Monday, February 19, 2018

Women in Horror: The Final Girls (2015)

Amanda and her daughter Max are having a hard time financially. Amanda goes to audition after audition, but can't escape her past as a one time scream queen in the 1986 slasher Camp Bloodbath. On the way home, they get into a car accident, killing Amanda. Three years later, Max's friend Duncan convinces her to be a guest at a screening of Camp Bloodbath through bribery. She is overcome with emotion seeing her mother and stands to leave, but through a series of coincidences, the theater is set on fire. Max and her friends Duncan, Gertie, and Chris plus her former best friend Vicki escape through the movie screen to safety. Things seem a bit weird since they end up in a forest and they realize they are in the movie when the car with Tina and the other counselors pull up to ask for direction. How can they escape this slasher movie alive?

The Final Girls is a charming, meta slasher that has the characters trying to survive the slasher with their knowledge of the film and the genre's tropes. Camp Bloodbath is closely modeled after Friday the 13th Part II, so it feels familiar and nostalgic to the audience. The film cycles through over and over if they do nothing, so Max and her crew decide to participate in the story. Their initial plan is to stick to the sardonic final girl to survive, but their involvement causes the characters to panic and she dies in a fiery blaze. The group has to come up with a new plan and navigate the world that transports them to the past for flashbacks and text on the screen as physical form. Billy is this world's version of Jason Vorhees who gets revenge on camp counselors with a machete for tormenting and physically and emotionally scarring him.

The characters in the film are very flat and generally badly written. Tina is super chipper and flirtatious. Her whole reason for being is doing a striptease and being killed by Billy. Her innocent question asking why her boobs make him so mad is hilarious. Kurt is similarly oversexed, but with an undercurrent of mocking and insults for everyone around him. Nancy lives the longest and has the biggest transformation of any of the movie characters. Her initial purpose is to have sex with Kurt and die, but her interactions with the real people change her. At first, Max tries to steer Nancy away from sex with lies and peer pressure. The change takes place after they really talk and explain the entire situation. Nancy now has aspirations to go to college and realizes that she doesn't have to be what the script says she should.

At its core, the female friendships and relationships are in the forefront with focus on support and getting at underlying conflicts. Max is obviously upset about her mother's death and keeps people at arm's length. She becomes closer to Gertie, Nancy (as her own person, not just her mom), and even Vicki. Vicki confesses that she's been cruel because she was hurt when Max pushed her away after her mom died. Once they are honest with each other, their facades come down and they are on their way to fixing their friendship. Max forms a friendship with Nancy similar that the one with her mom and gets some extra time plus the opportunity to say goodbye. When she realizes there can only be one final girl, Nancy sacrifices herself in a dance for herself and Max, filled with love and fun despite the horror movie trappings. Her death is heartbreaking and it imbues Max with Final Girl power in addition to resolving some of her feelings about her mom.

The Final Girls is a refreshing movie that both critiques and elevates the tropes of the slasher genre. Virginity is only valued because of the outdated genre, not because any of the modern characters actually find significance in it. There are so many touches of feminism and progressive views that contrast well with the reactionary views within the outdated slasher. While this film does lose a little bit on the second viewing, it's still an enjoyable, fun, and emotional film that I would love to see a sequel to.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Women in Horror: Final Girls Horrorcast

The Final Girls Horrorcast is hosted by Aimee and Carly, focusing on the horror and science fiction movies streaming online. Their format starts with Trailer Trashtalk where they talk about an upcoming horror film's trailer, their first impressions, and if they would see it in the theater. They choose two films to review from some sort of streaming service that have a common theme, director, vibe, or subgenre. Their Social Media Question of the Week follows where they ask questions related to the films in the episode to their listeners. They read and comment on responses, give their own answers, and then close with what they're watching or doing. A few times, they brought in a friend unfamiliar with or uneasy about horror to introduce a film they might like in the Making a Monster episodes.

I love this podcast. It started with their very first episode where they covered It Follows and The Guest before their format was solid. Two women unabashedly drooling over shirtless Dan Stevens was what I needed to hear. So many horror podcasts are male dominated and actively objectify women so frequently that it feels alienating. I've stopped listening to multiple podcasts because of this and it's so refreshing to even have one or two episodes where women comment on men's looks ever. It's also nice to hear women's perspectives on horror that still seem to be pretty rare in the podcast community. For Women in Horror Month, they spoke with the women writers for the Modern Horrors website in a special featured episode.

