“Midsommar” (2019) Review

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS

Midsommar is the second film from the director of breakout hit Hereditary (2018), Ari Aster. It follows a group of American friends embarking on a summer research trip.

The protagonist Dani, portrayed by Florence Pugh, is the odd-one-out. She’s tagging along on her partner Christian’s (Jack Reynor) “boys’ trip” with his friends Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper). They’re accompanying their Swedish classmate Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to the isolated rural commune where he grew up, with the intention of participating in the community’s summer solstice traditions.

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I’d been anticipating this film for a number of weeks; the trailer drew me in immediately. It promised a wacky fever dream played out in broad daylight – still an unusual and exciting choice for a horror film – and it ticked the folk horror box for me. I love horror films that centre on cults or rituals (The Wicker Man (1973) is a firm favourite of mine – we’ll dig into the inevitable comparisons between these two movies in a mo) but I particularly appreciated that this movie took an anthropological view of them. The friends are all postgraduates (or graduate students, if you’re in the States): one of them, Josh, is writing his thesis specifically about Midsummer traditions in Europe. We really get to delve into the beliefs in the commune and the way their society functions, and it provides some food for thought regarding cultural relativism.

Firstly, I’d like to chat about the visuals, because this film is stunning. Even the gruesome scenes are somehow so visually arresting that I couldn’t look away. I loved the juxtaposition of the gore with the pastel-painted buildings, idyllic countryside and beautiful costumes (I deliberately bought some embroidered skirts to capture the vibe, LOL). The interiors of the buildings are elaborately decorated with painted scenes of Midsommar traditions. After a bit of research, I found that highly decorative farmhouses are a part of the cultural heritage of Hälsingland, where the film takes place.

Midsommar exceeded my expectations of its weirdness. Despite repeat viewings of the teasers and extended trailer, I didn’t have any inkling as to how big a role drug use would play in the narrative and the visuals. Every instance of drug use is accompanied by undulating effects, with trees and flowers appearing to breathe. However, even before they start indulging in illicit substances, it’s very trippy – as the protagonists are driving into the commune, there’s an especially cool (and nauseating) upside-down shot that slowly turns the right way up when they pass under the overhead banner. It stood out to me, mainly because it made my stomach churn.

I also wasn’t expecting this to be quite such a black comedy. Confession: I haven’t seen Hereditary yet, but I’ve been told that it also has scenes and visuals that could be classed as gallows humour. There were some moments – amid my gasps of shock and my outbursts of disgust – that made me laugh out loud, as did everyone else in the audience. There’s a really unsettling “sex scene” in which Christian is chosen to “mate” (ewww) with Maja, a young woman who has come of age. An older woman pushes Christian’s bum and guides his thrusts, which I admit to (childishly) finding hysterically funny. Other women in the village encircle them and imitate Maja’s moans. The motif of imitation – not mocking but empathetic – recurs throughout the film and manages to be creepy, amusing and moving. The collective moaning/screaming/cries of pain are jarring but OTT. It’s kind of… campy? It was an odd choice and I definitely liked it.

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Florence Pugh in Midsommar (2019)

On the topic of empathy: I was intrigued by how the film played with both our feelings of empathy as an audience towards the characters and between the characters themselves. I found myself questioning who exactly I was supposed to care about and agree with. The film suggests that the commune is cultist and amoral, but they aren’t necessarily bloodthirsty – this is their way of life. By the end of the film, they fully embrace Dani and she finally has a family who value and respect her feelings. Dani witnesses the sex ritual and has a panic attack, fleeing to the communal sleeping quarters to weep. The other young women gather around her, wailing alongside her and accompanying her through her grief over the final collapse of her relationship with Christian.

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Florence Pugh in Midsommar (2019)

I enjoyed watching the exploration of empathy because I really identified with Dani. I think Florence Pugh’s performance is stellar. From the moment we are first introduced to Christian, it’s apparent that he is a toxic influence in her life. He never validates her feelings, he doesn’t pay real attention to what’s going on in her life and he seems to see her personal problems as a burden rather than something he can support her through. I found him to be infuriating beyond belief, which is a testament to Jack Reynor’s acting (even if I don’t necessarily agree with his thoughts about the character).

The characterisation is my main argument against the obvious comparison to The Wicker Man. The burning temple at the end of the film is very evocative of the iconic closing moments of Wicker Man, but I’d argue that that is where the similarities end. Midsommar is much more of a sociological piece than Wicker Man, which makes more use of religion as a subject. Midsommar is by no means secular; however, it’s less about the gods and more about the interpersonal relationships.

The other point of divergence between The Wicker Man and Midsommar for me – you might disagree – was my response to the ending. I was gutted by the finale of the former; I think Howie is a great horror protagonist and the final moments of the film are some of the most evocative and eerie in all of cinema.

I had the opposite reaction to Midsommar‘s ending. The film culminates with a ritual burning; every 90 years, the Hårga sacrifice nine people as an offering at the summer solstice. Six of the sacrifices are already dead, but two members of the cult offer themselves up to be burned alive.

The final sacrifice is chosen by Dani – her reward for winning the title of May Queen earlier in the film. Surprise, surprise: she selects Christian. She doesn’t speak during the film’s closing scenes, so we can only guess at her motivations: I felt that her panicked response to witnessing the sex ritual was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It broke the seal on all the feelings of resentment that she had pushed down. Florence Pugh and Ari Aster have differing opinions on the ending. Pugh suggested in an interview with Salon that Dani is “…completely gone now. She doesn’t realize what’s going on, and she’s just really happy the fire is going up… I don’t think I would’ve supported Dani as much if she knew that he was in there. I don’t think anybody is that sinister.” Aster argued that, while he hoped that the character’s deteriorating mental state came across to viewers, Dani definitely knew what was happening. I’m tempted to agree with his assessment. I think it makes Dani a much more complicated – and therefore more interesting – character if she is motivated not by madness but by the taste of freedom. The ending is far creepier if we imagine that her mind was unclouded throughout and she simply wanted rid of her arsehole boyfriend. Freaky.

I also noted that, earlier in the film, Pelle asks Dani if she feels “held” by Christian and if he feels like home to her. They seem to be kindred spirits; there’s a subtle link between the two of them surrounding the cleansing power of fire. Pelle’s parents burned to death, but he had a broader family all around him to carry him through his grief. Dani purges herself of the negative element in her life – her last link to the outside world which has left her to wallow in her trauma – by sacrificing Christian via immolation.

Although it’s a brutal conclusion to the film, I couldn’t bring myself to hate Dani. I know what it’s like to be manipulated and gaslit, and to have the perceptions of a group of narcissists projected onto me. So, for better or for worse, I was very into the weird revenge fantasy of Midsommar. Sorry ’bout it.

The final shots of Florence Pugh’s face reminded me strongly of Thomasin (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) at the end of The Witch (2015). Both films end with young women liberated by acts of violence. You could argue both women are going from the frying pan into the fire – Dani escapes her relationship with a narcissist by effectively handing him over to a cult, Thomasin escapes the cage of her Puritan upbringing by signing her soul over to Satan. Ultimately, I think I enjoyed the two films so much because the protagonists are young women and they are both complex in very disturbing ways. There’s still something revolutionary to me about seeing a narrative play out in which a woman is allowed to be unsettling and to make us uncomfortable with her choices and behaviour, without being punished for it within the story.

