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

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

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

With Camille at her El Paso Comic Con booth

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

The Island of Misfit Morphs offers “reptile parties.”

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

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

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

Anti-Semitic propaganda published by the Nazi Party.

A Tree of Life sculpture in the Survivor Stories room

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

The death mask of Pancho Villa

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

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

One of several original art pieces on display at Dreadful Things
Dreadful Things has an element of visual overload
A few of the goodies available for purchase. I picked the Cheshire Cat purse.

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

 

 

 

 

American Mary: "Make sure they deserve it"

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Woman

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

Fetishized virginity and objectified innocence

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

Mandy stabs Chloe

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

 

 

Featured Artist: Abigail Epstein of unSpooky Laughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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