Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Oh, Hey There...

...I know, I know, I come back long enough to say "I'm still here!" and then vanish again.

Basically, a few things are slowing down my work on this thing at the moment.

1) My job. It's not as nuts as it was in the fall (literally the busiest I have ever been), but I tend to stay late at the office to write my posts on a desktop computer because my laptop's uncomfortable for long stretches of typing, and there are seasonal things going on right now that keep me working well into the time I usually have set aside for writing this thing. There are basically three days during the week I can stay late, and they've all been occupied the last couple of weeks.

2) The length of my retrospective. Basically, I can write up a single movie pretty quickly, but doing three movies in one block means three times as long writing. So there's sort of a bottleneck effect. And yeah, I kind of want to keep doing the Hellraiser movies in blocks of three, because I think it's important to sort of see how they relate (or don't) to each other, and that's easier for me to examine in a single piece than doing separate ones that have to link back to each other over and over. Once I'm done tackling these films, I can go back to single posts.

3) Gotta be honest, the middle three Hellraiser films are kind of a bummer. The fourth is actually - well, "good" might be stretching it a little, but there's promise, there's a good idea there largely betrayed by a low budget and (according to the director, at least) attempts to make it more commercial. But both the fifth and sixth films are repurposed scripts that had the Hellraiser "mythology" inserted into them after the fact. The fifth is awful, easily as bad as the third, and the sixth (while also largely having the same conceit as the fifth, suggesting that there was a minute there where everyone was trying to write the next Jacob's Ladder), while being a much better movie - hell, probably better than even the second - is also sort of dispiriting in that although it's a good movie, knowing that it was a retooled script still sort of bares the lie. It makes it obvious how little it mattered by this point that the film be a creative work. It was something not to be made, but to be assembled from whatever parts were lying around. That the results were actually not bad at all is almost secondary, and it's sort of hard to write about something so nakedly and callously mercenary. I can only hope that the final three are so bad that I can just rant at length and abandon.

So yeah, I'm still here. Again. Just wrestling with the process.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Some Thoughts About Cheap Shock

(Note: I get pretty spoilery about the films Martyrs and Frontiere(s) in this post, and if you haven't yet seen Martyrs, close this tab immediately and go watch it first.)

So while I'm assembling part 2 of my survey of the entire extant Hellraiser franchise (those posts take longer because they're, like, three times as long as a regular one), I'm also trying to keep an eye on new stuff coming out, which lead me to a trailer for a Turkish film called Baskin (which looks really promising). That film is not the point of this short post as much as the comparisons it garnered were. So it's getting compared to Martyrs and the New French Extremity in general. Which definitely gets it a slot on my to-check-out list.

But it also got me thinking that within the canon of the New French Extremity (which, let's face it, sort of ended up fizzling out, at least as horror went), there's a great opportunity to think about the use of graphic imagery by examining two films - Martyrs, and Frontiere(s). The first is, I think, easily one of the best horror films of the 21st century so far, and the second is, I think, a pretty big disappointment. Both deal in graphic violence and helpless people experiencing prolonged suffering in close detail. And, as a result, both have been criticized as trafficking in cheap shocks, as is often the case when a filmmaker - especially a genre filmmaker - uses graphic imagery. It's dismissed as an attempt at cheap heat, getting attention by being outrageous instead of doing something substantive. 

And so here's the thing - by comparing these two films, I think we can usefully distinguish between graphic violence as a substitute for good storytelling, and graphic violence as a tool for good storytelling.

