The Mummy (2017)

 

I’ve been staring at my computer for a while trying to put my feelings about this movie into words. I can think of few relevant ones. Mainly:

Fuck you, Universal. Fuck you very much.

The Mummy was meant to kick off Universal’s take on the shared universe, essentially using old school monsters to create their version of Marvel’s cinematic empire. Remember Frankenstein, the Swamp Thing, and the Invisible Man? Universal sure does. And they smell money. Unfortunately, the enterprise has gotten off to a shaky start. Universal decided that Dracula Untold would be the headliner of the new franchise but failed to tell the production team that until after filming was nearly complete, resulting in a chaotic mess of reshoots and editing that left the final product struggling to find its footing. Then it was decided that nope, sorry, it’s actually the Mummy that will be headlining the new universe!

Well, okay. Dracula Untold was doing its own thing and despite the last minute scrambling, probably didn’t fit with the aesthetic that Universal is going for. Despite the missteps, I was hopeful about the upcoming films. All things considered, doing a series about old horror monsters isn’t the worst idea in the world. There’s a reason people are still making Frankenstein movies in this day and age. The images and story are powerful and there’s always new ground that can be dug thematically. There’s a lot of stuff to unpack in horror and if done right, monster movies can be wonderfully eye-catching and compelling on screen.

Unfortunately, The Mummy is exactly none of those things. The pacing is off, the effects are lackluster, exactly two of the characters actually have backstories, the humor is atrociously bad, and the story is just ham-fistedly awful. It’s a lazy production through and through. The scenery is boring, the action is as generic as it gets, and any depth the characters have comes either from the acting prowess of Sofia Boutella, who deserves a much better film, or subtext that unintentionally provides some genuine horror.

Let’s break it down, shall we? Spoilers to follow.

Monster movies are ultimately about the monster. The trailers promised to give us a new mummy; Princess Ahmanet, the “ultimate evil”, who would carry the weight of the film and provide a new interpretation of a classic monster. Instead, what we got was a vampire who drains her victim’s life force by kissing them, flirts with the protagonist, and spends the entire film wearing nothing but bandages. She’s never seen as a genuine threat and despite a few lukewarm jump-scares, never achieves the true menace or quiet tragedy of Karloff’s mummy. Sofia Boutella acts the hell out of this role, but there are limits to what even a talent actress can do with a weak script. Furthermore, the movie isn’t even about Ahmanet. It’s about Tom Cruise. Or rather the character Tom Cruise is playing, an amalgamation of every snarky tough guy he’s ever performed. His character doesn’t have a backstory, he has a scorned ex-girlfriend and a monster that won’t stop flirting with him. What’s his motivation? Exactly what is his job? Why should we care about him in the slightest? Nobody seems to know!

This is a problem, since the big reveal of the movie is that he steals Ahmanet’s power and becomes the “new” mummy.

Yeah. Tom Cruise is going to be the mummy in however many upcoming movies Universal feels like subjecting us to. Let that sit with you for a while. The white guy is going to be the mummy. That’s a choice Universal made. They’re hoping to springboard a franchise off this film.

I’ll let Baby Groot describe my feelings about this.

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Yeah.

Setting aside my general dislike for Tom Cruise’s brand of acting, the way that The Mummy treats its female characters is the only genuinely scary thing about the film. Ahmanet, who I’ll remind you is supposed to be the Big Bad – the Ultimate Evil – spends two scenes as a skeleton and the rest of them wearing only a few strategically placed bandages. Her use of seduction isn’t treated as a threat so much as an amusing throwaway that Tom Cruise can quip at. Despite the body count, Ahmanet is never once treated as genuine threat. If anyone is scary in this film, it’s Russell Crowe’s Doctor Jekyll, who’s casual disregard of human suffering in the service of “the greater good” is probably the film’s only moment of real menace. The suffering that Ahmanet undergoes at the hands of the movie’s heroes is ham-fisted and unintentionally disturbing. Consider the scene. A young woman is placed in chains and put on a literal pedestal by a large group of men, who cause her immense pain in the name of “putting her down” and eventually dissecting her – their aim is not only to kill her, but to turn her into an object of study. The only other female character expresses concern and disgust at the treatment of someone she rightly points out is sentient and – more importantly – visibly capable of feeling pain.

