Thursday, 2 October 2014

FEATURE: Shocktober - American Mary

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list hereMinor spoilers ahead in this one (but nothing that didn't get revealed in mainstream reviews).

We live in a time where the question of bodily autonomy is still a major issue, particularly if you happen to be a woman or wish to identify yourself as a different gender. The fight continues over abortion rights, contraception, rape, sexual harassment, sexuality-based bullying - the list goes ever on. A woman controlling what happens to her own body is a complicated issue; the media have their opinion as do the politicians, some women have an opinion over the debates and voice it loudly, other women just carry on. Regardless of your particular stance on the topic, complete female bodily autonomy has not yet been achieved.

Bodily autonomy, particularly of the female variety, is central to American Mary, a sordid take on an American Dream style narrative of an individual battling their society and yearning to achieve their own personal ambition. For Mary Mason (Katherine Isabelle), that is becoming a successful surgeon. Unfortunately for Mary, her education debts are spiralling, her bills are piling up and in her desperation, she turns to a local strip club for a job. However, news whispered in Billy (Antonio Cupo), the club owner's ear during her cringeworthy audition finds him putting her surgeon skills to use in mending a torture victim. From there, Mary finds herself unwillingly drawn into the world of body modification.

Mary opens the film trying desperately to cling on to the little control she currently has as her debts begin to climb; she's prepared to do awful things for money and finds them, sickening herself in the process. She's doing this for her own advancement, a way to secure a place in the surgical profession by sticking with the education that will get her there. But then everything changes dramatically as a person in a position of trust within that education system takes away that control, drugging her and then filming himself raping her.

I always bristle when I hear a film described as a rape-revenge film because it's a topic too often insensitively handled (see the recent overtly sexualised marketing for the I Spit on Your Grave 2 for example). Reading that American Mary had been described as a rape-revenge tale had me extremely cautious going into the film despite several people raving at how good it was. Thankfully, I'm with them on this because this is less about the revenge for the rape itself and more about Mary seizing complete control of herself and her work afterwards. Of course, revenge comes into it, but is little more than a plot development along the way to her career in underground body modification.

The rape itself is impressively filmed, refusing to sexualise Mary at all in the process, but focusing on her trauma during the experience as she slowly realises, in her drugged state, what is happening to her. The close-up on her face forces you to suffer that trauma with her; there's no titillation here. It's simple brutality. It's followed by a sequence in which the film completely desensitises the world in line with Mary's point of view; everything is now in cold, blue hues as opposed to the warmer reds and yellows it had been and there's no sound until she slowly comes back to herself. But after that, the rape becomes almost incidental to the rest of the unfolding plot, a catalyst for who Mary becomes but impressively not her defining characteristic. She refuses to play the victim.

For me, this is the point where the film gets really interesting, because it becomes all about Mary fighting to reassert that control over herself by not only controlling her own body, but by controlling other people's. The first and most obvious is what she does to her rapist in order to 'practice' for the body modification surgery she then undertakes. She becomes a roaring success, a twisted example on the rags-to-riches via hard work success story. That control too filters into the characters wanting the body modifications in the first place; they are willingly transforming their bodies for their own personal benefit rather than conforming to the usual social strictures that we count as 'the norm'.

It ties back into that idea about bodily autonomy and who should be in control of it. Regardless of your opinion on body modifications and the results it produces, it's a way of asserting yourself and your identity upon your physical form. The film doesn't judge these decisions but simply presents them as another expression of identity. This is sharply paralleled with Mary's own transformation; unlike her previous surgeries which were simply performed in either what she was wearing or what was available, she gives herself a uniform. Much is made of her applying her make-up before her first consultation and the black apron she wears for her operations. She becomes the 'Bloody Mary' surgeon that everyone in the community is talking about, but it's clearly delineated from her other, more public self.

The treatment of the various bodies on display is also expertly done. The use of nudity here is largely clinical during her surgeries or functional within a certain context. Any major objectification of a female body that occurs is usually in a male fantasy sequence and is appropriately differentiated from the reality of the situation. It's this clinical approach across the board with the material that makes the film so effective. The horror arises out of the intense focus on the surgery that's taking place as well as a general air of menace. The surgical scenes are extremely well-constructed; it's an effective and importantly sparing use of gore that relies on sound more than visuals to leave you unsettled. This is always more terrifying for me because my imagination needs little to no prompting to run wild on such matters.

Katherine Isabelle's performance is so outstanding throughout that she leaves her admittedly weaker co-stars in the shade, except perhaps for Tristan Risk's Beatrice who embodies a confident yet ultimately vulnerable character key to Mary's progression. Antonio Cupo's Billy is also a fascinating addition, opening the film asserting his power over those around him only to slowly lose it as the film goes on. It's a shame that the film suffers for the general woodenness of the rest of the cast. It sucks the tension out of what should be some of the more tightly-wound scenes of the film.

