2011: Interesting Horror Movies – Part I

YellowBrickRoad

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Undoubtedly, one of the most controversial films of 2011 (note: made in 2010 but released in 2011), merely because of arguments over whether it was good or not. And as the reviews seem to mirror, it is somewhere in between. Imdb gives the film an average 4.6 rating while Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an even 40%. These numbers even seem to define the general reception of the film, in that it lies somewhere between a creepy idea stunted by it’s own crappy execution.

For the most part I enjoyed the filters used by the directors in the cameras, as it gave the natural setting a washed out feel which I felt reflected the general tone that the film was attempting to reach: The idea that in a world being overcome by stimulation our psyches become increasingly faded. This can be seen by the continuing movie-motif which runs rampant throughout the film and the creepy music emanating from nowhere playing from the sky, the ground, the trees, the grass. The fact that the travelers are unable to escape this music suggests they are unable to escape these elements of their lives and goes so far as to indicate that perhaps these people were all “crazy” and “doomed” before they even got on the trail.

Personally, the premise of the film is what makes this film so interesting. The, of course, fake “based on true events” story, aside, this film follows a group of travelers farther and farther into the woods as they increasingly become more and more violent and insane. I can’t argue for the sake of the actors, generally they were not up to par – the twists and turns were more engaging than any of the characters really were. But the idea of nature being a creepy enemy in itself against the travelers was frightening to me! Normally nature is a site of safety and nurture, in this case it is anything but. I suppose what comes to mind is parallels to the Blair Witch Project (1999). I would honestly argue that this film fits right into a similar category: Bunch of travelers + a great mystery + the woods = increasing insanity and increasing fear.

What the two also share in common is a very unsatisfying ending. Specifically for YellowBrickRoad the ending, obviously meant to entice some sort of “wait, what just happened” ending, falls flat and comes off as forced. This is another area where instead of having a serious moment of engagement the audience will snicker at the absurdity. This also includes most of the gore in the film. Again, what was strongest in this film was the intangible and the imagination behind it: stronger than the actual delivery of said ideas. When I say intangible I’m again referring to the music which continuously plays, for example, and the way in which it affects the group. Or the fact that a simple hat can ignite a murder.

To conclude, while this film had some serious promise, it seems that its ideas were bigger than the technical and even sometimes written ability could handle. It had some creepy ideas and some even creepier premises, but on the whole the acting combined with the rushed ending felt cheap and unimpressive. What the film excels at, however, is creating the creepy atmosphere which leaves you with some memorable moments regardless of whether you truly enjoyed the film or not.

Surprising Movies Directed by Women

I’m not saying this is the best women have to offer. I’m not saying this is all they have to offer, either. Those are other lists for other times. What this list offers is surprising films directed by women, you may not have realized that were made by women or they may just be surprising in some other way. In no particular order:

10) Lords of Dogtown (2005) – Catherine Hardwick 

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Yes, in the days before Twilight and Red Riding Hood Ms Hardwick actually used to make good movies. The movie follows the growing trend of skateboarding in the 1970’s and embodies the spirit of male youthful rowdiness well. This movie is also subtly surprisng based on the fact that her one proir film was chick-flick drama Thirteen. Quite a leap between female-based teenage angst and depression to spirited young males.

9) American Psycho (2000) – Mary Harron

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The seminal interpretation of Bret Easton Ellis’ eponymous novel, American Psycho was indeed directed by a woman and a Canadian one at that (Pride!). This biting commentary on social and economical issues in the 1980’s is tame in comparison to it’s gruesome book father but I would argue this is a good thing. Harron knew exactly where to tone down and amp up certain elements for a strong narrative. The book, in my opinion was simply too much. The movie, while also over the top is brilliant in it’s execution, and Christian Bale truly shined in this film. Harron was brave to take on this film, of which there were strong public protest against. However, she was able to read the book as the social commentary that it is, rather than the smut-novel some interpreted it as. 

8) Chocolat (1988) – Claire Denis

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While it may not be particularly surprising that this film was made by a woman, what makes it surprising is that this was Claire’s first feature film. What makes this film wonderful is the mix between childhood understanding of the situation (colonialism) and what is actually happening under the surface. Ms. Denis creates characters who are so complex we often have a hard time categorizing the bad guys from the good guys. No one is perfect. It is the maturity and complexity of this film which makes it so wonderful.

7) Billy Madison (1995) – Tamra Davis

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Love it or hate it, you know you didn’t think this film was made by a woman especially considering all the “rack” and “fine piece of ace” talk. Or maybe it’s just so moronic it didn’t strike you as the work of a woman. Regardless, this hilarious film was directed by the same woman who brought you both Half Baked (1998) and Crossroads (2002) – yeah that’s right. Ladies can have eclectic tastes. 

6) Strange Days (1995) – Kathryn Bigelow

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Of course there needs to be a Bigelow film on the list. Think what you may of her – fabulous, overrated – Bigelow is in a place where every female director would strive to be (first woman to win an oscar, no big deal). I chose Strange Days and not her most well known work The Hurt Locker (2008) because I love a woman doing a sci-fi. I also really enjoyed the creepy mystery quality of this film, and felt it was more fast paced than her oscar winning child. Based on her repitiore of work, Ms. Bigelow has never been one to shy away from a project. She is also responsible for such films as Near Dark (1987), Blue Steel (1989) and Point Break (1991).

5) Orlando (1992) – Sally Potter

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While, again, this film may not be surprising to learn it was directed by a female as it is based on Virgina Woolf’s novel of the same name – it is surprising in the absolute sheer quality. The film has a visual pleasure and narrative (Thanks Laura Mulvey) that is undeniable with cinematography that is picturesque. It also stars a young and relatively unknown Tilda Swinton as young Orlando, the nobleman who doesn’t age and suddenly becomes a woman. This was also one of the first feature films for Sally, and one of the first non- avant-garde films she made, the influence of which, however, still seeps through and cannot be ignored. 

4) Ravenous (1999) – Antonia Bird

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Yes, yes I know I’ve already talked about this film, but common! A western-horror about Cannibalism. That’s surprising! And the way this film is laid out is actually quite genius. The pacing is always one step ahead of you and you’ll never really be able to guess what happens next.

3) Fat Girl (2001) – Catherine Breillat

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Breillet, a director always surrounded in controversy, leaves no exceptions in the film Fat Girl. Following the exploits of two sisters, and the adventure into love and sexuality, it is the ending which is truly surprising. And I’ll leave it at that.

2) Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) – Amy Heckerling 

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The most stoned of all stoner comedies, this foul mouthed, crude and lewd film about high school kids concerned with sex, drugs and surfing was indeed directed by a female. And most surpringly, Hecerkling went on to make chick-flick comedy #1 Clueless (1995).

1) Wayne’s World (1992) – Penelope Spheeris

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This seminal 90’s stoner comedy was female made. I don’t know about anyone else but this movie was my childhood. Penelope is one to prove that not all women make just down trodden depressing dramas, but has a great sense of humor too. Ms. Spheeris is autuer to other films such as Black Sheep (1996) and The Beverly Hillbillies (1993).

True Grit: Riding Off of Pseudo-Feminism

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I’m a bit late to the True Grit Bandwagon, but I finally got Netflix which is giving me some much needed “catching-up” time for my films. So, as a Coen fan I decided to watch this film, I knew it had received mixed reviews and was generally regarded as “not the best” out of the Coen’s repertoire of work. I had also heard the classic controversy behind remaking a classic 1969 John Wayne cowboy flick. Regardless of my pre-conceived expectations I was intreguied by the prostpect of having a 14 year old girl upfront and center in the action.

Real life 14 year old Hailee Steinfeld did not disappoint in the role of Mattie Ross: she was tough, in your face and I loved how she would “duel” the older men with her words winning battles of wits. And while I just discussed the Coen brothers, this dicussion of the film is not overly concerned with the role of remake, the directors, cinematography, quality of acting (of course everyone was impeccably cast) etc. What I’m concerned with here is the actual role of Mattie Ross, as I feel something quite tricky happens in the film.

Out of thousands and thousands of Western films and titles, only a handful of those films are directed or made by females. What I’ve found in regards to female-made Westerns in my experience, is that women employ a twist on the conventional genre expectations: sure gunslingers, horses, and saloons are intact, but something else is at work, something unexpected. Take Ravenous (1999, Antonia Bird) for example:

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Ravenous is the tale of John Boyd’s (Guy Pierce) station to a far-off isolated fort in the middle of the wilderness. What begins as a tale of western-machismo turns into a battle between Cannibals (that’s right!). Boyd and F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), as pictured above, fight over the power and self-destructive danger that cannibalism offers. Besides Cannibals, Bird has mixed genres, adding horror to the sometimes stereotypical genre of the western.

