Category Archives: Horrific movies

From the archive: In the Mouth of Madness: “Reality is not what it used to be” (part 1)

Today we discuss In the Mouth of Madness, John Carpenter’s final entry in his so-called apocalypse trilogy. It’s also my favorite of the three films. It has layers of complexity that allow for multiple viewings. As a result, I decided to break up my commentary for this film over multiple entries. Be advised that I will be spoiling every major plot point and trope in this film. But, I will be discussing aspects of the film that aren’t generally known or discussed.

In the Mouth of Madness is a 1990s meta-horror film about an insurance fraud investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) who is hired by a major publishing house to find missing author Sutter Cane, and deliver his newest manuscript, In the Mouth of Madness, for publication. It’s a big deal because Cane outsells all others.

With a name like Sutter Cane, it may seem that he is based on Stephen King. However, it’s quickly apparent that he is actually modeled primarily on H.P. Lovecraft. As you can see from the covers below, and others glimpsed in the film, the titles are derivative of Lovecraft titles, including “At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Thing on the Doorstep,” “The Whisperer in the Darkness,” “The Color out of Space,” and “The Shadow Out of Time.”

Excerpts of Cane’s writing are distinctly Lovecraftian: “Trent stood at the edge of the rip, stared into the illimitable gulf of the unknown, the Stygian world yawning blackly beyond. Trent’s eyes refused to close, he did not shriek, but the hideous unholy abominations shrieked for him, as in the same second he saw them spill and tumble upward out of an enormous carrion black pit, choked with the gleaming white bones of countless unhallowed centuries. He began to back away from the rip as the army of unspeakable figures, twilit by the glow from the bottomless pit, came pouring at him towards our world…”

That said, many viewers may not recognize that this film borrows concepts from a ’90’s meta-horror short story collection…An 1890’s meta-horror story collection, that is. Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow was published in 1895 and influenced Lovecraft’s own mythos. The King in Yellow is a collection of interconnected short stories about a book called The King in Yellowwhich is a best-seller that spreads “like an infectious disease.” Consider the excerpt below from “The Repairer of Reputations”:

“When the French government seized the translated copies which had just arrived in Paris, London, of course, became eager to read it. It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterwards with more awful effect.”

As with In the Mouth of Madness, characters who read The King in Yellow go insane, become convinced they are characters in the book, and meet a variety of nasty ends. One of the characters in The King in Yellow is even named J. Trent. Adding an additional layer of complexity, The King in Yellow borrows concepts and characters from Can Such Things Be? by Ambrose Bierce.

When watching this film, there are a few ways to interpret it. One is that the book is a type of mind-virus, and everyone who believes it becomes convinced that they are characters in the book. Another is that Sutter Cane has indeed been promoted to a god-role and can write reality as he wishes. Or as Cane’s editor Linda Styles states, “What scares me about Cane’s work is what might happen if reality shared his point of view…Reality is just what we tell each other it is. Sane and insane could easily switch places if the insane were to become a majority. You would find yourself locked in a padded cell, wondering what happened to the world.”

In the next posts, I’ll discuss the film’s relationship to other Lovecraft tropes and its religious implications.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare was the first meta-horror I had ever seen. My young self found the concept mind-warping. Instead of being a sequel or even a remake, the film had the main actors from the original film, along with New Line Cinema executive/producer Bob Shaye, and Wes Craven all portraying themselves. This movie acknowledged that all of the preceding films in the franchise were fiction, but that somehow Freddy Krueger is now real and is terrorizing his creators. An especially mind-bending moment occurred when Heather Langenkamp meets with Craven to discuss his new film script. At the and of the conversation, a close up of his computer screen reveals that their entire conversation was already part of the script.

Craven’s script is revealed to include the scene we just watched.

I still like this core concept very much, even though it turns out that Lucio Fulci had done something very similar years earlier with Cat In The Brain. There are other good things about New Nightmare. Freddy has a new look and is no longer cracking bad jokes with each kill–something that Craven despised about the other sequels.

Robert Englund appears in full Freddy makeup to please his adoring fans in New Nightmare.

However, in some respects, this movie hasn’t aged well for me. There are many aspects I view very differently now, and maybe adulthood has poisoned my perceptions. I now find the acting cringe-inducing in some scenes. And to some extent, I find the characters less sympathetic, which is especially weird since most of the people involved played themselves. I wonder if Craven made a deliberate decision to troll his own industry by portraying filmmakers as a bit bitchy, superficial, and flakey. Am I projecting my own experiences on to these characters? Most of the filmmakers I know are decent people, but I’ve met all types at this point. Then again, Craven took those stereotypes to an extreme in Scream 3, in which filmmakers were not only overly bitchy, superficial, and flakey, but rapists and murderers to boot. Many of the non-filmmaker/actor characters in New Nightmare were downright awful and creepy, especially the medical personnel who are ostensibly concerned for the welfare of Langenkamp’s son.

Freddy pierces the veil between fiction and reality.

Some aspects of the film are just odd in retrospect because societal attitudes have changed. While rewatching it, I had to remind myself of the stigma horror films carried in the 1990s. As bizarre as it seems now to watch a scene in which a doctor threatens to have child protective services take Langenkamp’s son away because mayyyybe he was exposed to horror films, there was a lot of hand-wringing on the part of so-called “experts” along these lines. As someone who openly liked the horror genre, I felt stigmatized back then too. On one occasion, a virtual stranger scolded me (during a Bible study of all things) that people like me were responsible for the Columbine massacre. Of course, Craven returned to the issue of movies influencing real-life violence in the Scream franchise , but I never hear that issue discussed these days. Thankfully. If there is a moral to this film, it’s the idea that the the act of telling stories can keep real monsters at bay.

Despite my issues with the film, I appreciate the fact that Craven was one of very few directors of that decade who took his subject matter seriously. 

From the archive: Targets

targetsposter

For this last day of November, it seems fitting to wrap up Boris Karloff Month by discussing Karloff’s last great film, Targets (1968), directed by Peter Bogdanovich.

Targets follows the story of two very different characters whose lives intersect by chance. The hero is Byron Orlok, portrayed by Karloff and clearly based on Karloff’s real-life persona. Orlok is an elderly horror star who is on the verge of retirement because he feels his brand of gothic horror is outdated, being replaced by the all-too-real horror of serial killers and mass murderers.

karloff-targets

The other is Bobby Thompson, a young Vietnam veteran who superficially appears to be a clean-cut, productive suburban citizen (portrayed by Tim O’Kelly). Modeled after real-life University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman, Thompson buys several guns and large quantities of ammunition, murders his wife and mother, and then kills several strangers in sniper attacks. Thompson’s final shooting spree takes place at a drive-in theater where Byron Orlok is scheduled to give a final public appearance before retiring from acting.

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The final confrontation between Orlok and Thompson is satisfying on a number of levels (beware of spoilers in this paragraph), beyond the simple enjoyment of seeing Karloff bitch-slap the young villain until he’s reduced to sniveling in fetal position. An optical illusion in which Thompson cannot differentiate between the two-dimensional screen image of Orlok and the real man advancing to disarm him may symbolize Thompson’s inability to differentiate his own twisted fantasies from reality. Orlok’s triumph may also signify that fictional horrors can serve as a protective factor against real-life horrors by exposing them for what they are. Having subdued Thompson, Orlok muses, “Is this what I was afraid of?”

While we can gain some insight into Charles Whitman’s motives through his journals, Thompson is a frustrating character because his motives are never explained. However, the contrast between Orlok and Thompson can also be examined in light of psychological theories of the time. In The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues about the So-Called Psychopathic Personality (1941) and its subsequent editions, Harvey M. Checkley argues that whereas many openly neurotic people are deeply good and loving at their core, psychopaths cause tremendous harm because they are able to effectively fit into societal norms. This argument perfectly parallels these characters. Orlok has made a career by nurturing the appearance of evil, albeit on a superficial level. In his personal life, he’s plagued by insecurity. Yet, at his core, he’s a kind and heroic person. In contrast, Thompson has only the appearance of goodness, trustworthiness, and normalcy masking terrifying schemes of destruction.

targets-1968-villain

The young villain and his sterile surroundings.

Erich Fromm’s theory of the necrophilous personality, first introduced in The Heart of Man: its Genius for Good and Evil (1964) and further detailed later in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness , is also pertinent in explaining Thompson’s character. Fromm’s definition of necrophilia is not simply a sexual attraction to corpses, but an attraction to death and destruction for their own sake. Some of the features of character-rooted necrophilia include authoritarianism, the desire to tear apart living things, and fascination with all things mechanical (in this film evidenced by Thompson’s fetishization of guns). As with his inability to differentiate the two-dimensional screen image of Orlok with the man himself, it seems that Thompson doesn’t view his victims as real, or at least not as human. At one point he tells the gun store clerk that he’s going to “hunt some pigs.” Thompson’s use of firearms to dispatch his victims is cold, distant, clinical, and impersonal. This is visually represented by the icy hues and sterile surroundings in Thompson’s scenes. In contrast,  Orlok fits within Fromm’s description of the biophilous (life-loving) personality, reflected by the warm, earthy hues in his scenes. Orlok’s home is a bit more ornate, messy, and flawed…as he is. Extrapolate Orlok’s characteristics to the genre he represents, and again, there is an indication that the horror genre is on the side of life.

Review: How to Make a Monster (1958)

While many people credit Wes Craven with inventing the meta-horror film, it’s been around for quite some time. In some cases, the meta elements of early films were cut or rewritten, likely because they were too confusing. For example, the original ending of The Black Cat (1934) depicted the “final couple” meeting the film’s director, who tells them he spent the last week filming  (As described by Jon Towlson in his excellent book, The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror Films, 1931-1936.)

In 1958, American International Pictures decided to satirize its own image and reputation. AIP had attempted to put its own unique spin on Universal-style monsters by making them into teenage monsters. It’s debatable as to how successful it was. How to Make a Monster was certainly the best of this cycle, precisely because of its penchant for self-mockery.

The villain is Pete Drummond, an FX makeup artist who will soon be fired because studio executives have decided that teen monster movies are waning in popularity and are a black mark on the reputation of the studio. Instead, they want to be known for rock and roll musicals.

So Drummond decides to teach the studio executives a lesson in fear. With the help of a mind control drug and a lot of bullshit philosophizing, Drummond uses his FX skills to transform two teenage actors into teen monsters and have them kill the studio head and others who threaten his livelihood. In an especially nice meta touch, Gary Conway, the actor from I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, portrays the young man whom Drummond transforms into the teenage Frankenstein monster. After the mind control drug wears off, the young men have no recollection that they committed murder.

in the final scenes, the film shifts from black-and-white to full color, as Drummond invites the teen actors into his private shrine where he introduces them to his “children,” the wax busts of movie monsters used in previous AIP films. At this point we find out that Drummond doesn’t view these horror films as a mere means to a paycheck, but as an actual religion.

The films is available for purchase as the double feature,  How to Make a Monster/Blood of Dracula, but is also currently available to watch on Youtube.

Review: The Dark Tower

First, let me confirm that the new film The Dark Tower differs significantly with the sprawling series written by Stephen King. Major plot points are truncated, and key characters are left out entirely. Rolan’s ka-tet doesn’t exist. The story is told primarily from Jake’s perspective, not Roland’s. Purists may be driven crazy by these omissions and changes. As someone who has read the entire series, I think that aspects of the film adaptation may not be friendly to outsiders, perhaps not relatable.

That said, I don’t understand the negative reviews this film is getting.  Again, I’m glad that I don’t allow such reviews to influence my decision to see movies. The Dark Tower has a mere 18% positive meta-critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes, yet has a 63% positive rating from audience members. This is a big discrepancy. But more importantly, Stephen King liked the adaptation. Keep in mind that King disliked the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of The Shining, which earned near-universal praise from critics. The Dark Tower is true to the spirit of King’s work while The Shining was not.

