Monday, March 17, 2014

Edge: Poor Grooming Hinders Suspension of Disbelief

Sometimes a filmmaker can't achieve something on screen because of a low budget -- but sometimes it's due to laziness and a lack of artistic commitment. It would have been just as cheap to shoot a scene correctly, but the filmmaker -- or the actor -- couldn't be bothered.

Hair styles are one example. Hair cuts and shaves are cheap. I've complained before about low-budget films that feature soldiers with beards,goatees, and ponytails. Edge, a low-budget film about a serial killer, makes the same mistake with its portrayal of uniformed police officers.

This cop from Edge (above) has a full beard.

And here's a cop (above) with a Mohawk. Not an undercover cop, mind you, but a uniformed officer.

Maybe this Mohawk is an "in joke" -- one of the film's producers is "Mohawk Lighting Productions." If that is the intent, filmmaker Jacob Whitley should at least be aware that his joke comes at the cost of detracting from the film.

How so?

It concerns suspension of disbelief. The lower a film's budget -- the cheaper its  sets, props, costumes, the sparser its cast -- the more difficult for viewers to suspend disbelief, and the more likely the film becomes Mystery Science Theater 3000 fodder. This is why low-budget filmmakers should do everything within their skills set and budget to achieve verisimilitude -- a sense of reality -- on screen.

Remarkably, Edge's end credits list four actual cops -- two "tactical advisors" (sic) and two "location assistants." (Their ranks are one officer, two sergeants, one captain.) True, these cops weren't part of the hair & makeup crew, but you'd think one of them would have mentioned something about the police characters' beard and Mohawk.

Edge's credits indicate the film was shot in La Palma, California. Is this how real cops groom themselves in La Palma? Even if that were so, Whitley should have known that such grooming is outside the norm, so his film would have greater verisimilitude with clean-shaven officers.

Edge's detectives have five o'clock shadows, but one can be more forgiving of that. Detectives are more often portrayed as casual in dress and grooming than are uniformed officers, so audiences are more likely to accept that.

But Edge has some other faults that break viewers' suspension of disbelief. In one scene, police officers storm into a house. They find a dead man, his throat slashed. Detective Rivers (Scott Butler) finds a knife in a sink filled with bloody water.

So Detective Rivers reaches into the water and picks up the knife.

He stares at the knife in disgust, then tosses it back into the sink.


Even if the serial killer had tried to wipe the knife of fingerprints, and wash off his DNA, wouldn't a professional detective have removed the knife with rubber gloves, then placed it into a plastic baggie, for further analysis? Instead, Rivers contaminates the knife with his own prints and DNA. And his partner beside him says nothing, as though this is normal procedure

I think modern audiences have been sufficiently sensitized over these past few decades of CSI shows that even lay people know better than to touch anything at a crime scene with bare hands. Once again, it would have been just as cheap to have filmed Rivers leaving the knife untouched, than to break the viewer's suspension of disbelief with his unprofessional behavior

Edge is not an entirely bad film. It's reasonably entertaining for its budget. DP David Molina's photography is sharp and his use of blue lights to evoke night nicely done. Although the film is set in California, Scott Butler has what sounds to me like an Australian or New Zealander accent (his IMDb page says he's from South London), but one can overlook that.

You can see Edge on YouTube:


For more about mise-en-scène, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Frankenweenie: A Curiously Anti-Science "Pro-Science" Message

Horror has traditionally been skeptical of science and progress. Going back at least as far as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, horror stories have often suggested that "Some things man was not meant to know." Science fiction abounds with characters who are scientists, but horror is more likely to feature mad scientists.

Frankenweenie, an animated feature inspired by the 1931 film version of Frankenstein, acknowledges horror's anti-science tradition, but then tries to turn it around into a pro-science message. Yet Frankenweenie ultimately fails, finally "defending" science with a curiously unscientific message.

In Frankenweenie, the parents in a 1950s type suburban community fear Mr. Rzykruski, a science teacher at their local high school. Much like the villagers in Frankenstein, the parents are ready to run Rzykruski out of town carrying pitchforks and burning torches. Instead, they give Rzykruski a chance to defend himself.

