15 Minute Rule - The Horsemen

There's been a lot of talk about the state of current horror films being largely built around meaningless scenes of bodies being torn about. When that talk turns to WHY modern horror has gone in this direction you get a lot of the typical old saws (if you'll pardon the pun) about the decline of society and civility, the loss of morals, the lack of imagination.

None of these arguments ever held much weight for me. Firstly, as much as all these flicks get their jollies off of gore and dismemberment, I don't know that ONE of them has topped some of the prime 70s gore flicks. Secondly, people have been making those same arguments about various incarnations of horror for years, but I think there is something particularly different about this current era of horror film that seperates it from what's come before. I'd never been able to put my finger on it, but now that I've seen The Horsemen, I think I've got a theory:

We're not afraid of anything anymore.

I can hear some of you scoffing from here. "We live in a time of fear!" you're yelling at me through your monitor. "Fear has been the primary emotion of the past decade!" "Two words: 'Fox News'" "I'm afraid RIGHT NOW!"

Yeah yeah yeah, sure, but listen: What are you REALLY afraid of? Honestly? We talk about being afraid of global warming or terrorism or school violence or economic collapse, but are we really afraid of these things? How much do we really think about them? How much do they guide our actions? How much do we take precaution against them? How much do we sacrifice for them? How much do we actively engage with them? OK, OK, I don't mean to jump on you, dear readers, but in the broad cultural sense, I just don't know that there's as much actual FEAR out there as we've been led to believe.

I think there are two things necessary for fear: An element of the unknown and a lack of control. I think nowadays people think we know everything and that we've got stuff pretty much under control. When people talk about things getting "out of control" now, what they really mean is that things aren't going their way, and if people just did what they wanted, everything would be fine. That's not "out of control," that's "out of MY control until I can wrestle that control back."

My good friend Polly Frost is fascinated by disappearance cases. There's more than you'd think, she tells me, mostly young people, mostly women, who are last seen getting into cars with strangers, or walking off drunk into the night by themselves or going down to Mexico and evaporating into the haze of crazy parties. They put up information on public websites detailing where they are, where they'll be, when they're leaving and if they're alone. "These people don't think anything could POSSIBLY happen to them!" she explains to me. They're not afraid. Who is?

This is deadly for horror movies. I don't believe you can make a scary movie unless you yourself are, in some way, scared. Horror movies examine what scares us, and if nothing scares us then all our horror movies can be are remixes of other scare flicks.

And it seems to me, in the same way the prat fall or the fart joke is the baseline for comedy, intense physical bodily harm is the baseline for horror. If you aren't afraid of unknown forces, mental illness, repressed animalistic tendencies, God, predestination, moral failings, karmic retributions, sexual failings, judgment, apocalypse or any of the genre's other many cornerstones upon which the horrors build, really the only thing that's left to you is getting torn apart. In a society that's possibly become narcissistic and onanistic, where nothing of consequence exists outside of the self, the only thing to fear is something explicitly harming the self. Which I suppose may be a lack of imagination, or at least abstract thinking. The only thing these guys can possibly imagine as being horrifying is the fairly unlikely event of getting kidnapped by a deranged killer who enjoys setting up Rube Goldberg death machines for amusement and instruction.

What got me thinking about this regarding the 2009 Jonas Akerlund film "The Horsemen" is the title itself. The titular horsemen are the Biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse. Within the film a group of murders are accompanied with the phrase "Come and see" written around the corpses, pointing the intrepid detective Dennis Quaid to the verse in Revelations detailing the End Times arrival of Death, Famine, Disease and War. What could the killer possibly be thinking, quoting this verse? What kind of connection are they trying to draw to themselves and these scriptural harbingers of doom?

Not much of one. The ending, which I'm going to spoil for you here, as the greatest "spoiling" of all would be to actually watch the garbage, involves Dennis Quaid's son revealing to Quaid that he was part of a collection of kids whose families didn't treat them right, so they've decided to go about viciously murdering them, bringing about the END TIMES of mommies and daddies not doling out enough hugs (or too many, in the case of Ziyi Zhang and her adopted father, a criminally wasted Peter Stormare). There is so much spectacularly wrong with this that I'm not going to go into it in detail, but instead provide a Top Ten list of biggest idiocies:

1) To complain that his dad didn't pay enough attention to him and got all withdrawn after is wife DIED OF CANCER, the son attempts suicide in a fantastically grotesque fashion while having his father watch, which will certainly teach him a lesson and is totally morally equivalent.

2) Also, in doing so he's leaving his younger brother without his support...

3) ...And with a dad who not only lost a wife to cancer, but watched his son hang himself by meathooks and drown in his own blood.

4) Did I mention the kid hangs himself with meathooks? By himself? Which is so impressive, it's impossible.

5) The kid attempts to drown himself through puncturing his lungs, which happens earlier in the film but is executed by someone with medical training. Not some jerky kid. And then he wonders why it isn't working.

6) Also, when did he puncture his lungs? Before or after he hung himself up on meathooks?

