Ah love. Stupid, stupid love.
All the great stories are love stories. The passion and the pain all lie at the heart of immortal drama. Indeed, love is the engine that moves the heart of the world.
I've been thinking about love a lot lately. Maybe it's because of Valentine's Day, maybe it's because the snow brings me into an intimate frame of mind, maybe it's because I'm writing this while staying in my ex-girlfriend's apartment, but I'm in the mood to pontificate on the subject of love in horror films.
Back up. Horror and romance? Could those two emotions more opposed? Well, yeah, consider that the "heart" of all horror (if you'll pardon the expression) is the characters. Many horror movies tell surprisingly engaging love stories, even if they often don't end well. I've come up with a list of my favorite romances in horror. As always, feel free to add to this list.
The Monster and The Bride from Bride of Frankenstein
The classic fucked-up horror romance. Frankenstein's poor monster wants nothing more than a companion to share his horrible existence with. After a campaign of torment and brutality, Dr. Frankenstein capitulates and builds a bride for his monster. The Bride takes one look at her intended betrothed and screams in terror. For the damned creations of Frankenstein's madness, there is no relief from loneliness.
Tiffany and Chucky from Bride of Chucky
I always liked the Child's Play movies. For a series about a kickable doll, the movies were genuinely scary, mostly due to Chucky's amoral viciousness. Chucky always felt like a supernatural variation of one of those cross country spree-killers. With Bride of Chucky, Mickey finally got his Mallory.
Chucky and Tiffany are much like what I imagine Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate would be like. They're deeply passionate for each other, but that passion often turns violent. Tiffany in particular seems to be let down by the fact that Chucky isn't the man she made him out to be in memory. Their relationship make for some rich dark comedy and heaven help those who get between them.
Julia and Frank from Hellraiser
The horror genre is rife with cheatin' women.
Remember all those Tales from the Crypt stories where some woman conspires with her lover to kill her husband, only to have supernatural vengeance befall them. Hellraiser takes that trope to the farthest borders of sensation as it tells the story of Frank and Julia.
Julia and Frank fuck. Fucking is central to the Hellraiser mythology, as demonic S&M monsters offer unparalleled sensual delights to the hedonists who seek them. Frank had already crossed over into the Cenobite's perverse realm and reaches out to his former lover in an attempt to escape.
Julia spends most of the movie as a wicked stepmother, cold and aloof to her family. Frank's return reignites her passion and she follows him down the path to damnation. It doesn't work out in the end and there's betrayal and brutality, but few pairings match Frank and Julia for raw, twisted sexuality.
Kristen and James from The Strangers
I like to think of this one as a snapshot moment in a relationship.
Kristen and James were at a wedding. Romance was in the air and the two seemed like a happy couple. James pops the question. Kristen turns him down. They go back to James' parents house. James had decorated the place with candles and roses and other stuff to celebrate their unfulfilled engagement. The gesture, while sweet, makes everything more awkward after the rejection. While they're dealing with their emotions, a bunch of asshole kids show up. We have a movie.
I have been where James and Kristen have been. I've run up into those moments where I had to stop and consider what my relationship meant and whether or not it could survive. Their awkwardness and sadness resonated with me. They're not mad at each other, but you see them walking around in a daze, trying to put words to the things they are feeling.
We never learn why Kristen rejected James' proposal and their relationship comes to a very tragic ending, but I cared about them very deeply and I wanted them to make it. Too bad the Dark Gods of Narrative aren't as sentimental as I am.
Tina and Nick from Friday the 13th Part 7: The New Blood
This one may be a cheat.
We never see any obvious declarations of love between Tina, the troubled psychic and Kevin, the bad boy turned good. They never hold hands and watch the sunrise over Crystal Lake. But both of them are outsiders, neither of them fit into the respective groups that come visiting the lake. They do have some nice moments of connection before the mayhem starts. Kevin was one of the few males to survive a Friday the 13th movie and that has to mean something, right?
I like to think that, once the wounds are healed and the trauma is dealt with, the two of them could find some kind of peace with each other. Tina definitely deserves it. Bad News Krews certainly wasn't helping her out.
James and Mary from Silent Hill 2
Considered by many to be the high point of the Silent Hill series, Silent Hill 2 set up most of the tropes that continued through the later entries, particularly the idea that Silent Hill is a purgatory for people haunted by their past.
