It’s been said that the German film Nosferatu was created, at least in part, to exorcise the ghosts of World War I. If there is any truth in that, then Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow does something similar. Under the Shadow takes place during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. The Iranian Revolution that changed the country into a theocratic regime happened not even a few years ago and the people of Iran, particularly Tehran in Under the Shadow, suffer through constant missile attacks from Saddam Hussein.
Enter Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a former medical student and mother who can no longer continue her studies due to her involvement with “subversive political groups” before the Revolution. There is tension between her and her husband, a doctor named Iraj (Bobby Naderi): a combination of the usual couple arguments, combined with the anxiety of being bombed, and the strain of having a relationship and Shideh wanting a modicum of power and support under a patriarchal regime. In fact, there is tension throughout the entirety of the film: watching the fear of the family hiding in their apartment’s bomb shelter, waiting for the next bomb to drop, wondering if Iraj will die on the battlefront he’s stationed at, and even one heart-stopping moment when Shideh leaves with their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) in a panic and accidentally forgets her hajib: a moment where corporal punishment becomes a truly grim possibility.
And this doesn’t even cover the Jinn.
According to Middle-Eastern mythology Jinn are spirits made of air. In the Quran, they are like humans except while humans are, arguably, made of earth, jinn are made of air. They coexist alongside humanity in various ways, and they and angels were made with humanity. The Jinn in Under the Shadow are not kindly ones. They exist in, and feed off of fear and anxiety. They travel through the desert wind. They are creatures of air and as such affect oxygen, dreams, and the perceptions of the mind. If they gain an object special to a human being, they will haunt them until they possess and destroy them. However, in Under the Shadow possession has a whole other kind of connotation.
Under the Shadow in a lot of ways might as well be called Under the Veil. The Jinn are metaphorical for the gaslighting, insecurities perpetuated on women and the need for authority to control women and their bodies. They also represent the chaos of war and uncertainty of death. In the film they constantly prey on Shideh’s and Dorsa’s relationship made fraught by the patriarchy around them. It’s also no coincidence that one of the Jinn uses constant misogynist slurs against Shideh in the form and voice of her husband, and another takes on the form of an embroidered veil and shawl that threatens to consume both Shideh and Dorsa: symbolizing perhaps the internalized misogyny of a neighbour and a terrifying sense of superstition that institutionalized religion in Iran during this does nothing to alleviate, but only worsen. In fact, it becomes clear in a lot of ways that they are a part of it.
In addition patriarchy, oppressive regimes, and war have another thing in common with Anvari’s Jinn. They all take pieces of a person’s life away, meaningful objects like a medical text given by a wishful mother, or a child’s doll. They threaten to steal innocence and all the good in your life, tainting it with violence and trauma until nothing is left. The sudden, terrifying jump scares of the Jinn, the bomb alarms, and the bombings are somehow made a minor part of the horror that these Jinn represent in this film.
As a child of the 1980s myself, it is sobering to see the life that another family had in another place and culture at this time. The Jane Fonda exercise tapes that Shideh uses to lose herself on her illegal VCR really hits that home that a different life was happening in Iran than in other places. If Nosferatu was an attempt to exorcise the spirits of war from post-WWI Germany, then Under the Shadow is an attempt to reveal the supposedly invisible forces behind the Iran-Iraq War and life in Tehran at time, to give understanding to us instead of allowing the Jinn to take more away. This was an excellent international film and the Toronto After Dark chose it well.
You know, sometimes before even walk into a horror movie you know it’s going to disembowel you. I don’t mean that in the gore sense of horror but mainly in the visceral part of you: right inside your very emotional core.
Writer and director Richard Bates Jr. punches you in the stomach with his horror comedy Trash Fire. His characters don’t pull their punches either. Owen (Adrian Grenier) and Isabelle (Angela Trimbur) are a paradox. They are clearly a dysfunctional couple that appear almost completely unsympathetic. At the same time there is an honesty to their characters that is compelling and for all their cruel words to each other a genuine love. It’s not romantic love but that kind of fierce imploding magnetic force that is just there. It can’t really be explained. It’s like their violent truths cancel or balance rach other out.
Initially the real horror intermixed with sharp and unforgiving witty one liners was watching Owen and Isabelle’s relationship. And then Violet (Fionnula Flannigan), Owen’s cruel and twisted religious fanatic grandmother and Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord), Owen’s reclusive younger sister are introduced in this dynamic.
Isabelle is pregnant and in order to convince her to keep the baby and continue their relationship Owen agrees to reunite with what is left of his estranged family. Owen has seizures based on a fire that killed his parents and covered eighty percent of his sister’s body with third degree burns. He also ran away and abandoned Pearl to their grandmother years ago.
It goes about as well as you can expect.
The characterization in Trash Fire is excellent. Richard Bates Jr. plays with your expectations. Violet is evil and creepy but she is refreshingly hilarious. Pearl is a complex character with her own desires, a sweetness tempered by a degree of creepiness, an incredible awareness, and an anger and sadness towards her scarring and her life rivaling that of the Phantom of the Opera. The slow reveal of just how badly she’s physically disfigured is also subverted. Pearl is actually one of the most compelling LGBTQ characters in a horror movie I’ve seen. The fact that she is shut in a room most of the time, and makes crafts out of the mirrors she breaks says a lot of things. You also learn that her scars don’t even begin to equal the ugliness in the human interactions we see throughout this entire film.
Even Owen and Isabelle, who I thought I’d enjoy seeing killed or maimed became more sympathetic as they spent time at Violet’s house. They seemed worse when surrounded by a flat, ubiquitous one-dimensional world often portrayed by the horror genre as “normal” than when dealing with the honest dysfunctionality and eventual evil of Owen’s family life.
There are some confusing bits of course. Sometimes the character developments are jarring: like they have been written after the fact. Owen’s differing recollections could be the result of PTSD and its screaming distorted segments of his family on fire, and maybe serial killing takes a while to warm up in Violet’s twilight years, but there is literally one character towards the end of the film that goes … nowhere. He comes into the scene and he is gone. It is a minor plot point that could have at least been a death but just does nothing.
