Posts Tagged ‘horror’

Sequence Break (2016)

We’ve finally reached the point in horror filmmaking where directors and writers look back with fondness on the combination of schlock and awe that was 1980s horror. 80s Carpenter brought us The Thing and 80s Cronenberg brought us The Fly, so now we’re beginning to see films so clearly referential to both that they almost don’t need their own plots. Sequence Break from writer/director Graham Skipper, now at Fantasia Fest, is a horrific love letter to the 1980s, complete with pixelated horror graphics and some (very effective) body-horror a la Cronenberg.

This is the story of Oz (Chase Williamson), a young man who works at a shop repairing old arcade games. Informed by his boss that the shop is going to have to close, Oz hightails it to the nearest bar, where he meets fellow gaming enthusiast Tess (Fabianne Theresa), who takes a liking to him. The pair begin a sweet and tentative romance that is interrupted when a mysterious new game appears in the shop (along with a disheveled crazy man who occasionally appears to warn Oz about…something). As Oz becomes increasingly obsessed with the eight-bit video game, his world begins to fragment (literally) blasting him backward and forward in time and space as the game sucks him and Tess ever deeper into the void.

Sequence Break is one of those films with an intriguing premise that never completely pays off. It actually avoids being overly referential to its influences, instead attempting to build a world of its own design and with its own rules. What those rules are, however, becomes increasingly obscure, as the film never manages to create a coherent narrative around the fragmenting of Oz’s world. It’s not linear enough to be a mainstream horror film, but not fragmented enough to achieve the heights of surreal terror that it aspires to. The central romance, while sweet, still has a breath of wish-fulfillment behind it, with Tess almost aggressively pursuing Oz, who shyly ignores her for a good bit of the opening, more or less content in his anti-social world.

Although set in contemporary times, Sequence Break remains solidly enmeshed in 80s technology and culture – even aggressively so, as Oz refuses to buy a cell phone or a laptop. The nostalgic throwback does stand Sequence Break in good stead, with some excellent body horror elements that would make Cronenberg feel squicky. But there’s nothing underlying it. The crazy man prowling the arcade shop at night? Well, he’ll figure in, and you’ll probably be able to predict just how within the first twenty minutes. The melting video game controls that become a stand-in for sexual intercourse? OK, interesting notion, but what are you going to do with it? I can accept the body horror, the physicality of descent into a blank, eight-bit world, if only I managed to find something more than just grossness at the back of that horror. Sequence Break often feels like a film made by people who watched The Fly and Dead Ringers over and over, and never totally got what they meant.

I found I wanted more exposition, not less, to fully understand what was at stake within this narrative. Is Oz becoming the game? Getting pulled into it? Why did it show up when it did? And so forth. But unfortunately, it seems that the actual underlying ethos of the film is pretty trite, as becomes apparent with several revelatory scenes prior to the somewhat inexplicable climax. This has been done before; many times, in fact. While repeating a plot arc that has worked well in the past is far from a crime, Sequence Break never manages to achieve something truly unique. And that’s what it needs: a hook, a unique element that isn’t just about diverging timelines and the occasional nihilistic raving.

Sequence Break does not quite live up to its ambitions. It’s nowhere as shocking as it wants to be, falling back on old, somewhat time-worn tropes of self-realization that are so predictable as to be boring. The eight-bit images flicker across the screen, reminding us of a time when video games were massive things you played at arcades, and movies made do with the limited technology they had. But, really, we’ve seen all this before. Just watch The Fly.

Sequence Break is now showing at Fantasia 2017.

Prevenge (2016)

*soon to be streaming on Shudder

prevenge_01

There’s nothing weirder, or more terrifying, than taking the innocence of the child and imbuing it with a secret malevolence concealed behind an angelic face. Within the evil child subgenre of horror, the mother is typically the victim, the most obvious target for the child’s hatred. Alice Lowe’s bizarrely delightful horror comedy Prevenge takes those tropes and warps them even further to create a bloody, hilarious, and moving story that asks the question: what if your unborn baby was a serial murderer?

Writer/director Lowe is Ruth, a very pregnant young woman in Cardiff who becomes convinced that her unborn daughter is impelling her to commit murder. As Ruth and her massive belly cut a bloody swath through the night, the mystery of her vengeance is gradually revealed through flashbacks and personal discussions between Ruth and her daughter. The murders are suitably gruesome without being overkill, while Ruth’s motivation for the killings becomes complicated by the fact that none of her victims are particularly sympathetic people.

Lowe is an entertaining screen presence with a wry sense of humor, punctuating her horror film with comedic moments that cut through the violence. She likewise imbues the undeniably comedic aspects of the film with a very palpable sense of anger and loss. Like The Babadook (another film about sympathetic female monstrosity and motherhood), Prevenge treats grief as a physical presence that manifests itself through acts of horrific violence. But the film is further complicated by the questionable nature of Ruth’s sanity – is her unborn child really a monster, or is her pregnancy and its undercurrent of grief warping her mind?

The difference between Prevenge and a similar pregnancy horror film like Rosemary’s Baby is that the mother is herself not a victim – she finds outlet for her fury through her pregnancy, refusing to be subject to the assumptions and controls of the rest of society. It’s hard to feel sorry for most of those subjected to Ruth’s wrath, representative as they are of selfishness, misogyny, and complacency. Ruth’s pregnancy represents both her monstrosity and her strength; she possesses the social stigma and monstrosity that transforms a woman’s body into a vessel “controlled” by the unborn child. While Western society is accustomed to treating pregnant women as both the sublime form of human nature and the ultimate Other, Ruth takes over her Otherness, using it to enact revenge on those who (in her perception) have wronged her.

