Mirthless in Brooklyn

Vampire in Brooklyn (Wes Craven, 1995)

It’s a bad sign when, even a week or so after watching, you are unclear whether you are watching a horror film or a comedy.

There was a time when Eddie Murphy was box office gold — actually he’s waxed and waned several times — and this film comes at a point where he’s tied into doing films for Paramount (for example Beverley Hills Cop (Martin Brest, 1984) and sequels, Coming To America (John Landis, 1988), Harlem Nights (Eddie Murphy, 1988), Boomerang (Reginald Hudlin, 1992)), but wants a break from doing comedy. Craven, meanwhile, had long harboured desires to move on from horror.

It is a match made in…

Well, somewhere damp.

The opening seems promising enough with a ship adrift and heading into a Brooklyn harbour in the fog — a nod back to Dracula somewhere along the line. But Murphy in weird wig and thick accent as vampire Maximillian from somewhere in the Caribbean is insufficiently horrific or comedic, displaying the same kind of tension that Jim Carrey sometimes does when playing straight. Maximillian is in search of a woman to continue the species, in the form of NYPD cop Rita Veder (Angela Bassett). Maximillian, meanwhile, has to pass as a preacher and an Italian criminal, allowing him space for the comic business that has largely been displaced onto his hapless, petty criminal assistant and valet, Julius Jones (Kadeem Hardison). These are some of the longest scenes in the movie.

Let’s note the theme of the untrustworthy family — Veder’s mother, some kind of paranormal anthropologist, is dead, and it almost seems as if Maximillian is her father, or a father figure, which leads us to incest. There are a couple of dream sequences, as she wakes from a nightmare, and Maximillian turns a squalid apartment into a mansion.

Meanwhile, we have a strong female lead — albeit with the slightly lovelorn Detective Justice (Allen Payne) to help her out — and indeed an African American lead (compare Poindexter “Fool” Williams (Brandon Adams) in The People Under the Stairs (1991)). In fact, Italians aside, there are very few white actors in the film — Joanne Cassidy has a cameo as Captain Dewey, as does Jerry Hall as a woman mugged in the park in a moment that ought to have political bite, but… We should note Zakes Mokae from The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) as Dr Zeko, but have a creepy sense of the Haitian equivalent of Orientalism about both roles. Craven is trying.

But the film is trying — Murphy will go onto better things, and Craven was to put his tongue better in his cheek in the Scream franchise.

Old Red Eyes is Back

Red Eye (Wes Craven, 2005)

So the original plan was to watch a film that wasn’t work-related – Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011) – but that started skipping and so I went back to the Wes Craven pile I’ve been working through and should have written up but haven’t. Of course, this is a late entry in the oeuvre and I need to check out whether this or Cursed (2005) came out first. These were his penultimate non-Scream franchise movies.

I’m interested in these as works of an auteur and so the point is I suppose that this is thriller rather than horror, although it has hints of the home invasion horror that Craven began with in The Last House on the Left (1972). Craven was arguably the director who introduced the supernatural into the slasher, but he didn’t need it here or in many of his early films. Unusually, too, there is no playing around with reality and fantasy, although comic relief receptionist Cynthia (Jayma Mays) is wandering through a nightmare shift.

So we have Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams), a nervous flier on her way home to Miami from her grandmother’s funeral, making phone calls to an over protective dad, the great Brian marked-for-death Cox; you know it can’t end well. She strikes up a brief relationship with blue-eyed Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy) – indeed the film could have been called blue eyes – who turns out to be part of a plot to kill deputy Homeland Security guy Charles Keefe (Jack Scalia). She must move him into a suite where he can be assassinated or her father gets it. Most of the film is in the claustrophobic confines of the plane.

So, relatively common for Craven, we have a female lead – although at first you wonder whether she couldn’t fight back a little more. The decks seem stacked against her, but that’s the way the plot works. She comes good in the end, although (spoiler) she is denied the pay off.

There is a political subtext – the evils of the Homeland security – but oddly the film comes down on the side of them and the villains are mostly unseen and ill-defined off screen machinators. Should we see it as a critique of the TSA that the characters are so able to move on and off of aeroplanes, even on a domestic flight? The earlier Craven would have had a bit sharper teeth, but this is Amblin after all.

