Saturday, October 31, 2015

Dance of Dearth

Jack o' lantern in CREEPSHOW (1982)

Unfortunately, I got behind in my 31 Days of Halloween review-a-thon because I got called in for a job interview in Atlanta. I decided to go because I have always heard there are cities where seeing a sheriff's deputy swerving all over the road because he's trying to balance his police radio in one hand and a long-necked Corona in the other is not a common occurrence and I had to investigate that for myself.

Well, after driving all day through pouring rain and having my GPS cut out repeatedly while trying to find my hotel, I discovered a few things: 1) For a city with all of its amenities, Atlanta has absolutely nowhere to park, 2) Atlanta drivers are not hesitant about using their car horn at the slightest provocation and most disturbing of all, 3) valet parking proliferates. And gentle readers, I tell ya, there's nothing more I despise more then valet parking. The freedom a hard-working American experiences behind the wheel of their own car is the only privilege most of us have left. But some money grubbing greed swine wanna take that away too and have us pay for the supposed privilege of having a stranger park our car. What kind of Communist conspiracy is that?
Well, after all that, I get to the interview and find that the guy 1) has not read my resume, and 2) has no idea what job I'm applying for even though it was made clear by my cover letter.
"What are you doing now." he asked.
"I'm a writer," I said.
"So, you're unemployed," he sneered.
 After having me tell him information that he could have simply read off my resume, he curtly informed me that he was looking for someone with 10 years experience.
I guess the joke's on him because he'll have a mighty hard time finding someone with 10 years experience wanting to work at a slumming personal injury firm for only $10 an hour and no benefits. Although maybe he can, because there ain't no place quite like the US of A where there is wealth and privilege abounds, but it remains in the hands of a select few while the rest of us are granted the liberty of being taxed to death and groveling for nickels. Hell, where's the French when you need 'em? I say it's guillotine time.

And speaking of class rage and reactionary violence, it's time for the ninth film in the 31 Days of Halloween marathon, the great CREEPSHOW (1982) directed by GEORGE ROMERO and written by everyone's favorite horror Everyman, STEPHEN KING. Some stuffed-shirt academic hambones will try to tell us Big Steve is a hack and that his books are the literary equivalent of a Big Mac, but I think these are the same kind of mush-heads who wrote off EDGAR ALLAN POE and H.P. LOVECRAFT back in the day. They're also the same people who write essays about Malamud and touch themselves and you don't wanna be in that crowd, trust me. For someone to successfully tap into the fears of such a wide variety of people - and to do it over and over again - there is something to them. STEPHEN KING doesn't just write horror, he writes about the average working man and working woman's everyday struggle in America. In addition to battling the forces of the supernatural, his characters also battle bills, family conflicts, their own personal demons, the narrow-minded cruelty and xenophobia of small town folks, and the painful realization that their place in the world is limited and their American Dream may never come true.
Besides, I think he can eat that wussy John Irving for lunch.

Stephen King as Jordy Verrill in CREEPSHOW (1982)

CREEPSHOW is an anthology film, which means it's a smorgasbord with something for everybody. In the wrap-around segment we're introduced to budding horror fan Billy (Steve's own son, JOE KING) whose Dad, despite being played by the awesome TOM ATKINS, is an uptight, overbearing douche. Seems he strongly disapproves of Billy filling his impressionable mind with the gruesome images in horror comics. "I've never seen such rotten crap in my life!" he bellows before slapping Billy and tossing his EC-style Creepshow comic book into the trash. From here, we're presented the five tales from the flapping pages of the comic book.

Stephen King's son Joe King as Billy in CREEPSHOW (1982)

"Father's Day" is a story of revenge beyond the grave in which the domineering patriarch of a wealthy and avaricious clan is murdered by his long-suffering daughter only to return from the grave for his Father's Day cake. I know I'm not alone in my love for older actresses in horror films and like-minded individuals will be happy to know this segment boasts two knock-out performances by CARRIE NYE as the cold-blooded Sylvia and VIVECA LINDFORS as tortured, eccentric Jim Beam-swilling Aunt Bedelia. But despite this, and some impressive dance moves by a then-unknown ED HARRIS, I think this is the flimsiest of the five stories. Something about it always feel anti-climactic to me.
Bedelia is a fascinating character, though, and actually has a lot in common with the characterization of Lizzie in THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN. She is a virtual prisoner of a cruel and tyrannical father; he has cast her in the role of his doting nursemaid rather than a daughter, but is never grateful for the sacrifices she has made for him. He continues to verbally abuse her and simply demands more and more. He even goes so far as to murder her beloved fiancée. Driven to madness, Bedelia bashes him over the head with a marble ashtray. Though her abuser is dead and she has inherited his lofty fortune, her guilt gnaws away at her. She cannot enjoy the life she has left and drowns her pain in alcohol. She allows her father to keep her a prisoner even beyond the grave.
Also, something that has always bothered me: why isn't ED HARRIS's character Hank the sole survivor of this segment? He's an in-law, so therefore has no part in the murder being avenged. And he's more of an average, if kind of stupid, nice guy unlike the spoiled siblings, Cass and Richard. Oh, well, I like Cass's white pants. But if she wore them after Labor Day, that in itself should be punishable by death.

CREEPSHOW (1982): Nathan Grantham rises from the grave to punish murderous daughter, Bedelia (Viveca Lindfors).

In "The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill," KING himself plays the titular slow-witted country bumpkin who, in a comic version of LOVECRAFT's "The Colour of Outer Space," is overgrown by out of control weeds from a meteor that's landed on his farm.
A lot of people find this segment grating, but it's actually my second favorite as it's the cartooniest of the bunch. STEPHEN KING portrays the ill-fated Jordy with wide eyes, exaggerated jaw dropping and face-slapping like a live-action Wile E. Coyote. His fantasy sequences (in which BINGO O' MALLEY plays each character) are the silly icing on the ham cake. My favorite is his fantasy of a nightmarish doctor's visit, in which a crazed doctor (who, because the camera angle is canted, rolls in on said angle in his rolling chair) informs him his affected fingers will have to be cut off with a meat cleaver.
I think Jordy Verrill and I receive the same quality medical care.
But underneath all the goofiness, it's ultimately a pretty tragic story.

CREEPSHOW (1982): Jordy Verrill (Stephen King) pays a visit to crazed doctor (Bingo O' Malley) in CREEPSHOW.

In "Something To Tide You Over," psychopathic billionaire Richard Vickers, played by comedy great LESLIE NIELSEN, discovers his much younger wife (DAWN OF THE DEAD's GAYLEN ROSS) has been having an affair with a pre-CHEERS TED DANSON. Tech wiz Richard engineers a sadistic revenge, burying the lovers up to their necks on separate ends of a private beach. They are videotaped and allowed to watch one another's prolonged drowning on a rigged monitor as the tide slowly rolls in. Unfortunately Richard doesn't realize he's in a horror movie and that his wife and her lover will rise for revenge as waterlogged zombies.
LESLIE NIELSEN really rocks this segment in an outstanding dramatic performance with dashes of dark humor. "The maiden fair is waiting for her knight in shining corduroy," he sing-songs as he entices TED DANSON to follow him onto the beach. Somehow the humor he injects into this character makes his psychopathic aspects more frightening; you get the impression he just really gets a kick out of torturing and murdering anyone who gets in his way. Mr. NIELSEN is rightfully renowned for his comedy acting, but he'd make a great Richard the III.
The zombie effects, while great in "Father's Day" as well, really excel here and are accompanied by a creepy, gurgling vocal effect.
Also, I have to wonder: how many other ex-wives and enemies does Richard have buried all over that beach?

Becky (Gaylen Ross) and Harry (Ted Danson) returned from a watery grave in CREEPSHOW (1982)

Leslie Nielsen as Richard Vickers in CREEPSHOW (1982)

The fourth is my favorite of the five segments; "The Crate" depicts the disintegrating marriage of meek college professor Henry Northrup (HAL HOLBROOK) and his boozy, big-mouthed abrasive wife, Wilma ('80s horror mainstay ADRIENNE BARBEAU). "Just call me Billie, everyone does," she shrills. Henry has repeated fantasies of killing her to put an end to her boozenanigans and bullying, but can't bring himself to divorce her. When a janitor uncovers a crate containing some kind of prehistoric monkey monster with a taste for human flesh, Henry sees a window of opportunity to end his miserable marriage once and for all.
Being a faculty brat myself, I love stories detailing the bitchiness of academia. Or academentia as those of us who have survived it call it. Seriously, I've met more warped personalities in academia than I have anywhere else and I've been on a psych ward. It's the horror equivalent of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, a play and movie that actually reminds me a lot of my parents before they divorced, except they weren't drunk so I don't know what their problem was.

