Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Women in Horror: Thanatomorphose

The basic plot of Thanatomorphose is that one day a woman just starts to rot away, which is apt since the title is a French word meaning visible signs of an organism's decomposition. This basic story has turned into its own horror subgenre over the last few years with films like Contracted and Starry Eyes, but Thanatomorphose is the first of its kind. This film is the most low budget of the three and also the most simple, but it also has a lot of the same plot points and situations as the other films, namely being isolated from her peers and being completely unsatisfied with her life as a whole. After a night of rough sex, the woman wakes up with dark bruises all over her body. She brushes it off as normal because her boyfriend regularly leaves bruises on her body. After this, we get a glimpse of her everyday life. Everything is horrible and a disappointment. Her boyfriend abuses her regularly and jokes about it in front of their mutual friends. Those mutual friends just awkwardly avoid the subject and never address the problem at all or try to help her except one guy who takes the opportunity to take advantage of her and then abruptly leave. The woman bends over backwards to do everything for her boyfriend even though she's obviously not happy. He gives her nothing in return except for pain and cruelty. In her professional life, her art is rejected from a program she applied for and she's been working on a single sculpture for years that will probably never be finished. This is the only glimpse of the woman's life that we see before she starts to rot.

The decomposition process is interrupted by dreams of decomposition and dreams of the men in her life suggestively cutting off her flesh and eating it. This scene is reminiscent of the couple of sex scenes from earlier in the film, making it clear that these men simply use her and illustrate the toxic effect they have on her. She eventually kills them (or at least dreams about doing so), but it isn't enough to save her from completely rotting away. The woman spends most of the film naked, but I don't find it exploitative. It isn't to titillate the audience and the cinematography reflects that. Both she and her boyfriend walk around the film naked and there's a comfortable nonchalance as if that's what they do every day. The sex scenes are experimental and unpleasant to watch because it shows that nature of their relationship before you even hear them speak. Later, when she starts rotting, it's even less appealing for obvious reasons and more symbolic about her raw feelings behind her facade. I've seen a lot of people complain about how she doesn't go to the doctor like any sane person would, but the film really isn't about a physical affliction. Many people in her situation, trapped in an abusive relationship without anyone who cares about her with no means of escape on top of professional failure, would not seek out help. Lots of people just go about their miserable existence and accept their fate even though help is available to them. The film portrays this mentality well and makes the physical symptoms as grotesque as the mental, emotional, and physical ones are in real life.

Thanatomorphose is a minimalist film. Long stretches of time go by with no dialog; none of the characters have names; and the plot is very bare bones. The film takes place claustrophobically only in her apartment. She is shown briefly leaving and coming back, but everything else is in the few rooms where she lives. The other films in this subgenre build a better picture of the person's life and make it more palatable to watch, but at their core, they're the same. All of these women have unfulfilling lives surrounded by people who don't really care about them. The rotting is simply the physical form of what would happen to these women mentally and emotionally in these situations. The special effects are amazing for the budget and the film is shot in interesting, unexpected ways. The music is beautiful and captures the mood perfectly with mournful, slow moving strings. Unfortunately, there were quite a few things that just didn't measure up to the other films. The acting in the majority of the film is painful to watch and the dialog is wooden. The sex scenes seemed really out of place stylistically compared to the rest of the film. It featured extreme closeups, bright colors, and strange avant garde music that didn't mesh with the very stripped down and minimalist style of the film as a whole. I'm glad I watched it because it seems to be the first in this rash of women rotting away films and sets up the formula for such films, but it leaves a bit to be desired.

My rating: 6/10 fishmuffins

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Women in Horror: Shutter

Micheline Helsing is a tetrochromat, who has the ability to see different types of ghostlight thanks to an extra color receptor in her eyes. She's famous due to her lineage, her very recognizable name, and her stellar reputation for destroying corporeal and noncorporeal undead. One day, she and her crew (made up of Oliver the technogeek, Jude the psychic, and Ryder the fighter) are called to an emergency situation at a hospital where the original team was overwhelmed by a ghost. They charge in despite being still students (and technically shouldn't be there at all) and predictably are also overwhelmed by a creature unlike anything they've seen. Now, all are bound by ghostly chains that grow tighter and colder every day until they are eventually the ghost's puppets. Micheline and her friends only have a few days to exorcise the creature and free themselves before they are as good as dead.