All that said, Trash Fire‘s ending hits like a son of a bitch. Richard Bates Jr. couldn’t be at the After Dark screening and in his Director’s Words he said he almost wished he could be there to give the audience a hug. The movie ends as dysfunctionally as it began and I know that I will always remember Trash Fire for it.
If love and hate are two sides of the same impulse, then so was the prospective hope and dread that many fans potentially felt — that I certainly experienced — while waiting for the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The fact is, if you read this article, right now, you will be skittering close to the dark side of The Force Awakens reviews known also as Spoilers. Remember, you can draw back from the abyss and recall the patience and calm that you need to actually watch the film, if you haven’t already. Or you can succumb to the quick and easy path, right now, if random comments on the Internet didn’t cut off your hand and leave you wailing like Luke in despair on Cloud City.
First, let’s start with what really works in this film.
I’m not kidding. Instead of the Prequels, where we got deluged with taxes, politics, and nebulous “heroes on both sides” that didn’t happen in the actual movies, we have the place where Return of the Jedi left off: namely, Luke Skywalker is missing and the Resistance against the First Order is searching desperately for the last Jedi. There. Right there you have an introduction, after the monumental “Long long ago, in a galaxy far far away” and the glory of the Star Wars logo that hooks you. It feeds into the questions that the film’s multimedia campaign has raised in many of us. Where is Luke? What is going on? And where in the nine Corellian hells that may, or may not still be canon, is this going?
Then we see the slow reveal of the First Order and their deployment on the desert world of Jakku. The First Order also wants to find Luke Skywalker: so that they can outright kill him. Three characters are introduced at this stage: Poe Dameron, Finn, and of course Kylo Ren. Poe Dameron is with his now iconic droid BB-8 getting part of a map to find Luke Skywalker, while Kylo Ren and his First Order troops are there to also get that information and kill all witnesses. It seems pretty standard, at first when you consider how events in Star Wars movies often go: but it establishes right off the bat who the heroes and the villains are in this saga. Or so it seems.
This is where J.J. Abrams begins to change the script a little bit, as it were. As Kylo Ren executes the leader of this settlement and orders the deaths of the villagers, and Poe Dameron hides but also tries to defend them, something else happens. Even as stormtroopers and flametroopers are causing death left, right, and centre, we see Poe kill some stormtroopers. Now normally that would be the end of it. Stormtroopers are generally a dime a dozen, but then … one of them falls into the other’s arms. You see blood come from the fallen trooper as his comrade holds him and he dies in his arms. Three streaks of blood mar his comrade’s helmet and you see the latter genuinely shaken.
That is the beginning of Trooper FN-2187: whom we find out later is one soldier out of many who were recruited and indoctrinated into the Storm Trooper Corps and assigned only serial number designations by the First Order as children. Abrams manages in that one scene to do something none of the films really had done. He shows us that the stormtroopers are thinking and feeling beings just like anyone else: and that they can suffer pain and post-traumatic stress like any soldier … and begin to question orders.
We also get a look at some new Force powers and a visual cinematic representation of some old ones as Kylo Ren manages to casually freeze a blaster bolt in midair for several minutes, and use telepathy and mind-probing on a captive Poe Dameron. The first Force application was definitely something I wasn’t expecting and it actually raised my expectations of Kylo Ren just a little bit. And that mind-probe skill comes into play later: for all the reasons that Kylo Ren doesn’t want it.
Of course, our trooper friend finishes questioning orders after a cold encounter with his commanding officer Captain Phasma and actually decides to act against them. He ends up freeing Poe and they escape in a new and modified TIE Fighter that actually has two seats, and may well even possess a hyperdrive. The banter between Finn and Poe is excellent. Poe is a hotshot pilot and soldier for the Resistance, but that is only one part of who he is. While many people call him this film’s Han Solo, he is actually the opposite of the smuggler’s jaded and cynical nature: still managing against capture, torture, and conflict to be idealistic, optimistic, and overwhelmingly positive. He is the one that gives Finn his name and they celebrate their escape with adrenaline-fueled screaming together even before they are shot down and they crash land onto Jakku in order to find Poe’s droid: who has part of the location of Luke Skywalker in his databanks.
And all of this happens even before we are introduced to Rey.
There is some very excellent character development and promise in The Force Awakens to look at. I’ve already talked about Poe’s incorrigible spirit, and Finn’s sense of conscience. But then we have Rey. Rey is a scavenger on Jakku. You have probably heard enough about her at this point: she is self-sufficient, hardened by the desert world of Jakku, canny, and curious. You can also tell that she has a great of experience in self-defense: particularly in wielding her staff. But it’s not until she meets BB-8, who finds her in the middle of the desert, and she has the choice to sell him for a massive amount of food rations — as that is how the scavenging economy on Jakku seems to work — and she decides to keep him that you see her real character: her sense of integrity.
Right here, we have our hero. Anakin Skywalker was an idealistic slave child with his mother on Tatooine who flew in deadly podraces. Luke Skywalker was a moisture farmer on that same world who was raised by his aunt and uncle while whining and dreaming of greatness. Rey seems to have been raised by no one after being abandoned on Jakku when she was five. Her dream is the hope that one day her family will come back for her: whoever they are. In the meantime she grows up a free and solitary woman on a harsh world where just survives … until a little droid comes into her life and changes everything.
It’s hard to talk about one character without looking at how they interact with others. This is another strength of The Force Awakens: interpersonal development. Finn is stranded on Jakku after his stolen ship is destroyed and Poe Dameron seems to have died: his newest friend and fellow liberator since the death of his stormtrooper comrade. He has no idea what to do now and is constantly afraid of being hunted for his betrayal. When he encounters Rey and BB-8, he is wearing Poe’s jacket and they think he is a thief. Then he pretends to be part of the Resistance, which encourages Rey to help him as she wants to get BB-8 back to the Resistance: realizing that there is more to her life than just waiting for the family that seemingly abandoned her. She makes that active choice because, again, it is the right thing to do.
