Nice Girls Don’t Snap Their Teeth

•June 28, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Ginger Snaps (2000)
Dir. John Fawcett
Starring Emily Perkins (Brigitte), Katharine Isabelle (Ginger)

“Ginger Snaps” is a fun piece of Canadian cinema that manages to somehow feel Canadian without being obviously Canadian-made. But that’s not the focus of this post, just an aside. The real focus of this post is something else entirely: horror films (featuring female protagonists), the subject of which is teenage sexual anxiety. “Ginger Snaps” is one such film.

In a nutshell, “Ginger Snaps” is about two teenage sisters – Brigitte and Ginger. Morbid loners, they amuse themselves by staging death scenes and photographing them, and generally stay on the outskirts of their high school’s social scene (the archetypical deliquents, mentioned in previous posts). One night, Ginger is bitten by something (what we later find out was a dying werewolf). As the film progresses, Ginger slowly transforms into a lustful, savage creature, finally mutating completely into a monstrous wolf.

Out by sixteen, or dead on the scene.

Out by sixteen, or dead on the scene.

As I mentioned above, “Ginger Snaps” is really about sexual anxietes. Ginger’s transformation into a sex-crazed beast is most certainly a metaphor for puberty and the hormonal changes that accompany it. It’s a neat take on a common fear among teens: that sex is a transformative thing, and could potentially change you into someone different or even, dare I say it, a monster! See also: my post on Buffy, wherein I elaborate a bit more upon the concept of sex changing formerly civil people into bloodthirsty monsters. But again, it’s not the anxiety that I’m interested in, it’s the movies themselves. Did any of you readers see “Teeth”?

Warning: Sex changes everything

Warning: Sex changes everything

It came out a couple of years ago and is about, well, a girl who, after being raped, discovers that she has teeth inside her vagina that will bite off the penis of any man who dares to stick his in there. And yes, the film contains many severred willies. Besides the obvious shock value inherent to such a premise, the film focuses primarily on the same themes as “Ginger Snaps”, being teenage anxieties about their changing bodies and raging hormones. The caption under the poster above is actually what is written on the girl’s t-shirt in the poster: “Warning: Sex changes everything”

Here’s another great example of this kind of film:

Every time she kisses a boy, it starts a fire...

Every time she kisses a boy, it starts a fire...

Yep, you read that right: “Nice Girls Don’t Explode”. Made in 1987, this movie is about pyrokinesis as a result of sexual stimulation. In other words, every time she kisses a boy, it starts a fire. While “Nice Girls Don’t Explode” is listed as being a comedy, its premise could easily be translated into the horror genre. After all, a girl who causes things to explode when she becomes aroused is no more ridiculous a concept than a girl with a fanged vagina. Incidentally, I have never seen “Nice Girls Don’t Explode”. Have any of you readers had the pleasure?

I’d just like to wrap things up by commenting on the fact that, as a horror buff, I have always been interested in how the horror genre reflects the anxieties of the time and culture in which it was made. In the 1950s, for example, everyone was scared of the Red Menace and the threat of atomic war, and if you look at the horror films from that time period you’ll see that most of them are concerned with giant, radioactive mutants, the “inescapable result of nuclear holocaust!”. But whereas the atomic mutant pictures of the 1950s or, more recently, the xenophobic torture porn of the 2000s, are part of trends in the cycle of the horror genre, the teen-angst-over-sex picture has never seen it’s own horror trend. Instead, it always seems that one of these movies will pop up once every few years and, in a way, reiterate a certain truth: sex has always, and will always, make teens at least a little nervous.



•June 24, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Bugcrush (2006), from the short film anthology Boys Life 6 (2007)
Dir. Carter Smith
Starring Josh Caras (Ben), Donald Cumming (Grant), Eleonore Hendricks (Amber) David Tennent (Shannon), Alex Toumayan (Tim), Billy Price (Keith)

Continuing our class’s discussion of teenage sexuality, last night we watched two short films: “To Play or To Die” (1990, dir. Frank Krom) and “Bugcrush”, the film which I have chosen to focus on in this post. Both films deal with the issue of teenage homosexuality. In “Bugcrush”, a gay teenage boy named Ben develops a crush on the new kid at school: Grant. Finally getting up the courage to talk to Grant, Ben is invited to Grant’s place to “have some fun”. Upon arriving, Grant and his friends explain that they get their kicks by applying worm-like bugs to their skin. The bugs’ bite contains a kind of hallucinogenic venom, and after Grant places one of the worms on Ben’s neck, Ben finds himself tripping out and unable to move. Grant and co. then proceed to rape Ben as he stares blankly at the concrete floor of Grant’s garage, covered with bugs.

