Saturday, June 30, 2012

Dead And Undead In The 19th Century: Exit Humanity / Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Article by Marie Robinson

Greetings, readers! I hope you are enjoying your summer, because it is a cool 98 degrees in St. Louis (where is Nick Lachey when you need him?). Did I mention that I hate hot, humid weather? I have been trying to spend most of the daytime in air-conditioned movie theatres, and using the cool nights for walks. Speaking of creatures of the night…

When you think of the American Civil War, you probably think of the battles and the blood, the dead men strewn across the field, who now rest in chipping graves in their very own section of the cemetery (assuming you have a morbid imagination). However, two recent releases have turned our thoughts toward the undead in the eighteen hundreds.

2011’s Exit Humanity and 2012’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter tell tales of centuries-old monsters we know all too well: zombies and vampires. We all have seen a thousand films featuring both, but these two have a shared twist to the old trope.

One of the many things Christine and I have in common is we are sick and tired of zombies, or “dead-walks”, if we want to use the adorable nickname given in the film I have mentioned above. Don’t get me wrong, I love the classics, can’t get enough of the golden days of George A. Romero, but after a while, shit gets old. They have ceased to be scary and instead become stale. Yet as film companies seem to green light ANYTHING that features a drooling, vacant-eyed, blood-smeared face on the poster, I have begun to ask myself, “What else can they do?”

But when I caught wind of Exit Humanity and saw the trailer, I found myself actually excited for a zombie film (I’m sorry if I am hurting any zombie lover’s feelings, I hope I can patch things up between us as this article trails on). Written and directed by John Geddes (who seems to be building himself a career in the horror genre), the film is narrated by Brian Cox who introduces himself as Malcolm Lee. He reads to us from a journal that is written by a distant relative, Edward Young (Mark Gibson). Edward writes to us from a time where the war has just ended, in a Tennessee where zombies outnumber humans. Distraught after having to kill both his wife and son with his own shotgun after they had become monsters just like so many others, he now wanders the wooded South with his horse, Shiloh.

At first I didn’t think I was going to like the movie, it seemed like just another fight for survival among the undead. Now although I am usually very stubborn to watch zombie movies - because I think the story can only be so unique - there is something about zombies that allow for quite a bit of creative flexibility: they don’t exist. But there are a consistent set of traits that people have established about them over the years, and our Civil War era zombies are given the following: they are have no speed beyond a stagger, they must be dealt a fatal wound to the head to be killed, and they possess wide, unsettling, inky-black eyes.

As the movie progressed and the plot thickened, I found myself more and more enthralled by the film. Edward stumbles upon a fellow living person named Isaac (Adam Seybold) who basically forces him to accompany on his crazy mission to find his sister, whom he believes was kidnapped by the dreaded General Williams (played by Bill Moseley, who has been a horror veteran since the 80’s) who has a sinister plan of his own.

Although the time period gave Exit Humanity the film and the genre a refreshing twist, it isn’t the first time we humans have heard of zombies in the American South.

Painting of a Haitian zombie
Voodoo was introduced to Louisiana through Haitian slaves in the seventeen-hundreds, and became abundant in the 19th century. It became a dominant religion among slaves and was also a way for them to express their culture and stay in touch with their tribal roots.

Zombies exist in Voodoo culture as a reanimated corpse, devoid of its soul, that had been resurrected by a Voodoo priest or queen. Voodoo queens became important and powerful figures in the eighteen-hundreds, particularly around the time of the Civil War. Voodoo zombies are usually used as servants, or to carry out some task for the creator; they were often used to work the fields. A priest or queen must capture the soul of the deceased person in order to create a zombie, prevention of this included relatives stabbing a dead loved one in the heart, or cutting off the head.

On encountering his first zombie, our protagonist Edward Young says, “It was though he was alive, but had been stripped of his soul…”

I must admit that I did want to see Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, but the reason I followed through is because I got to see it for free (perks of working at a movie theatre). I suggest that you see it ONLY if you can view it under similar circumstances. The 3D was impressive, and I was into it for about thirty minutes, and then when it started trying to have this whole “serious plot” thing, I was pretty much done.

Unlike zombies, I CANNOT get enough of vampires. If there is a movie where vampires are involved, there is a 90% chance that I will see it, and probably a 70% chance that I will like it.

