Darkness Waits: Contemporary Creature Horror Films

In my latest binge-watching of horror films, I watched From the Dark (2014) and Dark Was the Night (2014),  Both films are takes on the creature feature, vampire and wendigo (maybe Bigfoot) respectively.  Neither film gives the viewer a name for the creatures, and the filmmakers don’t spend dialogue on explicating the monsters’ desires, strengths, and weaknesses. In both of these films, the writers decentralize the monsters themselves and highlight the human relationships that drive the protagonists.  They are inevitability tales of survival without devolving to demonstrations that humanity is in fact the most monstrous of all monsters, which has become the central plot points of most monster film/television in the contemporary era (such as in The Walking Dead and Stake Land). 

From the Dark is an Irish production set in the countryside turf bogs and is directed by Conor McMahon. What the film lacks in exegesis, it makes up for in tension.  The moments from sunset to sunrise seem endless for our cast–Mark and Sarah.  Sarah played by Niamah Algar is a wonderfully strong female character taking on the beast that is hunting them.   I was impressed with Algar’s ability to essentially carry about 75% of the film on her own, as most of the action follows her.  The darkness itself seems to be a character in this film, and the audience mainly sees the creature in silhouette and shadows, which lends to the creepy factor.  McMahon also gives several cinematic nods to the horror pictures of old, such as Nosferatu.  From the Dark is available on Netflix and Shudder as well as for purchase.

While I appreciated From the Dark‘s creepy ambiance, I absolutely loved Dark Was the Night, directed by Jack Heller and written by Tyler Hisel. This was a seriously good film.  The writing is subtle but builds a great story with solid dialogue.  The acting was outstanding.  Kevin Durand plays Sheriff Paul Shields (He is also seen in FX’s The Strain as my favorite character Fet.) Durand is fantastic as this guilt-stricken man, who is just trying to hold it all together for himself, his family, and in the long run his whole town.  Lukas Haas plays the deputy Donny Saunders and fulfills the strong conscientious second in command well.  Nick Damici (of one of my favorite films Stake Land) also shows up with some really great lines, especially in his interactions with Haas’s deputy.  This film is partly an ecological cautionary tale.  This creature tale takes an interesting premise, gives the audience excellent performances, and then takes a major mind-blowing twist. Dark Was the Night shows people pulling together to save their community and demonstrates that heroes can rise without destroying others in their attempts to save those that they love.  It was also a disturbingly creepy film.  I highly recommend it.

I was pleased to see these two films taking a bit of a different approach to creature horror than the recent trend in horror films/television.

A change . . .

[Just a note: This post will have nothing to do with books or movies or my various intellectual pursuits, but I needed post something as today marked a fairly big milestone in my life.]

Today was my last day working for the Department of Residential Housing here at Ohio University.  It’s not time for me to leave OU altogether. I have taken another role on campus and will be finishing my dissertation over the upcoming year.

In 1997, I came to Ohio University as a first year student.  Frankly, I didn’t want to be here.  I had dreams of a big city school with all sorts of prestige–I won’t name the school but some of you know the story.  My first week on campus left me a confused mess because I thought college would be this intellectual paradise in which students sat around talking about poetry and philosophy.  I had seen Dead Poet’s Society one too many times and thought that college surely must be more like that boarding school than my high school had been.  Much to my chagrin that was not the case and while I made some wonderful friends on campus during my freshman year, it was becoming a Resident Assistant in my sophomore year that helped me find a home at OU but also changed the course of my life.  Becoming an RA was one of the best decision of my undergraduate life here (the other best decision was studying abroad in Ireland). It was through my role as an RA that I made some of my lifelong friends.

