Tag Archives: body horror

Ten Scary Simpsons Moments

By Andreas

[This list is being crossposted on the terrific Simpsons-centric blog Dead Homer Society. Go check them out!]

“Cool, she’ll be a freak!” – Bart

To have an annual Halloween episode is one thing. To freely cram shocking, ghoulish imagery into otherwise normal episodes of a family sitcom is another. But then, The Simpsons‘ writers and animators never had much interest in following formulas or obeying TV conventions, preferring to meld their own savagely satirical experiments with an emotionally naturalistic representation of family life. This, and the fluid nature of its animation, meant that the show could veer from mundane reality to nightmarish fantasy in the blink of an eye.

Here, then, are ten of the most WTF-inspiring, pants-wetting moments from Simpsons continuity. They’re all bizarre, deeply terrifying digressions, but each one still adds depth to its episode. I give you the crème de la crème of The Simpsons‘ out-of-nowhere scares…

[Warning: Disturbing images below!]

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American Narcississt

By Andreas

More than any of the countless grisly murders, this is the moment in American Psycho (2000) that really creeps me out. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is having wild sex with two prostitutes in assorted positions, all while a camera runs and Phil Collins’ “Sussudio” plays in the background. But the sex and the women aren’t the focal points of this scene: no, it’s the self-absorbed Patrick, who ogles himself over and over again in the mirror, flexing and pointing and winking.

Earlier in the film, Patrick details his morning routine, making it clear that’s obsessed with his physical appearance. He has no internal life, he has no meaningful relationships; all he has is his brutal, muscular, exactingly maintained body, which he uses to inspire terror (maybe?) in others. So it makes sense that during an expensive, long-lasting threesome, he doesn’t pay any attention to the women other than to order them around. The only part of sex that really pleasures him is admiring the attractive, powerful body that’s having the sex.

Here, Patrick’s “perfect” body isn’t an object to lust after, because the entire concept of sexual desire has been perverted and rendered wholly icky. It’s really not surprising that David Cronenberg initially had his eyes on adapting Ellis’s novel, because it’s prime body horror material. Bale is undoubtedly sexy, but he’s also physically freakish and monstrous. He’s like Charles Atlas by way of The Fly, gone down the path where self-improvement becomes self-obsession. The sterile white apartment around him just makes it worse: this is an orgy with all the sensuality sucked out of it. Only Patrick’s pathological narcissism is left.

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In Heaven, Everything Is Fine

In Lynchland, though, it’s a different story altogether. That’s because this week’s entry in The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series is David Lynch’s bombshell of a first feature, Eraserhead (1977). If you only know one thing about Eraserhead and its imagery, it should be this: they’re gross and disturbing. In Lynch’s distorted vision of human relationships, sexual anxieties get literalized with all the oozing pus and foam you could ask for. It’s the kind of movie that makes me go, “Ew! Ew! No! Put down those scissors!” for like a solid minute. Compared to all those grotesque mutations, my choice for best shot is relatively innocuous:

At this point in the film, protagonist Henry Spencer’s wife Mary is all fed up with their mutant baby’s constant yammering, so she’s moved back in with her parents. With her away, Henry takes a chance on the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, and they start getting intimate… when the Beautiful Girl spots that icky, whining baby. On the most basic level, then, this shot is about how much of a turn-off babies (especially mutant babies) are. The second Henry’s paramour gets an eyeful of his weird-looking offspring, she goes back across the hall, and he remains sexually frustrated for the rest of the film.

It’s also very visually striking. Like the rest of Eraserhead, it’s shot with extremely low lighting and low contrast, so it’s hard to tell where Henry’s face ends and the Beautiful Girl’s face begins. It’s like we’re gazing down at a fleshy nocturnal landscape. (It also reminds me of René Magritte’s painting The Kiss.) These two distinctly unhappy people look for some pleasure by frantically groping and kissing one another—but in Eraserhead‘s sick world, it’s never that easy. It’s all too appropriate, in a film that represents sex as a disgusting ordeal of writhing and fluids, for this little tryst to end with the Beautiful Girl’s eyes bulging out in terror.

In Eraserhead, everything’s ever so slightly off-kilter, psychologically and visually. No one talks like real people, and nothing looks quite like its real-world analogue. This makes the tiny resemblances to real life that much scarier. In Henry and Mary’s dysfunctional relationship, in their screaming baby, in the depressing emptiness of their apartment, and in the utter gloominess of their environment, we can see little echoes of very real horrors and everyday problems.

In the image above (my second-favorite shot), the perpetually put-upon Henry raises his eyebrow; his misery is tinged, for once, with curiosity. In the background, Mary clings to a door while her father, the impotent patriarch, perches at the head of the table. (His face is obscured by Henry’s strange, massive hair.) This is Lynch’s perverse take on the nuclear family and their domestic milieu. This shot’s just barely canted, with the composition and the many shades of gray geared to indicate that something’s, well, off. Get out, Henry. Get out while you still can.