Similar to zombies, you can play around with appearances and traits, and I must admit, the bloodsuckers were pretty bad-ass looking in Abraham Lincoln. Once they got a taste for that crimson human sweet stuff, their faces get all distorted and hideous—Buffy style! These vamps can also walk in the sun, but they can’t be seen in mirrors… Not that I can really get mad about it—like I’ve said before, they aren’t real.

The film, directed by Timur Bekmambetov (known for Wanted and the Night Watch series) and written by Seth Grahame-Smith (the same guy wrote the book), doesn’t begin during the Civil War. First you meet a poor, young Lincoln who finds his hatred for the undead in the vampire who killed his mother. Years later, in a bar, he meets a man who tells him that he is a vampire hunter, and can teach him the ways of killing the beasts—which isn’t with a wooden stake, but with silver.

Abraham wields his weapon of choice—an axe with a silver blade—and goes to work. Things get awkward for the Yankees when they discover that the Confederacy has vampires in their army, but luckily, Honest Abe is Commander in Chief, and he just-so-happens to be a bad-ass slayer.

Bill Compton serving in the Civil War
Seth Grahame-Smith may think he had the cutest idea by writing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and he sure as hell made a lot of money on it, but he isn’t the first one to think that the South is a good place for fangers.

True Blood’s own Bill Compton fought for the Confederacy just before he was made into a vampire, and we can’t forget Charlaine Harris, who wrote the series of books that inspired the show that I am truly obsessed with. Horror author heroine Anne Rice, who is a Louisiana native, has written of bloodsuckers in her hometown of New Orleans.

I even have the pleasure of owning a book entitled Vampire Stories from the American South edited by Lawrence Schimel and Martin H. Greenberg, which features stories published as early at 1939.

The South is perhaps the most whimsical, cultural, and mysterious place in the United States; it’s no wonder that the people who die there refuse to stay dead.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

There's A Hair In My Mouth! Or, Why Vampires Make Better Boyfriends

With True Blood season 5 underway,  it’s been vampires 24/7 at my humble abode – which it generally is anyway but that’s beside the point. So I’ve come up with fourteen reasons vampires would make better boyfriends/husbands than werewolves…

Now of course in my head, the vampires are much more True Blood than Nosferatu, so do keep that in mind, folks.

Now that's gotta hurt!
1} Sure, either a vampire or a werewolf could kill you. But my thought is that I’d rather die with a couple holes in my neck and drained of blood than being ripped apart and eaten alive à la An American Werewolf in London. While vampires do have fairly scary fangs, werewolves have massive choppers that will rip you a new one within seconds. Not a fan.

 2} That whole full moon thing would get really annoying. I mean, what if the two of you were enjoying a nice family (evening) wedding -or god forbid funeral – and the urge comes a callin’ and he suddenly starts sprouting huge teeth and loads of hair. Bit harder to explain than “why does your boyfriend always look so pale?”

...and he dances, too.
3} Much cheaper date. Let’s say you’re paying for dinner. Vamps sit and watch you eat, fake-sipping that glass of wine, while a werewolf eats you out of house and home, ordering two of everything on the menu and looking like a wild refugee who hasn’t eaten in three days in the process. I hope to hell you’ve brought your Visa card.

4} Okay, the howling aspect. While I don’t mind a guy being vocal during sex, I’m thinking the baying at the moon with a deranged look in his eyes might be a bit distracting. But maybe that's just me...

5} Clothing. I’m a big fan of black. Not a big fan of torn clothes and no shoes – hard to keep your wardrobe in tact when you’re changing actual form. Give me an emo, enigmatic guy over a disheveled, other-side-of-the-tracks look anytime.

6} Dare I say the sunlight thing wouldn’t make a bit of difference to me. First off, I’m very much a night person, so the ‘up all night’ thing could be right up my alley. Besides, I’m a fairly independent person, and not having a man smothering me all day would be fantastic – leaves me time to myself. Lounge the day away undisturbed, catch a few winks, then spend quality time with the fanged wonder all night.

7} Supposedly, when a vampire bites you it can be utterly erotic if he allows it to be. Sounds good, right? When a werewolf bites you, it freakin’ hurts! That dude could rip off your arm, or worse! Plus the fact that he could be carrying rabies. So not cool. Vampires don’t spread disease. They’re dead, remember?

8} In my world, vampires don’t sparkle. Nor do they mope and whine. Then again, neither do werewolves. But they do tend to show those alpha personalities a bit too often. I hate when someone is always telling me what to do or feels they need to be in charge like Hitler. I’m independent, remember?

