Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fixing my own mistakes: Bible Camp Bloodbath (2010)

The movie Martyrs has made me question a few things about my own book, Bible Camp Bloodbath. I think Martyrs was smart, and even admirable in its clarity of vision, but it was so hopeless. It really didn't leave anything for the reader to hold on to. In my review of Martyrs I talk about this in more detail, but the point is that I didn't enjoy it. I appreciated its skill, but I won't ever sit down and watch it again, no matter how effective and focused it was.

When I wrote Bible Camp Bloodbath I think I had that same obsessive focus of vision in mind as a goal. I wanted to write a book that was the kind of slasher movie people were afraid to make, a movie where the children died, where a psychotic killer didn't get stopped at the end. He just runs out of people to kill.

And I had a good time writing the book. There was a perverse kind of fun to the murders, and a humour that I thought kept the book from being entirely hopeless. But now I think maybe that humour stopped being enough in the last chapters. The book became a single minded machine for killing every single child as horrifically as possible. The characters didn't have any agency in those final chapters, they could only react to this monster pursuing them. They could only think sad, hopeless things to themselves as they died. The murders took on the structure of jokes, with setups and inevitable punchlines.

And even writing this down, that sounds like something good to me. It sounds pure in a strange way, and conceptually clean. But I am not sure that I write books so that they can be this pure and clean. I want people to read them and to love them, and people don't fall in love with jokes. Actually, I can't speak for people in general. I don't fall in love with jokes. I enjoy them, and I will laugh at a joke, but a book like a joke will never be my favourite book. I fall in love with characters and imagination.

I want to write books that are filled with those things, and with hope, even if it is just the promise of hope. There are movies I love that have hopeless endings. Pan's Labyrinth. The Mist. But they have the promise of hope in them, too. Their characters fight to survive, and to escape. Rereading Bible Camp Bloodbath after watching Martyrs, it reads to me like a shooting gallery. There are characters and scenes that I think are great, that I am proud of, and that I think deserve a better book. Characters that deserve a book that I myself would love.

So I am going to make it into that book. You don't hear about writers rewriting their own books very often, but who cares? The original version will still exist, and will still be around for people who do appreciate that hopelessness and focus of vision. But I think I made a mistake, and so I am going to go back and fix it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Are strong women allowed to wear panties? Alien (1979)

Alien is a classic. It is claustrophobic and excruciatingly well paced. This is a movie that has stood the test of time. And in some ways it is a very feminist movie. It has a strong and imperfect hero in Ellen Ripley. Even better - she's not defined by motherhood or a romantic relationship. But she's also significantly de-feminized. She's just one of the guys. 

Ellen Ripley is strong and competent. She acts to improve her own chances of survival while many of the supporting characters simply react. But to play a normally male role, it seems like Ripley has to be less of a woman. No makeup. No hint of a woman's body underneath that jumpsuit. 

And on one level, I appreciate this blending of gender roles. I am drawn to her as a character because of this appealing mix of androgyny and competence. But I worry that the intention behind these characteristics might not be in line with why I like them. Do the creators think she has to be masculine in order to be competent? Is this the only way the movie-going public will believe a woman can kick an alien's ass? But then again, women like this really exist. Masculine women and feminine men from all along the spectrum are very real, and often underrepresented in film. 

And then, to make the question even more confusing, they put Ripley in the skimpiest panties I've ever seen for the climactic showdown. It strikes me every time as an insane and jarring choice that seems to be a calculated attempt to up the sex appeal of a movie that didn't want or need it. A woman in panties is certainly not uncommon in the horror genre. But then again, maybe it also feminizes her. Very suddenly and VERY clearly we can see that she is a woman. And, in this new form, she carries on being strong and decisive. 

So is this a scene put in to add sex appeal, or does it more fully flesh out a strong female character to allow us to see that femininity need not be distinct from strength? Or is it both? Maybe I am being weirdly prudish by dismissing calculated sex appeal as un-feminist. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Clarity of vision: Martyrs (2008)

Martyrs is very nearly a perfect movie, but I'm not sure it is a movie I'm glad to have seen. The first half of it is violent and twisting and a lot of grisly fun. There's even a strange bloody ghost that is used so sparingly that you sometimes forget about it before it shows up again. That's a neat trick, and for the first half of Martyrs, I loved it. It was gross, but so clever and sharp, too. But then it twists again, and becomes something a little more single minded.

And, let's be clear, I think this is a very smart movie. I think the idea behind the last half of the movie is interesting, and the film's sudden dedication to demonstrating that idea is wholehearted and strangely admirable. But at the halfway point, this movie starts taking away hope. Not just from the main character, but from the viewer as well. There is a solid half an hour of the main character being tortured and beaten. It is horrible but it is also repetitive. It goes on and on so long that it numbs you to the violence. You get to the point where you are simply enduring it, even though you know that there is no light at the end of the tunnel for the main character. There's no way she'll live. You are enduring it the same way she is. The viewer's instinct to watch to the end of the movie is the same as her instinct to live, even though both she and I would have suffered less if I just turned it off right there.

