Friday, May 13, 2016

The Kids Are All Dead

Brenda (Laurie Bartram) at Camp Crystal Lake's archery range in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980).

That's it, I've had it. I had to shoot four or five hipsters today. And it's not just because I've had more than my fill of stupid hats and manufactured ennui. The term "hipster" did not always apply to such an odious breed of the human race. In the '50s, a hipster was someone who felt alienated from consumer-driven mainstream society, embraced the offbeat and drifted around on an existential quest. Hey, I can get behind that! Now a hipster is a sheltered, entitled "artiste" from an affluent suburban family armed with a self-absorbed arrogance disguised as irony who tries to dress like a homeless person. And being a poverty poseur in an economic recession is just downright rude.
While subcultures of past generations all believed in something, hipsters only believe in their own "coolness." Instead of rejecting the mainstream culture and creating their own fashion, music and art, all hipsters have to offer is a feigned superiority that only allows them to like things ironically. And while other subcultures from past generations were united by common beliefs, similar tastes in music and shared attitudes about the world, hipsters don't even like other hipsters. It's a crowd of one; a self-admiration society.
Is this really the best my generation could come up with? I guess that's what happens when parents instead of raising their kids to be self-reliant, to think for themselves, to go make mistakes and figure things out, produced a bunch of narcissistic whinemeisters who were taught that their feelings mattered more than accomplishment, had all of their time managed for them and were sheltered from anything too offensive or scary. HUNTER S. THOMPSON once wrote of The Generation of Swine. This is Generation of Wussies.
Lest you think hipsters are harmless, keep in mind these post-modern putzes invade every city and drive up the cost of rent for those who actually work for a living. They've infested Austin and New Orleans like a particularly obnoxious zombie apocalypse. And now I can't go to a midnight movie without a goon squad of these boho buttheads cackling like rabid hyenas after every single line to convey they only like the movie because it's "sooooo stuuuuuupid."
I won't stand for this skinny-jeans sporting skullduggery. I've got my machete handy and I'm heading out to every Whole Foods and coffee house in the country to send all these unnecessary headband-wearing wimps back to the ninth circle of hell where they came from.

And speaking of killing sprees, today's Friday the 13th! Thanks to the folks at Paramount Studios, the day will always be associated with Jason Voorhees, a drowned disabled boy turned unstoppable boogeyman killing machine who goes down only to rise again and again for vengeance, much like Otis Calhoun after too many tequila slammers at Crabs and Crabcakes Singles Night. But before all the sequels there was a low-budget popcorn movie attempting to cash in on the success of HALLOWEEN.  And before Jason, there was his devoted mama, Mrs. Voorhees. Today I'm talkin' about the movie that started it all and that's the one and only FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) directed by SEAN CUNNINGHAM, producer of the infamous LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and written by New Orleans-native VICTOR MILLER.

We all know the story: In 1958, a pair of counselors at Camp Crystal Lake are brutally murdered when they sneak off from the rest of the crowd to make the beast with two backs. 21 years later, Camp Crystal Lake is thought to be cursed by the locals, but that doesn't stop Steve Christy from buying the place and planning to open it back up. Despite the hostility from the DELIVERANCE-lite townspeople, a group of college-aged kids (one of which is a young KEVIN BACON) help Steve make renovations, prepare to be counselors and have some summertime fun out in the New Jersey woods. However, an unseen assailant is stalking and murdering them one by one. When a storm strands them at the camp without power or help, only final girl Alice Hardy (ADRIENNE KING) is left alive to face the killer.
And it's not Jason.
The culprit is Pamela Voorhees, Jason's mother. Seems twenty-one years ago, two hormone-crazed counselors abandoned their duties to go play whack the weasel off in the bushes and negligently allowed her disabled little boy drown.
There's nothing quite like a mother's love.
Or the agony of a mother's grief.

Betsy Palmer as Mrs. Voorhees in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980).

FRIDAY THE 13TH, while an unexpected box office hit, was lambasted by critics upon its release (my personal favorite critique declared it, "The cinematic equivalent of belching in art class") mostly for its (for the time) graphic violence and perceived puritanism. Sure, FRIDAY THE 13TH is kind of a pale imitator of MARIO BAVA's outstanding proto-slasher film BAY OF BLOOD, without really matching the style, wit or finesse of its forebearer. But it's hardly the blundering clunker that critics have made it out to be; the production is lean and competent. While slasher films (sometimes rightfully) draw derision for poor acting, the cast here does a good job and brings a lot of their enthusiasm to their roles. Seasoned pro BETSY PALMER gives a bravura performance as Mrs. Voorhees, perfectly illustrating the intense rage that would drive a grieving mother to mass murder. I can't imagine anyone else delivering the line, "Look what YOU DID TO HIM!" with as much delicious venom as she does.
SIDENOTE: ESTELLE PARSONS was at one point cast as Mrs. Voorhees. As much as I love BESTY PALMER in this movie, I would have loved to see what ESTELLE PARSONS would've brought to this part.
As for the puritanical aspect of the film, I'll discuss that more in a bit but the criticism leveled at the film that the virginal girl survives while all of her sexually active friends are mutilated is unfounded. From their interactions together, the viewer can easily draw the conclusion that Alice has been sleeping with Steve Christy. Then she throws him over to openly flirt with fellow counselor-to-be, Bill (HARRY CROSBY, son of BING CROSBY).
Virgin she is not.
Alice, like all final girls whether virginal or not, is drawn as an introspective observer (she's an artist) and resourceful enough to survive the night.
However, I may be alone in this, but I always wish that Brenda (LAURIE BARTRAM) had been the final girl. Though she sports some stylish turquoise jewelry, Alice just kind of bugs me, okay? Brenda's intelligent, sarcastic, reads for fun and is sassy enough to instigate a game of Strip Monopoly.
And I thought she and wise-cracking, BOGART-impersonating jokester Ned would've made a cute couple.
Oh, Brenda, though you did not survive the movie, you'll always be Final Girl in my heart.

Laurie Bartram as Brenda in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)

The violence in the film, thanks to relaxing censorship standards and rapidly improving special effects, was definitely more extreme for its time, but really not as extreme as its reputation suggests. Aside from a few "money shots," the film relies more on suspense generated by the film's craftsmanship (particularly the PSYCHO-inspired score by HARRY MANFREDINI and the killer's POV device borrowed from giallo films). The pioneering special effects by Wizard of Gore TOM SAVINI (fresh off DAWN OF THE DEAD) still pack a punch today, but the violence in the film is never mean-spirited or sadistic as it is in a lot of recent horror films. It has the quality of a haunted house at Halloween time: the filmmaker's want you to have fun being scared and to wonder how they were able to pull off such neat visual tricks.
The violence is stylized rather than realistic. If you've ever seen crime scene photos, people's hands and arms are completely battered from defensive wounds. There are some murder victims who don't even look human anymore.
But in FRIDAY THE 13TH no one fights for their life; these kids have zero survival instinct and two of the film's victims even stand completely still for the convenience of the killer. This is a pretty far cry from the agonizing violence of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Violence here is spectacle.
It's hard to see what critics back then were making such a fuss about, but then again old fuddy-duddies always have to have something to get upset about.

Alice (Adrienne King) finds Bill's (Harry Crosby) corpse in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)

