Three Things About The Thing

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The beauty of the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres is that they literalize the figurative. Enemies become demons, philosophers become wizards, etc. This is why the two genres are ( undeservedly ) heavily associated with children, since children have yet to create a literal sense of the world. One of the few bastions of “adult” fantasy is the horror genre. Here, fantasy can explicate the darkest fears of the subconscious. John Carpenter’s The Thing ( 1982 ) is an excellent example of how the juncture between Horror and Sci-Fi can produce amazing results.

A little background: The Thing was directed by John Carpenter ( Halloween, Escape From New York ) and written by Bill Lancaster ( The Bad News Bears ). It’s based on the novella Who Goes There? (1938 ) by John W. Campbell Jr., which also inspired The Thing From Another World ( 1951 ). It stars Kurt Russell ( Escape From New York, Death Proof ) Keith David ( Pitch Black, There’s Something About Mary ) and Wilford Brimley ( Diabetes commercials ). See the trailer here

The plot: A group of American Antarctic researchers get more than they bargained for when they take in what seems like a dog that was being chased by a Norwegian gunner. Upon shooting the man and letting the dog into camp, it quickly reveals itself as a shape-shifting monster. Even worse, it turns out it can impersonate humans as well.

There are several things that makes The Thing a thing of beauty ( i promise i won’t make that joke again )…

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1. Paranoia

The threat of the shape-changing Thing creates tension between the researchers. This could have been played very straightforward: everybody just flips on each other at a moment’s notice. Instead, the characters do something unheard of: THEY ACT RATIONALLY. MacReady points out that “he knows he’s human and that some of them must be human too or else they’d just attack him. He recognizes that there’s still some reason to trust each other. When one of the characters suspects that the doctor might be going insane, he pulls MacReady outside into a helicopter to discuss the issue, rather than just putting the guy on the spot and risking a freak-out from the others. The characters are smart. Most horror films rely on stupid people making stupid decisions. They play on the lowest common denominators with helpless women and children. This is why Roger Ebert once called slasher films “dead teenager movies”. Because they’re smart, it makes the threat so much more compelling when shit hits the fan. The threat of the alien is rational when you remember that the dog had some time to interact with them and leave parts of itself. Anyone could be The Thing. Several characters try to establish a chronology of contact which is constantly in question. Who interacted with the dog first? Who was in the room during attacks? Even suggestions become suspect as we know the Thing could be trying to cover it’s bases. What’s even worse is that even the characters THEMSELVES seem uncertain if they are the Thing or not. When MacReady starts testing everyone’s blood, one of the characters is relieved when his test is negative. He wasn’t even sure if he was still human. Your own body could betray you in this film.

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2. Effects

While i’m no opponent of CGI, physical effects are always the best to me in regards to horror. It’s hard to get across quality viscera with computer models. The Thing uses entirely physical effects, making it a bit of a dinosaur when compared to its new-fangled 2011 remake. Instead of this being a hindrance, the actual models allow for a palpable level of repulsion. The Thing has some of the freakiest scenes scenes i’ve ever seen. One of my personal favorites is when a character is jumped by the Thing and his flamethower malfunctions. The Thing’s head then proceeds to SPLIT IN HALF AND BITE HIM!

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That’s the kind of shit you can’t do with CG. Like most smart pre CG films, the cinematographer is careful not to hold too long on anything so we always have very immediate bodily impressions of the Thing’s forms. This still leaves the monster some mystery.

3. Build Up and Pay Off

In America, there seems to be two schools of thought when it come to Horror film plotting. You either a) allude to terror and leave threats permanently ill-defined ( Rosemary’s Baby, The Changeling ) b) have immediate scares that jar audiences into terror ( Hostel, 30 Days of Night ). Both of these methods have their flaws: a creepy atmosphere that doesn’t deliver on threat can feel unsatisfying, whereas a overt scares can desensitize an audience. The Thing does both by having a legitimately threatening monster that doesn’t necessarily show itself unless it has to. The camera implies heavily that there’s something…off…about the dog they pick up, and we don’t realize what exactly is wrong with it until the half hour mark. Up until then, all we see is it’s longing looks at the rest of the cast. The film actually convinces you the dog is plotting against them. When it’s put in a cage with other dogs, we clearly see its demeanor is completely different from the other dogs from how it sits.

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We then of course get to where it reveals itself as a monster.

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Even after this scene, we go only a few minutes before someone else is copied. It’s at this point the film takes a step back to focus on the human drama as these men have to deal with the fact that they can’t necessarily trust each other. In addition, there’s no way for them to leave or get help in this arctic wasteland, turning the camp into a pressure cooker of tension

Overall, i would say The Thing easily rates as one of the best horror films i’ve ever seen. Do yourself a favor and check it out before the month is out.