Christy Amy and Amanda 2005

(L to R) Amy Lott Rupert, me, Christy Frank Bursby in 2004

I made the decision to stick around for graduate school. Because what do you really do with a B.A. in English and Political Science and a certificate in women’s studies?  It was during graduate school, while being an assistant hall director, that I realized that my true calling was working with college students and that made all of the difference.  That was 2001, and in so many ways, I’ve never looked back, even though my dad still thinks I should go to law school–I think in my mid-thirties and nearing completion on a PhD that ship has sailed.

Over the years, I  have had oversight for a lot of students (I can’t even count as I have had between 250 and 650 residents each year for twelve years of running halls). While the residents have offered a great amount of joy and challenge, it has been my work with the RAs that has made my time so truly phenomenal.  I have had the joy of supervising amazing RAs–over 175 (I think the number is actually 202) young leaders in my time here. Over the years, I got to witness their triumphs and their hardships.  I have been able to offer them support when things were difficult.  Each staff became a family–sometimes utterly dysfunctional but always amazing. I got to see these young people step up in a role that is as challenging as it is rewarding.  Each one of them made me a better person.  They challenged me to think about the world differently.  They made me learn new things from how to communicate with each of them differently to chess to video games to science and math.  Every one of them taught me about what they were passionate about.  We laughed together, and we cried together over the years.  We struggled through incredibly difficult times dealing with some of the hardest things that can happen in college.  I’ve gotten to celebrate many of your accomplishments with you from internships, to graduations, and with some of you weddings and even births of children now. To all of my RAs: you made the difference in my life just as you did for your residents.  I got the opportunity to see such grace and strength in you all. Thank you for sharing your lives with me.  From my first staff to my last, I’m proud to say that I’ve known each and every one of you.

Making Modification and Creating Coping Mechanisms

I finished reading Heidi Cullinan’s Carry the Ocean recently. As I am apt to do by the nature of the movements of fate I believe, I somehow found and read yet another novel that touched so many things that I have rattling around in my brain. First, I’ll start by saying that I recommend this book as Cullinan has created excellent characters and the lovely world of the Roosevelt that I’m looking forward to the other books. It was a lovely read.

Emmett, Jeremey, and all the folks of the Roosevelt encounter a world that has established roadblocks and obstacles to their success. The mantra of the novel is that there’s no such thing as “normal.” This has long been the central tenant of my philosophy of life. Many people truly believes there is something called “normal,” and the attempts to prove one’s normality comes at a very high price for the individual. Normal is an individual thing really—it’s more of an individual baseline—one’s own measure of what’s “normal” for them. There truly is no normal, only what we have built as the norm in our own brain. For some the scars and differences are worn upon the exterior of our bodies, and for others, the scars, traumas, and differences are invisible to the world. While Jeremey and Emmett reject the notion of being “broken,” I have always found the idea of being “beautifully broken” and the manner in which those cracks in ourselves are simply reminders of the lives that we live. Some of us ensure that our bodies visualize our difference through body modifications and other methods that we can control even when the disorder, the difference, the trauma feels uncontrollable. Tattoos can become that visible marker of the invisible difference, such as Caden in Laura Kaye’s Hearts in Darkness who marks his body in order to distance himself from others.

In Carry the Ocean, Cullinan introduces the reader to a spectrum of visible and invisible mental health issues, differing abilities, and disorders. I kept finding within the novel moments of identification not only with the characters but also with their emotional lives and their abilities to modify the world around them to be more conducive to difference. I’ve been thinking about coping and defensive mechanisms and modifications that help us live our lives. As we see with Emmett and Jeremey, modifications for interacting with the world become incredibly important. For many people, finding positive coping mechanisms feel completely impossible. I love that Emmett creates mechanisms that help him interact with the world and that he helps Jeremey determine modifications for his depression.

