and the director ends the “shot” with a “cut” like a knife. The camera plays the roll of the weapon in this simile, implying that it functions as a tool for controlling that which it captures with its lens. With these analogies in mind, it should come as no surprise that Natural Born Killers (1994), a film that satirizes the media’s role in perpetuating violence, makes these connections explicit in its form and content. Through cinematography and mise-en-scene, Natural Born Killers aligns the camera with weaponry and hence film making with violence.

The cinematography of Natural Born Killers uses framing to associate the camera with weaponry. The most obvious example of such framing occurs in the opening sequence in which protagonists Mallory (Juliet Lewis) and Mickey (Woody Harrelson) kill several workers and patrons at a roadside café. In one killing, the film uses mobile framing to follow the trajectory of a bullet toward a victim:

A similar following shot occurs when Mickey throws a knife at a bystander outside the café. Finally, several shots position the camera behind the gun itself. In all cases the camera trails the weapon, mimicking its movement. The film’s regular use of steadicam and hand-held cameras similarly plays on the idea of the camera as weaponry in that such mobile framing draws attention to the camera as attached to the body of the camera’s operator like a weapon wielded for battle.

This equation also occurs through the use of the camera in the mise-en-scene, particularly in the riot sequence in the final quarter of the film. These scenes depict a television personality Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.) documenting a prison uprising that enables the escape of Mickey and Mallory. In one instance, Mickey breaks into Mallory’s cell with Wayne Gale and crew in tow to face off against Detective John Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore). With each man pointing a gun at the other, Mickey describes the situation as a “Mexican standoff”; while a Mexican standoff can occur between two parties, the classic examples tend to have three participants, as is the case in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).

In the case of Natural Born Killers, the camera represents the third weapon brandished in the standoff and even appears in the frame being pointed in a similar manner as the guns of Mickey and Scagnetti. Other shots during the scene position the camera right next to the gun with the gun barrel and the camera lens visually and thus metaphorically paralleled.

Lastly, Mickey literally replaces Gale’s gun for a camera as they try to escape, suggesting the two to be interchangeable. All combined, these moments suggest that the camera functions as a weapon during the riot.

These uses of the camera both through cinematography and the mise-en-scene reinforce Natural Born Killers’ indictment of mass media for perpetuating violence in contemporary society. Furthermore, these alignments raise ontological questions about the nature of the camera as an apparatus for capturing the moving image. One must ask, however, whether or not this message can be sustained through the very media it claims to critique and if any film can ever succeed in such aims.

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In Defense of True Blood

14 July 2009 at 17:27 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

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.

Image taken from TheTwoCents.com.

Image taken from ch3guest.files.wordpress.com.

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.

True Bloods Sookie and Sam, oozing with sexual tension.  Image taken from Birmingham News blog.

True Blood's Sookie and Sam, oozing with sexual tension. Image taken from Birmingham News blog.

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.

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Childhood Cinematic Traumas #1 – Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives

23 May 2009 at 09:46 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

The first slasher movie I ever saw was Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. This viewing occurred in the basement rec room of my parents’ house when I was about twelve years old. I was with my ten year-old brother, Paul, and the two of us were trying to keep ourselves entertained on a Saturday night. Our parents allowed us free-reign over the tv as long as we could choose a program amicably. Often, we would stay up until one or two in the morning on weekends cruising the various cable offerings. It was in these circumstances that we came upon Jason Lives.

Up until that point, my experiences with horror films had been limited and unpleasant. I had watched a few movies as a youngster that made me fearful of the genre (more on those later). I worried about nightmares and was particularly concerned that my reactions in social situations (i.e. slumber parties, etc.) would be embarrassing. As a result, I typically avoided scary movies and protested when they were played at friends’ houses.