For more posts on classic horror:

Progression of Ash in Evil Dead

Decay of the American West in Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Death Has Come To Haddonfield: Fatalism in Halloween

Also, if you want, here’s a quick musical summation of the film

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Decay of The American West

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Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1976) used a familiar milieu for most American audiences: the Western frontier. The ” Wild West ” has reached iconic stature as the place where “ America ” was truly born. This is the site of origin for many important economic institutions, such as the cattle industry and other businesses. The people that drove these institutions were blue-collar workers; the ” salt of the Earth “. Though they were not wealthy, they enjoyed a level of admiration encapsulated in fiction such as the Western genre. Aside from romanticism, the working class also enjoyed some financial stability and pride as skilled laborers, such as butchers and craftsmen. As our nation became more industrialized and capitalistic, the need for such skills lessened and the legend of the American west became distanced from what it later became. The people that once had a degree of pride became nothing more than human debris of a time long past, their skills viewed as at best useless, at worst, weird. The antagonists of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are the derelicts of this cultural shift.

Before i go further, a little plot info (be warned, this post has lots of spoilers) : The Texas Chainsaw Massacre focuses on a group of teens visiting a dead grandfather’s estate. During the visit, they come upon a family of cannibals who live in a house nearby. They are picked off one-by-one by the family’s brutish muscle: the horror icon dubbed ” Leatherface “. Watch the trailer here.

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The film establishes the conflict between pre and post-industrial Americans with its youthful protagonists. Their motive for venturing to Texas is already based on a wariness of the region: they fear that a family member’s grave has been disturbed by vandals who have been mentioned on the news. The Hardestys and friends are typical Hollywood teens: well dressed, attractive, and most likely upper or middle class. A sharp distinction is made between them and the Texans they meet upon arrival; most of them are old and weathered.

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One of the teens, Franklin, is established as the middle ground between these two demographics.

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Franklin is overweight and handicapped, distancing him from his “Hollywood attractive” friends. What is especially notable is that he has a thick Texan accent, marking him as the only character with overt Texas roots. He is also the only character who is given significant background, even though it is only alluded to. When they decide to pay the Hardesty home a visit, a repugnant smell permeates the van during the drive. Franklin is the only one not to react in disgust and is actually elated once he realizes it is his grandfather’s slaughterhouse. Whereas the others reaction to this site with repellence, Franklin recognizes its historical significance, especially in regard to his family’s livelihood. The harmonica plays over his dialogue, evoking a familiar music motif of Western nostalgia. Franklin’s attempt to communicate the grandeur of the slaughterhouse is inter-cut with shots of cows, drool dripping from their mouths and herded together.

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None of the nostalgia he holds is communicated to the viewer and the ominous music tells us the cattle represent something dreadful. He seems especially excited about the violence employed to kill a cow, which was rendered unnecessary with the invention of the cattle gun. He mentions the advent of the cattle gun, which is a device that makes killing cattle significantly easier. This speaks toward the greater context of industrialization. Franklin associates pre-industrialized labor with productive uses of violence. Franklin finds this violence awe-inspiring as it requires a power lost to most “ civilized ” Americans.

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The introduction of the hitchhiker contradicts the nostalgia that Franklin attempted to communicate. Before he is picked up, the teens already regard him as weird-looking and Franklin connects him to the slaughterhouse in regards to his potential bad odor. He sits at the back of the van as all of the teens sit near the front, putting them in opposing shots. Despite his earlier sentiments, Franklin is the most openly derisive of the hitchhiker, calling him names like Dracula. Franklin and the hitchhiker discuss the slaughterhouse, and we find out that the hitchhiker and his family also worked there. As the hitchhiker says this, a shot focuses on Franklin, who’s eyes widen in subtle surprise. His site of nostalgia is decaying as he realizes the ghoulish hitchhiker is the product of the slaughterhouse’s industrialization. Whereas the Hardestys subsisted off the slaughterhouse and then eventually moved away from the town (given what we’ve heard from Franklin) , the hitchhiker’s family had no such luck and became unemployed once they were rendered obsolete. The working class guys that Franklin had such respect for are now at the bottom of the food chain. The hitchhiker was specifically a cattle killer, and the violence that made him so effective at his job no longer has a productive use. He cuts his hand and Franklin’s arm without provocation before being kicked out of the van.

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Franklin later stares at his own hand while remarking with awe that it “takes a lot to do what he did”. The admiration he had for the slaughterhouse workers is still present, albeit with a new element of fear.

