Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Women in Horror: It Follows

Jay Height is a college student in Michigan. The first date with her new boyfriend Hugh goes well, expect he seems freaked out by a girl he describes but Jay can't see. The second date, they have sex in Hugh's car. Jay feels wonderful about it, but Hugh knocks her out right afterwards. She wakes up still in her underwear tied to a wheelchair with Hugh rambling about someone who will follow her. A nude woman approaches her and Hugh seems satisfied, releasing her from her bonds and unceremoniously dumping her in front of her house. Jay reports the incident and tries to forget about it, but at night, someone breaks into her house, changes form, and chases her. She knows it's something more than the ravings of a madman and resolves to seek him out to get more answers.

It Follows is a complex horror film that made a big splash last year when it was released into mainstream theaters. Its strengths are its unique world and the varied subjective meanings of the film. The world it builds is a combination of modern and retro. Brand new cars are seen everywhere, but Jay's friend Greg drives an 80's style station wagon that they drive around for most of the film. Jay's house seems stuck in the 70's with its dated style, old horror and sci-fi TV shows and movies on their very old fashioned black and white TV. The synthesized score created by Disasterpeace calls to mind past soundtracks like John Carpenter's Halloween and Charles Bernstein's Nightmare on Elm Street. All of this coupled with the artfully filmed Detroit backdrop makes for a film that creates its own time, similar to the Bates Motel television show.

Many people have speculated at the meaning of the film and the Follower. The ones that dismiss it as the fear of sex or sexually transmitted diseases is simplistic and not looking at the whole picture. I think it's much more than that. Jay is 19 years old, not a high school student. She would be at least a few years younger and a virgin if it had been merely about fear in and punishment of having sex. Jay was building a relationship with Hugh (which wasn't even his real name). They got to know each other over a couple of dates and she chose to be intimate with him on their second date. Immediately afterwards, he assaults her, ties her to a wheelchair still in her underwear, and tells her about the Follower, a person who will slowly walk towards her in the guise of anyone. He tells her it isn't stupid and it will keep following forever unless she passes it on to someone else in the same way it passed it to her.

I interpret the Follower to be all of the consequences of sex. On the surface, it's pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, but it's also other people's opinions and judgments. It's trusting that the other person is genuine in their intentions and being as close to them as you can possibly be. It's accepting that entering a long term relationship with someone is also assuming all of their baggage as well. The Follower takes many forms as the consequences do. Sometimes it takes on the form of loved ones because the closest people to you have the ability to hurt you the most. Jay is affected by the consequences more seriously than others because they tend to be more serious for women in our society. A woman's value is still tied to her sex life and public opinion about it whether perception matches her actions or not. Men don't have these same perceptions to combat. This is why "Hugh" has to build part of a relationship with Jay to have sex with her while Jay can just hop on a boat and presumably have sex with little to no speaking. Even when Greg is very flippant about the consequences, the Follower still kills him as it also presumably kills the men on the boat. The Follower is always there and always advancing to show that no one is exempt from these consequences.

Throughout the film, characters reminisce over being a child. During the game they play at the theater, "Hugh" wants to be a little boy with a whole future ahead of him. Paul, Jay's friend, reminisces over sexual exploration in his childhood. This particular incident is when he and Jay found porn magazines in the street and looked at them only to be caught by their horrified parents. They are remembering when they didn't have to deal with more than disappointed or freaked out parents. Now, their parents are absent because they are growing up. Their parents have other stuff to deal with and honestly can't really help them with these issues. Their parents can't change all of these consequences they are subject to. Paul also reminisces over first kisses that didn't really mean anything to him as a child, but he's obviously in love with Jay now. The same kisses mean something a lot different as adults. Growing up is a bit part of the film. All the main characters are college aged and they need to navigate their newfound adulthood on their own.

Many complain that the Follower and its rules are inconsistent. At the beginning, a young woman is running away from it, but gives up and sits by the beach. She is found with her leg grotesquely bent backwards, almost severed from her body. Later on, it kills Greg in an entirely different, bloodless fashion. Tons of things are passed around by word of mouth with varying degrees of accuracy. For instance, even as adults, myths abound about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases abound. Misinformation is everywhere, so of course not all the information being passed to Jay by "Hugh" is not going to be completely accurate. He is reporting his own findings based on his experience. The consequences of sex are different for each person, so why would they be the same in the form of the Follower?

The ending of the film has Jay and her friends trying to kill the Follower by luring it into a pool and electrocuting it. It of course doesn't go to well as the Follower isn't stupid. It appears to be dead as the pool fills with blood after Paul shoots it. Jay and Paul have sex and are seen walking down the street hand in hand, implying a new relationship. Someone follows them from behind, but they don't even look back. If  you're obsessed with all these negative consequences, it's consumes your life. Jay wouldn't even leave the house and couldn't lead a normal life when she was obsessed with it. Now, she has someone by her side that makes the consequences matter less. The Follower and what it represents are still there and will always be there, but for now, it doesn't matter. It doesn't bode well that Paul was obviously in love with her for a while and Jay was resistant to a relationship, but the last impression we are left with is happiness.

It Follows is an interesting horror film that's completely open to interpretation. If you have a different take, I would love to hear it. The filmmakers purposefully didn't give an definitive answers because they want it left that way and I appreciate that. It Follows is largely successful because of Maika Monroe as Jay. Her emotion onscreen is amazing and she kept me on her side the whole film, even when doing morally questionable things to stave off death. I highly recommend It Follows, but it's not for everyone.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Monday, February 22, 2016

Women in Horror: Chimera

Sal is trapped at USAMRIID (United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases) where her father is convinced that Sal will help them cure her comatose sister and consent to having the tapeworm in her brain removed. He is still under the delusion that Sally can somehow still come. Sal keeps this hope alive because it's the only way she can keep existing for the moment. Meanwhile, Dr. Cale is trying to find a solution for all the tapeworm eggs living in the tap water and Sherman, the man who put them there, is lamenting the effect of what he's done. The tapeworm eggs effect everyone: chimera, human, and sleepwalker alike. It's simply acting as a poison except for the lucky very few who become chimera. Will Sherman succeed in replacing the human race? What will happen to Sal and her family?

