Friday, September 9, 2016

Retrospective: The Hellraiser Series, Part 2

So where things are gonna start getting icky.

Frankly, I was surprised at how poorly 2 held up in retrospect, and 3 has never been a good film by any metric (except maybe putting butts in seats, but given how much the (ugh) franchise vanished off the radar after 3, I wonder if it even performed well there), and the nature of sequels is such that invariably, at least where horror is concerned, there are going to be increasingly diminishing returns. So films 4, 5, and 6 are by all rights pretty much guaranteed to be disappointments.

That said, the experience wasn’ bad as I thought it was going to be. A couple of these films are actually not bad. I wouldn’t call them great, but much better than I expected. Unfortunately, what does start to show through at this point are the nakedly mercenary considerations that went into their production, which sort of cast a pall on whatever strengths they have, and one of them is just, by any measure, ass. Only 4 was even originally intended as a Hellraiser film, and the director felt enough pressure to make it more commercial that he ended up disavowing it. The other two are from (fairly similar) repurposed scripts that have the mythology of the first films inserted to wildly varying degrees of fit and effectiveness. So at this point, it’s really just about product now, and that’s a pretty dispiriting thing to realize when you’re trying to take these films seriously as creative works. A lot of things have been conspiring to keep me from working on this thing of mine for awhile now, but I’d be lying if I said that the prospect of having to grapple with such obvious cash grabs wasn’t part of it.

But here we are, with three more films out of nine to consider, so once more into the breach...

Friday, June 10, 2016

Life Exceeds Art: The Horror Of The Abandoned Hospital

I've mentioned the idea of Abandoned Hospital Syndrome in passing before. This is the tendency to take a specific setting - like, well, an abandoned hospital - and hang some formulaic set pieces off of it and trying to pass it off as horror. When done well, a setting like this can be really powerful. Buildings left to decay are spooky to begin with, making the building larger gives it a monolithic quality, and I think when the building was one intended for the treatment and care of illness, there's something almost profane in its dilapidation. Hospitals are supposed to be safe and clean, so it's almost a desecration. Session 9 is an excellent example - a huge mental hospital left to rot, long shadowy corridors, bygone apparatus, a legacy of misery and death. In the hands of its skilled director, you don't even need special effects, really. Just some lingering shots, barely-glimpsed movement, and understated sound effects. On the other, you have lazier attempts like The Sick House, which is basically a slasher film with some vague nods to the idea of disease, set in an abandoned hospital without any real rationale other than "this ghost was a doctor," in the hopes that the setting will somehow confer a feeling of dread that the hackneyed story and clumsy direction don't earn. And those are only two examples. Hospitals - especially, though not exclusively, mental hospitals - are a staple setting. If you couldn't tell, I think they're a little overdone.

This point, then, is thrown into sharp relief when I read something like this photo essay about Charity Hospital in New Orleans...

Charity was a huge - look at the size of the building - teaching hospital. Over 2500 beds. It served New Orleans' poorest citizens. And then when Katrina hit, and the levees failed, Charity lost power, and its lower levels flooded. Evacuation was not forthcoming. No power, no air conditioning (in Louisiana, in August), scarce supplies, and a building full of the sick, the injured, the dying, the dead. I mean, forget glib zombie movies, if you want to see what post-apocalypse would look like, just watch any documentary about the effects of Katrina and the failure of the levees on New Orleans. No souped-up cars, no goofy-looking bands of raiders. Just lots of people scared, starving, dying in the dark. 

And now, because of business interests, a corrupt and inefficient city government, and bureaucracy, the rotting hulk of Charity hospital sits in New Orleans. Going on eleven years now, it sits there, rotting, abandoned. A mute testament to the worst week ever in the hospital's history 

See, you don't need the ghosts of serial killer plague doctors. You don't even need the ghosts of former mental patients. The real world is sometimes worse. Is often worse. The problems of people, struggling against the forces of nature, or poverty, carry a raw desperation that no masked murderer can match. One of the most frightening things I've ever watched was a dramatic reenactment of the accident at Chernobyl, the fear on the faces of the engineers, the people who went into the basement of the reactor, condemning themselves to death within seconds. The people who swam into lethally radioactive water, blind, with limited oxygen, to fix broken coolant valves. They were real.