The story centers around James, who receives a letter from his dead wife telling him to meet her in the fog-shrouded town of Silent Hill. As the story continues, we discover that James' wife suffered a long illness and he smothered her with a pillow, ostensibly to prevent her from suffering further. When he arrives in Silent Hill, manifestations of his guilt come alive to punish him for his actions. The player makes choices in-game that determine what kind of ending James gets. Most of them aren't good.
Silent Hill 2 is an amazing horror story. The visuals are genuinely chilling, and the story of lost love and crippling guilt is genuinely heartbreaking, framed by some of the most chilling scenes I've ever experienced in the genre.
Dracula and Mina from Bram Stoker's Dracula
I'm mostly including this as for nostalgia purposes. I can't stand this movie anymore.
Okay, let's be fair: Coppola can direct a pretty movie. The costumes are gorgeous. The performances are...memorable. And it's a fun movie to watch.
When I was a young goth kid, I took this movie sooooo seriously. The romance was soooo intense and sooooo beautiful and squee! isn't it romantic how he crossed oceans of time to find her?
Now I find it hackey and melodramatic and almost unbearably embarrassing to watch, probably the same way other people view Twilight. I can't say that young romantic in me doesn't still have a warm place in his heart for this movie, but it's an over-the-top bodice ripper.
Ana and Michael from Dawn of the Dead (2004)
There are three major relationships in Dawn of the Dead. One is between a guy and his infected pregnant wife, but that's about his fixation to bring something better than himself into the world. The other is between two stupid pie-eyed teenagers. The last is between Ana and Michael. It never quite blossoms into what it was meant to be, but there is such tenderness in the tension between them.
Michael is a genuinely good guy. He's smart, compassionate, sensible, and a born leader. While certainly capable, he never has the bluster or bravado of the other characters. Ana is very much his equal, as intelligent and capable as he is. While they're both practical people and the situation demands that they never let their guard down, we feel the intensity between them. We get the sense that, if the world were to once again stabilize, they could be very happy together.
Their relationship is cut short in one of the most heartbreaking ways I've ever seen in a horror film, but Michael even goes to his death with the kind of quiet brave dignity that is to be admired. In an era where most male heroes are rogues and brutes, Michael is the kind of guy I would like to be someday.
Candyman and Helen in Candyman
Wait a sec. Another overly romantic movie about a supernatural creature romancing a human?
Well, yeah, but unlike Bram Stoker's Dracula, the love isn't reciprocated. Candyman is essentially the story of a supernatural stalker. Sure, he's intensely charismatic and romantic, but he's also evil to the bone, and he completely destroys Helen's life in the pursuit of her. Like Dracula, he also invites Helen to be like him, but the process involves a death so horrible it would become legend. The course of true love never did run smooth.
Stephen and Francine from Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Stephen and Francine didn't hold up too well.
I always got the sense that Stephen and Francine would have eventually broken up if the zombies didn't take over. As it stands, there's a lot of unspoken anger between them, and Francine in particular seems often resentful that they've been thrown together. Even though Francine is pregnant, there's no sense of joy or togetherness about it. They seem to treat it as just another problem in a hellish world.
There's something vaguely sexist to Stephen's behavior. He gets irritated when Francine voices a contrary opinion, dislikes the idea of her flying the helicopter, and nearly gets her killed when he leaves her alone to have a manly adventure with the SWAT team boys. Even their lone romantic moment ends unhappily. One of my favorite shots in the movie takes place after the two of them have made love. Francine sits up, smoking a cigarette, looking past us. Stephen lies awake next to her, staring up at the ceiling. They no longer have anything to say to one another.
The most nightmarish image in the movie is when Stephen, now a zombie, goes after their safehouse. The movie often points out that zombies are compelled by unconscious desires, specifically to return to the mall. What if Stephen's unconscious desire is to hurt Francine?
Either way, it doesn't work out.
Marie and Alexa from High Tension
Oh, I'm gonna have to tread carefully with this one.
I've heard some people say this movie carries strong homophobic undertones. Final Girl covered that subject better than I could and I'm inclined to agree with what she says on the subject. Here's my take:
I liked the twist ending. Sure, maybe it was a gimmick and maybe it doesn't really add anything more to the story, but I like kicking around the idea of an obsession so intense that it manifests itself in such horrific delusions. If the disgusting pig of a truck driver is how Marie sees her attraction to Alex, that speaks of a poisonous self-hate. I would like to see a remake done where we are aware of the split from the beginning. There's a really, really good horror movie here.