In fact, aside from the absent and presumed dead Poe Dameron, Rey is the only one who sets out from her familiar life to do exactly that: the right thing. Finn runs because he is afraid and also wants a sense of belonging. Even Han Solo and Chewbacca, who they meet after finding the Millennium Falcon appropriately in a junkyard, are just on their next job on the fringes: having become alienated from Leia Organa and the Republic years ago. She is the unifying point to remind them of what is important: and she doesn’t stop there.
In contrast to Rey is Kylo Ren. Unlike Rey, he knows exactly where he comes from. But right now, he is following what he thinks is a legacy. In fact Ren is actually the product of a few legacies. Being born to a founder of the New Republic, a legendary smuggler and General, and the nephew of the last Jedi are just a few of the expectations he has discarded. You can imagine the amount of pressure to conform to those expectations too and perhaps the role they’ve played in Ren’s decision: especially when you consider the one legacy everyone involved wanted him to avoid.
But Kylo Ken is not Darth Vader. On first glance he seems like a shadow of the Sith Lord. He displays perfect control and ruthlessness when dealing with a situation well in hand. When he’s told by a subordinate that they lost BB-8, you think he is going to pull a Vader: that he’s going to Force-choke the man and levitate him off the ground and let him die in midair for his failure. Instead, after a pause, he draws out his lightsaber and proceeds to slash the computers and technology around him in a purely psychotic rage. It’s that moment that makes you realize that there is a major difference between Darth Vader and his successor: that when Vader caused damage, it was purely calculated to punish incompetence and cause fear, whereas Ren lacks focus and control. He is a young man who is perpetually angry and follows Supreme Leader Snoke and the legacy of Darth Vader in an attempt to actually deal with the insecurity and instability inside of himself: and for most of The Force Awakens it isn’t working when he needs it to be.
What we have with Kylo Ren, at least through most of the film, is a young man who hasn’t proved himself yet. It’s like seeing Padawan Anakin Skywalker alternatively whining and raging, or Luke Skywalker whining and fumbling to find his own heritage: except that while the first two sought to grow in the light side of the Force, Kylo Ren chooses the darkness for reasons that haven’t been yet revealed: which are hopefully more than just impatience and for the sake of rebellion. We are looking at the growth of a darksider and his own self-perceived hero’s journey into realizing what he is, and the prices he will pay for getting there.
I won’t go further into a recap of the film, except to say that there are a few scenes that were utterly striking. The first and foremost was Rey gaining a hint of what her destiny truly is: with the vision she gained as Luke’s old lightsaber — which we could sense from its treasure chest with all the sounds of screaming and agony — summoned her to it.
There was also the apex of Kylo Ren’s own character arc where he kills Han Solo — his own father — as his personal sacrifice to the dark side in order to drive the light away from him forever: and to earn the undying enmity of fans everywhere. It was … hard, watching the Solo Luck finally run out in the worst possible way.
But watching Chewbacca shoot Ren with his bowcaster is utterly satisfying. The only thing more satisfying, would have been if Han had already known his son was irredeemable from the start and as Ren thanks him, a dying Han touches his face and says, “Don’t thank me”: pressing a trigger to the series of thermal detonators he was wearing under his vest: trying to take his murdering son down with him.
But what actually happens next is epic.
We have Finn actually facing his fear, after running for so long, and fighting and losing against Ren: only to have Rey step up and take her destiny.
The Force Awakens is primarily about Rey’s own awakening. After Kylo Ren captures her and tries to tear the information on Luke’s whereabouts from her mind, he inadvertently activates her latent Force potential: which she uses to mind-trick and rescue herself. She sees into his mind: and sees his fear. She makes him confront it.
Up until this point, you have to figure: Kylo Ren has only dealt with non-Force sensitives. He has encountered other Force-sensitives through his seemingly untrained mother, his fellow Knights of Ren, and his former fellow Jedi trainees that he slaughtered. The only people that he perceives to be more powerful than him, with his Skywalker bloodline, is his uncle Luke and his Master Snoke. At Starkiller Base, Kylo Ren is wounded but he draws on his physical pain, pounding his ribs where Chewbacca shot him, and uses it to augment his power in the dark side. He has been trained, he has defeated the obstacle of killing the man he loved — his own father — and it is still raw and untempered. And he thinks he is the only one, perhaps even the Chosen One, that can do what must be done.
In an inadvertent way, Rey also helped him. She revealed his fear: that he would never be as powerful as Darth Vader. But he did something that not even his grandfather could do: he killed someone he loved in order to embrace what he thinks is his destiny. Rey has also helped him to awaken in a warped and twisted way. But he severely underestimates her. At her age, Luke was still getting his ass handed to him by training remotes. And even Anakin was still a Padawan with questionable judgment. Also remember that Rey grew up on a desert world with no luxuries, and where battle is not training and is ultimately a matter of life or death. She has incredible Force potential, she’s already already learned not to shoot blaster bolts at Ren, and she is fighting to save her new found friends. I know I rooted for her when she brutally and efficiently beat Ren down.
And it could have ended right there. It could have ended with the destruction of Starkiller Base and Rey returning to a grieving Resistance General Leia Organa — a development that I thought was excellent given Leia’s background in guerrilla warfare and rebellion compared to her previous political fate in the now Legends continuity — and promising to see an unconscious Finn again before riding off on the Falcon — the ship she basically inherited from Han — to find Luke Skywalker.
But the film doesn’t stop there. Instead, it stops at that point in time where she finds him. She actually finds Luke Skywalker: and presents to him his old lightsaber. The look of grief and heartbreak on Luke’s face after the destruction of his Order before it even began by his own nephew, his possible farsight of what occurred in his absence, the sudden appearance of a blade that had a mixed place in his own past, and the look of hope and desperation on Rey’s face says it all. It all comes full circle and you can see — right there — that the legacy is going to continue.
Of course, there are the other aspects of the film to consider as well. I have to admit that seeing Poe Dameron just appear out of nowhere after he supposedly died did seem kind of anticlimactic: though it was also good to know he is going to stay around.
