Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Violent Kind (2010)

The Violent Kind, the Butcher Brothers’ follow up to their 2006 The Hamiltons, seems to have divided critics and fans alike; some see it as an original and highly unpredictable genre ‘mash up’ combining elements of the bike movie, Lovecraftian horror and alien invasion sci-fi. Others see it as a rambling incoherent mess that leaves viewers scratching their heads. I watched the film with limited knowledge of it, expecting a cross between The Sons of Anarchy and The Devils Rejects (which it is - and more). The Hamiltons was an incisive look at violence as inherent in the American family, which gradually morphed into a tale of vampirism. This led me to expect The Violent Kind to be a study of violence ingrained within the American psyche as engendered in popular culture by the Hells Angels movement. Having seen the film I still think that this is, at heart, what The Violent Kind is about, and the genre-bending in the movie makes sense, at least for me, when the film is read this way.

The film opens with a pre-credits sequence that establishes the bikers as the ‘violent kind’. Cody, the anti-hero and ‘deputy’ of The Crew, a second-generation Californian biker gang, is waiting with his cronies outside a house while their leader Q, finishes fucking his girlfriend (an act that climaxes with the girlfriend punching him full in the face). Two hicks pull up in their pick up, looking for Q, who is a drug-dealer. They have a beef with him, which is swiftly settled by violence, coldly meted out on the hicks by Q and Cody.  Afterwards, Q ensures that the hicks are safely returned to their truck so they can drive off. No hard feelings. Violence is clearly a way of life for this gang.

Later, the gang go to Cody’s mother’s old house in the woods to celebrate her 50th birthday in typical biker fashion. Here there are some soap opera elements typical of a biker movie. Cory’s ex-girlfriend, Michelle, has a new boyfriend. Cody is not happy, but gets talking to Michelle’s younger sister, Megan, who always liked him and wrote to him while he was in prison. There is also unresolved sexual tension between Cody and Shade, Q’s aforementioned girlfriend with the right hook. So far so Wild Angels. (I was also reminded of the PG rated biker gang in Mask) Cody is exactly the character that Jack Nicholson would have played in Roger Corman’s 1960s biker movies.

Then the film takes a turn towards genre shifting, as Michelle returns to the house, having previously left with her boyfriend, all beaten and bloody. She has been viciously attacked but we are not sure by whom or what. While the others go to investigate, one of the gang sexually assaults Michelle while she sleeps (further developing the violence/depravity theme) and she appears to respond to his advances, but then attacks him, biting into his face (a shocking scene of cannibalism reminiscent of Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day). It soon becomes clear that Michelle has become possessed but by whom or what it is not clear.  We seem to be moving into Evil Dead territory at this point.

However, the Butcher Brothers wrong-foot us again shortly afterwards by introducing a home invasion scenario as a bizarre retro-gang of rockabillies imprison Cody, Shade, Megan and Q. They claim to have come to retrieve ‘what is inside Michelle’ (and later perform a bizarre ceremony that is part demon invocation/part extraterrestrial encounter ala The Fourth Kind) for the most part however, their motives are to torture and torment the bikers.

This constant genre-shifting makes The Violent Kind either engrossing or infuriating, depending on your point of view. It may appear an arbitrary mix at first, but the setting of the film provides a unifying context. California, and particularly the San Francisco area and Sonoma Valley where The Violent Kind was filmed, has a history of cultism spanning the Hells Angels, the Manson Family and UFOlogy, all of which The Violent Kind references. The Californian counter-culture of the 1960s, which gave rise to the Haight-Ashbury hippy movement, also housed the Hells Angels (whose HQ was directly opposite the Grateful Dead’s pad in the Haight) and Charles Manson and alien abductions. The Violent Kind links these three areas of cultism as holding a particular cultural fascination in the American psyche because of their inherent violence.

