Saturday, February 18, 2017

Women in Horror: Women in Caskets Podcast

Women in Caskets is an excellent podcast hosted by Jen and Dawn who cast a critical eye on the horror genre through a feminist lens. They aren't afraid to call out misogyny or toxic tropes or lazy writing. Their podcast are always refreshing to listen to especially with so many dudebro, overmasculine horror podcasts out there.

* Women in Caskets episode 45: The Love Director

Jen and Dawn interview Anna Biller, director of feminist film The Love Witch. It's a 60's throwback visually with a modern feminist critical view of society mixed with some modern technology. I've seen the film and the insight into Anna Biller's vision changed my view of the film. Because Elaine is so narcissistic, her true view of things is sometimes hard to see, but Biller's explanation of the scene with the cake was a significant one that changed my assessment of the character.

* Women in Caskets episode 2: Last Woman Standing

Jen and Dawn describe the final girl, her origins, and her role in film from the origins of the slasher genre to today. They cite Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws because it lays out the slasher formula right from the beginning to show where the final girl started. Jen and Dawn go a step further and categorize the subcategories of final girls typically seen in other horror subgenres as well. The final girl falls into these tropes: noble virgin, genre savvy heroine, warrior woman, wounded warrior, and protector/mother. They describe final girls throughout film history and describe which tropes they fall into. It's a great place to start if you aren't familiar with these tropes.

* Women in Caskets episode 21: "The Gift" that Keeps on Giving

Jen and Dawn hear about an awful twist in the film The Gift that involves a woman being raped and then being lied to so she won't even know about it and use that as a jumping off point to talk about how rape is used in horror films. It's usually a lazy shorthand for making someone horrible and making that rape more important to the male character rather than the woman it actually happened to. This also ties in with the Carol Clover book, but this podcast points out the more misogynistic elements of rape revenge films. Films critiqued include the originals and remakes of The Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, and The Hills Have Eyes plus The Gift and American Mary.

* Women in Caskets episode 13: The List

Jen and Dawn give a top 10 list of feminist horror films for a jumping off point if you aren't familiar with the genre. They have caveats for each film and no film is perfect, but they describe how and why the films deserve to be on the list and how each film can be problematic. The only film I hadn't seen on the list was The Host (2007 Korean film not the Stephenie Meyer one) and I Spit on Your Grave, which put them on the top of my watch list.

I haven't listened to all of their episodes yet and other ones look very promising like Episode 20: Merry Black Christmas Pt.2 covering the original version, Episode 22: Taking a Bite Out of Sex Ed covering Teeth, and Episode 32: Subverting "the Final Girls" covering the movie The Final Girls. Check out their awesome podcast, especially if you are interested in looking at horror in a different way.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Women in Horror: Under the Shadow

* spoilers *

Under the Shadow tells the story of Shideh and her daughter Dorsa's lives in 1980's Iran. Shideh is an outsider in many ways in this society. The film opens with Shideh begging to return to university to become a doctor, but getting denied due to her political activism during the Iranian Revolution. Her progressive views and willingness to fight for them puts her at a disadvantage and she's stuck as a housewif when she doesn't want to be. In her apartment building, she's the only woman who drives. In the sanctuary of her home, she wears more comfortable clothing, watches movies and workout tapes on her contraband VCR, wears more revealing workout clothes, and vents her anger and frustration. Outside of her home, Shideh has to be properly covered and act demurely enough to escape notice. She is essentially forced to keep her true self suppressed in a reactionary society that would doel out grave consequences if she didn't.

Her husband Iraj doesn't suffer as Shideh does. He chose to continue with his studies instead of protesting or fighting and currently practices as a doctor. This is a source of tension between the two because he has everything she wants because of his gender and his choice to do nothing during the revolution. His assessment of her not being able to return to her schooling is "it's for the best," which is so incredibly rude especially from his place of privilege. He is not supportive at all and seems only self serving. He is drafted onto the front lines as a medic, but hides the notice from Shideh. When she isn't happy with that, he twists her words to mean she doesn't love him or Dorsa. He commands her to stay with his parents even when she made it clear that she can take care of Dorsa herself. His actions and words constantly undermind her and go against her wishes. He obviously agrees with his society's view of women through his actions even if he doesn't explicitly state it.

War is ever present in Shideh's everyday life. Explosions are heard while she's at the university and gunfire and alarms are typical occurances. Everyone places tape on their windows so they won't shatter when explosions got off nearby. It gets closer every day until an unexploded missile becomes lodged in the ceiling of her apartment building. In an incredibly tense scene, Shideh administers CPR to a medically fragile man a few feet away from this missile that might explode at any moment. A crack forms in their ceiling that gets bigger and bigger, threatening Shideh's sanctuary that she's made for herself and her daughter. To me, this danger is much more present and dangerous than the supernatural djinn. The very real war that threatens their lives provides much more terror and tension throughout the film. It also acts to isolate them as more and more of their neighbors leave until it's just Dorsa and Shideh alone.

The djinn is an uncommon supernatural creature and it's mythology is unfamiliar to me. In this film, djinn's can possess people after stealing something of they treasure above all else. This information comes from a mute boy who lost his parents in war and from an elderly neighbor. Shideh scoffs at this, but Dorsa can't find her beloved doll Kimia. Mother and daughter are pitted against each other when Dorsa thinks Shideh stole Kimia and Shideh thinks Dora destroyed her work out tape, which was the only release for her stress. After a frightening encounter with the djinn, Shideh runs outside without being properly covered and is shortly after arrested. She's given a warning, but shamed for going out looking so inappropriate. This was a surreal scene. Discounting the djinn, it's a war zone at this point and the state of her clothing seems very low on the priority list. It serves as a reminder within the supernatural elements that the oppressive society has their values and will enforce them no matter what.

At first, I thought the djinn was underdeveloped and cartoonish looking. I didn't realize that it's form was a chador, a cloth to cover the head and upper body of women leaving the face exposed. The djinn is a supernatural embodiment of the oppressive society and the real life horrors. It turns people against you who love you and takes the things you treasure most. For Shideh, her treasured item was a medical text book that was a gift from her mother. It represents her hopes and dreams to be a doctor that were taken from her and made impossible. Dorsa's beloved item is Kimia, but in the future, her career might be unreachable for the same reason. The end of the film has the two escaping, but the djinn still has the textbook and Kimia's head, showing that they aren't truly free and will continue to be held back and denied if they live in Iran.

Muy rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Women in Horror: Men, Women, and Chainsaws

Men, Women, and Chainsaws is a film theory book that I've heard referenced since I've been getting more interested in gender and horror. I couldn't get it for years because it was out of print and/or super expensive, but now it's reprinted and accessible. I was daunted at first because I know from literature that theory books aren't always the most entertaining read, but the majority of the book is easily readable and engaging. Carol Clover lays out the formulas for three different horror subgenres and references numerous films (mostly in the 70's) to support her claims as well as other film theorists, Freud, 17th and 18th century views of gender, among others.

The first chapter, focuses on the formula for slasher films. The villains are typically frozen in development in some way like Michael Meyers or have some sort of muddled sexuality like Leatherface. Most of them have an overbearing mother or some sort of obsession with their mother like Norman Bates. Their choice of weapons are knives and chainsaws instead of guns. Their victims can be male or female, usually young adults, but the final one is always female. This final girl is more aware of her surroundings, less distracted, and usually romantically unavailable. Clover theorizes that she's more masculine so the male audience can relate more to her than the other more feminine and frivolous teen victims. Sometimes the final girls only survive by sheer chance, but others survive due to fighting back. Clover calls her the victim-hero because she suffers through the whole film watching her friends die, being hunted, and knowing that she's being hunted. Looking at this formula in the present, I see plenty of films that follow it, but in recent years, many break out of or mock this formula like Tucker and Dale vs. Evil and Cabin in the Woods.

The second chapter illustrates the formula for possession films. The person (or thing in the case of Christine) possessed is almost always female because they are more vulnerable to the supernatural and underneath all their decency, they still could become witches. They are usually possessed by male entities and act in horrific ways outside of how women should act, like grotesque sexuality and foul language. These possession stories are never actually about the women being possessed, but about what that possession means to a man in the situation. I don't think I realized this was a feature in every film in this subgenre and it makes sense why it's one of my least favorites. The women are violated and essentially raped, only to serve as a journey for the man on the outside rather than one for that woman. A prime example is The Exorcist where Reagan and her possession serve as a spiritual epiphany for Father Merrim in his crisis of faith while Reagan remembers nothing of her ordeal. I haven't seen a whole lot of change in this genre in recent years. The possessed tend to be more violent rather than sexual, but the possession as a vehicle for male character and plot development still happens all the time.

The third chapter focuses on rape revenge films, which is a genre I'm honestly not very familiar will. Clover talks about how along with the gender conflict, a country and city conflict that goes along with that. The country folk are poor, unhealthy, uneducated, and unemployed. They might also have sexually depraved relationships with animals or their own family members. They blame their improverished situation on city people due to industrialization destroying nature and big businesses crushing their smaller businesses. The city people are either women or considered feminized men. The country people attack and violate city people for revenge, only to have those people come back to exact revenge as well. The lower versions of rape revenge films have women exacting their own revenge, which gives them agency and power. It also often criticizes the justice system that rarely works in favor of these rape victimes. The more celebrated versions like The Accused have the justice system come out in their favor and obscure that criticism. The remade versions of these films seem to be glossier versions that don't bring anything new to a modern audience. Although these films can be exploitative and uncomfortable to watch, I have renewed interest in watching them because of Clover's analysis.

The last chapter is about meta horror films. More obviously meta films like New Nightmare, Scream, and Cabin in the Woods hadn't been made yet, so Clover's focus is the film Peeping Tom. Mark films his female victims while he kills them, making the audience view the scene through his eyes. He recreates scenes reflected from his own abusive childhood. Clover puts forth that this film critiques the masochistic viewer looking at the sadistic filmmaker's violent production. This chapter as a whole is more scattered and less focused, mostly because of the state of meta horror at the time. I would love to see her or anyone else take a second analytic look at these same (plus more) genres and analyze how they have changed or stayed the same.

Men, Women, and Chainsaws has an illuminating look at horror genres still alive and well today. Clover has some strong arguments and views films and subgenres. I don't always agree with her rationales or citations. I don't agree with Freud's psychoanalytic theories and I don't think a single sex model (where men and women are essentially the same gender) is an accurate representation of cinema. She talks a lot about how cameras and weapons of various types are phalluses that the final girls then take for power at the end of the films. In some cases, like the sexually charged scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 between Leatherface and Stretch, I can see how it would be considered to be that, but I think it's overreaching at times. Overall, this film theory book offers a solid breakdown and analysis of different subgenres and how men and women are treated in them.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Women in Horror: Upcoming Films Part 2 + Updates

* The Blackcoat's Daughter

The Blackcoat's Daughter AKA February looks atmospheric and creepy with missing parents, devil worshipping, religion, boarding schools, and gossipping teenage girls. So many of the screenshots look artfully beautiful and eerie at the same time. I'm anticipating impressive perfomances from Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipke, and Lucy Boynton. I've heard things both good and bad about it, but I have high hopes. This film hits limited theaters March 31.

* Personal Shopper

Personal Shopper has a woman looking for signs from her twin brother who passed away. In the meantime she works as a personal shopper to someone who looks rich and famous. It seems like she may have gotten a response, but not the one she wanted or expected. Kristen Stewart is a controversial actress mostly because of her Twilight fame, but I'm willing to give her a chance. I enjoyed her performance in American Ultra. US release for the film is set at March 10.

* Wish Upon

Wish Upon has a teenage girl find a music box that gives her seven wishes. They seem to actually come true to terrible results. The wish for someone to rot seems to be the most the gruesome. The wishing box is a fun design and the music it produces is appropriately eerie. This film seems to capture the drama and brutality of the teenage experience. I'm in! Set to release June 30.


* Shudder is getting into theatrical releases for the first time and acquired the rights for Prevenge to hit theaters in Los Angeles and New York after it screens at SXSW.

* XX is in theaters near me at the Frida Cinema in Santa Ana and the Laemmle in Santa Monica. Check out the site to see if it's playing near you!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Women in Horror: Pet

* spoilers *

Pet starts with Seth, an Animal Control worker, who is lonely and shy. He sees a beautiful waitress named Holly and succeeds in royally creeping her out, causing her to soundly reject him. Instead of leaving her alone, he researches her extensively online and obsessively follows her around. A series of cringeworthy and awkward situations follow as he tries to apologize to her and continues to hound her. After stealing her journal, he breaks into her house and kidnaps her, taking her to the Animal Control office and locking her in a cage. Seth is the quintessential "nice guy" who insists that women go for bad guys and complain about being friend zoned as if his female friends owe him sex. This pathetic, delusional person can't understand why woman he deems himself worthy of wouldn't want him.

At this point, I assumed I knew what was going to happen. This type of women in captivity films aren't varied much and typically end the same way. Seth first defines the boundaries for Holly, which is so ridiculous since he kidnapped her from her bed. He claims his intention is to save her, but her scantily clad and vulnerable state in a cage would state otherwise. One of his grievances against her is that she's a different person in public than in her journal. Literally everyone is a different person in public than how they are inside. He seems to be angry that she isn't as perfect as the idealized woman he imagined in his head. His whole power trip and attitude are infuriating and are in no way justified, even when Holly's true nature is finally revealed.

On the surface, Holly is a normal woman with uncommon beauty and kindness. Underneath, her thirst for killing has been growing ever since she killed her best friend Claire in a fit of jealous rage. It continued to grow as she killed homeless people she figured no one would miss. Holly feels in control and powerful when she kills people and can't stop. Claire is still with her as a sarcastic voice guiding her through and commenting on her life. If Seth really wanted to stop her and help her, he would have called the police instead of committing numerous crimes. Holly isn't helpless and uses her considerable power against him even trapped in a cage. At first, it's a struggle of dominance that goes back and forth, but Holly is determined to survive and has an advantage over Seth. He thinks he's in love with her, so he craves her attention. He also craves control which he forcibly has over her but doesn't have over his own life.

Holly proves to be a force to be reckoned with even demoralized and in captivity. She uses her emotions as weapons against him. Seth assumes he has her all figured out and assumes she's a basically good person whose motivation is guilt. She exploits that plus his love for her to the fullest. In a key scene, Seth's co-worker finds Holly. In a brilliant, unexpected move, she stalls him from freeing her and makes Seth think the only option is to kill him. Seth is forced to dispose of his friend's body by chopping it up and feeding it to the dogs in the center, a gruesome chain of events. He is forced to commit an act that brings her joy, but only leaves him with disgust and misery. This punishment is even better than escape to her.

Seth's lies about his co-worker's disappearance are falling apart around him. Holly exploits his desperation by not responding to him at all, taking away any comfort or sense of control he had from her. His life spinning out of control pushes him over the edge and he agrees to cut off his finger to show his devotion for her. She grabs the knife and threatens to kill herself if he doesn't let her loose, a genuis move since his mental fortitude is already at its breaking point. The film ends with Holly and her boyfriend Eric when she discovers proof of Eric's continued infidelity. Instead of succumbing to her murderous rage, she visits Seth, showing signs of torture and mutilation, in a cage of his own stored in a storage unit. This ending is perfect. Seth's show of power gets turned on him and he's victimized and exploited in the same manner she was.

I had pretty low expectations going into Pet and it had surprise after surprise. The ending is completely unexpected. The story calls to mind real life fears of women being kidnapped, stalked, or attacked where women feel powerless. Holly completely turns it around and shows strength in the most powerful of situations. I'm not sure if Seth was supposed to be relatable, but I found him to be a worm of a person with very little to admire or root for. I found Holly's strength in such a hopeless situation much more inspiring despite her alternative view of morality. Ksenia Solo is pitch perfect and subverts so many expectations as Holly.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Monday, February 13, 2017

Women in Horror: Santa Clarita Diet

Sheila and Joel are living the idyllic suburban life, complete with marriage, working together as real estate agents, a teenage daughter, and underlying resentment on both sides. When Sheila ruins a house walk through with extreme projectile vomit, their lives are never the same. Sheila becomes a zombie with no impulse control and an insatiable hunger for human flesh. Can their marriage survive this new change and can they keep from getting caught by the two cops that live right next to them?

Sheila and Joel have a status quo that both are unhappy with in some way at the beginning of the show. Sheila is a bland push over with no aspirations. She accepts getting literally screamed at by her boss with no complaint. Whenever Joel tries to initial sex, she shames him and compares sex to dogs humping in the grocery store parking lot. Her neighbors try to get her to go out with them to dance and drink at night or run in the morning, but she turns them down every time. Sheila seemed content with no hobbies, no sex life, no friends, and no passion. Her facade is perfectly pleasant, guaranteed to make everyone around her happy and at ease no matter how she feels inside. Sheila was close to the societal ideal of women which is quiet, complacent, and unfulfilled. Joel isn't happy either as he rarely has sex and smokes pot frequently hidden from Sheila. He wants more, but he tamps down his wants to keep the status quo.

Sheila's transformation into a zombie throws their whole status quo and relationship dynamic out the window. Sheila becomes a totally different person with a huge appetite for sex and raw meat. Her unpredictable moods make her life much more exciting as she buys a car, goes dancing and drinking with friends, yells at people who anger her, and eats odious people all because she wants to. She also feels more beautiful and confident and has much more energy. Sheila has never been more alive even though she's undead. She lets her wants and needs be known and no longer allows herself to be pushed around and bullied as she had been before.  Her boring but perfect life is not enough for her anymore. Her life is always in crisis now because of body disposal, dirty cop blackmail, and ineptly covering their tracks getting her food. Despite all of that, Sheila is truly happy for the first time and even connects with her teenage daughter Abby by eventually being honest with her about all of her craziness.