But I think my main quibble with The Force Awakens is Starkiller Base and the New Republic. The Republic really dropped the ball on this one: underestimating the First Order as an Imperial remnant with all of these resources clearly on hand. It also strikes me as hilarious that Snoke seems to order the use of the Base’s star system destroying lasers as something of an afterthought. And it is never clear in the film if it was just the Republic’s capital world and Starfleet destroyed by the lasers: or if it was all of it. If the First Order just destroyed all of the New Republic in one shot, it just seems to be a little bit of a cop-out to me: not the least of which being the fact that this film didn’t really need another “Superweapon of the Month” my Death Star is bigger than yours element.
Also, Supreme Leader Snoke’s CGI Voldemort meets Gollum appearance was a little off-putting in a movie that used less computer-generated special effects. And there are many things that have happened, gaps in the thirty years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens that have yet to be explained.
But these are minor quibbles really.
Many fans and writers have already covered one other aspect of Star Wars The Force Awakens. They say that it is highly derivative. But perhaps it is more apt to state that it parallels elements from the other films. And even if it is derivative, with its hearkening to deserts, ice planets, forest worlds, Force visions, the wise old mentor dying, rebellions, the destruction of life, heroes journeys, and light and darkness vying against each other in self-referential ways, or with acute self-awareness of their tropes, so what? Mythology itself is derivative. Storytelling is derivative. Stories come from somewhere: from a convention of ideas, events, and feelings.
Star Wars is a mythology that draws on the archetypes of interactions with certain environments and situations and certain characters. Of course its latest movie is derivative. But I think there is another consideration to take in when thinking about mythology. Even though stories are derived from other stories, the best ones are those that tend to add something new to the mythos. The question you have to ask yourself is this: does Star Wars: The Force Awakens add anything new to the Star Wars cinematic universe?
Personally, I think that if it already hasn’t with the way it is has subverted some of the tropes, I think it will. After all, Kylo Ren had clearly been suffering from a lack of focus or certainty in embracing his power: and he is not going to stay that way. He will awaken too and hopefully realize that he should do more than live up to Vader. He has to surpass him.
And as for Rey, it is pretty clear she is going to learn the ways of the Force, continue to kick some ass and struggle with what is important. She might even learn about what she came from and integrate it into where she is going. And I look forward to seeing what J.J. Abrams, LucasFilm, and Disney will build from this impressive beginning.
It is a common enough theme in fantasy and science fiction: especially when you consider Highlander or most modern vampire stories. You die unexpectedly and then get resurrected. And after a time you realize that you just can’t die. Perhaps you can be killed, but your instinct of self-preservation is still strong enough that you really don’t want to test that theory. Now imagine watching everyone else: everyone living and dying all around you. Then consider that for all you may live forever, you still have a human mind with human memory and feelings. You begin to forget things, either through time or trauma. But then it gets worse. The person that made you thought they were granting you a mercy. You see, they thought that by granting you the ability to make another immortal, like you, you’d have at least the potential to never be lonely.
But it’s too late. You already know what it’s like. You know what it would cost someone. Long ago, in a small Viking village, you told the man that made you that leaving your home would be like death. Well, you haven’t been home now for about eight hundred years. Could you do that to someone else? And worse: he only gave one opportunity to make someone immortal. Out of all the friends, lovers, and spouses you’ve had — the children you made — how can you pick just one?
That had been the conundrum of the woman once known as Ashildr by the time of Doctor Who‘s “The Woman Who Lived.” You have to wonder, when you see the person who now calls herself Lady Me — as she is the only one who generally remembers who she is throughout time — if a longer life is always a better one, and just how many times she’s gotten tired throughout the years and centuries of her existence.
And The Doctor did this to her. In my last recap of “The Girl Who Died,” I was disappointed that Ashildr didn’t turn out to be another Time Lady. But perhaps it’s just as well. Instead the writer Catherine Tregenna did something else entirely with the character that Steven Moffat and Jamie Mathieson wrote. She took a hapless, but defiant girl from “The Girl Who Died” and made a complex character in “The Woman Who Lived.”
Lady Me, played by Maisie Williams, has reached a point where she realized that making another like herself or suffering from loneliness was no choice at all. So she decided to be alone. She distanced her feelings, wrote out the memories her brain couldn’t contain in a vast library in a mansion she bought with her riches, and tore out the pages of the most painful recollections of all. She robs people purely for the entertainment of it, even as she sometimes helps them.
And she wants out. She wants to get away from a world where she would have to watch her children and lovers die: having reached a point where she no longer wants the former. Everyone just seems like shades to her: mayflies already marked for the grave. She wants to go into space and travel with The Doctor. And the thing is: she would make an excellent Companion. Lady Me is realistic, somewhat jaded, but vastly knowledgeable, intelligent, and she knows how to adapt and survive.
But The Doctor will have none of it. And this is where Catherine Tregenna takes The Doctor. She shows us a man who cannot exist with others like himself, long-lived beings, for extended periods of time. He just doesn’t get that sense of … what, youth or vitality that he would from a shorter-lived Companion. His logic is that those with shorter lives value life more. And it’s a damning realization of the character. It shows us that his original aversion to Jack Harkness wasn’t just the strange way he felt in space and time. It illustrates why he left Gallifrey and how he generally avoided spending a lot of time with others of his own kind.
And then you consider the following. It would have been child’s play for The Doctor to get medical healing devices from beings like the Mira. The horrible fact of the matter is: The Doctor could have made any of his Companions immortal. He could have even made Rose Tyler an immortal and made the age-differences between them irrelevant. But he never did. You could argue that he didn’t do this because mortality was what made his Companions so plucky, so … human. Yet Tregenna seems to hint on the fact, at least through Lady Me, that there is a very selfish element underneath even the best of The Doctor’s intentions: something not unlike the stereotype of an older person dating only younger individuals to feel young again themselves. In The Doctor’s case, it has some very masculine connotations: even if he is not sexually attracted to his generally female Companions, or to Lady Me when she’s flirting with him, there is just this moment of realization — from Lady Me’s perspective and the audience’s — where you just know that she’s just not “his type.”
