Thursday, July 30, 2020

Notes on Political Camp with The Hunt

(Every month, I choose a horror film to shine a spotlight on and dig into. For the month of July, I selected this year's controversial political horror film The Hunt.)

"I would go so far as to argue that 'camp' has replaced 'irony' as the go-to sensibility in popular culture, and it has, at the risk of generalization, long since lost its essential qualities of esoteric sophistication and secret signification, partly owing to the contemporary tendency of the gay sensibility to allow itself to be thoroughly co-opted, its mystery, and therefore its power, hopelessly diffused. In other words [...] in this moment, the whole goddamn world is camp."

Bruce LaBruce, "Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp"

What is camp? 

Most camp fans have decreed is that, at its base, camp is a form of comedic sensibility, used to exaggerate things to their extremes for the sake of a laugh. Yet, the question of the exact nature of camp been the subject of debate for decades: In Susan Sontag's 1964 essay, "Notes on 'Camp'," she argues that camp is a sense of naivete, that camp is when nobody has any idea of what they're doing. On the flip side, Andrew Ross wrote in his 1989 text, "Uses of Camp," that camp isn't naive; that it can be used intentionally for specific functions depending on who's using it and for what purpose. Then, there's the aforementioned 2012 essay from filmmaker and writer Bruce LaBruce that argues that camp has lost its meaning and that "the whole goddamn world is camp" now. He believes that camp has become such a widespread phenomenon that it's no longer just a single sensibility, but rather a series of sensibilities. LaBruce names off several categories, ranging from Classic Gay Camp to Ultra Camp to Subversive Camp to Conservative Camp and Liberal Camp. The topic of political camp comes up several more times throughout LaBruce's essay, as he argues that camp is "by its very nature political," and that, due to a present lack of sophistication and substance within current camp, it can be accessed and used by both conservatives and liberals. Examples of both categories given by LaBruce include Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich for Conservative Camp, and Dr. Ruth and Al Sharpton for Liberal Camp.

Now that the question of what is camp has been addressed, the next question becomes what does camp have to do with The Hunt? For those who missed its all too brief theatrical run before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down movie theaters country-wide, it was a film released on March 13, 2020 that was written by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse and directed by Craig Zobel. The film follows a group of upper class liberals, led by a woman named Athena, whom gather a group of over ten lower class conservatives in a forest with the intent of hunting and killing them. Their plot is complicated when one of the hunted, a seemingly conservative woman named Crystal, proves to be a more capable opponent than her hunters expected, leading up to a final showdown between Crystal and Athena. The film was intended to be an updated adaptation of the short story The Most Dangerous Game, with a bonus injection of political content that earned controversy long before the film was even released. It garnered enough controversy that the film was actually delayed from a release in late September 2019 to its final March 2020 date. However, what many failed to take into account is that the film's ultimate statement is not in favor of either side of the political spectrum, but rather to display the campiness of both conservatives and liberals in the present era. With the hope of creating a satirical look on America's current political climate, the filmmakers of The Hunt not only utilize tropes found within the horror and action genres, but also Conservative Camp and Liberal Camp to achieve their goal.

The battle between Conservative (Camp) and Liberal (Camp) in The Hunt

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Peeping Tom: Into The Dark: Culture Shock (2019)

Hulu's series Into The Dark has received a...mixed reception to say the least. While the series has its fans (including myself, if my Pride Month post on the "Midnight Kiss" episode didn't make that clear), there are also several detractors whom dislike the series for varying reasons, including the varying quality of the episodes as well as the frequent attempts to infuse political/social commentary (something I touched upon in last week's hot take post). There is one episode, however, that many, including myself, have singled out as being if not the best than one of the more successful of the bunch: "Culture Shock."

"Culture Shock" follows Marisol (Martha Higareda), whom desperately wants to leave her native Mexico behind her to go to America. After one failed attempt to illegally cross the border that results in a sexual assault and pregnancy by the man she was set to enter America with, Oscar (Felipe de Lara), Marisol is ready to try again. She pays for her way to America, meeting others along the way including enigmatic Santo (Richard Cabral) and young Ricky (Ian Inigo). After encounters with the cartel and US Border Patrol, Marisol eventually wakes up in America, greeted by the ever chipper Betty (Barbara Crampton). Despite it being everything she could have wanted, Marisol soon finds that there's something far more twisted at play. While there are many components that make "Culture Shock" one of the best Into The Dark episodes, I think that one of the most prominent is the choices in aesthetics made by the episode's director and co-writer, Gigi Saul Guerrero, in which she splits the episode into three separate aesthetics to reflect the headspace and journey of her protagonist.