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Leave Anubis Alone: Ancient Egypt and the Horror Genre

It occurred to me recently – as these things often do – that there aren’t many horror films which use the ancient world as a setting or plot device. Of those which do, the vast majority are based on the mythology of ancient Egypt (or, at least, our modern assumptions about ancient Egypt – we’ll chat more about that later). It struck me as interesting that, although I could name quite a number of Egyptian-themed horror films off the top of my head, I could count the horror films (that I knew of) inspired by ancient Rome and Greece on one hand. We seem comfortable with a good sword-and-sandals epic, but a horror film? By Jove, no.

In this post, I want to examine why ancient Egypt is such prime fodder for the horror genre. Where does the perception of Egypt as “spooky” come from? Why don’t we feel the same about any other culture from antiquity? And, finally, just what is our problem with Anubis?

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In order to find the root of the squeamish fascination we feel for ancient Egypt, we need to look back at Western culture’s first foray into the land of the pharaohs. Although explorers from Europe – along with those from the Middle East – were travelling to Egypt from as early as the 13th century, the birth of modern Egyptology came with the French invasion of Egypt at the turn of the 19th century. Over the course of the 19th century and well into the 20th, artefacts were uncovered and writings were translated, and it was easier than ever before for Europeans to engage with the mysteries of Egypt.

That said, Egypt was still a land of mystery and, in the popular imagination, of threat. In 1892, 30 years before Howard Carter discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun, Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale of terror Lot No. 249 was published. In it, an Oxford student reanimates a mummy he has bought at an auction and uses the undead fiend to attack his enemies. This marks the first example in literature of a malevolent, resurrected mummy and the story has had a significant influence both on later horror fiction and film. Doyle had previously employed a mummy as a plot device in the short story The Ring of Thoth (1890) in which a young Egyptologist meets an Egyptian man who discovered the secret to eternal life over 3000 years ago. The love of his life died before he could administer the elixir to her, and he has been searching for her sarcophagus and the ring of Thoth – which contains the antidote which will allow him to join her in the afterlife – ever since.

By the time Carter cracked open Tut’s tomb to reveal the treasures within, the public were all too ready to accept the possibility that a curse might strike those who dared enter the tomb. There were eleven deaths in the decade following the tomb’s opening which were popularly attributed to the so-called “curse of the pharaohs”; the most famous of these was undoubtedly that of Lord Carnarvon, who had financed the trip. The burial chamber was opened on 16th February 1923 and Carnarvon died of an infected mosquito bite, sustained while in Egypt, on 5th April. Despite the mania in the press over the curse, Howard Carter never believed in it.

The mummy had all the makings of a movie monster and, in 1932, Universal Studios’ The Mummy was a smash hit. The rest is movie history, enabling the success of the rebooted Mummy franchise in 1999 as well as spawning shelves upon shelves of low-budget offerings.

The curses, resurrected corpses and strange rituals are all part of a narrative which casts ancient Egypt as completely foreign. There’s certainly an element of racism there – we see Greece and Rome as “more like us” and Egypt as distinctly “other”. However, I think an important factor in the continued popularity of Egypt as a setting or plot device in the horror genre is the Egyptian attitude to death. I don’t believe the “hands-on” approach that the Egyptians took to caring for their dead is a concept we’ve ever quite got over and it has potentially become even more alien to us as we’ve dissociated ourselves from death and the handling of our dead. With our aversion to corpses and all that is associated with them, mummification is an invasive, morbid idea to us. Even an ordinary Egyptian person who couldn’t afford to be mummified upon their death would be wrapped in cloth and buried in the desert with food and useful everyday items by their relatives. We pay people to do that on our behalf.

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The Romans buried their dead outside the city walls and the Greeks seemed to define the separation between the living and the dead very clearly. The Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles, written circa 441BCE, concerns this separation. Polyneices, considered a traitor by his city, is refused burial – thereby disrupting the natural order and keeping the dead among the living (i.e. above ground). His sister Antigone defies the ruling and buries him herself, and she is sentenced to be buried alive. Again, this disrupts the natural order; a living girl is given the treatment of the dead. My point here is not to say that the people of ancient Greece and Rome were averse to seeing the dead or that they did not have their own set of complex funerary rites, but we seem to fixate less on these than we do on mummification and the beliefs the Egyptians held about what happened to the soul after death.

Speaking of ancient Greece and Rome, I did some digging of my own for horror films set in either. I had seen two flicks which fitted the bill: the first being Minotaur (2006) and the other, Cyclops (2008). Cyclops is the only Roman-themed horror film I could find. Set during the reign of the emperor Tiberius (14ACE to 37ACE), Cyclops is the story of the last surviving cyclops, which is captured and displayed at the Circus Maximus. It’s a TV movie and truly looks like one; the cyclops is possibly the biggest waste of CGI I’ve ever witnessed. Minotaur has been described as “highly forgettable”, which is unfair – I’m sure Tom Hardy, a far more talented actor than this film deserves, wishes he could erase it from his memory. It’s a film marred by racism – it’s very Xerxes in 300 – and none of it really makes any sense. Despite being set in Crete, nearly everybody has an ambiguously Celtic, or otherwise non-Cretan, name. It’s one of only two horror films set in ancient Greece that I was able to find, both of which deal with the myth of the Minotaur. The second is Land of the Minotaur (1976). Like the other two films mentioned, it’s not brilliant, but it does have Peter Cushing which is always an advantage.

I noted that, when it comes to horror films set in or inspired by ancient Greece or Rome, there’s a tendency for filmmakers to stick to what they know and make a straight-up creature feature. The Minotaur just happens to be the closest thing to a classic movie monster – in the vein of Frankenstein, Dracula or, indeed, the Mummy – that Greek mythology has to offer.

It could be argued that the mythological figures and deities of ancient Egypt simply lend themselves to the horror genre, although I believe it has more to do with our modern misinterpretations. Finally, ladies and gents, it’s time to talk about Anubis.

Anubis – or Anpu, Anubis is the Greek rendering of the name – was associated with mummification and embalming. He acted as a psychopomp, guiding souls into the afterlife, and presided over a ceremony called the Weighing of the Heart in which the heart of the deceased would be weighed against Ma’at (the physical representation of truth, symbolised by an ostrich feather). If the heart was lighter, the dead person could continue on their journey into the afterlife. If heavier, the heart would be eaten by the demon Ammut.

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The Weighing of the Heart, Book of the Dead of Hunefer (c) Jon Bodsworth.

Anubis wasn’t an evil or malevolent figure in the mythology, so there’s no real basis for his portrayal in many films as a monstrous entity – I think it’s the jackal head thing that freaks modern moviegoers out a bit. Yes, he took part in the judgement of the dead and might seem unsympathetic to us, but he was an important deity. A post on WritingRaider described him thus: “[In Hollywood films, Anubis] has been the main antagonist, killing and sending curses to the heroes… manipulating battles like some evil Bond villain… In truth, the Egyptians didn’t think so.  He was a protector and a caretaker… It is easy to interpret Anubis as evil in today’s culture because of his connection to the dead in Egyptian religion.  But we must keep in mind, that today’s view of the dead is very different from the ancient Egyptian view.  The Egyptians believed in a happy afterlife and there were trials to get to paradise, but once you had proved yourself worthy… there was nothing but peace and happiness.”

My concerns are twofold. As somebody who studied Classics and is a massive horror fan, it makes me rather sad that nobody seems to have thought to tap into the sheer wealth of weird in Greek and Roman mythology. We seem to live in a time of sequels and reboots, and this is just something different I’d love to see. My other issue likewise stems from my appreciation for the rich history and mythology of ancient Egypt, which has fascinated me since I was a little girl. As much as I love The Mummy (1999), I can’t help but feel put off by the portrayal of Egypt as a strange and scary society.

