I’ve watched five disturbing movies lately. Three were a good kind of disturbing, two were not. The good disturbing films, You’re Next, V/H/S, and V/H/S 2, are horror films, specifically categorized by Netflix under “slashers and serial killers” (not entirely accurate designations, to my mind); the bad disturbing films, The Killer Inside Me and Killer Joe, are both “crime thrillers.” This distinction raises all sorts of interesting issues for me, but more on that in a moment.
I thought You’re Next would ultimately be unsatisfying, but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a violent movie, and yet the violence is often shown obliquely. Perhaps I’m a wee bit desensitized from watching so many horror movies, but even I don’t fancy gore, and I can honestly say that effort was made to give us more the suggestion of than the visuals of violence.
The film has a semi-creative premise. It’s about a home invasion conducted by adversaries wearing creepy masks. So far, sounds like Scream or The Strangers. The difference is that rather than menacing a single babysitter or a couple, the invaders take on a house of ten guests.
But the best thing about the movie is the female lead. Bad ass. I’m not going to say much more, but I’ve never been as impressed by a horror heroine as I was with the character of Erin. Needless to say, she’s an Aussie. She alone made the movie worthwhile.
The V/H/S films have wisely capitalized on horror television’s best recent innovation: the extended anthology series. Anthology shows have been around since at least the Twilight Zone but in the past only offered the possibility for half-hour or hour-long narratives. Some series, American Horror Story being the best example but also The Killing, have managed season- or season-plus-long stories that have a clear break in narrative at the season end but without a loss of characters and/or actors. Genius. It sounds like True Detective is going to do the same thing. (I caught two episodes last night, and both Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey are fabulous, as is the story; I’m already hooked. Bummer I don’t get HBO.)
The V/H/S films went in the opposite direction of the extended anthology, but they still work. Each amounts to a standard length horror film and has an overarching narrative but their primary appeal are the half-dozen or so found-footage shorts they feature. They’re not all great, but many are trying to do something innovative with the found-footage genre, and more than several succeed–a feat I would not have believed possible. And if you tire of one, you can rest assured that it will soon be over. Again, I won’t give much away, but my favorite short involves a mountain biker with a go-pro.
I usually consider it a cinematic accomplishment when a movie disturbs me. But there’s something about the treatment of women in both of these movies that felt . . . icky. I know how absurd that sounds coming from an avid consumer of all things horror. And I can’t take anything away from McConaughey or Affleck; I’m happy to see them show their menacing sides. But both of these films felt more exploitative than the “slasher films” I’ve described above, and I’m not sure I saw the point of it.
Killer Joe was written by Tracy Letts and directed by William Friedkin of Exorcist fame, and I’m intrigued enough that I’ve added their earlier joint venture, Bug (2006), to my queue. And I’ve ordered the 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me and the first adaptation from 1976, just to see if someone else is going on in these earlier incarnations that I didn’t get in the more recent one. Perhaps I’ll have more to report shortly.
Watching this combination of films has revealed that there can be something weirdly comforting in the supernatural elements and cartoonish violence of horror because they secure the films quite firmly in the realm of fantasy.
The men in these “crime thrillers” will haunt my thoughts far longer; maybe that’s the point, but there’s something about the films themselves that makes the abuse seem almost titillating or comic. It felt like being shown a stack of crime magazines that delight in sadism against women by someone who doesn’t even realize that there’s more to his fascination than a mere interest in “crime.”