Book Review: Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity

Published September 19, 2016 by rmpixie

Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity McFarland & Company Inc., 2016

 Films of the New French Extremity:  Visceral Horror and National Identity by Alexandra West ( McFarland & Company Inc., 2016)

Scholars and journalists Alexandra West and Andrea Subissati, hosts of the Faculty of Horror podcast, focus on in-depth analysis of the horror genre with a feminist approach that would sway the staunchest naysayer.  With their knowledge and background, it’s no surprise that West has recently written a book entitled Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity and after getting to meet the author herself, I had to buy a copy. Once I flipped past the first page I was hooked.

Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity came from a lecture West presented in 2014 for The Black Museum, a series put on by Subissati and Toronto-based writer and editor Paul Corupe where seasoned speakers and professionals in the horror genre present on various topics “from film theory to genre studies”.  It was here that her academic but extremely accessible book was born, and West successfully tracks the transition “from art-house films to full-fledged horror films” that came out of France from the early 90’s to the mid 2000’s.

The genre of New French Extremity is something that for a long time only a few could stomach or relate to. It is brutal, bloody and in your face, but West eases the reader in by giving you a solid base of French history and politics, along with the violence it spawned, in order to help you understand the environment these directors were coming from and the genesis of their films. In essence, French society tended to put a shiny veneer over the ills and wrongs of their actions, turning a blind eye to it all. These films attempt to peel back the shiny exterior of a country celebrated for its culture to show the societal warts that got bigger over centuries. While some of the filmmakers may have different approaches to their subject matter, be it murderous country folk, abused women, self-destructive characters or relentless serial killers, West brings them together to map their contributions to pushing societal, sexual and political boundaries, showing how their films soon became cinematic earmarks as well as social commentaries in the history of horror cinema and what is now considered a critical part of the genre.

Most horror critics and writers like myself have seen many of the films West writes about. I saw them because they were a) French and b) horror or taboo; things I love unconditionally, with Martyrs and High Tension sitting in prime positions on my shelves. They were terrifying films yet I was drawn to them. I couldn’t make connections other than they were all French and showed a darker side to the country I romanticized so much; dots on the same page without the lines to connect them. West is able to create threads of similarities with such coherence and logic, that any French extreme enthusiast feels a sense of almost relief as her analysis pinpoints characters, motivations and plotlines to make sense of the chaos you witness on-screen. All the chapters are riveting, but for those of you who search for some meaning from Martyrs as much as I have, West’s dissection and interpretation of the film comes very near to perfection.

Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity will resonate with those who love French Extreme cinema and those who have visited (and fallen in love with) France like myself; becoming lured by the romantic façade of an aloof yet beautiful country, only to scratch the surface revealing the grimy reality underneath.  Steeped in the history and culture of France, West’s book makes these admittedly horrifying films accessible and convey an understanding much like one would study a terrifying beast for meaning. It is truly a must read for any and all horror fans and academics out there looking for a comprehensive guide to the beginnings of French Extreme cinema.

This Wednesday September 21st, The Black Museum will hold a book launch for Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity in Toronto where West will do a reading. Check out the details here. Come out to support great Canadian talent!

 

Debunker’s Delight: Ghostly Goings-on

Published September 4, 2016 by rmpixie

 

Since I’ve mentally checked out the last few weeks, I thought I would do a post about more paranormal, weird stuff, and what better source to access that than good ol’ YouTube?

I’ve been a fan of paranormal investigative shows and re-enactments for a long time, due to the fact that I’ve been surrounded by believers all my life. Ghost stories from the old country, a family member who refuses to buy antiques, especially those made out of wood since natural materials are known to hold energy, and inklings that my childhood home had a tiny bit of activity has left me with a somewhat accepted view of the supernatural. While I’m not 100% sold, I’m certainly not putting myself in a position to deliberately and knowingly visit a haunted place. So I leave that to all the eager paranormal teams ready to put themselves in smelly, dank buildings in search of chatty ghosts. Most of the time I watch for the hopes of seeing a real ghost from the safety of my sofa, but often I just roll my eyes at the histrionics.   There have been a few things, however, I can’t quite explain that have been captured on film. The most recent comes from a new addition to the paranormal TV lineup, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

A lot of the shows are a lesson in frustration. From shrieking paranormal team members (see the long-running Most Haunted for some scares and giggles when host Yvette Fielding clutches her makeup artist and screams bloody murder when something, anything, happens), to shaky, grainy camera work, to pitch black shots that are impossible to decipher what’s going on.  I know these researchers put themselves in scary and sometimes dangerous positions, but the antics can make it less believable and more fodder for scoffing.