Side note: This is also quite an excellent movie and one of those relatively unknown horrors, with a soundtrack that is unintentionally hilarious and charming at the same time (check: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2V-KLn_PgQg&feature=related).

Another example, and perhaps what I was expecting True Grit to be more like is Kelly Reichardt’s film Meek’s Cutoff (2010) starring Michelle Williams.

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In this film a group of settlers become lost following the traveler Meek. Nearing the end of their water supply and the end of their hopes an “Indian” comes too close and they take the man captive. Due to hysteria the settlers decide they are going to murder the Native man. Michelle’s character, Emily, comes to the rescue of the man as she is the only one to realize the gravity of their situation as well as the fact that this man is their only real hope at any kind of survival.

This film actually leads into an interesting comparison and my general point about True Grit, the fact that both films were made in 2010 a happy coincidence as well. While True Grit is, indeed, different because it uses a female lead upfront and center, she is merely false-front for the real hero of the film: Jeff Bridges’ character of Rooster Cogburn. This is not a film about Mattie Ross’ avenging her father’s death as one would belive on the surface, it is a story about Cogburn’s redemption. The opposite is true in the case of Meek’s Cutoff: This is not actually the story of Meek leading the travelers to new lands and his heroism, it is about Emily being the most level-headed traveler, and acting more appropriately and nescessry for survival in that she is free from the idealistic patriarchal thinking and can actually see the gravity of their situation. 

So, to wrap things up, True Grit promises to be what Meek’s Cutoff is, only to turn the switch. I could defend my argument more by citing Laura Mulvey and how Mattie encures punishment for her hubris (her arm being cut off at the ending after being bitten by a snake), but I will spare the lengthy academics.

Cabin in the Woods – Review: Slasher Stereotypes to Mythic Proportions

**Spoilers**

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A horror film which will, no doubt, be on the top of every fanatic’s list for 2012 and for just cause. Mixing humor, gore, classic horror tropes, a mythical twist and Sigourney Weaver cameos, this movie is one of the most original to come out in a very long time. I enjoyed the intentional play on classic horror movie tropes, such as the virgin-as-last-to-live/die and the heroic jock meeting his doom – as well as the simultaneous break of conventions, such as the funny man (generally one of the first to die) returning to save the day.

The shift from rural cabin in the woods to computer controlled, underground lair was wonderful and threw you off course just enough to keep you on the edge of your seat the entire time. I found the scene in the elevator to be particualiry illuminating, bringing in all the classic horror creatures. The idea of them being kept captive only to be let out in a ritual sacrifice-type performance was kind of terrifying to me. But again the humor returns when a man is gored by a unicorn; no fabled creature is left out of this film.

If I were to complain about this film, it would be one thing (Joss Whedon fans don’t kill me): it was too short (a complaint you will never hear from me ever again)! I felt a lot of the deaths in the film could be played out longer and other than the one scene where the plethora of demons, ghosts and entities erupt from their holdings, there wasn’t enough blood for me! I am a bit of a gore fanatic and only the one aformentioned scene truely satisfied me. But perhaps that wasn’t the point of the movie? I can’t argue that though since this is Joss Whedon we’re talking about here… Vampires! 

Blood, however, is not the only reason I felt the film could have used some more weight. I really enjoyed the story behind the “evil” syndicate, and felt it could have been flushed out a lot more! The parts with Bradley Whitford were a hilarious source of comedic relief, as such I would not have minded seeing more!

To conclude, this film was wonderfully hilarious and a delightful twist on what originally seemed like a teen-slasher genre. The move from rural cabin in the woods to world destorying sacrificial ritual was a delightful disruption of normative horror films.  I also reveled in the various homages to Evil Dead such as when they first arrive at the cabin (I swear it was the same one) and also seen in the basement floorboard suddenly flipping upwards inviting the visitors to venture downstairs. 

So, last but not least … How to play cabin in the woods drinking game (Sneak a bottle of wine into the theater):

Drink When:
1) Someone dies (beware the third act!)
2) Stoner-guy does something stoner-ish
3) Anytime there is a stereotypical horror movie moment (i.e. opening the film with a girl in her undies)
4) Anytime you laugh, especially if it’s not a “punchline” joke

Drunkness and good times guaranteed!