Tag Archive for horror film

Funny Purge: The Stranger Invasion

Dramatic sieges against the home, mounted by villains of various stripes, have been cinematic mainstays at least since hunters have had nights and fears have had capes. In fact, horror/thriller sieges waged by monsters and killers are echoes of the sieges waged by dastardly Injuns and others who would thwart the white man’s destiny. Therefore, giving in to the temptation to start this blog by mentioning the “recent” turn toward home invasion in mainstream horror films seems to have way too high a cost in credibility.

In Birth of a Nation (1915), evil blacks (or whites in evil blackface) breach the cabin, almost close enough, at last, to breach the white women. Did George A. Romero see this scene before making a certain 1968 zombie film...?

In Birth of a Nation (1915), evil blacks (or whites in evil blackface) breach the cabin, almost close enough to breach the white women. Did George A. Romero see this scene before making a certain 1968 zombie film…?

So the home invasion thing isn’t recent, but we have had a recent hybridization of classic home invasion with torture porn, a kind of pseudopod of horror’s post-millennial flirtation with decadent extremism.   Consider it a logical mutation: instead of you going to a trap (Saw 2004, Hostel 2005), the trap comes to you. The Collector (2009) is the best connector film here for both on- and off-screen reasons, but somehow the most iconic popular home invasion film is The Strangers (2008), which is arguably indebted to and certainly similar to the French film Them (2004). On the side of the universe more acceptable to the art circuit are Michael Haneke’s two versions of Funny Games (1997, 2007). These films (among others) deal with people coming to the protagonists’ home and wreaking outrageously violent havoc.

Polite young men who don't look at all out of place in the wealthy vacation neighborhood are the invaders. For Haneke, in a Haneke film, violence is not accurately measured in blood and gore.

Polite young men who don’t look at all out of place in the wealthy vacation neighborhood are the invaders. In a Haneke film, violence is not accurately measured in blood and gore.

On June 7, the film The Purge (2012) entered this filmic pseudopod with a well-advertised twist: instead of being randomly kidnapped (Saw and Hostel) or randomly invaded at home (Strangers and Funny Games), these people must deliberately, preparedly defend themselves because it’s the one special night of the year when murder and every other crime are legal. So the haves better have some bulwarks against the have nots.

Movie poster as fictional public service announcement: the premise normalizes the threat, making its very normality a source and subject for the horror.

Movie poster as fictional public service announcement: the premise normalizes the threat, making its very normality a source and subject for the horror.

The Purge‘s focus on the reason, the causal context (“The Purge” is the event, the night, when law is suspended and the narrative conditions are possible) is what makes the movie stand among the best of this pod. Nevermind Ethan Hawke’s good performance–after this one and Sinister (2012), I’m hoping the Genre Has Him–the writing, production values, and cinematography are all interesting enough to rate words like “skilled” and “above average.” Costume design and make-up get serious thumbs up, too.

But the film’s slick goodness alone wouldn’t earn it many bytes in the brain if that slickness didn’t deliver, loud and clear, a message that the other films have been mumbling all along. In Funny Games, people hunt people because excess of privilege devalues life… if we read the ambiguous bad guys in a certain way. In The Strangers, the anonymity of wealthy ranches spaced out along large plots of land makes people isolated and interchangeable (in the near future, you will all be reading brilliant things by Katherine A. Wagner on this topic)… but the film gives no frame of reference for protagonists, antagonists, or locations, so pinning it to particular politics is challenging. With The Purge, no more ifs, and no more hunting for frames of reference [INDIRECT SPOILER ALERT]: it’s about inter- and intra-class warfare projected forward from variables with which we are very familiar. It very carefully lays out issues of race, gender, economics, generational value shifts, freedom vs. security, and so on, and diegetically, it lets people fight them out for a little while.

Ultimately, I think I prefer the crazy ambiguities of Funny Games (not to mention other unmentionables), but that film… those films… also trade a lot on style, whereas The Purge trades on fusing levels of emotional and political catharsis and is, on the whole, very successful. It also uses fairly painless references to its podmates–masks that evoke The Strangers and a lead bad guy who could be one of the young gents from Funny Games–to tell viewers paying attention that it is continuing a conversation about violence, a violence arguably reducible to the fundamental structure of society, begun in the earlier films. And The Purge is not afraid to be un-subtle about structure-of-society stuff while still thrilling us with a delightful violence of its own. That earns my respect.

Public Reading, No Audience: Ballsy, Crazy, Stupid?

