Who doesn’t like a great movie death? Well, people who abhor violence and gore on the screen. But I am not one of those people. Thus, if done right in terms of combining emotional context and cinematic imagination, there’s nothing I like more than revelling or lamenting a character’s end in fine bloody fashion. Lastly, I hear you ask why no Zahler, Scorsese, Cronenberg, Miike, Peckinpah, Jackson, Fulci, Roth, Romero, Argento etc. on this list? So much death and only six make it, so please suggest any of the thousands I have missed off in the comments.
*** CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
ALIEN (1979) – “Do these eggs taste off?”
I think it may have been something Kane (John Hurt) ate or maybe something that ate him? Anyway, one of the most spectacularly surprising scenes ever still holds amazing power to this very day.
THE FURY (1978) – Separated at death!
This under-rated tele-kinetic thriller is a spiritual sequel to Carrie (1976). Adding a spy conspiracy plot to Amy Irving’s rites of passage character arc, it has a whip-cracking-pace and classic DePalma set-pieces. None more so than the explosive end of the baddie-in-black.
PSYCHO (1960) – Take a bath next time!
What more can be written about one of the most shockingly original scenes in cinema history? Not only did Hitchcock break all narrative rules killing off the main protagonist halfway through, he did it with one of the most ingenious uses of montage, music and murder ever.
PULP FICTION (1994) – The original “face-off!”
Marvin never saw it coming. But let’s face it – none of us did!
ROBOCOP (1987) – Toxic Wasted!
Whoever designed this action scene, no doubt Paul Verhoeven had much to say, delivered one of the most excessive demises in 1980’s cinema. The vehicle crash, the toxic waste, the melting bad guy, the steam coming off his body and the final disintegration are just cinematic perfection.
WILD AT HEART (1990) – Bobby Peru loses his mind!
David Lynch’s vibrant adaptation of Barry Gifford’s romantic thriller contains many colourful characters. Willem Dafoe’s Bobby Peru is a particularly nasty piece of work and he gets his comeuppance in an incredibly visceral and disturbing way!
THE HORROR OF IDENTITY: DOUBLE BILL FILM REVIEWS – DEERSKIN (2019) & POSSESSOR (2020)
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”-Oscar Wilde
We’ve all wanted to exist outside our own skin. Or perhaps inhabit someone else’s? Or, maybe even change our own identity, both literally and psychologically. Or is that just me? At the least we have all thought about it. Even losing weight and going down the gym or giving up alcohol or changing our hairstyle is a means of basic transformation. We may make a more defiant change and leave that job we hate or break out from a negative relationship. Arguably though, personality, attitude and mental changes in one’s life are the most difficult. After all, it is incredibly difficult to change the very fabric of one’s personality or character.
We can find an alternative source of transformation in a vicarious sense through storytelling mediums such as literature, television and cinema. The horror genre especially is replete with monstrous visions of identity switches, psychotic breakdowns and physical transmogrification. I personally take great pleasure in seeing altered identities occur on the screen and am especially drawn to characters who experience mental and corporeal metamorphosis. That simply isn’t because I cannot change who I am or what I do on a daily basis, but it’s quite scary to attempt to reshape one’s existence and identity. It’s bloody hard work without much guarantee of success. Horror films, while also frightening when done well, are far more satisfying and give a more immediate hit than the grind of reality.
Two films I have seen recently both relate to mid-life crises and exhibit themes that illustrate two characters changing their appearance to bring about a shift in identity, behaviour and personality. They also show characters spiralling out of control in incredibly violent, bizarre and entertaining ways. Those films are Deerskin (2019) and Possessor (2020) and here are my reviews.
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Directed and written by Quentin Dupieux
Main Cast: Jean Dujardin, Adele Haenel
Have you ever seen the film Rubber (2010)? It is a gonzo horror-comedy about a murderous-tyre called Robert killing birds and people with telekinetic powers. Beneath the insanity of the pitch there is in fact a subtextual satire on the nature of Hollywood filmmaking and an audience starved of originality; I think!It came from the mind of Quentin Dupieux, so I was intrigued that he had nabbed for a subsequent production the grand talents of Jean Dujardin and Adele Haenel for the obsidian killer comedy, Deerskin (2019).