Further Reading

Miscellaneous

Richard Cavendish (editor) (1992) Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Principal Myths and Religions of the World. Little, Brown and Company. (An excellent guide to the basics. Useful for comparing key myths and traditions from various religions.)

Egyptian Religion

dollingch (2014) Egyptian Culture – Anubis In Egyptian Religion. WritingRaider.

Lucia Gahlin (2001) Egypt: Gods, Myths and Religion. Anness Publishing. (A book I read and re-read like a child possessed. It’s a brilliant, comprehensive look at religion in Egypt, from the mythology to the priesthood to worship by ordinary people.)

Peter Piccione (1997) What Life Was Like On The Banks Of The Nile. Time Life UK. (Another one I read obsessively as a child.)

Ancient Egypt in Popular Culture

Christian-Georges Schwentzel (2017) Why we love (and fear) mummies. The Conversation.

Films mentioned

The Mummy (1932)

Land of the Minotaur (1976)

The Mummy (1999)

The Mummy Returns (2001)

Minotaur (2006)

300 (2006)

Cyclops (2008)

Why “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) Is Powerful

Warning: this article contains mild spoilers regarding The Silence of the Lambs. I’ve done my best to talk about the film in general and avoid discussing specific plot points, but some may have slipped through the net.

I don’t say this lightly, but I think The Silence of the Lambs is the greatest film ever made. It won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture (it’s the only Best Picture winner, as of 2018, considered a horror film). It’s also one of the most iconic films of Western culture, quoted and parodied so often that many people recognise its dialogue instantly without having watched it themselves.

Loving it as I do, I can’t help but question: just why did it resonate so strongly with me? Why has it endured? And has it really aged as well as we might like to believe?

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I believe Silence is still as chilling today as it was 27 years ago. Much of this is owed to the cinematography: it is, above all else, a highly intelligent piece of film-making. More than that, it’s a very empathetic film which is a difficult thing to achieve with a crime thriller. There’s the potential for lurid fetishisation of femicide and, while I’m not suggesting Silence doesn’t occasionally fall into that trap, it’s a much more sensitive film than you might expect. If you’ve seen Silence before, I challenge you to watch it again and take note of every close-up on Clarice’s face throughout the film. You might be surprised by how often it occurs if you keep a tally. If you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend watching it and trying the same exercise. Really look at her expression and think about how it makes you feel. Something else to watch out for is the focus on how male characters treat Clarice. Another active-watching exercise to try is to make a note of every time a male character flirts with, harasses, dismisses or ogles Clarice. The film makes it clear that the manner in which “ordinary” “good” men talk about and treat women directly enables acts of violence against women, linking them thematically. All the men in the film – even the “good” men like Jack Crawford – reinforce sexist stereotypes in some way and they have ulterior (often sexual) motives. One of the things I love about this film is that we are encouraged, if not forced, to engage with misogyny and the objectification of women. You’re never allowed to see the murdered women as simply bodies; you’re never allowed to see Clarice or any other women as eye-candy. Every time you slip, Silence reminds you. This is what you’re enabling. This is the progression of your attitudes about women. I think it’s ingenious that the film-makers managed to weave this analysis of the male gaze – first posited by Laura Mulvey in the 1970s – into the narrative and makes us aware of the voyeurism inherent across cinema.

Although Lecter is superficially the star of the show – and I don’t wish to take away from Anthony Hopkins’ performance here, because it is stellar on every level – it’s Clarice who is the more interesting character. For all that Lecter is hyped up, a creature of monstrous intellect and appetites, he has the same base sexual motivations as every other man in the film. Writing for BBC Culture in 2017, Nicholas Barber argued that “… Lecter is so electrifying, in fact, that it’s easy to overlook what a preening, immature bore he soon reveals himself to be. He is, of course, a snob who wants everyone to know about his taste in fine wines and expensive shoes, but he also has the grubby one-track mind of an adolescent schoolboy… He may not have seen a women in his eight years of incarceration, but that’s no excuse for his behaving like a tabloid gossip columnist.” The film doesn’t present Lecter’s harassment of Agent Starling as titillating; she’s evidently disgusted but she doesn’t let it faze her. Silence manages to trick the audience effectively. It’s not just a crime thriller revolving around the mind of a genius psychopath and using women as sexy, lifeless props. It deals with what it’s like to be the sexy, lifeless prop. It’s a reflection on what it’s like to be stared at, every day of your life, from the moment you start maturing into a woman.

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Despite being a triumphant work of cinema in terms of its representation of women, the film was not without its detractors upon release. Much of the controversy hinges on the film’s portrayal of its antagonist, Jame Gumb, a serial killer known by the moniker Buffalo Bill. Some have argued that Buffalo Bill is a homophobic caricature, although I don’t think this was deliberate and, as with anything, gay men will have their personal opinion on whether it’s offensive or not. It’s worth noting, though, that Jonathan Demme went on to direct Philadelphia (1993) which deals with the AIDS crisis and homophobia. He took the criticism of the film by organisations like ACT-UP and Queer Nation personally and very seriously: “At first, Demme was defiant of the protests. In 1991, he told Film Comment, “We knew it was tremendously important to not have Gumb misinterpreted by the audience as being homosexual. That would be a complete betrayal of the themes of the movie. And a disservice to gay people.” He described the killer as “someone who is so completely, completely horrified by who he is that his desperation to become someone completely other is manifested in his ill-guided attempts at transvestism[…]” To be fair, Demme is correct—in the movie, Hannibal Lecter posits that Gumb apes qu**r and trans people because they’re the most outré, far-off identities he can imagine—the ultimate escape.” (Bloomer, Slate: 2017) One could argue the film makes use of homophobic stereotypes and tropes, but only insofar that Bill is making use of those cliches in order to cultivate this “other” identity. Dennis Stone wrote an interesting article for New Millenial Gay Experience and I thought this was a particularly incisive quote: “I did not see a gay character. Rather, I saw a psychopath, someone whose entire being was warped by his past, someone who was so outside the realm of decency and “humanity” that every action and attribute were beyond conventional interpretation. Even in 1991 I was aware of fluidity and context in relation to sexuality. Bill may have had one or more male lovers, but for me that did not make him gay in any meaningful sense.

Many modern analyses of the film criticise its “dated” perspective on trans issues, something I’ve always found a bit baffling. It is established during a conversation between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter that Bill is not a “transsexual” (this was the 90s, remember) but only believes he is. Instead, he has been pathologised to hate himself and is uncomfortable with his own identity, whatever that may truly be. I’ve always interpreted the idea of Buffalo Bill being trans as something of a red herring when, in fact, the issue at hand is male violence and male entitlement to the use of women’s bodies. I see Bill’s skinning of women as an extension of other men’s sexist attitudes in the film, taken right to the extreme – not just using women’s bodies for sex or for visual pleasure but physically making use of their body parts. Bill doesn’t see women as fully human – he’s not cutting up men in order to try on their skins and be someone different – and nor do men in general. If anything, I think it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the film as a whole if you consider Buffalo Bill to be a comment on or a reflection of gay men or the trans community. I find the accusations of transphobia especially bizarre when it’s explicitly stated that Gumb isn’t transgender. Stone went on to argue in his review that we are only concerned about how gay and trans people are represented in the film because we have not progressed into full acceptance of LGBT people: We are still too sensitive and too insecure and too reactive for what I would consider a “correct” understanding of the movie.I don’t think we should let our own knee-jerk reactions to a film made almost 30 years ago get in the way of its important message about sex-based oppression.