Martyrs is, at its heart, a movie strongly concerned with ideas of suffering, transcendence, and sacrifice. Lucie begins the film escaping from unseen tormentors, at whose hands she suffered. As it transpires, her tormentors were using suffering as a tool to hasten transcendence, to follow the examples of history's martyrs to try and find out what lies beyond death. Martyrs sacrifice themselves for a higher purpose, and in their suffering they are offered a glimpse of the divine. And when Lucie catches up to her tormentors, we see that she continues to suffer, haunted by the specter of a woman she failed to free before she fled. As martyrs do, she mortifies her own flesh in penance for her sin. And when Lucie's tormentors catch up to her, Anna steps in and takes her place - Anna sacrifices herself, and we are walked through the stages of Anna's martyrdom - the beatings, the starvation, the flaying - on her way to transcendence. She suffers in Lucie's place, she martyrs herself, and she sees what lies beyond (or perhaps not - her final words, whatever they are, might very well have been a lie intended to deny the people who tortured her any satisfaction). All of this - Lucie's inner torment, her revenge, and Anna's martyrdom - is presented graphically, yes, but it is at every point contextualized. We see this because we need to see this - we need to see the cost exacted on Lucie, on Anna, just as audiences for the medieval passion plays of which Martyrs feels like a modernization needed to see the ugly details of Christ's sacrifice, to truly know what the cost was. How do you tell a story about martyrdom without knowing what the martyr endured? Here, then, the graphic violence was a tool for good storytelling, one with textual and metatextual justification.

By contrast, Frontiere(s) is largely a series of bloody scenes attached loosely by a common set of characters. It's about a group of criminals (why their criminality is important isn't really articulated beyond "we have to get out of Paris, like, now," nor are the actual riots they were escaping) who flee a rioting city for an isolated country inn, apparently run not by cannibals, not by neo-Nazis, but by neo-Nazi cannibals. I pondered the ridiculousness of this in my original post, and time hasn't really given me any additional insight beyond "well, if one of these two things is bad, then both together must be really bad." It's like the narrative equivalent of an amplifier that goes to eleven. Once they all get to the inn, they're captured and tortured and/or killed for food. It's mostly just moving characters from point to point, where different bloody set pieces occur, and if there's a thematic reading to be had, I didn't really see it. I suppose it suggests notions of racial superiority leading to a level of dehumanization that literally makes other people into cattle, maybe you could make an argument for widening class divides that sees a poor rural class resorting to cannibalism to survive - to literally consume city dwellers whose excesses are figuratively consuming them - but these are not things clearly articulated in the film. I am mostly just looking at the elements - racial purity, a rural setting with urban characters, and cannibalism - and thinking of some things that might emerge. The violence in Frontiere(s) signifies nothing other than "this is what happens when helpless people run into neo-Nazi cannibals." There's a lot of blood, and a lot of screaming (which seems to be the director's thing) but there isn't really much of a "why" to it beyond "because they were there, and because this is what bad people do." The antagonists are caricatured because their extremity justifies the extremity of their actions, and the extremity of their actions exists free of context. All of the blood and pain and people hung on hooks, butchered, are there because they are. They are spectacle. They are the cheap shock for which even films like Martyrs are criticized. 

So I think it's a useful heuristic - does the violence in a film illustrate, elaborate upon, or articulate something about the characters or the human condition? Or are the characters designed and arranged in such a way as to rationalize instances of violence? Anna and Lucie's relationship, their history, they tell a story before a single drop of blood is shed, but the four young criminals of Frontiere(s) are only people to the extent that it gets them to the inn for the bloodshed to occur.

Does the violence help tell a story, or is the story a framework for violence? I think there's a difference, and mistaking the former for the latter is a problem in how people read horror film.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Retrospective: The Hellraiser Series, Part 1

I’ve made no secret over the course of this thing I’m writing that I don’t like the franchising of horror film. I mean, generally turning films into franchises is a bad idea when they aren’t really built for it, because it seems like over the course of any given series, you run the risk of taking what was interesting about the initial film and diluting it into a series of fanservicey gestures that end up not so much being films as allusions to previous films (“remember when this one character said that one thing two movies back?”), or the most superficial aspects of the initial film being reiterated until subsequent films are just expressions of some very basic narrative hooks (“what Rube Goldbergian demises await the hapless teens in this installment of Final Destination?”) instead of coherent stories. 

