Friday, January 28, 2011

Problematic and awesome: Piranha (2010)

The final half hour of Alexandre Aja's Piranha is the most entertaining thirty minute stretch of film I have seen in a long time. It took me completely by surprise. Piranha is so stupid and so over the top that it's impossible to tell whether this is meant to be a satire of excess or just an exercise in it. It ramps the nudity and gore up to ludicrous levels, but is that just because it genuinely loves tits and gore? Or is it holding those breasts up like a mirror so that we can see how ridiculous we ourselves are, as the consumers of these films? Probably not that second one, to be honest.

I don't understand the sexual politics of this movie at all. It has a maniacal embrace of the grindhouse philosophy that more naked breasts make a better movie, and it objectifies the college girls from beginning to end. But then it throws in a character for the express purpose of mocking the creator of those Girls Gone Wild videos. He's a complete slimeball who we're clearly meant to hate. And, more confusingly, we're clearly meant to hate him because he objectifies women. When one of his porn actresses is trying to pull him out of the water and to safety, he yells, "Help me you bitch." And then they give us Elizabeth Shue as the Sheriff, a no-nonsense 47 year old mom who isn't objectified but who hasn't been desexualized either, which is refreshing. But there are so many lingering wet t-shirt shots. So many ass shots. There is a naked underwater lesbian make out that is set to new age earth goddess style music and that goes on for so long that you start to worry the director forgot he wasn't actually making a porn movie himself. An insane mermaid slow motion porn movie.

And it's such a crazy aesthetic. The last half hour of this movie mixes gore with T&A so indiscriminately that it hurts to think about it too hard. A woman in a bikini gets sliced from her shoulder down diagonally to her opposite hip. She has that stunned, "I just got cut in half" look on her face, and then the bra falls open, showing off her breasts. After a moment of breast exposure, the two halves of her body slide apart with a sick wet sound, and then the top half falls lifeless toward the camera. Tit first. In slow motion 3D. A woman is para-sailing topless, and they keep her in the water too long, only to speed the boat up so that she hangs bloody and naked from the parachute. Another character is eaten from the waist down and then the Piranhas fight over his penis. Then one of them throws it up.

It's like an emotionally stunted imaginative twelve year old boy directed huge chunks of the movie. I couldn't figure it out, but I think I loved it.

Monday, January 24, 2011

is there a place for rape in horror? The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

In 2006 Alexandre Aja remade Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, and I hated it. It consistently shows up on "Best Horror Remakes" lists, and so it is pretty safe to say that the film has its fans, but I cannot understand why. It is torture porn, through and through. There are no genuine scares - instead there are cheap shocks. There's no tension - instead there are long scenes of intense onscreen violence and mutilation. That's nothing new. The same things could be said for the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which I simply disliked. It was the rape scene that made me hate The Hills Have Eyes.

Rape is a difficult topic for discussion, because there are people for whom it is never acceptable in a film. On horror message boards you often come across arguments about whether a rape scene was gratuitous or unnecessary. And one of the defences for inclusion is that, "murder is worse than rape, and murder is shown all the time." Which is a bit of a cop-out answer. While there may not be many people who have lived through an attack by nuclear waste mutated hill mutants, there are millions of survivors of rape.

There is an equally graphic rape scene in the original version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. When I saw it in theatres, two women got up and walked out, stopping at the exit to yell, "Enjoy your rape porn," at the audience. At the time my response was anger and indignation. This was my second time seeing the film, and I thought the scene was anything but gratuitous. It was graphic and painful to watch, but the focus was on the victim, and the effects the attack had on the character. It is a horrible depiction of a horrible act, but it was trying to say something and show something rather than just horrify and titillate. But while it is possible that the two women who yelled the accusation at the audience were being judgemental and harsh, it is just as possible that the rape scene took them by surprise and shocked and hurt them.

