Saturday, January 25, 2014
Not long ago, I had the pleasure and privilege of contributing to a three-volume scholarly anthology about advertising called We Are What We Sell: How Advertising Shapes American Life, and Always Has.
My essay is in Volume 3 and involves the movie E.T. (1982) and product placement there (specifically Reese's Pieces). The essay is called "This Boy's Bedroom: Product Placement, The New Masculinity, and the Rise of Geek Culture in the 1980s."
Well, the book -- edited by Danielle Sarver Coombs and my adviser at KSU, Bob Batchelor -- is now available at Amazon.com, and presumably shipping to libraries, universities and individual customers.
So if you get the chance, please check it out, and let me know what you think!
Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Thundarr the Barbarian (1980): "Harvest of Doom" (October 11, 1980)
In “Harvest of Doom,” Thundarr, Ookla, and Ariel encounter a train carrying crates filled with “the death flower,” a plant that can overcome the human will and transform people into willing slaves.
The death flower cargo is being shipped by the lizard people, Carocs, to an evil wizard hoping to use the powerful plants against a village of innocent humans.
Ookla is affected by the death flower, leaving Ariel and Thundarr to try to free him with the help of a “swamp urchin” and her friend, a beast that resembles the legendary Sasquatch but lives in the waters of the bog.
The Carocs, however, don’t take kindly to Thundarr’s interference with their plans…
Thundarr the Barbarian (1980 – 1982) is a Saturday morning TV series that doesn’t often trade in half-measures, or temper the storytelling to preserve the sensibilities of its audience, and that’s a good thing, at least on (adult) retrospect.
Here, Thundarr and Ariel encounter the aforementioned “swamp urchin” -- a pre-adolescent girl, basically -- and the episode doesn’t sentimentalize her to any significant degree. She is not found a healthy home with adopted parents, nor reunited with her original biological family. She survives to live another day, and that’s about the best that can happen for her in this post-apocalyptic realm. Many other shows would take pains to suggest that she is okay, and taken care of, but not Thundarr.
Similarly, the Carocs waste no time in ordering Ariel and Thundarr killed. They are dumped in a pit, and left to die. There’s no talking their way out of a grim fate.
Even the climax, which finds Thundarr setting fire to sprawling fields of the death flowers, is final, punchy, and uncompromising. A deadly threat to humankind is extinguished without a second thought.
The message from all of this is that-- in this future universe -- the denizens (and even the good guys…) play for keeps.
Last week, I wrote a bit about my favorite image in the premiere story: Medieval-styled knights jumping from a 20th century military helicopter to attack Thundarr and his friends.
Here, the combination of pre-apocalyptic tech and post-apocalyptic life finds the Caroc -- the green crocodile people -- manning an ancient locomotive. Another resonant image in “Harvest of Doom” depicts Thundarr and his white steed near a railroad bridge, with the shattered split-moon in the night sky.
Again, this sort of fantastic image -- which conjures the past and the future -- captures perfectly the imaginative nature of the series.
Watching Thundarr The Barbarian as an adult today, it’s kind of fun, as well, to wonder where the characters are, in terms of geography. In last week’s installment, they visited Manhat/Manhattan. In “Harvest of Doom,” Thundarr and his friends explore a Golden Pyramid that looks native to South America…perhaps Peru. I suppose a Thundarr super-fan might be able to chart the barbarian’s path in the series, from one ruined vista to another, from one land to another.
If there’s any sort of typical or predictable Saturday morning “sermonizing” in this episode of Thundarr, it is handled with relative restraint. The sasquatch creature -- ugly and frightening -– turns out to be a gentle friend, thus reminding kids not to judge a book by its cover, I suppose.
Next week: “Mindok: The Mind Menace.”
In “Dreammaker,” Mr. Porter (Timothy Bottoms) is unexpectedly awakened from a sound sleep at the tree-house by the sounds and lights of his home in San Francisco. He hears a police siren and sees flashing red and blue lights. When Mr. Porter looks to see the source of this disturbance, however, he sees nothing out of the ordinary.
