It’s Halloween, so what better time to talk to you all about the masks or mask-like uses of make-up that annoy, upset or absolutely terrify me.
One of my earliest memories is of a television commercial promoting an Alice Cooper concert in Dallas. I must have been three or four at the time. I was absolutely terrified by his appearance, with the heavy eyeliner that appeared to be running down his face, the wild hair, the marks around his mouth that might have been blood for all I knew – our old television was in black and white.
My parents decided that the best way to help me overcome my fear of this horrible man on the TV was to force me to watch it every time it came on. My father would prevent me from running from the room when it aired, holding me there and telling me over and over that it was just a television commercial, it was just a man in make-up, that none of it could hurt me. It didn’t work. I screamed and cried and still he and my mother persisted, convinced they could reason with a frightened child. I had similar reactions to KISS, mostly Gene Simmons.
Interestingly, I am not particularly unnerved by clowns. I look at a clown, and I know it’s some asshole wearing a bunch of make-up and a wig and maybe some stupid clothes. I know what the intent is behind clown make-up – to delight or terrify. When I know the intent, it’s hard to be afraid, and that is where my parents, as well meaning as they were at the time, missed the mark. I didn’t need to know that it was a commercial and couldn’t hurt me. I needed to know why the man was dressed that way, what his intent was, what he planned to do in that get-up. And of course I could not express this so young and of course my parents had no idea what was at play in my terror. Variations of not knowing the reason behind the disguise fuels my adult uneasiness around masks, I think, though surely there are other explanations, from Jungian collective unconsciousness ruling my response to just plain jitters.
There are a lot of explanations as to why it is that people wear masks and costumes at Halloween and I am loath to discuss them because to do so means I have to cover every potential reason going back to early recorded history or someone will show up and leave a very long comment schooling me on Samhain-this and Pope-Boniface-that and how it’s racist for a white woman even to say Dia de los Muertos, let alone discuss the purpose behind sugar skull make-up. But this is a time of the year that makes a woman who finds the purpose behind masks very important somewhat uneasy. And perversely, because it makes me uneasy, I expose myself to it in ways that make me even more unnerved. But I can’t seem to avoid it, and since I can’t stop poking at this canker sore in my psyche, I’ve decided to drag you all down with me.
As always, assume this discussion (of a film over seventy-years-old!!!) contains spoilers.
Every Halloween I always promise to myself that I will watch all the old horror films that I feel I should have watched. As a fan of the genre, I have watched precious few of the early horror films and even fewer of the 1960s and 1970s fare and am unable to hold my own in conversations about Hammer films. But I have to confess that I can never get through older films with legends like, say, Boris Karloff or Vincent Price, without wishing I was in space with two robots sitting next to me.
It was a simpler time. I know that. What frightened people eighty to ninety years ago is going to seem a bit quaint and possibly silly to a modern audience. I guess I am a result of growing up with John Carpenter’s Halloween films and the Friday the 13th and Hellraiser franchises, which are now cheesy in their own way, come to think of it. So I’ve been looking for an old horror film I can watch without mockery and I came close with The Seventh Victim.
I learned about The Seventh Victim watching a documentary about horror films – it may have been Nightmare in Red, White and Blue but it’s been a while. I filed it away mentally because it sounded interesting – the description of “a woman who dreams of death meets a woman desperate to live” or words to that effect plus a possible Satanic cult and of course I would eventually want to see this film.
It wasn’t entirely as described but it was still interesting. Made in 1943, it presented a very calm and genteel look at human evil while using some tropes that I have come to associate with Hitchcock and Polanski. The femme fatale was surprisingly fragile, the teen sister looked like she was in her thirties, and all the men were sort of… dumb and/or sappy, but I think this film worked so well because it had elements of some of the more sophisticated horror movies, fare that genuinely unsettled me the first time I saw it. Christopher Lee as a vampire and Boris Karloff as a mummy never scared me, even as a kid, but Janet Lee in a shower and a cabal of Satanists in a swanky New York apartment seeking their heir did. Before I discuss this film, here’s a quick synopsis:
Mary Gibson, attending boarding school, finds out her older sister Jacqueline has gone missing. Jacqueline is her only family and has not paid Mary’s school fees so Mary decides she needs to try to find her sister. She travels to New York and discovers her sister had given away her cosmetic factory and salon to an employee called Esther Redi. She manages to trace the man whom she ultimately learns to be Jacqueline’s husband, Gregory Ward, and with him and a very sketchy psychiatrist, whom I think was the same psychiatrist in Cat People, and a dopey poet they manage to find Jacqueline. Jacqueline, who killed a private eye who was looking for her, is in hiding from both the law and a cabal of Satanists who think she has betrayed them by telling the psychiatrist, Dr. Judd, about them. Only six people have crossed this cult before and all were killed, and Jacqueline is to be their seventh victim, giving us the title of the film.
