Frailty (Bill Paxton, 2001)

Frailty is a film about the question of faith, the possibility that something greater exists, and that our own sense of morality may be wrong. A man shows up at FBI headquarters because he claims to know the identity of a serial killer who has killed six people. He starts his story at the very beginning, recounting when he lived at home with his brother and father in a small Texas town. Their mother died giving birth to the younger brother, but the family unit persists happily and humbly. One night though, the father wakes up his two sons to tell them he had a vision from God that revealed that they had a special purpose; to destroy the demons that lived among them. The older son, Fenton, doubts his father from the beginning, while Adam, believes every word his father tells him.

We never doubt the father believes what is happening however the film does not commit itself to revealing any absolutes. The film is disturbing to the core, because of the conviction of the performances and characters and the lack of commitment to the apparent messages from God. It captures an incredible amount of anxiety relating to the struggles between family members, especially as the older son’s doubt overpowers his life and transforms his perception of reality. His youth and love is what holds him back, he is unsure of what to do because he fears his father… not only because of his capacity for violence and apparently unstable nature, but because he fears losing him. He is old enough to have already formed a rather strong hold on reality, and concepts of right and wrong, but is still entirely dependent on his father… not only to care for him, but as a moral and loving support to hold together his life. His initial struggle is founded on a tiny crack in his father’s perfect image that only grows bigger as the narrative progresses.

The title of the film, Frailty, apparently refers to the actual production of the film… but I think it is extremely telling as to the themes and feelings exhibited by the characters. Perhaps it is because I think most of the evils and wrongs of the world are rooted in weakness or frailty, rather than unadulterated evil. The film forces me to re-evaluate this conception of the world on many levels, not only in my understanding of good and evil, but the very limits of acceptable frailty. I think a lot of atheists would argue that the faith some have for religion and the divine, is a demonstration of weakness or at least ignorance. Though I can’t say I believe in God, I’m not sure if this is accurate and I think it over-simplifies and undermines personal experience. In this sense, Paxton’s character is extremely fascinating, because though he is convinced his visions are real, he does question them, and is seen as “weak” in retrospect by another character… and not for the reasons you may think. The examination of his faith is thorough, and terrifying, as it is not blind and unquestioning… it is simply disturbing. I wonder how the film would feel if we saw it through his eyes? Would it be more or less disturbing? More or less interesting? It would certainly be more conventional and palatable, even if there were to be some twist that would suggest everything existed in his head. The question of what is pulling Paxton back and pushing him forward is also fascinating, even if it is meant to be madness, the sheer strength it has over his entire psyche and actions within our world is monumental. It is an exhibition on the fragility of our bodies and impulses, as well as how fragile the balance of our lives and existence happens to be.

The film’s success as a horror film lies in it’s restraint. So much of the horror and tension is built on waiting. The initial confession of being visited by angels is followed by an apparent return to normal life. The scene that follows is not long, but the lack of acknowledgment and resolution makes it almost unbearable. The film is filled with these periods of waiting between action, and even those moments of action are restrained and drawn out. It is a film that understands the value of suspense within the horror genre. The film does not rely on its violence to elicit fears, and very little is actually shown… somehow, this makes the presence of blood so much more disturbing. Even the costume and make-up design implies the struggle and apparent humanity of the victims, perhaps more so than the physical violence could have been.

The film has a much discussed twist that completely transforms the rest of the film. It is no surprise then that you will either love it or hate it… I am in the former camp. In one sense, I am just a sucker for films that force you to re-evaluate what has been told and seen. It is done with incredible confidence, and never really cheapens the suspense and ambiguity of the rest of the film. Personally, I think it complicates it even more, introducing last minute “supernatural” element that transforms our understanding of events. In many ways, I feel like the shift is very much like the revelation about Captain Hank Quinlan’s intuition at the end of Touch of Evil. As morally dubious and really, reprehensible as his actions are, he was always right… maybe these demons are real. Does the end justify the mean? Then again, the question of the reliability of the narrator versus the reliability of cinema puts into question not only the characters, but the medium itself.

The film’s final shot is one of my favourite in recent history, as it is strangely reminiscent of something Norman Rockwell would paint; pure Americana, pride in justice and hope for the future… and yet, this is why it’s so haunting. There is no satisfying resolution and whatever your opinion on the twist I think the film will linger on your mind and soul.

Blood and Lace (Philip S. Gilbert, 1971)

Making a movie that’s so bad that it’s good is impossible to do on purpose. It’s been tried and it has always failed. The only ambiguous entry in this very particular kind of film is The Happening, which seems so outrageous that I cannot fathom that it is not at least a bit tongue in cheek… then again maybe I’m overestimating Shyamalan. Finding a film that works on this level of absurdity is a rare treat, and last night, I think I discovered my new favourite “so bad it’s good” film; Blood and Lace (1971).

