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Two Monsters of a Different Color?

September 9, 2012

First appearing in James Whales’ classic gothic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, “Frankenstein’s Monster” (Frankenstein 1931) predates modern horror by decades, however it may have more in common with today’s cinematic villains than those of the Universal era. One needs look no further than David Cronenberg’s The Fly as “Seth Brundle” (Jeff Goldblum) evokes “Body” horror in his transformation into “Brundle Fly” (The Fly 1986). “The Monster’s” isolation due to his difference can also be seen in The Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) as the homosexual subtext isolates it’s main character, “Jesse Walsh” (Mark Patton) not only from his fellow characters but also from the viewing audience. However, one character can be seen as a re-embodiment of Mary Shelley’s monstrous creation. This was a creation that would go on to inspire an entire genre franchise. “Frankenstein’s Monster” and Friday the 13th’s (1980) “Jason Voorhees” are characters that parallel one another not only in their physical deformities and their loss of a parental figure but also in their exemplification as the “Other”.

“Frankenstein’s Monster” and “Jason Voorhees come into the world under different circumstances, one natural and one unnatural however, the depiction of each of their childhoods shares a similarity that cannot be ignored. Each character shares a history that many can identify with, that of the bully fixated upon punishing those who are unlike them. Mary Shelley describes her creation through Victor’s eyes as he says, “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch with who such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form…” “The Monster’s” watering, yellow eyes continue to draw the creature away from the viewer’s ability to identify with it. However, the viewer quickly realizes that “Victor Frankenstein” is the true monster. He shuns his creation, leaving it a veritable orphan as it runs out to defend itself in the wilderness, alone and scared. As the villagers attack, out of fear and ignorance, one cannot immediately think of a tortured child facing abuse that is out of their control. The viewer can now see the “The Monster” as an identifiable figure. “Jason Voorhees” suffered the same oppression and therefore may deserve the same sympathetic treatment.

Born in 1948, Jason Voorhees was born to Pamela Voorhees and a father who is unknown in his mythos. While being afflicted with a hydrocephalic head, an affliction that leaves the victim with an accumulation of fluid on one part of the skull, unaligned eyes and what could only be described as a dentist’s worst nightmare, it remains the case that his mother, Pamela, loved him to a fault. The same could not be said for the malicious campers at “Camp Crystal Lake” in 1957. Their constant abuse led to Jason being chased into the water where he drowned due to his fear of water and the weight of his abnormal cranium. Thirteen years later, in 1979, “Pamela Voorhees” exacts her revenge upon unsuspecting camp counselors in a delusional attempt to exact her revenge for her lost son. Unfortunately, with “Jason” looking on, “Pamela” is decapitated by “Alice” (Adrienne King) in a persona that will become known as the final girl.

Through their upcoming films the pair will find themselves more alike than dissimilar. “Frankenstein’s Monster” and “Jason Voorhees” are now orphans. Each must find themselves attempting to live on their own, finding whatever they can to sustain themselves. Each figure has been resurrected by lightning and survives a presumed death at the end of their respective films just to turn up in the sequel (Frankenstein, Friday the 13 Part 6: Jason Lives). Lastly and possibly most importantly, is the similarity in how their bodies are created.

We know how “Victor Frankenstein” creates and animates his “Monster”. What is not always so obvious to his audience is how “Jason” is continuously resurrected. After his death in Friday the 13th Part 4: The Final Chapter, Friday the 13th Part 6: Jason Lives opens as a bolt of lightning resurrects his body. The explanation of his immortaity would further be explained in Jason Goes to Hell (1993) as “Creighton Duke” (Steven Williams) says, “What you think of Jason is not Jason. That body he’s wearing, it’s just meat. It wears other’s people’s bodies the way folks might wear a suit. Oh, he may get blown up a bit, but that’s just a minor inconvenience to him. He’ll just get himself another body”. The physical lines between “Frankenstein’s Monster” and “Jason Voorhees” are now blurring as their very bodily makeup can be identified within each figure.

Victor Miller’s “Jason Voorhees” continues to evoke Mary Shelley’s creation as they each invoke the philosophical notion of the Other. Each figure’s physical deformities have been represented in multiple forms ranging from James Whales’ and Kenneth Branaugh’s versions of “The Monster’s” appearance to director Joseph Zito’s representation of “Jason” as a ghastly grotesque in Friday the 13 Part 4: The Final Chapter and Rob Hedden’s depiction of him as a perpetual child in Friday the 13 Part 8: Jason Takes Manhattan. It is this child that is striking, as both “Jason” and “The Monster” are veritable orphans from their introduction. “Victor” sees what he has created and immediately disavows his responsibility for its creation. While, “Jason” has a loving, although psychotic mother, she is quickly murdered in the last moments of the original film. Each character is now alone, in a world that they do not understand and each react as a child might without parental guidance. The Creature strangles “Victor’s” brother on his way to killing several others, while “Jason” protects his beloved “Camp Crystal Lake” by slaughtering those who dare step upon his beloved ground. After all, this is the very ground upon which “Pamela Voorhees” created the legend of “Camp Blood” by avenging her son’s death and attempting to protect the land from future intruders.. Both “Frankenstein’s Monster” and “Jason Voorhees” fall into the category of the Other not only due to their physical appearance and their behavior but also as they are orphans, separating them from what would be considered the same or “normal”.

The character’s similarities cross decades of cinema forcing the viewer to wonder what future audiences may derive from the characters that we do not see. Is “Frankenstein’s Monster” merely a child in human form for which “Victor” is solely responsible? Does “Jason Voorhees” kill his victims because of their drug and alcohol use or are they both acting out as bullied figures that never grew beyond childhood?

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Star Wars: A New Hope for Cinema

August 31, 2012

It began as a love letter to a childhood obsession. Over the course of three decades it developed into a six picture series that would not only change the course of cinematic narrative during the late 1970’s but would simultaneously become a game changer in the world of movie marketing, visual effects and sound design. More importantly, however, is its influence upon multiple genre styles of the coming decades that include adventure, science fiction and fantasy. It is these influences that George Lucas calls upon in creating his epic that drives his narrative and creates the lasting legacy of the series. George Lucas’ Star Wars changed the direction of cinema while simultaneously creating a modern myth drawing upon themes that parallel religion, literature, ancient mythology and world history.

The escalating social turmoil of the 1960’s in America flooded into the next decade. The previous ten years included multiple assassinations including President John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. 1967’s “Summer of Love” had come and gone and the flower-power generation, with their attitude of “heady optimism” (Reynolds) began to wane. The decade ended with an air of pessimism that began to take hold in America. The Tate, LaBianca murders in 1969 at the hands of Charles Manson and his “family” exposed to the public the dark side of the Hippie counter-culture movement. The 1970 tragedy at Kent State and the 1971 riot at the Attica correctional facility in upstate New York represented the social upheaval of those without a voice. Compounding the social zeitgeist was America’s increasing involvement in Vietnam as an unveiled attempt to crush Communism, the realization of the plight of returning veterans and the resignation of President Nixon due to the Watergate scandal. Wide spread mass calamity left America with a cynical, abject distrust of not only its government but also the direction in which the country was headed. Cinema would become the reflection.

Pictures of the early 1970’s, with their bleak, stark reality brought the “auteur theory” to center stage. Cinematic narrative was being re-defined, as downtrodden anti-heroes became the subject of analysis for mainstream cinema. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) examines the genre of the gangster film through the eyes of Al Pacino’s reluctant “Michael Corleone”. Jack Nicholson’s “J.J. Gittes” in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) is a “Film Noir” throwback to early cinema the likes of Howard Hawkes’ The Big Sleep while Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) tells the tale of Robert De Niro’s disturbed Vietnam veteran “Travis Bickle”. All the while, an idea was developing in the mind of a filmmaker that would change the course of cinema both technically and stylistically the effects of which resonate in modern cinema.