“Bugcrush” is a truly disturbing film. Besides the obvious creepiness inherent in having bugs crawl all over your paralyzed body as you are raped in a garage in the middle of nowhere, the audience is given no indication as to Ben’s fate. Will he become a bug addict like Grant (whose bandaged arm is revealed to be covered in pus-oozing bites)? Will he even survive the rape? No answer is given. Scary stuff.

Bugs, bugs, bugs: which are good? Which are bad?

Bugs, bugs, bugs: which are good? Which are bad?

As with many horror films (including vampire movies, mentioned in my previous post), “Bugcrush”‘s featured monster (the drug bug) is clearly a metaphor for something and, in my opinion, there are only two options for what that something could be: hard drug addiction or, as the title of my post suggests, buggery. Indeed, both of these themes are touched upon in the film:
– The worms are very clearly used as drugs, and after Ben is unwillingly exposed to them, he finds himself at their (and Grant’s) mercy. Grant’s bloody, infected arm is also reminiscent of the track marks seen on the arms of a heroine junkie.
– As a result of his exposure to the bugs, Ben is very brutally raped. As well, the fact that the bugs in question are worms could be read as a metaphor for the penis.
Of course, the drug worms could very easily be a metaphor for both themes. I feel like I keep repeating myself when I say this, but…it is up to the viewer to decide.

Blood, Lust

•June 24, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Let the Right One In (2008)
Dir. Tomas Alfredson
Starring Kåre Hedebrant (Oskar), Lina Leandersson (Eli), Per Ragnar (Håkan)

Thursday night’s film was “Let the Right One In”, one of my absolute favourite films of 2008, and a way, way better vampire movie than that “Twilight” nonsense that’s so popular these days. Forgive my cynicism, I’m just not at all a fan of Stephanie Meyer.

The plot of “Let the Right One In” is actually similar to the plot of “Twilight” in many ways. A young boy named Oskar, the child of divorced parents, a victim of bullying at school, and a generally quiet and odd fellow with a certain morbidity about him, meets a young girl named Eli, who has just moved into the apartment complex where Oskar lives with his mother. Oskar finds the mysterious Eli (who is only ever seen at night, and often with her adult guardian/caretaker) alluring, and the two quickly become friends. As their relationship evolves, it becomes clear that Eli is, in fact, a vampire, and following the death of Håkan, her guardian, she is vulnerable and in need of someone to help her obtain the blood that she needs to survive.

Thursday’s lecture tackled the issue of teenage sexuality, and it is no coincidence that a vampire film accompanied it. Vampires, particularly modern ones, are often represented as exuding a kind of raw, incredibly powerful sexuality, embuing them with a supernatural allure that allows them to seduce their victims. Male vampires are generally depicted as being well-dressed gentlemen, pale-skinned and handsome and, above all, youthful. Female vampires have an unearthly beauty about them, and are extremely seductive (more like succubi, really) and sexy. As the lecture mentioned, the vampire woman is not nearly as common as the vampire man, and vampire tales often involve the vampire man stalking female victims. This could be because of the traditional notion that women are more “pure” than men, who are frequently seen as predators. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics on rapes (as of 1999), 91% of rape victims are female while only 9% are male, and 99% of rapists are men. These statistics go a long way towards explaining why men are almost always the villains in horror movies, which makes the subverted gender dynamic in “Let the Right One In” all the more interesting.

But before I get to the film, I’d like to further expound on some of the connections between vampires and sexuality. According to the book “The Vampire: A Casebook” (edited by Alan Dundes), in Eastern Europe as early as the 1800s, vampires were frequently used as excuses for illicit love affairs. A woman’s extra-marital lover could disguise himself as a “vampire” and have his way with her, excusing them both for the adultery by blaming the supernatural being. The book also draws connections between the oral eroticism of a vampire sucking the blood of its victim and the exchange of bodily fluids that occurs during oral sex. Connections are even drawn between the vagina dentata of urban legend (more recently made famous in the film “Teeth”) and vampirism, as both can be seen as sex-specific fears regarding sexuality: women are scared of seduction and sex leading to their death, whereas men might see the vagina dentata as the “maternal teeth threatening to bite off their manhood”.

