Friday, December 28, 2012

Ringu (1998)

Enjoyably creepy. The actual cursed VHS had clips that reminded me of chiascuro from Begotten (basically the definition of gritty cinema). I watched this gem with my family and my brother had the creativity to call the home phone on his cell phone right after the first time the protagonist watches the film, made for a great jump scare that I recommend others to repeat.

Yoichi is such a cool name.

Rabid (1977)

keloid /ke·loid/ (ke´loid)
a sharply elevated, irregularly shaped, progressively enlarging scar due to excessive collagen formation in the dermis during connective tissue repair.

Following up my essay on the architecture of Cronenberg's Shivers, it's fitting I continue with his second film of body horror, Rabid. I enjoyed recognizing some stars from Shivers returning to the screen. In fact, Shivers and Rabid create a pleasant multiverse alternative timeline ot the fall of Montreal by zombie-like transformed humans. And yet Cronenberg does not trap himself within the confines of the zombie genre. My few comments on Rabid will consider the physiological message emerging from Keloid Clinic.

As a plastic surgery clinic, they seek to make external appearance beautiful. The examination room has a poster of da Vinci's Vitruvian Man on the wall. The use of these "neutral cells" (read as stem cells) to recreate the proper texture of flesh show. I caught a phrase from a magazine in the waiting lounge, "the truth about skin care" that seems to be a late warning about this fixation on the external. Ironically, a keloid does form and these aesteticians cause internal changes they cannot begin to comprehend.

The motif of external to internal leads to support the perhaps obvious conclusion that Rabid is a film of penetration. The protagonist's armpit penis, the use of needles to immunize, feed, and sedate, the drill that penetrates the health minister's car, and most importantly, biting, the vector for infection. The doctors of the clinic gave a female a phallus, perhaps they only imagine true beauty in the shape of a man?

I Spit On Your Grave (1978)

Why do I suffer the exploitation film? They are horrible. Where chain saws and gore transgress the physical boundaries of our contemporary culture, watching rape shatters the mental boundaries of human imagination. I Spit On Your Grave seeks to show the totality of masculine brutality against women.

The color red is a pervasive hue in the film that works at multiple levels to address the problem of violence against women. Red is the reason, the warning signal, the stage of, and the after glow of the violence. The multitude of meaning in this single signifier presents the argument that misogyny is ubiquitous in our society. Jen's solution of murder implies stopping misogyny requires revenge that is equally beyond societal boundaries.

The color manifests as lipstick, a red dress, nail polish, and the apple that Jen gives Matthew. These reds are seductive, they seem to support Johnny's pathetic excuse that Jen "asked for it" through provocative actions.

The red of the gas station stands, the summer cabin's decorations, lampshade, curtains, kitchen wall, and the interior of her river canoe are a foreshadowing of the kidnapping and rape.

The final brutal onslaught in her cabin, marked by the terrifying scare of the boot kicking the phone from her hand, is saturate with red. The crimson carpet, the red armchair, her bloodied frame all painting the image of carnage against women.

Finally, three of the four murders involve blood diffusing into water. Cloudy red water of the attackers is the chromatic reversal of Jen's experience. She escapes on her motorboat leaving evidence of the violence to seep into the river and disperse until it disappears to hide her deeds. Red, at the end of the film, becomes evidence of successful revenge and victory of the men.

The visual presence of red works to eroticize the protagonist, to warn her of the attack but also becomes an element of the violence and a marker of her revenge; these contrasting instances complicate our understanding of its use. By being associated with the entire plot of the film, red gains universal presence. Instead of symbolizing a single emotion, it represents the entire societal culture of violence against women. With this reading, red becomes the backdrop of the events, a stage that permits the cycle of misogyny to continue as a whole even if Jen killed her specific attackers.

This film.

It's crude. It's amateur. It ends with the creation of a female killer who's origins are fundamentally different from the mindless masculine evil of Mike Myers and Leatherface. The woman has reasons, her evil only emerges from revenge, it was never intrinsic.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Howling (1981)

One must approach a text like The Howling with Philip Brophy's "Horrality" in mind. The phrase "it knows that you know it knows you know" is a perfect summation of this self-parodizing werewolf movie. Without even looking hard, "Wolf chili" cans and a statue of the twins of Rome suckling from the she-wolf were two of the more subtle points in the great stream of intertextuality that emerges during the middle of the film and rides on all the way out to the end credits. Switching to a commercial for dog food actually made me laugh out loud. Furthermore, the man at the bar commenting on the special effects is pleasantly cheeky. Another supplement to contextualizing The Howling is definitely Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue. The fact that it was released five months before An American Werewolf in London means the two contemporaries are naturally primed for comparative responses.

