body horror

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Shudder Exclusive: Kuso-The Anti La-La Land

Published July 25, 2017 by rmpixie

Kuso (2017, 1 hr, 45 mins.)

 

A forest sparkling with fairy dust, it’s woodland floor peppered with what can only be called anus mounds; psychedelic collages of body parts flashing before your eye to an electronic beat; poxy-faced characters in absurd and disturbing circumstances as they struggle through the literal muck of life. That muck, which at first looks like your garden variety sludge, is actually made up of the complexity and randomness of everyday drudgery. All of this can be found wrapped in a psychedelic, comedy/horror package of interconnected segments in the Shudder Exclusive of Kuso, directed by DJ and artistic virtuoso, Flying Lotus aka Steve Ellison.

Kuso opens with a spoken word chorus, or “news pirate” (Regan Farquhar aka Busdriver) hijacking a news report of an earthquake that has hit Los Angeles, and carries on to various TV spots showing the aftereffects of this seismic event on a motley crew of characters. In Royal, a young man partakes in erotic asphyxiation administered by his loving sister who has a secret. Then we have Smear, with a bullied boy whose mother forces him to eat horrific meals. He is ridiculed in school because of his intestinal discomfort and when he runs away, comes across a magical forest with a feces hungry anus-like creature. There is a woman in a subterranean hell as she searches for her baby in Sock, and finally Mr. Quiggle takes us on a journey of another woman who deals with her dating dilemma and her “trans-dimensional” monster roommates, and a man who seeks radical treatment for his fear of breasts.

What we have here is, to me, a nightmarish commentary on the current social and political climate. The reviews have not been overly receptive to the film, citing the over-the-top gross-out scenarios as too obvious or beyond the reach of comprehension. They have also compared the film to the works of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, which makes sense with the bizarre subject matter and body horror. I beg to differ with these reviews for the most part however, because as a person of colour, I see it as a psychedelic, avant-garde and horrific approach to life as a marginalized person.

Avant-garde film, music and comedy is often seen as a white endeavour, but one only has to remember the epitome of avant-garde art, Jean-Michel Basquiat; the afro-futurist movement with Parliament-Funkadelic’s George Clinton (who plays “Dr. Clinton” with his bowel motivated treatments); the cyber-punk gore fests of Japanese horror; the musical DNA from Flying Lotus’s grand-uncle legendary saxophonist John Coltrane; and the decades of spoken word poetry based in the bebop/hip-hop arena to realize this is untrue. Snobbery would consider the latter to be merely a symptom of the “urban” experience with popular music and art of today, but dig deeper and you’ll find modern observations on life as a marginalized or Black person in continually trying times, like the thought-provoking news pirate chorus at the start and end of the film. This is why the Black director and cast composed of mostly people of colour is so important. It shows that we too have a sensibility for the avant-garde, perhaps even more so since some of our real-life experiences can be surreal and literal representations in modern film can often be too painful to watch.

Each sore-riddled character in the vignettes lives on the fringe of society in their filthy abodes. They are the antithesis of the meet-cute, rom-com story, the absent father tearjerker or the mild-mannered guy overcoming his fears. Dialogue in the film mimics formulaic scripts like the intimate, after-sex talk between lovers or the awkward comedy between strangers that just may become friends, and characters sport grotesque skin eruptions instead of picture perfect skin, making the film an abomination of the squeaky-clean Hollywood crank that the masses are addicted to or sick of. That this earthquake takes place in L.A. isn’t unusual, in fact, it is most telling as this is the very place that ideals of how we should live are created even though many a civil unrest has taken place there. In the current climate where racial tensions and turmoil are coming to a head, the earthquake has pushed the build-up of all the white-washing and cover-ups to the surface, spewing forth the discontent, anxieties, fears and truths of the ignored and gagged masses, much like the pus, semen and feces that bubbles from Kuso’s characters.