Shaun and Liz from Shaun of the Dead
I have a soft spot for stories about about losers who find their inner hero when crisis hits. I like to think I have a little Shaun in me.
Anyway, there's a bunch of stuff I really like about Shaun of the Dead. The romance is authentic. Shaun is a likable guy and you can see why Liz stays with him as long as he does. When they do break up you can see it's because the little things finally wore her down. Even then, there's still enough good memories to make the break up difficult. Finally, I liked the skeevy friend who constantly undermined Shaun and Liz's relationship so he could have a shot at her. I've known that guy. Once I was that guy. Either way, it was a nice touch.
The one thing that always threw me about the movie was the ending. After the zombie threat is brought under control, we see Shaun and Liz back on Shaun's couch. She now seems happy that they're doing all the stuff she hated doing before. Why the sudden change of heart? Does she now appreciate his habits more, or is she now simply grateful to be alive. Whatchoo think?
Oskar and Eli from Let The Right One In
Young love can be incredibly messed up, especially when you're in love with a violent blood junkie.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: I don't think Oskar and Eli are going to last in the long term. Sooner or later Oskar will get old and Eli will be as brutal and dismissive as "she" was to poor Hakan. There is something fundamentally stunted about Eli and the sort of affair they would have is truly doomed in the "One day I will have to be a serial killer to please you" sort of way.
Doing a quick look over this list, I see a lot of doomed romance. Love doesn't tend to do well in horror, mostly because people tend not to do well in horror. Horror is often about things falling apart, usually by worst-case scenario. Still, the grand passions are what gives us our humanity. They pull us out of the darkness and draw us close together. They warm us like campfires as the dark slowly circles us, drawing us in...
Saturday, February 27, 2010
Thursday, February 25, 2010
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Thursday, February 18, 2010
The Onion just published an interview with House of the Devil director Ti West. The conversation is interesting and West's views on the genre and the audience's expectations are fascinating. West is an interesting dude and I have to check out his work.
Saturday, February 13, 2010
Life Sucks is a graphic novel about an unassertive emo loser vampire who works in a convenience store and impotently pines for the hot goth chick who regularly comes in.
I loved it.
I guess I'm not supposed to. It belongs to that whole vampire romance thing that's been running roughshod over the genre for the last few years. Our poor protagonist, convenience store drone Dave, suffers from Nice Guy Syndrome, and he often degenerates into self doubt and inaction. Both of these things would normally have me running for the hills, but I was completely engrossed in Life Sucks' story. The writing is strong enough to overcome the conventions of the genre, the characters are constantly engaging, and the story takes some surprising turns toward the end.
Life Sucks is the story of a vampire who gets a crush on a goth girl. The goth girl has a fascination with vampires, imagining them to be majestic lords of the night. Instead, they're bossy franchise owners, directionless slackers, or entitled douchebags. Both characters are longing for something, both are approaching it from different angles, and both have to deal with frustration and disappointment along the way.
There seems to be a basic framework for emo-guy-wants-girl stories: Emo pines for good-hearted, impossibly beautiful Girl. After much prodding from friends/co-workers/parole officers, Emo makes introduction to Girl. Girl opens up to Emo but constantly refers to Emo as a "true friend" or some such. Girl hooks up with Douchebag, who likely bullied Emo earlier. Emo mourns from afar. Girl complains to Emo about Douchebag and Emo lashes out. Girl is confused at Emo's reaction until it slowly dawns on her that Emo is carrying a torch. Life Sucks follows the framework pretty faithfully. It's got enough surprises to lift it out of the realm of cliche.
I liked Dave, the passive convenience-clerk vampire. Yeah, he spends the entire story being everyone's doormat but he never quite tilts over into entitled rage. Underneath the shitty job and constant capitulation to his vampire lord, we know that Dave is a decent guy.
The story does a lot with the seldom-explored relationship between a young vampire and his/her creator. Dave becomes a vampire after his Transylvanian boss decides he needs a night manager for his 24 hour convenience store. The vampires of Life Sucks are completely subservient to their masters, which dovetails nicely into Dave's hellish existence as a retail drone. Dave's master Radu, a former Transylvanian lord turned franchise owner, is a great character. I like the little expatriate vampire community he belongs to, a group of immigrants with old-world customs, huddled away in their little social clubs, trying to figure out how to navigate the new world.