And speaking of old fuddy-duddies, generational conflict is at the heart of FRIDAY THE 13TH and part of the reason it resonated with young audience members. Mrs. Voorhees, judging by her age in the film, is a member of The Silent Generation: she grew up in The Great Depression, most likely experiencing a childhood of austerity and struggle. Not only having endured the worst economic crisis in American history (although the 2008 crash is trying to give it some serious competition) and World War II, her young adulthood lands her in the ultra-conservative, McCarthyist '50s where any rebellious behavior is labeled dangerous and anti-American. While it's the Silent Generation that brought us iconic screen rebels MARLON BRANDO, JAMES DEAN, PAUL NEWMAN, WARREN OATES, CLINT EASTWOOD and JACK NICHOLSON (to name only a few), conversely the Silent Generation was characterized by their reserve and keep-a-stiff-upper-lip-resilience. Decades of cultural storm had silenced their youthful expression.
On the other hand, the kids in FRIDAY THE 13TH came of age in the privileged '60s, matured following the cultural upheaval of the late '60s and '70s and entered young adulthood in the affluence and hedonism of the late '70s. Just as FRIDAY THE 13TH rose from relaxing censorship standards for sex and violence, the kids in the movie grew up following radically changing cultural attitudes regarding sex and gender roles.  While I'm sure members of Mrs. Voorhees' generation engaged in pre-marital sex and drug abuse, with the new generation it was taken out of shadows.
The kids in FRIDAY THE 13TH are pretty far from the entitled, instant-gratification seeking douchebags featured in later slasher movies (and some of the FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels): they've taken a summer job in the middle of nowhere working with children for crying out loud. After days of painting and fixing gutters, if they want to goof off a little, it's well-earned.
Besides, Marcie (JEANNINE TAYLOR) does KATHERINE HEPBURN impressions just to amuse herself. What's not to like?
However, Mrs. Voorhees, has embraced the conservative morality of the '50s and carries with her the stern values from her Depression-era childhood. She is emblematic of the older generation's hostility towards the new generation.
She probably reminded young audience members of all of the disapproving adults in their lives.

The cast of FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)

You've got to feel some sympathy for Mrs. Voorhees. After a hard-scrabble childhood, she's raising a disabled son all alone on a minimum-wage salary as Camp Crystal Lake's cook. And as a summer camp cook, it's got to be one in a series of temporary, intermittent jobs. There are not a lot of resources for disabled children now - especially on Mrs. Voorhees' limited income - and there were even fewer back then. One who has dedicated their life to hard work and caring for a disabled son does not usually have the opportunity to create an extended social network for support; when Mrs. Voorhees lost Jason, she lost everything. And worst yet, she lost him due to the irresponsibility and selfishness of people who were put in charge with his care.
And who wouldn't want to kill those two counselors?
Not only did they not get fired for allowing a little boy to drown because they couldn't keep their pants on, they're still making gooey eyes at one another without a shred of guilt!
I'm with Maw Voorhees on that one -- those self-absorbed jerk-olas were in need of a harpoonin'!

Mrs. Voorhees, though - like many of her cinematic sisters I've discussed on this blog - clings to her grief. She's unable to heal so her grief turns into intense rage. Camp Crystal Lake becomes the focus of her anger. Remember when the locals were saying there were mysterious fires at the place and one year the lake was even poisoned?
That was Mrs. Voorhees' way of saying "talk to the fist, 'cause the face is pissed."
Jason even speaks to her from beyond the grave.
"Kill her, Mommy!" she says to herself in a child's voice.
The current counselors have nothing to do with her son's death. And spunky Annie, the ill-fated would-be camp cook, who declares she wants to dedicate her life to working with children, would have only been attentive and kind to a child like Jason. However, it doesn't matter: Mrs. Voorhees just wants others to hurt as badly she's been hurt.

It's really hard to agree with those cranky ol' critics that thought FRIDAY THE 13TH represented the decline of Western civilization. Like all movies, it was a result of different things brewing in the culture at the time. And while critics decried the violence in the film, a fear of random acts of violence permeated the '70s. Already a turbulent decade of war and riots, Alice and her friends would have caught glimpses of news stories about the Manson Family murders, Charles Whitman and the Texas Tower shootings and the multi-state serial killing spree of Ted Bundy all before they graduated high school.
When the film was produced, being brutally butchered by a faceless assailant wasn't a horror trope: it was a real and terrifying possibility.

