Not a Damsel: Female Agency in Today’s Horror

The horror genre has, of course, evolved since the days of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (friendly reminder that the genre itself was, indeed, established by a woman–consider, though, that she wrote from a man’s perspective which surely contributed to the novel’s success). But I would argue there’s still progress to be made. Even some of the timeless classic films hinge on the idea that the “token blonde” dies first, or is the only one to die at all, or has to be saved by a man, or serves no purpose other than to be viewed as a sexual object (see Creature of the Black Lagoon or My Bloody Valentine for reference). Supernatural, which has aired on the CW for over a decade, doesn’t usually feature female characters for more than one or two seasons, and it’s almost always the three principal men who save the world from destruction.

But I digress. Instead of listening who’s done it wrong, I’m going to take some time to tell you what to watch and listen to for good, scary fun that does women right. Don’t cover your eyes for these–you won’t want to miss them.

Continue reading “Not a Damsel: Female Agency in Today’s Horror”

Review: Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962)

Having just finished the novel of the same name, I delved headfirst into what was described by fans of the book as Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 “masterpiece” adaptation. This review will mostly consist of an analysis of both versions of the story through comparisons between the book and the film, since both are so fresh in my mind.

First and foremost, one can’t quite consider oneself a “fan” of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita without receiving a few questioning glances in return. The novel is told from the perspective of a pedophile, H. Humbert, and his love-lust-desire for his landlady’s preteen daughter, Dolores Haze. It isn’t that Lolita ranks so high among literary classics because of its likability. Rather, its harsh, disturbing subject matter combined with Nabokov’s detailed, often flowery prose creates a contrast that keeps readers enthralled and engaged from start to finish. And it’s not that we as readers necessarily feel for Humbert–we just experience his feelings, his self-hatred, his passion firsthand as it all unfolds for us throughout the novel. Nabokov weaves a deplorable yet unforgettable tale that has shocked readers since its publication in 1952.

So upon reading the final page of the book, I wondered just how any film adaptation could do this book justice. Humbert’s narration is so painstakingly wrought that it seemed to me impossible to replicate in any other medium. The 1962 Lolita (in comparison to the ’97 adaptation which I’ve yet to see) features a script partially written by Nabokov himself.

Despite Nabokov’s involvement in the film, translating this book from page to screen inevitably had to allow for some changes. What surprised me about the film was its very immediately apparent change in tone from that of the book. There are various little plot changes–for example, Lolita’s initial age is changed from 12 to 14, though I think this was to make the film easier to stomach for viewers; and Mona is written as the daughter of Jean and John Farlow–but I think what struck me most having just put the book down was how much more open the film is to other character perspectives. It’s a bit jarring to those only familiar with the book, because we as readers are exposed to only Humbert’s claustrophobic thoughts, ideas, and fantasies. As viewers we see a much fuller picture of Humbert’s marriage to Charlotte, and a much more in-depth depiction of Clare Quilty, our main antagonist (if you don’t count Humbert as the antagonist, though that is a debate for another time). Kubrick doesn’t only make changes, but creates his own dynamics between characters and components of the original Lolita story. This takes a bit to get used to if you were expecting a direct adaptation (as I was). The film takes on an almost comic tone at times–not necessarily in regard to the disturbing feelings European Humbert has for Lo, but in Humbert’s maneuvering of the various strange American idiosyncrasies by which he’s surrounded, as well as his over-the-top interactions with others in his attempt to achieve his lofty and disturbing goals.

What Kubrick hits perfectly in his film is characterization. Charlotte Haze is portrayed near flawlessly by Shelley Winters; both her dialogue and her mannerisms truly emphasize her need to be “in” with the cultured “it” crowd (“Is it my fault if I feel young?”). Her dynamic with Lo is great as well, snippy and changing feeling constantly. James Mason’s Professor Humbert is perfectly awkward (the dancing scene between him and Charlotte is exactly how I would imagine him attempting to dance) and subtly creepy (i.e. in his longing stare at Lolita’s picture as he fondles his wife). Kubrick cast the film very effectively; the chemistry and dynamics between all the actors is brilliantly executed. For those who haven’t read the book, this film definitely gives one a sense of what the characters are like.

Kubrick’s direction, too, is unparalleled, creating sympathy for even the nastiest, most attention-seeking of characters in long-held close-ups and erratic fade-outs. He treats Lolita with the innocent softglow Humbert eternally sees her in. And he uses lighting to depict Quilty’s ever-lurking nature very effectively. What Kubrick chooses to show is just as effective as what he leaves out. The intimate scene on the cot between Lolita and Humbert ends with a fade-out on her face, and we as viewers are left to imagine what transpired between them. One of my favorite moments is, actually, the opening credits scene depicting Lolita’s small, childlike foot getting a pedicure. It’s simple, but knowing the story oddly disturbing especially as the image comes up again later in the film.

It is important to understand there’s no true way to adapt Lolita word-for-word. It is an experience that can only be done justice in Humbert’s own original words. Kubrick’s film, though, is a worthy companion to Nabokov’s original work. The 1960s could only go so far in movie-making without censors blaring at every turn, but Kubrick maneuvers around these to allow Lolita to stand on its own, separate from the novel, as a tribute to Nabokov’s ideas about the perils, joys, and contradictions in sex, youth and love.

Rating: 4/5

Review: Inside Out (2015)

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If you want a film that speaks successfully to kids about mental instability, look no further than Inside Out. A fun-filled, hilariously wild ride, the film takes audiences on a journey through the eyes of the personified emotions Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear in their quest to make 11-year-old Riley Anderson happy again. Most importantly, it touches upon issues of depression and mental illness, and what it takes to combat them.