9} And I don’t like the “pack” thing. I’m an introverted loner myself, and finding someone like that is of the utmost importance. I’m not social, and prefer spending quiet evenings at home to partying till the dogs (literally) come home with a bunch of equally as annoying barkers. Hence, I choose vampires. Again.

“Waiter, there’s a hair in my soup…”
10} Werewolves don’t have very good control over their emotions, let alone their bodies. They’re always pulling an Incredible Hulk vs. Cujo when things get lunar. Vamps, on the other hand, are nothing but controlled emotions and mind control. Sounds good to me. At least if someone is telling me what to do, I won’t know any better cause I’ll be under the thrall.

11} The bat thing. If we are to believe vampires are able to turn into a bat – or a wolf, or whatever else legend has us thinking – that really wouldn’t bother me because I actually like bats – I know, one of the few. But those little suckers (pun intended) kill tons of mosquitoes every hour and I hate those itch-inducing leeches.

Now THAT'S what I'm talking about...
12} Wealth.  Vampires almost always have more dough than werewolves. They have centuries to make money, save money, squirrel it away in some mysterious castle for eternity...
Just think of the money they could make on the stock market these days!
Werewolves generally don't have two nickels to rub together. Why else would they be running around naked all the time, stealing old women's coats in the park when they wake up in a cage at the zoo? Bah!  That crap about money can't buy you love... so not true.

13} Immortality.  Werewolves are much more likely to get maimed, stabbed, shot, etc.  For some reason, vampires seem more stealthy. And besides, it's a well known fact that vamps live forever (provided they don't meet the sharp end of a stick) and weres can only go so long...a few hundred years at best.

 14} And lastly, can I just say I think vampires are sexier than werewolves? I just cannot get past the overgrown dog thing. Beastiality just ain’t my thing. All that damn hair!

I do, however, have one or two things to say about werewolves. 


...And TWO

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

There's No Place Like (Dream) Home...

To call Pang Ho-Cheung's Dream Home extreme is probably an understatement of epic proportions.  First off, I want to make sure you, the reader, understands that we are talking about Dream HOME, not the Daniel Craig shit-fest: Dream HOUSE.  (While I love Daniel Craig, that movie blew harder than a hot air balloon...)  This is the 2010 horror film from Hong Kong, and certainly the one you want to get your paws on.

Getting right to the point, Cheng Lai-sheung (Josie Ho, also one of the film's producers) is a Hong Kong resident working two jobs to make ends meet and to save enough to buy a condo in a prime location by the harbor.  The tale is told in flashbacks that go back and forth but not so much as to confuse the viewer.

We learn that part of the reason Cheng wants that very specific location is to make sure her dying father has a view of the water, as he was a seafarer and loves the ocean. It also has something to do with a period in time when she was a young girl and had a friend who was forced out of his home.  It's obvious that by the time she is in her 20's she has become near-obsessed with this certain place and will do anything - and I mean anything - to get it.

We've all wanted something. Whether it is a car, a house, or just the latest Tarantino on DVD or tall non-fat mocha. But few of us would ever go to such extremes to make something our own.

Cheng has an obvious imbalance somewhere, to strike out at every turn to make sure this condo becomes hers.  But while this movie has been labeled a blood bath, it is not without its merits and substantial plot.

While Cheng's friends are out partying, spending money, and getting laid, Cheng is saving every ounce of money she brings in working two jobs, squirreling it away to put a down-payment on a fantastic and truly out-of-her-reach waterfront condo.  We are shown in flashbacks her younger years and the struggles she's been through to get to this point.  As a child, she was forced to share close quarters with her brother and less-than-fortunate family, watch as the government evicts good neighbors from their rat-infested quarters, and be dealt an unfair hand in life. As mentioned, she now works two jobs and has no social life at all, just to attain her far-reaching dream.  Her father is ill and needs an operation, and even her rat-fink married lover won't help her by giving her some cash to help her afford his medical care.  (Of course that only goes to show us how selfish Cheng really is: if her father was that gravely ill, why would she not use some of her savings to pay for his surgery?)

