Monday 30 December 2019

On a Thousand Walls, interlude: We Are Haunting Ourselves

One of the theses that I have about the cultural scene right now is that it reflects wider society. I mean, OK, that should be a no-brainer, except that it isn't, because if it really was, people would have noticed. But put it this way. I wrote a wildly successful (in niche nonfiction terms) book about folk horror. It is not successful because it is good. It might be good, and I like to think it's quite good, but that's not why it succeeded. It succeeded because it had an audience.

Friday 27 December 2019

Cult Cinema #19: The Atrocity Tour, Part 3

Red State (2011)

Unique among the big Cult Atrocity Stories is the story of what happened at Waco in 1993, in that although the cult in question was belligerent and awful, the atrocity was done to them, rather than by them. The Branch Davidians were in fact a fringe group of Seventh Day Adventists, who were as horrible as you would imagine the sort of right wing group that holes itself up in a barbed wire surrounded compound would be. In 1993, a splinter group of them – remember that cults split like crazy – led by Vernon Howell, who called himself David Koresh, wound up besieged by agents of the ATF, who had become concerned about their stockpiling of automatic weapons, along with the Texas Rangers and the FBI. It's a long and miserable story, but the upshot is that it got out of hand, the agents wound up storming the place, and accidentally setting it on fire, killing most of them, including David Koresh.

The Waco siege became one of the cause célèbres of the Far Right in the USA, along with the so-called Ruby Ridge siege, and revenge for it was eventually one of the rationales for the Oklahoma City bombing. Right Wing wingnuts in the US are terrified that it will happen again. And they're frankly not a hundred percent unjustified. American agencies do like to shoot first, after all. It's pretty much their defining feature.

The extremist end of the Christian Right of course has other examples, and of course the Branch Davidians, who are still around, aren't by any means the only bunch of ultra right Christian extremists.

The poster children for evangelical bigotry are the Westboro Baptist Church, the congregation of the late Pastor Fred Phelps, who died in 2014. Westboro Baptist Church, almost entirely composed of the hate-spitting patriarch's descendants and relatives, is of course infamous for its preoccupation with sodomy as the primary sin besetting the USA. They are known for courting outrage with extravagant public statements, and staging protests, often at the most offensive and extreme places they can, especially at funerals. Their most infamous slogan, “God hates fags”, is the first thing you think of when you think of them. They live in a weird in between place, halfway between respectable functioning members of society with jobs and cult loons. They are probably the most single famous protestant church congregation in America.

When Kevin Smith wrote and directed Red State, then, he made the wise move of realising that if he was going to make a movie with Not-Waco, then rather than having an obscure and specific subsect of a subsect of a sect (where you'd have to at least take a stab at some of the politics and offbeat theologies), he'd go for the recognisable. So the elevator pitch for Red State is very much: what if the Waco siege, only with the Westboro Church rather than the Branch Davidians?

Thursday 26 December 2019

On a Thousand Walls, Christmas Special: Pottersville (2017)

Today we will be talking about the surpassingly, bizarre Christmas movie Pottersville. We will spoil plot elements of the movie. But we will not spoil Christmas.

Obviously we've already dealt with our favourite Wyrd Christmas Movie. That's Gremlins, because of course it is. Why would it not be? Obvious festive horror fare isn't thin on the ground, but let's face it, the bar for Christmas movies is never high. I'm not really interested in a scary Christmas anyway. But Christmas is weird, it is, and yet, Christmas movies try so hard not to be. My kids have been raiding Netflix and Prime for low bar family Christmas films, and there seem to be three basic themes in modern Christmas movies: the kids defeating bad guys and winning over negligent parents at Christmas, good people finding another chance at love at Christmas, and good people saving something important at Christmas. The fourth traditional theme, the inhumane curmudgeon taught human feeling at Christmas, has sort of fallen out of fashion, but then, in our cultural climate, that's really not a surprise, is it?