Aimee and Carly talk about two movies an episode (with some theme to tie them together) and talk about what worked for them, what didn't, and just discuss together. Their commentaries can be serious or utterly hilarious or even drunken. One of their silliest discussions was on The Greasy Strangler involving merkins and fake penises that had me laughing uncontrollably on my way to work. They give their opinions honestly and I often do not agree with them. They look for different things in film than I do and have different perspectives. They also talk about Gilmore Girls (one of my favorite shows!), Downton Abbey, and Grey's Anatomy (in Carly's case) alongside the horror.

The Final Girls Horrorcast is one of my favorite podcasts and I eagerly listen every single week. Their Social Media Question of the Week and listener responses were the first thing that made me laugh after my father passed away, so they hold a special place in my podcast list. The only negative thing about their podcast is their association with the Modern Horrors podcast members who occasionally guest on their show. I don't enjoy them because they are insensitive and have awful opinions. Other than that, this podcast is amazing and I can't wait for their next month where they are taking listener requests.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Women in Horror: Perfect Sense (2011)

Susan and Michael have both given up on love. It just doesn't seem to work for either of them, so both focus on their work. Susan is a epidemiologist and her lab just discovered an bizarre epidemic spanning all of Europe. Michael is a chef whose boss wants to create art through food. They meet each other in the alley between her apartment and his work, sharing cigarettes and flirting. Their relationship blossoms as the world loses sense after sense to this epidemic with no known origin.

Perfect Sense looks a typical romance from its cover, but it has an epidemic of epic proportions. No one knows what causes it or how it's transmitted. Eventually everyone is affected by each stage of the disease. The first sign is a moment of deep sorrow followed by losing the sense of smell permanently. The second is a moment of ravenous hunger where the person eats whatever is within arm's reach followed by the loss of taste. The third is a moment of rage and hatred preceding hearing loss. The last is a desire for connection and love before losing sight. This unknown plague is a unique idea because it attacks people's connection to the world, setting it in contrast with Susan and Michael's relationship and what it means in this uncertain, chaotic time.

The way the public reacts to each stage of the disease feels realistic. After the first stage, people tend to avoid public spaces for a while until things go back to normal. The world adapts and serves spicier, more flavorful food. Musicians describe smells with words and music for those who have lost it. Life goes on. After the second stage, people panic a bit more, but life goes on as normal with people going to work and going about their daily lives. Dining is more about temperature, texture, and being waited on instead of about taste. After hearing is gone, their lives shut down as they are quarantined  inside their homes. The later stages have more profound effects and two movements emerge: people who go to work as normal and people who loot and reject normal society. Complete chaos follows the final stage seen. The progression of the effects on society is gradual and increases in severity with each stage.

Susan has given up on love after her last boyfriend cheated on her while Michael is incapable of emotional intimacy after his wife died. Both are focused on careers and friendship when they meet and have an instant connection. While the world is falling apart around them, their relationship grows closer and more intense. The development of their relationship is While everything is so uncertain, they fall into each other, get drunk, dance, and enjoy their lives when it's so easy to fall into hopelessness. Then the rage part of plague hits. Michael is in her presence during this time and rages at her, reducing her to body parts and cruelly saying that there's nothing special about her. Hearing such horrible things spew from him greatly affects Susan and she leaves to stay with her family. Once it hits her, she's alone and uses that rage to process her feelings about Michael.

The mysterious disease is representative of events in our lives. Anything can happen in this life and earth shattering events happen every single day to individuals. Finding love where the future is uncertain and awful things happen every day is special. Connection to other people is beautiful and what makes life worth living through all of this craziness. On the other hand, the people closest to you can also hurt you the most, shown in Michael's moment of rage. The ending of the film has Susan and Michael looking for each other when the last stage hits. It's a euphoric, sweet moment enhanced by the fact that afterwards, they will never be able to see. The film ends with their one sense left with no indication if it will stay with them. The logical end of the disease represents death, which is presumably nothingness without sensation or communication. The film posits that love and life are fleeting yet hold significance.