Young adult horror is typically pretty boring, predictable, and super toned down for the audience. I keep reading them to try to find those gems that capture horror and don't let the age group of the target audience water down the story. Shutter is one of those gems and I loved it. The world is incredible. I was expecting a Buffy the Vampire Slayer style world where there are supernatural creatures, but they are hidden from the public because the creatures of worlds beyond our own would shatter their fragile little minds. I was wrong. The story has a very cool alternate reality where the first instance paranecrotic creatures were discovered in the 15th century during the Black Death pandemic. Later, in the late 19th century, the Helsing, Stoker, Seward, Harker, and McCoy families joined forces and created an organization to fight the various types of undead, resulting in Dracula's death and the in depth study of these harmful creatures. Fast forward over a hundred years and the Helsing Corps is alive and thriving, keeping the public safe from the undead menace. This story feels like peering through a keyhole into the world with so many other possibilities and stories within it. It's the mark of a fleshed out world and a feeling look forward to. The mechanics of the world are supported with logical and scientific explanations for a supernatural phenomena.  Modern technology and scientific advances will logically dispel the mystery around such creatures and provide scientific solutions through experimentation and study. I especially enjoyed Micheline's method of capturing ghost energy in her SLR camera and imprisoning it in film as opposed to using bulky mirrors.

The characters are vivid and enjoyable to read. Micheline is tough, accomplished, and smart, but also emotionally crippled by grief and prone to reckless behavior. She feels crushing guilt because she assumes responsibility for her mother's and little brothers' deaths, aided by her accusing and equally grief stricken father. Before this event, she was the first woman to successfully lead the Helsing Corps against the undead. She takes her calling and the family business very seriously and even discovered the effectiveness of an SLR camera as a weapon against incorporeal foes. Because of the tragedy that tore her family apart, Micheline is the last of the Helsing line. Therefore, her father expects her to marry an appropriate man from an approved bloodline and produce heirs like a broodmare. Micheline has her own ideas on the subject. Her heart lies with Ryder, the boy she grew up with who came from nothing but has become a very accomplished member of the Corps. Micheline's father wants to control all aspects of her life, including her reproductive choices. The chains that wrap so tightly around the young heroes is representative at least partially of the expectations of authority figures and the inability to choose freely. While the forbidden love angle is typical in young adult fiction, I enjoyed it and it had its place in the story without overpowering the more important conflicts. My favorite minor character is Oliver because of his contrast with Micheline. His life is the opposite of hers with supportive parents who challenge him instead of crush his spirit. He also views everything through a scientific and logical lens.  

Shutter is thematically similar to The Babadook. The tragedy of the possession of her mother and the resulting deaths of her mother and her little brothers shattered Micheline's world. None of her other accomplishments really mean anything to her because she failed her family when they needed her most. Her relationship with her father is completely obliterated because of unprocessed and ignored grief. For so long, she thought that simply locking away any feelings, including love and affection, towards her family would lessen her pain. Their old house is a time capsule, frozen at the moment of these traumatic deaths. They even opted to leave most of their things there instead of bearing even happy memories those things conjure of their deceased loved ones. Both she and her father are too busy ignoring their feelings and each other to heal and go on with their lives. He smothers her with rules, expectations, and commands while she rebels in quiet ways until their conflict explodes with physical violence from her father. The chains that grow and constrict her throughout the novel are also symbolic of this grief and how she can't truly move on from it. The ghost turns out to be her mother, so the central conflict of the story becomes actually about confronting her feelings, acknowledging this very formative event, accepting the deaths of her mother and brothers, and moving on.

My only problem with the novel is fairly minor. The choice of the Catholic faith as the one to protect its followers from evil was odd because of the focus on the scientific method of studying and destroying these monsters. It simply felt out of place. Religion didn't have a lot to do with novel, but Oliver and others of Micheline's crew were considered vulnerable to this evil because of their lack of faith. I suspect this is a nod to Bram Stoker's Dracula and its methods of dealing with vampires rather than endorsing religion, but it still bothered me. Shutter is an excellent young adult horror novel that not only tackles realistic issues like grief and familial expectations, but creates an impressive alternate history with vampires, ghosts, and zombies. The story is fast paced and exciting with relatable characters, action, and a large dollop of blood and gore. I hope it's the first in a series that will continue and I look forward to more from Courtney Alameda.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Women in Horror: Hostel

Paxton and Josh are college students backpacking through Europe looking for drugs, women, and good times. Oli, an goofy Icelandic drifter, joins their crew along the way. They pause in Amsterdam for prostitutes and pot, but are locked out of their hostel after curfew. Alexi gives them a place to stay and directs them to a hostel in Slovakia filled with desperate women. Slovakia seems a bit weird, but the promise of beautiful women turns out to be true. Everyone has fun until the next day Oli and few other hostel residents are unexpectedly gone. Paxton and Josh try to still have a good time because Oli was really a stranger. Then Josh disappears as well, leaving Paxton to run around frantically trying to find them. Then he ends up just like his friends: in the clutches of Elite Hunting, an organization where the rich kill people for ungodly sums of money.