The Howling, probably due to its origin as a novel, contains a greater world of lycanthropy. The camera shot on an etching of Little Red Riding implies that the wolf is a symbol that is pervasive throughout cultures (The implications of Grandma actually turning into a werewolf and desiring to eat her own granddaughter opens up a tremendous new avenue of potential Freudian creativity). American Werewolf focuses on the single psychological transformation within its main character until the animal nature emerges in the physical realm. The Howling frames lycanthropy as a mental illness that makes the inflicted residents of The Colony feel alienated from the world. It works to demystify the curse and redefine it as a medical affliction that fundamentally separates "the animalistic" in our world from the rest of society. The resolution of  killing  those who are different is horrible in its own right and is definitely not the message of the film. However, as far as horror goes, monsters that are transformations of our own human body so often divide society and we can find no other answer to their monstrous nature except for violence.

The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959)

I admit, this film does not completely match the rest of my macabre list. This solemn, post-apocalyptic film deals with the horror of loneliness and social constructs that still dominate the main character's thought processes even when there are no external pressures. I enjoyed the empty scenes of New York.  I wonder if Will Smith's I am Legend directors/designers watched this movie? Talking to mannequins seems to be a motif.

The black and white city will forever be a powerful image. I don't have any deep original analysis at this moment. This writer has some solid ideas.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Last House on the Left (1972)

This film made me sick. I know that my last post praised the masterpiece horror in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre due to the film's mastery of sensory emotions. But I must immediately raise another rapturous celebration for Last House's achievements in exploitation horror. Where Tobe Hooper succeeded by manipulating the objective correlative, I will claim that Wes Craven's success derives from his mastery of structure. Last House frames itself as a Shakespearean tragedy and revenge tale placed in the backwater town road outside a city (it may be New York, but the effect of the film does not require an specific location). I say Shakespearean because of the comic relief scenes involving the police officers. Just as the Gatekeeper in Macbeth disrupts the aftermath of the murder to inject a comic soliloquy, these police men brilliantly pull the audience out of the pit of overwhelming pathos. Another Shakespearean element is the gripping frustration at how close the tragedy came to being avoided. Just as Shakespeare denies Juliet seeing Romeo before he takes his life, Craven brutally denies Mari and Phyllis salvation from their captors even though both the police and Mari's home are tantalizingly close during the entire ordeal of bloodthirsty abuse, torture, and murder.

I repeat, this film made me sick.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

I must admit my project in horror literacy is outlandish and juvenile in many eyes. Sturgeon's law is no exception to my genre of interest, 90% is absolute crap, and I embrace such a reality. However, such a law does not mean to diminish the value of that 10% that strives to join the pantheon of arts. Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 1974, is a member of the 10% that succeeds in art's eternal struggle to evoke emotion.

I interpret Hooper's success to the employment of the objective correlative, a modernist term to describe art's effect. Championed by T.S. Eliot, this theory of art argues:

"The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked"


Unlike the above definition, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as an singular film presents its simple "external fact" at the beginning of the experience, namely that it was a real, historic event. The subsequent mundane dialogue and rural American setting that introduce the doomed protagonists further re-enforce the singular "external fact". This (ir)rational grain of knowledge looms at the back of the consciousness a germinates to a dread that "this could actually happen" within the bowels of the American heartland. Within this structure, the objective correlative horror of individual scenes act by juxtaposition of objects and human senses that become unified by the terminating "external fact" which leads to a dread about our frailty against the madness of cannibalism.  
After corrupting the mental domain of the audience member's mind, the film begins a merciless assault upon sensory organs. Once the date fades from the screen, pure audio clips of scratching shovels and shifting earth begin the tale. Suddenly a flash of light burns the retina with the image of a decaying hand. Visual disgust initiates as the mottled, shrunken fingers shock the audience with the simple image of decay. The flashes, the decaying masses, and the whining of the bulb's capacitors all act to create an unnatural experience of rot but deny the audience a complete image. The sudden change to an orange hued image of a skinless corpse is the final shocking, unexplained scene of the introduction. The rotting skin glistens in the sunlight  signalling, if not a specific smell, the realization that this corpse is an abomination of the olfactory. This introductory sequence finishes its own objective correlative micro-arc with the radio's announcement: "Grave-robbing in Texas is this hour's top news story". At this moment, the audience understands that the camera flashes were the dreadfully unnatural transgression of the living against the dead. 