Perfect Sense is not what I expected at all and the story sucked me in. The familiar love story contrasts with the insane events worldwide in a lovely way. The overall film is surprisingly positive with such a catastrophe at the center of it all. The love story doesn't have any of the toxic tropes seen in romantic comedies. Eva Green does a phenomenal job as Susan, who isn't afraid to make hard decisions for her benefit. Her strength isn't dampened by her emotions and her job as a scientist and a doctor is refreshing to see. I stumbled upon this gem on Shudder, so if you haven't, give it a watch.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Friday, February 16, 2018

Women in Horror: Baby Teeth by Koje Stage

Baby Teeth is a look into the dysfunctional family that includes Suzette, Alex, and Hanna. Suzette is a stay at home mother who is overwhelmed and at her wit's end. She spends every waking moment with her daughter Hanna, who at 6 years old has not said a word and seems to take pleasure in doing the opposite of anything she asks. Schools won't keep Hanna since she is usually kicked out for behavior issues within weeks, so Suzette schools her at home. When her husband Alex comes home, Suzette is expected to have dinner ready on the table and a cheery demeanor. She is determined to be a better mother than her own, who was abusive and neglectful, and is obsessed with appearing to be the perfect mom. Her other main concern is her health as her Crohn's disease was left undiagnosed for years, leading to invasive surgeries, festering wounds, fistulas, and ugly scars. It only fed more and more into her obsession with cleanliness and the appearance of perfection that is leading to the loss of her sense of self.

Even with all of her legitimate issues, it's hard for me to sympathize with Suzette. First, the whole experience of being pregnant was torturous due to her Crohn's disease. It's clear that part of her frustration towards Hanna is resentment for that experience when she had to go without her medication for the sake of her baby. I know she probably through aborting and adopting was giving up and not what a perfect mom would do, but it's a valid question. Second, she gives Hanna anything she wants to placate her, rendering any sort of lecture useless. Hanna only learns that she can get away with anything, especially when she plays her mother and father against each other. Third, Suzette has treated Hanna as an equal rival in a war, competing for Alex's attention and affection as if she were another child. It's a weird dynamic that gives Hanna too much power and makes Suzette a terrible parent. Lastly, no wonder Hanna hates her. As a three year old, Hanna was misbehaving and throwing chewed up food. Suzette's response was to stuff it all in Hanna's mouth and force her to swallow it to the point of choking. This made Suzette more monstrous than her child and so hard to feel sorry for.

Alex, Suzette's husband, is oblivious in all of this and has his own issues. Whenever Suzette or anyone else comes to him with stories of Hanna's awful behavior, he dismisses it as others not being able to handle Hanna's spirited behavior. He sees intelligence and playfulness where Suzette sees conniving and sinister. It gets to the point where Suzette will keep quiet about Hanna's bad behavior to keep the peace, so it's allowed to get much worse. He spends his days working at his office and leaving all of the child rearing to Suzette. Whenever she calls for help, he makes excuse after excuse to not interrupt his day. His job isn't easy, but dumping all of Hanna's care on Suzette is awful and not parenting. Alex loves that Hanna favors him and treats him like she doesn't treat her mother. Father and daughter isolate themselves from Suzette when together and treat her like an outsider and an annoyance. Alex gave Hanna the pieces to make an under the bed friend from one of her books that Suzette threw away as a voodoo doll at best and trash at worst. Hanna was crushed, but how was Suzette supposed to know it had any significance when they literally box her out. Alex is happy to stay oblivious and also feeds into the practice that not acknowledging problems means they don't exist. 

This brings us to Hanna herself. The novel alternates between Suzette and Hanna's point of view, so we hear her voice despite her mute nature. Hanna doesn't want to go to school and finds other people in general useless. Her intelligence shows itself in chilling ways as she calculates how to get kicked out of schools or how to make her mother look bad. She hates her mother and wants to expose Suzette's bad behavior to Alex so he will reject her and only spend time with Hanna. This goes as expected in a horror novel as Hanna eventually settles on killing Suzette. On one hand, I feel for Hanna because her parents are obviously not the greatest. They succeeded in trying to one up each other that Hanna adapted to their battle and became better at it. She obviously has sociopathic tendencies where people don't mean much to her outside of Alex. Her curiosity leads to some disturbing scenes and her imagination crosses the line into possible psychosis. She adopts the personality of a teen burned as witch in history to speak threats to her mother and brings her imaginary friends to life who tell her that getting rid of her mom is a great idea.  

Baby Teeth captured my attention and held it like a trainwreck. I wanted to see how far Hanna would go to achieve her goal and how horrible her parents could be. This has been compared to Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin. That story worked as a nature veruses nurture study with no definitive answer and because the mother Eva is a sympathetic character despite her mistakes. Suzette is no Eva and makes so many moronic mistakes before the book is over. It also seems pretty clear why Hanna is the way she is. I felt that for a thriller or horror book, it didn't go as far as I would have liked. There are some disturbing scenes, but family drama takes up most of the novel. The ending seems clearly open for a sequel, which I would read out of curiousity, but Stage wants to leave it up to the imagination.  