Although we are now in the internet age, the use of television is so important in this film. One story leads to another from endless screens of all-seeing eyes in each household, illustrating how TV has become a part of everyday life, an extension of ourselves; guiding us in what we should be doing or consuming and feeding us edited and suspect news stories. It is still one of the most powerful electronic mediums in society today as Marshal McLuhan once prolifically predicted, and Hollywood has always been the defining force in what we consume, being the makers of the messages sent through these electronic mediums. When that message is continually manipulated, distorted and upended in no uncertain terms, we must reprocess what is shown to us, which is what Kuso attempts to do.

Incest and general foulness aside, I have only two issues with Kuso. One is with the Mr. Quiggle segment involving the woman “B” (rapper The Buttress) who realizes she’s pregnant and is treated like trash by her two furry TV screen faced roommates played by Hannibal Buress and Donnell Rawlings. These fantastical creatures whip excrement at her and belittle her every chance they get. While her exchanges with them are meant to be comedic, there is an underlying misogyny that can’t be missed as well as the suggestion that she has been date raped by her stalker Phil, played by comedian Tim Hiedecker. His usual Adult Swim-Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! blank-faced delivery gave this story a more disturbing turn even though “B” brushes the incident off. She is also questioned about her decision to get an abortion at the Coathanger Clinic by Manuel (Zack Fox), even thought she says that it’s her body and her right. While she is tough and holds her own with her male counterparts and her stalker does get his comeuppance, it’s a hard reminder of the struggles women endure in the real and surreal comic book world.

The other is a sign spotted in the Coathanger Clinic “B” and Manuel visit, advertising a vaccine for “N*ggapox” with a smiling white face. I will go on record to say that I will never, ever get used to hearing the “N” word, even if it’s used between Blacks and in almost every hip-hop song and Tarantino film out there, but this sign in the clinic made me stop for a moment. It seemed to be a joke, but I wondered if a deeper meaning could imply removing Blackness from society; inoculating us from the Black struggle so we can all live in oblivion and denial, or even removing it from whites who have, perhaps according to their peers, become too ingrained and involved with Black culture. I could be over thinking it, but the few gasps I heard from the mostly white audience at the screening when the camera focused on that sign gave me pause.

There is also a strong pornography element throughout the film, from flashing imagery and TV commercials to full on ejaculate, and even a cameo from porn actor Lexington Steele. Flying Lotus was interviewed by the Guardian, and he mentioned growing up in the San Fernando Valley, where he says “all the porn comes from”, making it a sort of background din for him. He manages to create this feeling of overconsumption with clips of body part collages made of magazines cut-outs undulating to catchy electronic beats that is seamlessly erotic, surreal and absurd at the same time. It desensitizes the viewer at some point, much like the constant battery of airbrushed and perfected bodies plastered before us on a daily basis.

One of the “trans-dimensional” tv monsters in Mr. Quiggle critiques a bizarre porn movie he watches stating that it was “exploitive and sexist though artful”. This along with other statements from the cast like, “I fucking hate this movie!”, is almost a foreshadowing or a mocking of what critics would think once the film was released, and Flying Lotus wasn’t wrong. While some may focus on and denounce the obvious gross-out splatter of Kuso (which is apparently a Japanese word for “shit”) that made people walk out of the 2017 Sundance screening, I challenge viewers to go a little deeper with the insanity. There might be arguments for or against this film as art, and it’s certainly not perfect and will definitely offend with themes of rape, incest and over-the-top sexual content, but it will show you life’s uglier side through fresh eyes, eyes that tire of the La-La Land universe of denial and white-wash.  I caught Kuso at a limited screening recently in Toronto, but you can now see the real dirt streaming (sorry!) exclusively on Shudder.