Hostel has an interesting concept: a secret Elite Hunting organization has members who pay large sums of money to kill tourists in the manner of their choosing in Eastern Europe. I enjoy the second half of the film where Paxton has to find his way out of the murder facility. The mood is very tense and suspenseful, which is pretty rare in the torture porn genre. The torture scenes are well done where not everything is in your face. The blood and gore flow freely, but Eli Roth knows when to use extreme closeups and when to leave it to the imagination. Too many other films just show everything, but it frankly gets boring after a while. Hostel is also the first film to be dubbed torture porn and one of the first in the resurgence of ultra gory films in the 2000s. These are really the only positives about Hostel.

While the audience is supposed to sympathize with the American tourists, Paxton and Josh are the two of the most obnoxious and insufferable douchebags ever to grace the screen. They go through Europe chasing drugs and sex without regard to anything else. They complain about people not speaking English and mock each other for acting like anything other than the most masculine of men. The audience is supposed to identify with and root for them, but I have trouble even remotely liking them. When he is disguised and trying to escape the Elite Hunting facility, Paxton gets a glimpse of what he and Josh could have been in about 15 or 20 years. He meets a brash, ubermasculine American client who has done all the whoring and drugs there are until it's just boring to him. Elite Hunting is a way for him to feel alive and virile again. Paxton is on the road to turn into this man if he can afford Elite Hunting's rates. Why should the audience sympathize with someone who would eventually be on the other side? By the time the carnage starts, they have barely enough humanizing characteristics that I don't really want to see them die. Their portrayal may be based on the assumption that the viewers would be more like them: male, 18-25, and hypermasculine bros. It could be argued that it's a commentary on the typically American tourist attitude, but the ending of the film and the two dimensional portrayals of the foreign characters seem to be supporting that xenophobic mentality rather than dispelling it.

Hostel is a misogynistic film, but not for the reasons you might think. The first half of the film is a blur of breasts and sex that frankly drags on for too long. Breasts and sex on their own are not misogynistic in and of themselves, but the fact that no female characters have any sort of dimension does. All women in the film fall into these categories: sexual objects, evil temptresses, and damsels in distress. These characters are flatly good, evil, or just sexy. None of them really have their own opinions or will, but are just a cog in the machine of the sex industry or the murder for pay industry. The prostitutes at the beginning of the film are only there because of their ability to titillate the audience and the male leads. They barely even speak. There's one line comparing the sex industry with paying to torture and kill people, but it's another message only paid lip service with no real support. Natalya and Svetlana are the exotic and beautiful women who turn out to be the evil temptresses who lure and drug Paxton and Josh to their deaths. They are simply and flatly evil and want to earn money, like evil prostitutes who use their bodies and looks to lure hapless tourists. Of course they aren't evil enough to have any real authority in Elite Hunting, which is exclusively used and run by men. The last woman is Kana, a Japanese woman who is midtorture when Paxton saves her. She ends up throwing herself in front of a train after seeing her ruined eye in her reflection. It seems the character only exists for Paxton to look like less of a douchebag before dying and providing a distraction for Paxton to evade the Elite Hunting people. It's also pretty offensive that she seems to kill herself over her ruined looks.

No one in the film really fares well in either the way they are portrayed or their fate in the film. While I like parts of it and I think it's a very influential film in the horror genre, Hostel simply isn't constructed well and wants you to think that it's against xenophobia and misogyny when it ends up affirming these ideas throughout the course of the film.

My rating: 5/10 fishmuffins

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Women in Horror: Starry Eyes

* spoilers *

Sarah Walker is miserable as an aspiring actress in Los Angeles seeking that one big break. She has a demeaning job she hates and a group of friends she loathes. She spends most of her time going on as many casting calls as possible and waiting for responses. After stumbling on a part for a film called The Silver Scream from Astraeus pictures, an long running production company, she is subject to a series of unconventional auditions where she seems to impress them. To secure the part of her dreams, she must do the unthinkable and she has to decide if her dreams are worth giving up everything in her life.

