Friday, August 30, 2013

The 2013 Horror Digest, Part 1: I'd Sell My Soul for a Good Opening Weekend

I don't know if you guys have noticed, but 2013 has been pretty good to horror so far! At least to its box office - the quality of this year's offerings have been a mixed platter, typical of any studio slate, but the real revelation is the genre's renewed, almost instantaneous bankability. The Conjuring had one of the highest opening weekends for an R-rated film of all time; the only other R-rated horror film to make so much money so quickly was Paranormal Activity 3. The Purge multiplied its budget by thirty. Evil Dead nearly broke $100 million. And those are just the R-rated flicks alone - World War Z took in major bank overseas, for instance. Mama did well, Dark Skies did well, Warm Bodies did well even though it shouldn't have. Maybe my 2011/2012 prognostications about the future of adult horror were preemptive, or maybe there's been some kind of worldwide attitudinal shift that's gotten mainstream audiences so interested in all this depravity. Could it be a growing notion that our world is falling apart?

There's been a noticeable preoccupation with economic decay in many of the movies released this year, almost certainly a reflection of our nation's dire straits. This isn't a new trend to film, cropping up as early as Great Depression musicals in order to pair common audience anxieties with a gleeful, utopian worldview. To see these fears interlaced with the horror genre, however, is particularly exceptional. Three of the films below deal with financial crises, at least in passing, and the other two feature protagonists overcoming major drug addictions. The prevalence of such heavy subject matter in a genre with few escapist tendencies is strange, but as with any regularly employed cultural trend, its incorporation is livened or worsened by the skill of its creative team. The movies below, for the most part, depict these issues thoughtfully enough to merit their inclusion. Except for Evil Dead. Fuck that shit.

Antiviral [Netflix]

You would have to be a lunatic to desire fame in the 21st century. Paparazzi may seem intrusive enough as it is, but images of an otherwise average person going about her routine don't cut it anymore. Social technologies like Twitter have entitled millions of people to a feeling of constant connectivity to their idols; such an increased degree of exposure is a double-edged sword, because now any teenage shitheel can anonymously slander or threaten you whenever his shriveled heart desires. The Internet has left us all living in public, but to many, the life of a celebrity is hardly a life at all. Antiviral ups the ante on these already sad circumstances by depicting a near future where celebrity culture is the only kind of culture, a world in which the ultimate expression of adoration is paying hand-over-fist to be injected with the viruses of these beautiful people. These "celebrities" don't even sing or act, simply serving as proprietary pathogenic vessels for corporations to make money off the unwitting. Huckster Syd March (Caleb Landry-Jones of X-Men First Class, deliciously cold) peddles these germs for the omnipotent Lucas Clinic, but unsurprisingly the big guys aren't paying their workers too much in times like these, so occasionally he'll steal viruses and sell them on the black market. Unfortunately, Syd never accounted for this society's insidious idea of copyright protection, and so begins his great adventure. Brandon Cronenberg, inspired by an offhand remark in a Sarah Michelle Gellar interview, has created a world in the image of his father's work that is populated by obsessions entirely his own. This fame-forged dystopia is brimming with hardship, but its citizens are too doped up on entertainment to understand what a hard life entails except by relating to celebrity "Ordeals," manufactured traumas like having a camera zoom up your rectum (broadcast on the news as, of course, the Aria Noble Anus Ordeal). Beautifully shot and conceived, Antiviral nonetheless betrays its director's inexperienced hand, as the clever concepts and shifts in understanding are occasionally explained more closely than they need to be. Nonetheless, Cronenberg delivers a portrait of manic devotion that is not only contemporary (Miley, One Direction, Lady Gaga, et al.), but indicative of a society suffering a much greater structural disease than any one human might carry. B+

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Elysium, Technocracy, and a Curious Case of "Heavy-Handedness"

Minor spoilers follow.

Elysium, the sophomore effort of South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp, continues a tradition of socially conscious action film established by his previous critical darling District 9. Moving away from D9's apartheid allegory into questions of class and privilege in the year 2154, Blomkamp can't be faulted for his ambition: how many blockbuster filmmakers are this invested in delivering a product with a substantial message? Most critics haven't seen it so reasonably, and although the response to the film has been one of lukewarm enthusiasm, many of its champions qualify it as well-made action (and it really is!) that is "hazy" and "on-the-nose" while detractors write it off as having a substantial base for an insubstantial result, as if one of the goals of an action film should not be to provide action. There's a vocal dissatisfaction with the movie's supposed unsubtlety in mirroring the American healthcare system, which is perhaps a result of critics' zeal to prove their understanding, but the multiple subterranean issues of technological superiority that inform the whole movie are completely ignored. Without understanding the face of a world shaped by technology's ubiquitous hand, Elysium might seem "hazy" or "blank," but Blomkamp demonstrates a sophisticated (if unevenly expressed) understanding of the forces that guide our economic and cultural development in an increasingly unstable time.