Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Devil Baby

Rosemary's Baby is fucked. Two years before Rosemary's Baby 1968 release Time Magazine asked the question: is God dead?

The Time article explored the notion of God within an increasingly secular society. Interestingly, Rosemary herself picks up this copy at a doctor's office.
Luckily for Rosemary, she's already got the Devil on her side. The film deals with a search for knowledge down a slippery slope of an increasingly modern culture that still holds archaic values in the highest regard.

Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse are a young married couple living in Manhattan.  From the light to the apartment building the young couple moves into, there's no mistaking this film as taking place anywhere except New York. Like other great New York films such as Wall Street or American Psycho, it's a reflection of a predatory social class based society. Guy is an actor, he wants to be a successful actor. So what do you do when your agent won't return your calls? Sell your wife's uterus to the Devil. It's more fun if you don't tell her about it.

Guy sets up a romantic meal, drugs Rosemary and proceeds to let the Devil have his way with her while she's semi-conscious. In one of the grossest scene in the film, Guy essentially tells Rosemary that it's normal for a husband to rape his wife if she's fallen asleep. Class. Act.

Indeed, one of the most frightening things about Rosemary's Baby is the persistence of homogeny and the patriarchal system.Rosemary's Baby's horror is a social one. How can we not see ourselves or our parents or our friends in these characters?

As Rosemary's pregnancy progress, her options shrink. Because she is a lone pregnant woman that believes there is something wrong in the homestead. The doctor who she seeks out herself for help out of her own accord believes her to be "hysterical" (a term I could devote an entire paper to) and calls her husband. When Rosemary sense danger she gains agency, but is rejected at every turn. Within the realm of this intelligent young woman there are no other options. She has no choice. The final moments are shocking because the audience understands this. She did everything she could and in the end, how could not love that little bastard?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Fright Bytes - Women in Horror Month

Hi all! Yes, this is a shameless plug. But I'm plugging something that's free and you might even enjoy. The Fright Bytes Women in Horror Month episode just went live and I was thrilled to be on it. I was even more thrilled to be on a panel with Lady Hellbat aka Andrea Subissati and Lianne Spiderbaby.For those of you that aren't familiar with these lovely, intelligent, funny women here's a crash course.

Lianne Spiderbaby is the host of Fright Bytes and contributor at Fangoria Magazine. Beautiful yes, but will terrify you with her film knowledge. She's currently working on her first book entitled 'Grindhouse Girls: Cinema's Hardest Working Women', about exploitation and horror actresses which I'm already lining up for.

Andrea Subissati aka Lady Hellbat already has her first book under her belt, "When There's No More Room in Hell: The Sociology of the Living Dead" and some standout appearances on the Rue Morgue Podcast. She's an academic with a killer personality. Her passion and energy is as contagious as a zombie bite. 

It was a blast to film. Special thanks to Phil aka "Josh" and Steve for the technical, creative and moral support. Enjoy and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Near Dark (1987): Near Perfect

I don't think horror movies get much cooler than Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark (1987) a hybrid of traditional vampire films and westerns. This combination proved relatively revolutionary and broke the mold of what genre horror films could be. The vampires in Near Dark are never referred to as vampires. They can be returned to human form. They start a lot of fires. You could say the post-modern horror revolution began with Scream (1996) but I think it began 10 years earlier with a bunch of redneck vampires.

But before I get ahead of myself let's talk plot, oh true believers. Hunky Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) is "turned" by the mysterious Mae (Jenny Wright), we never quite find out what he's turned into, even Mae doesn't know. They hook-up with her pseudo-family comprised of Jesse (Lance Henrikson), Diamondback (Jeanette Goldman), Severen (Bill Paxton) and Homer (Joshua Miller). All sadistic psychos in their own way, they decide to give Caleb a chance to prove himself and live among them. But Caleb's father and younger sister are close behind them, causing problems for his vampire street cred.

I'm not a vampire kinda gal. I like things that, y'know, actually scare me. The Anne Rice stuff is too over the top for me, don't get me started on Twilight and I find Buffy to be indulgent. Fright Night I find goofy and The Lost Boys dull. Near Dark gives us lean, mean vampires with little to no romanticization to soften the blow of feeding. I think it is a bolder transition leave more questions than answers. I like the subplot of the father and sister looking for Caleb because it's not overly manipulative. If I went missing, my parents sure as hell would come looking for me. And that subplot holds its own and keeps moving forward without much indulgence.