The problem is, she is SO determined to have said swanky place that she resorts to murderous rampages, taking out any and all comers that interfere with her plans of ownership.  And here's where the gore-hounds will relish this film.  There is so much body fluid expelled in this movie that it is inexplicable how it ever got the okay to be produced.  Blood spews from slit throats and stabbed wounds like the mighty Mississippi. And as if the red stuff isn't enough, there is vomit (which I hate and is almost intolerable here). Lots of vomit. And there's sex.  I don't think I need to elaborate there.

There really is no element of surprise here.  After the first initial murder, we're pretty aware that Cheng is fucking bat-shit crazy.  We know she is going to go to any means possible to get that goddamned condo.  She offs everyone that gets in her way and some that don't.  I don't think it's spoiling things any to put that statement out there. It's the entire film. The violence, the gore, the unbelievable madness - it's all just twisted together like a pretzel.  It is, however,important to the film makers that we understand why she has went off the deep end. And so we have our flashback scenes to make it all seem justifiable.  As if that makes it okay for Cheng to spill someone's guts and let them die slowly.  With intestines and body parts strewn across the floor, it's clear Cheng has issues.

Worse yet, she has no remorse.  At the moment she finds out the condo has been sold out from under her, viewers will squirm - knowing what she has already done in order to procure this ridiculously over-priced real-estate.  But only those who randomly chose this film to watch will be utterly shocked.  Films like this get watched by word of mouth, not by swift and skilled marketing ploys.

Here's the thing. Truthfully, I am in love with this film.  I'm not saying it's the next best thing since sliced bread.  I am saying as someone who appreciates both gore and substance, it rocked my boat. This film is fucking nuts. But in a good way.  It's a balls to the wall exploitative gore-fest by every stretch of the imagination.  But the acting is good, the plot is relevant and current, and despite the sometimes confusing flashbacks, it moves along at a rapid pace.

And you seriously have to see the death-by-vacuum scene.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

We Ain't Gonna Stand For No Weirdness Out Here!: Explaining My Love For Friday The 13th (1980)

When I was around twelve, I watched a film that forever changed my life.  No, it wasn't Ordinary People or anything pretentious like that.  It was Friday the 13th.  It was late, I was home alone while the parents were at a church group outing (!), and I was feasting on leftover Chef Boyardee pizza and Nestle Quik.  Why do I remember this so vividly?  Because it changed my life, remember?  Pay attention!

I saw it before Halloween (1978).  And while we're mentioning Halloween, I have never really understood the comparison between the two films. People say F13 is the "poor-man's Halloween" or that F13 was a major copycat of Carpenter's golden child.  I don't get that. Halloween is full of style and excellent direction, whereas Friday is more of a smash em up, flat out slasher flick.  Halloween is unnerving and ominous, Friday is more gory and straightforward.  Michael Myers quietly kills you with a knife, Mrs. Vorhees yells at you, rubs your face in the dirt, shoots an arrow through your eye, and throws you through a window.  Michael is out to get his sister for an unexplained reason, Mrs. Vorhees wants revenge for the death of her son, Jason.  Halloween takes place in a suburban neighborhood, F13 is set at a summer camp.  Michael wears a mask, Mrs. Voorhees just grins and pulls out a big machete. And when Michael gets up and sneaks off after being shot six times, Pamela Voorhees loses her head, literally. The end.

While it's true that Friday the 13th may have taken advantage of Halloween's success and tried to emulate it, so did about a hundred other films after it. Maybe it's just because that's the film that happened to be on Showtime that cool November evening, I don't know... But I love it, and will wax poetic about it until the day I die.  I have a phrase I use:  "comfort horror", and while comfort horror is another post altogether, Friday the 13th is one of the films (along with Jaws and Psycho, to name a few) that I throw in when the chips are down (or in my case, up - and I'm wallowing on my couch with an entire bag of Lays plain) and I'm feeling melancholy.  So let's break it down a bit, shall we?  I think the only way to profess my love for the film in any kind of organized manner is by character.

Annie.  Oh Annie.  I'm so damn sorry that you got killed in the first ten minutes.  After the flashback to the past so we could see the whole "kill the helpless victims just as they are getting down to business", we are introduced to Annie, who is backpacking/hitchhiking her way to her job as a cook at Camp Crystal Lake. She stops off at a local restaurant asking for a ride and the entire place looks at her like she has three heads. But ol' Enos will transport her in his truck (after copping a feel helping her into his truck) to edge of town. After Enos drops her off, poor Annie just never had a chance.  She just jumped in that Jeep and it was goodnight nurse.  Guess we should have known when town crazy Ralph got all up in her business, warning her about Camp Blood.  I probably regret the loss of Annie the most because 1) she was nice to the dog at the gas pumps, and 2) she was the cook, dammit.  They could have been feasting on BBQ chicken instead of crappy burgers and bad coffee.