Once the teens come upon the cannibals’ homestead, we get an introduction into how they now use their ” frontiersman ” skills for survival. The most obvious application in the film is butchery.

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The importance of the meat industry is established in the beginning, and thus foreshadows the threat of the primary villain, Leatherface, who is the family butcher. Leatherface is introduced in a butcher’s apron and is shown to have a “slaughter room” that uses butchering implements. His methods reflect the earlier description of slaughterhouse’s methods: he kills the first teenager with a hammer before he even knows what is coming. In addition, he wears an apron and puts one of the girls on a meat hooks, furthering the butchery parallels. The titular chainsaw throws in an element of forestry as well, which doesn’t fit the whole ” butcher ” theme but makes up for it by being scary as shit.

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Rather than simply eating people, the family also employs an economy that is signature to the settlers of the past. The hitchhiker references the production of head cheese while talking to Franklin. He emphasizes how the process boils down the edible parts of the head, a body part mostly ignored by most people. Such a desire to utilize every part of an animal is an indicator of a strong survival instinct. This economy isn’t just for animals: Leatherface’s iconic mask and the family’s lampshades are made of human skin.

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In one scene, a girl stumbles upon a room where all of the furniture is made of human bones.

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The use of such methods marks a regression to a more primitive culture. The accessibility of modern craft materials for most Americans makes these creations archaic and unnecessary. Also, creepy. Since most of these skills have no viability in a capitalist model, the family uses them for the basic necessities of living.

Ironically, the family still embodies certain aspects of Capitalism, albeit in its most primal sense. Many say that Capitalism creates a “dog eat dog” society. People fight to gain as many resources as they can, even if it means the consumption of a neighbor’s resources.The industrial revolution made many skilled workers feel as if they were reduced to nothing more than material resources to be used by the upper class. The family manages to turn the tables on the upper classes who thrive from such a system by reducing them to resources as well through cannibalism (an inverse of Jonathan Swift’s ” A Modest Proposal”.) They herd, kill, and eat human beings as if they are cattle. When any of the teens enter the family’s house, livestock noises are heard with no diegetic source, which links them with farm animals awaiting slaughter.

From a practical perspective, cannibalism allows the family to sustain themselves physically. From a metaphorical perspective, they get to take revenge on the upper classes.

Despite their derangement, they also recognize the importance of financial gain: whatever human meat they don’t eat is sold as barbecue.

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They are shut out of the modern day economy so they resort to more drastic means. The hitchhiker attempts to solicit a small amount of money from the teens after taking their picture, but they refuse. In an indirect fashion, the teens are implicated as part of a system that keeps the family from surviving through socially accepted methods. Despite the miniscule amount of money he asks for and his obvious poverty, they do not even consider giving to the hitchhiker. The hitchhiker specifically marks their van after this encounter, which could imply a cause-and-effect relationship between their lack of generosity and their deaths.

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Because their class of people will not give them access to financial opportunities, they are forced to use them as resources instead.

While the family momentarily subsists through their methods, their way of life is merely the last throes before the end. The backbone of any society is the family. Family facilitates regeneration of both culture and actual people. Once the family is rendered sterile, there is no future. In the film, it is apparent that the cannibal family has no females. Their grandmother is a corpse in the attic, so whatever feminine influence they had has been long deceased.

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The three family members we see for most of the film are all said to be brothers, meaning that there is no strong patriarchal force either.

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When we are introduced to the patriarch of the family, he is a decrepit old man who needs to be fed and moved about by his grandsons.

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They sing the praises of how amazing he was at killing their victims, once again making a slaughterhouse parallel by referencing his prowess with the hammer. Like Franklin, they cling to a nostalgia for a strong working class that they fail to notice has decayed. They try to get the old man to kill the final girl with his once mighty hammer strike, but he is unable to even lift the hammer without their assistance.

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His phallic hammer has been rendered impotent. Their delusion that he can accomplish the feat shows how ignorant the brothers are of their family’s predicament. The old man can no longer perform his “ fatherly duties ” and the mother is dead, meaning there is no future for this family and their way of life. These men who have seemingly been in complete control over their environment throughout the film are revealed to be pathetic children unable to acknowledge that what they hold dear had already been lost. Despite being a horror film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in many ways as much of an ode to to the twilight of the frontiersmen as any Western.

For more posts on classic horror:

The Progression Of Ash In Evil Dead

Death Has Come To Haddonfield: Fatalism in Halloween

Three Things I Like About The Thing

 

Hail to The King: The Progression Of Ash In Evil Dead

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Horror films defy a fundamental convention in mainstream film by basing their franchises on antagonists instead of villains. No one remembers Alice Hardy, but EVERYONE remembers Jason Voorhees (both from Friday the 13th (1980). What makes the Evil Dead franchise interesting is that it’s a horror franchise represented by a protagonist instead: Ashley J. Williams. The character is mostly known for his memorable one liners and bravado, but I would say his greatest strength was his character development throughout the series. He goes from lucky survivor to badass action hero, a transition that never happened in any other horror franchise beforehand.