The next day, the mystery deepens when the Porters discover a parking ticket left on their truck’s windshield.
When they go exploring, the Porters discover, to their shock, their neighborhood in San Francisco. They go inside and explore their old house, and find it just as they left it, months earlier.
The Porters return to the house the next day, but strange disturbances soon begin there. Mr. Porter is attacked by the garage door, the living room furniture comes to malevolent life, and Annie Jenny Drugan) and Kevin (Robert Gavin) receive a telephone call…from their dead mother.
Stink arrives just in time to save the Porters, and soon the family discovers a cave, where an ancient Sleestak device is malfunctioning…
“Dreammaker” is widely-regarded to the finest and most memorable episode of the 1991-1992 remake of Land of the Lost. There are solid grounds to support of this assessment, as this episode isn’t as content as most to play things safe, and is willing to risk scaring its youthful audience, much in the way that the original Land of the Lost scared its generation in terms of the presentation of the Sleestak, and by featuring monsters like Medusa.
Here, the Porters return to their home in civilization (or so it seems), but this dream quickly turns into a nightmare. The refrigerator comes to life and spits food at Tasha, the furniture attacks the Porter children, and most frighteningly of all, the kids get that phone call from their deceased Mom. Her soothing tones turn to horrible, malevolent laughter.
One can imagine how all this horror would play out to the young, impressionable mind, and so “Dreammaker” boasts an aura of danger and fear missing from virtually every other series installment. That texture of fear is no doubt the very thing that makes”Dreammaker” stand out in the memory of fans. In short, this is a good creepy show, and even though it recycles the resolution from “Kevin vs. the Volcano” by tagging the anomalies as the result of a malfunctioning Sleestak device, the episode is successful. Some of its visions -- from the thermostat operating itself, to a sofa going -- up-ended -- towards Kevin and Annie like a hungry shark -- are genuinely spiky.
Still, the episode does raise some questions that the writers don't answer. For instance, how can the “dream-maker” affect reality outside of the zone where the house is projected? It seems like it wants to trap the Porters there, yet it can affect them anywhere in the Land of the Lost, as the incident with the parking ticket suggests. Secondly, why would the dream-making machine warn Stink that the Porters are in trouble by showcasing their plight on the portable television? Perhaps as a lure for the Pakuni?
Still, a little mystery can be a good thing, and I like that “Dreammaker” is willing to go for broke in terms of its horror imagery. And as a long-time fan of dinosaurs attacking people and civilization, I very much liked the moments in the finale during which Scarface -- the resident T-Rex -- prowls the suburban neighborhood of tract homes and pulps a parked car.
Finally, there’s an interesting Sid and Marty Krofft connection here. The Porters go exploring because Kevin’s portable television begins to pick up signals of a favorite TV Show, “The Turbo Twins.” In this case, “The Turbo Twins” are visualized as stock footage from the 1976 Krofft superhero series, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl.
Next Week: back to matters as usual, with “Opah.”
Friday, January 24, 2014
Last week, I wrote some about the post-2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) space film in regards to Hammer’s Moon Zero Two (1969), an effort which was billed as the first “space western.”
But to recap: from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey until George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) the space film genre -- in film and on television -- evidenced a deep belief in man’s capacity to tame the solar system, and offered a realistic rather than glamorous portrayal of man himself.
In other words, man’s technology had improved to the point where (near) space could be conquered, but humanity itself remained as venal, as grasping, as competitive, and as conflicted as ever.
Another film from the same milieu is Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (British title: Doppelganger). This science fiction film was a perennial on WABC Channel 7’s 4:30 pm movie in the New York market during the mid-to-late 1970s, and as such, represented an early obsession both for me and my older sister.
To this day, you can likely ask my sister about that strange science fiction movie from the 1970s in which a man removes his eyeball in a red-lit darkroom, or another man pile-drives his wheelchair into a mirror, and get a visceral response from her about the imagery.
Beyond those personal memories, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun arises from the impressive stable of British producers Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, and seems a perfect representation of their brand in its glory days.