 

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RAW at the Royal: Angst and the Hungry Girl

Published May 2, 2017 by rmpixie

 

Raw (2016, 1 hr, 39 mins)

Growing up is difficult for most. Learning who you are, what influences you, and nurture versus nature all factor in how you develop as a human being. When family secrets and dysfunction come into play, the “coming of age” process becomes much more complicated. Julia Ducournau’s film Raw takes these factors on with a female perspective, creating a clever blend of genre film and a female driven narrative mixed with some genuinely human moments. This past weekend, I finally got to see this buzzed about film presented by VICE’s Krista Dzialoszynski at the Royal Cinema. I was eager to see exactly what caused some audience members to become ill at TIFF 2016 and other film festivals because of the graphic content, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Justine (Garance Marillier) is a young woman entering her first year of veterinarian school. She is nervous for this next step in her life, but her older sister, Alex (Ella Rumpf) is a student at the same school, and she shows Justine the ropes as the first year students endure rigorous and brutal hazing. She also has the help of her homosexual roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), whom she grows attracted to.

Justine is thrown for a loop when she is forced to eat a rabbit’s kidney during a hazing activity. She and her family are vegetarian, so this test changes her whole world with just one swallow. Horrible rashes, painful hunger and a hankering for meat plagues her after she eats the dreaded animal part, making her already difficult adjustment to college life, coping with being an above average student, and her blossoming adulthood even more trying.   A freak accident with her sister pushes her over the blood lust threshold with cannibalistic tendencies, and the discovery of her sister’s secret becomes more than she can bear.  Justine must struggle with her newfound affliction, her inability to fit in and intense sibling rivalry steeped in secrets.

After their Carrie-esque initiation, Justine (Marillier) is fed the fated rabbit kidney by her sister Alex (Rumpf) as Adrien (Oufella) watches. photo credit: Focus World

The discussion after the screening with Krista Dzialoszynski of VICE and the Bloody Mary Film Festival and Alexandra West, author of Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity and co-host of the Faculty of Horror podcast touched on female themes such as loss of virginity, menstruation, and the sterilization of all aspects of being a girl and woman in society and film. They applauded Ducournau for showing a coming of age story from a distinctly female perspective. Instead of the “male gaze” of a siren or chaste mother figure, they noted how Ducournau breaks the mold with Justine and her gruesome ordeal; using literal representations of the blood and guts of growing pains. Both Dzialoszynski and West felt that now is the time to show different stories in the genre film scene, and they had high hopes that female and other perspectives outside of the white, male scope will soon become more than a passing fad .

Along with the female rites of passage Dzialoszynski and West discussed, my favourite theme of the film was that of family dysfunction. Justine and Alex’s family dynamic is established with ease and with very little information in the film.  We gather that there is some coddling from their mother, resignation from their father, and a sibling rivalry that becomes increasingly toxic as the sisters blackmail each other with their secrets. This aspect made Justine’s affliction somehow all at once bizarre and relatable.  The normalcy of worried parents, cutting the aprons strings, and vindictive siblings while dealing with being different isn’t hard to believe even though it’s presented in such an extreme way.

Justine’s meat cravings coincide with her sexual maturation as she is free to explore new feelings and experience new things. Her suppressed personality and naivety about the world around her is challenged, especially with her feelings for the out of reach Adrien, and she is forced to confront things outside of her control. Marillier does a stellar job portraying Justine’s uncertainty with this dilemma, as she toils with blazing her own trail, giving in to her animalistic urges, and try to fit into this barely civilized student world. It’s a predicament that many young women face shown in an unusual light. The chemistry between Rumpf and Marillier was also fantastic, creating a believable and twisted bond.

I was surprised by how funny Raw was. Moments that were genuinely human, absurd and silly, like the sisterly act of Alex helping Justine wax her bikini line (with disastrous and life-changing results), or morbid advice from a fellow student with an eating disorder about vomiting techniques were clever and captured the ordeals and pressures of being a young woman without cheap laughs. Ducournau’s skill at integrating these moments seamlessly with horror elements and gore puts her film in equal standing with the classic female coming of age horrors and makes me want to see what else she has to offer.