However, for a horror film featuring a female lead, American Mary is a wonderfully refreshing take on the genre, willing to infuse its narrative with some big ideas, a black sense of irony and a neat twist on victimisation. 

- Becky

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Wednesday, 1 October 2014

FEATURE: Shocktober - Creature from the Black Lagoon

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. All reviews will be spoiler free if without the appropriate level of spoiler warning. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.

Creature from the Black Lagoon was released in 1954 (in 3D no less, in its first wave of popularity) and has quickly become a favourite instalment in the Universal monster movie canon, inspiring countless imitators since. Dr Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) is a geologist who discovers fossilised evidence of a humanoid amphibian and recruits his former student, Dr David Reed (Richard Carlson), Dr Mark Williams (Richard Denning) and their colleague and Reed's girlfriend, Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) for an expedition to the site to recover the rest of the skeleton. However, once they get there, something or someone has attacked the camp and killed the poor expendable locals. After deciding to follow the tributary down to the black lagoon at its end in the hope of discovering what it was, things go awry. Naturally.

There's something oddly comforting about watching an old Universal monster movie because you know it's going to be well-made and look fantastic. I had no prior reservations going into this film, no doubt that I would come away having not enjoyed it. It's endearingly clunky in places, particularly with the exposition needed to explain the various ongoing scientific shenanigans. There are a few of the now familiar story beats here like the conflict between wanting to study the creature in its own environment, remove it or kill it. It leads to some nice tension, but much of the suspense in the film is actually mined from the environment in both the dialogue and the design.

The preceding scenes to the expedition's arrival into the titular black lagoon are full of foreshadowing; there's crocodiles in the water, animal howls and shrieking in the distance and as the ship's captain helpfully says; 'everything here is designed to kill you'. There's also lots of talk around evolutionary development and the way in which certain creatures have never had to adapt throughout history, perfectly adapted already to survive in their respective conditions. It puts an immediate 'nature red in tooth and claw' side to the proceedings, pitting the humans against a creature that has survived in its form for millions of years. When we finally meet said creature, he's a grim and monstrous reflection to the human species.

The Gill-Man's design in particular, solely credited to Bud Westmore for many years until Disney animator Millicent Patrick was revealed to have had the key role, is rightly iconic. The film understands the power in using the creature sparingly though; there's a glimpse of a hand here, the face there, but the full Gill-Man isn't revealed until half an hour into the film in an elegant swimming sequence with Adams. There are some beautiful underwater sequences, aided by the film being in black and white, like a scene in which a doping drug is dropped into the water to try and subdue the Gill-Man, the white power spiralling down through the darkened depths.

The scenes filmed under the water tap into some very real and deep-seated fears too. I'm particularly nervous if I can't see where I'm going, or more importantly where my feet are. Swimming in something where you can't see beyond the surface of the water is pretty frightening and the moment where the Gill-Man goes to grab Kay's ankles? Stuff of nightmares right there. It helps too that the score is suitably bombastic and dynamic; it shifts from a nice gentle sense of wonderment to 'oh dear God, we're going to die!' at the drop of a hat, collaborating well with the tonal shifts on screen. 

It's these more psychological scares that I have always found more effective, channelling everyday anxieties into something more extreme by throwing a monster into the mix. The Creature from the Black Lagoon may not sustain the atmosphere at the highest level throughout, but it's very entertaining and an excellent way to kick the month off.

- Becky

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Tuesday, 30 September 2014

FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Consequences

Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Giles' replacement from the Watcher's Council, Wesley Wyndham-Price, has arrived in town and immediately rubbed everyone up the wrong way. During an alleyway confrontation, Faith accidentally kills the Deputy Mayor, Alan Finch, dumping the body and telling Buffy she doesn't care about what happened.

The sombre mood that closed the last episode continues here as Buffy and Faith must deal with the consequences of their actions (apt title alert!). At first attempting to keep it a secret, Buffy and Faith are forced to investigate Finch's murder by Wesley; naturally Buffy isn't so comfortable with it. She also has to deal with the strain that has been put on her relationship with Willow, given the time she's spent with the other Slayer recently. Soon, she feels compelled to spill her secret and the core Scoobies unite to try and get Faith back on the straight and narrow. Unfortunately, Wesley isn't on the same page and makes the situation considerably worse.