How did I find this film? During an aesthetics course, our teacher showed us the film’s opening sequence as a demonstration of a POV shot. What is so unique about it is that the scene is played out seemingly from the POV of a hammer… yes an inanimate hammer. It only gets better when the “brutal” murder begins and we see the hammer meet the flesh and red paint ooze out from the various wounds on the two people’s faces. A fire is then set and the killer escapes. This is all we were shown, and as captivating as all this was, we could never imagine that the film could live up to either the ridiculousness or the strangely crude artfulness of the opening sequence, luckily we were wrong. It turns out this entire sequence is a dream, when a young girl awakes in a hospital bed screaming.

She is remembering the night of her mother’s murder, which haunts her. The young woman is now an orphan, because she never knew her father. She is twenty but is placed in the care of a deranged older woman who runs something of an orphanage in an old and creepy mansion.

What makes the film exceptional is how absurd and unique all the characters are. To run things down;

Ellie Masters: Her mother, an old whore, was brutally murdered by a hammer. Though between 18-20, she has to go live in an orphanage. She has a lack of respect for the rules, and is too curious for her own good. All men who meet her fall head over heels in lust for her. Afraid of hammers.

Mrs. Deer: Older woman who takes care of these children as a means of keeping her old home. She is a widow, but still receives council from her dead husband who she keeps in a meat cooler, along with the corpses of the children who tried to run away. She seems to have a deal with the state, funded by sexual favours, to sends more kids her way. Mrs. Deer believes that one day science will be able to cure her husband from death, which is why she keeps him preserved. She is a sadist, and a bit of a loonie.

Calvin Carruthers: A police officer who used to run a movie theatre, he seems to have an invested interest in Ellie Masters that goes well beyond his concept of safety and justice. Though all men seem to be captivated by her beauty, he seems obsessed by it. He is also a potential rapist.

Mr. Mullins: A social worker who seems to care nothing for his job, except for the sexual favours it affords him. He is a weak willed man who is easily manipulated.

Blanche: The sixteen year old sexually precautious roommate of Ellie, she desperately wants to get with local heart-throb Walter, who is more interested in Ellie. She instigates most of the teenaged melodrama, but she’s actually one of the most interesting characters in the film. She is just so sassy and has so many great lines, my favourite being;

Walter

What do you know about what a man feels?

Blanche

Not much but I’m willing to experiment!

Pete: The most 70s kid imaginable; he is skinnier than any runway model, has the hair, the jeans and doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. More than anyone else, he seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Tom Kredge: UNCLE LEO! Vincent Gallo look-a-like who is a murderer, alcoholic and potential rapist. He assists Mrs. Deer as a handy man on her grounds and seems to have no control over his impulses. He is also quite dumb.

Walter: Local hottie who is Mrs. Deer’s little pet, he does not seem to like wearing shirts and in no conceivable world is he a believable twenty year old.

Back to the plot, Ellie is trying to find a way out of this place so that she can find her real father. She is still haunted by nightmares and visions of the night of her mother’s murder. The film seems to be littered with a lot of hammers and hammer imagery that instigates “episodes”. Along the way, she finds a suitcase that has a dismembered hand, almost gets raped by Uncle Leo, finds a dying girl in the attic who is being punished for running away, and has visions of a Freddy Krueger-like murderer who yields… you guessed it, a hammer! Did I mention this film also has a cat fight? Well… it does.

The film also uses the most absurd stock soundtrack I’ve ever heard. Most of it sounds like re-used sound from science fiction films, while others sound like a strange precursor to John William’s iconic Indiana Jones score. The film ends with one of the best twists ever, probably because it’s like three twists in one, each more absurd than the last. This is a film that has to be seen to believed. So much of it’s entertainment, comes from the filmmaking itself, even beyond the opening POV shot, you have a lot of zooms and strange, even creative cuts. The acting ranges from good to terrible, but all of it is entertaining in a high-camp kind of way. Despite my claim that the film is so bad that it’s good, it has a lot of great ideas (most of which are simply badly executed), and I would not be surprised if it was influential on quite a few 1970s horror filmmakers, especially John Carpenter. Who knows, you might even find it scary !

The film has some of the worst day for night I’ve ever seen.

?

You should like totally watch this crazy flic

Movie related Readings Online and Off

*possible additions to be made in next few days.