Henry (Hal Holbrook) and Wilma "Billie" (Adrienne Barbeau) Northrup in CREEPSHOW (1982)

And ADRIENNE BARBEAU as Billie makes being a boozy bitch look so damn great. The way she refers to Emily Post as "that etiquette crotch" at a faculty party, the way she pours liquor into a glass of milk, the way her smile quickly turns into a sneer as another driver honks at her, the way she barks, "Get out of my way, Henry, or I swear to God you're gonna be wearing your balls for earings!": I just love her so damn much. No, seriously I want Billie to be my new best friend and take me shopping. She knows all the best stores.
I don't think Billie was always such a shrew, though. She was probably one of those women that was taught to live through the success of her husband and was left disappointed when he didn't achieve what she perceived to be his potential. Female alcoholism in film is usually a manifestation of marital disappointment or feelings of being trapped without the same opportunities afforded to a man. I think Billie falls into this category. Spiteful about how her life has turned out, she turns on her husband. Henry too is the kind of person who has always done what other people wanted to do and is left miserable as a result. I also got the impression he may be a repressed homosexual with a serious man-crush on his colleague played by FRITZ WEAVER. Did anyone else get a major bromance vibe from their scenes together?
Academia is a notoriously back-stabbing and cutthroat environment so there's exhilarating seeing a crate monster rip it's way through faculty, students and staff.

CREEPSHOW (1982): Billie (Adrienne Barbeau) sees the thing in the crate.

The final segment is "They're Creeping Up on You," which was cut from the version I first saw on broadcast television. Character actor extraordinaire E.G. MARSHALL gives a great performance as paranoid, germ phobic billionaire corporate executive Upson Pratt. He lives as a recluse in a sterilized apartment listening to big band records, until a plague of cockroaches begin slowly infesting his sanctuary. Pratt's intense fear of roaches is symbolic of his disdain and fear of minorities and the lower classes. Perhaps it was having grown up in a tenement in Hell's Kitchen himself or the knowledge that he has acquired his wealth through ill-gotten means but in the end, his hatred consumes him (literally). MARSHALL really pulls out all the stops here and DAVID EARLY gives a brief, funny performance as the ironically named building super Mr. White.
This one really gets under my skin as years of living on the Gulf Coast has made me deathly afraid of cockroaches. Seriously, they're gross. And they have no purpose! What the hell do they do besides eat the glue in the lining of your books and look ugly as shit? Ugh, even talking about them is giving me the crawlies.

Upton Pratt (E.G. Marshall) infested with cockroaches in CREEPSHOW (1982)

CREEPSHOW is a loving tribute to the E.C. Comics of the 1950s like Tales From the Crypt and The Haunt of Fear. I remember getting interested in them too (because of the 1990s HBO series) around the same time I first saw CREEPSHOW. And like the horror comics it pays homage to, CREEPSHOW is both subversive and conservative.
On one hand, both are subversive in that they relish in burning sacred cows. Both are allowed to push the envelope in their depictions of violence, the darkness and greed of the human heart, and rendering wholesome institutions entirely unwholesome because it's all in good fun.
Family is portrayed as a cannibalistic institution rather than one that provides nurture and protection. The innocent are cut down without a thought and the guilty that did it to them meet a retribution twice as ugly. People are not kind, god-fearing or hard-working: they're greedy, penurious and just plain mean as snakeshit. It's a grim view of the human race, but unfortunately an accurate one
On the other hand, transgressions are punished with an Old Testament-style wrath. The punishment doesn't just fit the crime, whatever has been done comes back ten fold. Karma is a bitch with rabies.

All of STEPHEN KING's writing is tinged with economic horror, and CREEPSHOW uses horror symbolism to explore financial anxieties and class rage in America.
The upper class in CREEPSHOW are all greedy, loathsome and have acquired their largesse by (both literally and figuratively) knocking someone else out of the way.
Nathan Grantham, the patriarch in "Father's Day" built has wealth upon bootlegging and murder. While Bedelia killed him out of vengeance for her murdered fiancée and to free herself from his abuse, her relatives were all too eager to swoop in and reap the benefits of patricide.
Richard Vickers does not love his wife so the murders he commits are not crimes of passion. His wife does not even want any of his money so his reasons are not financial, either. He simply murders two people because he cannot allow someone else to take something he considers to be his.
Horlicks University in "The Crate" is pervaded by passive-aggressive, back-stabbing departmental politics, job insecurity and repressed hostility, exemplified by the crated monster unleashed.
Upson Pratt's intense fear of cockroaches (which, like I said, stems from his fear of minorities and the lower classes) may come from his own feelings of inferiority for his working class background. Perhaps he fears their retribution because of the methods he has used to rise to the top above them. He has achieved the American Dream by becoming a self-made man, but he has done so at the expense of everyone else. In "They're Creeping Up On You," we learn that a merger he has initiated caused an opponent to commit suicide. When greeted with the news, Pratt exults, "Terrific!...Now we won't have to offer the old fart a seat on the board of directors!"

On the other hand, the poor work hard to keep the few privileges they have but are only fucked over in return.
Poor Jordy Verrill thinks $500.00 will make him a rich man ("Pay off that bank loan. That's the ticket!") and cannot cut a break to save his life. Under its jokey exterior and horror dressing, it's the tragic story of a man who has been overburdened to the point he has nothing left and takes his own life.
Economic insecurity has lead Henry and Wilma Northrup to become bitter, bickering and disillusioned and TED DANSON's character, Harry, works as a cook in a restaurant catering to tourists is essentially murdered by wealthy Richard for taking something that is not his.
Hank ends up being killed for his marriage into a higher class.
In CREEPSHOW, the American Dream is a pipe dream and the capitalist system is a cannibalistic one. You can never really get ahead, and in order to do so you need to cut off someone else's head.

But somehow viewing this all through the lens of a horror comic book makes it entertaining rather then depressing. GEORGE ROMERO and his trusty director of photography MICHAEL GORNICK replicate the visual style of a '50s comic book complete with panels, hyper-stylized colors, and gobos for emotional emphasis. The acting styles in the film are able to walk the fine line, real enough to be invested in the story but exaggerated enough to remind the viewer it's all for fun.

The lush score by JOHN HARRISON is one of my favorites. It's only a piano and a chorus but somehow manages to sound epic, both eerie and playful with the background vocals intoning "Nah nah nah nah" recalling childhood teasing.
I actually think CREEPSHOW might be even more of the ultimate Halloween movie than JOHN CARPENTER's HALLOWEEN.
The film's combination of playfulness and grisliness invoke the feeling I got as a kid with a burgeoning interest in horror. I think when I would try to catch a glimpse of the R-rated movies my parents were watching, CREEPSHOW is what I imagined they would be like.
With it's subtext of economic and social class anxieties, lovable irreverence and good ol' fashioned moral outrage, CREEPSHOW is all-American fun. Disliking it is just plain unpatriotic.

Eat a Bowl of Fuck! I'm Here to Party!

Night of the Demons (1988)

Animated title card from NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (1987)

You know, I decided to just run over five bicyclists today. Unfortunately, because the city I live in has been deemed "grungy" and "trendy," we've had a massive influx of hipster douches and with them this city has become infested with bike riders. It's too bad these trust fund trolls can't learn to take the bus ironically 'cause they're bringing traffic to a standstill pedaling down the middle of the street at about two miles per hour and causing accidents swerving in front of oncoming traffic. That's the other thing, these selfie-snapping swine self-righteously whine that we need to share the road but they don't want to obey the rules of the road and go mowing down Mee Maws and toddlers like they're Hell's Angels on bike week. But that's an insult to the Hell's Angels, who're good drivers. These pseudo-bohemian bozos go weavin' and wobblin' all over the road like Otis Calhoun doing a field sobriety test.