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Despite the emphasis on the impact of misogyny on women, Clarice Starling has so much agency in Silence and that’s what makes it brilliant. She’s no rebel, sticking to the protocol she’s been taught, but she speaks up and she fights back in every way she can. In “The Silence of the Lambs” and the Intuitive Feminism of Jonathan Demme, Willow McClay states: “The Silence of the Lambs is essentially about one woman trying to save another woman and the lengths she will go to push herself along the way to be the best FBI agent she can possibly be even with society at large pressing down on her at all times due to her gender.” (McClay, The Film Stage: 2017) Clarice is a feminist heroine, an ordinary working-class woman who battles her way into a man’s world and yet never loses her compassion. In an environment in which she’s treated like shit for being female, Clarice’s existence as a woman is her greatest strength. And that’s what thrilled me most about The Silence of the Lambs.

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Further reading

Controversial Opinions: Round 1 of ???

Oh, you already know this is gonna be a good one. Get ready to nod your head or throw your laptop/mobile phone/iPad/other technological device pushed on you by capitalist brainwashing out of the window. You’re either going to love me or hate me by the end of this.

Unsolved Mysteries

  1. A number of conspiracy theories – especially those to do with the Illuminati and the New World Order – are just an excuse for racism and especially for anti-Semitism. Think a powerful global force is conspiring to enslave you? According to an unfortunately large proportion of conspiracy theorists, it’s probably the Jews.

This is, of course, utter nonsense, but the Jewish diaspora have been a convenient scapegoat for hundreds of years. Jewish communities have been marginalised and segregated, they have been exiled and persecuted, and now purported “truth-seekers” are wheeling out the same old tired stereotypes to justify their ill-founded theories. The stereotype that Jewish people are money-grabbing Shylocks is sadly still prevalent. There is a historical basis for the association between Jewish communities and finance: “Jews have long been well-represented in the fields of finance and business. This is commonly attributed to the fact that for centuries, Jews were excluded from professional guilds and denied the right to own land, forcing them to work as merchants and financiers. However some academics contend that the historical evidence does not support this thesis and that Jewish financial success is instead due to the community’s high literacy rates.” (My Jewish Learning) However, it is the idea of some modern corporate entity which we can handily label “The Jews” (capital letters intentional) controlling the planet’s economy that is so bigoted and unpleasant. The Jewish population is not manipulating your bank account, dumbo, and they aren’t conspiring to take over the world.

2. 9/11 wasn’t an inside job. I know, I know – it’s a cardinal sin not to parrot that timeless adage: “Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams!” But I’ve never felt the need to assert that the 2001 tragedy was a controlled demolition, a warmongering tactic by the American government or actually done by the Israelis (it was not). Is the US government corrupt and withholding information from the public? Yes in all likelihood, as are most other governments on the face of the planet, including my own. 9/11 is a terrifying piece of collective trauma as it is.

Dick Cheney definitely made money off the Iraq War, though. (NY Times, 2004)

3. The cryptozoology community on Tumblr isn’t an inherently negative thing. Yes, Tumblr is full of cringey, pretentious teenagers with made-up genders and bad haircuts, but I was one of those teenagers once upon a time. Believe it or not, if you wade through the shitposting, there are some wonderful young cryptozoologists active on there who I admire very much, like cryptid-wendigo and cryptozoologygirls. They work hard and they seem like lovely people.

And even the shitposting serves a purpose. I’m part of a whole new generation of people invested in the field of cryptozoology and fascinated by what could be out there. Isn’t that beautiful?

4. I’ll call out racism in this community till the day I die (see this article), but I don’t think the ancient astronaut/ancient alien theory is racist. I’ve seen a fair bit of criticism recently – although it’s been going on for years – arguing that ancient astronaut theorists are racist for positing that our ancestors might have made contact and received help from extra-terrestrials. Whether you wholeheartedly believe in the AA theory or think it’s a crock of shit, I think it’s ludicrous to imply it is inherently prejudiced. AA theorists don’t believe that extra-terrestrials might have built the Giza pyramid complex because Egyptians weren’t white, but because the pyramids were built nearly 5,000 years ago and yet they align with the stars perfectly. Another oft-cited example is the prehistoric structure of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. It is clearly a matter of age and technology, not race and technology.

Horror

  1. I don’t like torture porn or excessive gore in horror films. It’s why I never “got” the Saw franchise or The Human Centipede sequence. I know people bang on and on about how “crazy” and “revolutionary” they are, but films of that type are rarely saying anything intelligent, in my humble opinion. That’s not to say I’m opposed to violence in the horror genre; I just think it needs to serve a purpose.

It’s why I object less to Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) than I do to A Serbian Film (2010). Salò is transgressive and never loses sight of its message. It is a pessimistic reaction to the sexual revolution, depicted through its setting in fascist Italy: “[Pasolini] was especially contemptuous of the sexual liberation movement undertaken by late-60s international youth, viewing that aspiration as a bourgeois indulgence already compromised by capitalism…” (Sharrett, 2013) It is cruel and you should feel uncomfortable watching it, but it is a well-made, thoughtful piece of cinema. A Serbian Film is just nasty, with a bit of political commentary about post-Milošević Serbia tacked on the end for good measure.

I’d love to say nothing is off-limits in horror – I wish I was one of those people, but I simply am not. I have to draw a line.

2. The horror genre has a massive sexism problem. I’m going to get shit for saying this, because horror fans are some of the most zealous in the world and we can’t cope with criticism. Women’s bodies are still used like sexy props in horror films. We see women die in the most brutal of ways – as do men – but men’s deaths are rarely, if ever, sexualised to the same extent as women’s.

This is not to say female characters should never die on-screen. However, I would like to see some acknowledgement that women are murdered in their thousands in real life. Around 66,000 women are killed every year globally (Small Arms Survey on Femicide, 2017) and four women die every single day in the US, simply for being female. The lurid portrayal of femicide in horror films trivialises and fetishises this.

Truly great horror films have strong messages and speak to our deepest fears, and I think a talented horror filmmaker should be able to do this without commodifying women’s bodies. There have been some fantastic films over the course of the genre’s history which have utilised aspects of the female experience to create horror and have done so in a sensitive, smart way. We need more of that.

 

So there we go! I’m going to go and hide in the bunker until everything blows over. Feel free to boo and hiss in the comments.

 

How To Tell A Good Scary Story

Did you ever go to sleepovers as a child? Or did you ever go camping away from your parents? If so, then you’ll likely recall that, along with your pyjamas, your toothbrush and an extra pair of undies, the key thing you needed to bring with you was a stonkin’ good scary story. There was always one kid who was the best storyteller, the one who’d seen horror movies they were way too young to watch, the one who had the cousin’s girlfriend’s sister’s friend who was almost killed by a poltergeist. If you were a weird kid like me, that storyteller was probably you. I swear to you, I once nearly made a girl piss herself. That’s not an exaggeration.

The fun doesn’t have to end there. Get your friends over for a horror movie or organise a camping trip, relive those golden days and wow them with the best scary story they’ve ever heard, one which will chill them even now.

Here’s how to do it.

Firstly, the set-up.

