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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 26: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

"Is traumatic the same as scary?" asked my boyfriend when I mentioned Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). Out of the hundreds, maybe thousands of horror movies I've seen, Henry is the most haunting, the most difficult to shake.

Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer

Loosely based on stories of real-life serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole, Henry offers a chilling look into the bleak, dark everyday lives of murderers. There aren't any fancy special effects, no exciting soundtracks. Instead, we're left with only stark, static shots from mounted cameras. This makes the film feel real, as though we're watching the security footage from actual crimes. Whenever I watch the film, I always crane my neck and attempt to look around the corner to get a better glance of what's happening. As an audience, we're denied that -- we can only see the restrained brutality set before us, simultaneously forcing us to confront the barbaric murders and leaving us wanting to look away, to turn the corner and find some reason behind it. The 16mm film stock also has a rich grain, showcasing the filth, the grime of the men's crimes and their lives.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the film is how much the actors embody their roles. Their lack of joy, lack of motivation makes the incredibly brutal crimes inexplicable, purely senseless. Director John McNaughton manages to capture the heinousness of the men's crimes without delving into the true extent of their crimes -- Lucas claimed to have killed between 300 and 600 in his lifetime, with Toole claiming a part in over 100 of those crimes. Toole was also the prime suspect in the murder of 6 year old Adam Walsh, the murder that inspired the launch of America's Most Wanted. These aren't slick, smart men who kill -- they're unlikeable and completely unsympathetic. In this regard, actors Michael Rooker (Henry) and Tom Towles (Otis) are perfect in their roles; if this film were easy to watch, they wouldn't have done their jobs as actors.

Truly, this is a brutal, difficult film -- one that leaves me feeling dirty after watching it. But I think the cold, dark realism is a critical contrast to create in the sea of fun and exciting horror movies. This still may be a (mostly) fictional story, but it doesn't have to be cliché or enjoyable to be effective. It's a movie that I'll never be able to shake, one that I always hate watching but can't help to watch again -- it just feels too important to not return to it every year or two.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 25: Dead Snow

Zombies, zombies, zombies. They seem to be a dime a dozen these days, and with some of the best zombie action happening on TV instead of the big screen, I often find it difficult to sit through yet another sluggish zombie picture. Rest assured that 2009's Dead Snow (Tommy Wirkola) is the answer to all bad things in the modern zombie canon. The premise combines all great cliches in horror: college students, a cabin in the woods, and of course, zombies. Did I mention that they're Nazi zombies?

Nazi zombies in Dead Snow

Instead of drowning in the I-can-kill-a-stranger-but-I-can't-kill-my-wife tropes of traditional zombie pictures, Wirkola has elevated his baddies to the ultimate in evil. Therefore, there's absolutely no moral dilemma in slaughtering the zombies, so the medical students (and the audience) can unabashedly delight in the violence.

The film also rewards the viewer with humorously grotesque scenes. The Norwegian cabin does not contain a bathroom, so the students must trudge through the snow to the outhouse. It's only fitting that the young Chris is pulled down into the waste by a zombie. Later, one of the students actually uses zombie entrails as a rope while dangling off of a cliff. These moments of disgusting humor lighten the tension of the violence.

But what really stands out is the solid filmmaking behind Dead Snow. Each shot is beautifully composed, utilizing the stark Norwegian winter as a stunning contrast to the black-red blood of both the human and the undead. The 35mm captures the colors with stunning contrast -- a richness so difficult to capture in digital formats. It's clear that Wirkola didn't just want to make another campy zombie movie; he adds a cinematic backbone to the classic story, a combination that makes Dead Snow stand out in a sea of repetition.

Halloween Horror, Day 24: The House of the Devil

Throwbacks: they can celebrate the best of the past or highlight the worst mistakes. The House of the Devil may have been released in 2009, but it stands as a loving homage to the horror of the 80's, from the babysitter plot line to the delicious wardrobe. Director Ti West elevates the

The House of the Devil

But why even revisit the babysitter genre? Haven't these caretakers experienced enough torture? Obviously not! Director Ti West avoids the traditional woman-victimized-by-crazed-but-stronger-man approach; instead, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) finds herself directly taking on a satanic cult -- one that's murdered both men and women.

***SPOILER HEAVINESS AHEAD***

But Samantha doesn't take anything lying down. Even when strapped down with blood being poured in her face, she manages to free herself. At this point, most babysitters would run in the wrong direction, cry, and get captured -- but not Samantha. She doesn't even leave the house until she's violently attacked or killed all 4 members of the cult. When she discovers that her role in the satanic ritual hasn't ended, she chooses to shoot herself rather than face a Rosemary's Baby scenario.

What fun would it be if ending things were that easy? Of course, the film closes on Samantha in the hospital. Her head is heavily bandaged as a result of the suicide attempt, and the nurse caring for her alludes to Samantha's pregnancy. You can't just stop a satan baby, okay? Then, the credits roll over the image of Samantha in her hospital bed, allowing us to really digest the moment: she fought harder than most women in film, she did everything right, and she tried to end it -- but nothing will stop this pregnancy. It's downright chilling, and I applaud Ti West for making his throwback much more appealing to modern women.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 23: Night of the Living Dead

It just wouldn't be October without watching some George A. Romero. It goes without saying that Night of the Living Dead (1968) not only defined the zombie film but revolutionized the horror genre. Let's skip the conversational filler and get straight to the top 4 reasons why this film is so special.

Night of the Living Dead

1. Children are damn creepy. Years before The Exorcist and The Omen showed us that youngsters aren't the innocent creatures we've come to believe, Night of the Living Dead proved that maternal instinct can be deadly. Not only is it daring to have a child be violent on camera, but it's a huge risk to have a child die in the film. Romero doesn't shy away from making these tough choices, and his movie is all the stronger for it.

2. Racism abounds. Few films dare to address the rampant racism in American society, let alone directly criticize it. Here, the main hero -- and seemingly the only truly rational character -- just so happens to be African American. Considering the highly charged racial tension of America in the 60's, Duane Jones's turn as Ben was both controversial and revolutionary. The film's ending, too, pushes the criticism further. As a healthy Ben is gunned down by police officers, we can't help but wonder if the deputies would've been so quick to draw their weapons on a white man.

3. No confidence in organized government. Between a seemingly unending war, numerous public assassinations, and civil unrest, it's safe to say that the US government wasn't trusted by its people. If there were a massive domestic outbreak, such as a zombie outbreak, would America be equipped to contain it? Today, the question is just as relevant -- given the CDC suspension during the US government shutdown, the covert wars abroad, the inability for the government to agree on basic human access to health care, would the government be capable of protecting its people and communicating an emergency plan?

4. Balance of horror. With the oversaturation of the zombie genre, it's easy to say now that we've become somewhat immune to the terrors of seeing undead humans eat the living. What's interesting about Night of the Living Dead is that the fear doesn't just come from the creepy creatures. Even in the face of immediate death, the human still struggle for power within their small group. The tension within the group -- particularly between cool-headed Ben and anxious Harry (Karl Hardman) -- are just as dangerous to their immediate harm as the zombies are.

Consider this a salute to Romero, a giant thanks for showing the world that horror movies can be smarter, better, and yes, even political. Here's to many more where that came from.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 22: April Fool's Day

One of my favorite things about 80's horror films is their sense of humor. After the creature-features of the 50's, the thrillers of the 60's, and the axe murders of the 70's, the films of the 80's developed a newfound self-awareness that allowed them to be humorous while maintaining their scares. One of the best examples of this is April Fool's Day (1986).