The Girl in the tale is Rosa, the beautiful Latina goth girl. In romance stories told from a Emo guy's perspective, the women are often completely idealized and placed on a pedestal, their only personality traits being their unearthly beauty. Life Sucks made Rosa into an actual character. She's fiery and foolish, impatient and rash, charming and kind-hearted. The plot doesn't simply happen around her. Not all of her decisions are wise and some of the things she does is downright catastrophic, but she is a real, believable character. I also like the fact that they made her heritage and culture part of her character. Goths in most stories tend to be lily-white, modestly affluent kids. It's refreshing to see a new perspective on the community.
The story doesn't have a lot of actual horror elements to it. Most of the blood drinking is done off-stage and the vampire condition is portrayed as being fairly similar to humanity. The one really unsettling moment is when the Douchebag character, whose name currently escapes me, is hanging around in the surf with his vampire brides. As he's talking about his pursuit of Rosa, one of his brides becomes violently jealous. The Douchebag, impatient and bored with his bride, tears the woman's head off. It's a shocking moment and it grinds home the danger involved with vampire life. I especially liked that the other dude-bride has to applaud the Douchebag's behavior, lest he lose his own head to the Douchebag's rage.
Finally, I dug the fact that the story didn't end the way I expected it to. Not everyone gets what they want, some people wind up surprised when the things they wished for don't exactly turn out as expected, and there's a lot of real adult compromise in the story. It's not necessarily a bad thing and Life Sucks isn't a downer story, but I was pleasantly surprised by how far the creators were willing to turn my expectations on their head.
I really dug reading this. If you have a soft spot for vampire romance and you want something a little more quirky, go check out this graphic novel. It doesn't....um...suck.
Friday, February 5, 2010
Baghead in the kind of movie I would have liked to have made.
It's probably no secret by now that I'm a slasher movie aficionado. Lord knows I review enough of them on this website. I view them as a perverse lowbrow sort of haiku: the art and skill of the filmmakers shine through the rigid structure of the narrative. To put it in a less pretentious way, there ain't a hell of a lot you can do with a slasher film. Guy in a mask stalks some people, kills a bunch of them, and then finally dies (or not.) It's a chase narrative, and chase narratives are by definition limited. Sure, I can wax philosophic about what Jason's motives might be and how they relate to my anti-social upbringing, but all I'm doing is reflecting my own psychodrama off what is essentially a blank image. Practically speaking, there's very little to differentiate Jason Voorhees from Harry Warden from Chrome Skull from Michael Myers. So I'd watch these movies and applaud them for their clever little touches or their...ahem...skillful execution. Then Baghead came along and showed me that the rigid framework of a slasher narrative can be used to tell an interesting story about artists and dreamers and relationships.
The framework is pretty routine: four people depart for a cabin in the woods, some sexual shenanigans ensue, and they find themselves being stalked by a knife-wielding man with a bag on his head. The poor besieged group are a quartet of struggling actors, slightly older than the average slasher bait, people who've clearly wandered the path of their chosen careers for awhile and haven't had much success. Inspired by an acquaintance's success in the indie film scene, they retire to a cabin to create a story that will bring them fame and recognition. One of the ideas they kick around is the story of Baghead, a man with a brown paper bag over his face stalking a house full of people. Eventually the character realize that someone is actually stalking them and the movie becomes a tense game of stalk and slash that turns into a twist ending.
I was surprised how close the movie actually cleaved to the formula. The cliched slutty/dumpy/vengeful/smarmy characters are all represented, there are boobs, there are late night stalker sequences in the woods, Baghead takes out the character's car, etc. Given the low budget of the movie this could have easily turned into something amateur-looking were the characters and performances not so skillfully crafted. Relationships between slasher bait tend to fall into typical teenage drama, but the characters in Baghead relate to each other very naturally. The writing is smooth and the performances feel really authentic.
Underneath the horror film tropes, Baghead is about a socially awkward guy who likes a girl. It's a movie about a bunch of creative people who want to do something with themselves. Underneath my horror movie sturm und drang, I'm a softie. I thought Baghead was sweet.