These plot points neatly pulls Caleb and Mae between order and chaos. There is an incredible amount of pathos generated with very little. Bigelow knows that her audience is a genre one so there is no need to explain away plot points. The audience understands. We have been primed for these films in our culture. It is, however, a bold move that should not be ignored. It is a move that will repeat through the rest of Bigelow's career making her, in my mind, a singular director.

I say this film is near perfect because it is Bigelow's first "big-budget" feature. She is still playing with styles and the visual style in Near Dark does go in a couple different directions. The plot of the film suffers mostly from its leading man. Adrian Pasdar aka a poor man's River Phoenix. Hell, I think Keanu Reeves would have been more interesting. But I count my lucky stars that Near Dark provides my favourite performances by Henrikson and Paxton. While I love Goldstein, there will never be another Vasquez.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Resident Beauty: Alice Through the Looking Glass

In Naomi Wolf's groundbreaking book The Beauty Myth she wrote: 
       The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and   cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us... [D]uring the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing specialty... [P]ornography became the main media category, ahead of legitimate films and records combined, and thirty-three thousand American women told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal...More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers. 

This old thing? It's my zombie outbreak number.
 I don't know if we're "worse off than our unliberated grandmothers". From what I hear from my mother my grandmother was pretty liberated. But I do know that it is hard to deal with not being pretty. Whether  you  are deemed beautiful or not or whether you are in fact "beautiful" or not can have a significant impact on one's self-esteem. If only we lost 10 pounds, our nose was different, our profile was better... we'd survive the zombie outbreak, right? RIGHT?! Ok, maybe not a zombie outbreak but we'd get that job, we'd be asked out or we'd just be happier. For this week I thought the Alice character , specifically from the first Resident Evil film, would be worthy of an closer look. Alice does not have the academic following that a Ripley or even a Laurie Strode has. There is very little written about her in terms of analysis because she is simply an under-developed character in an underdeveloped series. However her "coding" (images and visual phrases that help us as an audience understand her) is ripe for analysis and Resident Evil is nothing if not overly ripe.

I wish IKEA made these beds easier to assemble.
I have actually written about this character before but as I even admit in that post, it has more to do with my love of Milla Jovovich (Leeloo FOREVER!) than perhaps the actual movie. The first film is a sinful guilty pleasure and I think both Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez give strong performances with an okay script. (I think everyone would still like to have seen what Romero would have made out of all of this). But as the films lurch on, the barely-there humanity in the first one all but flickers and dies out as the plot of the films outruns the story.

But let's talk economics. This film was made for very little in the action movie world and it made (relative) buckets of money upon it's theatrical and DVD release. As the sequels fell into place so did a rash of pseudo sci-fi-comic-booky-with-a-familiar-female-lead movies (Aeon Flux, Elektra, Bloodrayne) but all of them crashed and burned pretty spectacularly. (and the Underworld series is much less successful than RE) So why has Resident Evil jumped from one successful film to another? Because beauty sells. And not just this beauty:
but the overall aestheticization of violence. Violence, like women in these movies, becomes a fetishized commodity. The audience is allowed to participate in an indulgent fantasy wrapped in the end of the world where the character we identify with is the most sought after, beautiful figure imaginable. Alice is tough, strong and completely unique and we are with her pretty much all the time. In the sequels if we are not with Alice we are with an equally beautiful-tough woman.

In order for Alice and Rain (Michelle Rodriguez) to be accepted as members of the team with value they must take on masculine qualities. Rain is a butch female soldier (one would imagine her as the long lost daughter of Vasquez) and Alice assumes a leader role after 'One' (seriously, that's the character's name) the leader who leads them for the first 20 minutes is turned into meat cubes by the Red Queen. They assume power by taking command like a man, by behaving like one. "Even though the films feature female leads, they do so by endorsing patriarchal attitudes about masculine prowess and  violent privilege." (Benshoff)

Because women are looked at as passive and men as active these action heroine women are looked upon as obtaining agency by imitating men. Indeed, Alice becomes more masculinized as the series progresses. Alice , and characters like her, are never just strong and skilled, they are super-humanly strong and gifted. Her costuming also suggests a view for the male eye with an unseen force only leaving her a skimpy red dress to wear through the film. Her attitude, manner and means code her to an audience as a dominatrix, an agressive force allowed to transgress social "norms". We immediately understand Alice to have agency because of her manner. She has become a masculine assailant while still maintaining her sexual appeal.