The Manson murders still resonate today with Californians, who struggle to understand the reasons why they happened. San Francisco and Los Angeles are considered by the people who live in them to be liberal towns; Los Angeleans and San Fransciscans think of themselves as easy-going. The cultural firmament that gave rise to the Manson killings in the 1960s still troubles these modern Americans. This trauma is still being played out in films as recent as The Strangers and Mother’s Day. Interestingly,  The Violent Kind subverts the usual scenario, as the representatives of the dark counterculture (the bikers) are the victims in the story rather than the victimisers. Their attackers are ‘them’ in a sense but fifty years before: a biker gang from the 1950s who disappeared mysteriously years ago. That this 1950s gang should engage in the same violent behaviour as the modern bikers (using switch blades rather than sheaf knives) is befitting in terms of the film’s theme: violence is inherent in the American subculture – always has been, always will be. The fact that this 1950s gang has, in the film, been a victim of alien abduction/body invasion, is also telling in terms of UFOlogy, which, at its heart, is obsessed by violence done towards the human body by extraterrestrial beings: the notion of being ‘abducted’ for ‘human experiments’.

These themes are bound together by the central section of the film that present the possession scenario, in which an invading entity takes control of the body and compels it towards violence. The Violent Kind is ultimately presenting the American counterculture of the 1950s/60s/70s as possessed by a ‘force’ that leads it into violence. That force might be alien or it might be inherent, but it has become deeply ingrained in the American psyche, passed down through the generations, and is likely to explode again as it did in the late 1960s. The ending of The Violent Kind suggests that this violence may begin within the subculture but it eventually spills out into the American mainstream as it did in Kent State and at Altamont in 1970.

All in all, The Violent Kind is a worthy successor to The Hamiltons, amply fulfilling the promise of that film and building on its themes of violence as inherent in the American psyche.  I found it an intriguing and assured piece of work, and it set me wondering why The Butcher Brothers are not yet receiving the same critical attention that other directors such as Ti West and Bryan Bertino currently enjoy. 

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Woman (2011)

I finally got to see this last night, long after the controversy over the film has died down – possibly a good thing. I approached the film knowing very little about it or the debates that followed the film on its release a year ago, or even about the director, Lucky McKee. I saw his Masters of Horror entry Sick Girl a few years ago, but frankly it didn’t leave much of an impression. I came to The Woman, then, fairly 'cold'.

On the surface, The Woman raises questions about gender relations in modern society, while comparing notes with Deliverance (1972) in portraying civilisation as a thin veneer for the beast that lurks within. The premise is a variation of the German fairytale, Iron John, about a wild man who is discovered in the woods, captured by soldiers, imprisoned and ‘tamed’. Iron John also became the basis for a famous book of the same name by Robert Bly, which led to the ‘Masculinist’ movement in the United States in the 1990s; a grassroots movement claiming that masculinity was in crisis due to social and family breakdown and advocating that men should concentrate on developing masculine traits in themselves and their sons.  Although not necessarily seen as a backlash against feminism, the Masculinist movement in popular culture can be seen in the surfeit of ‘survivalist’ gameshows and ‘boys adventure’ stories on TV, and also in the lads-mags phenomenon, which tend to show men as half adults, trapped somewhere between childhood and maturity, a state in which they find it hard to become responsible leaders, carers and fathers, which in turn leads to the passing down of that immaturity through the generations.
In part, The Woman satirises this through its portrayal of the main character, Chris Cleer, a man who feels that his masculinity is constantly under threat and goes to increasingly desperate lengths to protect it. As a study of such a male, The Woman succeeds really well – for the most part. In other respects though, McKee’s film is a bit hazy in what it is trying to say.

The Woman herself functions in a similar way to the Terence Stamp character in Pasolini’s Theorem (1968), in that she forces each of the family members to confront what until now they have tried to conceal in order to operate as part of a family. To Chris she represents what he would like to achieve through his hunting trips but fails to do: namely to be at ‘one with nature.’  His attempt to ‘civilise’ the Woman is a really a desire to subjugate her to his will absolutely, to achieve a complete domination over her that is impossible to do with his family without the family unit breaking down (which is of course what happens in the end when he finally loses control of himself and beats up his wife). Not only does the Woman represent the complete self-awareness that Chris lacks, she ultimately embodies the perceived threat that women pose to his masculinity. Throughout the film Chris increasingly resents his actions being questioned by the women around him, and finally explodes when the young teacher appears to question his abilities as a father. His failings have clearly been passed down to his alienated son (whom, for example, he doesn’t take on his hunting trips with him). The son, disturbed by the gradual disintegration of the family also chooses to blame women for his problems, using the captive Woman as an outlet for his sadism. The mother, played by Angela Bettis, represses her anger at her husband’s increasingly unreasonable behaviour towards The Woman, out of a responsibility towards her children. She does not want to rock the boat. Meanwhile, the eldest daughter holds deep misgivings towards her father, which The Woman brings to the fore.