A second, powerful employment of the objective correlative occurs when Pam follows her boyfriend into the house and stumbles into a parlor with more bones than an ossuary and a single, caged chicken. The dark, ruined homestead is already a site of terror and unknown, but this single room sets up the film's central conflict of cannibalism. Feathers, bits of fur, and bone fragments coat the floor and offer a tactile sensation of filth as Pam falls onto the dirty floor. The single, freightened chicken provides an organic clucking that layers over the horror soundtrack and adds links the defiled room to the American image of the farm. The camera pans over the detritus on the floorboards and finds the bones of a human leg. It follows the familiar forms of leg and arm, creating the expectation of a sitting skeleton. Instead, the surprise is another piece of art, a couch outlined with the human skeleton. The continued panning over cracked turtle shells and swinging parts again offers the tactile sensation of their delicate fragility. Pam's wretching summons the viewer's imagination to construct the physical cringing of the internal organs. The sudden action sequence of Leatherface capturing Pam and carrying her into the "kitchen" climaxes to the most powerful physical sensation in the entire film. The meat hook. I will argue that proprioception, the sense of one's own place in space, is a more primal sense than the traditional five external senses. The ability to "feel" where our limbs exist allows to place ourselves into three-dimensional space. As a result, although we will never be held up off the ground by a meat hook piercing our back, every audience member can sense the pull of their body mass against the hook. Horrified by our own minds creating the self-perception of being hooked, the scene completes its absolute sensory overload. As a last treat, the objective correlative again offers up the "external fact" that this is the home of cannibals, and that the protagonists will be chopped up and eaten. 

The final objective correlative I present is Sally Hardesty's interaction with Grandpa. At this point the audience has been living in an adrenaline typhoon as Sally escaped Leatherface only to be captured and returned by the proprietor of the gas station. The blinding glare of the unshaded lamps casts shadows throughout the dining hall. Gagged and tied, the film's use of proprioception allows the tense audience to "feel" the constraints. After bringing Grandpa, the chair-bound human husk, to the table, the hitchhiker and Leatherface slice Sally's finger (one of the few, explicit moments of blood). The final objective correlative moment in this scene happens simultaneously with the revelation of the "external fact" that catapults the audience into the finest level of dread and disgust; Grandpa begins to suck. At this moment, the audience realizes that the mummified body is still alive. Defying age, the man sucks at the finger like a child sucks the nipple. Vile on basest, Freudian level, the audience can feel the sensation of having their finger sucked. Comprehension of this infantile sensation coupled with disturbing visual of an old man slurping and squirming like a new born throws one "over the cliff". It's the gross-out moment of the film, the horror that simultaneously becomes unbelievable, terrifying, and comic. The horrality

This analysis of the objective correlative is my evidence for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's classification as a masterpiece. The film applies the modernist definition of emotion evoking art by creating scenes that employ all the senses of the spectator. Through sensory overload, the film gains control over the audience and concentrates their emotions to a single feeling of dread for being at the pointy end of society's cannibalism taboo. This dread is not inferior to the emotions created by other art. Just because it may be more uncomfortable than a Beethoven symphony or D.W. Griffith epic  does not justify a label of inferiority. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an overwhelming cinematic force and deserves respect for its ability to make civilized man fear.

Misc. Thoughts

My side thoughts that would not fit within the above essay.
The demonic red chiascuro of the title sequence is beautiful. If this visual aesthetic interests you, consider the contemporary abstract art/horror film Begotten.

 I want to point out the reference to Psycho by using the motiff of family members maintaining the corpses of their elders, in this case "Grandma" and "the dog".

There are essays that consider the parody of the family American dinner table while Sally is tied up. I thought that the attempt to have Grandpa kill Sally is similar to Patrick Star's attempt to get Squidward to hold the jelly-fishing net. Absurd comedy for the win!
"firmly grasp it!"

Finally, the gritty art style,  obvious chain saw-wielding antagonists,  "horror soundtrack", backwater decaying buildings, and use of cannibalistic implications all make me conclude that Resident Evil 4's art direction borrowed greatly from aesthetics of this film.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Horror Literacy: Let the Right One In (2008)

In preparing for this short response, I browsed other internet articles on Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In. Most commentators and reviewers state how LtROI stands out from the pack of 2000s vampire revival culture. I can honestly say I feel removed from that discussion (I know nothing about Twilight and Ann Rice). Instead, this short response considers LtROI's spatial positioning of the vampire in comparison to Murnau's  Nosferatu (1920). Both European vampire films, they rely on the vampire living close to the protagonist's window (Figures 1&2).

