Category Archives: Horror Films

Get Out and the Importance of Addressing Contemporary Racism

Now that I have had the opportunity to see Get Out a few times, I feel better equipped to write about it. I will begin by saying that everyone should see this film. (Watch the trailer.) It is an incredibly important commentary on contemporary racism in the United States and it does this through wit, compassion, humor, and a refusal to look away. Written and directed by Jordan Peele, likely best known for his comedy work on Key and Peele, Get Out is a horror film that taps into the psychological thriller/horror genre traditions but does so with some blurring into the realm of comedy. Peele worked with the horror juggernaut Blumhouse Productions. The performances of the actors are truly sublime, especially Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington (our protagonist), Betty Gabriel as Georgina, Lakeith Standfield as Andrew Logan King, and Milton “Lil Rel” Howery as Rod Williams. Get Out has exceeded the $100 million mark, which is brilliant given its production budget was $5 million. This film has had me thinking about it from the first trailer I saw and now having seen it a few times I’m thinking about it even more.

I do want to address the folks who are insisting that this film is a thriller, which is in part the distribution company’s marketing choices (I’m looking at you Universal). But this is largely because there is such a denigration and dismissal of the horror genre as a whole. This is my soapbox moment as a horror scholar, yes. Horror films are not all torture porn and gruesome deaths—though there is nothing wrong with those horror films, I know they aren’t for everyone. Horror films are complex and diverse group of genre traditions that disrupts the everyday and are recognizable as “horrifying” and relying upon physical and emotional violence (see the scholarship of Robin Means-Coleman, Kendall Phillips, and Isabel Pinedo). Additionally, the horror genre has a long history of being subversive and addressing social issues, calling attention to a myriad of cultural problems including racism and sexism.  So I’ll say even if you don’t like horror films, please give this film a chance and please don’t re-genre it as a thriller when you do.

If you have not seen this film, I implore you to go see it and to stop reading this post right now because I’m going to talk plot pieces and I don’t want to spoil the film.

Again…stop reading if you haven’t seen it because spoilers are coming.

One of the key features of the film’s address of contemporary racism is the way Rose (Allison Williams) continually dismisses and deflects Chris’s (Daniel Kaluuya) concerns about race and their interracial relationship. Rose speaks for Chris and places him in danger through her actions when they are interacting with a white police officer without realizing the potential for harm that her behavior establishes. She refuses to listen to his concerns about her family’s reaction to his race because her family can’t possibly be racist…they’re liberals for goodness sake…they voted for Obama and would have done so for “a third time.” I have heard people say this statement (along with I date Black people or I have a Black friend) to disavow the racism and microaggressions they are perpetuating. Rose is the epitome of the white feminist, who refuses to see the need for intersectionality or the long-term issues with racism in the feminist movement. Aisha Harris keenly points out how dangerous white womanhood continues to be in her piece “The Most Terrifying Villain in Get Out is White Womanhood.”

Get Out addresses the insidiousness of liberal racism, specifically the ways in which white liberal folks have created self-replicating racist systems that shut Black folks out of them all while espousing supposedly calls for equality. In Get Out, this takes the form of rich white people literally stealing the bodies of Black people, which the white folks seem to believe is some sort of compliment about the physical superiority of the Black body. It is Hudson wanting to co-opt Chris Black gaze (his photography skills and his “eye” for reality in his art) and supplant his white sensibility and gaze for Chris’s racialized vision (by the nature of his existence as a Black man). This enslavement of the Black body also demonstrates the way in which slavery also crushes the spirit of the individual, living in the “Sunken Place” of degradation and invisibility. In his piece “Why Get Out Is the Best Movie Ever Made about Slavery,” Steven Thrasher writes, “It shows the intimate ways whiteness uses—indeed, the ways in which whiteness needs to use and use up—Black bodies for its continued existence.”