That sucks regardless. However, I think when it comes to horror it’s even worse, because part of what lends horror film power is the element of mystery, of the unknown, the unexplained, the unresolved. The best, most powerful horror is the horror that denies you the safety or comfort of understanding it. The best horror leaves us stranded in the dark when all is said and done. And franchises do not operate on that principle. Every subsequent film begins with us knowing a little more about the antagonist at its core, every subsequent film fleshes out the world that contains it a little more, every subsequent film leans more and more heavily on a gimmick or hook. Franchises explain, explore, and exploit. And so in horror, what begins as a story about a monstrous unknown invariably turns into crummy fantasy (e.g., the Nightmare on Elm Street films) or soap opera (e.g., the Saw films).

So yeah, fuck a franchise. But so far, I’ve based this argument on partial evidence. I confess to having crapped out of the Saw series halfway through the fourth one out of boredom, and there were...what, three or four more after that? Same with the Nightmare on Elm Street films - I’ve seen the first three and New Nightmare, but I know I’m missing a couple. So I’m going to try to work my way through a franchise, start to finish, by examining one that at least grabbed me the first time around.

I’m going to look at the nine films (to date) made in the Hellraiser franchise. I’ve seen the first four already just as a casual viewer, and the early ones were much more important to me as a young filmgoer and horror enthusiast than the Elm Street or Friday the 13th films ever were, so there’s a sense of commitment for me that I just don’t feel with those others. These films definitely trace an arc from successful to bargain-bin, and I want to know how that happened and if there’s anything to be gleaned from them in this day and age.


Because there’s nine of them, I’m going to do three posts, each covering three films. Just as fair warning, they’re going to get pretty spoilery. So, without further adieu, let’s tackle the first three...

Monday, October 5, 2015

Coming Soon, To, Well, This Place Right Here

I apologize for the quiet of late - being that this is a hobby, it's one of the first things to get thrown under the bus when other demands on my time become onerous, and between work, and Wes Craven's untimely death (right when I was getting ready to pick apart some of his biggest contributions to horror film) and my annual three or four days sick in bed and work being a bear, this thing of mine has been spending more time getting thrown under the bus than an extra in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Which is not to say that I haven't been doing anything. In fact, I'm finally writing up my notes on the beginning of the most ambitious thing I've done here yet (not that that's saying much, but still) - I'm planning a three-part retrospective of the Hellraiser films, all nine of them. I've watched the first three and am in the process of writing the post. It's taking me longer because I'm covering three films instead of one and today was the first time in awhile I've been able to devote any time at all to it, but it's happening.

I'm going to watch all nine of them and share my thoughts about each in turn and what it means as part of a larger narrative, as well as a case study of the problems of franchising that isn't me copping out halfway through film 4 like my take on the Saw films was. Given that the ninth film, Hellraiser: Revelations, was a found-footage quickie made on a shoestring to keep the rights from expiring, I can't imagine it's going to be a breathless paean to the series' quality. In fact (spoiler!), they kind of start sucking immediately after the first film. But I have tremendous respect and affection for the first one, so this is happening.

Just not...you know...today.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Well, This Is Awkward

So in planning what was supposed to be this week's posts for this thing I write right here, I planned a commentary on the Nightmare on Elm Street films, having watched the comprehensive documentary about them, Never Sleep Again. It's a good cautionary tale about the pitfalls of franchising, neatly illustrating many of the things I described as problems when I used the Saw films as an example. Needless to say, I am not very complimentary in my notes.

And then I decided, since I was already thinking about the Nightmare on Elm Street films, that it might be time to revisit Wes Craven's New Nightmare, which I found sort of dull when I originally saw it a year or two after it came out. And I can't honestly say I did a complete reversal on it.

I planned all of this, and the day before I planned to post the piece based on Never Sleep Again, Wes Craven passed away.

