Archive for Film and Media

Christmas Dystopia: The Real Season of Fear

‘Tis the season to be afraid.

No, I’m not confusing the Holiday Season—fuck it, I mean the Christmas Season—with Halloween. I mean the real season of horror, the one when the days are shortest, when Winter is not only Coming but finally Gets Here. The one when if, at least in some parts of the world, you’re kept out of the inn, you might freeze to death… if the creatures of the long night don’t rip you and your newborn to pieces first.

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Winter is here: Jasen Dixon of Ohio anticipates the Resurrection as a symbol of changing seasons with a zombie nativity scene.

If you pay attention to, well, people who know things, you know that the Jesus Christ of the Bible wasn’t born in late December but likely in April, but the Catholic Church decided many moons ago that timing His birthday around big pagan party time, already existing Solstice celebrations, would lubricate conversion. Christmas goes hand in hand with Easter: the coming and going of the cold months, the hard months—the birth, death, and resurrection of the Savior—fit neatly together, becoming a package of holidays to celebrate light at the beginning and end of the year’s greatest darkness (at least in the globe’s northern hemisphere).

My point is that historically, Christmas Day itself is a symbol of light deliberately placed in the middle of great darkness, and as such it calls attention to the dark mire it would illuminate. And for many of us in the Christmas Belt, an accessory that holds up much of the world’s economy around this time of year, it does. I paraphrase a line from the Christmas horror film—one of many—Gremlins (1984), which made a deep impression on me as a child: commenting that “the suicide rate’s always the highest around the holidays,” a character remarks of some unhappy people, “While everybody else opens up presents, they’re opening up their wrists.”

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I suppose seasonal affective disorders (the SADs!) could explain a lot of the suicides, as well as the popularity of my genre around this time—more about that in a moment—but I think not, and I don’t think many of you readers would let me go with such a facile explanation, either, because if you’re a grown-up who finds the idea of a strange man invading your house via chimney more terrifying than otherwise, you know that this time of “magic” has a lot to do with the Dark Side of the Force.

Let us consider, then, five reasons beyond seasonal affect why this season is one of darkness and doom. Afterwards, I’ll close with something less depressing, but first, I’ll note that all five of these reasons are major themes of everyone’s favorite Christmas horror story—not the one about putting an eye out, which is horrific enough—but Charles Dickens’s story about ghosts that gleefully torture an old man, “A Christmas Carol:” dickenschristmascarol

  1. Money. This year, like every year recently, I tuned into news on Black Friday and heard both stories: first, retailers were disappointed by people not spending enough, and second, retailers were beset by outrageous violence committed by people too desperate to spend. ‘Tis the season to spend on yourself, on others, and there’s never enough. You never get enough or give enough, and in the process of being inadequate, you do damage to yourself and others. You feel your inadequacy and the damage you do, and do you feel good about giving and receiving? Of course not. You feel like the shit of the capitalist world.
  2. Charity. Santas and others ring bells outside grocery stores and everywhere else, trying to guilt people into giving to strangers while they’re trying to stretch their budgets far enough to accommodate everyone on their lists. Let’s face it, the world is falling apart. It needs people to be charitable, and we all know, as Bernie Sanders keeps reminding us, that most of the wealth is going into the pockets of 1/10 of 1% of the population and just disappearing there, so the rest of us are supposed to sustain the exploding population with the scraps, but we… can’t… do it. So, defeated, most of us don’t even try very hard, or at all. And we just feel shitty about it, because shitty feelings are really all we have to spare.
  3. Love. Speaking of things we all want but don’t get enough of, what but pictures of beautiful people enjoying each other’s fond company as they revel in gifts can remind us better of what we don’t have? More poignant than the missing presents is the missing people, and for every person who’s happy in love, you can find two who have lost each other, or who have each other but have lost whatever brought them together, or who never found one another to begin with. As the nights get longer, people get lonelier, and the illusion that everyone is celebrating togetherness underscores loneliness like nothing else can.
  4. Age and Death. People have more to lose than romance. Christmas magic, if it worked for you at all, probably worked for that short span of years when your brain was underdeveloped and you could actually believe in flying mammals with glowing noses. Your childhood is gone. What did you lose with it? Who used to be with you on these holidays who isn’t now? For many of us, this is a season of remembering, and remembering ain’t always a happy act.
  5. Family. Those who don’t have family, mourn, and those who do—well, those who do aren’t necessarily happy, either, because with all the other crap happening, families are seldom at their best when they finally all gather ’round that tree or sacrificed feast animal or whatever it is that brings them all to one place to judge one another and seethe. For many, Christmas is the time to peel away scabs or simply reopen old wounds. Have some more nog and let loose on those weaknesses only you know about, push those buttons only you can—you’re family.