Steve. You're creepy, Steve.  Something about your bandana-sporting 'I've been listening to a lot of Grateful Dead lately'-look makes me squirm.  First thing out you're all bossy: "Come and help me push over this dead tree stump! Now!" When you should be making the introductions and thanking the other counselors for coming, instead you bitch about getting the place into shape that afternoon!  This is besides the unpleasant episode with Steve and Alice and him touching her face all skeevy-like.  Then he just freaking leaves the newbies and goes off to "get supplies". Not very fond of Steve, truth be told.

Though he did leave Sandy the waitress with the giant 80's eyeglasses a really nice tip!  Here's a tip for you, Steve...don't try to refurbish a "doomed" campground, okay? And by the way, Sandy - perhaps you need to take your uniform size up a notch, don't you think? Those puppies are busting at the seams....

Crazy Ralph.  I love your moxie. You always were facing an uphill battle, weren't you - trying to convince people that Camp Crystal Lake has a "death curse".  Why don't more people take the advice of their local doomsday messiah?  I don't get it.  He told you people, flat out, that you're all going to die.  And guess what? We have a bingo!  Though I'm not a fan of someone hiding in my pantry and jumping out at me, you meant well. I know that.  If only the counselors would have listened to your bike-riding, Freddy Kreuger-hat-wearing soothsayer ass. 

Brenda. Dear Brenda, why'd you have to go and wear those red mom-shorts?  I guess I can forgive you, but it wasn't easy when you slipped on that granny gown to sleep in.  I bet you were reading Valley of the Dolls, weren't you?  And if Ned had shot an arrow that close to my person I would have pounded the shit out of him but you just laughed.  You are completely and utterly forgiven though, because you play strip Monopoly.  That puts you in the eternal cool book.  That, and that sexy green slicker. But come to think of it, why did you venture outside in a thunderstorm in your granny gown to investigate the 'help me' screams when you owned a slicker? Smooth move, Ex-Lax.

Ned.  Comic relief Ned.  In other words, ain't no way Neddy's getting laid. Kind of a goof, but not as much of an asshole as most jerk-off funny guys in horror (i.e. Shelly from F13 Part 3 - Gah!!).  Ned's best moment came when he was bouncing around the yard wearing an Indian chief's head-dress and making "fake Indian whoops" in front of the local yokel cop (who incidentally provided the title of this post!). Later, Ned does what stupid characters do best: wander off alone to explore and end up dead.

Bill:  Now Bill is the token hottie, I assume.  Considering his dark wavy hair, rad guitar playing, and super-hunky flannel shirts, he's the man you want fixing your generator any old day of the week.  He's "the smart one" too, at least until he goes off to check on said generator alone.  But hey, he was already last man standing at that point.  And we all know, there's hardly ever a final guy, right? (Mostly because most men aren't virgins and those that are are like Part 3 Shelly!)  Additionally, while Deadhead Steve was the one hitting on Alice at every opportunity, Bill is the guy Alice wanted to get hot and heavy with, I think.  Alas, she had every chance to do so though, waited too long....and Bill ended up strung up on the back of a door with arrows mussing up his flannel.  I've decided: I mourn beer-guzzling Bill most of all.

Jack:  Bedding Marcie was always Jack's top priority.  Seems to me they were only at the camp to sneak off and have sex anyway, so they were bound to get offed quickly. Jack and Marcie stow away in the bunkhouse during a thunderstorm and make mad, passionate love in a stinky old twin bunk, then when she leaves to tinkle, he burns a quick doobie.  Strike two.  First you had sex, then you did drugs.  What's next? In any event, he was doomed.  At least he was able to take a few hits off that joint to lessen the pain of that arrow through his trachea.  Thanks to Ned, by the way, for being all dead and bloody in the top bunk the entire time Jack got his rocks off.