Though some of the characters were hokey – seriously someone needed to punch the stupid poet – this short, melodramatic little film was pretty good. Kim Hunter played Mary, the naive and innocent girl gone to the big city alone to find her sister. The terrible hair and fashion of the time made her look so much older than she was, but Hunter managed to pull off a neat balance between terrified virgin and intrepid girl scout on a mission. She stays in New York, Gregory Ward helps her get a job, she takes a room over an Italian restaurant (called Dante’s) and is pretty resilient without being too plucky to be unendurable.
Early on, Mary is helped by a private detective who realizes that Jacqueline is being held in a locked room at her salon, and she accompanies the PI to the salon at night and is too terrified to open the door herself. The PI reluctantly does it and she hovers in the shadows, frightened to her core, and later we learn that Jacqueline was indeed in that room and was convinced a member of the Satanic cult had come to kill her. The PI drops to the floor, having been stabbed with a pair of scissors, and Mary runs away, leaving him there. Initially, this scene seemed off, but later I realize how well it worked because what was Mary to do? He was dead, she couldn’t have removed him, and she had no idea how he came to be stabbed – was the killer still there? The fear and flight were the right reactions.
Gregory Ward, played by Hugh Beaumont (yep, Mr. Ward later became Ward Cleaver), knows he is being cuckolded by Dr. Judd, but is so taken with Jacqueline’s exquisite beauty and cluster-B tendencies that he supports her even on the run, though when he finds out she is a killer he encourages her to turn herself in. He also finds himself falling in love with Mary, probably because she is so uncomplicated. He abetted Jacqueline’s craziness to a shocking degree, and she was nuts, no two ways about it. Jacqueline was obsessed with death and suicide. Because she was so interested in death, she rented a room – over Dante’s restaurant – and the only things in the room were a noose and a chair. Gregory Ward kept up the rent on that room because he was besotted with what sounds like the mercurial nature of the personality disordered.
Interestingly, everyone felt Jacqueline was one of the most beautiful women they had ever seen. When we finally meet her, it’s a hoot. She’s a bog-standard proto-goth, down to the dyed-black hair and uneven baby bangs. Her affect is utterly flat, she seems to get by on her quirkiness (death obsessed, continually telling charming lies, being the sort who would get in deep with Greenwich Village Satanists and then rat them out in therapy), and given that this film is ostensibly about finding her it matters very little when she is found.
Dr. Judd, Gregory Ward, the poet whose name really doesn’t matter, and Mary finally track Jacqueline down and drag her back to Mary’s apartment to stay until Gregory can arrange a good time for her to turn herself in for killing the PI. But they don’t count on how intrepid the Satanists are. They find Jacqueline and escort her to their lair, which is an apartment and filled with a cast of characters we met earlier during a party (the woman who owns the apartment has one arm, inexplicably), and give her poison to drink.
But this cabal of Satanists are civilized. They will not kill her. They will just pressure her to commit suicide unless she refuses and then, maybe, they will kill her.
Unsure why this cabal exists – they seem to just like having parties and talking about being bad while not actually being bad – but among them are Esther Redi and an extremely emotional hairdresser who worked for the salon Jacqueline owned. When Jacqueline seems to be close to drinking the poison, the hairdresser loses it and breaks the glass and the cult sends sullen, affect-less Jacqueline on her way, only to follow her and try to kill her. Jacqueline gets away, desperate to live, and races back to Mary’s apartment above the restaurant.
It is here that she encounters the dying woman who wants to live. We had seen glimpses of Mimi, the coughing, dying wraith who lives in the building with the poet and Mary, but this is the first time she speaks. Jacqueline, so paranoid she sees this sick woman and is fearful she is part of the cult, demands to know who she is, and Mimi explains that she is dying and that she is tired of being sick. She wants to go out dancing and drinking and have fun, if only for one night, and then she might end it all. She will only kill herself because she so wants to live and is sick of not enjoying life as she slowly dies from her illness. Jacqueline, having refused to kill herself and having fought to remain alive, sees Mimi and rushes to her rented room and hangs herself. Don’t ask me why. Not the reaction I would have had. Conveniently her death clears the path for Mary and Gregory to be together, and Mimi does indeed dress up and have a lovely night on the town.
I was rather surprised by the way the Satanic cult was handled. The cult called themselves Palladists – presumably a name that nods to Pallas Athena – and looked like a 1940s bridge tournament was being held. The only one who seemed the least bit odd was the woman with one arm. Otherwise they seemed perfectly normal, got up to little that was evil – killing only those who threatened the cult and adhering to non-violence whenever possible – yet operated in such secrecy that one was certain that some horrible stuff had to have gone down at some point. One does not keep a 1940s exemplar of borderline personality disorder locked away in a room for months and later plan her death for squealing if one’s dopey cult does little more than hold interesting salon-style soirees and occasionally hail Satan.
The cult reminded me a bit of the Satanists in Rosemary’s Baby, another New York Satanic cult that would not have raised an eyebrow initially, consisting as it did of daft old ladies like Ruth Gordon. Ultimately we saw what the cult that impregnated Rosemary Woodhouse was about, but in the 1940s I supposed filmmakers had less leeway to present Satanic evil to its fullest cinematic glory. In a way, if you know real life Satanists, the vast majority likely live lives not dissimilar to the lives of the Greenwich Village Satanists in The Seventh Victim, hosting tea parties and discussing the human will. Leave out the stalking and killing part and it was a surprisingly modern approach to Satanists. But since the stalking and murder were a part of this cult, it definitely harked back to Rosemary’s Baby – those who are genuinely evil in your midst may be the last people you would suspect.