A little background in case you’ve never seen Evil Dead: the first film debuted in 1981 and was directed by Sam Raimi (director of the first Spider-Man film series.) The premise is straightforward: a group of teens (including Ash) go to a cabin in the woods…

No,not that one

No,not that one

…only to discover that it’s previous occupant found a mystical book called the Necronomicon (or ” Book Of The Dead ” for those of you too poor to have taken Latin). The occupant’s final recording of an incantation unleashes a demonic / undead / whatever force upon the teens that won’t relent until sunrise.

In the first film, Ash acts as the ” final girl “. This is a horror fan term for the last person alive. Who is a girl. The most well-known  final girl in horror is probably Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) from Halloween (1978). The final girl is usually vulnerable, very white, and most of all: chaste (if not an outright virgin). Despite not being a girl, Ash fulfills the role well. Instead of being chaste or virginal, he’s romantic.

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His relationship with Linda is one of the few plot elements to be carried over to the sequels, making it the one of few concrete elements of his backstory. Ash definitely seems to be the “heart” of his friends.  Given the genre he’s in, this also makes him impotent. This is demonstrated in comparison to the only other man in the film, Scott.

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Whereas Ash is reluctant to do pretty much anything, Scott is consistently portrayed as proactive. He’s the one who attempts to figure out an escape plan.  Once that ceases to be an option, he deals with the situation at hand. When the first teen is possessed, Scotty kicks her ass into the cellar.

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Meanwhile, Ash got his ass kicked by a shelf.

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Scotty also kills his OWN GIRLFRIEND the minute she gets possessed.

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Holy shit. Ash, of course avoids killing his possessed girlfriend for most of the film, only accomplishing it after THREE attempts. Ash’s reactions to the events of the film are human: he doesn’t just switch into violence mode when the situation calls for it. For a film as schlocky as Evil Dead, his character keeps the story grounded, unlike many similar B-movie horror films of the 80’s which lacked sympathetic protagonistsAs with most final girls, Ash is a vulnerable audience stand-in who survives…until the end which implies he gets possessed anyway.

The success of the first film led to Raimi being greenlit for two sequels. As with most new directors, Raimi had not planned on Evil Dead being a franchise. But, due to money and all, he made the sequels as requested.  Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (1987) begins by revealing that while Ash was possessed by the end of the film, the daylight quickly cured him. Of course, he still can’t leave the woods due to a broken bridge. And the woods are still haunted. And, of course, his girlfriend is not quite dead.

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Or is she?

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The scene seamlessly transitions from Ash being attacked to Ash sitting down, implying that he might have just hallucinated. Is Ash crazy? While Evil Dead’s demons are shown to have a wide range of abilities, it’s ambiguous if they can cast illusions, which leads the viewer to question whether or not Ash is losing his mind. A later scene raises this question again when his reflection attacks him…

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…which turns out to be his own doing.

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Now while there are some horror franchises that bring back protagonists who have gone insane due to previous films, most of them come back either as antagonists themselves (Amanda Young aka Jigsaw 2 in the Saw series, Kirsty Cotton in the Hellraiser series) or aren’t protagonists any more (Jamie Lloyd in the Halloween series). Ash is different because he’s still our sympathetic point-of-view. As such, we have to view things through a combination of his probable madness and the demonic influence.

This conflict is similar to Jack Torrance’s in The Shining (1980). The viewer knows that the Overlook Hotel is haunted, but we also know Torrance is a recovering alcoholic. How much of his hallucinations are him and how much are the hotel’s manipulations? It’s established that he once drunkenly assaulted his son, so would it be ridiculous to think he’s always been violent and the hotel merely “nudged” him? This is the question that makes Jack Torrance such a tragic villain : you don’t know how much control he has over his own actions. For Ash, the question is how much of the events of the Evil Dead 2 actually occur and how much of it might be him going insane due to past trauma? Has his girlfriend really been resurrected, or is it just guilt for killing her in the first place? The sensitive Ash from the first film can’t live with knowing what he did (unlike that douchebag Scotty) , so her memory torments him. This is evidenced by the sad leitmotif that accompanies her locket, which becomes Ash’s tragic keepsake.

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The leitmotif plays just before his possible hallucination, thus connecting the moment with his grief.