Starry Eyes is an intriguing film that examines how far you would be willing to go to achieve your dreams. Sarah is already a little bit unhinged when the film starts most likely because of the constant frustration of rejection. She's stuck in stasis in a place in her life where she is unfulfilled and miserable. Her job is a waitress at a wannabe Hooters called Big Taters where she has to wear a skin tight uniform, say horrible potato puns all day, and provide eye candy for the patrons. Her circle of friends are only around her because they are friends with her roommate Tracy. Sarah keeps them at a distance and refuses to be part of their pathetic projects. She strives for more and she isn't satisfied making small films or partying with them. Most of them are unsupportive and toxic anyway, the most horrible being Erin who constantly snipes at Sarah with backhanded comments and steals the roles Sarah auditions for. The only sympathetic ones are her roommate Tracy and an aspiring filmmaker named Danny. Her desperation has already almost reached its limit because she knows how unlikely it is to make it big as an unknown actress with no credits to her name. She isn't deluded enough to think that it's a sure thing anymore despite the fact that she seems to be very talented.

This brings us to her odd series of auditions for Astraeus. Right before, Sarah has a dream where her habit of throwing a temper tantrum and pulling out her hair in anger makes bomb her audition. In reality, it's the only reason she makes it to the next stage of auditions. After doing her best and being dismissed by the harsh representatives, Sarah indulges in her masochistic outburst in the bathroom, which catches their attention and interest. They praise her for showing a part of herself no one else knows about and they are the first to accept her for who she truly is. The second audition is equally strange and more abusive than the first in which she is instructed to strip down and let her inhibitions go. The longevity and prestige of the company is emphasized when she's uncomfortable as if that suddenly makes it ok. The third interview is with the produce of Astraeus who makes it clear without explicitly requesting that sexual favors are required. Sarah is understandably shocked and disgusted and storms out of the room, but she immediately wonders if she made the right decision. A lot of us can relate to Sarah especially in an economic time when minimum wage just isn't enough to even live on your own. I know lots of people stuck in jobs they hate just to make a living and pay the bills. How many people would endure the abuse and momentary grossness to change their lives permanently? Sarah already exploits her body and is demeaned daily at her job. Why not
endure it for the thing she wants most in the world?

The deal is not as it seems when Sarah returns to beg for the position. When she returns home, it becomes clear she is going to die as her skin rots away. The price of her life and her dreams is destroying her previous life. This includes being fired from her job and killing her friends. Most of her friends are rude, exploitative, or just plain unmemorable, so I didn't feel much emotion at their deaths except for appreciation at their genuine reactions. The few people I sympathized with were Sarah's Big Taters boss and Erin. Her boss is merely abused instead of being murdered, but I felt for him. Instead of being the stereotypical lecherous boss, he was sympathetic to her and showed he was genuine. I was shocked to sympathize with two faced Erin because every comment out of her mouth made me uncomfortable for Sarah. The scene preceding Erin's death showed how very different she and Sarah are. Erin deduces that Sarah went through with giving sexual favors for a role and proceeds to mock in her usual two faced fashion. However, when she turns on the light and sees that Sarah's face looks horrific, Erin is immediately concerned and wants take her to the hospital. She wouldn't do what Sarah is doing just for fame and fortune. Not only do sexual favors for fame disgust her, but she cares about her friends underneath her insufferable exterior. The health and well-being of her friend was way more important than anything else in that moment. Erin could very well have been simply a malicious, one dimensional character, but proved to be a nuance character and the perfect foil for Sarah.

A lot of parallels can be drawn between Starry Eyes and Contracted during this part of the film because both women are rotting away and kill their friends. However, Sarah's ordeal is completely different because it's a trial to endure before her prize. She sheds her humanity and her old life in order to emerge as a flawlessly beautiful but eerily inhuman creature. While hunger and evil acts for fame in the film industry are not new, this film takes a fresh look at it by showing both the figurative and literal consequences of selling your soul at once. Starry Eyes gives a bit of a throwback to the 70's with the just dissonant enough score and the Rosemary's Baby-esque cult. It also features strong performances from Alexandra Essoe as unhinged and desperate Sarah, Amanda Fuller as earnest and well-meaning Tracy, and Fabianne Therese as two faced but ultimately caring Erin. Starry Eyes is one of the standouts of last year that I just couldn't stop thinking about.

My rating: 9/10 fishmuffins

Friday, February 6, 2015

Women in Horror: Exorcismus

* spoilers *

Emma Evans is a typical frustrated teen. Her parents and her little brother are annoying and she just wants to have fun and party with her friends. Then the day after she went to a party, came home drunk, and had a huge fight with her family, Emma has a seizure. The doctors find nothing wrong with her at all, so she returns home. Her condition worsens as she has small blackouts where she does things without remembering what happened. The aftermath of the incidents show that she's hurting the people around her and the events are getting more dangerous. Emma goes to her uncle who is a priest for help, insisting that she's possessed. Her parents agree when she begins levitating and almost drowns her brother in the bathtub. Can the demon be exorcised before someone dies?

I usually hate exorcism films. They are almost always about suppressing and demonizing a young woman's sexuality. I caught Exorcismus on TV and wasn't expecting much. I was pleasantly surprised to find a competent and well crafted film. Emma is fifteen years old and homeschooled, but has a wild streak. One of her crazy nights changes her life when she drinks, does drugs, and plays with a ouija board. It has all the trappings of a stereotypical exorcism film, but plays with the conventions of the genre. Emma actually summons the devil into herself in a fit of teenage rebellion against her family. Her reasons are typical for any teenager: she wants to be free. As wishes usually go, it's interpreted by the devil as destroying her family one by one, which of course she didn't really want. Most exorcist films take place largely in one room where the possessed is trapped, but Emma roams freely to wreak destruction. She goes about her day to day life, but has moments where she has no idea what she does and someone always ends up emotionally or physically hurt. Instead of her parents going straight to religion for help, they put their trust in science and logic. Emma goes to her Father Christopher  herself to ask for help. Her parents only consented after a few attempts at murder when it was clear that medicine wouldn't help her. I found this refreshing because the notion of real demonic possession is hard to believe and people tend to not turn to that as their first guess when their children are sick.

This change in tropes also extends to the priest and the ending. At first, Father Christopher seems like every exorcist priest ever: pious, good, and striving to help the poor possessed girl. He is tender with Emma and reassures her that nothing the demon does is her fault and how to keep from killing her family members. The first sign of trouble is that he is adamant about telling no one about their sessions together which she doesn't remember. The ending reveals that he has just been exploiting Emma and getting the supernatural aspects on film to prove the devil is real. He had no intention of healing her until he had his proof, which allowed her brother to die and her mother to go mad. The loss of their lives were considered sad, but unavoidable in pursuit of the greater good. This isn't even the first time he has done this. Another possessed girl died in his care most likely for the pursuit of proof over her well-being. I can't think of an exorcism film that features an evil priest. Even the one in The Exorcism of Emily Rose who allows his charge to die of neglect is portrayed in a positive light. Emma eventually has the strength to save herself without the aid of some opportunistic jerk or his patriarchal religion.

Exorcismus is a breath of fresh air in a genre where a lot of the films just try to emulate The Exorcist. Every step of the way, Emma had agency and chose her own path. She did make mistakes that led to horrible consequences, but she was able to free herself in the end. I love that this very typically misogynistic type of film turns the tropes around and makes it a feminist film that portrays the corrupt Catholic church in a negative light for once. Sophie Vavasseur shines as Emma and deftly switches between Emma and the demon. There are a few flaws, but they were very minor and didn't matter much in the bigger picture.

My rating: 8/10 fishmuffins

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Women in Horror: An English Ghost Story

The dysfunctional Naremore family wants a fresh new start, so they buy a quaint house called the Hollow in the country. This house used to be owned by a children's author whose books focused on a scrappy little girl, her ghost friends, and their home (a fictionalized version of her own home). The family rapidly realizes that the ghosts are real and the Hollow has a charming sort of magic. Everyone is suddenly getting along. All the problems of the past seem to melt away. Around every corner is something charming, inexplicable, and theirs alone. The Hollow is paradise and just what everyone needs. The novelty eventually wears off and old problems start coming back. All of the family members are suddenly at war with each other and the ghosts respond in kind. The charming magic of the Hollow is gone, replaced by menace as the ghosts pit the members against each other. The family is headed towards total destruction with the ghosts poking and prodding to get them there.

An English Ghost Story is kind of a bland and nondescript title, so I didn't really know what to expect. It doesn't disappoint. Kim Newman writes beautifully. The first third of the book introduces the characters and shows their idyllic existence when they first move into the Hollow. The family starts to heal, putting aside their petty differences and coming together. I love how instead of crazy infodumping information about the family and their background, it was seamlessly integrated into the text without interrupting the story. I also grew to care for the family as their pasts were fleshed out piece by piece to compare to their present selves. I am frankly jealous of their house. The chest of drawers with Mary Poppins-esque magic is my favorite object. The ghosts revealed themselves to each family member in an endearing and entertaining way. The house seemed to embrace them while they got along, but this didn't last. The old conflicts eventually resurfaced, causing the ghosts to help each member in their ultimate goal: to come out victorious.