Then there was the shower scene. Janet Leigh being stabbed to death in Psycho was more than fifteen years away from hitting the silver screen, but I’ve seen it, as have most horror fans, and that scene definitely colored how I viewed Mary’s shower scene. Mary had gotten her hair done at the salon her sister once owned, and had pumped the hairdresser for information about Esther Redi. Esther Redi finds out and goes to confront Mary. Mary lives in a single room over Dante’s Restaurant, and shares a bathroom with other tenants. She is in the shower, complete with shower cap to cover her freshly styled hair, when Esther Redi enters the bathroom, which presumably Mary forgot to lock.
We do not know much about this cabal of Satanists that Esther Redi belongs to, but it is never good when a young girl is caught at such a disadvantage. The shower curtain is clear so we can vaguely see Mary’s essential outline from Esther’s perspective. However, from Mary’s perspective, all we can see is Esther’s backlit shadow towering over her. But thankfully the Palladists are, at their core, gentle Satanists and Esther simply warns Mary away. But the menace was clear – Esther could get into the bathroom, and presumably into Mary’s room, and had no trouble sneaking up on the naive teen when she was at her most vulnerable.
The use of showers in horror films is a ringer – it’s almost too easy – young person, generally a woman, naked and defenseless, becomes an easy and titillating target for the killer/supernatural monster. But I note that in most “best shower scene in a horror movie lists,” the lists don’t include any films prior to 1960’s Psycho. Did this shower scene in the 1940s cause viewers the same apprehension it did me? Did that menacing silhouette have anything close to the same baggage then as it does post-Psycho? As I went looking for stills to demonstrate the scene, I found this snippet of the film on YouTube. The person behind this account clearly felt the same way I did.
This was not a terrifying film, but there were enough modern signifiers – a death-obsessed woman whose appearance was a precursor to more modern female death junkies/manic-depressive dream girls, Satanists that were not goat and baby sacrificing lunatics and judicious use of shower-menace – that it set far better with me than early monster movies and seriously hokey Hammer films (god, I want to enjoy Hammer films but they are just so purple and over the top and it makes me feel like a crappy horror fan that I sort of recoil when I hear the names Christopher Lee or Ingrid Pitt). I recommend watching it if you can find a copy. It’s not too hard, because you can stream it from Amazon.
If you watch it, let me know what you think. Feel free to make fun of me for not liking Hammer films. I’m used to it.
This next offering in Halloween 2017 is not a traditional horror film, nor is it particularly Halloween-y. It, is, however, utterly frightening. This little ten minute film perfectly encapsulates what it must feel like to be doomed with no chance of reprieve, yet unable to let go of the very human need to keep fighting even when you know that all your effort may well come to nothing. I’ve watched this several times but each time I still feel the same tension, the same gritty fear as I imagine myself in the protagonist’s place. It’s been a long while since a horror film of any sort has left me this rattled.
This film was absolutely not what I was expecting. I tend to ignore book and film reviews before I consume media so it’s not uncommon that I find myself surprised when I finally watch the movie or read the book. But even with that in mind, this film was still surprising to me. When I see a title like “It Comes at Night” I have some expectations. Like a monster or killer or band of roving post-apocalyptic warriors literally coming at night, attacking the protagonists, creating the violent tension that makes horror films worth watching.
I felt let down by this film, and though that opinion has changed a bit, I still think this film has a core of dishonesty that ensures that the viewer can never know for sure what caused the events to unfold as they did. Which is fine in a way – nothing in the rule book says horror films have to be easy to parse out. My adoration of It Follows should show that I don’t mind doing the work necessary to figure out what is going on with a film. Sometimes half the fun comes from piecing together the details and clues so that we understand the filmmaker’s intent. That fun fades when a film that has only six characters and takes place mostly inside a single home muddies the plot line with so many dream sequences and Macguffins that the viewer will never be able to understand exactly what happened.
And I must say that even though I find this film to be dishonest, it still comes no where close to being as dishonest as the most dishonest horror film of all time, High Tension. I genuinely do not know how anyone could praise that film after viewing the last ten minutes. The ending shows that the entirety of the action up to that point could not have happened as presented, that literally the entire movie’s sequence of action could not possibly have occurred as the blonde heroine presents the action and experiences it, and therefore the film deliberately misrepresented everything that happened in order to achieve a GOTCHA ending. But the film likely still gets views because the action up until the directors shot us the middle finger was excellent and the lead actress was very effective in the role. While the actors in It Comes at Night do a fine job, the film is very static, with very few thrills. I guess if a film is going to dishonest, it needs to go big or go home..