I’ll end with an illustration of Eraserhead‘s overwhelming ickiness, as Henry is enveloped by a metaphor for his own sexual anxieties. I have one word for this: YUCK.

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Gross horror and pleasant anime: two great tastes that taste…odd together.

[This post is written by both of us in support of the Japanese Cinema Blogathon for Japan earthquake and tsunami relief, hosted by Cinema-Fanatic and Japan Cinema. Check them out and please donate if you can.]


Andreas:

This may be a colossal understatement, but here goes: Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a really fucking weird movie. It’s short, cheap, and to the point, communicating through gory, rapid-fire sequences that blaze past in the blink of an eye. This makes the film as a whole pretty difficult to follow, since it often comes across as a particularly hazy, frenetic nightmare. Add in the fact that none of the characters have names, and that the dialogue is minimal, and you can see why I’m not even sure if I saw a film. Maybe I just imagined it. Could a string of images and sounds as intensely, off-puttingly gruesome as Tetsuo really exist?

Well… yes. I guess. The impression I got of the film’s plot was, roughly, this: a panting madman (played by the director) impales his leg with a metal rod. It gets infected. He runs in front of a car and gets run over. Later, the driver of the car notices a gross chunk of metal sticking out of his cheek. He tries to remove it, and (naturally) it sprays pus all over the place. After that, I’m lost. The man tries to go to work, and gets chased by a fellow commuter who’s turning into a cyborg—or maybe not? He goes home, where he has fatal drill-penis sex with his horny, wild-eyed girlfriend after some surreal foreplay—or, again, maybe not?

The rest of the movie involves yet more sped-up chase scenes, violently phallic imagery, and stop-motion transformations. Just imagine the movie Videodrome on amphetamines, with an even more inscrutable storyline. That’s Tetsuo in a nutshell. Overwhelming and gratuitous as the film may be, there’s still a dizzying, demented genius in how earnestly and resourcefully Tsukamoto executes his vision. At heart, it’s a nonstop, nonverbal battle between metal and flesh, with each one ferociously preying on the other; the audience is left to say “Eww!” or “WTF?” Or both.

Ashley:

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT: PONYO!

Let’s take the edge off a bit, shall we? I’ve written about Ponyo before; it’s one of my favorite feel-good movies, right up there with Harvey. It is the ultimate example of what a kid’s movie can be: sweet and pleasant without all the pandering, condescending bullshit. You don’t have to have a “kid’s” movie full of double entendres, coded language, hidden imagery, or obscure parallelism (although I ain’t knocking that kind of animated film; I need more of it in my life) for it to be clever, cute, and appealing to a broad audience. Miyazaki’s effortlessly beautiful hand-drawn underwater worlds and his impish little Ponyo are totally irresistible. Sadly, I’m very short on time so I can’t get too in depth about the film but I will leave you with a number of lovely images.

Thanks to Cinema-Fanatic and Japan Cinema for hosting this great blogathon! Please donate if you can!


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Demons and disability in Jacob’s Ladder

Not long ago, I wrote a piece about Adrian Lyne’s nightmarish horror movie Jacob’s Ladder (1990), starring Tim Robbins. I thought, and continue to think, that it’s an uneven movie whose meandering, occasionally saccharine plot threads are balanced out by all of the shocking, phantasmagoric imagery. Well, imagine my surprise when I was paging through a book of photographs in my American Studies class the other day, and happened across the inspiration for one of the most unforgettable images in all of Jacob’s Ladder!

Some background: this class is called “Extraordinary Bodies in American Culture,” and we were examining the photography of Diane Arbus and Joel-Peter Witkin in relation to early 20th century freak shows. The photograph in question is Witkin’s Indulgences Man with No Legs from 1976, collected in Gods of Earth and Heaven. You can see more of Witkin’s work in this blog or this official gallery, but be warned: it’s very, very NSFW, and contains distorted, sexualized, and grotesquely posed images of disabled people and corpses.

Sexualizing and distorting human bodies was pretty much Witkin’s stock-in-trade. It’s easy, therefore, to see why he was such a major influence on Ladder‘s hyperkinetic demons. Although much of his work was done within the past 30-40 years, it’s often so grainy, blurry, and scratched-up that it looks older – as if consigned to some ahistorical netherworld. He casually mixes costumes, gestures, and backdrops in his photographs to evoke disparate sectors of life: a single Witkin photo can suggest BDSM practices, police brutality, Renaissance paintings, carnival sideshows, archaic medical technology, and more.

