Saturday, 11 August 2012

Women's Horror

 I recently watched two very different horror films, one of which made me curious enough about the other to seek it out. Martha Marcy May Marlene was recommended to be me by a dear friend, and upon hearing about the plot, I somehow formed a vague impression that it was made by a woman. This turned out not to be the case – it was the feature debut of a young man named Sean Durkin – but the thought having been planted in my mind of a horror film articulated from a feminist perspective led me to seek out Jennifer’s Body, directed Karyn Kusama and written by Diablo Cody, the latter fresh from her Oscar-winning success with Juno. In the event, the two films could not be more different, and confirmed for me again the dangers of pigeonholing by gender. The few people who heard of or saw Martha Marcy May Marlene tended to praise it rapturously, declaring Durkin to have masterfully caught a woman's nightmare, whereas the higher-profile Jennifer’s Body received excoriatingly bad reviews and basically fizzled commercially.

Martha Marcy May Marlene has all the flaws and all the virtues of a first film. One of the most vivid things I noticed is the degree to which Durkin is in love with the image for its own sake. He shows an affinity with old Dietrich and Garbo melodramas in the way he often simply lets the camera linger on heroine Elizabeth Olsen’s face, revelling in the spectacle of her sheer physical presence, and only allowing us to guess at the roiling emotions inside. In general I’m all for the digital simulation of actors via performance capture, but I’m still not convinced it can ever capture the experience of watching shots like this.

Durkin likewise shows an almost preternatural gift for atmosphere and implication, and establishing a dialectic between them. During the sequences set on cult’s commune farm, the atmosphere sometimes seems almost as utopian as it’s supposed to be. The white-painted wood of the house and barn, the green of the grass and surrounding treeline, the unaffected naturalness of the people there – it seems to confirm that here is a place where you can be simple, natural, and virtuous, away from a life in the modern world which has allowed you none of these things. Durkin wisely abstains from any one melodramatic scene which contradicts all this and reveals a horrific nightmare beneath the surface – it’s only in the gradual accumulation of small details, intercut among the seemingly positive atmospherics, that we grasp what a nightmare this cult really is. One of the first images in the film establishes how meals are separated, with the men eating first; we later see how they slip drugs into the food of the new arrivals; and then the truly chilling line about how all the babies on the commune are boys. It’s the oldest and most fundamental axiom of horror: what you imply but don’t show will always be scarier in the viewer’s imagination.

And it’s on this point that Jennifer’s Body is pinned down. It implies nothing, but just lets everything hang out as blatantly as possible. Unlike many critics, I genuinely enjoyed the film, but I acknowledge it’s not a sure-fire sell. Whereas Durkin with Martha Marcy May Marlene was crafting a truly original movie that only incidentally lent itself to the horror genre, Cody and Kusama were very much having fun tweaking and punking the conventions of the teen gore-fest horror film. The film casts Megan Fox as a vain, slutty, high-school cheerleader who becomes demonically possessed and begins gruesomely devouring all the boys she can beguile, leaving it to her bookish, bespectacled, and perpetually-put-upon best friend (played by Amanda Seyfried) to stop her. This plot is so obviously run-of-the-mill genre fare that it’s perfectly excusable to have some feminist fun subverting expectations, but by the end one suspects Cody and Kusama have had a bit too much fun, and in the process neglected to make sure that it all hangs together coherently.

The casting is key to both films, and for better or for worse, Jennifer’s Body is defined by the fact that it stars Megan Fox in her first non-Transformers leading role. It does not settle the question of whether she is a real actress. What it does do, however, is prove indubitably that she has star power. Kusama is only slightly more restrained than Durkin in devoting long, spectacular takes to the sheer spectacle of her, and she dominates them totally. Amanda Seyfried may be a far better actress (witness her turn in Atom Egoyan’s Chloe the same year), but very few human beings can upstage hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of CGI robots just by leaning over a car engine...