Above the cut, I want to tell you that the actors did a fine job with the material in It Comes at Night, that the bulk of the film works on a very basic level, and that there are worse ways you can spend an hour and a half of your time. I’m telling you this above the cut because below the cut I will be utterly spoiling the film. If you want to take my reaction and run with it, now is the time to stop reading. For those who have seen the film and want to discuss it with me or those who don’t care about spoilers, let’s dissect this little film.
She’s also linked to two other accounts associated with her videos that may be serving as back-up in case she ever loses content on YouTube again. Over on Vimeo, she’s Atrocity Exhibition (a suitably Oddbookian name to be sure) and she’s MrsMisanthropy on Google+. Several people had found a Google+ account for “MrsMisanthropy” but there was not enough content to know if it was her or not (and again, no idea if MrsMisanthropy is really female but I think of her as a women and will until told otherwise). Bookmark the other links in case she leaves again. I will update my links to her videos sometime today.
While she was gone, I spent time looking for other fan video makers whose musical and cinematic tastes were interesting and I found several. For now I feel I must share one specific video-maker and the films behind his fan videos because one of his videos triggered a month long endeavor that I feared was going to be a godless one. I feared I would not be able to find the originals behind the clips used in Piperbrigadista’s fan video for “Synthetic Potion” by a band called Noir for Rachel.
As I was sifting through the videos on this channel, I was immediately drawn into this one because there is something about the woman’s face that makes me want to keep looking at her. She appears as if she was confronting a voyeur, or maybe just a run of the mill Peeping Tom. Her face is so serious and beautiful in a manner that reminds me of Ingrid Bergman and Sophia Lauren. So I watched and listened and became entranced by the song and even more so by the video.
The song reminds me of what would happen if you crossed early Duran Duran with early Cure and made it all instrumental. I loved the song “Synthetic Potion” so much that I did something I’ve never done before – I bought an album off Band Camp. The album, entitled Witches, is a righteous purchase.
The video created a strange obsession in me to run to ground the movie these clips were taken from. The scene beginning at 1:05, ending at 1:48, was incredibly compelling. The woman was not confronting a voyeur, but if she was, the experience became something else entirely for her. She sees this disheveled looking man standing outside the window of her home as she is wearing a dressing gown and underwear. After looking at him for a moment, she reveals her lingerie-clad body to him and waits for his reaction.
The woman in this scene conveys so much with her eyes, mouth and a simple tilt of her head. Before she opens her dressing gown, she steels herself up. She raises her chin and takes a small step back, never taking her eyes off the man. She waits for his response. Seconds pass, and you see a bit of trepidation pass over her face and she begins to list very slightly as she stands. She takes another small step back and tilts her head in what looks the beginning of a shrug, an expression of disappointment and rejection. Then before she completes the dismissal, he steps forward and she does too, leaning toward him. Her expression only changes a bit but that bit is expansive in its depth. Her lips show a minor, almost imperceptible sneer of power, her eyes focus on him with even more intensity as he touches the glass. She’s received the reaction she wants and she wanted this reaction because she wants him at least as much as he may want her.
It was so compelling that I spent a month trying to find this film. And I finally ran it to ground but only after hours spent searching.
I’ve been consuming a lot of media on YouTube lately, mainly in the form of various “creepypasta” channels. Various people with good or interesting voices read short stories and vignettes written for online readers – Reddit’s nosleep is a good source of creepypastas – and sometimes put in appropriate sound effects. I listen to hours and hours of such readings as I sew or iron or do repetitive tasks that don’t need my full attention to perform. It reminds me a bit of old radio serials – I wonder if my grandmother did the same, listening to assorted radio dramas as she ironed or cleaned the bathroom.
Creepypastas are fun but ultimately most are pleasant diversions as opposed to something that inspires me to write about them, but the last few months I’ve found myself combing through a couple of accounts that have proven to be far creepier than story recitations that have creepiness as an actual goal. Of course, both accounts aren’t shying away from presenting unpleasant, upsetting or gross content but when it’s not the goal and it happens sort of organically, it’s all the more interesting, I think.
I wanted to discuss some horror films before Halloween and have watched quite a few in the last couple of months. I haven’t been too impressed with what I’ve seen. Last year I wrote about the somewhat pompous but ultimately enjoyable Only Lovers Left Alive (which featured Anton Yelchin, may he rest in peace) and wanted to look into more vampire films. I remembered seeing Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction some years ago and watched it again and was… well, kind of appalled. Was it really that unredeemingly pompous when I first viewed it? Was the dialogue that stilted? Was Lili Taylor’s character that tiresome? Not even Christopher Walken could save it and I lack the energy to write about how sincerely disappointed I was.
I then watched The Hungerbecause I’ve watched it several times and always loved it (and, of course, may Bowie rest in peace). But this time it hit some sour notes with me. It was hard to see Susan Sarandon’s allure. She lacked any sex appeal – she seemed like she had no muscle in her body, her eyes bulged like Barbara Bush, and her very voice made me wonder how I ever bought the notion that after living with David Bowie’s character for years Catherine Deneuve found Sarandon to be a good replacement. But I’m also in what my late mother used to call “a mood.” I’ve found myself hating everything lately so maybe I just need to avoid discussing vampire movies I’ve seen several times. I’d hate to go on record as hating this film and next year realize my views were altered because I was in “a mood.”