So when I say that the scene in Hills Have Eyes is gratuitous and over the line, I am not saying that there is no place in movies for uncomfortable depictions of rape. But in Hills Have Eyes, the rape is just as shallow as the murders. The murders are brutal and protracted because being brutal is easier than being imaginative - because showing torture is an easier way to put a knot in people's stomachs than building tension or suspense. The difference is that the murders are lazy and stupid and cruel to the characters while the rape is lazy and stupid and cruel to the characters and the huge chunk of the audience that has had sexual violence in their lives.

I think there is a place for all kinds of violence in good horror. It doesn't even have to be trying to make a broad societal point. And I don't think horror has an obligation to be more than a scary movie. But if rape is going to be involved, it should be for the real reasons that rape is horrifying - because the woman is a human being and she is not being treated like one.

There are no new ideas?

A lot of people complain about modern remakes of horror movies, but nobody offers a solution! Well. If you are thinking about remaking a classic horror movie, please consider making one of these instead:

1. Dig Yourself Out: Following an earthquake, a young woman who lives alone in LA is crushed under the huge stacks of self-help books she buys and never reads. We watch the whole movie through the camcorder that fell off her shelf and turned itself on. She can't reach her cellphone, or laptop, or move, so she begins to actually read the books, eventually bettering both herself and her understanding of a person's place in this world before getting attacked and killed by an ancient Mummy that was sealed in one of the walls until the quake.

2. Endgame: A young boy is a chess prodigy, and his parents are very involved with his career, pushing him to be a big chess star. But just because you are good at something doesn't mean you love it. He puts on a brave face and tries to make his parents happy, all the while sneaking off to murder neighbours. He uses his strategic mind to orchestrate elaborate and grisly death traps. But in the end he's going to have to stand up to his parents… in beautiful and deadly mother Russia!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Oh god the screaming: REC (2007)

The appeal of handy-cam horror movies is the realism. REC is one of the best horror movies I've seen in years, it is fucked up and awesome. But even in a movie as smart and scary as REC, the realism winds up being a problem, too. 

Aside from the danger of nausea, the biggest flaw with these movies is the constant screaming. And yes, it might be realistic that characters would just go screaming from one horrible scene to the next, but oh my god it gets grating. Sometimes realism just isn't interesting. In actual speech people spend a lot of time saying, "um" and "like," but those things make for boring and awkward movie dialogue. Good dialogue conveys realism without actually being as dull as real language. Why can't this be done with screaming, too? 

REC knows that it is a problem. This is a film made by people who know what they're doing. They know the limitations of the form, and they do their best to minimize the problem. There are sections where the sound cuts out of the camera, or where the volume drops like the audio is malfunctioning. These moments provide a welcome break from the screams, but aren't the solution we need. 

Why can't screaming be scary in horror movies again? It is just the default response to shit going foul. There's no need for acting, people just scream and run around flailing their arms. Watching people screaming isn't scary. And I never remember anything from these scenes. The scenes that stick with me are the few moments where the movie surprises me, or chills me. In REC there is only one memorable screaming scene.  

The camera crew arrive at the building with firemen, and are led to the apartment of an old woman by police. The old woman is covered in blood and attacks one of the cops, and everyone freaks out, screaming, yelling, and they carry the bleeding cop back downstairs. Downstairs they find the doors they just entered are blocked off, and there are health authorities outside. They are quarantined. Nobody knows what is going on, and the characters start fighting with one another. It is a hectic series of revelations that changes our focus again and again. First we're focused on the old woman, then escape, then the cop's injuries, then the quarantine, then who is in charge. It's like a regular survival horror movie on fast forward. And then a body drops screaming from nowhere and lands right in the middle of their argument with a sickening wet crunch.

THAT scream stuck with me. It started quiet and grew faster than I could understand, at first I couldn't even figure out what the sound was. And then the body hit. It was unexpected and it was horrific and it was over before I realized exactly what was going on. It loomed larger in my imagination than it lasted in the film, and it stuck with me. When I describe the movie to friends, that's the scene I always describe first. 

