Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Horror and an outsider like me

"We are the weirdos, mister." -- The Craft

Horror is a sanctuary for the outsider. It is a realm where the monster can be beautiful, and the pretty boy may turn out to be a sociopath. It a place where being a little off of the norm may give you insights that save your life. Within a horror movie the quiet girl tortured by the cruel popular girls might tear those popular girls apart.

Horror can provide an outlet to speak and deal with things that might not be so easily dealt with in a more "proper" genre -- things like death, sexuality, the supernatural, faith.

Given these qualities of horror, it's not surprising that an outsider like myself is in love with the genre. I have lived a large percentage of my life in the conservative, Republican, Christian/Mormon state of Idaho. I however am a liberal, Democrat, Wiccan, bisexual. So yeah, I can relate to the idea of having a side one has to hide, a power that others don't understand, a desire people don't understand. I hungered to see such visions on a screen and find stories that resonated with mine. It was horror that filled that void.

I can relate to the stories and characters in a horror film. I can't relate to the ultra polished perfect world of a romantic comedy. I have known fright. I have known cruelty. I have known magic. I have known death. I have fought to survive. I have lived in the world of horror. So far no Hugh Grant, or Hugh Jackman for that matter, has whisked me into a land of romantic comedy.

And where oh where is a gal like me going to look for role models? In horror I can find female characters like Clarice Starling in Silence of The Lambs that I would love to emulate. It's not like I'm the kind who could imitate the flaky females in Sex and City. I tend to believe the percentage of examples of female empowerment runs a bit higher in horror than in other genres.

Horror gave me a way of dealing with rejection and self-hatred. If you are thought of as a monster, hated and despised for your very nature, you can either die from that or be empowered by that. There were times growing up that I felt I could have been very happily at home among Clive Barker's Nightbreed. They were rejected by the majority, but they were beautiful, powerful, magical. I was grateful for such stories because I could find a sense of sanctuary in them.

Horror also provided a non-harmful means to vent anger and other negative emotions. Carrie could take out most of the senior class, I could rejoice in her vengeance and didn't have to go through such things myself.

So I am grateful that the writers, directors, actors, and artists who come together to create horror films have a love for the outsider and tell stories that others won't tell. I'm just one of the "weirdos" that will happily take their ride again and again. In return they are the friends that help get me through the night.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Time for the Death of the Scream Queen?

Screaming women have long been a staple of horror films. It seems to be paired with the idea that women who watch horror films are holding on for dear life to their men as they peek at the screen through their fingers.

But women have evolved over the past decades. We hold a greater variety of positions in society. We work out and have healthy, strong bodies. We run households by ourselves. Ever so slowly we are becoming more in touch with our power as women. The vision that women hold of themselves has changed and continues to change. And with this comes a desire to see that vision of strong heroic womanhood portrayed in the media.

Horror provides the perfect place for a character arc where a young woman becomes empowered. This has been done quite masterfully in films like Silence of the Lambs, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, The Descent, Scream and others. We rejoice at women who use their smarts, heart, intuition, and physical strength to survive and, yes, even kick butt when the situation requires it.

But horror hasn't quite fully quite caught up. We have one horror device that needs to either die or be transformed -- the scream queen. Now my objection does not come at the portrayal of women being afraid, letting out screams of surprise, or even wanting a partner to help work through a situation. My objection comes when the hysteria of a character is so complete that it basically immobilizes them, makes them useless, and all they do is high shrill screeching while people die around them. I especially have a problem with a movie if all of the female characters have this trait.

I'll give an example of what I mean. I'll preface by saying Jennifer Carpenter is one of my favorite actresses. I think her range and abilities are pretty limitless. She is appealing, warm, fun, vulnerable, loving, beautiful on the screen. She has given performances that define both female strength and the kind of scream queen I have a problem with.

Her performance in The Exorcism of Emily Rose is Oscar worthy. What she manages to do with her body and voice is incredible. And her performance of vulnerability, faith, fear, and being slowly taken by the demon is breathtakingly believable. Yes, she is afraid. Yes, she wants help. But she realizes her power in the end, the power of her journey to awaken the faith in others. It is a strong character arc -- full of all that is beautifully female -- compassion, empathy, love, intuition, and creation.

Now Jennifer also brings us the kind of character I have a hard time with in Quarantine. This character does little more than be hysterical as things fall apart and people die. She screams so much you want to kind of smack her to wake her up, hand her a knife and say "Do something useful! Help us here!" If she wasn't the center of the movie it might not have grated on my nerves as much. But I was sad because I couldn't get behind her, root for her.

Of course this issue crosses genre boundaries into books, games, television shows. I think it tells a lot about how women are viewed when we have female game characters that have to be rescued, protected, and seem to almost be trying through their lack of intelligence to get killed. It says just as much when the female character is a valuable asset that saves or helps the other characters.

The creators of horror need to realize that sexism impacts their wallets. I still have not seen the movie version of The Ruins because I just could not stand any of the female characters in the book. And there are many movies after watching I would tell people to stay away from. I am the one doling out the funds for a ticket, book, or game and I won't support such negative visions of female worth.

I think it is time that women call for the kind of female characters they want to see, read about, or play as. We need to reject visions of females as only good for some kind of perverse sexual bloody death. We need to be on the front lines as artists, writers, and directors creating the vision of womanhood we want to see. Maybe then the old scream queen can die and a stronger, more fully realized and empowered scream queen can emerge.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Movie Review: 1408

An open letter to Stephen King…
Dear Mister King,
Big fan. Love the work. Think you are marvelous and so glad we’ve blessed by your fabulous stories.
But man. What happened to you when you stayed at the Stanley Hotel? I mean The Shining, 1408 and heaven knows what else must have come from what happened there.
And can I just say what took place…as a reader and viewer I’m glad it did.
Thanks for scaring the Hell out of us.

For all those who like a good haunting tale. For all those who enjoy the cuteness, wit, and talent that is John Cusack. And for all who just like to be taken on a great ride and get sucked into a movie for an hour and a half. Look no further. 1408 has arrived. Yes, the latest movie based on a Stephen King short story has hit. And happily it’s a rousing success.

John Cusack’s Mike Enslin is a man who really has wished that he could find something to believe in. But he’s a cynic whose heart was broken by the tragic loss of his daughter, Katie, and the resulting falling apart of his loving marriage. Enslin may be an author who makes his living writing about giving people chills, but inside he has lost all faith and is broken apart.

So when he gets a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel warning not to enter 1408, he sees it as a clever marketing ploy to be written up in his next spooky travel guide. He is even more intrigued when the manager Gerald Olin, played by the always stunning Samuel L. Jackson, refuses to let him stay in the room and goes out of his way to try change Enslin’s mind about having an overnight stay. He offers Enslin several ways to get a story on the room without risk, all of course are rejected immediately. The banter between Enslin and Olin is just priceless. Both are determined and fast-witted as all get out. It is worth the price alone to see these two play off each other. Without mellow drama or a tragic backstory, Olin perfectly sums up what is going on with room 1408 when he drops the gem of a line, “It’s an evil f*!@#ing room.”

Yep it is.

But it also has a wicked sense of humor. Steven King’s tale does for the Carpenters’ sweet song, “We’ve only just begun” what Reservoir Dogs did to “Stuck in the middle with you.” It has claimed the song and made it forever connected in the minds of readers and viewers with the story.

The room practically says “Uht-uht uht” and wags a finger at Enslin when he consults the emergency exit map in the room to devise a manner of getting out. After one failed attempt, he returns to the map and find the only thing listed is 1408 and it is like the rest of the universe outside of it has vanished.

Because Cusack is such a good comedic actor and is best known for his fast paced dialogue delivery in gems like Say Anything, Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity, I don’t think that people have really comprehended just how good Cusack is. Look no further. During the battle with the room he has brief interactions with his wife, his lost daughter and even Olin, but it has almost a feel of a one-man show at times. And you are riveted. Yes, he brings an engaging humor, but Cusack also gives you a man who has felt so much terror that he fears having a complete breakdown. He shows all the grief and love of a father who has lost a beloved daughter to death and a beloved wife to his grief. Finally he turns that corner from fear to almost serenely and coldly fighting back.

I was very moved when Enslin is given a precious moment with his dead child. Here she stands alive again before him, and even his instinct that is it just another trick can’t overcome his heart when his daughter asks him, doesn’t he love her any more?

But I particularly enjoyed the hint of how wonderfully wicked Cusack could be if someone cast him as a bad guy. There is a moment where he manages to communicate with his estranged wife via video chat on his laptop computer and the room takes over projecting an image of him asking for her immediate help and drawing her to the hotel room. When the conversation is over and she exits the chat dialogue screen, Enslin’s chatroom live streaming image that the room is projecting looks right at the real Enslin and gives a delicious, evil wink and grin. Please cast him as a villain NOW people! We are missing out!

Director Mikael Hafstrom achieves both a sense of claustrophobia and an even scarier feeling that the room can basically become a broad encompassing universe. He knows how to rev up the dread and release it. He also doesn’t play to the cheap thrills. This is brilliantly paced and engaging. It is what a great haunting story should be. We are treated to laughs, to screams and a great battle. I now will have to watch Derailed for more than just Clive Owen since it is also done by Hafstrom.

Yeah, 1408…it’s an evil f*!@#ing room, but it’s one also one of the best and most fun movies I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy in a while.

Video Vamp Rating: 4 Roses

Movie Review: A Haunting in Connecticut

A Haunting in Connecticut might be a case where knowing less is more. I can't help but wonder if those people who are interested in the paranormal and familiar with the cases of Ed and Lorraine Warren might be taken out of the movie a bit as they notice the differences from the real case. Perhaps not. I can only judge from my own experience. I came to this movie only having a superficial knowledge of the real case, but knowledge enough to know that it does stretch the "based on a true story" concept.

But not being tied to a preconceived notion, the movie worked for me. I jumped. I squealed. I cried. I was moved. I can't ask for much more out of a movie than to be drawn into the experience.

The story hinges around the Campbell family which has a child fighting against cancer and appears to be nearing the end of his battle. The family is pretty much at their wits end in terms of financial stress, emotional stress, and the burden of long drives to get treatment for the son, Matt, who is played with heartbreaking depth by Kyle Gallner.

The family in an effort to ease the stress for all decides to rent a house closer to where Matt's treatments take place. The mother, Sara (played by the always excellent Virgina Madsen), makes an executive decision on renting a home that seems perfect for the family despite its history as a mortuary.

Though some may feel it slows the movie's pacing, I felt the scenes of family stress were very effective. They drew me in and made me care about this family which is facing the devastation of losing a child. Virgina Madsen is a fierce, protective, loving mother in this film. When she breaks down, the viewer can't help but sympathize.

Once the family is firmly established in their new residence, the family is subjected to various phenomena of haunting. Dark figures appear beside them. Things are rearranged. Electric light shows take place. The most affected by this is Matt. It is reasoned by Reverend Popescu, played by the charismatic Elias Koteas, that perhaps Matt's enhanced experience is due to his closeness to death. Credit must be given to Koteas who steals every scene he is in. His work here is perfection.

The film takes you into the past of the home and its frightening history. Director Peter Cornwell does a very deft job of tweaking color to give a sense of atmosphere and brilliantly edits between the modern day events and the past. It was very well done and could have been less effective in unskilled hands. The entities that are in the house have an original, eerie look. They are intimidating and frightening. Definitely something that would make you scream if you opened your eyes from a deep sleep to find one standing beside you.

I should comment too on the house. The art and set design give the place a very creepy feel. Like Amityville Horror, the movie wouldn't work if the house didn't work.

Yes,this film has the usual expected scary sound cues and flashes of specters that make up the "cheap thrills" of any horror movie. Yes, it has dread and gore enough to satisfy most who desire that. But what makes this movie go beyond a token horror film is the depth, heart, and journey of the characters.

Gallner's performance defines the movie for me. He really carries the weight of the illness and the haunting manifestations in his posture, his expressions, his physical reactions to things. We watch him break further and further down, until he finds the answer to the house's mystery and becomes empowered. His journey is ours.

The ending of movie honestly did present some difficulties for me. It seemed that there may have been some editing that left out key information. The soundtrack at the end took me out of the movie a bit due to too much melodrama. But praise for and satisfaction in this movie definitely overwhelmed any minor disappointments. A high recommend for fans of the paranormal and horror, and one I look forward to seeing again.

Video Vamp Rating: 3 Roses

Friday, April 3, 2009

Movie Review: Re-Cycle

When novelist Ting-Yin (played by Angelica Lee, The Eye) decides to delve into the supernatural for her next book, she opens a door to another realm. The world she is transported to is the home of the ideas, objects, places, and people that we have abandoned.

As the movie opens Ting-Yin is struggling with the writing of her latest novel, Re-Cycle. At a press conference where the book is announced, she is asked if she has ever seen a ghost. She answers that she hasn’t and that even though she is afraid, she still wants that experience. She wants to feel “terror that wells up from the heart.”

As she writes, the boundaries between art and life break down. She has paranormal experiences that inspire her writing and also her writing seems to come to life. The Pang brothers are masters of using everyday things to inspire dread. One example of this is when Ting-Yin comes home to find long strands of black hair by her kitchen sink – strands that couldn’t possibly from her short locks and seem to fit a character she had begun writing about and then abandoned. The fright at knowing a stranger has been in her home is palpable.

After a few experiences in the real world, Ting-Yin crosses over completely into the realm of the abandoned. Danny and Oxide Pang create a breathtaking visual world that is both filled with horrors and aching beauty. Indeed, the brothers are as talented at making the audience scream out loud in fright as they are at breaking their hearts. And they never fail to deliver a movie that has as much soul as it has eye-candy.

Thrown into this strange world, Ting-Yin seeks the assistance of the few kindly people she finds. She is told she cannot stay in the realm for the abandoned and she affirms she wants to return to her realm but doesn’t know how. She is told that she needs to journey to a place called The Transit and that it wouldn’t be possible for to reach this place alone. A young girl she comes to call Ting-Yu leads her through the various frightening and beautiful obstacles. The relationship between the two actresses is natural and very touching. It is the love between the two that leads Ting-Yin back to herself and to her realm.

The idea of a realm for the abandoned is fascinating. As Ting-Yu says, everyone has things they want to forget. But in making the choice to abandon something, we are also making the choice to abandon all of the potential that may exist in that piece of art, that relationship, or whatever it maybe.

With Re-Cycle Danny and Oxide Pang weave a haunting reminder of the responsibility and power of creativity in all of its forms and the importance of respecting our past and our ancestors.

Video Vamp Rating: 4 Roses