Friday, 3 January 2014

Women in Horror Month – An Interview

Luckily, I am far, far from the only person preoccupied with the gender dynamics of the horror genre. I constantly discover new and different approaches that people are taking to this, in my obvious opinion, endlessly fascinating and diverse subject.

And thankfully, not all of those approaches are as abstract and theoretical as mine.

A while back, I discovered a page on Facebook called Women in Horror Recognition Month. I immidiately followed it and noticed that they were posting a lot of cool links, but I didn't really know anything about the people behind it or if there was anything more than a Facebook page (granted, I could have easily figured that last one out on my own if I hadn't been so lazy). So when the team over at the Norwegian site I write for, Filmamasoner, were putting together a series of articles, reviews and interviews for Halloween about feminist approaches to horror, Women in Horror... was one of the first things to pop into mind.

Below is the full and (practically!) unedited interview with the lovely Hannah Neurotica, the wonderful brain behind the initiative. You can tell by some of the questions (and their answers) that this was meant for an audience who might necessarily not be hugely into horror, and that it was meant to be published pre-Halloween, but everything that Hannah says is still relevant and pretty damn interesting.


First of all, what is WiHM?

Women in Horror Month (WiHM) is an initiative to recognize women in all facets of the horror industry (film, visual art, writing, theatre, etc) from around the world. WiHM wouldn't exist without those who create film festivals, podcasts, blogs, donating blood, and other creative mediums to showcase women's contributions to the dark arts. Our organization helps foster and promote events, it's so exciting to what DIY events (online and on land) people develop each year in there own communities. Our goal as an organization is to assist underrepresented female genre artists in gaining opportunities, exposure, and education through altruistic events, printed material, articles, interviews, and online support. Anyone, anywhere, can take part in this celebration.

How did it all start, how did you get the idea for this project?

The idea came to me while sitting on my couch feeling frustrated and exhausted by the outcome of an interview I'd done that week with CBC radio. It was just the tipping point for me & my anger about the horror industry (well, the entertainment industry in general) continually ignoring women's contributions and treating female horror fans as an anomaly. I was upset by lack of visibility, lack of opportunities, and rampant assumptions about the relationship between women and the horror genre both as artists and consumers.

I'd been making Ax Wound: Gender & The Horror genre for years at that point and it felt like a natural progression. As they say: if you are not happy with something going on in the world, then do something, don't just complain. You don't have to lead a revolution or part the sea – just start a conversation with someone. That is a huge step. Right now is an amazing time: there are endless platforms for innovative social change. Get creative. Don't be afraid. If you are sick of being marginalized I guarantee you are not alone – you don't have to be. They key is community and supporting each other. Reach out to people. Drop your ego. Focus on the cause with genuine determination and passion – that is something others will want to be part of too.

What are your feelings about the Final Girl concept? Who is your favourite (or least favourite!) Final Girl?

Carol Clover
's book "Men, Women, and Chainsaws" was pivotal to film/gender studies discourse. Her observations inspired academics, film buffs, and eventually lead to the genre being more self-aware (mainstreaming the concept) with films like Scream, The Rise of Leslie Vernon, Cabin in the Woods, etc. So, on its own the concept/book is something I respect deeply and should be respected as a serious contribution to film theory. I even have a tattoo that says Final Grrrl on my wrists because to me, it represents overcoming odds and survival. Does that mean I think that her book was a perfect reading of slasher films with no room for further exploration? Of course not. The book is very Freudian and she openly states in the introduction that the book was written with the male spectator in mind. I would love to see her write an updated version considering the self-awareness that exists right now as well as the changes in what the Final Girl is allowed to partake in, yet still reign supreme.

I guess what I am saying is I don't get how the concept can be something one "likes" or "dislikes." It's an observation that had huge impact on the way we look at and study horror films. I think people who are turned off when they hear the word are probably just assuming that a final girl can't evolve or don't view it for what it is. She has gone from virgin to druggie – but she still remains "final." Again, all interesting things left to explore. Nancy from Nightmare on Elm Street is my favorite always. I view the Final Girl concept as an entry point of study with much more to build on.

There are genre critics who claim that the horror genre is inherently misogynist. What is your message for them?

It depends if we are talking about the horror film industry or the film characters themselves. The genre is no more misogynist then any other genre. Romantic comedies.... Need I say more? I do think horror actually has the capacity to explore social issues in a way no other genre can. As for Hollywood – there  is this rumor going around that vaginas behind cameras will bring on the apocalypse. I think we can prove them wrong, and we are making small advances, but we have a long fucking way to go. 

Nancy setting MacGyver style traps for Freddy

Do you think there is a difference in how women in general and men in general watch and enjoy horror films?