April Fool's Day

From the very beginning, April Fool's Day takes its namesake to heart, playing pranks that neither that the characters nor the audience know are real. The setup of the film is very similar to other 80's horror flicks: a group of kids (in this case, entitled college students) are stranded in a remote location (an island) with a killer. In this case, the students are all total strangers who've come to celebrate mutual friend Muffy St. John's birthday. What begins as a series of playful April Fool's Day jokes starts to turn deadly as bodies begin to pile up.

But what makes April Fool's Day different is the element of the unknown. As every piece of violence occurs, we're left wondering whether what we saw actually happened or if it was really a prank. Is Muffy a mischievous hostess celebrating the holiday to the fullest, or is there a darker truth lurking on the island? Is this a traditional slasher, or is there something more at play?

**MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD**

The most controversial aspect of the film is that the deaths aren't real after all; Muffy is doing a trial run for a murder mystery weekend she'd like to host on the island. This eventuality is alluded to near the very beginning, as Nan notes that she knows Muffy from acting class. In a way, this could be seen as a cop out, the most obvious conclusion based upon the title. However, I feel that this is a conscious choice, a fun alternative to the senseless murders so popular during this time. After all, it doesn't make the deaths any less suspenseful or chilling if we find out much later that they aren't ultimately dead. While it's not the movie for everyone, I appreciate the point of difference it creates in a sea of very similar films.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 21: Candyman

Let's have a moment of honesty here: horror movies are really shitty about diversity. They don't often represent non-white folks, and when they do, chances are the token minorities are dying pretty quickly. The optimist in me would like to think that the lack of representation is related to the fact that the overwhelming majority of serial killers tends to be middle-aged white guys, but really, it's not okay. With this in mind, I decided to seek out something a little more diversity.

Candyman

Candyman (1992, directed by Bernard Rose) goes far beyond token inclusion of African American characters, elevating race to a critical aspect of the plot. Virginia Madsen stars as Helen, an affluent graduate student researching urban legends in Chicago. Her focus is the Candyman (played by Tony Todd) narrative: an free African American during the Civil War era who is murdered for having a consensual relationship with a white woman. What's interesting here is how the Candyman story bridges the gap between Chicago neighborhoods. Candyman's immortal rage is projected onto anyone who dares speak his name 5 times in front of a mirror -- regardless of age, race, gender, or economic background. His anger is blind, and he's willing to kill anyone who dare speaks his name.

We also see a lot of characters moving between racial-coded spaces. Helen asserts herself into a poor, crime-ridden ghetto, mostly occupied by African American tenants -- but not without consequence. The Candyman narrative acts as a reason to keep boundaries up, and the Cabrini Green project tenants are obviously nervous about Helen's motivations. Here, the film does get into some questionable racial territory. Having angry African American tenants of the ghetto physically attack a white woman harkens back to some of the most racist American fears -- the very same motivations that resulted in the murder of Candyman. This illustrates how we haven't created a post-racial society, despite any laws to the contrary.

On a positive note, though, African American characters also move beyond the ghetto. In most films, you'd be hard pressed to see minorities occupy as many positions of power as they do in Candyman; here, we see characters like Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons), Helen's best friend and fellow researcher. The main police officer, the passionate mother, and the innocent child are all African American. While they don't all survive to the end of the film (let's remember that this is a horror film), their odds are a lot better than most films of the genre. It's not perfect, but it's a giant improvement.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Clive Barker. As with all films based on Barker stories, Candyman frequently melds together agony and ecstasy. As Candyman tries to lure Helen to her death, he beckons her with descriptions of how delicious death can be: "The pain, I can assure you, will be exquisite [...] Come with me and be immortal." Indeed, the only time Helen seems at bliss is near the end of the film, as she exacts her revenge upon her husband. In this way, the film cannot be simply written off as a fear of the "Black Bogeyman" -- it's a fear that we're all capable of being the bogeyman, especially when victimized.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Halloween Horror, Days 18-20: Polanski's Apartment Trilogy

While Roman Polanski isn't often thought of as a master of horror (except maybe in real life), his 1968 classic Rosemary's Baby is widely considered one of the best shockers of all time. However, the film is rarely taken in its greatest context, as part Polanski's "apartment trilogy" -- a series of three unrelated films thematically connected by showcasing the terrors of modern urban living.

Repulsion

The first film in the series is Polanski's English-language debut, Repulsion (1965). Catherine Deneuve stars as Carole, a disturbed young woman who becomes increasingly paranoid and hysterical the longer she's left alone in her London apartment. She finds her relationship with men moving from strained to dangerous and violent, quickly including rape and murder. The terror physically manifests itself as the apartment's filth and decay -- and mounting dead bodies. Tight shots and limited sets make the audience share the anxiety and paranoia of Carole. If anything, the film's only flaw is that it's too effective, too anxiety-producing to merit repeat viewings.

Rosemary's Baby

Although second in the series, Rosemary's Baby is by far the most well known. It's no surprise with the famous names attached: William Castle produced it, and the all-star cast includes Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes. Similar to Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby tells the story of a young woman whose relationship with her neighbors -- and with reality -- becomes tenser and tenser. Is she just paranoid as her maternal instinct is kicking in, or is there something more devious happening in her New York City apartment building? I assume that many find Rosemary's Baby to be a more satisfying viewing experience than its predecessor because of its tangibility; whereas Repulsion left you guessing about the goings-on around Carole, Rosemary's Baby provides definitive answers to the viewers' questions. This doesn't make the film any less terrifying; if anything, sometimes it's knowing what people are capable of that's most horrifying of all.

The Tenant

The apartment trilogy ends with a more masculine turn in The Tenant (1976). Polanski himself stars as Trelkovsky, a painfully shy diplomat who moves into an unusual Paris apartment. His natural curiosity leads him to investigate what happened to his room's previous tenant -- an investigation that reveals a suspicious suicide under questionable circumstances. Did the previous tenant really kill herself, did someone else throw her out of the window, or was she somehow compelled to throw herself out the window as her only means of egress? In a way, this female tenant could be seen as an extension of Carole from Repulsion -- a young woman devastated and tortured by urbanity. As Trelkovsky digs deeper into the mysteries surrounding his apartment, he becomes increasingly convinced that his neighbors are plotting his demise. Like the first film in the series, The Tenant returns to ambiguity, never quite revealing whether or not the neighbors are guilty like they are in Rosemary's Baby. However, this vagueness works to the film's advantage, as Trelkovsky takes matters into his own hands.

When viewed separately, each of the films in Polanski's apartment trilogy amplify the isolation and paranoia of modernity. Combined together, they show how this stress is global, stretching beyond countries, beyond gender, beyond class. No one can be trusted -- least of all yourself.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 17: Chopping Mall

Humans are terrified of robots, and it's no wonder why. After the Industrial Revolution, machines replaced a large portion of workers' jobs. Therefore, as technology advances further, humans fear that robots will annihilate our species. Right now, there's nothing to fear except Google Glasses, so kick back and enjoy some dystopian futuristic cinema.

Chopping Mall (1986) has to be one of the best worst horror movies of all time. You may recognize some of the notable names attached to the picture. Director Jim Wynorski has also helmed such illustrious works as Piranhaconda and The Bare Wench Project 3: Nymphs of Mystery Mountain. The King of Camp himself, Roger Corman, also produced this classic. If that doesn't have you queuing up this movie already, well, it gets even better.

The plot is one everyone can get behind: a group of horny teens wants to hang out at the mall after hours. What could be so bad about that? Well, they might knock over displays or have premarital sex on the display linens, and that is simply unacceptable. Enter the robots.