Figure 1:

Figure 2:
Nosferatu takes us residence in an abandoned wearhouse that looks directly into the bedroom of the protagonist's girl. LtROI places Eli's apartment adjacent to Oskar's apartment. Axial vs Adjacent. This is the core reason so many critics are quick to claim LtROI is a refreshing escape from other vampire cinema.

The rat-like Count Orlock in Nosferatu defines his existence by lusting over his female victim. His voyeuristic gaze seeks to hypnotize the young maiden to leave her defenseless. As a result, the vampire lives as a horrific abomination in opposition to society. LtROI opens with Oskar looking out the window. He sees his partial reflection and fixates on a bully that harasses him at school. There is not vampiric "other" that gazes back at Oskar, he is all alone in his muted and dreary apartment complex.

I enjoy that the first segment of the film is actually two parallel narratives: Oskar's isolated school life, and Hakan's task to harvest blood as an unexplained guardian for Eli. Compounding the divisive nature of the film is the elderly circle of friends who also live in the apartment complex. The few murderous junctions that propel the plot are the only times they overlap with the young leads. Oskar's school is another isolated narrative that only connects to the vampire plot during the ice skating scene and the final slaughter of the bullies. This division speaks to the vampire's role in an alienated society.

Oskar wants to connect with Eli to remedy his isolation. Morse code through the apartment walls and an failed "blood pact" are two examples of his courage to reach out and befriend Eli in spite of her folklore status as a demonic entity.

Looking at the title, both Oskar and Count Orlock's victim had to let the vampire in, by verbal acknowledgement or physically opening the window. In Nosferatu, the woman believes that only through her sacrifice can she trap the vampire to die by sunlight. She "lets in" the vampire to destroy it. Oskar however lets Eli in to help himself find meaning and love. His undergoes an empowering, stunning transformation by being around Eli. Bopping around his living room, rocking to some tunes while waiting for Eli to finish her shower, he looks five years older in style and motivation. His vampire next door is the gateway into puberty.

No longer does such the blood sucker plague society by existing in opposition to European communities. Instead, the vampire lives at the fringes of our lives, whose monstrosity is secondary to draining self alienation and despair that already infects the population. Instead, her monstrous instincts empower Oskar, the runt of society.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Horror Literacy: The Crazies (2010)

Last Night, I watched Bruck Eisner's remake of The Crazies. I haven't watched Romero's original yet but since the plot, military chemicals altering residents of small town USA, seems to be part of cultural knowledge, there were no real surprises or plot twists. The strength of the film is clearly atmosphere. These Iowans were not caricatures. Their town was a real slice of rural American life. I particularly marveled at the juxtaposition of the mayor's pool in the middle of a flat farmland, an example of rural American pastiche that selectively chooses its comforts. The sudden militarized containment of their humble town gave me shivers. This film, up to the final satellite image, espouses a fear of a faceless military government annihilating a community for the "greater good of America".

Voyeurism is not a new theme in the genre of horror, however, The Crazies distinctly puts the owner of the all-seeing camera into the nameless military. The satellite's computerized gaze shares a lineage with the dreaded panopticon but as a method of execution instead of discipline. Compounded with telecommunications being jammed, the film's rising action prays on the fear of helplessness through isolation.

More importantly, I want to comment on the connection to the zombie genre. I will argue the premise of The Crazies is theoretically more interesting than the common zombie-apocalypse plot. My reason is that two separate, enemy factions for the protagonists creates stronger pacing. There are multiple moments where escaping the threat of the military leads the Duttons and friends into the murderous clutches of the crazies who would be relatively harmless on their own because they are so slow. I see clear connections to video game series that place two enemy factions in the same area as the player's avatar. Such three-way dynamic puts a greater drive for pure survival and escape instead of brute force slaughter. The typical horror conflict of "us vs them" becomes "us vs them vs the government"; a powerful statement in our post 9/11 world where surveillance and military secrecy exist at the fringes of everyday American living.

Horror Literacy: Introduction

I was christened into the horror genre when I saw The Evil Dead at midnight 3+ years ago. Something clicked within my mind in the comfy couch of that little independent cinema. My aversion to blood and loud scares morphed into an attraction to the thrill and humor for the horrifically absurd and the comically gory. And so I began a steady march to watch more horror.

I saw films like Carpenter's The Thing and Videodrome at the Boston Science Fiction Marathon and my seedling began to draw nourishment from such genius. Then in our senior year, my high school friends and I watched the Romero trilogy. Suddenly the entire world of societal commentary became apparent. The greatest horror had messages directly related to society.

Freshman year of college, a class named "Zombies and the Apocalypse in American Pop Culture" appeared in the course catalog and I . Looking specifically at zombie cinema, the class focused on historical and societal messages in horror. Since this class, I've been watching horror with sparing regularity.

