Saturday, October 29, 2016

Hallowthon 2016 Anthology: What even is fear

It's the most wonderful time of the year again, friends and readers.  Like I said last October: "There are a hell of a lot of horror movies out there and a lot of the same things to be said about most of them: exploitation cliches with sexualised violence against women, weak women predated upon or protected by strong men, and people of colour treated as expendable for shock value.  Racist stereotypes as a source of villainy.  Sex corrupts the young and then they get murdered while the pure girls maybe survive.  We could do a hundred posts and they would all look basically the same."

So once again it's time for the Something Short And Snappy Hallowthon 2016 Anthology, in which the blogqueen and I provide you with quick notes on a dozen horror movies to swiftly judge them and help you find something worth watching on these cold dark nights.  This year's selection leans a bit towards the surreal and unusual, because that's just the tone 2016 has set for us all.

(CN: gore, murder, body horror)
Will: Blurbs for this movie describe it like a typical slasher, and the first few minutes make it look like it's going to be an unwatchable slasher--the blogqueen and I both considered whether we just wanted to switch it off.  We did not, and we were rewarded.  This movie is not a slasher.  This movie is a sci-fi Freaky-Friday-swap human-animal-hybrid alien-abduction time-travelling-space-bear reading-ahead-in-the-script-for-your-own-movie carnival of WTF.  I've never been high, but I'm 80% sure Detention makes equal amounts of sense regardless of your level of intoxication.  'Good' and 'bad' cease to be useful descriptors for this movie.  It is an experience that I do not regret including in my life.  That's not a recommendation, exactly.  (It does definitely have a share of jump scares and gore, but they're not the main feature by far.)

Erika: This movie is absurd, and I think I mean that in a good way? I struggle to find words for it, mostly just emphatic hand gestures while I make a series of vaguely confused squeaky noises, but that doesn't translate well to text. If you plan to actually sit down and watch a movie, this one could be a good call.

(CN: blood, murder)
Will: (Merciful spoiler: the cat is not harmed.  I actually liked most of this movie, so the fear that something would happen to the cat was a major damper.)  A deaf author moves out to a remote country home to work on her second novel, and a masked killer decides to hunt her.  While he's got various advantages, she's smarter and incredibly brave, so the battle of wits that makes up the bulk of the film is actually interesting, rather than just having a lot of a woman screaming as she runs uselessly from an implacable monster.  Most of the fear comes by ambiance and anxiety rather than jump scares.  The third act unfortunately trends back towards typical bloody slasher, and it felt like the writers couldn't decide between three different climactic fights so they just decided to use all of them in sequence.  On the other hand, having a deaf hero means that 90% of the dialogue is signed (if that's something you're looking for in a movie) and while Maddie explicitly views her deafness as a flaw for much of the story, she also--minor spoiler--ends up using the killer's hearing against him in the end, so I would tend to give the movie overall a good score on ability/ableism?

(CN: Sexual violence, misogyny, gore, torture, murder, dragon)
Erika: I've seen Hellraiser twice now. I tried to talk Will through it, touching on villainous female sexuality, weird fetishes, and at one point a dragon if I remember correctly? I struggle to form a cohesive image of it in my mind. Largely because despite having seen it twice, it doesn't stick that vividly for me. Despite having a female protagonist, the movie is steeped in toxic masculinity. The one male character I actually liked was supposed to be laughed at for not being masculine enough and letting his wife be so awful to him. Because his wife mistreating him is a character flaw for him? It's got the usual sexist nonsense that many horror movies do, and I'm struggling to find anything interesting to say about it. It does have some really cool practical effects, and really gross gore stuff. If you're just in it for the grossness, sure, watch Hellraiser, but like a lot of Classics, you're not really missing anything.

