Tuesday, September 29, 2015

'Felt': When the Final Girl Comes Home

The majority of horror movies end with a “final girl” (so christened by Carol J. Clover in her pioneering book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws) conquering her attacker and would-be murderer in a final battle: Sally Hardesty bellowing in the back of a pickup truck as it drives away from Leatherface, who waves his chainsaw in useless frustration; Ginny Field stabbing Jason with his own machete; Sydney Prescott shooting Billy Loomis between the eyes as he lunges toward her in a failed attempt at one last assault. All of these women literally and figuratively stick it to the man, and by extension, to the patriarchy, if only temporarily. But what happens to these final girls - both fictional and, all too often, real - after the credits roll, and they are expected to reintegrate into a society that remains unchanged by their personal traumas?

That is the inherent question in Felt, a micro-budget indie film from Jason Banker about an artist, Amy (Amy Everson, also the co-writer), recovering from an unnamed, but easily assumed, ordeal. While the exact parameters of Amy’s scarring experience are never disclosed, hints are dropped, including an awkward conversation about date rape and the artist’s newfound fixation on creating nightmarish costumes featuring exaggerated genitalia and blank faces. We know, without having to ask, that Amy has endured some sort of sexual violation, visited upon her by a man.

It’s a classic setup for a rape revenge movie, except that there is no rapist; not a specific one that we meet, anyway. Felt is missing the inciting incident, which is surely a deliberate move. Whether or not a rape occurred is beside the point – the point is that Amy obviously feels deeply, painfully intruded upon in one way or another. She continues to feel further invaded and degraded throughout the film, while socializing with her roommate’s aggressive boyfriend or while on a first date with a man who becomes exasperated when she doesn’t acquiesce to his desires. In this way, the audience feels the buildup of these small and not-so-small intrusions along with Amy, from strangers and friends alike. Unlike your typical rape revenge movie, there is not one rapist, not one villain at which to lash out, but rather potential villains everywhere. Society is the villain, and Amy is just doing her best to cope with this new reality.

Her method of coping, and to an extent fighting back, involves frequent use of the aforementioned costumes. Most of them are grotesque caricatures of the male form – Amy roams the woods in a beige leotard with a large, dangling penis and a yarn head; another suit features freakishly bulging arm muscles that she pretends to flex, the camera panning down to her breasts, bound and flat. She dons a mask with tufted hair and stubble when her roommate tries to talk to her about her strange behavior. As things grow too somber, Amy sticks her tongue out of a hole in the mask, causing her friend to physically recoil. The suits are armor and weapon combined.

Later, Amy takes part in a seedy hotel room photo shoot, but instead of getting naked for the pimp-like photographer, she shows up wearing fake padded breasts and a pair of granny panties adorned with a lurid, intricate cloth vulva. The photographer uncomfortably tries to laugh it off and turn her away, but she and the other model, Roxanne, end up taking over the shoot, asserting their power in a situation where they previously felt powerless. The two women become fast friends, instantly linked by a shared mistrust of the opposite sex and, as Roxanne puts it, a desire to “leave [their bodies].”

The friendship is knocked off-balance when the two meet a guy named Kenny at a bar. The encounter begins as just another bonding activity of sorts for the women – Amy and Roxanne pick Kenny up, but then abandon him on the side of the road, laughing hysterically. Later, though, Amy runs into Kenny on the street and they seem to connect, resulting in a tentative, tender relationship that Roxanne has trouble accepting. Because this is a horror movie, we know that nothing good can come of it.

From there, Felt follows the familiar trajectory of the rape revenge flick, and the ending feels as inevitable as it does predictable. That, too, seems deliberate. When a person is stripped of her agency and her humanity, sometimes the only option she can see is to strike back. The movie meanders, often sacrificing tension or a cohesive narrative for the dull ache of authenticity, merely putting off what we know is to come. The sheer predetermination of the story may well be its message. We watch as the plot marches toward its inexorable conclusion, the cycle of violence playing out yet again.

This post originally appeared as a post on Bitch Flicks.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Elijah Wood’s Film 'Cooties' Mirrors 'The Faculty' For a Grown Up Generation

As I watched Cooties, the latest offering from Elijah Wood’s genre production company, SpectreVision, I couldn’t help but think this is exactly the kind of movie Casey Connor would grow up to be in.