By the last ten minutes of the film, I didn't want to be watching anymore. There was no way out, and it had been made very clear that the only possibility was more torture. More torture and hopelessness.

And I know this was on purpose, and it was done so very well, but jesus fuck. This movie just emptied me out. It messed me up for days afterward. It was ugly and empty and so effective. And yes, I think it might be brilliant. I wish I hadn't watched it.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Horror Movie Recommendations: Part 1/3 (The Important movies.)

These are movies that I think everyone has to see. Most of these are on every best horror movie list, and I think maybe because they're so omnipresent and old, it's easy for people to ignore them. A lot of movies on those "best horror movie" lists are boring as hell. These might not be the best horror movies ever made, but they are an important part of what *I* love about horror, and I think the horror genre would be much lesser without them. A lot has been written about these movies already, so I will try to focus on how they affected me personally.

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1. Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) This is one of my favourite films. I wrote an essay about it earlier this year, but here I will simply say that it is one of the most visually imaginative and creepy movies of the eighties. Despite the 80s cheese, it has some amazingly creepy scenes that still stick with me. A scene where there's a lamb braying in a hallway for no reason, with a wail like a baby. And a scene where a girl is in a clear body bag, opening and closing her mouth like a fish. This is a movie that takes nightmares seriously and understands what makes them scary.

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2. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)  The original TCM is not a perfect movie by any means, but it is devastating. There's a briefness to the violence that makes me more sick to my stomach than any of the extended torture scenes in the remake could. Someone will be alive, walking, talking, and then BAM. He's not a person anymore. He's a convulsing, twitching piece of meat. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has other amazing parts too, the weird animal confusion and frustration of Leatherface when he first finds someone in his house for instance. But first and foremost this is a movie where the horror comes from realizing that you are just meat.

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3. The Exorcist  (1973) I didn't see the Exorcist until I was in my early twenties. I had seen parodies on the Simpsons and a dozen other places, and I didn't think I was missing much. This was a movie people had found frightening in the seventies. There was no way it could compare to modern horror movies, I thought. When I did see it, finally, it blew my mind. It seemed dangerous and over the line, and I honestly couldn't believe that a major studio had made the film. The acting is great and the special effects are mostly great too. But the defilement of the little girl in this movie is truly shocking. Her head twisting around is funny on the Simpsons, but visceral on the screen. And the Simpsons never once had anyone stabbing themselves bloody in the vagina with a crucifix and then smearing their own mother's face in the blood.

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4. The Others (2001) The Others is another movie I recently posted about. It is perfect in almost every way, and builds atmosphere and tension as much through character as through setting and circumstance. It is creepy as fuck, and has a twist at the end that not only makes perfect sense, but which only makes the movie more interesting and satisfying to watch. I watch this movie at least once a year. It is a haunted house movie that understands why haunted house movies are scary. And it understands that sadness can be so much more chilling than gore.

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5. Slither (2006) Slither is a strange, strange movie. I was tempted to save this for the next section of recommendations (Interesting, rather than Important) but Slither is important to me, if not necessarily to Horror as a genre. Slither is about an invasion of slug creatures that take over people's brains, and it does everything just a little bit differently. The characters are well developed and compelling, especially the first victim of the slugs - the main character's rich, controlling husband. He's painted as a jerk right away, but then the film undercuts this at almost every turn, showing us moments of caring and compassion. On characterization and hilarious dialogue alone, Slither would be one of my favourite horror movies, but it is also constantly one-upping itself with disgusting biological nonsense and some unsettlingly dark humour. It has a great B-Movie mentality about the creatures and the gore, especially when people start getting pregnant.

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6. The Evil Dead (1981)  Evil Dead was the first horror movie I ever LOVED. Right down to the weird sound design, I think this movie is great. It doesn't get as much respect as its sequel/sort-of-remake, Evil Dead II but I enjoy it much more. Evil Dead II is a comedy. It sets out to be campy right from the start, but the original Evil Dead is genuinely trying to be scary. It often fails and is often unintentionally hilarious (or, as with the tree rape scene, offensive) but there are some great scares in Evil Dead. The woman in the cellar, and the possessed friend who just sits there giggling are great. Because why wouldn't evil taunt and tease you before killing you? Why wouldn't it try to drive you mad?

Part 2 of this recommendation list will be "Interesting" movies, movies that aren't exactly successful, but which try something original or different and are definitely worth watching.

Part 3 of the recommendations will be "Fun" movies. Horror movies that are just great gory ridiculous fun. Maybe not so scary, but definitely awesome.