While this plot element is subverted by the reveal that his girlfriend HAS been resurrected (this is a zombie movie, after all), it still manages to play into how his interactions with the “Evil Dead” have changed. Since Ash is the only consistent protagonist throughout the series, one could argue that his view of the Evil Dead shifts based on his mental state. The first film has the most objective view, since he’s not really the protagonist until the end. By the second film, he’s become so disturbed by previous events that the spirits of the Necronomicon have become as manic as he is. The shared mania of Ash and the spirits is summed up best in a scene where several inanimate objects begin laughing at Ash , which causes him to join in with insane laughter himself.

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The Dead have broken Ash; their manipulation and his madness have intersected.

The “madness” plot is dropped halfway-through the film when the original occupant’s daughter and her acquaintances appear at the cabin looking for her father. They see Ash covered in blood and a chainsaw. Hilarity ensues. They of course learn about the book and that he didn’t kill her father and blah blah blah.

What IS interesting is that Ash, once he gets his wits together, manages to be a lot more proactive than before, guiding the visitors on how to deal with the Dead. He also becomes more violent. This is best evidenced in a callback to the original film; when one of the visitors becomes possessed, Ash hacks him to death in a scene that literally mirrors Scotty killing his girlfriend.

Evil Dead

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Evil Dead 2

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One could view the blood pouring over the camera as a ” baptism of violence “. In the first film, after killing his girlfriend, Scotty suggests to Ash that they run away, abandoning Linda. Ash parallels this when he decides it isn’t worth trying to save one of the visitors’ girlfriend, who ran out into the woods. Like Scotty, Ash has not only become more comfortable with violence, he’s become colder. Rather than caring about his fellow survivors, Ash cares only about his own survival.

Ash’s newfound grit is put to good use by the end of the film when he learns about the spell that can vanquish the Evil Dead. This forces him to face the wife of the previous occupant, who had been possessed before the series’ events. He deals with the threat by creating his two most iconic weapons-the chainsaw gauntlet and the sawed off shotgun. The scene is even more triumphant if you recognize it as a callback to the much grimmer scene from the first film when Ash tries to dismember Linda’s corpse.

Evil Dead

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Slowly he prepares each implement, every action given its own transition as if it’s a scene within itself. Each sound increasingly jarring until we hear the awful roar of a chainsaw. Despite not seeing Ash that much, we feel the unbearable weight of what he has to do. Upon seeing her body, Ash was unable to go through with it. His inability to finish the task showed us his limits as a hero: his decision could have resulted in his death. The second film’s callback to this shows us how far Ash’s come, he’s now willing to do whatever it takes to survive.

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Groovy

Rather than gather his implements hesitantly, he acts with assuredness. Rather than transitioning between each cut with a fade, the scene is cut traditionally, turning the macabre tone of the original scene into a triumphant montage. Rather than being afraid of what he has to do, Ash has embraced it.

Any of you that have seen Evil Dead 2 already know the rest of the plot so I won’t bother going through it in detail. Ash is sent back the the Middle Ages in order to destroy the source of the Deadites’ (yes, that was apparently their name this whole time) power. And then opens the most famous of the series: Army of Darkness (1992).

Army of Darkness is the greatest testament to Evil Dead as a series, Sam Raimi as a director, Ashley J. Williams as a character, and Bruce Campbell as a movie star. If the plot were to be taken by itself without the aforementioned elements, Army of Darkness is the dumbest film in a series that was already pretty dumb at points. The humor is mostly ridiculous. The ” Deadites ” (I hate saying that) aren’t even remotely scary anymore. Most of all, Ash adopts every single macho stereotype imaginable- spouting cheesy one-liners, being a jerk to pretty much everybody, and becoming a horrendous chauvinist.

Once again, I come back to my theory about the setting reflecting the character: the second film had a manic tone with equal parts horror and absurd humor-reflecting it’s protagonist’s mental state. Ash begins this film post “baptism”, and is now so comfortable mowing down Deadites that the horror aspect is lost in favor in straightforward action. The toolshed scene is given yet another callback, taking the “badass” element up to eleven as Ash creates a mechanical hand out of an armored gauntlet.

In any other film series I would call this ” jumping the shark “, but it’s earned in this instance. The once impotent Ash lost the love of his life, went mad, got mad, then became a pastiche of manhood in order to compensate. Is he the most likable guy? Not really, and that’s touched upon in the film. Whereas original Ash was romantic to a fault, here he’s aloof towards his love interest. He’s aloof towards everyone in the medieval world, calling most of them “primates”. He’s so arrogant that when he’s given the incantation to free the land from Deadites, he doesn’t practice it, which leads him to misquote it. When he fails his task, leading to an impending Deadite invasion, he STILL thinks they should send him back to the future using the Necronomicon. Ash’s ” every man for himself ” mentality isn’t necessarily the best thing, and he thankfully grows out of once he decides to help the villagers fight off the Deadites. Of course they win and he goes home and blah blah blah. To me, Army of Darkness is more of an epilogue for the character than a climactic finale. Most of his character development occurs in the second film. Army of Darkness merely showcases who Ash has grown into in the previous film. Ash manages to come full circle somewhat: he went from a nice but weak-willed man to a brash jerk with a heart of gold worthy of Lord Byron himself. 

