I saw these two films on the same weekend, coincidentally, as Shaun of the Dead
was in theaters and Ginger Snaps: Unleashed
arrived from Greencine around the same time. It's not too unusual for me to see two horror films in a weekend, though, and these two films don't bear the same relationship to the horror genre. Both did get me thinking about why I like horror films and what the future may bring for horror movies, however.
The ad campaign for Shaun
promises something pretty close to what the film actually delivers, which is increasingly rare these days and is both a good and a not so good thing. I avoided reviews before seeing the movie (as usual) but got the impression from the trailer and TV commercials that this was going to be a movie combining elements of Dawn of the Dead
and The Office
, two objects of my own admiration. I saw it last weekend with friends and enjoyed it quite a bit. Apparently George Romero did as well, as the star/director co-writer team of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright are appearing in the next Dead film (Land of the Dead
, allegedly in pre-production and with a disappointing title compared with the rumored Twilight of the Dead
.) It's only fair, as Romero all but appears in Pegg and Wright's movie. Two actors from The Office
also appear: Lucy Davis in a primary role and Martin Freeman in a brief cameo.
Pegg and Wright have a great idea animating (sorry, couldn't help it) their project: turn Romero's strategy of embodying some horrific social phenomenon in the corpus of roaming, flesh-eating undead onto its comedic side. Much of the initial comedy of the feature comes from the audience awareness that they're watching a zombie flick before the characters know that they're in one. A persistent suggestion that slovenly, slacker North London denizens are indistinguishable from animated corpses results in several good sight gags until Shaun (Pegg) begins noticing them. After the situation comes to the main characters' attention, the duo turn to exploiting the clichés of zombie moviedom for laughs (my favorite was the inevitable speech where someone, in this case Shaun's mother, is told that a recently reanimated loved one, her husband and Shaun's stepfather, is not the person he was before, just as the fresh zombie characteristically turns off a radio playing rap music.) In the background is a generic story about an underachieving twenty-something guy trying to win back his surprisingly attractive girlfriend who's finally dumped him after his umpteenth disappointment. This was tired fifteen years ago in UHF
Despite this and other effort to keep a comedic tone to the proceedings, Pegg and Wright have no interest in all-out parody, which is no strike against them. At some point, however, the elements of zombie flicks overwhelm the comedy. Despite the verité impression I got from the ads, Wright's direction is actually less inspired by The Office or Mike Leigh (both of whom are name-checked in an interview I read with the pair in the New York Times) than Guy Ritchie, with the kind of swooping camera and quick-cut reaction editing that turns images into punchlines (in more ways than one.) Actually, both Pegg's character and some of this stylized, borderline hysterical frame composition can be traced back to Sam Raimi, who created the original underachieving evil dead killer, Ash. Like Ash in Army of Darkness, Shaun is inspired to take on the hordes of the underworld by a desire to impress a girl. Of course, you can't ignore the influence of the recent stylish zombie entry 28 Days Later on Shaun as well.
Pegg and Wright have worked together previously on a British sitcom called Spaced, which has been showing on Trio (a great network that I hear my satellite tv provider may be dropping, which may lead me to drop them.) I've seen a bit of Spaced, and should have expected the overactive direction in Shaun, but the main thing I gather from it is that Pegg and Wright made a mistake by not involving the co-writer and co-star of Spaced, Jessica Stevenson, more than they did.
If it sounds like I have mixed feelings about Shaun, it's because I do. I don't think this movie sounds the death-knell of zombie horror, although weaker movie subgenres have been seriously damaged by effective comedies based on their stock situations. In fact, Pegg and Wright have an obvious affection for their source material, something that probably makes their approach to the conceits of living dead movies more mild than it might have been. What I found disappointing, however, was their mild approach to every subject matter that crossed their field of vision. Shaun of the Dead isn't an intense horror film, but it isn't a particularly focused comedy either. The ad campaign calls the movie a romantic comedy, and this is true; Hugh Grant would not have been too out of place in the proceedings, and I was fortunate enough to have my wife along with me to point out the relatively obscure Jane Austen reference in a moment of domestic strife. I still enjoyed it enough, though.
