Friday, October 26, 2012

The Final Girl is Dead, Long Live the Final Girl

This post has been rattling around my brain for a while. It comes from the fact that I love final girls. I love 'em, Jerry! I grew up watching slashers which I'm sure explains a lot for some people.  There were simply no other female protagonists that measure up to them. And I'm talking Final Girls from the 1970s all the way up to Scream's 1996 premiere. They were awesome to me. Shy, quiet and studious but they always rose to the challenge and fought back. That was huge for me. After Scream, the slasher genre changed. It was no longer a film studio's dirty little secret. A slasher could be a legitimate genre hit and appealed to both critics and fans. Well... actually... that was only Scream. With all the I Know What the Faculty Did Last Halloween H20s streaming out of Hollywood there was a backlash, both by fans and filmmakers.

Ginny - Friday the 13th Part 2
 After Scream hit, (despite the omni-presence of Sydney Prescott) there was a rise in the Final Boy (see Elijah Wood in The Faculty, Devon Sawa in Final Destination, Josh Harnett - kind of - in Halloween H20, Fran Kranz in Cabin in the Woods) not a HUGE rise, but there were certainly a lot more guys surviving horror movies than ever before. When Scream hit and the majority of these neo-slashers were released when boy bands were still big and girls would see movies with the right boys in them. Well, sure. Why not. The point being that slashers became a vested interest for major studios. The marketing was slicker and more mainstream, meaning that a lot of these films were PG-13 and therefore a hell of a lot less gore-y. These were sanitized horror films. So all the kids that discovered horror through these films got quite a shock when they went back to the slasher classics.

Too pretty to die.
 But these films led a to a backlash against these sanitized versions of what came before.A backlash that took on a lot of qualities from Grindhouse films and brought back the slasher in a nastier way. (much like a sequel in the Alien franchise) I think we see this clearest in Rob Zombie's Halloween re-imagining. From the get-go, Halloween 2007 is much more interested in Michael Myers than it is in Laurie Strode. The first quarter of the film is dedicatred to Myers' home life and his first murderous rampage which is presented in much more graphic detail than John Carpenter's 1978 original. From the outset the audience is meant to, if not sympathize, at least understand Myers' actions. While he's cray-cray, there are tipping point that set him off. The overly sympathetic Deborah Myers (Sherri Moon Zombie) attempts to save her son, only to realize there is nothing human left and commits suicide.

Skipping merrily ahead, Laurie Strode and her friends traipse around for a bit only to be picked off one by one until Laurie fights Michael Myers, subdues him and... roll credits. She of course returns in Halloween 2 as does Myers (and Sherri Moon + horse), they go at it again and Laurie learns that Michael is her brother and it triggers some kind of killer desire within her. It is insinuated in the film that she will take over the killing. The Final Girl is the killer, the killer is more interesting than those who would fight to stop the madness, the madness is embraced. Everyone is corrupt in Zombie's films (including Dr. Loomis) and Michael (eventually Laurie) is set up to be a kind of vigilante, ridding the earth of these despicable people.

In the 1970s and 80s when slasher films peaked, the main emphasis was on otherness. It was the clean, normal kids versus the deranged Other. At the start of the new millennium, horror took a turn to gore, toture-porn with some misogynistic undertones (see Saw, Hostel, Turistas).  We also have films from Europe making a big impact with horror fans in North America. These films had a nasty streak in them which helped prompt American filmmakers and film studios to go ahead with their unrelenting violence. One of the first big horror films of this creed was Alexander Aja's High Tension (2003) which also presents an interesting version of the Final Girl.

In High Tension Marie is both our Final Girl and our killer. Though the killer is depicted as a disgusting man-slob it is Marie (DESPITE the massive, infuriating plot holes). I think in this case, the horror is interpersonal. It is the horror of not truly knowing a person and the capabilities of any one person at any moment. As an audience our gateway into these kinds of movies is through the Final Girl. Now there is a movement within these films that makes the Final Girl untrustworthy and potentially the monster, implicating us the audience into the sadistic killing.