Turns out that actor Bill Moseley is intelligent and, at least after talking to him a bit, a heckuva a nice guy. But he freaked me right out when he interrupted the reading I was doing this morning at the Full Moon Horror Festival in Nashville, TN to tell me I was being unfair to atheists. To have someone I didn’t immediately recognize march up on stage and interrupt a public reading that already had me nervous as hell was bad enough, but then to realize that the dude is, in horror circles, pretty much a superstar (Devil’s Rejects, 2005, and many more) felt like my career had just dived into the hungry mouth of an active volcano.

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Mr. Moseley can be quite scary but quite nice, too.

 

Let me back up a bit. To support that novel I keep writing about, Burning the Middle Ground (read it yet? why not? you’re really missing out!), fabulous BlackWyrm Publishing sent me and my partner James to the aforementioned horror festival. Since I was the only author in the BlackWyrm booth, I decided to keep it interesting by doing readings from my work.

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The 10′ x 10′ booth that I tried to make interesting by doing creative readings.

 

If you’ve ever been to one of these festivals, you might be able to imagine the scene around this booth: loud music, people walking by in bizarre (but fascinating and often impressively artistic) costumes, chatting, drinking, and doing anything but paying attention to whatever is being shouted by the vendors lining every aisle and vying for attention. So I was doing the nerd convention equivalent of standing on a street corner in midtown Manhattan reading from an obscure (allegedly holy) text and expecting to convert passersby on their ways to things they actually think are important. But hey–it was either that or do nothing, right? Between crazy street preacher and nothing, I’ll take crazy. Faulkner said that.

Sadly, this morning, I was on the edge of losing my voice from shouting passages from my novel, and my whole plan had been to read the big Easter passages from my novel on Easter morning, so I had to do something. So I got special permission to use the mic on the temporarily unoccupied stage. Eureka! I read a scene in which my good preacher Jeanne Harper preaches the gospel while besieged by demonic ghosts. Before I got to the part where bad preacher Michael Cox starts burning people alive, Bill Moseley concluded that I was actually delivering an Easter sermon.

I almost lost my nerve, but, well, on the edge of total humiliation, I have a tendency to jump right over instead of running and hiding. Mr. Moseley left the stage, and I not only finished my reading, but I marched right over to his booth, broke into his autograph line, and asked him how exactly a story about a preacher who burns people alive is unfair to atheists. A really smart conversation ensued–Moseley needed about two minutes of discussion of what my novel is really about to realize that it’s a quasi-Marxist critique of religion and that my work and his really have quite a lot in common. I gave him a signed copy as a gift, and we parted on good terms. My stomach was in knots, but I think it all turned out for the best. He even said he’d read the book… if the book is ever optioned, I’m imagining how he might perform in the role of my evil preacher Michael Cox… very intriguing….

Not a lot of sales at this convention, but some potentially good exposure, and maybe even a couple of other good stories I could tell. I felt crazy and stupid doing my readings without a (visible) audience, and after I did the reading with the mic, a couple of strangers (who I didn’t even know were listening) told me it was really ballsy. I can’t believe tomorrow is Monday–I totally need a weekend to recover from my weekend, as my nerves are completely fried–but until I really do go crazy or lose my nerve, I’ll keep acting stupid in public in order to share my fiction with fellow aficionados of scary stories that touch every part of the nervous system, brain included.

Angry Birds versus White People

Since Stoker, about which I am appropriately stoked, has not yet come to Louisville, the horror movie this weekend was The Last Exorcism II.

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Ashley Bell struggles with monstrous talents in The Last Exorcism II.

It’s a pretty by-the-numbers white-girl-under-demonic-threat sort of thing, but delightfully cheesy developments toward the end, especially with awkward use of digitally-generated fires, yield a distinct type of pleasure. The film’s greatest pleasure, however, is the masterful performance by Ashley Bell. While I’m pleased when real acting talent gets involved in my genre, horror’s tendency to reduce the living to the soon-dead does not usually allow an actor to develop reasonable emotional depth. The depth of most horror is in the body, not the soul, and we gain access to that depth through cutting implements, not talented expression. The Last Exorcism II doesn’t really need good acting talent, but it has it in Bell; I hope the film will do well enough to get Bell gigs in situations where her gifts will be more fully realized.

dark-skies-new-posterWhite house, white family–singled out by the terrifying bird threat from non-white skies.

Last Exorcism II connects in surprising ways to the horror film of last weekend, Dark Skies. In each film, persecuted protagonists are inside either a church (Exorcism) or a suburban family home (Dark Skieswhen some birds, either through brain damage or insidious supernatural control, kamikaze the building. In each film, it is the first, clearest sign: we are fucked, ladies and gentlemen.

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Hitchcock’s birds get in line to terrorize privileged white people.

 No image of birds gone amok can evade evocations of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). But while Hitchcock’s haunting imagery–one of the best apocalypses in the history of film–shows the birds turning on humanity tout court, the angry birds in these films target only certain embodiments of cultural privilege and assumption, namely, white suburban families.

This targeting is clearer in Dark Skies: it’s fundamentally about upper-middle-class people threatened by an inexplicable Other that wants to knock them out of their proper place in the natural order.The film takes a quite boring turn when it resorts to aliens a-la Whitley Streiber’s Communion,but it is nevertheless relentless in its political representation of normative bourgeois family life. A successful architect father-of-two feels the pain of the crashed economy and has to look for a job, which he finds with relative ease–at least it’s an acknowledgment of joblessness, but architect-level privilege hardly represents the struggles of most people in the post-2008 financial miasma. This well-to-do family still thinks it is downtrodden, though; they feel victimized by cultural circumstances, and they are more victimized as their son shows too much interest in video games and pornography and not enough interest in the values of developing the family unit. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the son’s deviant (heterosexual) interests become, somewhat inexplicably, a central feature of the film’s climax. Within this depiction of an alien threat coming from dark, godless skies, a larger threat associated with challenges to family values beams through clearly. Narrative logic flies out the window, but a right-wing logic that uses, for political purposes, images of the white heterosexual nuclear family under threat… that logic is remarkably coherent. Dark Skies is a nightmare about the normative white, heterosexual family unit being destroyed by outside forces that are just too different to fight or even understand. It is the same nightmare that repeatedly turns right-leaning straight white Americans against Muslims, gays, African Americans, and other minority groups who might look funny in the cul-de-sac.

Readings of Last Exorcism II in relation to similar white bourgeois values and prejudices are necessarily weaker because Ashley Bell’s character, Nell, comes from poor country folk, and the halfway house she ends up joining in New Orleans, shown still resenting FEMA’s (or perhaps Katrina’s) destructive visit, is hardly a site of privilege. Yet Bell plays her character as reserved and demure, a stark contrast to her fellow lower-class orphans–she’s a good little virgin, ready for the proper marriage market. Her white female body is, in a quite standard way, the site on which social contests, here figured as demon versus man, play out and lead to social elevation. And again I don’t want to spoil too much, but it’s worth pointing out that while Dark Skies focuses on the nightmare of suburban white folks losing their claim to power, The Last Exorcism II focuses on the nightmare of the contested figure, the white girl blooming into a sexuality exceeding social norms, crossing over into non-normative ranks. Both films, then, center their horrors on the loss of white privilege and white control of the suburbs, the churches, and bourgeois white folks’ ability to reproduce their own social standing. White flight into the suburbs hasn’t worked. White gentrification of poor urban areas hasn’t worked. The demons of otherness follow our white heroes everywhere, and horror of horrors, the white have to keep moving to maintain the illusion of supremacy.

So, then, what of the birds? Why do the imperiled whities in both films have to confront a bunch of birds dive-bombing places that should be their refuges? As with Hitchcock’s birds, these birds can be manifestations of psychosexual repression, the revenge of nature on the unnatural ways of humanity, eruptions of the unconscious that assert the primacy of irrationality and thereby destroy all assumptions of the Age of Reason. All these things, yes, but more–angry birds, so popular in our techno-culture right now, are Others, figures of the threat now faced by traditionally hegemonic functions of whiteness and heteronormativity, but they’re Others not as obviously equatable to a specific demographic group. In that sense, angry birds are politically correct bad-guy stand-ins for the scary things nice white people don’t talk about anymore.

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Birds are angry. And they’re coming for us.

Black people are not the problem here. Gay people are not the problem. The usual scapegoats, if they appear, appear to do more good than harm. Instead, we have nature itself, birdiness, attacking our white supremes. Nature itself rejects white power and heteronormativity. I’m not saying that in these films the rejection of the oppressors appears to be a good thing. On the contrary, the oppressors’ rejection seems quite scary. These films are the nightmares of what’s happening now, of an economy that dares to touch even our highly talented upper middle-class architects, of growing racial and ethnic populations that turn city after city into pluralities gradually learning to challenge white majority rule with darker-skinned horizons. The birds are politically correct in being no particular Other, but they become all otherness. Privileged white people recognize that the humans who oppose them might have good reason to contest the country’s unfair distribution of resources. They don’t want to do anything about it, of course, so they just have nightmares of the masses–of birds threatening their homes and churches. No one in particular is after them. White people face a generalized badness, Angry Birds, as they face their hegemony’s decline. And these by-the-numbers horror films allow us to see just how horrific social progress can be to those who have the most to lose.