The progression of Ash indicates what’s so unique about the series as a whole. Evil Dead could be thought of as a rational commentary on the degradation of a horror franchise. Why is it that most audiences feel The Ring (2002) is scarier than The Ring 2 (2005) ? Does Ring 2 vary from the first film’s winning formula? No, it doesn’t. And THAT’S the problem. Whereas most genre films up the ante with each sequel, horror film sequels attempt to recreate something which was already lost. Samara coming out of television once is scary. The second time: not so much. These franchises are based on static characters who, unless they become protagonists, have little potential. At best, series that manage to go into 3+ sequels often end up becoming self-aware (Halloween : Resurrection (2002), for example) , but it often takes repeated failures for producers to attempt this. Rather than trying to revisit old haunts (see what I did there?), the Evil Dead series actually progresses it’s tone organically (horror to horror-comedy to comedy-action) without being forced to. This progression is exemplified by its enduring protagonist: Ashley J. Williams.

Hail to the King

Hail to the King

For more thoughts on classic horror:

The Decay of the American West in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Death Has Come To Haddonfield: Fatalism in Halloween

Three Things I Like About The Thing

 

Gravity Review

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The film Star Trek (2009) opens with a federation starship being attacked by an enemy ship. During the attack, a hole is blown through the ship as a crew member is walking by. She tries in vain to hold on while screaming hysterically, but physics win out and she sucked into the void. We last see her flailing around noiselessly in an exterior shot of the ship. The scope of the battle is so large that she’s barely noticeable on the screen; a nameless ensign adrift in the depths of the cosmos. For a film with as many memorable visuals as Star Trek,  this is one that stood out in my mind. It’s not a particularly thrilling moment (quite the opposite in fact). It’s horrifically stark: whatever emotion we’re supposed to feel is as fleeting as the scene itself. Oddly, a film that uses outer space as a site of fantasy begins with a scene expressing its cold reality. This is a concept rarely touched upon in film. One the few to do so is Gravity.

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Gravity manages to take a story as simple as ” hero gets lost in a foreign land ” and take it to its logical extreme. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban), the film focuses on  bio-medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) who’s first space trip to the Hubble Telescope goes awry when debris from a Russian anti-satellite test results in massive destruction near Earth’s orbit.

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This results in the destruction of the shuttle and most of its crew, leaving Stone and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), to figure out how to survive.

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As in real life, being in space is portrayed as oddly both expansive and claustrophobic The promos for Gravity show an extreme close-up of Sandra Bullock. The camera slowly pulls out as we see her spacesuit and her tumbling through space. This frightening visual encapsulates the tone of the film perfectly. Most non-fantasy films dealing with space travel (Apollo 13, Armageddon) never deal with what being in space is like. It’s just a cool backdrop.  The characters rarely reflect on space. If they do, it’s only to say how beautiful it is. In this film, outer space is portrayed as honestly as possible. It’s nothingness. It’s cold (we see Bullock’s breath while in a vessel). Despite not being explicitly a horror film, Gravity manages to create an unnerving atmosphere when it wants to. Imagine being lost in space? Not only will you die obviously, but your body will forever be adrift (a fear played with by the promos of Stone tumbling in space). The only object of ” beauty ” in the film is the Earth, which is maddeningly out of reach for Stone.

Because the protagonist is explicitly NOT an astronaut, a large amount of drama comes m how she’s as disoriented as the audience would be in that situation. This is illustrated when the shuttle’s crew is introduced. Kowalski is casually reflecting on personal stories and the beauty of the Earth, whereas Stone is too uncomfortable to take her eyes off her work.

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Stone’s space suit becomes indicative of Stone’s limitations. Rather than just being a costume, it’s significance is constantly alluded to. She’s constantly worried about its oxygen supply. Several shots are taken from inside the helmet so we can see her limited vision. Her suit is her tether; keeping her alive and also hindering her. This is the film’s overlying theme: the tag line states “Don’t let go”. For a film about space, freedom is seemingly unobtainable.