When Charity Hospital flooded, so did their basement morgue, and all the bodies came floating to the surface. They had to be collected and stacked in the stairwells, in the damp and the August heat.

Just imagine that - wading through chest-deep or deeper water in the dark, gathering the corpses. That's not fiction. That's not make-believe. Someone in the world we inhabit, right here in the middle of the United States, in the 21st century, had to do that.

What ghost can compare, then, to the ones with which these people will always live?

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Oh, Hey There...

...I know, I know, I come back long enough to say "I'm still here!" and then vanish again.

Basically, a few things are slowing down my work on this thing at the moment.

1) My job. It's not as nuts as it was in the fall (literally the busiest I have ever been), but I tend to stay late at the office to write my posts on a desktop computer because my laptop's uncomfortable for long stretches of typing, and there are seasonal things going on right now that keep me working well into the time I usually have set aside for writing this thing. There are basically three days during the week I can stay late, and they've all been occupied the last couple of weeks.

2) The length of my retrospective. Basically, I can write up a single movie pretty quickly, but doing three movies in one block means three times as long writing. So there's sort of a bottleneck effect. And yeah, I kind of want to keep doing the Hellraiser movies in blocks of three, because I think it's important to sort of see how they relate (or don't) to each other, and that's easier for me to examine in a single piece than doing separate ones that have to link back to each other over and over. Once I'm done tackling these films, I can go back to single posts.

3) Gotta be honest, the middle three Hellraiser films are kind of a bummer. The fourth is actually - well, "good" might be stretching it a little, but there's promise, there's a good idea there largely betrayed by a low budget and (according to the director, at least) attempts to make it more commercial. But both the fifth and sixth films are repurposed scripts that had the Hellraiser "mythology" inserted into them after the fact. The fifth is awful, easily as bad as the third, and the sixth (while also largely having the same conceit as the fifth, suggesting that there was a minute there where everyone was trying to write the next Jacob's Ladder), while being a much better movie - hell, probably better than even the second - is also sort of dispiriting in that although it's a good movie, knowing that it was a retooled script still sort of bares the lie. It makes it obvious how little it mattered by this point that the film be a creative work. It was something not to be made, but to be assembled from whatever parts were lying around. That the results were actually not bad at all is almost secondary, and it's sort of hard to write about something so nakedly and callously mercenary. I can only hope that the final three are so bad that I can just rant at length and abandon.

So yeah, I'm still here. Again. Just wrestling with the process.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Some Thoughts About Cheap Shock

(Note: I get pretty spoilery about the films Martyrs and Frontiere(s) in this post, and if you haven't yet seen Martyrs, close this tab immediately and go watch it first.)

So while I'm assembling part 2 of my survey of the entire extant Hellraiser franchise (those posts take longer because they're, like, three times as long as a regular one), I'm also trying to keep an eye on new stuff coming out, which lead me to a trailer for a Turkish film called Baskin (which looks really promising). That film is not the point of this short post as much as the comparisons it garnered were. So it's getting compared to Martyrs and the New French Extremity in general. Which definitely gets it a slot on my to-check-out list.

But it also got me thinking that within the canon of the New French Extremity (which, let's face it, sort of ended up fizzling out, at least as horror went), there's a great opportunity to think about the use of graphic imagery by examining two films - Martyrs, and Frontiere(s). The first is, I think, easily one of the best horror films of the 21st century so far, and the second is, I think, a pretty big disappointment. Both deal in graphic violence and helpless people experiencing prolonged suffering in close detail. And, as a result, both have been criticized as trafficking in cheap shocks, as is often the case when a filmmaker - especially a genre filmmaker - uses graphic imagery. It's dismissed as an attempt at cheap heat, getting attention by being outrageous instead of doing something substantive. 

And so here's the thing - by comparing these two films, I think we can usefully distinguish between graphic violence as a substitute for good storytelling, and graphic violence as a tool for good storytelling.