Throughout the film, Peele uses super-focused close up shots of Black faces (only Black faces). Often, in these shots, the faces are off-center in the frame and set at angles to the lens but these extreme close ups of these Black faces center the experiences of the Black folks in the film. One of the moments I was most struck by in this film is the moment Missy (Catherine Keener) hypnotizes Chris, and he is paralyzed (See below). In this moment in Missy’s study, Peele uses this close up on Chris frozen face to emphasize Chris’s humanity and Missy’s monstrosity. The only movement in the frame comes from the tears streaking down Chris’s cheeks, his eyes and mouth frozen open in fear. This is a classic horror film tactic to show terror but also the horrific nature of the monsters our hero is facing…the monster in this moment is the white woman wielding her power and training as a therapist as a weapon. Chris’s face is so compelling and Peele’s emphasis on Chris’s horror while discovering that he was right to be concerned about this visit to Rose’s family. Missy’s monstrosity, her villain status, is established while our audience identification with Chris is solidified.

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Get Out is an amazing film that reifies our need to identify and dismantle the insidious nature of contemporary racism—racism that pretends it no longer exists and/or is a “conservative” and “rural” issue. It reminds us that we live in a racist culture that white folks have a responsibility to admit, address, and disassemble. Moreover, it’s a spectacular horror film that is creepy and atmospheric.

I would encourage folks to check out the following pieces if you’re interested in reading more about this film: Graveyard Shift Sisters’ “Get Out: Crafting a Masterpiece from the Horror of Racism,” B. Willis’s “The Most Overlooked and Underrated Characters in ‘Get Out’ Are Black Women,” and Bilge Ebiri’s “Critic’s Notebook: Why ‘Get Out’ and ‘Moonlight’ Are Breakthroughs in Black Filmmaking.” Also check out the Girl’s Will Be Ghouls review of the film in Episode 23 of their podcast.

Thoughts on XX

As almost everyone knows, I have been (not-so-patiently) waiting for XX to come out for several years. The first released all-women directed horror anthology is of course something that I would be anticipating given my passion for horror films and my scholarship on feminist film. I’m going to try very hard not to spoil any of the shorts here and these are just initial cursory thoughts. The themes of social connections, particularly motherhood and family, ran throughout all of the pieces. The familial tension that runs throughout the film is palpable and speaks to the ways in which women’s storytelling often addresses the anxieties of contemporary women attempting to deal with struggle between feminism and conservative American social norms.

First, I do think everyone should see this film for several reasons, including of course that it is the first all-women directed horror anthology but also because there is some really great camera work and story-telling in parts. There were some very strong cinematographic moments, specifically in Benjamin and Kusama’s shorts. I know that some folks are expressing disappointment in the film. Unlike most horror anthologies, XX did not have a broader narrative tying the pieces together, being drawn together only by thematic similarities. The acting in all of the pieces was excellent overall.

As with all anthologies, some of the vignettes were stronger than others, with my favorites being Vuckovic and Kusama’s. I felt the mix of humor and exasperation in Clark’s piece was fun and interesting, but the piece suffered a bit from lack of overall narrative explanation, which is also my critique of Benjamin’s piece. Both Clark and Benjamin’s have a great deal of potential, though they needed more time and exploration. Benjamin’s “Don’t Fall” was the only film the invoked the horror trope of the monster, which led to some amazing creature effects. It is the short though that left me most perplexed because it was the least fleshed out narrative, with a lot of narrative holes. Vuckovic’s “The Box” was quiet and menacing, a type of familial drama that feels simultaneously real and horrific. In this short, the not-knowing heightens the fear for the audience. Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son” was a beautiful vignette of a mother’s battle to save her son; at moments subtle and at others overtly questioning the idea of nature and nurture. Finally, Sofia Carrillo’s animation for the credit sequence and the intertitles was darkly fascinating.

Since I just re-read Isabel Pinedo’s Recreational Terror, I was also struck by how much these shorts felt like the post-modern horror films Pindeo discusses, particularly in her assertion that they resist narrative closure. Three of the four pieces in XX do not come to any true type of narrative conclusion—having somewhat open-ended constructions—leaving the audience to ponder what comes next for the characters. While I can see why some people were left unimpressed with the film, the film offered a good foray into feminist horror and to the more subdued horror that is more cerebral and emotional than shocking and terror-fueled. I hope to see additionally feature length films by these directors, which would offer them the ability to articulate more fully constructed narratives.

I do wish that there had been a more concerted effort to include more women techs and behind camera roles in the making of the film. I understand that the state of filmmaking is dismal for women producers, directors, cinematographers (the exception is Tarin Anderson, who did work on “The Birthday Cake” and “Don’t Fall”), and such, but I would have liked to have seen more women behind the scene and more diversity overall. The best part of this film in many ways is the culturally impact of having these strong women directors talking to the media and horror fans about the state of horror but also the representation of women directors in Hollywood and beyond.

I would very much recommend that folks watch XX, but also go look at Vuckovic’s The Captured Bird (which I love and regularly teach) and Kusama’s The Invitation and Jennifer’s Body.  I also liked Benjamin’s Southbound piece “Siren.”

What is Feminist Horror?

On February 2, 2017, I gave a brief lecture and held a discussion with 25 students, faculty, and staff at Indiana State University on the question of What is Feminist Horror in honor of Women in Horror Month. As many of you know, horror films are one of my passions and one of the chapters of my dissertation is on this topic of feminist horror films.

I covered a brief definition of the horror genre as well as the idea of women in horror films before diving into discussing feminist film generally and feminist films specifically.

Unfortunately, I had a bit of a challenge with technology for podcasting that day, but I recovered my notes in the below video for anyone interested. I do apologize for the poor image quality.

Historical Research and a Creepy Edge

I’ve been looking forward to The Witch, since the moment it premiered at Sundance in 2015.  That’s when the buzz began in horror movie circles for this film.  As the date of the wide-theatrical release grew closer, the anticipation only increased.  This feeling grew at an exponential rate this week because the internet seemed to begin losing its mind about this movie, for instance Stephen King’s tweet that it “scared the hell out of [him]” and was “visceral.” I was all the more eager to see it–to the point where I worked a full-day, taught an hour-and-a-half class, and then went to see it. (Do I get horror fan dedication points for this?) [This post shall remain as spoiler-free as possible, but as always, readers beware.]

Set in 1603 American colonies, the film follows a family’s self-imposed exile to the untamed wilds outside of their settlement due to a disagreement between the family patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson),  and the plantation’s religious elders/church doctrine.  As the family tries to establish themselves alone, they are beset with misfortune, even though their devotion to their faith is clear and present throughout the film.

First, the cast of this film was absolutely fantastic.  Ineson’s portrayal of William exuded a morass of failure, doubt, and pride that mirrored the tone of the film.  Kate Dickie’s Katherine was flawless in her devoutness, especially as she and the film descend a bit into madness. Anna Taylor-Joy as Thomasin walked the line throughout the film of innocence and temptation, showing the audience just how dangerous that line is particularly in an esoteric life devoid of joy and playfulness.  Harvey Scrimshaw was phenomenal as Caleb, the oldest of son and younger brother to Thomasin, and his interaction with Anna Taylor-Joy showed depth and compassion.  He also had one of the most difficult scenes to act in the film, in my opinion, and did so with a compelling screen presence.  Also the two little ones, playing twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), were great and played annoying younger siblings quite well.

What was most impressive was the utterly mind-blowing attention to detail and historical research so prominently displayed in the film.  It was clearly heavily embedded in a desire to present a narrative that was based in historical documents and through that research demonstrate how frightening our history truly is even on its surface.  As an audience member, I tend to eschew simple distillations of the image of witch as shortcut for evil or Satan worshipper.  This stereotype and trope typically raises my ire and turns me off.  Here, though, writer and director Robert Eggers establishes not the normal witch = evil reductive plot.  Instead, this film demonstrates the fear that the idea of witchcraft evoked in the cultural imagination of the historical period in which it is set, showing the idea of the witch as a product of religious zeal and isolation.  Whether real phenomenon or product of cultural imagination (or economic opportunists), the [Satanic] witch was both feared and reviled as harbingers of destruction.

Eggers’s screenplay is subtle in its creepiness. My one issue was that I just didn’t find it scary…not at all.  Eggers creates tension and plot climaxes throughout the film, and Mark Korven’s music built that tension in spectacular and creepy ways, particularly with his discordant sounds. Even Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography continually underscores the ominous feel of this film.  It just did not frighten me at all, so sadly I must disagree with Stephen King on that one. The film is immensely watchable though, and I do recommend it.  Check out the trailer on YouTube and check out the film in theatres.

It Follows and Issues of Consent

I recently had the opportunity to see David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, and thoughts have been circling at the back of my mind since then about what I thought of the film. The truth is that I’m conflicted. I loved the aesthetic of the film, which was a kick back to the amazing horror films of the 1980s. The score was great, and the cinematography was pretty fabulous. But where I’m stuck is in the sexual politics of it. I’ve been reading about this film for months and have been waiting for it to come out. People keep touting is progressive sexual critique and ideology—or at least that’s how I read a lot of the reviews. That’s just not the film as I saw it. Now I’m not going to argue that it’s regressive sexual politics either. It’s just that I’m quite conflicted about how I feel about the film.

Here’s the premise: a college student, Jay Height (played by Maika Monroe) decides to have sex with a guy she’s been dating, Hugh (Jake Weary). He infects her with the disease that means she will be stalked and gruesomely murdered by some shape-shifting thing that no one else can see. Well unless she passes it on to someone else and that person passes it on and so on.

A part of this film is a progressive critique of normative ideas about sexuality, especially female sexuality. Jay’s friends do not engage in slut shaming or victim blaming about her sexual encounter with Hugh. Sexual relationships are portrayed as normal aspects of dating and adulthood. Jay openly discusses having had sex previously. It is this openness to sexual activity that has Ms. Magazine blogger, Natalie Wilson, writing that it is a “Horror Film that Doesn’t Blame the Victim for Having Sex.” 

Here’s my issue though it’s the film’s insistence (and some blogger/reviewers, such as Wilson) that the sex in the film is all consensual. After Hugh and Jay have their seemingly consensual sex in the backseat of his car in an abandoned factory parking lot, Hugh knocks her out with a rag over her face. She wakes up tied to a wheelchair, while he explains the “disease” of the “it” that will follow her and kill her. Finally he drops her off in the street outside of her home with her hands still bound and in only her undergarments. When she’s being interviewed by a police officer, he asks, “it was consensual” (meaning the sex). To which, Jaye answers yes it was consensual.   But I have a major problem with this definition (portrayal) of consent here. Jay does not consent to having a disease passed on to her. One that Hugh knows he’s infected with and one he knowingly passes on to her. Her only recourse is to have sex with someone else and pass it on. In this manner, she is coerced into sex with other individual(s). It’s here that these sexual politics becomes a bit regressive around women’s sexuality and issues of consent.

While this film had a lot of things going right with it, I can’t ignore the issues of consent playing out within the narrative. I think it’s worth watching. It would be great to have some conversations about the film specifically but also the issues of sexuality and consent.

So many more thoughts in my head about this film.

Here are some of the reviews about this film: Thompson on Hollywood, interview in Filmmaker Magazine, Meredith Woerner’s “How It Follows Uses Dread and Beauty,” and Jessica Kiang’s Cannes Review.