I thought I’d do something a little different, and talk about a few of the recent film articles and reviews I’ve read and enjoyed. They range from academic to more loose and fun stuff. I haven’t been watching nearly as many movies as I would like outside of class, so I haven’t been updating nearly as much as I would like. Hopefully in the coming weeks I’ll see a little more and have more to say, this is also entirely dependent on how often Fashion TV plays Australia’s Next Top Model, which has been sucking so much time away from my ability to watch films in the evening. As this is my first attempt at this kind of post, I can’t say how much depth I will go into as to my responses or if this is more of a place for me to recommend some interesting readings.

Recent Issue of Cineaste Magazine: A Special Focus on Contemporary Horror Film

I don’t have a regular subscription to any magazine; I usually just pick up something that looks interesting. I have a few favourites, but mostly I pick up something new each time I go out. This week I got Cineaste, mostly because I am a sucker for horror and nearly every article is focused on different offsets of the contemporary horror film. I’m mostly looking at two particular articles, but as far as I can tell, they’re all interesting. I still haven’t read the one on Saw and Torture porn, only because I actually haven‘t seen any of those films and would prefer to see the films before reading the text.

Childhood’s End: Let the Right One In and Other Deaths of Innocence by John Calhoun

Takes a look at the evil children in horror films historically and how it has transformed over time to reflect different social anxieties. It doesn’t hurt that Let the Right One In is one of my very favourite films from the decade, but it is a film text that is ripe for this kind of analysis. Calhoun examines especially the social context involved, as the film is set during the early 1980s when Sweden is caught very deeply by the strain of the Cold War. It discusses the issues of community, and how fragmented it is on a personal level, as well as on a wider social one. The author appropriately draws comparisons to more modern Japanese horror films, which usually feature children predominantly, but also use the effect of technology as a means of exploring our deteriorating relationships, understandings of self and the corruption of innocence. I think, for me at least, because it is so fundamental to my own attraction to horror, is the exploration of the body within the visual narrative of the film (and explored in the article).

“The betrayal visited on us by our own fragile bodies is often the most horrific breakdown of all. Oskar’s vulnerability is emphasized from the first scene, when his pale, skinny body is shown clad only in jockey shorts. The torment he undergoes at the hands of the boys at school is unusually violent, easily making the point that monstrous children can come in forms other than the supernatural variety.”

I think the children’s body above all, is representative of us at our weakest and more fragile, but in terms of narrative is also the most flexible to explore our own personal and social anxieties. Putting children in situations that confront our taboos and even our own personal nostalgia is very threatening to our world view. Calhoun appropriately diagnosis’s the film as being quite conservative, as it seems to suggest if children had more guidance, and stronger religious or moral structure that the situation of the film could not exist. Though an extremely well researched and well reasoned article, it’s one I could only dream of writing myself, my only wish would have been for Calhoun to tie his ideas about politics, social issues and even immigration fears, to the apparent dissolve of the family unit.

Something else about the film I find fascinating, is Oskar’s own obsession with violence, and desire for destruction. As someone who has lived with (through?) a school shooting, it is a behaviour and a desire that I struggle to relate to or understand. I don’t think I have done enough reading on the individuals to know exactly what doctors or psychiatrists say about their mental state, but Let the Right One In, presents a world where nature and nurture are so closely linked that one wonders if it is even possible for Oskar to be pulled out of that world if an adult were to reach out to him.

(Un)safe Sex: Romancing the Vampire by Karen Backstein

This is probably the best article I’ve read on the Twilight phenomena, as it does not operate in hyperbolic extremes. Though I think a lot of the issues relating to relationships and romance are problematic at best, I think the anger towards the series is also blown out of proportion. Karen Backstein looks at the evolution of the vampire sub-genre, especially how the female character has transformed to supporting character/victim to being the very biased protagonist. It’s worth noting that movie monsters, especially vampires, have always been closer to female audiences than male. If you want an interesting read I recommend “Refusing to Refuse to Look: Female Views of the Horror Film” by Brigid Cherry. She has a very interesting study on female horror fans, polling them on kind of horror sub-genres and specific films, often resulting in unexpected results. I think it would make an interesting companion piece to this article.

Back to Twilight, she sheds light on the apparent sexual sterility of the vampires of today, and how and why this appeals to younger readers. Though I’m not too far out of my teens, I have to wonder how these apparently gentlemanly vampires that want to “wait”, are influenced from a hyper sexualized society that puts incredible pressures on young women to be sexually active. Not only that, but the images and expectations from pornography sets standards that are not only intimidating, but potentially devastating on an emotional level. Backstein even looks at the changing sexual relationship between Bella and Edwards over the course of the novels, and how when they do decide to engage in sexual relations, that he is a giving and responsive lover. It plays both into the young woman’s fears but also, their ultimate sexual desires.

