Category Archives: Horrific movies

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.

 

American Psycho needed a woman’s touch

The novel American Psycho, written by Bret Easton Ellis, featured such graphic depictions of sexual homicide, sometimes running on for nearly a dozen pages, that it incited feminist outcry and death threats against Ellis.  I had read the novel when I was a tender 19 years of age, and as much as I typically enjoy fictional scenes of gore and torture, it was too much for me. There seemed to be no point to the scenes, and the endless monologues about designer brands became their own form of torture. The novel’s sadistic murders had to be omitted or softened for the film version to get an ‘R’ rating, but now, in the current post-“torture-porn” era, the time may be ripe for an explicit “hardcore horror” remake. Given the outcry that the book was hopelessly misogynist, it is ironic that  it was adapted for film by self-proclaimed feminists Guinevere Turner (writer) and Mary Harron (director).

The film adaptation eschews the novel’s graphic violence in favor of its satire of ‘80s consumer culture and its criticism of affluent white masculinity, which is largely defined by conformity and superficiality. Corporate psychopath Patrick Bateman and his peers are obsessed with surfaces. Bateman’s daily routine revolves around maintaining and improving the surfaces of his body. The countless hours spent obsessing over tanning, cucumber facial peels, and six-pack abs make his quest for the perfect masculine body look eerily similar to the fascist beauty regimens employed by the women he despises. His existential crises may be triggered by something as meaningless as not getting a reservation at his favorite restaurant, or the discovery that his coworker has a more attractive business card. Bateman’s sexual relationships are largely informed by pornography and are entirely devoid of emotional content. Bateman himself acknowledges that nothing lies beneath these attractive surfaces. “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable… I simply am not there.”

Not surprisingly, his victims are most often women, members of racial minorities, gay men, and people who are economically marginalized, all of whom he sees as less than human. While the novel never seemed to transcend its misogyny and classism, the film adaptation’s approach is savagely funny, with the joke ultimately at Bateman’s expense rather than that of his disenfranchised victims. For more about the “subversive female gaze” of the film, and the ordeal of getting the film made despite opposition by feminist groups and studio interference, read “The Female Gaze of ‘American Psycho‘” and “How American Psycho Became a Feminist Statement.”

And please be sure to check out Mary Harron’s other horror film, The Moth Diaries , currently available on Shudder.

Kei Fujiwara’s Organ

Kei Fujiwara’s Organ (1996) is an exercise in pure fantasy. There is very little intelligible plot, but I doubt that Fujiwara was particularly concerned with plot when she made the film. Rather, she wanted to convey some fairly abstract and esoteric philosophical concepts by the means of bombarding her audience with gruesome and fantastic images, such as prolonged shots of radical and unnecessary surgery, or a half-butterfly half-woman creature hatching out of a cocoon. According to the director’s commentary, Organ was so graphic that even Japanese censors were scandalized, and Fujiwara planned on making Organ 2 even more violent. Sadly, I don’t think the sequel came to pass.

Organ consists of approximately four loosely interconnected plots, all dealing with the search for something missing. Yoko, played by Fujiwara herself, compensates for the loss of her eye by illegally harvesting organs, which are then sold on the black market. Her brother Seaki had been castrated by their abusive mother, and is being consumed by a flesh-eating disease. He reasserts his masculinity and staves off the disease by murdering virginal young women and using their blood to prolong his life. Numata, a Tokyo police officer searches for his twin brother, who has been kidnapped by the organ-harvesting syndicate, only to discover that they have used him for a series of gruesome experiments. Another cop seeks to murder his wife’s rapist. In all cases, the quest to overcome loss is impossible, indeed, futile.

 

Baise-Moi: Revenge is equal-opportunity

Next in our Women’s History Month celebration, we take a look at Baise-Moi (2000), which literally translates as either “fuck me” or “rape me,” and is directed by Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trihn Thi. As a rape-revenge film, it is somewhat atypical in that women are also targets of revenge, and the directors never bother to justify all of the murders. Some of the victims are innocent bystanders, proverbially in the wrong place at the wrong time. In this sense, Baise-Moi may also be categorized with other films that glorify female sociopaths. It is also fairly unique in its use of hardcore sex scenes, both during the rapes of the lead characters and the subsequent depictions of consensual sex. While I find these scenes rather clinical and un-erotic, directors Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trihn Thi (who have themselves worked in the porn industry), state that the sex scenes were absolutely essential in their quest “to reclaim women’s rights over their true sexuality, to step back from the male gaze. It’s always men who have a problem with [women’s sexuality]. It’s their problem, not ours.” Read the full article here. Indeed, the sex scenes deviate from the typical pornographic script in that the women control the encounters. Yet it’s hard for me to relate to characters who are as violent and oppressive as the rapists. As someone who enjoys revenge films and rape-revenge film, I didn’t expect to be such a wet blanket.

If Baise-Moi seems too  extreme for your tastes, but are intrigued by Despente’s philosophy and take on feminism, I recommend reading King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes, which starts off with this great line:

“I am writing as an ugly one for the ugly ones: the old hags, the dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckables, the neurotics, the psychos, for all those girls that don’t get a look-in in the universal market of the consumable chick.”

In My Skin: Self-Harm is Self-Love

For our first review for Women’s History Month, French writer-director Marina de Van explores alienation from one’s own body in her debut film In My Skin (2003). She portrays a woman who suffers and accidental fall and becomes so fascinated with the gashes on her leg that she begins to mutilate herself and consume her own flesh—scenes that are depicted with an exuberant, disturbing eroticism. Her loved ones are naturally concerned with her obsession, but their reactions compound the problem. Esther’s friends are not only alarmed at the harm she is inflicting upon herself, but are also irrationally jealous that she has become more intimate with herself than they ever could be, and so her body is treated as communal property.

The film’s concept was inspired in part by a real life incident. De Van was hit by a car as a child, and her leg was partially crushed. She felt no pain, but rather a peculiar distance from her own body. This sense of alienation was compounded upon the discovery that the ruined portion of bone had been thrown away. She stated in a 2005  interview with wellsping.com (now a defunct link), “A part of me had been thrown in the garbage just like my torn clothes. An object, a piece of trash…Later on, at school, my scars became a source of games. My friends and I had fun putting needles in them because the skin had become insensitive.” De Van is careful not to reduce the motivation behind Esther’s self-mutilation to something cliché, such as a body-image problem or sexual dysfunction. Instead, she states that she wanted to avoid showing the body as “an object of desire or as a social representation, subject to fashion, aesthetic, sexual, or cultural dictates. I wanted to approach this theme in a more elementary way: the body as matter.” I’m not sure if the “average viewer” in North America appreciates the intended subtext. To a lot of us, it looks like picquerism and eroticized auto-cannibalism.

To read more about Marina de Van’s intention with In My Skin, read her interview with The Guardian. De Van has also directed Dark Touch and Don’t Look Back, both of which I recommend.

My Horrific Life celebrates Women’s History Month!

The Love Witch (2016)

Greetings, freaks! March is Women’s History month, so we will be looking at horror films  and fiction written and/or directed by women. I’m super excited to finally see The Love Witch at a nearby theater this month. The first step in resisting the patriarchy is subscribing to Shudder and watching the collection, “A Woman’s Touch.” Your mistress commands it!

Soon, Todd will be posting our podcast review of Jordan Peele’s Get Out. So subscribe to our podcast on iTunes immediately, whitey!

My Horrific Weekend: Joe Bob Briggs, Get Out, and Vagina Monologues

I’ve been slow to write new posts because I had an overly long and horrific weekend. The most horrific event being seeing a live performance of the Vagina Monologues for the first time. Don’t get me wrong; the performers did a good job, but I didn’t relate to the source material…at all, although I did like the part where one woman states she viewed her vagina as a black hole, randomly sucking up random particles in its orbit. Perhaps the most disappointing part of the Vagina Monologues is the fact that no vaginas actually talk. I suppose this makes me a bad feminist. Even after over a decade of working with rape survivors, I’m tragically uncool for not “getting” the Vagina Monologues, and in general for not wanting to hear other women talk about their vaginas.

Before this horrific end to my horrific weekend, my podcast cohost Todd and I recorded an episode about sadomasochism in horror movies and why BDSM is boring in real life.  Then we went to see Jordan Peele’s new film Get Out . This is by far the best theatrical release movie I have seen in months. Todd and I will be discussing this film at length in our next podcast, so I won’t spoil too much here. That said, we went to our town’s opening night screening which had an unusually mixed race audience for a horror film in Nebraska. Based on the raucous cheering during the film’s final act, I can conclude that everyone enjoys seeing shitty white characters die. It goes to show that even white people are sick of white people’s bullshit. This movie may be the first step in healing the racial divide that is tearing our country apart. Take a look at the trailer below, and then get thyself to thy local multiplex immediately.

