Monday, August 31, 2020

Viewing The Ruins: How Carter Smith's Film Plays With Spectatorship & Stereotyping

(Every month, I choose a horror film to shine a spotlight on and dig into. For the month of August, I selected the underrated 2008 film The Ruins.)

Carter Smith's 2008 film The Ruins seems like a rather traditional horror film on the surface: The film follows two American couples, Jeff and Amy and Stacy and Eric, as they go on a summer vacation to Mexico. While enjoying themselves, they meet fellow tourists Mathias and Dimitri, whom inform them of Mathias's search for his missing brother. The group's search takes them to where Mathias claims he last heard his brother was located: A set of ancient Mayan ruins. When the group approaches the titular ruins, they are confronted by a tribe of indigenous people whom only speak Mayan and appear antagonistic as they quickly attack the group, resulting in Dimitri's death. The remaining five are forced to stay on top of the ruins, all of them under the assumption that the Mayan tribe is out to kill them for trespassing onto the ruins and their inability to communicate otherwise. However, what they soon discover is that the tribe has an entirely different motive for trapping them on top of the titular ruins, and that the tribe itself is not the real danger they face. By tinkering with its use of the concepts of stereotyping and spectatorship, The Ruins manages to create a subversive experience that leaves you guessing as to who you are meant to be identifying with and rooting for.

Amy (Jena Malone) in full American tourist mode in The Ruins

Friday, August 21, 2020

Peeping Tom: The Lost Boys (1987)

What is the appeal of The Lost Boys?

That's a question I found myself asking in a rather sarcastic manner as I began my to rewatch Joel Schumacher's famous film for the first time in a good ten years. I had written it off on my original viewing when I was a teenager (ironically when I was a part of the film's target audience), but found that this time, I was feeling what Schumacher was putting down. To the point where my question as to the what the appeal of Lost Boys shifted from sarcastic to genuinely inquisitive. I found myself intrigued with the film's visuals to the point where I gave it the slot formerly occupied by Texas Chain Saw Massacre as this month's entry into my Peeping Tom series. Because I believe part of, if not the, answer to my question lies within the creative decisions made by Schumacher and the film crew. Specifically, with regards to the visual presentation of the film's main story revolving around protagonist Michael (Jason Patric) and the influences that came with making the film during the 1980's.

Welcome to Santa, Santa Carla

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Performance Piece: Paris Hilton, House of Wax (2005)

The performer: Paris Hilton

The performance: Playing "Paige Edwards" in the second remake of House of Wax (2005)

Why her?

Let me start off by saying: This isn't going to be like the first few Performance Piece entries have been. While I knew I was going to cover the 2005 version of House of Wax at some point for Cruel Summer Month, I decided later on to dissect one of its more (if not its most) controversial elements: The casting of Paris Hilton. I've touched upon the controversy surrounding Hilton's forays into acting briefly when I discussed Repo! The Genetic Opera during my Hot Take post from last month. Let me reiterate though: Basically, people hate them some Hilton, to the point where she won a Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actress for her performance in this movie. While I am not in the business of full-on defending Hilton (Except for her Repo! performance, because I find her legitimately effective in that), I did want to rewatch House of Wax and see if her performance was truly Razzie-level bad. So, instead of measuring what makes a performance so great as I have before, this month's Performance Piece is going to be an investigation of sorts. One into whether or not Hilton truly was that bad or not.

Paris Hilton as Paige in House of Wax

Thursday, August 6, 2020

New Flesh: The Burning (1981)

The Film: The Burning (1981)

What Is It About?

The Burning revolves around camper Todd (Keith Mandell), whom starts the film off by reluctantly joining his fellow campers in pranking the camp caretaker Cropsy (Lou David) by lighting a skull on fire in his shack. Unfortunately, the prank goes awry when the lit skull ends up setting the entire shack, along with Cropsy, on fire. The end result of the botched prank leaves the caretaker nearly dead and heavily burnt. However, five years later, Cropsy has finally recovered enough to be released from hospital care. Right after he murders a nameless hooker, Cropsy decides to take out his fury by going on a killing spree at another summer camp. Among those targeted include the older Todd (now played by Brian Matthews), Michelle (Leah Ayres), Alfred (Brian Backer), Dave (Jason Alexander), Glazer (Larry Joshua) and Sally (Carrick Glenn). Can the teens defeat Cropsy before he kills all of them with his signature gardening sheers?

Why Do I Recommend it?

