The Void (2016): The battle between SFX and storybuilding (no spoilers)

I recall film critics’ initial reactions when The Void first premiered at the festivals around 2016. This reaction was that of an overwhelming support and enthusiasm. It seemed as if The Void was going to follow the success of movies such as It Follows (2014), The Babadook (2014) or even The Neon Demon (2016). Although each of these movies had its weaknesses, they were captivating endeavours with their own fresh approaches. It Follows took some inspiration from the horror and young adult films of the 80s and 90s, The Neon Demon reminded viewers of beautiful color schemes and movies of Dario Argento.  Nevertheless, the films did not simply recycle what was created before; they came up with their own approach to the stories; they used and enriched the old with their novel vision.

Void 01The Void is also reminiscent of the horror movies of the 80s, such as The Fly (1986, or any other David Cronenberg movie), Hellraiser (1987); or even the movies that premiered at the very end of the seventh decade of the last century, for example, Alien or Phantasm (both 1979). The Void is a child of Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie. Watching the extras on the blue ray edition of The Void convinced me even more about the already evident talent of the two creators. The practical special effects are absolutely stunning and their passion is evident and present in the movie from the beginning to the end. The behind the scenes extras reveal multiple troubles (mostly time and money) that complicated their work, however, non of this is felt by the audience when it comes to SFX (Gillespie and the rest of the SFX and art team won’t let you forget their stunning  and threatening creations).

Sadly, the storyline suffers from a lack of attention that has been almost exclusively directed at the special effects. The pacing is one of the main problems. From my perspective, the sequence ordering was too out of place and it prevented me from feeling any deeper concern for most of the characters (and what was going on with the fictional world in general). In other words, my brain objectively understood the story, but my heart was not involved; I did not FEEL it. There are simply too many things going on (too many secrets, too many opened doors…) which do not lead anywhere. Cliche lines and transparent motifs (motherhood) that are presented in an obvious and unsurprising manner do not help the movie. First part of the movie is probably my favourite one (in its entirety), although there are various favourite moments throughout the entire film; however, these are scattered here and there and the second and the third act does not work as a whole. While I am generally OK with movies ending with unanswered questions, the movie does not even articulate which question(s) lacks the answer.

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Luckily, the team of actors did an amazing job and gave a lot of depth to the individual characters (casting by Van Echeverri and Casey Walker). The actors are the second strongest aspect of the movie.

To conclude, the visual practical effects and the team of actors are the strongest elements, however, the movie is mostly an homage to its predecessors and barely brings anything novel. Nevertheless, it proves that practical visual effects can be believable, spectacular, and threatening, even in the time of HD cameras (I am looking at you major blockbusters). It confirmed to me that most major production companies and studious are simply too lazy or unwilling to invest into quality work. Lastly, the movie also demonstrates that visual part of the film alone does not a great movie make. The movie was crowdfunded on Indiegogo, which was a good choice and I hope when the pair makes another movie I will find their Indiegogo on time and will be able to make a contribution myself (I had no idea about The Void Indiegogo campaign when it was still ongoing). I hope that Kostanski and Gillespie will produce more amazing visual movies but also amazing story telling movies. I enjoyed The Void and I hope you can too, despite its shortcomings.

-TheUncannyGirl

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Santa Clarita Diet: Zombie as an alternative life form.

(warnings: may contain some spoilers)

Santa Clarita Diet (2017) premiered on Netflix last week bringing the zombies once again closer to the comfort of our homes. The lives of Joel (Timothy Olyphant) and Liv (Abby Hewson) take an unexpected turn when their wife and mother Sheila (Drew Barrymore) becomes a zombie. The three try to find a cure to Sheila’s zombie problem with a help of their neighbor Eric (Skyler Gisondo). The level and quality of gore in Santa Clarita Diet is remarkable considering this is not The Walking Dead. Netflix does not have to follow many rules and it shows. I was not impressed by the trailer when it first aired, but I was still compelled to watch the show because I love zombies and I have enjoyed most of Netflix’s productions. The show pokes fun at suburban neighborhoods and people who settled down, but it is also soaked through with undead humor. People who do not necessarily enjoy a zombie horror might enjoy this zombie comedy.