Which brings me to “Let the Right One In”. The film subverts two of the major tropes of vampire films, which I have discussed above: the vampire in this case is female, and because Oskar is only 12 years old, almost all eroticism and sexuality is removed from the relationship that he forms with Eli. This isn’t to say that Oskar doesn’t find himself attract to Eli – he is definitely attracted to her. However, it seems as though he doesn’t know what to make of the feelings he’s experiencing. Eli puts Oskar in touch with a sort of primal instinct, a basic urge to be with the opposite sex that Oskar doesn’t know how to interpret, being only just on the cusp of puberty. There is some debate over what Eli’s intentions are with this sort of underage seduction – is she training Oskar to be the next Håkan? Or has a genuine friendship formed between Oskar and Eli? Ultimately, it is left up to the viewer to decide.

There is one shot in the film that I find particularly noteworthy as far as discussing sexuality and vampirism: a single, brief image of Eli’s mutilated genitalia. According to the novel that the film was based on, Eli was, in fact, a boy, and the mutilated genitalia seen by Oskar is the result of Eli’s castration, which was part of the ritual in which Eli became a vampire. This explanation is missing from the final film, though, and it is left up to the viewer to interpret Eli’s lack of genitalia. IMDb offers the following explanation: “What was that shot of Eli’s crotch about? To demonstrate that Eli lacks either a penis or a vagina and is not a biological female; “she” is actually a castrated boy.” Much like the age of the protagonists, Eli’s lack of genitalia removes an element of the sexuality associated with vampires.

Would you like me anyway?

Would you like me anyway?

Putting “Hostel” in Context

•June 17, 2009 • 1 Comment

Hostel (2005)
Dir. Eli Roth
Starring Jay Hernandez (Paxton), Derek Richardson (Joshua), Eyþór Guðjónsson (Oli)

“Hostel” was a 2005 film, written and directed by Eli Roth and executive produced by Quentin Tarantino. It was Roth’s second major feature, following his 2002 film “Cabin Fever”, which was a smash hit made on a small budget. Roth is also a member of the so-called “Splat Pack” (a term coined by Alan Jones of Total Film magazine), along with other filmmakers Alexandre Aja (“High Tension”, “The Hills Have Eyes” 2006 remake, “Mirrors”), Neil Marshall (“Dog Soldiers”, “The Descent”, “Doomsday”), Rob Zombie (“House of 1000 Corpses”, “The Devil’s Rejects” and the remake of “Halloween”), Leigh Whannell and James Wan (the original “Saw” film) and Greg Mclean (“Wolf Creek”).

“Hostel” stars Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson and Eyþór Guðjónsson as a trio of tourists (the former two Americans, the latter an Icelander) who, frustrated at the lack of single foreign women in Amsterdam, head to a hostel in Slovakia that they’ve heard about that is supposedly full of hot, exotic, foreign ladies. Once they arrive, the girls they fall in with give them drugs, have sex with them, and then sell them to a torture ring.

Paxton, Oli and Josh

Paxton, Oli and Josh

At the time of “Hostel”s release, these actors were all relatively unknown. Jay Hernandez had performed roles in films such as “Friday Night Lights”, “Crazy/Beautiful” and “Torque”, Derek Richardson’s best known role up until this point was probably “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd”. This was Eyþór Guðjónsson’s first film role.

Some notes on the production of the film:
The film was billed as “inspired by true events”; Eli Roth claimed to have read about poverty stricken individuals in Thailand who would sell “members of their family to organized crime, then American and European businessmen would pay $10,000 to walk in a room and shoot them in the head.“ Some sites, such as IMDb, also say that Roth was inspired by websites he had seen advertising similar torture services as the ones in the film. The sites were most likely hoaxes.
The film is often cited as the first of the “torture porn” or “gorno” genre of horror movies, which bombard the audience with disgusting, gory violence designed to titillate and give (sick) thrills in much the same way as pornographic images do.
None of it was actually filmed in Slovakia.