In the linked article above, King also discusses his approval of casting Idris Elba as Roland. predictably, some fans in the dark corners of the internet disapproved of casting a black actor as a character who is understood to be white. In the book illustrations, Roland is portrayed as white, and this is further reinforced in dialogue in which Detta Walker calls Roland a “honky” and other racist slurs (The Drawing of the Three). However, Roland’s race really isn’t an important factor. The fact is that Idris Elba did a phenomenal job in this film, and I hope he will be in the TV series as rumored.

Roland as portrayed in The Dark Tower III: The Wastelands

Matthew McConaughey is also terrific as the Man in Black. I remember when McConaughey used to be considered conventionally sexy, but gradually transitioned into creepy. I like it.  He’s perfectly cruel in this role.

Matthew McConaughey torments Roland as the Man in Black

Although I had hoped that there would be a film adaptation for each novel, similar to the Harry Potter film series, The Dark Tower included the most essential concepts from the series. If there is to be a TV series, I hope it includes Eddie Dean and Susannah (a.k.a. Detta/Odetta Walker), because the the relationship between Roland and his ka-tet really is the soul of the series.

So yes, I do recommend the movie to anyone with an open mind.

And since we are reviewing “meta” works this month, I have to recommend the Dark Tower novels as well. The film adaptation is not truly meta (although it does give a nod to Pennywise from IT), but the books became increasingly so. In The Dark Tower III: The Wastelands,  we learn that fictional works are windows into very real worlds. One such work is an unsettling children’s book called Charlie the Choo Choo by Beryl Evans, featuring nightmare-fuel illustrations and a story about a sentient train. The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah takes things further by having Roland as his friends meet Stephen King himself. In an especially self-deprecating touch, King gives Roland a copy of his novel Insomnia and Roland promptly throws it in the trash.

Until next time, long days and pleasant nights…

The Final Girls (2015)

Today we wrap up Final Girls Week with my favorite meta-horror film about the subject, Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls, starring Taissa Farmiga, Malin Ackerman, and Adam DeVine. I had the pleasure of seeing this movie in early 2015 at the Stanley Film Festival, where it won the audience choice award for best film. The Final Girls surprised the audience because it was so unexpectedly funny and sweet, and actually left many viewers openly weepy.

The film is about Max Cartwright, a young woman who lost her mother, Amanda, in a car accident. Amanda Cartwright was an actress best known for her appearance in a Friday the 13th-style slasher film called Camp Bloodbath. As bad as that film was, it’s a primary way for Max to feel connected to to her late mother. When Max agrees to be the guest of honor at a Camp Bloodbath screening, a strange turn of events causes Max and her school friends to be sucked into the film itself. Max relives her grief when she meets the doomed character played by her mother. Other tear-jerking moments occur when that character realizes she is a fictional character and that she will never accomplish her dreams because she will be “written out.”

Another commendable thing about The Final Girls is that it acknowledges the inherent awfulness of 1980’s slasher films without displaying the typical snarky contempt common of most meta-horror films, which tend to show disgust for both the films they parody and for the fans who watch them. Instead, the filmmakers of The Final Girls just get it. As a good friend of mine observed, some films (especially campy horror films) are so bad that they transcend their badness and become something else entirely. In The Final Girls, fans are portrayed as intelligent cinephiles, and the bad writing and acting in Camp Bloodbath are simply more reasons to love it. 

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon  (2006) was possibly the first slasher films to engage with Carol Clover’s theories. I actually do not view the Scream series as having this honor. The Scream films were savvy about the “rules” of surviving  slasher films, but these rules amounted to acknowledging what Thomas Ligotti called the “kindergarten moral code” of such films in his excellent essay “The Consolations of Horror” (as published in The Nightmare Factory) Everyone who watches slasher films knows that kids who drink, do drugs, or have premarital sex are going to die.

 

Behind the Mask is smarter and goes deeper, delving into the psychoanalytic elements of the genre as outlined by Clover. To some extent, it does examine the “rules” of slasher films as they apply to the killer. For example, the killer cannot kill a person while they are hiding in a closet, because the closet is a symbolic womb and therefore a sacred space. (To which the protagonist quips, “Does that mean you’re pro-life?”) He has to allow the “survivor girl” access to an appropriately phallic weapon. As he puts it, “she’s arming herself with cock.” The discussion isn’t limited to Freudian concepts as discussed in Clover’s book. There’s also discussion of the practical aspects of being an effective killer. One needs to do a lot of cardio and be insanely fit to make it look like he’s walking while everyone else is running.

We are privy to this information because the soon-to-be killer Leslie Vernon allows a crew of documentary filmmakers observe stalk his intended victims for months. This film occurs in a universe in which the events of Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street are all entirely true. The lead filmmaker wants to understand the perspective of the next infamous killer. As an added bonus, Robert Englund has a small role as Dr. Halloran,  filling the role of the “Ahab” archetype.

 

Leslie himself is a likeable, funny guy. Perhaps even a Nice Guy. This makes things more difficult for the filmmakers to decide whether or not to intervene when he finally tries to kill people. Of course, Leslie may have already planned for such an event.

Come back tomorrow for the final entry in Final Girls Week, in which I save my favorite for last.

Final Girl (2015): not your typical slasher film

 

Tyler Shields’ 2015 meta-horror film Final Girl seems to be rather divisive among horror fans, likely because it does not follow the typical slasher film narrative at all. In some ways, it inverts it. What it does is offer a fresh interpretation of the “final girl” character as described by Carol Clover.

Whereas the classic slasher film features a masked misfit who dispatches several disposable victims before being vanquished by the final girl, this movie has four well-dressed Nice Guys who make a sport of hunting and killing young women as a sport. The setup is a lot more like The Most Dangerous Game than Friday the 13th, for instance.

Unlike the typical slasher film final girl who discovers her inner strength under duress and then and fights back, protagonist Veronica was always strong. She was trained as an assassin from childhood by a mysterious shadow organization, and assigned to kill the four murderers. Much of the film becomes her stalking them, not the other way around. As a nice touch, she doses each of the men with hallucinogenic drugs so that they can experience their own worst fears before they die.

The look of the film is also very different from that of the classic slasher film. The lighting and color scheme is deliberately artificial and stylized, and the characters dress and behave as though they were transported from the 1950s.

This is not a film for those who want a conventional slasher film, but I will recommend it to fans of women’s revenge films.

Final Girls Week: The slasher film is dead; long live the slasher film!

We kick off Meta-Horror Month with Final Girls week, or technically films and novels which  deliberately reference Carol Clover’s concept of the Final Girl.

Clover’s 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws is considered a landmark work in film criticism and is largely responsible for rehabilitating the reputation of the horror genre as more than an expression of misogyny. Naturally, horror writers and directors love her for it. S&Man (2006), a faux documentary on faux snuff films, features extensive interviews with Clover regarding the popularity of the subgenre. Another film, the horror-comedy Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006), repeatedly refers to her theories. Slam poet Daphne Gottlieb converted Clover’s theory into poetry in her Final Girl collection. 

And yet, there has been a virtual explosion of films and novels in the last two years that use the phrase “final girl” or a close variant in the title. With Clover’s book being 25 years old, why did this take so long?

Perhaps more writers and filmmakers are familiar with Clover’s work now than when it was fresh and timely. Let’s face it, post 9-11 horror, and torture films in particular, blew most of the tropes discussed by Clover out of the water. 

Another reason for this resurgence is that the classic 1980’s-style slasher film is dead. The story has been mined from every angle, until is has absolutely nothing new to offer. Sure, people in my age bracket have a certain nostalgia for the slasher film. But these films just aren’t scary anymore. While many people saw Wes Craven’s Scream series as a revitalization of the genre, I saw it as a sign that the genre was in serious trouble. As smart as that series was, it chose to parody and mock the slasher film rather than add something new to it. We are now at a point in time in which Clover’s theories are more interesting than the films themselves. So why play with the remains of a dead genre in an act of cinematic necrophilia when one can make a film about the genre’s analysis instead?

Come back soon for a review of the new Riley Sager novel, Final GIrls. In the meantime, read my review of Clover’s book here.

August is Meta Month!

 

This month, Todd and I celebrate our birthdays. It is also the birth month of one of our horror heroes, H.P. Lovecraft! 

What better way to celebrate our birth month than to make it all about ourselves, and by extension, celebrate meta horror films and novels, and a bit of Lovecraftian horror too!

“Meta” is a term that is thrown around a lot, but many people don’t know the proper definition. Dictionary.com helpfully offers the following definitions:

“meta-

1.

a prefix appearing in loanwords from Greek, with the meanings“after,” “along with,” “beyond,” “among,” “behind,” and productive inEnglish on the Greek model:

metacarpus; metagenesis.
 

2.

a prefix added to the name of a subject and designating another subject that analyzes the original one but at a more abstract, higher level:

metaphilosophy; metalinguistics.
 

3.

a prefix added to the name of something that consciously referencesor comments upon its own subject or features:

a meta-painting of an artist painting a canvas.”
 
 
Urban Dictionary offers other helpful examples as how “meta” pertains to the arts. For instance, a footnote that contains its own explanatory footnote, or a film about filmmakers making a movie which itself is about the film industry, or anything with so many layers of abstraction as to become mid-bending.
 

Image from tvtropes.org

 
It’s a common misconception that meta-horror originated in the 1990s, but I’m here to set the record straight, my little cephalopods. The 1990s may have popularized the narrative style in our lifetime, but it has existed for centuries, popping up cyclically when a genre is seemingly in its death throes.
 

From Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

 
This is a big problem with horror, which tends to use the same tropes and core narratives over and over. When a genre recycles its own ideas so relentlessly, and overtly pays homage to the films and stories that came before, much of it is arguably meta. 
 
 
So for my purposes, I’m going to limit my discussion of meta-horror to those works which self-consciously reference academic works about the horror genre, and those works which are determined to rupture reality itself. We are talking about works that make real people into fictional characters, postmodern arguments that fiction is as real as reality, and narratives that cause readers to be lost in a hall of mirrors.
 

John Trent reads between the lines in In the Mouth of Madness

Wish Upon (2017): Mainstream critics can go rot…

 

With a 19% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the new teen horror-thriller Wish Upon is one many theatrically-released horror films to get (unfairly) trounced by critics. I rather enjoyed Apollo 18 and Sinister 2, both of which had abysmal meta-critic scores. Even the severely reviled The Bye Bye Man had a lot of effective scenes. I’m not even counting the 2017 reboot of The Mummy (2017), b ecause it was more of an action film/ superhero movie in disguise than a true horror film. Even that was admittedly shallow, but more fun than expected. I’m glad I don’t let these scores dissuade me from watching films. I’ve learned to take critics’ opinions with a grain of salt because the movie reviewer at my hometown’s newspaper gave one-star ratings to virtually every horror film.

“I wish Darcie Chapman would just go rot”

While Wish Upon may not be destined to become a classic, I found it enjoyable. There’s a good concept, the performances are solid, and there are some genuinely creepy moments–even if the PG-13 rating doesn’t allow it to become the gorefest it ought to be. There’s even a bit of well-placed humor, particularly in the film’s references to image-crafting on social media. One of the best bits is when mean girl Darcie Chapman gets a bad case of necrotizing fasciitis, and her supposed best friend snaps a photo of her rotting skin before helping her.

