Feminist Western And Horror Film List
Beth Accamando: Welcome back to the KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast, I am Beth Accamando. It is just a few days before Halloween and I find it hard to concentrate on work when I am in midst of building a Star Wars canteen up for my home office here and there is so much to be done on tattooing, but I do want to highlight an independent film opening at Ken cinema this weekend and starring one of my favorite actresses Brit Marling. I also want to quickly run through the list of streaming horror films in case you need a last minute suggestion for the weekend. But let us begin with the “Keeping Room”. The Keeping Room is a subtle genre [indiscernible] [0:00:46]. It takes the fundamentals of a home invasion thriller adds the trappings of a western and then spins a civil war tale focusing on a trail women in Georgia just before Sherman’s brutal march. [Soundtrack][0.00.58]. Brit Marling plays Augusta, a young woman struggling to survive with her sister and a black woman, who may or may not be their slave. The three live pretty much in isolation on a family farm until some Union soldiers scouting ahead for the army spot the beautiful Augusta and track her back to the house. This is where the home invasion scenario kicks in and the women have to fight off the Union soldiers. [Soundtrack][0.01.47] War is never pretty and the film opens with a quote from General Sherman about war being cruel and the crueler it is the quicker it ends. Mad the black woman explains that everyone has their monsters to deal with. [Soundtrack][0.02.58]. There is a sense of compassion within this tight knit family community but not much compassion or forgiveness outside of it, especially, not for the Union soldiers or for men. Augusta eventually confronts one of the soldiers. [Soundtrack][0.04.34]. There is that notion of cruelty again. The Keeping Room serves up a feminist tale about the brutality of war and sexual violence. It is eager to say something but I am not entirely sure what the message is as it looks to the cruelty of war. Is the film meant as a challenge to Sherman’s quote about cruelty to say that he is wrong, may be, but the women seem eager to return violence with violence. Even after that approach leads to some unexpected and tragic consequences. There is no sense of trying to understand the dynamics of the situation which is a microcosm of a larger conflict and it also fails to address the underlying reasons for fighting the war. Sure, what the Union soldiers are doing is horrific. But so too was a lot of what the white south was doing in regards to slavery. But that part of the dynamic is overlooked because, our tiny circle of characters has inner racial trio of women where they all seem unfairly equal footing. Mad even gets to slap Augusta with no consequences. But Mad is also a bit too quick to forgive her for later horrific if unintentional act. I am not sure of the film’s point, is that war makes us all cruel, or that cruelty is just a byproduct of war and that we have to learn deal with it. Perhaps the film is just trying to give shout out to strong every day women who are often overlooked in cinema, on that count it succeeds. And once again Brit Marling gives a stellar performance as a female catalyst who moves the story forward. She is flawed but determined to survive. The Keeping Room opens this Friday at Landmarks Ken Cinema. And now to recap my list of thirty days of streaming horror, I know, October has 31 days. But there is something very special for Halloween day. Okay, let’s quickly run through the list of films that I have been recommending during the month of October, again this is no list of the best horror films of all time but it is a list of films that perhaps you haven’t seen or that may be will push the boundaries of what you expect from the horror genre. So the first film was the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from 1920, a silent film from Germany that is considered by many to be the first horror feature. The film serves up spectacular sets, cinematography and performances. Most memorable perhaps are the jagged oddly angled and asymmetrical sets. Some made out of paper with shadows painted on them that convey the skewed perspective of the main character. Next up is Hell Raiser from 1987. Guillermo Del Torro may have made monster sympathetic. But Hell Raiser director Clive Barker gave them an eloquent if disturbing voice in his feature directing debut. Pontypool from 2008 serves up a zombie film without zombies. How can that be? It is a brilliant and claustrophobic reimagining of the zombie genre where the infection is spread through language. I am including the film The Beyond from 1981 in honor of the fact that musician Fabio Frizzi made a trip to the United States for a concert. In creating a list like this it is easy to pick a film like Halloween or the Exorcist, but you would have to be living under a cultural rock not to know about these movies. What I wanted to do with this list was to provide some expected horror classics as well as to push the envelope in terms of how you define the genre. So one film I wanted to include was the Act of Killing, s film that challenges both the documentary format and our notion of how we define horror. This may be the most originally conceived documentary I have ever seen. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer approached former death squad leaders and asked them to reenact their real life murders in whatever cinematic genre they preferred. The Act of Killing is a startling provocative and disturbing work and it will make you rethink documentary and horror. Next up is something a little more frivolous. Tucker and Dale versus Evil. I don’t know what it says about the powers that be in Hollywood. Actually, I do know what it says, it says they are idiots. But two of the best horror comedies of all time sat on the shelf for years before finally getting released to audiences. Cabin in the Woods and Tucker and Dale versus Evil are clever blood soaked hilarious horror comedies that affectionately and smartly send up the tropes of the genre. I also want to suggest a double feature for you. I watched a nightmare on Elm Street III Dream Warriors and followed it up with a documentary called the Nightmare about Sleep