Marisol (Martha Higareda), protagonist of "Culture Shock"

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Hot Take: Horror Has Always Been Political

Something I've noticed in recent years, in light of the release of the increasing number of horror films with an overt political or social message (something that, IMO, can pinpointed to Get Out's success as a "social thriller", something I touched upon to with last week's Performance Piece post) there has been an increasing amount of backlash. People have been coming from all ends to claim that the horror genre has never been about politics and that recent works like Jordan Peele's works, Sophia Takal's Black Christmas remake and Hulu's Into The Dark series are just "ViRtUaL sIgNaLiNg" and "PaNdErInG". So, I'm going to make my opinion clear: I don't think that a horror movie (or any movie) needs social commentary to be great; I can get into a good meaningless romp. However, I am of the mind that there have always been works, including works within the horror genre, that have a message of some sorts to them. And that's why I've put together a list of films within the genre dating from all the way back to the 1930's to the present that I believe carry a message of some sort. Hit the jump, and we'll get started!

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Performance Piece: Lakeith Stanfield, "Get Out" (2017)

The performer: Lakeith Stanfield

The performance: Playing "Andre Hayworth" & "Logan King" in Get Out

Why him?

While working out my slate for July, I knew that I was going to have to do something involving Jordan Peele's work if I was going for a politics theme, but especially something with his debut film Get Out. Not only do I believe that Get Out is one of the two most influential horror films of the 2010's (The other being James Wan's Insidious), but it was an enormous success in many ways: The film scored a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Peele and three other nominations, including Best Picture; The film also brought attention to both racial representation in horror, as well as horror filmmakers's use of their genre's confines to deliver social and political commentary. One of Get Out's biggest assets is its ensemble cast, all of whom are super game to deliver what Peele is trying to convey about the varying methods of racism directed towards African-Americans. It was hard to select just one performance, as you have some hard hitters at work here including Daniel Kaluuya (Who should've won the damn Best Actor Oscar for his work in this movie), Lil Rel Howery and Betty Gabriel. However, I chose to analyze a performance from someone in the cast who happens to be one of my current favorite actors: Lakeith Stanfield.

Friday, July 3, 2020

New Flesh: The People Under The Stairs (1991)

The Film: The People Under The Stairs (1991)

What Is It About?: The People Under The Stairs revolves around young teenager Poindexter, or as his older sister Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter) has dubbed him, "Fool" (Brandon Quintin Adams). Fool learns from neighbor Leroy (Ving Rhames) that he, Ruby and their mother (Connie Marie Brazelton) will be evicted from their home if they can not pay their landlords an enormous amount of money. Not only do they have to pay a large sum, but the family must do so by the end of the next day, which also happens to be Fool's thirteenth birthday. Fool reluctantly agrees to a scheme hatched by Leroy and Leroy's partner in crime Spencer (Jeremy Roberts) in which they will break into the landlords's home and steal a collection of gold coins they have allegedly amassed. However, once they enact their plot, Fool finds himself trapped inside of the house of the sadistic and insane landlords, known only as Mommy and Daddy (Wendy Robie & Everett McGill). Little does he know that, on his way to escaping, he will find out that Mommy and Daddy have several secrets that they are willing to kill to keep hidden under the stairs.

Why Do I Recommend it?

So, when figuring out how to start July, in which I'll be writing about the use of politics within horror films all month, The People Under The Stairs actually came to me pretty quickly as my choice for my New Flesh series for this month. Mostly because, despite the fact that this was written and directed by Wes Craven of Scream and A Nightmare on Elm Street (among many others) fame, I had never actually heard of it until I saw Shudder's documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror last year. I quickly watched it after I viewed the documentary and found it to be a genuinely impressive and overlooked work within Craven's filmography. Especially as, to go off of the political theme for the month, there is a lot to unpack here.

The main political themes in The People Under The Stairs include its commentary against the gentrification of lower class neighborhoods, often populated by minority groups such as people of color (Such as Fool and his family), by the rich white elite. For those who don't know about gentrification, as I didn't for a long time, it is the act of taking property and rebuilding it to appeal to a higher class's taste. The People Under The Stairs makes its stances clear from the near start, presenting us with Fool and his family's predicament immediately after the opening sequence. To reiterate and expound, Fool's family is the last remaining family in their apartment building, they're strapped for cash and are late on a rental payment, something that is forcing them to now pay triple the usual fee. Fool is given no other option other than to go along with Leroy's robbery scheme, as Ruby and their mother are unable to get the necessary cash by the due date. The greed of Mommy and Daddy as they attempt to gentrify Fool's home forces him to participate in a series of crimes he is not comfortable with because, as Leroy says, "He [Daddy] wants to bring the wrecking ball in, so he can line his pockets." Even without the rest of the the movie that follows, the film's message is pretty explicit from the premise alone.