My problem with the novel starts when the family begins to turn on each other. Each member of the Naremore family becomes obsessed with one thing or another. The father Steven becomes obsessed with dominating his household with an iron fist. The women must serve him hand and foot and follow him without question. He becomes more and more abusive as the novel goes on, eventually coming to blows with his daughter Jordan. The son Tim becomes more and more entrenched in his army fantasy where he alone protects the house from intruders and their attacks. He also turns his sights on Jordan as a perpetrator. The men of the house exhibit extreme, stereotypically masculine behavior and target the women of the house to subjugate. I was hoping these tropes would be subverted in some way, but the change to back to normal is very abrupt. They don't seem to even process what was wrong or why they did things.

The women go through a similar change. The mother Kirsty rails against her family and their life, insisting that her life with Vron, her best friend who she left behind, would be better. She looks back on her past failures and only sees her family getting in her way. Then she resolves to be rid of them. This reaction in Kirsty is more shocking because mothers tend to be more nurturing, but I just don't buy it. It's based on a very tired stereotype about women and I feel it would have been just as shocking to hear out of Steven. She does successfully rid herself of Tim at one point, but it seems to only serve to make her the meek, subservient wife that Steven wants because her ambition led to what she thought was her child's death. Jordan collapses inward and becomes anorexic after breaking up with her boyfriend. She becomes a shadow of herself, but then suddenly realizes that she looks just fine and ceases to be anorexic. This angered me because people go to therapy and work on their body dysmorphia for years to overcome eating disorders. To have it come and go so swiftly points to a lack of understanding and another stereotypical female reaction to rejection.

This brings me to Vron, Kirsty's mysterious best friend. Everyone calls her a witch ad her friendships are deemed toxic. It isn't ever really explained why or how, just simply understood. I immediately doubt their word because the circumstances seem suspicious and characters are notoriously unreliable. It seemed to me that one of the big reasons they moved there was because Steven hated Vron and wanted to isolate Kirsty from her friend. This just shows that Steven was a patriarchal husband even before the ghosts got a hold of him. The whole situation just rubbed me the wrong way and smacked of impending abuse. Then Vron actually arrives on the scene and she seems like a maniac. The ghosts protect the house from her and she eventually goes away. I expected so much more from Vron and it was disappointing to see her reduced to a creepy, one dimensional villain. She could have been so much more.

An English Ghost Story is a slow burning haunted house novel with an eerie atmosphere and lyrical writing. My problems stemmed from the characters, their stereotypical transformations, and the lack of a resolution. The ending has the family too frightened to even disagree with each other for fear of angering the ghosts. What kind of life is that? Never truly resolving conflicts or having yourself be heard is just frustrating and awful. The ending left me less than satisfied.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins  

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Women in Horror: The Babadook

Amelia struggles daily with her existence as a single mom after her husband was killed in a car accident just before she gave birth to her only son, Sam. He has quite an imagination, creating monsters out of thin air to battle with homemade weapons and shriek in terror from before bed. His over the top and obnoxious behavior goes unchecked and, along with her struggle to cope with daily life, alienates most of the people in her life. Her son finds a book called The Babadook that frightens him and he becomes even more obsessed with alternately fighting the monster and being debilitated by fear because of the monster. His behavior reaches an unacceptable level and Amelia is simply at a loss. Her life is rapidly unraveling before her eyes and then she starts to think the Babadook might actually be real.

The Babadook is an amazing directorial debut that takes a powerful emotion and portrays it in a horrific and uncomfortable way. On the surface, Samuel is an insufferably annoying child and Amelia is a complacent mother, but there is so much going on beneath the surface. Even though seven years have passed since her husband's death, Amelia has not properly dealt with her grief. This manifests at first in normal, but unhealthy ways. Amelia is obviously completely miserable in almost every aspect of her life. Her relationship with her son is extremely strained on both ends. She constantly pushes her son away because he is entwined so much with her grief. His arrival into the world was marred by her husband's very violent death which she witnessed. Sam is a constant physical reminder of her loss and what she could have had if her husband had lived. Amelia's simultaneously loves her son and resents him for surviving instead of her husband. This also causes guilt that she isn't what a mother should be or feel how a mother should feel. To cope with her feelings, she shuts everything about her husband away and just pretends he never existed, even opting to skip celebrating her son's birthday. She never acknowledges her feelings to anyone including her son who shares the same grief.