The highlight of my weekend was meeting Joe Bob Briggs, who had a guest appearance at the Alamo Drafthouse in La Vista, Nebraska for a special screening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet Blu-ray Blue Velvet. I’ve loved Joe Bob since the 1990’s, when I discovered him on TNT’s Monstervision and then read his books. Many horror fans are familiar with Monstervision and Joe Bob’s column, compiled in Joe Bob Goes To the Drive-In, and with his tendency to anger people on the right and the left. Many people have been snowed by his redneck persona and don’t know that he has an Ivy League education. And many people didn’t appreciate the underlying intellectual approach to examining films other critics would prefer to ignore. I suspect that only hardcore fans are familiar with his work to expose fraudulent TV evangelists as a member of the Trinity Foundation and the Daily Show’s segment God Stuff.  The same goes for his “serious” nonfiction works written as John Bloom, most recently Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story.

Based on the sarcasm and caustic humor in his books and television persona, I expected Joe Bob to be the type of celebrity guest who roasts his fans. Actually, he was one of the nicest people I’ve met. Of course, I had to drag along copies of his books to be autographed. Joe Bob opened with facts about Blue Velvet, and followed the screening with a Q&A session. Blue Velvet was awesome on the big screen, but no one asked about it or wanted to debate the meaning of the film during the Q&A. Everyone had questions about Joe Bob’s career and which movies he found personally influential. One of the best pieces of advise was for reviewers and bloggers to move away from shallow write-ups of films and toward “curating” films instead. As he states in a recent interview, “You can watch even a horrible movie if you know enough about it in advance. A terrible movie, when it’s curated, can be fun. Certain things, if you keep them in the back of your mind, it changes your experience of the film, hopefully in a good way.”

 

Slaughter Disc: the anti-porn meta-horror-porn film

Before reading further, be advised that SLAUGHTER DISC: A TALE FROM THE CARNAL MORGUE  is a hardcore porn film, featuring real sexual penetration and fake snuff-style violence. The film is not appropriate for minors, and this post and accompanying images will be more explicit than usual. (Not that female nipples require an excuse or apology.) Normally, I wouldn’t bother with reviewing a porn film, but the fact that it was described to me as an anti-porn porn film caught my attention. The tagline, “Bondage, Murder, Self-Mutilation, Cannibalism, Necrophilia – these are just the icing on the cake of this journey into Hell,” sealed the deal.

The film is based upon director David Quitmeyer’s short story called “The Tape,” in which the spirit of a murdered porn star takes revenge upon male viewers who abuse pornography and objectify women.

Caroline Pierce as Andromeda Strange

The protagonist, Mike, is a pathetic college man who is so addicted to pornography that he cannot have a successful relationship with real women. His habit puts him in debt, causes him to lose his job, and even isolates him from his same-sex friends. But Mike isn’t a “harmless” consumer. When he isn’t pursuing his latest perverse or absurd fetishes (clown sex!), he participates in a drunken gang-bang at a fraternity party, an encounter that he only dimly remembers the next morning. Rather than worry that he may have committed rape, Mike predictably panics over the possibility that the he may have had sex with a “fat girl.”

One day, Mike learns of a new DVD so explicit that it is banned in every country. Delighted, he pays the website’s rather exorbitant fee and the disk arrives in the mail soon after. The DVD’s female anti-hero, Andromeda Strange, does indeed offer a spectacle different from standard pornographic fare. In the first scene, she masturbates until she ejaculates blood, then slashes herself with a razor. Mike is disturbed, but somewhat aroused by this display of female masochism. In the subsequent scenes, Andromeda has sex with a variety of bound and gagged male victims, whom she treats as passive playthings for her own pleasure. Interestingly, she never achieves orgasm unless by self-stimulation. Perhaps orgasm is too associated with surrender and a loss of bodily control. After an otherwise standard porn scene involving a “cum facial,” Andromeda retorts, “Guess what else I like having sprayed all over my body,” slashes the man’s throat, and bathes in his blood. Another man calls her a bitch, and she bashes his head in with a hammer. Obviously, Mike is not prepared for this onslaught of misandrist snuff, but he can’t stop watching. In the final scene, Andromeda crosses over into Mike’s reality and then claims him as her victim.

A behind the scenes still.

I enjoyed Quitmeyer’s creation of a female character with true power and agency, but his film still cannot escape the dominant/submissive binary that defines the genre. But perhaps Quitmeyer’s methods really are more subversive. All hardcore porn films are designed to trigger an orgasm in their masturbating viewers, ideally when the performers reach orgasm. Feminist critics such as Catharine MacKinnon assert that male viewers are being conditioned to orgasm to the degradation of women (In Are Women Human?: And Other International Dialogues, p. 88). Slaughter Disk seeks to deprogram this response in some obvious ways. During the more conventionally “sexy” moments, the camera cuts away from Andromeda’s sexual gymnastics to Mike masturbating. Something about his skinny, whipped-dog body, and vacant stare is the antithesis of sexiness. The message to viewers is “This is you,” and this sort of identification is highly unappealing.

And of course, the male victims are killed at precisely the moment when the viewer is supposed to reach orgasm. Nor does the film make an attempt to show what women’s sexuality might actually look like—Andromeda spends the majority of time catering to male fantasies before brutally letting her “lovers” know how fundamentally wrong their desires are. Like conventional horror films, Slaughter Disk achieves a perverse form of gender equality by elevating the status of women, but also by figuratively and literally cutting men down to size—both socially and via physical mutilation.

(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.)

Feed: “Consumption is Evolution”

Keeping with the theme of kinky and anti-porn horror films, Love Object portrayed necrophilic fantasy, but the 2006 film Feed adds another layer of complexity to anti-porn rhetoric.  Feed addresses a bizarre spectrum of behaviors between consenting adults, opening with a scene based on the real-life case of the German cannibal Armin Meiwes, who placed an advertisement for a willing victim to be “slaughtered and consumed,” and found one. The Meiwes case has been depicted in other films, including Grimm Love (Fangoria Frightfest) Grimm Love and Marion Dora’s Cannibal. Feed and Cannibal are unconventional in their depiction of malevolent victims, That is to say, the “victims” not only consent to their demise, but are at least as culpable and villainous as the villains. The victim in Cannibal berates the Meiwes character into killing and eating him, suggesting that Meiwes initially merely fantasized about cannibalism but didn’t plan on following through. The victim in the beginning of feed is at least equally responsible, and pleads to the investigator who tries to save him, “It’s my body…and I want to be eaten!”

Deirdre is initially pampered in romantic surroundings…

It doesn’t seen that a film that starts with a man eating his own penis after watching it being fried in a skillet could get nastier, but it does. This film addresses an obscure subculture within the BDSM/fetish community (though many BDSM practitioners would disavow it), known as feeders and gainers, with a dash of vore. The gainer, usually a woman, is fed until she is so obese that she is completely dependent on her partner. Of course, numerous pornography websites are devoted to this paraphilia. The would-be hero of the film, Phillip, is an Interpol agent who investigates legal violations on “internet porn” sites. While investigating the fat appreciation fetish site, he discovers that the pornographer Michael is force-feeding the models to death. In an especially gruesome twist, subscribers to Michael’s site place bets as to how long it will take the women to die. Then, these women’s bodies literally become products to be consumed, as he feeds their fat to new, unsuspecting victims. When Phillip tries to save one of the models, Deirdre, who is near death, he is shocked when she rabidly defends her abuser.

…Then the boudoir devolves into an autopsy room as Deirdre nears terminal mass.

Although Feed addresses a very obscure subject, the overall message is that pornography “models” and sexual submissives are often so brainwashed that their consent cannot be considered genuine. The film depicts pornographers and dominants as merely preying on their submissives’ low self-esteem and creating the illusion of a caring relationship. The film’s villainous pornographer often adopts feminist rhetoric about healthy sexuality and body image, but in reality despises women. Michael tells heavy women that they are beautiful, and encourages them to gain more weight. His ideal of beauty becomes just as oppressive and destructive as the mainstream cultural mandate to be very thin. Perhaps this film is not fair to the feeder-gainer subculture, nor to BDSM subculture as a whole, but, based on personal conversations with various…people,  Michael’s rhetoric does resemble the twaddle spouted by some self-described doms…Beating the one you love is a way to honor them, blah blah blah. Suffice it to be said that the more I try to approach BDSM (or at least its apologists) with an open mind, the sillier–and more insulting–it seems.