So there you have it: the film that launched a thousand sequels and the mayhem was all spawned from a mother's love. It's kind of interesting that Jason became the icon of the series, transformed from plot device/victim to superhuman murder machine powered by some unexplained supernatural phenomenon and the greed of the Paramount executives. But wouldn't it have been kind of great if Mrs. Voorhees had become the horror icon? I know, I know, she gets decapitated by Alice at the end of this one and it's kind of awkward to get around with no head. But, hey, Jason's been decapitated, burned, electrocuted and impaled and he always comes back, so why not Mrs. Voorhees? They could've figured out some creative way for her to get her head back. Or just not even bothered to explain it. It's not like the FRIDAY sequels are known for incorporating logic. I think an undead unhinged mama out for revenge would have made a helluva franchise. Instead of a faceless monster crushing heads, throwing people through windows, murdering people on toilets and stalking people performing nerdy '80s dances, it could have been a zombied-out BESTY PALMER!
What a missed opportunity!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Children of Her Rage

Samantha Eggar as Nola Carveth in THE BROOD (1979)

Happy Mother's Day! We at DESCENT INTO MADNESS (and by "we" I mean me and the voices in my head) take this day seriously as there's nothing that can be more horrifying than one's own mother.  There's always a thin line between love and hate in a mother-daughter relationship. With my own mother, sometimes we're very close and get along like old friends. Then there are other times I wonder if she's possessed by JOAN CRAWFORD.
Anyhoo, with all the emphasis mainstream society at large puts on having babies, I wonder how many people realize that parenting is hard work. It's a 24-7 often thankless job that requires utter selflessness and for one to juggle being a nurturer, a teacher, a counselor and sometimes a prison warden. To be eloquent, bringing a little life into this world is a big fuckin' deal.
In a modern society obsessed with babies, most people seem to miss this point, though.
Even my normally pragmatic dad got sucked into baby mania. I had just graduated college and been accepted into grad school, but was totally eclipsed because my fertility monster stepsister got pregnant about the same time.
"We're on baby watch," my dad proclaimed with a glassy-eyed fervor that reminded me of the Manson Girls.
"Big deal," I sneered. "This is just the first one she's carried to full term." I don't know why I was the only one who thought her passing along that conehead forehead to an innocent human being was not a cause for celebration. I don't know why no one else was concerned that my stepsister was a made-for-TV-movie with FARAH FAWCETT waiting to happen.
"How can someone have children when they act like a spoiled child themselves?" I asked, which got me ostracized by my dad's family but if I had said that on DR. PHIL they would've clapped.
I think our culture tries to get people to have children for all the wrong reasons. I know my cousin Lula who's dumb as a sack of hammers and insists she's too good to get a retail job keeps getting pregnant so they don't cut off her food stamps. To give an example of Lula's parenting style, her first-born daughter didn't learn to talk until she was three years old. When I asked Lula is she ever read to her kids, she rolled her eyes and said, "That's what the schools are for."
Despite all of this, my relatives still chorused, "Don't you want to see the new baby?"
"I'm sure I'll see it if I get a job with the public defender," I replied.
Babies have become a living, breathing fashion accessory. They're like puppies but better and all you have to do is feed them, provide shelter and make sure they don't chew up the furniture. If you get tired of them, they'll be somebody else's problem.
Women particularly who do not want children are perceived as monstrous. I'm usually greeted with horror or asked to explain myself if I ever reveal that I don't want children. I just tell people, "I can't. My cats are allergic."
This is not a popular opinion, but the truth is there are a lot of people who really shouldn't be parents.
Without the responsibility, time and effort it really takes to be a parent, we're just creating future candidates for the criminal justice system. And most of them won't be able to afford a lawyer, which just gets on my nerves.
So I guess my lesson to you today, gentle readers, is please don't have children if you don't want to do that hard work it takes to be a parent. They'll grow up and kill us.

And speaking of trauma mamas, today I'm talkin' about THE BROOD written and directed by DAVID CRONENBERG. Frank Carveth (ART HINDLE of BLACK CHRISTMAS and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) is going through a rough custody battle for his five-year-old daughter, Candice. To complicate matters, his emotionally unstable ex-wife Nola (ever-classy horror leading lady SAMANTHA EGGAR) is receiving treatment at the Somafree Institute from controversial psychologist/guru Dr. Raglan (the imperious OLIVER REED). Raglan, best-selling author of "The Shape of Rage" practices an experimental form of therapy called "psychoplasmics" in which patients manifest their negative emotions physically. Seems Nola is consumed by rage as a result of years of abuse she endured at the hands of her alcoholic, probably personality disordered (albeit very stylish) mother. Abuse that her kindly but also alcoholic father chose to ignore. When Candice returns from a weekend with mummy dearest at the Somafree Institute covered in bruises, scratches and bitemarks, Frank is naturally afraid that the cycle is repeating itself and refuses to let his ex-wife see Candice. But Frank's got more than an unhinged ex-wife on his hands: Nola's therapy causes her rage to manifest itself in the birth of a bunch of snow-suited dwarf monsters with mallets that bludgeon the objects of her intense anger to death.
And not even her own daughter is safe.

