In a country where Paul Verhoeven represents cinéma du papa, it makes sense that a younger generation of filmmakers would produce something like Brimstone. Calling back to Verhoeven’s earthy, sex-drenched cinema of the 1970s, but updating it with the gory sensibilities of a contemporary horror movie, Brimstone is a spectacularly lurid melodrama that seeks to excuse indulgences both bloody and lewd by catching them up in a lecture about runaway misogyny, which is used as a stick with which to beat its heroine nearly to death over and over again. Brimstone is the kind of movie where a bullet wound is rarely just a bullet wound — generally it’s the goo-slick remnants of a head shot, with blood spatter plus a little puddle, and a few gobbets of brain matter sprinkled around the scene like so much sea salt on a plate of raw meat. It’s the kind of movie where a child is not only placed in peril, but is outright tortured on screen. And it’s the kind of movie where a woman absolutely, positively cannot catch a goddamned break. Continue reading
Consider the pig. Pork is damned near a gourmet food these days. Celebrity chefs will serve you layers of pork belly wrapped around potatoes, figs, even pineapple. They’ll dip bacon in chocolate, infuse it in vodka, or drape it across an ice-cream sundae, resplendent in its brown glory. Your local organic market probably sells artisanal bacon cured with dark, fine-grained muscovado imported from Mauritius and flavored with angel farts and faerie dust. The recent cinema has also celebrated the pig, via two excellent Babe movies and a decent adaptation of Charlotte’s Web. It wasn’t always that way, though. No less an authority than God Himself went Old Testament on pork back in the day, and it took the famous and completely disingenuous “Pork: The Other White Meat” campaign to rehabilitate swine for the U.S. market. What I mean to say is that the 1982 horror movie Evilspeak, in which a trio of crazed, Satan-possessed porkers burst into a bathroom and disembowel a nude woman taking a shower, couldn’t have done the humble pig’s reputation any favours. Continue reading
Still chewing this one over, and I suspect it’ll take a second viewing before it starts to come into focus. It obviously plays as a variant on Inglourious Basterds, but I miss that film’s ferocious set pieces and, especially, its strong central female character. But what Django Unchained does even better than Basterds is show up the essential timidity of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking. Django is singular in large part because nobody else is making bigtime narratives that deal with the history of race relations in America. I like Lincoln a lot, but it’s telling that when Spielberg turns his attention to roughly the same period in history, he comes up with Congress: The Motion Picture. And I’d love to see Spike Lee make a Django answer film, but I doubt he could get the funding.
Conceived and executed in the cool, desaturated style of a Saw movie, this remake is decidedly calculated. Its Jennifer Hills (Sarah Butler) is again a big-city writer roughing it in the country, but she’s a contemporary woman: instead of spending the day lounging in a hammock or on a rowboat, she’ll be out jogging in the morning and enjoying a glass of red wine in the evening.
Rape-revenge is the basest of movie formulas. What amounts to a social contract exists with the audience: during the first half of the film, you will experience the sadistic, brutal, misogynistic sexual abuse of an innocent, probably naïve young woman at the hands of cavalier thugs. And during the second half of the film, you will see this broken woman–this survivor–pull herself together long enough to exact a terrible revenge on those who wronged her.
UPDATE 8/29: My wife jumped on me after reading this for the suggestion that the act of taking scalps from victims was somehow endemic to the Native American people. While she agreed that’s how it’s presented in this film, she told me that the Europeans introduced the practice to indigenous Americans, and not the other way around. I was not too surprised at this, though it’s certainly contrary to the popular narrative, and promised to find a source online and add a footnote. Jonathan Rosenbaum, perhaps the film’s most notable detractor, beat me to it. It doesn’t change my opinion of the film — Tarantino’s riffing on film history rather than real history, and Aldo Raine probably wouldn’t know the difference, Apache blood or no — but I agree that it’s well worth noting.
Among the most satisfying of exploitation subgenres, for those who swing that way, is the rape-revenge picture. The basic structure is well suited to the grindhouse feature — it offers an excuse to stage scenes of sexual violence (the “rape” portion of the formula) alongside images of even more graphic, brutal violence (the “revenge”) while packaging the exercise as both moral lesson and wish-fulfillment fantasy. The appeal of the story is fairly primal — an early prototype for this sort of thing, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, was based on The Virgin Spring, a 1960 Ingmar Bergman film that had its own roots in a centuries-old Swedish folk song. As folk tale, the rape-revenge yarn functions as a stern warning, perhaps first appealing to an imagined audience’s prurience and sadism with the story of a violation, then warning them about the civilized world’s uniform, punitive, and perhaps grisly response to such an assault. As film, the subject matter is even more charged. Given feminist ideas about the male gaze and the embedded sexism of 100 years of film history, the idea of staging a rape for movie cameras, in a film destined to reach a (presumably base and horny) grindhouse audience, has the stench of amorality (if not outright immorality) about it.