Chimera is the last book in the Parasitology series and picks up right where the last one left off. Sal has gone through quite the transformation over all of the books. Now, Sal is solid in her understanding of and confidence in herself as a chimera. The beginning of the book has Sal trapped in a refugee camp with the general populace, crowded with at least ten people in each room. She goes through a period of depression, where she just languishes and doesn't do much. Then she realizes that she's gotten out of worse and formulates a plan to get out. It's a crazy, not very well thought out plan, but it works. Sal plays on people's assumptions of her and puts on different personas when necessary to make them underestimate her, using half truths and rationalizations to give her performance more veracity. No one can shake Sal's understanding of herself and it's her biggest strength. Everything she does is for the benefit of her family. She deeply cares for humans, chimera, and sleepwalkers alike, but when the priorities get right down to it, she isn't afraid to hurt or stop whoever is hurting those closest to her. Sal's compassion impressed me. It's hard to feel that for people who aren't sentient or aware, but she recognizes their relation to her and ultimately wishes they could be left alone. I like her ability to feel yet she doesn't let it compromise the safety of those around her.

All the characters add to the world and bring along their own flaws and rationales. Fishy, for instance, is convinced he's living in a video game world, complete with cut scenes, restarts, player characters, and everything else. His delusion isn't as strong as it used be and the reality where his wife and child are dead shows through sometimes. Sherman is a classic abuser that blames all of his shortcomings and mistakes on his victims. Sal forced him to take samples from her and dump all the eggs into the water supply. It's not his fault that it didn't have the desired effect. He also has a completely different view of Sal, similar to how she was in the first book but weaker and more malleable. The few passages from his perspective were chilling. It fascinated me how his mental gymnastics justified his awful behavior. Although he hates the humans for mistreating chimera, he does the same thing to humans. In contrast, Sal's group for the most part has their own code of ethics that preserves both chimera and human life whenever possible.

Juniper is a brand new character and chimera because she is the product of multiple worms invading and one coming out on top inside a small girl. The phenomenon is even rarer than the production of regular chimera. Sal immediately protects her and treats her like her child because that worm was created from Sal. Juniper doesn't have a huge role in the books and has to learn everything about being human, but Sal finally understands a mother's perspective. Her experience lets her understand Dr. Cale and Sally's mother better after experiencing the emotions and instincts involved. Dr. Cale is one of my favorite characters because she may be a woman and a mother, but emotions are very low on her list of motivators. She loves all of her children and she takes care of them, but logic and rationality are higher priorities to her. Her experience also pointed out sexism in her field like how she went into hiding because her male colleague lied and opposed her. Few would side with Dr. Cale if any, so she decided to take herself out of the equation instead. This installment gave me a much better understanding than before when she just seemed cold and callous.

The plot twists and turns and I had no idea where it would end up. Some of it seemed a little convenient, but other things are our of Sal's control and don't go quite how she would like. It's a satisfying end to a unique series and doesn't seem too outlandish. I would love to see other stories set within the world. Mira Grant is the pen name of Seanan McGuire and I will read everything she writes. Her writing always sucks me into whatever world she made and keeps me there until I finish and crave the next book.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Women in Horror: The Witch: A New England Fairy Tale

* spoilers *

Patriarch William is banished from the recently settled plantation in 1630 for refusing to repent for his crimes and his difference in belief with the leaders. He takes his wife Katherine, his oldest daughter Thomasin, his son Caleb, his twins Mercy and Jonas, and infant Samuel across the wild countryside to settle somewhere on their own. The work is hard and the corn isn't growing well, but they get by on their own. One day, Thomasin is watching baby Samuel and he disappears almost as if by magic. Everything seems to come apart after that: the corn is dying, hunting isn't a viable option, and no help is in sight. The family starts to turn on each other as each instance of misfortune increases in intensity and magnitude.

The Witch is a deeply unsettling film to watch. It's not a gore fest or a simplistic, straightforward film. It moves slowly and gets under your skin by degrees. Right from the beginning, things feel off kilter, but it's hard to pinpoint why. Maybe it's the family's religious fervor or the father's absolute confidence in his very foolish decision to settle on their own, but something just isn't right. The dread and tension mount as the film goes on, aided by the dissonant music. The entire dialog is spoken in the authentic dialect and accent of the colonial people, so it takes a little while to get used to it. The different cadence to their voices and their antiquated word choices also add to the strange quality of the film. It also shows the level of detail the writer and director put into the script as well as the clothing, setting, and plot as it reflects folk tales of the time. Little things like seeing how dark it really is using only candles and lanterns and night heightens the mood and shows how their lives might have been.

The first thing that creeped me out was their level of religious fervor. Their flavor of Christianity has humans as destined for hell and full of sin unless their god deems them worthy for heaven. Despite this, they are all guilty of not following their strict, oppressive rules because they are flawed, as are we all. William is full of pride and lies to save his pride. Katherine is vain and full of irrational anger at times. Caleb is lustful like any teenage boy is. The twins misbehave constantly, don't really mind anyone, and are rarely seen doing any work. Thomasin seems to be the least sinful of them all, but she still lies, lazes, scares her siblings, and keeps secrets. The fact that they each assume they are evil and will go to hell for these relatively small offenses is pretty sad because they are just pretty normal people trying to survive. Prayers are a constant with them and it does little good.

My interpretation of the horrifying events is that the supernatural scenes never really happen. It represents what they expect is happening due to their view of the world. If baby Samuel was lost, it must have been a witch who used him in an unholy ritual. If the land refuses to yield crops and the animals don't bear usable food, it must be because they are cursed. These people have settled in a place they don't know much about that has never been used for agriculture before. It's supposed to be their lifegiving Eden, but they have no idea what they are doing. It's not a surprise that they can't even feed themselves. When Caleb is attacked by the witch in the forest, she uses his lust to lure him and delivers him to the homestead nude and delirious. The only person aware of Caleb's lust is Caleb. He sees it as so unnatural and evil when it's really just a part of growing up that he ends up self-destructing and going mad. The final confrontation between William and Black Philip, their goat, represents William's failed attempts to conquer nature. He can't do anything successfully except chop wood. The crops died. Hunting proved fruitless. Nothing else edible grows around them and their own animals either abandoned them, died, or no longer provided any sort of consumable good. The goat conquers the man as does all of nature that he is so uneducated about and unfamiliar with. There's nothing supernatural about it, but their religion colors their world so much that they automatically assume something evil is at fault.