George Lucas had already made his mark upon Hollywood prior to the 1977 release of Star Wars. Unfortunately, that impact was not entirely positive. While it is true that Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973) was both a financial and critical success, Roger Ebert referred to it as “…a brilliant work of historical fiction…”(Roger Ebert), his previous film, the avant-garde THX-1138, left the Lucas/Coppola backed studio American Zoetrope nearly bankrupt when Warner Brothers demanded their initial investment be returned.
However, George Lucas would not be deterred. He would soon find inspiration in the serials of his childhood the likes of Flash Gordon while simultaneously expanding his vision creating a layered work that hinges upon multiple layers of symbolism, not the least of which is human kind’s faith in religion.

The religious underpinnings at work in Star Wars’ six entries are impossible to ignore while simultaneously being as difficult to pinpoint. Star Wars is a veritable menagerie of religious symbolism ranging from Christianity to Judaism and Islam in the West and philosophical means of thought found in Eastern beliefs. Just when the viewer feels they have a grasp toward one particular answer, evidence can be found to refute that conclusion. Is Star Wars an ambiguous, muddled mixture of world religions? Is it a dissertation on the nature of good vs. evil or a Christian allegorical examination of Anakin Skywalker’s fall from grace and subsequent redemption? As with all art, the answer tends to hinge on one’s own point of view.

The final scene of Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith is often viewed as a representation of the Nativity that is integral to the Christian faith. “A wise man rides in from the desert on a camel-like creature. He presents an infant — perhaps the “chosen one” who will redeem the universe, according to prophecy — to his adoptive parents. The question is inescapable: Is little Luke Skywalker a stand-in for Jesus?” (Houston Chronicle) To an attentive viewer with only a very basic knowledge of Christianity, the answer should come quite easily with an unequivocal no. Luke Skywalker is not born of a virgin birth the likes of Jesus from his mother, Mary, nor during the entire original trilogy that includes Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) is Luke referred to as the “chosen one”. Furthermore, as John Yakes, a Catholic priest and author of Star Wars and the Message of Jesus: An Interpretive Commentary on the Star Wars Trilogy, Luke “…saves the galaxy, but he does not herald the end of an age or a final, divine judgment” (John Yakes).

Others see a parallel between Luke Skywalker and that of baby Jesus as his mother Mary and his “father”, Joseph of Arimathea, flee to Egypt to escape King Herod’s massacre of young boys. This point of view leads the reader to see a “doubling” between Herod’s actions and the separation of Luke and Princess Leia due to the third act of Revenge of the Sith. The “Jedi Purge” occurs at the hands of Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader and the clone troops as they attack the Jedi temple in an attempt to eradicate the universe of the undesirable, the Jedi. The scene comes to a climax as Darth Vader single-handedly murders multiple children, otherwise known as “younglings”. Subsequently, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Senator Organa (Jimmy Smits) take the twins to remote planets, also known as the Outer Rim, to protect their detection from not only The Empire but also that of the Dark Side’s gaze. As Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi states in the original film states, “If the Emperor knew as I did that if Anakin were ever to have any offspring, they would be a threat to him.” (Star Wars) Again, however, the fact remains that the Christian symbolism is misplaced. Luke Skywalker is not the character most representative of the Christian faith in George Lucas’ opus. It is in the character arc of Luke’s father, Anakin Skywalker that most closely parallels that of Christ.

The prequel trilogy first introduces Anakin (Jake Lloyd) in Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace. Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) discovers Anakin at the age of ten and quickly realizes through a conversation with his mother, Shmi Skywalker (Pernilla August) that there is more to Anakn than meets the eye. Qui-Gon inquires who Anakin’s father is. Shmi’s response is that “there was no father. I carried him, I gave birth, I raised him. I can’t explain what happened” (The Phantom Menace). Qui-Gon Jinn goes on to explain to young Anakin, and also the audience, the nature of a new introduction into the saga, the Midichlorians. Qui-Gon Jinn describes the Midichlorians as an element that exists in all life, the escalating count of which seems to implicate an individuals’ connection to “the force”. Anakin’s unheard of Midichlorian count, exceeding that of Jedi Master Yoda, leads Qui-Gon to believe that this boy is the fulfillment of a prophecy that will bring “the force” back into balance and create harmony in the Universe. Qui-Gon makes a comment stating that if Anakin “…had been born in the Republic they would have identified him early” (The Phantom Menace). This line of dialogue would become a revelation during the third act of George Lucas’ prequel trilogy.
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he opera scene midway through Revenge of the Sith features a conversation between Palpatine and Anakin in which the circumstances surrounding Anakin’s birth come into focus. Palpatine tells the tragedy of Darth Plageus the Wise. He reveals that Plageus was a “Dark Lord of the Sith, so strong and so powerful that he could manipulate the Midichlorians into creating life” (Revenge of the Sith). Unfortunately, for Darth Plageus, he has taught his apprentice the secret of this power and in true Sith form, Plageus’ apprentice assassinates him in his sleep. The subtext during the scene is that Palpatine is that very apprentice. Palpatine’s ability to create life has far reaching religious implications, the most obvious of which is Anakin’s parentage. While the Jedi are clearly an indication of an unnamed religion, Palpatine is now implicated as not only Anakin’s father but also a divine figure that emulates that of the Christian God.
Anakin Skywalker’s path, however, will vere from that of Christ as he becomes a fallen angel and in turn becomes a symbol of Lucifer, otherwise known as the Christian Devil. As told in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lucifer was once one of God’s most beautiful and favored angels. But Lucifer’s conceit and his lust for power over God caused him to wage war on Heaven. Defeated, he was cast out and created his own kingdom. That kingdom would become what Christians know as Hell. Anakin’s fall, like that of Lucifer, is a result of his own pride and arrogance. Hence, it is no coincidence that Anakin must face the ramifications of his actions in a fight to the death with his former friend and mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, on the outward planet of Mustafar, a volcanic planet that is not only reminiscent of apocalyptic imagery but is also representative of the rage that is driving Anakin’s hatred resulting in his own damnation.

All the while, Star Wars evokes Eastern religions in a more philosophical manner. “The Force” can be viewed Taoist fashion as an energy that connects all humans. Meanwhile, Dharma of Star Wars author, Matthew Bortolin sees a Buddhist aspect to the saga in the “…mindfulness, concentration, letting go and general meditation…” (Bortolin). Religious symbolism is a key factor in the Star Wars saga. It layers the series in a way that allows for coming generations to find something that modern scholars may miss. However, religion is only one factor. A discussion of Star Wars would be remiss without analyzing Lucas’ reliance upon ancient mythology, the hero’s journey and the work of Joseph Campbell.

From a mythological point of view, Star Wars can be seen as a veritable archeological dig as each layer that is revealed offers new discovery at work in Lucas’ narrative. The light saber can be seen as a reference to King Arthur and the discovery of Excalibur. As the reader delves further into the mythos one can find The Rebellion’s attack on the Death Star as an allegory for the Greek hero Odysseus and his entry into the underworld.

The connection between Star Wars and mythology is strengthened by mythological professor and historian Joseph Campbell and his definition of the monomyth, otherwise known as “The Hero’s Journey” (Campbell). “The Hero’s Journey” is an initiatory pattern that represents a transition moving from one identity to another. The Star Wars saga focuses Campbell’s model of “The Hero’s Journey” upon both Anakin Skywalker and his son Luke. Each are called to action, being drawn into a struggle between good and evil. However, it is the diverging paths taken by each that will define their characters.

Luke Skywalker begins his journey as a naïve farm boy struggling with, what he feels, is a wasted life. Campbell’s “Call to Adventure” in The Hero with 1000 Faces is an event that pulls us away from the familiar. It challenges the hero to become more than what he is on the journey to what he always knew he could become. Luke Skywalker’s encounter with Obi-Wan during A New Hope reflects this first step. This first step is often a reluctant one to take. The beginning of Luke’s journey is reminiscent of Odysseus’ call in Homer’s The Odyssey, however, the loss of Luke’s Aunt and Uncle drives him to accept the calling.