And what does that brand entail, precisely?
It's a simple three-part formula, really.
|The gadgetry and miniatures.|
First, the typical Anderson production boasts high-tech gadgetry galore, created with an eye towards scientific accuracy, and with elaborate, state-of-the-art costumes, sets, props, and miniatures.
|Near future man on the cusp of space exploration.|
Secondly, said production showcases a narrative focus on the near future "space age,” when man is not yet so “evolved” that he is unrecognizable as man. In the Anderson canon, stories often occur just as turn-of-the-century man is taking his first footsteps into the solar system at large. The advantage of this setting is its appeal to the young. I’m a perfect example, I suppose. I was captivated by Journey to the Far Side of the Sun and Space: 1999 at a young age, and believed that such futures were possible -- nay probable -- in my life time.
And finally, the perfect Anderson production highlights, a macabre, deeply disturbing "twist" that exposes the nature of the universe as something beyond modern man’s capacity to conceive or conquer. In space, we are confronted with a realm where there are no easy answers, no pat solutions.
For example, in UFO (1970), we learn that aliens are harvesting our organs. In Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977), the moon is blasted out of Earth’s orbit and sent careening into a universe of monsters and mysticism that 20th century man is psychologically and technologically unprepared to encounter.
Personally, the Anderson creative formula represents one of my favorite types of storytelling, and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is a potent, crisply-edited declaration of all the ingredients I tallied above. It is a sharp -- and often unsettling -- mix of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the James Bond films of the Connery era and even a little bit of Planet of the Apes (1968) tossed in for good measure.
The explicit premise of Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is that there exists beyond the sun a “mirror” world. It is a heretofore-hidden planet and a reverse “copy” of Earth.
As the movie explains, all the matter here on our Earth has been “duplicated” there on that planet, but in reversed fashion, much like you’d see while gazing into the mirror. Accordingly, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun supports its theme by featuring a number of compositions involving mirrors or other reflective surface. I find this visual approach quite intelligent, and the leitmotif of mirrors forecasts a brilliant line of dialogue spoken in Solaris (1972) a few years later: “We don’t need other worlds, we need a mirror.”
In Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, an American astronaut, Glen Ross (Roy Thinnes), and the men and women of a European version of NASA called EUROSEC discover that very mirror, and in the end knowledge of that mirror (and that world) drives at least one man, Jason Webb (Patrick Wymark) insane.
What remains delightful about this fact is that the movie leaves the exact reasons for Webb’s insanity open to interpretation, as we shall see.
Beyond the creepy idea of a world identical to ours, but in reverse, Journey to The Far Side of the Sun impresses due to a few other key factors.
First, the film climaxes with an unrelentingly grim final act, and an uncompromising, bleak finale. You can’t make the claim the movie lacks the courage of its convictions. There is no ameliorating Hollywood bullshit to make serviceable the possibility of a happy ending (see: Oblivion ) here.
And secondly, the film’s Anderson-esque approach to space travel -- basically that it’s a dangerous and expensive enterprise -- makes the whole film feel incredibly grounded, and therefore incredibly believable. One of the film’s main protagonists, the aforementioned Webb, is downright Machiavellian in his manner of getting things done. He’s on the side of the angels, but his methods aren’t exactly…nice.
Journey to the Far Side of the Sun remains a dazzling head-trip from an era (and team) that believed space travel was inevitable, but one that proves --- because of the meticulous nature of the production -- both compelling and scarily believable, even in 2014.
“You wouldn’t want anyone else to get there first, would you?”
Journey To The Far Side of the Sun dramatizes the story of EUROSEC, a European space agency run by the hard-driving Jason Webb (Wymark), a man determined to launch a space mission to examine a new planet discovered in the solar system, one that we can't observe from Earth.
The recently launched Sun Probe snapped images of the alien world using its "cine camera" and brought back to Earth the "first photographic evidence" of the heretofore undetected planet. This discovery is vetted in a sequence that forecasts today's video-conferencing capability, with Webb making an address and visual presentation to EUROSEC members across the globe.
