Ti West’s tense, suspenseful 2009 film The House of the Devil is a slow burning, stomach bending study in horror tropes. It synthesizes its sources (Carrie, Psycho, urban legends about babysitters and Satanic cults, Rosemary’s Baby, the 1980s), to move beyond mere pastiche or parody. At first, the dance montage appears to offer a respite from the nervous dread that West spends most of the film building—it’s also another dead-on moment of eighties filmmaking—but the montage’s content (the violence of the careening billiard balls, the furtive glance into the dark basement, the breaking of the vase) ironically redoubles the isolation of the film’s protagonist. The affirming, protective power of her Walkman cannot resonate beyond her big earphones.
The House of the Devil is a great, smart, scary film that you may have overlooked. Recommended.
[Editorial note--We originally ran this post in the summer of 2009 when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was in theaters. We run it again now to celebrate the premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I (we also are running it again 'cause we're lazy)].
First thing’s first: if you’re looking for Harry Potter slash fiction, you’ll have to check out our original Harry Potter Sex Romp post for links, you dirty dawg (you’re weird but you’re welcome). Just like that post a few years ago, this post’s title is really kinda sorta mostly irrelevant to what this post is about. What is it about? I want to take a look at some of the homoerotic tension in the new Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. If you want to find a proper review of the film, with plot summary and insight, shop around. That’s not gonna happen here.
Also, there will be SPOILERS, okay? Fair warning.
Okay. So, I saw the new film last night (henceforth HP6). And it was pretty good or whatever. But I noticed a subtext that cracked me up quite a bit, an underlying motif that might be lost on most summer blockbuster audiences. I’m talking about the implicit love between men and boys in this film.
At the beginning of the film, in an apparently insignificant scene, young Harry makes a date with an attractive young girl. However, old man Dumbledore shows up and dashes any hopes for a late sumer romance. Instead of meeting up with this lithe young thing, Harry has to grip hard to Dumbledore’s stiff arm to be apparated away to meet Horace Slughorn, an old potions master. Dumbledore uses Harry as fresh young bait for Slughorn, who has something the old wizard needs–a key memory about the development of Tom Riddle–Voldemort–a former protégé of Horace’s (lots of mentors and mentees here). Much of the narrative’s conflict revolves around the task Dumbledore has given Harry; it’s almost as if Dumbledore is pimping out the young wizard. These multiple man-boy relationships are doubled darkly in the failing bond between Snape and emo Draco.
In contrast, heterosexual relationships between the teens are treated with a lightness and even frivolity that codes such romances as ephemeral, or perhaps even inessential. Although the film solidifies the groundwork for the long-term relationships between the series’ principals (Harry-Ginny/Ron-Hermione), the real love story here is between older men and their young apprentices. HP6 depicts teen romance as silly without coloring any of its fragility with pathos. What the film really argues for is a sort of Greek or Platonic ideal of love; that love exists as a conduit for wisdom, passed from an older, experienced man to a younger boy in exchange for some of that youth’s beauty and vitality. Although moments of teenage adventure punctuate the film, the real scope of heroic encounters are shared between older men and their attendant lads (particularly Dumbledore and Harry, although even Snape, through the annotations of his old textbook, manages to plant part of himself into Harry).
The film reaches its climax with a lot of phallic wand waving and a bit of indecision over who gets to shoot off at whom. The climactic scene encodes the strange aggressions and series of shifting allegiances between the male wizards present. Dumbledore becomes the tragic figure; his death allows for Harry’s maturation, enacting a definitive arc in Harry’s Oedipal complex, where Dumbledore is both father figure and secret sex object. The weight of this tragedy initiates Harry into the adult world and adult responsibilities.
So why bother to write about this? No reason really, and I’m sure plenty of readers will find my analysis insupportable, silly, offensive, or just plain wrong. That’s fine. I guess I mostly find it remarkable that this motif should prevail so heavily in a summer blockbuster. There was also a whole drug motif going on–so many of the film’s plot development hinge on the ingestion of mind-altering substances–so maybe I just like the idea that the film is kinda sorta subversive.
Let me admit biases up front: for the past few years, I’ve looked forward every Wednesday to Nathan Rabin’s regular column at the AV Club,“My Year of Flops,” where he reviews–and reappraises–some of the worst-received films of all time. I’m also a fan of Rabin’s other columns, “THEN! That’s What They Called Music!” and “Nashville or Bust,” as well as the general tone of the AV Club, which he no doubt helps set as its head writer. I also thought Rabin’s memoir The Big Rewind was pretty good. So, I’m probably not the most objective person to review Rabin’s new book My Year of Flops, which comprises 35 of Rabin’s past columns, 15 new entries, and interview snippets with some of the actors who had the (mis)fortune to turn up in these flops. I’ll do my best to assess how well these columns–most of which were written for the internet–hold up as a book.