The Cantina scene continues “The Hero’s Journey” with Joseph Campbell’s notion of “The Threshold Crossing” (Campbell). “The Threshold Crossing” is a moment when the hero realizes that he or she is in a world that is completely foreign to them. It is a moment when the hero breaks free from their former selves while realizing the struggles that they will face.
“The Threshold Crossing” can also be seen in Greek mythology in the tale of Hercules. After the murder of his wife and children by his own hand, Hercules prays to Apollo who sentences him to twelve labors ranging from the defeat of the Nemean Lion to the kidnapping of Cerberus. These struggles and tasks develop Hercules as a character. Likewise, Luke is placed in the same position of having to pass tests as he rescues Princess Leia from the clutches of Darth Vader and plays a key role in the destruction of the Death Star. The passing of tests prepares the hero for what is inevitably an escalating and seemingly insurmountable confrontation. Luke Skywalker’s final test will come during The Empire Strikes Back as he not only faces Darth Vader, but in what of the greatest revelations in cinematic history, his own father.

The struggle between father and son is ever present in Greek mythology. Hesiod’s Theogony describes the ruler of the universe, Uranus, being overthrown by his son, Cronus, who’s son, Zeus, in turn usurps his power. Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King depicts the King of Tebes, Laius, as an oracle tells him that he would be killed by his son. Subsequently, Laius leaves his son, Oedipus, out on the mountainside to die. Oedipus is rescued by a shepherd and taken to the king of Corinth who raises him as his own son. The Delphic oracle, in turn, tells Oedipus, that he will kill his father and marry his mother. However, while the father may be an adversary, a father figure will always emerge in the form of the mentor.

The mythic tradition of the mentor is represented in the roles of Yoda, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. These characters represent the wisdom, knowledge and spiritual guidance bestowed upon the hero. The dynamic between Luke and Obi-Wan can once again be seen Lucas’ references to Greek mythology. As Odysseus embarks on his journeys, he is ever concerned for his son Telemachus. Odysseus asks an old friend, named Mentor, to look upon his son from time to time. From this story, the English definition of the word “mentor” was derived. However, the mentor does not always come in the form we may expect. Perhaps, that is part of the evolutionary enlightenment of the hero.

The mentor often appears in many shapes and forms. The Empire Strikes Back introduces a pivotal character in the Star Wars mythos. The 900 year-old Yoda is not only Luke’s teacher and mentor but also an archetype that dates back to Achilles’ teachings by Chiron, a half man, half horse creature otherwise known as a centaur. Achilles learns not only warfare, but also music and speech from a creature bears little resemblance to him and yet he trusts Chiron as if he were his own father.

Crucial in “The Hero’s Journey” is the presentation of an object. Typically, this object is a weapon of some kind. In Star Wars, that presentation is made by Luke’s mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, in the form of his father’s light saber. However, the gift does not have to be tangible. The knowledge of “the force” gained by Luke is arguably more important than any weapon he could wield. The weapon need only be important in the struggles to come, because, unfortunately, during “The Hero’s Journey”, the mentor cannot remain.
Whether it is Luke Skywalker’s loss of Obi-Wan Kenobi or Obi-Wan’s loss of Qui-Gon Jinn, the loss of the mentor is an important step along the journey. It is only in their loss that the hero truly learns what they have learned. George Lucas realizes, as Joseph Campbell did, that the mythological hero must accept the fact that they will out live their own hero. We will never be without a need for a mentor or a teacher in life. What Star Wars teaches us is that if someone stretches out a helping hand, don’t look down to see if that hand is green, just take the hand.

The vast mythological references that George Lucas is drawing upon in his Star Wars saga cannot be completely defined due to the fact that he is creating modern mythology through each of his films. In doing so, Lucas is inviting his audience to come with him on the journey. The result of which is that the reader finds connections to not only mythology and ancient religion but also parallels to modern history.

Historical metaphors are featured throughout each of the Star Wars films. The presidency of George W. Bush resonates in Revenge of the Sith. Just prior his climactic battle with Obi-Wan, Anakin states, “If you’re not with me than you are my enemy” (Revenge of the Sith). It is impossible to hear this line and not relate it to Bush’s post 9/11 speech in which he says, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”. The Jedai Geki and the samurai culture of Japan is also often referenced in the series, however, one historical period continuously resonates throughout each picture.

At the center of the story is the scheming Darth Sidious disguised as Senator Palpatine. He uses the Republics fear of rebellion and war to gain absolute power. The most direct parallel is Germany in the 1930’s, the rise of Adolf Hitler and the actions of the Nazi party.

It begins with the Senate’s ratification of emergency powers bestowed upon Palpatine in Attack of the Clones. This is precisely what Hitler requested in 1933 with what is known as the Enabling Act. Both would-be dictators gain the trust and love of their subjects by claiming they will lay down their new powers once they are no longer needed. However, history shows us that whether you are discussing Adolf Hitler, Uganda’s Idi Amin or Saddam Hussein, once emergency powers are given they are rarely returned.

Palpatine’s first step is to create a massive army in order to counter the threat posed by the developing Separatist army. The army is made up of clones derived from one host, a bounty hunter named Jango Fett. They are faceless, clad mostly in white and obedient without question. The clones will eventually become known as the Storm Troopers as The Empire establishes its power. Aside from the obvious parallel of Hitler’s racist regime and the fact that Hitler’s shock troops that assisted in his rise to power were known Storm Troopers, Lucas’ Storm Troopers are often viewed as a symbolic incarnation of the German people. The Clones are obedient to a fault. This is evident in Revenge of the Sith as Clone Commander Captain Cody turns on General Kenobi upon receiving Order 66 from Emperor Palpatine, thereby beginning Lucas’ representation of the Jewish holocaust, The Jedi Purge. The German people were not ignorant of the atrocities being committed by Hitler’s regime however; their loyalty to the Fuhrer caused them to turn a blind eye.

Nazi Germany’s influence upon Star Wars can further be seen in how Lucas differentiates the Rebellion and the Empire. The Empire is sterile and lifeless. It is not a coincidence that women do not exist within the Empire. Women are associated with life, care giving, rejuvenation and nature whereas the Empire is evocative of death, destruction and violence.

However, women serve a key role in the Rebellion’s fight against tyranny not only in the character of Princess Leia but also in Return of the Jedi’s Mon Mothma and Revenge of the Sith’s Padme Amidala as she and Senator Organa sew the seeds of what will become The Rebellion.

Likewise, The Rebellion is not only racially diverse but also zoologically inclusive. This reaching across boundaries can be seen in World War II as the Allies represented cultural diversity representing varying value structures that came together to defeat a common threat, that of Nazi Germany.

Whether he is referencing the “upside down cole kettle” helmet evident in both the Nazi uniform and Darth Vader’s mechanical mask, the uniformity found in Hitler’s army and the Clone troop’s march or in how red, black and white, the colors of the “Blood Flag”, are featured in The Emperor’s throne room during the later scenes of Return of the Jedi, Lucas is using his narrative to remind his viewer of how easily a culture can fall and find itself in darkness.

With its themes ranging from religion to ancient mythology to recent history, George Lucas’ Star Wars has, in turn, created a mythology of its own. It changed the course of cinema but just as importantly, it created a legend that over the course of its telling evolves into a literate story while avoiding the trap of being literal which allows future generations to relate to it in their own way.

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Is that a Machete in Your Pocket or are You Just Happy to See Me?

August 22, 2012

Horror has been a form of cinema since the era of Classical Hollywood. The gothic style of the 1930’s produced Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and George Waggner’s Wolfman. As the genre progressed it developed a history of being reviled by the Hollywood mainstream as a decadent, perverse genre that glorifies violence, revels in gratuitous nudity while churning out mere product that halts the evolution of the medium. However, as one delves deeper into a reading of the genre the viewer finds a disturbing world of gender stereotypes based upon a patriarchal, heterosexual society, a society that forces women into a submissive role based upon the target audience of the genre. However, as the genre has progressed into a world in which women can take ownership of their sexuality and become the heroine in the end, the subtext turns the women upon themselves. The modern horror film examines the role of the monstrous-feminine while simultaneously examining the misogynistic attitude perpetrated upon women and the repercussions that follow.