WU_01951_R(l-r.) Joey King stars as Claire, Alice Lee as Gina and Ki Hong Lee as Ryan in WISH UPON, a Broad Green Pictures release.Credit: Steve Wilkie / Broad Green Pictures

Spoilers ahead here…

As is apparent from the trailer, unpopular teen Joey is gifted a magic box that grants seven wishes, but with a price. It doesn’t twist the wish-maker’s intent as in the W.W. Jacobs short story The Monkey’s Paw , or the Wishmaster franchise, or the comedy Bedazzled and its remake. Instead, it grants the wishes perfectly (even if the wish is poorly-worded), but the current owner of the box loses a loved one as a “blood price” after each wish is granted. These scenes play about a bit like the death scenes in the Final Destination films, minus the excessive gore. The price of the final wish is that the wish-maker will lose his/her own soul. Joey ends up in a bind and uses her seventh wish in a manner that borrows heavily from the original Wishmaster film in that it would create a time paradox. Let’s just say it ultimately doesn’t have the effect she wanted.

The Most Dangerous Game (1932): Sexual sadism and trophy hunting collide

Since I’m recovering from post-convention fever (that is, laziness), I felt like rewatching some old favorites. Pre-Code films are awesome, because they are just as fixated on torture, mutilation, and sexual deviance as so-called “torture porn” and “hardcore horror” films.

Animal cruelty and sexual perversion collide in The Most Dangerous Game (1932), when big game hunter Rainsford and his lover Eve (Fay Wray) are shipwrecked on an island owned by a wealthy foreigner. The antagonist, Count Zaroff, is himself a big game hunter who has become bored with hunting animals, and and is now a hunter of humans. This film, based on the  novella by Richard Connell is still relevant today given the connections between big game trophy hunting and serial murder. This psychological connection was also recognized by Erich Fromm in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness in his brief discussion of “elite hunting” (note this phrase was borrowed by Eli Roth in the Hostel franchise), which is differentiated from hunting in which the objective is to consume the animal’s meat.  

A glimpse of Count Zaroff’s…unique collection.

 

In true serial killer fashion, Zaroff keeps a trophy room fillled with the heads of his victims, and confesses that a successful “hunt” makes him desire physical “love.” Following the “hunt,” he believes the Rainsford to be dead, he plans to rape Eve as a means to celebrate his conquest. Rainsford saves her and kills the Zaroff, who is then torn apart by his own dogs. Having survived the ordeal, the protagonist is able to empathize with the animals he himself hunted, and renounces his hobby.

Andrew Divoff Interview – My Horrific Life

 

Join us for an an exclusive interview with Wishmaster star Andrew Divoff!   Andrew met with us at Crypticon 2017 to discuss his charity, Mountain Film and Theater Arts Committee,  his new Djinn rings (soon to be available on his official website), and his new line of beer.  We love this interview!

Stay tuned for future updates about Andrew’s charity fundraising efforts and his upcoming beer pour at the Lake Arrowhead Brewfest.

Crypticon Kansas City 2017: Now in St. Joe, Missouri

Todd, Colleen, and I at Crypticon’s new venue.

Crypticon KC 2014 was the first convention I ever attended. This year, I  went on a road trip with my podcast cohost Todd and his wife Colleen. Oddly, Crypticon Kansas City was actually held in St. Joe, which is roughly an hour away from Kansas City itself. I assumed that the move from the Howard Johnson Plaza in KC to the St. Joe Civic Center was merely for economic reasons. I found out later that it was because of a very real-life horror story.

More on this later.

Andrew Divoff sweetly agreeing to have a phone chat with my mom.

For those of you who prefer your horror in film and culture, Crypticon did not disappoint. It was great seeing my friend Andrew Divoff (Wishmaster, Lost, Toy Soldiers), who sweetly agreed to chat with my mom on the phone before things got too busy. 

With Jeffrey Combs, who should be in every movie.

 

I also enjoyed seeing Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator, Star Trek) again. He kicked off the convention Q&A session with several fascinating stories and a great sense of humor.

William B. David and Mitch Pileggi talk UFO’s

Another fun session was the panel with X-Files stars Mitch Pileggi and William B. Davis. The most interesting aspect of this panel was their discussion about paranormal activity and the existence of extraterrestrial life. Pileggi is a believer and Davis is not.

Dirk Benedict trumped us during a political discussion at his table!

Battlestar Galactica and A-Team star Dirk Benedict gave a lively talk about his personal life, past romantic relationships, political views, and love for his children. I didn’t always agree with his opinions (for example, he had many positive things to say about Donald Trump), but it was refreshing to listen to someone who was unafraid to share his unfiltered views.

We met a lot of new people too, a few of whom will be future podcast guests. African-American horror-fantasy author Crystal Connor shared a bracing story about a collision with a swastica-tattooed skinhead, only to be surprised that he was more concerned for her well-being. Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp) and Mark Patton (A Nightmare on Elm St. 2) have passionate opinions on depictions of gender and sexual orientation in horror films, and I can’t wait to talk to them further. Later, über-sweetheart David Naughton (An American Werewolf in London) chatted with us about his upcoming projects, Sharknado 5: Global Swarming and The Hatred.

Chatting with Andrew Divoff at the hotel.

On the final day, Andrew Divoff shared information about his upcoming charity pour and new hand-sculpted Djinn rings. We talked about the new convention venue, and he asked how it compared to the old one. I explained that I stayed in the Howard Johnson Plaza in Kansas City during Crypticon 2014, and while my room was clean, there were definite problems with the facility. One elevator bounced sickeningly before stopping at the correct floor, and another was broken entirely. I opted to take the stairs instead, and found the dismal concrete stairwell to be littered with broken glass and used needles. The convention hall itself looked decent, but occasionally I would notice a foul stench waft through, as though a particularly flatulent convention-goer had walked by and cropdusted the aisle. It turns out that the old plumbing system perpetually leaked sewer gas during the summer months. As unsavory as that was, I speculated that Crypticon simply moved because they found a cleaner, bigger, or cheaper venue.

But then, Andrew said, “No, it was closed down because of the bodies in the elevator shaft.”

The now defunct Howard Johnson Plaza/former Ramada Inn

Note the overgrown weed problem.

It was like American Horror Story: Hotel, minus the glamor. Maybe more like Bentley Little’s novel The Resort. This took me down a rabbit hole of research of the Howard Johnson Plaza/Ramada Inn, beginning with reviews from hotel guests who had far worse experiences than I did. (See select photos above from TripAdvisor.) There were tales of  mildewed coffee pots, filthy bedding, broken windows, televisions “ghetto-wired” directly into the electrical outlet, cockroach and rat infestations, bedbugs, and entire sections left abandoned, with unmade rooms potentially occupied by homeless people. It seems that the Howard Johnson Plaza was like a ghost town by September 2016 and abandoned entirely by December.

As for dead bodies, I found evidence of only one in the elevator shaft.  According to Fox 4 News and the Kansas City Star, a homeless man who frequently sheltered in the hotel reported to police that he had found  a body in one of the elevator shafts, and that it had been there for quite awhile. So long that it was not immediately obvious whether the body was male or female. While I have not found much follow-up information about this, it seems that the death was accidental. The victim was apparently stealing copper pipes and fell to his death.

Stay classy, KC.

 

Berlin Syndrome: Nice Guys and necrophilous personalities

Berlin Syndrome, a film I had been anticipating for months after reading Bryan Bishop’s review in The Verge, is finally out on DVD and VOD. The film is directed by Cate Shortland and adapted from the novel by Melanie Joosten.

Berlin Syndrome is a slow-burn movie that lacks any significant onscreen body count, but is disturbing nonetheless. In many respects, it reminds me of the John Fowles novel The Collector and its  film adaptation starring Terrence Stamp. Both stories are about men who “collect” the women with whom they are obsessed. Arguably, both stories are also about Nice Guys as villains. Note that I differentiate nice guys from Nice Guys, the former being genuinely good and kind people who happen to be men, and the latter are men merely performing a social script of niceness to cover an ulterior agenda, and who are not nice people at all. For more information about the scourge of Nice Guy behavior and their diseased mindset, read this excellent article by Dr. Nerdlove, or listen to my guest appearance as part of a roundtable discussion on the KitchenShrinks podcast episode about benevolent sexism.

Berlin Syndrome nicely exposes Nice Guy psychology and their twisted view of women and relationships. Thankfully, most Nice Guys do not keep women as human captives, but if they had the means to do so without getting caught, they would likely view it as an effective solution to being “friendzoned.” (Although even then, the Nice Guy would view the female captive as a moocher or gold-digger, living in his home rent free and therefore definitely owing him sexual favors.) In Berlin Syndrome, an Australian tourist Clare has a one-night-stand with Berlin Nice Guy Andi, who can’t accept that she doesn’t want a long-term relationship with him. Once Clare is Andi’s captive, she discovers that Andi is a serial kidnapper and possible serial killer, abducting a new victim as soon as the “romance” is gone in his relationship with the current captive. When we see Andi interact with multiple potential victims, we see that all of his charming and endearing  behaviors are just part of a script that he repeatedly performs. Like all Nice Guys, Andi hates women, and in fact sees them as literally dirty, as evidenced by his compulsive urge to wash himself after being touched by a female coworker.

Max Riemelt as Berlin Syndrome’s Nice Guy Villain. Photo by Sarah Enticknap.

I have not read Melanie Joosten’s novel, and therefore don’t know if it provides further insight into Andi’s simultaneous hatred of women and desire to keep women as captives to fulfill his romantic fantasies. But his behavior fits nicely within Erich Fromm’s theory of the necrophilous personality, as discussed in The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil  and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. As discussed in an earlier essay, the necrophilous personality is not the same as necrophilia, though the personality and the paraphilia can coexist. One trait of the necrophilous personality is to transform, literally or metaphorically, something that is alive into something that is dead. In The Collector, Miranda’s captor kills and collects butterflies. Instead of admiring these living creatures in the wild, he kills them and keeps their bodies on display so that he can enjoy looking at them. Miranda realizes in horror that, in his mind, she is exactly like those butterflies. In Berlin Syndrome, Andi compulsively photographs Clare, sometimes in candid moments, other times forcing her to model lingerie. When she behaves in a sexually provocative manner during one of these photo sessions, seemingly mocking Andi’s fantasies, he becomes upset with her. She is perhaps too alive with too much a mind of her own. Fromm himself discussed the the compulsive need to take photographs as a symptom of necrophilous personality in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. True crime author Brian Masters, himself influenced by Fromm’s work, took the observation further in his biography The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer:

“The person, once threateningly alive, now exists insofar as the photographer allows him to exist through images of his creating. It is a translation of life into death, of sentience into petrification, of will into object, the dissolution of all into one triumphant thing—the photograph. (p. 163) … It is important to recognize that the camera does not enhance, it reduces (in so far as the person photographed is now no more than an image), and it insultingly proclaims ownership too. (p. 164).”

Andi controls every aspect of Clare’s life.

For the antagonists in The Collector and in Berlin Syndrome, women’s autonomy is somehow so threatening that the Nice Guy psychopaths need to assert control at any cost. They would rather have a sterile, scripted “relationship” than risk rejection or the dreaded Friendzone. Fortunately, things ultimately work out for Clare better than they did for Miranda in The Collector, with women helping each other escape from a horrible situation.

 

What is it? It is Crispin Glover Live at Omaha’s Alamo Drafthouse!

Crispin Glover as ” Mr. World” in the Starz series American Gods

On June 16th and 17th at Alamo Drafthouse (Omaha ), I attended both nights of Crispin Glover’s appearance consisting of live performances, film screenings, Q&As, and book signings. And what a great time it was! Crispin Glover is one of the most wonderfully gracious, down-to-earth, and intelligent people I’ve met. His live performances films and should be experienced firsthand, because they defy easy description. But I’m going to try anyway.