Joel, on the other hand, is still human and constantly reeling and trying to be supportive. This new Sheila isn't predictable and safe like the old one. She challenges him and doesn't tamp down what she wants for him or for their family. He goes through the whole series struggling to come to terms with his changed wife alternating between accepting and rejecting her condition. At first, he helps her with body disposal and scouting out people to eat, but then he says it's too much for him. Then he returns to helping her again. He likes that her libido is way up, but isn't enthused that she has strong opinions and doesn't allow him to make the big decisions anymore. Near the end of the season, he admits that he's been trying to cope because he thought her condition would be temporary and he had been holding onto hope that she would return to her normal self. If she stays a zombie, he reveals that he doesn't know if he would stay in the marriage. I understand his period of adjustment, but it's pretty awful to reject your wife when she finally feels happy. An element of jealousy is definitely in play. He admitted he didn't see his life going this way, but also didn't do anything to make it the way he wanted it to be.

The Santa Clarita Diet is a hilarious show that plays with the conventions of sitcoms and adds cursing, sex, and gore to make a fun amalgamation. It's kind of like a modern day version of Fido. The acting is over the top in characters Joel and Sheila while it's toned down and more realistic in Abby and the neighbor kid Eric. Throughout the season, bits and pieces of zombie lore are discovered, but they know nothing at the outset, stumbling through and figuring it out as they go. My only complaint is the unsatisfying and abrupt ending to the show. It feels like it could have gone on for at least a couple more episodes. Overall, the show is delightful and irreverent with memorable characters, twists and turns, and some nice zombie carnage.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Women in Horror: Women of the Buffyverse Part 2

1) Tara Maclay

Tara comes to the show late and leaves so much earlier than she should have. She is the most moral and sweet person in the cast. At first, her timidity and uncertainty act as a barrier between her and the Scooby gang. Her abusive family fed her lies like they did all the women in her family and the effects showed in her behavior. She expected people to be mean to her because that's how she was treated for most of her life. When she grows closer to the group and finally realizes she isn't a demon, the others come to her for advice. Tara has a quiet strength that isn't physical like Buffy and isn't in magic like Willow, but her resolve and moral compass are formidable. She doesn't tell Glory anything despite her god powers. The dark side never tempts her because she doesn't want or need it. When Willow becomes abusive, Tara gives her opportunities to change and leaves when Willow continues to lie and abuse magic. She doesn't allow herself to be abused anymore and leaves no matter how much it pains her to be separated from Willow and their friends. Tara shows that strength doesn't have to be loud or obvious.

2) Cordelia Chase

Cordelia starts the show as a queen bee mean girl who is cruel to Buffy, Willow, and Xander. She serves as a foil for Buffy, showing what Buffy could have been had she not been the slayer. Over time, it shows that Cordelia uses cruelty as a cover to protect herself. Surrounded by her Cordette toadies, she feels alone and knows that people only spend time with her to be popular by proxy instead of actually caring about her. Ironically, the Scooby gang, who spent so much time being tormented by her, were some of the first to accept her for who she is and not what her status could bring them. Throughout the series, she never loses her edge of brutal honesty, shown explicitly in the Earshot episode when she's the only one to say exactly what she thinks. Her character blossoms more on the Angel series (except for season 4), but the foundation of a subversive woman who asserts herself, feels confident, and gets what she wants.

3) Faith Lehane

Faith is the third slayer seen on the show, called after Kendra is killed. Her life has not been easy as she's been living alone, supporting herself with a healthy mistrust of others. The others see her stories as something to be envied but she doesn't share with them the harsh realities she experienced. Underneath her bravado, she's in pain and lonely. Her relationship with Mayor Wilkins is the first loving and supportive ones maybe ever, so it's no surprise that she switches sides. After being defeated and left comatose, she awakens to magically steal Buffy's body and finds a moral center when parodying and parrotting Buffy's goodness. She allows herself to be taken to jail to serve her sentence even though she could easily escape. Faith's road to redemption wasn't as easy as Willow's because her support system was gone. The Scoobies would never accept her as she was because she didn't have the same connection. Faith is a strong, brash person who made mistakes on the way to finding friends and family. She returns in the final season not as an enemy, but as a friend who challenges Buffy's decisions. I love her character arc. She's the only character to go from being good to being so entrenched in evil and back.