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Women in Horror: The Housemaid (2016)

* spoilers *

In 1953 French occupied Vietnam, Linh walks from her village to the Sa-Cat rubber plantation for employment. Few people work there due its bloody history and rumors of ghosts haunting the property. Mrs. Han takes her in on a trial basis and she works in the eerily empty house, serving French Captain Sebastien Laurent. As time goes on, Linh uncovers a dark secret: the Captain's wife Camille killed her baby and then herself while the Captain was at war. Linh and her mentor Bao suspect that Camille's spirit has been awakened as eerie incidents and unexplained deaths happen all over the property.

The Housemaid is a gothic romance that centers around the French occupation of Vietnam in an unexpected way. Linh has no family and no other prospects around her village. She walked for miles for this job opportunity that she could have easily been turned away from. This illustrates the difficult life of the typical Vietnamese person at the time and contrasts it with life on the plantation with technology (cars and electricity), plentiful food, rich clothing, and power over others. Mrs. Han runs the house with an iron fist and expects to be obeyed, an atypical role for a Vietnamese woman during this era. Bao has a lower rank in the household, so she opts to keep quiet and do her job despite her differing opinions. Mr. Chau oversees the plantation workers, using intimidation and violence to keep them in line. It seems like cutting off a limb and throwing out a clumsy or slow worker is just a typical day. Mrs. Han and Mr. Chau in particular adopt the French view of other Vietmanese people, especially if they are poor, that they are disposable. All of their everyday lives are thrown into chaos after Bao performs a ritual to save Captain Laurent from a gunshot wound.

Linh nurses Captain Laurent back to health. Predictably, they fall in love and have a torrid romance only half heartedly hidden from the rest of the household. The Captain is shockingly not a horrible person. He saves her from being raped by a colleague who views her as an object despite the repercussions at his job and from society in general. I thought his nice guy act would end when his English fiancee came to stay, but he rejected her and treated his relationship with Linh as something real and sustainging. Because their relationship upends social norms, people from all levels of society treat Linh badly. The upper class see her as passing fancy or sex worker while the lower class see her as conniving, trading sex for better treatment. Bao is the only one who clearly disapproves, but seems to be the only one to care about Linh getting hurt and being exploited in this unequal power dynamic. This part of the film could be right out of a steamy historical romance film rather than a horror film.

The ending of the film is my favorite part. While Linh and the Captain's romance is going on, all characters except Bao are either attacked or killed by a ghostly figure (presumably Camille) and her army of zombies made up of dead plantation workers. Linh uncovers the real cruelty behind the plantation's past, where people treated even worse than the present. People were enslaved and then executed if found trying to run away. Mrs. Han, Mr. Chau, the Captain's fiancee, and finally the Captain are killed. All (except the fiancee) directly profited from and contributed to the death's of plantation workers. However, if Camille is the figure, it simply doesn't make sense. Why would she care about Vietnamese slaves? Linh came to the plantation to get revenge for her parents' deaths. Chau was their overseer while Han exposed their secret to runaway and the Captain signed off on their execution. I love that she comes in as an avenging force and doesn't even let her real feelings for the Captain get in the way of her revenge. Despite his nice actions, he still was a significant part of a society that systematically murdered and enslaved her people. Her life, and by extension the lives of many others, were considered disposable and ruined by the loss of the her parents.

The Housemaid is an enjoyable movie that works better as a drama than a horror movie. The dramatic elements are all well done. The acting, the sets, the score, and the sound design are all amazing. However, the supernatural elements come off as silly and cartoonish, mostly because of the digital effects. The ending, while incredibly satisfying, is a bit clunky. The story is told from Linh's point of view as she tells it to the police, so it kind of makes sense why things don't line up. It does come off a bit as poor planning. This film surprised me as I didn't really know what I was getting into. I love the use of supernatural horror to critique colonization and punish the colonizers and their lackeys. It's also a more accessible horror movie that's light on gore and heavy on romance and ghosts.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Women in Horror: Winchester (2018)

Sarah Winchester inherited her husband's hugely successful gun manufacturing company after the deaths of her husband and her child. In her grief and with the influence of psychics and spiritualists, she believes that she's being haunted by the deaths of the people killed by the guns her company made. She purchases a home in San Jose and keeps it constantly under construction, addition more and more rooms, hallways, chimneys, and stairwells that create chaos. The Winchester Mystery House has stairways to nowhere, chimneys without enough fireplaces, and even sealed off rooms that have collapsed. The company sees her constant use of Winchester funds and seeks to find her incompetent to lead the company with the help of Eric Price, a disgraced doctor hooked on the drugs he is supposed to administer.