The People Under The Stairs
(CN: Racist language, mutilation, torture, sexual violence, animal abuse. Just--everything. CN for All Of It)
Erika: Okay, so we were watching this movie while playing Sushi-Go, and I sort of only half saw the first half? This is important because I think there were a lot of black ghetto stereotypes in there but I'm not positive. It starts with a little black boy (unfortunately only ever called Fool, because that's what came up when his sister did a tarot reading for him) wrangled into helping case a joint to get money for his mother's surgery. The house they're casing has people who basically own the town and have been gentrifying the poorer neighborhoods.  They've chosen it because apparently they have gold in the basement, and not because they're just going to Robin Hood that shit. What is supposed to be a simple robbery goes very, very wrong when the two adults get killed by the owners of the house, and Fool finds out there is a hoard of pasty teenage boys in the basement. Not a subreddit--they're mutilated by the owners of the house, stolen by the couple (who are actually siblings because this wasn't gross enough already) but deemed "impure".

It's tense, it's gross, and a lot of the actually scary parts come from how deeply fucked up the people in it are. Actual distressed noises were made as I watched it. It does have some troubling issues with racism, but it also seems to be trying and do some interesting things with it? As I said, I missed chunks of the movie so I can't speak with confidence on the topic, but Fool is clever and tenacious and likable. SPOILER: the evil dog does die.

The 2016 American Presidential debate trilogy
(CN: Misogyny, racism, Trump)
Erika: Ok, so I didn't catch the first installment in this terrifying series, but I did see the second two. The whole premise seems laughable at first. A highly qualified woman is running to be president of the US against a bigoted angry cheeto. And they really amp up how absurd the Cheeto is. The viewer is often left wondering: how could anyone take this character seriously? But viral marketing aspect really helps with that, showing support outside of the actual debates on twitter and the like. I think the writers realized that and toned him down in the third installment, but the character still seems entirely unreasonable to me. That said, the meta stuff they've put out with it is what makes it truly horrifying. Have you seen some of those news articles on The Cheeto's actions? And the reactions to it? Pure horror because it starts to just feel so real. I feel and hope their conclusion will be obvious, but those of you able to vote in the US on which of these wins should go out and do so! If only because I'm not convinced the writers realized that The Cheeto isn't a legitimate option and need to understand that he isn't.  Make them understand. Vote him out of existence.

(CN: Comedic gore and violence,  ableism)
Erika: If you want a movie to put on in the background at your Halloween party that people might occasionally catch half a scene of and go "Wait what?" I highly recommend this one. It is campy and cheesy and absurd and the acting is about on par with porn. At one point they throw shoes at the leprechaun while running away so it has to stop to clean them to buy them time. It doesn't take itself too seriously, which personally I enjoy. I was too sober when I watched it, so I noticed there is one character who the writers wrote as "slow". There are a lot of unfortunate 'fat stupid comedic relief' tropes around him, and I don't think the writers knew they were coding him as autistic. With that in mind, there is some interesting dynamics around how other characters treat and react to him (mostly with kindness and affection). If someone else wants to sit down and actually pay attention to it (I do not recommend that; I was rooting for everyone to die so hard) I'd urge you to consider the accidental layers there as you do.

(CN: Gore, violence, misogyny, gross monsters)
Erika: If you follow me on twitter, you probably saw me tweeting through this. I'm bitter at the husbeast and the Alexs for making me sit through this when I can't drink and they all can. It opens with MANLY MEN BEING MANLY AND BY THE WAY DID YOU KNOW THEY WERE MEN WITH GUNS AND PENISES WHO ONLY THINK ABOUT PUTTING SAID PENISES AND GUNS IN WOMEN? No, really, that's 90% of the character development. This movie was unsure how seriously it was taking itself, but it was still too seriously. If they had just given up and gone full camp it could have been fun, but they didn't, so it's just kind of a sexist mess. The only named female character who is a doctor is called a "dumb woman" because she believed the people she was working for weren't evil. The Rock is Lawful Evil in deeply unbelievable ways. Karl Urban wins a fight against The Rock which, even having been weakened by CGI, is just not believable. Also Good and Evil are genetic? There is one scene where it goes into first person shooter mode that's absurd and kind of fun, but I'd give this one a pass.