Yet, this film poses important questions. Who decides what is safe, sane, and consensual? To what extent should we have freedom to decide the fate of our bodies? Are our desires really ours to begin with? Perhaps this is a conundrum because even the most “normal” and “healthy” sexual and romantic relationships are traditionally characterized and defined by the dominant/submissive binary.

(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.)

Love Object: pornographic fantasy as disease

Robert Parigi’s 2003 film Love Object is only one of many horror films that explore male fantasies involving passive women in the form of sex dolls and/or corpses. Other films to tackle the subject with varying degrees of competence include Dead Doll, The Coroner, Autopsy:Love Story, Marrionier: A Doll Horror Story, Living Doll, and the short film “Mail Order Bride” in Tales from the Carnal Morgue, Vol. One. As discussed in my essay within Understanding Necrophilia: A Global Multidisciplinary Approach, the sexual attraction toward dolls, statues, and mannequins is called pygmalionism, and is considered to be linked to necrophilia in that it provides an entirely compliant non-rejecting “partner.”

Kenneth unboxes his sex doll. Note the coffin-life appearance of the box.

Love Object is also one of many films that criticize the pornographic fallacy, that is, the phallocentric assumption that the desire of women is to fulfill the sexual desires of men, no matter how brutal or perverse. The feminist notion that pornography distorts men’s perceptions of women is illustrated by protagonist Kenneth’s visit to a porn shop, a scene that takes on a hallucinatory quality as he becomes increasingly entranced by the sight of silicone- enhanced, eager women and the prospect of sadistic and exotic sexual acts. But then there is a sharp jump-cut back to reality, which is a cruel shock—Kenneth is surrounded by real women, who are often dumpy-looking, pregnant, elderly, and/or generally disinterested in sex.

Kenneth shares a tender moment with his doll.

Kenneth is rather socially inept when it comes to relating to women. He has a crush on his coworker, but is unable to connect with her appropriately. He solves this problem by buying a $10,000 sex doll custom made in her likeness.  Initially, his role-plays with the doll help him “rehearse” appropriate interactions with his crush, who eventually dates him. However, he can’t handle the fact that his new girlfriend has a mind and desires of her own. His solution is to embalm her with a plasticizing agent so that she will be perfectly compliant, creating a necrophilic replacement for the original sex doll. The embalming plan doesn’t succeed, but depressingly, he gets away with his attempted crime because patriarchal society refuses to recognize that his desires are deviant.

Kenneth is less than tender with his flesh-and-blood girlfriend.

Love Object treats male violence against women as a continuum beginning in “harmless fantasy” that develops into objectification, and ends in femicide. To emphasize the pathological nature of the pornographic mentality, Parigi depicts it as manifesting itself as a disfiguring purple stain that marks the film’s perverts. The visit to the sex shop is the catalyst that transforms Kenneth’s personality. While extreme in its view that men are so easily influenced by pornography, it is merely an exaggerated version of Catharine MacKinnon’s theory that pornography “institutionalizes a sub-human, victimized, second-class status for women by conditioning orgasm to sex inequality,” (from Are Women Human?: And Other International Dialogues, hardcover first edition, p. 88), and that the pornographic mentality encourages men to experience women as compliant objects.

Kenneth attempts to embalm his girlfriend alive.

(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.)

Romance sucks: predatory sexuality in lesbian vampire films

I confess, I’m not the best person to review or analyze romantic horror films, or romantic anything. I tend to find the genre boring. But I can understand why it appeals to many readers, who want some sort of pleasant escape from the disappointments real life. In my observation, avid romance fans love the genre for providing a substitute for what they don’t have–a partner, or a partner who is sufficiently romantic and caring toward them. Be advised, I haven’t done any sort of formal study on this (I recommend you read this article by Janice Radway for an analysis of popular romance novels and their readers).

This isn’t to say that I’m negatively judging romance fans. Let’s face it, real-life romance is more often than not a dumpster-fire of drama. And Valentine’s Day season, with its emphasis on consumerism as a means of expressing heteronormative affection, is a hard time for many people. So why not embrace a fictional escape into a more perfect, more passionate relationship?

That said, I’m more interested in the worst-case-scenario, dumpster-fire depictions of romance than in idealized ones, and that cynicism is where the romance and horror genres can mesh well together.

Vampire Diane LeFanu corrupts the groom before dispatching him.

A case in point is the so-called lesbian vampire film of the 1970s. They are amazingly formulaic. Inevitably, they reference the Sheridan Le Fanu story Carmilla, and/or the crimes of real-life murderer Countess Elizabeth Bathory. In many cases a predatory lesbian or bisexual female vampire fixates on a newlywed heterosexual couple, and destroys their relationship from within. Among the films following this pattern are The Blood Spattered Bride, The Velvet Vampire, and Daughters of Darkness.

It’s rather challenging to analyze these movies, because they seem to close the gap between feminism and misogyny. If one assumes that they were marketed primarily to heterosexual men, as many horror and exploitation movies of the 1970s were, one can assume that these films are primarily misogynistic in their outlook. After all, during his honeymoon, his wife is seduced and snatched away by a woman with superior sexual prowess. In The Velvet Vampire, the vampire Diane LeFanu even tells the young bride that men hate and fear women, because women experience sexual pleasure that men can never understand. In most instances, the female vampires are cruel and predatory, and the young women are either neurotic or complete air-heads.

Newlywed Valarie is caught in the middle of two predators in Daughters of Darkness.

And yet, these films make their male heroes so incredibly unsympathetic, and in some cases, they don’t even survive the entirety of the film. The husband in Blood Spattered Bride rapes his wife and drags her around by her hair. Similarly, the husband in Daughters of Darkness is a sexual sadist who savagely and non-consensually whips his bride with his leather belt. Women, especially virginal women are forced with the awful choice of merely choosing the lesser of two abusers.

My Horrific Life gets kinky this February

Still from Jean Rollin’s Living Dead Girl

Now that we are abandoning January’s pleasant apocalypse fantasies, February will be devoted to something far more horrific: romance. In honor of Valentine’s Day and our corporate overlords who mandate that we purchase obligatory tokens of affection for those whom we love, we are kicking things off with our favorite romantic horror films and sexy vampire movies. Then as the romance wears off–as it always will–we will try to keep the spark alive by exploring horror that features kink, sadomasochism, and taboo sexuality.

As February is also Black History month, we will also be featuring reviews of race-related horror, including my current read Lovecraft Country: A Novel. We really can’t contain our excitement for Get Out, which looks something like The Stepford Wives, except subservience is  along racial, rather than gender lines.

Asmodexia’s chiral apocalypse

As Apocalypse Month draws to a close, I’m going to plug an underrated and relatively unknown Spanish film, Asmodexia  (2014). It initially seems like any other exorcism/Biblical “end of days” movie, but then the ending ruins all of those preconceptions. This is not to say that clues were not embedded throughout the film or even in the title itself.

I’m going to spoil the ending for you.

The title “Asmodexia” is a portmanteau of “Asmodeus,” a king of demons in Judeo-Christian tradition, and “dexia,” the Greek word for “right-handed.” Right-handedness is associated in many cultures with righteousness. In occult terminology, there are “Right Hand Path” traditions and “Left Hand Path” traditions, the former being associated with blessings and seeking union with the divine, and the latter associated with curses and seeking the divine within (or glorifying the self). In organic chemistry, asymmetric molecules are considered right-handed or left-handed. “Chiral” molecules appear to be mirror-images of each other, identical in composition but opposite in handedness. The molecules necessary for life on Earth are more often than not left-handed. Chirality is occasionally a trope in fictional works such as Through the Looking-Glass or the “mirror universe in the Star Trek series, in which not only molecules are reversed, but morality and any number of social norms. So, perhaps the title implies that our left-handed world, in which Christianity is a dominant religion, is evil; and in the right-handed mirror world, Asmodeus/Satan is righteous. This is supported by protagonist Eloy’s references to mirror worlds and reverse scriptures.

If my logic seems tortured and obtuse, wait until you see the movie.

Just think of it as “every day is opposite day,” or “Alternative Facts: Religious Edition.” This is bound to take the offensiveness right out of it, at least for American evangelicals.