There are also interesting ideas about duality as presented in the chosen texts and some discussion about my own personal favourite vampires series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Von Samuel Muses on Fassbinder’s BDR trilogy

Maybe it’s because I just watched the trilogy myself, or that Von Samuel is a dear friend and a great writer, but I personally think that his recent  writing inspired by Fassbinder’s work is among his very best. If you haven’t checked out his blog before, he does not write traditional reviews, preferring instead of channel feelings and impressions from his viewings through his own unique writing style. It’s definitely an interesting and enriching departure from traditional film discussion and analysis, I like it. The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola and Veronika Voss.

Evil Dead II (Sam Raimi, 1987)

What can I say about Evil Dead II? It is a technical and creative marvel, a film that seems to burst at the seams with energy and enthousiasm. Evil Dead II jumps right in the action as two crazy kids stop by at a cabin for some crazy times, and are met with some ancient evil that turns one of them into an unkilleable zombie thing. Hands get infected, furniture has a sense of humour, and shit flies into many people’s mouths. I wish I had the skills to explain why this is so incredible, the sophistication of Raimi’s artistry and comedy, and how beautifully each scene never takes the easy route, and is filled with narrative and visual splendour. It is a film I cannot recommend enough.

Breezing through more favourites of the decade.

40. Entre les murs (Laurent Cantet, 2008)

What I like most about this film is it’s ability to capture both the chaos and anxiety of the classroom. Though my own high school experience was often tame, even restrictive to a fault, the creeping moments of frustrated student revolts were not unheard of. In the case of Entre les murs, the classroom dynamics are motivated as much by hormones as they are by racial and political tensions. The film feeds off of the way children absorb their environments, not only in the effects that poverty and difficult domestic situations may have, but the influences of more widespread trends and social trends and sentiments. How children are not insolated from the fears and anxieties of their parents or teachers. The film is highly engaging, and heart warming without being cloying.

39. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)

Though I think as the series goes on it becomes somewhat bloated and convoluted, the first entry is a beautiful and careful exercise in production design. If anything, the film succeeds at creating another world better than few films ever had. It is not the kind of film I am usually drawn to, but I can’t deny being pulled into the world Jackson creates. Something about this film hits all the right spots and is entirely satisfying.

38. The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003)

A disturbing tribute to the movies and the people who watch them, The Dreamers explores an obsessives menage-a-trois built around a common love for the silver screen. The film is not always easy to watch, and often pushes the boundaries of acceptable sexual taboos and interactions. Theo and Isabelle seem to be in constant competition, though siblings, they’ve blurred the line between family and lovers without ever committing either way. Their competition is pulls them out further away from social norms and is hugely self-destructive. Isabelle suffers especially, as she seems confused as to her identity, especially as it ties to her sexuality. She seems lost between the woman she thinks she should be and the one that she is, her preservation of her room and her virginity, point to an inbreed conflict that is only aggravated by her relationship with Matthew and her brother.

41. Trick ‘r Treat (Michael Dougherty, 2009)

I was lucky enough to see this on the big screen at the Fantasia Film Festival. Much like Drag Me to Hell, this is a horror film that is best enjoyed with an audience. It is exciting, funny and scary, and though it never truly gets under your skin, it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. An anthology film, all four stories take place in a small American town, and are appropriately “horror-ific.” My favourite is probably the play on the virginal college girl, which is perhaps the most familiar storyline in horror lore and yet the film puts an interesting though perhaps not completely unconventional twist on it. The film’s appeal is largely on how well made it is, how it cuts at just the right moments, how it plays with our expectations and how it thrills us with its effects. The most notable is perhaps the showdown between a grumpy old man who lacks the Halloween spirit, and cute little bag boy who adorns the posters.

43. The Last House on the Left (Dennis Iliadis, 2009)

I had no right to like this film. It is not only a remake, it’s a remake of a remake and It’s dirty and it’s dark and it’s violent. Like its predecessor, the film’s signature moment is a rape sequence, and though perhaps exploitive, there is nothing titillating about the sequence whatsoever. It is appropriately torturous, incredibly difficult to watch, and becomes an interesting catalyst for some morally ambiguous revenge. This is not a fun horror film to watch, it is far from satisfying, and even the the revenge taken on the aggressors is so morally ambiguous that you can’t revel in the demise of the invaders. Yet, I personally found the film fascinating for this very reason. It reminds me, though not with nearly the intellectually charge, of Haneke’s Funny Games (at the very least, it lacks Haneke’s condescension). There is an artfulness in the direction and a condemnation of violence that is extremely involving and yet confusing. Unfortunately, the strange final scene makes a mockery of what precedes it. I suppose one could argue that it is the signifier of the complete moral decay of the father but there isn’t too much in the text to support that claim.