Forget all that whiny namby pamby PC bullsnot about cracking down on drunk drivers, we need more of them to turn these post-modern pusbags into hood ornaments!

And speaking of infestations, today I'm talkin' about teenage demonic possession in the eighth film of the 31 Days of Halloween review-a-thon, NIGHT OF THE DEMONS written by JOE AUGUSTYN and directed by KEVIN TENNEY. You know, until recently, NIGHT OF THE DEMONS was one of those movies that I didn't understand the appeal of. I thought it was a cheap-o rip-off of THE EVIL DEAD with wooden acting and couldn't stand the whiny Final Girl. Re-watching it now, it's just Halloween fun with its gleeful cheesiness (check that animated title sequence and synth score) and imaginative touches. CATHY PODEWELL of DALLAS stars as buxom, squeaky-voiced goody-two-shoes Judy who's all set to go to the high school Halloween dance when her boyfriend Jay (LANCE FENTON of HEATHERS) insists "The school dance is for neeeeeeerds!" and drags her to a party thrown by goth outcast Angela Franklin (fellow Texas girl AMELIA KINKADE). Being a horror movie in the late '80s about teenagers, you know these high school kids look like they've been held back a lot and they're the kind of knuckleheads who think cavorting in coffins in abandoned reputedly-haunted mortuary is a brilliant idea.

Cathy Podewell as Judy and Lance Fenton as Jay in NIGHT OF THE DEMONS.

They also have the bright idea to have a séance and unearth some mighty pissed off demons who begin possessing the teens one by one. And since this is a horror movie about teenagers, NIGHT OF THE DEMONS functions as a coming-of-age story in supernatural dressing. Though Judy is the least selfish of the teens (in fact, she arrives home late because she was volunteering at a food drive for the homeless), she's also a huge scarebaby and through surviving the night, grows from child to woman. But you know, even though I respect her for being able to create an impromptu flame thrower, I still don't like Judy. She's just such an uptight whiner I kept hoping she'd become demon chow and if a Mrs. J.R. Ewing is going to be the Final Girl in a horror movie, it should really be Sue Ellen.
Quick sidenote: Why wasn't LINDA GRAY ever in a horror movie?

Her fellow surviving teen is cowardly Rodger (ALVIN ALEXIS) who goes through a similar transformation; though he is smart enough to want to leave Hull House when strange things start happening, his method of coping is to scream and run away. In his journey to survive the night, Rodger develops courage (much like the Cowardly Lion) and is able to face his fears enough to turn back and help Judy over the wall ("Climb, girl, climb!") to freedom.
It's interesting to note Rodger is portrayed by a black actor. The producer of the film laudably cast minority actors to lessen the SAG salary requirements, which adds an interesting dimension to the film. There is a recurring theme in films made in the '70s and '80s of black characters and female characters joining forces to defeating a common enemy. Perhaps it's the lost dream that the civil rights movement and the feminist movement should have united, but NIGHT OF THE DEMONS too depicts a black man and a woman coming together to overcome an unstoppable evil that wants to transform us into monsters and make us all the same.

NIGHT OF THE DEMONS: Judy (Cathy Podewell) kicks demon butt with an impromptu flamethrower

But we haven't even gotten to my favorite member of the diverse cast, wise-cracking Fonzie-style Italian-American delinquent, Sal Romero (WILLIAM GALLO). Despite his reputation as a bad boy, he has more of a conscience then the other male characters (unlike clean-cut Jay who leaves Judy locked in a room because she won't have sex with him) and is the only one who runs to Judy's defense under demon attack. He's got a quick wit, responding to one character's query about whether the house is possessed with, "No, just repossessed!"
He is also smart enough to repel the advances of demon-possessed boy-crazy bimbo Suzanne (played by scream queen LINNEA QUIGLEY) with my favorite line in the film.
"You are home," Suzanne growls when he announces he's leaving.
He informs her Hull House is not his home and, "I live in a real nice house with plastic covers on the furniture. Bye now."
Sal may have not survived the movie, but he'll be Final Boy in my heart.

NIGHT OF THE DEMONS: William Gallo as Sal Romero

There is an interesting aspect about the teenage characters that the film does not delve that deeply into and that's that many of them use a mask of bravado to conceal their own insecurities. Angela is dismissed by her classmates as a weirdo and reputed to practice witchcraft; she even acts strange to purposely frighten Judy. However, she's the first one to realize the fun is over when the scary stuff hits the fan, frightened enough to leave Hull House and visibly hurt when she's rejected by her demonically possessed best friend.

The film too explores adult attitudes toward teenagers. The kids in NIGHT OF THE DEMONS don't just drink and have sex, their repulsively selfish, abrasive, completely sex-crazed to the point of stupidity, and even steal. They don't even seem to really like each other. They don't really seem to care about anything other than their own instant gratification. The exemplification of this is Stooge, a loud, obnoxious, Big Fat Party Animal archetype (he even wears a pig nose for Halloween) who refers to every female character in the film as "Bitch." Stooge is the kind of guy who would've gotten kicked out of ANIMAL HOUSE for being too gross. He also goes back to my point earlier: as every character in the group dismisses him as a "fat, stupid pig" Stooge knows he's not well-liked so he'll just be as unlikable as possible.
The adults aren't left entirely off the hook either as a curmudgeony old creep neighbor of Judy's whose snarling refrain is "Damn kids!" gets a nasty comeuppance when his razor-blade-in-the-apple trick backfires.

NIGHT OF THE DEMONS: Helen, Rodger and Stooge

NIGHT OF THE DEMONS, like all horror, uses demonic possession as a metaphor for our fears of bodily functions and sexuality, particularly female sexuality. In the film, the female body is regarded as The Other and female sexuality is dangerous, alien and frightening. A possessed Suzanne, once obsessed with her appearance and continually applying lipstick, now shoves the lipstick tube straight into her breast. The female body not only does not function like it is supposed to, ie function the way a man's does, but is also voracious. A newly possessed Angela, in the film's most iconic scene, performs a wild, writhing, contortionist dance to Bauhaus's "Stigmata Martyr" like the one Marie Janisse used to perform on the strip club circuit with stage blood and a python that got her banned in Austin. Uninhibited female sexuality in the film is viewed as both alluring and frightening. Alluring because what has been repressed is finally cut loose and frightening because it can no longer be controlled. And sexually uninhibited women ultimately prove dangerous as Angela bites off Stooge's face when he attempts to kiss her and Suzanne gouges out Jay's eyes while they are having sex. Through horror symbolism, the film addresses male fears about the unfamiliar female body and female sexuality in general, in particular the fear of being rejected by potential sexual partners or being unable to satisfy a female partner sexually.

NIGHT OF THE DEMONS: Demon possessed Angela Franklin

Quick sidebar about Suzanne because Suzanne is the Horror Bimbo to End All Horror Bimbos and no one plays a bimbo quite like LINNEA QUIGLEY (Trash in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) who acts like MARY VIVAN PEARCE spaced out on downers. Her only focus in life is getting laid and her method of seduction is none-to-subtly bending over and waving her pink-panty clad butt back and forth in front of her target. Suzanne's possession could also be symbolic of her own insecurities about her attractiveness. "Stop looking at me!" she howls to Jay as her facial features rapidly transform to that of a fanged, yellow-eyed monster. If she is no longer attractive to men, she would view herself as a monster. But hey, that's how consumer culture gets us to keep buying more shit.

NIGHT OF THE DEMONS: Demonic Suzanne (Linnea Quigly) has gouged out Jay's eyes

It's interesting to note that in the film demonic possession is first transferred by a lesbian kiss. Female sexuality that is not for the purposes of male pleasure is ultimately destructive in the film. Unlike EVIL DEAD in which the demonic entities just jumped into any warm body, possession in NIGHT OF THE DEMONS is spread through exchange of bodily fluids either through kissing or sexual contact. This is in line with the rampant fear of sexually transmitted diseases that rose in the 1980s, culminating in the AIDS crisis. So much for  those stuffed shirt academic critics who believe horror movies aren't about anything. This is some deep shit!