So I watched a few I’d never seen before and found some good films. What We Do in the Shadows was fun but there’s not much to discuss in something that is successfully funny without much depth beyond the humor. The Collector and The Collection were also fun in that improbable way that complicated “fiend” movies often are. Josh Stewart is actually a pretty good actor and the films had a The Cell-like quality to them, especially The Collection. But I do confess that I appreciated style over substance and when I make a conscious decision to enjoy that which will fall apart if analyzed, I try to avoid discussing it. We all have our failings.
But then I watched It Follows, the film everyone was talking about in 2015. People either loved it or hated it. First time I watched it, I hated it, too. But something about it niggled in the back of my head and I watched it again and suddenly everything about it that seemed wrong with the first viewing fell into place. I realized that the ending that I initially found pointlessly ambiguous showed a clear moral decision on the part of two of the characters as they deal with the supernatural evil stalking them.
Oh my god, I am going to spoil the hell out of this movie in the discussion that follows under the jump. Stop reading now if you have not seen this film yet but are planning to see it. In fact, you should always assume I am going to spoil the hell out of everything I write about here, but seriously, I am going to ruin this movie for you if you haven’t seen it yet. Clear? Good! Let’s discuss the ethics in It Follows.
Yeah, I am going to discuss Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. I’m sure my title for this entry totally gave that away but, in spite of my initial glib reaction, I like this film. But it has to be said: the main characters are pompous, thin and have the worst hair ever. Tilda Swinton’s weave is one of the worst weaves ever seen in film since the one Michael Wincott was forced to wear in his role as Top Dollar in The Crow. Hiddleston doesn’t fare much better on the hair front.
Several people told me I would love this movie and I suspect it is because Tilda Swinton’s character, Eve, packs nothing but books when she travels. Or maybe they assumed I shared the current online love of Tom Hiddleston, who plays Adam. Not that Adam and Eve, for this Eve has an annoying little sister named Ava, though it may be justthat Ava is her blood kin via vampirism, so maybe they are that Adam and Eve. Those who are into Shakespeare authorship conspiracies will find elements of this film charming. Christopher Marlowe, as played by John Hurt, makes it clear who really wrote all those plays attributed to Shakespeare, so Marlovians may want to have a look.
Quick synopsis: Adam lives in Detroit and is a musician who spurns the spotlight, and has done for centuries, yet has influenced and written for famous musicians throughout history. Eve lives in Tangiers, drinking the blood Christopher Marlowe procures for them both, but travels to Detroit when Adam is obviously in distress. The modern world inhabited by “zombies,” as they call humans, with all its increasingly aggressive planned obsolescence, weighs heavy on Adam, to the point that he is suicidal. Eve comes to comfort him, her kid sister shows up, shenanigans ensue.
But be warned – though there be shenanigans, they are sedate shenanigans. Not much happens in this film and what happens is… mostly very calm. Never before has disposing of a body been so tranquil. As much as I appreciated the Jim Jarmuschiness in Only Lovers Left Alive, I did find myself longing for Bill Paxton (of Near Dark fame) overacting. I think we all find ourselves longing for Bill Paxton overacting regardless of the situation – don’t deny it.
I’ve always been fond of Jim Jarmusch. Mystery Train is one of the best movies from the ’80s. No one ever put John Lurie to better use than Jarmusch did in Stranger Than Paradise. But I have to admit that even Mystery Train, one of Jarmusch’s more involved films, has a very minimalist plot. Jarmusch films are atmospheric, stylish and deadpan – you can’t really expect gore or intense story-building in a Jarmsuch film, which I think is what caused this film to seem a bit pompous. All the name dropping of the people these vampires spent time with throughout history wore thin – evidently Mary Wollstonecraft was “delicious” and I don’t know exactly what was meant with that description – surely Adam didn’t drain her. Or did he? Who knows? But he hung around with Byron and Shelley, and during a scene where Eve questions her husband about events in his life she surely already knew about, I was reminded of a lyric from a Rod Stewart song: “I couldn’t quote you no Dickens or Shelley or Keats, because it’s all been said before.” If you’ve been married for centuries, you’ve said it and heard it all before but if you remain true loves – only lovers left alive, remember – you want to hear the stories again. They will always sound new to a lover, if quite pompous to outsiders.
Despite the cluttered and run-down house in Detroit that Adam settled into in his attempt to avoid the zombies, their increasingly grotesque world and their often diseased blood, this is a pretty film. There are scenes where Adam and Eve take night time drives in Detroit that are very visually arresting, and Adam shows Eve the ruination of paradise – the empty Packard factory, the theater turned into a parking garage. Yet of all the amazing places in Detroit that revolved around excellent music, music of the sort that Adam and Eve play and listen to (Wanda Jackson, Denise LaSalle and Charlie Feathers), he takes Eve to see the house where Jack White of the questionably talented White Stripes grew up. Jack is evidently the seventh son in his family, and I guess that matters to vampires, but surely he could have run by Florence Ballard’s house or the Leland Baptist Church where Bessie Smith performed with Louis Armstrong. Except we only see one black dude in all of Detroit and he’s the doctor who sells Adam untainted blood. It’s a strange, discordant note in this film that otherwise seems to pay a lot of attention to detail and name drops so many important people of cultural worth.