Furthermore, Ahmanet is almost entirely naked in this scene. Despite the aims of the film and who it intends to make the heroes, I felt a sense of fear and unease for Ahmanet in that moment and several that followed. Furthermore, her “prison” is inside a museum. The heroes intended to treat her as an object – something to be put on display and studied with the other artifacts. The fact that the climax involves the hero holding Ahmanet down and kissing her against her will while she screams and kicks only makes the subtext that much more disturbing. I’ll repeat that: the hero kills Ahmanet by holding her down and kissing her while she struggles. That is a scene that happened. Someone thought that was a good idea. Someone looked at that and didn’t see a rape lurking under the surface.

And in all honesty, that’s the problem with The Mummy. No one really stopped to think about how the scenes were going to be read. No one looked at the decision to put the mummy in Baghdad instead of Egypt and then have the monster rampage through London and thought, gee, that might possible come off insensitive considering recent events. No one thought about the implications behind not allowing Ahmanet to wear clothes. No one thought about what it would look like to have the heroic mummy be a white guy while the villainous mummy is an Egyptian woman.

No one though her death scene would look like a rape.

Well, guess what. I looked. I saw. And I got angry.

It’s not that there can’t be good monster movies. It’s not even that good mummy movies are hard to make, or that they’re hard to make with decent female characters. Remember Evie from The Mummy (1999)?

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That series was far from perfect, but it was fun, it was entertaining, and it had interesting characters. It can be done. Hell, it was done in 1999! So why are we fucking up so badly in 2017? Is it because people are looking at a female monster and thinking, how can we make her sexy? instead of how can we make her compelling?

I wanted to like this movie. I was looking forward to it. I was looking forward to the Dark Universe. And now I’m not. It’s simple.

You fucked up. Do better.

Blair Witch (2016)

 

Another one of those movies that I wanted to see in theaters but somehow never had the time to. Blair Witch was initially filmed and marketed under a different title, The Woods, essentially following the opposite media strategy of its famous predecessor, The Blair Witch Project. The original gained something of a cult following due to its unique marketing techniques – namely, pretending the entire thing was indeed real – and it’s almost single handed revival of the found footage genre. Love it or hate it, The Blair Witch Project was a game changer in the American horror scene. Following a lackluster sequel that most fans refuse to consider canon, the series waited a full seventeen years to  produce a follow up, announcing Blair Witch with little fanfare and even less information about where the story would be going – only that it was going to be updated with modern technology and Adam Wingard (You’re Next and The Guest), would be directing.

So, how does Blair Witch stand up next to its predecessor?

Unfortunately, the film starts out strong – introducing new concepts and characters, and addressing questions raised by the original – but rapidly loses steam even before the closing of the first act. Despite updated cameras and technology – including smart phones, GPS, and a drone – Blair Witch produces what is essentially a retooling of the original, almost shot for shot. Whatever novelty or new information might have been gained from the new technology – including the criminally underutilized drone – is lost before the end of the second act. It’s a shame too, as it’s clear that the people working on this project had ideas they wanted to play around with, especially concerning the nature of the woods, the power of storytelling, and how technology and hype can play into modern myth-making, but for whatever reason their efforts fell short. Adam Wingard has proven himself as a thoughtful, convention-breaking filmmaker with his past work, and it’s unclear why this particular project adhered so stringently to the original work even when the original itself was flawed.