Dujardin is Georges, a middle-aged loner, recently dumped by his wife whose only aim now it appears is to purchase a deerskin jacket. Buoyed by the confidence the jacket has given him, and armed with a video camera thrown in with the deal, George plots up at a rural hotel and befriends Adele Haenel’s bar server and enthusiastic film editor. Their budding friendship threatens to turn this into a relatively conventional love story, however, a series of twisted turns tip the story into a hilarious series of murderous set-pieces, with Georges determined to get money to make a movie, but most importantly buy deerskin trousers, hat and gloves.
The story of a middle-aged man altering his outer look in order to transform his life and fortune is a staple of Hollywood comedies and romance films. Deerskin (2019) is that kind of film on the surface. Yet when filtered through Dupieux’s iconoclastic imagination the premise is an altogether different kind of demented animal. Ultimately, it is a low-budget gem of a black comedy with some fantastic ideas and fascinating character study of a man attempting to shift skin, but falling deeper and deeper into psychopathy. It’s a wacky journey with committed performances, yet, it felt like the ending was just too sudden, as if the filmmaker either ran our of money or just wanted to screw with audience expectations right up until the final sudden frame.
MARK: 7.5 out of 11
Directed and written by Brandon Cronenberg
Main Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Sean Bean, Tuppence Middleton etc.
Whereas Deerskin (2019) finds a literal and figurative metamorphosis when a character buys a jacket, Brandon Cronenberg’s vicious horror film, Possessor (2020), is an altogether more cerebral, violent and psychologically stunning journey. Andrea Riseborough is as intense as ever portraying an assassin named, Tasya Vox, who through some incredible technology is able to inhabit the mind and body of another individual and use them as a human puppet to commit murder. It’s a perfect set-up for the assassination agency led by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s handler, Girder. Yet such murder by scientific proxy comes at a cost to Vox’s family life and mental stability.
After a glorious opening scene featuring an astoundingly brutal stabbing, Vox attempts to reconnect with her partner and son, but finds herself becoming ever more disconnected. The pressure of taking over another individual’s identity is causing Vox to discombobulate as her mind begins to fracture. Despite this she takes the next job, a contract to kill John Parse (Sean Bean), using Christopher Abbott’s Colin Tate as a conduit. As Vox struggles with her splitting psyche, Tate himself is having personal issues also and this leads to some mind-bending and psychedelic montage scenes as the two battle within Tate’s brain. If this all sounds a bit weird, it is and it isn’t because the filmmaking is of such a high quality one believes the process. Further, the director never loses his grip on the narrative and Cronenberg gets a compelling performance from Abbott as his character confronts the invasion into his soul.
Overall, Possessor (2020) has a stunning concept at its heart but I just kept wondering how a genre filmmaker like Leigh Whannell may have handled the idea. He certainly would have made the characters more empathetic because it is so tough to warm to either Vox or Tate. Indeed, Tate’s character should have been developed more at the beginning in my view as he would have made an ideal “innocent/wrong man” type character so often used by Hitchcock. Nonetheless, Brandon Cronenberg has crafted one of the most visually impressive and shocking psychological horror films I have seen in a long time. Like Whannell’s Upgrade (2018), it contains some memorable gore and violence. It is also very intelligent as the fantastic ideas explore what it means to not only inhabit another person’s skin, but rip through their very soul.
Written by: Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride, David Gordon Green
Based on characters created by John Carpenter and Debra Hill
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patton, Virginia Gardner etc.