Rzykruski does a poor job defending himself. He insults the parents for their ignorance and fear of science. Naturally, this does not endear Rzykruski to the parents. Even so, one senses that Rzykruski's rants are intended as a pro-science message, with which the viewer is intended to sympathize.

But then the film turns curiously anti-science, not by opposing science, but by misrepresenting it.

As Rzykruski packs his car trunk with his belongings, preparing to leave town, Victor asks him for advice. Victor asks why his science experiment didn't yield the same results the second time around.

Well, according to the scientific method, an experiment with the same variables must repeat the same results before any conclusions can be reached. If the experiment does not repeat its results, then one must search for overlooked variables. The scientific method is about rational thinking, about Reason, no?

Instead, Rzykruski suggests that Victor's experiment didn't yield the same results the second time was because Victor didn't love his experiment the second time.

Rzykruski points to his head and says, "People think the perfect scientist is here."

Then Rzykruski points to his heart and says, "But the perfect scientist is also here."


What do emotions have to do with Reason and the scientific method? Sure, it's nice if scientists feel passionate about their work -- but when assessing the results of their experiments, they should be completely dispassionate. Aloof. Rational.

This superiority of Heart over Mind is an all-too-common Hollywood theme. It's the sort of cheap sentimentality one finds in many Hollywood films.

We see it again in Dark City. A dying race of aliens kidnaps a whole city's worth of humans, in an attempt to discover what makes them human, so as to assume human form and thus avert their extinction.

In the end, the aliens fail. Why? Because they were studying the human mind instead of the heart.

Like Rzykruski, John (Rufus Sewell) points to his head and tells a dying alien, "You wanted to know what made us human. But you're not gonna find it in here. You went looking in the wrong place."

Hollywood films abound with aliens who apparently travel millions of light years to study our emotions. Star Trek was full of aliens mystified or fascinated by human emotions. So too the aliens in The Forgotten and Visitors of the Night, to name a few.

Unsurprisingly, Frankenweeinie is a Disney film, the studio with the greatest reputation for cheap sentimentality.

Frankenweenie is apparently intended as a pro-science film. Yet the film praises science by damming it.


For more about interpreting themes in horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Insidious Chapter 2: Sexual Deviancy as a Threat

It's unusual to see a horror film like Insidious Chapter 2 these days. In it a man turns serial killer because his mother forcibly raised him as a girl. Sexual confusion, deviance, and transvestism are presented either as sources of evil or creepy things to be feared.

One could argue that it was denying the man his true (heterosexual) orientation -- not his transvestism -- that compelled him to kill, but that requires some thought. On the story's surface -- which is all that most viewers will consider -- a man in a woman's dress is presented as creepy and dangerous.

When I saw this surprise revelation onscreen, I suddenly realized how rarely sexual deviancy is depicted as threatening in modern horror films, as compared to 30-50 years ago. Sexual deviants (is that term still used today?) were a common threat in horror and crime films of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, with examples too numerous to list in their entirety. But consider a few examples...

A serial killer with an incestuous love for his mother (Psycho). A murderous lesbian couple doing the work of Satan (The Sentinel). A lesbian punished for her sexual sin (Class Reunion Massacre). A brother who rapes his sister (The Unseen). A transvestite serial killer (Terror Train). A gay transvestite serial killer (Hide and Go Shriek). A male transvestite in love with his sister (Stripped to Kill). A mother who castrates her son (Castle Freak).

A film that mirrors Insidious Chapter 2 especially closely is Sleepaway Camp, wherein a young boy is forcibly raised as a girl. After a sex change, s/he continues serial killing in the sequels.

Today there are parents who are openly raising boys as girls (or visa versa) and insisting that, though their child has a penis, the world recognize him as a girl. What was once considered a source of horror, something to be hidden from the world, is now proudly proclaimed.

Critics debate whether horror is an inherently progressive or conservative genre. In Monsters from the Id, E. Michael Jones argues that horror is mostly about deviance from traditional sexuality. Nevertheless, modern horror films have mostly followed society's changing attitudes toward sexuality, making Insidious Chapter 2's retro-sexuality a curiosity.


For more about interpreting themes in horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.