Yet, somehow, my brother and I ended up watching enough of Part VI to get completely freaked out. I say “enough of” because we didn’t watch the film from start to finish; we likely parked on the channel for a minute or two–long enough to see a scene in which Jason mercilessly kills a couple after they get a flat tire. I remember in particular the killing of the female character, who opens her wallet, credit cards spilling out, in an attempt to buy Jason’s sympathy. Of course, Jason dispatches her without hesitation, and the filmmakers heightened the kill’s impact with a first-person camera angle from the victim’s perspective.

Years later, this scene stuck out in my mind as the one that frightened my brother and I so much that we attempted to watch Disney’s Cinderella as a corrective measure and, when that failed, slept in my parents’ bed; however, my brother reminded me recently that another more disturbing scene scared us shitless. It features a teenage couple (post-coitus, of course) driving down a road in a camper. The male drives recklessly, while the female passenger stumbles about the camper before Jason pulls her into the bathroom. Again, I remember clearly the way the scene was shot: an extreme high angle reveals Jason in the cramped bathroom covering the girl’s mouth before jamming her face into the camper wall; the film then cuts to an exterior of the camper, where an impression of the girl’s screaming face emerges from the steel. Back in the interior, Jason exits the bathroom and walks slowly toward the male driver, who can’t hear Jason approach because of his loud rock music. Jason then stabs the driver’s head, and the film cuts to the camper flying over an embankment and crashing. Jason, of course, rises from the wreckage unscathed and the terror continues.

The Spanish language poster for Friday the 13th Part VI:  Jason Lives.  Taken from scaryfilm.blogspot.com

The Spanish language poster for Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. Taken from scaryfilm.blogspot.com

That I had repressed this scene speaks to its power, but that I recalled it so easily once I was reminded of it also suggests its impact was indelible. I could remember the camera angles and shot sequences so clearly. Normally, a film’s construction was of little import to me as a kid, but studies on perception of time actually show that a our senses during times high stress heighten, allowing us to perceive of time as passing more slowly. Something similar happened when I saw Part VI, as I recalled particular shots and editing patterns years after the fact.

While the camera angles contributed to my stressful response, the sexual overtones in the latter scene scandalized my inhibited pre-teen self. The implication that Jason punished the teens for their sexual activity played into my belief that sex was dangerous. Carol Clover and others have written about this element of the slasher at length, so I won’t revisit that discussion. Instead, I invite you to watch Alice Cooper‘s video “Man Behind the Mask,” a song written specifically for Part VI that perfectly captures these themes of puritanical justice:

I’ve since revisited the Friday the 13th series, watching Part VI about a month ago. The film begins with Tommy Jarvis, who killed Jason in Part IV, digging up the grave of the deceased villain with intentions to burn Jason’s corpse. Instead, a bolt of lightening revives Jason and kick-starts a blood bath. Tommy alerts the local authorities of Jason’s resurrection, but his pleas are dismissed and Tommy is jailed. Meanwhile, Jason kills a trio of paintball players, a drunken gravedigger, and a slew of camp counselors. Luckily, the sheriff’s spunky daughter develops a crush on Tommy and springs him from jail to pursue Jason. The two track Jason down and lure him into Crystal Lake, where they first shred his face with a boat propeller and then chain him to the bottom of the lake with a large boulder as an anchor. In spite of the triumph, the film concludes with an ominous shot of the submerged Jason opening his eyes, suggesting that he will return for yet another sequel.

As the plot outline suggests, Part VI is a campy affair. More surprisingly, it understands its status as trashy entertainment. The dialog alone demonstrates the writer’s humorous take on the project. For instance, after Jason’s presence becomes known at the re-opened Camp Crystal Lake, one sarcastic young camper asks another “So, what were you gonna be when you grew up?” There are more than a few knowing winks at the audience, with lines like, “I’ve seen enough horror movies to know any weirdo wearing a mask is never friendly.” Such lines anticipate Scream’s self-referential humor and nods to fandom. This humorous approach, along with bad acting, 80s mise-en-scene, and cheesy music make Jason Lives my favorite installment of the series.