Santa Clarita Diet is another addition to movies which represent zombies from their own point of view, and explores an idea that zombies do not mean an end to our existence, but sees them as an alternative way of being. The idea is nothing new and almost as old as the genre itself. The first zombie films took inspiration from Haiti’s voodoo religion but in 1968 a movie by George A. Romero, Night of the Living Dead, changed the course of the genre forever. Romero’s zombies had nothing in common with voodoo, they were not slaves whose souls have been taken from them; any human would become a zombie after death. Romero was inspired by Richard Matheson’s I am Legend (1954), however, a novel which is relevant to the development of zombie and vampire genre. Two classes of vampires were introduced in the novel: the feral and more traditional vampires who only come out at night and a new class of those who overcome the disease and can survive in daylight. The new class is the new life form that inhabits the Earth and Robert Neville, the main character, represents the last surviving human on the planet. Matheson’s undead are multidimensional. Romero famously followed the tradition of exploration of zombie consciousness which culminated in his character Bub in Day of the Dead (1985) when audiences could empathize with Bub who kills the main villain of the story to revenge the death of Dr. Logan. Bub was able to recognize people and perform simple tasks. The idea of zombies who retain their consciousness, hopes, and dreams was taken even further in the beginning of the twenty-first century.

One of the closing scenes in Shaun of the Dead (2004) shows Shaun keeping his undead best friend Ed in a shed so he can occasionally play video games with him, but the idea is not further explored. One year later, a black comedy Graveyard Alive: A Zombie Nurse in Love (2003) discusses how zombification leads to empowerment, a theme that it shares with Santa Clarita DietGraveyard Alive’s zombies are not aggressively feral; they continue living their lives with added appetite for humans and sex. Patsy Powers is able to catch the attention of a doctor that she has been interested in for a while but who prefers another sexy blond nurse, Goodie. Eventually, the entire staff at the hospital turns into zombies. Patsy’s zombie life is exciting compared to her previous life of soap operas, misery, and daydreaming.

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Graveyard Alive

American Zombie (2007) pushes more boundaries with its documentary form. The world is populated by classes of feral, low-functioning, and high-functioning zombies. A crew of documentary filmmakers interviews several zombies to discover their lives and to uncover the truth behind the zombie disease. Perhaps the most sympathetic zombies are a woman who is desperate to find out whom she was in her human life (zombies forget who they were), and a woman who is ashamed and in denial of her zombie identity. The latter zombie is a vegan, she hopes to get married to a human and have babies. Although it is heavily implied that zombies cannot have children, they are good at foreplay and have their own human groupies.

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American Zombie

A relationship between zombies and humans is fully explored in Warm Bodies (2013) that is narrated utilizing zombie’s inner monologue. A relationship between a human and a zombie reveals that certain zombies can be cured. The movie also features different zombie classes (based on the degree of decay) and focuses on love as being the key factor in re-humanization.

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Warm Bodies

Santa Clarita Diet plays with the idea that Sheila resembles a zombie before rather than after she becomes one. Her zombie self is full of energy and she confesses that she prefers the zombie life, but this is not surprising as we find out on the show that the dead are driven by their desiresThe series is Graveyard Alive and American Zombie‘s foster child with more hilarious jokes, but it adds something new. Unlike Patsy or characters in American Zombie, Sheila has a family life and remembers everything before and after she became a zombie. The show explores and asks how far we would go for our zombie loved ones. Serialization allows to observe human behavior throughout a longer period of time and I am curious to see how the show deals with some moral issues, but also with Sheila’s decaying body which is becoming a problem. The first season set a pretty high standard, but I believe Netflix could nail the second season as well.

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The Neon Demon (2016): Do not hate the players, hate the game? (SPOILERS INCLUDED)

I have been meaning to write about The Neon Demon (2016 ) by Nicolas Winding Refn since I first saw the movie this summer. I was mesmerized by its visual aspects and it did not feel like I sat through two hours of the movie at all. I have since seen it again and the movie’s charm was not lost on me this time either.

The quality of the movie is not assessed by paying attention only to its visual side, but its story too. I always judge a movie by looking at least at these two criteria and how well they are executed. Some of the articles I have read about The Neon Demon focused on men exploiting women and rape culture. The title of this blog post comes from a well known phrase “do not hate the players, hate the game” but it is followed by a question mark. “The game” can refer to the fashion industry or on a bigger scale to the society itself, a game in which women compete against each other for an approval. Women are born into a world with certain rules and parameters that they initially view to be fixed and unchangeable, maybe even a part of a tradition. They often do not think to question the rules, the game, and wether they want to participate in it or not. Thankfully, other women have now for decades tried to speak out about this issue, although with different outcomes. This willingness to participate and even enjoy the game is portrayed in The Neon Demon and it is a portrayal worth talking about. The models consciously become willing participants in the fashion industry where beauty is the main commodity and thus the models themselves continue to set unreal standards to be met by women and expected by men.