When you consider that The Doctor made Lady Me and that he is essentially rejecting her for being “too old for him,” and that you find out he had actually been watching her for a very long time without so much as helping her or offering to take her on the TARDIS, it comes across as a rather gross character flaw and connotation. Even Lady Me’s darkest actions and thoughts make a lot more sense in this vein: her impetus of loss and desperation giving you this strong inclination to sympathize a lot more with her than The Doctor.
However, it is only when Lady Me almost repeats what was done to her village on another settlement in her desperate attempt to escape the Earth that she remembers the defiant courage of her ancient youth. And after that, he reconciles herself to The Doctor. There is even a hint of a possibility that she might meet Captain Jack one day. But even as The Doctor tells her to keep an eye out for another possible immortal, Lady Me makes her own intentions clear. She will watch the other immortal, but she will also observe The Doctor as well: and protect others from his “good intentions.”
I have to say that this was an excellent episode because it was less about The Doctor and more about Lady Me. The fact that Clara was hardly in it was only a bonus. Indeed, there was one point where — when Lady Me confronted The Doctor about just how many Claras he had lost — I was just waiting for him to state something along the lines of “Three or four, that I know of.”
And what is also excellent is that Lady Me is going to come back at some point. I think that a spin-off with Captain Jack, River Song, and a whole lot of “loose-end characters” like The Doctor’s Daughter Jenny and Susan would be an awesome idea. This episode of Doctor Who was a good one: a worthy follow-up to the story that came before it. Also, the word “Hybrid” came up again during this arc. Missy and Davros had been rather fixated on that word in “The Witch’s Familiar.” You have to wonder just how this might come into play in future episodes of Doctor Who.
Deathgasm is hardcore. There is no other way of putting it. Even from its very beginnings, according to the Toronto After Dark’s Q and A with its director Jason Lei Howden and producer Sarah Howden, the film proved just how powerful it could be through a one sentence prompt and treatment that would ultimately allow it to win the Make My Horror Movie contest in 2013 and win the production money that it needed to scream into existence.
It is so loud and clear with what it is that you don’t even have to be a metal expert to enjoy what you see. After a beautiful animated sequence, Deathgasm shows itself to be a story about a group of teenage friends in a conservative town that essentially unlock a demonic power through acquiring and playing sheets of music. These sheets are being hunted by a cult and then by the demonically-possessed citizens of the teenagers’ home town.
You get what you can expect when you look at how the horror genre has influenced the growth of metal: tons of gore, angst, screaming, demonic zombie destruction, and lots of penises. Certainly the prosthetics and special effects are impressively twisted: especially when you consider that they are all mostly borrowed props. For instance, the audience in the Q and A were told that the penises were taken from Spartacus of all places.
But this is just the blood and gore that stains the raging metalhead bad ass. In a movie that plays with the age-old theme of anarchy and vulgar defiance against conformity and hypocrisy, you also get some interesting characters for your time. Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) and Zakk (James Blake) play well off and against each other. Zakk himself is a bit of an asshole but somehow manages to also be a friend and even something of an anti-hero: though as you become more aware of the plot, you will begin to see where he is going with all this. And Brodie comes into his own from being in Zakk’s shadow: claiming the song that he used to unleash hell in a fit of angst.
Even the female lead in the film Medina (Kimberly Crossman) has her own excellent character development. She starts off as something of a popular girl at school but already demonstrates that she is kind, real, and open-minded. You actually get invested with seeing her and Brodie’s relationship and how it’s completely reciprocal. It even gets to the point where she rescues the rest of their band with an ax-pun of which Buffy the Vampire Slayer would be proud.
The villains have excellent moments and conflicting agendas and these, along with Brodie, Medina, and Zakk make up for some of the more stereotypical characters that populate the movie. There is just this emotional complexity amid the gore that makes it all the more alive: its dark humour and irreverence for even the hellish powers animating the story far more than any demon ever could. Also, given that this is a metal movie the soundtrack, much of it made by Skullfist, is excellent. In fact, Howden made people aware that they will be releasing Deathgasm‘s music in a double vinyl record.
In the end, Deathgasm is a glorious, musical, blood-splattered journey into hell and the pointlessness of life and the bad-assness of what you can achieve when you stop caring about the things that don’t matter and begin loving the things that ultimately do. Also, you get to watch really bad people get their moral comeuppance in some graphic and disgusting ways. Karma has never been so metal.
Imagine you are a lonely businesswoman. Or perhaps you’re a college student that wants to belong. Or maybe you are a shy, quiet woman looking to better yourself. And then, one night, you go out to seek the things that you want … and then you wake up the next day as three minds trapped in one, awkward, cobbled together body. What do you do?
This is the premise behind Tyler MacIntyre’s horror comedy movie Patchwork. It is an obvious hearkening back to Frankenstein on a classical Universal Studios level, but films such as Re-Animator and Dark Man have also been stated as influences. However both MacIntyre and his co-writer Chris Lee Hill succeed in challenging our expectations of what this story is going to be.
For instance, we get some back story into the lives of the three women that are stitched together. We see Jennifer (Tory Stolper), Ellie (Tracey Fairaway), and Madeleine (Maria Blasucci) as three very different personalities with often divergent goals. Even the scenes that explore their lives, and the moments before their deaths, seem to be stitched together in odd and interesting places.
Tory Stolper herself, who plays the amalgamation of the three girls known as “Stitch” in both the script and the original two-minute short from which Patchwork originated, manages to create a convincing lurching gait and the physical signs of her adaptation into activities such as eating, drinking, grooming, murder, and even sex. But where, in the words of an audience member at the Toronto After Dark, Patchwork might have become a “progressive take on Frankenhooker,” it verges into something else entirely towards the end. The key is examining just who was responsible for the creation of Stitch: and who her, or their, enemy might actually be. That dark twist in a series of shallow interactions with disgusting, chauvinist men, female empowerment that is almost subverted by said realization — and segments reminiscent of Memento and the resolution of Fight Club — was well-played.
