Archive | October 2012

The Loved Ones: Re-victimization in Horror Films

While I was watching The Loved Ones tonight, a question kept nagging at me: why do so many horror movies begin with a hero or heroine who is already broken in some way?  Why take a person who has already been traumatized and subject him/her to even more terror? Without a good reason, this trope just seems mean-spirited on the part of the filmmakers.

Brent, the main character in the Australian flick The Loved Ones, is a teenaged boy who accidentally caused his father’s death six months earlier in a car wreck.  He struggles with his guilt over the tragedy, isolating himself, practicing self-harm, and only half-heartedly taking solace in trysts with his sympathetic girlfriend.  Then, he is kidnapped and tortured by Lola, a quiet and obsessive classmate who he had rejected when she asked him to the school dance, accompanied by her equally deranged father.

Because horror movies often have a moral component, I found myself asking, What did he do to deserve all of this? Brent was polite when he said he couldn’t go to the dance with her.  And we’re clearly not meant to sympathize with Lola.  There’s no implication that she is crazy because she has been victimized in some way — she appears to be pure evil. I know I probably shouldn’t ask those kinds of questions — not everything has to have a moral — but horror flicks so often do that I’ve learned to seek it out.  When bad things happen in real life, they don’t always happen for a reason.  Life is chaotic and unpredictable; tragedy is often unexplained.  But no matter how much a filmmaker might try to mimic the unexplained nature of reality, a plot point is still a creative choice with an underlying intention. Bad things often happen to characters because they have done something to “deserve” it, whether it’s being unchaste, unkind, or arrogant.  We’ve been conditioned to expect this kind of punishment in horror movies.

So what to make of the relatively innocent character who is victimized once (prior to the film’s timeline) and then re-traumatized in the course of events?

In certain contexts, it makes sense.  Most protagonists of  ghost stories are already haunted by loss and grief, making them more susceptible to communion with the spirit world.  In revenge movies, prior trauma can provide the characters with a partial catalyst for their vengeance.  In films that deal with the supernatural or conspiracies, survivors have to deal with being discredited, dismissed, and further alienated because of their grief — other people believe that they are simply paranoid as a result of past experiences, and therefore unreliable, the boy who cried wolf.

But then there are the cases where the prior trauma doesn’t appear to have an immediate purpose, either as an origin story, catalyst, or cause for punishment.  The tragedy just serves to make the survivor even more of a victim.  I’m thinking of Sidney from the Scream series (murdered mother) and Sara from The Descent (husband and child died in a car wreck, best friend was having an affair with her husband) and it seems like the usual moral principle of “punishment” doesn’t apply anymore.  Ghost Face starts slashing and cave monsters attack and it seems like the whole universe is ganging up on these poor women for no real  reason.  These two examples suggest that recovering from prior trauma gives the heroines greater strength to face the current tribulations.  When Sara is nearly trapped in a collapsing tunnel, her friend tells her, “The worst thing that could have happened to you has already happened,” meaning, rock slides and cannibalistic creatures are a breeze compared to the death of a child.  Sara taps into a reserve of hidden strength and escapes certain death.  Sidney, too, eventually finds empowerment, refusing to be made a victim once again.

Brent’s situation in The Loved Ones is slightly different.  He was the driver in the wreck that killed his father.  Although it was an accident, he naturally feels guilty.  But neither the accident nor his guilt have anything to do with the nightmarish situation he currently finds himself in: Lola seeks revenge for an unrelated slight; Brent does not use the memory of his father as a talisman for staying alive; his abduction did not happen as the result of poor decision-making.

I worried for awhile that the movie was going to pull a bait-and-switch: that Lola, her father, and their sadistic games were a figment of Brent’s guilty conscience, or a manifestation of his personal demons (I was relieved when things did not go this way).  He doesn’t have much dialogue after the torture begins, but I wondered if ever he felt like he deserved what was happening.  Maybe he felt that way at first — the film doesn’t indicate — but maybe the pain he suffers helps him rediscover his will to live, despite everything. Fortunately, the movie never answers the question of why, beyond “Lola is a crazy bitch.”  That still doesn’t explain why he had to suffer to loss of his father — does it just make him a more sympathetic character?  Does it make his suffering more profound in some way?

I don’t know.  But I thought The Loved Ones was an interesting, well-crafted movie that managed to shock me and make me squirm.  Does anyone have any thoughts on the issue?

Horror Movie Round-up Part II

Now that Halloween season is winding down, I thought I’d continue the “comprehensive” list of horror movies I’ve watched in the last couple of months.  This includes a few that I’ve seen since the list I posted last week.

Recommended:

Dead Alive

I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get around to watching Dead Alive.  There’s no way to describe the blood and slime and hilarity and nausea in a way that would do this movie any justice.  I watched it with a friend the other night and we cringed and laughed our asses off the whole way through.  The only other movies I’ve seen that come close in terms of sheer, watching-with-mouth-hanging-open insanity are Hausu and Santa Sangre.  Whenever I think about Peter Jackson’s early films, like this or Meet the Feebles, I’m constantly amazed that this is the director they decided to entrust the Lord of the Rings trilogy with.  Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising, though.  Dead Alive is a lovingly made film, with impeccable attention to detail.  If you haven’t seen it, stop whatever you’re doing now and watch the bloody thing.  I’ll wait.