Some are better (or just more entertaining) than others, like Ghost Adventures. Led by Zak Bagans, this team of “ghost bros” travel the U.S. in the hopes of finding haunted activity in some of the most notorious locations. Aaron Goodwin, the team’s resident “Shaggy”, is often targeted by spirits, eliciting a “Duuuude!” and a “Whooooa!” when those spectres whisper his name. Nick Groff, who left the show in 2015, directed many episodes and was often the one that felt the physical effects of ghostly activity.

Groff now stars in his own paranormal sleuthing spectacular called Paranormal Lockdown, where he and Katrina Weidman (formerly of the TV show Paranormal State) stay locked in an allegedly haunted location to witness those on the other side. It’s here I saw something pretty hair-raising that I think will stump the staunchest skeptic. But before I get to the evidence, here are some YouTube videos of alleged paranormal activity caught on-you guessed it-blurry, shaky video! (add grains of salt here).

The U.K seems to corner the market with ghosts, so this fella who narrates for the U.K. site Top 5s not only has a nice accent, but has some cool historical info, and a piece on the Ghost Adventure dudes.

More “ghosts”…

 

…and this mysterious creatures video is interesting and hilarious at the same time, so it’s worth the 35 minutes. I believe in #20 because I worked for a cross between a  pterodactyl and Skeletor, so that ‘ish is real.  Also, #13, #12, #9, #8 (It’s a bear… or Black Phillip), #5 and #3 are just ridiculous.

 

 

I like this dude’s accent too.  Also, the ghosts…

 

And here’s another video from Top 5s:

 

Now for the pièce de resistance.  The full episode of Paranormal Lockdown that gave me the willies.  It’s the usual fare for most of the show, but I encourage you to watch the first bit for some interesting and disturbing history about this asylum.  If the suspense is killing you, head straight to the 36 minute mark to see the weirdness.

 

And here’s a bit of speculation about the actual sighting.  This dude actually gives you a good view of what they saw at the asylum, and he’s pretty stumped too!  What do you think?

 

 

 

 

 

Ek Thi Dayaan: Bollywood’s Modern Witch Myth

Published August 16, 2016 by rmpixie

ekthidayaan

Ek Thi Dayaan (2013, 2 hrs, 15 mins)

I haven’t seen a Bollywood film for quite some time now.  I used to work in a library situated in Toronto’s Little India, where I would come across a heavy rotation of Bollywood DVDs, magazines and TV series.  I finally took the plunge one day after asking a co-worker what she would recommend and was seduced right away.  From comedies like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), to traditional love stories like my all time favourite Taal (1999) and yes, the songs still make me cry, those colourful cinematic smorgasbords with dancing and singing interjected into the meat of the film worked their way into my heart.

Bollywood has been throwing its hat into the horror ring for decades too, with 1949’s Mahal, said to be the first true Hindi horror film, the ghostly comedy Bhoot Bungla from 1965, and coming to the forefront in the 70’s with the Ramsay Brothers fun and schlocky low-budget horror films.  There are a couple of cool short YouTube clips about the brothers and their impact on the horror genre in India: Part One and Part Two.  They opened the floodgates for modern horror, and now there are many, many films drawing on things that go bump in the night Bollywood style.

 

 

(Unfortunately, Bhoot doesn’t seem to have a proper trailer with subtitles, but watch this one for the feel of the film.)

 

One of the more memorable films for me is Bhoot (Ghost). Directed by Bollywood’s controversial horror maverick Ram Gopal Varma, this 2003 multiple award winner tells the story of a man who scores an apartment for a steal due to its previous resident’s suicide.  Things get weird when his wife is tormented by the former resident’s ghost.  It impressed me with the creepy atmosphere, nary a traditional musical number, and could stand up to any J-horror at the time.  Unfortunately, I would soon change jobs, and access to films weren’t as easy as sifting through returned items.  I fell off the Bollywood bandwagon until my sister, who still has her finger on the Bollywood pulse, recently passed 2013’s  Ek Thi Dayaan (There Was A Witch) my way.  She swore up and down that it was one of the better, less schlocky horrors she’s seen in a long time, so the horror boyfriend and I settled in for the 2 hours and 15 minutes of foreign horror fun.