A Day of Horror Films

Today was an epic horror movie marathon.  Usually, I watch horror movies alone often screaming and being terrified of my own shadow for days.  Yes, I’m a masochist on so many levels, and I completely recognize this fact.  Today I had the pleasure of watching with a friend who equally appreciates horror movies and also likes talking back to them. (I’m quite thankful for that. . . . thanks for not laughing at me when literally screamed out loud–yep, I did that.) We didn’t pre-plan the movies and used a mix of Nexflix, DVDs, and VUDU, and yet, we ended up unknowingly watching three films with deeply religious and mythological themes that combined questions of gender and sexuality within their narratives.
As with all of my blogs about film, don’t read if you don’t like spoilers.
We began with The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014), directed by Adam Robitel and written by Robitel and Gavin Heffernan (watch the trailer). This film presents itself as a psychological and compassionate film about dealing with a family’s struggle when mother Deborah Logan (Jill Larson) begins to disintegrate with Alzheimer’s.  Very quickly though we understanding that Deb is not just being effected by Alzheimer’s but that something very different is occurring. Moving from a psychological story to body horror to very quickly become a possession film.  With hallmarks of demonic possession, Deb’s possession transforms her body, in specifically gendered ways. The camera looks upon her body that is both highly sexualized and desexualized by her age and disease by camera focus and angles that emphasize her nudity and her descent into disease and possession.  Deb’s possession by the spirit of a doctor–Henry Desjardins.  The story goes that the Dr. Desjardins reenacted supposed human sacrifice rituals of the Monacan Tribe that in pop culture short cut of all ritualistic human sacrifice to appease gods mean the ritual sacrifice of virginal girls–in this case girls in the moment of their first menstruation that they called “bleeding roses.” Yes, how’s that for mythology and imagery?  There’s so much to like about this film even as it relies upon deeply problematic stereotypes as shortcuts. The intersection of this mytho-religious ideology and our utter terror about aging and more losing ourselves to diseases that rob us from ourselves before death are the pieces that are must compelling within this film. The Taking of Deborah Logan is well constructed and conceived and more important it is completely unnerving.
Our second film was Horns (2013), directed by Alexandre Aja and adapted from Joe Hill’s novel of the same name by screenwriter Keith Bunin (watch the trailer).  The film relies heavily on Christian ideology and iconography.  In the wake of the death of his girlfriend, Ignatius “Ig” Perrish finds himself accused of her murder. He, then, wakes up one morning with horns and a new-found ability to make other people tell him their darkest thoughts and act upon them. He can also witness their memories of events. Daniel Radcliffe plays Ig–yes, Harry Potter with an American accent–well mostly except for the moments when the British slipped through). With good and evil and heaven and hell intermingling, Ig seeks to find who killed Marrin. The notion of sin and what constitute sinful acts  plays heavily throughout the narrative with the answer being essentially do no harm. This film had quite a bit of gay baiting early in the film but that resolves itself well, but it also needs a trigger warning for a rape scene that occurs in flashback. Horns is a horror film that is funny, cheeky, and philosophically intriguing. The issues of sexuality and gender that are imbedded demonstrate an understanding of shifting ideological paradigms about sin and evil. It underscores the notion that self-sacrifice and love are the stuff of actual morality not ideological constructs. Also this may just be one of the best shot films I’ve seen in a long time. Truly beautiful camera work and layouts. The richness of the colors and the camera work added to the ambiance of the film.
Our final film was As Above So Below (2014), directed by John Erick Dowdle and written by Dowdle and Drew Dowdle (watch the trailer). First, I have to own that this film terrified me, as it hit many of my panic buttons, especially super confined spaces combined with creepy looking people with scary looks in their eyes popping out of absolutely nowhere. The film centers upon the search for the philosopher’s stone by a professor, Scarlett (Perdita Week). The history of alchemy takes center stage, and this historical pinning means the mixing of Greek, Egyptian, and various mythologies within the narrative. This film plays with perception, obsession, and madness all set in the Catacombs of Paris, which may be the scariest place on earth truly. The backdrop is dark and bone-filled. Scarlett and her friend/ex-lover George are wicked smart.  I highly appreciated all of the mythological twists and turns as well as the the invocations of Dante’s Inferno in the descent into hell.  In many ways, As Above So Below upends gendered tropes within horror films, as Scarlett is intelligent though reckless.  She embodies the typical masculine role of professor and adventurer in the vein of Indiana Jones.  This is essentially the National Treasure of horror movies with puzzles to solve and dangers to overcome.  Like Horns, this film has excellent camera work and some really amazing shots that establish really excellent tension and terror.  While I’m so not looking forward to the inevitable nightmares this film will surely bring, it was worth it to have my head messed with on this level, but also to see smart weaving of alchemical history and ideology within a horror film. In full disclosure, lots of critics hated this movie (i.e. Simon Abrams’ review), which I discovered as I was gathering my links for this blog since I avoid all spoilers to all things with a fervency unrivaled accept for my absolute fervent devotion to horror movies and reading naughty books.
These three films were excellent in establishing their narratives and creating interesting world-building based on intriguing views on mythology and religion.  The Taking of Deborah Logan and Horns are currently available on Netflix, VOD, and DVD/Bluray. As Above So Below is only available on DVD/Bluray and through video on demand services.

