Monthly Archives: October 2011

Halloween Terrors

By Andreas

You know what’s really scary? Like terrifying, bone-chilling, never-sleep-again scary? Sure, I could start answering that question broadly with, say, death and loneliness and bodily harm. But I’d rather start small with a few images—the direct, visceral language of the horror movie. So here’s a taste of what scares me, via some of my favorite horror classics…

Cat People

As Poe described it in “The Raven”: “Darkness there, and nothing more.” Is it a panther, or just an inky blur shifting against the wall? The water in the swimming pool plays such tricks with the light. You could be in mortal danger, with a big cat preparing to tear into your neck, or you could just be seeing things. That’s the visual genius of Nicholas Musuraca (who also shot The Seventh Victim) at work, implementing the flair for ambiguity that defined RKO’s Val Lewton unit. It’s such a blurry, disorienting image, but it conjures up a world of pain and possibility. At times like this, you have to ask yourself: “Are you afraid of the dark?”

The Wicker Man

Shot from this angle, those islanders gathered around the vast wicker effigy look like a welcoming committee. They’re here to usher Sergeant Howie along to his destiny, an outcome preordained by his actions, his self-righteousness, and his obliviousness. And isn’t that the most disturbing fate of all? To know that you’re not merely being dragged off to die; as a matter of fact, your personal flaws guaranteed this ending. This is horror at its purest: to be hopelessly, helplessly drenched in anticipation of your imminent, ritualized death. And to top it all off, the air fills with pagan song. The Stepford Wives

This image encapsulates so many powerful fears: the loss of individuality, personhood, free will; the domination (and destruction) of women by a conspiratorial council of all-knowing men; the disappearance of anyone to trust. It’s all in Bobbie’s face as she rattles off idiotic phrases like “How could you do a thing like that!” This once-vivacious woman has been reduced to a babbling automaton, realized with grotesque plausibility by Paula Prentiss. It’s a tragedy and a nightmare.

Onibaba

One last fear-inducing image, this one from Japan, as a monster/woman braves the elements. A lightning flash illuminates her face, now usurped by a demonic mask. It’s the stark conclusion to a religious allegory that’s been transformed into a sweaty, carnal horror story. This is nature at its most basic: total, unrelenting chaos engulfing a vicious, unhappy world. In a perversely moral turnabout, this selfish woman gets what’s coming to her—and we, the viewers, are left with nothing but an empty, scared feeling by this masterpiece of the Japanese New Wave. Happy Halloween, everyone!

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Who’s Afraid of Baby Jane?

Happy Halloween, everybody! You can start celebrating this scariest/best of all holidays by reading my piece over at The Film Experience about Bette Davis’s riveting performance in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. It’s towering, terrifying work by a legendary actress, the kind of performance that really separates the girls from the women. Nobody else could have done quite what Bette does with the part.

Sorry we’ve been AWOL here at PGG for much of this all-important week—Halloween parties, part-time jobs, and nasty colds will do that to you—but now we’re back to help celebrate. The foulest stench is in the air! The funk of 40,000 years! Happy Halloween!

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The Power of Christ Repels You

Here, I’ve got a fun exercise: let’s brainstorm some lists of words. OK, like, how would you describe The Exorcist? Hmmm. Let’s see: profitable, popular, well-loved, trendsetting, efficient, sleek, visceral, great. Well, now that we’ve established that, what words would you apply to its first sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)? Maybe “lumpy”? Incoherent? Work-for-hire? Dated? Oh, and you can’t leave out “really fucking weird.”

I actually pity Exorcist II; it’s the unsuccessful middle sibling of the Exorcist family. Forced to pick up where The Exorcist left off—with the demon successfully banished and both exorcists dead—it struggles to find a follow-up story worth telling, then gives up and resigns itself to half a dozen half-assed plot strands involving hypnotism, the Vatican, locusts, and James Earl Jones. It’s paced like a little kid trying to solve a maze, with nothing but false starts and dead ends.

As far as I can tell, this is what happens: a still-teenaged Regan Macneil lives in a Manhattan penthouse, cared for by a woman whom we’ll call “Ellen Burstyn Wouldn’t Come Back for the Sequel.” Sometimes she has counseling sessions with Louise Fletcher, who was then fresh off her Oscar win for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Richard Burton’s a worn-out priest sent to investigate The Exorcism, and this leads to lots of redundant flashbacks. Then he goes to the magical, red-skied land of “Africa.” Then he comes back. He and Regan revisit her old house, some cars crash, Pazuzu is re-banished, and they walk off into the sunset. The end.