The clever jokes in the film also sort of fall flat. Adam and Eve travel using passports under the names “Stephen Dedalus” and “Daisy Buchanan.” Why Stephen Dedalus? Kit Marlowe says in the film that he wished he had known Adam when he wrote Hamlet because Adam would have been a far better model for the suicidal Dane, and Stephen Dedalus, if I remember my college analysis of Joyce, shows Hamlet-like qualities. So that kind of works. But Daisy Buchanan? It would be hard to find a more loyal, faithful wife than Eve, despite living on a completely different continent than Adam. Whenever Adam is in need, she rushes to his side. She has no other lovers. She is no Daisy Buchanan. It’s hard for me to think of a better female literary character for her to use for her passport identity, but I’m no filmmaker, to be sure.
And if it sounds like I am bashing this movie, I may be a little bit, but I tend to like pomposity when it is handled well. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is one of my favorite books. I love the films of Whit Stillman, one of the most pompous filmmakers ever to breathe life into preppy culture. But it speaks to the nature of this film that the best part is when Ava comes into Detroit and wreaks havoc on Adam and Eve’s reunion. She is a force of chaos in Adam’s very cloistered life, a vampire who loves the modern world as much as Adam hates it, who gives in to her base impulses in a way her sister cannot. The scenes with Ava are the price of admission for this film.
But even as I found myself wondering how it is that Adam made the transition from writing adagios for Schubert to becoming a Detroit rock god, how the fuck their passports made any sense, I still found this film enjoyable. As I mentioned it is visually appealing, even when it is shabby. There is no humor but there is plenty of wit. And the actors are all very pretty – including the aged John Hurt – even if they have terrible hair. I think this is a movie that I felt strangely about when watching, realized I enjoyed it at the end, and will love it the second time I watch it.
This film has also given me a terrible itch to see The Hunger, Trouble Every Day and Near Dark before Halloween gets here. All three vampire movies, all three extremely stylish in very different ways, and I think this Halloween needs David Bowie, Vincent Gallo and Bill Paxton to join Tom Hiddleston in the vampire game. Oooo, maybe I’ll watch The Addiction and add Christopher Walken to the mix, too. And all four of those actors have much better hair than poor Hiddleston as Adam. So if nothing else this movie whetted my appetite for more bloody fare (and bloodier fare, too). If you have a favorite vampire film, share it, and if you’ve seen it, let me know what you think of Only Lovers Left Alive.
I tend to experience pretty passively any sort of media that requires a television screen. I have the TV on in the background as I go about my day, generally as a form of white noise. It’s not too often that I pay close attention to movies or television shows, but recently I watched two movies that were so awful, so absorbing and deeply terrible, that I could not look away even as I felt like these movies were proof that God is dead and that He probably never loved us much anyway.
The first film was The Snowtown Murders, a depiction of a serial murder case in Australia. I warn you now that if you are not familiar with the case, this film may seem like a mess because many characters come and go without a lot of explanation. This film also has one of the most egregious examples of animal abuse this side of Cannibal Holocaust. Please bear these things in mind if what I write here makes you want to see this film. John Bunting, a charismatic psychopath with a fixation on largely imaginary cases of pedophilia, influenced a merry band of marginally intelligent and largely hopeless losers into killing those Bunting felt needed to die. I say his obsession with pedophiles verged into imaginary crimes because Bunting, like most homophobes, also felt that homosexuals were sexual predators. With his rag-tag group of socially marginalized losers, he killed 11 people in about seven years time.
The film depiction of the Snowtown murders (so-called because that was the town where the bodies were found – the murders occurred elsewhere) is a bleak look at a particular section of society in Australia. Small, dingy homes, cluttered with useless crap, not enough space, people sleeping on couches because there are not enough bedrooms. Even the best impulses of parents in such a world end up coming out strange and cramped, and as they try to protect their children from the monsters outside, they fail to protect them from the monsters within.
Even though it drained me of all emotional vitality, this is a film worth watching. It’s raw and unflinching, showing the worst things that can happen in such a matter-of-fact manner that it’s sole purpose has to be to cause the viewer to go numb. The actor who plays James spends the film so completely stunned by the repeated blows that life gives him that very little registers. One of the first interactions he has with John Bunting occurs when Bunting is decapitating and skinning several kangaroos in a front yard. They were real kangaroos and that scene was just foul and upsetting. The actor who played James looked like a shark-eyed Heath Ledger, absorbing an unexpected scene of carnage with a flat yet strangely frightened demeanor.