Upon its release, critics were divided. Many either loved or hated it, and the following quote and factoid provide a sense of the spectrum of different criticisms:
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian said that “Hostel” was “…actually silly, crass and queasy. And not in a good way.“ Whereas Jean Francois Rauger, film critic for Le Monde, listed Hostel as the best American film of 2006, calling it an example of modern consumerism.
On film rating websites such as IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, “Hostel” averages around 57-58%, showing that the majority of people enjoy it, but the slim majority. Slovakia, however, was not impressed.
Slovak officials were appalled by the way “Hostel” portrays Slovakia as an impoverish country filled with crime and prostitution. They even invited Roth to visit in an attempt to show him what a nice place it is. Tomas Galbavy, a Slovak Member of Parliament, commented: “I am offended by this film. I think that all Slovaks should feel offended.”

At the time of the film’s release, the world was in a state of extreme turmoil. Among the significant events of the year are:
– January 20 – George W. Bush is inaugurated in Washington, D.C. for his second term as the 43rd President of the United States.
– February 14 – A massive suicide bomb blast in central Beirut kills former Prime Minister of Lebanon Rafik Hariri and at least 15 other people. At least 135 other people are also hurt.
– May 4 – In one of the largest insurgent attacks in Iraq, at least 60 people are killed and dozens wounded in a suicide bombing at a Kurdish police recruitment center in Irbil, northern Iraq.
– July 7 – Four explosions (3 on the London Underground and 1 on a bus) rock the transport network in London, killing 56 and injuring over 700.
– July 21 – A terrorist attack on London, similar to the July 7 attacks, includes 4 attempted bomb attacks on 3 underground trains and a London bus. The bombs fail to explode properly.
– August 29 – At least 1,836 are killed, and severe damage is caused along the U.S. Gulf Coast, as Hurricane Katrina strikes coastal areas from Louisiana to Alabama, and travels up the entire state of Mississippi (flooding coast 31 feet/10 m), affecting most of eastern North America.
– September 30 – Controversial drawings of Muhammad are printed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.
– October 19 – The Trials of Saddam Hussein begin.
– November 9 – At least 50 people are killed and more than 120 injured in a series of coordinated suicide bombings in Amman, Jordan
– The U.S. death toll in Iraq reaches 2,000
In other words, 2005 was a truly chaotic year. The United States, under the leadership of George W. Bush, was heavily involved in the war in Iraq, which many believed to be a brash move following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The US was paranoid and extremely suspicious of any foreign countries that didn’t support their war, and the rest of the world was becoming increasingly unimpressed with the way the US government was handling things.

Getting back to “Hostel”, we can identify two major themes prevalent in the film: xenophobia and consumerism.
The theme of xenophobia, meaning a fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign (taken from Webster’s dictionary), is reflective of the paranoia felt by the United States at this point in time. Following 9/11, the US was extremely suspicious of foreigners.
Eli Roth, in defending the film in response to the statements from Slovak officials, said “Americans do not even know that this country (Slovakia) exists. My film is not a geographical work but aims to show Americans’ ignorance of the world around them.”
It should also be noted that the Czech pop songs used in the film highlight this disconnect because they were hits in Czechoslovakia between 1982 and 1989 but the movie was set in 2005. Roth said he did this intentionally, meaning to show American stereotypes of Eastern Europe, while the Americans in the film are portrayed accurately (I would debate that the Americans are portrayed as stereotypes as well).
The theme of consumerism is presented very obviously in the film: teens are a product , bought by rich businessmen the same way they would buy the newest gadget or a popular kind of car. Killing teens is seen as the latest trendy thrill-seeking activity, instead of activities like sky-diving or bungee-jumping.
The theme of consumerism is made clearer in the sequel, where we get to see two rich, white, American businessmen purchasing girls to torture through the “Elite Hunting” torture ring. There is even an exchange between the two American businessmen characters played by Roger Bart and Richard Burgi where they mention that they’ve gone hunting and skydiving, but they’ve never killed another human being.