Alice is positioned throughout the film as a force providing order to a now unstable society caused by zombies. (you could easily sub-in werewolves, vampires etc... the uncontrollable) While Alice and characters like her (most notably Selene in the Underworld series) share traits with the Final Girl archetype they are not the innocent girl next door. They are an unknown force that battles infringing entities while maintaining a more important social order. 

I do not know what or how these films should be changed but I know that in order to give the fans of this series the films they deserve the creators need to take some risks and break out of the stereotypical  horror-action film BS. Even if an ambitious, challenging film fails I guarantee that it would be more entertaining than the half-asses, lackluster, boring films that are now, like clockwork, rolled out every few years.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Ripley's Believe It or Not!

Alien and Aliens have been part of my psyche for as long as I can remember. When I first got into scary/weird/non-little-girl movies my Dad warned me that Alien was the scariest of all scary movies and that my older brother actually ran out of the cinema when he and his friend went to see it. For the purposes of this post (and because it's my favourite and so there) I'll be mainly referencing the first film.

I can't remember when I first saw the film but it traumatized me. It was not only scary but unsettling and its unsettled nature came from human nature. The aliens were not necessarily the scariest part of the film (although they didn't help). Alien open up an entirely new world of Aliens, Alien 3,Alien Resurrection and (this summer) Prometheus. This film series became a pop culture movement unto itself. My favourite Alien "addition" being:

Initially the film received mixed reviews when it was released in 1979. Some critics got it, some did not. (my favourite negative quote being from Time Out who said the film was an "empty bag of tricks whose production values and expensive trickery cannot disguise imaginative poverty". So maybe not everyone got it. This was a completely revolutionary film, let alone science fiction film. From the pacing to the violence to the effects to the reality that was created on the Nostromo it was a whole new bag for audiences around the world. Despite some critics, the film became a commercial success influencing the next generation of films and spawning it's history that continues to fascinate audiences and scholars alike.

And what happens when something becomes popular? Analysis. Lots of it. Surely these people must have done something special to create a film so beloved and wildly popular. Mm. MM!?!?!??!?! And of course, there are people who love the film and want to talk about it because they love it. And there are the academics, who see lots of essay opportunities and theories to be applied. As an academic myself (I have a very useful MA thankyouverymuch) I have to say I think the best academic writing can illuminate aspects of the object being examined and place in a context of understanding ourselves as human. That's not to say all academic writing is good academic writing. However, even the most seemingly arbitrary decisions we make reflect on our species, right? The seemingly innocuous decision to make Ripley a female rather than a male character still reflects something. Perhaps that we assume characters will be male until the creators make a decision to differ that.

If you're at all interested in the Alien Universe I highly, highly, highly recommend you check out the blog Strange Shapes and for the purposes of this blog post check the post on Strange Shapes entitled Dispelling the Alien Critique which comprehensively cites all the famous quotes by the creators of Alien saying there is no underlying meaning to any of this. It's simply entertainment and should be taken as such.

My personal take is that it can be either or. Great art, to truly be considered "great art", should work on a pure visceral level of enjoyment and be ripe for dissection. It's desperately intriguing to me that a woman survives again and again in the world of the films. The imagery in these films is ripe with birth imagery, castration and oppression. To ignore implication of these images would be doing ourselves, and the films, a disservice.

Ellen Ripley often falls into the Final Girl category, a term coined by academic Carol Clover in her book Men, Women and Chainsaws, and states that in order to survive Final Girls must become masculinized. Ripley, though possessing many Final Girl traits never accepts female traits and therefore is never in the position to accept masculine traits. In the version that we all know and (I hope) love there are scenes edited out that imply romantic (at the very least) sexual relationships between Dallas and Ripley and Ash and Lambert. (I know, right) While I am aware of these scenes they are not in the film as we know it so we'll pretend they don't exist. In the film Ripley is not sexualized (we only learn in Aliens that she has a daughter on Earth). When she strips at the end of the film to a tank top and underwear it is more about the vulnerability of Ripley rather than a moment of titillation for the audience. Ripley is at her most vulnerable when she is met by the most terrifying monster to have under one's proverbial bed.

The most shocking and violent scene to me as an adult watching this film is when Ash becomes the outright aggressor and tries to choke Ripley by shoving a porn magazine down her throat. A P0RN MAGAZINE PEOPLE!!!!  In academic terms it's the female voice trying to be supressed and controlled by a male voice.
In Stephen Mulhall's essay In Space No One Can Hear You Scream: Acknowledging the Human Voice in the Alien Universe he remarksof that scene that it is “the film’s most explicit equation of male violence with the desire to annihilate the female voice.”

In Katy Gilpatric's essay Violent Female Action Characters in Contemporary American Cinema Gilpatric asserts that even the most celebrated female action heroes succumb to a feminine need/desire for men/family/empathy etc (Which Weaver spoofs wonderfully in Galaxy Quest). Ripley does not. She is compassionate but does not suddenly spring to life when a man enters the room, or rush to find her daughter (a scene deleted from the second film), she is the motor for these movies. She is the catalyst for survival and redemption. She is woman, watch her use a flame thrower.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Final Girl Film Club: Hell Night (1981)

I've already talked about my deep, unfailing love of Stacie Ponder's blog Final Girl and with the return of The Final Girl Film Club which means I can stop running around fretting endlessly about what horror movies I am and am not watching which brings us to....

Hell Night is a happy throw back to slashers of old. One where the characters are not shouting out post-modern, ironic one liners. No! They were wooden characters based on what some old film producers thought kids were like. There is the promise of The 3 Bs: booze, boobs and bludgeonings! It's all that a classic slasher should be.

Four college frat and sorority pledges must spend the night in the Garth Manor where family patriarch Raymond Garth murdered his family that was comprised of deaf, mute and retarded children. Legend has it that one child survived the ordeal and is still living in Garth Manor.  Two guesses as to who makes an appearance within the first 40 minutes. I say 40 minutes because Hell Night is one hell of a slow burn. It's oddly pre-post-modern. The sex yields no boobs or butt, the kills produce minimal blood and there is more tension than shock.

Costume Party = Atmosphere
The four pledges naturally assume the legend is meaningless and look forward to a night of indulgence and illegal substances. Then the deaths happen. You've got the sex fuelled twosome, the Final Girl and the Sensitive Guy and the Frat members trying to scare the bejesus out of them. As the bodies start piling up it's a race to see who will make it to day break and WHAT WILL BE LEFT OF THEM!! ...

I have to say, I really really liked Linda Blair in this. As Marti she's charming, sweet and has some ridic heaving bossums and adorable puppy fat. But more importantly, she embraces the Final Girl tropes of being level-headed and sound while mayhem goes on around her. I was shocked to learn that Blair was nominated for a Razzie award for Worst Actress that year. The other actors are 80s bad, which equals this decade's ironic hilarity.  The pacing does suffer from repetitive kill syndrome. Pretty Young Thing hears noise, PYT goes to investigate noise, winds up deader than a door nail.

"Gorked Out"
Hell Night is pretty by the books, once the "gorked-out" (a term I'm pretty sure is only used in this film) missing son turns up the murders are minimal and more tension inducing than your normal slasher. It's not exactly The Haunting but it's not Friday the 13th either. If you've noticed it's pretty hard to talk about this film without bringing up all the horror slasher cliches ever. And while Hell Night does contain pretty much all of them it's well worth a look and a pleasant gem of the horror canon to discover.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Carrie White and the Monstrous Feminine

Carrie is one of the most polarizing films I can think of, especially in terms of gender victimization. For my February WiHM series I wanted to tackle Carrie first not only because it is such a rich subject matter but because it is one of my favourite films. For me it is heartbreaking, terrifying, beautiful, funny, ironic and hugely enjoyable.