Amelia's approach to her grief makes it impossible for anyone to connect with her. Her son works through his grief by being inappropriate: clinging to her as tight as possible, telling anyone who will listen about his dead father, being prone to loud and violent outbursts, and finally personifying their problems with the Babadook and attempting to save them by creating homemade weapons. Children are quite clever and he senses her resentment on some level which leads to the over the top clingy behavior. It only serves to reaffirm the cycle of Amelia's resentment and she pushes him away even more. In the first half of the film, Sam is insufferable and I feel so much for Amelia, but he is only trying to work through his own grief without any help. During the second half of the film, the roles reverse. Amelia's behavior becomes dangerous and erratic while Sam becomes the one simply struggling to survive. He becomes sweet and meek instead of the screaming hellion he was before, making Amelia's abuse all the more disturbing. Amelia also has problems connecting with other adults. Her friends are tired of her attitude and feel she should have been over it since it was seven years ago. Her son's behavior puts people in general off including random strangers, her best friend, and her coworkers. Her only lifeline is her kindly neighbor, but even that is severed once the Babadook shows up.

You might have noticed that I haven't mentioned the title character up until this point. This is because the Babadook is the personification of Amelia's grief. The specter is invisible at first and dismissed as another of Sam's games. As Sam's birthday and the anniversary of her husband's death grows closer, the Babadook's appearance and effects become stronger and stronger. Its first appearance is in a twisted children's book found in Amelia's house. The art is gorgeous and macabre, reminiscent of Edward Gorey. The story has Amelia killing her dog, her child, and then herself. One of the lines in the book is "You can't get rid of the Babadook." Since it's grief, there really is no escaping it. It's simply part of you and just going through the motions in life isn't always enough to overcome it. The creature is superbly done because we get glimpses of it here and there without too much or too little exposure.

The Babadook is tense and uncomfortable to watch right from the beginning. Essie Davis perfectly portrays Amelia's loving nature through her frustration, desperation, depression, and powerlessness. Noah Wiseman acts completely insufferable through the first half of the film and then manages to still have the viewers' sympathy during the second half. Jennifer Kent, the director and writer, has crafted this frighteningly relatable and thought provoking story that could happen to any one of us. To me, that's what makes the film viscerally frightening. The cinematography and music are on point and perfectly support the mood. I am eager to see more from Jennifer Kent and I consider this film my favorite of 2014.

My rating: 10/10 fishmuffins

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Women in Horror: Pretty When She Dies

* spoilers *

Amaliya finally has her life on track. She's attending college (away from her horrible family), earning good grades, and trying to find her place in the world. Then, she has a coffee date with her attractive psychology professor and it all goes to hell. After awakening in a shallow grave, she goes on a bloodthirsty rampage on campus. The professor is actually a sadistic vampire who likes to create other vampires and see how they fare without providing any sort of guidance. Amaliya has no idea about her powers or what her limitations are, so she runs from her problems, leaving a wake of blood and death along the way. It's only a matter of time before others of her kind will take notice of her rather uncontrolled behavior and either help her out of her situation or kill her to preserve peace.

I've been meaning to read Pretty When She Dies for years, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it is a fun, fast paced book with no shortage of engaging characters and savory moments of horror. I liked Amaliya for the most part. She comes from an abusive home where everyone thinks she's worth nothing despite anything she's done to the contrary. She dyes her blonde hair black, has copious tattoos, and enjoys metal music. Her shtick is a little Hot Topic misunderstood goth for me, but I understand her drive to find her place and set herself apart from where she comes from. Her interests and aesthetic are different than most of the female protagonists out there, so it was interesting to read another perspective. The first half of the novel is setup and her own journey of self discovery. She knows absolutely nothing about being a vampire except that she needs to drink blood. Everything else is trial and error or simply stumbling upon discoveries. This part is also a genius way to show the vampires abilities without dedicated pages and pages to infodumping. The explanations and discoveries are integrated seamlessly into the text as Amaliya discovers all of this with the readers. Her strength and fire made me root for and admire her despite her missteps and occasionally rash decisions. She doesn't need Cian, the love interest, to come save her at every turn. I don't think there are many things I hate more than a strong woman made conveniently weak to have the strong man come in and save her.

The secondary characters are also quite memorable.. My favorite of them was Innocente, Amaliya's grandmother, ghost seer, and devout Catholic. Unlike so many vampire books out there, Innocente figures out Amaliya's affliction rather quickly and accepts it. Her granddaughter isn't very different from how she was before, so she isn't going to abandon her or condemn her. I loved her hilarious assumption that Amaliya needed to to be helped to the light to move on. When she finds out her granddaughter is in trouble, she gathers up all her portable religious artifacts to help. She isn't daunted by her age or her lack of strength, only driven by love and her sense of justice. I especially enjoyed that Innocente, the most unlikely part of their outcast group, is responsible for defeating the big bad of the novel. I want to read the rest of the series just to see more of this bad ass old lady.

