Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sex and Candy: Some thoughts on Hellraiser and Candyman

                At one point in the early 80s Stephen King said, “I have seen the future of horror…and his name is Clive Barker,” and there has scarcely been a movie or book released since then with his name attached where the promoters haven’t milked that line.  But just because the blurb at this point has become a bromide doesn’t negate the truthiness of the sentiment.  Clive Barker is one of the few singular voices in horror and I hate the fact that every project of his seems to be an uphill battle.
                There are few, if any, writer/film-makers who can craft stories as sensual and terrifying as he can.  Clive Barker is certainly not the first or last film-maker to suggest the correlation between pleasure and pain, but his adroitness with the theme is what makes him stand apart.  Of the many travesties that have befallen the genre the past decade (foremost: awful remakes [i.e. not to say that all remakes are awful—see Rob Zombie’s Halloween, or Carpenter’s The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), etc…]), the runner-up on my list is the explosion of torture porn story telling. 
                If I could destroy any franchise of the past ten years it would undoubtedly be Hostel (pretty much anything involving Eli Roth if we’re granting large wishes).   Violence for the sake of violence is not visionary, no matter how many times you and your friends might insist in interviews sir.  And eroticizing it is always a danger and must be tempered with theme and style.  Cue Hellraiser and Candyman.
                Of the list I compiled, only a few individuals managed to sneak in two films: Carpenter, Romero, Cronenberg and Barker.  I think it says something when a person can bottle lightning not just once, but twice.  And Barker has certainly contributed more to the genre, both written and filmed, than just these works, but I have to say if these two pieces alone were my legacy I’d still feel pretty pleased.
                Hellraiser is a tour de force.  I couldn’t give half a shit what you say about the cheesy animated effects in the last reel (and for the record, you snobs, Clive and his buddy got blitzed and did all of the animation in one weekend because that was the only way they could bring it in under budget, so that makes him an auteur or whatever), the storytelling is relentless.  It’s one of the most twisted love stories ever put on celluloid.  It’s a deconstruction of the nuclear family.  It’s a bastardization of “father knows best”.   
                It postulates the very dangerous idea, “Hell is of your own making.”  Another bromide, true, but when it’s not being used as a garnish to an otherwise simple article or plain conversation it is a fascinating concept.  Pinhead states rather plain-Jane:

                                We are angels to some.  Demons to others.

To me this is the core of what is so terrifying about the cenobites.  They can grant your desires (e.g. in the third installment there is a character who has never been able to dream until she turns herself, body and soul, over to them), but their methods are matched by your own predilections and avarice.  To wit, their darkness is matched only by the same found in our own hearts…and how many of us can truly come to reckoning with the demons we carry? 
               So, essentially, only the ones at peace with themselves, contented and understanding, could hope to face the Cenobites and not be ripped apart.  In this sense we are our own unmaking.  This is true both when dealing with jinn like demons and everyday life.
   The duality of the Cenobites seems to me also to correlate with the film’s take on sexuality.  It is an act of passion, true, but also of intense violence.  Pleasure and pain.  One of the most memorable sequences in the film is the montage of men Julia seduces.  Every sexual encounter begins with giddy promise and they all end with blood on the floor.  Furthermore, the initial encounter between Julia and Frank, the seed from which their love blooms, is itself fraught with violence.  And once that door has been opened, it appears demure Julia cannot or does not want it shut.
                Candyman, on the other hand, while extremely sexual as well, shifts the focus.  Violence seems to happen because of the sex, but the relationship the two share is that of causality and not symbiosis.  Candyman impregnates his secret beloved, is found out, and is horrifically destroyed.  Trevor’s betrayal of Helen ultimately leads to his own undoing.  Ted Raimi, in one of the best cameos EVER, playing the bad boy biker boyfriend, is left to pick up the pieces after his girl meets the legend.  These are all gruesome and excellently executed, but this story does not want to retread familiar ground.
                Candyman is essentially a tale about the power of mythmaking.  Our universal need to give objects names is a dangerous tendency.  What isn’t always realized though is once you name something, while you feel you own it, it just as much owns you.  A political idea, religious concept, etc, once quantified and labeled by you becomes inescapable.  Soon you see its influence and signature whichever way you turn when just a day before you saw nothing.  That is who/what Candyman is: He is the formless thought now shaped, taken hold in your mind. 
                He exists and has power only because so many people agree that he exists and has power.  He is neither animal, vegetable nor mineral—should all of humanity sputter out, he would go with them.  He is an idea.  Consider the great propaganda campaigns throughout history, cults, Oscar voting and you will see just how powerful and dangerous such an abstraction can be.  Or as he puts it himself, “Why do you want to live? If you would learn just a little from me, you would not beg to live. I am rumor. It is a blessed condition, believe me. To be whispered about at street corners. To live in other people's dreams, but not to have to be. Do you understand?”
                The film also flirts with some other dangerous implications: That everlasting life can be attained only in death, with martyrdom and the importance a flock’s faith is to the cause.  While I would never compare Candyman to another prominent figure from history, he has certainly read the universal playbook and is running with it.
                But part of why this film has such strong legs to stand on is that it has these very literary themes layered in with more real world ones.  Some would argue, and with just cause, that the real horror of this film is the class disparity it shows.  Keep in mind this movie was shot on real locations and using the people who lived there as extras.  One of the productions vans had shots fired at it while filming.  The design flaw with the medicine mirrors was discovered while researching the location and was indeed used in several real life murders.  This is not exactly dressed up.
                Helen criticizes her friend after she inventories her purse and says to her, “What’s with the arsenal?  It’s only eight blocks.”  Her friend replies that it is indeed a different world.  Two buildings with the same design and layout, separated by a few blocks and a freeway, and they are unrecognizable anymore as twins.  In a very real sense we all live in a different America.  Is it that shocking that the people of this community revere and despise a character that is so merciless.  He passes over those who stay true but strikes down the unfaithful and the interloper. 
                If anything it is the academic approach to the horror story that I respect so much.  It’s almost a film in defense of itself and the genre.  It’s one of the few movies to insist that these stories are real in the hearts of people and they warrant serious study and reflection and it’s safe to say they had a large part in shaping the trajectory of my thought on film.  Horror films may want to tear us apart, but hopefully in doing so we closely examine the pieces.

The Final Cut: How Documentaries can be the Most Terrifying Genre Ever

                The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Audition are two of my favorite horror films of all time, but they are also two of the most difficult movies for me to watch.  They are too uncompromising, too unrelenting, too raw for me to be able to stomach multiple viewings.  As of writing this, it must be at least a year and half or longer since I’ve viewed either film.   I’ve often said this to people when I show them Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time, but part of what is so upsetting about this film is how genuine it feels.  Like a snuff film discovered in the attic of your house from some long unknown owner, this movie is creepy because of its…authenticity.   It has an almost documentary quality, especially with the prologue.
                This is partly to do with its shoe string budget.  Lacking the sort of funds you might find on another film, Tobe Hooper and his crew were forced to think smaller and tighter.  To save costs, rather than fabricate blood and gore, whenever possible they used actual blood donated from a local slaughterhouse and collected real road kill for set dressing.  Even the chainsaw was real, held carefully just a few inches from the actor on certain shots.  It is unsurprising then why it has such a sense of veracity. 
    Less camera movement and fewer cuts not only save money but also make the document you’re watching seem eerily unstaged.  To this day the dinner scene with grandpa always leaves me with my jaw hanging open because of how brutal it is.  You keep wanting them to cut away, if only for a moment, but they never do.
                Audition works on a similar wave length.  It’s a film masquerading as if it is from a different genre.  Sometimes, when I know the people I’m showing it to have the stomach for it, I won’t even mention it’s a horror film.  It starts off like a promising foreign language rom-com.  The hardworking, widower father who has sacrificed everything to make his son’s life as stable as possible is suddenly reminded by his growing child that it’s okay to fall in love again—come on, put Tom Hanks in this with Haley Joel Osmond circa 2000 and you’ve got a winner.
                The beginning reads like a behind the scenes invite to a small TV station, complete with meetings and a casting call.  It’s almost impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when things start to go awry, but by the film’s end your sense of dread will feel like a literal weight on your chest.  And one of the reasons why this film seems so awful (and I mean this is the full of awe, so terrible it’s hard to conceive sort of sense) is that he really isn’t a terrible guy.  She misread a few key signs, but he really just wanted to find a decent girl and settle down.  That’s far from the worst thing a man could want and certainly no reason to charge a guy an arm and a leg.
                But this seems to me to be the core reason why these two films work so well in their own particular way.  These characters were living their own normal lives, caught up in their own personal adventures, when fate caught up to them.  Texas Chainsaw could very well be a teenage road trip movie the way it starts and I’ve already mentioned how Audition looks and feels like a romantic comedy through almost its entire first half.  It’s the sudden reversal on our expectations and the lo-fi quality of the films that give it their punch.  Most horror films don’t behave like these ones do.  They simply don’t look like this.  The sparse soundtrack, immobile cameras, low budgets, real looking locations all give it the sense that these events are happening and you are watching it through a window.  Which begs the question: If this could happen to them, does that mean it could happen to us as well?
                This conceit is why I find the final moments of Texas Chainsaw so powerful.  Leatherface’s temper tantrum has been emblazoned in the film zeitgeist, and while that closing shot is truly striking it is not the reason why I feel so strongly about the conclusion.   It’s actually that brief moment when the picture stops and right before the credits roll.  The cacophony of his chainsaw and her screaming are so incessant they replace all other sound in your mind.  Maybe everything you thought before this moment was a fantasy; no other sounds have ever existed besides these two.  And when it gets to the absolute breaking point, where you can’t stand a moment more of its grinding, it cuts to black.   Leatherface is such a force of nature, implacable and unable to be reasoned with, the final moments of the film feel like the doomed final moments of some prey entrapped by a hunter.  It all appears too real.  I feel, but hope to never know for certain, that this is what it must be like at the end.  Sound.  Fury.  And then only silence.

Why Zombies? Some Brief Thoughts on Night and Dawn

        Why the zombie film at all?  The sub-genre does have some obvious appeal.  There is violence, gore, often a little sex and nudity, plus some snappy dialogue.  It has all of the elements that make a film visceral, but intrinsically none of the things that make a film great. 
 Here’s why.  Zombies are a cipher.  In of themselves they are not particularly dangerous.  They can be as multitudinous, tenacious, bright, strong or weak as the situation requires.  They are a motivating factor to the story being told, but they are not the single element in the equation.  The zombie flicks that are most engaging to watch treat the world they are creating as an open sandbox.  There are zombies and some people who aren’t zombies…aaaaand action. 
 “Genre” storytelling has always gotten the shortest end of the stick (my entire college career corroborates this), but if a filmmaker can push beyond those assumed limitations you will discover some surprising works.  You arrive at such varied movies as Homecoming (in which the recently dead soldiers from Iraq return to vote and remove the elected officials who sent them there in the first place); 28 Days Later, although not a zombie movie by definition, it certainly is one in spirit (and if you’re watching carefully, a truly great coming-of age story); and Shaun of the Dead, a comedy/spoof/romance…with zombies. 
And then there’s Night and Dawn.
As a youth, Night of the Living Dead taught me one of the great tenets of horror films: the monster is never the real monster.  We are.  Watch 28 Days Later, or The Road Warrior, or The Road or read The Stand and tell me that if things fall apart you wouldn’t be staring down the person next to you for a good while before closing your eyes for the night.
The other big groundbreaker, unlike literally any horror movie before and few after, is that Night openly defied racial mores by casting a strong, black man as the lead.  Maybe it was my overall upbringing or the progress our culture has made during the intervening years (or maybe just the seed of thought this movie planted), but it always seemed odd to me that there haven’t more characters like Ben.  Far too often when an African-American is featured in a horror film he’s always a gang member or excessively antagonistic.  They’re usually more a part of the problem and less a part of the solution.  Duane Jones, who portrayed Ben, was a college professor and theater director.  He was smart, well-spoken and charming.  The character in the original script was almost the exact opposite, but Romero, et al, realized their mistake after Duane read and changed the character into the trail blazer we have today.  While not their original intention, Night of the Living Dead to me has always been a story about racial tension.  And I think it shows that when it comes down to the wire, your strength of character has more to do with your likelihood of survival than your race.
Dawn of the Dead, my all-time favorite zombie film, shifts its focus and is a story of consumerism and excess.  Tyler Durden put it quite eloquently two decades later:

The things you own end up owning you.

The dead in Dawn were already zombies well before the apocalypse began.  And our heroes must take care to avoid becoming ones themselves—both spiritually and physically.
There are only a handful of moments in horror films that I find to be truly indelible.  One of them happens in this movie.  It takes place after the mall has been secured.  Fran is alone in a boutique.  She has on a beautiful dress and she spends some time putting on makeup, fixing her hair, looking as glamorous as possible.  After the process is complete she admires herself in the vanity mirror.  She blows a kiss and plays with her derringer—looking very much like a modern day Bonnie Parker—and then it happens.  Something inside of her breaks.  Her eyes say it all; she is haunted.  It echoes her question from a few scenes earlier, “What have we done to ourselves?”
She’s all dressed up and has absolutely no where to go.  Everything they could desire is locked up in that mall with them and it is all worthless now.  Their lives are empty.  Their horde owns them.
This is why I love these films.  When dealing with zombies, the most precious commodity of all is the will, the spirit.  You can outrun zombies.  You can out think them and out fight them.  But if you lose your compass, the grace that makes us all human and hopefully decent people, then you can’t hope to outlive them.  You are already dead.