Which brings me back to the disparity between my initial response and that upon re-viewing the film years later. As a pre-teen, I’d not yet accumulated the cinematic experiences that allowed me to see Part VI as merely a product of generic formulas that could be anticipated and mocked. Having seen many slashers since, I can now laugh at Jason Lives even as certain scenes disgust me. I have some mastery over these texts, and I must say, that’s a very liberating feeling.

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Horror at Cannes

18 May 2009 at 07:00 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

This year’s Cannes Film Festival features plenty of familiar faces directing the competition’s films. Previous Palme d’Or winners Jane Campion, Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, Ken Loach, and Quentin Tarantino all have films competing for prizes this year, demonstrating what a high caliber affair the festival continues to be. Of the many fascinating entries this year, the supernatural-themed films excite me the most, and surprisingly, there are quite a few to consider.

Gaspar Noé’s latest film, Enter the Void, focuses on a brother and sister, who move to Tokyo and work as a drug-dealer and stripper, respectively, to survive in a new country. When the brother dies in a drug-bust, his soul refuses to leave the world in order to fulfill a promise to his sister that he never leave her. According to the synopsis on the Cannes Festival website, the brother’s ghost “wanders through the city, his visions growing evermore distorted, evermore nightmarish. Past, present and future merge in a hallucinatory maelstrom.”

To be honest, I’ve yet to see any of Noé’s previous films, which most famously include I Stand Alone and Irreversible. These previous works seemed too racist and misogynistic for my taste, though I’ve never completely discounted them. Enter the Void, however, sounds relatively more socially conscious than his previous work, and I am particularly interested in how the brother-sister relationship is portrayed. On top of that, the stills available on the web look terrific. I’m hoping the film lives up to the fascinating concept and neon aesthetic.

Another supernatural entry comes courtesy of South Korean director Chan-Wook Park, the director who helmed Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Old Boy, and Lady Vengeance. Of his films, I’ve only seen the latter two of the vengeance trilogy along with his short film in the Three…Extremes anthology, and I’ve found that while his work is stylistically compelling, the stories fail to engage me on a gut level. It was only after a second viewing of Lady Vengeance that I really appreciated the emotion behind the complex narrative and realized that Park’s attempts to deconstruct the revenge genre ultimately enhance it.

I hope that this latest Park film, called Thirst, attempts something similar with the vampire genre. The film features a priest who becomes a vampire after traveling to Africa, dying upon contracting a virus, and receiving a blood transfusion that revives him. The trailer suggests that the film explores biblical themes of sin and resurrection, and vampirism seems to be equated most specifically with adultery.

After three popular films that primarily explored vengeance, I am interested to see Park’s take on these different themes through what sounds like a promising (though possibly problematic) storyline.

However, Lars von Trier’s entry called Antichrist intrigues me the most. Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe, the two play a couple who retreat to a cabin in the woods called Eden (again with the biblical reference) after the death of their only child. Upon arriving, strange phenomena occur apparently involving animals and other natural elements.

Given his previous work on The Kingdom series, von Trier seems to be an ideal director for the horror genre. I’m also intrigued by the choice of Charlotte Gainsbourg as the wife. I found her performance in I’m Not There haunting in its intensity, and the trailer for Antichrist hints at a similar undercurrent of melancholy in her character. Von Trier has been praised in the past for his direction of Emily Watson, Bjork, and Nicole Kidman, and while I question the paternalistic implications of framing the director/actress relationship as such, I am eager to see what the collaboration looks like given von Trier’s track record.

Overall, I’m thrilled to see that so many horror films have made it Cannes this year! This short list does not even take into consideration the latest Tarantino film or a film by Johnnie To called Vengeance about a professional killer avenging the death of his daughter’s family. Could the hard times of economic recession be inspiring this rash of violent movies by the best and brightest directors? I eagerly await their US releases to find out!

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