Thursday, June 25, 2015

Review: THE MIDNIGHT SWIM (2014)

Sarah Adina Smith's debut feature THE MIDNIGHT SWIM is one of the most elegantly haunting films of the year. Following the death of their mother Amelia (Beth Grant), The Brooks sisters — Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), June (Lindsay Burdge) and Isa (Aleksa Palladino) — return to their childhood home on the lake. Secluded and cut off from civilization, it bares itself as the classic archetype of any horror franchise - a cabin in the woods. But it's this locale that forces the sisters and the audience to try and make sense of this unexplainable tragedy. The circumstances around their mother's death are peculiar, considering she was a water conservationist who dived into Spirit Lake but never resurfaced.

As the sisters decide what to do with the property and reminisce about the times they spent with their mother, June records the entire visit on her camera, documenting the experience just as you would any family gathering. This is our window into the grief, pain, and mystery of THE MIDNIGHT SWIM. The cinematography feels less like a documentary, but more as if we are voyeurs peering into the intimate details of this family's life. It toys with the idea of found footage, but does so in a sense of videotaping any family get-together, this one just being a bit more bleak than most. Things move in and out of frame, with focus and blur, and it mimics our attempts to understand the world we've stepped into. The audience is not meant to understand the pain of this sudden and tragic death, but is meant to try and understand the strange occurrences that soon plague the sisters and their mother's house since their arrival.

We not only empathize with the pain of their loss, but nurture their curiosity to discover the truth what happened to their mother. The cinematography sets a pacing to the narrative that quickly exposes the painful truths of the sisters' relationship with their mother, and each other. It's handheld; bumpy and organic, it's real flesh and blood left to discover the reasons of death and purpose in life. The setting begs to be documented in this manner as well, like a nature documentary looking to shine a light on the secrets hidden under the rocks, creeping us out with whatever crawls out. Unconvinced that their mother died by accident, the sisters playfully attempt to invoke the spirits of "The Seven Sisters," a local legend based on several tragic drownings in the lake. This legend also has a connection to a constellation given the same name for The Pleiades of Greek mythology. The sisters soon discover that their mother had some sort of connection to this mythos as well. The most interesting elements of the story surround the fractured relationships between the sisters and how the loss of their mother can bring them together, but can push them apart even further than before. At times endearing, the sisters long to connect to the simpler times of their youth when the world made more sense; but now, with the pain of death and loss, it's difficult to leave things unsaid.

Dead birds begin appearing each morning, a shawl found in the lake begins to act as a character on its own, and mysterious footage of the lake begins to appear on June's camera. It's difficult to distinguish if these events are otherworldly, or just a dangerously unhealthy coping mechanism from one of the three sisters. Despite the supernatural elements littered throughout the film, it's difficult not be struck by how familiar it all feels. Our three sisters are established first and foremost by their personalities; as their appearances, speaking patterns, and physical mannerisms are somewhat identical. There is one moment in particular where the sisters seem to be truly bonding for the first time on this trip that quickly takes a sharp left into a heartbreaking moment of sorrow. This moment is gut-wrenching not because it is throwing the audience into a world of fictional horror, but instead forcing us to connect with the painful truths of reality. Sarah Adina Smith has showcased immense talent with THE MIDNIGHT SWIM and has offered a completely unique style of presenting cinematic psychodrama. Her etherial and mesmerizing debut is not to be missed, and will likely stay with viewers long after the credits have rolled.

THE MIDNIGHT SWIM arrives in cinemas and on VOD June 26th from Candy Factory Films.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

REVIEW: DOOMSDAYS (2013)


Created in part by a successful Kickstarter campaign, Eddie Mullins' pre-apocalyptic comedy DOOMSDAYS feels like a film tailor made for the sarcastic, cynical, and socially aware audiences of a post 9/11 world. Centered around squatters Dirty Fred (Justin Rice) and Bruho (Leo Fitzpatrick), the two travel from home to home breaking and entering through the Catskills they deem suitable. The two see no issue with their lifestyle as (in their minds) the world is about to come to an end thanks to "peak oil". Rather than wait until the world really does end, the two have decided to get a leg-up on the inevitable looting and scavenging. Strangely enough, the two really aren't interested in stealing or vandalizing, they just want to re-energize on someone else's time and dime.

Their plans are soon disrupted when they come across Jaidon (Brian Charles Johnson) who joins the two. Shortly after, the three come across a young woman named Reyna (Laura Campbell) completely shifting the group dynamic. Presented as a somewhat episodic tale covering the course of a month, the film is broken up into chapters. This non-linear approach works very well for the film, and feels like a natural progression for these types of people.

The strength of this film lies in its script, filled with realistic scenarios and aiding in developing characters we actually care about. The dynamic throughout the group feels like a combination of THE BATTERY and ZOMBIELAND, with a sprinkling of Wes Anderson dramatics. While the film is intentionally funny and Mullins' is allowing us in on the joke, the humor is done with an authentic subtlety that almost feels like improvisation. There is just enough "special snowflake eccentric" lifestyle without it grating our nerves, but just enough that allows us to see these people as real characters, and not caricatures of a concept.

Fred and Bruho are a dynamic duo, but the addition of Jaidon and Reyna round out this rag-tag team in beautiful harmony. Cinematically, DOOMSDAYS is an elegant juxtaposition to their chaotic and immature actions. Mullins shot the film in his hometown, and the familiarity with the locations allowed for some extremely well executed shots. DOOMSDAYS is a lot of fun, but it also delivers some pretty biting commentary on the way America functions. A solid indie definitely deserving of your money, and your time.

DOOMSDAYS will be available on VOD starting June 5th. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

THE PATRIARCHY HURTS EVERYONE IN MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

If you haven't seen MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (first of all, what is wrong with you?) avoid this article as it does contain analysis of the film's plot points.


After the anti-feminist analysis of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD from Return of Kings' contributor Aaron Clarey went viral last week, feminist thinkpieces promoting the film have been popping up from every corner of the internet. The overwhelming majority focus on the incredible characterization of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and her importance for female representation in an overwhelmingly male driven genre, but MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is vital film viewing for male audiences.  By definition, feminism is to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights for the women on the same level as their male counterparts.  While it's easy to think feminism = women > men, this simply isn't the case. Feminism means women = men.  It's that simple.  In Aaron Clarey's piece, he states that male viewers may be “duped by explosions, fire tornadoes and desert raiders into seeing what is guaranteed to be nothing more than feminist propaganda, while at the same time being insulted AND tricked into viewing a piece of American culture ruined and rewritten right in front of their very eyes.” Problematic equation that all men are simple enough to only see a movie with explosions aside, there is no trickery in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. However, the film is extremely beneficial for both males and females.


MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is a feminist film, but that doesn't mean it's a Spice Girls-esque film about "gurrrl power." The film is arguably Imperator Furiosa's story, but she isn't some man-hating buzzkill. With the exception of referring to her in female pronouns (she, her, ma'am, etc.), Furiosa is acknowledged by her title rather than her gender by those of a lower ranking. While I may be wrong on this part, I cannot recall a moment when Immortan Joe or any of his "War Boys" use a sexist slur against her.  There are no "bitch" insults to be found.  The anger of our antagonists comes from Furiosa's "betrayal," not because she's a female. In the hierarchy of Immortan Joe's dictatorship in The Citadel, Furiosa is a well-respected leader. Before she goes rogue, the war boys on the convoy frequently refer to her as "boss," regardless of what's between her legs. Her "betrayal" is a personal directive to rescue five of Joe's "breeders," who are merely beautiful women he uses as sex slaves in order to produce more heirs. Sure, Furiosa is a bonafide badass (as are the Vulvani and the other female characters littered throughout), but that is not why MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is a feminist masterpiece.  It's the absence of female tropes that pushes this film over the top. This is important for men to see in a film, because it shows that feminism does not mean women > men, but emphasizes the equality of sexes in film representation. Furiosa is also complex character filled with a range of emotions. All too often, our "strong, female, leads" turn into inhuman characters limited to being nothing more than "strong," and that's just not how human's function. Even the bravest warriors crack sometimes, and that includes strong, female characters.