“Why?” you may ask. Also: “How? Who? What?” If so, I sympathize with your sputtering. Logic does not reign in Exorcist II; it plays by its own shitty rules. The film expends great time and energy establishing the import of both the wacky, newfangled hypnotism machine and Father Burton’s African adventure, yet neither one’s relevance is clear by the end. You’d have to struggle to write a screenplay lazier, clumsier, or stranger than the one for Exorcist II. Worst of all, the film never explains how Pazuzu is back, why the previous film’s exorcism was apparently in vain, or what kind of threat Pazuzu now poses.

Consequently, the audience has to stumble blindly through Exorcist II’s non sequiturs and hallucinations, occasionally baffled but never scared. (Unless, like me, you’re really freaked out by locusts.) To put it succinctly, this is a bad movie. And yet, somehow, I can’t condemn it or write it off entirely. That’s primarily because John Boorman’s direction, compounded by Ennio Morricone’s haunting score, gives the film a tacky, idiosyncratic flavor. Boorman plays odd visual tricks with mirrors and aerial shots, all colored by a fire-and-earth palette. This imagery isn’t strictly “good,” but it is interesting!

In fact, the best way to view Exorcist II might actually be as the spiritual sequel to Boorman’s Zardoz (1974). With its anti-logical flights of fancy, its fossilized mid-’70s aesthetic, and its fuzzy moral dilemmas, it has far more in common with that oft-mocked dystopian epic than it does with The Exorcist. Does this redeem it as a horror movie? No. But it’s still a hell of an experience.

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Wolf in the Closet

Before I begin, a confession: I like finding hidden subtext in movies. I keep an eye out for it and am thrilled when it’s there. But even I wasn’t prepared for the coded messages in Werewolf of London (1935) to up and smack me in the face. Want to see classic Production Code-era semiotic displacement at work? This fun little werewolf movie has a prime example.

To set the scene: Workaholic botanist Wilfred Glendon recently went on a sample-gathering expedition in Tibet. While plucking a mystical, moon-powered flower, he was attacked by a werewolf, who scratched up his arm. Now in England again, he obsesses over the flower in his laboratory, but his wife drags him upstairs to attend a cozily aristocratic soirée. There, he meets the eccentric Dr. Yogami (played by yellowface veteran Warner Oland) and their instant rapport spurs Glendon to ask, “Have I met you before, sir?” Yogami coyly replies,

In Tibet, once, but only for a moment… in the dark.

Was this a werewolf attack or a hook-up? This isn’t the film’s only queer hint, either. Consider the following: Glendon’s “werewolfery” drives him away from his wife, who finds solace in the arms of another man; in desperation, he gets a very private apartment in a scummy part of town, where a drunken hag observes that “he seems to have a secret sorrow.” Remind me again, is this Werewolf of London or Far from Heaven?

Even in 1935, the monster-as-sexual-metaphor was nothing new. Hell, you could easily interpret the opening act of Dracula ’31 in this exact same fashion; just look at how Bela lusts after Renfield and his tasty blood. Werewolf of London’s great surprise lies in how obvious the metaphor is. This isn’t just the first Hollywood werewolf movie—it’s also the first gay Hollywood werewolf movie.

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Link Dump: #49

You know a horror cliché that I just love? When animals hiss at people who they just know are going to transform into monsters. Kitties, especially, seem to have a sixth kitty sense about these things. For example: the kitty above, hissing and clawing at Henry Hull just before he changes into Werewolf of London‘s titular lycanthrope. Keep at it, awesome kitty! And now, links:

  • The reliably excellent Roderick Heath of Ferdy on Films writes about MST3K’s Manos: The Hands of Fate episode.
  • Jonathan Rosenbaum objects to Pauline Kael’s Raising Kane while the New Yorker picks five essential Kael reviews.
  • Mark Harris names three stupid Oscar rules. (And when it comes to stupid, inconsistent, counterproductive Oscar rules, this is just the tip of the iceberg.)
  • If you want to read the text of the frivolous Drive lawsuit, you can do so here. It actually reads more like a bad essay out of Film History 101. Highlights include the following:

“Virtually no film critics described in any detail, if even mentioned, the allegorical nature of DRIVE, despite the importance of allegory in DRIVE. This is for inexplicable reasons.”

Well, we have a clear winner out of the past week’s search terms, and it’s “betty boops pussy on fire.” Yeahhh.

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Things That Confuse and Anger Me About the Harry Potter Series: The Epilogue

By Ashley

And so I’ve reached the end. I’ve been so fully immersed in this project that Harry Potter has literally been all I think, talk, or write about. Even when I’m thinking about other things—classes, friends, my relationship, anything—the books and this project were sitting in wait, taking up a large portion of my brain, distracting the hell out of me. It’s very lucky that so many of my classes so far have been pretty low-stress and I haven’t been totally bombarded with homework. I started rereading in late August and it was like tumbling into the rabbit hole all over again: despite the fact that I’ve read these books countless times before and I was very consciously looking for flaws and plot holes and was concentrating so hard on the things that make me angry in this series (which is a lot), I still felt like I was 12 years old again. At that age, Harry Potter was my world, it was my main creative outlet, it saved me from a fucked-up family and distracted me when I wanted to hurt myself. Harry Potter, for all of the many, many, many problems I have with the series and its creator, is and always will be something I love entirely. Some people are afraid to think critically about the things that are dear to them, afraid that they’ll have to disown it or start disliking it. This is not true; never stop thinking critically about the media you take in, ever. I am a Potterhead. The fact that I can question JKR and say “Hey, this is fucked up or wrong or infuriating” does not take away from how much I love the series. With that said, I’m (obscenely) excited to rip this goddamn epilogue to shreds.

1. I think one of the reasons so many people hate this epilogue is because it’s so far removed from everything we know. I don’t fucking know 36-year-old Harry, Ron, and Hermione. We know the characters we’ve seen grow up from ages 11-17. It’s a lot to ask of the readers, just jumping 19 years into the future and expecting us to be all cool with it. You don’t stay the same from when you’re 17 to the time you’re in your mid-thirties. We, the readers, went through trauma in this goddamn book: we lost characters who meant something to us, characters who felt like friends and family, characters that we had known and loved for upwards of 10 years. Voldemort dies and then we just cut to this happy ending. It just doesn’t jibe with me, man. I feel like it would’ve been so much better to have a “1 year later” epilogue (if there had to be an epilogue at all); that way we wouldn’t have been so completely displaced from everything we just went through. We still could’ve seen them moving on with their lives and in their stupid little predictable relationships, but also seen them healing and grieving. This epilogue…it’s like none of what we went through matters anymore! Because the characters have had nearly 20 fucking years to cope and heal and move on. I had 2 fucking pages to cope and heal. And then BAM, we’re hit with these adult versions of the characters we know and they all have little carbon copy children heading off to Hogwarts.

2. The last few chapters of Book 7 are some of the best writing JKR does in the whole series. Mostly because it’s full of the action stuff she’s so good at writing, but she even outdoes herself with the emotional stuff with “The Forest Again.” The epilogue is just…weak. It’s so sophomoric. It feels like I’m reading Book 1 all over again, and not just because she has all these parallels to the first time Harry was on Platform 9 ¾.

3. Speaking of those parallels, OMG IS THIS REALLY NECESSARY. Do we really need to see Harry and Ginny’s little redhead daughter crying about how she wants to go to Hogwarts like her brothers, just like Ginny did in the first book? It’s bad enough that Harry and Ginny are practically copies of Lily and James but then they have children who are carbon copies of them! And their fucking names are Lily and James! And Albus Severus.

4. These names, man. These fucking names. JKR is trolling us hard. You do realize that, right? Like…did Ginny not get any fucking say over her kids’ names? Like, every single time she was like “Harry, darling, I have an idea for our daughter’s name!” Harry was just like “UH STFU NO 1 CURR”. And it’s not just them—fucking Rose and Hugo? HUGO?! WHAT IS THIS WHAT IS LIFE I DON’T UNDERSTAND. SCORPIUS? SCORPIUS HYPERION MALFOY?! WHAT IS THIS!? FUCK YOU. OH MY GOD I WANNA BREAK SHIT.