Martyrs is, at its heart, a movie strongly concerned with ideas of suffering, transcendence, and sacrifice. Lucie begins the film escaping from unseen tormentors, at whose hands she suffered. As it transpires, her tormentors were using suffering as a tool to hasten transcendence, to follow the examples of history's martyrs to try and find out what lies beyond death. Martyrs sacrifice themselves for a higher purpose, and in their suffering they are offered a glimpse of the divine. And when Lucie catches up to her tormentors, we see that she continues to suffer, haunted by the specter of a woman she failed to free before she fled. As martyrs do, she mortifies her own flesh in penance for her sin. And when Lucie's tormentors catch up to her, Anna steps in and takes her place - Anna sacrifices herself, and we are walked through the stages of Anna's martyrdom - the beatings, the starvation, the flaying - on her way to transcendence. She suffers in Lucie's place, she martyrs herself, and she sees what lies beyond (or perhaps not - her final words, whatever they are, might very well have been a lie intended to deny the people who tortured her any satisfaction). All of this - Lucie's inner torment, her revenge, and Anna's martyrdom - is presented graphically, yes, but it is at every point contextualized. We see this because we need to see this - we need to see the cost exacted on Lucie, on Anna, just as audiences for the medieval passion plays of which Martyrs feels like a modernization needed to see the ugly details of Christ's sacrifice, to truly know what the cost was. How do you tell a story about martyrdom without knowing what the martyr endured? Here, then, the graphic violence was a tool for good storytelling, one with textual and metatextual justification.

By contrast, Frontiere(s) is largely a series of bloody scenes attached loosely by a common set of characters. It's about a group of criminals (why their criminality is important isn't really articulated beyond "we have to get out of Paris, like, now," nor are the actual riots they were escaping) who flee a rioting city for an isolated country inn, apparently run not by cannibals, not by neo-Nazis, but by neo-Nazi cannibals. I pondered the ridiculousness of this in my original post, and time hasn't really given me any additional insight beyond "well, if one of these two things is bad, then both together must be really bad." It's like the narrative equivalent of an amplifier that goes to eleven. Once they all get to the inn, they're captured and tortured and/or killed for food. It's mostly just moving characters from point to point, where different bloody set pieces occur, and if there's a thematic reading to be had, I didn't really see it. I suppose it suggests notions of racial superiority leading to a level of dehumanization that literally makes other people into cattle, maybe you could make an argument for widening class divides that sees a poor rural class resorting to cannibalism to survive - to literally consume city dwellers whose excesses are figuratively consuming them - but these are not things clearly articulated in the film. I am mostly just looking at the elements - racial purity, a rural setting with urban characters, and cannibalism - and thinking of some things that might emerge. The violence in Frontiere(s) signifies nothing other than "this is what happens when helpless people run into neo-Nazi cannibals." There's a lot of blood, and a lot of screaming (which seems to be the director's thing) but there isn't really much of a "why" to it beyond "because they were there, and because this is what bad people do." The antagonists are caricatured because their extremity justifies the extremity of their actions, and the extremity of their actions exists free of context. All of the blood and pain and people hung on hooks, butchered, are there because they are. They are spectacle. They are the cheap shock for which even films like Martyrs are criticized. 

So I think it's a useful heuristic - does the violence in a film illustrate, elaborate upon, or articulate something about the characters or the human condition? Or are the characters designed and arranged in such a way as to rationalize instances of violence? Anna and Lucie's relationship, their history, they tell a story before a single drop of blood is shed, but the four young criminals of Frontiere(s) are only people to the extent that it gets them to the inn for the bloodshed to occur.

Does the violence help tell a story, or is the story a framework for violence? I think there's a difference, and mistaking the former for the latter is a problem in how people read horror film.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Retrospective: The Hellraiser Series, Part 1

I’ve made no secret over the course of this thing I’m writing that I don’t like the franchising of horror film. I mean, generally turning films into franchises is a bad idea when they aren’t really built for it, because it seems like over the course of any given series, you run the risk of taking what was interesting about the initial film and diluting it into a series of fanservicey gestures that end up not so much being films as allusions to previous films (“remember when this one character said that one thing two movies back?”), or the most superficial aspects of the initial film being reiterated until subsequent films are just expressions of some very basic narrative hooks (“what Rube Goldbergian demises await the hapless teens in this installment of Final Destination?”) instead of coherent stories. 