The American horror film has long been a breeding ground for broad characterizations and stereotypes. For evidence of this trend one need not look further than the genre’s treatment of women. Faye Ray’s “Ann Darrow” in Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong (1933) is often seen, through no fault of her own, as responsible for the destruction of New York due to “Kong’s” infatuation with her. The 1960’s would open with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Janet Leigh’s “Marion Crane” is portrayed as a promiscuous criminal whose iconic murder in a shower at The Bate’s Motel is presented as rightful punishment for her actions. However, it is the slasher sub-genre of horror that emerged in the later half of the 1970’s that would help define and subsequently cement gender stereotypes in regards to the treatment of women within the genre.
The slasher film, loosely defined by former Fangoria editor in chief Tony Timpone as a film with a body count (dir. Farrands 2009), finds its roots in European cinema with Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve. However, it is John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) that will influence cinema for the next decade. The women in these films and their subsequent sequels become carbon copies of one another. Their characters blend into one stereotype, that of the promiscuous, drug and alcohol-abusing teenager who is murdered by the faceless killer. As the series progress, the films escalate in violence toward the female characters as spectacle replaces the lack of a narrative through-line. The result is the condemnation of women who embrace their sexuality while simultaneously glorifying the men as conquerors of the monstrous-feminine.

As a genre, horror has a history of focusing upon its male viewers as they make up the vast majority of the viewing audience. As the audience begins to identify with the killer through the often used Point of View, or POV shot, they must eventually realize that the monster and his female victims have more in common than not. They each represent a form of “the other”. While the imagery of the monstrous killer can be negatively aestheticized, the female characters’ stereotypical behavior also makes them something to be feared and ultimately something to be destroyed.

The importance of the male audience is further inflated due to the fact that the filmmakers, who are overwhelming male, are pervading the objectification of the female characters in these types of films. Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, examines the “male gaze” as the male controlled camera lingers over the female form in a voyuerstic style, producing an erotically charged reaction from not only the characters within the picture but also from the male audience. The result is an uneven distribution of power within the narrative that depicts women as existing only for male gratification. However, this balance of power will be short lived. The male audience’s false sense of power will soon come crashing down with one narrative trope;s that reverses the power struggle, that of the Final Girl.
The figure of the Final Girl is presented in stark contrast to that of her hyper-sexualized counterparts. On the surface, the Final Girl is depicted as the smartest of the female characters. She is a virginal figure who abstains from the behavior deemed impure by the patriarchal world the women inhabit. Carol Clover goes on to describe the Final Girl in her book Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film as:

The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or Final Girl. She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified. If her friends knew they were about to die only seconds before the event, the Final Girl lives with the knowledge for long minutes or hours. She alone looks death in the face, but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B). But in either case, from 1974 on, the survivor figure has been female. (Clover 35)

The Final Girl is further removed from her female counterparts as her sexuality is all but removed resulting in an ambiguous gender identity. She is portrayed as “the Girl Scout, the bookworm, the mechanic”, “boyish” and “not fully feminine… in the ways of her friends” (Clover 39-40). Clover goes on to describe the figure as the sole survivor due to her “smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters, and sexual reluctance” (Clover 39-40). Clover further says:
Thus, the Final Girl’s masculinized nature could also be symptomatic of the male spectator identifying with the Final Girl’s masculinity. This is due to the male audience’s unconscious refusal of accepting the social stereotypical view of passive, inferior females and active, responsible males. Rather, the adolescent male spectator is diverging from the sadistic-voyeuristic relationship between the slasher and male viewer, participating with the Final Girl in a desirable shared experience of masculinity and self-importance (Clover 151-152).

Finally, Clover underscores how the Final Girl becomes masculinized as she states, “Lest we miss the point, it is spelled out in her name: Stevie, Marti, Terri, Laurie, Stretch, Will, Joey, Max” (Clover 39-40).

The sexual differentiation between the Final Girl and her female counterparts continues to deepen as the narrative hurtles toward the conclusion. Tony Williams’ “Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film” describes the monster as a:

“…sadist who unconsciously releases sexual repressed desires and castrates the female victim with his phallic weapon. However, the sexually active female victim or ‘bad girl’ could be argued to occupy a masochistic position. Thus, her castration implies that she receives sexual pleasure from unconscious fantasies of domination and torture from the sexually repressed slasher (Williams 150).

Therefore, slasher film monsters the likes of Halloween’s Michael Myers and Friday the 13’s Jason Voorhees are representative of a patriarchal “…masculinity associated with male power, dominance and aggression, perpetuating the primordial patriarchal unconscious governed by the desire to subdue ‘woman’ and the feminine” (Neale 342).

This is not to say that the Final Girl is not immune to the genre’s misogynistic tendencies. It could be argued that the monster’s stalking of the Final Girl as well as her injuries, which are often severe, make her just as much a victim as the other women depicted in the film. However, it is the Final Girl’s courage and will to survive that is a symbolic castration of the monster.
One example that evokes not only the castration of the monster but also depicts the masculinization of the Final Girl is “Alice” in the original Friday the 13. Clover describes the climactic scene as “Alice” decapitates “Mrs. Voorhees” as a:

“…symbolic castration of the castrating mother as the murder of Mrs. Voorhees at the hands of “Alice” could be coded as a masculine victory. She is phallicised through being armed with the phallic pickaxe and decapitates the mother, punishing her as the conscious mass murderer and unconsciously for acting in a masculine fashion. Thus, these actions could be symptomatic of masculinity, especially as afterwards Alice returns to her usual role in society as a typical feminine female” (Clover 152).

The description of the scene reminds the audience that the monster need not be male in order to be the castrated victim of the Final Girl.

Further evidence of this notion could be seen in Psycho as “Mrs. Bates” emasculates her son, “Norman” or in the character “Asami” in Takashi Miike’s Audition. Female killers in these types of films are certainly the exception to the rule but it does not make a difference in the mind of the Final Girl. As Clover points out, the masculinization of the Final Girl is momentary. Unfortunately, this transformation is necessary due to the gaze of the male audience. Masculine and feminine are now converging into one form. The audience is identifying with both sides of the female protagonist as she destroys the monster. Subsequently, they are simultaneously witnessing their own symbolic castration.

Even so, if the Final Girl were progressing into one symbiotic character, would the reverse not also be true? The re-emergence of the slasher film began in 1996 with Wes Craven’s Scream. The film becomes a postmodernist take on the genre as “Sidney Prescott” (Neve Campbell) is not only sexually attractive but also loses her virginity during the course of the film to her boyfriend, and the eventually realized killer, “Billy” (Skeet Ulrich). The finale culminates as “Sidney” has embodied the notion of the masculinized Final Girl in spite of her now misconceived Patriarchal impurity. In the end, “Sidney” takes on the persona of the killer herself, donning the very costume worn by the masked maniacs. She finally castrates “Billy” with her phallic umbrella before ultimately shooting the monster in the head. All the while this sexualized Final Girl is joined by her Final Boys, “Randy” (Jamie Kennedy) and “Sheriff Dewie” (David Arquette).

While the over-sexualized female and the Final Girl are certainly important characterizations in the horror genre, it would be short-sighted to reduce the role of women in horror to two possibilities. Roles exist that depict women as strong characters who embrace their sexuality. One need look no further than the oldest independent studio in the world to find evidence of this fact. Founded in 1975 by Lloyd Kauffman and Michael Hertz, Troma Entertainment has long prided itself on its treatment of women as both strong heroine’s who do not shy away from their sexuality. Deeply seeded in exploitation, Troma’s depiction of women is that of headstrong characters who use their femininity to take advantage of depraved and unimaginable situations. Troma’s most recent film, Lloyd Kaufman’s Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (2006) is not only its most critically lauded film, Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly referred to it as a “…soft-core scatological zombie kitsch musical complete with social commentary” (Gleiberman). In spite of this glowing review it is also the company’s most successful film in its treatment of women. An indictment of the fast-food industry, Poultrygeist stars Kate Graham as Wendy, former girlfriend of Arbie (Jason Yachinin) who is now involved in a love triangle with her new girlfriend Micki (Allyson Sereboff). The film depicts sex scenes that skirt the line between acceptable exploitation and a parody of pornography. Wendy and Micki are often seen in various stages of undress as Arbie watches with sexual gratification. Upon first glance, these scenes could be seen as misogynistic, the way Robert De Palma depicts the opening locker room scene in Carrie (1976) as a boyhood fantasy. However the picture never depicts the women as sexual objects the way De Palma’s film does. In fact, Arbie is the character depicted as a mockery of the “male gaze”. Furthermore, it is Wendy who discovers the chicken zombie’s weakness as Arbie cowers in fear.