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As much as I hate the term, this film could be accurately described as ” hauntingly beautiful “. The camera (which I’m not quite sure existed given all the CGI) manages to take on the properties of the film’s environment perfectly. We are rarely given a sense of direction as the camera slowly drifts through each scene. It obviously works to allow the audience the feeling of space itself. As mentioned before, this at times whimsical, but more often purposely disorienting. This film also bears the signatures of its director, who is an expert at extremely long mobile takes (as seen in films like Children of Men (2006). The introduction of Stone and Kowalski, the revelation of the debris, and their separation from the shuttle all takes place in ONE continuous shot. Holy shit. The film makes sure to almost never separate us from the action, so we get the sense we’re in just as much trouble as the protagonists are. This is the type of filmmaking that almost makes me tear up.

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Given that this is a film with only two principal actors (with the subjective perception of one), Gravity is extremely intimate despite its vast backdrop. Bullock’s acting serves the film, but I can see people having mixed reactions. Bullock’s niche in Hollywood has always been “tough chick who’s secretly feminine” or “smart chick who’s secretly feminine”. She’s the “anti-glamor” girl. As such, when she’s in vulnerable mode, it’s much more understated than say, Julia Roberts. This keeps her character from being a damsel-in-distress IN SPACE. This also means that she might not have the overt reactions some audiences need to feel the emotional weight of the film. Personally, I think her performance fits the character’s personality. A tragedy in Stone’s past has made her a checked-out workaholic. Her job is the only thing that she lives for, which even factors into how she got stranded in the first place. When she deals with stress, it’s more about nervous tics than obvious emotion. For example, one of the most terrifying moments in the film occurs when she gets caught in the debris storm while working on a spacecraft. Her reaction? She ignores it and begins humming to herself awkwardly. That is a brilliant way for us to feel scared for her without diminishing the character. She’s a ball of nerves but she doesn’t break down, which makes us root for her.

Final Verdict

Gravity is one of the few films I would call beautiful in every respect. The effects are gorgeous. The acting is moving. The story is simple yet powerful. I honestly can’t see how someone couldn’t like this film. I guess the only reasons not to see it is if you get motion sickness ( seriously ) or if you just hate Sandra Bullock. Otherwise, see this film.

Don Jon Review

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Don Jon is a great example why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The promos of the film build it up to be a shallow sex comedy capitalizing on the social punching bag that is “Guido” culture ( the protagonist is from Staten Island by the way, so fuck you Jersey haters ). Once it opens, it’s obvious that despite the marketing campaign, it’s actually an affectionate satire on American media that includes the types of films it appears to be.

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Joseph Gordon Levitt  plays the titular Jon, who’s prowess with the ladies leads his friends to call him “Don Jon”. His nickname is a pun on real life 16th century “libertine” ( i.e.  manwhore ) Don Juan. But despite his luck with ladies, Jon is bored with promiscuity. Things seem to turn around when during one of his regular club outings he meets Barbara Sugarman ( Scarlett Johansson ) who stands out from the rest ( i.e. doesn’t put out on the first night ). He then proceeds  to and succeeds in wooing her, but ends up in a relationship that isn’t entirely perfect.

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The first element of Jon’s characterization we are given is his obsession with internet porn. He’s not much into ACTUAL sex, despite having lots of it. This is very novel for a mainstream film: most films that acknowledge pornography do so to establish that those who watch it can’t get laid ( Superbad, Kick-Ass ). Having a character who gets laid A LOT and still watches pornography opens up a conversation about its mainstream appeal. Jon doesn’t just watch porn, he ritualizes it. The film’s portrayal of porn addiction is both hilarious and troubling. Jon’s laptop is on a mostly barren black table with candles surrounding it, turning it into a more romantic object than his actual sex partners. Rather than his porn-watching occurring in the absence of sex, he follows up sexual encounters with porn, which he finds superior to the “real thing”. Needless to say, the film is pretty hard on watching pornography ( porn-I mean pun unintended ).

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The film is critical of not only porn, but media as a whole. The opening scene shows an intense, “ hypercut ”, mishmash of cartoons ( primarily ” Red Hot Riding Hood ” ) , music videos ( primarily Sisqo’s “ Thong Song ” ), and pornography. This segways into Jon’s commentary on sex and his love of porn, communicating the film’s primary “antagonist”. As Jon himself alludes to, part of his porn routine isn’t just watching porn, it’s watching anything that can gratify him. American media IS porn. And that doesn’t just mean rappers sliding credit cards through strippers’ asses in music videos ( yes, that really happened ). It means sports that allow Jon’s father a reprieve from the drudgery of family meals. It means social platforms that allow Jon’s sister a reprieve from interacting at all. It means romantic comedies that-wait a minute, this film IS  a romantic comedy!