If you don’t recall, Casey was the nerdy kid full of conspiracy theories in the 1998 teen sci-fi-horror The Faculty, a movie in which aliens take over the bodies of the teachers in a small Ohio town where football reigns king, to the detriment of every other department and the social landscape of the school. Played by a meek Elijah Wood, Casey was a Classic Geek™ in the manner of so many 90s movies: upon arriving at school in the morning, he’s immediately slammed in the face by a careless elbow, an accident for which he apologizes. Soon after, we see him get picked up by a bunch of jocks (of course) and slammed crotch-first into the flagpole. We’re led to imagine this is how all of Casey’s days began, and unfortunately, if Cooties is to be believed, things didn’t get much better for him after high school.

The Faculty
In Cooties, Elijah Wood is once again playing the geeky guy, albeit a slightly better off one. He’s not getting slammed into any flagpoles, but as a failed writer living in his parents’ house and subbing at the local elementary school, he’s still trying to get the cool kids to like him. In fact, he’s only working at Ft. Chicken Elementary School in the hopes of catching the eye of an old crush, Lucy McCormick (Allison Pill). It may not literally be high school, but all the old stereotypes are present, the characters just inhabit adult bodies this time around.

Pretend the ending of The Faculty never happened; it was all wish fulfillment anyway. Even if power-hungry Delilah had coupled up with Casey during his fifteen minutes of fame, we know she would have eventually dropped him for the next big thing. Now imagine all of those kids became elementary school teachers. Delilah has grown into Rebekkah (Nasim Pedrad), a dogmatic Republican who belligerently spouts rhetoric about gun laws (they’re too stringent) and evolution (it’s bunk, not that the school board will let her say that). Zeke is still the weird guy who knows way too much about the current epidemic plaguing the school, he just goes by “Doug” now (Leigh Whannell). Lucy is an adult version of Marybeth Louise Hutchinson, all smiles and tight-lipped optimism, assuming that whole alien queen thing never happened. The gym teacher is still the gym teacher.

Wood’s character is once again battling monsters that seem from another realm entirely – in this case, all of the prepubescent students are afflicted with “cooties,” a zombie-like hunger for flesh brought on by bad chicken nuggets. The only difference between now and then is that, while Wood was once the child seeing a hidden monster in adults, he is now the adult finding children monstrous. Even before the outbreak occurs, Wood’s character laments his students’ generation, which he finds foreign and almost savage. He’s not necessarily wrong, either; there’s a child named “Patriot” in his first class, “born on September 11th, a gift from God” who plans on joining the army so he can kill as many (insert racial slurs here) as possible.

But Cooties doesn’t shy away from skewering its own cohorts, either. There’s the aforementioned gun toting, “rape button” sporting Rebekkah, a mess of contradictions who wouldn’t be out of place at a Donald Trump rally. There’s also a teacher who hilariously shouts “Follow me, I do Crossfit!” before meeting his abrupt demise. Even Clint, our protagonist, is a millennial cliché – the failed artist sponging off his parents. Furthermore, the contemptuous disconnect between the teachers and students inherently puts some of the blame on the older generation for not doing better by the younger one.

As in The Faculty, the generations are at odds, unable to understand or even fathom one another. More importantly, wherever we find ourselves in life, and sometimes contrary to the evidence, we consider it the “right” side of the generation gap – a side that we strongly believe our parents or children couldn’t begin to comprehend. When loner Stokely said in The Faculty, “I thought I was the only alien in this school,” she could just have easily have been talking to one of the oddball coworkers in Cooties.

It’s a brilliant role reversal, and one that speaks deeply to Americans of all ages. Take the political and social climate for example: older generations like the baby boomers have twice as many conservatives as millennials, the most liberal age group. With our widespread acceptance of homosexuality, women’s bodily rights, and marijuana as a recreational drug, we millennials most likely seem a pestilence to older Republicans, and even many Democrats of advanced age. And it goes both ways – millennials consider older generations’ stances on issues like environmental regulations and immigration reform outdated, shortsighted, and harmful. Essentially, we're all aliens to one another.

The Faculty
However, unlike in The Faculty, where killing the queen alien brought resolution by allowing everyone to return to their normal human selves, the only solution in Cooties is to burn the entire school down, taking most of its young students with it. I sincerely hope that “burning it all down” is not the only prescription for our nation.

But as each of us gets older and grumpier, more disillusioned, I think we all feel that inclination to watch the world burn from time to time – even if history has shown that, by and large, the kids are alright. It’s a reminder that, as always, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

September Movie Roundup

Because there wouldn't be enough time in the world to do a comprehensive review of every horror movie I watch, and I'm painfully late to the game with some of these... enjoy these pithy little opinions of mine.