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The Neon Demon‘s story revolves around 16 year old Jesse coming to Los Angeles from a small town to become a model. She quickly grabs the attention of everyone after being signed with a model agency. Ruby, a make up artist, becomes her new friend and introduces Jesse to fellow models Gigi and Sarah. Gigi and Sarah are experienced models who have accommodated to the expectations of the beauty industry. Especially Sarah who proudly displays her body that has been altered by multiple plastic surgeries. Jesse becomes the raising star and her natural beauty is compared to the unnatural beauty of Gigi and mostly Sarah. Everybody around Jess treats her as a naive newcomer, including Dean, a photographer that shoots her first photos in the beginning of the movie (Dean is also romantically interested in Jesse). However, Jesse is less naive than everyone initially estimates and she is fully aware of her beauty and its benefits. Jesse eventually gets murdered by Gigi, Sarah and Ruby.

Jesse, Gigi, Ruby, and Sarah are not stupid and they are fully aware how fashion industry works. Sadly, they do not fight against it but instead choose to compete against each other for the place in the eyes of the photographers and fashion designers. I deliberately did not say a heart, because the male gaze plays a significant role in this movie. Women do not compete for the place in the heart of men; they want to please the human/male eye, and its extension, the camera lens. Nowhere in the movie is it implied that they are interested in participating in the creation of art that is the fashion photography. However, it is not only the male gaze, but the female gaze that can be dangerous, too.

First, I would like to refer to the scene which made me feel very (probably the most) uncomfortable. The scene takes place at a bar after Jesse’s first fashion show. The designer asks Dean to asses Gigi’s beauty to prove a point that fake beauty  (i.e. gained through surgery) can be easily distinguished from natural beauty. Gigi proudly presents herself although she is not happy being compared to Jesse who remains silent and does not oppose the comparison, unlike Dean who finds the entire discussion uncomfortable.

Neither Gigi or Sarah ever decide to quit the industry. On the contrary, they decide to kill Jesse, bathe in her blood, and devour her entire dead body. The very last part of the movie shows Gigi and Sarah participating in a photo shoot. Gigi is unable to stomach what they have done and kills herself in order to get rid off Jesse inside her (well, what she ate of her). Sarah is able to live with what they have done and (re)gains her it girl status.

The movie does not end with a happy ending for Jesse, but what is the ending really? The strongest part of this movie is its power to hypnotize its viewers with stunning visuals and music. The weakness of this movie is its story which concludes without any real conclusion. Or maybe that was the point? That the good does not always win and the show must go on?

I would like to briefly discuss the meaning of “good” from the perspective of this movie. Is Jesse a good person and should the analysis be even concerned with it? Jesse’s character is viewed in comparison to other characters, namely Gigi and Sarah, who are portrayed as fake, competitive, and often say harsh and too honest words to Jesse. Dean initially perceives Jess to be beautiful and talented girl despite her objections (she tells him she possesses no real talent, but is aware that she can make money with her beauty). Knowing Dean’s opinion of Jesse as a person is important as it is him  who points out to her and to the audience how she has changed after her first fashion show. He asks her to leave with him but Jesse refuses. This exchange demonstrates that Jesse feels comfortable in fashion industry and in an environment that treats women so harshly.

Morally and visually the most shocking scene depicts Ruby having sex with a dead body. Ruby has sex with an anonymous female body because Jesse refuses her sexual advances which are very aggressive and Ruby actually comes close to raping Jesse. Ruby thus settles for the next best thing: an inanimate body; and fantasizes about having sex with Jesse. This appears to satisfy her. The scene reminds us again that women also commit crime against each other; as if men’s pressure on them was not already enough, they also need to defend themselves from each other.

I have  a slight issue with motivations of individual women in this movie. Is it enough to say that they want to be adored for their beauty? That they need to feel on top of the world? I wish Refn added a little bit of background information about the individual characters. Sure, not knowing adds a certain mystery, but it also makes them too one note for me. Furthermore, it would be nice to see the female characters unite and rewrite the rules of the game.