So now...doesn't feel like the time to criticize films he made. Wes Craven made some really important films, and it feels a little unseemly to, now of all times, pick apart stuff he did. So that will be for a later week, after some time has passed. All I'll say right now is that it's a damn shame that nobody since him has seemed to know what to do with the ideas in the first Nightmare film, New Nightmare was a great idea that was hamstrung from reaching its full potential by what were probably commercial considerations, I really need to watch Last House on the Left one of these days, and Scream is one of the few slasher films I really like. R.I.P.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Monsters: Dark Continent: Welcome To The Occupation

(As a heads-up, this one gets a bit spoilery.)

This one’s going to be a bit different from most of my posts. See, usually when I write something up, I’m working from notes that I jotted down immediately after watching the movie. Just enough to capture what I see as the important points before they slip my mind, and then I flesh them out into a post anywhere from 3 to 6 days later depending on my schedule. This one, though, I’m doing completely off the top of my head, two days after watching it, not so much because I don’t need the notes as because it won’t quite get out of my brain. I didn’t originally plan to watch it with a writeup in mind, but it won’t get out of my head.

Whatever I was expecting out of Monsters: Dark Continent as a sequel to Monsters, it sure as shit wasn’t this. And I’m still not entirely sure if that’s a good or bad thing. It’s been awhile since a movie left me this unsettled.

Monsters was the story of a world in which the crash-landing of a deep-space probe returning to Earth ended up infesting Mexico with alien life forms, none of which seem to be intelligent. Some of them were dangerous, and there were deaths. So life went on, much as always, only we built an even larger wall on the U.S./Mexico border, and Mexico is divided by the alien-infested “Infected Zone.” Two people - stranded in Mexico by bad luck and bad decisions - have to make their way north to the border before the U.S. starts carpet-bombing the shit out of Mexico to stop the infestation, and this means making their way through the Infected Zone.

Now, it’s ten years later, and the monsters are just as much - if not more - a fact of the world as they were before. They’ve spread, because apparently carpet-bombing Ground Zero didn’t do jack shit. So we’re...still carpet-bombing them, and the story has shifted to the Middle East, where they’re all over the deserts. And we meet Michael, Frankie, Karl, and Shaun, four friends who have grown up rough in Detroit and enlisted in the military because they really wanted to get the fuck out of Detroit and the fates that surely awaited them there. We meet them on their last day in Detroit before they ship out.

They’re going to go kill monsters.

At least, this is what they think. What they discover is that monsters are few and far between, and life in the occupied zone is much like war always is - long stretches of tedium interrupted by moments of pants-shitting terror, courtesy of the local insurgents. Basically, these are people sick and tired of American bombs missing the mark and flattening villages and killing families in their futile quest to wipe out the literal herds of alien creatures roaming the desert. The real danger here isn’t mammoth Lovecraftian horrors, it’s IEDs and sniper fire and the smoldering hostility of a people who never asked for the armies to come in the first place. I was afraid from the trailers that this would be an ooh-rah action film where badass soldiers mow down herds of aliens, utterly missing the point of the first film, but that wasn’t the case at all. Just as in the first film, the monsters aren’t really the point, nor is the point necessarily how life and people have changed since the monsters came. It’s that really, the presence of monsters doesn’t change things all that much at all.

But the first film was hopeful, ultimately about connection and understanding. I’ve glibly described it to people as “Before Sunrise with giant alien beasts” and though that’s definitely a smartassed take on it, it’s not really wrong. This film, as befits its change of locale, is unremittingly bleak. Our four protagonists aren’t unsympathetic, but they’re not not unsympathetic either. They’re crude and aggressive, guys from a rough neighborhood who have been trained up into killers. They spend their last night snorting coke, drinking, smoking weed, and fucking strippers. They go to a dogfight with an ugly twist - a pitbull versus a small alien. It’s relentlessly ugly and ends with both animals dead, a long unblinking shot on the bloodied corpses, dead for no good reason. This is the world they think they are leaving behind. When they get to Camp Renegade, their base of operations, Sergeants Forrest and Prater explain the situation. They’re going to be spending more time patrolling the towns and trying to root out insurgents and dodge IEDs than they are taking down monsters. And then the mission comes, the one they’ve been waiting for, the one that takes them into heavily monster-infested territory to find out what happened to a patrol that hasn’t reported back.