That sets the viewer up for the scene that could, more or less be one of the worst scenes ever in a film. The rape scene from Irreversible was affecting because it was so long and so deeply horrible. Violent. A total violation. The rape scene in The Snowtown Murders was the complete opposite in its execution and as a result was infinitely worse in the toll it took on my psyche. James had evidently been sexually abused by his older half-brother, Troy, throughout their childhood together. The scene we are given in The Snowtown Murders is maybe a tenth as long as the scene in Irreversible, but it felt longer to me, as the older brother asserted his toxic will against his younger brother, who lay there on the floor, motionless and quiet, waiting for it to end. It was just a part of the landscape of his life. He just had to submit and then he could begin his day in his bleak, cluttered, hopeless life.
John Bunting, learning of this assault, captures Troy, locks him a bathroom and begins a long, horrible assault against him. As much as Troy needs punishment for what he has done, no one deserves what happens to him. Utterly in thrall to John, James is unable to make things stop until he finally ends his brother’s torment himself. It is the first time he really shows any emotion and it’s clear to the viewer that James’ life is probably far better when he is numb because any awakening of feeling is going to involve violence, cruelty and ill-use. This was a powerful movie and I don’t ever want to see it again, but think others may find it just as appalling and upsetting and transfixing as I did. Sometimes the terrible shows us something, lets us into lives foreign to ours and forces us to understand how it is a person can transform from a small, helpless child into a flat, vicious killer.
The other film I watched was just horrible. No real reason to watch it other than to rubberneck at the sorry lives of others. No revelation. No understanding. All you get is a voyeuristic thrill that comes from watching other people self-destruct but it still may not be enough to get you through Black Metal Veins.
I’ve wanted to talk about the movie, The Bunny Game, for a while now but I needed time to come to an understanding with myself as to why I find this film worthy of discussion. It’s a hard movie to watch, an even harder movie to digest and, if one gets derailed by accusations of this film being no more than stylish torture porn, it’s dirty and unsettling. And note that this discussion is full of spoilers, though it’s hard to spoil a film that can be summed up as “trucker tortures prostitute in the desert for several days.”
The Bunny Game struck me as a transgressive piece of cinema that showed a frightening and non-consensual ordeal path/purification ritual more troubling than anything Eli Roth ever brought to the table. You may think this is going to be a typical torture porn horror movie because some of the marketing leans in this direction. However this is not torture for the sake of torture, it’s torture with a demented purpose behind it that transcends just the thrill that comes for many when they see a beautiful woman abducted, raped and harmed. I felt this way before I looked up Rodleen Getsic, the protagonist of the film, and found out that she co-wrote this film and based it on an actual abduction she endured. I also read that making this film killed part of her soul, which makes it hard to know if she accomplished what she set out to do when she decided to make this film. She fasted for 40 days beforehand to make herself weak, and she consented to everything that happened to her in this film, from a graphic blowjob (actually more of a face-fuck) to the physical abuse that she endured during the abduction.
The hardest part of this movie for me to stomach was that it was largely script-less, because the implication is that Getsic often had no idea what was going to happen to her next. It was, in a sense, one long, horrible ad lib, which makes it more interesting and infinitely more sickening. The man who plays the trucker is not a professional actor (I believe I read that the director cast him because the actor tried to fight him after claiming he looked at him too long in a parking lot). But the lack of a script meant that Rodleen, a victim of a previous abduction and assault, was potentially being re-victimized even as she consented to all of it beforehand. It also makes one wonder how much anyone can be said to consent to something when they don’t know the details of what is going to happen.
The film, shot in black and white, is visually quite pretty, or maybe arresting, but the cinema quality also made it all the worse, turning all that abuse into visually appealing art. Everything that worked about this film made it all the worse because I did not want to be entertained as I watched this movie.
The film begins with a graphic, unsimulated blow job that is anti-pornographic. Rodleen, the protagonist, is not enjoying herself. She is not moaning with feigned pleasure. Forced to deep throat her john, she pulls back three times to catch her breath, gasping for air and the third time she does this, a wave of misery washes over her face. One gets the feeling she was not acting. Her reaction shows how nasty her character’s life is and there is no way to see this with a sex positive filter. She is not empowering herself via sex work.
From that opening scene we are taken through a few days in the prostitute’s life. Bunny lives a life of degrading sexual acts in exchange for enough money to keep her in a nondescript motel room in a nondescript Every City. She spends her time hustling johns, having horrible sex, doing drugs and recovering from it all. Before we are ten minutes in we see her raped when she passes out during a trick and wakes up to find she has been robbed of all her money and her drugs. There is a scene where Bunny sniffs a line of some drug and talks to herself in the mirror, muttering “Yeah, yeah, yeah…” as she psychs herself up to go back out and do more of the same. That, in its way, was the worst scene in the film.
Bunny, wearing platform shoes that had to be a foot tall, wanders a city scape that harbors nothing good or natural. She eats fast food sprawled in front of a wall covered in graffiti, she urinates in an alley in front of a metal fence, right on the concrete. As she wanders the streets, her bleached, straw-like hair in pig-tails, the film flashes to other images, several of her in a natural place, mountains behind her, her brown hair falling in curls, her face, young again as she laughs. Blink and you’ll miss it, but those brief scenes where we see the prostitute in better times, in fresh air in the natural world, are a clue as to what this film’s intent is.
