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Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Drawing Connections: 5 Memorable Horror Homages

Because of its status as a "low-genre", horror viewership has been linked to ideas of deviancy, sadism, masochism, and corruption. So it's not surprising that horror fandom has the tendency to become very communal, inciting both a huge popular following and huge cult/underground followings. Scholar Brigid Cherry has even written of watching horror as a rite of passage, especially for teenagers - a chance to prove brave in front of peers. Meanwhile, Barbara Creed has asserted that the genre creates an interesting dialectic between seeing/not seeing for the viewer who is at once drawn to the screen and closing their eyes in order to disconnect when times get tough. According to Linda Williams, horror is a body genre, making its appeal in its ability to elicit bodily reactions from viewers who essentially lose control by losing themselves in the diegesis. 

All this to say, there is a blatant attraction to the genre which is bound up in the idea of having fun, and cutting loose. The sense of community among horror lovers, as you may have guessed, extends beyond the audience and onto the screen. Horror filmmakers, scriptwriters, 
actors and so forth are generally well known for their dedication to horror fandom, thus making homage a significant aspect of the films. After all, isn't everything just based on Hitchcock's Psycho? And isn't Craven's Scream franchise just based on... well, everything?

Drawing connections has become one of the most exciting ways to view these films, especially today in a time of infinite repetition, with remakes and reboots invading the cinemas. But the truth is, within the genre of horror at least, moments of homage have always been a part of the viewing experience - it has always been a genre for the fans. With the recent boom in remakes and sequels (which is not a new thing), it is increasingly noticeable that the ones that work best are the ones that seem to get that it is not so much about remaking the movie, but about revisiting what was loved about it. And often this means, who was loved about it. 

There are tons of these out there, but as a jumping off point, here are 5 of my favourite connections.

Halloween Loves Psycho

Beginning in 1978, headed by John Carpenter and Debra Hill, Michael Meyers quickly became the most well known, and terrifying killer on the big screen. His prey? Laurie Strode, portrayed by Jamie Lee Curtis in her first feature role. With the film’s strong connection to Psycho, it is no coincidence that her first role was as a Final Girl, a slasher archetype considered to be properly developed for the first time in this film. In 1960 Hitchcock set the groundwork for the must-factor in what would eventually come to be known as slasher cinema - the attack of a beautiful unsuspecting woman. Of course, this was Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, Hollywood star and mother of the then two year old Jamie Lee Curtis. Aside from her keen ability to bring Laurie Strode to life, Carpenter liked that she was “Marion Crane’s”  daughter since his script was already something of a love letter to Psycho with a significant character, Dr. Sam Loomis, being named after Hitchcock’s male lead. So, heavily inspired by the classic, Halloween went on to become a classic of its own.

Janet Leigh And Jamie Lee Curtis, The Mother-Daughter Scream Queen Duo

Just a couple short years after Carpenter’s clever casting of Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween he and Hill decided to make the connection a recurring element of their films, casting both Curtis and her mother Leigh in his next feature, The Fog. The joke here of course is that Curtis and Leigh play two completely disconnected characters. The viewers wait and wait for a connection to be made between them, or for them to at least share an embrace, but it never happens. Instead, the two eventually find themselves trapped in a church together with the rest of the townsfolk and never once bother to interact directly. “Gotcha!” (Likely this is what Hill and Carpenter exclaim when viewing with others). Then in 1998 Curtis decided it was time for a twenty year reunion with her beloved brother, Michael Meyers. Along with director Steve Miner, Curtis developed Halloween H20. This time Leigh’s presence as a Mother figure for the grown Laurie Strode is undeniable. Battling alcoholism and paranoia, Laurie turns to her boss for advice whenever she feels herself getting too lost. The dynamic is a perfect nod to this mother-daughter duo’s long Scream Queen career.