Several films exist in the lower reaches of the streaming services that cleave hard to at least one and often more of those formulae, and sometimes Names will appear: Sonequa Martin-Green wasted inexplicably and horribly as the second fiddle love interest for a guy who once voiced a cat opposite Paula Abdul in a movie about Finding Christmas Love and an independent radio station Saved For Christmas (Holiday Rush (2019)); Danny Glover, easing into his role as the Cool Person's Morgan Freeman ever since he played the President in 2012 (2009), appears to have done a Christmas movie every year for ages, but Christmas Break In (2018) has a smart, resourceful little girl abandoned in her school at Christmas and defeating a couple of Comedy Hoods with the help of Wise Janitor Ray (Glover) and on the way teaching her parents a lesson in responsibility, which is a film you've seen before, even if you haven't seen this one.

Few films cleave so hard to the formula, however, and yet are so very, very strange as Pottersville. Saved for Christmas. Love Found. Also, the Sasquatch. And furries.

Tuesday 24 December 2019

On a Thousand Walls #24: Orrore Popolare, Part 3

Dylan Dog (Tiziano Sclavi et al, 1986-present)
All the Colours of the Dark (Tutti i colori del buio) (1972)
What Have You Done to Solange? (Cosa avete fatto a Solange?) (1972)

It's straight to business with the usual provisos: these are mystery films I'm writing about (and also a comic, but we'll get to that) and there are spoilers. These matter more than most spoilers, because mysteries. Also, one of the films I'm writing about is What Have You Done to Solange? And listen, if you are deeply bothered by violence against women, sexual violence, mutilation of women, abuse of minors and well, pretty much every horrible thing you can imagine being done to women and girls, best to skip that bit. There are other things that can ruin your day. An essay about a horror film shouldn't be one of them.

I am not sure if London is really the weirdest city in the world. Certainly, of the places I've visited, I could make a case for New Delhi, Los Angeles and Lisbon being equally weird in their own ways. But London thinks it's the weirdest, even if it won't consciously admit that, and horror cinema, and to a lesser extent horror fiction, is full of stories that evidently want you to think London is the weirdest, or act as if they do, which I suppose amounts to the same thing. London's fractured geography gets a chapter of its own in On a Thousand Walls, but the weirdest take on London has to be the funhouse take of the outsider, particularly the outsider who hasn't been there.

Monday 23 December 2019

On a Thousand Walls #23: Orrore Popolare, Part 2

Deep Red (Profondo rosso) (1975)
The House with Laughing Windows
(La casa dalle finestre che ridono) (1976)

It's rare, I suppose, that I do writing with consultation, but these giallo pieces I'm doing probably wouldn't be possible without the help of Warwick University academic and expert on Italian pop culture Dr. Fabio Camiletti, and Autunnonero Festival founder Andrea Scibilia, both of whom are chaps who know their merde, so to speak. Fabio and Andrea have been very kindly talking through the movies I've been watching, and giving me welcome pointers on what to see next. This is a shout out and a heartfelt vote of thanks to both.

Again, these films are in some sense murder mysteries and as such they are in the vanishingly small category of films (possibly, in my opinion, the only one, to be honest) where spoiler warnings do actually count for something. One of the main delights of these movies is hermeneutic, in working out what is going on as you go, and if that matters to you, the following will completely ruin these films for you.

With that in mind, let's take a stab (or multiple! repeated! bloody! stabs) at two of the very best examples of the giallo genre.

Thursday 19 December 2019

The Question in Bodies, Appendix 2: Fembot Pop

Charli XCX, “Femmebot” (2017)
Robyn, “Fembot” (2010)
Janelle Monae, “Electric Lady” (2015)
Grimes, “4ÆM” (2019), “We Appreciate Power” (2018)
Poppy, “Time is Up” (2018), “Hard Feelings” (2018)

There's a sense in which – as a person whose gender identity, although in a state of flux for as long as I can remember, is for the sake of safety usually expressed as male – I don't really get to make instructive statements on feminist issues. I can't. Empathy can only go so far: I've been told I'm empathic, but I don't think I am, particularly. What I am is observant, vigilant if you like. So all I can do here is observe, and report. I hope that's OK.