Winchester, the film, is based on a story so fascinating and bizarre that it's impressive how dull and unimpressive it turned out to be. There are some good aspects, but the film as a whole falls short. Helen Mirren is good as always as Sarah Winchester, grieving widow and strong as steel against everything. She has seen so much and doesn't let anyone push her around despite the treatment of women at the time. With the company, she pushes to produce things that don't kill people and succeeds. Her household is run very specifically and everyone follows her every word without question. They seem to like and appreciate her as well as respect her whether because of money or they actually believe in her supernatural crusade. When Eric comes in, he tries to circumvent her rules, but she pushes right back as those around her support her completely. Sarah has his drugs confiscated and doesn't let him upset her house.

Eric Price is a drug addict who seeks the company of sex workers whenever he can to escape the pain of his deceased wife. Sarah chose him specifically to rate her mental state because of his connection to the dead. I hated Eric because of his rudeness and need to break every rule imaginable. He had little respect for Sarah and calls her aggressive at one point for not adhering to his commands. At the end of the film, he interacts with the supernatural as Sarah can't and essentially saves the day. I find this annoying because it reflects what already happens during that time where women, especially older women, had to defer to men in practically all aspects of society. I would love to a see a film where Sarah Winchester saves everyone herself. Her knowledge is the key to this whole thing at its core, but the writers decided she still needed a man to come in and save her.

Plotwise, Winchester is very typical for a supernatural horror. The rules for the ghosts are a little different than usual and there are both benevolent and malevolent ghosts present. Many of the dead are indigenous people, slaves, or poor which was a refreshingly honest inclusion of the horrors of history. The jump scares are the only source of horror, the cheapest of scares. The atmosphere is flat and wasted on the unique house depicted. Overall, Winchester is a disappointment that doesn't bring much new to the supernatural genre and whose plot doesn't justify using the compelling true story behind it.

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Women in Horror: Raid by K.S. Merbeth

Clementine lost her family and her town due to tyrannical Jedediah, who demands increasing tithes from those who live in his lands. Now, she works as a bounty hunter, making ends meet in a solitary existence. Longing for vengeance but seeing it as impossible, she goes about her life being rebuffed by townies for her scarred face and violent job. One day, a strangers gives her a tip on how to get into Jedediah's mansion undetected which amazingly turns out to be true and not a trap. Clementine binds and gags him and runs into a problem. No one knows what he looks like, so it's hard to convince anyone to pay her for his bounty. Her journey takes her into the wild wastes full of danger and possibilities.

Raid wasn't exactly what I expected in the follow-up to Bite. It follows a separate set of characters that intersect with the oddly heartwarming cannibal crew at the end of the events of the first book and beyond. The characters are very different and expand the view of this post-apocalyptic world. Clementine is a competent bounty hunter that misses her role as town hero. As a child, she killed raiders to save her town and family, but when she kills a stranger, her parents set firm rules that she still carries with her to keep calm and stay controlled. Underneath all her anger and cynicism, Clementine has a childish fantasy of being a hero recognized by people again. The townies view her as a necessary evil and won't hesitate to try to shortchange her pay at every opportunity, squarely leaving her as an outsider.

Once she kidnaps Jedediah, everything changes. No one will take him, so Clementine decides to see the Saint out in the wastes who will take any raider. Together, they encounter rival bounty hunters, a huge wave of raiders, townies, and the barren, dangerous wastes. Jedediah seems a lot less imposing than his reputation and he later reveals himself to be Jedediah's son. Jed is Clementine's opposite in almost every way. Social situations are easy for him as he knows how to tell a good story and get almost anyone on his side with his affable nature and easy going attitude that mask a masterfully manipulative mind. He's also surprisingly capable with a firearm in battle and makes coolheaded decisions. Over the course of their journey, Clementine grows to trust and even like him because he treats her as a capable person, not a monster, and gets to know her despite her spiky demeanor.

Raid is a fun, adventurous read from a different perspective. The story has twists and turns that I didn't see coming and familiar characters popping up here and there. I loved the ending so much. Some may find it too abrupt, but I felt it reflects reality that doesn't wait for a stirring speech. The only aspect I didn't like was Clementine easily turning against her ideals. I felt they were too deeply ingrained to turn so easily even with her loathing for others and need for acceptance. Other than that, Raid is a good follow-up to Bite and I'd love to see at least another few books in this series.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins