Halloween Recommendation: Trick ‘r Treat (The movie, not the activity)

If you haven’t done so, do yourself a favor and pick up Trick ‘r Treat for annual Halloween viewing. It’s a pretty perfect horror love letter to the season of jack-o-lanterns and gratuitously sexy costumes for the ladies.

Anthology horror films are often uneven. One good story here, one or two bad stories there, then one or two middling “could take it or leave it” stories and voila, there’s your film. Trick ‘r Treat doesn’t much suffer from unevenness, in part because all of its stories improbably belong to a shared universe–hell, not even a universe; all these separate Halloween horror hi-jinks happen in the same small town and on the same night–and the movie is cleverly presented in a non-linear fashion. You get a snippet of a story here, a bit more of another one there, then that segues into the third, then eventually we lock in for an extended stretch on one tale or another, see it through to its climax before moving on yet again. Then toward the end there’s a satisfying denouement for everything we’ve witnessed.

I mention the “improbability” of the story’s setting, which is a bit pedantic given that we’re talking about a story heavy on supernatural characters. A lot of people tend to read something like that and think, “why are you complaining about implausibility / realism in a story that features the undead and the literal spirit of Halloween.” Two responses to that: one, even a story with unrealistic creatures and an unrealistic setting has to maintain plausibility within the context of its own rules and the general rules of its genre; two, who says I’m complaining? The ridiculousness of one small town becoming an inadvertent nexus for multiple, very loosely related supernatural occurrences is one of the “invisible” elements of the movie that keeps it fun and ideal for the season, despite going into some very grim subject matter. No half-assed explanations are offered or needed. The comedic elements, soundtrack and performances are move obvious signs that this isn’t designed to be extremely dark or scarring, but the setting and circumstances inform us of the same without calling attention to themselves.

trick r treat posterHere’s a simple breakdown of the vignettes in Trick ‘r Treat: to set the tone, a woman in the opening violates a simple Halloween “tradition” (that I had never heard of before) and pays dearly; the local elementary school’s principal has to deal with backyard body disposal (and a son who’s eager to carve up a jack-o-lantern); a prank based on the legend of a horrible school bus massacre produces even worse results than you’d expect the words “prank” or “legend of a massacre” to produce in a horror flick; a young woman dressed as Red Riding Hood is stalked by a proverbial “wolf” who appears to be a vampire; and finally a curmudgeonly recluse refuses to get into the spirit of the season, and ends up getting tormented by the literal spirit of the season. The Little Red Riding Hood story (starring Anna Paquin) is probably the least of the bunch as a whole–still good, but not in the same class as the others–but it comes with a delightfully insane and audacious payoff. The rest of the stories are all running stride for stride for 1st place. I’d add more detail, but it’s so much better for you to see it for yourself.

As I mentioned in the previous recommendation, Halloween has a unique festiveness to it. It’s a grand masquerade where everyone who wants to participate is invited. It brings with it an understanding that it’s okay to have fun with scary ideas. It’s a release that allows us to be a bit frivolous with even some of the grimmest, darkest ideas imaginable. Atmosphere counts for a lot with any horror story, but especially for suitable Halloween fare. Execution as well. It helps keep the story relatively accessible and fun despite some shit that’s pretty disturbing if you think more than half-a-second about it. Trick ‘r Treat doesn’t pull punches, but it picks you up, brushes you off and offers you a drink after it chins you. I can’t praise it enough.

 

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Gone Girl and Others: Connecting the Dots to Politicize Fiction

Fiction has long been a battleground for political and philosophical warfare. The latest movie and novel commandeered by many commentators–professional and recreational–is Gone Girl. And it strikes me as a little absurd.

A little preface before I go on. For starters, I’m not big on post-modern “death of the author” stuff for this precise reason. As soon as you tell an author that their opinion of the meaning of their own work isn’t more valuable than someone else’s interpretation, you allow the interpreter to comment directly on the author themselves. The work by itself isn’t misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, etc.; the author, by necessary extension is also what the book is accused of, and I can’t be cool with accusing someone of that unless it’s blatantly obvious. Secondly, in general, I tend to have a bias toward investing more in the story itself than deeper meanings and politics of the story, particularly when you can’t draw a straight line between the story or a character and what they’re allegedly supposed to represent in the real world. Lastly, be warned, spoilers ahoy.