Danielle Harris In Rob Zombie’s Halloween Reboot

In 1988, at just eleven years old, Harris took over the role of Final Girl in the Halloween series from Curtis who had moved on after the first sequel. While the third installment was completely disconnected from the original story, not even featuring the character of Michael Meyers, the fourth attempted to dig up its roots. Harris plays Jamie (yes, Jamie), the orphaned daughter of Laurie Strode who has since died in a car accident. When Michael escapes his hunt for his sister leads him straight to little Jamie, who is living with a foster family. After being hunted by Uncle Michael in Halloween 4, 5, and 6, Jamie’s role finally wrapped up. But it was not the end of Harris’s relationship with the series. In 2007 musician turned director, Rob Zombie decided to reboot the series with a new, modern take on the scenario. This time Harris was cast as Annie, Laurie Strode’s best friend who had originally been portrayed by Nancy Kyes in 1978. While Annie’s character was eventually killed by Michael in a car, Harris’s version was a much stronger “Final Girl-esque” figure who survives the brutal attack, even to return in Zombie’s sequel. We can only assume this is a nod to Harris’s superb Final Girl survival skills.

Andrea Martin In The Black Christmas Remake

Bob Clark’s 1974 Canadian slasher, which largely set the precedent for the genre, features an unseen killer hunting the girls of a sorority house on Christmas eve. Of the many characters, Phyllis would perhaps be the most forgettable if it weren’t for that unforgettable style - the mini afro and round glasses are completely out of place next to the plainer styles of the other girls. Still, even as one of the last to be killed (positioned gruesomely post-mortem with Barb), Phyllis has very few lines and is of little significance within the plot itself. She is overshadowed by characters with far more presence such as the Final Girl, Jess, the crass loud-mouth, Barb (played by Margot Kidder. Yup, Lois Lane), and the drunken House Mother, Mrs. Mac. In the remake however Andrea Martin is the only original cast member to return, this time as a lead role character - Ms. Mac. From quiet and insignificant, to storyteller and mother figure Mac, Andrea Martin’s role in the Black Christmas Universe comes a long way. It was really the only thing to enjoy in this one.

When There Is No More Room In Hell…

Horror veteran Ken Foree made his debut lead appearance as the protagonist Peter in George Romero’s instant classic Dawn of the Dead. Not only was his character significant for his ability to progress the narrative, that the character is black is also something that made the film so special. According to Robin Wood, the late film scholar, Peter’s position as a black man was used to indicate his separation from the “norms of white-dominated society” (not unlike the black protagonist in Romero’s earlier picture, Night of the Living Dead). Because this film is also “perhaps the first horror film to suggest the possibility of moving beyond the apocalypse” (Wood), religious undertones become important to the film’s consciously political level. Arguably the film’s most famous, if not most important, line, “when there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth”, was delivered by Peter. So it was no surprise that when the film was remade in 2004, Foree made a well anticipated cameo as a televangelist, repeating this very line. The scene was very well received by the original’s loyal fans. The fame and respect Foree garnered from his role as Peter has carried throughout his career with such intensity, that it is difficult to imagine any of his horror work not relying on our recognition of this.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

INSIDIOUS Chapter 2: Sinfully Disappointing

Where there’s a great film, a less impressive second chapter is sure to follow.

2.5 Stars

Well, it’s important to give credit where credit is due, so on that note, there are some things here that work.

  1. The Soundtrack
  2. The Jumpscares

But - it takes more than creepy music and ghosts in “unexpected” corners to make a great horror film. All in all, the meandering plot lines, and past/present plot structure really worked against this flick. Worse was the out of place “ghost-hunters” segment with Specs, Tucker, and Lorraine. Otherwise, the film had a pretty good atmosphere, but this really broke up both the narrative structure and the aesthetics. It felt like an ill-placed attempt to cash in on the current found-footage/ghost-hunters fads, when it really didn’t need to. In fact, part of what made the first film such a success was that it wasn’t doing what all the other ghost movies were doing - it was just focused on delivering genuine chills by letting the audience get swept up in story itself rather than in the vague idea that this could all be “real”. Suddenly, we’re taken out of the moment because the cinematographic approach is so different in these scenes.

Again, I felt jarred by the atmospheric change in the Spirit world. The plot lines became messy and uninviting in focusing on the two worlds simultaneously and I am inclined to believe that I would have preferred to see it all from Renai’s terrified and confused perspective.

In short, the story itself was great but the decisions on how to deliver it felt forceful and over-explained. 

Everything taking place inside of the story’s present was very well done and exactly what I expect of Wan. These scenes had me on edge waiting anxiously for what would appear behind a door next. I liked the sense of chaos created by following Renai as she rushed about trying to keep calm for the boys. She definitely should have been more guarded against Josh trying to make sense of her actions was half the fun.