The plot of the film is centrally focused on gender politics, but it never once feels heavy handed. All of these women are survivors of sexual assault, but this isn't some Dick Wolf Law & Order victimization. One of the women has a moment of regret and begins running back to The Citadel, clearly traumatized from a life of abuse. One of the fellow women repeats, "We're not things, we're not things," in attempt to humanize her once again. This line is the extent of showcasing the deep-seeded turmoil they've all endured.  It's a natural response, and an authentic one at that. And what of the Vulvani? With Furiosa's assistance, she and the wives encounter Furiosa's former community, a group of female survivors on motorcycles armed with weapons, plants, and a thirst for justice. The women have also taken a far more peaceful approach to this wasteland, vowing "no unnecessary killing." Surprisingly, the women are also never sexualized, even from their former captor.  The girls do discuss Joe having a favorite, but the women are fully aware of their value. Amidst gunfire, the women use themselves as shields, understanding the War Boys' fear of harming them. However, this fear isn't rooted in a sexual desire, but in the desire to survive. Sexuality isn't used as a weapon (they way it 99.999999% of the time is used in super hero films), but the women use themselves as a weapon to address the fact they are in control of any hope for the future. Immortan Joe's desire to save the women comes not from a loss of beautiful sex slaves, but from a loss of the possibility of continuing his familial line. Men cannot continue on their own without women, and the world of FURY ROAD knows it. In this universe, we must work together to make a future.

And what of our men? Immortan Joe holds his power over the people of The Citadel through a cherry-picked patchwork of ideology. The promise of eternal life in Valhalla is pulled from the Norse, and the Kamikaze style of self-martyrdom from Japan is used as a way to weaponize their minds. Joe has taken these religions at surface level and created a dangerous society of brainwashed individuals hanging on his every command. Joe's army is dedicated and loyal, but is done so in an excessively patriarchal way. In the Citadel, there are War Pups, young men de-humanized from childhood in preparation for a life of animalistic tendencies and barbaric behavior. As they grow, they transform into War Boys, but never War Men. Joe is the only "War Man" and the rest of his army are merely his disciples, his children of the apocalypse. All of the War Boys are painted white and spend the entirety of the film chasing after what their "father" has told them to chase. The sperm chasing egg symbolism is strong, Joe desperately trying to hold the same type of power that women do, even though he cannot. At one point, we see a row of pregnant women having their milk "harvested," and many have expressed that this is an attack on women. While, yes, this is a direct example of Joe abusing women, he treats his men just as horribly. His War Boys are bred to die, the same way these women are bred to feed. He utilizes the resources he can get from the humans equally, they're just abused in different ways.


Nux is our main point of view into the world of the War Boys, and the true power that Joe has over these men. At one point, Nux is attempting to hijack Furiosa's war rig when Joe tells Nux that he will personally carry Nux to the gates of Valhalla if he brings the wives back alive. "Personally carry" sounds as if Joe is promising to kill Nux himself, presumably in an honorably ritual. Why? Because Joe cannot allow there to be a War Boy of heroic stature to live. Nux would need to be an honorable memory, rather than an honorable man. Joe cannot allow someone else to live that could possibly be idolized the same way he is himself. Fortunately, Nux does not succeed and instead fails miserably in the presence of Joe. This absolutely destroys him. Nux is terminally ill, he's at the end of his "half-life" and he has spent all of it under the command of Immortan Joe. When he fails in front of him, it renders him "worthless" in his own eyes. The patriarchy hurts everyone. His "failure" to appease his male leader and to prove his masculinity rocks him to his core, and the damage is too severe to save him even after his redemptive discussion with the wife, Capable. After a heart to heart with one of the wives that helps him "see the light" and support Furiosa and her cause, Nux is seen sitting in the War Rig amongst the sleeping women. A bug crawls up along her arm and Nux allows the bug to crawl on his finger before devouring it. He’s still damaged. He can’t take the “no unnecessary killing” mentality that the women have taken. Had he let the bug go, this would have been huge turning point for him, but he didn’t. Nux killed it when he didn’t have to, because the patriarchal damage has already morphed his mentality. This is similar to how the opening of the film shows Max eating a lizard in the desert, and later choosing not to stay in the Citadel. He's not ready to move on, not yet.

In the world of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, the fight for equal rights was probably still underway when the apocalypse struck. The film is as important as it is ass-kicking, and George Miller's masterpiece will hopefully inspire action films that follow.  A feminist action film doesn't need hot pink ray-guns, cleave popping vinyl outfits, or "sassy" one-liners to be feminist.  All it needs is to treat its female characters as more than just tropes, and for the characters involved to respect that decision.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Review: FORBIDDEN EMPIRE (2014)


The roots of many of our most beloved fantasy tales are far darker than their Disney counterparts, but the fantasy/horror subgenre is one of the least explored.  Director Oleg Stepchenko's film FORBIDDEN EMPIRE first began production in 2005, but problems with finances and re-shoots forced the film's completion to be in 2012.  Three years later, and the film is finally becoming available for the world to watch through VOD platforms.  Loosely (let me emphasize, LOOSELY) based on Nikolai Gogol's classic story Viy, the film follows British cartographer Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng of STONEHEARST ASYLUM & BRUISER). During his scientific voyage to map out Europe and Asia, he comes across a hidden Ukranian village undergoing mysterious problems.  After a peculiar death in the village, things start turning supernatural and the entire village fears it may be cursed.  Strange creatures, witches, and a seven-horned beast all begin to plague the people of this village and our cartographer finds himself trapped in the middle.  FORBIDDEN EMPIRE is a horror/fantasy/comedy with stunning artistic direction and a pretty solid sense of humor.

A large majority of the film is dubbed over Russian, which only amplifies the strength in Jason Flemyng's performance. The dubbing isn't awful, but this film would have been much better suited for subtitles. Tackling an epic is no easy feat, but Stepchenko clearly had a vision with this film and did everything in his power to ensure he could bring it to life. The earlier sequences in the film are some of the strongest in terms of acting, staging, CGI, and humor.  There is a dinner sequence in the beginning that is remarkably fun, and filled with downright excellent creature designs. Unfortunately, some of the CGI mixing is less than to be desired, but the concepts for these creatures are absolutely fantastic.  Most of the creatures are computer generated, but the practical effects littered throughout help ground the scene, allowing the comedy to shine through. While the film may not be anywhere close to being a faithful adaption of Viy, the liberties taken actually benefit the story, making it more accessible to a modern audience.

Sadly, the pacing of this film is all over the place.  After sprinting out of the gate with the dinner sequence, the film then stutter steps throughout a majority of the film, leading up to a quick climax before tripping at the finish line.  The "flow" of the film feels less like a river and more like a pool filled with screaming toddlers.  For those unfamiliar with the short story source material, a lot of the exposition was omitted, For a Russian audience, this isn't an issue, but if you're not confident in your Russian literature, a lot of the film is going to be difficult to follow.  Most of the film is a total blast, but the inconsistencies in CGI and storytelling may allow for a frustrating film experience. However, if you want a VAN HELSING meets ONCE UPON A TIME style horror/fantasy/comedy, this one might be right up your alley.