Adapted from a short story Mobius Trips by Mukul Sharma, Ek Thi Dayaan tells the tale of celebrity magician Bobo the Baffler (Emraan Hashmi), India’s answer to Criss Angel and David Blaine, who has a dark past.  He’s haunted by his sister Misha who died when he was just a boy, but he can’t remember any details of her death.  His doting girlfriend Tamara (Huma Qureshi) wants to get married and adopt Zubin (Bhavesh Balchandani), a boy they befriended at a nearby school, but his distant demeanor and jumpy nature puts a damper on their plans for the future.  To move forward, Bobo decides to get to the bottom of his fears.  Visiting his childhood psychiatrist, he succumbs to a hypnotic trance to access those memories.

Those memories leave him even more confused than before, but he pieces enough together from his buried past.  After losing their mother, 11-year-old Bobo and his younger sister (Sara Arjun) try to make a life for themselves with their doting father Sharan (Pawan Malhotra).  Bobo is preoccupied with a book on the occult, and decides that a finicky elevator in his building is a direct ride to Hell.  When he and his sister fool with the elevator, a mysterious woman named Diana (Konkona Sen Sharma) appears.  She immediately charms his father who invites her to be their governess, and soon his wife.  Bobo is determined not to like her, and mistrusts her to the point where he believes she is a witch and out to sacrifice them.  When a double tragedy destroys the family forever, Bobo has to face his childhood delusions and trust that the deaths that stole his innocence and family wasn’t the end result of supernatural forces.

That’s the film in a spoiler-free nutshell, but there are plenty of juicy details in between.  Being a Bollywood film, there’s a quick interval between the first and second hours (which is actually a shorter film than usual.  Most clock in at 2 ½ to 3 hours).  In this case, it’s as if director Kannan Iyer presents 2 different films.  Bobo’s recounting of his childhood has a Harry Potter-esque feel to it, while the second half embraces a more traditional horror film, bringing up distant comparisons to Rosemary’s Baby, and even Anabelle.  Once you get past the slightly ridiculous name of the main character and focus on the musical numbers (of course!), some cool special effects and fun jump scares, you’ll find yourself with a great contemporary South Asian horror film.

While the story gets a bit patchy from time to time, the production value is fantastic, and the performances aren’t of the usual Bollywood fare; bringing a touch more substance than you would expect.  It seems that the horror genre gives a lot of theatrical wiggle room for the performers to explore. The kids in the first half were quite good, and there’s some great possession performances later on in the film.

One fun fact that caught my eye was the disclaimer at the beginning of the film stating that the filmmakers don’t stereotype women as witches.  This strikes me as a really interesting angle.  Even though the witch myth has been used to keep women’s power at bay, from a feminist view, the disclaimer actually acknowledges the mistreatment of women throughout the ages globally, and specifically in India, that have been ostracized or accused of being witches for being childless, widowed or single.  In a 2013 interview, Iyer mentions that he went to great lengths to avoid the typical village dayaan or witch folklore, and the disclaimer also puts an enlightened spin on it as well.

While Robert Egger’s The Witch (2015) divided a whole legion of horror fans, I think Ek Thi Dayaan is a supernatural crowd pleaser that bypasses the usual Bollywood melodramatic themes and gives you lots of witchy chills.  It’s got some decent horror aspects, a great plot twist and a haunting theme song you’ll catch yourself humming as the end credits roll.

 

 

*I mentioned the singing and dancing in Bollywood films, but movie music is actually a huge industry in India.  In most of the films, the songs are sung by “playback artists”, or  professional session singers while the movie stars lip sync the lyrics.  The songs are just as important as the film itself, with a soundtrack often being the driving force for making a film a box office hit.  Composers and singers like legendary A. R. Rahman, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bosle created memorable melodies marking a film’s time in the spotlight.  Ek Thi Dayaan is no exception.  Here’s that haunting theme song Kaali Kaali sung by Clinton Cerejo and written by well-known composer and director Gulzar.  It basically talks about the magic a man finds in his lover’s eyes and how he’s bewitched by her and the treasures she hides there.  It’s actually much more romantic with the full translation, which you can find here.