I'll start this off with a confession that will become relevant in a bit: I'm not the biggest fan of Friday The 13th. I think that if you took away the Betsy Palmer of it all (which is legitimately great), it wouldn't be as fondly regarded by some as it is. I understand that the Friday films have a large following, and I respect that and am not trying to insult them or the film. But, for the beginning of a month of content I'm dubbing Cruel Summer Month, I wanted to expose those not in the know to an alternative to Friday that I prefer and that was actually constructed before the former's release: The Burning

What about The Burning makes me prefer it over Friday? The first thing that comes to mind is that I find The Burning's cast to be more memorable than Friday's cast: While writing the plot summary, I found that I was able to name most of the characters from The Burning above from memory alone. Whereas with Friday, I could not tell you the names of anyone besides the Voorhees or Kevin Bacon. In The Burning, despite the film ultimately following the slasher trope of the characters each having a defining character trait, you still have a solid cast. Including the film's final boy Todd, who is shown as a supportive and inquisitive man towards others, and one who was affected by participating in the prank that disfigured Cropsy. Even if he tries to justify it by highlighting that Cropsy was a sadist that loved to scare him and the other youths. He has a solid rapport with Alfred, a new and younger camper whom has issues connecting with others. Alfred is taken under Todd's wing and the film ends up coming down to the two of them being the ones who need to stop Cropsy together. Also in the cast are aggressive asshole Glazer, bitchy Michelle, cautious Sally and, of course, The Burning's answer to Friday's use of young Kevin Bacon: Comedic relief Dave, who is played by a pre-Seinfeld Jason Alexander.

The cast of The Burning

And then there's Cropsy, the film's answer to the Voorheeses. Cropsy, as a villain, is an interesting case because he's sort of a combination of both villains from the Friday franchise: He shares Pamela's motive of revenge, in his case against the campers who disfigured him and ruined his life, while he was the actual victim in all of this, like Jason was. However, what really separates Cropsy from Pamela and Jason is that the character is mean. Not only was that stated to be the reason the prank was performed in the first place, but even after Cropsy recovers after years in the hospital, he's still a cruel character. His first action after being released from the hospital is to go kill a hooker for no real reason other than he wants to blow off some steam. Then, when he returns to camp and begins killing youths, there are some truly nasty murders he commits. A highlight being when he murders five youths on a raft trying to find the group's canoes that have been stolen from them. Not only does he murder every single one of them in swift succession, but it's done in bloody detail. When Cropsy finally gets his in the end, you will be cheering against him to finally die.

Lou David as Cropsy, before and after his burning

In addition to the cast, mention must be given to the film's wonderful technical aspects: For a cult slasher, this film has a surprising amount of good work put into it. Among the highlights are the wonderful prosthetic makeup provided by the legendary Tom Savini, which really adds a lot to the film. Without Savini's contributions, we wouldn't have the splendid practical gore effects present throughout all of the death scenes in this film. A huge part of why that raft massacre I mentioned earlier works is because of Savini's work that really highlights the horror of it. Not to mention that Savini's makeup work for Cropsy really adds to the character's creep factor: While Cropsy is kept in the shadows for the bulk of the film, when he's revealed he's a memorably designed villain and appropriately scary. In addition to the prosthetic makeup, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the film's music score, which I love. Apparently, the man behind the score is Rick Wakeman who is primarily known for his work with the prog rock group Yes. While I've admittedly only heard all of one song by Yes ("Owner of a Lonely Heart"), if Wakeman's work on this movie is indicative of anything, it's that he can make quality music. If you haven't seen the movie, or have and don't remember the score, I urge you to take a listen to it here. It adds a lot of atmosphere to an already good film.  

Some of the blood and gore featured in The Burning

Finally, I think that what is really appealing about The Burning is that, ultimately, I feel like it's a very endearing film to watch, especially during summer. A lot of Peter Lawrence and Bob Weinstein's (Yes, that Bob Weinstein) screenplay ultimately focuses a lot on what it feels like to be young and trying to have fun during summer. Something that's reflected in the cinematography, which often has some truly gorgeous shots of the summer camp environment and landscape and, in general, a lot of emphasis on the colors orange and red. There's lots of time spent just chilling with the characters before the bodies start to pile up, to the point where it takes almost fifty minutes for the first of the youths to be killed. Instead of immediately killing teens, we get to spend time with the characters as they ride canoes, try to get laid, and tell ghost stories around the campfire. A lot of the characters, especially the guys, have good banter with each other. There's some good dialogue here, including classic lines like "I told you not to beat your schlong last night, it drains your power," "Maybe it's because she likes you, ya dumb bastard!" and the question of "What the hell are we supposed to be looking for anyways?" met with Dave and Woodstock both shouting "Your mother!" Really, as much as The Burning is about seeing a badly burnt caretaker kill youths, it's also about what it was like to be young and have fun in the summer season.

The summer aesthetic of The Burning 

Available on: YouTube & Shudder