Unlike a lot of other Buffy episodes, Consequences has lost some of its impact since it first aired. The tension arose out of wondering whether Buffy and Faith were going to get away with it and the shock of finding out how far Faith had fallen was definitely in the extreme. Like the earlier and much better episode, Innocence, the Consequences of the title don't just apply to Buffy and are instead felt and caused by many of the characters. Part of the reason it doesn't quite work as well as Innocence is that it feels a little repetitive; one of the gang turns evil, Willow discovers something about Xander's lovelife that doesn't involve her, Giles discovers something about Buffy who in turn is feeling guilty about something she feels she's to blame for. 

All that really changes is the addition of a meddling watcher and Faith in the bad guy role instead of Angel. Innocence worked far better because it struck right to the core of a relationship we'd been rooting for since the beginning of the series. Faith is too recent an arrival for her betrayal to cut as keenly. It still carries a reasonable amount of emotional heft, largely thanks to the excellent performances of Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alyson Hannigan. Anthony Head too does some sterling work in the scene in which he comforts Buffy, their trust having been repaired more since Helpless.

That being said, it's still an extremely important episode for ongoing character arcs, most obviously the relationship between Faith and Angel. As someone who's been to the dark side and back again twice, Angel knows the slippery slope that Faith is on and feels he is the one to be able to bring her back. It's largely working too until the Watcher's Council shows up to drag her away. That one scene sets up a key partnership that's essential to Faith's redemption, also setting up a minor arc within the third season (to be continued in Enemies) between the two characters.

There are a few moments of levity in what is otherwise a dark episode. Cordelia's introduction to Wesley is a particular highlight, first of all because of his reaction to finding out she's a student is brilliant and secondly, knowing their eventual collaboration and friendship makes it that bit sweeter. The other is the Mayor trying to cheer himself up by using the shredder and concluding that 'it's going to take more than this to turn [his] frown upside down.' The trivial nature of the Mayor's concerns is one of the things that make him so scary; he's incredibly human and one of those obsequious humans that just get right on your nerves.

None of this stops Consequences feeling a mythology-arc based filler episode, designed to put the pieces in place for the latter half of the season. Faith is now with the Mayor, leaving both good and evil with one Slayer each and varying levels of awareness about what the other's up to.

Quote of the Week:

Wesley: Does everyone know you?
Buffy: She's a friend.
Cordelia: Let's not get carried away.

Let's Get Trivial: Although credited, Seth Green doesn't appear in the episode as he was away filming Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

Inventive Kill: Not particularly inventive, but this is the episode in which we say goodbye to Mr Trick after Faith dusts him

- Becky

You can read Becky's look at previous episode Bad Girls here.

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Monday, 29 September 2014

TV REVIEW: Downton Abbey - Episode Two

There's all sorts of romantic entanglements going on at Downton this episode. We've got Lady Mary off gallivanting with Tony Gillingham, Charles Blake turns back up to throw a spanner in the works and then there's Cora flirting with Withnail, I mean Mr Bricker (this was the one I was rooting for - Cora needs a plot of her own goddammit! Also RICHARD E. GRANT). Then Bricker starts flirting with Isis the dog. God forbid! Oh and then there's Molesley and the thieving ladies' maid whose name I've not learnt yet, but I'm struggling to retain interest in that particular plot line.

And with love comes war, more specifically, Lord Grantham arguing with just about everyone he can reach with a booming voice and a shake of his head. The tone was set in an early mealtime which was less a luncheon, more a battle ground before dinner that evening became the dining room equivalent of the Western Front. Amongst the more trivial stuff is resisting Rose's attempts to get a wireless for Downton, but that soon gave way to the Lord and Branson going at it about whose politics were better. Everyone bristled beautifully when Branson mentioned the killing of Charles I in response to Lord Grantham's repeated accusations about the atrocities occurring in Russia. It's all delightfully polite but shots were most definitely fired.

I think Fellowes is missing a trick by not adopting the Hero versus Big Bad approach for a series. It may just be my liberal politics, but Branson is the unsung hero of the piece, fighting for justice and an end to the oppressive social class system that he has managed through the convenience of marriage to rise through. Clearly in opposition, the Big Bad could be Lord Grantham. I want to see Hugh Bonneville in full villain mode, tearing down any threat to the establishment and bellowing "BUT WHAT ABOUT THE CRICKET?!" in the faces of bewildered villagers.

Lady Mary's impending sexpedition with Tony Gillingham led to some beautiful comedy moments, both with Anna and Charles Blake who turns up all charming and mentioning sex to get her a bit flustered. But still, Gillingham's got his allotted week to prove he's the man for Mary. Contraception according to Lady Mary is wonderful; read a book and send your maid out for condoms. It's like the equivalent of your mate asking you to pop to the pharmacy for you because her parents are wandering around town, but with enforced societal servitude instead. I also loved the judgemental pharmacist; things haven't changed all that much apparently.