Rites of Spring
(CN: gore, torture, murder)
Will: This is not a story.  This is one third each of two separate stories mashed together, which by my math still leaves us one third short.  One plot starts strong with a Bechdel-passing scene of two women in a bar discussing corporate politics, one trying to decide whether or not to admit that she was responsible for a recent failure after someone else has taken the blame.  They immediately get kidnapped by a gruff old man whose motivations are never fully explained.  I mean, it's not hard to piece together from incidental information: every spring, this small town sacrifices several people to some kind of monstrous entity to magically ensure good farming.  But I suggest a general rule: if your story is such a cliche that you just pull an Avril ("Can I make it any more obvious?") maybe it's such a cliche that you should do better.  The other plot, tangentially related, concerns a small conspiracy of people planning to ransom a rich guy's daughter.  Dunno about y'all, but I don't watch horror movies for disturbingly mundane and realistic murder scenes.  These two plots collide by chance and provide our unexplained monstrous entity with a crew of criminals to kill in the final act.  There's supposed to be something clever going on, because the well-meaning desperate dude in the ransom gang is the guy who took the fall for the captured heroine's mistake at work, so maybe they were going for some kind of weird reap-what-you-sow thing (that coincidentally suggests that our Final Girl brought all this horror on herself)?  There is a distinct lack of ending as well, although not as grievously as our next entry:

The Midnight After
(CN: blood, death, rape)
Will: A Hong Kong horror movie that I didn't realise was supposed to be satirical until I read its wiki page.  To again spare you my pain, let me say first that this movie literally has no ending and none of the weirdness is explained, which makes it all weird for weirdness' sake, and I don't know if I don't get it because I'm not from Hong Kong or what.  Which is too bad, because it's mostly pretty good weirdness: seventeen people riding a bus together at 2:30am find themselves abruptly alone in the world and desperately try to figure out what's going on.  Time travel?  Ghosts?  Some kind of magic disease?  A nuclear disaster?  David Bowie?  The answer appears to be 'yes to all' (especially Bowie), except that the movie ends as the survivors finally get on the road to finding possible answers, so we don't actually know.

There is a plotline that definitely requires some further discussion, because amongst all the other mystery and death, one woman is found dead and apparently raped, and we then later see that scene play out in flashbacks as the rapist is revealed by his accomplice.  I'm not sure why the writer thought this was an important thing to have, but the treatment of it is at least decent?  The actual scenes are played for revulsion rather than titillation, the victim isn't stripped for the camera or anything.  To my particular surprise, while some of the other men briefly argue for "rape is bad but what are we going to do about it now, kill him?", the women respond with "yeah, I have a knife right here" and everyone agrees this is as close to a court of law as they can manage when they're the only people in the world.  The actual execution is variously played for pathos and grim humour as each person stabs him once, some more enthusiastically than others.  The whole thing still feels rather unnecessary (fewer pointless rape plotlines in anything, please) but ultimately I can only complain so much about characters agreeing that rapists get no mercy.

It Follows
(CN: blood, death, sexualised violence)
Erika: There was so much hype about this movie, and it really didn't live up to it. I feel there was a lot of symbolism and depth this movie thought it had that I just wasn't getting. Like, I know the pools/water imagery was supposed to mean SOMETHING, but I'm not 100% sure what. Is that supposed to represent the main character's relationship with her sexuality? Peace of mind? There were some aspects I loved: the main character, upon becoming an assault victim, is rallied around by everyone rather than dismissed and questioned.  Although people do at first question if she is literally being followed by a demon or something, they don't try to talk her out of her fear, they just try to make her feel safe, which is refreshing. It would be more refreshing if consensual sex didn't lead to murder demons, but you know, take wins where we can. I also liked how the women were often shown in typical horror movie girl poses/outfits (the opening scene has a woman in a sheet tank top, shorts, and heels running around) but rarely are they filmed as sexy. We see Jay in underpants or a swimsuit often, but she's shown in granny panties and a one piece. The girls aren't wearing loads of make up that were supposed to believe is just what they look like. Their clothes aren't skintight and played off as comfortable and casual. It's weird, and worth a watch, but I wouldn't put it at the top of my list.