Yes, in the sense that human beings view everything in life from subjective experience; that which would be influenced by gender, sexuality, culture, socioeconomic status, life experiences. From my observations the biggest point of disconnect between genders when viewing a horror film involve the usage of graphic rape scenes. This is something one could assume would be a subject that women will have a different reaction to based on the sick statistics of violence against women being such an insidious and rampant reality. Of course this is a very general response.
Aside from viewing – I think an exciting aspect of seeing horror films that are made by women is that fresh perspective of fear that men wouldn't think to explore in certain ways because its not part of their daily reality.

Who is your favourite Woman in Horror?

I suck at pinpointing a favorite film/book/anything so a person is off the charts impossible. One of the aspects I love about WiHM is meeting so many amazing women working in a wide array of creative modalities - all with something unique to contribute that as a whole form this sense community.

So I can't say a favorite but I can say the type of women I love most are those who are not afraid to speak out, be creative, and who don't build their sense of self off unessasary competition or belittling of other women. We need to get rid of this fear that the success of one woman somehow translates to less success for us. It's quiet the opposite. There is room for all of us to reach our goals and the best way to make it happen is building each other up – something women generally speaking don't seem to be the best at in practice.

The paradigm we live in thrives on keeping women from getting along – imagine how crazy awesome shit would be if we flipped that? So a favorite woman in horror would be one who views other ladies success as a step in the right direction and not a personal attack to their own career. Off the top of my head some examples would be Jen & Sylvia Soska, Jovanka Vuckovic, Karen Lam, Jennifer Lynch....

Finally, if you could recommend three horror films for our readers, which would they be and why?

Hmm... Oh man, I can only pick three? I suck at these questions too. Okay well, most recently I have been telling my friends to check out The Bay. It is one of the best examples of how to do a found footage and still make a high quality/watchable film. I think I have watched it five times on Netflix.

Just another day in the office for American Mary

American Mary is a great one written and directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska. It's a beautifully shot dark film. Carnival of Souls (1962) – if you haven't seen that then you need to stop what your doing right now and put it on (no, actually, wait until Halloween) that would be perfect for Halloween. It's creepy as fuck. Also, if you want to watch short films, features, and trailers of films written and/or produced by women I have been working on this ongoing collection here:

This is by no means a reflection of all that is out there. In fact, this is just a tiny miniscule example and there is more and more being added all the time. There are also some features directed by women coming out soon which I can't wait to see like Evangeline (dir. Karen Lam), DYS (dir. Maude Michaud) among many others.

A Norwegian translation of this interview can be read at

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013) and the rareness of tangible horror

The official opener of this year’s edition of Ramaskrik, the prime Norwegian horror film festival, was James Wan’s sequel to his 2010 hit screamer, Insidious. I have not actually seen the first movie, but I did not at any point feel that my lack of knowledge of the first film left me in the dark. I definitely want to see Insidious at some point too, to see if it makes me think of its sequel any differently. Anyway – please just have in mind when you’re reading this that I haven’t seen the first one, and also please don’t spoil it for me in any comments.

Ok. So. Insidious: Chapter 2 is a take on the classic haunted house story we all know and love. This is one of the first types of scary stories we become acquainted with as children, as we lie awake wondering what’s hiding in the closet, or trying to scare our friends into a similar predicament. So there’s no surprise that there are so many horror movie riffs on this theme, one of the most well known being the classic The Amityville Horror (1979, remade in 2005). One of the strengths of this sub-genre is the mere fact that it’s such a well-known theme, and one that everyone can relate to. Being afraid of those eerie sounds your house makes when you’re home alone on a dark night, not to mention the shadows creeping across the hallway, is something that everyone who has ever lived in a house can relate to. First, there were monsters in the woods; now, there are monsters in our houses.

In order for a haunted house-horror to actually work as a scary movie, it needs at least these two things: 1) an awareness of how many times you can have someone suddenly appear behind a closing door or in a mirror before it gets old, and 2) a mysterious or complex enough monster/source of horror to keep the viewer interested in one single location for the duration of a feature film. I am a big advocate for the subtleties of horror, of the ever-fading art of not making everything so god damned in your face and obvious in every single horror flick. Sure, you need the jumps and goose bump moments in movies like these, but to the human mind, the unknown is the very scariest thing there is. Which is why horror films that hint at the source of horror and leaves the rest to your terrified and paranoid mind to work out in gruesome detail, are normally the ones that can properly get under your skin. Insidious 2 handles the hinting and the mystery fairly well for a while; however, this is one of those rare movies that left me scared and at the edge of my seat even once the source of horror was fully revealed and we got a good, clear look at it. That, to me, is no small feat. Most movie monsters lose a lot of their power to scare you once you get a good look at them. Creepy woman ghost in Insidious 2? Only gets scarier.