Film often uses absurdity to point out the flaws in the industry’s own stereotypical depiction of character archetypes. Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead presents its female protagonist as a strong woman who is in touch with her sexuality. It is merely another aspect of her life that does not deter her from becoming the heroine in a world gone mad with chicken zombies.

Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up!

While, the slasher sub-genre still exists, mainly in foreign and domestic remakes or found footage films, every so often the genre proves its ability to move beyond a female protagonist that must be defined by her sexuality. Sigourney Weaver’s “Ellen Ripley” in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) is the prototype for Linda Hamilton’s “Sarah Connor” in James Cameron’s Terminator (1984). Quentin Tarantino’s “Final Girls” in Death Proof (2007) give “Stuntman Mike” (Kurt Russell) his comeuppance without ever becoming masculinized. Likewise, a film that was released during the resurgence of teen horror the likes of Final Destination (2000), Saw (2004) and their subsequent sequels would depict women as brave and intelligent people who do not need a man to prove their worth. However, their actions toward one another could be seen as the reason for the very existence of the murderous creatures they must defend themselves against.
Neil Marshall’s 2005 film The Descent is a film about a group of women whose spelunking expedition goes horribly wrong in ways they could not possibly imagine. The six women delve deeper and deeper into a series of caves. The film becomes claustrophobic and uncomfortable. And then the unforeseeable happens. The women come upon a humanoid/zombie/cannibalistic hybrid. What is being depicted is what Julia Kristeva refers to as the abject. In Powers of Horror, Kristeva writes that, “Abjection preserves what existed in the archaism of pre-objectal relationship, in the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be” (Kristeva 10). The women fall into pools of blood as they scurry across the skeletal remains of former victims. Kristeva goes on to explain “by way of abjection, primitive societies have marked out a precise area of their culture in order to remove it from the threatening world of animals or animalism, which were imagined as representatives of sex and murder” (Powers 12-13). The six women have delved too deep into the creature’s world and they now become the visual manifestation of the women’s character relationships.

What is initially alarming is that the women seem to dismiss alarming clues that something is a clearly amiss. Upon entering the cave, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) notices a bloody streak reminiscent of a fingerprint. Sarah decides against telling her companions about the curious mark as to not destroy the gang’s expedition. The audience understands her motivations and therefore forgives her without knowing the ultimate conclusion. During Beth’s (Alex Reid) death at the hands of Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Beth does not mention the act of killing her but rather Juno’s betrayal of her friend by leaving her alone to die. When Sarah comes upon Beth’s dying body Beth does not say that Juno killed her with an icepack but rather states, “She left me” (Dir. Neil Marshall). As the secrets between the groups begin to come out they begin to descend into madness due to their stress and fear. The film suddenly pits female against female. Juno’s affair with Sarah’s deceased husband becomes the turning point and in spite of Juno’s deception, the audience feels a compassion for her as Sarah exacts her bloody revenge leaving “Juno” to be devoured by the nocturnal cannibals.

In The Descent, the cannibals are not the monsters. They are the embodiment of the way the six women react toward one anther. Carol Creed might say that the women have masculinized themselves. They have delved too deep into what can only be called a womb. In this womb they have tapped into the primal while the audience has replaced identification with the protagonists and forgiveness for understandable behavior with revulsion against the primal state to which the women have devolved. Yes, it is commendable that these are smart women, who keep their clothes on and run in the right direction. Unfortunately, the film still portrays them as victims, not of the monstrous creatures but of their unforgiveable, stereotypical behavior toward one another.

A feminist analysis of the horror genre shows that the role of women in these types of films is not reduced to that of sexualized object or the castrated victim of the phallis wielding monster. She can be a powerful figure that juxtaposes the patriarchal oppression placed upon her with her own strength in the moment while simultaneously using the “male gaze” against the audience in a reversal of the voyeuristic violation being perpetrated against her.

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Friends Forever

June 15, 2011

It was a fixation, an obsession.  While most kids my age, that of 14, got up early on a Saturday morning to watch the next greatest cartoon complete with its requisite action figure tie-ins and wardrobe must haves or were out in the open air playing sports, I was entrenched in front of my t.v.  The people on this show couldn’t be real could they?  Their troubles seemed so meaningless and yet they were depicted with such weight.  An addiction to caffeine pills is treated as if someone is shooting an eight ball in a darkened Los Angeles alley.  A chess match causes a panic attack due to the loss of a lucky beret and puppy love relationships result in dramatic claims of never falling in love again.  Would this be me in the next few years?

NBC’s Saved by the Bell which ended its run in 1994 before attempting, and failing at a Prime Time run was the story of six adolescent teenagers growing up in the sun drenched, pastel L.A. of the late ‘80’s and early’90’s.  The leader of the gang was Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), a bleached blond “preppy” who was more successful with the ladies than actually cracking a textbook.  Kelly Kapowski (Tiffany-Amber Thiessen), Zack’s on again off again romance was the most popular girl in school, a cheerleader with a large family and hair tossing issues.  Was it turrets?  We will never know.  A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez), he hates to be called “Albert Clifford”, is the jock from a military family that has moved around his entire life but has now found a home at Bayside High.  I’m sure he still misses his beloved Chameleon, “Artie”.  Jesse Spano (Elizabeth Berkley), Slater’s favorite romantic sparing partner is the intellectual.  High strung and anal to a fault, Jesse is the President of the Student Council and the local feminist.  Beware of calling her “babe” or “chick”.  Lisa Turtle (Lark Voorhees), yes Turtle, is the black girl.  She aspires to be a fashion designer and is constantly dodging the affections of Screech.  Oh, Screech.  Samuel “Screech” Powers (Dustin Diamond) is the uber-geek of the show.  As intelligent if not more, as his Senior GPA shows, than Jesse his inability to shed his love of all things insect and his obsession with Lisa make him the punch-line of the show.  Wait, did I say Los Angeles?  That doesn’t seem correct.

That’s right; Saved by the Bell began as a pilot entitled Good Morning, Miss Bliss in 1987.  Starring Haley Mills, Good Morning, Miss Bliss was initially a Prime Time show about an “inspiring” teacher and how she influences her students.  It did not include any of the characters or actors made famous by Saved by the Bell.  The pilot failed and was later revamped into the aforementioned title but still did not resemble the cult ‘90’s show.  The following year “Miss Bliss” was now sidelined to a lesser role in place of a focus on the students.  Mark-Paul Gosselaar took on the role of Zack Morris as a freshman at John F. Kennedy Junior High School in Indianapolis, Indiana.  However, the powers that be, namely NBC President Brandon Tartikoff and Executive Producer Peter Engel, felt the setting was not what the show needed.  So, over the summer between freshman and sophomore year, Zack and his family packed up and headed west.  He also, apparently, convinced his best friends Screech and Lisa, not mention their Principal, Mr. Belding (Dennis Haskins) and presumably their parents to leave their lives behind in Indiana and follow him to California.  That makes perfect sense, right?  Every Principal moves with their most ill behaved, mischievous students don’t they?  No?  Well, admittedly, some continuity errors may abound.

Saved by the Bell would continue in its new form over several years as our gang defeats corporate tyranny in favor of an environmental morale, hypocritical drug addicted celebrities and the discovery of Native American lineages.  There was the summer at Malibu Sands, the trip to Hawaii and Jesse’s father’s wedding.  And finally, there was the marriage of Zack and Kelly in Las Vegas in the series finale.

Being a morning a person, I watch these episodes of my favorite Saturday morning obsession on a daily basis as TBS fulfills my desire for all things “Bell”.  I look back on their adventures not with scorn, derision and the cynical, sarcastic eye of a jaded adult but rather with a love and hate of those Saturday mornings.  I can smell my mother’s scrambled eggs, the crackling of the bacon and the dread of her over cooked sausage…Buff dog in my lap.  However, I also see my father going to the garage for his first taste of vodka and I feel the tingle up my spine as my abusive brother rises.  For the most part, though, the positives out weigh the negatives.  I think about that dreaded over cooked sausage almost every morning.