Getting right to the point, the biggest controversy over the movie adaptation of Flynn’s novel Gone Girl is whether or not the female antagonist, Amy, is a misogynistic character representing sexist stereotypes of a crazy manipulative woman who fakes sexual assault and abuse to get her way. Now, it’s obviously sick and sad that such stereotypes exist, and I’d be an idiot to think that there are no people out there, already nursing those beliefs, who wouldn’t see Amy as reinforcing their fucked up notions of how women are programmed to behave. But those people are nutjobs who are liable to see anything as reinforcement of their beliefs. We have to pay attention to the nutjobs, as Bill Burr hilariously pointed out once upon a time, but we shouldn’t be letting them drive the gotdamn conversation. Amy is not just a “crazy woman scorned who went over the edge,” or some shit. She’s a supervillain. She’s Hannibal Lecter. She’s Tom Ripley. She’s Ferris Bueller. She’s an urbane psychopath, the murderer in what amounts to a satirical horror-thriller. I’ve met some pleasant people in my day. I’ve met some fucked up people. I’ve even met one person who literally attempted to murder me. None of these people are anywhere near the level of Amy’s character. She’s an exceptional fictional sociopath. A Bond villain who sets a trap for her victim, steps away to let the trap play out, and actually succeeds. She is in no more directly representative of any group of “normal” people in the real world than Victor Zsasz or Catherine Tramell.

If you want to somehow relate her to certain negative female stereotypes, you have to at least recognize and acknowledge that A) you’re playing connect the dots, and B) at least a couple of those dots don’t exist unless you draw them in yourself. This is happening presently with Gone Girl, but it’s far from the first work of pop fiction to have this happen, and it won’t be the last. My favorite example of extreme dot-connecting for a relatively recent, popular movie comes from The Dark Knight. I love this example because of–to me, at least–how ridiculous it is when you take what the actual story gives you at face value instead of letting confirmation bias skew your view of it.

Near the end, Batman has to rely on invasive, city-wide surveillance to stop The Joker from bombing the shit out of hundreds of people on two different boats. People ran with this as a commentary on government surveillance being ultimately good for us, to fight terrorism and secure safety. Problem is, that assessment doesn’t hold up. You can’t draw a straight-line to that conclusion; the line you’re drawing to get there has to curve around all of this obvious shit laid out in the movie:

– No official, recognized authority figures are in charge of this surveillance. It’s just one guy: motherfucking Batman. The most famously justice-obsessed and morally inflexible superhero of all time. The only guy who you can trust would only be using this for good instead of evil because he’s pathologically motivated to do the right thing. That guy. And even then he’s only using it out of desperation because…

– He’s not fighting anything remotely resembling a real world terrorist who is limited by the laws of nature. He’s fighting a monster clown who appears wherever he wants to like a phantom, and whose litany of crimes warrants its own list.

  • Kills several cops
  • Car bombs a judge
  • Sneaks acid-poison-stuff into Police Commissioner’s favorite drink in his own damn office
  • Gets into the front row of the Commissioner’s funeral so he can take a direct shot with a loaded rifle at the Mayor, despite the fact that everyone in the city is looking for him
  • Launches an expertly coordinated assault on a police transport caravan that necessitates taking out a SWAT van and police helicopter and re-routing the entire transport
  • Blows up a police station
  • Sneaks enough explosives into a hospital to blow it up despite the fact that everyone in the city is looking for him
  • Sneaks several drums of explosives onto two evacuation ferries despite the fact that everyone in the city is evacuating from / looking for him

– Despite all of this, it’s made clear by the end of the movie that the only good guys who are aware of this surveillance machine think it’s wrong and see that it’s rendered non-functional after they finally get their man