FORBIDDEN EMPIRE will hit VOD on May 22nd, 2015.




Thursday, May 7, 2015

THE CANAL, JOSS WHEDON, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and the Importance of Not Alienating the Female Audience


Recently, the Irish ghost film THE CANAL popped up on Netflix instant watch and horror journalists immediately began singing the film's praises and recommending it on social media platforms.  Last year, THE CANAL made it on a number of "Best Of" lists and it's reception since hitting Netflix has been incredibly strong.  Film critic John Squires his review of THE CANAL at Halloween Love spoke highly of the film going as far as saying: "There’s no 2014 horror film that was more critically acclaimed than 'The Babadook,' which used tragedy-induced madness as the springboard for a truly effective horror story. It’s a shame that so few seem to have seen it, because 'The Canal' does much the same thing, and is every bit as impressive as last year’s horror darling." Comparing THE CANAL to the juggernaut that is THE BABADOOK is a bold claim to make, but one that Squires isn't alone in making.  On a few episodes of the podcast Killer POV, guests and co-hosts alike praised THE CANAL.  However, co-host Rebekah McKendry, expressed her dislike for the film in calling the film "misogynist."  More often than not, when a female horror fan refers to a horror film as misogynist, male filmgoers will either attempt to dispute the comment or claim to "not have seen the film that way."  This article isn't to slam THE CANAL as a film (it's actually pretty awesome), but to discuss the importance of not alienating the female audience.

For those playing at home, women officially make up the majority of horror film attendees.  Even though women are consuming more horror than men, horror films are still having a problem relating to its female audiences.  Using THE CANAL as an example, the film has two major female characters...and they both suck. The wife character is discovered to be cheating on her husband and the only other female character is one that clearly idolizes our male lead and delivers overt flirtation knowing that he's a married man. The rest of the women are murder victims shown in nightmares/flashbacks/film reels.  Representation is extremely important in media, and it's baffling that despite all of the evidence and statistics proving that representation = ticket sales, films are still alienating the female audience.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow


After the ongoing debates regarding Joss Whedon's representation of Black Widow in THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, io9 posted an insightful article titled "Black Widow: This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things." In the article,  writers Meredith Woerner and Katharine Trendacosta take a very mature approach to the debate of feminist representation in male dominated genres. If you read the comments section of this article, there are dozens of men responding that they cannot "understand" this argument or interpretation of the film. Art is subjective, and our life experiences influence the way we interpret the world around us. For women, we are going to see a film like THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON differently than our male counterparts, in the same sense that we will immediately take notice of the portrayal of female characters in THE CANAL.  This isn't to say that women are more "sensitive" or anything of such a sexist nature, but simply that we as humans are going to notice things quicker about the people we identify with than the ones they do not. This mentality can be applied to everything from white people not understanding why #BlackLivesMatter or non-millennials not understanding the "bored" reactions of the young teens in IT FOLLOWS. We're humans, and we all do it. The important thing is to accept and understand that it's impossible for us to understand how something will be interpreted from all angles, and be proactive about its creation.

Adult film star Jeanne Silver

An easier way to make this palatable is to look at the pornography industry.  The success of pornography is largely in the way it labels and categorizes individuals.  Ebony, BBW, Milf, Teen, Twink, Bear, etc. are all some of the more popular ways of saying, "Women of color, overweight women, women over 30, women under 25, thin gay men, bearded and 'thicker' gay men." Adult film star Jeanne Silver was notorious for using the stump of her amputated leg as a tool of penetration for her adult partners.  While the average viewer will see this as "handicapped porn," to those that have physical disabilities, this is just "porn." In the same way, white men who watch black pornography see it as "black porn," while black men will just view this as "porn."  Now, take this idea of "categorizing" to non-pornographic films.  Black Widow isn't just a "female superhero" to women, she's a superhero. The female characters in THE CANAL are not "female characters" to women, they're "characters." Obviously, we're speaking in sweeping generalizations, but the best way to understand something is to focus on the rule, and not the exception.

Still from MAD MAX: FURY ROAD


It was recently made known that the creative team behind MAD MAX: FURY ROAD brought on Eve Ensler, the creator of The Vagina Monologues as a consultant. In an interview with Esquire, Actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley said of the experience:
We were so lucky that George arranged for Eve Ensler, who wrote the Vagina Monologues, to fly in and work with us girls for about a week. We did extensive research with her. Eve herself has had a very intense life. She’s spent time in the Congo working with rape victims and women who have had unthinkable things happen to them through the power of men’s hands. We were able to pick her brain for a week. She told us the most tragic stories I’ve ever heard in my life, which gave us so much background to our characters. We really wanted to kind of showcase that. It was a privilege to have her around to make these characters something more then just five beautiful girls.
As io9 said in their article about the consultation,
Ensler’s participation also hints that Miller’s not just going for titillation but real pathos. And that he recognized that he was out of his depth and called in a real expert. Which makes us want to see how all these extra steps translate to the screen.
The fact that this sort of attention to detail isn't common practice among film sets is astounding.  This isn't to say that every film needs to consult someone as famed as Eve Ensler to make sure their film passes The Bechdel test, but the fact there are so many people working and writing about people they cannot identify with as if they truly "understand" them, is a problem.  Aspiring screenwriters, take note. If you're a male writing about the struggle of a female final girl, let a trusted female read your script. If you're a white female writing about women of color, consult an actual woman of color. If we just take the moment to realize that the best way to write about something is to be educated on the topic, this simple notion could greatly change the overall interpretation of a film to audiences at large.

Monday, April 6, 2015

THE IMPORTANCE OF CASTING WOMEN OVER 50 IN HORROR

In the world of horror fandom we have become obsessed with Scream Queens but rarely do we acknowledge the ones that aren't the ingenues that eventually grow older and seem to fade away thanks to studios wanting younger leads to carry their franchises and remakes. It's important to acknowledge the need for older women in horror movies and to celebrate their efforts and contributions. More often than not actresses over 50 are simply cast as "crazy old ladies" or simply as victims, or set pieces. It's these women that are needed the most on screen as they depict what we choose to ignore the most in society.  We as a society place no inherent value to their experience or the accomplishment of surging as long as they have. Now, when we put that mentality towards horror, we can understand why it has always seemed women over 50 might as well be dead in Horror before they even get a chance to die on screen.

Actress Jill Larson
Adam Robitel's film THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN went largely ignored until it hit Netflix and took over the end of year "best of" lists.  The story follows documentary filmmakers following a woman diagnosed with Alzheimer's but discover something far more sinister intruding into Deborah Logan's life.  One of the many reasons why this film works is due to the fact we're watching an older woman suffering from a disease that many of us have witnessed overtake our family and loved ones.  Had Robitel selected a disease like cancer that effects people of all ages, he could have easily cast the role as a twentysomething; but it would not have been the same film.  Casting Jill Larson as the titular Deborah Logan was an absolutely brilliant choice.  Larson is a veteran actress and with that comes decades of experience and talent.  We're not watching a new actress try and hold her own, we're watching a professional do what they've had years of practice to perfect.  Larson delivers with a level of commitment that would be hard pressed to match by other people working in the business.

Women over 50 have survived and endured far scarier things to get to where they are - children, the Women's Right Movement, even gravity has tried to defy their bodies. Take a pick from the multitude of experiences that temper an older woman's resolve and determination to survive and put that against any cinematic killer. Perhaps women over 50 simply refuse to play victims in real life so it's harder to transition that socially constructed belief to film? God forbid you even depict one with a healthy sex drive too. We can serve audiences more dutifully by portraying women over 50 as they really are. This can serve as the classic formula that Horror has always served; act this way, you survive - don't, and you die. This is an important tool because it shows younger audiences something to aspire to, while bringing in a new older audience with characters they can identify with. Hollywood - please listen - older people like Horror movies too. They enjoy sex and violence like the rest of us, and because of their age, they've probably seen more of it than anyone reading this.