Because a space flight to the new planet will cost a billion dollars, America and NASA are brought in to share the cost of the journey. An American astronaut and the first man on Mars, Colonel Glen Ross (Thinnes) will command the mission. At home, however, Ross is facing more earthbound problems. He has not been able to conceive a child with his sexy but harsh wife -- the daughter of an ambitious American politician -- who tells him his sterility is due to his work in space.
“You went up there a man, but you came back less than a man,” she snipes.
Going along with Glen on the mission is John Kane (Ian Hendry), a British astrophysicist who has never been to space before. Together, these men train for the arduous six week mission and the film follows every detail of the process. From there, the audience is treated to sweeping shots of colossal rockets on launch pads (courtesy of special effects wizard Derek Medding), pans across vast mission control centers, and intense close-ups of space-suited astronauts ready to commence the mission.
When Ross and Kane reach the distant planet, their lander crashes on the surface and Kane suffers devastating life-threatening injuries. But Ross awakes to find himself on Earth…or a duplicate of Earth where everything – including the writing -- is reversed.
After several interrogations by EUROSEC, Ross is able to convince the alternate version of Jason Webb of the truth: he completed his mission successfully, and now he stands on an alien world. Just as another Ross – originating from this world -- is now talking to a “mirror image” or doppelganger of Webb on Glen’s Earth.
Webb and Ross devise a plan to get him home, but a miscalculation involving the polarity of electricity scuttles the mission, killing Ross and nearly destroying EUROSEC in the process.
Years or perhaps decades later, later a defeated Webb -- an old, very sick man -- gazes in a mirror at a rest home, and reaches out longingly for the mirror image there…
“How much is it going to cost us this time?”
Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is dominated, oddly enough, by discussions of money. Jason Webb is the head of EUROSEC, and a man who finds himself a beggar, asking for money to further man’s scientific frontiers.
French, German, and American members of EUROSEC are not impressed by his proposal to land men on the distant, newly discovered planet, and tell him so.
“How much is it going to cost us this time?” asks one character.
“A realistic estimate?” queries another.
“Such a sum is out of the question!” declares a third council member, when talk of a billion dollars is bandied about.
The point here I suppose is, well, when was the last time the Emperor asked Darth Vader how much it would cost to build another Death Star?
That’s not a dig at Star Wars so much as an acknowledgment that many popular space or science fiction franchises simply ignore matters of money or the economy because their creators assume that such talks are boring, or out of place in science fiction drama.
I would argue a different tact: discussions of space travel economics tend to make futuristic productions seem more realistic, and that’s an important task when you consider that -- nestled at the far side of the sun -- there exists a mirror planet housing duplicates of every single one of us.
It helps us to accept the unbelievable, in other words, if we know the rest of the story is, actually, grounded in recognizable reality.
When he must solicit funding from the Americans for his mission, Webb must also compromise and accept an American commanding officer for the task. He is willing to make this accommodation because he understands the importance of the space flight. Again, what is being showcased quite explicitly in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is the horse-trading of politics. It’s not romantic and it isn’t pretty, but again, it’s true to who we are as a species.
Some of Webb’s compromises are much more distasteful, however, and that’s a realistic touch too.
For instance, Webb knows there is a security leak at EUROSEC and, at least tacitly, allows information about the new planet to be leaked to Europe’s enemies (presumably The Soviet Union or Red China…) so as to get the Americans on his side for the mission. He has the spy (Herbert Lom) killed, but not before the leak occurs.
Because now he can taunt the Americans with being second-best. “You wouldn’t want anyone else to get there first, would you?”
Mission accomplished. The only thing that could get us to Mars tomorrow is the knowledge that Putin is trying to get there today.
This idea of space travel as a political and expensive game also plays out in Space: 1999 episodes such as "Dragon's Domain" and in several UFO episodes, wherein Commander Straker (Ed Bishop) must go before the unimpressed faces of bureaucracy to request more funds for SHADO.