Unfortunately, it seems there will be a third. Sequels are already so touch and go, it baffles me that producers still always insist on going for a third, but no matter how bad the reviews are of sequels, when it comes down to it, most still buy tickets to see it in the first place (even if reluctantly). If there is money to be made in a third, expect a third. Word is however it will no longer focus on the Lamberts, or even follow up on the final scene of Chapter 2. Apparently it will follow Specs and Tucker though, so we might be in for some more wonderfully forced out-of-place humor. I think I’ll go ahead and sit this one out.

Friday, 11 April 2014

THE EVIL (1978): A Popcorn Horror with Some Substance

Lesson: Never Buy a Fixer-Upper... It's Haunted

3.5 Stars

This is fun movie, ripe with jump scares and interesting female characters (from the perspective of gender theory), but overall it simply doesn’t hold up against other haunted house/ghost films of the time. Amityville Horror (1979), The Fog (1980), Poltergeist (1982) - all of these films far outdo this one technically, formally, and narratively. That being said, it is certainly worth watching, at least once. If you are particularly jumpy, it will probably even get you a few times. If you aren’t… Watch it with someone who is.

Not unlike an old William Castle flick (late 50s, to be specific), the unacquainted characters all gather to make some summer cash fixing up a recently purchased but very old manor. The new owners of the house, Dr. Caroline Arnold and her husband C.J. Arnold (PhD) approach the strange atmosphere very differently. Caroline is immediately suspicious and her discomfort is depicted as irrational through the other perspectives, but eventually her paranoia is completely validated when the house (or the spirit occupying it) becomes violent. 

Notably, Caroline is not the only one who sees the danger, but is the most willing to address it.

(Minor Spoilers)

In an essay on A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), John Markowitz discusses at length the concept of female paranoia and how it is beneficial to the survival of Final Girl characters, an idea he entirely bases on Judith Halberstam’s earlier and broader arguments about Female Paranoia in horror. He writes that because women’s fears in such films are so often dismissed or misunderstood (seen as “pathological”) by other characters and society, it takes “a considerable amount of courage to insist that your fear is justified… Clearly then, it is no simple  matter to acquire, maintain and act upon paranoia”. But in doing so, the Final Girl can survive.

The Evil arguably positions Caroline as the Final Girl; she and her husband escape but it is Caroline’s insistence that something is wrong that saves them. Although C.J. Senses the danger, he is mostly unwilling to accept that something unnatural - or supernatural - is the cause, until he can no longer deny it. What is most interesting about this film is Caroline’s dual and contrasting identities as a female doctor. Her profession insists upon traits of rationality and yet her position as woman allows her special access to a sense of paranoia. For Halberstam, this particular privilege exists only for women due to their need to be aware of danger - in short, women are too vulnerable to not be paranoid. While the implication is unfortunately bound up in traditional gender ideals and stereotypes, its presence in a 1978 film makes the suggestion far more reasonable. 

As a character study, Caroline (and her relationship with C.J.) is well crafted and quite intriguing within the contemporary social context. Sadly, the ending was bit of a let down, feeling disconnected from the rest of the film.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

ALYCE KILLS, AMERICAN MARY, and Seductive Abjection

A Double-Dose of Crazy

Alyce: 4.5 Stars

Mary: 4 Stars

It seems undeniable that Alyce (2011) must have been an influence on the construction of Mary’s (2012) character and character arc. The stories, simply put, have the same basic premise - a young woman struggling to get by finds herself becoming someone almost unrecognizable after suffering a trauma. Although these new identities are much stronger in many ways, they are simultaneously complicated by their very relationship to trauma, which in and of itself implies a state of weakness.

For Alyce, the suffocation of guilt and grief becomes insufferable when she accidentally pushes her best friend, Caroll, off of a roof-top. Her subsequent descent into depression and drug abuse however ends up being only the tip of the iceberg. Eventually, Alyce completely loses her sense of self, transforming into a vengeful, self-motivated, monstrous-figure who actually represents the woman she had always wanted to be. The irony is of course to become this sexy, confident, pleasure-only-driven being, Alyce had to first destroy Caroll (who for her embodied this coveted identity), and then herself.