Entertaining Diversions:

The Gate

I discussed this one briefly in my last post about suburban horror.  It’s not a frightening movie, rather a very silly one in some ways, but being a child of the 80s, I enjoyed the weird goofiness of the whole kid-focused, creepy, horror/fantasy thing, reminiscent of old favorites like Poltergeist, The Goonies, Gremlins, and the Monster Squad.  Plus, it has baby Stephen Dorff in it (who has always looked like a surly old man, apparently)!  And I really loved the best friend, the dorky know-it-all friend who “acts out” by wearing a leather jacket and listening to Satanic metal.

Return to Horror High

This was a fun horror comedy about a film crew that’s making a movie in an abandoned high school where a massacre took place a few years earlier.  Return to Horror High features Lori Lethin, who also starred in Bloody Birthday (a film I covered in Part 1), as well as a young George Clooney in his very first role! The plotline gets a little convoluted, but it’s nice to see an early example of a horror film that skewers the genre conventions by having a movie-within-a-movie – long before Scream 3.

The Burning

This is a pretty decent slasher film from 1981 (the year I was born) that catches a lot of actors early in their careers (Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter, Fisher Stevens).  There’s not too much suspense, since the killer and his motives are revealed from the get-go, but it’s a well-made movie with lots of gore and some neat twists on the summer camp slasher subgenre.  A scene near the beginning pretty much rips off Dario Argento – a prostitute gets stabbed in the heart, falls backwards through a shattering window.

Worth checking out if you’re bored:

Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers

Speaking of summer camp slashers!  The sequel to Sleepaway Camp is insanely watchable, if not entirely thrilling.  Felissa Rose from the original is replaced here by Pamela Springsteen (Bruce’s sister) as the affable and perky camp counselor Angela, who murders campers when they get out of line.  This movie has one of the funniest “meta” scenes I’ve seen in recent memory, when Angela searches the cabin, testing out each item for its effectiveness as a murder weapon.  It’s a nice twist on the serial killer who always has every possible implement of death at his/her fingertips.

Silent House

This movie is worth watching for the gimmick (filmed in one long “take,” or at least made to appear so) and for the unsettling mood created in the first three quarters.  The criticism I’ve read almost unanimously pans the ending, and I agree – it’s a terrible, terrible ending that I had figured out before I ever even saw the movie.  But it’s still a fascinating mess to watch at times.  Elizabeth Olsen is wonderful, too.

The Caller

So, I don’t know how this movie ever got made, or how they talked Luis Guzman into appearing, but bless their batshit crazy hearts.  The Caller had me in the palm of its hand for at least the first forty-five minutes; a young woman leaves her abusive husband and moves into a grimy apartment with a possessed telephone.  She keeps getting creepy phone calls from an unhinged and manipulative woman from the freaking past.  The movie kind of unravels toward the end, getting more and more sadistic and nonsensical (seriously, DO NOT attempt to think too hard about this movie).  But I’d like to commend the set designers for creating that apartment, at once depressing, quirky, cozy, and shabby.

Sorority House Massacre

Nowhere near as good as Slumber Party Massacre (no connection, really, beyond being made in the 80s and having the word “massacre” in the title), but it has its own cheesy charms.  Lots of boobs.  And a bunch-of-girls-trying-on-clothes musical montage.

Paranormal Activity 4

I talked about this one briefly in my last entry, too.  For me, this was the weakest entry in the series so far.  Most people complain about how formulaic the Paranormal Activity movies are, but I thought this one’s weakness was in how far it strayed from what works.  My roommate and I were freaked out by the earlier films because the slow burns were sooo slow.  Entire nights would pass by without any incident, but in the new film, the directors just couldn’t resist putting some kind of jump scare in every sequence.  This made it feel faster paced than its predecessors, but also too mechanical, with too much of a wink at the audience.

Next time — I’ll talk about the movies that didn’t work for me.

Suburban Horror: From 80s Fantasy to Paranormal Activity

The Paranormal Activity franchise is like the Ikea furniture of film: they’re minimalist, functional, and completely disposable.  Even when it’s not the greatest thing in the world, it works.  My former roommate and I went to see the 4th installment last night at the Alamo Drafthouse.  Back when we lived together, we watched the 2nd and 3rd in the series, and now that she’s visiting town for Halloween, we saw the latest for old time’s sake.

There’s a big difference between watching these movies at home and watching them in the theater.  Watching at home, I was hyper-aware of the movie’s generic, domestic interiors because we were also surrounded by drab walls, cabinets, closet doors, the cookie-cutter accoutrements of modern living. My roommate and I huddled on the sofa, covering our faces with blankets when we knew something scary was going to happen.

Watching the movie in the theater was scarier in some ways; the big screen is more immersive, but when surrounded by other movie-goers, you also have your pride to consider.  I will not jump, cry out, or cower, so I steel myself extra hard.  On the other hand, in the theater I lost that sense of identification between my home and the home on the screen.  Also, it’s hard to be too scared when you’re eating pizza.  That’s just science, folks.