The families are less ambivalent than usual – the Keefe family seem adorable and whilst Lisa’s parents are split up, daddy seems nice if overprotective. Again, earlier films have critiqued the family, and in the avenging family there is a question of whether eye for eye justice is justified.

The climax, despite a largely unnecessary return to the hotel, is at the family home, mid remodelled, and somewhere along the line there is the sense of the uncanny as the familiar and he forgotten. The place of refuge and safety turns into a trap – Lisa moves from locking out into locking in. The police, obviously, can’t help as usual, and justice has to be personal. Her weapons are improvised – whilst villains have guns and knives, she has chairs and fire extinguishers and hockey sticks but an inexplicable failure to kick anyone in the balls. And, as I say, patriarchy reasserts itself.

I’m glad I’ve ticked this off the list, but it’s a by the numbers slick thriller with some nice touches.

Making the Green One Red

Teaching across several modules brings about odd juxtapositions. And that is especially so of Laughing Matters and Horror.

This week, I was lecturing on the Comedy of Remarriage, using Stanley Cavell’s (problematic) Pursuits of Happiness, where (drawing on Northrop Frye) he discusses the green space that characters go to in romantic comedies to work through the chaotic phase of desires. Obviously this goes back at least as far as A Midsummers Night’s Dream and the forests around Athens, but it comes right up Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Montauk Beach. Cavell notes that in three or four of the comedies of remarriage he discusses the space is called Connecticut (“this locale is called Connecticut. Strictly speaking, in The Lady Eve the place is called ‘Conneckticut,’ and it is all but cited as a mythical location, since nobody is quite sure how you get there, or anyway how a lady gets there.” I’m assuming it was a location where people thought they could get quicky marriages just outside of New York.

Meanwhile, with a certain amount of trepidation, on the Horror module I showed The Last House on the Left as a video nasty, a film that was only passed uncut in the UK as recently as 2008. I suspect the three students that showed up found it tame… Robin Wood argues “The reason people find the violence in Last House so disturbing is not that there is so much of it, nor even that it is so relentlessly close and immediate in presentation. It is these three positions – the position of victim, the position of violator, the position of righteous  avenger – and the interconnections among them that Last House on the Left dramatizes.” Martin Barker suggests “The film puts us on the side of a sense of the characters’ failure. There is no hope in their world. There is no one in the film who can be our point of view”. To me one aspect of horror is what it makes “nice” people do (compare the end of Let the Right One In) and the estranging impact of the sound track.

The basic narrative is one about two (sexualised, drinking) teenagers who go to the city for a concert and are kidnapped by the quasi-family of criminaks they’ve attempted to score drugs off. The two are sexually assaulted and raped, with one killed and the other left for dead. And then, in a twist of fate that bekongs in Dickens or a fairy tale, the criminal’s end up with one of the teen’s parents and revenge is taken.

The parents live in Connecticut.

I’m not saying that The Last House on the Left is a romantic comedy but…

Just as Craven’s film disturbs with its comic relief, so there is a dark side to the romantic comedy. I suspect — it’s been a while since I studied the period — that some attention has been paid to the sexual politics of the seductions of Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not to mention Titania. Someone, I think Laraine Porter but it might be Frances Grey, notes the gender imbalances of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, where women are more likely to be exposed to sexual violence in a period of sexual licentiousness and suspended rules. No must not be deconstructed.

But it brings me back again to a sense of how comedy can be subversive and conservative, horror can be subversive and conservative and comedy and horror are a flea’s bite apart.

There’s No Place Like Elm Street

“Welcome to Prime Time, bitch.”

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (Rachel Talalay, 1991)

Popular culture relies on repetition with difference and there is perhaps no subgenre that is quite so repetitive as the slasher – the crime in the past, the discrete/isolated setting, the gender ambiguous and curiously mobile villain and their double the gender ambiguous final girl, the increasing number of unmissed teen victims… and every so often one has to find a new set of teens to slash and eventually decided that an origin myth is needed. Or another origin myth.

What’s new about this film? It’s directed by a woman. This shouldn’t be an issue but there aren’t a whole lot of female directors for some reason. There’s an unfortunate almost collision between the bitch allusion title screen and this being A Rachel Talalay Film. I’d noticed the b-word being thrown around in the previous film and the language here is sweary. Talalay had been production manager on the first two Nightmare films, went on to Tank Girl (1995) and has reached the giddy heights of directing two Doctor Who episodes.