The "something evil" that the family blames for their troubles is a witch. When the twins play that there is a witch in the forest, it's taken as a serious statement instead of just the flight of childish fancy it so clearly is. We do see a witch in the woods, but she represents their monolithic fears of the unknown in the wilderness, the brutal effects of nature, and their own sins that they hide from each other. Later in the film, this is all heaped onto Thomasin, the oldest child on the verge of womanhood. She doesn't exhibit any signs of womanhood beyond her physicality and making the mature decision to help her family and assume responsibilities. She has essentially no agency. Her parents get to decide when and who they marry her off to as well as what she does day to day. When she does decide for herself, results vary from tormenting her little sister to doing extra help on the farm.

As far as I can tell, Thomasin is the most virtuous and well meaning person on that farm despite her flaws, but she is demonized as a witch the moment it's convenient. Her father wants to bring her to trial and her mother tries to strangle her to death while the twins egg them on with their accusations. Thomasin kills her mother out of necessity, obviously suffering in the process, and then agrees to give herself to the devil when everything has been stripped away from her. I interpret this as again not actually happening. She was so ill treated by her family that in their eyes she turned into the thing they so feared and joined the rest of the witches out in the forest. Her journey to womanhood leads her directly to evil as her family expects. She becomes a part of the folk tales because that's how that society would remember her despite her actions to the contrary. I do like that she gets some sort of freedom in the end even though she is assuming a role she was pushed into and (if assuming it is real) working under another patriarchal figure. Why not become the witch they think you are when death is really they only alternative?

The Witch is a formidable film that many will label as boring or not horror at all. There is room for the horror genre for slashers and art films alike. It isn't for everyone and it's unlike any other film I've ever seen. It's weird, unnerving, and disturbing in a quiet way (up until the end). I don't feel the need to watch it again any time soon and it left a lasting impression on me. I highly recommend it and I predict it will be the best horror film of the year.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Women in Horror: Her Dark Curiosity

Juliet Moreau is back in England, taken in by her father's old colleague. She's on top of British society again, which is a vast improvement over when she was last there. Lucy supports her absolutely and continues to be her friend in good times and bad. Unfortunately, the serum designed to keep her stable isn't as effective anymore. Juliet frantically experiments to find a better replacement, but failure after failure results. On top of this, the Wolf of Whitechapel is slaughtering people in the night and leaving a white flower. This would be chilling but not unexpected in such a big city if Juliet hadn't recognized every single one and been slighted by then in some way. Who is this murderer? Will Juliet be able to cure herself?

I loved the first novel in the series, The Madman's Daughter, because of it's Victorian gothic atmosphere and horror elements. This installment is no different, directly continuing the story in England after Juliet killed her father and destroyed his work. Juliet is unused to high society after spending years as a servant and the time on her father's tropical island populated by monsters. The Professor, her benefactor, dotes on her and restores her to her place in society when she was a child. Although she is physically comfortable in plush rooms and fancy dresses, she doesn't feel comfortable. She remembers having to clean and scrape for money to get by, like the servants or the pickpockets in the street that surround her.It isn't far from her mind that she could easily return to that life, but it would be even worse due to her past. The beginning of the first book had her arrested due to her defending herself against a wealthy man trying to rape her. Due to her standing at the time, it was framed as an unprovoked attack on a decent gentleman. Although at times she's a typical teenage girl, Juliet proves to be a steely and grounded protagonist with a scientific mind. She weighs the consequences and looks at the possibilities (when she's not being completely rash). Her interest in her father's dark science and doing the more evil (but effective) thing is also a part of her, which she (incorrectly) blames on her cobbled together anatomy.

As with the first novel, much of the plot revolves around a love triangle between Juliet, Montgomery and Edward Prince. I've accepted that because of the success of Twilight and The Hunger Games love triangle are the norm for young adult novels, but I don't really like it. Montgomery seems to be the safe choice, but all the negative and misogynistic elements of Victorian society are blended with him. He actually replaced Juliet as Dr. Moreau's protege because her father felt she wasn't suitable due to her gender. His penchant to hide things of her "for her own good" and his attempts to control her don't bode well for a future relationship. He also insists that her dark side side and her will to experiment with science will disappear when she is cured. Ultimately, he wants to fit her into a proper Victorian box that she simply doesn't fit in. I especially liked that Juliet didn't just lose her head when he proposed, She thought about the practical ramifications and what it meant for her. As a woman, she would be his literal property. He would have complete control over her and she is hesitant to give him or anyone else that level of control over her.

Edward, on the other hand, loves her for who she is and doesn't try to force her to do things. Unfortunately, he's also sharing a body with a monster who is also in love with her and kills without a thought. He still shares the most in common with Juliet who is also fighting her own demons and dark side and doesn't expect her to magically change. These two end up having sex in the course of the book which is pretty well handled in the moment. Juliet regrets it afterwards, which made me disappointed but I guess the love triangle would be dead if she hadn't. Heaven forbid a girl actually enjoy sex. Edward's other half is quite abusive towards her and it's uncomfortable but compelling to read. The supernatural element doesn't make the abuse any less horrible. Juliet fights back and although he's physically stronger, she isn't a damsel in distress. This dark figure emerges more and more during the end of the story when Edward can no longer hold him back. It is disappointing that she gets to choose between someone who loves the idea of her and an abuser, but maybe she'll defy expectations and choose no one because she doesn't have to in the final installment.

Her Dark Curiosity isn't as focused as the first book, but that same Victorian world with dark science mixed in is present. The world is a mash-up of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Frankenstein and it works surprisingly well together. It's kind of like Penny Dreadful for teens. The beginning takes a while to get anywhere, but it gains speed as it goes along. The ending is pretty cliffhanger-y and is presumably picked right up in the next and last installment, A Cold Legacy, which I will be reading soon.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Friday, February 19, 2016

Women in Horror: Nina Forever

* spoilers *

Rob suffers a car accident, loses the love of his life Nina, and then tries to kill himself. He now works in a supermarket and meets Holly who is completely enamored with him. They get to know each other and go on a date, which goes well. They fall into bed together only to have undead Nina join them in their bed. The living couple is understandably shocked and disgusted since she covers everything in a layer of blood from her wounds. Nina returns every time they are intimate. What should they do? How can they make her stay dead?