Music by: John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, Daniel Davies
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
John Carpenter’sHalloween (1978) is a seminal horror film experience. It spawned an army of sequels and sidequels and reboots which darkened the cinemas, mostly failing to get anywhere near Carpenter’s low-budget masterpiece in terms of quality and scares. It also gave birth, along with Black Christmas (1974), to the slasher film genre. Of course Hitchcock’s classicPsycho (1960), could make claim to that too, but following the success of Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), the bloodgates opened. What followed was a deluge of stabbing and slashing copycat killer movies from the late 1970s onwards.
Flash forward to 2018 and with Halloween (2018), we now have the ELEVENTH film in the franchise. Having read some decent reviews I sat down to watch it last night on, aptly enough, Halloween night. My expectations were pretty low, but I was encouraged by the return of Jamie Lee Curtis, plus David Gordon Green has proved himself a very solid filmmaker in the past. Movies like decent stoner comedy, Pineapple Express (2008), and dramas Joe (2013), and Stronger (2017), were very watchable. Least said about Your Highness(2011), the better.
The film opens with an excellent set-piece establishing Michael Myers, some forty years older, in a maximum security mental health institution. Two reporters have come for an interview for their latest true crime podcast. Safe to say Myers isn’t interested in communicating. The editing and imagery and music combine to create a very unsettling experience, so the film starts strongly. We then re-establish Myers’ narrative counterpart, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis).
Now, you have to swallow the fact that this is a direct sequel to the original Carpenter classic. None of the other films happened; which essentially works, despite some wonky dialogue and exposition. Thankfully, with Lee Curtis on excellent form as the post-traumatised Strode, we have a flawed but compelling heroine to root for. Strode has been waiting for Myers and preparing with firepower, high security and wits in order to defeat him. Sub-plots involving Strode’s daughter (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak) are developed, but kind of lose their way as the murderous Myers mayhem begins. Still, at least they tried to write some depth into the screenplay.
After a very strong start the film begins to unravel in the middle. The machinations of the plot to get Myers on the Halloween rampage felt random and illogical in places. An important event occurs off-screen and this impacted my commitment to the story. This isn’t really a criticism as such, because genre conventions and a high death rate need to be met. However, despite some well directed set-pieces, whenever Laurie Strode was off-screen the film lost some emotional power. Having said that, if it is deaths with knives, hammers, cars and crow-bars you want, this film contains that and more.
Overall, I really wanted to enjoy this film more than I did. I think the work of Gordon Green and Curtis is especially good. The script however, suffered during a messy second act, although the final showdown was really well executed (sorry.) With $250 million made at the box office, it goes to show though that the Halloween franchise is alive and kicking and two further sequels are planned. It has some scary moments, some brilliant gore and the iconic music still haunts me to this day. Nonetheless, this reboot doesn’t hold a pumpkin flame to the original. Then again, not many horror films do.
MY BLOODY VALENTINE: ALTERNATIVE VISIONS OF LOVE IN THE HORROR GENRE
“Love is giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it.”
― Jacques Lacan
I continue to write articles for the excellent So The Theory Goes website and here once again is a slightly more academic approach to film analysis. You can read it here or below.
An eternal question in our society still remains: what is love? Is it the joining together of two people forever committed to a relationship built on respect and trust? Or is it the emotion you feel for a family member or person you have bonded with over time? Is it nature’s way of tricking us into the act of pro-creation? Perhaps it’s an abstract and emotional concept created by a higher power to ensure we act positively? For some it could be a dark force which enlivens obsession and stalking and violence or maybe it’s a marketing delusion forced upon us by greedy advertisers, florists and chocolate vendors? Maybe it’s simply all of the above!?
Studies by Helen Fisher of Rutgers University propose that we fall in love in three stages involving a different set of chemicals. They are: lust, attraction and attachment. Indeed, the events occurring in our mind when we fall in love are akin to mental illness. Chemicals such as: testosterone, oestrogen, dopamine, serotonin all conflict and combine to change our emotions when we’re attracted to someone. Further studies show that when choosing a partner we are at the mercy of our subconscious and inner sexual desires as proffered in psychoanalytical studies.