For someone who initially disliked NIGHT OF THE DEMONS, I think I'm now open to embracing its dubious charms and have had a lot of fun talking about it today. I was surprised how imaginative I found a lot of the film's touches such as the house changing its entries and exits to prevent the teenagers from leaving the grounds. Judy's choice of Halloween costume is significant in that the film is ultimately a demon-flavored ALICE IN WONDERLAND and an expression of teenage fears about navigating the adult world.

And did you know AMELIA KINKADE is the niece of RUE MCLANAHAN of GOLDEN GIRLS fame? Which leads me to another important question: Why wasn't BETTY WHITE ever in a horror movie?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

There's a Killer in Texas


American Nightmare (2002)

AMERICAN NIGHTMARE (2002): Debbie Rochon as Jane Toppan

My favorite movie theater was doing a Hammer double-feature, THE HORROR OF DRACULA and THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, so I went with Marie Janisse. It meant facing the unholy army of hipsters that have invaded downtown like a particularly condescending unnecessary headband-wearing zombie apocalypse and parking royally sucks, but where else can you find that level of quality entertainment for only nine bucks?

"C'mon, Marie, let's go get Hammered," I said.

Not only did we brave the expected deadly swarm of hipster douchery, Friday night traffic and an impossibly long line at the concessions stand but quickly discovered that going to the movies in America now involves a security checkpoint. Does the ticket taker really have to know that I haven't cleaned out my purse in a decade and that I keep an inordinate number of mini-Snickers in there? I think that's purse shaming and purse shaming is wrong.

"Do you think they'll let me go in with these?" Marie asked, referring to the mini-bottles she always smuggles into the movies.
"Sure, if you share," I said.

What has this country come to when honest, hard-working people can't even exercise their God-given right to go to the movies and chow down on some overpriced Milk Duds and a bladder busting extra large Cherry Coke without fear of having their head blown off by some maniac? What kind of sicko shoots innocent people engaged in the holy past-time of watching movies anyway? I miss the good ol' days when gun-toting lunatics went on rampage on college campuses because at least then they probably deserved it. More then the economy, increasingly narcissistic selfie culture, and alliance of corporation and government, I think that's a sign right there this country's going to hell.

And speaking of random acts of violence, it's time for the seventh film in my 31 Days of Halloween review-a-thon, AMERICAN NIGHTMARE written and directed by JOHN KEYES and starring DEBBIE ROCHON as Jane Toppan the killer nurse and BRANDY LITTLE as the tragedy-stricken babysitter who must put a stop to her Halloween mayhem.
The film opens on Halloween night where some beer-guzzling lunkhead college students who haven't seen FRIDAY THE 13TH are camping out in the Austin woods. Student nurse Trisha reveals she's been questioned by the police about her supervisor, Jane Toppan, who is suspected of murdering patients. Right on cue, Jane unleashes her knife-wielding fury and turns the co-eds into cold cuts.

"You fuckin' bitch!" Jane screams as she bashes Trisha with her bare fist. "Who do you think you are? You think you're fuckin' better than me!"
An enraged scream rips from her lungs.
Hell hath no fury like a homicidal nurse scorned deep in the heart of Texas.

AMERICAN NIGHTMARE (2002): Jane Toppan (Debbie Rochon) screams with rage

Several Halloweens later, Jane sashays into a coffee shop where a group of happy-go-lucky twenty-somethings sit around listening to a pirate radio show hosted by a snarky DJ named Caligari. Unaware a violent psychopath is listening in, the friends call into Caligari's Halloween show in which guests confess their worst fears. Well, all of them except Final Girl Jessie, who is still grieving over the Halloween murder of her sister, Trisha, and prefers to spend the night baby-sitting for BRINKE STEVENS.
Jane begins stalking and murdering the friends one by one, in ways that use their own deepest, darkest fears against them.

AMERICAN NIGHTMARE is a surprisingly enjoyable shot-on-video slasher, ripping more than a few pages from HALLOWEEN (a TV-enraptured Lindsey Wallace type even watches Carpenter's film) and SCREAM. The cast is likable enough and BRANDY LITTLE, apart from one lame crying scene, is a pretty good Final Girl. She's down-to-earth and vulnerable, but still conveys the inner-strength that will allow Jessie to fight and survive. Most low-budget movies shot on video end up looking amateurish and cheap -- but this one doesn't. The photography is professional and the film manages some striking visuals. My biggest complaint is that it starts to lose steam in its third act and the characters start doing things that would be considered boneheaded even by '80s slasher standards.

But the jewel of the film is undeniably DEBBIE ROCHON as Jane. MS. ROCHON has dedicated her career to playing tortured, troubled and usually violent women and therefore deserves the Descent Into Madness Crown. She has commented publicly about her own tragic childhood filled with abuse, abandonment and living on the streets of Vancouver as a teenage runaway; I think she is remarkable in that rather than become one of the Manson Girls she has channeled her demons into her art and plays them instead.  Able to empathize as a wounded person herself, ROCHON delivers a powerful, emotionally raw performance.

AMERICAN NIGHTMARE (2002): Misty sees Jane is lurking behind her in the mirror's reflection

Jane, based upon and even named after a 19th-century serial killer in Boston, carries her demons with her wherever she goes. She is driven by an uncontrollable rage, and when she finally has the opportunity to unleash it she is like a woman possessed, emitting the kind of screams that only emerge from festering wounds and deep reservoirs of anger. Jane is on more psychiatric medication then Butch McGill's law partner on a weekend bender, but it doesn't soothe the pain inside or quell her compulsions to kill. In fact, she is infuriated by the fact that she doesn't understand her impulses. "Why?" she shrieks. "I wanna know why! Everybody wants to know why!" Like her male counterparts in MANIAC and HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, she has been deeply wounded by past trauma and compelled to hurt others as badly as she has been hurt.
Why else would someone direct that much rage and violence at Jessie's largely forgettable friend Melanie?
She is flirtatious and sensual, but she despises being touched, implying a history of sexual abuse. In fact, Jane's anger turns inward too as self-mutilation is a masturbatory act for her.
The morning after her homicidal spree, Jane lies on her bed and sobs uncontrollably. She's vented her emotions through violence, but she still feels no relief. She will continue until her demons consume her.

AMERICAN NIGHTMARE (2002): Jane (Debbie Rochon) threatens to slit Jessie's (Brandy Little) throat

Though she has targeted Jessie because she is the sister of her perceived betrayer, Jane really resents the friends because of their carefree lives and the warm bond they have with one another. Those are the things she has been deprived of by no fault of her own.
There were times in my life I could relate to Jane. As someone who had more of her fair share of hurt, rejection, abuse and abandonment, I often felt possessed by rage. I didn't trust anyone who was normal or happy and I resented the judgmental people who went out of their way to be horrible to me but still seemed to have better lives then I did. I wished I could give it all back to them, but ultimately what good would that do me?

I actually wish the film featured more of Jane's character and less of the by-the-numbers slice n' dice aspects (as much fun as those are). This is one of the few times I would welcome a sequel to a no-budget shot-on-video-direct-to-DVD post-SCREAM slasher. C'mon filmmakers, I wanna see Jane Toppan rampaging because she's pissed off and withdrawing from numerous psychiatric meds in AMERICAN NIGHTMARE 2!

AMERICAN NIGHTMARE: newspaper article about Jane Toppan's hospital murders


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

So Many Pretty Parts


May (2002)

MAY (2002): Angela Bettis as May Canady with Suzy

I actually don't know how the feud between Otis Calhoun and that jerk-o family that converts their garage into a Hallelujah House for Halloween got started so I'll have to ask Butch Walker. Butch is Otis's wise-cracking attorney and as such, he stays pretty busy. He knows everything about everybody. He is more aptly described a legal artist as when Otis hurled a flaming jack o' lantern through the Thomas's picture window, he got those charges of arson, destruction of property and felony assault reduced to a fine for burning trash.

He's definitely gotten Marie Janisse out of a fair share of scrapes and is the reason she's a free woman today rather than chillin' in the yard of Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women with her new orange jumpsuit-wearing sorority sisters. Apparently, the folks in Bossier City don't take kindly to someone walking her pet ocelot through downtown in a bikini while she's tripping on LSD, which is actually a pretty common occurrence here. Let's not forget ol' Butch working his legal magic on those charges in Ouachita, Arkansas, which is a pretty bad place to be booked as an accessory to armed robbery and an even worse place to threaten to stab the arresting officer in the face. We're talking time served and probation. The man's a genius.