Two guys looking for a thrill

Two guys looking for a thrill

“Hostel” had a major influence on the horror genre, creating an entire sub-genre (“Gorno”) and also setting off a cascade of movies concerned with xenophobia, featuring young travellers exploring foreign locales, only to be tormented by the locals. Some examples from around the same time that “Hostel” came out include:
“Wolf Creek”: came out the same year as “Hostel”, director Greg Mclean is also a member of the “Splat Pack”. About backpackers in Australia who are hunted and killed by a psychopath who lives in the outback.
“Turistas”: came out the year after “Hostel” and is practically an exact copy of “Hostel”. Three American tourists on vacation in Brazil are drugged by the locals and held captive. They are sedated and their organs are removed and sold on the black market.

Some more recent examples (all from last year) include:
“The Ruins”: About a group of American teens who visit some forbidden ruins only to be attacked by not only the locals but also the plantlife growing in the ruins. An unusual case.
“Taken”: Not a horror movie, but still about xenophobia. An American ex-spy’s daughter goes to Paris and is kidnapped almost immediately after stepping off the plane. She is then drugged and sold as a sex slave.
“Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay”: The two lovable stoners from the first movie are confused for terrorists because of their racial backgrounds and thrown in Guantanamo Bay prison. Also features a paranoid FBI stooge character who totally believes that Harold and Kumar are terrorists even though they obviously aren’t. “Harold and Kumar” also shows that this xenophobia has gone on for so long that people are actually starting to make fun of it.

To wrap things up, I think it speaks to the fact that, even though it’s horrifically violent, “Hostel” has an enduring quality to it. In 2007, a sequel was made, this time focusing on a group of teen girls who are travelling, as well as two rich businessmen who have decided to purchase and torture two of the girls. We get to see both sides of the torture ring business, whereas the first film only showed us the torture ring through the eyes of the victims.
Also, it was recently announced that “Hostel Part 3” is set to be made. Eli Roth isn’t involved this time, and it looks as though the film will go straight to DVD. Scott Spiegel, one of the producers of the first two films, is likely to direct.

Hopefully this post has given some people an idea of the time and place in which “Hostel” was made, and in doing so give anyone who has seen the movie some insight into the film’s themes and messages.

I’ll conclude here by posting the trailer for “Hostel Part 2”, in which the themes of xenophobia and consumerism are directly address. Enjoy!

O Boy

•June 14, 2009 • Leave a Comment

O (2001)
Dir. Tim Blake Nelson
Starring Josh Harnett (Hugo), Mekhi Phifer (Odin/”O”), Julia Stiles (Desi)

Thursday night’s film was “O”, the teenage (or “teensploi”, as they call it) adaptation of Shakespeare’s play “Othello”. In the Shakespearean play, the plot goes something like this: Iago, an ensign in the Venetian army, is jealous of his general Othello’s happiness (Othello is the titular Moor of Venice), and convinces him that his wife Desdemona is cheating on him with the lieutenant Michael Cassio. Much gossip and backstabbing ensues, and the play ends with Othello, broken-hearted at his wife’s supposed betrayal, killing Desdemona and then himself. Iago goes unpunished. The primary themes of the play are jealousy, racism and betrayal, and these themes are echoed in the film adaptation “O”, the plot of which is as follows: Odin “O” James is the new star player on his high school basketball team. He’s dating the Dean’s daughter Desi Brable, and life is good. However, his friend Hugo becomes jealous when Hugo’s father, the coach of the basketball team, declares that he loves O like his own son (in fact, we see very clearly that the coach treats O much better than Hugo). As revenge for stealing the affections of his father, Hugo concocts a scheme to make Odin think that Desi is cheating on him with his friend Mike, and, as a result, Odin kills Desi and then himself.

I cannot describe how little I have to say about this film. Having read the play many years ago, studied it in depth in high school, and seen it both on stage and in the 1995 film adaptation starring Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh, it was very easy to see the small changes made by director Tim Blake Nelson in order to make the story fit the high school setting. Instead of fighting wars, the characters play basketball. Instead of feeling jealous because the lieutenant Cassio is promoted instead of him, the Iago character is jealous because Othello/Odin is stealing his father’s affections. Venice becomes a boarding school. But really, the story itself has changed very little. The central themes of jealousy, racism and betrayal are all there, still intact, and the action plays out in very much the same way as Shakespeare’s stage play.

Oh Beware, my lord, of jealousy. 'Tis the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.