Queen of Earth. I never fell fully into Queen of Earth, but there were things about it that I liked quite a bit; particularly the touches that called to mind Repulsion and other films of that ilk, and the performances by Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston. It felt a bit like a play (think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), full of loquacious, unlikable people. That’s not something I’m typically opposed to, but it was difficult to watch two women “friends” treat each other so nastily. Basically, whether or not you’ll like it depends a lot on if you’re in the mood for that sort of thing.

The Harvest. This movie has such a wild, silly premise (honestly, if I told you the entire plot, you’d probably assume I was describing a Lifetime movie), but because everyone involved takes it so seriously, and plays it off so well, it truly works. Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon are so studiously solemn in their separate brands of craziness that by the time you see the rabbit hole they’ve led you down, you’re all in no matter what.

Burying the Ex. I know this got poor reviews and lots of people said it was boring and stuff, but… I liked it! It’s not Joe Dante’s greatest work, but I found it genuinely fun, if simple. This is what a zom-rom-com should be - gross and goofy (don't even give me that "zombies can be hot" thing, Warm Bodies). Ashley Greene is great; I’m not opposed to the insular, hipster horror nerd world put on display; and frankly, I loved the color palette. That’s enough to make for a fun little flick in my book, at least from time to time.

Maggie. This was very sad, and very beautiful, if you can call watching someone die of a terminal illness “beautiful.” Which is essentially what being a zombie is in the world of Maggie. Arnold Schwarzenegger is surprisingly soulful, and I think this is one of Abigail Breslin’s best roles to date (despite it seeming highly dubious that she could ever be related to Schwarzenegger).

Poltergeist (2015). I went into this expecting not to like it much, and… well, I was right. This movie has none of the heart of the original and suffers greatly by bringing nothing new to the table. The original is hardly even what I would call a horror movie – it was written by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, which explains a lot – but it works in that Spielbergian-adventure-movie way. Although the remake was branded as straight horror and it makes some flaccid attempts to scare, it’s straight up dull. Not even Rosemary DeWitt and Sam Rockwell (both of whom I love, I swear) could save this.

The Lazarus Effect. This seemed kind of promising to me at the beginning (that dog really gave me a few good jump scares), but when it became clear that the entire movie was going to take place in the laboratory over the course of a single night, the options for where the story could go narrowed considerably. The plot became very rushed halfway through, and it was all downhill and full of clichés from there. Disappointing, but watchable.

Ouija. Why do I do this to myself? Maybe because a part of me secretly still enjoys watching the atrocious Prom Night remake with Brittany Snow? Because apparently I love watching pretty, overly coiffed actresses run around dark stairwells? I don’t know, but this was still abysmal and not even remotely pleasurable.

Unfriended. I’m not a big proponent of found footage (unless it’s as original and creepy as, say, The Midnight Swim), and I’m even less enamored with found footage that takes place solely on a computer screen. It’s not dynamic, and it’s really difficult to garner scares with this technique. Unfriended isn’t the worst offender in the found footage genre, but I wouldn’t recommend it. For a more serviceable job doing the all-on-a-computer-screen gimmick, watch The Den.

Spring. Here’s a really original horror/sci-fi with one of my favorite underrated actors, Lou Taylor Pucci. If I could plop him into half the horror movies I see, I think they’d all benefit. Spring isn’t that scary, but Pucci infuses it with so much emotion that you get carried away with the story. Anyway, I liked this a lot.

What movies have you seen lately? Leave your opinions in the comments!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Horror Trends: The Angry Young Man in Horror

Be warned: This post is full of spoilers for Goodnight Mommy, Cub, and The Boy.

More often than not, horror movies reveal the fears of our time. In Axelle Carolyn’s excellent book, It Lives Again! Horror Movies in the New Millennium, the author illustrates how our collective fears end up reflected in different ways on screen. Carolyn makes the argument (and backs it up) that the popularity of every big horror trend originated somewhere in our collective consciousness, connecting trends to a country’s political climate, terrorist attacks, and other big events that resonant deeply throughout cultures.

As the late and great Wes Craven said, “Horror films don’t create fear. They release it.”

Carolyn’s book came to mind recently as I watched a crop of new films, each about the potential for violence in young boys: Goodnight Mommy, Cub, and The Boy. These films work to varying degrees, and the circumstances are diverse, but the core of each story is the same – one violent little boy. In a society where privileged young men (i.e. heterosexual, white, young adult males) are committing heinous crimes like date rape and mass shootings on an alarmingly regular basis, a fear of angry young men seems valid, and reason enough for a trend in horror.