Nina Forever is a sexier, funnier, more poignant version of Burying the Ex and Life After Beth. Of course there are some differences, but the main story is the same: the previous or dead girlfriend of the main character serves as a wedge in the new romance that the couple must overcome in some way order to be happy. The other films were pretty predictable and a little goofy in their humor, which made the feelings involved less defined and effective. Nina Forever has a more emotional story and more realistic and flawed characters. The exposition is streamlined into about 10 minutes so the bulk of the film builds up Rob and Holly's relationship and throws them in conflict with Nina. All of the information is still conveyed, but it's done in such a condensed way that feels like it's longer. The accident is a sparse, silent scene with a body on the ground in the aftermath with the wrecked car in the background. Rob's situation is illustrated in a gossipy conversation between Holly and her awful, judgmental coworkers.

Rob looks like he needs a hug. His melancholy air is understandable since he lost the love of his life quite recently, but it seems to repel other people. He's still trying to physically and mentally recover from the accident and its aftereffects. There's not much of his character because he is kind of stuck in time, not being able to get past Nina's death. Holly is quite the opposite. She's 19 years old and just getting started with her adult life, away from home for the first time at college to eventually be a paramedic. She finds Rob's state attractive. To her, it means that he loved intensely to attempt suicide. She fantasizes about what that intensity would be like in bed. Although kind of insensitive and fetishistic, it leads them into a sweet romance and eventually into a relationship. Before their relationship, Holly was dumped by a man who said she was too nice, sweet, and vanilla. Then her co-workers judge her as being weird and morbid. At this point, she's still trying to define herself and find herself underneath all these judgments from others.

Enter Nina, a beautiful woman in Rob and Holly's bed whenever they have sex. Frozen in time, she appears as she did when Rob last saw her: nude and with all the lacerations and broken bones from the accident. Her makeup is always smeared and tearstained; she always appears the same. Because of her broken bones, she can't really hold herself up, giving her a boneless, lifeless quality to set her apart (in addition to the still bleeding wounds) from the living nude people in their bed. She isn't happy to be there or see her beloved boyfriend try to move one. While she insists she wants nothing, it's clear that she's jealous of Holly and her vitality, taking every opportunity to sarcastically insult her, cut her down, and undermine her relationship with Rob. Nina is bitter, cold, and cutting, thinking of anything horrible to say to interrupt their relationship. It's unclear, but I assume she's very unlike Nina in life because she's the bitter representation of everything Rob missed out on due to her death. I can't hate Nina because I feel so sorry for her. She has to see them happy and full of life while she has no life, no motivation, no reason for even being there. Her commentary is also quite funny and sometimes shocking in its edge.

To Rob, Nina is his inability to let go of the past. Many of the things she sardonically says is true: she and Rob never broke up; he still loves her; he can't break up with her now; and he will never be able to say goodbye. All of these things will stay with Rob forever. They may fade, but it was a traumatic, scarring experience to witness his girlfriend dying and living forever without her. To Holly, Nina is her jealousy and everyone's opinions about her. Although Nina is largely why Holly was first attracted to Rob, she resents Nina's presence. At first, she tried to include Nina in their lovemaking and even got Nina Forever tattooed on her to show that she will forever be remembered. Nina isn't there for herself, so none of that mattered. She's dead. She doesn't care about being remembered and she can't feel anything except the shard of glass in the back of her throat. Nina's attempt at coping with this is reflected in the scene where she helps Rob carry the sheets bloodied by Nina to the dumpster. She helps him bear the load of his grief. After a while, the constant sarcastic insults and blood everywhere starts to get to Holly. She tries to remove every bit of Nina from their now shared apartment and their lives. Despite her best efforts, all anyone who knew Nina can ever see is Nina's absence when they see Holly and Rob together. This is shown quite awkwardly in the scene where Rob takes Holly to meet Nina's parents. On what planet is that a good idea? It was incredibly unpleasant, awkward, and horrible for everyone. Holly can truly never escape Nina when she's with Rob. She will always be reminded of how she's trying to fit herself into the space Nina left and she doesn't quite fit in.

After a while, Holly starts to see Nina when she's by herself because Nina is no longer there for Rob. Rob has used this experience to realize the truths Nina represents and be able to move on. He even sees how constantly visiting her parents may not be the best or healthiest thing for all involved. Holly becomes so consumed by her feelings of inadequacy and her drive to eradicate Nina that she causes Nina to be even more present around her. In one of the final scenes, Nina dates someone else and has sex with them in her old dorm while Nina appears beneath her and watches silently. It's a weird scene, but it shows how Holly is overcompensating to prove to everyone that she's just as good as Nina or is over Rob or whatever else she wants to prove. The fact is that she can no longer enjoy whatever she does because all everyone sees is the absence of Nina, physically represented by dead Nina. The final scene has Rob coming over to try to make up with Holly, but he sees her bloodstained sheets (signs that Nina has been there) and realizes that it just won't work. The ending is the complete opposite of the other predictable films. It's stark in its realism and its sadness.

Nina Forever is a dark film because of the way the accident is handled. Rob and Nina were supposed to be together forever and now they can't. It's tragic and moving on isn't easy. The humor in the film doesn't lighten the mood enough to dispel the tragedy. It's always there whether Nina is onscreen or not, felt by each character. Although much of the film has the characters mostly nude, it doesn't feel exploitative or sleazy in any way. It shows the vulnerability and the reality of a new relationship. Although on the surface Nina Forever can be seen as two women fighting over a man, it isn't at its core. It's really so much more than that and that's why Nina Forever is infinitely better than Life After Beth and Burying the Ex. Both take the tragedy out of the deaths and devolve into having one man pick between two women or have the two women vying for one man's attention. Fiona O'Shaughnessy flawlessly and believably plays the sarcastic yet ethereal Nina. Abigail Hardingham portrays the young and eager to prove herself Holly. Both characters are incredibly fleshed out and realistic which makes their conflict so much more complicated. Nina Forever shines as the best of its genre. It's only flaw is a bit of pacing issues, but it's a formidable debut film. I look forward to seeing more from all involved.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Women in Horror Mini-Reviews: Over Your Dead Body and Honeymoon

spoilers to follow...