In the first rash of popularity of slashers, the films were a product of gender and political bias. (yes, they were also a scary good time) This evolution (or de-evolution depending on who you talk to) is an implication that there is something wrong within our world. There are no solutions, no Others to defeat. Only darkness.

Friday, October 19, 2012

100,000 Leagues Under the Scares.

My lil' baby Scare Tactic has hit another milestone, 100,000 hits. I know a lot of them are looking for pictures of The Ring or The Blair Witch Project or mongoloid Jason or "Fat Jennifer Aniston" but it is still a benchmark nonetheless. I was wondering aloud on social media what I should write this post about and a wise friend suggested featuring a movie that was made for under $100,000. So I'm going to use this idea (thanks Brendan!) and talk about a whole genre of films that are made for under $100,000 - the found footage genre.

Before we get into the meat and potatoes I have to thank some people. Thank you to my parents who have always encourage my love of horror movies. Thank you to my boyfriend and friends who watch them with me and big, huge massive thank you to everyone who reads and comments on this site. Thank you for giving me a soap box on which to stand. 

Found footage films have existed since 1980 with Cannibal Holocaust but didn't gain enough traction to become their own genre until 1999 when the Blair Witch Project made more money than anyone could imagine and because of it's next to nothing budget, yielded huge profits. And I mean HUGE! Authors have been trying to imbue their works with a sense of realism since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula where both written in diary and letter formats. But presenting a horror film as real is where the money is (sorry estates of Stoker and Shelley), and let's not forget how they are presented. The Blair Witch Project was real, real, real! There was even a TV special to go along with the film called the Curse of the Blair Witch which went more in-depth exploration of the Blair Witch mythos.

Everyone kept telling you it's real. Well, all the marketing and people who believed the marketing did anyway...  A lot of people got wise to the conceit but it's a fun ride to take anyway. (though there was a girl in my MA class who still believed it was real) But lo, it was not real.

The Blair Witch Project is an interesting phenomena because of the pre-release run up of these films. So much emphasis was place on the film being real that people seems to forget that there is a darn fine scary movie at it's core. Many people were angry at the fact they had been duped into believing it was real. But films today still haven't learned the lesson that if you make a solid scary movie - people will come.

The most recent case of this was the turgid mess that was The Devil Inside. What starts with a great premise is quickly turned into a big middle finger to the audience when the film ends abruptly and the audience is given a website to go to if they'd like to learn more. Unless that website tells me how to get my money back then I do not care for such a website, I say good day, sir! It was a film that was seemingly designed to perpetuate the viral marketing strategies that some firm had put in place. Viral marketing had superseded the the film it was meant to promote. Granted that didn't stop The Devil Inside from making a fair amount of coin and debuting at #1 but it also led to awful word of mouth and quickly leaving theatres.

Another approach to the low budget genre is that of getting fan to demand it, which has been used very effectively by the Paranormal Activity series. They played the tactic that Paranormal Activity was too scary and too unlike anything anyone had ever seen to warrant a big studio getting behind it so fans had to demand it. And if you demanded it enough it would play in your city at a super edgy cinema like the .... AMC 24 .... yeah... like that one. More recently V/H/S is going the route of audience demand, even though everyone I know who's seen it has uttered a resounding "meh" at the whole endeavor.

I know a lot of people don't like these films. They simply don't work for them and that's fine. I love them. They usually freak me out and I love the creation of a mythology that they have to do. Unfortunately for those that don't like them, we'll be seeing a lot more of them. Because they cost so little to make they almost always turn a profit. As our culture becomes more voyeuristic and self-promotional, these films will always resonate.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Brrrrrraaaiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnssssss - The Black Museum Raises My Horror IQ

I should get some stuff out of the way first. I've already written about the Black Museum here and appeared with the lecturer I'll be talking about here. I say all this to let you know that I came into last night's event "Unearthed: A Cultural History of Zombie" presented by The Black Museum's co-curator Andrea Subissati with... well... a little bit of a bias.