Architecture has always been an important component of horror movies and fear itself.  I grew up in a very old house (pre-Civil War era), and as a girl who was often afraid of her own shadow, it was like living in a real-life horror movie sometimes.  So many dark corners and hidden spaces: attics, chimneys, crawl spaces, hollow walls.  It makes sense that the traditional haunted house is a very old one that creaks at night.  The older a home is, the more likely that someone died there.  It also makes sense that ghosts, demons and evil forces would attach themselves to older structures, that ancient beings would feel a kinship to homes with history.

So it’s interesting, then, that so much horror of the last few decades has been set in shiny, anonymous suburban homes.  I have a weakness for movies that play with this juxtaposition of the old (evil forces) and the new (tract housing) even though I have never lived in the suburbs, myself.  This is part of the reason why I liked Ringu and Ju-on so much; there wasn’t anything inherently creepy about the plain and modern-looking Japanese homes, but the setting threw the horrific images of the ghosts into sharp relief.  (As a side note on effective juxtapositions, I also have mad respect for films that set their scariest sequences in broad daylight.) As I’ve mentioned before, Poltergeist was my favorite movie when I was a kid.  Maybe it wasn’t the first house-built-on-an-Indian-burial-ground film, but I think it’s had a large influence on how horror films deal with the tension between modernity and antiquity.

I just watched The Gate, a 1987 movie about a couple of kids who discover a portal to hell when their favorite tree is cut down.  It ticks off all the Poltergeist boxes: suburban home, underground evil, magic tree, creature under the bed, people trapped in the walls.  I liked the movie a lot. People have complained about how cheesy-looking the demons are, and they are somewhat comical but the movie was still unnerving due to a weird dream-logic that pervades every scene.

Another movie that’s a blatant rip-off of Poltergeist is the 2010 movie Insidious, although it seems to be more loving and knowing homage than shameless forgery.  The Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series also belongs on a list of suburban horror; Joss Whedon went to great lengths to contrast the sunny California neighborhoods and the typical American high school against the torments unleashed by the underground Hellmouth.

In suburban horror, we see the uncanny at work.  The dilapidated old mansion is scary because of its otherness; we don’t necessarily recognize our lives or routines in its vaulted ceilings, hardwood floors, or vintage wallpaper.  But when evil spirits invade our modern houses, the cozy and familiar places we call home suddenly become unfamiliar.

Home is where Hell is.

Male Beauty, Female Gaze, and the Thinking Woman’s Sex Symbol

 

So…I know this isn’t Tumblr or anything, but I’ve been looking for a platform to discuss my little obsession (or as the Huffington Post calls it, a situation) with British star Benedict Cumberbatch.  My friend Ellie and I had a little discussion in the comments the other day about Male Gaze and Female Gaze and I realized that male beauty and the complexity of female desire are things I would like to explore in more depth.

I’ve only recently learned how to look at men, which is fucking depressing because I’m in my thirties.  But when I was younger, the men who were touted as sex symbols always turned me off or creeped me out a little (ugh, New Kids of the Block).  This is in part because a lot of heartthrobs are conventional-looking, which has never been my thing.  But it’s also because I could see the strings; especially when you’re a teenage girl, hot guys are marketed pretty aggressively.  Look at this guy.  You should find him attractive.  I think what creeps me out is realizing that someone behind the scenes has been thinking about my sexual desire.  Men are used to having images engineered to their desires and served up liberally, but the only time women’s libidos are considered is during seduction.  When a hunk of burning love is offered to me, I’m naturally suspicious of their motives; someone is getting off, and it sure as hell isn’t me.  I’ve had to retrain my thinking a little bit to allow myself to check out and appreciate a good-looking man – and feel entitled to do so (as long as I’m not a weirdo about it), rather than ashamed.

Ellie’s comments raised the issue of the objectification of men on television, lamenting, “…in the critical discussions I’ve read, they all talk about the Gay Male Gaze. Can we not talk about a Female Gaze at all? … [I]t’s just an automatic assumption that it must be a Male Gaze – there can be no such thing as a Female Gaze because women are to be objectified, they never do the objectifying.” Feminist philosopher Susan Bordo has an explanation for this phenomenon and discusses it at length in her great essay, “Beauty (Re)discovers the Male Body.”  She talks about the emergence of a gay male aesthetic in the mid-nineties, due largely to Calvin Klein and Gucci ads that featured beautiful male models in their underwear (or sometimes completely nude).  She writes: “Throughout this century, gay photographers have created a rich, sensuous, and dramatic tradition which is unabashed in eroticizing the male body, male sensuousness, and male potency, including penises.”  Although these striking and controversial images may have been intended to appeal to gay men, Bordo argues that women have also been the beneficiaries in this beauty revolution. In other words, women learned everything they know about appreciating the male body from gay men.