I think we live in an age where characters like Carrie have become so iconic they represent something beyond their original intentions. Most young people, unless they had actually seen the film, would recognize her as the crazy girl who gets blood on herself. However, Carrie functions as a realistic modern day fairy tale which takes a terrific dark turn. Thinking of the film in fairy tale terms, Carrie is the princess locked away by an evil witch (her mother) and eventually frees herself with the help of a handsome prince (Tommy Ross). Carrie breaks the pattern by having multiple villains in the evil Chris and her boyfriend/ minion Billy. That's the way I read the film. It can also easily be read as a religious morality tale, a product of subversive counter-culture and a predecessor to torture porn.

In her review of the film for New Yorker, critic Pauline Kael noted that prior to De Palma's film, "no one else has ever caught the thrill that teenagers get from a dirty joke and sustained it for a whole picture," deeming Carrie a "terrifyingly lyrical thriller." Roger Ebert wrote "Brian De Palma's Carrie is an absolutely spellbinding horror movie, with a shock at the end that's the best thing along those lines since the shark leaped aboard in Jaws. It's also (and this is what makes it so good) an observant human portrait. This girl Carrie isn't another stereotyped product of the horror production line; she's a shy, pretty, and complicated high school senior who's a lot like kids we once knew" Carrie was well received by critics and audiences and earned stars Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie Best Actress and Supporting Actress Oscar nominations.  It was both a thriller and a coming of age drama, moving and horrific. Carrie is an example of what horror movies can be at their best.

Made in 1976 the US was going through massive social changes and working out how to deal with them. This is the era that brought about the New Hollywood where filmmakers took charge and set about doing work that was not simply fantastical but dealt with real issues in ways audiences outside of Europe had not seen. (check out Peter Biskind's amazing Easy Riders Raging Bulls if you're interested in this topic) Brian DePalma was a young filmmaker still looking to make his mark. Due to long periods of uncertain financing he sat and story boarded nearly the entire film. It is interesting to note that horror films generally follow the pattern of subduing an uncontrollable force. In Carrie, her telekinetic powers do not seem to be of any threat to anyone unless provoked. Her powers are used sparingly and as Tommy and Carrie begin to enjoy each others company and the dance itself the audience (or certainly me) gets caught up in the romantic aspect and feels just as wronged as Carrie does when Chris pulls the string releasing the barrage of pig's blood.

In Serafina Kent Bathrick's article Carrie: Ragtime: The Horror of Growing Up Female she claims DePalma
"has developed his own brand of sexism”. She writes, “there is an urgency in his desire to prove the impossibility of community amongst women”, and that ultimately, “like all the women in the film…[Carrie] is punished for being a woman”. Another academic Barbara Creed developed the notion of the Monstrous Feminine in her aptly titles essay Horror and the Monstrous Feminine. Creed writes that Carrie is “a particularly interesting representation of woman as witch and menstrual monster” If we look at Carrie's powers as a force for evil then yes, perhaps. But Carrie is a young woman wronged. All the women are in Carrie. They are the product of repression. Heck, even Chris has to give John Travolta a blow job to get him to do anything without getting slapped. They are limited by their lack of agency, by their perceived inability to affect anything other than each other.

I think Bathrick and Creed overlook Sue Snell (Amy Irving) in these contexts. Sue has agency and feels guilt for not knowing better and rightfully tries to make it up to Carrie by asking her boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom. Sue even attempts to thwart Chris's sabatoge of Carrie only to be pulled away Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) before she can stop Chris. There is an inherent self-loathing that the female characters seem to feel and only Miss Collins and Sue are able to act on it. They feel uncomfortable with the way Carrie makes them feel and they've been given few other options on how to deal with these feelings. Mocking, hate and disgust and easy feelings to pile on to someone who can't stand up for themselves.

In re-reading these articles it feels as though the scholars and critics are attempting to deal with Carrie in horror movie conventions. There are either heroes or villains. Any power is something indicating evil that cannot be controlled. Before reading these articles I never thought Carrie was a sexist film. It felt honest and brutally unflinching at the horror people inflict on other people. I think DePalma is trying to show his audiences that there is good and evil in all of us. DePalma's seemingly ultimate message (in my reading of the film) is that everyone has the power to be a monstrous and beyond that, we all have our own brand of horror within ourselves. That and don't piss off the chick who can move things with her mind.