Ultimately, Blair Witch was an interesting and even timely idea that just couldn’t find it’s footing. It’s worth discussing in terms of film studies and the history of American horror cinema, but unfortunately doesn’t hold it’s own weight. It has ambitious ideas but no payoff, strong visuals and sound without the story to back them up. As much as I was looking forward to this one, it just didn’t work.

The Devil’s Dolls (2016)

 

Honestly, watch the trailer and you’ll know what you’re getting. The Devil’s Dolls is your run of the mill “child in peril by strange occult object” story, minus any meaningful character development or tangible villain. The actors give admirable performances but unfortunately can’t save the film from a predictable and bland script. Nothing happens here that you haven’t seen before. The film’s only saving grace would be it’s better than average cinematography and setting – utilizing rust and urban decay in interesting ways – but unfortunately it’s not enough to really save the film. The end result is a film that while technically serviceable, is unfortunately too bland to leave much of an impression. Skip it.

Get Out (2017)

Folks, the year is still young, but I would say we have a contender for best horror film of 2017. We got outstanding performances from the entire cast, but special mention should be given to Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, and Betty Gabriel. Jordan Peele produced an outstanding and incredibly tight script, filled with metaphor and historical references, each of them carefully thought out and placed deliberately for maximum impact. There’s comedy, horror, the best and worse of human nature, a protagonist that the audience can connect and empathize with, moments of horror, misunderstanding, and beautiful camera work. Get Out utilizes every actor, set piece, and camera angle for maximum impact. It has one of the tightest and most professional looking productions that I’ve seen in years and it’s obvious that a great deal of thought went into every aspect, from the casting to the sound design. This does not feel like a directorial debut, and promises good things to come from Jordan Peele’s work in the future.

There isn’t much I can say without getting into spoilers, and I do believe Get Out has a stronger impact with an audience that goes in cold, but this film is incredibly well made. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it turning up on college syllabi in a year or so as an example of what genre filmmaking can accomplish when it’s crafted thoughtfully. The great joy of genre work – and horror specifically – is that it allows the audience to dip their toes into situations that scare them and come out the other side unharmed. No matter what happens to the characters in the film, the audience survives. And in some ways, the audience wins. They have faced their fear – be it giant monsters, a serial killer in a mask, or the more abstracted anxiety about what might be hiding in the dark – and by making it to the end of the story, they have both engaged with and conquered that fear.

That being said, the majority of protagonists – the characters that the audience is meant to connect and empathize with – who view the tragedy and endure whatever scary things the movie throws at them, are generally straight white men. (Slasher films, with their iconic Final Girls, are another matter all together). There have been exceptions over the years, but as with the majority of Hollywood films, American horror tends toward the experiences of the straight, white middle class. This makes it a wonderful place to subvert those trends using the very same tropes that define the genre.

Let’s back up a step. Horror films, like any work of genre filmmaking, are easily recognizable as such – usually within the first scene. Our protagonist is put in a situation of peril and must either rise above their fear or then succumb to it. The threats are marked and recognizable to the audience if not the characters themselves and so viewers can always place themselves within a film. The villains will be recognizably sinister, basements and attics will inevitably become a small, homegrown version of hell. It’s a tried and true formula, well known even to those who don’t pay much attention to the genre. So well known, in fact, that it only takes a few changes to subvert the dominant narrative and add something unexpected to the story.

The genius of Get Out is that, quite simply, it’s a horror film that forces the audience to empathize with its protagonist. It sounds simple until you realize that Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris is a careful rebuttal of nearly every stereotype of black masculinity commonly portrayed in horror. Far from being the implacable bruiser, Chris is a thoughtful artist, uneasy and alienated within his surroundings, and – most importantly – openly fearful. He is a human being first and foremost, and his sense of isolation and confusion make him an empathetic one. Quite simply, this is not a course generally taken with black characters in horror. Chris is shown to be afraid because he is in a frightening situation. And in a better world, this wouldn’t be a radical notion at all.