So, all the teenage kids of those who killed Freddy being killed, Krueger has now gone after all the other teens in town, with only one left in Springfield (was the town named before? I’m not sure.) The last teenager is escaping by plane, John Doe (Shon Greenblatt, how about that for Renaissance self-fashioning) and finds himself sucked out through a hole in the roof before awaking in a house that is in midair á la Wizard of Oz. Never knowingly underplaying a reference, Krueger (Robert Englund) does his wacky witch impression. Doe, having left the house next to the Thompson’s, in knocked out and amnesiac on the outskirts of town. Just as the manner of the killings in inexplicable save in terms of spectacle, so his survival is inexplicable, although this lacks spectacle.

Doe is taken to that other space that ideology send those who have not fitted into bourgeois family, the children’s home, home to the hearing impaired Carlos (Ricky Dean Logan), the drug-using Spencer (Breckin Meyer) and the sexually-abused Tracy (Lezlie Dean). One of the case worker, Maggie (Lisa Zane), with nightmares of her own, takes Doe back into town with the three teens stowing away. It turns out that there are no teens in town — the children’s home has missed this somehow — and, even worse, Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold cameo.

Freddy is back, clearly, with thus four more potential victims, but it is a sign of the depths to which the series has sunk that Carlos being stalked without hearing aid is played for laughs rather than menace. Johnny Depp, cameoing from the first film, gets to do an anti drugs message, the height of hypocrisy on the part of the film on acknowledging its post-Craven conservatism. Back at the home, no one seems to have heard of the three teens and Yaphet Kotto brings a much needed gravitas to the film as someone who tries to control his dream.

Unmentioned in the earlier films, it now turns out that Freddie had a child who was taken away from him and is part of the reason he is behaving so badly. Talk about over determination. The answer is to travel into hell and 3D effects and bring him back into reality where he can be killed. But by now we know that that second death is impossible — any death is temporary when it suits the plot. Or the studio, for that matter. Watch this space for daddy’s return.

Alice Doesn’t Sleep Here Anymore

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (Stephen Hopkins, 1989)

Popular culture relies on repetition with difference and there is perhaps no subgenre that is quite so repetitive as the slasher – the crime in the past, the discrete/isolated setting, the gender ambiguous and curiously mobile villain and their double the gender ambiguous final girl, the increasing number of unmissed teen victims… By now we’re onto a new generation of teens — Alice (Lisa Wilcox) has been handed the baton — and since the opening sequence is a blue-tinted* sex scene with Dan (Dan Hassel) you can do your own double entendres. You’d think this would mark her for death and when she jumps in the shower that seems to be her fate, only she becomes part of a more complicated dream sequence.

There’s this thing in Jacques Lacan about being between two deaths and the impossibility of the second death. It’s a variant on what is called the death drive, although the death instinct is a better translation. Nature, according to Sade according to Lacan, demands a total anihilation. Everything must return to dust. Lacan discusses Antigone, who is bricked up alive for the crime of burying her dead brother when this was expressly forbidden (and also she’s being made to carry the can for her dad Oedipus’ shenanigans). Bro had not had the proper rites read and thus his soul cannot rest — he needs the right rites. Antigone is a kind of Schrödinger’s heroine.

Think of all those horror films when characters have been buried alive or put to death with some kind of curse or rite. Some idiot comes along and reads the rite and brings them back — the undead being then seeks revenge. The only way to sort things is out — having read the wrong rites — read the right rites, right? But you never know when someone else will come along and read them again.

So here, as the cast point out twice, Freddy Krueger has murdered children and been burnt alive, without a proper burial. His spirit cannot rest and seeks revenge until the rites are read — in Part III. Of course, Jason the dog comes along and pisses on the corpse — writing being much the same as pissing*** — and brings him back until the rites are read again in the form of the climax to Part IV. But that second death remains impossible. Freddy continues to go after Alice’s friends in baroque ways and has Dan in his sights.

Of course, he’s not the only one unshrived. Agnes Krueger, his nun mother, had been raped by lunatics at the asylum and sought peace through the end of her son in Part III. We see her haunting — even though we’ve also seen a gravestone. There is still unfinished business clearly. The mother — a distant relation of Mrs Vorhees, one assumes — is now the double to Alice as the latter finds herself pregnant with, presumably, Dan’s child. Paradoxically this makes her safer, as Freddy is using her foetus’s dreams to come back. Abortion is rejected as an option, however. Meanwhile, in dreams, Dan/Freddy seem to merge and the transformation of Freddy from bogeyman to father figure continues. (The following year, of course, Edward Scissorhands emerges as tragic hero.)