I think another reason why we tend to assume that all gaze is male is because of the old cliché about men being “visual creatures,” more so than women.  I don’t know what the exact science is, but this always struck me as a bullshit excuse for some men to keep leering while neglecting their own physical appearance. For men, the idea that they might be judged and evaluated on their appearance the same as they have done to women is terrifying, so they placate women by citing neuroscience.  Physical attractiveness isn’t important to you.  You don’t see what you see.  Bordo is also unconvinced by this line of reasoning and explains that “Women aren’t used to seeing naked men frankly portrayed as ‘objects’ of a sexual gaze… So pardon me if I’m skeptical when I read arguments about men’s greater ‘biological’ responsiveness to visual stimuli.”  She believes instead that physical reaction to visual stimuli is a learned response, built through social conditioning. The Female Gaze, then, is something that we can cultivate as long as we allow ourselves to “see.”

Ellie is right when she says that male objectification is more prominent in the world of television, where female viewership thrives.   She cites Teen Wolf as an example, and I’d throw Supernatural out there, too.  Even Battlestar Galactica, the kind of sci-fi show that would normally be geared exclusively toward a male audience, tends to objectify the men as much or more than the women (in keeping with the BSG universe’s emphasis on gender equity).   There’s a lot for ladies to love about Mad Men beyond the female characters’ pretty dresses.  I think male objectification is even more common when it comes to anything marketed toward teens.  For some reason (again, creepy), we seem to focus more on the sexuality of teenage girls than adult women.  What else explains the popularity of Justin Bieber, Twilight, One Direction and other boy bands?

Obviously Female Gaze is a real thing, but it can be harder to identify for a number of reasons: women are out of practice when it comes to objectifying men; what women find attractive is frustratingly subjective; Female Gaze is often hard to untangle from straight Male Gaze.  What happens in a lot of cases is that a man’s emergence as a “sex symbol” is driven not so much by female desire but by male wish-fulfillment.  When a woman is marketed as a sex symbol, she only has to appeal to men, but when a man is marketed as a sex symbol, he must appeal to both sexes.  Women love him, but more importantly, men want to be him.  George Clooney.  Brad Pitt.  Once upon a time, Tom Cruise was a cool man of action.  Various incarnations of James Bond.  Men want us to find these men attractive because it ties into their own self-image.

I would like to present the popularity of Benedict Cumberbatch (star of the BBC’s Sherlock and rising Hollywood player) as proof that the pure Female Gaze exists.  He is an odd specimen, for sure: his prominent forehead and hollowed-out cheeks give him a slightly “rugged” quality, while his startling blue eyes and full lips push him toward the “pretty” end of the spectrum.  Additionally, his high cheek-bones and the way his eyes are wide-set and slightly angled evoke a third descriptor: “exotic.” These three elements could add up to a hot mess, and sometimes they do – he is a beautiful man but not always the most photogenic.  Critics describe his attractiveness in backhanded terms: unconventional, a “surprising” sex symbol, “unexpected” heartthrob, etc.  The unspoken idea is, We think he’s ugly but for some reason women like him.

Because of his unconventionality, I don’t get the sense that the BBC was initially pushing Benedict as a sex symbol, and this is part of why women respond to him so intensely.  He doesn’t feel packaged and sold, or at least he didn’t prior to the first season of Sherlock. I think to a certain degree, Steven Moffat (the writer/producer of the series) knew what he was doing when he cast Benedict as Sherlock Holmes; Moffat has praised his looks highly, calling him “dashing” and “this beautiful, exotic creature.”  As a result of Benedict’s unusual charms, female viewers feel like they have “discovered” him, which heightens the cultish adoration of his fanbase.  They are proud that they “get it,” that they can see beauty where others might miss it.  I think, in the land of straight girls, or at least brainy straight girls, difference is valued more highly than a scientifically “attractive” symmetrical face.  Male traits that are striking win out over the generic.  Straight male viewers don’t understand Benedict’s appeal and voice their criticisms loudly – calling him horse-faced, a lizard, an alien, etc.  I don’t think it’s about jealousy, even, just bafflement.  They want to get a handle on women’s desires, but they’re still trying to look at attractiveness from a particularly heterosexual male point of view.

Any discussion of what women find attractive is going to be subjective, and Benedict’s charms go far beyond the physical or tangible.  First, there’s the smoky baritone voice (goddamn that voice).  Then there’s his electric presence, a charisma so intense that, combined with his exotic looks, causes him to practically burn off the screen.  If his presence alone doesn’t make you a believer, then his interviews reveal a man who is quick-witted, intuitive, charmingly candid (and sometimes awkward), intelligent, and hilarious.  He’s sensitive in all the right ways (defends feminism, cares deeply about children in Africa) and manly in all the right ways (skydives, rides a motorcycle).  What thinking girl could possibly stand a chance in the presence of such a man?

He has rightly been called “The Thinking Woman’s Sex Symbol,” which is partially due to his geek credibility.  But I still think it’s a curious turn of phrase because we’re more used to hearing about the “Thinking Man’s Sex Symbol.”  I believe this is another double-standard of the Male Gaze.  Valuing a woman for her intellect or her unconventionality still seems a little revolutionary, even in 2012 (unfortunately, “thinking man’s sex symbol” is often a euphemism for “brunette” or “has tits smaller than a C-cup”).  I don’t know why we rarely talk about the counterpart for women; maybe we take women’s thoughts for granted or maybe it’s because we’ve bought into the whole idea that women aren’t as shallow as a men (or as visually oriented) and therefore “thinking woman” is redundant.  No matter; as an actor who has portrayed Stephen Hawking, Sherlock Holmes, Vincent van Gogh, Victor Frankenstein and various other geniuses, Benedict Cumberbatch can’t help but ooze intellectual (if not always sexual) prowess.

