Wave of Mutilation: Assassination Nation (2018) Review

New England is often considered the birth place of modern America. When the Puritans founded Plymouth Colony in 1620 they couldn’t have known it would become the bedrock for many of the issues Americans still face today. Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation, uses its Salem, Massachusetts setting to highlight how little has changed from the uptight, morally corrupt commune that began America (even though it began with the best of intentions). Assassination Nation’s lineage lies in the works of American literature such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953) updating it to contemporary times and with just a smidge more violence.

After working through the New French Extremity in my spare time, I often wondered if we’d ever get a New American Extremity because while America has never been a peaceful country, it certainly likes to pretend it is and any violence is the product of defending its civil liberties.  The Purge franchise is probably the closest we got until this past year. Since 2017 we’ve seen Tragedy Girls, Revenge (made by a French director), MFA and now Assassination Nation all bloody, funny, tragic and deeply indebted to the female experience, confronting the gender’s treatment in the films of yesteryear and re-appropriating said treatment for a modern film-savvy audience. As we still grapple with all the #HotTakes on the #MeToo movement, the bulk of the work still falls on the survivors while the majority of public figures pay lip service to the movement but are unwilling and/or unable to take a meaningful stand. This duality is at the core of a national and international dialogue, where do our moral boundaries lie and how do we defend them?

Assassination Nation tells the story of Lily (Odessa Young) and her BFFs Bex (Hari Nef), Em (Abra), and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) as they navigate the politics of high school and sexuality in a modern age of having multiple identities through multiple lenses. While these young women are living within the confines of society, the film articulates in a variety of ways that social media plays into it allowing for a variety of truths and posturing. As the private information of the town is hacked, the residents become more desperate for answers as the dark secrets and shitty assumptions of the town are brought to light while Lily and her friends become the primary target for the town’s unfiltered anger.

With only one previous film directing credit to his name (Another Happy Day, 2011), Sam Levinson proves himself to be a filmmaker who can create controlled chaos in the midst of a searing line of focus through a rambling narrative which feels fresh, if not a bit preaching-to-the-choir. The first third of the film establishes the frenetic and frenzied feeling of creating and maintaining a variety of lived realities in ways that feel completely, overwhelmingly and almost joyously cinematic. By establishing this mise-en-scene early on – we are given short-hand with which to understand some of the characters and some establishing narrative threads. From there the film updates the ideation that Hawthorne and Miller warned us about, that prejudice and high-minded morality around the notion of sin are performative rather than malleable. The third act, which has lost some people, descends into a violent female film fantasy. After decades of consuming violent cinematic male fantasies, Assassination Nation utilizes its protagonists and antagonists pushing them to the extremes to tell a story about our base impulses through, once again, a highly cinematic lens. By pushing its visual styles to the extreme, Assassination Nation puts some (semi) diverse female traumas and truths on screen by allowing characters who usually have no access to participation in this kind of genre ending to take up space within it with agency allowing them to reach a fantastical catharsis.

Is Assassination Nation the most perfect film ever made? No. However, its sheer ambition and willingness to take risks keeps it relevant. When unspoken truths are blasted through a movie screen it doesn’t make them easier to swallow, it makes them harder to ignore.

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From My Cold Dead Hands: Halloween (2018)

It’s a funny thing seeing a film at TIFF’s Midnight Madness (the horror/genre programming section of TIFF). The audience is bananas. The energy is palpable and the audience participation is through the roof. At last night’s world premiere of David Gordon Green’s Halloween (2018), the audience was primed, Jamie Lee Curtis was in the house and various Michael Myers were stalking the Elgin Winter Garden venue. I’ve spoken about my love of slashers on this podcast multiple times and I’ve been on other podcasts speaking about my love for Halloween: H20 (1998) and why I think that film is a successful end to Laurie Strode’s story. I was trepidatious going in to the screening last night because I wanted to love the film, but I wasn’t convinced that Danny McBride and David Gordon Green were the team to bring something new to the franchise. I’m generally wary when a new team is brought in and says, essentially, “fuck the original franchise, we know better.” Gordon Green and McBride have made arguments in the press that the notion that Michael is Laurie’s brother isn’t as scary as some random guy killing people, to which I would like to say: fear is AHEM relative. BUT the mood was right last night and without further ado – let’s dive in to Halloween “2”018.

Set 40 years after the events of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and ignoring all subsequent sequels and remakes the film begins on the eve of Michael Myer’s ill-advised October 30th transport from a psychiatric hospital to a supposedly Orwellian nightmare jail. Meanwhile, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has been waiting for Michael’s escape and living in fear as a survivalist putting a strain on her relationship with her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). Of course, the transport carrying Michael goes awry and he’s on the loose once again. Without the guiding principal of Laurie being Michael’s sister, hence his intent on killing her and anyone related to them, the film can’t decide on Michael’s MO – does he kill indiscriminately or like to wait for elaborate set ups to strike certain victims? Is his murderous rage triggered by the holiday itself, his mask, his older sister Judith or Laurie herself? Who knows? Certainly not the film. Halloween skirts the edges of saying something but then backs down in favour of comedy, creating a frustrating 90 minutes where characters speak in exactly their motivations and intents with no subtext but when the film could say something about trauma or lived experience it cuts to a goofy non-sequitur.