Oh Beware, my lord, of jealousy. 'Tis the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.

In Thursday night’s lecture, the professor touched upon the topic of Shakespeare’s plays as a source of inspiration for numerous teensploi adaptations. As it so happens, I wrote my mid-term essay abstract project on that very topic, and so I shall reiterate the central points here because I feel that “O” is a prime example of exactly what I was talking about:

Shakespeare’s works contain prevalent themes which are especially applicable to the lives of modern teenagers. By basing teen films on Shakespeare’s works, filmmakers can use the Shakespeare name (practically a brand unto itself) to attract an audience, add a semblance of culture to their films, and explore ideas that, in Shakespeare’s time, applied to most everyone, but in a modern setting apply most directly to youth and the social microcosm of high school. These themes are:

1. Romance: It is common knowledge that romance is attractive to the teenage female demographic, and Shakespeare’s works are rich with romance. Shakespeare’s works, adapted into such films as 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s the Man, Get Over It, O, High School Musical, West Side Story and Romeo + Juliet contain such plot devices as love triangles and forbidden love, and are generally focused on couples coming together, or rather, people finding their mates. These plot conventions make for compelling viewing for a teenage female audience. Making love a matter of life and death, as well, is an appealing notion for the teenage mind.

2. Social Groups and Gender Roles: Shakespeare’s works frequently contain social groups in conflict with one another, such as the warring families in Romeo and Juliet. These different social groups can easily be adapted into cliques much like those found in high school. Issues such as racism can also be explored using the preset warring groups in Shakespeare’s source material.
Shakespeare’s works often also focus on women facing restrictions imposed on them by their parents or society, and although the modern woman does not face the same restrictions she did in Shakespeare’s day, the modern teenager must still follow her parents’ and school’s rules. Finally, Shakespeare’s works frequently feature a male character that is new to the community of the story who, by the film’s conclusion, is paired with the female protagonist. This outsider, a man of mystery, is appealing to the teenage girls in the audience, and is an easy match for the common teen film archetype of “the rebel”.

3. Lies and Mistaken Identity: Disinformation plays a major role in many of Shakespeare’s works. Plot devices such as the spreading of malicious rumours and gossip, and confused identities (often through cross-dressing) are prevalent in a number of Shakespeare’s plays. Similarly, gossip and identity confusion are issues that teenagers face in high school.

4. Shakespeare as the establisher of the genre and its archetypes: The simplest explanation for Shakespeare’s works being adapted so frequently into teen films, most predominantly romantic movies, is that Shakespeare’s stories are not only timeless in their plotlines, but also the basis for so much of today’s views on romance and romantic comedies.

To conclude, Shakespeare’s works are prime material for adapting into teen films because not only do they already provide the basis for what we consider to be romantic, but the themes explored within Shakespeare’s works are themes that can easily be applied to a modern day setting. These themes apply particularly well to films with teenage protagonists because modern teens still face the same restrictions and problems that Shakespeare’s protagonists do. Finally, the themes explored in Shakespeare’s plays are timeless and one need not be familiar with the source material to understand them, while fans of Shakespeare also provide a broad demographic that may be attracted to films associated with his works.

But nobody mentions it.

•June 11, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Elephant (2003)
Dir. Gus Van Sant
Starring Alex Frost (Alex), Eric Deulen (Eric), John Robinson (John), Elias McConnell (Elias)

Tuesday night’s movie was the Gus Van Sant film “Elephant”, the title of which refers to the expression “the elephant in the room”, meaning an obvious truth that everyone ignores, much like an elephant in a room that nobody mentions. It was tempting for me, as a kind of joke, to not write this post and in doing so make “Elephant” the very elephant that the title refers to. But I don’t think my grades would appreciate my sense of humor.

In a nutshell, “Elephant” is a fictionalized version of the Columbine school shootings that took place in 1999. Names have been changed and certain facts altered, but the connection to Columbine is obvious to anyone who knows anything about the events that occurred.