The People Under The Stairs's other main political theme is its anti-capitalism stance. While anti-capitalist, or "Eat the rich", films have experienced a surge lately, resulting in recent works such as Us, Ready or Not, Parasite and Knives Out, The People Under The Stairs was giving us that message years before the current crop was. The rich characters in this film, Mommy and Daddy, are, without question, irredeemably evil: They are gentrifiers, they are willing to murder to maintain their power and status, they've kidnapped multiple children and force those not up to their standards to live within the walls of their home. The rich are portrayed as absolute psychos, while the poor characters are portrayed very well: Fool is shown to be an intelligent, funny and considerate boy who just wants to save himself and his family from being thrown out and, eventually, wants to rescue the children Mommy and Daddy have kidnapped. Ruby is portrayed as intelligent and resourceful, especially at the climax of the film when she shows up to rescue Fool with their grandpa and an enormous group to back her up. Something that ties in with the anti-gentrification theme, as Ruby tells Mommy, "You're stealing the tools from our community for your own sick needs," which shuts her up right as she's about to insult Ruby and Ruby and Fool's grandpa Booker. (by calling them the n word, to boot.) I think that one of the biggest examples of what Craven is trying to drive home comes from two scenes: One is a very tender scene between Fool and his ailing mother right before he leaves to begin the scheme with Leroy and Spencer, that is immediately followed by Mommy confronting her "daughter" Alice, and immediately ordering Daddy to beat her "except the face." In that simple one-two punch, he shows the humanity of the poor black family and the monstrosity of the rich white "family".

Contrasting families in The People Under The Stairs (1991)

In addition to the political themes, the rest of the film really holds up as entertaining and good. I often talk about how much I love the casts of films, and The People Under The Stairs is no exception. Adams as Fool is great as a horror counterpart of sorts to Home Alone's Kevin McCallister, delivering reactions apropos to the insanity he encounters and giving us plenty of great one-liners along the way. My favorite being, "Your father's one sick mother, you know that? Actually, your mother's one sick mother too." Robie and McGill as Mommy and Daddy deliver exactly the necessary amount of over the top energy required for their batshit roles. It's very clear the two of them are having a blast as they're asked to do things lesser actors would balk at. This includes having Robie run around the house screaming with a shotgun and fawning over her "little doggy baby", while McGill has to wear a gimp suit in several scenes, as well as act out eating part of a dead body before tossing it to the imprisoned children under the stairs. The supporting cast is fine too, especially Rhames, Minter and Sean Whalen as the leader of the imprisoned children, known only as Roach. Really, there isn't a face out of place here, and the film is all the better for having such a strong ensemble.

The leads of The People Under The Stairs

A final aspect of the film I think is worth noting, in case any of this talk about politics or the over the top energy of the plot and performances has left you cold, is that this has Craven's fingerprints all over it. Or, to use a term I had to learn about repeatedly throughout my experience in film school, Craven's "auteurism" is definitely on display. Several of his trademarks are seen throughout, including his fascination with booby traps, something carried over from The Hills Have Eyes and A Nightmare on Elm Street and dialed up to twenty here. One of Fool's challenges as he tries to escape the house is that Mommy and Daddy have laid several booby traps, including an electrified front door, padlocked windows and a basement staircase that can turn into a slide. There's other little Craven touches, such as the use of a television playing a film (this is also something he throws into A Nightmare on Elm Street and, most famously, Scream), having a tense set piece involve a character being forced onto the roof of a house (Something he repeats in three out of his four Scream films), and the use of the "Lay my soul to sleep" prayer (Something he's clearly fascinated with, since one of his final films is named My Soul To Take.) And, interestingly enough, the final Craven element is the use of injecting politics into his horror films, as The People Under The Stairs joins Elm Street and his Scream films as among his films that have a message of some kind embedded within. So, if you like Wes Craven's other work and want an enjoyably chaotic film with some commentary to boot, look for The People Under The Stairs.

Available on: iTunes and Amazon.