Let’s talk about representation. Anybody can come up with a scary idea, or image, or situation–but how we feel about it is almost as dependent on the visual and aural cues that we’re given as it is on the scare itself. Case in point, today’s Killtoberfest 2 pair are two unique stylistic takes on two very old ideas.
We’ll start with Shivers (1975), one of David Cronenberg’s first movies.
I could give you a plot summary of the movie, but almost everything you need to know is conveyed by the film’s working title, “Orgy of the Blood Parasites.” Said parasites are spreading (mostly via sexual transmission, naturally) through a supposedly idyllic, island-based upscale condominium in Canada. The work of a scientist who decides that humanity is wicked and venal, the parasites (which look like squirming, bleeding slabs of meat) were designed to enter the body and grow, while excreting chemicals meant to inflame the subject’s sex drive and diminish his or her impulse control. The result is a quickly-spreading plague of rape zombies, emphasis on the rape (because this is Cronenberg) but emphasis also on the zombies because this is essentially Romero territory. It bears a lot of similarities to Night of the Living Dead (which predates this film by 7 years), most notably in the basic horrific/satirical concept of ordinary citizens turned into mindless, taboo-breaking killers.
Where Romero shifts very naturally between protagonists in Night (starting with Barbara, then widening the scope to the group of survivors) to make a point about American society as a group of self-interested people confined by circumstance and forced to try and work together, in Shivers Cronenberg intercuts between victims who are each ignorant of the others in order to play up the notion of modern urban lives as compartmentalized and isolated. The film begins with the best example of this, an extended sequence contrasting the apartment building’s agent’s pitch for the complex (great views, classy residents, etc) with a shockingly violent murder happening in one of the apartments. Each storyline finds itself in a different genre, mostly unconnected to the rest–for example, the domestic melodrama (a husband hiding two secrets: that he cheated, and that the woman he cheated with infected him with the parasites) is only tangentially connected to the story of the island doctor investigating the murder that opens the film, which is itself not very connected to the situation of the lonely spinster who takes a very disturbing bath. By the end, the complex has become a horror house on the level of the Overlook Hotel, each room hiding yet another variation on fears of sex, rape, and infection. Unlike Romero’s films (unlike most zombie movies, in fact), no band of determined survivors emerges from the chaos; people live, and die, on their own. The only people seeking a connection are the infected, and you don’t want to be their friend.
Narratively that’s all very fascinating, and Cronenberg being Cronenberg, he manages to say quite a bit about relationships and contemporary sexual mores while also showing you things like a parasite wriggling, tongue-like, out of a man’s mouth. But what makes the film so weird, and my reaction to it fairly ambivalent, is the representation of these horrors. Possibly the film is simply limited by its budget, but that can’t be all of it. Mostly the movie is shot and directed on the level of a soap opera–a very deadpan style that tends to shy away from characterizing or shading either the dramatic scenes or the horrific ones. Those flashes of directorial intention which remain seem far too overt by contrast; for example, the way Cronenberg shoots the sick joke of the old woman whose umbrella catches a vomited parasite feels like it belongs more in the outlandish style of Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead. The score is either nonexistent or unnoticeable, except when you’re supposed to be scared, which is when it does that spacey tonal stuff common in 60s and 70s horror. Meant to unnerve you, I guess, but it’s just so silly. Likewise, the acting is either bad, or far too underplayed, or both; for example, the island doctor’s reaction to being told about the engineered parasites infecting his building is, I paraphrase, “Interesting. Well, don’t worry, I’ve got this.”
In the end, while I found the story’s ideas interesting (and liked the ending quite a bit), as a movie it left me pretty cold. My dominant reaction wasn’t horror, but simple revulsion, an emotion which is relatively for a filmmaker easy to elicit. Overall I’ll put this in a category with the rest of pre-Videodrome Cronenberg–interesting, but not very good. Maybe he just needed more money. At any rate, he remains one of the great horror directors, and I’m glad to try anything he’s done. I’ve just learned by now (between this and The Brood) that I won’t necessarily always love what I see.
(haha! “If this picture doesn’t make you scream and squirm, you’d better see a psychiatrist–quick.” Awesome.)
Visual representation might have been the reason to downgrade Shivers, but it’s absolutely the key to making our next film work: Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010).
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is a story you’ve seen a million times before. A bunch of drunken, horny college students embark on a camping trip to the middle of the woods below the Mason-Dixon line. They run into a couple of hillbillies, and the result is a series of grim deaths. The difference here is that the hillbillies, Tucker and Dale, are the good guys.
The film isn’t perfect by any means. It’s a little bit too long and a little bit too slow (what jokes are there are super funny, but the movie doesn’t have enough throwaway humor in between the big set-pieces). Also, the decision to try and turn the story toward more serious horror at the end is a really bad one. The same impulse brings down the end of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. I can only assume that anybody who loves the horror genre enough to lampoon it also harbors the secret desire to just make a straight horror movie, and so none of them can resist the temptation. (The only exceptions that come to mind are Scream, which manages to do both all the way through, and Cabin in the Woods, which stops trying to be scary after roughly the halfway point).
That said, the movie is pretty brilliant. In its somewhat clumsy fashion, it targets the misanthropy and classicism underlying all those Southern fried slashers (like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) which draw deliberately on the tension between violent country folk and hapless city-slickers. (The film also takes on some of the genre’s gender issues, but in this it’s less successful.) An early scene (and the film’s best joke) is emblematic of this point of view, when Dale tries to chat up the visiting college girls at a local gas station and his social awkwardness accidentally makes him sound like a horror movie villain gleefully foreshadowing his future murders. (Also, he’s so nervous he forgets he’s holding a scythe.) The thematic exploration of the violence and fear that results from two cultures clashing is carried on throughout the film, to the point where several of the characters have to resort to sitting down over cups of tea to try and explain their side of the escalating situation.
Anyway, it’s a good concept, but it wouldn’t be anything without the film’s pitch-perfect understanding of tone. This goes back to the double-feature theme–the movie knows not only how make a shot look like one from a serious horror film, but when and where to deploy that kind of shot for either laughs or gravitas. This extends to everything in the frame, from Tucker and Dale’s performances (Tudyk is good but Tayler Labine is fantastic, projecting a sweaty self-consciousness that simultaneously looks like murderous intentions and makes us feel for him) to the authentically horror-minded production design of the cabin and the forest around it to the use of high contrast lighting throughout to insinuate impending doom. The score is also fantastic, blending traditional horror riffs with hopeful, hillbilly guitar twangs. The movie’s style ensures that its satirical elements have a sincere backdrop, and that point of view really helps bring home even small moments (like the deliberately cornball performances of the college kids). The end result is a film that’s funny and meaningful despite its flaws, especially for fans of the genre.
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