Ginger Snaps: Unleashed was much more of a straight horror film, both than Shaun and from the first film in its series. I saw the first Ginger Snaps at the recommendation of a friend after avoiding it for a few years. I knew it was well-regarded, but I've been disappointed with many of the films that have found appreciative audiences among the online horror faithful. Moreover, lycantropy movies have a mixed track record with me; unlike other horror subgenres I usually find them either awful or great. Anyway, the first Ginger Snaps was well done enough, but pretty much just what I expected. Werewolf movies often work the condition into a metaphor for some kind of psychological or physical condition, and the analogy of lycanthropy to adolescence (see I Was a Teenage Werewolf or Teen Wolf) or specifically to womanhood (see The Company of Wolves or the mid-80s Swamp Thing issue, The Curse.) I didn't find the first Ginger Snaps all that compelling, not much different than a decent early episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The second movie is a different animal, so to speak. In the first film, despite the title and lead character look of Ginger (Katherine Isabelle), the real protagonist is her younger sister Brigitte (Emily Perkins) who is trying to save Ginger from the disturbing changes that a late-night werewolf attack set in motion. Some ambiguity with regard to this transformation is established: the onset of Ginger's lycanthropy coincides with her maturation, which threatens to rip apart her close bond with Brigitte, but also opens her up to sexy outfits and heavy makeout sessions with guys (things horror movie fans like.) She also gets the temper and strength to fight back against the obligatory bitchy queen bees, and a growing taste for killing. For the audience, especially a horror audience, this is a mixed bag and consequently, people can be expected to have some sympathy for the lycanthrope. Brigitte doesn't see an upside to this, however, and tries to appeal to Ginger's better nature and intelligence at first, then to figure out a way to cure Ginger without her cooperation or approval. In the end, Ginger becomes both the monster and the victim.
In the second movie, Ginger is gone (but reappears briefly to haunt her sister) and Brigitte is left to deal with her own lycanthropy, taken on in a last ditch attempt to bring herself and Ginger back together. Whatever one thinks of the film, Emily Perkins is marvelous. On paper, Brigitte is a dangerous characterization: a wise-beyond-her-years, cynical teenager who seems to think she knows it all, but Perkins' performance makes Brigitte's concealed fragility and controlled desperation clear at all times. Unable to cure her sister, on the run and aware that she is herself a threat to everyone around her, she uses her attitude to keep others distant and her sense of wisdom is bought with failure and fear. She has to know it all, because everyone she's turned to for help has paid for it.
Brigitte finds herself unwillingly in a rehab clinic (some hilarious scenes depict the ridiculous notions of treatment offered to the teen addicts) and aware that her condition is getting worse, especially without the suppression treatment she had been self-administering. She reluctantly takes another troubled young girl as an ally and eventually escapes the clinic to try and reverse or at least slow her transformation, simultaneously trying to shake loose her various benefactors before they meet unfortunate circumstances. In this movie, Brigitte's concerns are ours; we assimilate her position. She is protagonist, monster and victim (the best werewolf stories turn on this) and the audience is encouraged to share her interests fully even as her situation becomes more bleak. The final resolution, which does not leave much room for another direct sequel, takes wicked and relatively unexpected advantage of the impulses many horror fans have to prefer the monster to the victims. I understand the third film in the series, Ginger Snaps Back, is a prequel, resetting the action to the 19th century. I haven't seen it yet.
So, what's going on with horror now? It seems like horror movies have constantly been undergoing some sort of rebirth since the late 80s, from the opulent reimagined classics of the early to mid-90s, to the "ironic" Scream franchise of the late 90s, to the stripped-down, apprehensive strategies of The Blair Witch Project, to the carefully controlled supernaturalism of M. Night Shayamalan, to the often intense shocks of J-horror. There's been something of a back-to-basics movement in horror recently, with horror audiences championing (or deriding) 70s-style exploitation horror films like House of a Thousand Corpses and Wrong Turn (and dozens of straight-to-video lookalikes,) remakes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dawn of the Dead, and the imaginatively derivative Cabin Fever. Upcoming later this year, we have an American remake of J-horror favorite The Grudge, and two highly anticipated and uncompromising original horror flicks, Haute Tension and Saw (all of this from Lions Gate distribution, which also released Ginger Snaps.)
I've sampled a lot of this stuff, including Haute Tension (which I didn't think much of) and the original Japanese versions of The Grudge (which weren't bad) and don't think that horror ever slumps too badly, but that many of the best intended horror films or filmmakers end up resulting in a clutch of really bad horror flicks. Much like other types of movies, good and bad horror films are not distinguished by the ability to follow some formula, but with the ability to find a compelling story that can be told with the elements of horror films. To that end, I think horror films improve when filmmakers don't have strong ideas on what a horror movie must have (or do) in order to be successful. The problem is that horror films tend to be more plentiful when such ideas are widely shared. Fortunately, it looks like horror is still a commercially viable genre, but one would be hard-pressed to identify a clear pattern in the subjects or styles of successful horror films of the last few years. I don't even mind all that much if some of them are really comedies with some horror elements, like Shaun of the Dead.