Motherhood, Madness, and Monsters in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook

I’m on a roll with female-directed horror films lately, so today’s installment is Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014), which has been distributed by IFC Midnight (See the trailer). You can see it in your local indie theatre or as a digital rental from iTunes, Google Play, or Amazon. (It’s streaming for $6.99—seriously it’s totally worth every penny and more.) My brain is quite full of things about this film, and I do believe that it has found its way into my dissertation. So this will be brief but I have to write something about it right now!

Here’s a very brief synopsis: Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother struggling to raise her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), after the death of her husband. Samuel’s fear of monsters in his room at night heightens his pre-existing behavioral struggles. A book entitled Mister Babadook appears one night for story time, which begins the torment, sleeplessness, and emotional and psychological breakdown of Amelia. (Also I’m going to try really hard not to give any spoilers here.)

The Babadook is part suspenseful psychological horror, part monster movie, part possession film, and all just flat-out scary in a quiet and creepy way. The Babadook haunts this film as a specter, a creature, an idea, and a possessive force. He is both the monster and the catalyst for the monstrous. The Babadook is the thing that we fear in the dark that creeps out of our closets and from under our beds.

It’s actually the normality—the underlying sense that none of us can keep our lives together all the time and that things have to give—that creates the backdrop and evokes our own fears of failure to be good enough. There are moments of absolute discomfort for the audience, especially in the moments where we see Amelia struggling with her parenting and Samuel’s overall difference. Amelia’s on-going grief over the loss of her husband is palpable and real. I could feel the hole within her and her gut-wrenching loneliness and heartache at his absence. It’s the type of grief that can never be healed or filled but the type that leaves a scar for life. Even though Amelia holds it all together pretty well, the center cannot hold with that much pain, especially when Samuel’s fears keep her awake at night and the Babadook manifests in their lives. The madness that lack of sleep, fear, and the utter exhaustion of balancing her motherhood with her selfhood establishes a feeling of deprivation and terror that at first seems to be normal fears of a woman who just doesn’t know if she can do it all anymore. (Which I think many of us understand and fear as well). But Samuel’s fears are founded, and the monstrous is real in this film.

The Babadook is a film full of the questions that haunt us. How do we protect those that we love from things we can’t understand or see? How do we protect them from the worst of ourselves? How do we balance all of the emotional, physical, psychological issues that we struggle with in order to be whole even in the midst of the realities of life and loss?

My suggestion is to watch Kent’s The Babadook. I don’t think you’ll regret this creepy, sly, and ultimately feminist narrative about a mother battle real life concerns alongside the supernatural world. It reminds us that our everyday lives are horrific and monstrous at times just like this smart and intriguing horror film.