For those of you that don't know, The Black Museum is a brand spankin' new lecture series happening in Toronto at the Projection Booth East. It's a lecture series about horror films and I mean lectures in the board sense of the word. The "talk" or lecture is purely dependent on the speaker, no two lectures will ever be done the same way which is what makes The Black Museum so facinating. Co-curators Subissati and Paul Corupe have put together a diverse and intriguing line up. This "semester" started with Splice and Cube director Vincenzo Natali talking about The Architecture of Fear and last night was Subissati's turn at the microphone with her lecture "Unearthed".

If you've never had the pleasure of meeting Andrea "Lady Hellbat" Subissati, I firmly believe that you're missing out. She's smart as a whip, funny, curious and engaging which makes her a great teacher.Subissati's lecture, on the surface, is not that far removed from your standard film studies analysis. The beauty of last night's lecture was that it was not a film studies lecture. Subissati's research is based in sociology and the combination of that within film studies provides a fantastically interesting, mind-blowing revelations. Subissati's conclusions are simple yet truly interesting about the way we perceive monsters and ourselves. Her film sources primarily stem from George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead which, while not my favourites, are probably the clearest examples of societal satire. Romero's initial trilogy is a perfect crystallization of zombie culture before it became part our mass consumption. Post-28 Days Later zombie films are (in my opinion) the reanimated corpses of Romero's work. That's not to say they're bad, just that Romero's did everything they do first and with out the overly emphasized meta-lense.

Subissati also used the zombie's root in Haitian mythology and proved that zombies do in fact exist, just not in North America. The lecture was an interesting and engaging look at the mythology from one culture that became part of our North American modern cultural mythology. While pretty much everyone in attendance last night needed no convincing as to why horror movies are so damn important to our culture, Subissati explained it anyway which helped ground my understanding of how this zombie boom has lasted for so long and why people who are not necessarily horror fans have been able to gravitate towards the undead.

It was a fantastic (and licensed) evening and if you're in the Toronto area I highly, highly recommend checking out the remaining lectures. The Black Museum is excellent brain food.

Upcoming Lectures:
Terror Frame by Frame October 25th
White Zombie and the Birth of Zombie Cinema November 8th 
Echos from the Sleep Room November 22nd

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Horror Mysteries - Your Mother Was a Hamster! (The Omen 1976)

Okay, maybe not a hamster, but a jackal. (seriously, no one can do a snotty Frenchman better than John Cleese, but I digress...) In Richard Donner's 1976 (I'm trying to will the 2006 one out of existence) classic "Satanic Panic" flick The Omen dealt with many, many things. While it was eclipsed for many by The Exorcist (1972) as a religious horror film, The Omen is an ambitious film in terms of scope and story. In many ways, as my boyfriend pointed out, it is more of an adventure film which encompasses a lot of set up within the Thorn family and then has several characters travel extensively to solve the mystery of whether or not the Thorn's son, Damien, is in fact the Antichrist.

Even though people are dying all around him, dipolmat Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) can't quite believe that his son Damien is the Antichrist. When his wife Kathy (Lee Remick) gave birth, Thorn was told his son was stillborn but another child had been born that night and the mother had died. The sketchy Italian priest assures him that it's absolutely fine and they should take the orphaned baby. Things get increasingly weird as Kathy begins to reject Damien and all the things a priest warns Thorn about come true. In a last ditch attempt to know once and for all Thorn goes back to Italy to look for the body of Damien's true mother. When he finally finds her grave and opens the casket, he find the skeleton of a jackal. Which is super creepy, weird and jarring but how the hell is a jackal involved? The Omen is a fantastic example of a film not overly explaining the odd things that happen in the movie. You have to accept that the Antichrist exists in this film otherwise you just won't have any fun. The jackal moment is one of the moments in the film that is creepy, surreal and never quiet explained. Surely, thought I, there must be answers on yon interwebz! But, oddly enough, there aren't.