This post  comes with its own Spotify playlist, so if you're lucky enough to have Spotify, feel free to listen along.

Wednesday 18 December 2019

On the abuses of the sincere

I was talking to a close friend last night about people she's seen doing literal simony, because that's the sort of thing we talk about, and it moved on to how sincerity is not a barrier to abuse.

So, the famous psychic I'm writing about who got caught cheating his phenomena (and kept getting caught cheating) is particularly interesting, for example, because he made a point of never earning a penny for his work (he made his actual living from owning a grocer's shop, what my American friends would call a general store), and the more interesting question becomes why? Why would you do that? Somehow it moves to a place where fraud comes from motivations we don't expect or assume.

Tuesday 10 December 2019

On a Thousand Walls #22: Orrore Popolare, Part 1

Don't Torture a Duckling (Non si sevizia un paperino) (1972);
The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (La Dama Rossa uccide sette volte) (1972)

The biggest hole in my viewing over the last couple years has been in the cinema of mainland Europe, I think, and in the last year I've got to know a whole bunch of people from the continent, and it's been important to me to rectify the gaps. One area I really felt I should take on is giallo. I've mentioned the word in connection with a couple of films in the last few years, but I've never really written about a film that everyone unanimously agrees is part of the genre.

Let's define that. It's a genre that's Italian; largely from the long 1970s; sometimes has a lot of folk horror-adjacent material; and is, primarily, stabby. Sometimes strangly, and more often slashy, but mainly stabby. Serial murder and urban paranoia abounds. And frankly, this is a shoo-in for my project, isn't it? Weird folklore, popular hysteria. And daggers.

Academic Fabio Camilletti has proposed that rather than talk about giallo as such, we should be talking about Orrore Popolare, which I suppose you could just about translate as "folk horror" and which admits some of the meanings of the term, but which is, as I understand it, skewed towards the "horror of folk" meaning of folk horror, rather than pagans and witches and standing stones and countrysides, necessarily.

The thrills these films offer are their own, and no nation has ever been quite so great at putting a uniquely regional spin on the great cinematic genres as Italy. Orrore Popolare is as much a living, screaming genre as Australian Outback Horror, American Backwoods Horror and British Folk Horror.

I am normally quite dismissive about spoiler warnings, but these movies are basically murder mysteries, and in order to talk about them I really am going to share details that may in fact completely ruin them. Go carefully.

Monday 9 December 2019

The Question in Bodies #28: S for Species

Species (1995); Species II (1998)

So I'll be talking about the Species franchise today. There are spoilers, but more importantly, because HR Giger is involved, there is an example of his art, which exists in a strange place where it shouldn't be NSFW for what it is, but which is nonetheless very NSFW. You have been warned. 

Monday 2 December 2019

On a Thousand Walls #21: Rasganço (2001)

I found very little written in English about Rasganço (French title Dechirure, English title variously Rending and The Rip). I mean, in Portugal it's an important movie, but I don't think we realise how insular we monoglot Anglophones are, and how little of the rest of the world we see, and how distorted the parts we do see are. I came across Rasganço at MotelX this year, where it was billed as one of the only Portuguese slasher movies.

In the interests of full disclosure, I also met its director, fellow jury member Raquel Freire, at MotelX. I didn’t get to see Rasganço on screen, but Raquel gave me an online screener, and one of the many lovely folks I met in Lisbon found me a DVD copy (because getting an import was about six times the cost of buying one in Portugal and getting it posted over, and you can't buy online in Portugal unless you're actually in Portugal), so I got to see it, and I’m glad I did.

There are spoilers in this post, as ever. This film includes several uncompromising and unromantic scenes of sexual violence against women, and so if watching that or reading about it would really ruin your week, do take caution.