Paralysis. Oh, my god, I couldn’t have planned a better double feature. So I want to suggest watching the original nightmare on Elm Street and follow it with the documentary The Nightmare for an evening of horror that will make you think twice before you go to bed. Next let’s go for something with a foreign flavor, A Girl Walk Home Alone At Night from 2014 and describing her film Iranian writer director Ana Lily Amirpour writes in the Iranian ghost-town Bad City, a place that reeks of death and loneliness, the townspeople are unaware they are being stalked by a lonesome vampire. Again part of the goal of this list was to highlight films that people might have missed and this film though widely acclaimed by critics got limited play in theatres. It is a gorgeous black and white take on vampire lord but filtered through a modern female Iranian sensibility, so many lovely layers to peel back. Next step on picking the exquisitely crafted We Are What We Are for multiple reasons, it is a remake that works. It combines horror and beauty. It is a return to serious horror where the filmmaker is not concerned with being [indiscernible] [0:11:15] or jokey and it is another example of an outstanding horror film that failed to get wide distribution. “We Are What We Are” is not just a stunning remake but a provocative film about the horrors we can find within the usual comforts of family and tradition. Returning to the spirit of ‘Tucker and Dale versus Evil’ is a new film, The Final Girls. The film proves something very old, Hollywood and main stream movie theatres don’t know what to do with clever horror films. It is a shame that San Diegans didn’t get to see this on a big screen. But don’t let that mean it falls off your radar. Check this one out for a bloody good time; it’s also kind of sweet. There is nothing sweet about the next selection. The real world often serves up more horrific things than a filmmaker can imagine. So I offer “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” based on real life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. Michael Rooker is frighteningly good as Henry, a man who kills randomly and without emotion. I couldn’t make a list of streaming horror films that doesn’t include Jen & Sylvia Soska’s American Mary. These Canadian twin film makers have a taste for horror and gore. They burst on the scene with a gritty action splatter ride called ‘Dead Hooker in a Trunk’ and then delivered the sophisticated and brutal ‘American Mary’. These sisters know how to make a movie that makes your skin crawl and what’s Halloween without a ghost story. Since Guillermo Del Toro is serving up a new ghost story with ‘Crimson Peak’ I thought it would be fun to revisit his earlier ghost tale The Devil’s Backbone. The Devil’s Backbone is one of Del Toro’s best films that turn genre expectations on their ear by giving us a sympathetic monster in this case a young ghost. It may create false expectations to call the film merely a ghost story. This is not a film about things that go bump in the night and it is not after cheap thrills, added score the ‘devil’s backbone’ is melancholy exploration of things that can cripple childhood which in this case is war. And to mix it up again let us goes for some gross out humor. To further my cause of highlighting films that might have flown under people’s radar here is a darkly comic creature feature called ‘Bad Milo’. Since, I devoted a cinema junkie podcast to psycho analyzing “The Babadook” let’s include film on my list. The film has all the trappings of a boogeyman thriller. It plays on our universal childhood fear of something lurking under the bed, in the closet or out in the dark just beyond the night light. But writer director Jennifer Kent turns this horror formula into something much creepier and emotionally more disturbing. In keeping with the kid theme, let’s go with Monster Squad from 1987. It is a fun kid horror comedy featuring classic universal monsters resurrected for new generation. No CGI monsters here, all makeup effects and pseudo acting and they look great. On a more serious note, there is Roman Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ from 1968. Polanski has created some of the most terrifying films, but he is not really considered a horror director the way someone like George Romero or Wes Craven is. I am choosing ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ because it fits the join the best and it is an immaculate production. Okay any Halloween month horror film plan must include something from early universal horror. So here is a classic and absolutely essential double bill for you to enjoy. ‘Frankenstein’ 1931 and ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ from 1935, both films were directed by James Wale, starred Boris Karloff as the monster and had Jack Pierce creating the phenomenal makeup. No horror list or Halloween viewing plan can be complete without a George A. Romero’s Zombie film. ‘Night of the living dead’ has the distinction of being the first ‘Dawn of the Dead’ is often and rightly regarded as the best. But I want to give some love to ‘Day of the Dead’ aside from being every bit as good as its predecessors; Day of the Dead has the distinction of introducing the first self-aware zombie in Bob. Next let us go for another foreign title. Imagine Little Miss Sunshine and Alien mixed together and you will have an inkling of what South Korea the host has in store for you. Best way to see the host is to know nothing about it. So it can surprise you, so that’s all I am going to say, check this film out. I also need to give a shout out to Re-Animator from 1985, inspired by HP Lovecraft, Stuart Gordon’s cult classic ‘Re-animator’ has taken on a wild life of its own. The film was made in 1985 and then transformed into ‘Re-animator The Musical” in 2011 complete with a splash zone for anyone interested in getting sprayed with blood, checkout my cinema junkie podcast, all about Re-animator the musical. Next step is the Swedish vampire film “Let the Right One In”; it was an elegant production design and is all about graceful delicate control and a great vampire story. Next step let’s go for something fun, how about clowns. Why is it that clown stir such a primal response in some people? The mere mention of clown can send some people running out of a