In the fact, the only quibble here is that the audience becomes aware of the twist before the characters do: though it can be argued that this only serves to potentially make viewers more eager to see how they will deal with that revelation … and it doesn’t disappoint.
And somehow, through all the quirky humour, human caricatures, chicken fillets, righteous and recreational murder sprees, and gore porn Patchwork does have something of a happy ending. It is, in the words of MacIntyre, like looking at the beginnings of a female superhero’s origin story. After all, sometimes monsters are just people who haven’t found themselves yet outside of society and all they need to become comfortable with themselves, what they want, and who they want in their lives.
Imagine The Ray Bradbury Theater mixed with Tales From the Crypt and what you’ll get — at least in spirit — is Tales of Halloween. Yet while Axelle Carolyn is the creator of this collection of vignettes, she is only one of eleven popular horror directors — such as Lucky McKee and Darren Lynn Bousman, among others — to have included a short film in the overall structure of the piece.
It’s difficult to actually review a collection of supposedly interlocking films, so perhaps the best way is to look at the overall structure of Tales of Halloween. While Corin Hardy mentions Ray Harryhausen as one of his influences in creating the monsters in The Hallow, you can really see the shadows of Harryhausen’s animation in the miniature land panoramic view introduction to Tales and in Mike Mendez’s “Friday the 31st” and Neil Marshall’s “Bad Seed” vignettes with the cute alien and mutant pumpkin respectively.
But aside from some attempts to unite all the narratives, mainly in “Bad Seed,” most of the stories seem pretty well independent. In that, perhaps the collection as an overall and cohesive story structure fails. However, each vignette can be seen to stand as confections and diabolical plots in their own right. Certainly Dave Parker’s “Sweet Tooth” and Axelle Carolyn’s “Grim Grinning Ghost” create some nice standalone urban myths, along with demonic children facing and doling out justice in both Adam Giegrasch’s “Trick” and Paul Solet’s “The Weak and the Wicked” stand out as particularly strong and memorable stories.
Tone can usually be a casualty of creative collaboration. Whereas The Hallow seemed to be deciding what genre and tropes it was made of out, Tales of Halloween — depending on what tale you were viewing — veers wildly between the mundane, the silly, and the outright murderous and horrifying. Even the fact that each tale is supposed to take place in the same American town doesn’t always show through until “Bad Seed.”
Even so, there is something nostalgic in these vignettes that hearken back to candies, and games, and movies. Certainly, Adrienne Barbeau’s dark and delightfully full and villainous voice as a DJ on the radio narrating each vignette also adds to this spirit. Mainly, Tales of Halloween is a lot like the ghastly Sweet Tooth’s grab bag: sometimes you find delicious morsels, and other times you just find guts … until you realize that both are valid snack choices.
There are many different interpretations of faeries. Corin Hardy, director of The Hallow, seems aware of this fact: particularly with regards to how the Fae relates to Nature, being the Other in relation to humanity, and always bordering on the formless. Anyone who has read the original fairytales, the oral cautionary folklore of the past, understands just how dark and alien faeries can be.
The premise of the film is fascinating: in that Adam Hitchens, a British conservationist, his wife Claire, and their infant son move to an old forest in Ireland. They move there so that Adam can survey and eventually allow for construction in the area. The problem, of course, is simple: faeries or, as they called in the mythology of the film, the Hallow dwell in the forest … and they do not take kindly to having their territory intruded upon.
Or at least that is what it seems. Hardy creates an interesting take on faerie mythology that feeds well the film’s narrative: at least upon first glance. Through Adam’s own stubbornly scientific observations, viewers see the Hallow as a form of fungus that takes over its hosts: a life form that is highly photosensitive and possesses a great aversion to cold iron. They also create changelings: substitutions of stolen babies when they want to infiltrate a human settlement. It is also very clever how, as what seems to be a hive-mind fungus, the Hallow already has a presence in their wooden house: a ubiquitous threat making the audience aware of that tenuous line between Nature and human society.
However, how the Hallow interacts with the protagonists is where it all begins to fall flat. Even though, at the beginning, someone with a knowledge of faerie lore might wince at Claire taking off the iron bars around the windows of their new home, the nature of the Hallow itself — or themselves — just doesn’t possess any continuity. One moment it seems as though it wants to consume the family; at another it toys with them; and then it wants to spread beyond the forest even though it could have done so many times over for years.
The Hallow as a creature defines its own film structure. It seems stuck in a place between body horror, creature featuring, haunted housing, psychological, and zombie survival horror. Its as though, like its Fae monstrosities, it doesn’t know what it is, or whether or what kind of individuality it possesses. Even Adam and his dog, both of whom are infected by the Hallow fungi, seem to struggle with its mutations slightly but still ultimately fight against it. It just takes away from the actual horror element despite the excellently malformed Hallow creatures, the engrossing scenic view of the forest environment that could easily have been lost to time, and the very real terror a mother feels when her child is danger.
There were a lot of themes that could have been explored in more detail such as a loss or questioning of identity, or even specifics about the incredibly elaborate book of fairytales that the farmer Colm Donnell left the family to warn them out of the forest. The ending just bludgeons for a sequel that lacks even the mystique of its forest environment seemingly last to humanity and time, and the following jump scare just feels a little cheap. But the environment was played with well and there was some kind of closure and humanity for the characters involved.
Before the Toronto After Dark’s showing of the film, the audience was treated to a video made by Corin Hardy: telling them that they should have brought with them cold iron, a flashlight, and goggles. And it is by using these tools that the audience might see that while some trails in the forest of The Hallow might be predictable, Hardy does manage to build on and create a mythos: just as long as he protects that vision and keeps that light right in front of him.
It shouldn’t be surprising, given how The Doctor travels through time and space, that he has also encountered the fourth wall: and broken it. In fact, it’d not be all that shocking if this was neither the first, nor the last time, Doctor Who flirts with this form of paradox.