Before I get to that, I want to foreground this review by saying that I didn’t know too much of what to expect from the event or from Crispin himself, and didn’t want to bias my opinion of the event by reading detailed reviews in advance. Aside from enjoying Crispin’s quirky performances in various films (including his recent role as “Mr. World” in the Starz series American Gods), I didn’t know much about him as a person, aside from media articles describing him as” eccentric” or even “crazy,” two terms that are neither equivalent nor interchangeable. Usually, the “evidence” for the “crazy” label consists of speculation about his cringe-inducing first appearance on Letterman in the late 1980s, or the fact that he used to collect antique medical equipment (a fun-sounding hobby that mostly makes me feel envious). As I discussed in an earlier post, “crazy” is a nebulous label, a sloppy blanket term for a range of behaviors and attitudes that don’t necessarily indicate actual mental illness. I’m not just carping about the descriptor “crazy” merely because Crispin Glover clearly isn’t.  I also find it egregious because it’s an intellectually lazy way to dismiss someone whose ideas or behaviors are merely inconvenient, outside the status-quo, or fail to support one’s own agenda. More on this later.

An unexpected reference to bestiality in “Rat Catching”

This isn’t to say that Crispin’s artistic output isn’t eccentric or massively weird, because it is. If you have the opportunity to attend both nights, do so. There is some overlap in content but not so much as to be overly redundant. Both nights began with variations of “Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show,” in which Crispin crawled out from somewhere beneath the stage (literally) and then presented dramatic reading of several of his books accompanied by a powerpoint presentation of the book text and illustrations. Most of Crispin’s books consist of Victorian-era texts and illustrations, which have been redacted, recombined, and annotated in ways that transform the narrative entirely, usually making it funny or into absolute nightmare fuel. For example, “Rat Catching” contains a surprise reference to bestiality. Other books, such as “Round My House,” consisted of Crispin’s original text, reprinted from his own handwriting. This was my favorite among the books available for purchase at the event and on his website. The others were out of print or never printed for distribution in the first place. My favorite among these was “The Backward Swing.” Crispin’s dramatic reading style most often further mutated or obfuscated the meaning of the text, because he would often read with an emotion that didn’t seem to fit the text, or would read in a counter-intuitive cadence or put emphasis on atypical words. I enjoy the books themselves, but would argue that they are best experienced when performed by Crispin himself.

Poster for It is Fine! Everything is Fine

Following the Big Slide Show on night one was a screening of It is Fine! Everything is Fine, which is directed by Crispin as part two if the “IT” trilogy. Part one, What is It? was screened the second night. In retrospect, I think I understand his reasoning for screening his films out of order. It is Fine! is a good way to warm up audience members who attended both nights, because of the two films, it is more palatable for mainstream audiences. Moreover, it’s in some ways helpful to learn about the screenwriter and lead actor Steven C. Stewart before seeing the first film. Steven C. Stewart, who had a severe case of cerebral palsy, portrays a serial killer who has a fetish for women with long hair. I won’t spoil this film for readers as I tend to do. While there are several taboo elements in It is Fine!, it’s a film with a coherent, linear plot.

Promotional still for What is It?

That said, the oddities of the Big Slide Show and It is Fine! did not adequately prepare me for seeing part one of the “IT” trilogy, What is It?, which Crispin describes as, “Being the adventures of a young man whose principle interests are snails, salt, a pipe, and how to get home. As tormented by an hubristic, racist inner psyche” ( the racist inner psyche is portrayed by Crispin himself). In his Q&A afterward (as in interviews which can be read online), he states that one controversial element was the fact that the cast of What is It? consisted almost entirely of actors who had Down syndrome portraying characters who do not necessarily have Down syndrome. That’s really only one of many controversial aspects of the film. I would go so far to say that there is something potentially offensive or disturbing for every viewer. Some of those things include excessive use of Nazi swasticas, screaming snails, and unsimulated sex scenes involving women in animal masks. In multiple interviews, Crispin said his goal in making What is It?  is for audience members to ask themselves, “Is this right what I’m watching? Is this wrong what I’m watching? Should I be here? Should the filmmaker have done this? What is it?” It worked. Among the things that pushed my personal buttons were gratuitous scenes of snail-killing and some…unique soundtrack choices that included Johnny Rebel’s rendition of “Some N*ggers Never Die (They Just Smell That Way)”  and selected songs by Charles Manson. To clarify, these songs were played in the main character’s subconscious by the aforementioned “hubristic, racist inner psyche,” which didn’t prevent me from dying a little on the inside anyway. 

To say What is It? is disturbing is an understatement. More specifically, I actually found it more disturbing than one of my perennial favorite movies, A Serbian Film, and as least as disturbing as my friend Andrey Iskanov’s Unit 731 quasi-documentary film Philosophy of a Knife. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way at all. In contrast to a lot of big-budget dreck that is entertaining in the moment but which leaves you without a thought in your head, What is It?, like the other disturbing films I mentioned above, is not necessarily pleasant to watch , but is something to be appreciated in the long term precisely because it is thought-provoking.

Which brings us to the Q&A sessions, which were an oasis of calm rationality after the strangeness of the dramatic readings and the films themselves. In response to each question, Crispin gave thorough, intellectual answers that reminded me of my favorite professors’ lectures in film theory classes and from subsequent graduate school behavioral science courses. Although each night’s roughly two-hour Q&A had a different overall focus, one unifying theme was Crispin’s argument that corporately-funded films function as a type of propaganda because they discourage audience members from asking questions of any kind. Another observation was, and I hope I am paraphrasing this appropriately, that corporate films are intended for the eyes of children, because anything that could make an audience member uncomfortable is excised. I very much appreciated his in-depth insights and discussions in this subject, in part because I have a similar perception of such films. For over a decade, I’ve believed that most mainstream, corporately-funded films force the filmmaker to take a “No Child Left Behind” approach to storytelling, insofar that even if a film has subject matter deemed not suitable for children, that film is ultimately scripted and edited in such a way so that even the most intoxicated or least intelligent test screening audience member can understand it. Additionally, it seems that the budget of a film is inversely related to how taboo it is “allowed” to be. While that isn’t a terrible thing for every type of film, it’s obviously deleterious for horror films and any other type of film that by nature needs to convey things that are disturbing or controversial.

Crispin Glover as the screaming hair fetishist “The Thin Man” in Charlie’s Angels

Since What is It? was a reaction to corporate straightjacketing, it’s not entirely without irony that a significant a percent of Crispin’s acting work is in corporately funded and distributed films. However, that doesn’t indicate that Crispin’s views on corporate propaganda are somehow inauthentic, but rather that corporate control over the U.S. entertainment industry is so ubiquitous that it’s virtually impossible for an artist to detach entirely from the system. Crispin states that he used income from Charlie’s Angels and other corporately-funded films to cover the cost of making his independent films What is It? and It is Fine! Which brings me back to the issue of some journalists labeling Crispin as “crazy” or some variant on the term. On one level, it may just be an attempt to entertain celebrity gossip junkies or reflective of a common difficulty in separating an artist from his work product, but on another, more insidious level, it is also an easy way to dismiss Crispin’s more subversive views about the U.S. entertainment industry.

Crispin’s Q&A sessions weren’t restricted to professor-like discussions about corporate propaganda and relevant works by  Noam Chomsky and Edward Bernays. He also discussed the influence of the Surrealist movement on his own work and shared several humorous personal anecdotes, including his intent behind his first appearance on Letterman. (I won’t reveal the answer here.) The fact that he openly answers questions in his Q&A sessions that he will not answer in typical media interviews is yet another reason to attend his live performances and film screenings. 

Finally meeting Crispin at his book signing Friday night

 

After the Q&A sessions concluded, both evenings ended with a book signing. While it was a long wait to meet Crispin (I didn’t make it home until 2 a.m. on Friday and 1 a.m. on Saturday), I’m glad I did, and appreciated the opportunity to speak with him one-on-one. A staff member at Alamo Drafthouse told me that they had recommended that he spend only two minutes with each guest, but he generously spent quite a bit more time with those who wanted to talk. As I mentioned earlier, he was very gracious and grounded, and also genuinely interested in each guest and in hearing their feedback about his presentations and films. Even though I intended to not bring up weird or inappropriate topics, my conversation with Crispin started benignly and then evolved to an academic discussion about paraphilias. Fortunately, he seemed unfazed.

Crispin is currently writing a book about propaganda (I can’t wait for it to be released) and completing an untitled film starring his father, Bruce Glover. Visit crispinglover.com to sign up for his newsletter, buy his books, and get information about his tour dates.

 

The weird and wonderful horror films of Crispin Glover

I am massively excited for tonight and tomorrow, because I get to see Crispin Glover perform live and screen his films What is It? and It is Fine! Everything is Fine!  While these films may not be categorized as horror films, they are reputed to have many disturbing elements that would never be present in big studio films. I will be writing a follow-up post about these films and about Crispin’s live performance, but in the meantime, it seems fitting to take a look at his weird and wonderful performances in the horror genre.

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter

The Friday the 13th franchise is definitely not my favorite horror franchise. The entries are so similar to each other, the characters are largely forgettable, and even calling the fourth entry “the final chapter” is a damnable lie. In an interview with my friend Justin Beahm, Crispin essentially said he accepted the role because his appearance in the film would be funny in the future (though he is happy to have been part of it now). Despite the interchangeable quality of the series’ victims, Glover adds memorable quirkiness to his character and delivers some epic dance moves.

Willard (2003)

In his first role as the protagonist in a major studio film, Crispin portrays  downtrodden social misfit Willard, whose only friends are rats.  Willard’s life becomes more difficult when his mother dies and his boss fires him. Willard’s transformation from doormat to empowered murderer is my favorite aspect of this film, and you can see Crispin’s versatility as an actor. It’s especially satisfying to see him take revenge on his abusive boss.

Simon Says

Crispin’s dual role as deranged twin brothers allows him to creatively dispatch several unsympathetic young people. The ending of Simon Says even goes so far as to suggest that the victims in slasher films are entirely interchangeable. Come for the creative kill scenes, stay for the the uncomfortable ” romance” between Crispin’s characters and the “final girl.”

The Wizard of Gore (2007)

In this remake of the 1970 Herschell Gordon Lewis cult classic, Crispin portrays stage magician Montag the Magnificent. Montag’s act consists of dismembering women onstage while delivering obtuse philosophical monologues. The women are revealed to be unharmed at the end of each act, but die of the same injuries days later. This remake differentiates itself from the misogyny problem of the original film by having a character repeatedly point out that Montag’s act has a misogyny problem. The best thing about the original film was the dialogue in the twist ending. According to the director’s commentary, Crispin required that dialogue to be included in the remake. Unfortunately, that scene didn’t make the final cut. Crispin’s scenes as Montag are definitely the highlight of the film, The Wizard of Gore is also worth watching for appearances by genre greats Jeffrey Combs and Brad Dourif.

It Comes at Night: an exercise in understated dread

Shortly after viewing The Mummy (2017), I watched a film with the polar opposite approach. It Comes at Night shows very little horror onscreen, but implies so much. The film centers around an interracial family who have isolated themselves in a remote cabin during a worldwide plague outbreak. The father, Paul, has devised an elaborate set of rules and protocols in order to keep his family safe from the disease, yet it repeatedly finds its way in.

In the opening scene, we see Paul’s wife comforting her sick father, whom Paul then kills and cremates. Later, Paul faces problems from outsiders who may or may not be carrying the plague. Ultimately, Paul’s authoritarianism fails because he has insufficient understanding of the plague and how it is spread. These themes remind me a bit of the Edgar Allan Poe short story “The Masque of the Red Death,” in which a hubristic prince falsely believes he can attain safety through isolation.