A member of THE BROOD (1979).

DAVID CRONENBERG has stated that THE BROOD is his version of KRAMER VS. KRAMER, but more realistic. Lest some think he was joking, I agree with him that this film is a more accurate portrayal of the pain inflicted by divorce. Though KRAMER VS. KRAMER is the more critically lauded of the two, I never bought that a career-driven man like DUSTIN HOFFMAN's character would have learned to become a dedicated father rather than hiring a full-time nanny. And I always thought it was a pretty big cheat that the little boy be handed back over to the narcissistic mother who abandoned him in the first place. Most importantly, though, KRAMER VS. KRAMER completely neglected to mention a point explored in-depth by THE BROOD: that children are the silent victims of divorce. This was a deeply personal film for CRONENBERG who had gone through a custody battle of his own and like all smart horror films, utilizes the genre to mine darker emotional terrain than more mainstream films.
Candy spends most of the film in a state of shell shock, numbed by pain she does not fully comprehend and helpless to do anything about the adult machinations around her.
The most chilling moment in the film for me was the scene in which Frank takes polaroids of the injuries on Candy's back, placing them in a folder labeled "CUSTODY."
"Sometimes it kills me to think I've screwed up my kid already," Frank confesses.
Nola's father, Barton, expresses the same worry, lamenting that the trauma Nola endured as a child as a result of his and her mother's divorce is now all happening again, but with Nola as a willing participant and her daughter as the helpless child.
I'm tellin' ya, KRAMER VS. KRAMER completely glossed over all this shit. The kid was all happy because DUSTIN HOFFMAN learned how to be a good dad and then he was all happy to go live with his mom. So, THE BROOD is really a more honest film.
It is significant that the film ends on a close-up of Candy's tear-streaked face, then tilts down to show fleshy sacs growing on her arm, indicating that the cycle will continue.
Some critics have stated the behavior of the characters in THE BROOD is exaggerated or unbelievable. I'm willing to bet these same people have never been to family court. As a family law paralegal, I've seen conduct that guests on THE JERRY SPRINGER SHOW would be ashamed of.

Cindy Hinds as Candy Carveth in THE BROOD (1979).

THE BROOD also offers a critical view of modern psychiatry. I used to joke that I would never go see a psychiatrist because it's to their benefit that their patients get better because there'd be no one left to write them a paycheck. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of great therapists out there. However, there's no shortage of ineffectual or downright terrible ones either.
Frank dismisses Raglan as "an emotional opportunist." It's a pretty fair assessment considering that Raglan exploits Nola's mind and body to the benefit of his career. He even goes far as to neglect his other patients for Nola. Worse yet, he constantly re-opens old wounds without giving her the tools necessary for her to heal.
There are plenty of therapists who will have their patients rehash the same traumatic episodes over and over, mainly collecting a check and offering nothing more than a few affirmative statements like, "That's sounds stressful" or "That must have made you feel very angry."
Or what about those psychiatrists who are really nothing but glorified drug dealers, peddling highly addictive prescription medications rather than any coping strategies?
While there are patients whose lives are positively transformed thanks to the right prescription medication, there are many psychiatrists who use them irresponsibly, handing out boxes from their sample closets like candy. In light of this, does Dr. Raglan really seem so far-fetched?

Oliver Reed as Dr. Raglan against THE BROOD (1979).