It might seem as something that would not be a reflection of the real world fashion industry but that is not true. Body positivity and criticism of women bringing down other women in order to feel better about themselves has become more common in recent years. I believe it would have added another dimension to the movie, but on the other hand, Refn probably was not interested in spreading feminist message but in offering a story in which hate is being rewarded.

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Can you learn to love horror?

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“STEM” by Austen Mengler

I have had a few people in my life ask me about my love for horror in arts. I am not going to write about people who share my interest but about those who have seen or read a few horror stories but did not like them (or even resented them). Some of them have this idea that there must be something wrong with me enjoying stories that they find repulsing and unpleasant. Then, out of curiosity or real interest, they ask me to recommend them a good horror movie (or a story) that would help them understand why I think horror is such a great genre. I feel like this is such a tricky question as I have to ask myself if someone who does not naturally incline towards art horror can learn to truly enjoy it. Sure, one can probably learn to appreciate some aspects of horror movies or literature, for example, well written characters or a storyline. But can they truly learn to appreciate and love the emotion that such images of horror provoke?

I find this to be less than believable. I think that one has to be simply born with it. It seems that people who ask for such recommendations expect to suddenly fall in love with the genre, they expect to become enlightened, or have some sort of epiphany about the essence of the genre.

This does not mean that in my opinion people who cannot appreciate the genre are readers or audiences of lesser value. I do not hold this opinion despite many people accusing the horror genre of being overridden with cliches and predictable plots and its audiences of being weirdos who cannot appreciate “true” art forms.

There are horror books/movies/paintings that are better executed than others but I do not believe that there is anything inherent to the genre that would make it less sophisticated than other genres. However, I do think that the emotion can be too much for some people to handle. In the end, the images and strategies of the horror genre aim to incite feelings of discomfort and disgust. A tolerance for such emotions, the ability of being comfortable with them and a motivation to seek them out so they can be experienced again and on different levels cannot be obtained by force.

-TheUncannyGirl

AJ Briones’s The Smiling Man (2015)

You absolutely have to watch the film before you read anything about it. Not because it would spoil this short movie, but because you need to watch it as soon as possible. Yes, it is that good. As someone who sadly has not had an opportunity to visit any of the multiple (horror) film festivals, I am always thankful when artists/studios release their work online for all of us to watch and appreciate.

Today, The Smiling Man has changed my day for the better. Actually, I will not be able to let it go from my mind for a while. I know this because by now I have become familiar with the way my mind and body react to good horror; I can recognize the reaction and the emotions.

(SPOILERS IN THE PARAGRAPHS BELOW)

I have just seen this movie, so let’s think about this as a first response post. The audience follows the little girl as she is experiencing something most of us would never want to: her home was invaded and (probably) her mother murdered. One of the many clichés of the horror genre are characters who do not run away when strange things start happening,; their curiosity makes them proceed, and usually this is the way a lot of characters die. Audiences have been making fun of such characters, asking why these characters don’t run when it’s obvious such a strange thing would freak anyone out in real life. It seems easier to understand these characters if they are children, or in this case, a little girl. Children are naive, they trust strangers, and have not had the horrible experiences of an adult life; they have not read about people getting murdered and so on. But don’t adult characters become like children in horror movies? Fear paired with curiosity and wonder (“this is too strange to be true!”) might in some cases be a coping mechanism in the face of horrors to come.

One of the most difficult things for horror creators is the design of the monster. The monster has to be scary before and after it’s identity is revealed. A lot of movie monsters fail to be scary after they can be seen, somehow, the magic is lost. Not the Smiling man. His intense look that seems to be directed at the audience and the girl, but somehow never seems to find the camera, frantically moving around the focus point, gave me serious creeps.

Personally, when I am interpreting a movie, sometimes I am inclined to look at what is not shown and what is unknown about the film or the book. If you don’t like this type of analysis, you might not like the following part, but I think these questions are not so out of place. The inability to answer these questions with certainty adds to the feeling of horror. My questions are powered by the title of the film itself. Why the Smiling man? Right now, I can think of three possibilities:

1. He is a madman, perhaps a supernatural entity, who killed this woman without recognizing the murder as a despicable act. The whole thing is a performance: as a clown he murders and then entertains.