Now that I’ve argued that pretty much everything good is bad, you might think I’m advocating for the Gremlins-described suicide solution or at the very least for cancelling Christmas, but far from it. Although it’s not my favorite holiday, I like Christmas and have, in fact, already told you why: it is the light placed here to remind us of all this darkness, and as a sort of memento mori, Christmas deserves acknowledgment for what it is, a fuzzy center in a hole of suck.

OtrantoThanks to Charles Dickens, Joe Dante’s Gremlins, and everything from the original Dec. 24, 1764 Gothic novel Castle of Otranto to the present-day Krampus, our popular culture has served up a large vein within the horror genre to slice into as a means of exploring the suckhole of Christmas, not as a religious holiday but as a cultural phenomenon that combines the best and worst of humanity in a colorful package with a bow on top. These fictions of fear can displace all the terrors of our lives’ vacancies onto monsters we can see and maybe even fight and destroy. We can’t easily solve the problem of who’s not with us by the tree this year, but we sure can imagine using simple sunlight to beat back the tide of gremlins, and hey, maybe all it takes to make charity work is to show the most monstrous of the 1% a few well-timed ghosts.

KrampusThe fantasies are simple on the surface, yes, but so are the illusions of childhood, and come Christmas time, don’t we all deserve a little bit of simple? The problems with which they help us to cope are about as hard as problems come, so maybe some simple is what we need to crawl out of the suckhole, at least for a day.

150 Years of Monstrosity (Coming for You Now)

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Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Richard Marsh’s The Beetle. Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Parasite. Marie Corelli’s Ziska. Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan. Ishiro Honda’s Matango. William Hope Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night.” Angela Carter’s “The Lady of the House of Love.” Richard Laymon’s The Traveling Vampire Show. Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God and Blood Merdian. Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching. H.P. Lovecraft in Comics. Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film.

Sharla Hutchison and Rebecca A. Brown edited MONSTERS AND MONSTROSITY FROM THE FIN DE SIECLE TO THE MILLENNIUM, a collection of essays that discusses all of these works, essential if you want to be in the know about modern horror.

I wrote the essay on A Serbian Film, generally considered by people in the know to be among the ugliest films ever made.

Go on. Feed your head. Get the book from the publisher, McFarland, or from Amazon. Give it as a gift. Insist on getting it as a gift.

All of the above. You can never have too many monsters.

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Table of Contents

Introduction (Sharla Hutchison and Rebecca A. Brown) 1

Part I: Forgotten Monsters and Social Unrest

  • “She has a parasite soul!” The Pathologization of the Gothic Monster as Parasitic Hybrid in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Richard Marsh’s The Beetle and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Parasite (Emilie ­Taylor-Brown ) 12
  • Marie Corelli’s Ziska: A Gothic Egyptian Ghost Story (Sharla Hutchison) 29
  • The Queer God Pan: Terror and Apocalypse, Reimagined (Mark De Cicco) 49
  • Attack of the Mushroom People: Ishiro Honda’s Matango and William Hope Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night” (Anthony Camara) 69