REC begins with a long section introducing the main character and creating a feeling of normalcy and calm. We don't really grow to like the main character, or understand her particularly well, but it is an effective opening in any case. She's established as real. And when the fucked up shit happens, it happens fast. This is REC's biggest strength, I think. The violence isn't on screen for very long in the jumble of the camera. We don't have enough time to judge whether it's real or not, like the violence in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It happens and then we're left with a brief memory while we try to understand what we saw and what it means. Less isn't more, exactly. But it's better.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Ridiculous and inexplicably creepy: Thirteen Ghosts (2001).

Sometimes an image sticks with you long after you've forgotten everything else about the movie. It's one of the reasons I love horror. Even if the movie couldn't scare you, it might have given you something you can scare yourself with later. Thirteen Ghosts is full of these images. The ghosts are creepy and sad one moment and then terrifyingly angry the next. These are brainworm scary images. Sort of effective when you first see them in the context of the idiotic plot, but much more vivid when you're laying in bed thinking about the movie later. Then it's just you and a feral madman in a straight jacket, or a naked woman with black eyes and a kitchen knife.

The people who built the world of this movie had a real vision for what they wanted. They had purpose! They were going to make a big glass and metal haunted house that was amazing and impressive no matter how stupid the plot was. And they were going to fill it with some damn fine ghosts. Because their parents didn't raise them to be quitters. And they have a pretty good point, I think. When a movie is as ridiculous as Thirteen Ghosts, you have to either give up and do a half assed job for the paycheck, or you have to throw yourself into things and really SELL the idea of a big glass house that is actually a "machine designed by the devil and powered by ghosts."

The set designers and special effects people clearly picked the second option, and it's that commitment to the ridiculous premise that keeps Thirteen Ghosts from being just another forgettable late 90s - early 00s teen slasher. The ghosts feel like they really inhabit the space they're in, and they're genuinely spooky in spite of the constant flash cuts that are somehow supposed to frighten us.

Partly the effectiveness of the ghosts is the choice to use makeup instead of CGI. One of the hallmarks of good horror makeup is that you can still see the actor underneath. The ghosts are often silent, but you can read their emotions in their faces and their body language. It makes things more unsettling when the gored up teen with the baseball bat looks so sad.

They put a lot more effort into the ghosts than the real people, but the ghosts themselves aren't without flaws - the naked woman ghost is creepy as a ghost, but oh my god completely unbelievable as a naked lady. She's built like a barbie doll with inflated breasts, and she's covered in deep gashes all over her body, which we're later led to believe is because she killed herself. That's a hell of a way to kill yourself. Her breasts must have driven her into a frenzy!

But she's also given one of the only genuinely touching moments in the movie, as she watches Elizabeth Shannon fix her hair in the mirror, touching her own hair like she had forgotten it existed, like she had forgotten all about feeling pretty. She watches quietly and almost blankly, but the fact that she's watching at all is an unexpected moment. 

The whole movie swings wildly between insane nonsense and great design, which at least keeps things interesting. The only boring moments are when we have to listen to the living characters talk about their feelings or convince us that they're actually crying about their dead mom. The rest of the movie is like a ride through a giant glass and metal haunted house, where the walls shift and move at the whim of some dark inexplicable mechanism at the heart of the building.

Thirteen Ghosts is a movie in the true spirit of the William Castle original. It's totally more of a ride than a story. The house is a mechanism for moving the characters from one encounter to the next, and it moves us along with it. The alive people on screen are almost exclusively boring and obnoxious (with the exception of Matthew Lillard who is perfectly in his element here as a scenery chewing depraved psychic ghost hunting pillhead). The filmmakers put every bit of their love and care into the set design and the monster design, and as a showcase for those the movie is perfect. It's like a really interesting silent movie with the music replaced by idiotic dialogue. Just watch it on mute.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Confused and kind of awesome: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of my favourite films. It isn't perfect, but it is one of those beautiful and interesting messes. Every time I re-watch it I am again impressed with its visual imagination and bewildered by its depiction of women.

Tina's nightmare in the opening sets the stage with a subtlety that is unexpected for a scene where a dude with knives for fingers is hunting a girl in a nightie. But the movie's dream world is almost impressionistic in some of its details. She's in a creepy boiler room, wandering around dressed for bed, and when she turns to a shocking sound, it's a lamb in the wet hallway, braying at her. The lamb's back-lit, just a clattering silhouette, and then it's gone. It's never seen or mentioned again, though it is heard mixed in with the music of later scenes. Horror movies are full of those nonsensical scares, a loud startling sound that turns out to be something innocuous. Here it is something innocuous but surreal, so that you are still relieved, but also a bit uncertain. It is a perfect note, making this all feel authentically dreamlike.

The real world of the movie is less compelling, though there are some interesting characterization choices. Nancy is the main character, an all-American girl next door, and a strong survivor by the end of the film. Johnny Depp is strangely effective as her dipshit jock boyfriend Glen, though not for the reasons intended. He's a non-character, with no motivation aside from wanting to get in Nancy's pants. Glen doesn't have any kind of internal life. With Nancy's slutty friend Tina we at least get to see her nightmares. Glen is just arm candy. (His wardrobe is a bimbo wardrobe, right down to showing his midriff). He's effective at highlighting Nancy's ability to defend herself.

His dialogue and behavior is written as though he forgets that he's actually having these nightmares too. When Nancy does need to ask him for his help, he doesn't take her seriously. She needs him to stay awake and pull her out of the dream if she seems like she's in trouble. He nods and smiles and tells her what she wants to hear and then just goes to sleep anyway. A couple days later, when he finds her reading books on improvised booby traps and anti-personnel devices, he laughs it off. Their friends are dying, but it's still weird that Nancy's learning to defend herself? Meanwhile this scene gives Nancy one of the most effective and awesome lines in the movie: "I'm into survival."

Nancy struggles to understand what is happening to her, and then takes steps to find and implement a solution. She gets shit done. That said, you can't exactly call this a feminist movie. There are a lot of horror tropes at work here that undermine the strong female lead. 

The flip side to the strong survivor female in horror movies is that women are constantly under threat. Throughout you only see Tina and Nancy's dreams. The male characters are having nightmares too, but it's scarier to show Tina and Nancy being threatened. That lends the horror a sexual tone, the most obviously sexual example being the scene where Freddy's claw comes up between Nancy's legs in the bath. That's where her vagina is, in case you didn't know!

But that bathtub scene is also brilliant. It plays with space in a way that appeals to the little kid part of my brain. His hand is raising from a place where he couldn't possibly be. There's no room for a whole man and his hat in that shallow tub! Then Nancy gets pulled under the water, and you see from below that it's a whole dark ocean that she's being pulled down into. It's exactly the sort of unexpected detail that gives the nightmares in the movie the flavour of real dreams.

The second movie in the Nightmare series, Freddy's Revenge, is famously full of homoerotic imagery, and takes almost the same sexual threat approach, but with the male characters as victims as well as aggressors. (Also, they take a lot of cues from Glen's wardrobe!) And it could always have been worse. The horror novelist Richard Laymon writes tense, compulsively readable books, but they are books that make me much more directly uncomfortable. His female protagonists face down psychotic killers and the supernatural, but are often under the explicit and constant threat of sexual violence. And then men usually save them in the end anyway.

But it's not much of a defense to say that it could be worse - and a sequel turning the formula on its head doesn't erase the original's flaws. It's difficult to praise a movie for its portrayal of a strong female when that same movie elicits thrills from the audience by getting her naked and then threatening her vagina with knives.

Still, it is undeniably effective on a purely visceral level to have the female characters in danger. Whether this is a byproduct of sexism or not, it gets the reactions it wants to get from audiences.  And it is a movie that still manages to surprise and impress me with its visual style and its imagination. Flaws and all, I wish more movies were this good.