And it’s this point, as you might expect, as everything spirals into nightmare, as everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and soon enough, we’re almost inhabiting a nightmare version of the first film - two people wandering through a foreign landscape, among suspicious or openly hostile locals, dodging humans and monsters alike in search of home and some sort of answer. But just as the two people in the first film are drawn closer together by their journey, the two men here are driven further and further apart - from each other, and from their essential humanity, in the service of survival and a mission brief that becomes, as things continue, simultaneously the least important thing facing them and the only sure anchor to certainty they have. And instead of being witnesses to death and horror, they are complicit agents in death and horror. They are the ones leaving bodies behind, not so much the monsters. It’s a static film, with lots of voice overs and long closeups and long vista shots. It’s long stretches of nothing partitioned by moments of blood, fire, and panic. It is corpses upon corpses, the wreckage of our good intentions. And always, the monsters roar in the background, and the jets thunder, and the fire rolls over the dunes, and this dark reflection of the first film leaves me shaken at its unrelenting grimness, at the way nothing is spared. This is just how the world is now, and you are in it. You are bathing in ashes and death, and that will never change.

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Friday, August 21, 2015

The Exorcist: Iconography and Iconoclasm

I have a confession to make: I have never seen The Exorcist before now.

I know, I know, it’s one of those “what do you mean you haven’t seen it?” movies. It’s so indelibly embedded in popular culture that it’d almost take a conscious act of avoidance to not see it. You’d have to work at that shit. And yet, here we are. I read the novel on which it was based when I was younger (probably too young, come to think of it), so it’s not like I’m totally unfamiliar with the story, it just always fell into that category of “oh yeah, I should watch that someday.” For better or worse, it’s part of the canon, and sometimes when things are part of the canon, it’s harder to muster the enthusiasm for them that you can for newer, more potentially surprising material. But in the process of writing my last post on Asmodexia, I started thinking about my general experiences with demonic possession movies (mostly positive, all told), and part of that was “oh shit, I’ve never seen The Exorcist.” It seemed like it was time.

If by some chance you haven’t seen it, it’s the story of actress Chris MacNeil and her preteen daughter Regan. Chris is in Washington DC shooting some sort of student-protest movie that has her, as a teacher, exhorting students to “change the system from within,” and it’s as cringeworthy as it sounds. The director’s a drunken prick named Burke Dennings, and Chris juggles his lack of boundaries, planning something nice for Regan’s upcoming birthday, and trying to reach Regan’s perpetually absent father. But it’s a pretty sweet gig otherwise - they have a nice house in Georgetown, servants, a driver, it’s all going well otherwise. Until Regan gets sick - fever, nausea, muscle spasms...

...coming downstairs in the middle of a party, telling one of the guests “you’re going to die up there” and then peeing on the rug.

No prizes for guessing what’s happening to Regan, because this film laid the blueprint for an entire subgenre the way Night of the Living Dead did for zombie films. This is where the connection between possession and illness began, the priest grappling with the strength of his faith, the idea that the demon knows everyone’s darkest secrets. And for me, watching it for the first time, this was a bit of a problem. It’s a difficult film to discuss, because it’s so part and parcel of everything that’s come after it. Pretty much any standard story beat we associate with demonic possession movies really began here, and for me at least, that took the bite out of the film. Horror, I think, works best in terms of the unknown, or the process of making the unknown known, and The Exorcist is so well-known that, at least for me, it has very few surprises left. Every moment from this film has become a classic moment - Regan’s head twisting all the way around, Regan puking all over the priest, Regan screaming “your mother sucks cocks in hell!”, it’s all familiar even to someone who hasn’t actually seen the film because it’s been referenced and parodied and emulated over and over and over again. It’s so much a part of our consciousness that there aren’t that many mysteries left. There’s no unknown to fear. So I came away from it feeling kind of cold on the whole experience. Nothing I saw really grabbed me (except maybe Dennings’ casual assholery or the tone-deafness of the film in which Chris is starring) or invested me because I knew what was coming and how it was going to turn out. It’s yielded up all its mystery to the culture, and for me at least that robbed the film of a lot of its power. Now that it’s an icon, it doesn’t shock anymore. It is a monument to itself, instead of itself, if that makes sense. That said, it didn’t end up one of the most successful and critically recognized horror films ever made for no reason - I’m just saying that for whatever reason, the qualities that have brought it so much attention didn’t, for me, survive its induction into the collective pop culture consciousness. 

