Contains Moderate Violins

Music of the Heart (Wes Craven, 1999)

This is perhaps the most disturbing of Craven’s films.

It’s heart-warming.

I mean, what the fuck?

This is based on a true story of Roberta Guaspari, here played by Meryl Streep, dumped by her Navy SEAL husband for a younger model, picked up and speedily dropped by a writer, but not before she’s argued her way into a job at a East Harlem school. Well, not exactly a job, but a programme to teach a few of the children to play the violin.

It’s about the redemptive power of art, innit.

Some of the kids don’t want to be there and one of them is killed and there’s a nasty trad music teacher who hates her guts but doesn’t seem to age in ten years. Slowly, she makes progress, overcoming resistance, opening eyes, battling low expectations and the programme expands to other schools.

It’s about the redemptive power of art, innit.

And then the authorities cut the budget, so the programme is doomed unless the kids and Roberta can raise the money. Fortunately, photographer Dorothea von Haeften (Jane Leeves, showing the talent for accents she brings to Daphne in Frasier), knows a few proper fiddlers and the day might be saved.

It’s about the redemptive power of art, innit.

Craven resists the temptation to throw in a few nightmares or inbred families, and even the corruption of the central family thanks to Charlie leaving them is explicitly celebrated towards the end of the film — sometimes it’s better for daddy to go.

It has to be noted that the kids are a diverse bunch — African American, Hispanic, Latino/Latina, with a few more white faces in later years, a character in calipers — and Streep here is presumably Greek-American rather than Jewish. A mother is given an apposite speech about white knights coming in to save the underprivileged, and asked her to name any non-White composers (she can’t, or doesn’t), but somehow she endures. Angela Bassett, as school principal Janet Williams, is given a frankly better role than the one she has in Vampire in Brooklyn: tough, caring, hard ass, wise.

It’s about the redemptive power of art, innit.

In the hands of a Scorsese, we might have been clearer about the passage of time — she seems to use same classroom for over a decade and may have slight changes of hair, but it’s not clear if it’s 1975 or 1985 or 1995. Her sons suddenly turn from adorable tots to lanky teens, ready to pimp her out for a new boyfriend, but the film is less epic than its two hour plus running time might suggest.

This is, perhaps, Craven’s most overtly political movie and is, “Pére-Lachaise” in Paris Je t’aime (2006) aside, pretty well his only venture out of the horror genres. Whilst based on a true story, it seems almost too easy. The jeopardy never seems as high as when a character’s soul is at stake.

That being said, my eyes were distinctly moist for the last fifteen minutes.

The horror, the horror.

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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.

Craven Images

I’ve been slowly working my way through Wes Craven’s oeuvre of films because I thought he would be a good example to teach with of a horror auteur. And whilst so far there have been a fair number of stinking moments, there are a lot of interesting signatures that I’ve been picking up. There was a moment where I pondered that with showing Wes Craven’s New Nightmare as my auteur exemplar and Last House on the Left as controversy film, I should add Vampire in Brooklyn as the vampire film and maybe The People Under the Stairs to explore what horror is.

But you can get too much Craven.

I have to be careful about the original Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream tetralogy, because I’m teaching slasher films on my Popular Genres and Popular Culture module and there’s potentially student overlap next year. But in going through the material on slasher as feminist genre, I pondered if something needed updating (and ironically, I was teaching this the same day as materials on the monstrous-feminine in the horror module).

I don’t really buy slasher as feminist. I think there’s too much pleasure to be taken in the sexualised sadism against the female characters. The Final Girl is subjected to an extended ordeal. On the other hand, I can see the appeal of a screen character being more than just a victim. In the monstrous-feminine class I showed the softporn opening sequence of the original Carrie, and again I’ve heard arguments about this film’s feminist potential. But when there’s a male director filming a male scriptwriter’s adaptation of a male author’s novel,  I’m not sure how the female perspective can get into it in any entirely convincing way. (Some of the students seem not to be able to acknowledge that the full frontal nudity of the young women in the sequence might be sexualising and objectifying — even as the centra lingers in sift focus and Carrie soaps her body… Or see that this is problematic.)

So somewhere I came across the idea where the slasher  was an index of male anxieties about the role of women. I suspect I read this – but you might want to see Halloween as a response to second wave feminism. I suspect we can then trace the subgenre through reactions to new men and new lads and the antifeminist backlash and Scream is somehow in a conversation with third wave feminism. I’ve yet to sit down and trace this in any detail. Given who the victims of the slasher are, the ostensible villain is acting as the avatar of surplus repression.

Meanwhile, I rewatched Cursed and watched My Soul to Take. The former I suspect is an attempt to do for the werewolf subgenre what Scream did for the slasher. Whilst it has its moments, it obeys the first rule of virtually all werewolf movies I’ve seen: the werewolf will be a dog’s breakfast. The latter film  is a cousin to the slasher — sixteen years before the main plot some guy killed his wife and his psychiatrist and a cop or two and tried to kill the people in the ambulance and may or may not have died himself. It’s a series of set pieces and they barely make sense. He might be barking (but not in a werewolf way); he might be possessed. In the present day, the seven kids born on the same day as he died hold a ritual to face the monster, and one of them dies. 

The teenager of colour, obviously.

Although there’s also visually impaired African American.

Indeed, the teens are killed off one by one, with the twist that it may well be cute little malcontent shy geek Bug who is responsible. Who you think wouldn’t kill a fly. Or it might be his best friend Alex, who is bullied by a stepfather in a one-off scene that might well have been added late on for all I know.

My initial reaction is that it’s largely mindless by the numbers pap, although it passes ninety minutes or so.

It’s perhaps a bit early to think about this film in terms of fourth wave feminism, but I suspect here we have an example of the geek male as hero and a way of tracing the shifting patterns of hegemonic masculinity. Intriguing though Max Thieriot’s performance is — and he has to ventriloquise other characters — I think we’ve already seen the geek hero in a purer form in Jessie Eisenberg in Cursed. And whilst I need to rewatch the film at some point to focus on what Emily Meade’s character is up to, Cursed reminds me of what an interesting actor Christina Ricci appears to be. At some point though, I will need to go and look (again) at the late slasher films to see what they get up to in terms of masculinity and the flatter your audience ploy of putting the geek centre stage. 

Although, of course, in the slasher the most interesting male character tends to be the slasher “him”self.

Incredulity Towards Metanightmares

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (Wes Craven, 1994)

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… none of whom go to the cinema to see slasher films. Craven, finally, is allowed to visit his idea of a Pomo slasher and puts Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund and John Saxon at the heart of a movie about making an Elm Street style film, with a real Krueger going after the cast and crew. Alongside actors playing themselves, we have Craven as Craven and Robert Shaye as Robert Shaye and no doubt best boys playing best boys. As far as one can see, Langenkamp is better as Langenkamp than as Nancy, and Englund plays affable character actor troubled by nightmares.

Yes, it is clever and we have some more spectacular deaths, as well as further cameos from actors we probably last saw in the franchise. John Saxon as father figure melds into Thompson’s father and the original footage of A Nightmare on Elm Street is folded into the film. There is a sense of biting that hand that feeds them — dangerous with those metal nails — and possibly those actors would have gone to greater things than most of them did without the Elm Street resume. 

To the extent that Pomo is radical rather than neoconservative it is fun and interesting and at least foregrounds the cynicism of film franchises, but now the final girl is the final mother, kicking slasher butt because she is the lioness protecting her cub. We’ve neatly been prepared for the denouement by the telling of Hansel and Gretel, and the script plays into the generic  imperative of the open ending. 

The Dream of Solidarity

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part III (Chuck Russell, 1987)

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 Part III (Chuck Russell, 1987) sees Wes Craven’s return to the franchise, along with Nancy (Heather Lagenkamp) and Donald Thompson (John Saxon). Craven’s initial suggestion was for the film to be about a supernatural menace on the set of a slasher movie, but clearly that would never fly. Instead the scene shifts to an asylum.

As the first two films in the franchise show, the most significant ideological crucible of youth is the family home, followed closely by the school. For those who don’t conform there is a fate worse than death — the army, the police station (and cells), the prison, the hospital, the asylum. In the construction of the norm as sane, law-abiding, healthy, clean, heterosexual, there are heterotopias to which the abnormal may be exiled. Here we have a group of traumatised teens, all children of Krueger’s killers, fearful of sleeping lest he come after them. Nancy arrives to help them, suggesting they band together to fight back.

Each of the teens has their own secret identity, their ego ideal to fight against Freddy’s id, and at times it is unclear whether the film is laughing at or with them. Meanwhile a doctor (Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson)) and an ex-cop (Saxon) act as policing forces to give Krueger’s corpse a proper burial with what will pass for a proper rite.

There’s a moral here about collectivity and solidarity, although perhaps this can still be seen as trumped by patriarchy, whether in the form of the good doctor or the bad father who needs to be redeemed.