Actress Barbara Crampton
And what of our aforementioned scream queens?  Despite what Hollywood would like us to believe, we all get older.  Creating roles for older actresses not only helps enforce stronger storytelling, but it allows the actresses we know and love to continue working long after their days of believably playing a high school cheerleader have passed.  Case in point: Barbara Crampton.  For many of us, Barbara Crampton was one of our earliest cinematic crushes after starring in films like FROM BEYOND and RE-ANIMATOR.  After taking a slight hiatus, Barbara Crampton re-emerged as talented and as beautiful as ever, but in a new character type.  Crampton's roles in films like WE ARE STILL HERE and YOU'RE NEXT have solidified her strength as a mother figure.

Our genre favorites can still perform as the need for their skills is still desired by ticket buying audiences. We all age. No one has gravity defying looks forever. It's the beauty of sharing that we take on new roles in our lives, as parents, as role models, and it's these new roles that aren't being reflected as much as thy could be in today's genre films. What happens when we say "They're too old" or "They're not sexy anymore" or "I don't think they could handle the action" is when we see desperate measures taken in the form of rampant plastic surgery and other truly horrific treatments. Isn't the prize of surviving a Horror film the chance to live life? Then why are we so afraid of depicting what happens when you do? You get old is what happens. You get wrinkles, you lose hair or what you don't lose turns grey, and all of that is okay! Film freezes a moment of time in our lives that thrives in posterity long after box office revenues are calculated, but that doesn't mean we should attempt to freeze our icons in those roles forever either.

Actress Lin Shaye
One of the arguments often presented has to due with marketability, but to say that twenty-somethings are the only people "marketable" to an audience is just not true.  Case in point: Lin Shaye.  The veteran actress has popped up in films of a wide variety of genres for decades, but she has become a horror genre staple now that she's entered an older age.  Perhaps most interesting is that Shaye's characters have never been overtly "scary old lady" style.  Her roles in films like CHILLERAMA, and 2001 MANIACS allowed her to, well, play.  In CHILLERAMA she tacked on a humorous dialect and played a role that would have normally been reserved for the late Zelda Rubenstein, while in 2001 MANIACS, she was able to manipulate a bunch of Yankee Bros with southern charm.  Most recently, her stint as the leading face of the INSIDIOUS franchise throws the "marketability" argument out the window.  INSIDIOUS is one of the most profitable horror franchises of recent memory, and Lin Shaye is the through line of all three films.  She proves that a horror film can be a financial success without relying on the "hottest star from Vine" to be on the cast list.

Why is it important to cast women over 50 in horror? Why care? Is it because men over 50 are routinely cast now in genre films, well past what older Hollywood would have considered their prime? It's a reflection of what the studio system, filmmakers and ultimately us as an audience place box office value on. Where are the female counterparts to the Liam Neesons, Stallones, Schwartzeneggars, etc? Simply by not including them in the equation factors them out almost completely.  While there's admittedly a problem casting older actresses, the problem is even worse for older actresses of color.  The three examples in this article may all share the fact they're over 50 years old, but they're also all white.  Just some food for thought.  Scary things don't just happen to perky twenty-somethings. We may celebrate in watching a slasher cut down those in the prime of their lives but we as an audience have accepted Hollywood's sliding scale of ageism to change our perceptions of what time of our lives is considered our prime. If you really want to root for a Survivor Girl, look at your mother or even your grandmother and ask, "Why aren't there horror movies with people like her in it?". Your mother has survived the very worst you could throw at her, now let her tackle Freddy or Jason or Myers.

Want tougher? Go with the Grandmother because she survived two generations of this cinema fueled patriarchy.

(special thanks to Zach Shildwachter for helping me write this article. Cancer has dramatically changed the way my brain works, and he was able to help me ensure this article was a bit more coherent.)

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

THE GUEST IT FOLLOWS: An Examination of Maika Monroe's Breakout Genre Performances


Seemingly overnight, horror fans were delivered a new goddess in which to pay their respects in the form of actress Maika Monroe.  Armed with girl-next-door good looks and the ability to deliver a sense of authenticity with her performances, Monroe has skyrocketed to the title of "Scream Queen" in the truest sense of the word.  Starting out as a professional kiteboarder, Maika Monroe's breakout role as Anna Peterson in the Adam Wingard/Simon Barrett flick THE GUEST put her on the radar of horror fans everywhere.  Quickly following with her leading role as Jay in IT FOLLOWS, and Monroe has all but solidified herself as the reigning queen of horror.  At 21-years-old, Monroe has successfully captured the post-coming of age characterization often ignored by horror films.  We've all been that age. Eager to start life on our own, ready to tackle the world head on but what usually helps widen up the most jaded and disgruntled youth is when doom and disaster meet them at their own doorstep.  Maika Monroe's "Anna" and "Jay" have both met two extremely different forms of disaster, and tackled them in two entirely different ways.  However, they both share a similar through line; sex.  Typical "final girls" tend to be virginal, sweet, and innocent, but neither of Monroe's characters follow these "rules."  Instead, Monroe represents the modern final girl, armed with 21st century feminism and sex positivity.

As Anna Peterson in THE GUEST


While THE GUEST is centered strongly around Dan Stevens' Jerry Dandridge-esque "David," THE GUEST is arguably Anna Peterson's story.  Although the audience is introduced to the family as a whole, we are experiencing the film as an outsider or through the eyes of Anna.  We as an audience know that "David" is not who he seems, and Anna is our only ally.  Anna Peterson is the small town rebel we all had a crush on in high school, but didn't say anything to out of fear that she'd kick our ass.  Monroe effortlessly gives us a sharp wit, "can't be bothered" attitude, all while maintaining the gusto of the most bad-ass female horror heroines.  Anna represents for the audience, that time in our lives when we dated someone we knew was no-good, but loved unconditionally.  The age where appealing to our preferred sex was a staple of our personality, and our clothes reflected our identities as boldly as humanly possible.  Life moves on after high school, and that awkward transitional period where we're no longer seen as children, but not respected as adults is perfectly personified with her character.  Anna's sex appeal is subtle, but important.  Thigh high leggings, short skirts, and tousled hair give her a natural desirability, but it's her attitude towards sex that skyrockets her to the modern era.  Her closest friend has sex with "David" and it's not addressed as the "end all-be all" the way most sexual encounters are presented in cinema.  She's shown with her boyfriend denying him sexual advances, not because "she's pure," but because she is a strong woman making her own decisions about sex. We know this because later on when David approaches her in only a towel, Anna is visibly flustered by her attraction towards him.  We've established that Anna is a strong and independent woman both personally and sexually, but what of her villain? Dan Stevens' "David" oozes sex. He's lust on legs. And he's coming straight towards her as Death incarnate.  Sound familiar?