Sometimes the coping mechanism becomes a dangerous defensive mechanism. Edward “Easy” Cantrell in Laura Kaye’s Hard to Hold on To creates defensive mechanisms that damage his sense of self and ultimately his well-being. Suicidal ideations are a part of Jeremey and Easy’s mental illnesses—major depressive disorder and PTSD respectively. Their disorders—their differing abilities—hide in plain sight until Easy and Jeremey are willing to acknowledge the problem. In Felice Stevens’ A Walk through the Fire, Asher Davis’s self-harming behaviors serve dual purpose, as a release valve of the emotional trauma but also as a self-enacted punishment. Asher’s self-harm is more concrete than what many of us engage in. Recklessness often becomes the easiest defensive mechanisms. It is the moment of Vishous’s swandive from the balcony of his apartment in Lover Unbound. I’ve spoken in a previous post about my love for the damaged hero in romance novels, but I’m equally drawn to characters who are different—those who understand that there is no normal. Some of those embrace their difference as Emmett and eventually Jeremey do, while others struggle with their own worth. Trying to discover coping mechanisms that actually work and are not reckless or self-destructive can be very difficult for many struggling with invisible disabilities. It is for this reason that I appreciate all of the novels mentioned in this post, especially Cullinan’s Carry the Ocean, because it shows characters that are actively seeking to better understand their interactions with the work around them.

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.

Fifty Shades and Conversations about Feminism, Sex, BDSM, and Beyond

Ok so lately my tweets and my Facebook shares have had a lot of shares of great news and opinion pieces about Fifty Shades of Grey (I’m so not linking it for lots and lots of reasons).  I’m collating links to those piece below. The other day I waded into a twitter debate (really argument . . . and some crankiness) about this series and its film (I’m hoping to all things good and holy in the universe that it epically bombs so I don’t have to have another bout of movie hype in about a year, but I’m guessing I’m on this losing end of history on this one). One of the arguments that a lot of folks are using is that it’s anti-feminist or essentially shaming anyone who identifies as a feminist for reading and liking Fifty Shades. Before I delve into any Fifty Shades talk, seriously people, reading is a good thing . . . please read . . . read whatever you are into that doesn’t make you a bad feminist, mother, social justice educator, student affairs professional, professor, student, or fill-in-the-blank identity . . . and we need to stop shaming each other about our reading pleasure.  The hard thing with Fifty Shades right now is that many feminist activists and very conservative sectors of America are currently agreeing and working to undermine the novel’s reach.  I admit that worries me quite a bit on many many levels as I’ve never been an advocate of the “an enemy of mine enemy” and all that.  While it’s a great plot device, it’s super bad politics usually, and we end up compromising too much of our selves for a politics of respectability, which as I type that is a whole other issue.

Here’s the thing about Fifty Shades: it is bad erotica, and it’s really bad BDSM. There’s much better romance, erotica, and BDSM romance/erotica out there. If you want recommendations let me know.   It’s bad BDSM because it doesn’t embrace the tenets of safe, sane, and consensual. It’s bad BDSM because it’s based on emotional blackmail.  I find Fifty Shades’ relationships just as problematic and abusive as its source material (Twilight for those who don’t know), but that doesn’t make it anti-feminist or the women who read it anti-feminist. I can’t say that Fifty Shades is anti-feminist because that isn’t for me or anyone else to decide. My feminism doesn’t exclude romance novels, erotica, or BDSM. Also trust me when I say I read far naughtier books than Fifty Shades could even begin to imagine.

My bottom line about Fifty Shades is that I found it annoying, boring, and just BAD: bad writing, bad romance, bad erotica, and bad BDSM. But I read all three books and don’t begrudge E.L. James her success.  I do begrudge her lack of research and her blatant disregard for even the most basic tenets of BDSM.  (I mean I begrudge Stephenie Meyer her obvious disdain for a long history of vampire literature and culture, so James is upholding her idol’s methodology there.) I swear at some point I’ll stop posting and talking about this damn series and its movies, but it’s too popular not to talk about.

Here’s the other thing, though, I am thankful that it is allowing people to have good conversations about sex, erotica, romance, BDSM, women’s sexual agency, and so much more. So alas, I can’t stop sharing these awesome articles yet and thinking about it.