Will: The premise of 'what if the Terminator was an STI' is certainly horrifying, and the movie is pretty visually effective, but like the blogqueen I also spent a lot of time trying to figure out why the writers made various choices.  Was there a ton of symbolism I was missing?  If the monster takes the shape of 'whatever it thinks will get it close to you', why does it keep picking such bizarre and creepy forms instead of something compelling and comforting?  It does sort of do that eventually, appearing as the protagonist's father, but it has previously appeared as completely naked people (first female, then male), or as apparent murder victims, or various other disturbing forms.  Mostly I feel like this movie suffers because the problem becomes a sort of logic puzzle, like "Couldn't you make a deal with someone in Asia where you fly there every year or so to have sex, passing the curse back and forth, so that every time the monster finally climbs out of the Marianas Trench it suddenly realises it has to change direction again?"  And the characters never really try to get clever with the solution like that, so I'm just left with more thought experiments that I can't see in action.

The Devil's Hand
(CN: blood, nudity, brief sexual assault)
Will: Both better and worse than I expected.  The setting is an Amish commune in the modern day, where they have a prophecy about 'the Drommelkind' (devil child?) that seems to start coming true when six girls are all born on the same night.  There is much muttering and grumbling about whether they can be redeemed or should be killed for everyone else's protection.  So, there's the pretty swift Bechdel pass when most of our main characters are women, and it's at least sort of interesting to have Amish characters not presented as inherently backwards and wrong--but there are also the tiresome standbys like the Evil Stepmother, and the horror sequences mostly consist of the girls dying one by one at the hands of a hooded figure.  The primary antagonist is the leading elder of the town, who we also quickly and clearly see is a creeper and probably repeat molester, and there was some potential for interesting dynamics when one of the girls insists they rally people against him while others cling to excuses and veneers of religious purity.  Overall, I was hoping this was going to be a movie that argued 'the devil' is unnecessary when we're capable of justifying evil to ourselves in the name of righteousness, and maybe a self-fulfilling prophecy where it's the moral panic and vicious response that causes disaster after all... but that is not what we get.  The final scenes of the movie don't make a lot of sense (the killer's identity is easy to spot on a meta level, but comes out of nowhere plotwise) and, like Ender's Game, we're sort of left wondering whether the story is claiming the 'bad guys' were right after all or what.

Mr Jones
(I'm not sure any particular warnings apply, but I'm open to suggestions)
Will: This is that rarest of creatures: the bloodless horror movie.  Our protagonists are a young couple whose marriage is a bit rocky, who decide to move out to the middle of nowhere for a year to film the Greatest Nature Documentary Of All Time and discover that their closest neighbour is a famously reclusive anonymous artist dubbed "Mr Jones".  Of course, Mr Jones isn't actually an artist; he's some kind of supernatural sculptor with ulterior motives involving the world of dreams and nightmares.  I really don't know why the writers decided this needed to be done in 'found footage' style, especially since they abandon it repeatedly, but I still enjoyed several aspects of the movie.  Rather than being a stock Nagging Wife, Penny actually gets to have some depth and agency, and she's at least as important to the investigation as Scott.  The aesthetics are satisfyingly creepy without falling back on blood, and after spending the first act shouting "Your neighbour is clearly a killer warlock" at the protagonists, I was gratified by the slow realisation that the expected cliches didn't apply.  It's not as striking and artistic as it wants to be, but overall I approve.


That's all we were able to get our hands on this month, but as a supplement the blogqueen also suggested this list (by quality individual Joey Comeau) of horror movies without sexual violence.  And at some point we really will post something in regards to Scream Queens, the comedy/horror/satire slasher series that occasionally does interesting things with terrible people.  It'll be surprisingly deep for something that is intentionally super shallow.