* Over Your Dead Body

A famous actress Miyuki Goto is the lead in a new play based on the ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan. She pulls some strings to get her lover Kosuke Hasegawa, a relatively unknown actor, as the main male lead. When the film starts, it's clear that Kosuke is losing interest and sleeping with other women. He's presumably keeping up the charade to keep his role in the play, which is a sad story about a lazy, lying samurai who kills a woman's father to marry her, gets her pregnant, and then continues to be lazy and unsatisfied with married life with little money. A rich young girl wants to marry him and he poisons his wife and squalling, who then haunt him. In real life, their lives reflect the play (without the murder and the child) with some added weirdness.

I went into the film with no expectations and it's an interesting quasi-ghost story with typical Miike twistedness and flair. The visuals in the film, especially the parts at the play, are absolutely gorgeous with a Miike edge. I liked exploring both sides of the story in the play and outside of it. The story in the play is quite tragic and at times brutal to watch. I would have loved to see the play because it had excellent production value and incredibly detailed backgrounds on a giant rotating stage.The samurai character is abusive to his wife and those scenes are hard to watch, especially while the wife agrees that everything is her fault and she should be better.

Outside of the play, Miyuki knows something is amiss with her relationship and she spends most of her time at home alone, waiting for Kosuke to come home. I wanted to like Miyuki, but she completely revolved around Kosuke. After a while, she was convinced she was pregnant with his child (I guess to trap him into staying?) and she wanted to induce labor in one of the most stomach turning ways possible, especially since it was concretely confirmed that she wasn't pregnant in the first place. Almost all of the female characters revolve around this one horrible man. It made those women into flat, stock characters with no other motivations or goals. Overall, Over Your Dead Body is another creepy addition to Miike's ouvre, but most of the characters are quite flat. There were also some loose ends and missed opportunities that could have made the film even creepier.

My rating: 2.5/5 fishmuffins

* Honeymoon

Bea and Paul just had their dream wedding and are having their honeymoon in a rustic cabin out in the forest. All is happy, smiles, and sex in the beginning as they can't keep their hands off each other and they settle into married life. Weirdness starts to happen when they run into an old friend of Bea's who runs a diner and threatens them before he knows who he is. Bea starts acting strangely, especially at night. She sleepwalks, develops some sort of sores on her inner thigh that she's secretive about, and forgets significant events in their lives. Why is she changing so rapidly?

Honeymoon taps into a visceral fear that so many men and women have: marrying someone they don't know or losing their identity after marriage. At first, everything is fine. The couple has sex constantly as newlyweds do and romance is in the air. Then things go south quickly. Bea starts literally losing herself. She has to write down basic things about herself like her name, where she lives, and who her husband is. With women changing their names and giving up a literal part of their identity, it's a concern when marriage is involved that other things may follow. Bea mentions having children as if she thinks it's required rather than really wanting them. Judging by Paul's reaction, they hadn't really talked about it before, which is troubling to find out after the marriage.

Paul isn't exempt from weird changes. The minute they run into Bea's old friend, he gets possessive, distrustful, and paranoid, a complete turnaround from how he was at the beginning. Everything is suspect. He snoops through Bea's things and seems to think he's entitled to know everything about her. Unfortunately, the film is a bit one sided. Paul isn't viewed as extremely as Bea is (who literally loses her memory and starts mutating into something else). The most creepy scene is very similar to the "inducement" in Over Your Dead Body, but with an added creature involved. It has do with Paul's fear of becoming a father and transforming her vagina from a pleasurable to a frightening experience. I get the meaning behind it, but I can't help but resent this part of the plot. Women are constantly being told how their bodies are deficient in some way without the added creature feature or men's anxiety about it. I just don't have sympathy for Paul and his fear of his wife's nonsexual vaginal functions. Sorry, but childbirth is a natural function of vaginas. Plus I have no sympathy for him if he didn't even bother asking that important question before marrying her. The plot is really light, but it's very unsettling. I wish more could have been shown from Bea's perspective of the marriage. It felt like she was being demonized while Paul's erratic, controlling behavior was supposed to be understandable.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Women in Horror: Jessabelle

* spoilers *

Jessabelle (Jessie) Laurent is happy and about to move in with her fiance until an accident kills him and causes her to miscarry and become wheelchair bound. She can no longer take care of herself due to her temporary disability, so she is forced to head back home to Louisiana to endure the care of her estranged father. After settling in, she finds a series of video tapes left by her mother while pregnant with her, reading her cards and talking about her life. Her mother mentions a dark spirit which is indeed faced with time and time again. Can Jessabelle find out who this spirit is and save herself?

I was drawn to Jessabelle because it seemed like an entertaining supernatural horror movie about a woman getting over the death of her mother and coming to terms with her past. Part of it is like I expected. Obviously not thrilled to be in her gruff father's house again, Jessies makes the best of it by trying to get to know her mother through the videotapes she left. The ghostly attacks start early in addition to her controlling father's violent actions as he pushes her (empty) wheelchair into the lake and destroys her only connection to her mother. Jessie resolves to complete the angry spirit's unfinished business as is typical and employs the help of her attractive yet unavailable childhood friend, Preston. Up until then it's a very straight forward PG-13 supernatural horror story. The only thing that shines here is Sarah Snook as a recovering, shellshocked Jessie. She infuses the role with sympathy and pathos, making her easy to root for and relate to. I really felt that she lost absolutely everything and was working to resolve her past and prepare for a better future. She had previously simply ignored her past, her abusive father, and her grief over her mother's death, which proved to be toxic and caught up with her in the present in the form of this ghost.