It Comes at Night is a tense slow-burn movie that has great atmosphere, but I have to admit that I was disappointed in the abrupt ending. Like other movies with similar pacing, such as The Invitation and The Boy, It  Comes at Night culminates in an explosion of violence. Yet at the same time, it sort of fizzles and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Nonetheless, I recommend it for its pervasive sense of paranoia and dread.

The Mummy (2017): a triumph of spectacle over substance

As you may have noticed, June has been a lazy month with no particular motif or theme, aside from some lackadaisical coverage of a few summer blockbusters.

Yesterday, I bit the proverbial bullet and watched the new remake of The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Annabelle Wallis, and Sofia Boutella. I tend to be wary of big-budget Hollywood horror films, not because I have anything against casting A-list actors or using sophisticated special effects, but simply because mainstream Hollywood tends to play things safe and not create films that are too disturbing. This is fine for some genres, but not for horror, for obvious reasons.

The original teaser trailer for The Mummy didn’t fill me with optimism. While it’s kind of neat that they have a female mummy, I was immediately put off by what appeared to be silly and exploitative costuming. Do her bandages really need to create a push-up bra effect? Why do female monsters have to be sexually objectified rather than just scary? The ancient Egyptians definitely did not beautify female corpses. In fact, the ancient historian Herodotus wrote that wealthy families deliberately let the bodies of their deceased women spoil a bit, so that embalmers would not be tempted to engage in necrophilic acts with the corpses. Also, the new mummy’s bandages progressively unravel during the course of the film, creating a revealing of macabre pinup look. That could be a legit problem, but at least Boris Karloff had the good sense and dignity to procure some real clothes in the original 1932 version.

Upon seeing the new Mummy, I had wished they had  left some semblance of the original love story intact. Boris Karloff’s character in the original film was sympathetic because his only “crime” was forbidden love. This story could have worked with any gender combination, but the new mummy Ahmanet is massively unsympathetic. She was sentenced to being embalmed alive because she was a baby-murderer, motivated solely by power and greed.

Still, I believe in approaching every movie with an open mind. The 2017 version of The Mummy is actually a lot of fun, if you can approach it for pure entertainment. Aside from a few jump-scares, the film is never truly frightening, but it does seemingly pay homage to darker horror films. The mummy Princess Ahmanet reconstitutes her body by sucking the vitality out of her victims in a Hellraiser-lite fashion. Similarly, when protagonist Nick’s (Cruise) dead buddy keeps showing up to tell him he is cursed, it’s a lot like An American Werewolf in London. There’s also a lot of action, comedy, and a subplot involving Dr. Henry Jekyll.

The original film did so much with so little. There were no action scenes and all of the violence was offscreen, but director Karl Freund and his cast were able to convey so much with meaningful glances and subtle dialogue. In contrast, the 2017 remake does so little with so much. I was never bored while watching The Mummy, but it didn’t give me much to deconstruct afterward. For that reason, it’s not going to be a film I watch obsessively again and again.

This weekend, I’m looking forward to breaking away from mainstream entertainment by seeing Crispin Glover perform live at the Omaha Alamo Drafthouse, June 16-17. Check back soon for more information about this event, which will surely be anything but bland and conventional. For more information about Crispin Glover’s appearances, visit his website.

Is “Alien: Covenant” part of a misanthropic and pessimistic trend?

While watching Alien: Covenant with Todd and his family, I had to ask myself, “Is 2017 the year of the misanthropic Hollywood movie?”

Earlier this year, another big budget sci-fi/horror film Life was released in theaters. In a move more appropriate in a John Carpenter film than a Hollywood blockbuster starring Jake Gyllenhal, the creators of Life decided to end the human race through series of colossal  fuck-ups, revealed in a deceptive twist ending.

Alien: Covenant is the latest entry in what I now view as the Space Fuck-Up subgenre, in which terrible things happen that were completely avoidable. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the movie. I’m saying that virtually all the characters display terrible judgment based on impulse and emotions rather than logic. Explorers on an unknown, un-researched planet decide to flounce around the unexplored terrain with no protective gear and to eat the local vegetation without testing it first. It’s not what kills them, but surely that space wheat was full of gluten. They fail to enact quarantine measures when crew members are infected. Later, when things are completely FUBAR, a pilot risks the lives of thousand of colonists and human embryos because he wants to rescue his wife.

The endless fuck-ups and poor leadership displayed by the human characters may be among the issues die-hard Alien fans have with the movie. But I’m going to assume it was a deliberate thematic choice that explains and enables the villain’s motivation to get rid of the dipshit human species entirely. Yes, the android David is back from Prometheus, and because there can never be enough Michael Fassbender, he also plays the role of another android, Walter. As an added bonus, Fassbender gets to share an erotic scene with…himself.

David was a complex character in Prometheus. He does some terrible things to his human crewmates, but he’s also sympathetic, and exudes an almost childlike curiosity and wonder. Prometheus ended on an optimistic note, with heroin Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) extending kindness to David. One gets the impression that there will be a redemptive storyline for David, with him developing empathy for humans.

All of this optimism is blown to hell in Alien: Covenant, with David emerging as a full-blown villain. He has human qualities, but seemingly our species’ worst traits, combined with superior intelligence. A guy so narcissistic that he would literally fuck himself if he could. Someone whose definition of “love” in no way precludes vivisecting his beloved. Hence we learn of Elizabeth’s horrible fate following her decision to rebuild his body. Like any narcissist, he “loves” others to the extent that they benefit him. As a side note, because  there was the implication that David has developed sexual urges, I do wish the film had more explicitly a homosexual relationship between David and Walter, or human-android relations between David and the new heroine, Daniels.

“Let me do the fingering:” that point when the audience erupted in guffaws of “that’s what she said!”

Because he himself is not human, it’s somewhat easy to understand his contempt or indifference toward humanity as a whole. In this respect, he’s not as strange as the antagonists of Carnosaur or In the Mouth of Madness, who are humans desiring the end of humanity. And while Alien: Covenant has a twist similar to that in Life, I think everyone in the theater saw it coming. But, since this is a mainstream Hollywood film, it’s unusual that the filmmakers  not only decided to let the villain win, but to effectively make him the protagonist and to lay the groundwork for humanity’s destruction.

 

Tim D. Welch interview: additional resources

We recently recorded a two-part interview with actor, producer, and FX artist Tim D. Welch of Scream in the Dark Productions. Here are additional links about his work.

I’m personally very excited to see his recently completed film Sick People, starring Lin Shaye, C. Thomas Howell, and Jasmine Guy. Look for Tim’s appearance as a motorcycle accident survivor in the trailer below:

Tim appears in Penance Lane, starring Tyler Mane and Scout Taylor-Compton. The Film is currently in post-production. 

He appeared in Steven Rea’s short film “Howl of a Good Time,” alongside Leslie Easterbrook and Tamara Glynn.

Tim’s FX work was featured in Death Rot, now available on DVD/blu and Amazon video.

His appearance and FX work in the Icky Blossoms music video “In Folds” are…disturbing.

Tim also had the leading role in Sam Rocha’s short film “M is for Missing,” a finalist for inclusion in ABCs of Death 2.

Check back soon for more information on Tim and his upcoming projects.

Mother’s Day Mayhem

Inside, 2007

Looking for the perfect movie to celebrate the woman who gave you life itself? We have a few suggestions

Wake Wood (2009, dir. David Keating). Grieving parents participate in an occult ritual to bring their daughter back from the dead, but she isn’t quite right. This outing from Hammer Studios has been compared to Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.

The Void (2016, dirs. Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kotanski). In this film full of gooey, disgusting birth imagery, some parents are eagerly waiting for their children to be born and others are grieving miscarriages. One character can caused the dead to be reborn, but as indescribable Lovecraftian monsters.

Grace (2009, dir. Paul Solet). A woman’s unborn child dies inside her, but she is determined to carry it to term. Her baby is miraculously born alive, but with a taste for blood.

Holidays (2016, dirs, Gary Shore, Ellen Reid, and others). This anthology film features two shorts about motherhood. In Gary Shore’s “St. Patrick’s Day,” a lonely schoolteacher gives birth to a “bouncing baby snake.” Ellen Reid’s “Mother’s Day” is a darker story about a woman who becomes pregnant every time she has sex, despite using birth control. Desperate for a cure, she seeks help from a cult.

Sleepwalkers (1992, dir. Mick Garris). A feline-phobic, vampiric mother-and-son duo share a, um, very special relationship in this film penned by Stephen King.

The Brood (1979, dir. David Cronenberg). A hysterical woman manifests her emotions in the form of mutant, parasitic babies hanging in embryonic sacs from her body.

Inside (2007, dirs. Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury). This entry in French extremity depicts the disturbing crime of fetal abduction. A woman who desperately wants a child plots to cut a fully mature fetus out of a pregnant woman and pass the child off as her own. The pregnant woman and her attacker creatively use common household objects and tools of feminine homemaking as weapons, including one death by knitting needle.

Mother’s Day (1980, dir. Charles Kaufman). A mother’s love can overlook many faults, even if her children are rapists and murderers. This campy rape-revenge film is one of Troma’s better outings.

The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

While viewing films from Hammer Studios’ golden age, I found this little gem of a movie. The sci-fi horror film The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) aka The Creeping Unknown is surprisingly dark and gruesome for its era, although the violence would be considered quite tame by current standards. Not so in 1955, when British censors gave it the “X” certificate, banning admission to audience members under the age of 16. The filmmakers apparently reveled in the “X” rating, because they flaunted it in the unconventionally spelled title. The strategy worked, and the film performed well in Britain.

Richard Wordsworth gives a tormented performance as Carroon

You may ask, what could have been shocking about a 1955 science fiction movie? In The Quatermass Xperiment, an astronaut returns from outer space infected with an alien spore that could end all life on Earth.  As he touches other living things, he absorbs those organisms’ properties and simultaneously drains them of their life force. Victims include unlucky humans, several zoo animals, and a cactus. In short, you have a guy running around and bludgeoning people with his cactus arm, turning them into twisted piles of goo, and leaving a snail trail in his wake.

Carroon reveals his cactus arm

Richard Wordsworth gives a sympathetic and tormented performance as the infected astronaut Victor Carroon, who fights to retain his humanity despite the alien consciousness gradually taking control of his mind. The “hero,” Bernard Quatermass, is a tough, egotistical scientist whose unethical experiment on Carroon is the catalyst for Carroon’s horrible transformation, yet Quatermass eventually prevents the destruction of the human race. Although the ending was reassuring compared to that of other “B” movies and the rare big-budget “A” film, The Quatermass Xperiment and its sequels were subversive for the time. This is something that we will hopefully discuss on a future podcast.

Carroon’s not looking so hot at the end of the “Xperiment”

This film not only spawned a franchise, but may have influenced TV series such as The X Files. It definitely influenced John Carpenter, as he explicitly referenced the later series Quatermass & The Pit in his meta-horror film In the Mouth of Madness.

It’s Hammer Time!

Welcome back, freaks! For the month of May, we are covering our favorite Hammer horror films of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s,…and anything else we want to talk about! If you haven’t already, be sure to listen to Part 1 and Part 2 of our podcast with author and historian Scott Allen Nollen, who personally knew Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, and so many other icons.

And there’s also that story about that time he touched Abraham Lincoln’s blood.

El Paso Comic Con with Camille Keaton, and horrific sight-seeing

I’m back from my weekend with Camille Keaton of I Spit On Your Grave at El Paso Comic Con, and what a fun trip it was! Camille is a true friend, and it was great to see her again after a three years.

I’m also pleased to announce that Camille will be our special guest on the next My Horrific Life Podcast, where she will discuss her early film career in Italy, behind-the-scenes info about I Spit on Your Grave, and everything she’s allowed to tell us about the official direct sequel, called I Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu (now in post-production). Just the fact that an official sequel has been made, not to mention the existence of a remake and its franchise, is proof that the Law of Attraction and vision boards really work. Because I’ve been trying to manifest these movies through sheer mental energy for at least the last 15 years.