In either case, it is also not the last time we will be hearing about paradoxes. The Doctor begins the continuation to the last episode “Under the Lake” by introducing us, or reintroducing us to an old science-fictional staple: the bootstrap paradox for which he tells us to Google. After posing us with the conundrum of “Who wrote Beethoven’s Fifth,” a nice play on words and a Timey-wimey introduction to what is about to happen, or what has already happened rather, The Doctor plays a rock version of the song followed by another rock version of the Doctor Who theme.
With both bad-ass introductions upping the ante, we’re now left to see how Clara and The Doctor deal with the fact that he is now a ghost. But first we get to see The Doctor and his two temporary companions back in the 1980s at the Army base before it was flooded: where they meet the Tivolian before he died and the strange ship. There is a body of a tyrant called the Fisher King on board the vessel: deceased when the Tivolians had been conquered yet again by another species.
But the strange writing on the wall of the ship isn’t there and the missing ship’s power cell still in place. The Tivolian Prentice also has no idea as to who is projecting transmitter ghosts and has no knowledge of this technology. So we get more mysteries at this point in the game. And it only gets more convoluted and strange when The Doctor talks with Clara.
It’s a surreal scene, you have to admit. The Doctor is confronting the fact that he is going to die and become a ghost, while Clara is looking at the ghost itself: who has actually released the other ghosts from the Faraday cage. But this is a key event. Even Clara demanding that The Doctor more or less die on another Companion’s time doesn’t take away from this fact: that and the fact that his ghost is saying something different from the others. He is actually repeating the names of the crew, and Clara, over and again silently.
It also doesn’t take The Doctor long to realize that the Fisher King isn’t actually … dead. In fact, he probably knows that it is the Fisher King that wrote the writing on the ship’s wall: which imprints information into those that read it. What sort of information? Well, it’s the very information that manifests after the reader dies: and turns them into ghosts, which in turn changes them into transmitters to summon … something to Earth. In this way, this form of writing is actually very reminiscent of the Carrionites and their word-algorithm magic: except that it is more like a viral psychic meme that utilizes a person’s soul or essence to serve one function. As The Doctor states later, it is an ultimate form of violation beyond even time itself.
But the interaction with the Fisher King becomes even more eerie. When The Doctor actually does confront him — essentially meeting what he thinks will be his death — the monster reveals a lot of information. The Fisher King remembers the Time Lords. It is a strange thing when you consider the cracks in time, the second Big Bang, and the fact that The Doctor spent so much time and energy erasing all knowledge of himself and the Time Lords from the face of the universe. But this monster, who we have never seen before in any way, remembers this and even how they acted during the Time War itself.
Then more questions come up. The Fisher King reveals that if he kills The Doctor he can create a massive amount of transmitter ghosts: perhaps thirteen of them. In this way, once he goes back into that suspended animation pod we were introduced to in “Under the Lake,” this perversion of the Arthurian Fisher King myth can wake up centuries later, greet his people summoned from the stars, and conquer the Earth. But there is only one Doctor ghost that we’ve seen so far. How is this possible?
It’s at this moment that The Doctor knows what he has to do. First, he lies. He tells the Fisher King he erased the writing on the wall: that he would rather have a distorted and destroyed space-time than nothing at all. Then The Doctor, having already planted the power cell near the dam, causes the flood which kills the Fisher King.
But wait. The mysterious suspended animation pod we were introduced to in the last episode has been activating. This whole time we have been led to believe that the Fisher King will awaken and that his transmitter ghosts are about to bring his people down.
So what is in the pod?
Remember that Bootstraps Paradox? Recall just how much emphasis was placed on what was in that pod in “Under the Lake” and how The Doctor couldn’t open it? And remember how The Doctor isn’t supposed to cross his own time-stream?
The thing that you need to understand about time travel for The Doctor is the following. He still has to deal with fixed points in time: events he can’t change. However, he doesn’t have a human mind. He is a Time Lord. His mind works differently and in other tangents. And even if that weren’t an issue, there is the fact that just because the overall structure of an event can’t be negated, it doesn’t mean that details can’t be rewritten by someone who knows what they are doing.
Remember the Doctor’s ghost? Well, it makes a shriek like the one that summons the transmitter ghosts and lures them all to the Faraday cage again. It’s almost as though it did everything so that others could see him having this ability. But it seems so redundant … until you look back and see that The Doctor was watching all of this happening. Then The Doctor’s ghost disappeared.
And guess what — or rather who — comes out of the pod.
It turns out that the only reason The Doctor enacted his plan was before he saw the holographic ghost of himself that he hadn’t even made yet: and yet there it was. That is a bootstraps paradox.
Still, for all of the simple elegance and convoluted genius of this solution, it doesn’t come without a cost. Whereas the crew of “Into the Dalek” were, for the most part pretty brusque and hostile, and you almost got this satisfaction with the callous way The Doctor just didn’t bother being emphatic towards them, the cast for “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood” are much more relatable. It really hits home when you see how Bennett realizes The Doctor knew that O’Donnell was going to die and how he had to prevent Bennett from crossing his own timeline to save her when the TARDIS went back one hour before they themselves arrives in 1980. There were moments where it seemed as though Bennett was seriously going to punch The Doctor: especially when he reveals he was doing this all to save Clara.
He did it all for Clara. The tone of that still comes out flat, but all right. All right Moffat. We get it. You want to remind us of how close they are. Why don’t you just bludgeon us with that a little more.
And even Clara, who is acting like a mirror to The Doctor again, gets called out on her behaviour: first by Cass and Lunn who asks just how easy it becomes for her to dispose of other people’s lives, and then by Cass herself who wants to go after Lunn who left to get Clara’s stolen phone. The ghosts also remain in the Faraday cage and Bennett has to look in on the remnant of O’Donnell and realize that even though some part of her is there, the woman he loved was long gone.
Cass has a bad ass moment, though, where even though she is deaf she actually bends down to feel the vibrations in the floor to know when to avoid getting killed by an ax to the head. And at the very least, she and Lunn finally admit their feelings to each other. So at least some emotional good came out of the resolution to this episode.
But now that this mystery is over, perhaps we will get to see just who the girl is who refers to The Doctor so familiarly as “old man” in the next episode of Doctor Who: “The Girl Who Died.”