Again, I view such discussion of politics and money as a necessary bow to reality and accuracy, and in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, Webb is able to afford to build the Phoenix -- the rocket bound for the alien world -- only because he knows how to play the political money game better than anyone else does.
In Moon Zero Two, we saw how big money was “civilizing” the moon and squashing personal freedom. Here we see how money is a necessary evil if space is to be explored. It’s the other fuel source that powers our rockets, our moon bases, and so on.
Outside this acknowledgment of reality in a genre that is often given to wild flights of fancy, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is resolutely creepy because it subtly asks vital questions regarding its unusual “doppelganger” premise.
What if there were two versions of you? What if everyone here on Earth had an exact duplicate there, on the other world?
Would the existence of that duplicate take away from our own senses of individuality and identity? Would society collapse?
Could we still claim that Earth is the center of the universe (and center of God's universe), if just across the solar system existed a second Earth, exact in every way?
The climax of the film involves an elderly Jason Webb -- wheelchair bound and debilitated by heart disease -- pondering, no doubt, the very questions I ask above. He spies his reflection -- his double -- in a wall-sized mirror and reaches out for it. His “other self” is just out of reach, and he begins racing for it...an attempt to touch the unknown, to understand the self, to bring together two opposites.
So has Jason gone mad because he can’t truly encounter his other self?
Or is he insane because he now possesses knowledge of that other self’s existence, and information that, therefore, he is no longer the singular creation he believed himself to be?
Or finally, is the reflection in the mirror simply a notation, a deadly reminder, that he lost his greatest game? He never got back to that planet. He never succeeded.
When Jason reaches out so desperately, is he trying to strangle the memory of his greatest failure? Or accomplish by touch that which rockets could not: intimate interface with the other world?
I love that Journey to the Far Side of the Sun literally boasts a smashing ending, but also one open to many interpretations.
The leitmotif of doubling or reflections builds splendidly to this emotional pay-off. Throughout the film, we see reflections in ponds, and even the imaginary “other” Ross as he delivers his theory of doppelgangers to Jason.
In the end, Jason is near death, and he must reckon with the knowledge that the universe is far more bizarre than he could have imagined. His final act is one of exploration failed. And that’s a mirror image of the Phoenix’s failure. In the end, the mirror is shattered, and contact with the other planet is not made.
Certainly, there will be those among us who gaze at Journey at the Far Side of the Sun and decry the deliberate, methodical pace (a trait it shares in common with Kubrick's Space Odyssey).
In our day and age, we've become accustomed to shock cutting, myriad close-ups, and the whiz-bang pace of blockbuster films. By contrast, this film is perhaps a relic of an earlier, less adrenaline-addicted age.
To enhance its sense of reality, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun literally wallows in the details and minutiae (but also the beauty...) of space travel. It attempts to methodically and precisely capture the details of the endeavor, from its accurate depiction of weightlessness to the impact of G-forces on the fragile human body. I'm afraid this is the kind of thing that movies today just don't have the time for anymore. CGI monstrosities and vistas have made us forget about the wonders of our own age: rocket launches, weightlessness, or the view of Earth from space.
Even the opening credits of Journey to the Far Side of the Sun seem to boast this love of technology. We are treated to multitudinous shots of spinning tape reels, the digits on computer punch cards, whirring teletype machines, and other touches that don’t exactly seem “romantic.” And yet there is a real beauty to them too as they are presented in montage form alongside Barry Gray’s soaring sound-track. In the early 1970s, Robert Wise adopted a similar approach with the credits of The Andromeda Strain, making them a brand of computerized art-form. One can sense the same idea at work here: Our technology is our doorway to other worlds, other experiences, and it is, in a way, quite beautiful.
That idea of beauty, of course, is countered, in the film’s finale, when man makes a mistake with his technology, and disaster blossoms. But still, there are moments in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun that veritably promise a golden age of space travel and space technology. These moments still have the capacity to inspire.