I will give away a lot of spoilers, like details of the source of horror and who and what and why, so if you don’t want to know those things, you should come back after having seen the film. Otherwise:

We meet Mrs. Lambert and her son Josh in the early 1980s. They obviously live alone in a huge, old house. On the night that we first meet them, they receive a visit from one Elise Rainier, an expert in communicating with spirits and that sort of thing. Young Josh has been having a lot of bad dreams since they moved to this gigantic, dark house (imagine!), and his mother has noticed something weird in pictures of him: there seems to be some sort of dark figure following him around, moving in closer and closer on the young boy. Elise hypnotises Josh to tap into his mind and figure out what is going on and how much he actually knows about what’s happening to him. Josh tells Elise that the dark figure is a woman, who claims to be a friend. Elise goes searching around the house and finally finds something in the closet in Josh’s room, and as she tells Mrs. Lambert: “it is not a friend”. The thing, spirit or whatever it is, is apparently a parasite that wants to be Josh. It has come into contact with him because Josh possesses some kind of special power that allows him to see the dead in his dreams; trouble is, now one of them has seen him. And it doesn’t want to play nice.

Mrs. Lambert begs Elise for help, and they decide that Elise will try to remove (or at least reduce) Josh’s creepy ability and try to make him forget what he’s been through. Really, an incredibly malicious ghost is hunting your schoolboy son and you just want to make him forget that it’s there!? Oh well, we wouldn’t have many horror movies without people making a lot of rash and stupid decisions.

Apparently, this scheme turned out surprisingly well, until one day when Josh is a grown man with a family of his own, and one of his sons has drifted into a coma where he hangs out with dead people or something, and Elise has helped Josh go into the spirit world to get his son back. From what I gather, this was the main plot of the first film? Anyway, when Josh comes back from the dark side, Elise is dead, and what his wife Renai describes as “weird things happening around the house” just keep on happening. They go back do Josh’s childhood home to stay with his mother while the police investigate Elise’s death. Meanwhile, it soon becomes clear that whatever is haunting the Lambert family is not confined to a single, physical location – as some ghosts are. Before long, the weird shit gets out of control, and Renai and Lorraine (the older Mrs. Lambert) become aware of certain changes in their beloved Josh. Lorraine suspects that it might literally be old ghosts come back to haunt them, but because of Elise’s memory erasing all those years before, it’s difficult to tell for sure.

Elise’s assistant through many years, as well as a pair of newcomers to the whole spirit communication business, take it upon themselves to figure out what is going on. They team up with Lorraine and they end up at an old, abandoned hospital where Lorraine used to work back when Josh was an innocent, but oh so troubled kid. She recalls one patient she had, Parker Crane, who had been submitted to the ICU after trying to castrate himself. Freud ahoy, people! They continue to his old home and surprise, surprise: something bad is there. Turns out the bad thing is, SPOILER SPOILER, Parker’s completely fucking psychotic mother, who could never accept the fact that she had given birth to a useless son instead of an adorable little girl to dress up and have play with dolls and all that. So she just pretends that little Parker is a girl, calls him Marilyn and threatens him to accept the role, slaps him around for no good reason and is generally just a creepy as fuck bad bitch.

Believe it or not, Parker Crane did not turn out a normal person. Instead, he ended up killing a lot of young women (because his mummy told him to), and then lined up their corpses neatly in the basement of the house. He wore a black bridal dress while committing the murders, as a kind of disguise – and obviously very in line with the inherent gender confusion theme. Years after his death, Parker came back as a parasitic spirit who wanted to take over young Josh’s body to experience a childhood he never had. When that didn’t work out, he waited in the dark, and came back for grown-up Josh after he crossed into the spirit world to find his son (stay with me, now). He wants to be alive and part of a normal family. Trouble is, mummy dearest is still very much in control of him, and tells him that if he wants to stay alive he has to kill everyone around him. He doesn’t want to, but then teeth start falling out and Josh’s health generally deteriorating; and on top of it all, Elise’s assistant and his apprentices come after him. Let the killing begin.

In this way, Insidious 2 combines two age-old horror themes: the haunted house, and the unhealthy mother/son relationship. Luckily, the filmmakers have been clever enough to not rely too heavily on too many special effects when creating their ghosts, so that they remain scary even up close. Mrs. Crane is the scariest of all, with her white skin, black eyes and not even one tiny redeeming feature. We are shown flashbacks to her so called parenting methods when raising Parker, and it becomes very clear that this woman was not only made evil after her death.

Gender confusion is, as mentioned, a classic horror theme. Look no further than to Mr. Ed Gein, inspiration for a huge variety of classic horror movies including Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Silence of the Lambs and many more. Little boys with dominant mothers apparently have little other choice than to turn out mentally disturbed serial killers – especially when they stay with their mothers as grown-ups, in the mothers’ twisted, isolated fantasy worlds. This is not so much Oedipal as it is an expression of fear of generally dominant women, which is a recurring motif in a broad range of popular culture. And in many ways, this represents what I base my objections upon when it comes to female (and some male) horror film critics and theorists who call out for more female horror villains. We already have the Final Girl, which is way more awesome, so do we really need to portray more women as monsters in the name of equality on screen?