But just because there’s a cerebral component to his appeal doesn’t take away from the strong reaction provoked by the visual aspects.  Maybe it’s just me, but perfect symmetry is boring.  If you’ve seen one conventional pretty boy, you’ve seen them all.  I take one look at their faces and they’re burned into my brain; no need to ever look again.  But something about Benedict’s kooky, shape-shifting features invites me to keep looking.  They never settle perfectly on my mind so I have to double-take, triple-take, look and look again.  There’s always something new to see.  And so I gaze.

I will end my fangirling by sharing a few videos.

My favorite funny interview.  So adorbs!:

Benedict shows his storytelling skills in this radio interview by recounting his traumatic carjacking/kidnapping experience in South Africa:

And finally, nothing gets me hot like a beautiful man speaking eloquently about Modernist literature:

Thanks for humoring me!  Share your man-crushes in the comments!

Ginger Snaps: A Rant about Horror for Girls

I made the mistake about halfway through watching Ginger Snaps of reading what Brian Collins of Horror Movie A Day had to say about it, and, boy, it got me fired up!  He said the movie wasn’t “great,” which, fair enough, maybe it isn’t, but he also dismissed the main characters (two Goth sisters from Canada who battle with lycanthropy and puberty) as unlikable.  Even worse, he commented on the unattractiveness of the younger sister and the hotness of the older sister.  Way to react like a typical bro-dude.

Horror as a genre typically panders to the male gaze by serving up tits (and lots of them), but part of the whole point of this movie is that the girls, at least up to a point, don’t want the attention of boys and do everything they can to avoid it.  When the older sister does finally have her sexual awakening, it’s horrific and doesn’t turn out well for the boys who objectified her. And the younger sister hasn’t even had her period yet, for fuck’s sake!  Commenting on her attractiveness, or lack thereof, epically and ironically misses the point.

And so what if the sisters are unlikable?  Of course they are.  Teenage girls are The Worst.  You know who else is The Worst?  Teenage boys, but somehow we’ve spent decades – millennia, really – glorifying The Worst tendencies of teenage boys and nobody complains that it isn’t fun to watch.  It was nice, in a way, to see teen girl characters that didn’t fit the stereotypes of either the “plucky female heroine” or “bitchy popular girl.”  They were unpleasant in a realistic way that actually served a function: to cover up the fears and uncertainties of adolescence.

I know Collins’ attitude isn’t exactly an egregious example of sexism, and it’s perfectly valid for someone to find the movie lacking in various ways, but it still really bummed me out.  The failure of a male viewer to understand how much it could mean to girls who love horror but seldom see anything they can identify with bummed me out. I don’t want to turn everything into some kind of feminist issue, but there’s such a dearth of good, female-centric horror with emphasis on feminine anxieties that, in the rare case where a horror film handles these anxieties honestly, I think it’s worth having a conversation.  The existence of the Final Girl does very little to make a horror film female-centric and exploiting the (too obvious) fear of vulnerability and rape is just as much about male titillation as it is about a woman’s anxiety.  I’m interested to see more about the everyday terror of being a girl, which I thought Ginger Snaps delivered on very well.

Puberty is scary for everyone, but at least boys get cool deep voices, fun erections to play with and a newfound sense of camaraderie.  For girls, everything fractures.  Formerly close bonds between friends fall apart as secrets become currency and insecurity deepens into an all-encompassing paranoia. Before puberty, you had an identity: a tomboy, a storyteller, a trouble-maker; but after puberty everything that you are is reduced to your sex. You’re either an ugly freak like Bridget or a dirty slut-bitch like Ginger, and there’s no real in-between, unless being invisible counts.

I imagine when a boy is told, “You’re a man, now,” there’s a sense of pride in hearing that.  But when you get your first period and someone says that godawful fucking line about being a woman, part of your soul dies because there’s no implication of exciting possibilities or new discoveries.  It’s about the crushing responsibility of being a woman, of one day being a mother, of keeping your body safe and your reputation clean.  Instead of boners, you get a bloody crotch.  Instead of thinking about all the sexy sex you want to have, you think about getting pregnant and turning into a walking cliché – losing your figure, losing your identity.

Being a woman (or a mother) isn’t that miserable, really, but everything feels more dramatic when you’re thirteen.  I cringed so hard when Ginger’s mother reminded her she would be getting her period for the next 30 years or so.  When I was that age, thinking about those things, I could feel imaginary chains wrapping around me.  And I cringed for Bridget, too, watching her older sister cross that line and knowing that the horrors of growing up were waiting for her, lurking around the corner.