I’ll be writing more about this idea in the weeks ahead, but I’ve always believed it was a bum rap that Anderson programs and films got tagged with the description of “wooden.” On the contrary, the characters and the presentation of the characters in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun are realistic, and multi-dimensional. There’s an administrator who is fighting for the side of good, but does bad to get the job done. There’s an astronaut who gets hosannas from the world, but only raw hatred from his wife at home. There’s a EUROSEC security chief who is a beautiful female, and yet doesn’t feel the need to be butch or bullying, or even domineering. Instead, she is gentle and kind. Every one of these characters shows the inherent contradictions and surprises that humanity is capable of.
There’s a perfect scene here, too, that expresses this notion.
It occurs right before the Phoenix lifts off. The scene is set in Mission Control at EUROSEC, and all the sounds of computers and intercoms go silent for a moment, replaced with the solitary pulse of a human heart-beat.
This sudden, unexpected, living beat reminds the viewer that we -- the human race -- are at the center of all this technology. Humanity is what makes space exploration possible. We may make mistakes, we may miscalculate, but our heart-beat is at the very center of things, making all accomplishments possible.
In short, this scene is a perfect metaphor for the movie itself.
Next Friday, I take a look back at the movie that started the space trend of the late 1960s: 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
Well, I'm really looking forward to this one.
Oculus was directed by Mike Flanagan, the talent behind Absentia (2011), one of the best horror films from that year, and it stars Karen Gillan, Doctor Who's Amy Pond, and Katee Sackhoff.
Oculus was directed by Mike Flanagan, the talent behind Absentia (2011), one of the best horror films from that year, and it stars Karen Gillan, Doctor Who's Amy Pond, and Katee Sackhoff.
The summer of 2013 witnessed the arrival of several colossal blockbusters, sequels, and remakes. Yet for my money one of the best (and most refreshing…) films of the season is the modestly-budgeted slasher-styled horror film You’re Next from director Adam Wingard.
While explicitly noting the familiarity of its “ten little Indians”-styled narrative structure to other, historical slasher films, You’re Next also cleverly depicts a fascinating tragedy about modern “family values.”
In short, You’re Next concerns the deliberate up-ending of the American family’s hearth and home -- symbolized in the film by an over-turned dining room table -- in exchange for something that many folks indeed seek without relent: abundant material wealth.
So it would be fair to state that You’re Next begins like The Strangers (2008) but ends up more like Straw Dogs (1971), contextualizing its graphic violence as the product of a culture that has lost a grip on its moral barometer, and will succumb to violence at the slightest provocation, or the slightest hint of monetary gain.
You’re Next is crisply visualized, and well-acted, but more than that -- and much like The Purge (2013), and Elysium (2013) -- it seems to cannily embody our contentious times; a span when fewer and fewer Americans discern a legitimate path towards prosperity, and must therefore seek or consider options outside the establishment if they hope to succeed.
Sometimes those options involve outright rebellion (Elysium), sometimes they involve passing new laws that oppress some while “freeing” others (The Purge), and sometimes they involve, simply, murder for profit (You’re Next).
There is nothing pretentious or preachy about You’re Next, however.
It’s a straight-up scary and smart horror film featuring just the right dose of social commentary. And delightfully, much of that commentary is transmitted in the visual composition, not in the dialogue.
“This wasn’t a random attack. Our family’s being targeted.”
In You’re Next, the four dysfunctional children of Paul (Rob Moran) and Aubrey Davison (Barbara Crampton) gather with their significant others at the remote but upscale family estate in order to celebrate the 35th anniversary of their parents’ marriage.
Each adult Davison child has a major personality defect or pathology to contend with. Drake (Joe Swanberg) is a narcissistic bully. Crispin (A.J. Bowen) boasts a king-sized persecution/victim complex. Felix (Nicholas Tucci) is not merely spoiled, but downright entitled. And Aimee (Amy Seimetz) believes she is invisible, and is therefore desperate for any positive attention or approbation. Everybody treats her like a baby, or a princess, and she can no longer stand it.