 

 

Ghostbusters 2016 Ain’t ‘Fraid o’ No Ghosts, and Ain’t That Bad Either!

Published August 2, 2016 by rmpixie

ghostbusterspsot

Ghostbusters (2016, 1 hr, 56 mins.)

The revamp of the classic comedy Ghostbusters has been the subject of nerd controversy ever since word got out that there would be a new film and an all female cast.  There was the infamously hated trailer, the championed the girl power angle, and the bellyaching, diehard fans who pooh-poohed the idea and spewed purist commentary to whoever had an ear to listen.  While the nerd storm rages on, this light and silly film was a fun addition to the ghost chasing tradition.

Erin (Kristen Wiig) is a physicist eyeing a job with tenure at Columbia, but is “haunted” by a book she penned with her then friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) about the paranormal in which she strongly stated her belief in ghosts.  Erin is desperately trying to hide this fact, but the book’s discovery by a descendant of the Aldridge Mansion Ed Mulgrave (Ed Begley Jr.) has tracked not only the book down, but Erin herself in the hopes that she can help with a haunting there. Erin seeks out Abby to stop her revival of the book which jeopardizes Erin’s chances of moving up in the world.  When Abby hears about the Aldridge haunting, Erin reluctantly goes along, and they, along with Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), a kooky engineering whiz kid and Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), a seasoned New Yorker with a wealth of historic information about the city, begin a paranormal escapade that involves plenty of crazy antics and ectoplasm in order to save the Big Apple from ghosts once again.

I went into the theatre with no expectations.  I knew about the kerfuffle over the female cast and the purist haters, but I stayed clear of it because I didn’t want any bias for when I saw the film.  As the end credits rolled, I think the IMdb rating of 5.4 is a little harsh.  I was expecting some major story issues that veered off into far, far left field in terms of the Ghostbusters universe, but was surprised that it stayed really, almost too close to the formula of an intro to the team who then realizes there’s a threat and the subsequent resolution.  I though it was a fun, summer popcorn movie that paid homage to the franchise and I’m still wondering what the issue is.

chrisHGhostbusters

Chris Helmsworth as the hunky Kevin

Great one liners, kicky comedic timing, and the swooning over Chris Helmsworth as their handsome but ditzy receptionist Kevin hit all the right notes for something light, funny and unapologetically cute.  McKinnon and Jones steal the show, and I’m glad.  McCarthy and Wiig had their vehicle of Bridesmaids to catapult them into the comedy classic annals, leaving plenty of room for others to shine.  It could also be that McKinnon and Jones have great chemistry because they’re current castmates on SNL.  My only wish was that the surviving cast of the original 1984 film had reprised their roles instead of the random cameos placed in the film.  I think that would have made for something with a bit more substance.

And I simply don’t understand the trailer controversy.  The pointless amount of time people spent critiquing, commenting and whining over a 2-and-a-half-minute clip to promote a film that they can’t get back.  Newsflash:  Most trailers are misleading, too long, crappy or give you a false idea of what the film will be.  I didn’t see anything unusually bad about the Ghostbusters trailer, in fact, I didn’t really pay attention to it except to note the cast and that the reboot was nigh.  Another thing was all the vitriol against feminism spouted by the haters.  How Sony had some sort of “social justice” agenda.  Who knew casting four women would cause such a furor?

ghostbusters1

The Ghostbusting gals ready for battle (against ghosts…and crusty naysaying nerds…)

The character of Patty Tolan was also criticized for being a black stereotype.  I have a fine-tuned stereotype radar, and while I felt some of her wardrobe was probably considered “black” attire, and I agree with the criticism that she should have been a black scientist, her character was one of my favourites (especially during the concert scene).  She didn’t translate as “street-smart” as she is often described, but as a native New Yorker and historian, and having seen Jones’ stand-up act, she adds a bit of her shtick to the character of Patty.

I was in a theatre of mostly kids, and it was nice to hear them laughing at the gags and discovering a new take on the franchise.  There were also the older movie-goers like myself, including a woman who hooted and hollered each time an original ghostbuster made a cameo.  That made for a great time, reminded me why I liked the original and defied the lukewarm reviews floating around out there amidst all the school yard pouting about whether girl ghostbusters are better than boy ghostbusters.

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