As Jay in IT FOLLOWS


IT FOLLOWS is a film completely centered around sex. The promotional material would make it safe to assume Monroe's "Jay" is a total sex kitten, but she's the polar opposite.  With the exception of the scene we've all seen in the trailerss, Jay is a rather conservative dressing young woman, right down to the infamous trope of the pink dress. However, IT FOLLOWS offers the same exploration of youth being ripped into adulthood with consequences beyond their comprehension. Here, the varying attitudes and stigmas associated with sexuality are put on parade. But as we wait for the villain to pass by in that parade we realize it's been sitting curbside with the real culprit of this sexual indemnity; ourselves.  The character of Jay is the proverbial childhood crush you can never get over, but never falls into the trap of the "manic pixie dream girl."  She's assertive with her own sexual choices, but isn't defined by those decisions.  The monster of IT FOLLOWS is passed like an STD, but we see Jay's horror not as something she's "deserving" for having sex, but we instead root for her survival.  Because for many of us, this is territory we're all too familiar with but never get the chance to see explored on film.  Despite what most films have tried to tell us, sex isn't always this life-affirming experience, but many of us are defined by our sexuality.  Whether we're gay, sexually fluid, promiscuous, abstinent, or made a few mistakes in our past, it's something that many people have difficulty ever looking past.  Monroe's character in IT FOLLOWS is being tortured by something sexually driven, that only she and her other partners can see, but those close to her know that it exists.

still from IT FOLLOWS


And while it may be easy to dismiss both films as cautionary tales to keep it in your pants/don't trust strangers, both beg the question that often goes overlooked by those afflicted by their sexual proclivities - is life worth living after all this trauma? How can someone that's endured these tragedies assimilate into "polite society"? THE GUEST and IT FOLLOWS offer the same bleakness for those that managed to survive to the end. They've only cheated Death, they haven't won. David survives THE GUEST. The shapeshifting being of IT FOLLOWS is still out there. How can you keep on knowing that? Death is coming for Monroe and everything she cares about, and it won't stop. It's been engineered to never let up.

...and to do so to a snazzy fucking soundtrack.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

IT FOLLOWS: An Exercise in Sexuality

(MINOR SPOILERS: YOU KNOW THE DRILL)
“I used to daydream about being old enough to go on dates. I had this image of myself, holding hands with a really cute guy. Driving along some pretty road, listening to the radio. Having some sort of freedom, I guess.”
IT FOLLOWS tells the story of a girl named Jay (Maika Monroe), when after having sex with a prospective boyfriend named Hugh (Jake Weary), is drugged and tied to a chair.  When she awakes, Hugh explains to her that he has been harboring a secret, that a shape-shifting entity has been following him and by sleeping with her, it's going to now follow her instead.  While it would be quick to dismiss this concept as ridiculous, let us not forget that we all once believed that a razor glove wearing, burned face ghost that could shape shift and kill us in our dreams was a solid premise.  The film was released in minimal theaters and did so well, it garnered a wide release.  This never happens for independent horror films, let alone an independent horror film that is earning points solely on its merits (and not because it has a twenty-year fan base backing it up. I'm looking at you, TUSK).


Around the twitterverse and blogosphere, there has been a slight backlash calling IT FOLLOWS a run-of-the-mill "slut shaming" horror film that demonizes anyone that chooses to have sex.  Horror has a pretty terrible track record in terms of the way it approaches female sexuality and sex positivity (how many times have we heard "the slut dies first?"), but IT FOLLOWS should not be reduced to falling into this category.  Jay is a college student, but there are plenty of references to her past sexual history during her high school years.  In one instance, she dismisses having sex with a previous partner because "it's not a big deal."  She's right. It's NOT a big deal that someone had sex in high school.  For a line like this to happen in a film, a medium that has an entire subgenre dedicated to young men trying to lose it before high school graduation, this "minor moment" is extremely important.  While Jay is being terrorized for having sex, the film never puts her in the position of being at blame or deserving of her terror.  We root for this girl, we want her to overcome this monster, and by us knowing she can save herself by "passing it on," we almost want her to run around and screw everyone on the planet just to stay alive.  The film makes the audience genuinely crave a sex scene not for titillating arousal, but for survival.  Sexuality is an evolving and detrimentally important aspect of human nature, despite the fact it's almost always a misconception presented to teenagers that it's one of the most "special and sacred things two people can do."  It can be special and sacred, yes, but it doesn't have to be...and we're not bad people for having sex simply because it feels awesome.

This is where it gets complicated and why David Robert Mitchell's script is something deeper than a surface-level metaphor for STDs.  IT FOLLOWS exercises the way an audience perceives rape culture.  The film sets us up to view everything from Jay's point of view, so we feel the things she feels. Hugh, on the other hand, is presented as a huge jackass for knowingly passing on to Jay this curse.  He's vilified almost immediately for doing EXACTLY what we will later spend the entire duration of the movie hoping Jay will do.  Meaning, when Hugh has sex with her and she delivers a monologue about the way we as children glorify what we believe dating will be like when we're older, we're smitten by her honesty.  As the sound effects kick in and we notice that Hugh is up to something, we fear for her.  We as the audience are meant to identify with Jay, and since we wouldn't want to be cursed with a scary sex monster, we don't think she deserves it either.  We completely lose the perspective of, "Hugh is just trying to survive too, man."  Instead, we focus solely on Jay and wanting her to overcome everything.   Jay isn't presented as a bad person for trying to pass this thing on to unsuspecting people, but we demonize Hugh for doing the same thing.  This is 100% rape-culture, but it's the inverse of what audiences are used to being force fed.  The blame is in the right place, the perpetrator, but once Jay goes from "prey" to "predator" we have a difficult time transitioning how we feel towards her as a character from "victim" to "villain." Had the film followed Hugh instead of Jay, we would feel the same way about her that we do about Jay's "victims" of Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the men on the boat, and resident "nice-guy," Paul (Keir Gilchrist). The patriarchy hurts both sides, folks.

And what of our resident "nice guys finish last" character of Paul?  Paul started out as our "Duckie" from PRETTY IN PINK in this storyline, but shifted into Oskar from LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.  A boy so dedicated to his female crush, he is willing to live a doomed life alongside her, even if she's only with him to save herself.  It could have been easy to make his character a giant metaphor for "only have sex with the one you love and all of your problems will be solved!" but...he's not. The "It" following Jay cannot go away, and that's refreshing.  This "it" puts all sexual encounters on an even playing field.  It doesn't matter if you love someone, just "like" someone, or if you're having meaningless sex, it's all the same.  The act is always the same, the intention behind it is what changes our interpretation of said act.  In the same regard, we're meant as an audience to view Paul as this selfless hero willing to give himself over to share the burden of this horror, but he's ultimately just found a loophole to get what he's wanted for years: Jay.


Now, it's already been discussed how Jay is never presented as the villain in this film, and that's precisely why it needs to be debated. If anything, Jay is a much crueler character than Hugh because while drugging her and tying her to a chair is a problem, he at least warned her what was coming. Hugh prepared her and did the responsible "contact your sexual partners" sort of informing and Jay did not. Jay willingly gave the "it" to three dudes on a boat to give herself some time.  While this can be excused as desperation, it is very reminiscent of the way drug addicts "get their fix." In this instance, the "fix" that Jay is seeking is the comfort knowing she has a small amount of time to not look over her shoulders. This sweet, albeit temporary relief is something she craves and does not consider the long term effects of her actions on others.  Now, she does pass the "it" to two other friends (Greg and Paul) but because these friends offer themselves to her, we therefore see her as an innocent party.  It was consensual, they knew what they were getting themselves into, and we can't view her as the villain.

Jay is, at heart, a kind and empathetic soul. She cares about her friends and her family, but she doesn't take the selfless role we want from her, she instead acts just as terribly as Hugh, if not worse. Does being burdened with an awful sexually contracted legacy mean she should be forced to live on an island? No. Does it mean she should warn people before boning that she has an awful sexually contracted legacy that will follow her partner? Yes. Yes she should. 