No wonder the sisters in Ginger Snaps are so obsessed with suicide.  I thought about death a lot when I was that age, too, not because I was truly suicidal but because it seemed so much cleaner than the messy, slow-moving tragedy of life.  No wonder they, like all teenage girls, are so sour and unpleasant most of the time.  The end of every single day felt like a miracle of endurance, and that is really terrifying.

Horror for Girls

Making a distinction between horror about girls and horror for girls can be a little difficult.  A lot of critics cite Carrie when talking about Ginger Snaps; I don’t know if Carrie is really “for girls” the way Ginger Snaps is, but sexual awakening certainly causes anxiety that can be exploited for horror.  A recent example is Teeth, a movie about a young girl who discovers that she has a literal vagina dentata.  The film touches on many of the conflicting fears a girl can have about her body: sexual assault, sexual prowess, and sexual rejection.

A horror movie doesn’t even necessarily have to be about “women’s issues” to be female-centric; one of my favorite movies is The Descent, about a group of friends who go on a caving trip and discover that they are not alone.  The movie doesn’t force a conspicuous “Girls kick ass!” message.  The characters happen to be women and they happen to like adventures – this empowers the characters by not making an issue out of it.  There’s friendship, betrayal, and loss.  Also, monsters.

Another movie I enjoyed was May, about an isolated, socially awkward woman who is more than a little deranged and so starved for companionship that she turns into a clingy mess at any sign of affection.  She’s creepy and overbearing, but I sympathized with her, too.  I wanted her to make a friend, to have a boyfriend, to maintain any kind of healthy connection that might pull her out of her pathetic weirdness.  But I wanted her to still be a little weird.  The movie also seemed to comment on what we now call the Manic Pixie Dream Girl phenomenon; other characters in the film see May as quirky and interesting, even though she is clearly insane.  People see her as they want to, instead of seeing her as she is – and when they finally have a moment of clarity, they reject her.  This is a good example of how women sometimes get trapped in roles they don’t choose for themselves, and punished when they don’t conform to the lie.

May was directed by Lucky McKee, who made another interesting specimen of seemingly “feminist” horror, The Woman.  In the film, a man finds a feral woman in the woods and captures her, keeping her tied up in a shed.  He tortures the woman in order to “civilize” her and, as he recruits his wife and children to help out, it becomes clear that he terrorizes his family in equal measure.  At first, The Woman could seem like another exploitation film, using the blunt instruments of rape and torture to shock the audience, but when the wife and teenage daughter look at the wild girl with empathy in their eyes, the movie becomes an interesting comment on misogyny and how certain men still can’t stand to see a liberated woman.  Not exactly a subtle film, but definitely interesting.

This is all to say that I am a woman and I like horror movies.  I can get down with the slashing, the damsels who need saving, and the gratuitous boobage of the 80s, but every once in awhile I like my dismemberment with a little feminism.

Horror Movie Round-Up: Part I

Attack of the shorts! (from Sleepaway Camp)

First of all, I’d like to say I have mad respect for Brian Collins, the super dedicated guy who runs the Horror Movie a Day blog and also writes columns for Badass Digest.  True to his blog title, he has watched a horror movie every single day for the last five years.  As much as I love horror, I don’t think I have the stomach for that (or the time!), but when the fall season approached I vowed to do the best I could.  Mr. Collins and his blog have been an invaluable resource for choosing films to watch; horror is a big genre, and as with any genre, the tropes can get a little well-worn and clichéd after a while.  People who don’t watch a lot of scary films tend to complain about how derivative and predictable they can be — and they’re not wrong – but once you’ve watched a shit ton of movies, you start to see the nuances and slight variations that can make a film valuable or interesting despite what might seem, on the surface, to be just another retread.  So naturally, as someone who has watched over 1500 horror films over the course of five years, Collins should know what he’s talking about when distinguishing the gems, the curiosities, or the fun twists from the plain old crap.

While not exactly a horror movie a day, here is a comprehensive list of the movies I’ve watched in the last two months:

Recommended:

Sleepaway Camp: I watched this on my friend Holland’s suggestion and I’m so glad I did.  She also recommended Slumber Party Massacre to me, which would make a great double feature with Sleepaway Camp because they are both gloriously silly 80s movies that make you wonder how much the filmmakers were in on the joke.  My favorite parts of the movie: the short-shorts and cropped shirts worn by all the boys, the cop’s hilariously fake moustache, the scenery chewing aunt, and the creative kill sequences.  Also, the ending – oh, the ending!

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon: This is a neat little piece of meta-horror comedy.  Behind the Mask takes place in a universe where Jason and Michael Myers are real and a film crew sets out to document up-and-coming local slasher, Leslie Vernon, as he prepares to execute his first massacre.  The humor is winking and deadpan, but not overly precious when it comes to skewering horror conventions.  Leslie Vernon himself is charming, affable, and charismatic, nicely subverting the mystique of the evil villain.

Hatchet and Hatchet II: The people who criticize these movies as being dumb don’t seem to understand that the schlocky, over-the-top goofiness is intentional.  I liked seeing horror movies that take place around New Orleans and in the Louisiana swamps.  Some of the characters are likable, some of the characters you want to see get hacked up (and they do), and Tony Todd of Candyman is always an engaging presence.  Mercedes McNabb (Harmony from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is delightfully daffy as an aspiring porn star who shows her tits a lot.  All around, these movies are crowd-pleasers.

Recommended with caveats:

Lovely Molly: This is a stripped-down, no-frills “haunting” movie by the guys who made the Blair Witch Project.  Even though it’s not exactly a found footage film, it still has the intimacy and simple scares like its predecessor.  Halfway through, I realized it wasn’t really a horror movie, but something more psychological.  The symbols and themes get a little heavy-handed and your mileage may vary regarding the film’s handling of drugs and abuse.  I think I liked the movie because it reminded me favorably of Absentia, another movie that portrays the relationship between sisters and how they confront events that may or may not be supernatural.

The Tall Man: I still don’t know how to feel about this movie, but something about it struck a chord with me.  I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I will say it’s interesting because of its contradictions: it’s a horror movie that isn’t horror, as well as a nakedly sentimental film that is undercut by a big streak of nihilism.  The Tall Man is a film set in America (but made in Canada) by a French director whose other films appear to fall into the extreme horror category, which could explain some of the disconnect in the movie’s tone.  The rural setting has a fairy-tale quality that is grim and beautiful, but also suggests the director has never set foot in America, giving it an out of time, out of place atmosphere.

Cabin Fever 2: Spring Break: The first half of this movie is great.  Ti West indulges in the quirks that he’s become well known for: retro stylistic flourishes, loving nods to genre convention, and long scenes of characters talking about nothing.  For about 45 minutes, this was my new favorite movie, but then the last half hour just got nasty and kind of boring as everything went batshit.  I still love you, Noah Segan (from Deadgirl, Brick, and Looper).  So glad your career is taking off.

Bloody Birthday: It’s kind of sad this movie has mostly been forgotten about because it’s really well-made for an 80s slasher-type film.  And as far as killer kid movies go, this one has some pretty impressive child actors, especially the little girl who is the ringleader of the evil pack.  She is equal parts innocent and freaky, but never vamps around or hams it up while playing the villain.  Bloody Birthday can be a little slow, but the loose structure and unresolved ending keeps it from being too formulaic.

YellowBrickRoad: The caveat here is that the ending is terrible.  Like, really, really terrible.  But up until that last 5-10 minutes, it’s a really interesting film, kind of a cross between The Blair Witch Project and Lost.  A group of academic types decide to write a book about the inhabitants of a small town in New Hampshire who suddenly walked down a road in 1940 and disappeared forever.  As part of their research, they decide to travel the same path; freaky shit ensues.  It’s actually a lot like Lost – the overarching question was “What is the island?” and here the question is “What is the road?”  Something supernatural is obviously going on and one by one the characters go insane.  The movie wisely plays coy about a definitive explanation.

Quarantine 2: Terminal: I thought this was a surprisingly decent zombie/infection movie, considering that it’s a sequel to an American remake of a superior Spanish series.  Again, Quarantine 2 is not a remake of [REC] 2, even though the first Quarantine was a remake of the original [REC].  Quarantine 2 takes place first on a plane and then in the personnel areas of an airport where the flight’s survivors are locked in by the CDC.  I was bummed out that the characters never escaped into the actual airport because it would be fun to watch the virus run rampant through all the concourses.  The film probably didn’t have that kind of budget.

Next time I’ll talk about the movies that aren’t great but are worth checking out for one reason or another and the movies that started strong but squandered their potential.

Selfishness and the Creative Life

In Friday Night Lights, art student Matt Saracen wins an internship with a brilliant but eccentric artist.  The artist is the cranky sort who answers the front door in his underwear, destroys his creations in drunken temper tantrums, and is generally uncommunicative and difficult to get along with.  After he meets Matt’s pretty, blonde-haired and blue-eyed girlfriend, he challenges the boy about his ability to be a true artist while maintaining connections to the world and its everyday obligations.  The message is that to be an artist one must also allow oneself to be unlikable, unself-conscious, and solitary.

It’s true that there is something selfish about creating art but also about promoting it, especially in our social media age where I can reach out and annoy my friends every time I produce something. The most successful artists – both in the quality of their work and in their widespread acceptance – don’t seem to give a fuck what anybody thinks of them.  This is an attitude I have failed to cultivate (haven’t tried, really) and sometimes I think it holds me back in too many situations, creative or otherwise.

What I’m trying to cultivate now, before I can even deal with artistic achievement, is personality.  Obviously, I have a personality.  It’s hard to walk around for 31 years and not have an inner life, although I’m told that some people manage it.  I think I’ve seen them.  But my friends have complained that I rarely let my personality show or that I only let it come out when I’m less inhibited (booze).  The social media age is the best possible time for this “personality experiment,” where personality is carefully curated and mostly performative. Not unlike a troll, I treat my online identity as a kind of performance art, composing pithy tweets, censoring myself, or intentionally not censoring myself to make a point, writing blog posts, sharing links to things that hopefully function to make me sound more interesting.  None of these things are dishonest.  I am performing, but I am performing “me.”