Jesting aside, other works have employed similar devices. The first that comes to mind is the C.S. Lewis classic The Screwtape Letters, in which characters frequently refer to “Our Father” and “The Evil One.” But since the reader knows up front that the characters are demons, it’s no surprise that the traditional meanings of these terms are reversed. By the end of Asmodexia, we learn that the father-daughter exorcist duo Eloy and Alba are not casting demons out of the afflicted, but rather exorcizing the indwelling of Jesus and the Holy Spirit from the bodies of ” heretics.” They journey across Spain to initiate Resurrection Day, in which Asmodeus will emerge as the savior of humanity. I confess, I did not entirely see the twist ending coming, because I’ve become so accustomed to films on the tradition of The Exorcist that I didn’t assume frequently-used terms such as “the Lord,” “Savior,” “unclean spirit,” and “Evil One” had meanings other than the norm for the sub-genre. One comment made during an exorcism seemed potentially Satanic, but I wrote the subtitle off as perhaps merely poorly translated from the Spanish dialogue. Yet, there was always something noticeably “off” about Eloy and Alba.

Because of similar themes, Asmodexia is a great movie to watch in conjunction with Prince of Darkness. While it hasn’t received the recognition it deserves, I hope it gains respect for its original twist on a worn-out subgenre. Asmodexia is currently available on Netflix’s streaming service and also on DVD.

 

In the Mouth of Madness (part 3): “You are what I write”

The Black Church is the gateway for humanity’s destruction.

In this final post on John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, I’m going to explore the film’s take on religion in general and Christianity in particular. I’m a bit surprised that the film has not drawn fire from Christian media watchdogs. Perhaps the film flew under the radar of most Christian viewers, but my Christian friends who have watched it don’t seem to regard it as particularly offensive.

In the Mouth of Madness makes a number of overt claims that would be regarded as heretical. In the church confessional booth scene, horror author turned deity Sutter Cane informs protagonist John Trent, ” Do you want to know the problem with places like this? With religion in general? It’s never known how to convey the anatomy of horror. Religion seeks discipline through fear, yet doesn’t understand the true nature of creation. No one’s ever believed it enough to make it real. The same cannot be said of my work.” He goes onto explain that his books have been translated into 18 languages and have sold over a billion copies. “More people believe in my work than believe in the Bible… It’ll make the world ready for the change. It takes its power from new readers and new believers. That’s the point. Belief! When people begin to lose their ability to know the difference between fantasy and reality the Old Ones can begin their journey back. The more people who believe, the faster the journey.” Later, Cane informs Trent, “I’m God now.”

Popular horror author and deity Sutter Cane

The idea that belief create reality is a subversive one, especially if that means that people create gods and not the other way around. It calls to mind occult theories of tulpas and thoughtforms.

What’s potentially more inflammatory than the overt text is the subtext. It became apparent to me–after many viewings–that In the Mouth of Madness is actually about Calvinism. And it presents one of the best arguments against Calvinism, at least if one has any investment in the belief in free will and in God’s inherent goodness.

For those unfamiliar with the term, it was named for the 1500’s theologian John Calvin, whose ideas were branded heretical by the Catholic Church. Calvin’s ideas still hold some weight among some Protestant denominations, though are hesitant to embrace all of its tenants. (Hence, you hear people describe themselves as four-point Calvinists as opposed to five-point Calvinists.) The big issue with Calvinism is that it opens a big can o’ worms regarding the nature of evil and whether God is good. Other forms of Christianity address these issues by stating that God is absolutely good, but evil exists because God allows his creations to have free will. Free will may be limited, because all people are born into sin and are incapable of absolute holiness, but people still have a great deal of freedom to make choices. In this model of Christianity, humans also have the free will to reject or accept the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. Therefore, God does not damn anyone to hell. Rather, some people elect to be sent there. It’s a decent explanation for why the world is so awful without besmirching God’s goodness.

In contrast, Calvinism posits that all of humanity is absolutely depraved and have no free will to avoid sinning, nor to freely accept or reject salvation. Instead, God “predestines” some for salvation and others for eternal damnation. (This is not the same as an all-knowing God knowing the outcome of every human choice before it happens.) Adherents who fail to see the nightmarishness of this have simply not followed the logic through to its natural conclusion. A belief in zero free will and in predestination cuts to the heart of any argument in God’s inherent goodness and justness. After all, how just and righteous is it to eternally damn a large segment of one’s own creation when they never had a choice to do wrong in the first place, nor the choice to reject an offer of salvation?  It seems that such a God would be damning people for the lulz, or as Calvinists would prefer to say, “for the good pleasure of His will.”

Trent takes a deeper look into the Word of God.

Trent protests, “God’s not a hack horror writer.” But a purely Calvinistic God surely would be. How else could one explain the entirety of human history, which reads like a long list of atrocities? Such an account only fits in the horror genre, and is nastier than anything conceived by even the most extreme writers. God would be an like an author who develops characters and scripts their every action in advance, writing out their ultimate ends in His infallible Word. His creations can consult his Word to see how it all turns out, but have no free will to exercise in the outcome. This is exactly what happens in In the Mouth of Madness, in which Cane, the Creator, does all of this with the added sadism of giving his creations consciousness and allowing them to labor under the illusion that they are real people who have a will of their own. Which is, I guess, also the same sadism present in Calvinism and other versions of theological determinism.

A funny meme (author unknown) offering a gentle reminder to anyone seeking to make anything great again.

Continuing the analogy of Sutter Cane as God, John Trent could be read as a perverse and inverted Christ, “the Word made Flesh.” This is where In the Mouth of Madness departs from Calvinism or any other form of Christianity, because Trent doesn’t deliver salvation to anyone. Rather, he is the unwitting and unwilling carrier of Cane’s “new Bible,” which will doom the entire human race. And for the people who don’t read, there’s a movie version.

Trent adorned with and surrounded by crosses

Of course, not everyone takes offense at the notion of a sadistic puppeteer god who pulls the strings of creations who falsely believe they have a self, as we’ll see in my review of Thomas Ligotti’s Conspiracy Against the Human Race.

 

In the Mouth of Madness (part 2): “The sooner we’re off the planet, the better”

In our last post, I discussed the various literary influences apparent in In the Mouth of Madness.  Today, I’m delving a bit deeper into some of the tropes and philosophies that informed Lovecraft’s work, and this film in turn.

In the Mouth of Madness opens with John Trent being admitted to an insane asylum, where he recounts his story to an investigator (David Warren). One of the most common tropes in Lovecraft’s work is the notion that some truths are so terrible as to cause the knower to go insane. Consider this noteworthy opening quote from “The Call of Cthulhu”: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” In some Lovecraft stories, acquiring forbidden knowledge not only causes insanity, but forces bodily mutations upon the victim. This is apparently a trope within Sutter Cane’s fiction and also happens to unfortunate readers  of his newest novel, In the Mouth of Madness. In some respects, these mutations are reminiscent of transformation scenes in John Carpenter’s earlier film The Thing.

An ominous painting foretells the fate of residents of Hobb’s End

Misanthropy was rampant in Lovecraft’s fiction. In a letter to Edwin Baird, editor of Weird Tales, Lovecraft wrote of a young writer who wished to pen a story of a mad scientist who strives to conquer the world by unleashing a plague. To Lovecraft, this vision unoriginal and simply did not go far enough. “Good and evil, teleological illusion, sugary sentiment, anthropocentric psychology–the usual stock in trade, and all shot through with the eternal and inescapable commonplace…Who ever wrote a story from the point of view that man is a blemish on the cosmos, who ought to be eradicated?…I told my friend, he should conceive of a man with a morbid, frantic, shuddering hatred of the life-principle itself, who wishes to extirpate from the planet every trace of biological organism, animal and vegetable alike, including himself…Only a cynic can create horror–for behind every masterpiece of the sort must reside a demonic force that despises the human race and its illusions, longs to pull them to pieces and mock them” (Quoted in Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror) .This attitude is rampant in Sutter Cane’s work, and John Trent offers a similar opinion at one point when he tells Linda Styles, “The sooner we’re off the planter, the better.” However, Trent is ultimately unable to maintain that stance–or perhaps it was mere posturing all along–because he tries desperately to save humanity in the film’s final act.

The last and perhaps most important Lovecraftian trope is identity-based horror. (And here I spoil the best scene in in the movie.) In “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” Lovecraft writes, “No death, no doom, no anguish can arouse the surpassing despair which flows from a loss of identity.” Savvy viewers would know that John Trent is set up for such a fate, given his arrogance and frequent comments along the lines of “I’m my own man; nobody pulls my strings.” The revelation that he is not his own man and in fact has no free will is expected, but the specific nature of this revelation delivers a gut-punch arguably superior to similar twists penned by Lovecraft himself. In a confrontation with between Trent and Sutter Cane, Cane reveals, “This town didn’t exist before I wrote it, and neither did you…You are what I write!” Trent sputters and protests that he is not, in fact, a “piece of fiction,” Cane responds, “I think, therefore you are.” Trent is not even left with the solace of having once been human. He simply never was what he believed himself to be, and technically, was never real.

I will further discuss the notion human existence as puppet existence in our final post on In the Mouth of Madness and its religious implications, and in my review of Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.

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 Yellow which 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.

 

John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness: “Logic collapses on the sub-atomic level”

Today we discuss the second installment of John Carpenter’s “apocalypse trilogy,” Prince Of Darkness, perhaps one of Carpenter’s most misunderstood and criminally underrated films. It’s also daring by virtue of using concepts of quantum physics as the glue combining Christianity and aspects of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.

As discussed in my last post, the first installment in the trilogy, The Thing, was ultimately reassuring. Because of a basic scientific understanding of the threat, order could be restored and a stealthy apocalypse avoided. Prince of Darkness undermines both science religion, institutions that provide comforting explanations for the nature of the universe and our place in it. This is explicitly discussed in the film, during Dr. Edward Birack’s lecture. “From Job’s friends insisting that the good are rewarded and the wicked punished, to the scientists of the 1930’s proving to their horror the theorem that not everything can be proved, we’ve sought to impose order on the universe. But we’ve discovered something very surprising: while order DOES exist in the universe, it is not at all what we had in mind!” However, at the start of the film, we learn that both religion and science are under threat, respectively due to suppressing aspects of reality and failing to understand it completely.

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The instability of reality is also addressed in Professor Birack’s opening lecture: “Let’s talk about our beliefs, and what we can learn about them. We believe nature is solid, and time a constant. Matter has substance and time a direction. There is truth in flesh and the solid ground…. None of this is true! Say goodbye to classical reality, because our logic collapses on the subatomic level… into ghosts and shadows.” The uncanny and seemingly illogical discoveries of quantum physics open up the possibility of science acknowledging the validity of religion. The film’s surrealistic special effects support this theme, defying logic and the laws of Newtonian physics.

When  a Catholic priest requests that Birack and his graduate students study a mysterious container in a church basement, their findings undermine orthodox Christianity as well. Birack provides a radical proposal to the Priest: “Suppose what your faith has said is essentially correct. Suppose there is a universal mind controlling everything, a god willing the behavior of every subatomic particle. Well, every particle has an anti-particle, its mirror image, its negative side. Maybe this universal mind resides in the mirror image instead of in our universe as we wanted to believe. Maybe he’s anti-god, bringing darkness instead of light.” Prince of Darkness is not the first work to contemplate a parallel and opposite universe. I’ll discuss chiral and mirror-image words further in future posts. What’s unsettling here is that the evil world, ruled by Satan or anti-God is in fact the “normal” or default reality. In this instance, our world is the aberration that needs to be corrected or stamped out. The concept of the mirror world is revisited repeatedly when possessed characters attempt to use mirror as gateways into this other universe.

A possessed woman reaches into the other side of the mirror.

In case you find this view of religion intriguing and are wondering where Jesus fits into this, a document  concealed by the Church reveals that He was a benevolent extraterrestrial. This point is never mentioned again.

In the end, neither science nor religion can provide refuge for humanity. As the evil force warns a scientist via her computer screen, ” The Holy Ghost won’t save you. The god plutonium won’t save you. In fact…YOU WILL NOT BE SAVED!” As with The Thing, humanity is saved at the end, but the victory is only temporary. A vision of the future reveals that evil will merely wear a new face.

In our next post, we will contemplate how the apocalypse could be started by something as benign as popular fiction.

 

John Carpenter’s The Thing: Identity Crises

I have so much love for the films that comprise John Carpenter’s so-called apocalypse trilogy, but I am in the minority for loving In the Mouth of Madness the most of the three. In fact, I would posit that the entries in the series get progressively better due to increasingly complex and intriguing concepts. All three films feature Lovecraftian concepts to some degree. All three are also obsessed with the dissolution of personal identity. And all three films challenge popular notions of reality.

(Beware of spoilers ahead.)

The first of the trilogy, The Thing, was full of fantastic special effects, but was still grounded in conventional science. Most people who are reading this blog already know that the Carpenter film was a remake of a 1951 film The Thing from Another World, which was in turn adapted from the John Campbell story Who Goes There?. In The Thing, an alien life form is able to “take over” our terrestrial life forms, replacing their cells with its own cells, and perfectly imitating the original life forms’ appearance, memories, and personality. Aside from mind-bending special effects, the creepy thing about this movie is that your friends may not be your friends. Even creepier, you  yourself may be a Thing and not even know it yet. Creepiest yet, if the Thing were able to replace all life on the planet, there would be one species constantly hunting and eating itself in its many forms, making life on earth a sort of grotesque biological recycling facility.

The “Thing” in the process of imitating a dog.

There are aspects of the Thing’s physiology and behavior that the characters can’t explain, but it’s clear that these things eventually could be explained by science. At the end, science and good-old-fashioned masculinity save the world from this stealthy form of alien takeover. Even though it’s implied that the two surviving characters will meet a bad end, it’s reassuring that the world is safe and order is restored.

As we’ll soon discuss over the next few days, this isn’t the case with Prince Of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness.

 

Weirding the Apocalypse Part 2: Pontypool

Based on the Tony Burgess novel Pontypool Changes Everything, the film Pontypool is a strange take on the zombie apocalypse narrative. Instead of a conventional contagion, the cause of the outbreak is a virus of language itself, with the English language and terms of endearment designated as especially dangerous. The afflicted begin to repeat words and nonsensical phrases before attacking and cannibalizing others. A doctor terms the disease Acquired Metastructural Pediculosis, and determines that the infection is caused by not merely hearing the infected words, but by speaking them and fully understanding their meaning. He also states that if the disease is left unchecked, it could threaten the fabric of reality itself. This would imply that language creates reality and not the other way around. While the doctor never explains this fully, it seems that some familiarity with semiotics and postmodern theory is useful when watching this film.

The strangeness of the film’s concept nearly overshadows the great performances by Stephen McHattie and Lisa Houle, respectively portraying ex-“shock jock” morning show DJ Grant Mazzy and his producer Sidney Briar. The radio show format is perfect for a story about language and understanding. There is very little on-screen violence and gore. Instead, most of the “action” is narrated to us by Mazzy and other radio personalities, based on briefings from law enforcement and calls from panicked citizens.

It had been several years since I first watched Pontypool, and have just now begun reading the novel, which is even weirder. Burgess uses a writing style that resembles the language of the infected, or the language of the cure as presented in the film adaptation. It’s also worth noting that Burgess himself adapted the novel to a screenplay. Pontypool Changes Everything is part of a loose trilogy of Burgess novels, also including The Hellmouths of Bewdley and Caesarea, available as a one-volume set The Bewdley Mayhem.

 

Weirding the Apocalypse Part 1: Carnosaur (1993)

Scoring only 3.5 out of 10 stars on IMDb and 11% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, the 1993 Jurassic Park knock-off Carnosaur (directed by Adam Simon and produced by Roger Corman) doesn’t get a lot of love. Technically, it isn’t a knock-off, as it’s loosely based on a 1984 novel by John Brosnan  (a.k.a. Harry Adam Knight), which itself predates  Crichton’s novel.  But the timing of the film’s release was certainly meant to cash in on the success of Jurassic Park, and even adds an additional callback by casting Diane Ladd, mother of Jurassic Park‘s Laura Dern, as a mad scientist.

Carnosaur doesn’t boast the then-cutting edge special effects of Jurassic Park. In fact, the dinosaurs are overly rubbery and the film as a whole is incredibly low budget, but in other respects, Carnosaur is the weirder, gorier, and more tantalizing of the two films.

Let me explain.

Despite Jeff Goldbloom’s character in Jurassic Park being quite delicious as the resident pessimist, like all Spielberg movies, the entire film is very much Up With People in its outlook. It’s comfortably anthropocentric, with dinosaurs being genetically engineered for the sole purpose of humans’ entertainment and corporate profit. Of course things go badly, but order is ultimately restored with humanity reasserting itself as the dominant species.

Carnosaur also has a plot involving the creation of genetically engineered dinosaurs, but with a twisted motive. Dr. Jane Tiptree (portrayed by Diane Ladd) is a female mad scientist (a rarity in horror films), who has a strange plan to save the earth. She has created and introduced a food-borne virus into poultry products that recodes human DNA in such a way as to cause women to give birth to dinosaurs, killing the female host and thereby preventing the human race from reproducing. Dr. Tiptree wants humans to become extinct and to “give the earth back to the dinosaurs.” This is an absurd, even arguably idiotic apocalypse scenario. What makes it effective is Dr. Tiptree’s misanthropic philosophy.

Carnosaur isn’t the first film to depict and apocalypse in which humanity is supplanted by another species. Better-known and more popular examples include Invasion of the Body Snatchers (and its remakes) and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Those films depicted a quiet alien invasion in which the alien species can imitate other life-forms. They didn’t celebrate the extinction of the human race. Carnosaur is nastier by virtue of Jane Tiptree acting as a species-traitor who promotes misanthropic and anti-natalist perspectives, viewing humans as nothing but a “set of instructions for the reproduction of the species.”

She explains her reasoning: “Just imagine. An ugly cancerous grey planet littered with the dying remnants of biological life as we know it. I actively worked on that in industry and in government. The earth isn’t ours to destroy…I don’t want to end the world, just one unruly species…The human being is the WORST. The human species is a disaster.” Tiptree’s radical solution to save the earth and the environment even includes her own extermination after serving as a vessel for her new breed of dinosaurs. The end of the film is ambiguous. The hero obtains the serum needed to reverse the effects of the virus, but he may be too late to save the high percentage of people infected.

Happy New Year from My Horrific Life

While most people associate the New Year with new beginnings and seek to fully embrace life’s possibilities, we here at My Horrific Life are celebrating the eventual end of the human race, which may come sooner than we think. We won’t discriminate about the means to this end, as we delve into all manner of fictional, religious, and theoretical possibilities, including Biblically-inspired narratives, disease, nuclear war, climate change, zombie hordes, linguistic viruses, alien invasions, and a takeover by Lovecraft’s elder gods.

Stay tuned for reviews of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic film and fiction, including a spotlight of John Carpenter’s so-called “apocalypse trilogy.”

A Carol for Another Christmas, Rod Serling’s forgotten film

I confess…I haven’t been in much of a holiday spirit. And with a proliferation of reviews for popular Christmas movies such as Krampus, I didn’t feel compelled to add my own reviews to the mix. That said, I’m a sucker for Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and for the many film adaptations of that story. Perversely, the Ghost of Christmas Future segment was always my favorite by virtue of being so grim.

Imagine my delight at discovering A Carol for Another Christmas on Turner Classic Movies earlier this month. This was a made-for-TV movie scripted by Rod Serling and released in 1964. This anti-war political modernization of the Dickens classic is grim in its entirety, with a message that is, unfortunately, still appropriate and timely.

In this version, an powerful industrialist Daniel Grudge coldly dismisses his nephew’s request to sponsor a cultural exchange program, instead adopting an isolationist political view. Like Scrooge, Grudge is visited by three spirits. In the past segment, he meets the ghosts of every soldier killed in every war in human history before meeting the disfigured survivors or Hiroshima. In the present segment, he is invited to a lavish feast but is forced to watch starving refugees in interment camps. When angered that he has to watch the suffering of the poor from other nations, the Ghost of Christmas Present reminds Grudge of his previous stance that providing aid to the poor prevents them from becoming self-reliant.

While the entire film is quite depressing, the future segment is, as usual, the “best” part. Grudge is shown the aftermath of a nuclear World War III, in which Peter Sellers portrays a demagogue known as the “Imperial ME,” dressed in a pilgrim costume and a cowboy hat cut to look like a crown. Sellers’ insane rants at the ruins of the town hall resemble Grudge’s own isolationist views taken to an extreme.

A Carol for another Christmas can be watched in it entirety at the Youtube link below, or purchased on DVD.

Boris Karloff Month Finale: Targets

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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.

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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.

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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.

Boris Karloff month: The Black Room and The Walking Dead

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Today, I want to briefly discuss two Boris Karloff films that I adore, but do not get much attention. Be advised, there are spoilers for both films ahead.

The Black Room (1935), is in some respects average and predictable, but it’s Karloff’s performance in a dual role that helps it shine. Karloff plays twins Gregor and Anton, both members of a European royal family in the late 1700’s. The great thing about this film is how it showcases Karloff’s acting range as the kindly twin Anton and the depraved twin Gregor.

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While Gregor’s appearance is slightly disheveled, and Anton has a paralyzed arm, there are no significant differences in makeup effects for the two characters. The radical difference in demeanor is all due to Karloff’s versatility of performance. Although Anton is predictably murdered by Gregor at the halfway mark, it was great to watch Karloff in a kindhearted role that more closely mirrored his own personality. Some of Karloff’s other great scenes in the film are when Gregor assumes Anton’s identity, only to struggle with maintaining a facade of kindness as well as mimicking Anton’s disability.

The Black Room is available on DVD in the Boris Karloff Collection – 6 Movie Set: The Black Room, The Man They Could Not Hang, The Man With Nine Lives, Before I Hang, The Devil Commands, and The Boogie Man Will Get You.

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The next film I want to discuss is The Walking Dead (1936), directed by Michael Curtiz. The Walking Dead is, in many ways, a ripoff of Frankenstein, but inverts the tropes of that film so extensively that the results are rather unique. Karloff portrays John Ellman, who is framed and wrongfully executed for murder. After being put to death by electric chair, Ellman is resurrected by a benevolent scientist who wishes to learn the secrets of the afterlife.

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Contrary to the salacious movie poster (see above), Karloff isn’t a bloodthirsty monster at all, but rather, a victim. Karloff’s performance is so effective because of his wonderfully expressive eyes, which bleed vulnerability. Like his character in Frankenstein, Karloff plays the role of monster-as-victim, with some important differences. Ellman retains his skills as a concert pianist and remains verbally articulate. He has a surprisingly sweet and gentle platonic friendship with the lead female character. And, most importantly, he doesn’t kill anyone. Ellman unwittingly becomes an agent of karma or of God’s judgement, because when confronts the men who framed him, they kill themselves. Each time, he is distressed to see them die and saddened that his own unjust death is never explained.

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The Walking Dead is available as part of a 4-film DVD set, Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics (The Walking Dead / Frankenstein 1970 / You’ll Find Out / Zombies on Broadway). This set is worth purchasing for this film alone and for the excellent commentary tracks on The Walking Dead and on Frankenstein 1970.

Horrific Homemaking: Classic Horror Film Coasters

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While at Horrorhound Indianapolis 2016, I met the guys from Tarr and Fether’s Psycho Cinema, and notice their series of cool 4-piece coaster sets based on classic movie posters. As you can see, I went with the set that reflected the work of my favorite actors Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, among others.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t see a listing for other coaster sets at tarrandfether.com, but you may be able to inquire about purchasing a set there. Better yet, try to pick up a set  in person at one of their conventions!

Introducing the Justin Beahm Radio Hour

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In case you haven’t caught it, my dear friend Justin Beahm started his own podcast earlier this year, The Justin Beahm Radio Hour. You may already know Justin through his work as a writer with Fangoria and many other horror magazines, as well as the producer of many Blu-ray special editions of great horror films. And of course, Justin had a leading role in Silk, which was previously reviewed on this blog. In his podcast, Justin conducts thoughtful interviews with a variety of people in the horror film industry.

Episode 6 of Justin’s show is a real treat, because Justin interviewed my friend Andrew Divoff. This episode is special not only because I can hear two good friends’ voices, but also because this may be the most in-depth and personal interview Andrew has given.

Check out Episode 6 here.

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Support Justin’s work by subscribing to his podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and Youtube.

Black Friday Special: Discounted Karloff Movies

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No, we aren’t actually selling any Karloff movies today. Rather, we are recognizing that Boris Karloff, like all great actors, starred in a number of films either not worthy of his talents, or films that were quite good but overlooked and discounted by critics and moviegoers alike. Coincidentally, many of these films are available for purchase at a bargain bin discount – often in a multi-movie set – through retailers such as Amazon.

I’ve personally decided to boycott Black Friday shopping in favor of revisiting these discounted Karloff films. It seems only appropriate to start this list with…

Black Friday (1940). Karloff plays a mad scientist who transplants the brain of a gangster into the body of a kindly professor. This is not done merely to see if it can be done, but because the gangster had access to a sizable sum of hidden cash which Karloff needs to fund his hospital and experiments. Where this film falls down for me is the fact that the brain recipient retains both the memories of the criminal and the professor, shuttling between the two in Jekyll and Hyde fashion. Even within the illogical nature of horror film logic, this was…illogical.

Frankenstein 1970 (1958). Karloff plays Dr. Frankenstein rather than the monster in this meta-ish 1950s reboot of the classic tale. Karloff’s character is working on a new Monster, which will be re-animated using atomic power. Things get complicated when he decides to allow a TV film crew to document his work. This film never breaks the 4th wall, but leans heavily against it. This movie isn’t as cool as it should have been, due to hammy performances and unintentionally funny moments in which Dr. Frankenstein bumbles and fumbles multiple sets of eyes intended for the Monster, necessitating the murder of multiple characters whose bodies get thrown into an oversized garbage disposal. The best part of this film is easily the commentary track on the DVD set Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics (The Walking Dead / Frankenstein 1970 / You’ll Find Out / Zombies on Broadway)

The Climax (1944). This film had a great concept, with Boris Karloff in his first color film portraying a mad scientist who stalks an opera singer and attempts mind control experiments against her. There’s also implied necrophilia as he keeps the body of his former love object preserved in his chambers. Karloff has some great moments in this film, but like many 1940s movies, the plot frequently grinds to a halt to introduce a series of musical numbers. Worse, the musical numbers are not even true opera pieces, but instead a series of dated and forgettable songs performed by the heroine in shrill, yodeling soprano vocalizations. This is fine if you like 1940’s musicals, and the upshot is this movie featured some fun costumes and choreography. If it’s not your thing, fast forward through the musical numbers and shave off 50% of the viewing time.This is available, along with other films, in The Boris Karloff Collection (Tower of London / The Black Castle / The Climax / The Strange Door / Night Key)

Son of Frankenstein (1939). The was last time Karloff donned the makeup to reprise his role as the Monster for Universal Studios. Fans of Mel Brooks’ spoof Young Frankenstein  will recognize this as the source material for several funny scenes and characters. Son of Frankenstein is worth watching, even if lacks the weirdness and brilliance of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. My favorite thing about this film is actually the account of behind-the-scenes tickle wars between Karloff and other cast members, as described in Stephen Jacobs’ Karloff biography More Than a Monster.

You’ll Find Out (1940). Like stereotypical white girls everywhere, I can’t even. This movie wastes the talents of three great actors: Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Bela Lugosi. This is a painful haunted house slapstick comedy punctuated by even more painful and unnecessary musical numbers. This is a movie I reference to illustrate that the 1940’s, along with the 1990’s, committed more crimes against the horror genre than all other decades combined. Avoid this unless you are a masochist or sincerely love 1940’s slapstick musical horror-comedies.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949).As you can tell, 1940’s horror comedies are not my favorite, but there is some clever writing here, especially in the dialogue. For instance, the villain offers a character the choice of how he wants to die, and gets the response, “old age!” Despite the title, Karloff is actually not the killer. If you enjoy the comedy of Abbott and Costello, you will enjoy this.

Mr. Wong, Detective (1938). In this film and its sequels, Karloff dons “yellowface” to play the titular character. The upside is that, unlike his turn as Dr. Fu-Manchu, Karloff’s character is a positive, capable, and heroic character. This series is likely to be overlooked by horror fans, but is entirely worthwhile for those interested in crime dramas and murder mysteries.

The Night Key (1937). A solid crime drama in which Karloff plays a scientist who invents a cutting-edge security system and ends up being held hostage by criminals who want the key to crack his invention. Karloff’s character is a kind elderly man with failing eyesight, and it’s easy to empathize with his misfortune. This film is worth watching just to see the diversity of Karloff’s acting range apart from monsters and villains.

Given Karloff’s career in over 200 films and TV shows,  this list barely scratches the surface of his overlooked  and discounted films. Stay tuned for additional reviews of his work as November draws to a close.

 

 

Happy Birthday to Boris Karloff, a beautiful soul

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Today is Boris Karloff’s birthday, so it seems fitting to dedicate this post to his life, and to extend happy birthday wishes to his daughter Sara Jane Karloff who shares his November 23rd birthday.

I confess that I knew very little about Boris Karloff as a person before beginning this blog, but exploring his life has been a beautiful, inspiring journey. The first biography that I read was Dear Boris: The Life of William Henry Pratt a.k.a. Boris Karloff by Cynthia Lindsay, who was a friend of Karloff’s for many years. Lindsay’s book is entirely worth reading, as she provides some wonderful insights into Karloff as a kind and devoted friend. But her book raises as many questions as it answers. Despite having been his friend for decades, there were many things that Cynthia did not know about Karloff’s life due to the fact he was a vey private person. Despite her best efforts at research, there were many details she simply could not uncover. Some of these details I found mysterious and unnerving. For example, he never discussed his childhood and revealed his five marriages after many years of friendship. I wonder if , in this era in which people share minute details of their lives on social media, people would regard Karloff’s secrecy about his private life with suspicion. Perhaps such discretion regarding personal matters is a lost virtue.

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The next book on the list was Boris Karloff: A Gentleman’s Life  Scott Allen Nollen. The author was able to consult with Karloff’s daughter, Sara, resulting in a more detailed account of Karloff’s life. My only complaint about this book is that the print is surprisingly small and there is no ebook edition. But if one can overlook the irksome font, this is a delightful book that gives great insight into Karloff’s character.

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Boris with his daughter, Sara Jane, who shares his birthday.

Lastly, there’s Boris Karloff: More Than A Monster by Stephen Jacobs. This is, perhaps, THE authoritative text on Karloff’s life. I admit that I have not finished reading it yet, as it is over 500 pages long. What I’ve read is absolutely engrossing, as Jacobs was able to obtain previously unpublished material, including family letters. (However, what I’ve read so far does not shed much light on his five marriages.) I highly recommend this book, but am sad to report that it appears to be out of print and it is difficult to obtain affordable copies. Currently, the best and least expensive way to obtain a copy is directly thought Karloff.com, the official site maintained by Sara Karloff and other relatives.

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Boris as a child

Obviously, there is no way to summarize these three biographies, so I’ll just share a series of interesting and inspiring facts about Boris Karloff’s life and personality.

Karloff’s birth name was William Henry Pratt. He claimed his stage name “Karloff” was derived from Russian ancestors on his mother’s side of the family. However, all of the biographies I’ve read state that he was of Anglo-Indian heritage, and didn’t find evidence to support his claims of Russian ancestry.

Boris came from a long line of English diplomats. He was considered the black sheep of the family due to his lack of interest in  adopting their profession.

He attempted to join the British military during World War I, but was rejected due to a heart murmur. He was also bow-legged and had a severe stutter and lisp.

Karloff started his acting career in the theater, and then performed in roughly 80 films before getting his “big break” as the Monster in Frankenstein (1931). Before this role made him famous, he earned most of his income through hard labor, including ditch-digging.

Karloff was liberal in his political views. Biographer Cynthia Lindsay describes him as a “civil rights fighter.” Interestingly, despite being an advocate for all people, he never revealed his own East Indian heritage due to the racism of his time. When asked how he got his deep tan, he would give responses such as “Too much sun. Out of work, you know!”

He was one of the charter members of the Screen Actors Guild. SAG was founded because actors were forced to work in truly hazardous conditions at that time, and often for little pay. Karloff served as the director of SAG for multiple terms.

Karloff’s charitable work included dressing as Santa Claus and visiting a local hospital at Christmastime. In their excitement to see him, the children knocked over and trampled the large Christmas tree that decorated the children’s wing. Other charitable activities included renovating old churches and creating a fund to help young athletes.

Boris had a great love of animals, and cared for several dogs, chickens, turkeys, a cow, and a pet pig at his farmhouse. He also tended a vegetable farm and flower garden on his property. In the A&E documentary The Gentle Monster, one film historian went so far as to describe Karloff as the “St. Francis of Assisi of horror actors.” His other hobbies included playing soccer and cricket.

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Boris with Elsie the cow.

The sources I’ve read unanimously describe Karloff as an extraordinarily kind and gentle person, though the press seemed to have trouble reconciling his kind personality with his villainous film roles. Boris himself claimed negative social effects from being typecast: “I’m a quiet citizen, I have my home, my dogs and my orchids. I vote and pat little children on the head. What does it get me? Queer stares from strangers and even more unusual glances from friends. Every time I walk into a room, there is a noticeable lull in the merrymaking.” (Quoted in More Than a Monster.)

However, those who knew him reported a different perception. His wife Dorothy states that these roles were beneficial: “Before Boris began playing sinister parts…he was a much more irritable person than he ever has been since. Whether or not these roles give him the opportunity of purging himself of any latent streaks of malevolence he might ordinarily possess, I cannot say. But I do know that…he is a much sweeter person at home than before. He really is a lamb.” (Quoted in More Than a Monster.)

In a 1941 radio show, Boris referred to himself as “Cuddles Karloff,” which wasn’t inaccurate according to his friends. Cynthia Lindsay recalls, “I never thought of him as a ‘movie star,’ only as a woolly friend. And there is a tactile memory of him that is woolly, the good soft tweeds and the silvery gray hair that had always been shaved for some monstrous role and for which, as it grew furring in, he charged fifty cents a feel. In advance. (Beards were a dollar. They were rarer.)”

Former President Ronald Regan shared his memories of Karloff in a letter to Cynthia Lindsay as “one of the warmest, kindest, most gentle human beings I have ever met, and at all times a perfect gentleman… He had great, good common sense plus a sense of fairness typical of his great integrity.”

 

Horrific Homemaking: Things to Make and Do With Boris Karloff

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Today we are doing our fist edition of Horrific Homemaking, wherein we will cover anything related to home decor, cooking, and arts and crafts. In honor of Boris Karloff’s birth month, I’m kicking this off with Things to Make and Do…with Boris Karloff. If only this were a real craft book. It’s actually a two-part craft project outlined on the blog Baking With Medusa. (Note: the images in this post are from that blog, not my own creation).

In Part One, there are instructions for making Boris Karloff finger-puppets. Just print out images of your favorite Karloff characters, add cardboard backing for support, and cut out holes for your index and middle fingers.

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In Part Two, we are given instructions for creating a miniature theater, so you can recreate the iconic windmill scene from Frankenstein.

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In other news, Todd and I have recorded our first two podcast episodes! We are now working on upgrading the website to become compatible with uploading them.

Review: House of Psychotic Women

As this blog grows, I’ve decided to designate at least one day a month as Scary Scholarly Saturday…or something like that…perhaps a catchier name will come to mind.

Speaking of disturbed minds, this month’s featured academic book is House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films by Kier-La Janisse. This isn’t your typical film criticism book, but rather an analysis of selected films through an autobiographical lens. As the title suggests, it’s an examination of neurotic, psychotic, and otherwise “crazy” women in horror and exploitation films. It’s a book that works my nerves on a number of levels, but also has a lot on its favor. So let’s get the perceived negatives out of the way first.

To foreground this discussion, I must point out that I’ve become so disgusted with people casually using the term “crazy” in reference to women. The term itself is rather lazy, and stigmatizes mental illness, but also tends to be used to silence and discredit women in particular. As discussed in an article by Harris O’Malley, men usually don’t label women as crazy in reference to an actual diagnosis, but usually to delegitimize any behavior or emotion that is merely perceived as inconvenient or annoying. This labeling is also often brilliantly mocked and satirized satirized in the spoof women’s magazine Reductress.

So imagine how irked I was with Kier-La Janisse’s statement in the introduction, “every woman I have ever met in my entire life is completely crazy, in one way or another.” Like so many men who use this label to describe women, she often does not refer to any formal diagnosis. In this book as in common parlance, “crazy” is a catch-all term for anything from mere eccentricity to debilitating psychosis. The rest of the book involves relating her own craziness to the on-screen craziness of various female characters. She never does offer a definition of what constitutes craziness, or its elusive opposite, sanity. Likewise, she never posits whether she views women as crazy in an essentialist sense, or that all women are crazy due to the pressures of patriarchal society. Given her description of her horrifically abusive childhood, I was saddened that she constantly labels herself crazy as well. Most of the evidence she presents for her self-described craziness runs along the lines of maladaptive coping behaviors that seem perfectly understandable given her dysfunctional upbringing.

My final criticism is that while horror films do depict a great deal of ” craziness” of different types and degrees, it isn’t a genre specifically about that nebulous category of women’s “craziness.” While I haven’t done a quantitative analysis of the subject, my viewing of thousands of horror films seems to indicate that depictions of mentally ill men are at least as prevalent as those of women, if not more so. Focusing exclusively on “crazy” women excludes their male equivalents. What about Jack Torrence, Norman Bates, and Michael Myers, not to mention scores of mad scientists, serial killers, and cultists? Male craziness is a staple of horror literature. Just ask any of Lovecraft’s protagonists. Janisse even discusses her affinity for the “neurotic” music of Alice Cooper, who has coopted “craziness” and mental illness as part of his personal brand following his treatment at a psychiatric facility. However, she doesn’t explore representations (or self-representations) of male “craziness.” At some point, I would love to see someone compare and contrast gendered constructs of “craziness” within the horror genre. Furthermore, I would eventually like to see a discussion of the perceived benefit of owning “craziness” as a personal brand or label.

On the positive side, Janisse does provide in-depth and thoughtful commentary on many  overlooked movies, which are presented alongside her autobiography, and separately in  a lengthy appendix. There are also many beautiful black-and-white and full color movie stills and poster reproductions throughout the book. Even though I had issues with the premise, House of Psychotic Women was fun to read. Janisse’s autobiography is interesting in its own right, and it’s fascinating how horror films can resonate with people on so many different levels. Clearly, depictions of  “crazy” women serve a cathartic function for Janisse. I am constantly amazed at how many varied readings arise from the horror genre, and this was an aspect I hadn’t previously considered.

The Purge Trilogy: films we deserve this election season

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This election season has been the most grueling and absurd of my lifetime. Since I voted early, the only thing left to do today is hole up at home, set my home security system, have a Purge marathon, and start drinking. I may be in lockdown mode longer than tonight in the event that these prescient films have accurately predicted mass riots following a Trump loss.

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The Purge and its first sequel have served as a biting commentary on U.S. political rhetoric, especially that of the more Ayn Rand-ish faction of the GOP. The third entry in the series openly attempts to tie into the current election cycle. The premise is both ridiculous and plausible.

For those not familiar with the series, it’s set in a not-to-distant future in which the U.S has a new government which legalizes all crime on one day of the year.  Ostensibly this allows citizens to “purge” their darker impulses allows them to be happier, better-adjusted, and more productive the rest of the year. Superficially, the policy works, as the U.S. economy is at an all-time high and non-Purge-Day crime is at a record low. Of course, there is a hidden agenda driven by greed.

The original Purge is a home-invasion movie in which an upper-middle-class family is targeted for sheltering a homeless man who had been selected by another group for elimination. Embedded within the cat-and-mouse suspense, there’s a commentary about the inherent class-based unfairness of the Purge. Wealthy people can afford elaborate home security systems, but those who live in poverty face a distinct disadvantage when it comes to self-defense.

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While the first film focused on the plight of an upwardly-mobile white family, its immediate sequel,  The Purge: Anarchy tells the story of the working poor and other vulnerable people. This is the best entry in the series and also the darkest. In this film, we learn that the New Founding Fathers are proactively trying to eliminate the poor, especially those who live in government subsidized housing. It’s simply better for the national budget to not waste tax money on people who are a “burden” or who perpetually need a “handout.” It smacks of some GOP politicians’ proposals to cut or completely eliminate welfare programs, unemployment benefits, and social security. In the film, the government gets even more hands-on by sending SWAT teams into housing projects to gun down the residents.

When trailers dropped for The Purge: Election Year, I was pumped. The earlier entries in the series seemed prescient in terms of the rhetoric of both parties during the primaries, but this film is an obvious attempt to satirize and critique the current election. As the title suggests, this films provides insight into the New Founding Fathers and government politicians. The villain is a Randian psychopath who has managed to ingratiate himself with the religious right. This seems appropriate enough because many conservative evangelical Christians do have Objectivist leanings, even though the political and moral components of Rand’s Objectivism have NOTHING to do with the teachings of Jesus Christ! I feel bad for evangelical conservatives right now. The truly pious have good reason to dislike both candidates, and the Trump supporters have to pull off some dizzying mental gymnastics to justify their decision given Trump’s distinctly non-Christlike statements, actions, and policies.

And just look at the trailer  below and tell me if the heroine, with her rhetoric about the Purge targeting the poor, isn’t modeled after Bernie Sanders?

Unfortunately, by the time The Purge: Election Year  was released in theaters,  Sanders had effectively lost Democratic nomination, which made the content of the film feel somewhat disjunctive to current events. This was also, disappointingly, the weakest entry of the series. Sometimes the script felt heavy-handed and repetitive, and sometimes the acting during the presidential debate scenes was bad. A close friend declared it “porn-acting bad.”

The sad thing is that in retrospect, that scene was so much better, more rational, and more presidential than any of the actual presidential debates. And, the film’s plot involving the assassination attempt of the Senator by the  New Founding Fathers is a bit too close for comfort, given Trump’s suggestion that “Second Amendment people” should “do something” about Hillary Clinton. (See also my earlier post about the Dead Zone audiobook’s delayed release.) Naturally, the Sanders-esque Senator wins the presidential election and outlaws Purge Night, leading to mass riots by Purge supporters. Despite some flaws, it’s still an interesting film that develops the mythology of Purge Night, with more emphasis on how greedy corporations and insurance companies fit into the equation, and the twisted form of Christianity practiced by the New Founding Fathers.

The Purge trilogy is now available for purchase as a 3-Movie Collection.