Marcie: The other half of the token sex-crazed couple, Marcie made some grievous errors, with the biggest one coming at her post-coitus trip to the bathroom.  Though she gets props for figuring out that the water was turned off in the sink and making that quick fix, she loses all contention when she hears a strange noise and goes to investigate the shower stalls.  My first thought with Marcie was, why the hell didn't you just step right outside the door of the bunkhouse to pee?  Your man has already seen it all anyway, and it was raining to beat the band - all your urine would have washed away in little rivers (like the blood in your dreams, dearie). But no...she treks to the showers and shazam!  Hatchet to the skull. Admittedly, it was my favorite death scene in the film.

Mrs. Voorhees: Oh Pamela, you were such a surprise! You're a tough bitch, I'll give you that.  And strong, too! I love how you were able to pick up those dead bodies and strategically position them to fall out of cars, trees and through windows. Very impressive.  How did you get Ned to climb into that top bunk before you slit his throat?  And heaving Brenda through that window, after dragging her all the way from the archery range?  Damn!  Besides having mad driving skills (and great taste in vehicles!), you know what revenge is all about.  I am blown away by your vengeful aptitude.  My only question is: where was Jason's daddy when all this negligence and drowning was happening?  Or maybe that's what really triggered all this rage.  Were you robbing the cradle with one of the young stud camp counselors all those years ago?  And for the love of all things good and sacred, why the hell would you take a job at a camp with a LAKE if Jason "wasn't a very good swimmer"? Perhaps you should have taken him to the Y for a few lessons, eh?  In any event, you were amazing as a crazed killer...that is until you lost your head.

"then he's still there...."
Alice. Sweet Alice.  Alice who rebuffed Steve yet tried to get Bill to fancy her. Alice who is able to hang a gutter with just one nail! Alice who rocks boots and mom-jeans like nobody's business. Alice who tried using MacGyver tricks to secure the cabin door.  Alice who enjoys relaxing by the fire while listening to some romantic guitar. Alice who is actually able to take a nap while Bill goes to investigate the power outage after they've found a bloody ax in one of the beds. Okay. All kidding aside, Alice is a fun final girl. NOT as awesome as Ginny in Part 2 (to which all other final girls are judged in my horror world)  She's tactful (because she lies to Steve about "maybe having to go back to California to take care of some things" - because white lies are better than hurting someone) and resourceful (most girls just hide in the corner and wait for the ax to fall - instead she tries rigging up the place and actually is prepared to use a gun if she can find bullets) and in the end, she was pretty damn good with a machete, right?  And best of all, when she says water it rhymes with goiter instead of daughter.  Well done, you.  See you in Part 2.  For a while...

Jason: Really all our little tyke gets to do here in Part 1 is hurl himself out of the water and scare the ever-lovin' hell out of everyone.  The first time I saw that scene I have to admit I almost pissed my pants.  It truly is one of the best jump scares ever, am I right?  Can anyone forget how they felt the first time that canoe-heavy scene?  You're thinking everything is going to be fine.  The cops have arrived, Alice is safe, all is well.  And then whammo!  I love that.  For a long time after the first time I saw that film, that particular scene haunted me when I closed my eyes to go to sleep at night.  That, to me, is the sign of a memorable horror film. When you just can't stop thinking about it.  So thanks for that, Jason.

None of these characters are that astoundingly interesting.  None of them are as cool as Lynda in Halloween or as complex as Norman Bates.  The film itself isn't ingenious or witty, or even terribly original. (After all, films had been slicing and dicing long before 1980).  But there is something about it that pushes my buttons. I believe it has to do with it being the first slasher film I saw. And the time period in my life in which I watched it.  Things start to change for kids at that age, and I don't just mean physiologically.  I mean it made an impression on my mind set.  It crawled up inside me and said "you LIKE this, don't you? You like to be scared shitless and feel helpless, don't you?

And yes, yes I do.  While I have seen countless better films over the years, Friday the 13th is a film that transcends all logical thought processes for me.  No, I shouldn't be so fond of it - the production value is for shit, the characters are fairly trite, and it has none of the style that films like Halloween and Suspiria have. But goddammit I love it.  It means something to me, and I will defend it until the day I get an ax through the head in my shower stall.  I'll love it and respect it for the place it has in my heart.

So there, haters.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Janghwa Hongryeon Eon: A Korean Folktale's Legacy In Film

~article by Marie Robinson

Greetings, ghouls! The main reason I am studying to become a folklorist is because I am a storyteller, and folklore is the stories of our ancestors. My goal is to keep the stories going and not let them die out, because I think it is important to remember our roots.