With such academic foundation, I now challenge myself to complete my foundation in horror literacy. This project commits me to watch 51 horror films that will elevate me from amateur to aficionado. Here is the list
(strike through denotes already watched) :

The Exorcist
Rosemary's Baby
Texas Chainsaw Massacre
A Nightmare on Elmstreet
The Howling
Friday the 13th (original)
The Crazies 1973
The Crazies 2010
Let the Right One In
Trouble Everyday
When a Stranger Calls
Angel Heart
The Haunting (original)
Eyes without a Face
The Legend of Hell House
The Grudge
Black House
Blood Beach
Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things
Dead and Buried
Dead of Night
Dog Soldier
Dracula's Daughter
Kiss the Vampire
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
Noroi: the curse
The Grapes of Death
The Midnight Meat Train
The Mist
The Unknown
The World, the Flesh and The Devil
Last House on the Left (original)
I Spit on Your Grave

I hope to finish by the end of January. Short critiques and interpretations of each film will follow.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man Response

I write this from the point of view of having read the first 40 comics of the original Spider-man run
by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in the 50s. I also cannot help but compare it to The Avengers however
I don't remember the Spider-man movies of the 00s well enough to compare.

One sentence summary:
The Amazing Spider-Man was a solid 21st century adaptation of Spider-Man's origin that employed
Peter Parker's broody teenage persona, Spidey's extremely acrobatic combat technique, and
a vibrant color palette.

Elaborating on the summary:

They definitely modernized Peter Parker's world. He's no longer a 1960s clean-cut dweeb in high school
but just a hip, quiet, and intelligent New York teen. "The Daily Bugle" got perhaps a several
seconds worth of screen time and the belligerent editor in chief, J. Jonah Jameson
did not appear. Makes sense as in this point in time, newspapers are not affecting how the
citizens of New York think. Spider-man answering his cell phone on the top of sky scrapers
was a shockingly real moment of connection I had. Every teenager this day in age gets
stuck talking to their parents at in-opportune times.

Some may be sick of the oversaturation of broody, angsty, secretive teenage protagonists in
our narratives these days. I can't lie, Peter Parker takes on those characteristics. He
wears his hoody, hides from his aunt when he can. Never looks confrontation in
the eye. Reading the 60s comics, that is who Peter Parker is. He has horrendous
girl trouble, and friend trouble in general.

The fight scenes where my favorite. In discussion with a friend, we had decided how
mixed the Avengers heroes were in power and fighting prowess. Again, going back
to the comics, the movie relied on Spidey-senses, acrobatic agility, and improvised
web-work. It makes him a red-leotarded sky ballerina, and I enjoyed it. Unlike Thor,
the Hulk, Iron Man, and Captain America, Spider-man does not smash, stomp, or
pound- he jabs, flips, and webs.

I move my lens onto The Lizard. I like The Lizard, I pity him
because he's originally a scientist who lost his arm and simply wants to regrow
it using SCIENCE. He gets delusional once he splices his DNA but so does
every villain in the history of splicing. After some thought, the reality is none
of the Spider-man villains approach being as interesting as Batman's villains
(which is the movie everyone is actually going to define this summer by whether
they like it or not). They are all either scientists gone made with some sort of
radiation/gene mutation, or they are test subjects.
So The Lizard is acceptable. If anything, at least his
dastardly plan of releasing a biotoxin in New York City is more reasonable and more
realistically terrifying than opening a multi-dimensional door (*shakes
fist at Loki*).

Finally, the color palette. Spider-man's costume is beautiful. Probably the best
super-hero movie costume of all times. It's part under-armor, part mesh,
part spandex with real rich tones of red and blue. If I can say anything about
the old, first Spider-man movie, it did not age well visually. This movie on the
other hand is has great blue-black night scenes with neons of the city.
The science labs are sparkly and sterile with florescent lights everywhere.
I find it aesthetically pleasing. (Again, much more than Avengers)

Well did i make you want to see this movie? I don't know what I've done.
It feels good to write it down though. If anything, compared to the other
super hero movies of the summer, this one is probably the simplest
narrative, it does not try to do too much. It could have taken more
creative liberties with the origin story, but they were obviously hesitant
about fan backfire. I can't lie, it is a silly  movie. But in all honesty,
SPIDER-MAN COMICS ARE SILLY. I say that as an honest fan
of the medium. It's about a kid who could barely figure out his
regular life and suddenly has to protect the well-being of the
entire city of New York from ridiculous plots involving absurd
pseudo science.