Before I get into my thoughts on the film, I’d like to address a question that Farah posed in the comments section of my previous post. I’ll re-post it here:
“After seeing elephant, do you still think it was intentional for this movie (Battle Royale) to come out a year after columbine shootings?”
The answer is simply: yes. I still think that the similarities between the subject matter of “Battle Royale” and the Columbine shootings are completely intentional on the part of the filmmakers. Because Columbine occurred in the United States and not in Japan, and because of the widespread media coverage of the shootings (more on that later), the international political climate was perfect for a film about high school students killing each other. It may seem rather morbid to suggest that international audiences were looking for more death in a high school setting so soon after the Columbine killings, but consider the amount of attention the Columbine school shootings received. As was mentioned in Tuesday’s lecture, television news networks were completely saturated with the latest breaking coverage of the events at Columbine. Terms like “Trench Coat Mafia” were coined specifically to be associated with the shootings, and people tuned in by the thousands, nay, the millions, to watch the grim events unfolding before their very eyes. People are undeniably obsessed with death, and even the most well-meaning of us has a certain morbidity at his or her core. This is why horror movies and the works of such authors as Edgar Allan Poe have always been, and will always be, popular. Now, I’m not a psychology student, so I couldn’t tell you much about why this is, but my theory, and remember that this is speculation on my part, is that people are fascinated by death because it is one of the few great unknowns to us. Nobody knows what happens after death, and we’re both curious and terrified of it. How many times have you seen a line of rubberneckers slowing down their cars to look at an accident? The same goes for “Battle Royale”. Once Columbine was over and the buzz had died down, where were people going to get their sick thrills in seeing high school students killing one another? Enter Kinji Fukasaku.
I hope this last paragraph hasn’t shaken anybody’s views on humanity. I, for one, love horror movies, and think that a little morbidity can actually be healthy because it keeps us in touch with our most primal of fears: the fear of the end of our existence. But now I’m getting away from “Elephant”.

Some heavy shit's going down.

Some heavy shit's going down.

The first thing that struck me about “Elephant” was how it was shot. Van Sant employs very long takes through much of the film (we’re in the middle of one in the photo seen above), which give the film an almost documentary kind of feel. These long shots also serve to give the audience a sense of space. Students walk across soccer fields, down hallways, through different rooms, all in a single take, showing the viewer that this school is a real place and not a studio set, and in doing so, grounding the film in reality. Something I found interesting about these long takes, too, is that we’re shown a few scenes multiple times from the perspective of different characters. Because the film is told in a non-linear fashion, these intersections where the characters (and their respective stories) converge give the audience a sort of frame of reference and make it easier to understand which events occur alongside one another. Something to note about these intersection scenes is that we never see cameras following around the other characters, making the camera seem less like part of a documentary film crew and more like a sort of invisible observer, following these students through a horrific day of their lives.

John goes about his day, unaware of what is about to unfold

John goes about his day, unaware of what is about to unfold

Another thing that struck me was the character of Benny, whom I couldn’t find any pictures of. We are introduced to Benny in the midst of the shootings that occur in the film’s final act, having not seen him before anywhere else in the film. Benny walks through the corridor, silently taking in the chaos, death and destruction around him. He enters a classroom and helps a girl out a window. We’re then shown a title card with his name on it, introducing him in the same fashion as the other characters. Shortly thereafter, he is shot and killed. I thought this was a brilliant move on the part of Gus Van Sant. By telling us Benny’s name, even without giving him any lines of dialogue, we become more emotionally invested in the character, and as a result his death is that much more shocking to us. I consider this to be truly effective filmmaking.

As usual, I find myself running out of time with tons more to say about the film, and so I shall bring this post to an end. Remember: don’t be afraid of your own morbid nature. It just means you’re human!

Buffy, Battle Royale, and the High School Battleground

•June 9, 2009 • 3 Comments

Battle Royale (2000)
Dir. Kinji Fukasaku
Starring Tatsuya Fujiwara (Shuya Nanahara), Aki Maeda (Noriko Nakagawa), Taro Yamamoto (Shôgo Kawada), Takeshi Kitano (Kitano-sensei)

First off, let me say that I’m feeling a bit scatter-brained at the moment, having worked all weekend, but hopefully I will be able to stay coherent. I apologize if I ramble.

Thursday’s film was the amazing, the incredible, the horrifying masterpiece that is “Battle Royale”, the plot of which is so simple that I can sum it up in a single sentence:
A high school class is drugged and shipped to a deserted island, where, upon arriving, they are told that the only way to get off the island is to kill absolutely everyone else in their class.
Now that’s a premise.