IT FOLLOWS isn't perfect by any means, and it's actually a bit problematic at times, but it forces us to look at sexuality in horror films from an entirely different perspective.  Ultimately, I hope that someone is inspired by IT FOLLOWS and fills in the cracks the film left behind.  I am not on team "OMG BEST MOVIE EVER" but I am on team "This is going to scare the squares and make us discuss something we never take the time to talk about."

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

FILM REVIEW: SPRING (2014)

This is how you do a poster. Gorgeous

If you're not ride or die for Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, you're missing out.  The duo's debut, 2013's RESOLUTION, was one of the most inventive horror films of the year.  After watching their sophomore film SPRING, these two prove that they aren't one-hit wonders, and that they are bonafide film making powerhouses.  SPRING follows Evan, played by the incredible Lou Taylor Pucci (EVIL DEAD, CARRIERS), retreating to Italy after the mother he's been caring for passes away.  While on his trip, he meets Louise (played by the effortlessly gorgeous Nadia Hilker), and is immediately captivated.  Unfortunately, unbeknownst to Evan, Louise is harboring a secret that is both horrifying and dangerous.

Right off the bat, Justin Benson continues to prove that he's one of the smartest screenwriters working in the genre.  RESOLUTION completely spun some of the most famous genre tropes on its head, and SPRING breathes new life into the "American in a Foreign Country" sort of storyline.  In terms of gender analysis, I'd argue that Evan's character is a feminist, and his actions are completely atypical from the traditional male horror characters.  Evan is a male character that the audience can genuinely enjoy watching, and his journey is one we actually care about following.  This film very well could have been a run of the mill "fell in love with a vampire/ghost/monster/zombie" film, but it's not. It's truly in a league all its own and it's the breath of fresh air this genre has been craving.  The timing of SPRING is downright impeccable, because it never feels rushed or monotonous.

The bones of SPRING are made out of an extremely well structured story, and Benson's writing grows stronger with every installment.  In terms of the actual "horror" the mythology about Louise is clearly inspired by familiar creatures, but her transformation remains very unique.  It could have been incredibly easy to just ape off any number of the body horror/creature films of yesteryear, but SPRING still manages to maintain true to itself. SPRING may be getting comparisons to H.P. Lovecraft, but it's definitely from the mind of Justin Benson.



The "Richard Linklater meets H.P. Lovecraft" comparison merely scratches the surface of what SPRING has to offer, but it's an admittedly fair description.  Benson and Moorhead have successfully crafted one of the most aesthetically beautiful horror films of recent memory.  In addition to directing, Moorhead also worked as cinematographer and he has an exquisite style that really allows the audience to travel to whatever world he's shaping for us.  Much like our leading lady, SPRING felt somewhat otherwordly at times, and yet I wanted to wrap my arms completely around it.  By marrying the elements of horror with the audience pleasing "romantic dramedy,"  SPRING is one of those films that horror fans will come across, and it will speak to them on a level that slashers or found footage cannot ever match.  SPRING is a peculiar film, and will more than likely confuse many audience members, but for those that it speaks to, it will resonate within us for years to come.  Benson and Moorhead are proving to be an unstoppable force, and SPRING is going to help push them forward.

SPRING will be available in theaters and VOD nationwide this Friday, March 20th.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

WOMAN OF THE WEEK: NATALIE JEAN

In independent cinema, creators often wear many hats in order to make a film come alive.  However, a sad truth is that when a man is directing/writing/acting/producing, it's always praised as some impressive feat, while women who do the same are almost always targeted solely for their acting work, regardless of the other jobs they had in creating a film.  Why? Because people consistently focus on the appearance of what a woman does, and not the realities.  Normally I reserve Wednesdays for my "Woman of the Week" segment, but I saw a post on social media today that forced me to break my own rule and feature an outstanding woman in the horror genre that deserves all the praise I could possibly give. 


I first met Natalie Jean a few years ago at the Cinema Wasteland convention, when Adam Ahlbrandt was showing his feature film CROSS BEARER. Alongside him was his FX artist and co-producer Doug Sakmann, along with co-producer/star Natalie Jean.  I was immediately impressed by her.  I was first drawn in by her radiating beauty, but it was when she began to speak about her job as a producer that she had me hooked.  Last April I was fortunate enough to become closer to her on a personal level, and this girl is the real deal.  Her performance in THE CEMETERY was one of my favorites of 2014, and there aren't many women out there hustling the way Natalie Jean is hustling.  Talented, passionate, driven, intelligent, stunning, and relentless, Natalie Jean is everything I love about independent cinema and women in horror.

Yes, Natalie Jean is a model and an actress, but she's also a decorated stunt woman, and extremely talented producer.  With credits that include films like Darren Aranofsky's BLACK SWAN and Starz' series THE CHAIR, Natalie Jean isn't some random chick who covered herself in blood for a shoe-string budget film.  Director Adam Ahlbrandt is starting to make a name for himself in the independent horror circuits with his films CROSS BEARER and THE CEMETERY, but over and over again...Natalie Jean (the star AND one of the producers of both of these films) is never given any sort of accolades for her work other than being a "hot actress."   Rue-Morgue magazine recently did a feature on Ahlbrandt's films, and yet again, the star and co-producer was thrown aside as some random actress and nothing more. Well, Natalie Jean finally had the strength to speak up about a problem that most women in the industry keep mum about.

From her official instagram account @thenattiejean:

"Congrats out to Adam and all involved for the great writeup in Rue Morgue this issue, you deserve all of it and more.

To Rue Morgue (and any of the other reputable circulations I've encountered side-stepping the roles of our chicks) one of the unnamed gaggle of 'detestable, low-life cock-sucking coke-snorting strippers', as you phrased it, is called Heather and I played her. Beyond playing Heather in Cross Bearer and Andrea in The Cemetery, I also co-produced- and at many times solely produced- both features. From March of 2011 through March of 2015 I've developed these little monsters from the ground up, often performing the work of a full production team- happily, it's something I happen to be pretty alright at. When some of the other producers bailed entirely I began draining all the cash I'd made into them, until that ran out & I had to sell my car and my stunt equipment, then abandon my apartment in Los Angeles and move to Pennsylvania to fund every pickup, insert, and piece of ADR, then run every shoot from tits to tail until they were done to satisfaction. This was followed by pouring even more cash & time into promotions, film festivals, and conventions, until it rendered me homeless. Still, I worked from my cherished Macbook hobo-style seven days a week, eating meals from Wawa with nickels and dimes & falling farther into the aether of stress-induced madness. I gave up a good three years of my life, royally screwing my burgeoning stunt career in the process, and putting all my own projects on hold.

I don't tell a lot of people these things (until now I guess). I never say shit when a guy is given credit for producing these movies, or when I'm tossed off as a nameless grab-and-stab whore in a review. No, because even though I am one of two people without who those films would not exist, I am deliriously grateful for all the love from the fans, for the film brothers who've stood up for me without me asking, to my family for not disowning me, to the colleagues who opened their doors when I had nowhere to go. And I would do it all again. But I shouldn't just take it. No gal in my position should. I should defend what I can do, what I will do, what I have done. So in honor of Heather, the non-coke-snorting, non-dick-sucking, not-whore character who means so very much to me, I invite all transgressors to eat one heaping spoon of pig shit, a modest fraction of the shit I've eaten over the last four years. Thanks! 


Oh if only that article would have come out during 'Women in Horror Month'. To dream.
"


Here's the thing. Natalie Jean's story is unfortunately all too common.  Our genre claims to be one that treats women as equals, and that's simply not true.  I've personally seen dozens of horror news outlets forget to mention Natalie Jean as a producer in their reviews for THE CEMETERY and CROSS BEARER, and that's a despicable shame.  Women in Horror Recognition month ended three days ago, and we already have respectable news sources being less-than-stellar to female horror creators.  However, many women keep tight lipped about their treatment in fear of looking "difficult" or "unappreciative" or "bitchy."  It's a ridiculous unspoken standard that many of us have to deal with every single day, and we're all expected to just deal with it.  

