horror

52 Films By Women: Near Dark (1987)

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IMDB

By Andrea Thompson

“Near Dark” is a creative kind of genre fusion that absolutely works, but also tends to be unprofitable if it's not released at the right time. Even if 1987 looked like the right year for Kathryn Bigelow's now cult film, it just wasn't familiar enough for audiences to get behind at the time, resulting in a very familiar situation: positive reviews, but not much returns at the box office.

The neo-western “Near Dark” was part of a number of serious vampire films in the 1980s. “The Lost Boys,” “Fright Night,” “Once Bitten,” “Vampire Hunter D,” and “The Hunger” are all just a small sampling of the large proliferation of films that revolved around the undead. And while the smash hit “Interview with the Vampire” wouldn't be made until 1994, the book it was based on had hit shelves in 1976, followed by “The Vampire Lestat” in 1985 and “The Queen of the Damned” in 1988 to a very appreciative audience.

“Near Dark” flips many of the genre staples from the start. The first and most obvious is it is not a young woman who is victimized by a vampire's bite, but a young man. Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) is the quintessential good ol' small town boy. Hell, he even lives on a farm with his father Loy (Tim Thomerson) and sister Sarah (Marcie Leeds). One night, he meets a beautiful drifter named Mae (Jenny Wright) and gets bitten by her. He heads back home, but begins burning up in the sun. Just before he returns to the farm where he lives, the vampires Mae runs with pull up in an RV and kidnap him. During the rest of the film, Caleb is engaged in a battle for his soul. His nature now requires that he kill people to survive. “The night has its price,” Mae tells him soberly.

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IMDB

Once Caleb resigns himself to staying with his kidnappers for survival purposes, the movie gets into territory that was probably too uncomfortable for audiences. Colton's struggle to live without killing is constant, and there's genuine suspense as to whether he'll kill or not. Even when he refuses, with Mae giving him blood from her wrist in lieu of killing, there's no guarantee he'll stay on a non-lethal path, not just due to his thirst for blood, but the other vampires, who insist that he kill to prove himself.

It's not just Caleb's struggle, which is all too recognizable, that probably made audiences uncomfortable. It's the vampires themselves, which also include Bill Paxton as the most psychotic of them, and Joshua John Miller as Homer, a vampire child who is actually decades old. They quickly become the other protagonists of the story along with Caleb, and they're mostly unrepentant monsters, killing the evil and the innocent alike, and bear more resemblance to the truckers in “Alien” (directed by James Cameron, whom Bigelow was married to from 1989 to 1991) than our most iconic bloodsuckers. These are blue collar vampires, with no aristocratic bearing whatsoever. For the most part, they became vampires by accident rather than being carefully chosen by a darkly handsome psychopath.

Nor are they particularly smart. Their leader, Jesse (Lance Henriksen), is charismatic, but it's hard to imagine these idiots surviving in a non-digital age, and it's also chilling to see just how easy it was for people to disappear before that age hit. This is a group of vampires who just decide to walk into a bar and kill everyone there in the most sadistic ways possible, and are nearly killed – by the police of all things. These guys may have superhuman abilities, but humans still pose a major threat since they're unable to get far enough away from the crime scene before daylight. Humans also manage to put up a credible threat later in the film's final battle.

Over thirty years later, “Near Dark” is still one of the best vampire or horror movies ever made, even if the word vampire is never uttered. Bigelow herself went on to make other films that became even bigger pop culture staples. “Near Dark” isn't just a melding of genres, it combines many of the topics Bigelow became famous for: machismo and women who are making their own lonely way in a male world. Films like “Point Break” and “The Hurt Locker” are examples of the former, while “Zero Dark Thirty” is the latter. Mae bonds with Caleb because of the loneliness and isolation inherent in her life. While she is equal to the men in her lethal family, they are clearly the ones who rule. The film was also a subversive look at the politics of the Reagan Era, which villainized the poor to make the public more comfortable with the continuing erosion of their safety net.

In their own way, the vampires of “Near Dark” are a kind of found family that embrace the very values Reagan was espousing with their loyalty and devotion to each other. But in spite of their strength, they face a constant struggle for survival, and are constantly dependent on others for it. They're essentially a struggling white working class family who mostly gets away inflicting pain and death, mainly because people who being taught that other groups were responsible for such vicious crimes. It feels even more relevant now in our current age, which makes the happy ending even more of a relief. It may be a bit too unrealistic even for a vampire movie, but with hope in ever shorter supply, the possibility of a new, better day after such horror feels like a much needed ray of hope that doesn't burn, but heals.

#52FilmsByWomen: The Babbadook

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By Andrea Thompson

For Week 2 of my #52FilmsByWomen project, I decided to do another rewatch. But where last week's viewing was about kicking off the project in a fun, lighthearted way, viewing the horror offering “The Babbadook” was about being made uncomfortable in entirely new ways.

Make no mistake, Jennifer Kent's “The Babbadook” aims to make you uncomfortable, and it should. In the tradition of classic horror, it uses the monstrous specter that may or may not be terrorizing widowed mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) as a vehicle for the more everyday pressures Amelia is subject to, which threaten to blossom into something truly horrific.

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When the movie starts, Amelia is already beginning to break under the weight of all the responsibilities she is expected to carry. As a carer for the elderly, she nurses others for a living, while at home she must provide all the financial, emotional, and physical support for her young, troubled son. But his difficulties are not the real reason Amelia seems to have trouble bonding with him. Seven years ago, she lost her husband Oskar in a car accident en route to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. Amelia has been unable to move on, and her child has become a living reminder of what she has lost. Samuel can sense this, and his behavorial issues can be traced directly back to this one day, his birthday, and his mother's inability to fully accept what happened.