My least favorite of the secondary characters are Samantha and Roberto, both part of Cian's circle of friends/followers. Samantha is a shrew of a woman who is engaged to Cian. From the moment she met Amaliya, she threw around terms like "whore" and "trash" simply based on her appearance. Everything she did was powered by saving her fiance from Amaliya and not much else. This annoyance is only secondary to Roberto, the two faced and centuries old servant to Cian. It didn't take much to get him to backstab his master and so many of his actions were disturbing throughout the novel. There were  few things about the story that bothered me, namely the sheer number of coincidences that the plot relied on. Amaliya happened to run into Cian the first night in his territory and a similar situation happened with another vampire master. The first person Samantha whines to about her problems just so happens to be the son of a vampire hunter who made a pact with Cian. A few coincidences are fine, but it was coincidence after coincidence that made the plot a little too convenient.

I always enjoy Rhiannon Frater's writing. It flows so well that I read huge sections of the book in one sitting without realizing it. While there are moments of levity and humor, the dark horror elements are what I especially enjoyed. Frater knows how to disturb and when to let the blood flow. Although Pretty When She Dies isn't perfect, I enjoyed following Amaliya (and Innocente) through all of their adventures and I look forward to reading the other two books in the series.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Monday, February 2, 2015

Women in Horror: Pretty Little Dead Girls

Bryony Adams is destined to die. Everyone who sees her or meets her knows of her horrible fate and expects it at any moment. Bryony knows her fate and accepts it at first. When she survives to her teenage years, surrounded but untouched by death, she goes out into the world to experience a great love before she dies. A small circle of loyal friends develops around her over the years and she does finally find her great love, but is it enough for her? Should she still accept her tragic fate without complaint? What would happen if she fought against it?

Bryony, named after a deadly but beautiful flower, is somehow destined to die. She and everyone who comes into contact with her knows she will die young and violently. Despite her dark fate, she exudes positivity and becomes a beacon of hope to some. Many would become depressed or angry or simply accept their fate, but Bryony decides to not let her fate define her and to make a life for herself. Bryony could have easily been a one dimensional Mary Sue character, but Mercedes Yardley infuses her with life and a magnetic quality that draws characters in the book to her as well. I rooted for Bryony from page one because who says she needs to die? I did get a little annoyed when she just wanted to accept her fate, but she changed her mind later and really fought for what she wanted. I got progressively angrier when other characters would look at her, note her fate, and then kind of shrug their shoulders and go on with their lives. I read this to be a commentary of our society when the murder of young girls and women is so pedestrian that it barely warrants notice anymore.

I love the way Pretty Little Dead Girls is written. Our unnamed narrator tells the story in the third person mostly from Bryony's point of view, but we get snippets of other character's back stories and inner thoughts. I like these little glimpses into other characters because it fleshes out the world and gives insight into the minor characters. The narrator also acknowledges the reader and plays upon our expectations, our thoughts, and even flatters us a little. The language is at times simplistic, like a fairy tale, but at other times paints beautiful images without being too flowery or distractingly descriptive. Mercedes Yardley knows how to turn a phrase and keep the various threads of the story in a cohesive whole.

I enjoyed Pretty Little Dead Girls and I would definitely read other books by Mercedes Yardley. In the novel, everyone made a huge deal about Bryony's numbered days, but everyone's days are numbered. Everyone was born to die, not just those who die violently or young. This book shoves that fate in our faces and tells us to make the best of the time we have in a darkly whimsical way.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Women in Horror Month 2015

It's the sixth year of Women in Horror Recognition Month! Women and their gruesome deaths, horrible decision making, and their one dimensional characters have long been a major staple of the horror genre. How many films start with a meaningless female characters death within the first few minutes of the film? How many films save the virginal final girl but gleefully murder her smoking, drug taking, sex having counterparts? How many films feature gratuitous rape scenes portrayed titillatingly for what is somehow still assumed to be a male audience? While these tropes are far from dead, many horror films now portray realistic women with flaws that don't completely fit into those flat stock character roles. This month, I will be reviewing and examining films and novels on both sides of the spectrum. As a female horror fan, I love spending this month to spotlight achievements of women and examine women's changing role in the horror genre.

If you would like to get involved, please visit the Women in Horror Month website to submit your own event, find events online or in your area to participate in, or purchase stuff from their merch store.