With Camille at her El Paso Comic Con booth

This was actually my first Comic Con. The comic book world is not exactly my forte, but I was pleased to see other horror genre guests, including Kevin Grevioux (Underworld) and Nicholas Brendon (Buffy), and some cool vendors such as a reptile rescue/mobile petting zoo called Island of Misfit Morphs.

The Island of Misfit Morphs offers “reptile parties.”

Of course, there’s no point in traveling if you can’t see local points of interest. On some level, I wanted to visit Juarez, Mexico, as I had studied the hundreds of femicides that had occurred there since the 1990s, but due to the explosion of violence in Juarez within the last decade, it simply wasn’t safe to go. I asked several El Paso locals what they thought of Trump’s proposed border wall, given that they share the border with Juarez. They all said that the wall simply isn’t necessary for El Paso due to the strong military presence nearby and the fact that virtually everyone has a concealed carry permit. Apparently the drug dealers and violent criminals from Juarez avoid causing trouble in El Paso, because they know that the people of El Paso won’t put up with their shit. In fact, El Paso was rated the safest city in the U.S. for the fourth year in a row.

The text on the mountain advises the residents of Juarez, “The Bible is the truth. Read it.”

The downtown area has a number of interesting art galleries and museum, including the El Paso Holocaust Museum, which ended up being my first stop. This museum is excellent, with interactive exhibits and mini-documentaries in each room. As expected it is also emotionally grueling, especially the death camp exhibits. The tour ends on an uplifting note, with a series of resistance and survivor stories. Visit their website for more images from their exhibits, as well as information about the museum founder, Henry Kellen, who was himself a Holocaust survivor.

Anti-Semitic propaganda published by the Nazi Party.

A Tree of Life sculpture in the Survivor Stories room

Other museums had moments of gruesomeness in otherwise benign exhibits. One example being the death mask of Pancho Villa on display at the El Paso History Museum.

The death mask of Pancho Villa

Special thanks to J’sin and Eva for their hospitality and for showing us around the town. I recommend visiting Deadbeach Brewery and shopping at Dreadful Things, a horror boutique, tattoo parlor, art gallery, and reading room.

A 1920s sideshow banner hand painted by Fred J. Johnson

One of several original art pieces on display at Dreadful Things

Dreadful Things has an element of visual overload

A few of the goodies available for purchase. I picked the Cheshire Cat purse.

That’s all for now! Be sure to come back soon for our podcast interview with Camille Keaton, and a special focus on Hammer films for the month of May.

 

 

 

 

American Mary: “Make sure they deserve it”

 American Mary, directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska, is one of the smartest and wittiest rape-revenge films I’ve seen, exploring body modification as a means for women to express and control their own sexuality.

The film follows Mary, a talented medical student who drops out of her school after being raped by her professor. She puts her talents to use within the body modification subculture, and perfects her surgical techniques by using her rapist as a human guinea pig.

Many of my friends are uncomfortable with rape-revenge films because they feel that rape scenes are unnecessary and exploitative. That may be accurate for some films, but is not the case with American Mary, because the filmmakers focus exclusively on the Mary’s face and anguished reactions. Like other rape-revenge films, issues of bodily sovereignty are prominent, but betrayal is a key factor here too. When Dr. Grant invites her to a party along with his prestigious peers, Mary assumes she is being viewed as an equal. Of course, the party is a ruse to drug and gang rape Mary. I think this scene will resonate with women who strive for equality in male-dominated fields, but who are constantly devalued or exploited.

Mary finds acceptance in the body modification community, and her first client is a woman who wishes to look like a human Barbie doll, meaning she wants her nipples and external genitalia removed. Because subsequent clients want more complicated procedures for which formal medical training does not exist, Mary first tests these procedures on Dr. Grant. The first procedure involves dental work, and as I learned in the director’s commentary, the apparatus she uses to open his mouth is a vaginal spreader. As the film progresses, Dr. Grant, or what’s left of him, is kept alive, and he definitely looks worse for wear.

Mary isn’t just avenging her own loss of bodily autonomy by taking Dr. Grant’s away. The more positive aspect of the film is that he helps her clients achieve their own version of bodily autonomy and sexual self-expression. Mental health professionals would label some  of the characters as suffering from body dysmorphic disorder, but the filmmakers never pathologize these characters. The Soska sisters themselves make a cameo appearance as twins who want to deepen their sense of connection with each other by swapping right arms. American Mary is the Soska sisters’ best work to date, and  a film I enjoy revisiting regularly.

This may be my last post for a few days, as I will be assisting Camille Keaton of I Spit on Your Grave during her appearance at El Paso Comic Con! Check back soon for new podcasts featuring some very special guests and a series of blog posts about 1960s Hammer films.

 

The Woman

Today I’m taking a look at both the novel the novel and the film version of The Woman, a collaboration between Jack Ketchum and Lucky McGee. The Woman is a sequel to Off Season and Offspring. It is the third entry in a series about a feral cannibal family who abduct infants and eat tourists. The Woman is like other Ketchum novels (I’m specifically thinking of The Lost and The Girl Next Door here) in which good people fail to take a stand against evil, or do so too late to change the outcome. Ketchum and McGee pull of a remarkable feat with The Woman, because they portray the cannibal woman of the previous books as a sympathetic victim, and a respectable upper-middle class family as sadistic villains.

The novel is actually written rather beautifully, and at times reminded me, in both tone and subtext of Susan Griffin’s prose poetry ecofeminist manifesto Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her. (Check out the quotes on Goodreads to see what I mean.) If you like the message of The Woman, it’s also worth your time to read Pornography of Meat by Carol J. Adams, in which animals and women are often stand-ins for each other in popular discourse, and both are often discussed in the same sexualized terms.

The film adaptation is remarkable in that both Ketchum and McGee were involved (McGee as the director and Ketchum as a co-writer), but it took me awhile to warm up to the film adaptation. Although the film adaptation is true to the book, the tone is often very different. While the book is poetic, the film is sometimes satirical in tone, featuring an ironic or whimsical soundtrack. Because I had read the novel first, I found the film a little off-putting on the first viewing. There are a few other plot points and concepts in the novel that don’t translate as well to the film, such as the incest subplot and the twist about the dog kennel.

As I previously stated, The Woman, like other stories by Jack Ketchum, is about people who wait too long to do the right thing. In this case, the women of the story are so beaten down and terrorized by the family patriarch Chris that they are either afraid to confront him, or have a twisted view of what constitutes normalcy. For this reason, “The Woman” may not refer only to the cannibal woman, but to the plight of all of the female characters, and all women by extension. Chris, a lawyer, is an avid hunter. During one of his hunting expeditions he sees The Woman, who is nude (in the novel) and living like an animal. He decides to capture her and holds her as a human captive in his cellar with a plan to “civilize” her. And by “civilize,” I mean that he intends to subject her to the physical, mental, and sexual abuse his family experiences. A reasonable person would wonder why his family would agree to a human captivity scenario in the first place, but we find out later that this isn’t his first experiment in this arena. Unlike other Ketchum works such as The Girl Next Door, The Woman ends on something of a positive note, with a show of solidarity between the surviving female characters.

 

 

Meet Camille Keaton at El Paso Comic Con, April-20-23

Just a quick announcement: I will be assisting Camille Keaton of I Spit on Your Grave at El Paso Comic Con, April 20-23, 2017. I’ve known Camille for three years, and she’s an awesome lady. She also has so many great behind-the-scenes stories about ISOYG. If you are in the El Paso area, stop by and say hello!

Nurse 3D: A bottomless treasure trove of excess (explicit)

So while I’m on the subject of women taking revenge, it seemed imperative to cover Nurse 3D. Not because it’s a particularly complex movie with any sort of deep social subtext waiting to be deconstructed, but because it’s fun and just plain weird.

Be advised that this review contains explicit content and stills from the movie that feature nudity.

First, there were the rather racy pinup-style advertisements, as seen below.

The movie itself is weirder and more graphic. It starts with a close-up of actress Paz de la Huerta applying lipstick, a scene paired with wooden voice-over narration that’s a bit reminiscent of American Psycho. “My name is Abigail Russell. I look like a slut. But don’t be fooled, this is merely a disguise to lure the dangerous predators who walk among us. This is their jungle. Their breeding ground. And tonight I’m on the hunt. These are the cheaters – the married lying scum. They are like diseased cells, cultured in alcoholic petri dishes, but destroy unsuspecting families, and infect millions of innocent vaginas. There is no cure for the married cock. Only me, the Nurse.”

“I look like a slut.”

Nurse Abby sets off to hunt married lying scum in an improbable see-thru cocktail dress that showcases her buttocks, the first symptom of a strangely ass-obsessed movie.

If you are interested in things like plot and performance, they both “work.” Some reviewers criticized Paz de la Huerta’s performance, but I think her flat affect is perfect for this character, and effectively conveys Abby’s psychopathic nature. It’s also an interesting choice to establish Abby as the protagonist, and the film is told from her perspective. Of course, she kills several adulterous men, including her therapist, and gets to say a lot of ridiculous things in the process. “With your help, I can lick this.” (Referring to her sex addiction.) And when she tortures and kills her disgusting supervisor, she threatens to cut off his penis, saying, “Let’s get rid of Mr. Weenie, so he can’t cheat on Mrs. Whiny anymore. And, by the way, Mr. Weenie is looking very teeny right now.” This is some brilliant writing here.

Abby preps her boss for radical surgery.

In addition to stalking and killing assorted cheating male scum, Abby becomes fixated on a young coworker, Danni. She invites Danni out for a night of drinking and dancing, roofies Danni, performs sexual acts on her, and later tries to blackmail Danni by sharing photos of those acts. Abby fondly recalls that night, and tells us over voiceover, “I watched Danni’s little round ass, the same one that I’d eaten the night before, prior to finger-fucking her to six orgasms.” (Again with the ass fixation). This is surely the weirdest aspect of the movie. Since Danni was roofied, the acts Abby discusses in this scene would qualify as sexual assault. Yet Danni is never appropriately outraged at this. But there’s no clear indication that she consented to or enjoyed sex with Abby, because when Abby presses her for a lesbian relationship, Danni acts completely oblivious, even when Abby is flouncing around Danni completely bottomless. As if this is a perfectly normal way to behave around a friend and/or coworker.

This is a recurring motif in Nurse 3D, and a visual indicator that director Douglas Aarniokoski is an odd man. He makes a LOT of off-kilter visual choices. For example, Abby’s makeup is atypical, with little or no eye makeup and bold dark lips. Her face looks…er, bottom-heavy. Which brings me to the many nude scenes. Most directors would choose either topless scenes or full nudity, but Aarniokoski went with bottomless scenes almost every time, and not just with Paz de la Huerta. It’s also counterintuitive for practical reasons, as most women can’t wait to take their bras off after a long work day, even if that means deftly unhooking and slipping the bra out of one arm hole of their shirt. I could only stare at the screen in awe, thinking, “what does it mean? What does it MEAN?!” It’s not that gratuitous nudity and horror aren’t frequently paired together, but hey, Douglas, naked breasts matter too.

Sometimes, the bottomlessness makes no sense contextually. There’s no reason why Abby couldn’t have worn clothes while dismembering her boss. The only logical reason for stripping naked would be to keep her white uniform clean. Instead, she leaves her pristine white bra on, and that’s going to get ruined. Who would do such a thing? I guess it stands to reason that a woman who applies only half her makeup  will only remember to wear half her clothing.

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane…but she doesn’t love them back

For today’s film about women’s exploitation and revenge, I’m covering the 2006 film All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (dir. Jonathan Levine), which I view as a rape-revenge movie minus actual rape. Be warned: there is no way to discuss the point of the movie without spoiling the twist ending.