“I don’t remember these things being so goofy.” – Martin Crane

McBride and Gordon Green seem hell-bent on telling their audience that they have seen the original film but only through visual cues and mentions of the “Boogeyman” without context for what the “Boogeyman” means to the film, and I struggled to take away any meaning from it other than a celebration of nostalgia. I would be interested to know what someone who hasn’t seen the original film could take away from it as the film swings from one callback to another.  As the filmmakers behind efforts like Pineapple Express (2008), Your Highness (2011) and Vice Principals (2017) Gordon Green and McBride can’t get out of their own way, insisting on injecting talky comedy every few minutes causing the film to flounder in its pacing and creating one of the most tonally inconsistently films I have ever seen. The film feels so indebted to these factors that it feels less like a film and more like an exercise. Filmed in mostly close-ups and medium shots I could never establish a sense of space to this new Haddonfield. One of the elements I appreciate most about Carpenter’s original is the emptiness of his new American small town, the notion that the place that was supposed to be the safest in America was also its most sinister.

 

On film Twitter, I’ve seen near universal praise for the film and its female led ending, and while I didn’t hate it, the film doesn’t earn it. There will never NOT be a day where I don’t want to see Jamie Lee Curtis be a badass and other women be badasses with her, but because the film spends so much time keeping these characters apart and deviating into subplots that go nowhere, the ending feels rushed and confused but hey, I got to see JLC cock a gun a few times.

 

I think nostalgia is a tricky thing, this film, which I’m sure will do very, VERY well and based on the reactions of those in the theatre around me and on Twitter, will be almost universally beloved, to me doesn’t understand what a threat like Michael Myers means today. There is talk about the original events but the filmmakers can’t quite bring themselves to take it into the realm of the violence, deadly tragedies (particularly from gun violence) that occur on a regular basis in America. McBride and Gordon Green seem to want to say that America’s violence hang-over causes people to become desensitized to lived violence until they themselves are faced with it. I’ve been watching the Netflix series Follow This about Buzzfeed journalist deep-diving into a variety of subject matters and one of the best episodes is about Black Survivalists, black folks who have taken it upon themselves to learn how to survive in unthinkable circumstances. The episode clearly lays out that for these groups they are not only marginalized but the government doesn’t care about their safety forcing them to take it into their own hands. Halloween once again skirts this issue with Laurie. What does Laurie’s self-imposed/forced survalist lifestyle say about our society? The film certainly doesn’t know or doesn’t want to say.

 

Prior to last night’s screening, there was a brief intro from the creative team then the lights went down and the audience cheered in anticipation of the film. The screen remained dark and the Halloween theme music began to play. From the side of the stage someone dressed in a Michael Myers costume walked on and stood there staring at the audience while a thousand or so phone cameras flashed. Then the music stopped and “Michael” unceremoniously wandered off stage. To me this “nod” to the audience indicated that the visual checklist of a Halloween film was more important than any illuminating thematic weight. Looking at this moment in retrospect, it felt like an arbiter of what was to come.  Halloween 2018 believes in the iconography of Michael Meyers but doesn’t want to understand why he became and has remained a horror icon.

 

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REVIEW: Habit Forming – The Nun (2018)

Corbin Hardy’s The Nun begins with a recap of where we’ve seen The Nun (aka the demon Valak) before, most notably in Ed Warren’s (Patrick Wilson) painting in The Conjuring 2 (2016) firmly entrenching the film as another spin off in The Conjuring universe or Waniverse. In the footsteps of the franchise’s other spin offs, Annabelle (2014) and Annabelle: Creation (2017), The Nun is the newest entry based on the totally real (but not really) case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren.

Back when The Conjuring 2 came out the Nun figure caused quite a stir as its striking and eerie appearance felt right at home in the James Wan Rogues Gallery of Ghastly Ghouls but the Nun also felt slightly out of place. For a film series so indebted to the power of the Christian faith you’d think more would be made of a demonic Nun stalking the Warrens at every turn, but alas it remained a looming figure with little MO except kill the Warrens because of their innate goodness. After the film came out, Valak was a fan favourite and i09 spoke with the series director James Wan about the figure and he illuminated some of the … inconsistencies:

I had a strong outlook on the whole movie, but the one thing I wasn’t quite sure of [was the design of the demon character]. I felt like I was still discovering it. And believe it or not, I always knew that I was going to do additional photography. So I was saving it because I was hoping I’d discover what that thing would look like as I was putting the movie together in post-production.

The Nun takes place bit over two decades before the events of The Conjuring 2 and sees a young would-be-except-she-hasn’t-taken-her-final-vows nun Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) accompany a priest with a past Father Burke (Demián Bichir) to a remote monastery in Romania to investigate the suicide of a nun at the behest of the Vatican. Along the way they enlist a local, Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) who discovered the Sister’s body. Once they enter the monastery all is not what it seems as Irene and Burke are tormented by visions and terrorized by the titular Nun.