So, what, exactly, constitutes a flop? There are the biggies here, of course, infamous studio-busting career-killers like Heaven’s Gate, Battlefield Earth, and Ishtar; the batshit crazy weirdfests that were destined to become cult classics, like Southland Tales, Howard the Duck, and The Apple; the disposable movies made to be forgotten, like Bratz: The Movie; there are forgotten and overlooked oddballs, like Robert Altman’s teen sex comedy, O.C. and Stiggs, and Gospel Road, where Johnny Cash tells the life story of Jesus. All of these films share disappointing (or non-existent) box office results as well as general critical disapproval (or at least bewilderment). As part of his revisionist project, Rabin ends each entry by declaring the re-appraised film a “Secret Success,” a “Fiasco,” or a “Failure.” Tellingly, most of the time Rabin finds his subject to be a “Fiasco.” He’s willing to take each film on its own terms; he’s also incredibly open to viewing each film in a way that transcends the trappings of its marketing to an intended audience.
Take, for example Tough Guys Don’t Dance, a film macho novelist Norman Mailer thought it would be a totally sound idea to not only write but direct. Rabin’s initial analysis derides the film for its cardboard characters, debased gimmickry, and embarrassing dialog. By the end of his reassessment, however, Rabin has given the would-be thriller a new life as “a darkly comic, horror-tinged melodrama about the emptiness of excess and the soul-crushing costs of pursuing endless pleasure.” His review rests not on a personal ironic vision, but rather on a willingness to see Mailer’s own ironic vision at work behind (and in front of) the camera.
In the same way, Rabin is able to put aside–even while acknowledging–the dreadful reputations surrounding films like Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate. Even though the latter film essentially destroyed both its studio and the maverick filmmaking style of the 1970s, Rabin finds in it more than a slight redemption–he finds a flawed masterpiece, a gorgeous treatise on Manifest Destiny that doesn’t deserve its reputation. Similarly, Rabin would have us believe that Istar actually is funny. Both of these entries are remarkable not just in their clear revisionist goal, but also for how instructive they are. In both write-ups, Rabin reveals much of how movies are made, and how movies are made flops–the ways that infighting, firings, and studio expectations can damn a film before it even premieres.
While My Year of Flops is instructive in its criticism, it’s also very entertaining. Rabin has a keen sense of satire, and if he occasionally tips into snark, it’s always earned (and if you have a problem with a writer being snarky at the expense of Battlefield Earth, well, you’re probably a prig anyway). A great illustration of how Rabin combines his sense of humor with his instructive criticism in his coinage of the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”–
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors, who use them to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl serves as a means to an end, not a flesh-and-blood human being. Once life lessons have been imparted, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl might as well disappear in a poof! for her life’s work is done.
Cameron Crowe is particularly guilty of employing the MPDG trope, but you can find her pretty much everywhere you look–at least in the domain of rom-coms. Rabin proposes the term in his first entry in the series (also the first entry in the book) a review of Crowe’s much maligned Elizabethtown. Rabin finds it to be a Fiasco. In a move that sums up both Rabin’s program and his generous spirit, Rabin concludes My Year of Flops by re-reassessing Elizabethtown–he now dubs it a Secret Success. While I don’t subscribe to the idea that a critic should-be a starry-eyed optimist who finds the best of all possible worlds in each work, I do think that it has become far too easy to outright dismiss someone’s hard work. We live in a hyper-mediated age that moves too fast: all propositions are disposable, including the arts. Rabin, in taking each work on its own terms, does a service to both criticism and creativity.
Rabin’s own columns might, of course, fall prey to this disposable age. Today’s columns and blog posts are meant to be consumed quickly; although the best might find a life of new clicks in cyberspace, most are tomorrow’s virtual bird-cage liners. The blog-book is thus a tenuous grasp at some permeability–or at least respectability. My Year of Flops is fun, energetic, and insightful, but it does not bear sustained reading. The entries are best consumed one at time, probably between other tasks (or other books). It’s a great book for the john. Still, in an ideal library, My Year of Flops would stand squarely along side any other work of film criticism (it’s certainly sharper than anything by Leonard Maltin or Gene Shalit). Ultimately, Rabin does here what all great critics do–he makes a case for the works he’s appraising. He makes you want to see his Secret Successes and even the Fiascos (and, at times, even the Failures). I’ll even forgive him for making me watch The Apple. Recommended.
Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 film House is comic-surrealist horror on par with Tsukamoto’s Lynch-soaked aberration Tetsuo, the Iron Man and Miike’s profoundly disturbing/hilarious take on country life, The Happiness of the Katukuris. Read more about Obayashi’s film here. Three clips from House–
Do you still need an idea for a jack o’ lantern? Are you a fan of Hayao Miyazaki films? Even the really sweet and gentle ones, like Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro? And, are you, like, totally skilled at carving pumpkins? If so, have at it with this cool stencil by Flickr user PlayWithFire:
Here’s F.W. Murnau’s seminal 1922 vampire film, Nosferatu, in full, thanks to public domain laws. Nosferatu is a horrifying and beautiful example of German expressionism at its finest. Max Schreck is terrifying as the vampire Count Orlok (an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s character Dracula). Observe–
Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake is also gorgeous, but employs a more naturalistic style. Klaus Kinski plays Dracula. Two scenes–
In 2000, director E. Elias Merhige gave us the underrated gem Shadow of the Vampire, a fictionalized account of the making Murnau and his crew making the original Nosferatu. Willem Dafoe is amazing as Max Schreck–or really, as Orlok, rather, as he stays in makeup and costume for the entirety of the production. The movie is both hilarious and frightening, and at times even sadistic. It’s also of a piece with the wave of meta-textual films that surged in the last decade,like Being John Malkovich, I Heart Huckabees, and Adaptation.