Butch dresses like John Gotti and his law office is located in between Lurleen's Beauty & Gun Shop and the Laundr-o-Mat so you know it's a class operation. Unlike the other boneheaded law school graduates, Butch didn't waste his time behind a school desk regurgitating good government bullshit and learned everything he knows about the law from his time in juvie. That's stuff they don't teach at Harvard.  That's why Butch knows about money laundering and English-speaking countries that don't extradite to the US and all those nerdsters came out with are theories about legal ethics and dusty cases. Not too bad for a street punk from Marrero, in that strange enchanted place known as Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. Say what you will about him, but Butch is hilarious and the only person I know who's more obsessed with movies than I am.

I was going to ask him to go with me to see CRIMSON PEAK, but he has an annoying habit of eating my Kazoozles.  And speaking of the perfect friend, it's time for the sixth film in this 31 Days of Halloween review-a-thon. I'm talkin' about MAY written and directed by LUCKY MCKEE and starring fellow Texas girl ANGELA BETTIS as May Canady; May was ostracized as a little girl for her lazy eye. This was only exacerbated by her perfectionist mother whose solution was to cover the offending eye with an eyepatch. When her daughter had difficulty making friends, May's mother gave her a doll in a glass case named Suzy with the advice, "If you can't find a friend, make one."

MAY (2002): May as a child, isolated on the playground

As a young woman in her twenties, May works as a veterinary assistant in Los Angeles. She spends most of her time alone, sewing her own clothes and collecting dolls. Despite her cool job, cool hobbies, and keen fashion sense (she even owns spectator pumps! The girl is a total fashionista), May is plagued by the insecurities of her childhood. She is nervous, socially awkward and harbors intense fears of rejection. She hopes to find the unconditional love she did not receive from her parents in her search for the "perfect" friend.

She thinks her search is over when she meets Adam (JEREMY SISTO of SIX FEET UNDER), a Dario Argento-obsessed mechanic, who has a "perfect" pair of hands. As someone who deems herself unlovable because of her flawed eye, May fetishizes parts of others. As a horror movie fanatic, Adam is initially intrigued by May's quirkiness. When he shows her his student film featuring a couple that literally devours each other and May snuggles up to him on the couch ("It was sweet," she says. "I don't think he could've gotten his finger off in one bite, though. That part was a bit far-fetched") it could be the beginning of an adorable romance between two misfits. Alas, it is not to be. Adam's weirdness, outside of his affection for Italian horror films, is mostly manufactured. He asks May to tell him the gory details about her job at the animal hospital ("I love gross," he proclaims. "Disgust me, please.") then cannot stomach her story. He shows her his room, a shrine to Dario Argento, declaring "I'm a psycho!" before stabbing her with a prop knife with a retractable blade, but is surprised when May sees this as a romantic gesture. Adam is merely a norm in weirdo armor and he likes the fantasy of weird girls more then the real thing. He might have gotten more sympathy from me if he hadn't handled his break up with May like a self-centered thirteen year-old and if his new girlfriend wasn't such a vacuous bimbo.

MAY (2002): May (Angela Bettis) transfixed by Adam's hands

Heartbroken May seeks comfort in the arms of her flirtatious lesbian co-worker Polly (the hilarious ANNA FARIS), who finds May's strangeness alluring. "I love weird," Polly gushes. But though May admires Polly's lovely neck, she is put off by a large mole on Polly's hand. More upsetting is the fact that even though May is her "main mama," Polly thinks nothing of a fling with Ambrosia, a bar bimbo with the perfect set of gams. Polly is fun, but rebound relationships never work and ultimately she is too flighty too fill May's emotional needs.

MAY (2002): Anna Faris as Polly

Deeply hurt and desperate for human connection, May volunteers at a daycare center for blind children but unfortunately this ends in disaster when she introduces her kids to Suzy.

There's only so much hurt and rejection a sensitive and high-strung young woman can take, and May finally decides to take the night train off to Jeffrey Dahmer-land: since there are only pretty parts and no pretty wholes, she follows her mother's childhood advice: If you can't find a friend, make one.

MAY (2002): May (Angela Bettis) introduces the kids to Suzy

In some ways, MAY is similar to another 31 Days of Halloween review-a-thon favorite MS. 45: both films are undeniably influenced by TAXI DRIVER and the godmother of all female neurosis movies REPULSION, but more importantly, both feature a simultaneous descent into madness and coming-of-age through violence for the female protagonist. Like Thana, May slowly loses her grip on reality (the cracking glass on Suzy's case representing the splintering of her fragile psyche) but madness has the effect of a make-over. As she embarks on her quest to collect the perfect parts to build her perfect friend, May becomes more confident, socially suave and even more beautiful. She's literally dressed to kill as she sets out for murder and mayhem on Halloween night. Through violence, May transforms from rejected, lonely child to proactive woman. Rather then remain a victim, May decides she will simply take what she believes she is entitled to.

MAY (2002): May (Angela Bettis) dressed to kill on Halloween

But are May's needs reasonable? Yes and no. Both Adam's and Polly's actions are self-centered, but May's expectations from her relationships are demanding and unrealistic. Her mother's perfectionism instilled a set of impossible standards in May from an early age.
"Have you ever thought of having this removed?" May asks Polly while examining the mole on Polly's hand.
"My grandmother said it's the imperfections that make you special," Polly answers.
This was the kind of nurturing that May did not receive from her own family. May has never learned to value herself despite her flaws and holds others to the same standard.
"No one's perfect," Adam reminds her, and therefore no one can match up to May's idea of the perfect friend. Not only are her standards impossible, but having never developed any sense of self-worth, May depends entirely on others. In short, her emotional needs are exhausting.
Having come from a chaotic family and also having a perfectionist, highly critical mother, I can empathize with some of the things May struggles with in the film. I also perceived myself as an outsider, feared rejection, and was plagued by insecurities. Like May I was often derided as a "freak" and "weirdo" and searched for the perfect friend who would be my soul twin, completely devoted and loyal. I realize now how selfish this was and because of a set of unrealistic expectations, I was not letting relationships grow and develop naturally.

MAY is also about the superficiality and selfishness that pervades 20th century society. May's search for connection is understandable, but difficult in a world where people are viewed as interchangeable and relationships are largely fleeting and shallow. Both May and the other characters are guilty of a preoccupation with perfect surfaces and a refusal to accept people regardless of their flaws. In our increasingly narcissistic culture, the emphasis seems to be more on conveying the right image of something rather than simply being genuine and on temporary friends that will benefit you in the short-term rather than having a group of dependable, like-minded people with whom you have understanding, accepting and supportive relationships with.

MAY (2002): May (Angela Bettis) sits alone on the bus bench

Regardless of what some stuffed-shirt critics will say about our beloved genre, successful horror films hinge on terrific performances and ANGELA BETTIS carries MAY on her delicate shoulders. Ever tear, twitch, gesture and enigmatic smile is filled with nuance and complexity; her emotional transformation is even more breath-taking to behold when you consider that everything was shot out of sequence rather than building through the progression of events  as you would in a stage performance. She guarantees that even when she frightens us, May has our empathy. There are few horror movie characters I've wanted to hug more than her. It doesn't hurt that she resembles a cross of LYNDA DAY GEORGE (also a Texas girl) and ASIA ARGENTO.

And what about LUCKY MCKEE, the maestro behind this macabre tale? Mr. McKee has made a career out of portraying troubled women, so I think I'm going to have to make him a member of the Descent Into Madness Hall of Fame. His direction is stylish but never intrusive and the saturated visual palate is something to behold. The film is a successful fusion of indie arthouse - with its quirky characters and slick noise soundtrack (this film introduced me to The Breeders) - and horror grindhouse. The film reminds me in many ways of GHOST WORLD with its vibrant colors, sympathy for misfits, and portrayal of an authentic culture replaced by a conformist, superficial one. There is a scene in which May's attempt to befriend a Jujube-eating mohawked stranger (played by GREG ARAKI regular JAMES DUVALL) ends once again in rejection. "You fuckin' freak," he spits, "I'm not gonna be your friend." May bursts into tears, paused only by her eyes falling on a pair of sewing scissors. She suddenly let's out primeval scream of the anger and despair only the truly wounded can feel. As she does so, quick flashes of everything that has brought her to this point are crosscut with the present and finally the aftermath of May calmly smoking a cigarette with a blood-splattered hand. It's the perfect unification of performance, direction, editing and music and I think one of the most powerful moments of the film.