Last year's winner!

Last year's winner!

“Battle Royale” was the perfect follow-up to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as far as our studying high school as the stage where teenage issues are played out in films and television shows. “Buffy”, in my opinion, gives an accurate depiction of the social interactions that take place in North American high schools; no doubt one of the major reasons that the show lasted as long as it did is because people could relate to the subject matter and the issues being discussed. “Battle Royale” shows the audience something different by transplanting a typical high school class from the “safety” of their familiar school environment into a kill-or-be-killed scenario where they must fight for their very survival. In spite of the cultural differences between North America and Japan, the central point remains the same: high school is a struggle, a battle, even, and Joss Whedon and Kinji Fukasaku have transformed this metaphorical battle into an actual battle. There is, however, one major difference between the battles fought on “Buffy” and the battle of “Battle Royale”. In “Buffy”, Buffy is fighting evil, nasty, supernatural creatures (her demons, if you will), whereas in “Battle Royale”, the students are fighting each other.

The student presentation that preceded the film filled in some of the gaps in my knowledge of Japanese high schools. Anita (whose blog can be found here) described the Japanese high school environment as an extremely competitive one, and mentioned that Japanese culture as a whole has a certain competitive streak to it.
Not mentioned in the lecture was the sukeban or “girl gang” subculture that has apparently caused trouble throughout Japanese high schools since the 1960s. According to, sukeban are “girl gangs, known in Japan for committing acts of violence and shoplifting. Sukeban gangs first began to appear in the 60s, inspired by the gangs of boys known as ‘Bancho.’ Always seen in their sailor uniforms, they would wear pleated skirts that went down to their feet, and would custom embroider their uniforms. The largest Sukeban was known as the Kanto Women Delinquent Alliance, which included 20,000 girls.” This tells us that violence is prevalent in Japanese high schools (perhaps to a greater degree than in North American ones), but what I find really interesting about these girl gangs is that Kenta Fukasaku, the brother of the director of “Battle Royale” and one of the writers, went on to direct a film focusing on the sukeban problem, with the unbelievable title of “Yo-yo Girl Cop”. I’m sorry if this is veering off topic, but I simply must post a clip.

“Yo-yo Girl Cop” is basically about an undercover police officer who is sent to a Japanese high school to infiltrate a sukeban group intent on spreading anarchy throughout Japan. Not having seen this film, I can only hazard a guess at the themes shared by it and “Battle Royale”, but both films clearly deal with the issue of violence in high schools.

According to IMDb, “Battle Royale” has never officially been given a North American DVD release, and states that one of the (rumoured) reasons for this is that the subject matter of high school students killing one another was extremely disturbing to the American public. Understandable, since the killings at Columbine had happened only a year earlier. However, I don’t think that the connections drawn between the subject matter of “Battle Royale” and the events at Columbine are accidental. Rather, I think they were intentional on the part of the filmmakers. After all, they used a similar sort of shock-tactic in the preview for the (vastly inferior) sequel, “Battle Royale 2”.

Did you notice anything familiar about those two falling towers at the end of the trailer? I don’t believe that’s a coincidence.

Before I wrap this up (and I have lots more to say, believe me), I’d like to note that “Battle Royale” contains another example of the angry teacher archetype that I mentioned in my post on the similarities between “The Faculty” and “The Breakfast Club”. Interestingly, the teacher character in this case is named after the actor portraying him, Takeshi Kitano. Also, he so despises the students that he has taken on the duties of the coordinator of the annual Battle Royale between the students. Once again, the teacher is happy to see the students in danger. In an odd sort of twist, Takeshi Kitano was also the host of a show called “Takeshi’s Castle”, or, as it’s better known in North America, “Most Extreme Elimination Challenge”. The television show is, essentially, an absurdist battle royale: a series of obstacle-course-like challenges that eliminates contestants until only a single winner remains. Again, because I simply can’t resist, here’s a clip:

Hopefully, once I’m feeling a bit more collected, I will be able to expound upon the idea I have mentioned in my post about “Heathers” – high school as a social microcosm, and talk a bit more about students at war with outside forces and each other, but I’m afraid that I am far too tired at the moment to do so. It will have to wait until tomorrow.