March 29, 2015

David Robert Mitchell’s independent horror film It Follows did well on the festival circuit and is gathering some positive reviews, but its box office opening is soft.

I find myself a little ambivalent about the film but am calling on a former student who knows much more about horror films than I do to enlighten me!

Not only was Dan Bagwell a delight for me to work with in several classes when he was a graduate student at Wake Forest University, but he made horror films the focus of his master’s thesis.

Mary: Let’s start out by having you talk a little bit about your thesis. At the risk of sounding annoyingly arch, what is the thesis of your thesis?

Dan: My thesis focuses on the societal significance of “body horror” films. Specifically, I analyzed depictions of the grotesque human body in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome in relation to broader social fears surrounding gender, mortality, and human identity. I think that the horror genre (unfairly) gets a bad reputation among many moviegoers and critics, and I wanted my thesis to demonstrate the rhetorical power of the genre and how horror films can tell us a lot about the psyche of the general public.

Mary: In a message you sent me last night, you called It Follows “one of the best horror movies that deals with gender/sexuality that I’ve seen” and highly recommend it. What makes this film a standout for you?

Dan: The film really stood out to me both technically and thematically, especially in comparison to many contemporary horror films. On a technical level, the film is incredibly well-made; the use of long takes and wide shots help build and sustain an unsettling atmosphere, and Mitchell does an excellent job of staging horrific scenes in both claustrophobic and open spaces. It’s rare for a film to require that attention be paid to every inch of the screen, but I found myself anxiously scanning the background the entire time.

The antagonist (I can only really call it “It”) is one of the most horrifying creatures in horror cinema. I’m fascinated by the idea of a creature that is constantly moving and reinventing itself for one singular purpose, which adds a sense of inevitable doom and staying power to the film. Some of my favorite films reveal very little about their antagonists (The Blair Witch Project, No Country for Old Men, The Dark Knight), and It Follows strikes a perfect balance between revealing just enough detail about “It” while leaving plenty to the imagination.

Thematically, I thought It Follows took a very clever twist on some typical horror conventions that symbolize prominent fears that we all share in some form or another. Mitchell’s film dispenses with the “survivor girl” archetype, which features virginal women triumphing over their male attackers while their sexually active friends perish. It Follows casts sexuality as a malevolent force that attaches itself to Jay, a young woman who is constantly haunted by a single act of intimacy. Take your pick of what “It” symbolizes; the monster can be read as a personification of any number of persistent issues that plague the broader public.

Mary: Why do you think it seems to be connecting better with critics than the average horror flick fan?

Dan: I think that creativity and consistency are factors that critics appreciate in horror films, primarily since so many films released now are more in the “by-the-numbers” slasher camp; it’s rare for a horror film to deliver on an interesting premise for the entire 1.5 hours. Take The Purge, for example; the consensus seemed to be that, despite an interesting central idea, it collapsed into typical home invasion fare. It Follows, on the other hand, is relentlessly scary up to the final shot without feeling like a re-hash of tired slasher conventions. Too many horror movies confuse gore for scares, and It Follows seems to resonate with people (myself included) by combining a consistently unnerving atmosphere with an intriguing and terrifying monster.

Mary: Do you have a preferred reading of sexual encounters as metaphorical in this film?

Dan: I think “It” can be a stand-in for our unease toward a variety of things surrounding sex, from disease to sexual assault to social construction of what it means to be a sexual being. Just as the characters in the film are constantly haunted by “It,” the themes in the film speak to inescapable sexual issues faced by society as a whole.

Some critics have read the film as an allegory for STDs, which makes a lot of sense to me given the social prominence of that issue and “It’s” sexually-transmitted nature. There are several tracking shots of disadvantaged, downtrodden neighborhoods that could also support this interpretation, which could be read as a nod to how disease is especially prevalent in marginalized areas.

My preferred reading of the film, however, is centered on the relation between sex and societal attitudes toward women. I think the theme of a teenage girl being constantly hounded by a past sexual encounter is a symbolic one that speaks to how, for the most part, women bear a disproportionate burden when it comes to sexual consequences. Women are often stigmatized for being sexually active in ways that men are not, prompting cycles of “slut shaming” that unfairly frame women as deviants. Jay’s sexual past becomes inescapable, which problematizes the specters of sexual stigma that women face on a daily basis. The fact that Jay’s curse is transmitted to her by a man (who also drugs her) is also important; while they both participate in the act, we see the woman facing nearly all of the consequences, much to the relief of the male.

I’ve always been fascinated by Laura Mulvey’s idea of the “male gaze,” or the theory that women are often constructed cinematically for the visual pleasure of men. It Follows is an interesting case study for Mulvey’s theory, especially since “It” constantly has its eyes fixated on its female victim. I think the shape-shifting nature of the monster can be read as a metaphor for the unyielding gaze of the masses upon the female body, which becomes a threatening force in itself.

I was reminded of Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth, another horror movie that incorporates themes of sexuality as a destructive, monstrous force. While the protagonist of Teeth uses her sexuality as a weapon against her attackers, It Follows positions Jay on the receiving end of sexual violence. Jay is framed as a sympathetic victim of tragic circumstance who must face “It’s” merciless advances.