Prevenge has few weaknesses. It’s well-paced, building up the tension between Ruth’s acts of violence by interspersing visits to the doctor to monitor her pregnancy, and her conversations with the very angry child inside of her. Giving voice to the baby makes it more palpably real, deepening the question of whether Ruth is acting out her own revenge fantasy or the fury of the child that has been deprived even before it was born. That voice also contributes to the comedic nature of the film, refusing to plunge too deeply into elements of horror, grief, or anger, as Ruth argues with a tiny childish voice inside of her about the morality of cutting off a man’s balls.

The female body and female emotions have so typically been the site of monstrosity in horror films that women began to suppress the notion that our hormones and our physical presence in any way distinguished us from maleness. PMS, postpartum depression, the alterations in hormones that comes with pregnancy, the pain of having a period – all suppressed in the belief that to be female was, in essence, to be an Other, to be something unknown and frightening. In evil child films, to be a mother is to be a victim, and in some ways a deserving one – the mother is the conduit for unnatural evil, the one who brought the evil into the world and is thus destroyed by it. It is the role of the father, or of the masculine society, to control that evil, condemn it, and banish it, usually at the expense of mother and child alike. Femininity is uncontrollable emotions writ large, and as such must be suppressed and controlled by the more rational masculine forces.

Prevenge eliminates the father, the patriarchal, and embraces Otherness, the perceived monstrosity of women, and of pregnant women especially. What’s more, it does so from a sympathetic, feminine perspective, emphasizing the cohesion between mother and child, the reality of female anger and the need to express it, or to destroy the world in the attempt. In horror, women typically have a choice between being the victim or the monster. We’ve chosen the monster.

Prevenge will stream on Shudder on March 24.

*Like my writing? Please consider contributing to my Patreon. Your support is appreciated.

Within the first five minutes of the new Scream movie, I was giggling uncontrollably.  Ensconced in my seat at the front of the theatre next to a whole row of twenty-somethings, my little cinephiliac mind flooded with endorphins.  I felt positively giddy.  Because the Scream franchise is among the cleverest out there, a self-aware product trading at once in parody and real slasher film aesthetics.  And Scream 4 (or Scre4m, apparently) goes to a place that the others only hinted at.  In a phrase, it goes beyond postmodernity.

In some ways, admittedly, the slasher film has run its course.  The knife-wielding psychopath isn’t really all that scary–the first Scream traded more on references and pastiche than in real scare tactics.  The Millennium did not require motives, but today horror films are  faced with a public that is not easily shocked or frightened.  Your typical Western audiences are so accustomed to the tortured terrors of the Saw Franchise, Hostel I and II, and the whole bevy of torture porn that ups the ante for pure shock with every new installment that a dude in a mask with a knife just does not provide serious shocks.  The Scream movies depend on an audience aware of the so-called rules so sharply laid out in the first installment: virgins survive, sex, drugs and alcohol kills, the blonde always dies, the multiple red-herrings, and that all-important final scare when you think it’s all over.  How then to cope with an audience that struggles to be shocked?

Well, the answer is simple.  Don’t shock them.  Entertain them.  What Craven is good at–has always been good at–is providing the jump factor, the pure enjoyment of waiting for the inevitable bloodbath, of betting on who will survive to the final act, who could be the killer, and what that final twist will be.  The darkness of the subject is lightened by the fact that it’s all a joke, a massive prank that the audience is in on.  For all the blood and guts, it’s still funny and we’re meant to laugh at it.

Scre4m merrily acknowledges the changes in technology that the other films did not have to address.  There are cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, iPods and iPhone apps, digital cameras, live streaming and web cams.  There are hyper-aware film geeks to lay out the rules–namely, that all the rules have changed–and to subsequently comment on them.  There are films within films, references to reboots and remakes, the veneration of the original, a whole pop cultural world the audience can recognize, relate to, be versed in.  There’s also an edge of commentary, amid the gleeful mayhem.  Cults of celebrity and the public lives of every individual are fixed securely in the viewfinder, right before the knife tears out their innards.  The film recreates the genre for the generation raised in the Millennium, a group able to surf the waves of metanarrative without ever stopping to have it explained.

Which brings me, finally, to my criticism of the critics.  I’ve already read several reviews of Scre4m that claim, among other things, that the film is for a generation afraid to be frightened.  Yes, it is addressed to us, the smart-asses, the hipsterish masses so aware of our hyper-reality that we seem incapable of existing offline or disconnected.  While the high schoolers of the original went to Blockbuster, we buy DVDs and mp4s, download music and hold four way conversations over multiple cell phones.  But we’re not afraid to be frightened.  We’re frightened all the time.  We’ve been told, for years now, that there are a million things to be afraid of, and the media, the government, Mom and Dad and the whole consumer culture trades on our fear.  Can you blame us if the psychokiller in a ghost mask doesn’t quite scare us? That we laugh rather than cringe at the obviously fake entrails or the crushing of bones? Or that we take open and obvious pleasure in the flaunting of the rules of horror that the makers of Scream themselves created? In the face of such overweaning terror, we either despair…or we laugh.  It seems to me that this generation has chosen laughter.

Nearing the end of the film, one character expresses to another:

“Wow.  That’s just so meta.”

“What?”

“I dunno.  Something I heard the kids say.”

We’ve gone round the bend, past meta, past postmodern, into an unknown land the critics have no word for.  Welcome to the Millennium.  Motives are incidental.