For Mary, the trauma of rape lends itself to the stark realization that her body and her self can be so easily objectified, violated, and made insignificant by others. This leaves her in a state of vacant sadness - until she decides to take back the control over her sense of self. What begins as a vengeance narrative eventually becomes a pursuit of identity and self-awareness for her. Her character therefore experiences more growth than Alyce is given the chance to because she does attempt to move past her trauma. 

Yet, in many ways Alyce Kills is a stronger film. As much as I love Katherine Isabelle (Mary) and the roles she chooses, the acting really stands out as being a driving force behind the power of Alyce Kills. Furthermore, the film is visually striking, with engaging, thought-provoking characters and views of the world, as it does attempt to look outside of itself in a profound way. American Mary does flirt with the idea of thinking about how the world works, but it does so rather superficially by only focuses on the significance of self-expression. This makes it a fascinating film in its own right, but the message is very straightforward. In Alyce Kills there is room for interpretation and debate because we see how Alyce herself struggles to decide how she understands the world.

No doubt, these women both earn Gold stars for going completely nuts, but that their transformations are so calculated is what makes them figure as monstrous (otherwise these would be dramas, not horrors). The notion of abjection weighs heavy in reading both films. Defined by Julia Kristeva as that which does not respect borders, and that which disturbs identity, system, and order, its relationship to the horror genre is obvious. But within these two films it can be discussed as relating to the characters themselves as they transform into monstrous versions of themselves. Notably, abjection is at once feared and desired for its seductive nature, and this can be seen in both Alyce and Mary as their sexual awakenings fall in line with their new violent identities (although for Mary the sexuality is retained to her presentation). Thus their identities shift to Barbara Creed’s concept of the Monstrous-Feminine as they allow themselves the pleasures of violence and sexuality - which is ultimately the seduction of the abject.

Needless to say, these two are Quality films, and I highly recommend them to any Horror fans or those interested in theories of Gender.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

One Star Wonders Part II

Leprechaun (1993) and Silent Hill Revelation 3D (2012)

What do you say about a film that is so bad it leaves you speechless? Presenting the second installment of One-Star Wonders, a segment reserved for films that are so bad they do not meet any of my criteria in full.


Up first, Leprechaun. This film gets one star for somehow making me truly believe it would be a fun viewing experience. 

When a little boy finds a lucky pot of gold at the end of the rainbow he sees it as the perfect opportunity to - well, I’m not sure.. Be rich, I guess. He does claim at one point that he will use the money to get his friend an operation to make him smart (the man appears to have a  learning disability that is used distastefully at times for comedic effect). At another point however he states that he knows that such an operation does not exist. So, nix the heartwarming child’s tale angle.
I put this on thinking to myself - Jennifer Aniston, Magic and Gore, what could go wrong? Well, let’s see - the dialogue is never believable, and the contrast between the Leprechaun’s big personality and the rather boring characters he is after leaves the film feeling disconnected from itself most of the time. Worse, it has not aged well, especially compared to Freddy movies, many of which are also tongue-and-cheek but rarely slack on the sinister elements, which this picture is definitely guilty of doing. Although the gore and SFX are really not that bad, it’s just not very effective when the story continues to drag on and on. 

* * * * * 

Next up, Silent Hill Revelation 3D. Half a star for creepy imagery (although the CGI was more distracting than in the first). Half for having a pretty good story premise to work with. Too bad the delivery was so weak.

I’m just glad I had the sense not to bother seeing this in 3D. I think by now it’s clear that the 3D fad has run its course. Hollywood continues to milk it by focusing on visual effects at the expense of well thought out storytelling, leaving this, the sequel to a good film, as one of the most recent victims. 
So what is the story? All grown up since the last time we saw her in 2006, Sharon/Elessa (played by Michelle Williams’s mini-me) teams up with John Snow (or whatever his name was) to track down her father when he is dragged to Silent Hill. While I liked that she had no recollection of her experiences there, partnering her up with a child of the order means it did not get to fully utilize methods of suspense. 
And while we’re on the topic… If he had to suffer the torture of having his body etched to get out of Silent Hill, how did someone just walk off with Elessa? It did seem to have a solid plan for itself at some point, but eventually it all started to feel rushed and thrown together. Two thumbs down.