Well The Omen uses some fake-y religion to keep things moving,but surely there must be some clear and concise mythology that Donner and screenwriter David Seltzer pull from to make all the creepy stuff up, right? RIGHT?! I was able to find some clarification about the scenes leading up to the jackal un-earthing which helps since the trip to Italy happens rather quickly and I was sleepy and there seemed to be a lot of ADR at that point at that point...
Robert and Jennings went to Italy to find the priest who gave him Damien. They learned that the  hospital  and its birth records where Damien were destroyed in a mysterious fire five years before. They found the priest in a monastery hospital. He was in serious condition – severely burned and could only move his left hand. He pointed to where they could find Damien’s mother’s grave. They discovered the cemetery was in the ruins of a shrine dedicated to the devil-god Techulca and graves of Damien's mother and the Thorns' baby. There were jackal’s remains in the mother’s grave and the baby’s skull was crushed. As they left the cemetery, they were attacked by a pack of dogs led by a Rottweiler. (Source)

There seems to be no affirmed source or mythology for a child being born of a jackal.(if there is and I've totally missed it, PLEASE let me know) This may have been all Seltzer's doing and fair enough, it is creepy and very disconcerting. What is for certain is that the Devil is Damien's true father and that the name on the jackal's coffin is Maria Scianna, a Greek name meaning "Mary of Shadow". One theory states that his mother was a jackal because no woman would bore the Antichrist. Another theory has it that the Devil manifested on Earth, had sex with a lady and the lady (after birth I assume) died and turned into a jackal. (Source) On that same page the Egyptian god Anubis is also mentioned but the 3 minutes I spent reading the Wikipedia page didn't turn up anything conclusive. In a round up of what different animals represent through a collective mythology a jackal is a "guide of souls, associated with cemeteries." (Source)

This Horror Mystery doesn't have an answer. I'm truly dumbfounded. I think the Omen broke my brain. I need to lie down now.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Horror Mystery - Buyer's Remorse (A Nightmare on Elm Street)

I love doing this Horror Mystery series because it allows, nay demands that I be picky. I am determined to seek out answers to all the dangling storylines and mysterious plot holes that horror movies produce. Recently I watch the first four Nightmare on Elm Street films. I enjoy this series because it is so bat shit crazy and takes such random unnecessary turns that who knows what will happen. As stated and shown in the fantastic documentary "Never Sleep Again", the Nightmare franchise was made on a hope and a prayer and continued to churn out product while the market demanded it. While parts of the production were concerned with making a great film, others were concerned with selling tickets and making a profit. The clash of these two elements led to some truly (and wonderfully) odd films.

But one thing that kept occurring to me in all four films was what was the importance of Nancy's house. In the first film Nancy Thompson is our final girl and she lives in this house:

In the second film, Freddy terrorizes the family that moves into the Thompson house (or 1428 Elm for all those playing at home) and in the 3rd and 4th film the house has made it into local lore and frequently shows up in Freddy dream settings. So what is the big flipping deal with this house?! From my understanding of the series, there really shouldn't be. It's just the house that the heroine of the first film lived in. It's never said that it's the location where Freddy died or where he lived . Luckily for us, we have the internet. And there are people out there who care as much about this stuff as I do.  And those people make maps and timelines

Throughout the series it is implied that Freddy and Nancy lived in the same house but never stated. Which makes no goddamn sense without an explanation. Nancy's parents were part of the mob that killed Freddy so why, oh why would they move into his house?  But according to some, this is actually what happened. After they burned Freddy alive, the mob made a pact to ensure that Freddy would be forgotten which included the Thompson's moving into his house and acting like Freddy never existed. Apparently it was always Wes Craven's intent to have Nancy and Freddy connected through the house and this was even more fleshed in the Nightmare on Elm Street novelizations. (don't pretend like you haven't read them) And in Freddy's Dead - The Final Nightmare 1428 Elm Street is referred to as Freddy's house. 

An alternative theory is that since Springwood is a small town, the houses (when they were initially built) were designed by the same architect, hence the similar feel. And Nancy's mom held on to his glove for... sentimental reasons? 

I fully buy the first theory. It makes sense (kind of), it's just a shame they were never able to incorporate it into the films. It would have made a hell of a lot more sense as to why Nancy was so important to Freddy which I never quite got and it actually would have helped the whole theory behind New Nightmare (1994). I do have a strong affinity for this series and since the films were made back to back there are a hell of a lot of discrepancies and for a mythology as right as the one they tried to maintain in the NoES series, I think we can forgive them their trespasses.