Theory aside, the film is visually impressive — with some of the dream sequences channelling M.C. Escher. The comic geek Mark Grey (Joe Seeley) seems to have reacted to nominative determinism by wearing rainbows — which one might assume was indexical of his sexuality, but for his desire for supposed potential supermodel Greta (Erika Anderson). Before we can say, “beard”, we can admire the transition from live action to comic books, but the duel rapidly turns silly. But then, of course, most of this is about the spectacle.

[I’ll paste in the Lacan reference later]

Notes

* Or white/gold.**

** This “joke” will make little sense sooner or later. It’s something about a dress and colour perception.

*** Especially when snow is involved. Cf. the excuse “I’m writing my name in Narnia.”

Heteronormativity Strikes Back

The politics of such films as Near Dark, The Silence of the Lambs, Hellraiser (I, II, and III), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula may be understood in part as emblematic of capital’s ongoing attempts at refurbishing its democratic facade by acknowledging the cynicism of the population while simultaneously emphasizing an ersatz liberalism, and by making use of a variety of progressive discourses current in academe that inevitably appear transmuted within the commercial entertainment industry.
Christopher Sharrett (1993) “The Horror Film in Neoconservative Culture”, Journal of Popular Film & Television,  21(3), p. 100.

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part II: Freddy’s Revenge (Jack Sholder, 1985)

Popular culture relies on repetition with difference and there is perhaps no subgenre that is quite so repetitive as the slasher – the crime in the past, the discrete/isolated setting, the gender ambiguous and curiously mobile villain and their double the gender ambiguous final girl, the increasing number of unmissed teen victims… A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984) postdates the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises and adds a degree of the supernatural or fantastical which is not in the other franchises in the same way.*

Craven didn’t want to work on a sequel so we have a new director depicting a new family who have moved into the Thompsons’ house, including a teenaged boy, Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton). The slasher film tends to have a female protagonist — although it can take a while for her to act — on the one hand resisting the Mulveyan male gaze structures of identification, on the other hand feeding a male sadistic gaze for violent spectacle. But here — although we do sort of get a Final Girl — there’s a male protagonist who is a Jesse.

Coughs.

Freddy Krueger is clearly an equal opportunity sadist, as happy to play with Jesse as he was with Nancy; the temperature rises in the Walsh household, their pet birds pay homage to Hitchcock, a party catches fire and a swimming pool boils. Krueger increasingly seems to be an uncontrolled id, his sadism clearly sexualised. The worrying thing for Jesse is his increasing sense that he is Freddy, that he is causing the murders.

The big set piece of the film is a nocturnal wander or dream where Jesse ends up at the town’s gay bar (with a large lesbian clientele) and bumps into the bullying Coach Schneider (Marshall Bell). Schneider then forces him to run laps of the gym and take a shower; meanwhile the coach is attacked by a load of balls in his office, dragged to the shower by skipping ropes, strung up and slashed to death. Jesse finds Freddy’s glove on his hand. What is Jesse’s dark secret?

The whole is homoerotic, seasoned with BDSM and homosexual panic, with Jesse clearly as a confused teen. Frederik Dhaenens suggests that “the film deconstructs how heteronormativity
disciplines individuals who experience same-sex desires, [but] it depends upon its audiences to read this film in terms of queer resistance. Furthermore, by victimizing the potentially gay boy, it reinstates the heterosexual male as the real hero” (p. 110). Perhaps this is being over generous to the film — of the three non-normative characters one is a sadist who preys on boys, one is a serial killer and one is a teen who may be killing people or fantasising about doing so. Certainly the plot rescues the latter from the horrors of homosexuality — in the early years of the HIV crisis homosexuality is equated with death even more than usual.
Note

* As I watch/rewatch the rest, we’ll see how true this is.

Sources

Frederik Dhaenens (2013) “The Fantastic Queer: Reading Gay Representations in Torchwood and True Blood as Articulations of Queer Resistance”, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 30(2).

Christopher Sharrett (1993) “The Horror Film in Neoconservative Culture”, Journal of Popular Film & Television, 21(3).