I also enjoyed the scoring and soundtrack that revolved between electronic music and modern baroque arrangements of organs, harpsichord and strings for the film’s theme song. Once you hear the repetition of the chords, it creates a sweet, almost gut-rot tension that stays with you. It’s no wonder since the composer Jim Williams has made tension building music for Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and Sightseers, two very different but equally twisted films. You’ll also notice the gorgeous cinematography by Ruben Impens. His use of colour was striking, as well as light, shadow and slow motion; giving a dream-like quality to scenes and contrast to the drab backdrop of daily occurrences as a student.

I’m still not sure why people were fainting during previous screenings, but then again, I’m a horror hound and not easily fazed.  In fact, I think it just shows how magnificent the makeup FX team was on this film. While there are some disturbing animal dissection scenes for those who are sensitive or vegetarian (like me), I suggest seeing Raw because of its many layers, as well as the gore and its depiction of the messiness of a young awkward woman’s life that for once isn’t sterilized for mass consumption.

 

Sleepless Nights with Goodnight Mommy

Published October 2, 2015 by rmpixie

goodnightmommy

Goodnight Mommy (2014, 99 mins.)

 

Moody twins, cornfields, and an isolated house in the countryside are all ingredients for instant terror in my eyes.  I found it all in Goodnight Mommy, the 2014 Austrian horror that wowed audiences for its disturbing visuals and spiralling story.

Twins Elias and Lukas have to reconnect with their mother after she returns home from extensive surgery.  Her face is obscured by bandages and swollen features, and they are uncertain how to approach her as she seems distant and cold; forgetting sentimental details that make them suspicious.  The boys question her identity, and what should have been an idyllic summer for them turns into a cat and mouse game of shifting realities and sanity as they set out with lethal determination to get their answer.

What this film gives you is precision in its beauty and visual detail.  Each scene is so pleasing to the eye, so well-aligned that you drink in the settings before focusing on the action.  The lush, almost Middle Earth feel to the surrounding forest gives the film an enchanted, fairy tale look, contrasted with the family’s modern and sleek Ikea-on-steroids home that serves as a prison of sorts.  There is a ton of symbolic imagery from tunnels to blurred photographs and crucifixes; and obvious themes of beauty, decay (especially with the children’s odd choice of pets) and renewal, but they never get fully realized as the story takes fun house ride twists of what is real and what is imagined.  I was also disappointed with a reveal that happens far too early in the film.  One thing I enjoy with a horror film is the guess-work, and the mystery aspect was taken away with this one glaring detail.

There was some redemption with the cringe-worthy torture and body horror which worked well as the dynamics switched between mother and sons.  It came hard and fast without lingering too long on excessive gore. Performance-wise, I kept thinking of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In as I watched.  Like the characters in these films, mother and sons were all uncomfortably and, for a brief moment elusively, left of center, leaving you wondering what their next move would be. The harshness conveyed by Susanne Wuest as the mother and Elias and Lukas Schwarz as her calculating sons provided lots of tension and suspense.

To sum it up, I liked Goodnight Mommy.  A lot.  I just wanted more exploration, especially with the imagery that became a dead-end, and perhaps a touch more back story (for example, an answer to why the boys seem to be home alone when their mother returns from the hospital).  What you will get from directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz is a beautifully filmed and creepy psychological/body horror that is worth a watch even though it lacked some clarity and streamlining.

 

Here is the Goodnight Mommy trailer that the masses were supposedly terrified over.  I would say it is well crafted but misleading…

 

 

Contracted and Disturbed

Published May 5, 2014 by rmpixie

contracted

Contracted  (2013, 1 hr 18 mins)

During the first 15 minutes of Contracted, I decided not to write a review or finish watching it because I had seen a similar film, Thanatomorphose, at the Blood in the Snow Film Festival last October.  I had read comparisons between the two films and was curious about their similarities.   After sticking it out to the end, however, I changed my mind.  Contracted is the layman’s version of the more avant-garde, artsy Thanatomorphose, becoming almost a better film at times because of a more straightforward plot.

Sam (Najarra Townsend) is a listless, somewhat needy young woman who is a recovered addict.  She is clinging to a failed relationship with Nikki (Kate Stegeman), avoiding advances from the slightly stalkerish Riley (Matt Mercer), who doesn’t quite get that Sam is a lesbian, and bumping heads with her mother (horror veteran Caroline Williams).  One night at her friend’s party, she drinks a tad too much and meets a stranger who drugs her and forces unprotected sex on her.  Oh, and the stranger?  A total creep and necrophiliac.  Sam awakens the next day to a strange period and horrible cramps.  What ensues is a documentation of 3 panic-stricken days where her deteriorating health becomes the consequence of that unwanted, creepy “one-night stand”.

As I watched Contracted, I saw how easy it was to compare it to the Canadian film Thanatomorphose, and as I said before, I was going to skip a review, and the film, all together.  But as the story progressed, I gave it a chance.  I must say that yes, the two films are very similar in terms of the subject matter:  the literal physical and mental decay of a female protagonist in 3 acts, however, Contracted gave the viewer an origin of Sam’s ailment.  The backdrop of a sexually transmitted disease was an interesting take on her transformation into a monster, giving us a visceral account of what happens with unsafe sex and the lack of understanding from Sam’s family and peers.  Thanatomorphose is definitely an art house film, with less direction except for the main character’s obvious decay, leaving a lot of room for speculation as to why she literally dissolves (you can read my review here).

I did have a few issues with Contracted.  I really wanted to know the origins of the necrophiliac, B.J. (played by indie darling and writer/actor of V/H/S and V/H/S 2 Simon Barrett).  The pacing was a little on the slow side (although not as slow as Thanatomorphose), and there were a couple of unbelievable moments like Sam being forced to wait on tables with what looks like a raging case of pink eye and horrible, graying skin.  I don’t know any food server that would be allowed to work in Sam’s condition.  There was also a love scene that was used for obvious shock and gore value, but I challenge anyone to tell me that a touch of makeup and a candlelit room is enough to hide horrific mouth sores and hideously veined skin.  I mean, you are kissing that mouth and NO ONE is that love-sick or horny.  And there was the matter of her being date raped.  That fact seemed to be glossed over as a drunken interlude by her friends, family, ex-girlfriend and doctor which was very disturbing and seemed to make her more of a pariah as her illness progressed.  To be clear (since the director was not), a “one-night stand” and sexual assault are not the same thing.  Finally, Sam’s doctor was a judgemental moron.  I don’t know if the healthcare issue in the U.S. is that bad, but any healthcare worker worth their salt would have admitted her to a hospital immediately after her second visit.  At least in Thanatomorphose, Laura’s reluctance to see a doctor was consistent with her isolation.  As an aside, I also found out that Thanatomorphose was the first of the two films to be released (in October 2012), with director Eric England coming in a close second, apparently writing Contracted in March 2012, filming it in May of the same year, and releasing it in 2013.  Interesting tidbits on these sisters from different misters.

Despite those issues, I did like that Sam was a lesbian, which was a refreshing characterization and really added to the plot, her assault and her contracting this disease, and Townsend did a good job of keeping Sam’s growing panic consistent.  Thanatomorphose had the most unsettling special effects makeup I have seen to date, but Contracted did well for a low-budget film, making me cringe several times as Sam’s body transformed and decayed.  The third day, or act, was also quite good; a culmination of the first two days that snowballed into some really grotesque and horrific scenes, as well as Sam’s final moments in the film.  I also liked the storyline and the paranoia it created around the already real and scary premise of contracting a deadly disease through sex.  There is also talk of a sequel which I normally would look upon with dismay, but I’m actually curious about what director Eric England will bring us.

If you want excruciating, vile and food for thought (gulp!), watch Thanatomorphose.  If you want more mainstream, but still indie, with a slightly (but only slightly) more digestible storyline, watch Contracted.  Both body horrors deal with a woman, her body and loss of control, which to me, is quite horrific.

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