However, my love of “the Bell” does not cloud my judgment of it.  The breaches in logic are too often to be ignored.  A perfect example is the episode entitled “Jesse’s Song” which focuses on Jesse as she studies for her midterms all the while feeling pressure to perform with Kelly and Lisa in their new girl group.  Jesse comes across a bottle of pills that will help her stay awake and concentrate.  Zack warns her against the pills telling here that they could become habit forming.  Zack warns Jesse’s boyfriend, Slater, who doesn’t believe Jesse could do such a thing.  After all, she is the one of the group that has mapped out her future, planning to become a member of Congress before becoming the first female President.  Unfortunately, everyone’s fears turn out to be horrifically true as Jesse becomes addicted, breaking down in front of Zack and delivering the iconic piece of music, “I’m so excited!  I’m so excited!  I’m so…scared”!  It all sounds like great drama depicting the horrors of drugs to an impressionable, adolescent audience, until you think about it and realize that Jesse has become addicted to, of all things, caffeine pills.  You really wish it was a joke but it’s not.  Saved by the Bell is now treating “No Doz” and “Stay Awake” as if it were an intervention between Kurt Cobain, Charlie Sheen and Ozzy Osbourne. “Bell” fans look upon this moment as a loveable laugh.  Yes, the show may have “jumped the shark” but it still brings a smile to my face.

Saved by the Bell is the very definition of melodrama.  The characters fall into definitive archetypes.  The plots are over exaggerated to heighten the emotions played out during the “drama”.  As fans we know how silly it is.  We watch it, however, as adults with a desire to meet up with some old friends.  We want to remember the Miss Liberty Pageant at The Malibu Sands, the fight between the popular kids and the geeks over the school store and wonder what happened to Tori in the last season.  As often as I can, I put on my Zack attack t-shirt and hope Saved by the Bell and I will be “Friends Forever”.

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I Love the Monster…Troma as art

March 2, 2011

Arbie (Jason Yachamin), a scrawny kid recently jilted in love wearing low riders and downing a .40, sings of “missing getting his salad tossed” while nine topless lesbians wearing underwear reading “Eat Clam” dance around him with unfettered lust, too bad it is only for each other. You almost wish it was a joke but it is all too real. Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead is the latest entry into the ultra low budget world of Troma. With its no less than three lesbian scenes, horrifically offensive Islamic stereotypes and not just toilet humor but spewing toilet humor all the while, telling a story that denigrates the American fast food industry and spotlights racial stereotypes, Poultrygeist, somehow manages to be one of the most accomplished, if not the most accomplished film in the Troma catalogue. However, when talking in terms of Troma, accomplished can be a subjective term.

Troma is a studio and yes, studio that consistently produces its own work as social commentary while blurring the lines between what is distasteful and socially reprehensible. With illustrious titles the likes of Redneck Zombies (1989), Killer Condom (1996) and A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell (1990) the viewer begins to wonder exactly what they are watching. Does their attempt of updating Shakespeare with 1996’s Tromeo and Juliet matter when “Cappy Capulet” (Maximillian Shaun), formerly “Lord Capulet”, is turned into an incestuous father, raping Juliet on a nightly basis in a transluscent cage? Is the subtext involving abortion and the mentally ill portrayed in The Toxic Avenger IV: Citizen Toxie to be disregarded because of more than one disturbingly violent sex scene?

Can a fringe filmmaker, working outside the Hollywood system, be socially relevant without the message being lost between the absurdity, the boobs and the blood?

Our purveyor into this world of prosthetic penis monsters is Lloyd Kaufman. For more than 35 years, alongside his co-founder Michael Herz, Lloyd Kaufman, or Uncle Lloyd, as fans have come to call him, have created and sustained a studio that can claim absolute independence. While indie studios like Miramax have fallen to Disney and the independence of Paramount Vantage and Fox Searchlight never actually existed considering their parent corporations, Troma played by its own rules. The result of those rules is that the Hollywood system looks upon Troma with scorn and derision.

The A list stars who’s careers Lloyd Kaufman helped create, including Billy Bob Thornton (Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town, 1989), Robert De Niro (The Wedding Party, 1969) and Samuel L. Jackson (Def by Temptation, 1990) systematically distanced themselves from their Troma roots as their careers blossomed. Jackson went as far as to appear on an episode of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno professing his disdain for his involvement in Troma. When Leno produced a clip of Def by Temptation, a visibly irritated Jackson condescendingly laughed away the film while claiming that the studio stilled owed him money, a claim that Kaufman vehemently denies. Not only does Jackson insult Troma’s economic responsibility but also dismisses the studio that financially backed his early career.

Likewise, distribution has also affected Troma’s ability to remain a viable studio. Kaufman’s refusal to seek MPAA approval after a heated battle over content contained in Troma’s War (1990) has historically left his company shackled by the blacklisting imposed by the retailer chains, i.e. Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. However, the fairly recent advent of online video retailing the likes of Netflix has released the stranglehold Hollywood has had on Troma’s power to distribute their pictures. These are simply two examples of how Hollywood’s disavowal of its relationship to Troma has left the studio as a pariah in the American cinematic community.

Troma does have its champions, though. Rejecting the uber-commercialism of the mid to late 80’s, modern filmmakers both in their youth at the time and those just starting out in the business, looked to Troma for inspiration. Quentin Tarantino (Sleep With Me), Peter Jackson (Bad Taste) and Takashi Miike (Blues Harp) have all looked to Troma and publicly referenced Lloyd Kaufman as an influence in their earlier films. Trey Parker and Matt Stone (T.V.’s South Park, Orgazmo) play cameo roles in Kaufman’s Terror Firmer (1999) largely due to Troma’s distribution of their own 1996 film, Cannibal: The Musical. Director, and often actor, Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Grindhouse) plays an unbilled cameo in Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV as well as contributing to the commentary of Blood Sucking Freaks as the “Blood and Guts Expert” making it one of the highest grossing titles in the Troma catalogue.

Lloyd Kaufman, however, is a filmmaker that has consistently shunned the exclusivity of the Hollywood system in favor of his independence. While certainly appreciative of what little respect is given to him within the Hollywood community, Kaufman is committed to creating his art his way. Consequently, Troma is restricted by its budgetary constraints and distribution limitations. If Hollywood were to acknowledge the influence Troma has had on its own industry and personal careers it is possible the studio could shed their black sheep persona and be more readily accessible to the next generation of cinephiles.
Troma’s history as a viable property has been one of moderate highs and desperate lows. Since 1974, Troma has distributed and produced low budget genre films. Kaufman kept the studio alive by working freelance on Hollywood productions the likes of Saturday Night Fever (1977), The Final Countdown (1980) and Rocky (1976). His experience in the Hollywood system opened his eyes to the amount of monetary waste and disorganization that comes with moviemaking. He set out to change things with his own company. After eleven years of moderate success in sex comedies, mainstream success would be achieved in what has become the logo and face of the Troma name.

It was clear by the mid 1980’s that the decade would be dominated by excess. The escalating, cartoonish violence in the Conan and Rambo series of films coupled with the factory-like churning out of sequels to popular horror films i.e. Friday the 13tth (1980), Halloween (1978) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) created an atmosphere that suggested an audience is more willing than ever to watch the unwatchable.

Troma’s answer to the social zeitgeist was The Toxic Avenger (1984). It would become a breakthrough for the fledgling studio. The Toxic Avenger is a clever send-up of the ultra-muscled superheroes with the behavior and demeanor of a horror super villain. Marketed toward the angst-ridden teen audience that flourished in the ‘80’s, The Toxic Avenger centers on Melvin, a naïve, hapless nerd who becomes victim to toxic waste exposure resulting in a green faced mongoloid with a hydrocephalic head reminiscent of Jason Voorhees of the Friday the 13th series. The result is a film of extreme violence, nudity and bloodletting that reaches an absurd level as Toxie takes vengeance against those who have wronged him.

It would be very easy to simply look at The Toxic Avenger as an obvious teen revenge story or a scathing indictment of religion and the need to appeal to everyone. However, this is looking very linear. The true message comes not with in the film but in the audience that sought it out. The Hollywood blockbuster is not all cinema has to offer. The film challenges an audience to look outside the mainstream and see what strikes them. The viewer is asked to seek out filmmakers who work on the fringe of proper taste and political correctness. However, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the subtext could get lost between the exploding heads and non-stop sexcapades? Comparing The Toxic Avenger to a Hollywood film of the same era and extreme nature may reveal an answer.