Part II: Monstrous Violations of Private Life

  • Through the Eyes of the Monster: Angela Carter’s “The Lady of the House of Love” (Jameela F. Dallis) 92
  • Re-Vamping the Early 1960s: Freakish Vampires and Monstrous Teens in Richard Laymon’s The Traveling Vampire Show (Rebecca A. Brown) 111
  • Gothic Commodification of the Body and the Modern Literary Serial Killer in Child of God and American Psycho (Christopher Coughlin) 129
  • Rocking and Reeling through the Doors of Miscreation: Disequilibrium in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (Susan Poznar) 144

Part III: Millennial Monsters

  • “I think I am a monster”: Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is for Witching and the Postmodern Gothic (Bianca Tredennick) 168
  • “Madness and monstrosity”: Notions of the Gothic and Sublime in Comics Adaptations of H. P. Lovecraft (Rebecca Janicker) 187
  • The Monster of Massification: A Serbian Film (L. Andrew Cooper) 206
  • “Bears that dance, bears that don’t”: Aggression, Civilization and the Gothic Bear (Julie Wilhelm and Steven J. Zani) 228

How to Figure Out THE PROBLEM

You know something isn’t right. A nagging feeling, an itch, a funny smell, a sour stickiness on your tongue, a lurking in the corner of your eye, a high-pitched whine that refuses to fade—it’s there, it’s real, but you don’t know what it is. It does more than haunt you. It bugs the living shit out of you. What the hell can you do about it if you don’t know what it even is? Here are some tips for figuring out THE PROBLEM.

  • Ask the bodies. You’ve collected and stored a few by now. Sure, some may be in the back yard, and some may be in the basement freezer, but why leave them tucked away all the time? During the dark hours, pull the shades, close the blinds, or just hang sheets over the windows, for goodness’s sake (don’t use duct tape—I learned that the hard way). Make sure you’re private, then gather the bodies, sit them up around your biggest table, and have a nice chat. Don’t ask right away; that would be rude. Start with the standard how’ve-you-been talk. Dead bodies appreciate that. Don’t assume that a body who didn’t like small talk during life doesn’t like it now. All dead bodies like small talk. After the small talk, pop the question. What’s the problem? If they know, they’ll probably tell you. Bodies are perceptive, but they don’t know everything, so give them a few chances before you start hacking.

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  • Change your meds. Chances are you don’t take your meds anyway, because, sheesh, how are you supposed to function when you can’t hear what anybody’s saying, just some kind of muffled sleepy crap? Anyway, the thing to do is to change up the doses. Some people describe psychosis and dementia as disorders, but others know that they’re windows to Truth. If you take an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor: many drugs for depression and the like) or anxiolytic (like diazepam, clonazepam, or another chill-out anti-anxiety pill in the Valium tradition), you might find that taking too much or suddenly taking too little makes you a visionary. We’re not talking high here. We’re talking the eighth fucking dimension, and if someone there doesn’t know what the problem is, the problem is worse than you thought.

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  • Eat something. Maybe you’re just hungry. You’ll see.

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  • Find a fellow who feels the same way. People in such situations tend to be loners, but friends and lovers are especially important when you have problems to deal with, and who better to help you find out what the problem is than your bosom buddy? The person with whom you travel the road of life? Nowadays, we all define family in different ways, so don’t let me or anyone else tell you who the person is. The connection could be platonic, paternal, pederastic, preternatural, or otherwise perverse—no matter. Only connect!

Natural Born Killers (1994)

 

  • Hire power. Money can’t solve all problems, but it can bring in the top experts from just about anywhere in the world, who can at least tell you that you have any kind of problem you can imagine. Therefore save up so you can invest when the time is right! Spending on the right expert can make the difference between being THE PROBLEM’s victim and kicking THE PROBLEM’s ass.

Dead Alive (1992)

Nine Cat-Themed Horror Films Worth a Purr

Every now and then I succumb to cuteness. Samara, however, has requested that I base a character on her, one that slaughters all the “insects,” whatever that means.

Samara, ruler of my household, begrudgingly poses for this blog

9. Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971): Dario Argento’s second feature lacks the crazy cat moments memorable in Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), which has a character who eats cats, and Inferno (1980), which has a character randomly mauled by cats who fly at her from the sides of the screen. A cat makes the title, however, because our furry Internet-ruling friend provides a metaphor for the entire film, the mystery behind which is like the titular fetish device, so twisted that following its nine suspects/possibilities is like a kind of tickle-clawing torture.