Let’s just get this out of the way; (ahem) NUN of it makes sense. From the complete lack of sense of space and time in the monastery to the clunky dialogue which is only text with absolutely no subtext, there is no understanding of what the evil wants only that it is EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEVIL and that EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEVIL is spreading. Due to this lack of understanding the film can’t seem to establish any stakes because it can’t decide what the cause and effect of this EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEVIL is. Any film which deals with elements outside of our known world (i.e the supernatural, science-fiction, Nicolas Cage etc) has to establish rules to create an internal logic an audience can follow, for instance: mysterious video + seven days later = you die. The Nun can’t settle down long enough to tell a coherent narrative because it is so intent on culling storylines from other films – Sister Irene seems to be plucked from the Maria Nunnery found in Sound of Music (1965) while Father Burke is determined to show the audience that the filmmakers have seen The Exorcist (1973).

The thing about The Nun is – it’s a drag. Outside of a couple absurdly stupid beats it’s a paint-by-numbers film that serves the most basic assumptions of what horror fans want. The capitalistic cruelness of the film stems from the fact that it will almost certainly make its money back and more at the box office and more half-hearted, warmed over jump scares will be trotted out for the sake of turning more profit from this fictional Warrens universe that began with The Conjuring. It’s notable how empty and unrefined The Nun feels since Hardy’s previous directorial effort The Hallow (2015) was a nimble, odd-ball curiosity if not totally successful. The Nun feels like it was made by a committee who didn’t even bother to show up for the first meeting.

I’d say we deserve more from this film but from the way the figure/character of the Nun was shoehorned into The Conjuring 2, it fits. The Nun was an afterthought as a character and its film companion falls prey to the same trappings.

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Episode 64. Tour de Farce: Young Frankenstein (1974) and What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

Horror can be horrifying, but it can also be hilarious. Whether it’s mad science or vampires living together, the comedy in these films heightens the absurd as well as our notions of “typical” behavior. At its best, comedy and horror function as a subversion of our day to day lives and expectations enlightening us to the strange elements that we’ve accepted as “normal.”

REQUIRED READING

Young Frankenstein. Dir. Mel Brooks, 1974.
What We Do in the Shadows. Dir  Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, 2014.

EXTRA CREDIT

Class of 2018 t-shirts. Limited edition Faculty of Horror t-shirts are available until September from Twisted Ts through the end of September! Order yours today.

Salem Horror Fest. We’ll be back October 12-14! Get your tickets now.

The Sunday Conversation: Mel Brooks on his ‘Young Frankenstein’ musical Brooks on the inception of Young Frankenstein and its afterlife.

What We Do In The Shadows Interview: Taika Waititi And Jemaine Clement An interview with the filmmakers about their process and reception of the film.

Faculty of Horror subreddit. Keep the conversation going on our subreddit page.

LISTEN

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Episode 63. Play Dead: Funny Games (1997)

What constitutes a film? What constitutes a podcast episode description? Andrea and Alex ask these questions (okay, maybe not that last one) and more in this month’s episode. By plundering the depths of filmic conventions, audience expectations and interpersonal contracts, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games asks the hard questions for which there are many answers.

REQUIRED READING

Funny Games. Dir. Michael Haneke, 1997.

EXTRA CREDIT

Class of 2018 t-shirts. Limited edition Faculty of Horror t-shirts are available until September from Twisted Ts through the end of September! Order yours today.

Salem Horror Fest. We’ll be back October 12-14! Get your tickets now.

Faculty of Horror subreddit. Keep the conversation going on our subreddit page.

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman. Symbolic interactionism and dramaturgical analysis.

Bertolt Brecht. Avant-garde theatre practioner who believed in distancing an audience to encourage rational thought over emotional engagement.

Anne Dufourmantelle. The Philosophy of Hospitality. An exploration of the people involved in the dynamics of hospitality.

Jacques Derrida on Hospitality. The French philosopher’s take on the conditional and unconditional concepts of hospitality.

The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle. Alex’s new book is available now through McFarland Books!

LISTEN

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Episode 62. Surveilled: Peeping Tom (1960) and Psycho (1960)

 
In this episode, Alex and Andrea look through an illicit peephole into the world of the mad and macabre.  Both Peeping Tom and Psycho caused sensations when they were released in the same year, causing Western audiences to question the nature of evil, our proximity to one another and how many women we can watch die on screen.

REQUIRED READING

Peeping Tom. Dir. Michael Powell, 1960.
Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960.

EXTRA CREDIT

Class of 2018 T-shirts – Get ’em while their hot!

Salem Horror Fest – We’ll be back October 12-14! Get your tickets now.

Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema. Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking essay on the cinematic gaze

Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Carol Clover’s genre-defining book from 1992.

“Have You Ever Seen the inside of One of Those Places?”: Psycho, Foucault, and the Postwar Context of Madness. Cynthia Erb’s essay on institutionalization and Psycho.

Michael Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’: the film that killed a career. An overview of the release and reaction to Peeping Tom.

The Misogyny of the Modern Slasher Film. Anna Biller’s blog post about the slasher sub-genre.

LISTEN

Right click or option-click here and choose “Save Target As…” to download the mp3.

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