Chopping Mall

These robots are designed to act as mall security, but when their commanding computer goes haywire, they lock down the mall and must destroy the intruders. Perhaps I've been shopping in the wrong places, but I've never seen a mall incident that justified deadly force. These robots mean business, but they never lose their manners; after every murder, they declare, "Thank you. Have a nice day!"

Needless to say, trashy camp abounds in the movie. The highlight, though, is one of my favorite movie quotes of all time. The character Linda declares, with all seriousness, "I guess I'm just not used to running around a shopping mall in the middle of the night being chased by killer robots." I encourage you to pause and reflect on that. Killer robots made a teenage girl less horny. Talk about accidental realism! For its low budget charms and ridiculous so-bad-it's-amazing quality, Chopping Mall simply kills the murder robot competition.

Halloween Horror, Day 16: The People Under the Stairs

I've been getting a ton of positive feedback for my Halloween Horror project (thanks, everybody!), but there's been one consistent question: Jess, why are you watching crappy horror movies? Well, kids, it's because I didn't pick out 31 amazing horror movies in advance; instead, I wanted to see where my gut took me. Since the horror genre is wildly inconsistent -- perhaps more inconsistent than most other genres -- I've watched my fair share of garbage this month. But the people have spoken, and they aren't interested in the worst of the genre. Fair enough, I say! From here on out, I'm going to watch better movies -- maybe not A+ movies, but at least B- and above.

The People Under the Stairs

All that being said, The People Under the Stairs (1991) isn't Wes Craven's best work. As a writer and director, Craven tends to stick to more terrifying places; even the dark humor in films like Scream or A Nightmare on Elm Street is paired with legitimately scary elements. Instead, The People Under the Stairs goes full camp with mixed results.

The film explores a modern house of horrors: brother and sister couple Mommy and Daddy keep kidnapped children hostage, holding them to the highest standards of religious goodness and cleanliness. As seen in the above still, children should be seen, not heard. Those who don't meet their impossible standards are physically mutilated and locked in the basement, never to escape. While Mommy and Daddy are able to keep their disturbed lifestyle a secret for years, their cover is blown as disenfranchised neighbors break into the house for good-old-fashioned financial revenge.

The chief source of comedy in the film comes from the portrayal of Mommy and Daddy. You may recognize the actors Wendy Robie and Evertt McGill from their portrayals of Nadine and Big Ed Hurley on Twin Peaks. With the tension of the Hurleys' relationship, it's not too surprising that they would then torture seemingly dozens of innocent people. Like in Twin Peaks, their performances go over the top with some seriously ridiculous characterization: Mommy frequently has the styling of Mommy Dearest, and Daddy wears a rubber suit that would make the cast of American Horror Story blush.

That doesn't mean that The People Under the Stairs is charmless. There's something to be said for a horror movie that has an African-American protagonist, especially when the film criticizes the economic inequalities people face every day. The staunch political views of Mommy and Daddy are also all too reminiscent of today's Tea Party, which feels even scarier given the recent political turmoil in America. Truly, The People Under the Stairs knows exactly the type of movie it wants to be, and that's exactly what it achieves: a campy film with lots of laugh and barely any scares.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 15: Cabin Fever

Whenever a group of attractive young college students rent a cabin, they tend to be brutally murdered: by zombies, by axe-wielding maniacs, or by ghosts. Cabin Fever (2002) keeps it campy and gory while taking the danger to a new level: flesh-eating bacteria.

Cabin Fever

The movie starts like so many others: some best friends load up on beer for a weekend of bonding and debauchery. Two of the characters even make a pact to drink only alcohol all weekend. Instead of hedonism destroying the students, though, it theoretically saves the day: the sickness is acquired from drinking the infected tap water. That means that the only way to stay safe is to be wildly drunk (or drink non-alcholic beverages from outside of the cabin, but clearly, those don't exist in this version of reality).

Eli Roth is most effective as a director when studying the physical effects of the illness. The smallest everyday things like touching someone on the back or shaving legs becomes amplified to skin-shedding, blood-drenched horror. But it's not enough to leave brutality to a mere physical level; it clearly has to be translated to a sexual level. Lead character Paul (Rider Strong) finally decides to act on his crush on Karen (Jordan Ladd). As he sensually caresses her, he pulls his hand out of her underwear to discover that a large portion of her skin has sloughed off in the process. In a way, this expresses the masculine fear of menstruation, but it also begins the quick physical deterioration of the characters. What's most terrifying is that the group has seemingly no means of escape, and without any clean drinking water available, all seem doomed to meet the same fate.

The film also plays up the campy elements of a woods movie. Roth himself has a cameo as Grimm, a party camper who stumbles upon the cabin. He gets the pleasure of delivering the most hilarious movie of the film; after being asked if his dog, Dr. Mambo, was a professor, he replied, "Yeah, he's a professor...OF BEING A DOG! FACE!" Roth also plays upon backwoods stereotypes, showcasing a farmer arm-deep in hog, a karate-chopping kid who's obsessed with pancakes, and a elderly shop owner who's seemingly incredibly racist.

Cabin Fever is effective because it combines the isolation of a cabin-in-the-woods film with the hysteria of an infection movie. No one is able to think clearly or research the situation thoroughly with modern technology, so panic is an inevitability. Unlike in his other movies, Roth is able to strike the perfect balance of blood, humor, and suspense.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 14: Killer Klowns from Outer Space

Like all red-blooded Americans, I hate clowns. When I was 4 or 5, a clown wearing all yellow chased me at the circus, and that was the end of that. I think that's why clown movies are so terrifying to each and every human being alive -- yes, even those who are clowns. As such, Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988, Stephen Chiodo) always makes it into my horror movie rotation. I've written about it here previously, so I've adapted my old post to be slightly longer and more awesome...but only slightly.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space is the be-all, end-all of cheesy clown movies. The title says it all: murderous alien clowns visit earth to wrap humans in cotton candy shells and drink us. That's basically every child's nightmare, so imagine that with more neon colors and you'll have a rough idea of the movie. But in true 80's fashion, Killer Klowns opens with its very own theme song performed by popular punk band the Dickies. Sing it with me now!

Killer Klowns from Outer Space
Some make us laugh, some make us cry
These clowns, honey, gonna make you die...

But the real beauty of Killer Klowns is just how much it revels in its b-movie status. The costumes are pathetic, the acting is atrocious, and the concept is absurd. The trick is that they all know it, so they have fun with it. After all, we are all secretly scared that an ugly clown from outer space will shoot us with a popcorn ray gun, so the laughter helps alleviate our fears, right?

What always strikes me as ironic is that in spite of its campy, candy-coated exterior, the actual clowns are really terrifying. Just looking at them up there might give me nightmares. They're somehow incredibly close to how regular clowns look, but they're distorted ever-so-slightly to create a feeling of unease. Maybe I'm not scared of them trying to liquefy my brain or anything, but I definitely wouldn't be okay with them trying to make me laugh or give me a balloon.

In its own way, Killer Klowns is actually a moderately scary horror film -- not for the reasons most movies intend, but it's an accomplishment nonetheless. Let that be a lesson to you, children: don't trust clowns, especially if they spell clown with a K.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 13: The Serpent and The Rainbow

If there's one director I cannot help to revisit, it's Wes Craven. His career spans so many decades, yet he consistently delivers solid horror films (let's forget about My Soul to Take, please). One of his lesser known films, The Serpent and The Rainbow (1988), takes the classic white-dude-visits-third-world-with-disastrous-results trope and elevates it beyond cultural rubbernecking. Instead, it's critical of all parties involved, taking to heart the film's title -- showing that good and evil exist simultaneously in all things.