Gradually, the family is forced, through Chris’s behaviour, to confront these things, and The Woman build to a tremendous head of steam, as each member of the family is forced to choose his or her allegiances. Frustratingly though, the film suddenly unravels, losing its way in the final sequences. Firstly, McKee plants the suggestion that Chris is the father of his daughter’s child, something suggested but not confirmed. Secondly comes the revelation that Chris is keeping a second feral child - ‘Socket’ – captive: what are we to make of this? Is Socket another of member of the Woman’s clan? The Woman’s child? Or is she Chris and his wife’s child that they have rejected due to birth defects? The film does not make this clear. Then the film climaxes in a sequence of extreme (and slightly ludicrous) gore, which also tends to undermine what has gone before; the savagery, indiscriminately meted out by the feral women feels like a descent into nihilism - or maybe, like the grunge soundtrack, just an attempt to please the gore fans. In particular the fate of the mother seems ill-judged. She has clearly made a journey from subjugation to strength, and yet is punished for it (presumably for her complicity in the incest?). The killing of the female teacher feels like a scapegoat or sacrificial killing on the part of McKee and Ketchum. Finally the Woman and Socket are revealed as cannibals but to what purpose?

As a director, McKee makes sometimes bold stylistic choices, but there are times when his uncertainty also shows in the storytelling devices. Early sequences use dissolves whose purpose is unclear.  Some of the early scenes are confusing. His use of grunge songs on the soundtrack instead of a traditional score is sometimes striking, but more often gets in the way. Again their purpose is unclear; perhaps they are an attempt to ‘counterpoint’ the action but mostly fail to do this. Most of the story is up front which tends to underplay mystery and suspense in the earlier sequences. However, the filmmakers are deliberately showing their hand in adopting these stylistic choices, alerting us, as it were to their presence, and this invites us to read The Woman as the desire to make a statement, even if, at times it is unclear exactly what the statement is.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Starburst Magazine Issue 377

June's issue of Starburst Magazine is out now - available from Forbidden Planet, WH Smiths, The Cinema Store (if you live in the UK) and from the Starburst website.

In this month's issue I interview the stars of Return of the Living Dead: Brian Peck, Jewel Shephard and the legendary Linnea Quigley. I get the low down on behind the scenes of ROTLD from Brian and Jewel, as well as background to a whole host of Linnea Quigley movies from the 'Scream Queen' herself, including the cult classics Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988), Savage Streets (1984) and Creepozoids (1987). I even get to the bottom of why Don't Go Near The Park (1981) is so abysmal...

In this Month’s issue...

Genesis of Ridley Scott’s upcoming blockbuster PROMETHEUS/Starburst Flashback John Brosnan vs Dan O’Bannon/Interview with Michael Biehn/Aliens in Comics/Bond/Interview with Looper Director Rian Johnson/Doctor Who/Ridley Scott Retrospective plus news, reviews and more from the world of Sci-Fi, Horror and Fantasy.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Return of the Living Dead Returns!

Dan O'Bannon's classic 1985 schlockfest comes out on Blu Ray on 4th June in a Special Edition. As well as containing four hours of extras, including the excellent making of documentary, More Brains!, this re-release (also on DVD) reinstates the original 1985 soundtrack. Read my review here.

Watch out for issue 377 of Starburst Magazine, in which I interview ROTLD stars Jewel Shepard, Brian Peck and the legendary Linnea Quigley. And I write about Dan O'Bannon's rarely-seen early student shorts Bloodbath (1969) and Foster's Release (1970), the latter of which, it is claimed, had a major influence on John Carpenter when he came to make Halloween (1978).

Issue 377 is available at WH Smiths. Or you can order from the Starburst website from 18th May.