Being a List of the Assorted Horrors I've Consumed During the Month of May, 2013.
Black Rock (2013) dir. Katie Aselton
Director Katie Aselton's new women-in-peril survival horror film, Black Rock, has received some derisive twittering ever since it played the Sundance and BFI film festivals early last year. Alongside more positive (and dare I say more perceptive) reviews, it has been called "a terrible, generic stalk and kill thriller," "rushed and sloppy," and "a so-so action movie." But among genre fans the brunt of the ire that's being thrown at the film seems to have been stirred by Aselton's public comments about her disdain for contemporary horror films, with their stock situations and, more importantly, their shift away from emotional conflict. Because those allegations about the bulk of contemporary horror are largely true, it seems bizarre to take issue with her statements. In that linked interview, Aselton discusses her film as a sort of response to Neil Marshall's widely loved women-in-peril survival film The Descent (2005), noting that Black Rock is what she wanted The Descent to be. Attacking that recently forged Golden Calf may have been her biggest mistake in winning the allegiance of genre fans: though an often shocking and engaging monster thriller, The Descent has also tricked some folks into believing it's a sophisticated, emotionally complex feminist horror film with strong female leads. But it's not. The Descent is a film with superficially strong female characters who, when not murdering or plotting to murder each other over extramarital affairs, wind up as monster chew toys. Its "strong female protagonists" are thrust into a harrowing situation and aren't allowed to see past their own destructive, petty cattiness.
If Black Rock is a reaction to The Descent, it is so in its refusal to cast its women as male fantasy props: strong babes literally willing to kill each other over a man's affection. Two of Black Rock's trio of women (Aselton herself and co-star Lake Bell) have a similar touchy past relationship beef (Bell's character once slept with Aselton's character's ex-fiancee), but the film dramatizes the rekindling of their friendship through adversity rather than exploiting its deterioration for snappy thrills. The women, stranded on a chilly island and preyed upon by a duo of emotionally damaged and deranged veterans, learn to forgive past transgressions, accept their own flaws (and those of each other), and embrace their bond of friendship in order to persevere through their terrifying predicament. The film acknowledges (in many agonizing, suspenseful scenes) that its women are not superheroes able to individually defeat their stalkers. The final conflict between the women and the lone surviving villain, a 2-on-1 brawl that it is horrific in its slow, labored violence, aptly demonstrates the need for their unity in order to pull through this ordeal. It's not a perfect film (it makes overtures at political and gender critiques that it never follows up on) but it is a great one, and while its basic structure and situation is well-trod-upon ground in thriller cinema, its emotional thrust is unique: many other modern horror films would have had the mutually triumphant women slitting each other's throats by the end. The horror that Black Rock presents is the horror of healing, of forcing you to realize that your emotionally dramatic conflicts with others, those conflicts that take on such tremendous, insurmountable gravity in your own mind, mean nothing when juxtaposed-- violently-- against true fear, pain, and suffering.
Jennifer's Body (2009) dir. Karyn Kusama
Though I hadn't exactly been avoiding it because I share the fiery Diablo Cody hatred that so many souls seem to harbor post-Juno (2007), Jennifer's Body (like a majority of mainstream horror films from the past decade) was still pretty far down my list of urgent things to devour. I decided to give it a chance after listening to a thorough and intelligent discussion concerning it from the ever-thorough-and-intelligent ladies of The Faculty of Horror podcast. My reading of the film's very definite (and, to some, surprising) feminist leanings falls almost entirely in line with theirs, so you might as well listen to them rather than watch this paragraph grow ever larger as my fingers blather on. However, I will make clear a couple issues I had with Karyn Kusama and Cody's film, both in its themes and in its position as a horror film. Firstly, while very much a feminist narrative about the dangers of some women's self-propagation of the male exploitation of female bodies (e.g. the case of Jennifer (Megan Fox)) and the appeal of a sexually free but self-assured and independent alternative female identity (e.g. Needy (Amanda Seyfried)), the film falls back on a-- by this point-- cliched rape-revenge resolution by having that ideal alternative female personage exact revenge for violence committed against women by committing violence against men. Aren't we past this, culturally, as the ideal cathartic release for this sort of tale? Sure, the murderous Satanic indie rock scumbags of the band Low Shoulder deserve some sort of cosmic comeuppance, but must it be accomplished through a reaffirmation of the cycle of violence between men and women? Jennifer's Body is a clever film, so it's a shame it wasn't as clever when dishing out this justice. (I'm now imagining some alternate scenario in which Needy helps ensure the band's Sophomore Album Slump, sending them spiraling into depression and substance abuse.) Secondly, Kusama and Cody have crafted a pretty lousy horror film. It's a decent comedy with thoughtful satire, but there's not a frightening or uneasy moment in here. Much of this is due to the Heathers-lite comedy undermining any tension, but it's also because those bits of horror that the filmmakers have decided to employ are as stock and generic as one can find in modern horror and are filmed with no visual panache (prepare for lots of silhouetted murders and Jennifer popping out from around corners). The best horror films are those that put the actual depiction of horror as a priority while still embedding ripe themes and subtext. By abandoning the subtlety of its narrative and thematic intentions, a horror film loses its ability to frighten: the horror elements become a mere vehicle for the greater message. Jennifer's Body is tattooed with its own noble but blatant intentions; its horror is a flimsy sheer garment providing it some narrative cover.