The Serpent and the Rainbow

The film follows Dennis (Bill Pullman), a scientist who travels to Haiti in search of a zombifying powder. Naively, he believes that bringing this third-world magic to first-world medicine to revolutionize anesthesia and improve the lives of Americans -- because his employer, a pharmaceutical company, clearly only has wants to make the world a better place. There's something about Bill Pullman's boyish charm that makes me believe in his humanitarian efforts, but as my blog has previously established, I have a certain thing for Bill Pullman and his hair.

Anyway, back to the movie. Craven does an excellent job of translating the zombie narrative to a modern, much more realistic context. This is, of course, partially due to the fact that the film is loosely based on a book of the same name, wherein the author details the use of pufferfish and toad venom in Haitian rituals. In the film, the zombies aren't transformed into undead creatures; instead, they're given a potion that renders them paralyzed, life signs virtually undetectable without the assistance of modern technology. The "dead" people are then buried as normal, only to have the poisoner unbury them, drug them into complacency, and essentially keep them as zombified slaves. I don't know what's the most terrifying aspect of this, and the combination is simply bone-chilling.

Of course, Craven doesn't just stop at pseudo-zombies; he needs to add some physical danger for immediate impact. During the film, Pullman is confronted by multiple animals (jaguar, snake, and tarantula), stabbed in the crotch, slashed, framed for murder, and -- you guessed it! -- buried alive. It sounds like a lot of action when laid out this way, but Craven's able to incorporate these more exciting elements into the story without getting too hokey. This gives the film a great balance between physical action and mental games as the viewer attempts unravel who's good and who's evil.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 12: Dracula

The thing about classic movies is that some don't stand the test of time. You can't blame them, though; what looks amazing -- even revolutionizes how films are made -- can become outdated in just a few short years. This doesn't diminish their values, but it does make it a bit more difficult to rewatch.

DraculaThat being said, Dracula (1931) has fought back against time and won the battle. As one of the most popular stories of all time, Bram Stoker's Dracula has had numerous reiterations, but almost all film adaptations stick closely to Tod Browning's classic version. But what makes this film so effective?

The number one most impactful element of the film is casting. It also seems silly to say that Bela Lugosi makes the perfect Dracula; he's truly the baseline that all other Dracula actors strive toward. His portrayal isn't overly campy ("I vant to suck your blood!") or too dramatically serious -- somehow, he brings the perfect balance of tension to create a creepy supernatural ghoul who's believable, despite holding his hands in an awkward position for 75 minutes (it's scarier that way).

Dramatic lighting also plays a key role in the film's success. It's one thing to use heavily contrasting light in a black and white film; it's another thing entire to highlight only an actor's eyes (as seen to the right). This could come off as silly or way too overt, but it manages to convey the idea of Dracula hypnotizing people without coming right out and saying it. This is a classic case of showing without telling, and it succeeds in its simplicity.

All this is not to say that Dracula doesn't have its outdated elements. The bat so critical to the plot is terribly fake, and you can plainly see the strings that move it; these scenes are handled with the finesse more associated with Ed Wood than Tod Browning. The sparse soundtrack also makes the film seem to go on longer than it should, but this is moreso a relic of the time than anything else.

Dracula manages to reach through time, defying its age and delivering straight up creepy horror. It's a straight-forward, no-nonsense kind of horror movie that sets the tone for the entire genre. It's no wonder that even now, 80+ years later, filmmakers are still struggling to achieve what Browning managed so many years ago.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 11: Airborne

If you know me personally, you probably know that I'm fascinated by viruses. To me, nothing's scarier than a film about unknown pathogens. I turned on Airborne (2012) assuming that it'd be a C+ contagion-related movie, and I was terribly, terribly wrong. Instead, I was met by the worst movie I've watched this month. Let's recount the 5 reasons why Airborne failed to take off.

Airborne

1. It's called Airborne, but there aren't any airborne pathogens. (Okay, so that's just my personal irritation.) Instead, the film just its title from being the last flight to take off during a storm -- that's it. It only gets less interesting from there.

2. Why are there only 10 people on this plane? There's no way a double-decker international flight would take off in a threatening storm. The cost of losing an expensive airplane is much, much more than moderately inconveniencing a handful of folks.

3. Most bad horror movies try to include at least one well-known actor. This usually comes in the form of Malcolm McDowell, which would have improved the film exponentially. Instead, we get Mark Hamill. While he was perfectly fine in the film, I don't think his presence had any impact on the movie.

4. There's no real reason to care what happens on the plane. The best people on board are just plain boring; the worst people, criminals. Taking down the plane will result in only the slightest amount of civilian casualties, and it does the world a favor.

5. Putting people in danger on an airplane is easy; it's what you do with it that determines whether or not the movie will be interesting. If the best thing you can come up with is an ancient Chinese spirit inside of a vase, you need help. If you then have that spirit possess people and force them to commit suicide, you probably need clinic help.

If you want to watch a scarier movie set on an airplane, do yourself a favor and watch Red Eye or even Airplane.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 10: Requiem

The breadth of horror movies wouldn't be properly represented this month if I didn't include an exorcism film. Instead of going the obvious route, but after a bit of digging, I found the German film Requiem (2006). While not a straight horror film per se, Requiem expands the idea of the exorcism film beyond the grotesque and into something beautiful.

RequiemBased on the true story of Anneliese Michel, Requiem follows a Michaela, 21-year-old epileptic woman in 1970s Germany, as she struggles to adjust to adulthood. As her condition worsens, she loses her faith in medicine and becomes increasingly convinced that she's suffering from demonic possession. But the film doesn't focus on CGI or gruesome makeup; its effectiveness lies in that the viewer never truly knows if Michaela is truly possessed, mentally ill, or suffering from extreme epilepsy. The terror grows as the audience watches Michaela become independent, begins her path to becoming a teacher, starts a relationship, and then watches everything come crashing down around her. We want her to be okay, and we want there to be answers for her. Her pain at the unknown becomes our own, and we're as terrified as she is as her condition deteriorates without explanation.

In addition to the moving story, the film includes gorgeous cinematography. Requiem goes beyond 1970s clothing and set design; the 16mm film beautifully mutes the colors of the scenery, moving the actual film itself appear to be from the 70s. Requiem isn't a throwback; it meticulously recreates the setting so that the viewer never questions when or where we are. This further engrosses the viewer in the world of Michaela, making it even easier to relate to her.

Without the traditional exorcist special effects -- heads turning around, extreme vomit, crawling on the walls, floating, etc. -- we're left not knowing what's real or not. The actual symptoms Michaela presents could very well be mental instead of demonic; she stops eating, cannot bring herself to touch religious iconography, becomes impulsive, and screams at the sound of prayer. Is this the work of evil spirits, or is this very religious young woman traumatized by her strict Catholic upbringing? We see her physical pain as her body slims without food, but what's more painful is the unknown. To me, this source of terror is incredibly overlooked in modern film, mostly explored nowadays by European filmmakers. It's a damn shame, as Requiem both moved and chilled me more than all of the other films I've watched this month.

My only true complaint about the movie is its abrupt ending. [SPOILERS AHEAD!] The majority of the film is slow, even quiet, as it chronicles Michaela's descent into illness. The final shot of the film is a beautiful closeup of Michaela's face as she appears calm, even blissful, in her newfound path. I would have been 100% satisfied had this been the ending, not knowing whether she pursued medical treatment or sought further help from the church. Instead, we're met with a closing title card that essentially says, "Oh, PS, Michaela got some exorcisms and died of exhaustion." It's a staggering blow to know that all of our support and sympathy has been in vain. Furthermore, its suddenness is so dissatisfying after such a gradual, steady build. True, it's fitting that Michaela met the same fate as Anneliese Michel, but I believe it could have been incorporated in a much more organic manner.

