Saturday, March 28, 2015

It Keeps Following

I just saw It Follows (2015), and I liked it. For most of the running time it was appropriately scary, and this is something that is often rare in horror movies. Proving once again that you don't need big name stars for a horror movie, It Follows is largely stocked with young unknowns, including the lead, Maika Monroe as Jay, a pretty blonde. After having sex with her boyfriend, she learns that she has just been transferred a curse: to be followed around by a nameless thing that takes the form of a single individual following the accursed. The follower may be male or female, young or old, naked or clothed, known to the accursed or not known, and it always walks at a steady pace with its eyes riveted on the accursed. If it catches up with you, it will touch you, and if it does, something bad will happen. I seem to remember playing schoolyard games of tag with this kind of premise--if "it" touches you, you become "it"--but the movie makes it somehow more relentless and awful.

Another thing about the thing: no one but you can see it coming, because to everyone else it's invisible. You can make it visible by covering it with a drape or having it throw a TV set at you, so in that sense it's physical, not spiritual. Supposedly if you have sex with someone, you can transfer the curse to that person, but there are a few codicils to this rule that seem to nullify it.

My biggest problem with It Follows is the ending. I thought the movie was just going into the third act, when suddenly the credits rolled. I like a frisson as much as the next horror fan, but this ending seemed to be more of a copout, setting up the sequel without bothering to tie up the present movie.

Overall, though, It Follows was scary and entertaining. The deformed destructive being (DDB) was at once utterly vague and completely incarnate, easily outrun but somehow always about to reach you.

George Ochoa

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The She-Beast

The She-Beast (1966) is one of those horror movies that is bad, but not so bad it's good. An Italian production, it involves a witch who centuries ago was dunked to death in a lake in Transylvania. It is hard to see what makes her so evil other than her hideous makeup job--her face all pebbled and grotesque, her teeth snaggled. As usual for this kind of movie, she vows vengeance against the local populace for killing her.

Flash forward to the present day. A just-married English couple decide to honeymoon in Transylvania, of all places, just around the day when the witch is supposed to reappear. The husband loses control of the steering wheel and the car splashes into the accursed lake. The husband gets out safely, but his bride (Barbara Steele) is missing--presumably lost in the lake. The witch reappears, perhaps revived by a jolt of Steele's spirit or something. The rest of the movie is mostly Transylvanian village high-jinks, with a ludicrous car chase wherein bumbling cops try to catch the husband and a local count--von Helsing, no less--and a gratuitous cock fight, a lecherous innkeeper, and a witch who is asleep most of the time. Finally it all works out, with Steele restored to her groom. However, in the last line, Steele hints she'll be back--the obligatory frisson, but with a bit of a chill that works better than most of the dialogue in the movie.

The worst thing about this movie is that it can't decide what genre it belongs to: horror or comedy. If horror, it fails miserably. The witch has a genuinely ghastly face, invoking the deformed part of the deformed-destructive formula necessary for a horror movie. But she isn't really destructive. Supposedly she is killing people, but it never becomes clear who or how many she kills. The movie never stops for a body count. Most of the time the witch seems to be played for laughs.

However, if this is a comedy, it also fails miserably. The attempts at humor, especially those by the innkeeper and the Keystone Kops-like police, are overly broad and repetitious. There are a few mildly humorous lines that allude to the Communists who are running the country, and how they expropriated von Helsing's castle, forcing him to live in a cave. But there aren't enough to save the movie.

About the only appealing thing in the movie is Barbara Steele, who is beautiful as usual, and always on the balance beam between good and evil. But there isn't very much of her. Most of the time she is in the lake, where we can't see her, and instead have to look at grimmer things, such as her groom and the witch.

George Ochoa

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Case of CASE 39

In my book, Deformed and Destructive Beings: the Purpose of Horror Films, I talk about how appearances in horror films affect actors' careers. The movie Case 39 (2009) is a case in point.

For those who missed it--probably many--Case 39 is an evil child horror movie, in the tradition of The Bad Seed and The Omen. All you need to make this type of film is a cute, wide-eyed, innocent-looking child who, when properly lit and coached, can look like the spawn of Satan (literally so in the case of The Omen). In Case 39, the child, Lilith (played by Jodelle Ferland), is apparently abused by her parents, so much so that when the social worker, Emily (Renee Zellweger), shows up one night, the parents are busy stuffing young Lilith into the oven, taping the oven shut, and setting it to bake. This does seem like a terrible thing to do to somebody, especially one's child, so Emily gets the parents arrested and takes Lilith home with her. This is where the trouble begins.

As cute as Lilith is, it turns out that she can force people to have terrible hallucinations that drive them to kill themselves, and is just generally, well, a bad seed. Zellweger figures out that Lilith is some sort of demon that does need to be destroyed, perhaps not in an oven but maybe in a a lake.

The movie is not a great horror film, though the good performances of Zellweger and Ferland boost it above the level of pure retread. What is most interesting is where it stands in Zellweger's career. Many are the actors who get their start doing horror films; a few advance beyond this level to become stars; and then some of these stars go back to doing horror films on the way down. This is Zellweger's fate. She started off appearing in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994), got her big break opposite Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire (1996), and went on to several strong starring vehicles such as Bridget Jones's Diary (2001). But by 2009, when Case 39 was released, she was not doing so well. It was the year she turned forty, good roles were hard to get, and so she appeared in Case 39. Her career has not yet recovered, though you never know what will happen next in Hollywood.

Just to show the symmetry of this, Bradley Cooper, who supported Zellweger in Case 39 as her boyfriend, was moving in the opposite direction at that point. He had already made a horror movie, The Midnight Meat Train (2008), and now was appearing in another one--Case 39. That same year, The Hangover (2009) was released--which was Cooper's big break. Since then his star has been rising, all the way to an Oscar nomination for best actor in American Sniper (2014).

It appears that horror films can be helpful to an actor's career, especially in the beginning, but can spell trouble later on. Aging can also be a problem, especially for women: Zellweger is six years older than Cooper. At least horror film fans are loyal. When other options are gone, there's always horror.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The "Being" in Deformed-Destructive Beings

I notice there has been some confusion about my use of the term "being" in the theory of deformed and destructive beings (DDBs, or monsters). Basically, "to be" is what a thing does insofar as it is just itself. A man asleep on the sofa is sleeping, but even more fundamentally he is "being"--existing, there, having the property of actuality. If there were no one on the sofa, the man would lack being; he would not be. However, my making you imagine him through words would give the man fictional being. He would not exist in actuality, but he would have a fictional existence; he would fictionally be.

My theory is that we have a hunger to know being--to know all of what exists, is actually there, even if it is just a man sleeping on the sofa. Most likely, this hunger has been given us by natural selection. People with curiosity and interest in the surrounding environment were more likely to survive to reproduce than people who paid no attention to what was around them. Knowledge of what had being gave our remote ancestors an advantage over all the other animals, because we not only knew what things were there; we could think about them, name them, figure out how to use them (if they were useful) or avoid them (if they were dangerous).

At least some of our ancestors specialized in knowing and conquering the dangerous things, such as lions, venomous snakes, and hostile humans from the tribe next door. Perhaps to know and conquer these things was a sexual display, intended to impress potential mates.

So pronounced was our hunger to know being--including the dangerous types--that we turned to fiction to come up with even more beings than actually existed. We created fiction--in prehistory as legends and myths; in modern times as novels and movies. To create new beings, we deformed the existing ones--gave them fictional features, such as the horn on the otherwise horselike unicorn. Some of these deformed beings were fictionally dangerous--ie, destructive if they had really existed. The fictional deformed-destructive beings were especially palatable to some of us who had inherited the genes for liking that sort of thing. And so the horror movie fan came into being.

Note: Some of the thoughts in this post are inspired by my reading Joseph Carroll's Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature, and thinking about how it applies to horror movies.

George Ochoa

Sunday, March 1, 2015

I'm Back

Well, I'm back. It's been nearly three years since I last posted to this blog, and I have a lot of catching up to do. For example, in 2012, shortly after my last post, a movie called The Possession came out, and I've only just seen it. I had grown tired of possession movies after seeing The Last Exorcism, so I had low expectations for this one. It was derivative, of course, rehashing all the moments that were done better in 1973's The Exorcist--the possessed little girl writhing, suffering from ugly makeup, performing feats of telekinesis. But The Possession had its moments, starting with a weird box the little girl, Emily (Natasha Calis), bought at a  yard sale. The box turns out to contain a demon, and, as a twist, it's a Jewish demon, a dybbuk, requiring a Jewish person to perform the exorcism in the movie's final act. Another twist: in the middle of the usual sequence in which medical science tries futilely to figure out what is wrong with the child, the doctors carry out an MRI, and they are astonished when they see this:

Yes, that is the demon in the left half of the image. You never saw that in The Exorcist. In fact, you get a good clear view of the demon crawling around a physical therapy room during the exorcism. In The Exorcist you see a statue of the demon, but that's all.

As in The Exorcist, the parents of the little girl are divorced, but in The Exorcist you never saw the father; the mother, Ellen Burstyn, has to save the girl on her own. This time it's the father, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who does more of the saving. Emily procures the wicked box while she is on her father's watch one weekend, and I suppose he feels responsible. The ex-wife, Kyra Sedgwick, is mainly fixated on blaming her ex and spending time with her boyfriend, until the dybbuk does a nice job of scaring away (or possibly killing) the boyfriend. In another interesting twist, the exorcism brings the family together, including a sister who has been mostly ignored while all the attention is given to the possessed girl. Now that Emily is safe again it is not outside the realm of possibility to think that Morgan and Sedgwick will remarry.

All things considered, The Possession was pretty good, dependent on its predecessors but with enough twists to keep my interest. Also, it fits well into my deformed-destructive theory of horror movies, spelled out at length in my book Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films. The demon is a deformed spirit, malevolent and rebellious against God, and physically repulsive when you get a look at it. And its deformity causes its destructiveness, which is revived at the end in a frisson involving a big motor vehicle crash and the box. People who love horror movies love a good deformed and destructive being, and this is served up in The Possession.

George Ochoa