As the stakes heighten and the true horror of his situation begins to dawn on Chris, he seeks out comfort and understanding from the few non-white characters he encounters, looking for common ground and never quite finding it. A white audience member might never have experienced this feeling before, but the film forces them to identify with the acute alienation and melancholy that Chris feels; he wants to belong and feel comfortable with these people, but cannot. His blackness is seen as a commodity to literally be bought and sold; his personhood is secondary, if it is recognized at all.

Get Out isn’t the first horror film to look at race as a commodity that can be taken, discounting the personhood of whoever the current victim happens to be. However, Get Out is the first one of these films that I’ve seen to look at it from a non-white perspective. The Skeleton Key (2005) and Jessebelle (2014) both concern victims of racial violence (a lynching and a hate crime respectively) who seek out and attempt to take over the lives of the white protagonists. In these films, the villainous black characters literally possess the bodies of the white protagonists. These possessions, done through supernatural rather than medical means as in Get Out, are explicitly described as acts of cruelty and violence by antagonists who wish to “pass” as white and occupy “white” spaces in society. Get Out, by contrast, treats blackness as a commodity that can be bought by the white antagonists simply for aesthetics without digging into any of the racial baggage that would come with it; a literal form of blackface. Chris and the other victims are treated more like clothing than human beings – their experiences are moot and it is literally the appearance of their bodies – their hair, their strength, their supposed athletic abilities – that makes them valuable. The fear of the black presence infecting white bodies that Skeleton Key and Jessebelle are concerned with is simply not present in Get Out.

 

All and all, Get Out is an incredibly well made movie. 10/10, Jordan Peele should continue making horror films, and this one is worth a rewatch. I intend to get in on DVD and you should too.

Dawn of the Mummy (1981) – and let’s talk about Universal’s big old monster plan while we’re at it

In honor of all the monster movies that are scheduled to come out this year – The Mummy remake in June, King Kong tomorrow, Alien: Covenant in May, and several others I’ve doubtless forgotten – I decided to take a look at some older monster flicks that paved the way. This is also a way for me to shift into some thoughts about Universal’s planned series of shared-universe flicks, of which the upcoming Mummy remake is included, but I’ll get to that later.

 

Let’s talk about Dawn of the Mummy. It’s one of the lesser known mummy flicks, lacking the cult following of The Mummy (1991) or the balls-to-the-wall weirdness of Bubba Ho Tep (2003), but it exists and I saw it, so hey. Suffer with me.

I kid. Dawn of the Mummy is a campy ball of cheese, gleefully in love with the inherent sleaze of its own premise while still balking at anything too wild. It has the potential to slide into the world of grindhouse weirdness, with the world’s hammiest characters stuck in scenes with some of the world’s flattest, but never quite reaches that point. Despite the presence of models in-universe and several sex scenes, there’s a strange lack of nudity or indeed even the suggest of sexuality. It’s memorable more for how much potential it has and how little it delivers on its promises. Not that Dawn of the Mummy is awful on an objective level; it’s just boring. It wants to be a sleeze-fest but can’t commit to including enough gore or sex to actually do anything fun. The costumes are bland, the acting exactly what you’d expect from a low-budget 80s horror story, and the scenes are standard, though several suffer from poor lighting. It’s a by the numbers film in nearly every respect. You get what you pay for. In my case, it was an hour and change of my time spent clicking away pop-ups on YouTube.

So, basically nothing.

The story follows a group of models and an overly ambitious photographer bumbling around Cairo. Bored with the scenery, they decide to look for something “fresh” and decide that bothering the local tomb raiders, who have recently dynamited their way into the final resting place of an angry mummy, into sharing their space – and looted gold – with a group of beautiful models. Hilarity ensues. About the only memorable thing about Dawn of the Mummy is its odd instance that the mummies act like zombies – with an insatiable taste for human flesh. And decapitation, oddly. There are a lot of severed heads in this movie. I’m really not sure why.