The best examples of the horror genre explore the darkness of the human heart and MAY is no exception in probing the loneliness and voracious emotional needs of its protagonist. Like the cannibalistic lovers in Adam's student film, emotionally starved May will devour those close to her and finally herself in her quest for love and acceptance.

MAY (2002): May (Angela Bettis) smokes a cigarette after her first kill

Monday, October 19, 2015

United Against Life As We Know It

Ginger Snaps (2000)

GINGER SNAPS: Katharine Isabelle as Ginger Fitzgerald in one of the sisters' death scenarios

My favorite part of Halloween has always been the costumes. I usually start planning as early as December, but this year I'm fresh out of inspiration. I could always bust out my trusty Elvira costume or my personal favorite, blood-and-brain-splattered Jackie-O. I was particularly proud of my homemade Tura Satana costume but that ensemble has rotated its way into my regular wardrobe. Audrey Reynolds said she was going as Sue Ellen Ewing from DALLAS this year so it's pretty hard to beat that.

But you know the one thing that sticks in my craw about Halloween? These rampaging bimbosteins that use Halloween as an excuse to parade around in the skankiest outfits possible. Now, I have nothing against costumes being sexy. Hell, it's Halloween and two out of the three favorite costumes of mine I listed here are cleavage-centric. It's the sheer lack of imagination that gets my goat. I mean, they could at least dress up as a hooker like Audrey's older sister Alice Lee did for career day in high school! I had this roommate in college who on Halloween night put on a costume four sizes too small and looked like she was prepared to perform the floor show that damned men must be subjected to in the ninth circle of hell.
"What are you supposed to be?" I asked.
She rolled her eyes and sneered, "I'm Little Bo Peep."
I was actually relieved because for a moment there, I thought that plastic sheep was for far more nefarious purposes.
She was an Exercise Sports Science major and was failing all her classes. We're talkin' dumber than a sack of hammers.

I dunno, I just hate the idea of this glorious Pagan holiday being profaned by some ho-zillas seeking cheap sexual validation to boost their shattered self-esteems.

I asked Marie Janisse what she was going to be for Halloween but she just told me to let her know when that jerk family across the street started having people over to tour the Hallelujah House in their garage because she wanted to come over and walk around naked with the curtains open. I didn't argue with her because a naked Marie Janisse is a force to be reckoned with. She's madder than a wet nun about them referring to her as the devil's whore. Last week, she scrawled "It's Time for Helter Skelter, Bitches!" on their door and left a pig's head on their front steps. They better hope they've got Jesus on their side, because Marie Janisse is out for blood.

And speaking of rampaging female sexuality, today I'm talking about GINGER SNAPS, the fifth film in the 31 Days of Halloween review-a-thon, written by KAREN WALTON and directed by JOHN FAWCETT. Sardonic, gleefully antisocial Ginger Fitzgerald (Canadian scream queen KATHARINE ISABELLE) and her slightly younger sister, whip-smart, deadpan Brigitte (EMILY PERKINS), are teenage outcasts and best friends, united by their mutual alienation and hatred of the vacuous inhabitants of their suburban Canadian town, Bailey Downs. The girls spend their time avoiding their cheery handicraft-loving mother, Pamela (MIMI ROGERS), devising ridiculous obituaries for their tormentor, mean girl jockette Trina Sinclair (DANIELLE HAMPTON), and staging outrageously gory death scenarios. The girls are inseparable and share a suicide pact as literal death seems preferable to them over the prolonged death of conventional adult womanhood.

GINGER SNAPS: Ginger and Brigitte Fitzgerald

On the night Ginger starts her first period, she is attacked by a monstrous wolf creature in the woods. Alarmed by the fact that Ginger's cuts have already begun healing, Brigitte wants to seek medical attention but Ginger dissuades her. But Ginger begins transforming: she dresses more like a vixen and she returns the attentions of high-school "caveboy" Jason McCarty (JESSE MOSS). "You're doing drugs with guys," Brigitte says. "Something is definitely wrong." Ginger also sprouts a tail, her features grow more wolf-like and she begins killing neighborhood pets to feed a newfound hunger. Brigitte finds an ally in local pot dealer, Sam (KRIS LEMCHE) to find a cure for Ginger but as Ginger comes to embrace her monstrousness, she may not want to be cured.

With the contribution of screenwriter KAREN WALTON, GINGER SNAPS is one of the few films I think accurately and effectively depicts the tumultuous emotions, the anger and alienation, anxiety about impending adulthood and the intense bond of female friendship of adolescence (the two others that come to mind are HEAVENLY CREATURES and GHOST WORLD). All of the female characters presented are multi-faceted and defy the stereotypes they could have fallen into. Most horror films about teenagers are coming-of-age stories in genre dressing and GINGER SNAPS uses the myth of the werewolf to explore aspects of female adolescence.

The relationship of the Fitzgerald sisters is the heart of the film and undeniably why it resonates so well. The dissolution of an inseparable teenage friendship is a painful part of becoming an adult and something a majority of viewers can relate to. As a morbid, smart-alecky outsider (teenage and otherwise), I identified with Ginger and Brigitte, particularly Brigitte's journey into dreaded adulthood. Like the girls, I reveled in shock value as a reaction to my conformist environment, but unlike the girls, I thought adulthood offered a welcome reprieve in that I could finally make my own world versus being the outsider looking in.

Ginger and Brigitte Fitzgerald in GINGER SNAPS

Like many horror film heroines, Brigitte's maturation is accomplished not through sexual experience but through survival. In her quest to help Ginger, Brigitte proves to be an adept researcher and a resourceful problem solver. Where before Ginger was the dominant personality in the relationship, ("You just do whatever she tells you to, you always have," Pamela scolds her) Brigitte finally individuates, developing enough confidence to assert herself in a healthy manner and to no longer live in her sister's shadow. While their relationship was a source of support for both young women, it was also unequal and grows increasingly toxic as Ginger changes.
"You ruin everything for me that isn't about you," Brigitte tells her transformed sister.
Brigitte ultimately outgrows the relationship and decides she does not have to become the kind of woman her community demands that she be or even the perpetual second fiddle to her demanding sister: she can become the kind of woman she wants to be.
"I'm not dying in this room with you!" she declares. "I'm not dying!" And thus embraces her journey into adult womanhood.

GINGER SNAPS: Emily Perkins as Brigitte Fitzgerald

Ginger's journey is a far more nihilistic one. Some have accused the film of biting its own feminist tail in that it depicts female sexuality as monstrous, but I think this interpretation is overly simplistic. The film's portrayal of female sexuality is an ambivalent one, illustrating both the exhilaration and terror experienced in female teenage years. It's undeniable that North American culture views female sexuality as monstrous, an uncontrollable force that needs to be managed with various neatly packaged products so that we do not scare away potential boyfriends. The double-standard still exists that men are free to indulge in their sexual desires, while the sexual desires of women are to be controlled and monitored. Because of this, Ginger becomes a representation of the female id; we simultaneously want to be like her (sexy, dangerous, uninhibited) and afraid of becoming her if we let go. Ginger's transformation conveys the physical pain, the distaste for new body changes, the awkwardness of initial sexual experiences and the simultaneous discomfort and excitement that comes with intense, burgeoning sexual desires. Ginger also finds power in her sexuality; she turns heads as she walks through the halls, she takes charge in gratifying her desires, returns the aggression of the men around her and has the guts to smack down the gym class alpha bitch. For a male viewer, the Monstrous Female confirms their fear of female sexuality as the unknown, and also fears of being sexually undesirable or unable to perform. For female viewers, monstrous women in horror films like Ginger are a strange wish-fulfilment allowing them to vicariously indulge in their inhibited desires.