And then there's Nola. Unable to heal from the abuse she endured as a child, she remains a wounded child herself. She's emotionally reactive, possessed by rage to the point where it warps her body, poisons her mind and destroys all of those around her.
The inability to let go of rage is a frequent subject in horror. After all, anger is one of those taboo emotions, particularly for women. A woman expressing anger, even if it is justifiable, is usually written off with, "Oh, she's a bitch" or "She just needs to get laid."
The pathologist notes that the members of "the brood" only see things in black and white. This is ultimately Nola's problem. Everyone is a perceived enemy while she is the helpless victim. Rather than acknowledge her own part in her marriage's failure, she blames Frank and her parents. She perceives Candy's teacher as a serious romantic rival even though she and her husband are divorced with no hope for reconciliation. Nola's anger ultimately consumes her life and destroys all of her relationships.
In a role-playing exercise, Raglan remarks that mummies don't hurt their children.
"Yes they do," Nola insists. "Bad mummies, fucked up mummies do."
Nola, spending all of her time focusing on her own wounds, is blind to the fact that in her selfishness, she is inflicting the same damage upon Candy that she blames her mother for inflicting upon her.
"I'd kill Candice before I'd let you take her away from me!" Nola screams at Frank.
Candice is not a daughter to Nola; she has become a possession, a pawn to be used to hurt her ex-husband.
Nola, in focusing everything upon her own anger, is blind to the fact that she has become the "bad mummy, the fucked up mummy" like her own mother she so despises.

Samantha Eggar as Nola Carveth in THE BROOD (1979).

Like most of CRONENBERG's work, THE BROOD explores the relationship between the mind and the body; something that can be explored by science, but perhaps never fully understood and certainly never controlled. The notion of intense emotions manifesting physically is not an outrageous one. Many sufferers of mental illness experience physical symptoms in conjunction with their psychological ones. I've never spawned any homicidal dwarf monsters though.
I'm kind of disappointed.
The color scheme of the film is made up of the reds, whites and yellows of bodily fluids. Some reviewers have pointed out that the color red signifies femaleness in the film. Red is the color of Nola's hair and Candy's parka. Is this related to menses, one of the things that characterizes the "Otherness" of the female body and differentiates it from the male body?
And what exactly is the film saying about the female body? Is Nola, with her fleshy sac and asexual mutant monsters spawned from intense anger, a monstrous representation of motherhood?
Does the red of the female characters represent the tradition of abuse and dysfunction passed down from mother to daughter for multiple generations in the film?
I think there may be a little bit of "yes" to all of these. And I think the film can explore male anxieties about the female body without being misogynistic. After all, pregnancy, birth and motherhood can be frightening for women as well. Despite the idealization of pregnancy in Western culture, it is something that is pretty taxing on a woman's body -- and often pretty gross.
But then again, red is also the color that characterizes the Somafree Institute which puts an interesting wrinkle on things. In that case, the functioning of the female body is not monstrous; the female body manipulated by men in authority becomes a monstrous thing -- and something they ultimately cannot control.

I have to add that even though critics dismissed THE BROOD when it was first released, the film is skillfully crafted. The production design and photography are accomplished, particularly considering the small budget. The film is filled with the kind of carefully composed symmetrical shots that STANLEY KUBRICK was so fond of. Perhaps it's just hard for critics to give a film about mutant dwarf rage monsters it's due. The performances are all excellent as well, particularly SAMANTHA EGGAR, who deftly conveys Nola's intense anger without making her a one-note harridan. In the infamous "birthing" scene, she also renders something that could have, in lesser hands, been ridiculous into something harrowing and emotionally raw.

THE BROOD ultimately illustrates the thing I love about horror movies so much. Through genre tropes and symbols, they explore the taboo subjects that people are afraid to discuss and mine darker emotional territory that more respectable films are afraid to venture into. You almost never see films that realistically convey the pain, the trauma, the straight-up crazy behavior involved when a couple decides to get a divorce. And you rarely to never see a film depicting the damage experienced by the unwitting children involved as their batted back and forth like a shuttlecock between two unhinged parents. Without snow-suited dwarf monsters, I guess it would get too depressing for most people. So, THE BROOD isn't really an exploitation movie -- it's just honest.

THE BROOD (1979)