The film introduces Mandy Lane (Amber Heard), a young woman who is a shy loner, but also the object of desire by all the boys at her school. As a teen boy named Red explains to his friends, “There she is boys, Mandy Lane. Untouched, pure. Since the daw of junior year men have tried to possess her, and to date, all have failed. Some have even died in their reckless pursuit of this angel.” The death he refers to occurs in the opening pool party scene, in which Mandy’s best friend Emmet goads a not-too-bright jock into jumping off the roof and into the swimming pool below, because that’s surely what will win Mandy’s heart. Naturally, the jock cracks his head open on the cement edge of the pool, and dies shortly after.

The other noteworthy aspect of Red’s monologue above is the fact that Mandy’s virginity is fetishised. The boys aren’t all that interested in Mandy herself, but merely in being the first one in, if you get my meaning. This conquest mentality is highlighted by the boys’ lack of interest in Chloe, a physically attractive teen who is not desired precisely because she is the “school slut.” Chloe is also eager for Mandy to lose her virginity, probably because this would diminish Mandy’s perceived value in the sexual marketplace of their high school and possibly improve Chloe’s sexual/social capital in the process.

Fetishized virginity and objectified innocence

Red invites Mandy, Chloe, and a few male friends for a weekend at a secluded ranch, and in typical slasher film style, the young people are picked off one by one by a killer, who is revealed to be Mandy’s seemingly estranged friend Emmet. Mandy’s “friends” are far more repulsive and unlikeable than most slasher film victims, and I found myself wondering why she agree to the weekend party in the first place. Not only is Mandy more of a “square” than the others (she avoids drugs and alcohol), she is clearly disturbed and angered by the boys’ attempts to seduce her. The seduction attempts, by the way, are clumsy at best, and harassing and borderline rapey at worst.

Mandy stabs Chloe

Then we get to the strange Columbine-ish twist, in which it is revealed that Mandy and Emmet are working in cahoots. Honestly, I didn’t expect the twist, because it goes against slasher film tropes for the Final Girl to also be the killer. This twist can be more fully appreciated on a second viewing, because what first seemed to be shyness on Mandy’s part was actually thinly concealed contempt for her shallow peers, and her “innocence” was in reality coldly calculating. Mandy and Emmet have a suicide pact following the murders of the other teens, but Mandy has no intention of following through on her end of the bargain. Instead, she seems to view Emmet as yet another boy who is desperate to conquer or possess her to his own end. Mandy dispatches Emmet, setting him up to be blamed as the lone killer in the process, and making herself appear as the conventionally heroic Final Girl.

 

 

Featured Artist: Abigail Epstein of unSpooky Laughter

After recently connecting with Abigail Epstein on social media, I wanted to promote her work. Abigail is the owner of unSpooky Studios, and does some amazing watercolor paintings. Her subjects include aspects of nature such as flowers and animals. And, best yet, what she specializes in what described to me as “fat ghosts.” Her paintings are ideal for those who want hints of happy spookiness in their decor, without gore.

Abigail is drawn to the whimsical side of horror, as she discusses in an interview with Rochester Brainery. In one of our discussions, she stated that she is most drawn to horror-comedies. Below are a few examples of her work, taken from her Instagram and Facebook pages.

Follow Abigail on Instagram at unspookylaughter and visit her website for information about ordering her work.

Men, Women, and Chainsaws: essential reading for every horror fan

Today, I’m reviewing the scholarly book that every horror fan and has to read. Carol. J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film is hands down the most important work of horror film criticism, and one of the most important works of film criticism, period. Prior to this book, horror was either ignored by “serious” critics and scholars, or condemned as hopelessly misogynistic. Men, Women, and Chainsaws did a lot to legitimize the genre and argue for feminist subtexts in the horror films of the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s. Clover also argued against the notion that the predominantly male audiences of the time identified with the (usually) male killer, stating that audience members identified across gender lines and with the surviving female character.

Clover is  perhaps the only academic author to influence horror filmmakers in a signifiant way, and even appeared in the pseudo-documentary S&Man (Sandman). If you are wondering why there are films and novels with titles like The Final Girls (2015, dir. Todd Strauss-Schulson), Final Girl (2015, dir. Tyler Shields), Final Girls: A Novel (2017, author Riley Sager), The Last Final Girl (2012, author Stephen Graham), Final Girls (2017, author Mira Grant), and Last Girl Standing (2016, dir. Benjamin R. Moody), it’s because of Carol Clover. In the chapter, “Her Body, Himself,” Clover coined the term “Final Girl” to describe the lone female survivor of slasher films. Usually the Final Girl is virginal, tomboyish, and more resourceful than her peers.

While the Final Girl concept is the most referenced and recognized aspect of Men, Women, and Chainsaws, the rest of the book is important as well. In “Opening Up,” Clover explores gender role subversion in supernatural horror films, as well as racial politics along the lines of “Black Magic” vs. “White Science” (think of The Serpent and the Rainbow as a prime example of this). The chapter “Getting Even” explores rape-revenge films, particularly I Spit on Your Grave, one of the most unfairly reviled and condemned films of its type. The final chapter, “The Eye of Horror,” discusses the role of voyeurism in the enjoyment of horror and the issue of viewer identification with killers and victims.

Men, Women, and Chainsaws is now 25 years old. While many aspects of the book are still relevant today, the horror genre has gone in new directions, sometimes creating new subgenres that are now likewise being unfairly dismissed and condemned. Clover’s book is a vital reminder that there needs to be ongoing engagement with and analysis of the horror genre as it evolves.

Amer: All roads of sexuality lead to piquerism

Because April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, it seems only fitting that we devote the month to rape-revenge films and other works depicting misogyny and the exploitation of women.

To kick things off, I’m first taking a look at the neo-Giallo film Amer, directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, who more recently co-directed The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears. Like their giallo predecessors, both films are visually stunning but don’t make a lot of rational sense.

Be advised of spoilers ahead.

Amer is set up as a trypich of the sexual development of the main character, Ana, through her life as a child, an adolescent, and an adult woman. As the film has very little dialogue, much is left open for interpretation. Nonetheless, it is a picture of how a woman’s sexuality may evolve when subjected to constant voyeurism and the threat of violence.The first part, with its lurid use of color is visually reminiscent of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Ana spies upon her parents making love, but seems under constant threat by supernatural forces, likely a product of her overactive imagination. It is telling that she is just as fascinated by seeing the corpse of her grandfather as she is by watching her parents engage in intercourse.

The second part is grounded in everyday reality, with Ana as an attractive adolescent. While walking outdoors with her mother, a group of men leer at Ana. Their gaze is somewhat intimidating, but she appears to enjoy being watched. Noticing Ana’s enjoyment, her mother slaps her soundly. This further solidifies the association between sexuality and pain, and arguably steers Ana further away from any sort of heteronormative sexuality, toward more deviant forms of pleasure, specifically picquerism, as depicted in the final segment.

The third part  has a bit of a twist, thanks to clever editing. While the first two segments were about the pleasure of seeing and being seen, the final segment focuses on Ana’s awareness of her own bodily sensations, and she revels in both pain and pleasure. Here we see Ana as an adult, returning to her childhood home, which is now empty. As with the first segment, it is difficult to distinguish between her fantasy life and real life. It appears that a man is stalking her, and we see ubiquitous giallo-stye close up shots of a straight razor caressing black leather gloves. Because of fantasy sequences in which Ana imagines being attacked, I assumed it was a foreshadowing of her future victimization. However, we then see a leather-clad Ana accosting her male stalker and slashing his face, mouth, and eyes with the straight razor. There is no explanation of motive. Perhaps she is enraged at her constant objectification by men, but she primarily seems sexually aroused during the course of this murder.

In the final scenes, Ana’s fantasies reach their logical necrophilic conclusion in which she is both the murderer and the corpse–the ultimate passive object of desire.

Disturbed Divination: The Daemon Tarot

Disturbed Divination is back, and this time, we take a look at The Daemon Tarot: The Forbidden Wisdom of the Infernal Dictionary. Let’s get an obvious complaint out of the way first. This isn’t technically a tarot deck as  it has only 72 cards and does not follow the standard tarot format of major and minor arcana. It is more of an oracle deck based on the 1818 text The Infernal Dictionary by French occultist Jacques Auguste Simon Collin, with 69 cards, each based on the demons described in that text.

Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, I have to point out that this is not an evil or “satanic” deck designed to to assist the reader in working with dark forces. The book’s  interpretations for each card is more often along the lines of cautionary advice–recognizing negative influences and correcting them.

Raw (2016): Fleshly appetites awakened

Thanks to the Alamo Drafthouse, I finally got to see Raw, the 2016 film by French director Julia Ducournau, wrapping up my month of viewing women-directed horror films. If you have a chance to see Raw at a theater, do so immediately. It’s a surprisingly tasteful take on the cannibal family trope, melded with a young woman’s coming-of-age story.

In some respects, Raw reminded me of another woman-directed film, Trouble Every Day by Claire Denis, but far more agreeable. In Trouble Every Day, the cannibals eat their living victims during sexual intercourse, which just seems rude. I considered writing a review for that film, but couldn’t think of one darn thing to say about it, other than a bad joke about it giving new meaning to “eating pussy.”

Raw is a classy film in which cannibalism and sexuality collide, but with a sympathetic main character who has a moral compass. Somehow, the idea of being afflicted by a genetic predisposition toward cannibalism seems more troubling in this instance. In an interview with Laura Berger of Women and Hollywood, Decournau states:

“I wanted the audience to feel empathy for a character that is becoming a monster in their eyes. It sounds twisted, but I believe that the building of a moral identity comes with the acknowledgement of tendencies that we qualify as monstrous or evil. I often ask myself, for example, ‘What’s the difference between me and someone who kills?’ ”

The ability of these human “monsters” to feel conflicted about their appetites may be one of the reasons why fictional cannibals are becoming more popular than their undead counterparts, according to Charles Bramesco of The Verge. Flesh-eating and sexuality have long been connected in the horror genre, so a cannibal craze is the next logical extension.

If you enjoy killer women, stick around for our look at rape-revenge films this month!

LIFE (2017): That ending tho…(spoilers ahead)

I’m taking another brief break from our Women’s History Month theme to report on my viewing of Life, the new big-budget sci-fi/horror movie starring Jake Gyllenhal and Ryan Reynolds. As with Kong: Skull Island, I’m somewhat wary of big-budget horror films, because they tend to play things safe.

For the most part, Life does play things safe, referencing classic films such as Alien and The Thing, without really adding anything new to the genre. Yeah, we get it. There’s an invasive life-form on the ship and it cant be allowed to reach earth. After it kills a few crew members, the best option is to shoot the alien into deep space and send the human survivor back to Earth in an escape pod.

But then…the filmmakers go where few other mainstream filmmakers have gone before. The ending comes out of left field and seems more like something John Carpenter would have filmed while in a bad mood, though even Carpenter isn’t generally this cruel, with the exception of In the Mouth of Madness. The best way I can describe the ending is that it is defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, thanks to some deceptive switcheroo editing reminiscent of The Silence of the Lambs. I wasn’t completely caught off-guard, because things seemed “off” once the escape pod reached Earth, but the big reveal was still something of a gut punch. I was actually pretty repulsed, but walked out of the theater snickering over the misanthropy of it.

Another clue to the final deception is the fact that the trailer itself is deceptive. Entire scenes and pieces of dialogue in the trailer don’t appear in the movie, or appear in altered form. The trailer shows a clean intercept of the rover containing samples of martian soil, whereas the intercept in the film is offscreen and a bit messy. One of the trailers also has dialogue stating that the invasive life-form destroyed civilization on Mars, but there is no mention of a martian civilization in the movie itself.  While most of the film doesn’t break new ground, I will recommend it because of the ending alone.

The Slumber Party Massacre: “sometimes a power drill is just a power drill”

The Slumber Party Massacre franchise is, to my knowledge, the only slasher film series written, directed, and produced by women. Rita Mae Brown, best known for Rubyfruit Jungle,penned the screenplay for the first film.

Upon initial viewing, I tended to agree with Adam Rockoff’s assessment in Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986 that, “[It’s] a weird brand of feminism indeed which equates a tawdry high school locker room shower scene with any liberation other than that from clothing. . . sometimes a power drill is just a power drill” (p.138). However, upon viewing The Slumber Party Massacre and its sequels years later, I was able to appreciate the more subversive elements of this series. In the original film, women already have androgynous traits, as opposed to becoming more masculine in order to survive. Unlike the standard slasher film formula in which the “slut” dies first, the first victim is actually a female construction worker. Shortly afterward, we are introduced to the main characters in gym class. During the aforementioned tawdry locker room scene, we are privy to their private conversation that includes a mutual obsession with sports and a tendency to objectify attractive boys at their school. Perhaps the killer is threatened by the inherent masculine qualities of these women, rather than being merely a picquerist using a powerdrill as a substitute for his penis. Another key difference is that there is no single Final Girl (as defined by Carol Clover in Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film), but instead a group of young women working together to defeat the maniac.

Like most early 1980s slasher films, Slumber Party Massacre avoided the issue of sexual assault entirely, preferring instead to penetrate women’s bodies with a variety of sharp weapons in an act of symbolic rape. Just look at the film’s cover art if you doubt me on this.This symbolism is more blatant than in other slasher films, as the killer skewers several half-naked young women with his overly phallic power drill while muttering, “It takes a lot of love for a person to do this . . .You know you want it.” It is ultimately no surprise that the survivors symbolically castrate him by chopping off his drill bit (to which he reacts with horror and self-pity) before finally impaling him.

Slumber Party Massacre II is the oddball of the series, a rubber-reality Nightmare on Elm Street knock off with the young women being terrorized by a rock and roll maniac. It’s massively ridiculous, but fun anyway.

“Nice Guy ” Ken is overcompensating for…something

Slumber Party Massacre III is my personal favorite of the series, in which the Nice Guy character is not only the killer, but is literally lacking a penis.

(This post was adapted from an excerpt within my earlier work “Carnage and Carnality: Gender and Corporeality in the Modern Horror Film,” originally published in No Limits! A Journal of Women’s and Gender Studies, 2011, Vol.1.)

 

In Her Skin: women hurting women

Naughty me, I’ve abandoned posting for a few days, yet there are still so many women-directed horror films to discuss!

In the last week, My Horrific Life podcast cohost Todd and I saw The Love Witch  at the Alamo Drafthouse; I got bogged down in spring cleaning (anyone know how to get bloodstains out of an antique wool rug?); and I caught The Belko Experiment, which doesn’t fit this month’s theme, but it worth your time despite the mixed reviews. Some have referred to The Belko Experiment as a Trumpian satire, but that’s just the liberal lamestream fake news media talking. To be precise, the manner in which characters are selected to die is more like watching Paul Ryan and GOP House members trying to balance the budget by cutting existing programs. Hint: people over 60 are selected to die first.

Getting back to women’s horror films, Shudder made things easy for me by featuring their own collection of women-directed films. I was almost hesitant to cover In Her Skin  (a.k.a. I Am You, directed by), because it’s debatable if it even qualifies as a true horror film. As some Shudder users described it, it’s mostly just sad. But the subject matter is horribly fascinating. I have more than a decade’s experience serving victims of violent crime and stalking. Because most of this work was specifically with victims of sexual and domestic violence, the victims were almost always women and the perpetrators almost always men. In some of my former agencies, it was taboo to even admit that women could be stalkers or domestic abusers. Yet, I had never been as in much physical danger as when working with some of those women, who themselves had served time for violent offenses. Sadly, it was not entirely unusual for these clients to threaten staff members with weapons. Contrary to what MRA crybabies may claim, women are not equally or more violent than men, but when women are perpetrators, their crimes should not be minimized.

When women are discussed as stalkers, it is usually in the context of erotomania. Just think of David Letterman’s stalker. Rarely can one find discussion of women stalking women, although there is an excellent and insightful article by Charlotte Shane about online harassment. Some of the concepts discussed in Shane’s article are pertinent to the film, particularly the tendency of women who stalk other women to view intimacy with the target as a means to acquire the target’s desired traits, whereas a more rational person would merely emulate their hero’s positive habits or lifestyle.

In Her Skin is based based on the book Perfect Victim: A chilling account of a bizarre and callous murder (coauthored by the victim’s mother under a pseudonym), which in turn was based on the true story of 19-year-old misfit Caroline Robertson who murdered beautiful 15-year-old dance student Rachel Barber. Why? Roberton was obsessed with and envious of Barber’s “perfection,” and believed that she could assume Barber’s identity by murdering her. Robertson was released from prison in 2015, after 16 years of incarceration. Robertson was diagnosed with a personality disorder and had an exaggeratedly negative view of herself and her physical appearance.

A representation of Robertson’s twisted self-image

The film adaptation was somewhat slow and plodding, but maintained my interest because of its basis in real events. Sam Neill stands out as Robertson’s long-suffering father, who acknowledges to the police that his daughter has always been strange. The film doesn’t provide much backstory about Robertson’s estrangement from her father, aside from a massively uncomfortable scene in which she strips naked in front of him and rants about her physical imperfections. One gets the impression that this incident was only one of many similar incidents contributing to the rift. Having not read Perfect Victim, nor the actual case files, I can’t comment as to whether this event actually occurred, but it is an effective moment in the film.

I gave “Kong: Skull Island” a chance, and so should you.

I didn’t think I would be seeing Kong: Skull Island. Based on the trailer, it looked horrible, like something made for and by 14-year-old boys. Generally speaking, I do not like big-budget horror films made by major studios. Especially ones with a lot of CGI. I hate CGI. With “corporate” horror films, edgier content is usually watered down, and the scares are absent.

But, I gave Kong: Skull Island a chance, and so should you.

Yes, it does have CGI monsters and a lot of action scenes involving said monsters fighting to the death. Yet, it has intelligent concepts and political satire too. This Vietnam-era reboot doesn’t have much in common with the 1933 classic. In fact, it inverts many tropes of the original film. I won’t spoil too many details of Skull Island here. But you probably know that the original King Kong was, for the most part, a commentary on commercial greed, with a slimy male filmmaker hiring an actress (Fay Wray) in hopes of filming her very real terror and possible death at the hands of the monster. In Snuff: Real Death and Screen Media, Neil Jackson goes so far as to categorize King Kong as the “prehistory” of snuff-themed films for this very reason. At minimum, analysts of the 1933 King Kong could note the “male gaze” and need to fetishize the terror or women. And don’t get me started on that stupid “beauty killed the beast” crap. In contrast, Kong: Skull Island puts a woman behind the camera, and she’s a journalist and self-described “anti-war” photographer. She’s motivated by idealism, not commercialism. While she’s not a badass “action hero,” she’s fearless, and never becomes a stereotypical damsel in distress. Furthermore, she’s never treated as a sexual object by the men in the exploration unit, nor by Kong. There are no love scenes of any kind in this reboot, another bonus in my book.

War journalist Mason explores a “mass grave”

It seems that the writers had the current political climate in mind with lines like “There will never be a more screwed-up time in Washington,” and the wrong-headed shaming of journalist Mason for her “negative” coverage of the Vietnam War. There are references to Cold War politics too. The explorers aren’t entertainers, but scientists and military personnel who want to chart the island before the Russians have a chance, under the auspices of finding new medicines and natural resources. In reality, the explorers drop bombs on the island for no good reason and some want to kill the native species because “those things shouldn’t exist,” with no regard for consequences to the ecosystem and to the long-suffering humans who live there. This is definitely a movie in which humans are the real “bad guys,” with Samuel L. Jackson predictably playing the worst.

As for the CGI, it didn’t hurt my head or look utterly ridiculous, and the action scenes didn’t overstay their welcome. And I’m saying this as as someone who quickly gets bored by action scenes.

See it on the big screen. And make sure you stick around for the teaser after the credits.

 

Karyn Kusama’s “The Invitation”: the horror of positive thinking

I first saw Karyn Kusama’s elegant, slow-burn horror film The Invitation at the 2015 Stanley Film Festival. In my opinion, it tied with The Final Girls as the best of the festival. While it is slow-burn, it is never lacking interest, and the slow buildup explodes into violence in the last 20 minutes. Rest assured, there are spoilers ahead.

We are first introduced to Will, who is grief-stricken following the accidental death of his son two years ago. Will and his girlfriend receive a dinner party invitation from Will’s ex, Eden, and her current husband. Despite not feeling social, Will accepts the invitation, and is reunited with several old friends and two mysterious newcomers, Sadie and Pruitt. As the evening progresses, Will can’t shake the suspicion that something is terribly wrong. As in many horror movies, his suspicions are proven valid.

The Invitation has many layers. The first is that the characters are endangered by their own politeness. Will is not the only one to notice something “off,” but the other guests are, for the most part, too polite to say anything. Eden and her new husband David spout hollow rhetoric about how suffering is optional, play an unsettling cult recruitment video for the guests, and introduce a party game designed to break down their guests’ inhibitions. Even more unnerving are their new friends Sadie and Pruitt, who seem to have no filters or sense of appropriate boundaries. One character, a tenured professor, decides to leave during the game and it’s not clear in the film itself whether she manages a safe escape. In the Stanley Film Festival Q&A session, Karyn Kusama stated that the character was both “smart and dead,” that is, she was smart to leave but was indeed murdered offscreen.

The film is a thoughtful depiction of the arrogance and toxicity of cults. In an interview with Vox.com, Kusama states, “The overriding principle was the idea that you can have a belief system in which you can make the decision that you know better than others….When do they stop just providing order for an individual’s life, and when do they start controlling or mandating other people’s lives? That is what we were really interested in, thinking about the notion of the group itself as less a fringe cult and more a representation of belief systems when they’re out of control in general.” Indeed, the cult depicted in The Invitation seems generic in many respects. It claim to offer its members a reprieve from suffering and some sort of blissful reunion with loved ones in the afterlife.

The fact it is a suicide cult is the only fringe element, because its tenants appear to be the distillation of society’s most treasured values, the most problematic of which is the glorification of positive thinking. Ultimately, it’s positive thinking that drives the cultists to murder, and positive thinking that causes the victims to endanger their own lives. The former desperately want to stifle their grief in favor of entering a blissful afterlife. The latter choose to ignore obvious signs of trouble, because they want to give their friends the benefit of the doubt.

In contrast, there is Will, who is so consumed by depression and grief that he can’t play these games, or even put up a positive front. In an interview with Nick Allen of rogerebert.com, Kusama posed the question, “What does that mean—not just for him, but for us as a larger society—what does it mean to negate our pain, or to seeing that as useless? What it boils down to for me is that it’s pretty horrifying.” As it turns out, studies indicate that mildly depressed people are more accurate in assessing certain situations, and fear is a vital survival signal, as discussed in Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear, but perhaps the most thorough defense of negativity was presented by Thomas Ligotti in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Will is barely tolerated by the rest of the group because of his depression, social anxiety, and paranoia, but these are the things that ultimately save his life. Furthermore, Will’s expression of his pain is authentic, unlike the brainwashed and chemical-induced “happiness” of the cult members. In The Invitation, grief and trauma cannot be rushed or “spiritually bypassed,” but have to be fully felt and processed to eventually heal.