Certainly Indulgences conjures up numerous eras and activities with its ambiguous, faceless subject. It also raises countless questions, starting with “Why is his face covered?” When coupled with the raised, boxlike structure he’s sitting on, it reminds me of kidnappings – an uncomfortable association, and probably one that Witkin’s aiming for. It’s also very dehumanizing, and this is a consistent feature of Witkin’s work: his disabled subjects are invariably masked, veiled, or facing away from the camera. It feels like Witkin uses disability to facilitate an otherworldly atmosphere.

As much as I respect the bold, confrontational spirit of his artistry, I find this manipulation of human bodies extremely problematic. It’s especially revealing to look at Jacob’s Ladder, where similar distortion effects are used in conjunction with rapid-fire editing in order to code disability and facelessness as hellish and frightening. This intersection of popular cinema with very marginal photography could prove a useful avenue for further research into the relationship between disability and horror; till then, I think I’ll try to not look at Witkin’s shudder-inducing photographs.

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Francis Bacon scares me

Tonight I was reading about Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, and the painting itself really, deeply started to creep me out. It’s not hard to see why: Bacon fucks with Velázquez’s classicism, tearing the composition apart with those rippling vertical lines. With its open mouth, the once-papal figure looks terrified, as if it’s being torn apart. It’s very dynamic, yet very ghostly. It’s a pleasant reminder that horror in visual art is not confined to film.

It’s also not surprising that Bacon’s nightmarish, agony-stricken canvases would have echoes in later cinematic horrors. Famously, a shot of a corpse suspended from a cage in The Silence of the Lambs was based on Bacon’s Figure with Meat. The Screaming Pope is also strikingly similar to the poster for David Cronenberg’s Scanners. The works of both Bacon and Cronenberg are heavily concerned with the pliability and deformation of human flesh, a topic that’s inherently a source of horror. Death to Velázquez, long live the new flesh?

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Uzumaki: Spirals and Sanity

[The following was written by both us as part of the Film Club over at the horror blog Final Girl; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like spiral patterns in an otherwise normal room.]

Ashley:

I first saw Uzumaki several years ago when I was deep in my anime/Japanese culture phase; I watched any Japanese film I happened upon and this was one of them. My best friend and I had no clue what the movie was trying to say or do but it freaked us out and we liked that. I saw it a few more times after that, enough times for it to be nestled warmly in the back of my brain as one of my favorite strange films. Watching it again as an older, much more intelligent person than my12-year-old self I am, delightfully and frustratingly enough, left with the same questions I had then.

Uzumaki tells the tale of the small town Kurouzu, its inhabitants, and the dark infestation slowly plaguing them. The town seems off from the start; green filters give the town and its denizens an eerie, sickly look and no one really acts natural or at ease. The film sets up an odd kind of wackiness, bordering  on dark comedy.

SURPRISE! Silly, creepy stalker! Odd, weirdly funny moments like this create an unsettled atmosphere, setting the stage for the weirdness to come. And come it does. We first see signs of (more extreme) weirdness in the form of Shuichi’s, one of our main characters, father filming snails, or more specifically the spiral shapes of their shells. Shuichi confides in Kirie, our final girl, that his father has been exhibiting this kind of odd behavior for awhile and has acquired a disturbingly large collection of spiral-shaped items. After his father’s (very spirally) suicide, this vortex-sickness seeps into the rest of the town.

Something that I found myself continually struck with was the obliviousness and nonchalance exhibited by some of the characters: as the crematorium’s smoke creates an ominous black spiral in the sky that curls down into the depths of Dragonfly Pond, one girl looks on impassively, stating, “It spirals like that when they cremate someone…” During a news report on the bizarre happenings of the town, a reporter matter-of-factly comments on the suicides, deaths, and people-transforming-into-snail phenomena. Kirie herself is infuriatingly unaware of the seriousness of the situation despite the fact that she’s witnessed horror after horror. The only sane man it seems is Shuichi, who from the very start, even before the terror starts really manifesting itself, tells Kirie that he wants them to leave. But as the unease and terror mounts, as the bodies start to pile (and twist) up, no one makes the move to get the hell out until it’s way too late.

Along this same vein, the few people who do try to figure out what is going on either end up caught by the spiral and dead or their information goes nowhere. There is an awesome research-montage that gives us literally not one answer. It implies some things but leaves us no closer to any answer about what the origin of the spiral obsession is. Is it the town itself? Is it one person (perhaps Shuichi’s father?) who has contaminated the rest? How are these people turning into huge snails? What the fuck is going on? And the ending leaves us completely unsatisfied. What happened to Kirie? She has to be alive in some way; she’s telling the story, as evidenced by the opening and closing shots:

Uzumaki is a strange creature in both concept and execution. The idea of a town under some sinister influence is not new, but it’s very rare for the villain to be so abstract and have no discernible origin. In the film, there is no master spiral, no madman run amok. Just a very strange town with a very strange disease.

Andreas:

I’d only ever heard little tidbits about this film (aside from the fact that the title meant “spiral”) so I was mostly blind going in. My first impression was one of overwhelming weirdness: the opening scenes of this film take for granted that the audience will expect a Japanese horror movie to be weird. As Ashley discussed, we’re placed into a very grotesque, absurd world even before the blatant “horror” aspect of the film comes into play.

Kirie’s state of constant disorientation, Yamaguchi’s obnoxious behavior (and the confusing angles from which it’s photographed), and then the obsession consuming Shuchi’s father from the first second we see him onscreen – it all works to establish a baseline tolerance for weirdness in this movie, which makes it that much easier to make the leap over when things get really weird. In retrospect, it makes you feel like maybe something was wrong with the townspeople all along, and maybe it was only a matter of time before their little quirks spiraled into the abyss of psychosis.

Why spirals, anyway? While talking about this movie, Ashley and I mulled over comparisons from the movie The Birds to the graphic novel Black Hole. But Uzumaki (even if it doesn’t quite match those works’ terrifying heights) brings something new to the table: its “enemy,” if you can call it that, is so intangible, so omnipresent, and so inexplicable. I’ll even go out on a limb and compare it to a movie Ashley and I recently saw, Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning The White Ribbon, which is a world away from J-horror.

Yet they do have similarities: in both films, you can’t definitively trace the source of the violence. In Uzumaki, it’s never resolved what sparked the outbreak, the curious quasi-disease that afflicts the town, person by person. And in both films, the contagion is rife with potential purposes, meanings, and outcomes, all of which remain tantalizingly undetermined. In The White Ribbon, this leads to question after question. Did the same evil that affected the children lead to Nazism? Did it come from their puritanical upbringings, from the brutal authority of their fathers, or were they intrinsically cruel?

In Uzumaki, we can similarly wonder why and how this had to happen. Apparently, Junji Ito’s original manga spells out that it’s caused by a spiral shrine buried underground, but even this doesn’t really clear up what end is served by the bizarre symptoms and self-destructive actions exhibited by the townsfolk. Who does it benefit? What consciousness would have willed this plague into existence? The answers are just out of reach, and the only person who might find them dies in a car crash toward the end of the movie without tying up any of the mysteries.

But after all, it’s much more fun to observe everyone’s responses to the unthinkable catastrophe engulfing them. The film’s attitude toward its characters is well-balanced, alternating between initial sympathy for the horrors they’re experiencing, and then a more detached, humorous view as they fail to keep up with the accelerating disasters. This even devolves into open mockery as Kirie’s reactions – like clinging to Shuichi and restating her undying love – show that she’s in the wrong kind of movie. She fancies herself a romantic heroine, but in the increasingly distorted universe of body horror that is Uzumaki, there’s no place for sentiment. Only insanity, or else an absurd acceptance that death (or far worse) is right around the corner.

Another little point of comparison for Uzumaki: John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy. I have yet to see Prince of Darkness, but I noticed a lot of parallels with The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness. The books of Sutter Cane and the madness/mutations they cause are much more literal, straightforward, and less interesting than the spirals of Uzumaki, but all these films share the common theme of characters encountering virulent forces which will probably destroy mankind.

The grim ending – where the maddening power of the spirals appears to be spreading and spreading – is especially interesting when you look at the middle portion of Uzumaki. Before the parade of grisly suicides, accidents, and dismemberments that precede Shuichi’s demise, the townsfolk try to cope with the onslaught as best they can. Shuichi’s spirophobic mother is hospitalized; they get over his father’s death and the ensuing spiral of ashes; and kids keep going to school despite the occasional snail-like deformity or out-of-control spiral hair.

One moral to take away from the film (other than “We’ll all turn into spirals and die someday”) is how easy it is for people to accept very sick situations if they’re imposed very gradually, just like the story of the boiling frog. Sure, they’ll note the incredibly fucked-up events surrounding them, but then they’ll go on with their lives. Shuichi twice says that he wants to leave town, but each time he and Kirie find some excuse for staying. On this level, I think, Uzumaki is not just perversely WTF, but also at times wickedly funny.

It takes the subgenre of horror movies wherein small towns are infested with some form of evil, then twists it out to the furthest possible extreme, until it has shades of cunning self-parody. For the most part, it’s a pretty flawed movie that sometimes feels like it’s only grasping for shock value, but at these moments it contains visible horror genius.

So all in all I feel like Uzumaki is a mixed bag. It’s certainly frightening – the words “washing machine” and “corpse” should be enough to confirm that – and this works effectively with its own sick brand of Japanese humor. It doesn’t hand out any satisfying answers, but still keeps you from wondering, Then what was the point? It’s a very queer bird of a movie, and more or less defines the phrase “not for all tastes,” but to the horror fan it offers a very dark vision of spirally chaos encroaching on an already weird world. And snail-people. More than enough snail-people.

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