Now, I can already hear the other side of the argument.  "If she wanted to be taken seriously as a producer, maybe she shouldn't post the photos that she does."  I'm sorry, but this is a completely sexist and slut-shaming statement that needs to end.  Natalie Jean is a producer, yes, but she's also a MODEL.  Heidi Klum is one of the most respected creators on the planet, and she's posed in far less than what Natalie Jean wears in her photos.  Why can't Natalie Jean be a dynamite producer in addition to a super sexy model?  Why can't she be a cut throat and intelligent producer while accepting challenging acting roles?  The whole "virgin/whore" dichotomy that society (and horror films) likes to encourage is absolutely the problem.  Natalie Jean's role as a stripper in CROSS BEARER has no bearing on her ability to be a producer.  However, that's all anyone focuses on.  Forget the fact the credits state that she was a co-producer, all any news sites want to focus on is a character she played rather than the job she accomplished.

Yesterday, Bad Ass Digest posted a moving article from screenwriter Todd Farmer about how he went from Hollywood screenwriter, to living in his car in a pretty short period of time.  Everyone has been talking about how strong and inspiring Farmer is for allowing the public to see this side of him and the obstacles he's overcome...and yet Natalie Jean has done something similar and she's reduced to being compare to a character she played in a film, as a "detestable, low-life cock-sucking coke-snorting stripper."  I greatly respect Natalie Jean as a performer, but it was her bold statement speaking out against an injustice that many of us face that earned her the right to join the ranks of Woman of the Week.  Way to go, lady.

Friday, February 13, 2015

UNEXPECTEDLY FEMINIST HORROR FILMS: FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)

(NOTE: This edition of UNEXPECTEDLY FEMINIST HORROR FILMS is a modified version of an earlier article on Day of the Woman: "Pamela Voorhees: The Most Obvious Plot Twist of All Time.")


Before everyone's favorite hockey mask wearing mutant son began terrorizing Camp Crystal Lake, his Mommy Dearest was the original slayer of sinful counselors.  The cable knit sweater wearing killer was a mother scorned, hoping to avenge the unnecessary death of her precious son Jason.  Pamela Voorhees was dealt a rather difficult hand.  Enduring a pregnancy at the age of sixteen while residing in a trailer with a verbally and physically abusive man, her son would later be born hydrocephalic, forcing her to home-school him while she herself was still a child.  When you really put it into perspective, she had a child at sixteen without the assistance of MTV or her parents. 
 Sixteen year old girls are some of the most self-absorbed individuals on the planet, and she was responsible for raising a deformed and learning disabled child.  Jason was her entire world.  Growing up without the support or interaction with anyone other than his mother would cause a lot of psychological issues for both Jason and Pamela, and it was after his death that she began to hear the voices telling her to kill those responsible for his untimely demise.  We know this now after twelve movies, a series of novels, a line of comic books, and countless other forms of media.  But what about the original FRIDAY THE 13TH?  Without any of this back story, finding out the killer in the film that started a franchise was actually a woman was shocking for its time and still remains as one of the most "Oh shit" reveals in horror history.  While using a female reveal as a shock treatment is not the most equal of treatments, the fact that the killer remains genderless (aka-equal) until the final moments helps make FRIDAY THE 13TH unexpectedly feminist.



Flashback to good ol' 1958 when the "Camp Blood" killings started to take place, we're given a very slight, but very clear sign that the killer is a woman.  We see our unsuspecting, horny camp counselors sneaking away with the intentions to make the beast with two backs.  Their moments of passion are being spied upon by an unseen force, that makes itself known and then kills the two lovers.  When the two kids notice the figure, they immediately resort to claiming their innocence rather than showing their fear.  Right away, we know that these two personally know their assailant.  The fact that they weren't afraid of physical danger gives the impression that the two are backing away from either an adult or higher-ranked female.  Humans respond differently to adults in power depending on their sex.  We worry that our mothers will yell at us and that our fathers will take a belt to our asses for being disobedient.  Or, if we want to go by the famous Margaret Atwood quote, ""Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them."  Definitely so for 1958 before the "don't beat the children" PC way of mind came to fruition. Historically speaking, in 1958 men of authority were allowed to physically punish those beneath them, while women were in a position of trying to be doting and compassionate.  It isn't until the knife is shown that either of the counselors show any sort of life-determining fear.  However, the films of this time hadn't really ever shown a female killer, so the audience assumes the person behind the killings is a man.

The first casualty of the Camp Crystal Lake re-opening belonged to kitchen helper, Annie.  She doesn't even make it to the camp when she meets her maker.  Although the 1970s/1980s were a time where hitchhiking wasn't viewed nearly as dangerous as it is now, Annie isn't an idiot.  When she is first given a ride closer to the camp, she's in the car with a man.  The things they talk about are a bit more gruesome and sarcastic (the camp's history, mild banter about intelligence) but she gets in the car with this stranger after given the sense of security from the other diners that he's an okay guy.  Once he drops her off, she's later catches a ride from an unseen individual driving a jeep.  Once she gets in the car, her demeanor completely changes.  She becomes more smiley (if that's even possible) and begins talking about children and her dreams.  The person in the car clearly looks like someone that would agree with her discussion of "I don't like when people call them kids" or she wouldn't bring up the conversation.  Not to mention, her body posture completely changes into a far more relaxed position in the vehicle compared to the closed off position she previously held while in the truck with the man.  It isn't until the unseen driver begins speeding that she looks anything but calm.  After jumping out of the vehicle and being chased through the woods, she even pleads with her captor and keeps a very calm and solemn voice.  It sounds very similar to the way children cower in fear towards their mothers, rather than aggressively panic from their fathers.  Yet, audiences are still convinced the killer is probably a big, scary, man.  Anything men can do, women can do?

There are mentions of "fires" at the beginning of the film, and psychologically speaking, women who commit arson are almost always motivated by revenge.  Moving through the film, we see other characteristics that showcase Mama Voorhees to clearly be a female killer. All of the male "slasher" killers were all big fans of the "slash and dash" method of killing, but instead of just slash and dashing up her victims, Mama Voorhees was very calculated.  All of her kills were carefully constructed and executed perfectly.  There were no victims stabbed once and running to hide in closets with clothes hangers.  There was no opportunity to escape her carnage.  Once she had you in her sights, she was taking care of business.  It's the idea of planning and plotting that we normally see with final girls like Nancy Thompson using for survival, but instead used in to take out the victims of Pamela Voorhees. We don't often see this behavior from male killers, but we definitely see it from Pamela Voorhees.  The only time she ever "slips up" is when she gets too distracted talking about her baby boy and why she couldn't let the camp re-open.  If she wasn't so entranced with the love of her son, Alice never would have escaped.  Perhaps my favorite tactic used, is when she even went as far as impersonating the voice of a child in order to lure out one of her female  victims, knowing that she wouldn't be able to ignore a crying child.
Someone never listened to TRAPT...
Considering this was one of the first times we were introduced to a "final girl" character, the audience, male and female, is viewing the film through the lens of Alice, a woman.  Meaning, all of the characters are forced to identify with her struggle, regardless of their own gender.   "But, but, all of the women who die in FRIDAY THE 13TH are punished simply for not being good girls!"  True, but all of the men who die in FRIDAY THE 13TH are all murdered for the exact same reason.  This isn't a film where only promiscuous females are murdered, promiscuous males are murdered just as quickly.  Like most slasher films, FRIDAY THE 13TH is a morality tale, but the archetypal stock characters seen in latter slasher films hadn't been established quite yet.  The male counselors and the female counselors are all on an even playing field, and I'd predict that had a male character been the "moral" one instead of Alice, he would have made it out alive just the same.  It may have taken until Part 4 for a male to be the sole survivor, but FRIDAY THE 13TH was heavily inspired by John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN, and it was almost a standard to have a female victor over a male villain.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

UNEXPECTEDLY FEMINIST HORROR FILMS: JOHN CARPENTER'S 'THE THING' (1982)

John Carpenter arguably created his masterpiece with THE THING. Although it remains within the science fiction subgenre, THE THING also falls within the same realm as a monster movie or a body-horror film. Considering the main antagonist of THE THING, is non-human and the rest of the characters are male, many people forget that THE THING is also a great example of feminism.  By definition, feminism the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.  Emphasis on EQUALITY.  The patriarchy (or a male-dominated society) doesn't just hurt women, it hurts men.  John Carpenter's THE THING is an excellent film to analyze masculinity in a patriarchal society.

The story of John Carpenter's THE THING follows a group of Americans studying in the Arctic tundra that come across a group of Norwegian soldiers chasing after a dog.  After the Norwegian helicopter traveling to destroy the dog explodes, the Americans take the dog as their own without any explanation as to why the Norwegian’s were chasing the dog in the first place.  Shortly after, the Americans investigate the Norwegian’s base camp only to discover the mutated remains of what appears to be two individuals.  Simultaneously, the dog they have brought to their camp mutates, attacks the other dogs, and attacks the crew coming to destroy it.  The Americans find themselves in the midst of an invasion from an alien capable of imitating other life forms and attacking anything that attempts to stop it.

The men in THE THING can safely be assumed to be very masculine characters.  As many of them are soldiers or working for the military, their livelihoods alone give the impression that all of these men would identify as masculine.  However, not all of the men in John Carpenter’s THE THING are completely devoid of feminine qualities.  In the original screenplay, Bill Lancaster’s character descriptions note that many of the male characters aren’t completely alpha-males.  An alpha-male is defined as the individual in the community with the highest rank.  In order for there to be a hierarchy, there must be a system of classification. For instance, the character Blair is described as “sensitive”, Palmer is said to have “slight sixties acid damage” and Norris is suffering from “an incipient heart condition”.  With Lancaster choosing to showcase these men as imperfect and vulnerable, it allowed for a ranking system.  To contrast from the vulnerable men, the character Childs was described as “Six-Four. Two-fifty. Black. A mechanic. Can be jolly. But don’t mess.”  These words clearly showcase Childs as the epitome of an alpha-male character, leading the audience to immediately associate him as a leader, and a force to be reckoned with.

RJ MacReady, the undisputed leader of the film is originally seen isolated from the rest of the group in a shack.  This action shows that MacReady is the lone wolf separating him from the rest of the pack, establishing his dominance through distance.  Speaking ethnologically, alphas may achieve their status by means of superior physical prowess and/or by way of social efforts and building alliances within the group.  This sort of classification would lead Childs towards being the alpha-male, but as MacReady doesn’t follow through the traditional norms, it allows him the potential for achieving alpha-male status.  At this point of the film, the exposition alone has already set a hierarchy that would normally remain unchallenged if it were not for the intrusion of the “thing”.  The male community remains unfazed after interacting with the Norwegians, as the American male community was associating with a Norwegian male community.  This further emphasizes the sociological definition that masculinity is not barred by cultural differences.  The men are comfortably living in their hierarchical stasis with no real need to try and change their positions.  Once the “thing” is presented into their environment, the hierarchical positions begin to change drastically.  As previously stated, many times alpha-males will attempt to gain status by violent means.  The question remains, why would the “thing” act as such an impacting variable?  If masculinity is a direct response to femininity, and the struggle for alpha-male status is a power struggle for men when their positions are questioned, it would only be assumed that the “thing” is of a female species.  The male gender is a control in this environment, and only violent responses in an attempt to gain alpha-male status occurs once the presence of a female is known.  At the very beginning of the film, the first sign of aggression shown in the film is from MacReady, after he loses a game of digital chess, voiced by a woman.

The alien “thing” is a shape-shifting creature capable of absorbing the body and creating a perfect imitation of whatever it has absorbed.  This is clearly an attempt to showcase the idea that women are a constant threat to the male status quo.  Women can "absorb" an aspect of a male, and produce a similar life force.  Simply put, it's a giant metaphor for childbirth.  Without this invasion from the female alien, the men at the camp would be living in nothing more than a monotonous lifestyle in the frozen tundra.  It takes a woman to threaten the very livelihood of these men and cause a rift into their common activities.  As the men struggle to determine who remains human and who is nothing more than an alien imitation, violence is used almost as a currency.  For example, when MacReady is accused of being the “thing”, he secludes himself (yet again) in a room filled with explosive devices and a brightly lit flame.  He threatens to blow up the entire base camp if anyone tries to kill him or hurt him.  MacReady is not only defending his status as a human, but also maintaining his role as alpha-male by use of ultimate force.  The threat of extreme action through violence is enough to force the rest of the men to accept defeat, and back down.  In a patriarchal society, brawn is almost always valued higher than brains, which keeps MacReady at the top of the totem pole, and the rest scrambling to align themselves under his leadership.
Once MacReady has gained control of the men and established himself as the alpha-male, it is only a matter of time before the rest of the men begin to battle for higher power positions.  In the infamous “blood test” scene, MacReady has tied all of the men to a couch and has taken samples of their blood, to which he will apply heat in an attempt to force a reaction from the “thing”.  The character Clark resists and tries to use violence to take down MacReady, only to be shot and killed in defense by MacReady.   With his authority established over the other male characters, MacReady then asserts his male authority over the female “thing.”  Before testing the blood he says, “When a man bleeds, it’s just tissue; but blood from one of you things won’t obey.”  This statement can be argued as MacReady drawing a parallel to the menstrual cycle of a woman, in that women are able to bleed consistently for days at a time while menstruating without dying.  To put it simply, the blood doesn’t obey the “laws” of nature.  This female alien is showing its variability with its blood, forcing the hostile response of the male counterparts.  While the remaining men sit on the couch, they begin to use different tactics to assert their masculinity in the hopes that MacReady will release them.  Childs uses a guilt tactic by calling MacReady a murderer, in a sense, emasculating him by pointing out his inability to use reasoning behind his actions.  Alas, his efforts are useless as MacReady fails to remove any of the men unless their blood is proven to be "right."  Again, his ability to withstand ridicule keeps him in the powerful male position.
Towards the end of the film, the final battle between MacReady and the alien occurs.  Once the alien transformation of Blair rises from the ground, as if being “birthed” by Mother Nature, MacReady fights back with a phallic object, a stick of dynamite, to destroy the beast.  His overtly masculine role is confirmed by this action, showcasing that his successful means to destroy a female creature, was by inserting something in her that resembled the male genitalia. Throughout the film, the assertion of male dominance between the characters is done through violent measures.  In a constant battle for alpha-male status only to be taken by MacReady, John Carpenter’s THE THING delivers a startling look at the way men behave when within the confines of other men, and the struggle for power between men in a patriarchal society during times of crises in response to a threat of a feminine nature.  Examining the expected gender roles of men and the disastrous results it causes makes THE THING an unexpectedly feminist movie.  Had both the men and the female "thing" been presented as equals, we wouldn't have had a conflict...or a movie.
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