The prostitute, Bunny, finally meets her destiny in the form of a truck driver, called Hog (each are named for the masks they wear during one of the torture scenes). He renders her unconscious, drives her to the desert and spends several days torturing her. She’s unconscious for a while, allowing him time to pull her into his empty trailer, rape her, investigate her body thoroughly, at times snuffling her hair and body like a dog. He then chains her inside the trailer and focuses a camera on her. He forces her to watch her torment, making her relive it as she is actually living it, a particularly cruel bit of meta when one remembers this movie is drawn from Rodleen Getsic’s own experiences.
Hog keeps her in chains, puts a collar around her neck and takes her on walks in the junkyard-like landscape of the desert, at one point forcing her to walk while wearing those insane platforms. He force-feeds her whiskey when she desperately needs water. He completely depersonalizes her by shaving her head, but later brands her as well, taking away one form of identity while giving her another form, one that is more permanent. The brands Hog puts on Bunny’s back resemble infinity signs with tails, but they also look like a bow tied from thin ribbon. Both are apt symbols for this film’s purpose. The torture seems like it lasts forever (this movie is a merciful 76 minutes long – any longer and I think it would have been unwatchable), and the torture is interchangeable with other women we see Hog torture in his own flashbacks. It is interminable and unceasing. But this film also shows that Bunny is being a given a perverse gift.
Bald and slowly divested of her clothing, the end of the movie shows a woman who looks like a slightly better nourished concentration camp victim. She is crouched in the back of the trailer when the door opens and light shines in on her. Naked and near insanity, Bunny runs for it. She runs toward the light. She is a gibbering mess, but the ecstasy is unmistakeable on her face. She desperately wants to live.
The film cuts away and we next see her on a cross. She did not make it to freedom. Hog has caught up to her. She is not restrained. She is not nailed to the cross. She is simply lying atop it with her arms spread, in a Christ-like position. Hog sits near her, not touching her. She hallucinates and sees herself with her healthy face, her brown curly hair, sitting nearby. Her old self burns a book. Her old self puts on a veil. Her old self is watching her self-sacrifice. She is her own Mary Magdalene in this painful vision.
Hog tells her to draw a straw from his fist – if she gets the long straw, she wins. A jittery wraith, she selects a straw. Hog mumbles something in her ear and the ecstasy again shows on her face. She laughs with hysterical delight as he carries her over his shoulder. A man in a white uniform in a white van arrives and Hog carries her to him. They put her in the back of the van and the film ends.
Does Bunny live? Who is the man in the van? I think she lives and but even if she doesn’t, in terms of the purpose of this film, it is unimportant. Taken away from the city into the desert, broken down and depersonalized, she wants to live. She has gone through an extraordinary ordeal, very nearly a vision quest and wants to live. I also thought about this in terms of an extreme purification ritual, with the head-shaving, the starvation, the food and water deprivation.
And if this is a purification ritual, then Bunny lived because there was no sense purifying her if there was only death waiting for her. Purification rituals are to cleanse a person of that which is unclean before a specific life event. I left this film thinking the specific event was life itself. Bunny was cleansed of the drugs in her system, the endless flow of semen into her body, the dirt of the city, the implications of her fried hair and her provocative clothing. Naked, starved and bald she is now ready for life after her ordeal. But even if that white van is representative of death, for the first time Bunny wanted to live. Wanting life is a redemption from the walking death she was experiencing before she was kidnapped. She may never return to being that full-faced, curly-haired, laughing brunette, but just wanting to be her again means she is saved.
I know it’s tempting for many to dismiss this as torture porn wherein the sole purpose is to revel in Bunny’s debasement. But those seeking a disgusting gore-fest will be disappointed. There is no blood. There are no saws or pliers. The blow torch is for use with the brand. No one loses a limb, no toes are cut off, no one is hung upside down with a cut throat and bleeding into a bath. This is not a cartoon of extreme violence like so many other movies that depict torture. This is psychological torture and while equally as horrible as physical torture, it has a different purpose than to titillate, which is why I think so many people were put off by this film. It wasn’t what they expected, and in many ways it was far, far worse.
I do my best to interpret the media I consume in a vacuum. I don’t like to read reviews about books or films until I see them and before I write about them, I prefer not to know too much detail about what others think. But after watching this film I wanted to know more about Rodleen Getsic. Her site is a lot to take in at once and I recommend spending ten minute increments there in the beginning. Evidently after filming The Bunny Game, Getsic slipped on a doormat at a grocery story and landed on her head, causing a catastrophic brain injury, and her site shows her struggle as she recovers and copes. She hasn’t updated her “phonetography” section in a while. I hope she’s okay. And I hope the part of her soul that died when she made The Bunny Game was a part she needed to shed. It’s an uncomfortable feeling realizing that the woman who made this film, a film based on her own experiences, has gone on to experience another ordeal.
This was a hard movie but if you ever watch it, I’d love to hear your take on it. I suspect there are a lot of different opinions, and given the nature of this film, aside from the ones that dismiss this as pointless torture porn, they may all be correct.