Compounding Amelia's issues is the fact that she's struggling with the two of the most taboo subjects in modern society-death and abivalence about motherhood. You're not supposed to talk about people dying, and you're not supposed to admit you have difficulty truly loving and bonding with your child. When death occurs, people are expected to firmly adhere to the rituals around it, then move on. In regards to motherhood, you are not only expected to provide an endless reserve of unconditional love and care, you are supposed to do it effortlessly and without complaint.

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So when The Babbadook manifests via a terrifying children's book, it's a stand-in for not only her grief, but the mental illness that threatens to engulf her. Her isolation increases, as her work, Sam's school, the police, and even her sister seems uninterested in providing any real help. Only after her son and elderly neighbor Mrs. Roach tell her they love her unconditionally when she's at her worst is Amelia able to find the strength to fight the monster. It's no coincidence that both of them are also easily able to talk about uncomfortable topics. Mrs. Roach knows she needs support, and her son knows she needs saving.

Is the Babadook real? A shared delusion? Or just something that Amelia's mind has manifested? Much like the spinning top at the end of “Inception,” we'll never get an answer. Amelia may be able to build a happy life after her struggles, but there's no fairy tale ending. She'll have to cope with the effects for the rest of her life, but the point is that in the end she's able to have one again.

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Jennifer Kent, who also wrote the film in addition to directing, is able to very eloquently capture so many aspects of the female experience. She is able to not only capture but allow us to identify with Amelia as a single mother desperately trying to protect her son even as she herself feels increasingly vulnerable. Her transformation and possible possession by the Babadook is genuinely terrifying, and Kent's terrific filmmaking abilities make it and the buildup to it truly frightening and unsettling, rather than just another stereotypical caricature of a madness very specific to women. Often when male directors try to take on women's experiences, they result in supbar offerings that involve great skill but no real insight, with “The Neon Demon” or “mother!” being a few recent examples. But Kent is able to show us the worst case scenario of a mother-child relationship going south while keeping Amelia someone worth sympathizing with and investing in. Here's hoping more filmmakers take note of how to not just make a “strong female character,” but a good one.

Women Discuss Horror At The Milwaukee Twisted Dreams Film Festival

By Andrea Thompson

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Well, the Twisted Dreams Film Festival, Milwaukee's own film fest for horror movie fans, is over. This is a film fest I enjoy, and not just because I do some communications work on their behalf. The fest is now in its third year, and the men behind it, Stephen Milek and Chris House, have made a habit of showcasing at least a few films that put women front and center. This year, they got even more inclusive by not only featuring an entire shorts block devoted to female directors, but also a panel discussion on women in horror. I found it quite interesting, sometimes in a depressing way.

The panel consisted Susan Kerns, a professor at Columbia and one of the co-directors of the Chicago Feminist Film Festival, Wendy Keeling, a writer, director and actress, Theda de Sade, a burlesque dancer, actress, and writer, and panel moderator Josephine Yanasak-Leszczynski, a film critic and author.

Some of what they had to say was pretty positive. The mindset really is changing, with everyone on the panel describing how there was less hoarding of opportunity. Women apparently no longer feel they have to fight for the one place traditionally allotted to a female filmmaker, and they described a more helpful, supportive environment.

There was also a discussion of those issues which are especially relevant to the horror genre: the violence routinely inflicted on female characters. The panel described how most of the brutality seemed less about trying to tell a story or even deliver frights than just some guy trying to see how much he could get away with, or worse, fulfilling his fantasies. One of the women described how she heard an actor brag that he got to rape a woman.

It was a disturbing point that led to what they called the “50 Shades effect.” For Theda de Sade, it meant many people assuming she likes being hit since she's a “goth girl.” All of them also talked about how “50 Shades” and the subsequent mainstreaming of BDSM has led to more exploitative stories. Kerns mentioned that the Chicago Feminist Film Festival has gotten a lot more rape revenge films, since people seem to think these kinds of films are feminist as long as there's a revenge element. Really, when will people learn it takes more than that?

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One thing the panelists all strongly agreed on was having different kinds of people on set. One thing I've noticed is that when people who aren't straight white men talk about diversity is that these discussions tend to take on a greater sense of urgency. To these women, having different kinds of people on a film set wasn't just a business or even a moral issue. It helped improve their work and their lives. They talked about how the quality of the movie itself improved by having such a range of experiences, and how it helped everyone feel safer. For them, this wasn't an afterthought; it was essential.

But then, they opened it up for questions. There were a lot of men in the audience, and it actually made the talks more depressing rather than uplifting. The very first comment involved a guy talking about how many of their problems seemed to more revolve around being an independent filmmaker rather than being a woman. Another guy remarked that he didn't care about whether the movie he saw was directed by a woman or a man, he just wanted it to be good. Problems with funding was much discussed. Really, were these men not listening? The first more seemed to be another instance of a guy telling women what their problems were, the other seemed to be more of a case of something that should be positive coming off as another male fan patting himself on the back for not being “that kind of guy.”

In the end, the impression I got was the same one I tend to get when I go to a lot of these kinds of events. I loved how far we've apparently come, but it was VERY clear just how far we have to go, especially once it became clear how a large portion of audiences still viewed these women and themselves.