As for the patriarch and matriarch of the Davison family, they are also a wee bit problematic. Mom can’t face reality and is strung out on prescription “medication” while Dad is a former PR man for a defense contractor that worked in Iraq during the war. He may have secrets to hide about how he earned his (copious amounts) of money.
Accordingly, Crispin’s girlfriend and former student Erin (Sharni Vinson) worries that she is having “dinner with fascists.”
They aren’t truly fascists, but the Davison family clearly counts itself among the 1%, and Erin -- raised by a survivalist dad in the Australian Outback -- is most decidedly…not. She’s still paying off student loans, for example. One day, she’d like to be able to afford a house.
As the family gathers for dinner, and old sibling rivalries and tensions mount, something worse than mere bickering occurs.
A masked assailant begins shooting arrows into the Davison house, committing bloody murder in the process.
As the family members start to panic over the attack, Erin realizes that they are all trapped in the house, and that some of the masked assailants may already be inside…
“Would you just die already? This is hard enough for me already…”
In some trenchant visual and thematic fashion, You’re Next is methodically about “the disconnect” from humanity that appears to be represented in some modern American values.
Thus the film’s title -- You’re Next -- carries a deliberate double meaning. In the context of the film it means you could be the next victim of the killers. “You’re next” is a message the murderers scrawl in human blood on windows and walls.
But in the context of the film’s commentary, “You’re Next” means you could be the next person deemed expendable…for your material wealth.
The Davison family lives in a huge mansion, far away from any real community, and that’s a part of the film’s social critique. This location separates the family both from riff-raff, and, ironically, also from help during a crisis.
“We’re so isolated up here. It might be nice to have a neighbor,” Aubrey (dreamily…) laments early in the film, immediately before You’re Next cuts to an establishing shot that eerily mimics a prominent and memorable composition from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973).
There, a long establishing view -- far away from the road -- captured the tiny Volkswagen van as it drove along a giant, unforgiving landscape. Here, the family car is given the same visual treatment, and so a couple of things might be divined about You’re Next’s approach.
First, Wingard knows his horror film history and allusions.
Secondly, the vast shot embodies the isolation of the film’s central location.
Thirdly -- and perhaps most crucially -- this particular visual suggests a kind of God’s eye perspective.
It’s almost as though the universe itself is standing back from the central characters, uncaring and unforgiving of their fate. In the case of You’re Next, the tiny car on the vast landscape seems also to suggest the spiritual barren-ness of the characters and their lives. They’re driving on a long, empty road, heading…they know not where.
In further charting the “disconnect” I noted above, You’re Next seems downright Wes Craven-esque in its approach to theme.
Specifically -- as was the case in Last House on the Left (1972), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Deadly Friend (1986) and The People Under the Stairs (1991) to name just a few titles -- horror resides expressly in the family home, not in some Gothic or esoteric structure outside the confines of normality.
In You’re Next we discover a home of secrets and lies, two bad, disengaged parents, and four resentful, damaged children. We also meet the talking, scheming killer, as we did in Scream (1996).
Given the location of the film’s terror -- the family home -- it’s notable that representations and symbols of family life and togetherness are destroyed in the film.
Before the film’s carnage commences in earnest, for instance, the Davison family breaks bread together around an expansive dinner table. This table is decorated with ample food, and the best silverware and china imaginable. The image presented is determinedly one of luxury and plenty. On the surface, this is the American dream made manifest: a family joined together, sharing its hard-earned bounty.
The social occasion, however, is a façade or a lie. The heartfelt family prayer, the fancy red wine, and the fine crystal can’t hide the fact that the “family” is shattered, and roiling with discontent. The masked killers enter the home, and make that point plain for the audience.
In one shot, an arrow strikes the dining room wall, and immediately shatters a family portrait. So the image of the family -- the untruthful façade -- is the first victim of the attack. An arrow literally pierces that lie right off the bat.
Later, a furious killer actually turns over the dining room table, putting the last nail in the false front of family values. In close-up, we see the wine glasses, plates, and silverware tip over and crash. Everything hits the floor, and everything is destroyed…violently.