Love and sexual desire are a big part of everybody’s lives whether it’s the positive or negative and indeed the continuance of the species is very much reliant on it. Moreover, love or the lack of love has provided the springboard for millions of stories, films, plays, songs, poems, slogans, TV show and adverts! Conversely the horror film genre, while not synonymous with romantic love, often explores the darker side of relationships and sexuality. Indeed, as a cultural phenomenon the horror genre is wholly malleable in its narrative omni-presentation; criss-crossing literary, theatrical, dance and televisual culture offerings.
Horror intends to elicit a physiological reaction through stress and shock while presenting: monsters, ghosts, aliens, the fantastic, the supernatural, murderers, bloody gore, kidnappings, mutilation, witches, zombies, psychopaths, natural and unnatural phenomenon, demons and many more aspects which draw on our inner, societal and global fears. But what of love and how is it represented in the horror genre? For this article I would like explore notions of love and sexuality within horror cinema. I will draw on genre, gender, feminist and psychoanalytic theories and how they can be applied within the chosen films. So, if you want an alternative to the usual Valentines-clichéd-cosy-rose-petal-drenched-chocolate-card-Love-Actually-type-movies, then these films are ones you should consider.
AUDITION (1999) – DIRECTOR: TAKASHI MIIKE
It would be unfair to label Miike’s gory shocker a simplistic example of ‘torture porn’. It is in fact an incredibly scary and inventive revenge satire. In her highly influential essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey commits the powerful theory that cinema is coded via the “Male Gaze”. According to Mulvey, “. . . pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.”
Yet, while beginning with this dynamic, Audition turns it around with the female anti-heroine Asami reversing the gaze on her male contemporaries. What starts as one man’s attempt to find a wife, via his own creepy version of the casting couch, is turned into a violent proto-feminist-carve-up-par-excellence as Asami cuts and slices her male victims with vicious aplomb.
DEAD RINGERS (1988) – DIRECTOR: DAVID CRONENBERG
Freud’s work on the unconscious, dreams, repression and psychosexual stages is, of course, incredibly influential on both psychology, psychoanalysis and film theory. His concept of the unconscious feeding our everyday and the idea that repressed emotions drive our motivations is none more prevalent than in Cronenberg’s exquisite Dead Ringers.
In this psycho-incestuous-ménage-a-trois-love story, twin gynaecologists portrayed by Jeremy Irons, literally split and repress their identities in order to “romance” the same women. The film is a masterwork and encapsulates many of Freud’s theories relating to the Id, ego and superego; while the doppelganger theme also looms heavily over a dark, psychosexual and twisted narrative.
HAROLD & MAUDE (1971) – DIRCTOR: HAL ASHBY
While not technically a horror film as such Harold and Maude is a wonderful off-centre, gothic love story. The eponymous anti-hero cannot connect with his family and the world at large and through constant fake suicides he tortures his mother to the point of breakdown. It is only when Harold (Bud Cort) meets an eccentric older lady Maude (Ruth Gordon) does he begin to find some maturation. The film could be argued to embody many of the Freudian aspects of the Oedipal Complex.
Trevor Pedersen opines, “The Oedipus complex, in narcissistic terms, represents that an individual can lose the ability to take a parental-substitute into his ego ideal without ambivalence.” Indeed, through his unconventional relationship with Maude, who represents both love and death, Harold locates a maternal replacement, friend and platonic lover who brings him out of his depressed state.
IT FOLLOWS (2014) – DIRECTOR: DAVID ROBERT MITCHELL
Mitchell’s low budget psychological horror gem contains many of the hallmarks of the ‘slasher’ subgenre which can be enshrined with the general trope, according to scholar Robin Wood, that teenagers, invariably female, are hunted down for their promiscuity. What makes It Follows such an intriguing anti-date movie is that we never see the actual evil force propelling the murders.