The much-anticipated meeting of Gillingham and Lady Mary was all awkward and not at all romantic. Doing the gentlemanly thing, Gillingham gets separate rooms connected by an adjoining door and allowing Mary to stay under her own name to not attract any suspicion. But this struck me as a little silly really. The manager's in on the arrangement and it's hardly going to take investigative skills to find out Gillingham was staying next door, put two and two together and get 'illicit sexual affair'. Apparently a scrumptious dinner was the going rate for a whole week of 'making love' in those days, so clearly interest rates in that respect haven't changed all that much either.

I could talk about Lady Edith's struggle to gain control over daughter Marigold, but I kept being distracted at those points. I am obviously sympathetic to her plight, but she needs a bit of spark about her. Bring back Gregson I say! Yes, I know he's likely dead at the hands of some proto-Nazis, but still, she was much more interesting when he was around (which goes entirely against my usual rage about women characters who are only defined by the men around them, I know). 

- Becky

Catch Becky's review of the previous episode here.

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Sunday, 28 September 2014

TV REVIEW: Doctor Who - The Caretaker

It’s often tricky to keep the pace going in the middle of a series (unless you’re Game of Thrones and you can just kill off six or seven key characters largely on a whim), and unfortunately ‘The Caretaker’ did little to disprove this of Doctor Who.

This rather bland and slow-paced episode was Earth-centric, set almost entirely in the school that Clara (Jenna Coleman) and Danny (Samuel Anderson) teach in. Dismissing Clara for a few days, The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) goes into “deep cover”, disguising himself as the new school caretaker named, of course, John Smith. Refusing to explain himself, he proceeds to crop up at inappropriate and awkward moments, fiddling with the electrics and generally being quite mysterious. Eventually, after a fairly amusing case of mistaken identity as The Doctor tries to guess who Clara’s boyfriend is, we learn that there is an alien residing in the local area, and, naturally, it plans to take over the world. 

Incidentally, said alien is a brand new monster for the show. Named the Skovox Blitzer, it is one of many things in this episode which just doesn’t quite hit the high mark so many other shows in this series have achieved. Quite Dalek like in appearance and attitude (“Problem, solution – destroy!”), it came off as a bit of a budget version of them. It wasn’t really anything we hadn’t seen before, and didn’t feel particularly imaginative. It was also wheeled back off into space and time without much of an explanation of what it was doing in an East London comprehensive in the first place.

This neatly summarises my main issue with it. Much as I love a character episode, and believe me I do, ‘The Caretaker’ felt far too caught up in the triangle between The Doctor, Clara and Danny and not nearly enough on the nearby alien killing machine. We were left feeling distinctly underwhelmed and unsatisfied when the credits rolled, as if we’d missed the scene where we found out about the alien and where it came from and what it was doing and, actually come to think of it, anything at all beyond its name and catchphrase. It seemed particularly unfair and strange to entirely gloss over this extra-terrestrial being when other areas of the episode, such as the argument between The Doctor and Danny, felt so arduous and over-done. 

On the positive side of the spectrum, whilst a bit too much time was spent on it, The Doctor and Clara’s relationship does indeed continue to flourish, and the episode was genuinely laugh out loud amusing in places, such as the discussion about Clara looking nice because she’s had a wash, or the two of them looking the same age. Their dynamic really is working very well, much as the show should now leave it alone as a job well done and show us less of Clara’s, I assume entirely Topshop sponsored, wardrobe, and more aliens. Although that said, I did enjoy the reference to both mine and Jenna Coleman’s home town. Admittedly there perhaps wouldn’t have been the opportunity for an “I thought you said you were from Blackpool?” conversation if they’d been running around a far-off planet dodging lasers instead of all standing around having a chat in a school hall.

Whilst we’re over here on the bright side, we were also treated to another sighting of Missy (Michelle Gomez) – our first in quite a few episodes now. Even more significantly than that, we were introduced to another new character in Chris Addison’s Seb. He seems to be some sort of afterlife-based receptionist, or perhaps secretary to Missy. Either way, he provided another darkly comic element, explaining to one of the Skovox Blitzer’s victims, confused as to how he’d survived, "I was coming to that. I'm afraid you really, rather didn't”.

Ultimately, however, and it seems only fair to quote The Doctor at this point, the show all felt a little too focused on “Boring little humans”, and not nearly enough on all the exciting stuff.

Never fear though, it looks like next week’s is set on the moon! Moons are cool.


You can check out Becky’s thoughts on Time Heist  here.

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