That sucks regardless. However, I think when it comes to horror it’s even worse, because part of what lends horror film power is the element of mystery, of the unknown, the unexplained, the unresolved. The best, most powerful horror is the horror that denies you the safety or comfort of understanding it. The best horror leaves us stranded in the dark when all is said and done. And franchises do not operate on that principle. Every subsequent film begins with us knowing a little more about the antagonist at its core, every subsequent film fleshes out the world that contains it a little more, every subsequent film leans more and more heavily on a gimmick or hook. Franchises explain, explore, and exploit. And so in horror, what begins as a story about a monstrous unknown invariably turns into crummy fantasy (e.g., the Nightmare on Elm Street films) or soap opera (e.g., the Saw films).

So yeah, fuck a franchise. But so far, I’ve based this argument on partial evidence. I confess to having crapped out of the Saw series halfway through the fourth one out of boredom, and there were...what, three or four more after that? Same with the Nightmare on Elm Street films - I’ve seen the first three and New Nightmare, but I know I’m missing a couple. So I’m going to try to work my way through a franchise, start to finish, by examining one that at least grabbed me the first time around.

I’m going to look at the nine films (to date) made in the Hellraiser franchise. I’ve seen the first four already just as a casual viewer, and the early ones were much more important to me as a young filmgoer and horror enthusiast than the Elm Street or Friday the 13th films ever were, so there’s a sense of commitment for me that I just don’t feel with those others. These films definitely trace an arc from successful to bargain-bin, and I want to know how that happened and if there’s anything to be gleaned from them in this day and age.

Because there’s nine of them, I’m going to do three posts, each covering three films. Just as fair warning, they’re going to get pretty spoilery. So, without further adieu, let’s tackle the first three...

Monday, October 5, 2015

Coming Soon, To, Well, This Place Right Here

I apologize for the quiet of late - being that this is a hobby, it's one of the first things to get thrown under the bus when other demands on my time become onerous, and between work, and Wes Craven's untimely death (right when I was getting ready to pick apart some of his biggest contributions to horror film) and my annual three or four days sick in bed and work being a bear, this thing of mine has been spending more time getting thrown under the bus than an extra in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Which is not to say that I haven't been doing anything. In fact, I'm finally writing up my notes on the beginning of the most ambitious thing I've done here yet (not that that's saying much, but still) - I'm planning a three-part retrospective of the Hellraiser films, all nine of them. I've watched the first three and am in the process of writing the post. It's taking me longer because I'm covering three films instead of one and today was the first time in awhile I've been able to devote any time at all to it, but it's happening.

I'm going to watch all nine of them and share my thoughts about each in turn and what it means as part of a larger narrative, as well as a case study of the problems of franchising that isn't me copping out halfway through film 4 like my take on the Saw films was. Given that the ninth film, Hellraiser: Revelations, was a found-footage quickie made on a shoestring to keep the rights from expiring, I can't imagine it's going to be a breathless paean to the series' quality. In fact (spoiler!), they kind of start sucking immediately after the first film. But I have tremendous respect and affection for the first one, so this is happening.


Thursday, September 3, 2015

Well, This Is Awkward

So in planning what was supposed to be this week's posts for this thing I write right here, I planned a commentary on the Nightmare on Elm Street films, having watched the comprehensive documentary about them, Never Sleep Again. It's a good cautionary tale about the pitfalls of franchising, neatly illustrating many of the things I described as problems when I used the Saw films as an example. Needless to say, I am not very complimentary in my notes.

And then I decided, since I was already thinking about the Nightmare on Elm Street films, that it might be time to revisit Wes Craven's New Nightmare, which I found sort of dull when I originally saw it a year or two after it came out. And I can't honestly say I did a complete reversal on it.

I planned all of this, and the day before I planned to post the piece based on Never Sleep Again, Wes Craven passed away.

So now...doesn't feel like the time to criticize films he made. Wes Craven made some really important films, and it feels a little unseemly to, now of all times, pick apart stuff he did. So that will be for a later week, after some time has passed. All I'll say right now is that it's a damn shame that nobody since him has seemed to know what to do with the ideas in the first Nightmare film, New Nightmare was a great idea that was hamstrung from reaching its full potential by what were probably commercial considerations, I really need to watch Last House on the Left one of these days, and Scream is one of the few slasher films I really like. R.I.P.