CatintheBrain8. Cat in the Brain (1990): Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento supposedly had trouble getting along for years because Fulci piggybacked on Argento’s early success with animal-themed giallo films (Italian crime thrillers) such as Fulci’s derivative-but-good Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971). Cat in the Brain, a late Fulci effort, follows Argento in having a mainly metaphorical connection to our furry friends, who are tearing up the brain of Fulci himself, who stars as himself, a director whose past films (shown amply in flashbacks) are manifesting in present-day murders. This cat won’t likely please you if you’re not a Fulci fan, but if you like the Godfather of Gore, it’s postmodern catnip.

Kuroneko7. Kuroneko (1968): Stylish Italian films and stylish Japanese films have been trading ideas for decades (more on that in a moment), and this classic Japanese kaidan (wronged women with long black hair out for revenge, most familiar to Americans from the remake of The Ring, 1998 / 2002) hybrid features awesome cat-woman ghost dueling, glorious use of black and white tonality, and some samurai for good measure. Not the best Japanese horror from the 60s, but in my top five, and my favorite one focused on cats. The title means black cat.

catseye6. Cat’s Eye (1985): The frame story focuses on a cat erring on a sort of quest to rescue young Drew Barrymore, whom he reaches in time for the third and final story in the anthology. The third story, about the girl’s (and cat’s) battle with a breath-stealing mini-monster, sort of sucks now that I’m grown up. However, the first two, about quitting smoking corporate-style and going out on a ledge for a married woman (literally), are based on classic Stephen King shorts and hold up due to dark humor, massive tension, and great performances from leads James Woods and Robert Hays. The cat gets important moments in both the grown-up stories, too.

pet-sematary-blu-ray-cover-025. Pet Sematary (1989): Everybody thinks about Gage, who played with Mommy and is now going to play with you, but really, Church, the cat, is the star villain of the piece, especially if you think about the Stephen King novel along with the film. Church snuffs it, and that’s going to make the kids sad, so why not see if that supernatural pet cemetery resurrects him like the neighbor says it will? And if it works on the cat…? What’s good for the cat ain’t good for the kiddies. A cat would be the first to tell you not to follow a cat’s example, and my cat Samara would be the first to tell you that people don’t listen to her advice often enough.

catpeople19424. Cat People (1942): This Lewton/Tourneur collaboration makes some lists of greatest horror films of all time, and with good reason: it’s one of the best films to replicate the effect I forever associate with Turn of the Screw, i.e., leaving in suspension questions of whether the horror is primarily psychological or supernatural. So is this a werecat movie or isn’t it? It’s beautifully shot, with beautiful people and beautiful cats, and the reflections on the psychology and beliefs of the times are so compelling that suspension and suspense become delightfully relentless.

CatPeopleShoutFactoryCover3. Cat People (1982): More a fantasy about the first film than a remake, this is my favorite werecat movie. The transformation sequences are good but not great (appearing not long after American Werewolf in London (1981), they seem uninspired). What is great is the music, famously David Bowie’s “Theme from Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” but really the entire synth-filled soundtrack, eighties dreamy at its best. What is greater are the sex-infused storyline and eye-popping presences of Nastassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell. The first film’s premise gets dilated: certain people get turned on and become black leopards, and to become human again, they must kill. Oh. My. Violent estrus.

twoevileyesblackcat2. “The Black Cat” from Two Evil Eyes (1990): Yes, I wrote a book about Argento, and yes, he gets to have two on this list, because although many have worked with Poe’s “Black Cat,” and many other films have that title (including one by Fulci), this one—half of Argento’s collaboration with George A. Romero, Two Evil Eyes—is my favorite. It ranges across Poe, featuring Harvey Keitel as Roderick Usher, a photographer who captures crime scenes (including one right out of “Pit and the Pendulum”). The ending makes kitties even more horrific than Poe does. Ah, Dario.