Now, that’s a whole lot of information, and some people might be inclined to say that if you have to write all of that to defend the movie’s “politics” then those politics are indefensible. But the thing I shouldn’t have to write all of that; it’s all right there in the movie for anyone who’s bothering to pay attention to what they’re watching. It’s all the stuff in a story that clearly tells a reader or viewer, “Hey, the actions taken by these characters are informed by what happens to them in this exact work of fiction. Don’t try to apply everything that they do to the general rules of the real world because outside of the context of these precise circumstances that I’ve written–also known as the gotdamn plot–these actions and motivations might not make sense.” Sure it’s easier to ignore all of the obvious stuff if it inconveniences the point you’re trying to make, just like it’s easier to ignore the proof that the Earth is round if it inconveniences your assertion that the Earth is flat. But the “easier” argument isn’t necessarily the correct one, or even an argument that deserves to be made, particularly if you have to ignore the facts of the situation to make it.

The same goes for countless other stories that people love to erroneously politicize. Gone Girl is just the story d’jour. The movie blatantly shows us that Amy’s tactics and manipulations are the work of an evil genius who catches more than a few breaks for her plan to work smoothly, and whose only tactical “flaw” is hubris. It’s right there in the movie for you to see: more than likely this is not the behavior of anyone you will ever, ever, ever meet in your life. I know a lot of smart people, but very, very few master-plan-crafting geniuses, and exactly zero master-plan-crafting geniuses who can or would singlehandedly and near-flawlessly use their talents to destroy several other lives across a time span of a decade or more, manipulate national media and multiple levels of law enforcement, improvise a new course of action when the game changes, and not only not get caught, but come out on the other end looking like the good guy, and having gained even more than you wanted in the first place. Go read that last sentence again. Have you ever even been the same building with someone who would even think to try to pull all that shit off, much less succeed? Unless you’re Will Graham, I’m going to wager that no, you probably haven’t. She isn’t a misogynistic character. She’s Michael Myers, just with dialogue and a clearly stated motive. She is, in every sense, not a real person.

So I say all of this to point out that, you know… not every movie is Birth of a Nation. I know that there are irrational, reprehensible people out there who harbor irrational, reprehensible beliefs, and they can look at any work of art, or any news clip, or any historical text, or anything and twist a malformed interpretation out of it to show it “supports” their irrational, reprehensible views. And we should pay attention to those people, because they can be dangerous. But with a work of fiction, those people should not be driving the conversation about that work of fiction. We should not look at a story and say, “Well, this could be corrupted and misinterpreted by somebody with fucked up views so that they could argue that it reinforces their fucked up views, so therefore the work itself must actually be supporting those fucked up views.” No. Stop that. That does not make sense, and you know it doesn’t.

That is all.

 

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: The Blair Witch Project

I understand why a lot of people hated The Blair Witch Project. When it was first released over a decade ago I didn’t understand the negativity, but it didn’t take long for me to figure it out. And no, I’m not blaming it on “Hype Backlash,” though that was probably a part of it. Truth is, it’s not a very good film. It was, upon initial viewing, a great experience for me, but when you break down actual movie components like plotting, pacing, and acting, it ranges from serviceable to questionable. I own the DVD and the movie itself has very little replay value. I’ve watched the faux-documentary several times but I’ve only watched the movie itself twice in its entirety.

At the time, my best friend and I were practically obsessed with horror movies. Now, we’re longstanding movie fanatics in general, but our horror geekdom in the late 90’s was rapidly approaching critical mass. Mind you, we were two tall, athletic black dudes who did okay with the ladies and didn’t shop at Hot Topic, so we didn’t fit the any visual stereotype for horror movie nerds.

Nonetheless, we were both enamored with horror movies, at a level that probably should have embarrassed us. I spent an inordinate amount of time on the internet reading up on and discussing horror flicks. This, of course, is how I (along with many others) came to know of The Blair Witch Project several months prior to its wide release. I can’t remember where I first heard mention of it, but more than likely it was through Dark Horizons. I do remember reading quotes from people who had attended advanced screenings. One quote in particular stood out to me: “I feel like I just got punched in the stomach.”

Who wouldn’t want to watch a movie that made you feel like this?