Maika Monroe’s heroine, Jay, finds herself in a chain of deathly sexuality which she can only break through further intercourse. Jay therefore becomes an epitome of what Carol Clover calls ‘The Final Girl’ in her marvellously titled book, Men, Women and Chainsaws. Ultimately, It Follows subverts the ‘slasher’ tropes with a symbolic metaphysical force rather than a physical monster, as the “killer” ultimately represents sexual hysteria, guilt and the malevolent force of youthful sexual abandon.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008) – TOMAS ALFREDSON
Ever since Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula was published we have welcomed, with fear and excitement, the vampire into our culture. Stoker’s Count Dracula was viewed as an inhuman force of destruction; as well as a metaphoric representation of sexual fervour. The vampire character is never more mesmeric and complex than in Let the Right One In. This is a sophisticated rites-of-passage-romance where a teenage boy, marginalised by his peers and family life, falls in love with a young female vampire.
However, the girl is clearly older than her looks, as the narrative bears the hallmarks of a Freudian sexual awakening for our protagonist Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant). In Eli (Lina Leandersson) Oskar finds a combination of: maternal protector, platonic companion and potential sexual partner within a complex psycho-sexual drama with hints of latent paedophilia. Of course, despite these sensitive themes under the surface, the film ultimately triumphs as a beautifully rendered story of innocence, love and friendship.
PSYCHO (1961) – DIRECTOR: ALFRED HITCHCOCK
Arguably one of the greatest horror films of all time is Psycho. From a Freudian and psychoanalytical perspective, it is an absolute goldmine. The story begins with an robbery by Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) but twists into something altogether nightmarish when she hides out at the Bates Motel. The manager Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) takes a shine to Marion, only for his “mother” to murder her. Norman’s character is the archetypal representation of the Oedipal Complex. Having killed both his mother and her boyfriend some years before the guilt he feels causes him to “become” Norma Crane in order to disassociate him from his crimes and absorb her identity.
Marion causes Norman’s sexual feelings to arise thus Norma/Norman suddenly appears to repress these desires by murder. Charles E. Bakeland opines that if an individual is unable to reconcile a love-hostility-identification relationship with parents there will be strong desires which will weigh negatively on their relationships. This thematic dynamic makes Psycho’s narrative a psychoanalytical minefield as Norma/Norman battle over her/his mind, causing havoc for those characters they come into contact with.
TEETH (2007) – DIRECTOR: MITCHELL LICHTENSTEIN
In his excellent book Genre, Stephen Neale argues horror monsters are predominantly defined as male with women as their primary victims. He continues with the idea that, “… it could be maintained that is it women’s sexuality which constitutes the real problem that horror cinema exists to explore.” One such film which reverses these notions in the excellent body horror film Teeth. Mixing body, horror, comedy with coming-of-age movies the main protagonist is a Christian virgin called Dawn (Jess Weixler). During a sexual assault by a college boy she fends him off via “Vagina dentata”; barbed teeth in her reproductive organ.
Played for shock and humour the story presents valid confirmation and subversion of Laura Mulvey’s proposal that women’s absence of a penis threatens male castration and therefore must be disavowed. Offering impressive gender satire within the sexual revenge narrative, Jess’ character refuses to be assimilated by the patriarchal order and comes of age within both her body, personality and sexuality.
In my view many of the films mentioned above demonstrate the horror genre is rich with possibilities in regard to representations of love, romance, relationships and sexuality. Through theories relating to psychoanalysis, feminism and genre theory we can begin to dip beneath the surface of the darkness of love and humanity. Both masculine and feminine sexuality and identity are constantly in crisis and under threat of death and disease, demonstrating that the path to true love is never straight but more often than not, wholly twisted.
“YOU’RE HAVING A BATH” – SOME GREAT MOVIE BATHROOM SCENES
I’m unsure why but I thought it may be fun to look at some classic movie bathroom scenes. Perhaps to take my mind off the horrible conflict in Syria which has escalated now? Perhaps just to remind us how great some of the films on this list are? Anyway, the bathroom is a place where we spend the beginning/middle/end of our day cleansing ourselves or relaxing or having some ME time. It also happens to be a good place hide, fight, murder and haunt people in culminating in some classic scenes of horror, comedy and drama.