One major thing and one minor thing make this film simply awful. The major thing is how racist the finale makes the entire film. There are small things leading up to the finale that broadcast the full scope of the racism. Interesting African American characters are introduced early in the film involved in tradition Haitian practices. I thought she would enlist their help or directly interact with them in some way, but they are barely named or even speak. A mob of angry black people attacks the poor white Preston when they try to investigate. Then the finale: Jessabelle's mother was talking about a completely different biracial child in the videos that her father murdered. The mother went on to cast a spell to allow the evil dead child to take over Jessie (an adopted replacement child to cover up the murder) years later. Everyone involved in any way with African American people are evil, including the spirit of the baby who was murdered not long after its birth. Even the baby's real name Jessabelle brings the biblical Jezebel to mind, famous for lying and vanity. How does this even make sense to apply to someone who died in infancy? Plus the actual African American people barely speak, being relegated to silent, menacing roles or Haitian voodoo practitioners or evil spirits. It was extremely disappointing. The minor annoyance was the completely flat portrayal of Preston's wife, who was a typical shrew: jealous, rude, and much more covered up than Jessie is the entire film. Because she isn't at her best the few minutes she actually has screen time makes it ok for the romance between Jessie and Preston to develop.

Jessabelle is an incredibly racist film that I had hoped would have never been greenlit to be made in 2014. We have gone beyond this socially and cinematically. The extremely simple theme that white is good and black is evil is extremely outdated and has obviously racist implications when applied to the color of the characters' skin. I was shocked and surprised that very few reviews actually labelled it as clearly racist. I really thought horror journalism and the horror genre in general was better than that. The only good aspect in the whole film was Sarah Snook. Amber Stevens West is usually delightful in her roles, but I could barely tell it was her and she never even had the opportunity to speak. Only watch this if you want to be blindingly angry and insulted.

My rating: 1/5 fishmuffins

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Women in Horror: Upcoming Films

* Antibirth

Natasha Lyonne stars as Lou, a woman who wakes up after a night of partying with symptoms of pregnancy although she's sure she didn't have sex. It's apparently an odd body horror film. I think pregnancy is pretty frightening and alien on its own, but the finale is said to be quite disgusting. Reviews from the Sundance film festival have been positive as whole, so I'm pretty excited. I also always enjoy Natasha Lyonne and Chloe Sevigny.

* Nina Forever

Rob recently lost his girlfriend in a car accident and tried to kill himself. After recovering somewhat, he meets Holly, a co-worker at the supermarket where he works. When they become intimate, he discovers that his dead girlfriend will appear in their bed in the state he last saw her in: nude with broken bones, still bleeding from her fatal wounds. Then she proceeds to insult them sarcastically. The premise sounds really odd and weird, but a more extreme version of films like Life After Beth and Burying the Ex. Dark and awkward humor plus tons of blood is what I expect. It comes out on DVD and Bluray on 2/22, but is currently in theaters if you're lucky enough to have it play by you.

* The Witch

The Witch: A New England Fairy Tale, tells the story of a family of colonial settlers moving to a land untouched by humans. Misfortune befalls them as their crops fail and their infant goes missing while under the care of their oldest daughter. Crazy horror stuff seems to happen after that. I can't wait for The Witch. The atmosphere is creepy, dark, and tense. Every article that I've seen to come out about it raves at how scary and good it is. io9 just posted an article about the director thoroughly researching colonial life and fairy tales to give the most accurate portrayal of their lives and write a fairy tale that is more than a morality play. Read more about it here. The Witch hits theaters 2/19.

Did I miss the horror film you are looking forward to? Please comment with yours!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Women in Horror Mini-Reviews: The Forest and The Boy (2016)

1) The Forest

Sara Price knows something is wrong with her twin sister Jess, so it's no surprise when she receives a phone call that Jess might have committed suicide in the infamous Aokigahara Forest, also known as the suicide forest. Sara drops everything to save her sister as always, convinced that she's still alive. She meets a reporter named Aiden at a bar and interviews her, as he's already writing a story about the forest. They journey together with a guide into the forest to look for Sara, but Sara insists on staying overnight after they stumble upon Jess's camp. Aiden offers to stay with her, but his presence may not be as benevolent as he seems. Is the suicide forest haunted and playing tricks on her or is Aiden responsible for Jess's death?

The Forest (an American film) tries to take on the Aokigahara Forest, a Japanese place famous for suicides, using only white American characters who are attacked by angry, vengeful spirits from the suicides. This film obviously has problems with the premise, the biggest being that suicide is a cultural problem in Japan that's just being used in the film for shock value. Characterizing the spirits of the people who killed themselves there as angry and vengeful is also insensitive to say the least. The Japanese characters don't get much screen time, being relegated to the sensible guide, creepy harbingers, and background nonspeaking roles. The only positive out of all this is that people who had never heard of the forest before looked it up and found out about it.

Now to the actual story. Sara is kind of a boring character. I don't fault Natalie Dormer because she acted well (and usually does). The writing is what was weak. Jess is barely seen onscreen at all. Their situation where Jess gets into trouble and Sara comes to save her comes from Jess's guilt. Their parents died in a murder suicide initiated by their father. Jess witnessed it, but Sara refused to, so now Jess feels like she should have shared that trauma with her twin. I like the way the backstory was presented, showing the actual events while she lied to Aiden. Things get muddied with Aiden. There's a whole subplot where Sara tries to figure out if he's an evil murderer or not. It distracts from the core story and isn't very interesting. Why isn't the two sisters in the forest enough? I liked the scenes where reality and hallucination mix, but the supernatural elements were underwhelming. Overall, it was a disappointing and pointlessly insensitive film.

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins

2) The Boy

* spoilers *

Greta needs a fresh start, so she accepts a longterm nanny job in England far from her problems. The elderly parents seem nice enough, but it's a shock when their son Brahms is revealed to a child-size, eerily detailed porcelain doll who they talk to and treat as if he were living. Greta sees it as an opportunity to get paid to sit around their big house doing nothing all day, but strange things start to happen. Her things are gone or moved while she isn't there. Noises can be heard in the walls. Is Brahms' spirit in the house?

Looking at the film, I thought it was going to be horrible. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was a decent PG-13 horror film. I felt for Greta. She shared her story about her abusive ex-boyfriend who caused her to miscarry after a particularly brutal attack. Her grief is still fresh as she tries to move on. When she realizes Brahms might be real, she sees it as a second chance to be a mother and take care of someone who really needs it, so she starts following the rules set and treating him like a person. Everything is going well until her past in the form of her abusive ex catches up to her, after harassing her friends at home for information. After a tense evening with dinner, they get into a fight and Brahms is destroyed, reflecting the death of her unborn baby by his hand. Lauren Cohen is excellent in the role of Greta and you could just see the anguish on her face as Brahms shattered to pieces.