Of course, these are horror movies, not case studies. As much as horror reflects society’s fears, it distorts them, making them ever more monstrous. In Goodnight Mommy, a young boy, Elias, suffers from a break with reality, imagining his dead twin brother is still alive and the woman living in his house is merely masquerading as his mother. In Cub, Boy Scout Sam stumbles onto the lair of Kai, a feral child living, and killing, out in the woods. The Boy takes the most realistic tack by far, examining the lonely childhood of a budding murderer, Ted, growing up in the middle of nowhere. These are the origin stories of the Angry Young Man, told through the lens of the horror genre.

There are numerous parallels between the three boys, who all engage in gradually escalating forms of
violence: they kick chickens, kill dogs, and eventually wind up super gluing their mothers’ lips together or setting buildings full of people aflame. They’re all isolated: Elias’s brother and father are dead, his mother distant; Sam is a foster child without friends, a kid whom even the Boy Scout troop leader disdains; and Ted lives in a desolate motel with only his alcoholic father and a few passing guests for company. Most importantly, though, their attempts at connecting with others are constantly thwarted, or even actively discouraged.

When Elias, out of grief and guilt, insists that his mother speak to Lukas or make him breakfast, his mother reacts furiously, verbally and physically berating Elias. She slaps him and makes him to repeat aloud, “I will not speak to Lukas,” over and over again, when what Elias clearly needs is his mother’s love and understanding – and therapy. Bafflingly, Elias and his mother live in a lavish house that seems completely sequestered from the rest of the world, making the boy’s isolation all the more palpable. Given no one to talk to or work through his feelings with, Elias lashes out at the only person he can, creating an elaborate fantasy wherein his mother is an evil imposter who must be tortured until she can bring back his real mother and, presumably, the rest of his family.

In The Boy, Ted seems like a fairly normal kid, albeit one who is very comfortable with death. His father pays him pennies for picking up road kill, a pastime that eventually morphs into Ted luring animals onto the road. This is troubling, but the sort of behavior that might be curbed by an involved parent (preferably one who doesn't demand road kill in exchange for attention). Under the nonexistent supervision of his father, however, Ted’s interest in death blooms, as does his inferiority complex – a dangerous combination. As with Elias, when Ted reaches out for companionship and acceptance – first to his father, and then to a kind but troubled drifter – he is beaten down, emotionally and physically. His pain and anger eventually culminate in murderous arson. This doesn't seem like the story of a cold, calculating sociopath, no matter how much the filmmaker bills it that way. Ted is full of feelings, but because those feelings are never validated, he can only find destructive ways to express them.

Cub carries out this same model, but to cartoonish heights. Sam is the odd kid out in his Boy Scout troop, so when he encounters feral Kai on a camping trip in the woods, he feels an immediate kinship with the outcast and the two form a cautious rapport. At one point, the troop leader sics his dog on Sam as a mean joke, so Kai kidnaps the dog and hangs it from a tree so that Sam can kill it. Kai, a boy who has been used and abused by those bigger and stronger than him, considers this a gift. Sam is initially shocked and repulsed, but when he tries to help the dog and is bitten for his trouble, he retaliates, sick of being hurt by those he reaches out to again and again. Unable to truly forge a bond with anyone, Sam finally kills Kai so that he can take over the feral boy’s malevolent, vengeful persona.

The shared element in these three stories of angry young men is an unwillingness of the guardians and role models to nurture, or even condone, sensitivity in these boys. They constantly demand that the boys be tougher, thicker-skinned, less vulnerable, regardless of their actual feelings or needs. When Ted’s father allows a prom afterparty to take place at the motel, sans parents, he tells Ted: “The boys’ll be boys and the girls’ll be girls; good, harmless fun. You get what I’m sayin’?” One can easily imagine the kind of behavior Ted’s father is allowing, and tacitly condoning. “Boys will be boys” encompasses all manner of sins. When those same boys hurt Ted and his father blames him, Ted sees no other option than to become a stronger (read: hyper-masculine) version of those cruel boys in order to survive.

We can’t excuse violent criminals for their actions just because they may have had bad childhoods, but our society’s emphasis on the masculine above everything else is a real problem. Forcing young boys to "toughen up" before they're ready only forces them to give up their empathy, and that benefits no one. These three stories are horrific, but they are, after all, just stories. Unfortunately, the real crimes committed by angry young men - Sandy Hook, Steubenville, Aurora - are as gruesome as fiction.

This post originally appeared as a post on Bitch Flicks.