The standard is lights off, torches on, which is obviously a classic combination. Holding the torch up under your chin to give yourself that Tales from the Crypt lewk is a must if you go for this option. However, a lot can be achieved by having all the lights off except for a lamp (or two). Throw something over the lamp – a thin t-shirt will do – to make it dimmer and, voila, you’ve got ambient mood lighting.

If you choose to tell your scary story on a camping trip, huddling together with torches around a roaring campfire (although health and safety comes first!) is the way to go.

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Next, the story.

One of the most important things that really sell a scary story is a believable background. You need to open your story well. It’s up to you whether you leave it enigmatic and open-ended – say, by starting your story with something along the lines of “I heard this a few years ago…”/”I read on the internet that…” and going from there, never quite disclosing your source. I’m quite fond of the “vague familial connection” trick (you might have noticed I used it in my introduction) in which the person who experienced the paranormal encounter or freaky incident is linked to you, the storyteller, by mutual friends or relatives: “Apparently, the freakiest thing happened to my older sister’s best friend’s cousin…”

Once you’ve laid out where your story originated, it’s time to find some inspiration. It may be that someone you know has had a scary experience, or you may have even had one yourself. If so, feel free to dress that up and present it. If you’re not lucky enough to have a plethora of personal paranormal adventures at your disposal, never fear! You could retell an urban legend but apply it to an abandoned house or creepy park near where you live, or you could even borrow a generic horror movie plot and use that. No-one will mind if you repurpose an existing legend like the babysitter and the man upstairs, Bloody Mary, the vanishing hitchhiker or Slender ManNobody needs to know as long as you can convincingly embellish it and make it your own.

The very first scary story I ever told was a fairly bog-standard ghost story. The basic plotline was that a girl was babysitting her neighbours’ children. She cooked their tea, watched television with them for an hour or two and then put them to bed. She went back downstairs to relax until the parents came home, but kept hearing noises like footsteps running up and down the stairs and across the upstairs landing. She checked, thinking the children had woken up and were misbehaving, but she found the children were sound asleep in their beds.

I can’t really remember how it ended – I think the gist of it was that the house had been an orphanage or some bullshit, which obviously would never fly as a plot twist in a real horror story – but the plotline rarely matters on occasions such as these. My story was not particularly complicated, but it didn’t need to be to unsettle the room full of prepubescent girls. Instead, it was my performance of it that was of greatest importance. We were sitting in the dark and I deliberately positioned myself next to the wooden coffee table and punctuated the footsteps part of the story by tapping quickly on the table. What can I say, even as a little girl I had a flair for the dramatic.

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Finally, go for the jugular.

If it fits into your story, leave your ending as ambiguous as possible. Leave your audience wondering what the monster really was or whether the protagonist got out alive.

Even better, a skilled storyteller will draw their audience into the story. Let them know that no-one is safe and they could be next. As I said, I can’t remember the ending of my ghost story, but I vividly recall the mother of the girl who was hosting the sleepover opening the living-room door to check on us, just as I mentioned that the orphans still haunted the house which used to be their home. That was just sheer good fortune, but it did the trick. Everyone was in bits.

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Drop your own ideas and your favourite experiences of telling or hearing scary stories in the comments section below! Thanks for reading.

What Is “Ravenous” (1999) Actually About?

Warning: spoilers for the film Ravenous. You don’t need to have seen Ravenous to read this review, but I’d recommend it and I think you should watch it anyway (I’m biased, but whatever).

I suppose you could consider this a spiritual successor to an article I wrote last year entitled “Why Viy (1967) Is Criminally Underrated”. Viy doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves, nor does Ravenous. This is just about the only quality they share, which is why this blog post is only tangentially related to that one. After all, one is the very first Soviet horror film ever made, based on Eastern Europe’s rich oral traditions and folklore; the other is about, well, cannibalism. Neither that article nor this one are, in actual fact, reviews. Instead, they’re both think-pieces of a kind. I just fancied having a chat about Ravenous.

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You might not expect interesting philosophical analysis from a late 90s horror film, but, with this particular film, that’s what you get. Call me deluded – I’m sniffing Jinkx Monsoon’s perfume, clearly – but I remain absolutely convinced that Ravenous is an incredibly clever film disguised as a stupid slasher flick.

On paper, it sounds ridiculous. During the Mexican-American War, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is shipped off to serve at an outpost in California called Fort Spencer and, whilst there, he meets a motley crew of characters. They encounter Mr Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) who tells them the strange tale of how his party became stranded in the Nevadas and resorted to cannibalism. It transpires that Colqhoun is the real danger, having killed and eaten his fellow travellers, and he does the same to most of the soldiers by luring them out to his former hunting ground. In the world of Ravenous, eating human flesh or drinking human blood causes you to become a Wendigo (a real creature from Algonquian myth, if you’re wondering) and imbues the cannibal with renewed strength. This sets the scene for the central moral dilemma of the film: is it alright to eat people if it saves you from dying? (Again, if you’re wondering, the answer is a resounding “NO”.)

Of course, this is only the “central moral dilemma”, to quote myself, on the surface. Cannibalism being wrong is a blindingly obvious moral to have at the centre of your film and I wouldn’t blame you if that was the main thing you took away from it, but, if one takes the time to pick away the bland Hollywood veneer, there’s a frankly astonishing amount going on. So let’s start with the cannibalism – what does it actually mean?

The way I see it, cannibalism in Ravenous is a vehicle, of sorts, for two main ideas. The first has to do with colonialism; to put it simply, both cannibalism and colonialism are about consumption. One is personal and one is political, but at their core they are both about stripping the resources out of another entity, be it a person or an entire population. In the latter third of the film, Colqhoun makes a little speech to Boyd in an attempt to persuade him to give in to his cannibalistic desires. It’s a fascinating monologue to dissect. He sees the westward journeys of “thousands of gold-hungry Americans” into California as a prime opportunity to satisfy his appetite. While discussing his not-so-secret cannibal plans, Colqhoun mentions “manifest destiny” – a philosophy, popular in the 19th century, which dictated that Americans had a duty to conquer and expand territory. The film’s events take place in 1847, a pivotal moment in American history: the following year would see the loss of Mexican territory and the absorption of Texas into the US. Although Colqhoun never sees his scheme realised, American expansion in the late 1840s was a significant concern for the nations of Latin America and especially for the people already living on American soil before the white settlers got there. If I wanted to be really blunt, the insatiable appetite which characterises the Wendigo – punishment for transgressing social norms – is the most visceral, exaggerated depiction possible of the white man’s greed.

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The second theme that the film’s cannibalism helps to convey is homosexuality, specifically repressed homosexuality. This repression is obviously period-typical (no gay pride in 1840s California, unfortunately) but it lends such an interesting dimension to the film. Nobody is ever described as homosexual and no overt homosexual acts occur, yet the unresolved sexual tension is simmering away throughout. During the “manifest destiny” monologue, Colqhoun attempts to persuade Boyd to “just give in”. There’s plenty of talk about “acquiescence” and, truth be told, it all comes off as rather seductive. If you look at this scene in context, there are quite plainly layers to it – at this point in the film, these two men have had multiple conversations about the “certain virility” which comes with the consumption of human flesh, and Colqhoun has licked Boyd’s blood off his fingers and had what I can only describe as a literal orgasm. Robert Carlyle has openly acknowledged the homoeroticism.* Floating round YouTube, there are some great bits of commentary from him and, at 9:52 in this video, he even says: “Go on, kiss him!” when Boyd is gazing down at Colqhoun in the final scene. He talked about it in more depth in this interview from 4:48 onwards and put it absolutely perfectly: “[Colqhoun] doesn’t just want to eat Guy Pearce, he’s going to have Guy Pearce at the same time.” Taboo as it may be, cannibalism is perhaps the most intimate act we can imagine, so it’s no surprise that a film with a single female character (incidentally the only main character to escape unscathed – you go, Martha!) and otherwise populated by men trying to eat each other is more than a little homoerotic.

This could probably be an article in and of itself, but isn’t it weird that all the greatest fiction involving cannibals is wildly homoerotic? Watch NBC’s Hannibal (2013 – 2015) for an obvious example or even Red Dragon (2002), which is still homoerotic AF. Regardless of what the straight boys say, Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham have got a lot going on in every single adaptation.

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But back to Ravenous. Spirituality and religion crop up enough in this film that the issue warrants mentioning. Although it isn’t explored to its fullest potential, there’s a scene early on in the film which delves into cultural relativity, especially where religion and mythology are concerned. The soldiers prepare to go and assist Colqhoun’s party, who are stranded in the mountains, but before they leave, George (Joseph Running Fox) shows Boyd and Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones) a painting of the Wendigo and describes the myth – how the Wendigo steals the strength of others by eating them. Hart remarks that “people don’t still do that”, to which George replies: “The white man eats the body of Christ every Sunday.” Not only is that a pretty chilling line, there’s something damning about it. It’s a brief but smart comment on our perceptions of primitivism and “savagery”; what we consider to be macabre is relative and subjective.

One of the soldiers, Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies), is described by commanding officer Colonel Hart as being Fort Spencer’s “personal emissary from the Lord”. Although God is invoked at various points throughout the movie and we see crucifixes up on the walls, Toffler is the only character who is explicitly shown to be religious. And, boy, is it hammered home how pious he is. The first thing we see Toffler do on screen is erect a large wooden cross on the roof of a building. Later, he is called upon to say grace at dinner and pray for Colqhoun’s recovery after the soldiers find him near-comatose in the snow. Toffler is really only a minor character, but he plays a crucial role in the portrayal of spirituality here. It wasn’t until I watched the film again that I realised quite how insidious and deceptive Colqhoun manages to be before the big reveal. During the montage of the soldiers making their way through the mountains to rescue Colqhoun’s party, there’s a short scene between Toffler and Colqhoun. Toffler is working on a hymn one night and is struggling to find a rhyme for “servant”. Colqhoun is shown to be listening and he supplies a word, “fervent”. It’s heartbreaking to watch the second time around, seeing how pleased Toffler is and knowing what happens to him. Within the first half of the film, Toffler is murdered (in fact, pretty efficiently eviscerated) by Colqhoun.

Religion’s tangible presence in the plot and in the visuals dies with Toffler, but morality is a near-constant topic of discussion. Colqhoun calls it “the last bastion of the coward” – it becomes clear very quickly that he sees Boyd’s resistance to cannibalism as a mark of inferiority. That’s an interesting little twist which isn’t particularly common. If I’m being honest, I can’t think of another cannibal-themed film in which the cannibal perceives those who don’t partake to be “less than” and is actively encouraging others to join in rather than hunting them down. We could take the Hannibal Lecter franchise, for example. Hannibal deceives people into consuming human flesh, but there’s never a sense in any of his incarnations that he’s trying to indoctrinate them; it just amuses him to trick people. It’s a rare thing that the horror in a cannibal film comes not from the cannibal attempting to kill and eat the protagonist, but from the cannibal attempting to make the protagonist a cannibal too. It’s a very specific kind of horror, a kind which deals with threats to moral integrity moreso than physical safety.

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The last thing I want to discuss is not the film’s plot or its message but its tone. There are some glaring discrepancies between the marketing and the finished product. The trailer seems like it was intended for a different film, conveying the film’s violence but not its wit and philosophy. What’s being sold is something in the style of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or maybe The Hills Have Eyes, when Ravenous is instead a far more intellectual piece. It reminds me a lot of The Grey (2012), another film woefully misrepresented by its marketing. What we were told to expect was an action-packed movie full of manly men doing manly things and Liam Neeson punching a wolf , yet The Grey is a quiet, thoughtful film about bereavement, masculinity and the natural order.

Ravenous was a bit of a car crash behind the scenes, from what I’ve read, changing directors mid-shoot** (twice, actually) and suffering due to some wacky budgeting and scheduling. Antonia Bird, the final director hired and ultimately the one who would see the project through to the end, stated that several elements were introduced to the film without her consent during post-production, such as the quotes which appear on screen at the start of the film. In a 1999 interview for The Independent, Bird said: “There’s this disease of thinking your audience is stupid – and they’re not.” I agree with her regarding the quotes; they cheapen the message as a whole and it’s probably the only part of the film I have any real problem with. Bird was interested in recutting the film and I think that was a good shout too. The film would have benefited from a re-edit, although I don’t think that should happen now. No-one should touch it except for Antonia Bird and she sadly passed away in 2013. She also made the comment that Americans didn’t “get” the film, struggling to parse its odd blend of horror and humour. I like that it veers back and forth between high camp, gallows humour and balls-to-the-wall gore. It does a bit of everything and I really enjoy that.

Thank you if you’ve stuck with me for the duration of this article. You can probably tell how passionate I am about this film from the fact that I’ve written over 2,000 words about it. I’ve been working on this since 28th January of this year, gradually editing it. In the interim, I’ve watched Ravenous multiple times and, after each viewing, I’ve come back to this article and added or changed something. That’s the magic of this film. I could watch it a thousand times and always feel that I was watching something innovative and, in my opinion, beautiful.

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*It brings me so much joy that Robert Carlyle is 100% on board the “Ravenous is homoerotica with cannibalism” train. He gets it.

**They were going to hire the guy who directed such masterpieces as Home Alone 3, Big Momma’s House and Scooby-Doo. No, really, they were. I’m not kidding. The actors went on strike and Robert Carlyle gave Antonia Bird a call, thank Goddess.

I have no doubt that I’ll write more about Ravenous in the future, because there’s so much to unpack. But this will do as a starting point.

 

World of Weird: “My Monster Boyfriend”

Lindsay Ellis – formerly known as Nostalgia Chick if you were into Channel Awesome a few years ago – has posted a new video essay on YouTube. I’m a big fan of her video essays, but this one was particularly interesting to me and also relevant to this blog so I thought I’d share it. My Monster Boyfriend delves into animal/monstrous bridegrooms, a feature of folklore around the world, and how they’ve been portrayed in fiction. She charts the development of this motif from 18th-century literary versions of Beauty and the Beast (and earlier variants of this story) all the way up to Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-nominated The Shape of Water.

The Curse: Womanhood and Horror

Spoiler warning: this article contains spoilers for the films Carrie (1976), Ginger Snaps (2000), The Company of Wolves (1984) and briefly for Teeth (2007).

In many horror films, there are underlying themes of the exoticisation (and often, demonisation) of puberty, sex and womanhood. Slasher films are particularly guilty of this. Especially in early examples of slasher films, the “final girl” survives to the end of the movie and defeats the killer. Usually, she survives because she is a virgin and the other female characters – normally sexually active women – are punished by the narrative for their promiscuity.

It’s true that women are often the victims in horror films that treat puberty as a cause for alarm, as a step into a world of violence and fear. However, there’s certainly no shortage of women who commit violence within the genre and, equally often, such violence is presented as a coming-of-age ritual for the female protagonist. Either as a victim or as a perpetrator, her experiences with fear and with conflict are integral to her “growing up.”

Bearing all these questionable implications and complex history in mind, it’s a small miracle that any “feminist” horror films exist at all.

Motifs which crop up a lot are menarche and menstruation. The most recognisable example is in Carrie (1976), as the film opens with the protagonist Carrie White experiencing her first period in the school gym showers.  Her fanatically religious mother had never taught her about menstruation, so she initially believes she is bleeding to death and has to be consoled by her teacher. This is a pivotal moment for shy 16-year-old Carrie, who is already bullied by her classmates, and from then on, she begins to wield incredible telekinetic powers. Although the origin of Carrie’s power is never directly explained in the film, her emotions appear to be what drives her telekinesis, becoming a strength rather than a weakness. As with Carrie, it’s easy to see why menstruation makes its way into so many female-centric horror films. Menstruation is cyclical, linking it to curses and prophecies within horror – you know the one, “Every 20 years, the great god Cthulhu demands a virgin sacrifice.” Furthermore, menstruation is the only entirely natural process by which blood is excreted from the body. Despite being an absolutely normal and non-threatening experience, it lends itself to narratives that treat menstrual bleeding as equivalent to violent injury like stabbing or mutilation. The point of the horror genre is to unsettle and unnerve us. Body horror is fairly common in female-centred horror films, with notable examples including the black comedy horror Teeth (2007) which deals with the myth of vagina dentata (toothed vagina). What better way to scare us than to convince us (at least for roughly 90 minutes) that our own bodies might turn against us?

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Carrie (1976, dir. Brian De Palma)

It is for this reason that menstruation makes a frequent appearance in films that explore lycanthropy (werewolfism!), which in most myths is dependent on the lunar cycle. A good example is the film Ginger Snaps (2000). In the film, Ginger Fitzgerald, a 16-year-old girl, starts her period. On the same day that she receives “the curse”, as she refers to it, she is attacked and bitten by a werewolf. Her younger sister Brigitte must find a way to cure her before Ginger is completely transformed into a monstrous creature. There’s very much a conflict between the girls’ mother’s romanticised idea of menarche, the school nurse’s calm explanations and Ginger’s own experiences. Her transformation is marked by exaggerated indications of puberty – we see her struggling to shave off thick hair, her period seems to go on for weeks and her sexual awakening results in a near-death experience for her boyfriend, who contracts lycanthropy like an STD and has a period of his own. Of course, the film is hyperbolic, but when you go through menarche as a teenager, these new and often painful experiences can feel very much like a nightmare.

At its heart, Ginger Snaps is a film about sisterhood. It explores the complex bonds between young women, related by blood or not, by candidly depicting internalised misogyny. The Fitzgerald sisters frequently denounce their arch-enemy Trina Sinclair as a “slut” and she responds in kind, but all the teenage girls in the film are a united front when it comes to boys and their tenuous, uncertain interactions with them. In fact, Trina’s death scene and her conversation with Brigitte prior to her death is particularly fascinating. In reference to seeing Brigitte hanging out with Trina’s ex-boyfriend, Sam (who helps Brigitte find the cure), Trina says to her: “If you’re so f*cking smart, you won’t give him the satisfaction. Somebody, just once, shouldn’t give that f*cker the satisfaction!” That doesn’t strike me as something a nemesis would say. To me, that sounds like Trina trying – if haphazardly – to protect Brigitte from Sam and from earning a reputation like hers. The girls show awareness of the sexual double standard earlier in the film. Lamenting her bad experience with her boyfriend, Ginger remarks to Brigitte: “A girl can only be a slut, a bitch, a tease or the virgin next door.”

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Ginger Snaps (2000, dir. John Fawcett)

Along those same lines, menarche is undoubtedly linked with the onset of fertility and sex. It’s fairly archaic symbolism and bears less relevance in the modern era, as obviously not all women want to or are able to have children. However, I still find it interesting. Take the film  The Company of Wolves (1984), for example, based on the short story of the same name from the 1979 anthology The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. All the stories in the anthology deal with womanhood in some way – whether it’s through menarche, marriage or sex. The film is no different. While it is admittedly not an easy film to understand, due to heavy use of surrealism, ambiguous symbolism and a blurred boundary between the real world and the “dream” world, it is essentially a coming-of-age story. It’s a beautiful film, but it does take a few repeat viewings to take in everything. There’s so much symbolism in every frame and it can be a bit perplexing initially.

The Company of Wolves also features werewolves, although they are portrayed differently to the lycanthropes of Ginger Snaps. Here, although the film makes it clear that anyone can become a wolf, the werewolves serve primarily as stand-ins for men. This stems from the morals of early fairy tales, which Carter extrapolates in The Bloody Chamber. The original tale Red Riding Hood, which inspired several stories in the anthology and also the film, can be interpreted as a treatise on virginity. The wolf is a predator, out to steal away Red Riding Hood’s innocence and “devour” her, but she must be vigilant and stick to the path. The Red Riding Hood character – named Rosaleen in the film – is caught between two perspectives: that of her grandmother, who tells her stories of the wickedness of men, and that of her mother. Rosaleen’s mother responds to the grandmother’s influence on Rosaleen with this: “If there’s a beast in men, it meets its match in women.” At the end of the short story and the film, Rosaleen chooses to stay with the wolf who has tricked her and eaten her grandmother, who represents the old traditions as well as Rosaleen’s childhood. Leaving behind her parents, the village and the expectations that they had for her life, she transforms into a wolf herself and they flee into the forest together. The Company of Wolves is a much less cynical film than Ginger Snaps; it’s whimsical in many ways. When Rosaleen escapes the stifling morality of her village, there’s a note of hope, in contrast to the bloody culmination of Ginger’s struggle.

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The Company of Wolves
(1984, dir. Neil Jordan)

Perhaps the choice that Rosaleen makes at the end of The Company of Wolves – the choices that all the women in these films make – holds the secret to making a horror film that treats women’s experiences sensitively while still being, well, horrifying. Strip the protagonist of her autonomy, prevent her from being the focus of her own narrative, and you’re guaranteed to make a film with sexist subtext, if not an overt misogynist message. This is the case in many of those slasher movies I mentioned (it’s no secret that it’s a genre for which I don’t particularly care). Giving agency and a voice to women in horror doesn’t reduce the terror, but it does stop the film from contributing to real life attitudes and stigma.

Author’s note: I’m aware that this article doesn’t cover the full extent of how women are portrayed in horror, but I’d need to write something the length of a PhD thesis in order to analyse it properly! I’ve chosen to keep it (relatively) concise by focusing mostly on the representation in horror films of women’s physicality and of women’s social experiences during puberty.  This particular post is already almost 1500 words and I’m wary of letting it meander.

Review: “What We Do In The Shadows” (2014)

Alright, so technically this is a retrospective review and I’m years late to the party, but I watched What We Do In The Shadows for the first time recently and it’s fantastic. I haven’t had so much fun watching a film in ages.