Regardless, I found Requiem to be both haunting and visually appealing. In a world filled with loud, flashy horror movies, director Hans-Christian Schmid managed to create a quiet, even simple film about exorcism. If nothing else, this shows that what's unseen and unexplained can be far more impactful than even the most expensive and brutal graphics.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 9: Grave Encounters

Let's talk mock(umentary). The outrageous, overwhelming success of The Blair Witch Project (1999) made the found footage style of horror movies the hot trend for many years. However, few films were able to adequately reproduce the balance between quality and style, leading to an influx of shitty movies with shaky camerawork. More than a decade later, Grave Encounters (2011) is one of the few films in this subgenre to recapture the spark that Blair Witch ignited.

Grave Encounters

What sets Grave Encounters apart from its brethren is its tongue-in-cheek attitude. The film follows a television crew ghost hunting in an old mental institution. For fans of shows like Ghost Hunters or even MTV's long-abandoned FEAR, the film shows what we don't see in supposedly real paranormal shows: bribery for stories, long waiting periods, boredom, and lies. More importantly, the plot allows the use of multiple cameras in a much more dynamic way than, say, Paranormal Activity; it's only normal that a television show would set up static cameras while also utilizing handhelds. This allows the film to use cinematic devices like static and nightvision without being compromised or distracted by 100% handheld footage (aka the Blair Witch phenomenon).

But while the TV crew is camping out in the asylum, their cool-for-television exteriors belie the fact that they don't know much about real ghost hunting. As they're approached by real ghosts -- something that's seemingly never happened to them before -- they aren't sure how to communicate with the spirits or how to react. Frankly, I find this hysteria more aligned with humans' natural reactions in panic mode. From a selfish perspective, it's much more interesting to watch people not know what to do in a dangerous situation. It's a movie, after all, and the audience needs to be kept engaged.

The film also does a great job of incorporating lots of different types of ghosts into the mix. It's easy enough to show scary doctors or nurses, but they also include activity normally associated with poltergeists and malicious spirits: moving doors, scratching, and distorted time. The scares are about more than graphic violences; they're about confronting the unknown. While the ending isn't my favorite, Grave Encounters still does a great job of updating the classic ghost story and making it appeal to the modern audience.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 8: House on Haunted Hill

It's no secret the last few movies I've watched have been underwhelming. That's what happens when you go with your gut every single day. Actually, watching these less-than-stellar horror films has given me a deeper appreciation for the classics. To cleanse my horror palate, I decided to go back to the basics: William Castle's House on Haunted Hill (1959).

William Castle is the king of horror. His ouevre includes cinematic paradigms like Thirteen Ghosts, Homicidal, and even Rosemary's Baby (as producer). Much of his fame originated from his elaborate marketing stunts. For the release of House on Haunted Hill, Castle mirrored the film's skeleton rising from a vat of acid by having a plastic skeleton emerge from the audience. This cheap but effective stunt made the cinematic viewing experience that much more enjoyable. But now, over 50 years later, what makes me come back to House on Haunted Hill?

House on Haunted Hill poster

The concept itself is highly relatable: a group of strangers are each offered $10,000 to spend the night in a haunted house. Keep in mind that this is roughly $80,000 today! Imagine if Mark Zuckerberg or Kanye West made you this offer -- would you refuse? The fact that this group is comprised of strangers adds to the tension; no one -- not even the married couple of Frederick (Vincent Prince) and Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) -- is able to rest or rely on anyone when things start to get scary.

More importantly, Castle knows how to construct a solid horror film. Some of the most critical parts are contrast and shadows. Like the German Expressionists before him, Castle includes numerous takes of long shadows to unease. Sometimes this is subtle, like in group shots, but it's much more overt when individuals are split off from the group while investigating paranormal activity. The best example of this is when Nora (Carolyn Craig) is searching a closet in the cellar. She appears in high contrast as she pats the wall in search of a hidden door, her long shadow splayed against the wall. As she turns, a terrifying creature has moved into the range of her shadow, shocking both Nora and the viewer.

Although some aspects of the movie are outdated -- the focus on hysteria as a medical condition, the ridiculous music -- the ghost story and the charms of Vincent Price are timeless. House on Haunted Hill proves that you don't need fancy CGI or graphic violence to make a chilling movie; sometimes, realism is the scariest concept of all.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 7: Resident Evil

If you've been keeping up with my recent posts, you'll know that the last few films I've watched have been less than stellar. To break the cycle, I decided to watch something I've seen before: Resident Evil (2002). In doing so, I learned a very important life lesson: stop watching Paul W.S. Anderson movies.

Resident Evil

What I enjoy about the entire Resident Evil series is that the zombies are created in the most realistic way possible: through a virus. Try not to think about it too much since the CDC is currently closed due to the government shutdown. They probably couldn't do too much about an outbreak anyway, but that's a story for Resident Evil 2.

While Anderson can make an okay action movie, he falters at the nuance of horror. There's no slow build, no unveiling of increasingly bad things, no tension. Instead, it's all action all the time. Without moments of rest, we just become accustomed to the same level of intensity -- we never go up or down except in the size of the monsters. This somehow makes an action-oriented movie about zombies boring. Perhaps Anderson took the video game's tenacity a little too far when writing the script.

Resident Evil zombie dog

Where the film does shine is in its graphics. Like his other film, Event Horizon, Anderson meticulously constructs his scenery. The world of Raccoon City and the Hive truly feel like the cold, clinical, corporately owned arms of the Umbrella Corporation. Anderson also captures the best Resident Evil monsters -- zombie dogs and the Licker in particular -- with fantastic accuracy. He doesn't push their appearances far from what they are in the video games; in this case, he did well to let zombie dogs lie.

In the end, Resident Evil is a movie of a lot of slick style but very little substance. It's much more terrifying and rewarding to just play the video game. I'll definitely be avoiding Anderson movies for the remainder of the month. Since I've been burned by so many modern movies, I'm going to go old school tomorrow. There's something to be said for the classics.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 6: Die

Some movies are subtle. Die (2010) isn't one of them. Sure, it's a movie about death, but it's also a movie about rolling a die to see who will die. It's clever, isn't it?

Die...literally

Really, Die is just a less elaborate Saw: the mastermind Jacob kidnaps suicidal people and puts them through a series of death tests. Those who live are supposed to be reborn, cherishing their life anew and forming a cult-like group (as happens with some of Jigsaw's victims in the later Saw movies). Like Jigsaw, Jacob physically marks his victims, burning a die roll into their flesh.

But where Die differentiates itself is in its simplicity. Instead of the insanely complicated traps that Jigsaw constructed, Jacob prefers to have his victims confront their means of attempted suicide: drowning, drug overdose, Russian roulette, etc. This small bit of realism grounds the film and makes it feel much less forced. Admittedly, the likelihood of a person having the ways and means to kidnap and torture 6 people simultaneously is pretty slim, but Die gets as close as it's going to get.

While disappointing when compared to the original Saw, Die seems to be a more fitting sequel than the later Saw films. Its focus on characters and its restraint in elaborate torture techniques allow the film to avoid the popular torture porn sub-genre, making it more watchable and more effective.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 5: Hunger

I'm always curious about horror movies that don't have good reviews on Netflix. I've often found myself watching 4 or 5 starred movies and thinking, "What is this garbage? Do people really enjoy this?!" Naturally, I had to pick a 3 star movie to satisfy my curiosity. I randomly selected Hunger (2009 -- no, not the Steve McQueen movie) and grabbed a giant bowl of pasta to keep myself from starving to death.