It Follows is a film that I can’t wait to revisit. If ever there was a modern horror movie that deserved academic attention, I think Mitchell’s film would make the short list.

Mary: Is there something you’d like to say about It Follows that I didn’t ask you?

Dan: I think that music can make or break horror movies, and the soundtrack for It Follows is pretty outstanding. The music is appropriately sinister and abrasive, which helps keep the tension alive even when “It” isn’t present. I couldn’t relax until I left the theater. It was a great throwback to the sort of music I’d expect from a John Carpenter film, which gave a very welcome retro vibe for me. Some of the best horror movies are masterpieces even when muted; It Follows would even be incredible without video. I’d love to hear your thoughts on It Follows. As a horror devotee, I may be seeing it through rose-colored glasses.

Mary: I understand — and appreciate — that by not being “spot on” in terms of the narrative or leaving a lot of ambiguity to “It” that the film is breaking with convention, and I’m all about breaking with convention, especially in genres that are well-represented on the screen. Still, I wanted a bit more of a pattern in how “It” operates. If, for example, the women characters were not able to shed “It” with another sexual encounter while the men were (or, at least, were mostly able to), then I would have an easier time with your reading, which I really like. I do think women bear, as you put it, a disproportionate share of sexual consequences, but “It” seems to be an equal opportunity terror (Greg [Daniel Zovatto] suffers perhaps the most horrendous fate depicted in the film). I have to say, however, that I liked the style of the film and the performances. Maika Monroe is terrific as the main character, Jay, but Keir Gilchrist’s Paul is my favorite character in large part because of his performance. So, I liked It Follows, but I think I was hoping for a bolder, more incisive feminist statement. You seem to have found enough there to support your reading, but I needed a little bit more, which David Robert Mitchell is not obligated to give me. I’m talking about my political project here rather than his artistic one.

Thanks, Dan! We’ll have to do this again.

It Follows


DC on TV

March 27, 2015

You know, I can’t muster much enthusiasm for Season Three of House of Cards.

I’m starting to watch Alpha House on Amazon instead. It’s like an endless buffet on the smart TV. Has John Goodman ever given a bad performance?

Viewing made easy…

Alpha House


March 24, 2015

Want to hear my take on 50 Shades of Grey? I talked about it on Triad Arts Weekend, and you can hear it here…just scroll down for the link when you get to the page.

50 Shades of Grey


March 19, 2015

I’m sitting at my desk watching Grey Gardens.

This is not a coincidence, but it’s not related to class prep or to the recent death of co-director Albert Maysles.

Instead, it’s a refresher before I urge you to take a trip to see the 40th anniversary restoration of Grey Gardens playing for one week starting tomorrow.

This is one of Albert and David Maysles’s most famous films. The 1976 documentary, shot in their customary direct cinema style (“fly on the wall”), positions the filmmakers as observers while Big Edie Beale and her daughter Little Edie Beale tell their life stories from the dilapidated mansion in East Hampton that they called home for 50 years.

Eccentric may be a mild word to describe the two women bound by blood and history but isolated from most other people and the larger world outside their own grey garden.

Big Edie and Little Edie came into public consciousness in the early 1970s when reporters discovered that the two women, cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, were facing eviction from their home after government inspections deemed it a hazard to public health.

Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwill provided funds to bring the mansion up to code, but the condition of the home and the lifestyle of the mother and daughter are still disturbing to watch. For me, the film is as sad as it is fascinating.

Did Big Edie and Little Edie really understand the implications of having the filmmakers in their private spaces (interior and exterior)? It doesn’t seem so.

The ethics of the film have been debated, but what is not up for debate is the important place the film holds in cinema history.

Two of the Maysles’s Brothers 30-plus films have been named to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. Grey Gardens is one of them, and the other is my personal favorite, Salesman from 1968.

Grey Gardens


March 15, 2015

Missed my take on these two films on “Triad Arts Weekend”? Listen to it here.

So Many Movies…

March 15, 2015

I’ve seen so many movies…and TV shows…in recent weeks…okay, months…that I have not written about here.

It’s true, I’ve been busy, but that’s nothing new. Something else is going on with me.

There has been a bit of inexplicable malaise about writing about works of others, even those that have inspired me.

Maybe this is temporary.

Perhaps it is related to the fact that I’ve been spending more time on my own films and my scholarly work – more creating and less critiquing.

Nonetheless, I’m going to try to play a little catch up as I recall what I’ve seen in the form of pithy (I hope!) little recollections and recommendations.

If you wonder what I’ve been thinking about a film you’ve seen or want to see, just ask. That would be a powerful motivator for me.

Also, I have recorded a “Triad Arts Weekend” piece on Selma and American Sniper and another on 50 Shades of Grey.

I’ll try to locate links to those for you, too.

Second Best?

March 15, 2015

Last weekend, I took my mother to see The Second Most Exotic Marigold Hotel. For months after seeing the first preview trailer, she’d ask impatiently almost weekly when that movie was going to open!

Her report? “It’s not as good as the first one.”

My report? While the first film was charming as well as predictable, this sequel doesn’t have much zing even though some of the actors are among my favorites, and Richard Gere is aging quite well.

No magic this time around.