There wasn’t ever a time when I believed it was actually a “true story.” Even back when I was still frequently awed by the sheer world-wideness of the web, my search-fu was strong. Maybe not Bruce Lee strong, but at the very least Bruce Li strong. Some simple web navigation uncovered that the story was entirely fictional–no missing film students, no basis for the legend–and I think that might have actually heightened my appreciation for the well-crafted backstory.

The most enduring element of Blair Witch for me is the “fakelore” at its foundation. I find the idea of the supernatural entertaining and intriguing, and I’m a bit of a history fan, so I’m always drawn to ghostly legends. The story of Elly Kedward is quite convincing for what it is. Her exile from the town, the subsequent disappearances of children and other bizarre, unexplained events come off as a plausible embellishment. Obviously untrue, and yet possessing some small level of verisimilitude. Of course a pale hand didn’t actually reach from out from within Tappy East Creek to pull a little girl named Eileen Treacle underwater, but could there have been an actual drowning that inspired that tale?

… It was a lot scarier in my head…

Well… no… thankfully there wasn’t, but the fact that it’s all entirely made up just makes it all the more impressive to me. I still think that much of the best writing and storytelling done for The Blair Witch Project never actually made it to the big screen.

I had told my friend about this movie and linked him to its internet viral marketing and lo and behold, he caught the Blair Witch bug same as me. Nearly every review we read was not merely positive, but almost cautionary. I’ve always wanted to write a story that inspires a critic to say something along the lines of, “So scary I can’t even recommend it.” That was damn near how the Blair Witch reviews read, at least to me. This movie seemed to exhibit the motif of harmful sensation: it was so terrifying that it was actually causing viewers physical distress! That turned out to be mostly or entirely due to motion sickness brought about by the camera constantly moving around so much it has a U-HAUL rewards card. But at the time not many reviewers explicitly stated this, either because they did not realize the true source of their nausea, or because at the time copping to motion sickness from watching a movie was like admitting to a fear of clowns in the pre-Poltergeist or IT era: AKA “Before it Somehow Became ‘Cool’ to Have a Fear of Clowns.'”

Scary Clown Happy Clown
Scary. Jovial. These words are not synonyms. These pictures are not similar. Calm yourself…

Our anticipation for this film had reached a point where there was essentially no way it could have hoped to live up to expectations. Mind you, this was well before the mainstream movie-going public had heard of the film, and possibly before it had been picked up by Artisan for distribution. We had not been lured to see this thanks to a bombardment of television ads promising a rollicking, fearful theme park ride. We had created more than enough pre-release hype for ourselves. So when my boy scored tickets to an advance screening there was much rejoicing and high-fiving.

When we finally saw the movie, well, as I mentioned, it was a memorable experience despite the fact that at around the midpoint of the film I started to wonder, “So when is thing actually supposed to get scary?” The answer came in the last ten minutes or so of the film when the tortuously slow build up finally leads to something, and I will close this Confessions entry with a few things that remain with me from that first viewing, and from the film’s ending.

1. The woman next to me held my hand during the film’s final few minutes. She was blonde, and I remember thinking she was probably in her mid-30’s or so. Reasonably attractive, I think. And a total stranger. I had never seen her before and if I’ve seen her since I did not recognize her. But right around the time that Heather and Mike made it to the house in the woods, she gripped my hand like she’d fall into an abyss if she let go. For my part, I did not pull away. I also did not say anything about it to her because…

2. No one in my theater spoke after the movie was over. Or if anyone did, it was as “quiet as an ant not even thinking of pissing on cotton” as Gene Hackman said in Heist. It was unspeakably eerie, marching out of that theater surrounded by the ponderous silence. When we reached the theater lobby and there were people talking and enjoying themselves like normal human beings in a movie theater should, it was jarring. Almost offensive. For a moment there we were a procession of the walking dead exiting our own mass funeral. How dare anyone in our vicinity hold a conversation, much less laugh and jest with one another?

3. I was surprised to see it was daylight outside, but couldn’t quite understand why. In hindsight, the damn movie dragged so much in the first three-quarters or so that it feels like it’s taking you several hours to slog through it. But at the time… at the time, the daylight seemed out of place, and worse still illusory. Fragile.

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