GINGER SNAPS: Katharine Isabelle as Ginger Fitzgerald

But Ginger is also tragic in that she bends everything towards self-destruction. Without the werewolf symbolism, she is the equivalent of a young woman who uses sex to hurt her partner and ultimately herself. She becomes increasingly selfish in her relationship with her sister; though she puts mistas before sistas (pretty un-feminist of her), she wants Brigitte all to herself. Brigitte is ultimately not allowed to exist outside her orbit.
"I'm a force of fucking nature," Ginger purrs. But Ginger ultimately becomes a raging hurricane that destroys everything in her path. Though Ginger, like any teenager undergoing a series of changes, is by turns overwhelmed, afraid, angry or in denial about what is happening to her, she eventually embraces her monstrousness and, on a subversive note, actually enjoys killing, equating it to the pleasure she receives from masturbation. Female sexual desire - and particularly sexual enjoyment - are rarely depicted on film. Somehow, Ginger's monstrousness makes this permissible. It's interesting to note many antiheroines in horror films discover self-confidence and embrace their sexuality through violence (such as Thana's transformation in MS. 45 ).  Once again, I think this has less to do with these films demonizing female sexuality than mirroring how female sexuality is regarded in North American culture. Monsters are metaphors for the darker sides of the human psyche. Since female sexuality is taboo, viewed as something that needs to be repressed, controlled and shamed when it is not, a Monstrous Female is the transgressive id, the urges that refuse to be repressed. Through genre conventions, the audience (both male and female) can explore these impulses and forbidden desires safely and comfortably.

GINGER SNAPS: Ginger Fitzgerald wolfs out

WALTON's script is smart and irreverent, presenting a gleeful skewering of superficial suburban values and teen angst through the perspective of outsiders. Her dialogue is also clever without devolving into self-indulgence and favorably recalls HEATHERS. Naturally, the performances of KATHARINE ISABELLE and EMILY PERKINS carry the film. ISABELLE's razor wit, feral sensuality and sinewy body are perfect for the role of Ginger and she essays the character's transformation flawlessly. PERKINS as the Wednesday Addams-ish Brigitte matches her every step of the way in her character's less showy but equally remarkable emotional transformation. She conveys Brigitte's odd mannerisms, her scowl and her awkward slouch but also brings forth Brigitte's sensitivity and fierce intelligence. MIMI ROGERS is also excellent (and very funny) as Pamela, who is not quite the ditzy suburban housewife she seems to be.
The autumnal photography is beautiful and evokes just the perfect Halloween feeling. I also cannot say enough about the score, which perfectly enhances the emotional nuances of the film.

Whatever you think about the film's metaphor of female-teenage-sex-werewolf, GINGER SNAPS is noteworthy in how it depicts young women; films centering on female friendships where the male characters are secondary are few and far between (especially in the horror genre). It's always refreshing to see a film, horror or otherwise, featuring intelligent, offbeat and defiantly strange female protagonists who don't fit neatly into a stereotype. "Trust me, a woman can only be a bitch, a slut, a tease or the virgin next door," Ginger informs Brigitte, but fortunately that is not the case with this movie. The physical and emotional changes one endures during adolescence can be overwhelming and even horrifying, particularly as a young woman when the roles you are assigned are especially limited, and I believe that is what GINGER SNAPS hits the bullseye in conveying.

GINGER SNAPS: Ginger and Brigitte Fitzgerald

Thursday, October 15, 2015

She Was Abused and Violated...It Will Never Happen Again!

Ms. 45 (1981)

Zoe Tamerlis as Thana in MS. 45

Normally I'm much happier by myself obsessing over things other people think are disturbing, but I decided to give online dating a try. I haven't been getting any responses to my profile so maybe you, gentle readers, can tell me what you think:

"Wisecracking paralegal/writer, shoots hipsters on sight, despises public displays of affection but is fine with you feeding me pizza while I marathon DALLAS.

Likes:  Reading, psychopaths, outrageous nihilism

Dislikes: Other people's needs

Must like horror movies. Shady criminal defense lawyer or mad scientist preferred. Only serious applicants needs inquire (No, seriously, dude, I will cut you).

So far, I have not found my soulmate but I have received a plethora of "DUR, u r hot" messages and most of them weren't even that articulate. And I tell ya, a lot of the guys I went to school with were like the dudes in AMERICAN PSYCHO without the looks or money, so I've had enough of despicable male behavior in real life to put up with any of it on the internet.

There is a particularly horrifying species in this generation of men and unfortunately, I think it's spread too quickly across the United States for us to capture it and quarantine it. I think you'll recognize it when you see it: it's the type that has no discernable skills (except whining) but no shortage of a superiority complex, has few interests except for himself, cries like a spoiled child over everything and believes all women must want them because their mother told them so. And most disturbing of all, since their mother is getting too old to take care of them and stroke their ego, they are now looking for a girlfriend to fill that role. I don't know many women that would appeal to unless they're one of those people with a giant baby fetish. Far more annoyingly, many of these would-be kings for a day insist the problem is not that they lack the ability to relate to women in a mature and respectful way or that they have no emotional regulation: "You don't understand," they'll bleat. "I'm a sensitive guy!" When did sensitivity become equated with being a self-absorbed wussy whinemaster? There's a reason the whiny guy always dies in horror movies, folks. I'm not sure why men who act like seventh grade mean girls are considered to be a positive example of evolving gender norms -- especially when I've been treated with more respect by so-called macho rednecks than these slobs. And I don't know what made these women raise their sons to be recruits for the Future John Hinckleys of America Training Camp. If they were going to do that, they should have paid the extra money to have them neutered too.  HUNTER S. THOMPSON once wrote of the Generation of Swine, this is the Generation of Wusses.
This foul breed must be stopped. From now on, I'm going to taser every single one that crosses my path in the crotch with my Hello Kitty taser.

And speaking of despicable male behavior and senseless violence, it's time for the fourth film in the 31 Days of Halloween Review-a-thon, MS. 45 (1981), the rape-revenge cult classic and one of my all-time favorites, written by NICHOLAS ST. JOHN and directed by ABEL FERRARA.

The film stars ZOE TAMERLIS in a knock-out performance as the enigmatic Thana, a shy, mute young woman who works as a seamstress in New York City's Garment District.  A twisted sister to Carol Ledoux in REPULSION, fragile Thana cowers from the male sexual aggression she is subjected to on a daily basis.  Men hurl catcalls and insults at her and her co-workers as they walk down the street. Outspoken Laurie (DARLENE STUTO) shouts back and flips them the bird, but a close-up of Thana reveals only distress and fear. Thana's boss Albert (ALBERT SINKYS) pats her on the head like a child and sexually harasses her. When Thana is raped by an unknown attacker (played by FERRARA himself under the name JIMMY LAINE) coming home from the grocery store, she returns to her apartment only to be raped again by a burglar. Thana strikes back at this second attacker, stunning him with an apple paperweight (Eve?) and then bashing him over the head with an iron (the tool of her trade).

Thana enters into a dissociative state and begins to exhibit traits of post traumatic stress disorder such as nightmares and extreme anxiety when anything triggers memories of the traumatic incident. Despite the concern of her co-workers, Thana does not seek their support and feels threatened by their attention. Perhaps she feels isolated from them due to her muteness or perhaps she has learned that others are not to be trusted.
Whatever the reason, Thana feels alone and she will deal with her problems alone.
The attention she receives from men, once unsettling, is now unbearable.
"I just wish they would leave me alone," Thana writes in a note to her co-worker after being subjected to unwanted touching and harassment from Albert.

Finally, fearful that her intrusive landlady, Ms. Nasone (imagine a combination of SYLVIA MILES and EDITH MASSEY) will discover what has transpired, she dismembers the body in her bathtub and makes trips around the city to dispose of the garbage-bagged pieces. She begins to carry her attacker's .45 with her for protection when she goes out.  On one of her body disposal adventures, a Fonzie wannabe assumes she has accidentally left behind a bag and chases her down. Fearing another sexual attack, a cornered Thana shoots him in the head.
The incident transforms Thana: vampishly dressed, she prowls the streets of New York, armed with the dead rapist's .45, blowing away men who behave in a sexually aggressive manner towards women. Thana refuses to remain a victim, instead taking action against misogynistic transgressors. She'll make them leave her alone. Her special brand of SCUM MANIFESTO feminism culminates in a rampage at a Halloween party where Thana turns her gun on her victimizer/boss and the other male guests before being literally and figuratively stabbed in the back with a phallic knife by Laurie. I guess that's what Betty Friedan meant when she said, "Men are not the enemy but fellow victims. The real enemy is women's denigration of themselves."