Thankfully, some tales still get the recognition they deserve, even if that means a retelling. I am a big fan of reinventing old myths and folktales; I do it frequently in my own writing. The story I am talking about today, however, originated from Korea. It’s called “Janghwa Hongryeon jeon”, which translates into “The Story of Janhgwa and Hongryeon”.

The jist of it is that a man named Bae fathered two girls, Janghwa and Hongryeon. Their mother died and Bae remarried a cruel woman. The stepmother kept her hatred for the girls a secret until she had produced three sons, and then she began to abuse the two girls. Janghwa and Hongryeon were too afraid to tell their father of the unspeakable things the woman did to them. Jangwha drowned in a pond while fleeing from her stepmother—one of her sons pushed her into the water to her death. Shortly after Hongryeon joined her sister in death, her body was found floating in the same lake where Janghwa was killed. After the sister’s death, every new mayor who came to govern the town was found dead in their study the following day, until one brave man took the place of mayor. He was in his study when the flames of his candles were extinguished quite suddenly and the door flung open. The apparitions of two girls materialized in the doorway. The mayor demanded to know who they were, and weeping, the girls replied that they had killed the previous mayors only in hopes of someone discovering the truth about their stepmother. The stepmother and her eldest son (who murdered Janghwa) were sentenced to death., and the ghosts of the girls finally found rest.

This folktale has inspired a string of films throughout the years. The first one was a silent film, released in Korea in 1924, simply titled Janghwa Hongryeon jeon (directed by Hyeong-hwang Kim). Two films followed with the same title in 1936 (directed by Hong Gae-myeong), and 1956 (directed by Jeong Chang-hwa). For some reason Jeon Chang-hwa did another rendition of the tale in 1962, this one entitled Dae Jang-hwa Hong-ryeon jeon. 1972 gave us the last Janghwa Hongryeon jeon of the 20th century. All of these films stay pretty close to the folktale’s storyline and character names, and all of them came out relatively close to each other! To be fair, look how many adaptations of Snow White the United States has come out with just this year.

Now… I haven’t seen any of the films previously discussed, but I am quite confident that the 2003 retelling of the fable is the best. It is called A Tale of Two Sisters and it is written and directed by Jee-woon Kim, who also gave us the highly praised 2010 film I Saw the Devil. While A Tale of Two Sisters is modernized and abstract, it does not lose the story that inspired it.

It is the story of the Bae family (a nod to the father’s name in the folktale), more specifically, sisters Su-mi and Su-yeon. Su-mi has just returned to her home from a visit to the mental hospital, where she was coping with the death of her mother. She keeps her shy and silent sister forever at her side and stands up for her in the face of their unpleasant stepmother, who Su-mi affectionately calls, “that woman”. As things at their house become stranger and stranger, and their father grows ever distant, the two girls are on their own in the face of ghosts, tragedy, and womanhood.

This film is a meticulously crafted classic and a masterpiece in horror cinema that takes a new spin on the folktale while still keeping it at its core. Its beautiful and sparse use of music and sound effects allows the drama to break your heart and the suspense to hold you in a terrifying grip. A Tale of Two Sisters is atmospheric and stylish; little light penetrates the shadows within the film’s house. It is a place built with mystery and madness in its frame, and the walls are closing in. The characters are strongly defined, from our protagonist Su-mi, who is struggling with sanity and strength, to the mutely troubled father. The film envelops you with its poetic and complex storyline, where the camera itself is used as a brilliant tool. Korea has proved itself to be a country that knows what is scary, and this film—unclassifiable and unique in its own genre—is no exception.

A final adaptation was made from the myth of the sisters Janghwa and Hungryeon…sadly. The Uninvited calls itself a remake of A Tale of Two Sisters, but this 2008 American film directed by the Guard Brothers is hardly worthy of that claim. Starring Emily Browning and Arielle Kebbel as the sisters, David Strathairn as the father, and Elizabeth Banks (by the way, I hate her) as the evil stepmother, this movie takes shreds of the plot and some laughable replications of scenes from A Tale of Two Sisters and forgets all about the fable, proving it to be hollow and lacking all artistic and emotional qualities.

Well, Janghwa Hongryeon jeon had a good run, regardless. Hopefully it will live on through these films, and not be forgotten with time, for it is a beautiful and heartbreaking tale that has proven to be highly influential in its country of origin. You can keep this story alive by passing it on—be it at a campfire, a bedside, or just by tuning into one of these films!