The big twist is that Brahms is alive, grew up, and is now living in the walls. The parents protected him as a child and faked his death after he killed a neighbor girl. I enjoyed the twist (even though I saw it coming about halfway through the film thanks to a similar twist in another film) and it made the entire movie much more creepy. I also enjoy films that appear to be supernatural at first, but prove to be based in reality. Brahms kills her ex-boyfriend, replacing him as abuser. All this time, he was living in the walls, spying on her and even making a Greta doll dressed in her clothes. His parents gave her to him as if she were a present. I'm not sure what the point of that was since they killed themselves not long after. Greta finds a clever way to best him by using his own rules against him, saving the grocery boy and leaving. Brahms is instead a proxy for her abusive ex who she finally overcomes. The future is bright for her and she can live on without the constant threat of violence. The only flaw was the ending. It's clearly left open for a sequel in a cheap, predictable way. Other than that, The Boy is an enjoyable and suspenseful film.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Women in Horror: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

* spoilers *

Regency Era England has been overrun by zombies, drastically changing its inhabitants every day lives. Ladies are no longer able to focus on manners, music, dancing, and parties, but now have to train in martial arts in order to survive. Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters are more focused on survival than good marriage prospects, but their frivolous mother insists that they go to parties and act properly to be married off later. Elizabeth meets Fitzwilliam Darcy, a most detestable, unpleasant man but also one of the most skilled zombie hunters. They differ in almost every opinion from how to treat the not wholly infected sentient zombies to her sister Jane's affections for Darcy's close friend Bingley. Can they put aside their differences enough to work together to defeat a bigger, more organized zombie opposition than ever before?

If I'm being honest, the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies movie came out at least 2 years too late. The craze was pretty big for a time when the book, its prequel, and its sequel were released along with a whole slew of copycat mashups. Now, I think it isn't doing as well as hoped because the craze has passed. It's disappointing because I quite enjoyed the film. The book has a special place on my bookshelf and in my heart because it was the very first review I ever wrote here. However, the film is superior to the book in almost all ways because it tempers some of the more ridiculous elements of the book, expands the world, stays fairly faithful to the original Jane Austen, and creates a main villain to focus the story. It essentially fixes the things that felt a little off in the novel. The book had some crazy stuff happening that just stretched the imagination a tad. These women ripping out hearts and fighting with aristocracy when Regency England is still pretty intact just went a little too far for me. The PG-13 rating doesn't hurt it a bit. I barely noticed as I was enjoying the film except in the nonexistent blood splatter from killing zombies, unlike others that feel censored for a lower rating to reach a wider audience.

The world is expanded in this version of the story. The background of how everything came to be is told in a delightfully macabre popup book style in the beginning of the film. The creation of the giant wall around London, the explanation of the In-between, and everything else pertinent to why the world is like this is answered in the first few minutes of the film. The zombies are also different. Someone bitten by a zombie can look completely normal and pass a human with all the same faculties until they eat human brains. Then they are the stereotypical mindless zombie. This new development is intriguing and opens up a lot of different possibilities. Absolutely anyone could be infected. Throughout the film, small details are what make the film so enjoyable. At the very beginning, Darcy is put into a chamber nude to check for bites. This should be pretty standard everywhere because zombies could be anyone. Even the costuming reflects the world. Japanese and Chinese fighting styles are learned for survival, so normal Regency era dresses are paired with coats and jackets with a touch of Asian style assimilated into it. Women wear pants due to necessity and it isn't a scandal as it would have been. I enjoyed the changes to the novel and how the film makes the changes and the rules of the world clear to the audience.

The romantic tale of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet is intact and taken seriously. It would have been a completely different film if it was very tongue-in-cheek and cheesy, but I think it was successful in seeing how this story would really be with zombies. Darcy is as infuriating and rude as ever, portrayed gruffly by Sam Riley and Elizabeth is as fiery as ever, played by Lily James. Darcy is kind of a mystery for most of the film until his letter, but Elizabeth wears her heart on her sleeve. She loves her sisters unconditionally and will fight (literally in this case) to defend them. Her family isn't the richest or the most influential, so the aristocrats, including Darcy, his friends and family, and Lady Catherine look down upon them for their social standing and ignore their deeds, which include skillfully killing countless zombies. I particularly enjoyed the fight between Darcy and Elizabeth and of course the ending. The verbal fight had in the book is changed to sparring between the two. They obviously don't mean to kill each other, but prefer to cut with their words. The very ending is as always heartwarming and brought me to tears, even surrounded by the undead.

The film has a particular focus because of a zombie prophecy and one decided villain. The prophecy claims that an antichrist will rise to lead the zombies into the end of humanity. This turns out to be the villainous George Wickham. In the original story, he tries to extort money from Darcy, spreads word of Darcy's fictional wrongdoings, and eventually marries Lydia Bennet after being bribed by Darcy. He does most of these things in the film, but in addition, he is the antichrist figure to give the zombies direction. Zombies with strategy as numerous as they are can be devastating with the right person in charge. I think it's a great use of the awful Wickham to expand his character and make him a traitor and a zombie in addition to a lowlife womanizing cad. All of the characters were memorable and fun except for the younger Bennet girls. Matt Smith as Reverend Collins was a scene-stealing delight every time he was onscreen. He was so oblivious to anything outside of his own view. Jane and Bingley's romance was remarkably sweet. The Bennet girls (outside of Jane and Elizabeth) were pretty interchangeable and I would have gotten them mixed up had they not had one distinguishing characteristic each.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a fun addition to the regular Austin fare. The few problems I had were pretty minor. Lena Headey is usually exception, but she felt like a much too young caricature of Lady Catherine (plus I wanted the reveal that her daughter was a zombie). I hated the dressing scene where the Bennet sisters sheathe weapons around their undergarments. It's obnoxiously in every ad and an obvious ploy to get the assumed horror crowd (young men) to watch the film. Also, near the end of the film where Darcy lies to Elizabeth and lets her think her sister died is annoying. She's just as formidable a fighter and she doesn't need him to fight her battles for her. Regency England still has along way to go as seen with Collins trying to bribe the Bennet's for Jane's hand, but the scene seemed out of character for Darcy and simply unnecessary. I know it's not in the film, but the Hot Topic lingerie line that was released inspired by the film is also ridiculous. How can you watch the film and think about designing lingerie? I would love to have Elizabeth's coat or any of the dresses in the film, but they decided to make barely functional underwear instead. The ending is clearly left open for a sequel that I would love to see, but doesn't seem likely based on its earnings.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Women in Horror: When Animals Dream