Whether it's through unwanted come-ons, workplace harassment or sexual violence, men in the film consistently view women is little more than pleasurable objects.  Albert treats his all-female staff in a patronizing fashion (he refers to them as "my little little workers") and sexually harasses Thana because she is young and vulnerable. Some viewers balk at the outrageousness of someone enduring two rapes in a single day, but I think that's the point that the film is trying to make. Sexual violence as a means of subjugation is epidemic and though CAMILLE PAGLIA would cry "I spit on this blog!" at the mention of Rape Culture, I think it's fair to say that in the world that the film presents, misogyny has been normalized.

The male characters do not notice Thana's muteness, instead interpreting her silence as feminine passivity. It is even questionable in the film if Thana is indeed mute, or if it's the psychological result of childhood trauma. Thana has been silenced through abuse and invalidation; she has learned not to speak up for herself or express her wants and needs. She finds her voice, so to speak, in her rampage, allowing her gun to speak for her. In many narratives, a young woman will embark upon a journey of self-discovery, usually through more traditional rites of passage. In MS. 45, Thana discovers herself through survival and self-assertive violence. Unlike Carol Ledoux, Thana is a fighter.

The film is refreshingly from Thana's perspective and Thana is never sexualized for the viewer's voyeuristic pleasure. The street harassment Thana and her co-workers must face is seen through Thana's point of view. Her second rapist is filmed from her point of view. The rape scenes focus heavily on close-ups of Thana's agonized reaction rather than the sexuality of the act itself. After dismembering her second attacker's body in the bathtub, Thana stands before the mirror and unbuttons her shirt. As she disrobes, an imaginary hand reaches out and grabs her. Stunned, Thana crosses her arms protectively over her chest and hallucinates the rapist from the alley appearing behind her in the mirror. An exploitation audience expecting to be titillated by the sight of Thana's breasts is only greeted with a shock -- which places them in the same shoes as the traumatized antiheroine.

Thana's journey from timid seamstress to vengeance-wreaking femme fatale is both an empowering and self-destructive one. After the trauma of the double-whammy rapes, she refuses to surrender to fear and will not allow herself to continue being abused. Though she reclaims the phallus by arming herself with the dead rapist's .45, symbolically castrating him and using it further to castrate other male predators, she does not assume male characteristics. She actually begins to embrace her own feminine sexuality, wearing more make-up, styling her hair and wearing vampish figure-accentuating dresses, leather pants and knee-high boots. Once nervous and socially awkward, she exudes confidence and grace. No longer afraid of male aggression, she feels free to express herself as a death-dealin' vixen.

In the Halloween party finale, Thana arrives dressed as a sexy nun: she is both the Madonna and the Whore, a union of both rigid categories in which women are placed. Having lured her away from the party under the mistaken impression that he will finally seduce her, Albert lifts Thana's skirt. To his dismay, rather than exposing Thana's genitals, he sees the .45 positioned in her garter belt, and a cross from the beads around her waist dangles between her thighs.
Thana has fully transformed from a victim to angel of vengeance: once sexually victimized by men, she now uses her sexuality to lure and punish misogynistic would-be attackers. After blasting them into oblivion she could easily smile and explain they were asking for it.

However, while other rape-revenge films such as I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE, end on a close-up of the antiheroine once her revenge has been completed, MS. 45 ends with Thana being stabbed in the back by her friend and co-worker. While the women in those two films have simpler quests in punishing those who have directly wronged them so that they can heal and move on, Thana is on a mission to punish all men who abuse women. In that way, Thana is similar to Paul Kersey in DEATH WISH. Both characters' rampages are a violent form of activism.

But while her revenge is initially empowering, Thana's refusal to let go of her anger causes her to spiral further and further out of control and finally destroy herself.
How effective was her one-woman war against the patriarchy? Though there are a few more misogynists six feet under, there is no hint in the film that Thana's killing spree has instigated any social change or made the world a fairer place for women.
Much like the GLORIA STEINAM wing of feminism but I digress.
Paul Kersey, however, becomes a sort of modern-day Western hero. Because society has broken down so much, the institutions we have established to protect us fail to do so and it must be up to the people to take action. Paul's spree actually inspires change in that the people of New York City finally want to take a stand to protect themselves. I think this would have been a subversive wrinkle for MS. 45, but Thana's motives are a mystery to the other characters.

Unlike her cinematic sisters, Jennifer Hills in I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and Madeline in THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE whose victims ultimately all deserve their fate by having done violence to the heroine or even Paul Kersey who only shoots those who prove themselves to be criminals, Thana comes to see all men as aggressors. Her hostility towards men is understandable in that, like Carol in REPULSION, pretty much every man she encounters behaves like a would-be date rapist, but it also causes her to lose her grip on reality.

In a scene that echoes the famous "You talkin' to me?" sequence in TAXI DRIVER, Thana prepares for the Halloween party, blessing each bullet with a kiss. She poses in front of her mirror with her gun, playacting shooting and smiles at herself. You know how I'm always saying the mirrors generally represent a psychological space in these kind of movies? Well, get ready to read it about it again. The mirror, once indicating Thana's fear of victimization, now -- much like the aforementioned scene in TAXI DRIVER -- represents her isolation from the reality of the rest of the world, sinking further into the warped reality created by her mind. Her revenge has consumed her entire life.
Once an angel of vengeance, she loses her ability to distinguish predatory men and instead seeks to exterminate all men. Her name itself is significant deriving from the Greek word "Thanatos" or personification of death. Rather than being a campaign for justice, Thana's crusade is ultimately a nihilistic one.

A romantic relationship is never a cure-all, but I have to wonder if Thana's journey might have been less difficult had she met her soulmate, Travis Bickle.

MS. 45 is an excellent female companion piece to TAXI DRIVER, both being films set in a grim, garbage-strewn New York City and featuring an alienated protagonist driven to madness by the everyday brutality in its streets and the "scum" that inhabit it, finally finding catharsis through violence. Travis's violent actions, much like those of Paul Kersey, are construed as heroic - though he could have easily turned his gun on the political candidate instead -- illustrating the film's point that society has become so insane the line between hero and villain are indistinguishable. However, while Travis drives on to an uncertain future at the end of the film and DEATH WISH implies that Paul Kersey's campaign against the scum on the streets will continue, Thana's violent crusade is ended by another woman.  Is male violence simply more acceptable then female violence?  Or has Thana simply gone further off the deep end than her male counterparts?

Laurie's final knife in the back can be interpreted in a few ways. Perhaps it's the equivalent of women maintaining the restrictions placed upon them by degrading one another. Maybe it's the equivalent of bitch policing (ie when a woman tries to stand up for herself, she is reprimanded with "Don't be a bitch").  The large knife penetrating Thana's back is a nasty visual metaphor for her previous rapes, perhaps indicating that the system of oppression cannot ever truly be destroyed.
On the other hand, feisty Laurie does not allow herself to be victimized by men and is able to stand up for herself without resorting to violence the way Thana does. Laurie may be a healthier alternative (and a true feminist rather than a misandrist) to what Thana ultimately becomes.

It cannot be denied much of MS. 45's power comes from ZOE TAMERLIS as Thana. A genius, musical prodigy and political activist, Ms. Tamerlis delivers an emotionally agile performance, and invests Thana with intelligence, feline grace, mystery, beauty and inner-strength. She is able to convey so much with her body language, facial expressions and soulful eyes. She died prematurely at only 37 due to complications from drug use and the film world is a lesser place without her. "I think she was unhappy a lot of the time...Maybe she got too old too fast," her mother laments in the documentary short ZOE RISING. At only nineteen, she gives Thana a world-weariness and tragedy that a different actress might not have brought to the part. She has been quoted as saying that MS. 45 is not specifically a feminist film; that it is a film championing all disempowered and disenfranchised people. However, I would have to ask, what is the significance of making the stand-in for all the disempowered a woman?