Hunger

If you've ever wondered What would happen if I throw 5 seemingly healthy adults into a hole with a little water and no food?, then Hunger's got you covered. Obviously, they're going to eat each other -- it's just a matter of when. As a vegetarian, I find the proposition pretty terrifying, and I'm glad that I had my pasta to keep me company while viewing.

In all seriousness, I was surprised that Hunger was a slightly-above-average horror movie. The pacing really helps build the creeping sense of both hunger and panic, especially as the character Jordan notes that most humans can only survive for 30 days without food. This is also a delicious achievement for a film that mostly takes place within two small rooms.

The psychological aspects of the film are also scrumptious. Each person has a different reaction to captivity: manipulation, assertiveness, shyness, madness, and calm. The range of emotion makes the movie much more filling than if everyone were freaking out and hysterical for 100 minutes.

Of course, the film has its share of flaws. I was constantly distracted by how clean and shiny Jordan and Anna's hair stayed. Their trapped-in-a-hole hair looked more stylish than my pretending-to-be-an-adult hair. The men, too, never grow more than a spattering of facial hair. And then there's the hunger aspect. For being starved for 30 days, no character looks particularly gaunt -- sick, yes, but not dying of malnutrition. Since the movie's low-budget, I'm willing to forgive this in favor of the actors' health.

Overall, Hunger was much tastier than I imagined, so I'm glad that I ventured into 3 star territory. While it's not the most original or fantastic of movies, it's a toothsome morsel that whets the palate for more horror. If you like the classic Twilight Zone episode "Five Characters in Search of an Exit", stream Hunger immediately.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 4: Severance

We all know that scary movies are fake, but it's important to remember that some terrifying things happen in the real world. Take, for example, privately-owned, for-profit weapons and defense companies like Lockheed Martin. These companies are in the business of war; if there's no conflict, they're not making money. There's a thin line between being proactive and being majorly fucking evil, and these companies will hop right over the line for a quick profit.

So wouldn't it be satisfying to see employees of a Lockheed Martin-type company tortured and killed, perhaps with their own patented weapons technology? Enter Severance (2007).

Severance

The film follows a group of Palisade Defense (a Lockheed-esque corporation) employees on a forced bonding retreat. As someone who has been subjected to my fair share of painful retreats*, I briefly pitied these characters, and then I remembered that their company is destroying the world. It's only fitting that their deaths come from their livelihood: former soldiers turned war criminals use the instruments of destruction on the war profiteers in a deadly cat and mouse game.

But where Severance really shines is in its humor. It's not an over-the-top comedy like Shaun of the Dead. Instead, it has serious, horrific elements, but with a wink and a nod. After all, watching Gordon get his skin peeled off is intense, but I couldn't help but laugh when I saw that the killer had carved the Palisade's logo into Gordon's stomach. Many of the characters also predict their own deaths with humorous results. For example, suave Harris discusses how long a severed head stays alive after being separated from the body. After his decapitation, he can't help but smile at the camera as he proves himself right one last time.

Severed head - Severance

Part serious and part camp, Severance definitely adds some fun to my Halloween Horror lineup. Cinephiles, keep your eyes peeled for references to 2001: A Space Odyssey and one of my favorites, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

* For the record, this only applies to past jobs. My current job is awesome and only has good retreats. Thanks, job!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 3: Event Horizon

Since I'm watching a horror movie every day in October, not all of them can be home runs. Case in point: Event Horizon (1997). It had all of the right elements: great cast (Sam Neill and Laurence Fishburne), space-related chaos, and my boyfriend's seal of approval. So where did it go wrong?

Event Horizon

Overall, the premise is solid: a group of doctors and astronauts are sent to save the Event Horizon, a ship that mysteriously went missing near Neptune. But this is no ordinary ship; it has the ability to bend the fabric of space and time. As soon as I learned this, I started to panic. Have we learned nothing from Captain Jean-Luc Picard? Must we fuck with the temporal prime directive? Yes, yes we must.

Had the film addressed obvious concerns -- space sickness, isolation, the vacuum of space, even aliens -- I would have been on board. After all, what's scarier than mankind confronted with itself with no escape? But no, that would be too easy. Clearly, the ship must bend space and connect Neptune to hell.

So now we have a ship that's connected to hell. That's got to mean that the people on the ship are tortured in the most heinous ways imaginable, right? Well, sort of. Many of the death scenes occur off-screen or only appear on screen for a second or two. It's difficult to fathom the extreme torture and depravity of hell when we only get momentary glances. Either the torture needs to be more explicit, like the scene with Justin, or hinted at without being shown. The middle ground just fails to elicit an emotional response. For example, how does DJ go from being dead to being totally eviscerated and hanging from hooks? Why is this only shown for a fraction of a second? To me, a movie like Hellraiser does a much more effective job of communicating this horror -- not just because the violence is more visible but because the consequences and impact of the violence are so vividly displayed.

Sam Neill Event Horizon

The stakes, too, never get raised far enough. There's seemingly never a threat of hell spilling over to the real world; it's only interested in snapping up passersby, like a spider in its web. What's the worst thing that can happen? A handful of people dying in space isn't a huge deal, and if hell wants to take over Neptune, they're welcome to colonize.

But that's not to say that the movie isn't worth watching. It's worth a single viewing if just for the breathtaking visual symmetry in its long shots. The set design is also a detailed mix of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, and Star Trek. I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the nuanced performances from Fishburne and Neill. Even if the script let them down, they gave their all.

By all accounts, Event Horizon should have been good. Instead, it just ends up being a meh. It's not a total waste of 1.5 hours, but it's not the best. If you really want to get your space terrors, stick to Alien or watch some Star Trek episodes.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 2: Hellraiser IV: Bloodline

Another day of October, another horror movie.

One of my favorite stories to tell people is about the first movie I remember watching. I was 4, and I asked my dad if I could watch the movie he had rented. Of course, this was Hellraiser. Thinking that I would get scared and leave, he just laughed and agreed. To his surprise, I loved it. This set the tone for my taste in the film (and, well, this blog series).

Hellraiser Bloodlines

What separates the Hellraiser series from other hell-related movies is that there are no demons. Instead, hell is occupied by cenobites (seen above). The term cenobite is used to describe members of a religious order; in this case, their religion is the overlap between pain and pleasure -- "the beauty of suffering". This overlap that includes extreme physical mutilation and murder. The only thing stopping the cenobites from occupying our world is a puzzle box known as the Lament Configuration.

So, why Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (1996)? To be sure, the first two films of the series set the stage for extreme sadomasochism and shock, paving the way for Eli Roth and other purveyors of the so-called torture-porn style of horror. But what I appreciate about this fourth film is that it expands the scope of the cenobites' reach. Instead of being limited to a specific time (like the late 1980s), Bloodline includes the past, present, and future. The idea of being physically tortured for an indefinite amount of time is bad enough, but to know that people are being tortured for literally hundreds of years raises the stakes from really bad to HOLY SHIT awful.

Is Bloodline a good horror movie? Not necessarily. Its bizarre yet brief death scenes are much more thought out than the film's plot, and the cheap visual effects leave a lot to be desired. However, it has a definite place in the Hellraiser canon, particularly as the last film in the series in which creator Clive Barker participated. And, like most horror movies, it has its own before-they-were-famous celebrity appearance. This one's for you, Adam Scott!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 1: Scream

Horror movies are a touchy subject amongst cinephiles. These films tend to be some of the most sexist, derivative, repetitive, and exploitative of all genres. However, the truly great horror movies touch a part of the human condition that few others can. They elicit a physical reaction: faster breathing, increased pulse, jumping, even screaming. They directly confront our most basic human fear: death.

As a celebration of fear, I'm endeavoring to watch a horror movie every day of October. Some will be classics, and some will be new-to-me. For me, there's no better place to start than Scream (1996, directed by Wes Craven).