So what are those qualities? If I wasn’t moved by the film itself, I can still at least try to understand what gives it the power that it wielded over so many viewers over the decades. I think a lot of it is in the pacing. As horror films go, The Exorcist is…surprisingly deliberate, almost meditative, for its first half. I think this was effective because it makes the events of the back half of the film all the more shocking for the naive viewer. There are little hints here and there that things are not right - we open on an archeological dig in Iraq, where a weary-looking man (Father Merrin, the titular exorcist) has located a sinister-looking idol. Back in DC, a statue of the Virgin Mary is found obscenely vandalized. No explanation is offered to connect them, either to each other or to the main story. It’s just there, lurking in the background, this sense that something is wrong. Quiet scenes with Father Damien Karras - a priest/psychiatrist called in to consult on Regan’s case - smash cut to noisy subway trains rushing toward the camera, as if Karras doesn’t know what’s coming for him. Merrin’s discovery of the idol is soundtracked with snarling dogs fighting off-camera, suggesting awful violence contained by the idol’s implacable stillness. As much as the main story seems like the plot to a drama about a woman and her daughter trying to make it without a man in the house (this was 1973, after all) or a romantic comedy about an actress and single mother trying to find love, these small touches curdle the edges of the film with unease until the other shoe drops.

And it’s how the other shoe drops that I think is the other important component to this film’s success, Given that I have to talk about this film in the context of the time in which it was made, what I think made it so powerful then was its iconoclasm - few things are sacred in this film. Chris MacNeil is a single mother - wealthy and famous, yes, but still a single mother during a time well before divorce was considered appropriate subject matter in films - and Regan doesn’t seem especially precocious or willful as we would expect a child (especially one from a “broken home”) in film to be. She’s just a kid, and kids have imaginary friends and play with Ouija boards and we think nothing of it. She doesn’t call attention to herself. There’s no love interest (Dennings is highly unsympathetic by any measure), and our other major figures of authority - Fathers Karras and Merrin - are frail, vulnerable men, wracked by illness and doubt. In fact, men in this film don’t really come off too well in general. They’re largely ineffectual at best and selfish and venal at worst, not a traditional hero in the bunch.

Things really start to spin up with the vandalized statue in the church, a briefly-glimpsed but still pretty startling act of blasphemy to put on screen, and this begins a series of events that ultimately escalates to a 12-year-old girl raping herself with a crucifix, screaming obscenities, and vomiting on priests. Contrast this with the graphic suffering Regan experiences during a battery of medical tests and her obvious physical decline and we’re left with a film that has a casual disregard for rules about the sanctity of religion, childhood, and traditional family values. The law (as represented by the single detective) cannot make it right, mothers are on their own and cannot keep their children from suffering, priests cannot stop evil except through the costliest, most desperate measures, and children say and do horrible, horrible things to themselves and other people. This must have been a lot to take in when this film first aired, in what was still a fairly conservative climate. There must have been a sense that all bets were off, and anything could happen next, and it’s that casual disregard for taboo that I think drives home what the pacing sets up - you are lulled into a false sense of security, and then shit goes sideways to a degree with scant precedent up to that point. It’s an approach that would serve horror films made during the 1970s well, and I think it’s sorely missed today. I have to wonder if that sort of iconoclasm is worth it, though, if it only serves to desiccate the film that indulges it into an icon without its power and vitality intact.