7) The kids committing these murders are broadcasting them out to a whole online community of kids who think their parents are jerks and who have all managed to keep this whole thing entirely under their hats and off any FBI watchlist this whole time.

8) Some of the kids kill one of the abusers, some of them kill themselves while making the person who mistreated them watch. For kids who sat together and planned out a bunch of extremely complex and involved murders, it's weird they didn't try to talk their friends out of killing themselves. OR maybe talk the other friend INTO killing theirself. That seems like a weirdly crucial point of the plan to have a disagreement about.

9) The movie actually seems to AGREE with the kid. If we painted him as super-crazy and deranged, that'd be one thing, but the movie seems to be tsk tsking at Quaid's poor parental skills right along with him. Also, the kid's a teenager and at one point complains that Quaid would have realized his plan if he'd ever actually GONE INTO HIS ROOM like a good helicopter parent should, which may be the first time I've ever seen a teenager complain that his parent has given him TOO MUCH privacy.

10) The kid is quoting scripture while doing this, and we see him in church and sort of get a hint that his beloved mother was very religious, which makes this whole course of action seem a little...problematic as far as his belief structure goes.

It's this last point I really want to address. The title of the movie references a Bible verse. We have scenes of the family in church and a few scenes involving Bibles around the house. The main psychopath quotes scripture. But never for one minute do I think anyone in this movie or anyone involved in this movie has any actual Biblical belief, or even any actual interest other than that some verses in Revalations sound real spooky and crap.

I don't think you have to be religious to make religious horror, but I certainly think it helps. And even if you're not, you have to at least take it seriuosly within the world in which it's existing or with the characters who take it seriously enough to act on it. Being religious myself, my love of religious horror is probably what kept me watching this piece of drivel well longer than I should have. I kept hoping, waiting for some moment where they might actually take their own words seriously, where any of this might pay off. Nada.

And then I got to thinking, what horror movies in the last twenty years or so used religion and ACTUALLY took it seriously? The only movie that came to mind was the Exorcism of Emily Rose, which I love. AH, and Red State, which I also kinda loved. But that's about it. I can name you a bunch of movies that use demons, exorcisms, priests and devils, but not a one of them is actually invested in them or what they represent. They aren't even using the religious trappings to SAY anything, or even make it a metaphor for something else. They're just using it as window dressing. They're as scared of or by it as they would be of a rubber spider.

It's not just that they don't find religion scary, I don't think they find teenage alienation or the numbing effects of grief or any of the other possible themes you could pull from the film scary, either. They just think some of the images look cool and that hanging people up from meathooks and self-evisceration is INTENSE and everyone kinda wants to play martyr in front of their parents at some point. Essentially this is the horror movie version of that scene in A Christmas Carol where Ralphie imagines going blind from soap poisoning. And just about as scary.

Why make a horror movie of something you don't find scary? That's like making a comedy full of jokes you don't find funny, or a thriller with set pieces free of intensity or rising action, but I feel like that's pretty much every damn horror movie I see. If I could make one plea to any horror filmmakers out there, I suppose it would be this: Before you try and scare me you should at least be able to scare yourself.

NetFlix Review #3: The Last Temptation of Christ

I feel kind of bad, because I’ve led of all of my reviews thus far talking about things I don’t like. I talked about Jane Austen books in the Emma review, lazy uses of the Cad character in the La Dolce Vita review, and here I am, opening up the review for a movie I absolutely adore, The Last Temptation of Christ, and I’m going to start it off talking about a movie I kind of hate, The Passion of the Christ.

I remember when The Passion came out everyone was either going nuts for it or absolutely hating it. I really wanted to like it. I’m a big Jesus fan, and I dig Mel Gibson as a director. However, I should have known it was not meant to be, because the commercials themselves annoyed me. You remember the commercials? Where they’d pull people coming out of the movie and they’d be crying and saying things like “You know, it all suddenly seemed very real for me. I understood for the first time what Jesus’ suffering truly was.” And I thought, “Really? Honestly, this is just hitting you for the first time? All those Good Friday services you sat through where the minister would read about them beating and whipping Jesus, then forcing a crown of thorns on his head, then making him drag his own cross up a mountain, then nailing him to it, then forcing him to drink vinegar, then stabbing him with a spear, and finally, since he was TAKING SO LONG TO DIE, they broke his legs which caused his body to collapse and essentially had him suffocate on his own blood, you heard ALL THAT and thought, ‘Eh, it’s not THAT bad.’ But then it happened on screen to Jim Caviezal and you thought ‘Oh no, not Jimmy!’” Maybe I just have an exceptionally active imagination, but I never really had any trouble grasping the suffering of Christ. What I wanted to hear about was the meaning of the whole thing. I want the existential crisis. I want to see the conflicted nature of man and God sort itself out into a message of love and understanding. What I want, basically, is The Last Temptation of Christ.

What works about the movie, to my mind, is that it does what so many people seemed to feel like The Passion of the Christ did – it made it all real for me. The pain I get, the pain is easy, but it’s the other stuff, the theological stuff, the God-in-man, the love everybody stuff, that’s the stuff that really boggles my mind. What Scorsese’s movie does, with the help of a great Paul Schrader script from the Nikos Kazantzakis novel, is bring out the very real, very human Jesus. In the great God-man spectrum of Jesus it’s very easy and comfortable to put him firmly in the God side, because that way he’s not really struggling. When he gets tempted in the desert, he knows exactly what to say and it’s not a problem. When he hangs out with Mary Magdalene the prostitute he doesn’t see her as a prostitute, he just sees her as a lost soul. When he prays that this cup be taken from him, he’s not asking to go against the will of God because he is God. There is no doubt, there is no inner turmoil. But when you see him as a man these things become troublesome, AS THEY SHOULD. The true agony of Jesus should not be the physical agony, but the spiritual agony. The body will endure what the body will endure, but the spirit is a matter of choices and considerations much more complex.

Willem Dafoe’s Jesus, particularly at the beginning of the film, is played as a bit of a cowardly neurotic, but perhaps it should be considered what he’s up against. He’s plagued not only by fear and doubt and demons, but also by God. He wrestles with God, at times physically, writhing on the ground trying to tear himself free of his heavenly duties. Jesus’ possible weaknesses in these moments are countered brilliantly in the script through the character of Judas, played with brilliant ferocity by Harvey Keitel. If you start to feel upset at the weakness and insecurity of Jesus, just ask yourself, “Would I rather have Judas?” Judas, being a Zealot, makes a more stereotypical leader. He’s strong-willed, steadfast, a man of action and determination. A good man to lead a revolution, maybe, but not the best choice to usher in a regime of love, consideration, empathy and understanding.

What really got to me watching the movie this time was how relatable they make Jesus, especially to someone my age. I just turned 27, Jesus started his ministry when he was 30, so when we meet him at the beginning of the movie he is ostensibly 30, maybe a bit younger, which puts him right around my age. As he talked to Judas, the mystics, John the Baptist, as he worked out his path, I found beneath all of the talk of him being the son of God something strikingly familiar, a young man grappling with who he is and where his life is taking him. This is a Jesus who truly knows what it means to be human. Although I have not personally felt the true spiritual weight of Jesus' destiny, I've felt his confusion, his worry, his questioning over whether or not he is truly up to what he believes is his future, if he is doing what is is meant to do. The movie takes the contradictions and dissonances within the stories of Jesus and examines them through a realistic psychological model. It gets to heart of the contradictory lessons one hears in church that we should all be like Jesus, but that we can also never be like Jesus, as he was something so far beyond us. These messages used to confound and annoy me, "You cannot possibly know what it was like to be Jesus. But try to be like Jesus." This film gives me a Jesus that still feels Holy and God-like, but who also has a part of himself that I can sympathize with.

Within all these ruminations upon the essential nature of Jesus and spirituality, the movie is also beatiful and incredibly entertaining. The on-location shooting in Morocco is a beautifully stark and surreal landscape. I like how Scorsese keeps the whole movie visually fascinating while never making it too pristine or polished. It looks dirty, earthy and real. The performances are roundly excellent. So much so that you look past the strange mish-mash of accents and see them as being a collection of very disparate individuals uniting around a charismatic leader, which is precisely what they were. Outside of the brilliant central performances by Dafoe and Keitel there are a number of other stand-outs. First of all is Barbra Hershey doing some dynamic work as Mary Magdalene. Her first appearance in the movie, where Jesus waits while she finishes her day's business and then asks her to forgive him because he knows he has turned her from God, is one of the most uncomfortable and affecting scenes in the film. The film makes allusions to Mary having become a prostitute because Jesus denied himself her for God. She represents the ultimate temptation for Jesus, expanding the typical "temptation of the flesh" to mean not just lust, but the temptation for Jesus to deny his Godly side and indulge fully in his human, fleshly nature, i.e. raise a family, work a trade, live to old age, etc. This temptation is not rendered through some easily spotted devil or Scarlet Woman, it's brought out by the very real and very sympathetic Mary Magdalene.The temptation is not the woman, but the denial of your true self and your path.

Also great is the phenomenal David Bowie as the sadly disaffected Pontius Pilate, Harry Dean Stanton as the rabid Saul and Polly's good friend Andre Gregory as the divinely mad prophet John the Baptist. And one would be lax to discuss this movie without mentioning Peter Gabriel's brilliant score. The music throughout the film is pulsing, primal, celebratory and tinged with sadness. It's the kind of spiritual, affecting music that makes someone like Gabriel such a treasure. Who else would have thought to use the instruments and arrangements that he did for the story of Jesus, yet it works completely.

The film's ending is one that never fails to make me tear up. The smash cut from Jesus at the end of a long, seemingly happy life giving it all up to go back on the cross, that moment where you truly feel both the ultimate triumph and sadness of Christ on the cross, how much it underlines the choice, the sacrifice of Jesus. It's also one of my favorite "Hollywood Legends" that the final shot, where the film burns through, was unintentional. Rumor has it the camera was faulty and exposed the film to light just at the moment Dafoe's Jesus expires. Mistake or not, it's a moving ending to a film that, almost literally, burns through with passion.