She Makes Comics is a documentary directed by Marisa Stotter, and produced by Patrick Meaney and Jordan Rennert of Respect! Films. It is also executive produced by Sequart’s Julian Darius and Mike Phillips and comics librarian Karen Green of Columbia University.
It’s hard to review a documentary. I think it’s even more difficult review a documentary that you like. In the interests of full disclosure, I backed the She Makes Comics Kickstarter. I even wrote about it twice here on GEEKPR0N and promoted it before I knew what film I was going to see. I was utterly fascinated with the concept of a documentary that focuses on not only the past, but the present history of women in comics: as creators, publishers, and fans.
Unlike other documentaries I’ve seen, the interviewers aren’t present. There is no presence of a single interlocutor or a primary voice. In fact, there are several voices that create the narrative of She Makes Comics: both in terms of the film’s structure and the history of women in comics. What I found fascinating was how each figure interviewed not only seemed to bring a particular topic or issue, but they interlapped with each other, and sometimes talked about one another in each cut, and even attempted to give a voice to the women in the comics industry who had long since passed. While the first and middle part of the film focused particularly on creators and historians and women who are, and were, in the industry, this gradually gives way to a multitude of newer and more contemporary presences in comics.
Also She Makes Comics was edited extremely well. Sequences with interviewed figured were accompanied by cuts of these creators interacting with their fans, of cosplayers at conventions, of segments of historical filming and popular cultural scenes, and even dramatic re-enactments. I do feel that the section about a woman feeling uncomfortable in a comics store, while definitely a valid experience, was overwrought and could have been portrayed much more realistically: though the discussion about it made up for that somewhat jarring, almost kitsch portrayal.
There were different section in this documentary, though the segues to each were so smooth and organic that it takes more than one viewing to identify where the topic begins to shift. Roughly speaking, She Makes Comics starts with the history of women on comics, the formation of Comic Cons and women trying to find a place in them, a powerful section on X-Men and its inspiration on female creators and fans, women in comics publishing positions, difficulties dealing with the insular chauvinism and misogynist mentality of “all-boys clubs” shops, the advent of groups supporting women in comics, some insights into the creative processes of the female artists that make comics, the treatment of female characters in comics in relation to their male counterparts, the importance of discussion of sexism and an emphasis on diversity in the comics medium, the importance of Internet communities, the acceptance of the graphic novel in mainstream culture but women still not being taken seriously in that field, the cultural difficulties of women pitching comics ideas in the industry, the creation of female comics spaces, a section focusing on harassment, and a final segment ending off with a focus on female-led or created comics and geekdom.
As you can see, this covers a lot of territory though by no means is it exhaustive: and these places definitely interlap. There were many things of note, but here are some of the few that stood out for me. The earlier history portion of the film particularly focuses on Jackie Ormes: the first female African-American cartoonist who will actually be getting her own mini-documentary by the creators of She Makes Comics due to them meeting their Kickstarter goals.
There was mention of the fact that there were more women creating comics when men went off to war and how female readership began to decrease after the Comics Code was enforced and superhero comics were supported over other genres. It was interesting to learn about the Marvel and EC comics artist Marie Severin in addition to Ormes, though I would have liked a little more information on Miss Fury creator Tarpe Mills.
The discussion of Comic Cons and cosplay is really timely, however, based on the recent flak the latter has been getting from some industry artist. Wendy Pini hits home the fact that, as a cosplaying pioneer — specifically of Red Sonja — she managed to create the persona for herself necessary to make her art, get into the industry, and essentially become completely independent with Elfquest.
She is an interesting parallel to Gail Simone who got into comics through her critical work in Women in Refrigerators: analysing how dead or traumatized female characters were used to advance male plots and eventually making nuanced female heroes herself. Both creators got into the industry in different ways through geek culture and their insights and I just thought it was truly awesome to have that reminder that fandom and criticism can lead to creation.
Some male figures in comics were also interviewed such as Chris Claremont, Paul Levitz, and Richard Pini: but the focus was on them in relation to their female influences, employees, and creative partners. Certainly, Ann Nocenti and Louise Simonson, both editors of Claremont’s X-Men run, influenced his work considerably: a series many of us have related to as marginalized geeks and nerds in our time. And Nocenti’s anecdote about initially thinking she was tapped to help write porn was rather hilarious. Karen Berger was also interviewed and her comment about liking “psychological stories and weird shit” as inspiration for what she helped to promote and publish in her Vertigo imprint made me smile as well.
Even though queer creators in comics were mentioned in the same place as online spaces, I feel there wasn’t as much focus on them. In addition, there were a few creators I was hoping to see such as Alison Bechdel and Aline Kominsky-Crumb that didn’t make it into the film: though the former was mentioned. Carla Speed-McNeil and Hope Larson made brief appearances, which was nice to see.
But there were two things She Makes Comics truly did for me. The first is that it introduced me to all-female fan groups like the Carol Corps, organizations that support women reading and making comics such as the Friends of Lulu, and even spaces like the Brave New World Comics Geek Boutique that challenge the very form of what a comics store is. And I want to read Marjorie Liu, G. Willow Wilson, Gail Simone, and Kelly Sue DeConnick. They are not talked enough nearly enough in mainstream comics geekdom, even now, and while I was curious about them before, I’m definitely inspired to look at Birds of Prey, Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Pretty Deadly, and others now.
I feel as though, even and especially if, you are a comics aficionado you will learn a lot from She Makes Comics. And if you are completely new, this is even better for you: for while it doesn’t give you everything, it is an excellent starting point into some works with different perspectives and interesting stories. I would definitely like to think that She Makes Comics hits home the fact that not only have women contributed to comics and geekdom, but they still do and they will.
Wendy Pini at one point shared an anecdote about a young woman who, despite her skill, didn’t have the confidence to acknowledge her art work as good: and even had difficulty presenting it to her without urging. Janelle Asselin, former editor at DC, mentions that she had very few women give her pitches. I hope that this documentary — and other works and groups and people of similar spirit — help to change this climate and culture, and make something as multifaceted as the film I had the privilege to finally see.