As someone with clinical depression, I can tell you right off the bat that Inside Out isn’t any kind of gritty, dark look into what it means to be depressed. Rather, it is a film about mental imbalance, which comes in many forms, and it is executed in a way that is equally accessible to children and adults. In personifying the emotions within Riley’s brain, we see exacerbated versions of every primary emotion we experiences as humans. Our main protagonist is, of course, Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), whose goal is to keep Riley the bouncy, happy girl she’s always been. A predicament arises, though, when Joy is no longer in control of Riley’s emotions, and has to work with her complete opposite–Sadness–to get back to her. Sadness (Phyllis Smith of The Office) is exactly her namesake; she can do nothing but bring a situation down–or so it appears. Over the course of the film, Joy realizes that perhaps sadness, which can lead to empathy and greater understanding between people, might not always be so terrible to feel after all.

But what happens to someone when some of their key emotions are “missing”? Inside Out explores this in Riley’s transformation. With Joy missing, she is taken over by Fear, Anger and Disgust and loses interest in the things she loves, like hockey. She even burns bridges with family and friends. What does that sound like? Depression. Depression is literally a chemical imbalance within the brain, portrayed here as a positive emotion–Joy–quite literally gone missing. It creates a physicality behind depression that arguably helps children grasp the concept of mental imbalance.

Let’s not forget Sadness is missing too. From a very black-and-white perspective, it would appear that’s a good thing. But where are we without sadness to counteract happiness? How can we come to understand one another fully, without knowing what makes us sad as well as joyful? Sadness is inevitably part of life. It’s in all of us. Some of us just…have a little more joy missing. And Inside Out teaches us that the best way we can strive to live, is in balance with our emotions. Joy’s journey culminates in her understanding that she and Sadness work best for Riley as a unit, not apart. We can take this understanding and apply it to how we might focus on helping our friends and family who deal with depression, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. As sufferers of those disorders, we might take the idea of balance in the film as a reminder of what to strive for. Inside Out speaks to us with depression and mental instability in showing us we’re not alone; it speaks to our friends and family to show them the best ways to reach out and help and understand.

Jam-packed with humor, quirky references (I see you, Chinatown) and a talented group of voice actors, Inside Out is a thrill to watch. More than that, however, it is a film that embraces mental instability and treats it not as a flaw, but as a part of being human. We all need to find balance in our lives–achieving balance of mind is no different.

Overall rating: 4/5

Review: Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)

Though I haven’t read the Thomas Hardy novel on which this film was based, I have read his Tess of the D’urbervilles–so it’s safe to say I expected two hours of depression, death and woe in Far from the Madding Crowd. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the story was far less bleak than I anticipated, performed brilliantly by a talented set of actors, and translated to screen very effectively by Thomas Vinterberg. Perhaps most importantly, the film illuminates a woman who transcends the Victorian age in her tenacity and strength.

Carey Mulligan (The Great Gatsby, Doctor Who) shines as the main character, Miss Bathsheba Everdene (not to be confused with “the girl on fire” who is probably her descendant, Katniss Everdeen) who recently inherited her uncle’s farm. Mulligan plays Bathsheba honestly and openly, making her relatable despite what an average audience member might brush off as a typical Victorian woman with typical Victorian sentiments. But Bathsheba is certainly anything but. She spends most of the film warding off the advances of shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), farmer William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and soldier Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). Schoenaerts plays a subdued, sincere character; Sheen is an older bachelor who makes one’s heart ache, and Sturridge does a fantastic job of playing a very emotionally unstable, yet dangerously charming sergeant. Mulligan’s chemistry with each of these actors is unique from the others, but she stands on her own just as well, portraying an independent, fierce spirit. Vinterberg’s direction really allowed for the audience to get an in-depth look at these characters and their dynamics with one another. The use of ECUs during particularly emotionally charged moments was very effective, and the use of shadows and dark colors added to the Romantic feel of the film.

I saw the film with my mother, who kept commenting throughout that Bathsheba should “just make up her mind.” And I think her reaction is exactly why a film like this needed to be made. It wasn’t that Bathsheba couldn’t decide between all her potential suitors–it’s that she wanted to have control of when she was ready to commit herself to someone. In the Victorian age, women were married off in their early teens a lot of the time, to men usually chosen by their fathers. Bathsheba displays a kind of agency that was not often publicly seen or advocated in 19th-century England, or anywhere. The fact that she couldn’t “just choose” was indicative of the idea–far-fetched for her time–that women should have been able to make up their own minds as to when they were ready to marry, and to whom. The fact that my mom couldn’t understand that was a bit off-putting–but perhaps her opinion was tied in with her expectations of what a proper Victorian woman should be and how she should act. Bathsheba defies all those stereotypes, which is what I think makes Far from the Madding Crowd such a fascinating film, based on a novel that was clearly ahead of its time, not unlike Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Bathsheba wanted to wait until she was ready for, felt deserving of, and felt her given suitor deserved, marriage. Being partial to all things Victorian, Bathsheba’s characterization is a breath of fresh air to me. Some people–men and women alike–might consider her flippant or inconsistent. Rather, it might be said Bathsheba is a woman ahead of her time in her understanding of the necessity–or lack thereof–of a husband to complete her.

The film ran a bit long, and oftentimes dealt a bit cyclically with Bathsheba’s engagement problem–but overall, it is a great trip back in time that does away with the conventionality of the typical shy, subdued, repressed Victorian woman.

Overall rating: 3.5/5