Saturday, November 25, 2006

Horrorfest 2006 report #6: Women, pt. 2: The Heroine

From Ripley in “Alien” to Laurie Strode in the original “Halloween”, strong women have always been the primary focus of horror films. Is it because women are more vulnerable? Is it because women have a higher threshold for pain? Certainly the aspect of the female as mother has played a part in many a horror plot. “Rosemary’s Baby” comes to mind, or “Friday, the 13th”. Even the latter films of the “Alien” series turn both Ripley and the monster into mother figures, but the connection of the female spirit seems to be rooted even beyond their role as creators of life. The horror heroine seems to be some sort of primal scream for the female psychology. A sort of opposing reaction to the notion that the female is the weaker of our species. Four of this year’s Horrorfest films take this heroine notion of the strong female and turn it on its head.

“BloodRayne” is a vampire story set in medieval times. Instead of just being a victim, the heroine here not only is being chased by the vampires, but is one herself. Rayne is a special kind of vampire known as a dhampir, half-human/half vampire, and could be the key to destroying the vampire plague that threatens to take over the world.

Unfortunately, that is about as long as I can stand to write seriously about this joke of a film. Based on a video game, this movie plays like it was made by a bunch of D&D nerds who are so obsessed with the game that they actually dress up in costumes and act it out.

The truly sad thing is that it is cast with actual acting talents, whose presence suggest these are not the people you want to bet on in a celebrity poker tournament. Rayne is played by Kristanna Loken, who apparently was not informed that her debut performance as the third Terminator did not actually require her to act. The film also inexplicably contains performances by Ben Kingsley, Michael Madsen, Michelle Rodriguez, Billy Zane and Meatloaf. Only Zane seems to be aware of the film’s inherent awfulness and plays it as if he wants you to know he knows. Meatloaf seems to think this is Shakespeare considering the earnestness with which he approaches his brief role. And Madsen brings a whole new definition to the phrase “phoning it in.”

Perhaps even more inexplicable than the presence of capable actors in this sad excuse to spend money is the fact that after the story has finished the filmmakers felt it was necessary to recap every shot of blood and gore from throughout the film, including a shot of Loken drinking blood out of a chalice repeated four or five times.

In “November”, a much better film than “BloodRayne”, Courtney Cox plays a photographer trying to deal with the loss of her boyfriend during a convenience store robbery. She begins to remember things about the evening of the shooting that bring into question exactly what her role in the incident was and even her own memory of their relationship before his death.

“November” is one of those thrillers where the order of events it not necessarily what it seems because the facts the audience is privy to are dependent on the fact that we are subject to the heroine’s perception. After a while it becomes clear the photographer has altered her perception of events as she begins to remember the night of her boyfriend’s death differently when a photo of the convenience store from that night shows up in some of her work.

Like “Stay”, another movie I watched earlier during Horrorfest, “November” plays like an extended version of an episode of “The Outer Limits” or “The Twilight Zone”. In fact the two movies are pretty much the exact same story. “Stay” is the trippier “Outer Limits” version, while “November” is the more analytical “Twilight Zone” approach.

The major difference between the two films is that “November”’s protagonist is female. I think this counterbalances this version’s more diagnostic approach to the material. Cox’s performance is more emotion driven, while the structure of the film is more dogmatic, as opposed to “Stay” where the male leads try to figure out what is going on using logic, while the film itself is very esoteric.

The female protagonist in “The Skeleton Key”, played by Kate Hudson, is also trying to figure out events that have already happened. Not something that has happened in her past, however, but what may have happened to a man (John Hurt) living on an old southern plantation with only his wife (Gena Rowlands). The old man has entered a non-responsive yet conscious state after he supposedly fell in the attic of this mansion. Kate Hudson’s med-student/ care provider begins to suspect something more sinister when she discovers a hidden room in the attic that was once occupied by slave servants who practiced the magic art of Hoodoo.

Hudson’s character plays against the emotional female stereotype and approaches her investigation into this Hoodoo magic with a great deal of skepticism, expecting a logical and scientific explanation for all the strange occurrences in the old mansion. The filmmakers get a good deal of mileage out of reversing this gender stereotype, which plays heavily into the actual plot of the story as well as much of the misdirection of the mystery for the characters. I was surprised at how effective the twists worked in this horror/thriller, which could have easily been a fairly standard turn of formulaic devices.

Now, when it comes to plot twists, few films can out do the French horror flick “High Tension”. The eventual twist was something that I could have predicted very early on in the film, however, the story so quickly wraps you up in its messy terror that any presumptions are soon forgotten.

Two women, Alexa and Marie, are traveling to the French countryside to visit Alexa’s parents. Their get away hits a horrific bump when a serial killer breaks into the rural farmhouse and kills the entire family. The killer takes Alexa hostage while Marie narrowly avoids detection and follows the kidnapper.

Director and co-writer Alexandre Aja does a wonderful job of putting Marie into situations that leave her no other way to deal with her circumstance than by just tagging along. There are two wonderful sequences, one at the farmhouse and one at a convenience store, where the killer seems to be about to catch her and she must trick him into believing she is not there. Later, when the plot twist is revealed, the narrow escapes have a different resonance that still makes sense. Only a shot of the killer at the beginning of the film, before the girls arrive at the farmhouse, makes little sense once the truth is revealed. However, considering what the truth is, it is possible to rationalize many reasons for the killer’s actions.

“High Tension” plays heavily on the stereotypes of women in horror films, utilizing and contrasting both the notion of the fragility of the female and the woman as kick ass heroine.

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