 

Dawn of the Mummy is one of those films that, for better or worse, exists without being memorable on any level. Except for maybe the zombie-mummies. But hey, somebody thought it up, a lot of people worked hard to get it made, and it ought to be remembered. It’s part of a larger trend that’s been gaining traction in recent years as well, the revival of not only old horror films, but of mainstream filmmaking returning to old-school monster flicks. And pretty soon, we’re going to get our first taste of Universal’s Avengers-style collection of monster films.

So, let’s talk about that. Dracula Untold (2014) was originally supposed to the flagship film of the group, a fact that was apparently not revealed to the filmmakers until the shooting was nearly completed, but Universal has since backtracked and stated that nope, sorry, The Mummy will be the first after all. At the moment, the following monsters are slotted to get their own films: the Wolfman, the Bride of Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and something to do with Van Helsing. Will these films be any good? Honestly, it’s hard to tell. Dracula Untold was pretty but extremely uneven, and has since been cut from the lineup. Aside from the questionable decision to cast Tom Cruise, the trailers haven’t revealed a whole lot about The Mummy remake. And even if these films are passible on their own, how will they mesh as a group?

Again, it’s hard to tell. Marvel is the force to beat when it comes to the shared-universe experience and shows no signs of slowing down. What they’ve done is fairly unique as well, blending a multitude of characters, genres, tones, and styles under a single large – and very profitable – umbrella. DC has tried and failed to follow suit. And now Universal Studios is making a go at it.

Honestly, I’m a huge monster fan, so I’m pretty excited to see what comes out of this. If they stick to Marvel’s formula, that means Universal will be kicking out a bunch of monster films in a variety of styles with a few connecting threads and a whole shitload of money. Which is both a positive – more money means more risks can be taken for potentially greater payoff – but also a potential downfall. See, in my humble opinion, the best horror films – monsters or not – are subversive and touch on the darker sides of humanity. They go to the places that scare people and don’t bother making the experience pretty for the audience.

Mainstream films, especially those backed by large studios and even larger budgets, are trying to appeal to as many people as possible. And that, by definition, means they’re leery about taking risks.

Horror films that don’t take risks don’t tend to be all that interesting. For an example, follow The Mummy (1999) all the way down until The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Empire (2008). You start off with a cult classic that still holds its own more than a decade later and end with a film that’s an utter piece of shit, despite the valiant efforts of Michelle Yeon and Jet Li. Sometimes even great actors can’t save a shit movie from its own bad ideas and an overstuffed budget. In case anyone was wondering, The Mummy had a budget of $80,000,000 and Tomb of the Dragon Empire was packing a $145,000,000 wallop. Obviously the budget isn’t the only deciding factor in a film, but it’s worth noting in this case.

So, that’s a concern with Universal’s big old monster plan. Horror films are mean and nasty and to put it simply, I don’t see this series working unless they aim for the majority hitting an R-rating. Thus far, Dracula Untold is bringing it home at PG-13 and The Mummy hasn’t been given a rating. Could they follow Marvel’s lead again and have a bunch of different movies, some of which are kid friendly and some that decidedly aren’t? Sure! Anything is possible. But if these movies are going to be worthwhile, I do believe the majority of them are going to have to toe the line over what’s acceptable to mainstream audiences these days. And quite honestly, usually that involves an R-rating.

But I could be wrong. Who knows? Universal hasn’t revealed much about this project. Either way, I’m curious.

Bring it. I’ll be first in line buying tickets.

Horror As Resistance

I didn’t set out to write this sort of thing. This blog was supposed to be a way for me to put my ideas out into the world, the collected works I could point to whenever someone asked about my ideas on film and culture. This was supposed to be padding for my graduate school application. But we live in a tumultuous society and one that now – more than ever – demands that our voices either be heard or silenced completely. Though my reach is limited, I have the power to get my words out there. I am not risking my life for these words. I can do this one small thing and in honor of those who cannot, I feel that I have an obligation to try.