Martha Marcy May Marlene, in turn, is defined by providing an organic follow-up to John Hawkes’s Oscar-nominated performance in Winter’s Bone. This latter was a revelation from a man who had been a working actor in Hollywood for twenty-five years – often in blockbusters like The Perfect Storm or critically-lauded films like Me and You and Everyone We Know – but had yet to become more than a vaguely-recognizable face. Teardrop in Winter’s Bone changed that, bringing an air of lethally-focused danger to a character who, on paper, might seem like a disposable piece of white trash. The depraved power in his eyes of that role transfers somewhat to Martha Marcy May Marlene, and you have no difficulty accepting Patrick as a modern-day Charles Manson who can bend a whole community of followers to his will. Even more worrying, however, is his chief subordinate Watts. Whereas Patrick exudes a certain detachment and wisdom to go with his menace, Watts is a sheer enforcer – viewing women as mere animals to be wrangled and feeling an unqualified sense of his right to do so. The very first sequence in the film, with him putting animalistic speed and intensity into chasing down a stumbling and irresolute Martha, made it crystal-clear to me that this film had very much been made by a man.

Jennifer’s Body’s virtues lie in its not mere inversion, but ridicule of this kind of thing. Coming from a Canadian cinema studies context, where the cringe-inducingly misogynistic Ginger Snaps is often touted as a national success, it’s refreshing to see a comparable story be so breezy and insouciant about its gruesomeness, and how the two girls react to it. The film is deliciously ambivalent, rather than expecting us to go with our “good girl” hero and moralistically spurn her friend once her monstrosity manifests itself. Likewise, it doesn’t end on an all-is-well note once the “good girl” has killed her best-friend-turned-monster, but rather has the demonic power pass to her, leaving her free to do some slaughtering of her own. Also, the monster-catalyst is not mystified as some pseudo-Christian condemnation of female sexuality, but as an obnoxiously pretentious yuppie “indie band” who have learned the Satanic arts so they can hurry up and get the point of being so famous that they can drink, smoke, fuck, snort coke and trash hotel rooms to their heart’s content. There’s no subtlety, but it works on a certain exhibitionist level.

The chink in Martha Marcy May Marlene’s armour, likewise, comes from the fact that Durkin’s command of subtle implication mysteriously deserts him during the scenes where Martha is back in the “real world,” with her sister and brother-in-law. Possibly displaying his neophyte status, Durkin takes no chances on us not seeing these people as inhumanly hateful and narrow-minded, totally oblivious to anything beyond their careers, house prices, pharmaceutical treatment, or safety in conformity. Sarah Paulson is too archetypally cast as Martha’s sister, forever given to crying out “what’s wrong with you?!” or slapping her in the face for nibbling while cooking; and Hugh Dancy is used to reflect the lazy American sense that British yuppies signify even more hatefully than American ones, because they bring spiteful class condescension into the equation. The sledgehammer effect of these scenes shakes, but mercifully does not sink, the film.

Overall, in spite of its missteps, Martha Marcy May Marlene fully deserves all the accolades that it has received, and one fervently hopes it marks the beginning of fruitful careers for Durkin and Olsen. It’s a virtually original work that seems unbeholden to any clichés or conventions. Jennifer’s Body, in contrast, works in the same sense as does Amanda Seyfreid’s next critically-reviled horror film, Red Riding Hood. The sheer pleasure lies in watching its joyous vulgarizing, nee vandalizing, of well-worn conventions, rather than its achievements in narrative, acting or mise-en-scene. This is the sort of Hollywood product, however, that critics chronically refuse to extend the benefit of the doubt to. It was the same with Kusama’s film Æeon Flux in 2005, which was critically excoriated but which I appreciated in a certain arch, symbolist, sense. After all, if one is going to start a movie with the premise that it’s the year 2415, and that the surviving 1% of the world’s population inhabits one hyper-controlled walled city called "Bregna," then you’d be a fool to go with a conventional visual aesthetic. Kusama’s next film is apparently called The Rut, and will star Chloë Grace Moretz as a young girl compelled, apparently for want of paternal affection, to venture into the woods to experience the kill-or-be-killed lifestyle of nature. I’m willing to bet that the “father’s love” aspect will be a pure MacGuffin, and that we’ll see more bizarre, critic-baiting, treatment of our stylistic and narrative expectations. I’ll certainly watch for it with interest.

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