First Blood (1982) is the first film in the Rambo series. John Rambo is a Vietnam veteran without the ability to move beyond the horrors of war. The climax of the film pits Rambo against an entire town in which he becomes a one-man army leaving a trail of bloody carnage. More distracting than the level of violence and absurd plot, though is that the subtext is blurred by the trite nature of the film. The shell-shocked veteran overtones were already explored in far better fare such as John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder (1977) and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). First Blood does not add to the lexicon of the Hollywood action film. It is a forgettable picture that follows a well-established formula. By contrast, the act of consciously seeking out and supporting independent cinema, under the assumption that independent cinema will have a more clever, avant-garde approach that is represented in The Toxic Avenger is elevated in spite of, or more likely due to the film’s extreme construct.

Troma followed up The Toxic Avenger with another medium success story in their 1986 film Class of Nuke ‘Em High. Unfortunately, their achievements would be short-lived. 1988’s Troma’s War would not only become the studio’s most expensive film to date but bring Lloyd Kaufman and Troma into the crosshairs of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The battle over the film left Kaufman with a cynical attitude toward the mainstream system and crippled Troma for years to come.
Troma’s War is the story of a downed group of airline passengers who, after making their way to what they believe is a deserted island, encounter a vicious group of terrorists. After being kidnapped, the passengers do what they can to gather all the weaponry they can possibly muster while learning the truth behind the terrorists’ dastardly plot. The terrorist leader Senor Sida, Spanish for Mr. AIDS, plans on using the kidnapped victims as pawns in his scheme to systematically infect the United States with the deadly HIV virus.

Troma’s War is an indictment of the Ronald Regan presidency and its glorification of the atrocities of war. More importantly, the film vilifies the Regan administration’s either ignorance or deliberate neglect of the mounting HIV crisis. Remember, this is 1988. It is five years before Tom Hanks’ first Academy Award and a major Hollywood studio’s addressing of AIDS with Tri-Star Pictures’ 1993 film Philadelphia. The inclusion of the AIDS subplot made Troma a profoundly progressive studio that defied Hollywood’s trepidation of controversial material. The result of which would be catastrophic.

While cutting the film, Kaufman and Herz consulted previously released films of the era including Die Hard (1988) and Robocop (1987) as a model in order to pass the MPAA’s standard and receive an R rating. The film was summarily rejected upon delivery and was forced to be re-cut in order to meet a standard set forth by the organization. A second cut would force Kaufman to exorcise the entire AIDS subplot only to still be rejected by the MPAA. Two more revisions would leave the film an incoherent mess of a picture.

At a budget of $17,00.000, Troma’s War would be the studio’s most financially risky film. It failed, due in large part, to Hollywood’s reliance upon the MPAA, an out dated, archaic organization whose practices are tantamount to censorship. Lloyd Kaufman quickly left the Hollywood system behind in favor of releasing his films in an unrated version rather than strip them of their content. This is a situation in which an independent filmmaker made the conscious decision to favor artistic integrity and the themes of his pictures in spite of the inevitable consequences. The MPAA’s treatment of Troma and this particular film, contributed greatly to the decimation of the studio and its financial struggles that continue to this day.

Now the question begs, does the MPAA treat independent studios differently from the major studios? The organization’s own history answers with an emphatic yes.

In 1997, Trey Parker and Matt Stone began the long running series South Park, an animated, half hour comedy that consistently skewers pop culture while delivering profound social commentary. They capitalized upon their sudden fame by fast tracking a project centering on a Mormon who agrees to star as a superhero in an adult film in order to finance his wedding. Orgazmo (1998) would mark the first encounter Trey and Matt would have with the MPAA beginning a long struggle over their controversial films including South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut and Team America: World Police. Orgazmo received the dreaded NC-17, formerly the X rating traditionally left for pornographic films despite the lack of nudity, excessive language or violent content contained in the film.

The NC-17 rating limits the theaters and home video distributers that will carry a film as well as the preconceptions the movie going public has concerning the rating. Trey and Matt were not allowed to change the film in order to receive an R rating, leaving distributor Universal with little respite. The MPAA’s hypocrisy would be revealed a mere one year later as the South Park movie was submitted for approval. The filmmakers were given a laundry list of changes required for an R rating. The difference is that they are now working within the studio system, specifically Paramount, as opposed to independent financial backing.
As long as the MPAA exists in its current form a required stamp of approval will stifle independent filmmakers’ creativity. Lloyd Kaufman, refusing to compromise his vision, shows that a filmmaker can be true to himself or herself and their art as long as they are willing to accept all that comes with their independence.

This brings us full circle to Troma’s latest offering, Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead. Made as a satire of the American fast food industry, the film tells the story of The American Chicken Bunker, a fast food chicken joint that is being overrun by Native American zombie chickens enraged by the desecration of their sacred Indian burial ground. Arbie (Jason Yachanin) is the newest employee of The American Chicken Bunker who is trying desperately to make his ex-girlfriend, Wendy (Kate Graham), jealous as she has left Arbie for another woman. What follows is a musical romp, that’s right, musical, filled with characters that intentionally subvert fast food conglomerates as their names are reflections of but not limited to McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Carl Jr.’s, Denny’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Inspired by the rodents found in Troma’s Hell’s Kitchen offices after a McDonald’s moved into the adjacent building, Poultrygeist became the most critically praised film in their 35-year history. Recognizing it’s obvious subtext, The Guardian called the film “a wonderfully bold satirical comment on the chemical-industrial food complex that poisons us all” while Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman gave the picture a B Plus referring to it as “an exploitation movie with soul”. Lloyd Kaufman’s Poultrygeist is a film that revels in its extreme low brow content while never losing sight of the subtext unraveling underneath its surface.

Fringe filmmakers working outside the Hollywood system have an uphill battle when producing their work. Lloyd Kaufman and his Troma Team, intentionally working outside the Hollywood system thereby avoiding the questionable tactics of the MPAA, have managed to produce controversial material for more than thirty years all the while delivering varied social commentary. Modern filmmakers the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Peter Jackson and Adam Green (Hatchet) cite Troma as inspiration for their own careers bringing validity to an artist that is too often vilified. If an audience can stomach it, Troma can be an eye opening experience in the possibilities of renegade cinema.

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Ghost in the Japanese Machine

December 22, 2010

Over the past few decades, Japanese culture has attempted to permeate the West. Manga and Japanese comics have had a modicum of success with films like Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke; however, Japanese horror, or J-horror has had the most overwhelming effect. With their deliberate pace and roots in mythology, ghost stories and religion Japanese filmmakers have created some of the most nuanced, multi-layered films in the genres recent memory.

Culture shock, however, keeps the West from truly understanding the depth of Japanese horror. Remakes of Ring and Juon into The Ring and The Grudge, respectively, have attempted to acclimate themselves to a new country but a gulf of differences remain between our two cultures. Unfortunately, the West is too often unwilling to learn these differences. So the question begs, is ignorance bliss? If we knew the cultural references would these films still frighten us to such an extreme degree?

As with most cultures, religion plays an in important part in the day-to-day life of the Japanese people. Two religions dominate society, Buddhism and Shinto. As opposed to the differences between Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths in the West, these two Japanese religious views have a tendency to cross lines. For instance, many families practice Shinto weddings while the same family may follow a typically Buddhist burial service. The absence of a particular deity but rather a philosophy guiding life allows for a blurring of the lines between the two religions. Rituals are followed out of tradition, not out of a specific religious affiliation.
Buddhism is a religion teaching that life is a cycle. While many Buddhist stories focus on the physical, Shinto teaches that the dead can not only be preyed to but also spoken to. Shinto’s creation myth describes a land of the dead as an entity described as Yormi. Shinto rarely deals with death directly but rather opts to infer that each person has a soul that can be stuck in between the living and the dead if that person has an overwhelming abundance of emotion upon their death or is not given the proper burial. Most importantly is the notion that the Japanese do not define themselves by one religion thereby allowing a certain ambiguity in the telling of their stories.