* spoilers *

Marie is 16 years old and lives on an island with her father and invalid mother. She gets a new job at a fishery where they good-naturedly haze her and she feels she belongs. Then she starts to get some weird symptoms: a strange rash and patches of thick hair. Then, when the changes become noticeable, people start to treat her differently, losing their playful behavior and becoming more threatening. It becomes clear that her father kept things from her since her condition is similar to that of her mother. Marie now has two choices: does she submit to becoming a comatose invalid like her mother or just live her own life, but be hunted by the society she grew up in.

When Animals Dream is a Danish werewolf film with feminist themes in the same vein as Ginger Snaps. While Ginger Snaps is fraught with teen angst, this film is more quiet and subdued. The film opens with Marie, pale, thin, and seemingly frail getting a weird rash checked out. The doctor asks her the same questions over and over during his examination as if he doesn't trust her answers.  experienced the same treatment at the vet when trying to get treatment for my sick cat. These male professionals act like women either aren't sure, are lying to them, or have simply untrustworthy judgment. In Marie's case, she isn't being trusted about her own body, which she obviously knows better than anyone else. Things seem normal, so she's dismissed. She starts working at a fish mongers and is good-naturedly hazed by being shoved into a vat of fish detritus. The staff becomes more friendly and she feels like she belongs. At home, most of her time is spent caring for her mother who seems aware, but can't speak or move due to a mysterious illness. Marie is endlessly patient, quiet, and happy to do what she's asked without question.

Marie knows something is being kept from her, so she tries to get information in any way she can: spying on her parents and stealing evidence about attacks from the doctor. She dreams of being bloody and wild, the exact opposite of her fairly colorless, dull life. Then Marie starts a flirtation with Daniel at work (witnessed by Bjarne) and throws a glass at Esben, a jerk who tried to joke with her then insulted her mother when she didn't deign to respond. Both of these men catch up with her at her locker, proceed to force her to her knees while she's in her undershirt, and then slap her in the face with a fish from under his apron (where he isn't wearing pants) as if it's a penis. Throughout, they tell her to look at them and kiss the fish. When Marie doesn't conform to what they think women should be (quiet, apparently asexual, and subservient), Bjarne and Esben sexually attack her. It's quite a disturbing scene and they could have raped her there if they had wanted to. I felt for her in this helpless and traumatic situation where these men typically retaliated against a woman acting like a person instead of an automaton.

Then Marie finds thick hair growing on the rash on her chest. This is a super obvious, not very subtle image for puberty. Women growing out body hair is now quite taboo. The media has shown women plucked and shaved within an inch of their lives for so long that anything else is alien. The amount of disgust I've seen over a woman's armpit, leg, or belly hair is ridiculous because men showcase the same hair but usually more plentiful and it's just a natural part of our bodies. Daniel feels the hair on Marie's back when they start to get intimate and he reacts with curiosity and a little bit of confusion. Marie takes it as rejection and tells him to leave, but he tells her she's beautiful and accepts her for how she is. Throughout the film, Daniel is the only person to truly accept all of her, flaws and differences and all. He is also the only one to treat her mother as a person instead of a piece of furniture or someone to ridicule. Their romance is sweet and the most comfortable part of the film.

When Marie returns home after seeing Daniel, her father and her doctor try to force the treatment for the illness on her when she already refused. Marie's mother, in her only physical act of the film, leaps upon the doctor and kills him. The disease is just the state of being a woman. Accepting the treatment means becoming a shade of oneself to appease the society. Women are expected to be silent and compliant with no will of their own. Marie's mother accepted that fate, allowing everyone else to dictate what she did, and kept all of her thoughts and feelings on the inside. She showed in that one act of defiance that she wants different for her child. Afterwards, the awful townspeople demand that she be stripped to check for signs of transformation and violence. They don't see her as a person, but a potentially dangerous object with no right to privacy, personhood, feelings, opinions, or even life as she is murdered later on in the film.

Marie accepts that she will be rejected and becomes the woman she wants to be with thoughts, opinions, and the right to disagree and be unpleasant. I appreciate that there are men and women on both sides of this issue. It shows that both men and women can either work for or against women. Internalized misogyny can be ingrained by being raised with these ideas, so seeing a woman working so hard against Marie is both accurate and kind of depressing. She decides to shove her state in everyone's faces at the funeral, the wake, and then the next day at work in rebellion. Her coworkers react again, more violently than ever before, chasing her down on motorcycles. They eventually capture and imprison her. This shows how both sides do more extreme things to counter each other, but Marie is still just living her normal life (just not in the way the others want) while the other side is endangering her life. Everyone has turned against her except for her father and Daniel. Her transformation progresses quickly, allowing her to dispatch her enemies easily. It only gets to this point because her life is literally in danger. Beyond defending herself, she has never been aggressive or violent before. The final scene features Daniel hugging her and holding her hand, reassuring her that he is there. It's beautiful and shows that he sees the person beneath what everyone else deemed monstrous.

When Animals Dream is an absolutely beautiful Danish film. Much of the film is very quiet, much like Marie, but meaningful. There's not a lot of unnecessary chatter or filler scenes. Sonia Suhl acts amazingly as Marie. Her transformation both emotionally and physically throughout the film is well done and nuanced. Marie was always quiet, but quiet doesn't mean subservient or weak. Her messages were relayed loud and clear even if her actions were subtle. Sonja Richter does an excellent job as Marie's mother (who doesn't even have a name). Most of the film has her not moving or speaking, but her gazes speak volumes. It's clear that she knows what's going on, but can't communicate with her daughter. I highly recommend this meaningful and gorgeous film.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins