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.

 

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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.

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Interview with Justin Beahm – My Horrific Life

Join Erica and I for an interview with Justin Beahm!  Justin is an author, producer, actor, and the host of the “Justin Beahm Radio Hour” Podcast.  He has a life-long passion for all things horror!

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XX Movie and Women In Horror – My Horrific Life

Happy Women’s History Month!  Erica and I take a look at the fantastic new anthology movie XX – all four segments were written and directed by women, and we discuss women in horror.

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“FantasticLand” only $1.99; Lovecraft Storybundle special

OK, so this isn’t part of our Women’s History Month celebration, but we want our readers to know that our friend Mike Bockoven’s first novel FantasticLand is only $1.99 on Amazon Kindle for a limited time!  Todd and I are excited to review his novel, and this is a great bargain.

StoryBundle has a great deal with their current Lovecraft collection. A mere $15 can get you a dozen Lovecraft-inspired stories in the ebook format of your choice. One of these books, oddly enough, is Lovecraftian erotica. I have purchased two other bundles from StoryBundle in the past, and have had a good experience with the company and the products. This deal expires in 20 days, so get on it.

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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.

 

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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.”

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Get Out Movie Review – My Horrific Life

We had so much fun reviewing the new movie “Get Out”, from writer-direct Jordan Peele.  We loved the move (big shock there), but we also discuss what this movie suggests about racism in America.

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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.

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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!

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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.”

 

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Sadism and Masochism in Horror – My Horrific Life

During this Podcast Erica and Todd review S & M in Horror Films!  We focus more on “Mainstream” examples of S&M in horror – particularly the Hellraiser series and From Beyond, but also discuss other fringe films like Feed.  Give it a listen!

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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.)

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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.)

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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.)

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Lovecraft Country: America’s Monsters Exposed

In honor of Black History Month, I’m taking a break from covering erotic horror to review Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country: A Novel, which I’ve been reading for the past month. I love the cover art, which melds the images of a Lovecraftian tentacled monster with the hoods of KKK members, and bears the tagline, “America’s Monsters Exposed.” As the title and cover art suggest, the novel depicts not only the distinctively American fictional horrors of H.P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries, but also the very real horrors of racism in the Jim Crow South and 1940s America as a whole. It’s a fitting combination, because for all of Lovecraft’s creative genius, his major character defects were his racism and anti-immigrant xenophobia. Although his personal correspondence and stories indicate a softening of these attitudes later in his life, perhaps in part due to marrying a Jewish immigrant from Russia, some of his early writings were atrocious. Ruff references this when protagonist Atticus expresses his enjoyment of Lovecraft’s fiction, only to have his father ruin his enjoyment by pointing out, with no small degree of gleeful sadism, an early Lovecraft poem entitled “On the Creation of Niggers.” Repeatedly, the novel illustrates the complicated relationship between African American readers and the fiction created by racist white authors, as illustrated in the following dialogue:

“But stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. The flaws are still there, though. “
“But you don’t get mad. Not like Pop does.”
“No, that’s true, I don’t get mad. Not at stories. They do disappoint me sometimes.” He looked at the shelves. “Sometimes, they stab me in the heart.”

Not only is Atticus shamed by his father for enjoying the fiction of a racist such as Lovecraft, he is questioned by white people who  can’t comprehend that a black man could be appreciate science fiction, let alone be a reading enthusiast at all. One of the most harrowing scenes occurs when Atticus is pulled over by a southern police officer–not because of a traffic violation, but because a black man couldn’t possibly own a decent car. When the officer searches his car trunk and finds a collection of science fiction and horror novels, along with evidence of his military service, this proof of Atticus’ intellect and past heroism arouses further suspicion that the car and the belongings must have been stolen from a white man. Indeed, while the novel does feature Lovecraftian monsters and occult rites, these things are not nearly as terrifying as the mundane horrors of the Jim Crow South.

Sadly, despite the progress we’ve made in this country, we aren’t necessarily much better. Consider this occurrence from my graduate school days. My program brought in an African American FBI Special Agent to teach a class on cybercrime, and while hurrying from one end of campus to the other with his laptop tucked under one arm, he was stopped by a police officer who suspected that he had stolen the laptop. Even after showing her his FBI badge and explaining he was on campus as a guest instructor, she offered no apology whatsoever. He later recounted his experience to my class with the explanation, “The black man can’t have nice things.”

As awful as the examples of racism are in the book, the book isn’t entirely dire and oppressive because the the interconnected narratives tend to offer happy endings for the characters, who are able to outwit the villains. This is especially refreshing considering how the horror genre often treats black characters as expendable.

 

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We decided to make Valentine’s Day a second Halloween

Last night, My Horrific Life podcast cohost and I decided to make Valentine’s Day into a second Halloween, thanks to a Vampire Ball at the Rococo Theatre in Lincoln, Nebraska. This was the first event of its type in Lincoln, and the Rococo Theatre was the perfect venue, given its somewhat gothic interior. So Todd, his wife Colleen, a few other friends and I donned our fangs and black formalwear for a night of dancing and ghoulish fun.

Todd decided to sport some sickly makeup for the event.

The cover band looked the part and gave a solid performance, but my one gripe about the evening is why, why, why did they focus exclusively on recent Top 40 hits, instead of covering goth rock and punk hits?

Colleen and I showing off our custom fangs.

Top 40 pop hits aside, I hope this will become an annual event, to liven up this drab holiday with some unconventional fun.

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Love and Sex Magic at Hearthside Candles and Curios!

Last Saturday, I visited my friends at Hearthside Candles & Curios, located in Ralston, Nebraska. Because of Valentine’s day, the owners decided to put on a class about love and sex spells.

“What does this have to do with horror?”, you ask.

A good part of the class was about historical love and sex spells that have fallen out of favor, and for good reason. Specifically, these spells, which are horrific in their own right, involve adding your own menstrual blood or semen to a recipe that will disguise it, and then feeding it to your love interest without his/her knowledge. Interestingly, variations of this type of love spell have been practiced in all parts of the world and in many different magical traditions. Another variant is “sweat rice,” in which you squat over a pot of hot rice, and then allow the steam to drip off your nether parts and allow the steam to drip back into the rice, which is then served to your crush. Again, without their knowledge. This creepy and potentially bio-hazardous tradition is yet another good reason not to accept food or drinks from anyone who seems a bit lonely and desperate. That and date-rape drugs, of course.

Naturally, the folks at Hearthside Candles & Curios don’t endorse these old-school love spells. They have their own line of candles, oils, and room sprays to to set the mood. All of their products are made with natural ingredients and essential oils, and are hypo-allergenic. My favorite scent line they developed is the Queen Bee candle, perfume oil, and bath soap, discussed in my earlier post. It is delicious, and really fills a whole room with an uplifting, yet sensual fragrance. In addition to products by Polaris Rising, the shop is also the home of Shadowlights Candles, and products by Mama Kiki and Mama Creepy. Even if you don’t live near Omaha, Nebraska, you can order products from their website or follow them on their Facebook page for promotions and giveaways.

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Sexy and Romantic Horror – My Horrific Life

Happy Valentine’s Day!  In honor of the holiday, Erica and I talk about “Sexy” and Romantic Horror movies (at least they TRY to be Sexy!).  Lots of talk about Vampires, of course, but that’s not all. Lots of “off topic” stuff as well.  Enjoy!

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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.

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The Tarot of Vampyres

Drawn to the gorgeous box art, Ian Daniels’ The Tarot of Vampyres turned out to be a terrible deck for learning to read tarot cards, but was a wonderful purchase in other respects. The artwork is incredibly sexy, but as one can see from the sample spread below, does not clearly resemble the Rider-Waite archetypes. Some of the symbolism is there, but it’s obtuse.

Fortunately, the companion book, Phantasmagoria, provides in-depth discussions of the illustrations and thorough, uplifting guidance and interpretations for each card, borrowing heavily from Kabbalistic associations and pathworking concepts. For Daniels, vampires are not a symbol of evil, but rather are representative of humanity’s spiritual thirst for communion with the Divine and the Eternal. I recommend reserving readings with this deck for those times in which one has spare time to read the commentary for each card drawn, even if one is an experienced tarot reader.

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Vampires, Wine, and Roses: a classy collection

I admit, I’ve been bad about actually posting reviews for things related to this month’s theme of romantic and sexual horror. Frankly, it’s because I haven’t felt in the mood. Not only am I bored by the entire romance and erotic genres, it seems that in this post-PC era of “grab ’em by the pussy” dark-ages style sexual conquest, romance is dead.

So after watching several 1970’s lesbian vampire movies in the hopes of finding something, anything, worthy of discussion and deconstruction, I remembered my vast home library of horror fiction. In the process, I rediscovered a now out-of-print short story collection, Vampires, Wine, and Roses, featuring stories by classic and contemporary authors. Fortunately, copies are plentiful on the secondary market, in both a trade paperback format and a handsome hardcover edition (pictured above).

Although a couple comedic shorts by Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce are a bit out of place, the collection as a whole is great reading for anyone with a hunger for classy and romantic vampire stories. Here, we have stories by Bram Stoker,  Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Edith Wharton, Anne Rice, Rod Serling, Baudelaire, Alexander Dumas, Ray Bradbury, and others. Despite the inclusion of contemporary authors, the effect as a whole is that the reader is transported to a more genteel time. This isn’t an ideal collection for those who are looking for explicit erotica, but nonetheless conveys a great deal of passion and genuine creepiness.

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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.

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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.

 

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Apocalypse 2 – My Horrific Life

Just one Podcast about the Apocalypse in not enough!  Join Erica and Todd as we discuss even MORE fun stuff about the end of the world!

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Thomas Ligotti’s Conspiracy Against the Human Race: “Existence is MALIGNANTLY USELESS”

 

Although it’s enjoyed popularity due to frequent references on True Detective: Season 1, Thomas Ligotti’s first and only non-fiction work, The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror, is not bound for approval by the masses. Ligotti is all too aware of this fact. As he states in the introduction, “As a rule, anyone desirous of an audience, or even a place in society, might profit from the following motto: ‘If you can’t say something positive about humanity, then say something equivocal.’ ” While a promising series, even True Detective could not maintain Ligotti’s worldview. In the first season finale, die-hard pessimist Rustin Cohle has a benevolent vision of the afterlife and is converted to a more socially acceptable worldview. Ligotti would never pen such an ending, in his fiction or otherwise.

Early in the book, Ligotti rhetorically asks if life is worth living, to which he answers his own question with a resounding NO. Drawing from diverse sources including philosophy, psychology, neurobiology, and selected religious texts, Ligotti makes a compelling argument to support this claim that human existence is MALIGNANTLY USELESS (his emphasis). Although Ligotti does explore varieties of theistic determinism (see also my previous post on Calvinism), and doesn’t seem to entirely dismiss the possibility of a  malevolent Higher Power manipulating us like human puppets, his own view is atheistic. According to Ligotti, we are “Nature’s blunders,” programed by our genetics and evolution to have no free will, yet evolve to develop consciousness, which serves no good purpose. It merely provides us with the illusion of having a self, and constantly reminds us of our own inevitable demise. The “Conspiracy” of the title is committed by the human race against the human race. That is, we lie to ourselves and others that life is worth living, and by reproducing, we doom future generations to needless suffering.

In case you wonder how this book fits in with Apocalypse Month, I include it because he offers suggestions to proactively correct Nature’s blunder of giving us consciousness: “Nature proceeds by blunders; that is its way. It is also ours. So if we have blundered by regarding consciousness as a blunder, why make a fuss over it? Our self-removal from this planet would still be a magnificent move, a feat so luminous it would bedim the sun. What do we have to lose? No evil would attend our departure from this world, and the many evils we have known would go extinct along with us. So why put off what would be the most laudable masterstroke of our existence, and the only one?” Ligotti provides suggestions. The mildest solution would be to strive for ego-death, as advocated by Buddhism. Alternately, we could willingly opt to gradually reduce the population into extinction by instituting a one child per couple policy, or all all of us could decide to stop reproducing altogether. The most extreme solution would be for us to leave the planet, and before exterminating ourselves, blow up Earth from outer space to prevent Nature from ever making such as mistake ever again.

Ligotti’s views are bound to be censured or dismissed outright. Paradoxically, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is sometimes comforting. I doubt that was the intended effect. I’ll explain. My favorite section of the book is the chapter “Cult of the Grinning Martyrs,” which is really about the cult of positive thinking. Ligotti is in part influenced by Schopenhauer, whom he quotes, “I cannot here withhold the statement that optimism, where it is not merely the thoughtless talk of those who harbor nothing but words under their shallow foreheads, seems to me to be not merely an absurd, but also a really wicked, way of thinking, a bitter mockery of the most unspeakable sufferings of mankind.” Our culture is relentlessly “bright-sided“to use Barbara Ehrenreich’s term. Our society doesn’t merely favor optimism, but actively suppresses and marginalizes those who recognize the negative side of human existence. Between positive psychology and the Law of Attraction, we take it up one end or down the other. We are forced to actively lie to ourselves about things that cause us pain, either pretending these things don’t exist, actively lying to ourselves and everyone around us about these realities, or, well, looking for the “bright side.” Only a vision as dark and uncompromising as Ligotti’s could serve as a counterbalance to this trend, but it’s strange that such a malignant work could be so gorgeously written.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

A church holds the future end of humanity

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.

 

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Happy Horror Christmas! My Horrific Life

Ho Ho Ho!  Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas!  Erica and I discuss fun Christmas-themed horror, including Joe Hill’s recent book NOS4A2, and a fun Finnish movie Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale!

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Happy Birthday Boris Karloff

During this episode Erica and Todd discuss Boris Karloff’s life and our favorite Karloff movies.   Don’t miss a discussion about this Horror Icon!

 

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Welcome to My Horrific Life!

Reposting our first podcast.  Join Erica Wright and Todd Fleischer for our new podcast, where we will discuss all things horror (and maybe a little sci-fi-fi)!

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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.

 

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What is Evil? – KitchenShrinks

What is evil?

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New Cover Art

Lovin’ our new cover art!  What do you think?

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Apocalypse – My Horrific Life

Let’s talk end of the World!  Erica and Todd discuss their favorite and not-so-favorite apocalypse movies and books.   Fun stuff!

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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.

 

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I Have a Special Plan for This World: “No more worlds like this, no more days like that”

It’s not often that we get to feature apocalyptic audio recordings, especially of poetry. I Have a Special Plan For This World is the result of a collaboration between Thomas Ligotti (author) and the experimental band Current 93. Ligotti’s poetry describes a vision for his “special plan” which involves the destruction of this world and all worlds, perhaps even the destruction of reality itself. Current 93 provides an ominous soundtrack with Ligotti’s verses read broodingly by David Tibet. An oddity is the intro of the opening track, which was allegedly created by a mentally ill man who left tape recordings of his ramblings near Ligotti’s workplace.

As this recording is a mere 22 minutes long, it should be experienced firsthand. I Have a Special Plan for This World has been uploaded in its entirety to Youtube (see the link below). Though out of print, copies of the CD can be purchased second-hand through retailers such as Amazon.

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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.

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