room. In ‘Stitches’ Ross Noble plays a seedy kids clown who meets a brutally funny accidental death at a children’s birthday party and then comes back for revenge. In honor of the fact that Andrew Kasch along with his co-director John Skipp was in San Diego recently for screening of Tales of Halloween, I want to highlight Kasch’s documentary ‘Never Sleep Again’. Kasch co-directed the near four hour documentary on everything related to ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ with Daniel Farrands. So what do you say, a four hour documentary, are you insane? No, if you a fan on the franchise then this in-depth doc will breeze by and keep you riveted. It seeks out as many participants in the film and the TV franchises as possible to provide background on the origins of the dream demon, behind the scene stories and insights into why it has such longevity. And stretching the definition of the horror again I want to suggest “A Clockwork Orange” from Stanley Kubrick. I also wanted to include an anime example of horror and while there is plethora of horror anime series of available streaming, the list of features seems almost non-existent which infuriates me. But here is a good one to start with “Perfect Blue”. This is as good as Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ for building suspense and as perverse as Polanski’s “Repulsion” or “The Tenant” for getting inside the head of someone who may be losing their mind. And speaking of losing your mind, there is the 1920 silent version of ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ featuring John Barrymore. I think this film because it is often overlooked and has a great performance by Barrymore but also I wanted to highlight it because it is available on two streaming sources that are great for anyone who loves movies - Open Culture where all the films are free and Fandoor. And no list can be complete without Italian horror, so let me recommend Suspiria from 1977 and Director Dario Argento. The film is like a fever dream, delirious with colors saturated style and operatic violence. So have yourself a nice Italian meal, some red wine and sit down and enjoy this audaciously over the top cult horror classic. And as we approach Halloween let me suggest spending October 30th with stars Evil dead Marathon leading up to the much anticipated eagerly awaited and kickass looking new series ‘Ash Vs Evil dead’, the show seems to have nailed the perfect blend of gore, humor and self–deprecation and has Bruce Campbell back as Ash is the best Halloween treat ever and then spend Halloween night with stars premier of Ash Vs Evil Dead. Thanks for listening to KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast, I am Beth Accamando, be sure to check out my podcast tomorrow about the first films to scare people.
"Johnny Guitar" (1954)
"True Grit" (1969)
"The Beguiled" (1971)
Feminist western barely qualifies as a sub-genre since there are so few entries but "The Keeping Room" (opening Friday at Landmark's Ken Cinema) offers a strong entry.
“The Keeping Room” is a subtle genre mash up that takes the fundamentals of a home invasion thriller, adds the trappings of a western, and then spins a Civil War tale focusing on a trio of women in Georgia just before Sherman’s brutal march.
Brit Marling is Augusta, a young woman struggling to survive with her sister (Hailee Steinfeld) and Mad (Muna Otaru), a black woman who may or may not be their slave (there's a reference to her perhaps being a freed slave). The three live pretty much in isolation on a family farm until some Union soldiers scouting ahead for the army spot the beautiful Augusta and track her back to the house. This is where the home invasion scenario kicks in and the women have to hold off the Union soldiers.
War is never pretty and the film opens with a quote from Gen. Sherman about war being cruel and the crueler it is, the quicker it ends. Mad, the black woman, reveals the cruelty she experienced outside of war and explains that everyone has their monsters to deal with. There’s a sense of compassion within this tight knit female community, but not much compassion or forgiveness outside of it, especially not for the Union or for men.
One soldier raises the Sherman notion of cruelty, but I'm not sure what we are to make of it.
"The Keeping Room" serves up a feminist tale about the brutality of war and sexual violence. It’s eager to say something but I’m not sure exactly what that message is as it looks to the cruelty of war. Is the film meant as a challenge to Sherman’s quote about cruelty, to say he’s wrong? Maybe, but the women seem eager to return violence with violence (a justifiable response considering the soldiers they are dealing with), even after that approach leads to some unexpected and tragic consequences.
There’s no sense of trying to understand the dynamics of the situation, which is a microcosm of a larger conflict and which fails to address the underlying reasons for fighting the war.
Sure, what these Union soldiers are doing is horrific, but so too was a lot of what the white South was doing in regards to slavery.
Mad's story about the cruelty she experienced, seemingly at the hands of slave owners, seems disconnected from the rest of the story, yet there should be a connection. But that part of the dynamic is overlooked because our tiny circle of characters has an interracial trio of women where they all seem on fairly equal footing – Mad even gets to slap Augusta with no consequences.
But Mad's also a bit too quick to forgive Augusta for a later horrific if unintentional act. I’m not sure if the film’s point is that war makes us all cruel or that cruelty is just a by product of war that we have to learn to deal with. Or maybe that even these seemingly good women can become cruel under the right circumstances.
Or perhaps it’s just trying to give a shout out to strong, everyday women who are often overlooked in cinema. On that count it succeeds and once again Brit Marling gives a stellar performance as a female catalyst who moves the story forward. She’s flawed but determined to survive. Her Augusta is a far better example of a feminist character in a western than Hilary Swank in "The Homesman" last year.
Listen to the podcast for a full review with clips from the film and for a recap of my 30 Days of Streaming Horror.