However, subversive gender roles is mostly a good thing if done well, and often calls for a more interesting movie experience. And even though Insidious 2 isn’t really huge on conscious gender politics and symbolism, other than using gender confusion as an explanation for the source of horror (let’s leave that one for someone else to handle), its evil characters are really well done. They manage to be pretty in your face without being over the top – and that is a difficult balance in horror films. It’s pretty rare these days that I get genuinely creeped out by a scary movie, but throughout this one I was jumping in my seat, getting goose bumps up and down my arms and legs, and felt my heart race more than once.

If you’re looking for something new to watch this Halloween, in other words: look no further. Prepare to get scared.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Wither (2012)

I don't know why, but Sweden appear to have been less keen on straight out horror films than us Norwegians for some time. Wither, a classic hiking trip gone bad tale, might well change some of that.

Wither follows a pretty traditional formula; seven young, good looking friends who are ready to party non-stop for a couple of days, seek out an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere. But the gang aren't the only ones partying, there's also some zombie-esque creatures in the basement that are about to have some fun. I say zombie-esque because, like so many other films in the zombie sub-genre, they're not traditional zombies who are a bit braindead and want to eat your brrrraaaaaaiiiins. These motherbitches won't even die from a shot to the head!

It's an entertaining film, but the story will be so well known to most of you that I'm not going to go into great detail. There is one pretty unusual twist here, though: rather than a final girl there's a final boy! That was about time, wasn't it? It looked for a while as if his girlfriend was going to step up to the part, but umm, she couldn't.

I realise that the final girls have been one of the major selling points for people like myself who are interested in both horror films and feminism or at least gender theory. But because the role of the final girl is so established by now, it's cool to see someone mixing it up a bit. It's funny too that there's an implication that it's all because he's completely pussy whipped. Classy.

Unfortunately, where Dunderland might have had one too many sub-plots to follow, in Wither it's almost the opposite. The characters are shallow and underdeveloped, the main story too well known, and any sub-plots are, well, not really there. For a movie of nearly an hour and 40 minutes it does get a bit boring after a while – not because it's not a well made zombie flick, but let's face it: there's quite a few of those by now. And when you don't have a story, even a Final Boy can't help you.

Dunderland (2012) – Witch hunt meets female Jack Torrance

Dunderland is the first Norwegian horror movie to take on the witch hunts which in this country took place mainly in the 16th and 17th centuries. I was pretty excited about this, thinking it's about time that this shit hit the big screens. This film doesn't really engage with the witch hunt stories much though, other than as a backdrop. As a deep, male voice informs us in the intro; in the year 1695, 16 year old local girl Johanne Nilsdotter was accused of witchery and thrown in the lake. Her body was never found, but the community in Dunderlandsdalen keep falling victim to strange, bizarre and tragic incidents. Eventually it gets so bad that the locals proclaim the village a cursed place, and abandons it.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and stage director Laura brings her troup of actors to Dunderlandsdalen, meaning to create a stage play about the witch hunts – making reference to one of Norway's most well known "witches", Anne Pedersdotter. Needless to say, however, things do not go according to plan and weird shit starts happening. We soon understand that the house they've settled in is exactly where most of the bad things have happened over the years. A local farmer killed his wife and daughter with an axe before hanging himself in the barn; it was later used as a scout's camping place before one young girl went missing and the place is abandoned once again.

Creepy remote location? Check.
Obviously the theatre folks want to produce their play in the very same barn where the axe farmer went berserk, and before long, director Laura becomes even more eccentric than you would expect of someone in the theatre business. Then the crew start disappearing, and the mood amongst the remaining actors is less than good.

Meanwhile, the snobbiest of the crew (Paul) refuses to sleep in a cabin in the woods and leaves every evening on a snow scooter to go into town and a proper hotel. He wakes up in the middle of the night and finds a nazi party from WW2 in the living room. This all happens after he's talked to the creepy bartender who, as far as we know, is not a ghost. Paul also pays a visit to the town library where he finds heaps of articles about people who have gone missing in Dunderlandsdalen, bizarre accidents, and weirder than anything; an article in an older paper about the director Laura and her five actors gone missing.

All very creepy and thrilling, sure, but what does it mean, where does it take us? Where does the story go from here?

Turns out, Paul's entire business in the village is little more than a sidetrack for the story. He heads back to find the others and well, he won't get to make another trip into town for some time.