Dead Silence (2007) dir. James Wan
James Wan and Leigh Whannell have hit my horror sweet spot. Insidious (2010) provided the duo with a commercial success to distance them creatively from their earlier creation of the often maligned Saw franchise, but they'd developed an even bolder departure a few years earlier with their immediate follow-up to Saw (2004), Dead Silence. This film taps into a vein of retro horror that most modern filmmakers leave untouched: the extravagant, potentially corny, earnest shriek shows of the 1950s and earlier. Though updated for contemporary sensibilities in terms of its violence, editing, and cinematography, Dead Silence is virtually a hyperactive episode of The Twilight Zone mashed up against an EC horror comic. Its locations are moody and sound-stagy, giving the viewer the impression that the long abandoned sets of classic Hollywood horror were resurrected, having been twisted by time into even more expressionistic structures than they were before. The nursery rhyme mythology that the film creates for its villain, coupled with the story's frequent violations of mimetic narrative logic, hint that this is a film best suited for the fertile and accepting minds of a younger audience, eager to squeegee away such perceived flaws in favor of soaking up its excess of imaginative qualities. The film's R-rating implies either a miscalculation on Wan and Whannell's part or the inability of the MPAA to understand how desperately the thirteen-year-old crowd needs exposure to this sort of nightmare. They are, after all, our horrifying future.
The Watcher in the Woods (1980) dir. John Hough
A film I wish I'd peeped as a child, John Hough's Disney-produced The Watcher in the Woods was filmed shortly before he made The Incubus (1982) with John Cassavettes, a film about a demonic entity raping women to death. Though Hough had already made the fairly strange Witch Mountain films for Disney, the director of suggestive, sexually-charged films like Twins of Evil (1971), The Legend of Hell House (1973), and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974) is still a peculiar but welcome choice as a director of children's cinema. Appropriately, The Watcher in the Woods, adapted from a pretty odd-sounding 1976 young adult novel written by Florence Engel Randall, is more bizarre and frightening than anything I've yet seen from the house that Mickey built. One part Nancy Drew mystery and two parts alien-encounter-masquerading-as-a-haunted-forest trans-dimensional mini-epic, the film is-- even in its toned down theatrical version-- pretty wild. The studio's post-production tinkering with the film's ending has been well documented, but both of the alternate versions of the ending must be seen for the viewer to achieve a full understanding of the trippy, horrifying, head-scratching cosmic insanity the filmmakers were intending. Besides these joys, the film also presents young viewers with the positive role model of a brave, inquisitive, and independently-minded female protagonist in the character of amateur sleuth Jan Curtis (Lynn-Holly Johnson, in a performance that loosens Carroll Baker's usual stranglehold on the award for most wide-eyed overacting in whatever film she's starring in). If Disney had refrained from meddling with it in post, The Watcher in the Woods could have become a minor classic, terrifying and transporting the minds of its child audience to new planes of cinematic existence and possibility. As it exists, it's that sort of weird and confusing Disney movie half-remembered from many childhood VHS rentals.