Upon its release, Scream did more than just revitalize Drew Barrymore's career; it reinvented a genre that was losing steam. Wes Craven, a veteran of the horror movie, rewards viewers for their film knowledge. The more you know about horror movies, the more you can enjoy Scream. Instead of just being another movie about some crazy high schoolers who go on a killing spree, it questions why we watch horror movies. In this way, Craven inverts the traditional trappings of genre movies.

Scream

There's an even bigger perk for cinephiles: several of the main characters are movie buffs themselves, dropping references to Basic Instinct, Halloween, and Silence of the Lambs with the best of them. They've outlined the rules of how to survive a horror movie, and they're determined to execute them by whatever means necessary. This adds an element of interactivity to the film as the viewer plays along and guesses which clichés will appear or be subverted.

This isn't to say that the movie doesn't take the metaphor a little too far at times. The film-obsessed teen boys carry their love of film into all aspects of their lives, including their relationships. In an early scene, Billy (Skeet Ulrich) complains about the development of his relationship to Sidney (Neve Campbell): "We started off hot and heavy, a nice, solid R-rating, on our way to an NC-17...but now, things have changed, and lately we're just sort of edited for television." Such moments disrupt the flow of the film, but they don't derail the overall pace.

Even with its flaws, Scream is my favorite way to start the month of October. It reminds me of all the things I love about amazing horror movies: strong women, dark humor, self-awareness, and Henry Winkler.

Scream - Henry Winkler

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

I Believe Again in Fox Mulder

Oh, hello, blog. Long time no write! I could make excuses about starting a new job and not having enough free time, which is partially true. However, I've also been re-watching The X-Files from the beginning for probably the tenth time*. It's a big commitment, so I obviously have to shun some aspects of my life for this endeavor. Blogging appears to be the chief thing to ignore.

The X FilesThere are innumerable reasons to watch The X-Files over again. This year is the 20th anniversary of the show's remarkable premiere, it's all on Netflix, and it's amazing to trace Vince Gilligan's progress from this to Breaking Bad.

In reality, though, a part of me will also re-watch the show because Fox Mulder was my first real crush. I admired his passion, his morals, his unwavering belief in the face of constant scrutiny. Upon this viewing, though, I saw Mulder in a much different light. Instead of being the strangely attractive moral crusader I remembered, he seemed to be blindly selfish, constantly pursuing his own agenda with blatant disregard for those around him. Add to that his frequent flippant sexual jokes, and you get a recipe for disillusionment. Needless to say, my teenage self was deeply upset to ruin such fond memories.

But it's in Season 4's devastating "Memento Mori" that my faith in Mulder was reaffirmed. As Scully is diagnosed with potentially deadly cancer, she approaches the situation with the same clinical distance that makes her a successful doctor. When discussing the lack of treatment options, Mulder reacts without hesitation: "I refuse to accept that." Instead of breaking down or feeling helpful, Mulder summons the same passion and dedication to try to not just treat Scully's tumor but locate its origin.

I suppose the moral of the story is that everybody has flaws, or perhaps it's that growing older makes you more critical. Either way, here's to blogging again!

*Not going to lie: I also watched all of Pretty Little Liars. My brain needed candy, and I regret nothing.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Spring Breakers and the Defiance of Meaning

Of all the films I've seen this year, Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers is the most difficult to interpret. The plot screams exploitation film: four college girls rob a diner, go on a drug-and-booze-filled spring break, and wind up in the company of serious, violent gangs. However, Korine bends the narrative to avoid the classic exploitation lens, leaving the viewer asking a lot of questions -- not the least of which being, "Is he serious?!"

spring break forever

The chief way that Korine defies meaning is in motivation. Most exploitation films incorporate retribution -- slaves fighting their oppressors, women in a power struggle against men, etc. -- but not so in Spring Breakers. The only thing these college girls are struggling with is boredom. They feel that they absolutely must go out of town for spring break because nothing else will fill that Solo cup shaped hole in their hearts. Of course, it's not their responsibility to raise the money for such a trip. It's society's fault that they're boredom, dammit, so innocent diner customers must pay for their girlish shenanigans! Nevermind the fact that the ladies had enough cash to buy booze, coke, pot, and cigarettes; that was all from their drug allowance, not their travel funds.

But the girls seemingly have no true problems with their lives, so there's no real reason to support their conquest of hedonism. I mean, it's fantastic for college-aged women to strive beyond mediocrity, but I'm not sure that doing lines of blow off of someone's ass will help them raise to the challenge. It comes as no surprise when they are arrested during a drug-filled party, but it's difficult to muster any sympathy for them. Perhaps the girls would be more sympathetic if they entered the courtroom wearing clothes or robes. Instead, Korine avoids the serious by leaving his actresses in just bikinis. If you get bored of the dialogue, never fear! You can simply stare at some skin until the action picks back up again.

Such moments happen frequently throughout the film, undermining any sort of women-kicking-ass vibe Korine may have envisioned. It's true that the most successful criminal elements of the movie are executed by women, but they aren't better off for it. Instead of becoming a team of badass Foxy Browns, the girls are just as bored and lifeless as they were before. They gain nothing and lose nothing.

Perhaps Spring Breakers' ethos warns us against the dangers of ennui. If the only thing that moves us is a Britney Spears song from 2004, what does that say about us? Or maybe the movie is all style and little substance. Let's be real: going on spring breaker probably will not result in you getting shot and staging a massacre at a gangster's compound. If it does, I hope you feel something, or else I won't be able to elicit sympathy for you. Even if I don't feel empathy for the characters, one thing is certain: Spring Breakers is beautiful to look at, although it leaves something to be desired when watched.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Is Mad Men Secretly Boring?

Since 2007 (okay, skipping 2011), the season premiere of Mad Men has generated huge amounts of buzz and viewership. This season's two hour premiere, however, was marked by a staggering sense of ennui. The episode was inundated with sidebars, throwaway characters, and pointless scenes. My boyfriend kept asking, "What's happening? Who is that? Why does this matter?" In previous seasons, I could passionately declare, "But Roger's married!" or "She didn't know she was pregnant!", but now I'm left without answers. I have to wonder if he's right; has Mad Men become dull?

Sally says it all

Even the marketing for this season felt like a giant yawn. The photoshoots didn't have that fire and style for which they're known. Instead of convincing us to tune in, they seem to say, "Yeah, you're already watching. Here are some pretty people in pretty clothes, I guess." For a show about successful advertising executives, you'd think they would know how to put together a compelling campaign.

Maybe it's because the uniqueness is lost. The throwback styles felt so fresh during the first few seasons. However, oversaturation through marketing deals with the likes of Banana Republic made the seemingly singular style more commonplace. Add in the obvious copycats The Playboy Club and Pan Am, and you've crowded the market faster than you can make a martini.

But the veneer has also worn off of Don Draper. The closer we get to him, the less interesting he becomes. There is something beautifully poetic about a man completely changing his identity and making his living off of lies; there's something pathetic about the same man devolving into a depressed alcoholic who pukes at funerals. While Don's unraveling should make him more human and, thus, compelling, it merely distances him more from the other characters and from the audience. It's not that Don changes over time; the problem is that Don doesn't change, even when all of the people around him are racing toward new ideas.

barf

For a show centered on Don, the real success lies in the ensemble cast. I know that the world is obsessed with Jon Hamm's old school good looks and his giant, well, Jon Hamm, but let's look to the other characters for a moment. Peggy stole the episode with her new job at a rival firm. She demonstrated the difficulty of balancing work with relationships, pleasing a client, having huge responsibilities, and being a boss for the first time. Her humanity makes her an excellent foil to Don, but without them interacting, she becomes more compelling while Don just flounders. Roger, too, has become overtly vulnerable for the first time with the passing of his mother. Although he has been sensitive in limited circumstances before, he has never been such a raw nerve as he was after losing the boundless support of his mother. No longer can he be flippant and casual about interpersonal relationships -- he is a spoiled man who has finally discovered impermanence, and his vulnerability makes him more desirable to watch.