Creepy hotel bartender? Check.
Herein lies my issue with Dunderland; it can't quite decide on which of the many possible plots and twists and turns it presents, that it wants to stick with. There are enough ideas here for at least two or three seperate films, but when they're all thrown together in one 78 minutes long movie, it's simply too much. Or too little about whatever should have been the main story.

That said, I still like the film. The character Laura (Miriam Prestøy Lie) in particular. It's a welcome change to see that someone who isn't a middle aged man can play the weird eccentric lone wolf type person, and Prestøy Lie balances her character perfectly between misunderstood creative genius and a female Jack Torrance. The changes that her character go through in those 78 minutes is very impressive – and my initial fears that she might be a bit of a boring characters are put duly to rest.

And although the film doesn't use the material of the witch hunts as much as it could, at least it does bring it to the big screen. In my view, this has proven again and again to be one of the (many!) strengths of genre film; bring unpopular or controversial stories and motifs to the big screen, so it gets just enough attention for others to want to follow.

A "witch" meets her fate
I do hope, however, that the next time we see Norwegian "witches" (can't use that word without quote marks in this setting, really) in a movie, they will make her less witchy looking. The girl we are presented with in the opening sequence looks like she's lived her whole life in the woods, dirty and in tattered clothes and with hair that's never had a date with a bar of soap or a hairbrush. This is not what most women accused of being witches looked like. On the contrary, they were quite normal women who might have got in a quarrel with the neigbours or become the focus of someone's disliking in some other, normally quite innocent, way. Or, like Anne Pedersdotter as mentioned above; she became a widow not too long after she was first accused of witchery. By both inheriting her husband's wealth, living in isolation and growing more and more aggressive towards her fellow townspeople who, in her defence, were all convinced she was banging Satan or something of the sort. This combination of characteristic qualities didn't do much for her case however, and in 1590, fifteen years after she was first accused, she went on trial and ended up being burned alive at the stake.

It's not that there might never have been anything weird about any of the women accused of witchery, in fact I'm sure most of them were a right bunch of weirdos, much like their accusators and pretty much anyone else, ever. But playing up to that idea of these women as wild creatures, somehow more connected with nature than the rest of us, and with a truly mystical personality – it doesn't do any favours for anybody. The very essence of the cruelty and atrocity of the witch hunts lies in that they were quite normal people. Anyone could be suspected and accused, it was often simply coincidence that decided who was the witch this week.

With all of this in mind, we can only imagine how difficult, near on impossible, it must be to make a movie even just touching upon this historical material, without coming across as slightly, well, misogynist. Because even though it was innocent people getting burned alive and drowned and whatnot, it was that idea that they had some unnatural (!) connection to forces of nature or the supernatural that became their doom. In Dunderland, the lurking evil resides in nature itself, which then takes posession of normal people. How can you present that story without making it look like certain people are being attacked or posessed for a reason? A reason that might live deep inside them? It's interesting at least to think about how this might make us share the perspective of the accusators of the "witches" for a moment; that moment when we might think "ahh, of course it was she who got posessed or who did that weird thing". Because the truth is that these accusations and suspicions were mostly as random as anything, and that's the most important thing to remember about these stories.

Should you want to read more about my thoughts on women with a supernatural connection to nature and why portrayals of this aren't always necessarily misogynist, I suggest you read this: Antichrist and the nature of horror.

Overall, Dunderland scores points for effort, but lacks some depth due to wanting to tell too many stories at once. I'd still recommend it though, it's pleasant viewing and an introduction to something we haven't seen to much about on the big screen, at least in recent times. And I for one will be very excited to see what lies down the road for both writers/directors, and star Miriam Prestøy Lie.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Whedon's Lesbians

Yes, it's cool that an American, more or less mainstream, tv show for teenagers featured a lesbian couple. But what does Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer really tell us about lesbians?

The main lesbian couple in the series is regular character Willow, and Tara who's on the show for a couple of seasons. By the time they meet, we have followed Willow since early high school, and seen her very long lasting crush on her best friend Xander, and after that her relationship with Oz. Both pretty "safe", traditional and straight relationships. Well, apart from Oz being a werewolf, but you know. In other words, we have come to know Willow as a normal young girl with normal drives. That is, until Oz breaks her straight little heart in pieces and she feels sure that she can never love again.

Enter Tara, the shy, weirdo outcast from the college (so called) Wicca group. She is quick to realise that she and Willow share their interest in actual magics (rather than just bake sales and scented candles like the rest of the group), and she first comes to Willow for help in some supernatural matter. We know straight away (no pun intended) that there is something a bit off about Tara. She even has a stutter, for crying out loud!

So social misfit Tara comforts heartbroken Willow, until they at one point realise that there might be something more than just straight girl friendship between them. The first time this is directly addressed, rather than just hinted at through shy looks passed between the girls, is when Oz briefly returns and shouts at Tara, IS SHE IN LOVE WITH YOU!? The ordeal of processing this is enough to turn the newly "fixed" or "healed" werewolf back into a furry ball of rage. Tara assumes that Willow will go back to Oz rather than be with a freak like herself. But Willow comes back to Tara, and promises to make up for everything. Starting right now. They blow out the candle and they disappear in the darkness.