I want to tell you something, readers: you have been lied to. You have been told that you have no power and that your interest – even love – of horror storytelling and film has no meaning. At best, it’s a frivolous hobby. At worst, something ugly and deviant, a shameful pastime never to be mentioned out loud. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time and effort arguing for the merits of horror and other types of genre storytelling, and I find myself compelled to do so once again right here, right now.

Friends, nothing you love is meaningless if it gives you strength. Through storytelling, human beings examine the what-if, the infinite possibilities of our world and all the worlds that might follow it. Through horror, we experience the abject and the strange. As an audience, we see our fears presented on screen and conquer them. Because the truth of every horror film is that no matter the plot, no matter the body count, no matter how vividly the nightmare is constructed, the audience always survives. Don’t you see? Every time, the audience faces down their fears and conquers them. The audience always survives. We’ve endured zombie plagues and serial killers, werewolves and demonic dolls, and none of them – not even the ghosts or their knives – could stop us. In their own small way, horror films have made survivors out of their audiences. And for me, that matters. If I can face catacombs and vampires and in doing so find the strength to resist misogyny in the wider world, then it hardly matters where that strength came from; only that it belongs to me, and I will not be quiet in possessing it.

What you love is not meaningless if it gives you strength. This is not to say that horror films are the unlikely cure for all the world’s ills or that they empowering to everyone in the same way. No, horror is merely a genre, a means of storytelling, and for good or ill, stories are not inherently anything. But if you can find strength in them or coopt them as a form of resistance, then they are not meaningless.

Find your stories. Find them in horror or comedy, find them in theater, film, or the graffiti at your bus stop; find your monsters and survive them. And know that by surviving them, you can survive the world.

What you love is not meaningless. What I love helps me endure.

The Good Neighbor (2016)

Hello, good readers. Some of you might have noticed my absence from the internet, though I imagine most of you are busy with your own lives and have no cause to think of mine. However, I have returned! In the haze of graduate school and political chaos, I live. I have returned to the world of horror criticism tinged with angry feminism. Witness me

And with that introduction, I return to the first review of 2017

The Good Neighbor starts out in the same vein as Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), the more recent Disturbia (2007), and other horror films about the complications of observing a stranger from a distance. Though its inspirations are clear, The Good Neighbor quickly evolves into something quite different. The premise is deceptively simple. Two teenagers, armed with an abundance of time and an absent father’s money, have decided to convince their cranky neighbor he’s being haunted through a combination of technology, special effects, and petty meanness. For posterity, they have broken into the old man’s house and rigged the entire thing with cameras – except for the basement, strangely the only room in the entire house with a lock on it. Hilarity ensues as the pranks and cruelty escalate. Exactly who is this old man? Who or what is locked in the basement? And exactly how many lines will these teenagers cross before they realize they’ve gone too far?

It’s a fun ride. The Good Neighbor has plenty of ideas it wants to work through and the patience to develop them in unexpected ways. Exactly who the “good guys” are in the story isn’t immediately apparent and the film makes great use of scenes where the characters misinterpreted what they see on film and run wild with the conclusions. In a lot of ways, The Good Neighbor is a story about the limitations of film, the conclusions we draw about strangers without knowing them, and – intentionally or otherwise – how devastating the narratives people construct about their lives can become if unchallenged

All and all, The Good Neighbors is a hell of a lot smarter than it looks. It’s tightly paced, well written, and doesn’t include anything excessive. Despite the premise, it’s a tight and sparing film, limiting itself to only three main locations. It does wonders with a sparse set, James Caan gave a wonderful and unexpected performance as the cranky neighbor, and its ending was beautiful and devastating in all the right places. The only complaint I have was that the timeline tends to jump around and while this works as a narrative device, the changes aren’t always clear, which leads to some confusion in a few scenes.

All and all, four stars. Go see this one. It deserves a watch.