House_1977_poster1. Hausu (1977): Ruled by the wild colors and non-rational narrative structure of the Italian films that were becoming popular in Japan at the time, Hausu (House) is one of my favorite films of all time, and since a white cat presides over the house that gobbles up schoolgirls, it’s one of Samara’s, too. Flying severed heads, carnivorous pianos, dancing skeletons, and more await you inside this brilliant little film, colorful, hallucinogenic, funny, scary, must-see.

Repulsion at the End of the World (a Polanski Masterpiece Turns 50)

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Look on the Internet Movie Database, and you’ll see a tagline for Roman Polanski’s 1965 film Repulsion that almost preempts interpretation: “A classic chiller of the ‘Psycho’ school!” Marketing-wise, the claim hits its target because Repulsion clothes “higher” art-house sensibilities in lower production values and in horror-genre conventions, just as Hitchcock decided to do with the film that he brought to Universal (home of the horror monsters). Like Hitch, Polanski uses black-and-white grit to showcase a story of a woman in distress that takes an unexpected turn involving two grisly murders in a space distorted by her psycho-logical state. Polanski even uses a beautiful lead whose sweetness misleads with innocence—and although Tony Perkins’s defiance of Robert Bloch’s vision of Norman Bates as an awkward and homely killer is unforgettable in Psycho, I don’t think many would deny Catherine Deneuve as Carol in Repulsion (or as anyone at any point in her career) rivals Perkins with talent and circles him with her stunning screen presence. Her largely nonverbal performance, combined with her environment’s responses to her, conveys the psychological depth that Perkins and “mother” communicate by doing the police in different voices, creating misdirection and ambiguity until a solution may or may not appear at the end. (Beware continuing—here there be spoilers!)RepulsionCap2

 

Like much else in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, Psycho’s ending has received a great deal of commentary and debate, so to claim that the ending—the psychoanalytic revelation of the shared mind/body of Norma/Norman Bates resulting from a psychotic solution to an Oedipal struggle gone terribly awry—is unequivocally sincere would require proof and argument I am uninterested in providing here. However, the psychiatrist who shows up at the end provides this explanation, and taking it at face value is possible.

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Repulsion, like Psycho, has a twist involving its main character’s mind, but its central psycho, Carol, doesn’t go out on a frenzy to claim any victims. She stays home, mostly having conflicts with herself; although Norma/Norman’s victims come to her/his motel and house like flies to a web, she/he still ends up coming after them, whereas Carol’s victims, both men, have to throw themselves at her, the first breaking into her apartment and the second attempting rape, before she attacks. Prior to these attacks, the film demonstrates that Carol is very reticent around men. She refuses a date; she reacts badly when her sister engages in a sexual relationship and brings a man into their shared space; she shows disgust when a man kisses her. Her initial demonstration of the film’s title, repulsion, seems to be a reaction to men, an allergy to heterosexual sex. Ergo, the pathology she exhibits in the film’s second half, as she lets her surroundings decay (she leaves out food and eventually corpses to rot, neglects her own hygiene, etc.), links to her aversion to sex, adding up in the end to what seems to be a sexual pathology, psychoanalysis’s specialty. A psychiatrist doesn’t show up with an explanatory key as he does at the end of Psycho, but, as Carol does emerge as a psychopath, the film adds up in a way that forms a lock that seems the perfect shape.

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Two shots in particular support reading Carol as a psychopath. The first shows her walking past a car wreck on the London streets. Everyone stops to look but her. Her lack of interest and empathy suggests social disconnection, a disconnection echoed in the film’s final image, which shows her as a child in a family photo. Here, she looks in a direction opposite her family group, first seeming perhaps to look at a man who might be the source of her androphobia, but then, as the frame tightens around her, she appears just to gaze away, again disconnected from all around her. This reinforcement of her social disconnection suggests it has little to do with any traumas she may have experienced, little to do with the men who keep forcing themselves on her, and everything to do with a pathology that has followed her since childhood. Psychoanalysis often traces disorders back to developmental interruptions, and this film, made during a peak of pop psychoanalytic dominance, embeds psychoanalytic causality for Carol’s behavior. Ambiguity persists, so the explanation is not totalizing or necessary, but it oozes from the film’s celluloid pores.

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It also appears in a tagline from the film’s poster-turned-DVD-cover: “The nightmare world of a Virgin’s dreams becomes the screen’s shocking reality!” Dreams, the province of psychoanalysis—check. Virginal-frigid-sex-phobic-possibly-queer-woman, the “problem” woman of psychoanalysis—check. Carol makes psychoanalytic interpretive “sense” in 1965.

Repulsion

 

Of course, she also makes “sense” as a critique of psychoanalysis from a feminist perspective. After all, the men she kills are both attackers. The first stalks her and breaks into her apartment when she refuses his advances, and the second, her landlord, returns her rent and expects payment in sex instead, which he tries to take against her will. In 2015, if not 1965, watching this film, I suspect she might be able to plead self-defense if she didn’t present herself as batshit crazy, which, unfortunately, she likely would, as, by the end of the film, she is seeing hands reach out of her apartment wall at her, which the film gives us no reason to believe is not happening… other than the bits of context I’ve provided that suggest an otherwise realist context in which she is crazy (in 1968, however, Polanski would use Rosemary’s Baby to show the dangers of not believing the woman everyone believes is paranoid and losing her mind in a confined urban space).

 

Before I close, however, I want to offer a third, more obvious interpretation for what Repulsion is about, and that is, simply, repulsion. To be more precise, it might be what Jean-Paul Sartre calls nausea. I will not allow myself to travel too far into the philosophy in Carol’s mother tongue, though, and will stick, with one exception, to a riff on Polanski’s title and say that Carol doesn’t have to be disgusted and repelled by men in particular. Indeed, while she does have a bigger problem with her sister’s new boyfriend because he’s the reason for her sister leaving her alone for days, she also has a problem with her sister leaving a rabbit in the refrigerator for her to have for dinner later, a rabbit that, like men and other items, she leaves out to rot. What do the rabbit and the men have in common? They are potential objects of appetite. If Carol is rejecting appetite, her rejection and the repulsion that drives it run deeper than sex.

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The only place it might be for psychoanalysis is the place that Freud describes as beyond the pleasure principle, but even his heady concept of the “death drive” doesn’t get at Carol’s repulsion. Although she re-pulses, or reverses the drives of hunger and sex, she is not self-destructive. She begs her sister, a lifeline, to stay; she defends herself against attacks, vigorously. Her homicidal acts are not externalizations of a suicidal impulse. The re-pulse is not reducible to an im-pulse at all.

 

Alone, depressed, and alienated, Carol, a French woman in London, doesn’t want to let the outside in. After her sister leaves, she retreats to her apartment and tries to shut everyone and everything out. She has to eat but doesn’t want to. Her acts of resistance result in the decay of both her food and her body. She doesn’t have to have sex, but men try to force the issue. Her acts of resistance result in the decay of their bodies. Resistance ultimately appears—figuratively or literally, the film stops making distinctions—as cracks in her closed-off apartment’s walls, then hands reaching for her through the walls. The harder she tries to repel the outside world she wishes to reject, the more it presses in on her. As Sartre writes in the play No Exit, “Hell is other people.” Hell, a subject informing Rosemary’s Baby as well as Polanski’s The Ninth Gate (1999), is also a description of Repulsion, or maybe repulsion as that which Carol fails to accomplish.

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What she wants is emotional autonomy. The desire may be impossible to fulfill, but that rock is where her dreams crash. If she is actually a virgin (the film, as opposed to the tagline, does not say as much definitively), sex may be a realm she defends more successfully than others, but that success may result from sex’s relative expendability among humans’ hierarchy of needs (an expendability psychoanalysts would loathe to admit). The madness of social isolation and repulsion may not be the center of Repulsion—the madness of company, the madness of ending up back in the world, may be the most repellent thing of all.

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