Maybe romantic, yes, but also symptomatic of something. It's like Whedon has to ease the viewers into the idea of an actual lesbian romance. I don't remember exactly the specific episode in which we first see Willow and Tara kiss, but it seems like an aweful long time after they become an item. Sure, the show as a whole is more innocent or easy on all the sexual stuff in the first couple of seasons while the Scooby gang are still in high school, but this is different. We've already seen Buffy get it on with at least two, if not three men; we've seen Willow and Xander get their smooch on which ends Xander's relationship with Cordelia; Willow has even been deflowered by Oz. And isn't it around the same time that Buffy and Rilley nearly get a lot of people killed by a possessed house, on account of all the hot and steamy sex they're constantly having? Yet it takes ages before we see just the smallest, most innocent kiss from Willow and Tara. Firmly established as a couple by then, most of their early kisses are securely grounded in the safety of casual, everyday moments. As if it were the most natural thing in the world, perhaps – or perhaps because it isn't safe to make an equally big deal out of the romance and lust of a pair of lesbians as what is done with their straight friends.

I guess that what bugs me most about the whole setup, though, is the fundamental connection with magic. As I have mentioned above, magic is what brings the two girls together. Which is fair enough, it's not as if they're the only ones on the show to have interests or hobbies of the somewhat supernatural kind. But just as straight sexuality is more than once in the series recognised by brutal, animal behaviour (vampires, werewolves, etc), lesbian romance and sexuality seems something that can only really exist in inscence-smelling, candle-lit rooms by girls clad in earthy tones, who communicate with godesses and do cute magic tricks with sparkly powders and so on. The magic, the fact that Tara and Willow have the power to communicate with powers outside of themselves which can allow them to bend the laws of nature at their will, makes sure that their lesbian relationship is thoroughly, unforgettably marked as unnatural. It's something for witches, not for normal people.

Theirs was a magic kind of love.

Of course, this changes in the final season after Tara is out of the picture and another girl takes interest in Willow. But that girl is so clearly only interested in sex, and in being socially controlling, that I'm not sure how much better that works out.


The magic does get too much for Tara as well, eventually. Willow starts using magic for every little thing that she could have just as easily taken care of otherwise – like searching through books or on the computer for information, or pulling the curtains shut. When Willow clearly can't go even a week without using magic, Tara leaves her. I'm unsure if this fits into the whole symbolic thing. One way of looking at it could be, if we think of magic as one of the biggest markers of their lesbianism, that Tara wishes Willow wouldn't flaunt it so much. She might feel that it's more of a private thing, and resents Willow for making it extremely public, without taking her girlfriend's feelings into consideration. Which would basically tell us that public lesbianism is bad, mmkay?

After some time apart, Willow manages to get her powers under control again, and the couple find their way back to each other. Their relationship is more explicit onscreen now, but mainly within the confines of their own bedroom.

Then, the tragedy. Tara dies, from a gunshot that was meant for Buffy. Whatever kind of control Willow had got back, that and much more is instantly lost. She becomes an evil Super Witch and tries to end the world. She did for a moment turn to magic when things ended with her and Oz as well, but never anything like this. After all, she was a straight little girl back then, and her Magic Lesbian Superpowers weren't fully developed. But now we see what a long-term lesbian relationship has done to Willow, once the tiny geeky cutiepie. A lot happens, but the highlights include her fighting, both physically and psychologically, all of her best friends; she kills a man (Tara's killer) in a pretty gruesome way; and she does try to end the entire world, before good old Xander, her first crush and life-long best friend, comes along and sweet talks her out of it. Basically. But narrated in a more dramatic way than that, as I'm sure you can imagine.

You don't wanna mess with this heartbroken lesbian.

When Kennedy, the other girl that I mentioned above, who takes an interest in Willow, first gets her to play along with her flirting, Bad Willow seems to reappear. She suddenly inhabits the body of Warren, Tara's killer, and gradually turns into him mentally as well. (S)he goes right out and buys a gun and plans to kill the evil lesbian that made her do the smoochies with her. Which was the exact moment that Willow physically turned into a man, by the way – when they first kissed. But no one is killed this time around (although Willow blames herself for "killing" Tara by letting her go), as Kennedy manages to remind Willow that she is her, a woman, not a crazy blood-thirsty man. Several make-out sessions ensue, in front of people and everything, so at least that's a good thing.

It's not as if Whedon's lesbians are made out to be horrible people, and I don't think that Whedon especially dislikes lesbians. But maybe this can serve as an example of how easy it is to misrepresent something with pretty comically bad consequences. In this case though, no one, no matter what sexual orientation or gender, gets off pretty easy. Too many demons in Sunnydale for that.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Harpoon – The Reykjavík Whale Watching Massacre (2009)

Before you read this post you should probably be aware that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) is my favourite movie of all time.

As you can see from even the namedropping in the trailer (In the tradition of The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre!), it's not only in its name that Harpoon: The Reykjavík Whale Watching Massacre tries to live up to Tobe Hooper's 1974 classic. Does it pull it off, you ask? Well, my introductory disclaimer might give you a hint...

Of course, I knew that there was a very, very tiny chance for this movie to actually live up to the film that still gives me goose bumps every time I watch it (not because of the scares, just because I love it so much). I still wanted to watch it, because who doesn't like a bit of trashy fun every now and again? Besides, when's the last time you saw an Icelandic slasher film? Wouldn't want to miss it.

The parallells to TCSM and all the other films that it in turn referenced or has since been referenced by, start early. The hopeful group of whale watchers have hardly left shore before we the viewers are introduced to a highly dysnfunctional family sitting around a table for a meal. The family consists of Mamma (mum), Tryggvi and Siggi. The latter is what you might call a bit simple, and also fairly effeminate – at least when compared to the rough, manly man Tryggvi. Siggi even has one hand with long, painted fingernails and rings on his fingers, which instantly made me think of Buffalo Bill, who might be referred to as a younger (and sexualised) cousin of Leatherface.

This family, just like Leatherface and his family, have been robbed of their livelihood as "professional killers" in the meat industry, only here it's whales instead of cows. Change doesn't appear to come easily to either family, and they start killing people instead. While the Sawyers (as we learn is the name of the TCSM in the sequel) seem to be murdering for cannibalistic purposes, in that they turn their victims into tasty barbeque, it remains unclear what their distant Icelandic relatives want to achieve by murdering people. Other than for their idea of fun, I mean.

The mother figure in Harpoon doesn't appear to be a whole lot older than her "sons". This might hint at some sort of incestuous relations, or a "family" whose bonds consist more of their unability to function in the real world than of the bonds of genetics and blood that most families are made up of. In any case, this type of familial ambiguity is fairly common within the slasher genre. Throughout the original TCSM movie it remains unclear what the relationship is between Leatherface, Hitchhiker and the character only credited as "Old Man"; in the sequel he is revealed to be their uncle, and is referred to as The Cook. Going even further back, there is always a sense of unease surrounding the familial ties in the Bates family in the classic proto-slasher. (If you're interested in finding out more about the role of the dysfunctional family in horror films, you might want to look up Tony William's essay Trying to Survive on the Darker Side: 1980s Family Horror.)

Another similarity can be seen in scenes where the victims of this freaky family think that they have reached safety and let their guards down a little bit, before discovering how fatally wrong they were. The first time this happens is when Tryggvi apparently comes to their aid in his fishing boat after the captain on the whale watching cruise has died (in an accident). Of course, we know that Tryggvi should not be trusted as we have already been introduced to him, however briefly; but the passengers on the boat and his soon to be victims, have little more than a weird feeling that there is something just a bit off about this man. They begin to realise what is happening once they're brought aboard the family's ship and home, and witness a noteworthy first kill by all round weirdo Siggi:

The second time this kind of scenario is employed is much later in the film, and made me instantly think of TCSM and Sally's escape to the nearby gas station and the following realisation that she has not escaped at all. This is when Endo, granddaughter of a "real kamikaze" and spectacular final girl material, escapes off the ship of horror in a smaller boat with the drunken French on board. They make it to a nearby lighthouse and are invited in for tea (!). Endo sees pictures on the wall of the family from which she has just escaped, and realises how wrong she was to relax. By way of superb manipulative skills, Endo makes it out of there and back home safe and sound, but she is the only one out of the three.

As with Sally, there is a certain sense of confusion regarding what Siggi wants to do with his new plaything, Annette (seen singing in the youtube trailer above). At first I assumed he wanted to keep her as a mate; but after he has her tied up by the hands and drenched in something that might well be blood, he mutters to Tryggvi something about a sacrifice of some sort. Although Siggi is repeatedly referred to as "the ladies' man", he, like Leatherface, seems devoid of any sort of sexual interest in his victim.

Whether the casting of a black man as the sole male protagonist is a conscious pointer to Night of the Living Dead or not is unclear, but it certainly is enough of a rarity in this genre that it is not entirely unlikely. Fitting, then, that Leon seems to inhabit much of the same overbearing or outright patronising attitude towards women ("Make yourself useful!") that you might have expected more from someone in the 1960s. If could be as a comment to this that the filmmakers have decided that he is gay – then again, it could just as well be to see the disgusted look on Marie-Anne's face when she realises Leon actually has no romantic interest in her after all. Interesing how a man's lack of interest in a woman seems to be represented as such an unspeakable horror that it is a regular feature in so many slasher films...

I mentioned above how Endo is great final girl material. I still don't feel that she ever quite reaches that status – despite being the sole survivor of the massacre, after Marie-Anne is finally done in by one of the "fascinating" and "majestic" whales she and everyone else had set out to get a glimpse of in the first place. (Should you ever end up in a liferaft, take a minute to acquaint yourself with its most basic features before trying to do tricks with it, ok?) Maybe it is because Endo herself is never directly involved in any of the terrors and physical abuse. What makes a final girl a Final Girl, is that she has been through those horrible things, put on a fight and lived to tell the tale, right? Endo is the first one to put up a fight though, so that she never even gets in a position like Sally or Laurie or Nancy. So maybe, with the evolution of the final girl in mind, cunning little Endo is the next generation? She gets a sweet payback on her hopeless employers as well, stealing their identity and money once she has escaped the massacre. You go, girl.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Corman's World – Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

Corman's World (2011) highlights the amazing story of Roger Corman, King of the B's: a man who has always valued and known how to put to good use the power of a woman in a bikini. Especially if her bottom half is chopped off. In the words of Martin Scorsese: there's no need for taste in these movies. This film is a touching tribute to the man who brouht us some of the best men (Jack Nicholson, Rob DeNiro) and women (Pam Grier amongst others) of modern cinema; the man who, at 85, has four hundred exploitation movies with his name on them. So far...

I don't quite understand how it happened, but this movie had completely escaped my attention until a couple of weeks ago, when I practically stumbled across it at the new Oslo film festival, appropriately named Filmfest Oslo. I had put something completely different down in my schedule, but thankfully someone persuaded me that my time was better spent watching Corman's World (thanks, Joachim & Andrea). And so this went from being something I hadn't even heard of, to becoming one of my absolute highlights of the entire festival. I don't know how it is at your various local cinemas, but the cinemas in Oslo would normally never show this kind of thing – it's all about the big buck potential Oscar nominees and bland blockbusters. And even at a film festival, this definitely stood out: although this one was not the most pretentious of festivals, it seems there's inevitably a high level of very serious films, for lack of a better word. And as this was the fourth day of the festival, this was indeed a very welcome change.

Roger Corman is an extremely endearing man, and to think that he has made all of these films (all of these films) is just fantastic. This is like the punk movement of movie making, which is reflected in Jack Nicholson's comment that 'nobody really tried to make them [the films] good'. Furthermore, Corman talks about how until the 1950s, the idea of teenagers didn't really exist, and he recognised a need for the young audience to have something to identify with; he was of the opinion that they needed to be able to identify with some sort of rebellion on screen. This notion was further developed when the exploitation king took it upon himself to make a film like The Intruder. Yet another testament to the very punk spirit of Corman and his work was the feeling that this documentary left in me and my fellow cinema goers that we just wanted to go out, grab a camera and start filming something, almost anything. Just like with the guitars and the three chords.

Roger Corman

We also get to meet some of Corman's very biggest fans in this film, in the people who have worked with him on numerous occasions. One of these is Jack Nicholson, and I must warn you for this is heavy stuff: in this movie, you witness Jack Nicholson cry, completely genuinely, because he is so touched when he speaks about Roger Corman and all that he has done for Nicholson. Big Jack is a regular quote machine in this movie. One of my favourite parts is when he talks about the making of The Terror, and he claims that to this day, there is no-one who knows what that movie was ever about. I'm glad I'm not the only one. Nicholson pretty much gives Corman full credit for his acting career, repeating over and over again how Corman was the only one who would hire him for about 15 years. Other huge fans who are interviewed include Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Pam Grier, William Shatner, Ron Howard and Eli Roth. Not a bad bunch as far as fan clubs go!

Jack Nicholson in The Terror

Despite his sweetly innocent appearance, one of the things that Corman recieves the most praise for is his instinct or ability to just know what will work in a film. Or, in the words of Allan Arkush: 'Roger's exploitation movies don't need plots. They need outrageous things... Like girls shooting Filipinos out of trees. That works'. And Corman always made it work, despite little to no budget and very limited time. He didn't bother so much with getting permits from local authorities and other such trivialities: he knew what would make his film work, and he made sure he got that thing. This is true guerilla filmmaking.

I'll save for another time some more in depth analyses of Corman's rape revenge films and films like Bloody Mama, in which he was brave enough to present proper female villains; for now I will just tell you that you must watch this film. I implore you.

PS: Be sure to check out the official Corman's World Fan Hubsite, powered by my excellent friends over at Cult Labs!

PPS: If you still want more Corman, you should get your hands on a copy of his book 'How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime'! I went straight home and ordered my copy after the movie.