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Everything about it is hopelessly endearing: the characters are well-developed and likeable, the plot is fresh without losing a nostalgic touch and it’s just so funny. I generally prefer a straight-up horror film – at best, the horror-comedies I’ve seen have made me smile or prompted a chuckle or two, but What We Do In The Shadows made me laugh out loud. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic (although I swear I’m not exaggerating), I laughed so hard that it actually hurt. That’s partly due to the dialogue being razor-sharp and subtly witty; however, the things that made me laugh most were all the references. Normally, references to other films just irk me and remind me of classics that I’d much rather be watching, but the jokes were so tightly crafted and beautifully woven into the plot (there’s a particularly good Lost Boys reference which had me wheezing). It dares to imagine what modern-day vampires might get up to and how they would interact with the modern world. What would they think of films like The Lost Boys or Blade? How might they feel about vampire literary tropes? It explores these questions – along with deeper introspections on mortality and being human – without ever becoming cheesy in the way other films have.

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It’s also one of the finest mockumentaries I’ve had the pleasure of watching. It sounds ridiculous, but there were times when I forgot that it wasn’t a real documentary; the tone and style are absolutely flawless. I found myself believing that there could be vampires hiding away and flat-sharing in Wellington. It’s easy to be drawn in by it because it’s so incredibly detailed and the protagonists all have such interesting backstories.

What We Do In The Shadows balanced being a genuinely solid horror flick, a brilliant comedy and a silly, sweet film. I don’t mean “silly” or “sweet” in an insulting way (it’s such a clever film), but it goes all in while fully acknowledging how daft the premise is. That’s why this works and why something like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter doesn’t.

So here’s to What We Do In The Shadows, the best new (at least, new to me) film I’ve watched this year.

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Why “Viy” (1967) Is Criminally Underrated

I initially planned to write a straight-up review of Viy, in the same way I wrote my review of the recent It remake, but I thought about it more deeply and realised that I had more opinions about it than I could pack into a review. A lot of my thoughts on it are not strictly related to the quality of the filmmaking or the narrative techniques – they have much more to do with the atmosphere and the film’s cultural value. Thus, instead of a review, this is more of an opinion piece: an analysis of why I found this film (occasionally) scary but mostly rather endearing.

Spoilers are in yellow parentheses [like this]. The font colour has been changed, but you can highlight it with your cursor if you would like to read the spoiler.

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Natalya Varley and Leonid Kuravlyov in Viy (1967)

Viy (transliterated from the original Russian Вий) was produced by Mosfilm, a film studio still thriving today which produced more than 3,000 films over the course of the Soviet Union’s existence. Adapted from a short story by Nikolai Gogol, it was officially the first horror film to be released in the former USSR. Despite its cultural significance, hardly anyone in the West – besides hardcore horror fans and academics of Soviet culture & history – seem to have heard of it, let alone seen it. It’s such a shame, because Viy rarely receives recognition for managing to be funny, surreal, philosophical and even genuinely unsettling. The barriers that prevent Viy from claiming its title as a classic are myriad: English-speaking viewers don’t seem to be fans, by and large, of having to read subtitles, the surrealism can be baffling if you’re not willing to suspend your disbelief for 80 minutes, the special effects sometimes look dated (although not often) and there’s quite a lot to get your head around culturally. I don’t think you need to be an expert on Russian/Ukrainian folklore or the Eastern Orthodox Church (I’m not) for it to make sense, but you definitely need to pay attention.

So what’s the story? The protagonist is Khoma Brutus, a student at a seminary – a school specifically for theologians and future clergymen – who gets into an altercation with an old witch during his school holidays. Upon fleeing back to school, he discovers he has been summoned to a small Cossack village to preside over the funeral rites of their princess (or princess-equivalent), who asked for him by name on her deathbed. The rites require Khoma to spend three nights alone in the church with her body, reading Scripture to help her pass on to Heaven. As it turns out, she doesn’t plan to go quietly [spoiler alert: the witch he got into a scrap with has taken the form of the pretty young princess and she rises from her coffin each night attempting to violently curse him]. Khoma is forced to use his wits and his faith to protect himself from the demonic forces that begin to encroach upon the church.

Visually, the film is stunning. The special effects are mostly very simple, with lots of practical effects and costumes, which lends the film a timeless quality. I’ve mentioned before that I am exhausted by the saturation of CGI in modern cinema, so Viy is a bit of a treat for a grumpy CGI naysayer like me. The sets, especially the church (I’m obsessed with the church), are beautiful too. In one of the earlier scenes, Khoma and his two friends are looking for somewhere to stay and are wandering over the gloomy fields. There’s a thick mist hovering over the land, reminiscent of the older adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles. That’s the closest equivalent in my own mind – it has that “dark night on the moors” vibe.

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Leonid Kuravlyov as Khoma in Viy (1967)

“But is this Soviet film from 50 years ago actually scary?”, I hear you ask. And my answer is: kind of?

It builds up tension very well, but then it often drags and doesn’t seem to know what to do with the suspense it’s built. I can forgive the people who found it “boring” or gave up on it after about 20 minutes. Furthermore, most of the horror is concentrated in the latter half of the film; Khoma doesn’t actually end up in the church alone with the corpse until almost 40 minutes have passed. There are also some unintentionally hilarious scenes – I don’t think the scene in which Khoma is ambushed by the old hag is supposed to be as funny as it is [although the tone abruptly changes when he starts beating her to death]. I found the humour in the film charming, even if it’s sometimes difficult to work out whether the comedy is intentional or not. I still haven’t decided whether the audience are meant to laugh at Khoma belting a few notes in response to the owls hooting in the distance (but, damn, has the boy got pipes!).

However, there are a couple of scenes which are legitimately chilling. When Khoma’s first night keeping watch over the body begins, there’s no music – all we hear are his own footsteps. It’s eerily quiet and claustrophobic. Khoma is locked in and in the immediate vicinity of a cadaver, so you very much feel that you’re locked in there with him. There are some good jumpscares too; I’m normally anti-jumpscares, but at the time, they were an innovation. [Black cats burst out of nowhere and run across the church floorboards, birds descend from the rafters, a gust of wind blows out the candles he has just lit, and it all adds to the atmosphere.] The resurrected princess is creepy as well. With her long black hair, wide eyes and deathly-pale skin, she’d fit right in with Samara from The Ring and Kayako from The Grudge. There’s a really interesting contrast in that she’s crowned with flowers and is outwardly very pretty, but she’s also screaming curses [and eventually summons a powerful demon to enact her revenge].

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The princess rises from her coffin, Viy (1967)

I think I used the word “endearing” to describe the film earlier and I’m sticking with that description. I found myself feeling quite affectionate towards it by the end. I really like Khoma and Leonid Kuravlyov’s portrayal of him is one of the most charming parts of this film – he’s initially cowardly and quite pathetic, begging not to be forced to conduct the rites, but he pulls himself together. He makes a fine tragic hero. There’s something childish about him and it’s engaging to watch him mature. Most importantly: he’s just an ordinary man. He spends as much time drinking with the local Cossacks as he does fighting demons. He complains about not being able to smoke his pipe in church (he resolves to just use snuff instead). He doesn’t have any supernatural powers and he isn’t on a mission from God; he’s simply a man doing the best he can with the resources he has.

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Khoma sees the body, Viy (1967)

I’m fond of Viy, despite all its flaws – its odd acting choices, its occasional musical outbursts (why does Khoma have to keep singing???), even its glaring tonal shifts. It deserves more hype than it gets. On an academic level, it’s a fascinating peek both into Slavic folklore and into the style of popular films in the USSR in the 1960s. On a personal level, it’s a well-crafted horror film with thoughtful subtext and plenty of philosophy.

Oh, Viy. You’re wonderful, and you deserve better.

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The princess cries blood, Viy (1967)