That’s pretty much what happens to the Davison family as well.
Without revealing too many details of the film’s final act, the highly-organized attack on the Davison family is not unmotivated, and it arises not from outside the family gathering, but from within it.
The person orchestrating the attack boasts no sense of betrayal or treachery, and is, in fact, angry, that the other family members are making it so hard for the masked assailants to kill them. This character -- so accustomed to the world of white male privilege and money -- believes that others should roll over and die on command so that the estate’s wealth flows downstream to the right beneficiary.
The cruel and clueless Davison siblings and parents are contrasted in the film with the resourceful and canny Erin.
She may have also been raised in an isolated locale too (specifically “the Outback”) but she learned something meaningful from that unusual experience: how to survive, how to detect danger, and how to defend herself.
By contrast, the Davisons make for easy pickings because they have lived inside a cocoon of privilege all their lives, and can’t conceive of the idea that their bubble of luxury and social status is so easily ruptured.
They have no latent survival skills on which to fall back upon. Again, the Davison parents have failed their children in a most egregious fashion. These kids are fit for nothing, except being rich and pampered.
This tale of a cut-throat system of values -- where an inheritance is worth eminently more than a living mom and dad -- is adroitly exploited in You’re Next, despite the familiarity of the set-up and the story-beats
Delightfully, director Wingard takes the slasher paradigm’s familiarity into account here, and even comments on that oft-utilized structure or format.
Specifically, long-time fans of the slasher paradigm will recognize several key components in the film.
First, we have the killers who wear masks, thus separating them visually from the victim pool.
Then there is the final girl: the one insightful (female) protagonist who alone discerns danger while others are distracted by vice and avarice.
Also You’re Next is structured as a series of repetitive murder set-pieces, in large part like a Halloween or Friday the 13th film.
And finally, there’s a sting-in-the-tail/tale at the denouement, a surprise that changes everything the audience thinks it knows, and culminates with a coup de grace.
But within this accepted and oft-repeated structure, You’re Next finds ample room for invention, and again, commentary. In particular, Wingard cuts again and again to close-up shots of a sound system inside a neighbor’s house.
This specific house is visited on no less than three occasions throughout the film, and is also the site of at least three murders. On the neighbor’s sound system the first song on a CD is played again and again, repetitively.
That song becomes the film’s unofficial soundtrack to pursuit and murder.
You’re Next repeats that song -- knowingly so -- just as it determinedly repeats the elements of the familiar slasher-film paradigm. The film and its director thus seems to acknowledge that You’re Next is playing “selection one” -- and only selection one -- on the CD player (or DVD player).
Now this touch is clever for a few reasons too.
First, Wingard is acknowledging and commenting on the genre he participates in. It can be repetitive and predictable, and he wants you to know that he understands that fact.
Secondly, the victims and would-be victims who hear the song are each listening to it for the first time, an acknowledgement that even something that is seemingly clichéd at this point -- like a slasher film -- can seem new to fresh audiences, or to fresh directors.
And thirdly, the fact of a CD that repeats the same song appears to be an overt thematic acknowledgment that things haven’t really changed in 21st century America in terms of family relationships. The love of money is at the root of all evil, and that’s an idea that goes way back indeed. It’s an idea, however, that keeps “playing” in the national consciousness, just as that CD keeps playing endlessly in the neighbor’s house.
You’re Next is thus an exceptionally smart and well-observed horror movie. Watching it, I was reminded a bit of Donald Rumsfeld’s acknowledgment in the Iraq War of known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.
Basically, who survives and who doesn’t in You’re Next comes down to the information that each character possesses (or doesn’t possess) at a certain juncture, and that fact makes the film highly suspenseful. In some sense, the final girl survives here because she discerns the correct information in time to save her life. Others are not so lucky.
You’re Next is tense and funny, and in the final analysis the best sort of horror picture: a smart one. You may think you’ve seen this particular family album before, but in a way, that’s the movie’s point.
The Davisons could be the family in the McMansion next door. They could be your family.