And thus begins some links for some great reads about Fifty Shades, BDSM, and Feminism (some will be familiar if you follow me on social media or read my Marked, Mated, Owned Blog).

Fifty Shades of Meh by Mistress Trinity (I agree with Mistress Trinity about a lot of what she says and she’s really funny.  I don’t agree with her diminishment of romance novels whether Harlequin or otherwise).

Fucking with Feministing: BDSM Subbing and Feminism by Sesali B. This one is great.  Read it.  (Also I shared this one in another blog, but I’m collecting articles here)

“I like submissive sex but Fifty Shades is not about fun” by Sophie Morgan

Jenny [Trout] Reads 50 Shades This highlights what a fiction writer sees as issues with 50 Shades while essentially writing 50 Shades fan-fiction (for a contest). And here’s my favorite post by Jenny Trout about 50 Shades and BDSM: “Dear 50 Shades fan: BDSM doesn’t need or want your defense”

Fifty Shades of Feminism by Carey Purcell (This is more an analysis of the feminist issues arising in Fifty Shades)

If you have an article you found interesting about Fifty Shades or any of the other topics (BDSM and Feminism, etc.), feel free to post in the comments as I will probably add links too.  I can only image we will see more both about the books and about the film when it finally comes out. Here endeth the rant . . . for now.

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.

Marked, Mated, Owned

First, I’m going to state that this isn’t a fully formed thought yet, but it’s been rattling around in my brain for a while.

I’ve been spending sometime thinking about the concept of being owned, marked, and mated that is prominent within romance plots.  This runs the gamut from “you’re mine” possessiveness to being “owned” in a 24/7 Master/Mistress and slave dynamic.  In paranormal romances, it generally manifest as being mated for life in a way that means one dies without the other or can never have sexual pleasure again without their mate.  In many, physical marking of one body by the other partner carries meaning for all who see it and is a necessary part of the ownership.

I have to acknowledge all of the problematic historical contexts and issues of racism and sexism bound within this idea of being “owned.”  We cannot get away from the ways in which women and people of color have been treated as property in the eyes of the law throughout time and across many cultures.  All of these cultural institutions from coverature to slavery have economic bases.

Even with that problematic historical context, the concept of being owned is popular–not simply in BDSM erotica as many might argue–but throughout many romance plots.  The popularity of BDSM erotic romances indicate a desire to at least on a fantasy level to engage in the dynamic of gifting one’s submission to another. I want to be clear I’m not talking about the false choices to enact BDSM relationship that are sometimes present in romance novels…yes, I’m looking at you, Fifty Shades of Grey. Why is this idea so compelling?  Why do these narratives thrive and entice?  I ask myself these questions frequently as I read and enjoy a lot of these novels.

I can’t help but wonder if the appeal is the intensity of attention and emotionality that goes with being marked, mated, or owned within the universes of the stories but also traditionally in committed and/or collared relationships within BDSM in real life. It evokes an incredibly strong sense of belonging. In these relationships real and fictional it is also a two-way street. The people involved are both owned by the other person–they are bonded together though this approach. They are bound up in each other.

And yet as a feminist scholar, I’m constantly asked: shouldn’t we reject wholesale the notion of submission and therefore BDSM? The answer to that is absolutely not, remembering that the motto here is safe, sane, and consensual. But also that for many in the lifestyle Dominance and submission are not choices but an aspect that is ingrained in the person. I would recommend the great column Fucking with Feministing and also work by Clarisse Thorn. If you are looking for a great introduction to BDSM, I’d recommend Jay Wiseman’s SM 101: A Realistic Introduction.

Ok back to my original question though: why are stories that centralize the “you’re mine” moment and the “I own you” moment so terribly and wonderfully compelling? And more compelling not just to those predisposed to BDSM but to a widespread audience?

Stories, theories, etc. on this theme are welcome here.