2. He has not killed the woman, someone else did, but he is there to cheer the girl up.

3. ? This might seem far fetched, but if he killed the woman, was it because she did not have a good relationship with the girl, and the Smiling man wanted to cheer the girl up?

(or maybe there is an interpretation that is a combination of some of these proposals?)

The probability of these scenarios goes from the most probable (1) to very speculative (3). However, the planting of the balloons is similar to a treasure hunt: finding little clues, which will lead you to the treasure. The balloons are different colors, and the little bags contain body parts, which we later realize represent the woman in the plastic bag. Thus, the Smiling man was not simply interrupted mid murder. He wanted the girl to experience fun. Was the girl sad in the first place, then? And why would seeing the dead woman’s body cheer her up? This is what lead me to the scenario number three.

Did you like the movie? What did you think of the balloon colors? So far I can only see those colors being represented on the girl (pink top, blue jeans) and the Smiling man (black). Alternatively, black could refer to something bad, blood is read, but what about the blue? Maybe the red one represents the woman, blue one the girl, and the black one the Smiling man? The contents of the third bag included a head of a little doll, does this mean the girl will also end up being murdered? Is this a murder, murder, suicide scenario?

“A Country Doctor”: a haunting animation by Kouji Yamamura

Casually browsing youtube and creating a playlist I stumbled upon an animation of Franz Kafka’s short story “A Country Doctor” (1919) by a japanese independent animator Kouji Yamamura (山村 浩二  Yamamyra Kouji).

The animation is almost word for word retelling of the original short story but the final product bears more features of horror than its literary predecessor. Yamamura grotesquely bends the dimensions of space and plays with composition. Blurred out characters remain the focus of audience’s attention even after they lose their sharp edges. The music that accompanies the video is ethereal and controls the escalation of emotions, in other words, the animation is in charge and I suggest you give in and enjoy the lack of control you might want to have over your emotional response. The fluidity of movement reminded me very much of that which can be seen in Onibaba (1964) directed by Kaneto Shindo. Although I refer to the movement as being fluid I could not shake off an impression that something more is about to happen but as of yet my mind is unable to see it. The anticipation and suspense are at its highest points and the short movie leaves me feeling a little unsatisfied as if something inside me that was supposed to be filled was left empty.

Oh, do I enjoy this twisted ways of emotion manipulation.

You can read the original story by Franz Kafka here: http://www.kafka-online.info/a-country-doctor.html

You can see more of Yamamura’s work  here on youtube:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC8fbk85Q36IAkDABhvlGCTA

 

First Impressions Saturday: Classic Tales of the Macabre

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During my third day in Graz I discovered a bookstore with a section of books in English. My intentions were not dishonest, I really did not intend to buy anything, I merely wanted to know where I could buy in Graz a book in English if I get the craving. Oh was I wrong. Buchhandlung Moser is located next to Jakominiplatz in the centre of the city. In the next two days I purchased Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene (2006 edition) and The Greatest Show on Earth (2010 edition), The Grand Design (2011 edition) by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow and Classic Tales of the Macabre (2011).

I am familiar with most authors in the book and recognized some of the short stories, however, I had not read a single one of them.

Yesterday night I had a chance to read two of them: the famous “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “The Damned Thing” by W.W. Jacobs. The stories can be found in various editions and although I enjoyed them, especially “The Yellow Wallpaper” this is not the reason why I decided to include this volume in The First Impression Saturdays. It is the physical beauty of this edition that I think should be of interest to any macabre and horror fiction enthusiast.

The front cover presents a painting by Arnold Böcklin, The Self Portrait (1872) and the back cover features an engraving by Cornelius Huyberts of one of Frederick Ruysch’s anatomical dioramas. 20160409_090915

The protective cover protects a red hardcover with the name of the collection spelled out in gold on the side of the book (and featuring the classic bookmark!):

As if this was not already enough, the edges are gold and have a distinctive glare:

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Collector’s Library has published other collections which all have the golden lettering and edges and have roughly the same design: http://www.collectors-library.com/

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The collection also contains an introduction by David Stuart Davies, an author of both fiction and non fiction books, and a short biography of all writers included in the volume.

Classic Tales of the Macabre is a good introduction to the tales of the macabre for readers who are unfamiliar with the genre. The experienced readers who might already possess some of these stories  in other collections, will be impressed by the design and its details.