Roger

Mad Men has always been a show about people and ideas, not about things happening. While the first episode of the season was, frankly, boring, I do have faith that things will turn around (unlike Don). If they don't, well, I'll have to finally admit that my boyfriend was right all along.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Game of Zombies: What Are You Watching on Sunday?

Sunday night will host two of this year's most exciting television events: the finale of The Walking Dead's amazing third season and the return of the hotly anticipated Game of Thrones. Unfortunately for people like yours truly, those two episodes are premiering at the exact same time. Short of praying to the programming gods for forgiveness, there's little that can be done to change this, so it's time to decide which you'll be watching live. It was a difficult decision for me, but I've finally come down on the side of The Walking Dead. Here's why (and yes, here be spoilers):

The Walking Dead

1. Closure! Really, months have been leading up to this season's finale. After a slow and painful second season, The Walking Dead really brought things back into place with more action, deeper characterization, and some soul-crushing death scenes. Following last week's brilliantly depicted death of Merle, the show has a lot of momentum going into its final episode of the season. It's hard to say no to a show that rips out your heart, stomps on it, then eats it.

On the other side of the coin, Game of Thrones characters are constantly in a state of flux. Because they're fighting (often to the death) for the iron throne, action and death are frequently less shocking than the deaths of The Walking Dead's small group members. For me, it's easier to see through a conclusion and then commit to something new.

Game of Thrones

2. Group viewing. Have you ever watched Game of Thrones with more than 2 people? It's an emotionally taxing experience. Everyone has to rant about their favorite characters, and for some odd reason, nobody seems to care about Davos Seaworth half as much as I do. It can be difficult work keeping track of the characters if anybody talks or gets up to get another drink. Since HBO has no commercials, there are no breaks to discuss the show while it's happening. The Walking Dead allows a little more breathing room with its brief breaks, so you're less likely to kill the person watching with you. Also, many local bars will play The Walking Dead, making for an awesome communal experience. (This humble blogger will be watching on Sunday at her local watering hole.) I've yet to see a bar playing Game of Thrones, but maybe they just don't want to pay the HBO fee.

3. Stuff, Lori. Things. Is it an understatement to say that Game of Thrones is dense? Each book runs around 1,000 pages, and its third installment, Storm of Swords, is widely considered to be the best and craziest. Multiple main characters die in shocking, gruesome manners. However, not a lot happens until roughly 750 pages into the book -- that's a lot of set up! I think that if I put off watching the first episode by a few hours, I won't be missing too terribly much -- yet.

Now, this is just my thought process. Game of Thrones could very well prove me wrong and murder lots of people in the first five minutes. However, I feel confident that watching it a few hours later in lieu of The Walking Dead is the right decision for me. Either way, I'm stupidly excited for Sunday, and I'd love to hear what you plan on watching -- it's a rare example of a win/win situation.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

House of Cards Has Female Trouble

Disruptive, risky, groundbreaking: the buzz around Netflix's original series House of Cards has been staggering. This is due in no small part to the laundry list of famous names: David Fincher, Joel Schumacher, Robin Wright, Kevin Spacey, etc. Certainly, Netflix's model of releasing an entire series at once could not come at a better time: fast internet speeds, low cost streaming services, and skyrocketing cable television prices have created a culture of cancelling cable and binge-watching television series on Netflix. This trend, when combined with an edgier West Wing storyline and an all-star cast, obviously creates a wildly successful series. The internet has become the new water cooler, and the response is clear: everyone is watching, and they love it.
House of Cards

Like the masses, I flew through the series in less than a week. The salacious political intrigue and backstabbing had me captivated. There was one giant, gaping hole, though: women. There is no shortage of female characters, but each is implicitly or explicitly coded as a shrew, a whore, or an undesirable. Chief among the offenders is Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), the virgin/whore. As a young reporter trying to make her old media employer transition into blogging, she is seemingly missing any aspect of a work ethic. Instead of buckling down and working hard (or looking for a new job), she decides to sleep with House Majority Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in exchange for stories. Zoe's sexuality is not the problem; at issue here is her power and agency. She feels that objectifying herself entitles her to more privileges than anyone else; by allowing herself to be dominated, she wants to both the role of both victim and blackmailer. The problem is that she doesn't hold enough actual power to really control Frank or anyone else. Instead of being a badass antihero, she becomes an irritating shrew, badgering Frank for stories while undressing. Her trademark stance -- worried expression, thumb in her mouth -- infantilises her, hinting at potential daddy issues (explored in a cringe-inducing scene that I never want to discuss). At best, Zoe is a narcissist who is blind to her own scheming; at worst, she holds a nearly sociopathic disregard for everyone around her, stopping at nothing to fuck her way to the top.

It's worth noting that Zoe's coworker Janine (Constance Zimmer) warns against the concubine path. Now in her 40s, Janine is coded as being entirely undesirable: she is harsh, foul, distrustful, disheveled, frumpy, and simply coasting in what should be a glamorous newspaper beat. Janine has the distinction of being the one of the only main female characters not sexually objectified by the camera, yet herself admits that she exchanged sex for stories earlier in her career. Now, she's a human tissue, wadded up and tossed aside after the masturbatory act is completed. No longer can she get decent stories, for she is branded for life. It's only when she takes Zoe's ill-gotten stories that she is able to find some fire in her career again.

Then there's Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), the ice queen. She is beautiful and sexual, but she is just as conniving and dangerous as her husband. While she represents herself as a powerful nonprofit chair, she loses herself after her gender betrays her: she begins to have hot flashes. Indeed, her obsessions with pregnancy, youth, and sex quickly follow behind her earliest menopause symptoms. Although she is always sexually desirable to the camera -- long, lingering shots on her delicate limbs, high heels, and long legs -- she must be made to feel sexy again, as though sex is her only power. Subsequently, being successful with her husband is not the goal -- she must be more successful. She becomes a succubus, feeding off of her husband, her charity, her off-and-on lover, and even Zoe to succeed.

Even the smaller female characters have their values tied to sex, the most obvious of whom being the prostitute Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan). Christina (Kristen Connolly) is Peter Russo's staffer and girlfriend, but she spends a remarkable amount of camera time in early episodes not wearing pants. One of her first lasting scenes is a sex scene. Ironically, in the episode wherein Zoe accuses her editor of sexism, there is soon after a scene in which Christina's ass, clad in small and tight panties, takes up about half of the screen. Even Gillian (Sandrine Holt), the Stanford valedictorian and general do-gooder, get pregnant following a torrid affair with a married man.

This is not to say that the male characters are squeaky clean. There's enough scandal, dirt, and betrayal there to write a novel (see that funny joke I made?). The point is that the male characters are not as limited and confined by their gender. For instance, there is a beautiful scene that casually, gently reveals that Frank had a sexual relationship with a male college buddy. The soft hand that crafts this scene is so elegant, allowing the viewer to come to whatever conclusion she or he wishes. If half of this grace were applied to, say, Zoe, her characterization would be completely changed. Indeed, her growing awareness toward the end of the first season hints at some growing agency. Despite its faults, House of Cards is an addicting, delicious show that has a lot of promise for the future. It is my hope that the second season, already in the works, will allow the women the strength and independence they deserve -- hopefully with a sharp decrease in butt cleavage.