(NOTE TO PEDANTS: most of these scenes are exclusive to the actual bathroom but there could be slight toilet crossover!)
**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS**
LES DIABOLIQUES (1955) – HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT
DO NOT WATCH THIS CLIP IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM!! IT GIVES AWAY THE WHOLE END!!
A massive influence on Psycho (1960) this story of murder and betrayal at a boarding school in France is a brilliant and devious thriller. It also has one of the scariest ending of all time!
PSYCHO (1960) – ALFRED HITCHOCK
THAT shower scene! Need I say more!
THE SHINING (1980) – STANLEY KUBRIK
“Here’s Johnny!” Bathrooms and toilets represent danger throughout when Jack encounters a naked nefarious women and the creepy butler earlier in the story. But, after a slow-burning descent into madness Jack Torrance finally cracks with Nicholson on fine maniacal form in this iconic scene from the Kubrik classic!
SCARFACE (1983) – BRIAN DEPALMA
Tony Montana’s rise from “political refugee” to peaky cocaine King is not without its violent troughs. One such scene occurs when he witnesses a colleague ripped apart by a chainsaw. I feel sorry for the cleaner of the apartment block after this wicked sequence.
NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) – WES CRAVEN
You’ve had a hard week and you need to soak your bones and a dead serial killer invades your bath-time dreams. You don’t need that do you! Great nod to Jaws (1975) too in this horrific scene.
FULL METAL JACKET (1987) – STANLEY KUBRIK
The disintegration of Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) at the hands of Sgt. Hartman is a grim series featuring physical and mental torture. The episodes are painful and microcosmic in relation to what military life can do to a human being. This tragic latrine scene is memorable and unexpectedly brutal as it culminates in bloody death.
FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) – ADRIAN LYNE
The film that gave us the phrase “bunny boiler” is a taut, scary thriller of the sex, lies and obsession variety. The fantastic scare-ending though is the one that really sticks in the memory as Glenn Close goes mental following harsh rejection by Michael Douglas’ have-your-cake-and-eat-it-cheat.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998) – ETHAN AND JOEL COEN
The Coen Brothers classic stoner detective film has many, many classic scenes but I defy any writer to come up with a comedic concept funnier than a character being threatened in a bath by nihilists with a ferret! Pure comedy gold!
WHAT LIES BENEATH (2000) – ROBERT ZEMECKIS
Zemeckis made this film in between shooting of Castaway (2000) while Tom Hanks lost loads of weight and it’s a really decent suspense thriller. Getting drugged by your husband and unable to move is not the kind of date night you imagine will happen. Indeed, never has the creeping fill of a bath been so terrifying!
TRAINING DAY (2001) – ANTOINE FUQUA
At first watch I thought this scene was a bit of a narrative cheat. However, with a shotgun at Ethan Hawke’s head the suspense is palpable and how he escapes is fitting. Because, this clever and ruthless urban Western is about karma and retribution; with Hoyt’s earlier noble actions saving him from certain death.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004) – ZACH SNYDER
Before he set about ruining the Superman franchise Zach Snyder made some decent facsimiles of other artists work such as 300 (2006) and this souped-up George Romero remake. The early scenes are the most dramatic because the bloodthirsty zombies are out the traps like Usain Bolt, as Sarah Polley finds when she’s trapped in her bathroom.
CASINO ROYALE (2006) – MARTIN CAMPBELL
This sequence rebooted Bond for the Millennium perfectly as he takes down a hardy spy in the bathroom while confirming his “00” status in the process. It’s a brutal, clinical and a perfect prologue for a great Bond film. The scene is touchingly counterpointed when Bond calms Vesper Lynd down in the shower in an altogether less violent scene later on.