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Yes, the film focuses it’s critical eye own genre. During a scene at a movie theater, we see a character view a romantic film in the same way Jon views his porn: through a intense mishmash of familiar scenes  that seem to have an orgasmic effect on the viewer. The film presents the American romance genre as being vapid and indulgent ( like porn ). The cinematography supports this through Michael Bay style focus on the act of sex itself. Sex scenes are quick and given a “stylish” blue tint. The always have an angle that emphasizes the visceral nature of sex rather than anything intimate. Scarlett Johansson’s hotness also serves the porn nature of the film-it gives a great excuse for several longing shots of her body in tight, revealing outfits. Y’know, for plot reasons.

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The beauty of this concept is that it allows for the film to cater to the demographic it pokes fun at (at least initially). College bros and working class joes will eat up the film’s raunchy comedy. The film’s sexual humor is pretty immediate without much innuendo, as reflective of the lowbrow nature of the protagonist. Jon himself is a lovable lech who manages to stay relatable. In addition, dat Scarlett Johansson. If taken as just a sex comedy, it works fairly well. If taken as a satire, it still works well, but has many issues.

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I’m 700 words into a review and I haven’t touched upon the Armani Exchange wearing elephant in the room: is this a film about guidos? In a word: no. Let me elaborate through comparison: in 1977 a seminal American film debuted which centered on a young Italian in his late teens with no sense of the future. He engages in mindless debauchery with his friends while hitting up the most popular night spots with a steady supply of drugs and sex. It serves as a deconstruction of popular youth culture by painting it as often destructive and hollow ( One of the main characters commits suicide because he got his girl pregnant ). What’s the name of this film?

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That’s right, “ that film about John Travolta dancing “ is actually a harsh criticism of the very culture it seems to glamorize. The characters of the film are all working class white kids in the 70’s, so of course their socializing is going to reflect that demographic (hence the disco). However, one could transpose that narrative into any vapid youth culture of the moment like say, 90’s gangsta rap. But unfortunately, since most people take only a glance at any film, it became a film about disco culture instead of commentary on that generation of youth. Don Jon has already suffered similar pigeonholing; the Italian American One Voice Coalition has commented that Don Jon is another work painting Italian American culture in a negative light. Because lord knows Jersey Shore hasn’t already done that.

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While Don Jon is clearly drawing from “ guido ” culture ( hairstyle, excessive exercise, etc ), to dismiss it as only that is incorrect. Not only is Jon portrayed and written humanely by Levitt, most of the film’s critical eye seems to be more towards the way he interacts with culture and not so much his culture itself. Like Saturday Night Fever, Jon is swept up in the culture of the day, in his case; Jersey Shore. His mannerisms, family, and friends all manage to get enough nuance to save the character from being a negative caricature. What is “wrong” with Jon is the shallow routine in which these elements are contained. The majority of the film is taken up by Jon going through the same events over and over: masturbation-gym-road rage-church-family dinner-club-dance-sex-masturbation. It’s the ” Gym-Tan-Laundry ” lifestyle taken too far. He does all these things without much consideration for why he’s doing them or if he should modify them somewhat. This lends to the overall vapid nature of his life.

If I had to say what aspect of the film hurts Don Jon the most, it’s the fact that its concept might be too daring for its methods. This is a romantic comedy that is deconstructive of both mainstream media and romance. That’s like being an anti-semitic rabbi. Friction occurs when the film’s novel narrative goals are carried by fairly stock devices. For example, Johansson’s character and relationship with Jon becomes a bit less compelling  once I “ got ” what the film’s major thematic conflict was. Rather than being interested in her character, she became all to familiar. There were still laughs and some nice acting moments, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where things are heading. In addition, it’s obvious Levitt didn’t really trust in the film’s legibility, and thus we have a few scenes verbally expositing the film’s themes, a big no-no in visual media. A character almost literally points to the “media is pornography”  argument by the end of the second act, when it had already been quite overt. Finally, we can see the “ Hollywood ” influence in its ending, which could be viewed as a bit hypocritical given the film’s major themes. As Levitt’s first film effort, I can imagine that his ambitions outstripped what could be done in a marketable film. Don Jon has few surprises beyond the first act, and I remember going through the 2nd act and part of the 3rd  knowing what to expect.

Final Verdict

All in all, despite a few issues, I enjoyed Don Jon thoroughly. As a first film effort, it’s quite good. Watch it if you like sex jokes, are aware and skeptical of romantic comedy, and want to support original ideas. Don’t watch if you’re a bit prudish or are in a bad relationship (this will make you question some shit).

For more thoughts on Romance:

The Unfortunate Undeath of Chivalry: Implications of Romance In Hollywood

The Lois Lane Effect