So what does this have to do with art or creativity?  I am a writer, a poet, and my writing must logically be an extension of my personality, even if I’m writing about things that are clearly fictional or unrealistic.  Too often I have gone through life unaware of my own thoughts, impulses, and interests.  In cultivating my personality, I am forced to examine my thoughts and see which ideas might be worthy of writing about: ideas unique to my weird brain, extending from my weird interests.

This pursuit is navel-gazing, of course, and that’s the rub.  Writing itself is a private act, but the end result is made public; there’s a very fine line to be negotiated between the self-absorption needed to complete a creative work and the outward-facing nature of sharing with an audience.  Sometimes writers get defensive and want to draw a line in the sand: you’re either writing for yourself or you’re writing to please others.   Neither one of these can be true on its own.  Writing for yourself is called journaling.  Every writer with a goal to publish eventually has to walk the knife’s edge of composing without inhibition before editing without mercy.  This is just part of the process.

The bigger issue is the lack of self-consciousness needed to be a writer, not just in the writing process, but in the whole lifestyle.  Sure, it’s hard to expose yourself in confessional poetry or memoir, but you also have to be ruthless in exposing your friends, family, boyfriends, and girlfriends.  Many of them won’t take it well and you have to be prepared for the fallout.  Writers also steal.  That anecdote you told at a party?  It’s mine now.  The conversation we had the other day?  Repurposed for my characters in the story I’m writing.  Being a writer feels unethical sometimes, like being a muckraking journalist doing whatever it takes to “get the story.”  Writers also risk alienating their readers by writing about dark, disgusting, unpopular and controversial things.  Readers often misinterpret these darker fascinations and say that an author is condoning distasteful subject matter when really the author is approaching the idea with a critical eye.

But is it worth it?  The hours spent alone.  The hours spent letting go of self-consciousness to produce difficult work.  Potentially destroyed relationships.  The social experiences forgone at the expense of time spent alone.  Writing things people might find repugnant, offensive.  Is it worth doing these things if it means broken friendships and alienation?  If you’re only writing to please yourself, than maybe it’s worth it for the sake of catharsis.  But if you’re writing with the hopes that someone will read what you are writing — what if no one is reading it?  Is it still worth it?  Does artistic creation have intrinsic value even when no one appreciates it?  Is it worth making the sacrifices an artist might make to create art that no one is consuming?

I don’t know if I can let go of my self-consciousness.  I’ve always cared too much what other people think of me.  There’s a constant struggle between things I want that might not be socially acceptable and the desire to fit in. Minimize conflict with the world around me.  I want to wear wacky fashions in public, act like the eccentric my grandmother always told me I could be, make jokes about rape and what it’s like to feel ugly.  I want to go to the theater alone to watch the new horror movie because none of my friends will go.  I want people to hear my voice.  I want to feel like my voice is worth hearing.  But I also flinch when I remember all the times kids called me a weirdo, a freak.  When my friends shamed me for saying inappropriate things, when boyfriends balked at my “intensity.”  I want to be normal, I do.

But normal is getting in the way.  I haven’t written poetry in almost three years because the poetry I wrote didn’t “fit in.”   Halfway through my MFA program, I stopped thinking of myself as a  “real poet” because my sensibilities were different, not acceptable by literary standards, and I didn’t recognize myself or my work in any of my classmates. I didn’t want to write “serious” poems about fathers, grandmothers, or botanical imagery.  I wanted to write about zombies and hermaphrodites, hoping that impressions and images were enough without having to have some deep philosophical message.  I wanted to write books of poetry that were also graphic novels.  I was not a serious writer.

So, I cultivate my personality.  With the hope that one day it will lead me back to poetry, the poetry I want or need to write even if it doesn’t fit in the with the proper stuff I was taught to write in almost nine years of workshops.  Or! Maybe I’m just not a poet anymore, and the words that will eventually bubble out of me won’t take that form.  This is part of the reason why I take to social media now, that most self-indulgent form, and express myself in any possible way – status updates, tweeting, blogging – not with the sole purpose of inflicting myself and my insipid thoughts upon my friends (although that is what I’m doing) but as an exercise in losing some self-consciousness, saying things I wouldn’t have allowed myself to say before (too caustic or inappropriate), attempting to make jokes (even when they fail), and exposing some of my more fucked up interests (memento mori photography).  These actions are inherently selfish.  I post and await comment, taking perverse joy in people’s reactions.  Unself-consciousness in the social media world is, paradoxically, the exact same thing as self-consciousness.  Much like writing itself: the artifice that doesn’t look artificial.

Maybe some people won’t like what I have to say or how I say it.  Maybe a lot of people — and I don’t know how to feel about that.  It’s worth noting that I’m not exactly a provocateur, and I don’t say shocking, mean, or controversial things.  I’m not a shit stirrer, just someone who likes to get a little attention and feedback (who doesn’t?).  I’m not quite ready to answer the door in my underwear, but I do need to get a little freakier, adopt a don’t-give-a-fuck attitude, and learn to live with a little selfishness.  Friends have often criticized me for being self-absorbed but my attempts to fix that flaw have resulted in a losing battle.  Maybe it’s time to embrace self-absorption and see what happens.