5. The name I find most mind-numbingly horrible and extremely offensive to the readers is Harry and Ginny’s youngest child, Albus Severus. Not just because that kid is totally gonna get picked on for having the dumbest name I’ve ever heard in my LIFE but because why the fuck would you fucking name your kid after Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape?! Who are you, Harry? I don’t even know you anymore. Why? What logic is this? Oh, yeah, Dumbledore, who asked you to risk your life over and over and over and who raised you like a pig to be sacrificed at the altar.  And Severus Snape, a man who bullied and tormented you for 6 years, hated your father completely and was obsessed—frighteningly, all-consumingly obsessed—with your mother for his entire adolescent and adult life. Yeah, TOTES NAME YOUR SON AFTER THOSE TWO GUYS.

6. For someone like me, the epilogue is especially unsatisfying because my idea of fulfilling, lifelong happiness does not involve marriage and children. It bothers me that we’re served this lackluster, uber-conventional, Babies Ever After ending and then we learn (in bits and pieces) the really interesting stuff—like careers and what happened to other, more interesting characters—after the goddamn book is out. Why couldn’t some of that shit have been the epilogue? It’s just so annoying that she’s presenting this—being happily married to people you met when you were fucking 11—as the way ALL her characters find lifelong happiness. That is not how life typically works out. Often times you don’t marry someone you met when you were 11. And if you do, you probably aren’t going to stay happy or married. Because like I said before, you change a lot from the time you’re 17 to the time you’re nearly fucking 40. And I know some people are all like “OMG, it’s a fantasy book!” Yeah, a fantasy book that is all about death and war and grief and fucking Nazism and totalitarianism. This fucking epilogue is such mood dissonance. It’s jarring and unpleasant because it’s so overwhelmingly—almost cartoonishly—happy and cutesy.

7. The main characters’ relationships feel a little…incestuous, don’t they? Like, okay here go their little carbon copies—who look just like them and are basically hollow extensions of their parents—off to Hogwarts to have their own adventures! But the core group—Harry (Al or James), Ron (Hugo, maybe), Hermione (Rose) and Ginny (Lily)—are all fucking related. They’ve known each other all their lives. Since we’re basically forced to think of these kids as extensions of their parents it gets creepy because an important dynamic of all the relationships involved the will-they-won’t-they aspect and even unresolved sexual tension. But all these kids are related. And that’s icky, yo.

8. This is a huge problem I have with the whole series: IT’S SO GODDAMN HETERONORMATIVE. There are SO many characters in this series; it is statistically implausible that they are all straight. And what makes it worse is this is a series that is supposed to be all about tolerance. But the only LGBT canon sort-of couple (Dumbledore and Grindewald) nearly fucking leads to another Holocaust. Uhm. Wow. Unfortunate Implications. Her revealing Dumbledore’s sexual orientation after the fact has always seemed tacked on to me; yeah, there are extremely vague hints about their relationship in the book but nothing explicitly stating “They were a couple”. This is something that I have a serious problem with. This is the reason most of my OTPs are queer. I want to see my own sexuality reflected in these characters that I grew up with and love.  I don’t want to feel condescended to after the fact when you say that one of your most important characters is gay. That’s a bullshit move, in my opinion. Taking the coward’s route and waiting until it was safe enough to come out with it does nothing—fucking nothing—for the LGBT community.

So there we have it! This was such a fun if time-consuming project. As always, please leave any comments you may have. Thanks for sticking with me through this! I’m def not going to be reading anymore Harry Potter for a while.

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Checking the children

Why haven’t you checked the children?

The babysitter immediately hangs up the phone and turns to close the shutters on the large living room window. But first she pauses, gazing anxiously at the outside world, and the moment is ripe with vulnerability. The terrifying truth is dawning on her: suburban houses, even this wholesome edifice owned by Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis, are not impregnable. In fact, they’re rather easily infiltrated, if a homicidal madman is so inclined. All that stands between the babysitter and the scary, unknown world is a single pane of glass and a shutter.

I love how the first 20 minutes of When a Stranger Calls (1979) hides this subtext right under the surface. It’s such a perfect adaptation of the classic “Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” urban legend, distilling the story to its essentials and telling it with icy, tension-escalating style. Carol Kane could not be better as the babysitter, either—her wide eyes get across her growing fear even in the long shot pictured above. It’s just a tragedy that the film can’t sustain itself beyond this note-perfect opening and degenerates into momentumless (albeit still beautiful and chilling) detective story territory.

But nonetheless, wow: those 20 minutes make up a deeply scary, economical, insightful short film that’s a damn sight better than most features.

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