Ghosts and monsters also have their own identities known as the Youkai and the Yurrei. The Youkai are physical beings of a bizarre nature that typically follow Western motifs including goblins and giants but they are more often than not benign creatures. More important to the discussion of modern Japanese horror are the Yurrei. Yurrei are ghosts that have been left in our world with unfinished business, typically with a great deal of emotion surrounding them. As a person transcends into the Yurrei they discard their human life and focus solely on what is keeping them from resting. Unlike the Youkai, the Yurrei are entities of malicious intent.

Described often as Onnen, the idea that spirits return from the grave because their emotions are so strong that they are compelled to finish their Earthly business, the Yurrei can most noticeably be seen in the modern film Ring (1998) directed by Hideo Nakata. Ring is the tale of a reporter, Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima), who stumbles upon a videotape that, if watched, spells the demise of the viewer seven days later. The antagonist is Sadako, a young girl whose father killed her and discarded her body in a well. Sadako is the classic archetype of the Yurrei. She is a vengeful spirit, dressed in a white garment. This is important, as it is the traditional funeral robe for the Japanese people. This is an example of the differences in our cultures as it is a reference that most Americans do not understand. Also, the image of the long, black hair streaming over Sadako’s face is a typical trait of the Yurrei. Most often portrayed as women, the hair represents the freedom of a Japanese woman in death. The culture’s history of female oppression is relieved in death. The Yurrei’s hair is free to be let down as her emotions are freed while attacking her oppressor.

Another characteristic of the Yurrei is its reliance upon rules. We in the West have a tendency to believe that ghosts have free reign over their territory however, the Yurrei are hindered by a belief structure. The existence of both Shinto and Buddhism in the Japanese culture requires a certain amount of reconciliation between the two religions. Hence, a certain amount of ambiguity exists when explaining the afterlife. Japanese horror has a solution in its reliance upon rules. These rules however, need not be grasped or understood by the ethereal world but the spirit world must adhere to them. Take for example the aforementioned Ring. The videotape restricts Sadako. Someone must watch the tape for his or her fate to be sealed however, if said person convinces someone else to watch the tape, the previous person is now off limits to Sadako. She has a singular focus, to find the one responsible for her death and her inability to cross over. All others are merely a means to that end. They are incidental.
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n Japanese horror, rules govern the spiritual world as much as they govern the physical one. The Yurrei must adhere to these rules becoming the Magoffin that keeps the plot rolling while the human characters discover how to break the rules.
Japanese horror, however, is not restricted to ghosts and goblins. Japanese genre films are often indicative of graphic violence with an undercurrent of sexual depravity. J-horror’s current auteur of this sub-genre is Takashi Miike. His films including Ichi the Killer (2001), Audition (1999) and Sukiyaki Western Djano (2007) have captivated audiences while also turning stomachs over the course of the past decade. This trend can be seen in Miike’s own Imprint (2006). The 13th installment of the Masters of Horror collection tells the story of Christopher (Billy Drago), an American journalist in Victorian era Japan searching for a lost girlfriend, Komomo, on an island inhabited by prostitutes and those they serve.
Often focused upon, and rightly so, is the intense amount of graphic violence Miike portrays during Imprint. One scene depicting the torture of Komomo in which needles are slowly and methodically slid under her fingernails in extreme close-up is a perfect example of the extreme violence depicted throughout the course of the film. The television network, Showtime, shelved Imprint for this very reason.

Also an example of J-horror’s tendency toward violent content is in Miike’s Audition. The story of a man, Shegeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) holding auditions for a new love interest takes a disturbing turn when the winner of the audition, Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina), turns the tables on Aoyama revealing herself to be a violent sadist. She places acupuncture needles in his eyes while later amputating his foot with a piano wire. While much can be said regarding the symbolic uprising of the Japanese female against her male oppressors the violent content is what most take away from the film.
Sometimes known as “pinky films”, this tendency toward violent, exploitative content is not nearly as atmospheric as the Yurrei ghost stories thereby failing, in the eye of some, to truly terrify its audience. That doesn’t seem to matter though. The filmmakers of these violent films, like Takashi Miike, are presenting their audience with the other and daring you to watch.
American horror is too often hindered by its incessant need to explain away and intellectualize that, which is inherently unexplainable. There is an element of control that American horror places on its films without realizing that horror is about a loss of control. Japanese horror is far more willing to leave things open ended. We don’t know why Sadako exudes so much power in Ring or why she uses a videotape to return. Where does the creaking sound in Juon come from how does that curse exactly work? These questions leave the audience with a festering need to understand thereby giving the films a weight that is missing among many American films of the genre.

While culture shock may prevent a Western audience from understanding the slight nuances of Japanese horror, its focus on atmosphere and understated mood keep us intrigued. J-horror can be subtle or overtly violent. It can confound with its tendency to leave its constructs in the dark. However, if Western audiences are willing, there is an entire culture waiting to be unveiled.

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Broken Blossoms

November 19, 2010

Ranging in large scale themes as complicated as interracial love and domestic violence, D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) is perhaps his most rewarding achievement. It is a film that is made with the same care and ingenuity of Griffith’s own The Birth of a Nation (1915) without the detriment of the latter’s overt racism. While it does suffer from its tendency to stereotype its characters while too often falling into sentimentality there is an advanced technique and emotional resonance at work. Griffith is working with a level of talent that would make many modern filmmakers blush.

Broken Blossoms works as an examination of juxtaposing ideals including peace, violence, female, male and opposing cultural values. Certainly, these are themes that can be found in many through-lines, however, it is Griffith’s application of these juxtapositions that sets his film apart. Examples can be found throughout the course of the film. Recently having arrived in London from China, Cheng (Richard Barthelmess) is a Buddhist attempting to spread his religion’s traits of peace. He exists in stark contrast to the violent and volatile Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp). Their treatment of the demure and innocent Lucy (Lillian Gish) could not be more opposing. Burrows is an abusive stepfather to Lucy while Cheng’s tranquile and gentle nature show a humanity to Lucy that her young life has been missing.

Likewise, the contrast of the masculine and the feminine is a theme that has a recurring home in Griffith’s work. Barthelmess and Gish have a similar posture and demeanor that sets them apart from Crisp’s Burrows. They both share a slouch, a certain way that each carries themselves. It is a symbolic glance into the psyche of two broken people It is a posture that shows Lucy’s subservience to Burrows while illuding to a certain emptiness in Cheng. By contrast, Burrows stands as an immobile statue. He puffs his chest using his size to intimidate Lucy into a shrieking violet. All three are subtle was of conveying the masculinity and femininity in both genders while also showing that one is not restricted to its counterpart.

More overtly exposing the masculine and feminine undertones is the cross-cutting scene featuring Burrows boxing match and appears to be an attack on Lucy by Cheng. Because of the way “the other” presents itself in the film as a fear of immigrants, the audience is led to believe that Lucy is, in fact, in danger of Cheng. However, it is quickly revealed that Cheng does not have any intention of a violent act but rather the opposite. He comforts Lucy and tends to her needs. This lovely sequence is cross-cut with Burrows beating an opponent in the ring then going out in search of Lucy. Upon her discovery, Burrows violently drags her home where he eventually kills her. This is where Griffith’s examination of the masculine and the feminine is most fascinating. He is depicting masculinity not in how violent a person can be but how important restraint is in the depiction of masculinity. Burrows is such a hot tempered character that when pressed too far his rage boils over. Meanwhile, Cheng is so soft spoken that he could be misconstrued as a crippled figure whose masculinity has all but disappeared. Griffith seems to think otherwise. His view of masculinity is one who controls his emotions without letting the emotion control him. It is a foreward thinking notion even in today’s society not to mention that of the early 20th century.

Inasmuch as Broken Blossoms is a gem of the silent era, its racist overtones prevent it from being viewed as a perfect piece of cinema. While some see the interracial love story, one of cinema’s first, as a step forward in the eroding of the demonization of immigrants but when given more thought the supposed interracial love story is a falsity. The fact that both characters are of the same race simply portraying a character of the opposite negates the reality of multiple races.