Category Archives: 2000s

Underworld (2003)

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*. Underworld was the directorial debut of Len Wiseman, who got his start in the business working as a property assistant (a mainly managerial role in the art department dealing with the physical design of a film). He worked on such blockbusters as Independence Day, Men in Black, and Godzilla. He then worked in advertising and directing music videos before coming to this project.
*. I don’t bring this up as a way of knocking Wiseman but only to indicate that if you knew all this beforehand you’d probably have a pretty good idea what kind of a movie Underworld was going to be and what it would look like. And you might think that what it looked like was the kind of movie it was going to be. Wiseman says at the beginning of his DVD commentary that he set out to make a comic book: “a living, breathing, graphic novel come to life.” It seems like this is something every filmmaker of his generation has aspired to.
*. You would not be disappointed in your comic book expectations. Roger Ebert: “Underworld is all surfaces, all costumes and sets and special effects . . . This is a movie so paltry in its characters and shallow in its story that the war seems to exist primarily to provide graphic visuals.”
*. Things still might have been saved if there’d been something interesting in the production or artistic design of the film, but it all looks so generic it’s almost numbing. And so uninteresting.
*. There was more colour in Sin City. Everything here is blue. The city (unnamed, but the film was shot in Budapest) looks like every other generic grotty urban location in a comic book movie. I suppose it’s Gotham. The buildings are all large and empty. The streets have nobody in them. Indeed, after the opening battle sequence, do we see any characters aside from Michael’s doctor friend, who isn’t an immortal? And did I mention everything is blue?
*. I had some hopes that something interesting might be made out of the premise. Werewolves vs. Vampires. The werewolves are grungy gangsters living underground. The vampires are hoity-toity types who live in a mansion. Class warfare?
*. No. Not really. In fact, not at all. Nothing as interesting as that. Or as interesting as a toothy version of Romeo and Juliet. Just the usual monster brawl, which was not a new sub-genre. Apparently the working titles for House of Dracula (1945) were Dracula vs. the Wolf Man or The Wolf Man vs. Dracula. But those ensemble monster movies were never that interested in having the monsters actually fight each other. We had to wait for that.
*. Some people enjoyed the fantasy mythology. I thought it seemed canned and Young Adult in the worst way. Have you noticed how the word “mythology” is now used for any movie like this that really doesn’t have anything you might think of as a story? It’s like the Alien mythology or the Marvel Universe.
*. After about thirty minutes I was bored out of my skull. There are no surprises. What? You mean Kraven is a traitor as well as a wimp? Well, I never would have guessed with a name like that.
*. For a straight-up action movie I didn’t think the combat scenes were very impressive. Lots of what must be very expensive rounds are fired off (ultraviolet to kill vampires, silver nitrate for the pack), but neither side are very good at hitting anything. There isn’t much hand-to-hand fighting and what we do get tends to rely on lots of harness work. Wiseman also seems to want to still be doing music videos given how some of the scenes play out.
*. Kate Beckinsale looks like a fetish model. Scott Speedman looks like a male model for just about anything sexy (fashion, cologne, hair products, whatever). They are obviously meant for each other because they have lovely long locks of hair that fall over their faces in the same way.
*. Bill Nighy went from playing Viktor here to playing Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. I wonder if he enjoys spending that much time in a make-up chair.
*. Hard to believe it’s two hours long for so little material. And they didn’t even wrap things up at the end! All this sound and fury just to set up a bunch of sequels!
*. The only place for Universal to go after the chaos of House of Dracula was into parody with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Underworld instead took as its selling point its seriousness. This allowed it to become a franchise that is, as of this writing, still going strong. Will the vampyres and lycans keep fighting each other for another thousand years? Damn their immortal hides.

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Dog Soldiers (2002)

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*. We’ve never gotten over our fear of the forest. And to be fair, it’s hard to imagine urban werewolves. They tried it in Wolfen, and it sort of worked, but at the end of the day these furry guys belong in the woods. In the movie Howl (2016) it seems like we’re going to get an at least semi-urban werewolf story, but then the train stops out in the middle of, you guessed it, a dark forest and we’re back in the pack’s happy hunting grounds.
*. So here we are in Dog Soldiers, heading off to the highlands of Scotland, where the nearest phone, or even house, is fifty miles away. One suspects no one can hear you scream. Certainly no one can hear all the gunfire.
*. As an aside, I was wondering when I heard them say this if there really is anywhere in Scotland this remote. Apparently not. Kevin McKidd, who plays Cooper, was struck by this too because he’s Scottish and knows that there is no place that is a four-hour drive from anywhere in that country. But he didn’t want to say anything to the producers.
*. I’d like to tell you that this is a movie that delivers on its promise of doing something a little different with the werewolf genre, but in the end it’s really quite conventional. A team of regular army soldiers go on a training exercise in the highlands, where they find out that they’re basically being used as bait so that a special forces unit can capture a lycanthrope. The wolf-men are ahead of this game, and after a quick run through the woods things settle into a standard siege picture, with the squaddies hunkering down in the classic cabin in the woods.
*. You could compare a plot like that to a lot of horror movies. I was mainly thinking of Predator, where the team of soldiers is set up by the CIA and stuck in the jungle having to fight off the alien bad guy: the predators having become the prey. But whatever the borrowings, it all plays as very generic stuff. Writer-director Neil Marshall would go on to make The Descent, which was quite an original horror movie, but here he was still spinning his wheels and churning out formula fare.
*. In some places the clichés get to be annoying. Whenever you see a guy turning his back to a window or door you know something’s going to break through and grab him. And why are they turning their backs to the windows anyway? It’s an idiot-plot move. And the old dropping-below-the-table to do a (remarkably rapid) werewolf transformation takes us back sixty years.
*. Alas, transformation scenes in werewolf movies are expensive if you want to do them right. If you can’t afford them, better to go with a finesse. As it is, this was a cheap movie (budget estimated at around $2 million), released direct to cable in North America, and they did at least manage to blow that house up real good.
*. Another plot point that comes as a stretch: If they’re fifty miles from the nearest house (not town, house), then what sense does it make to try and hotwire a vehicle that’s parked in the shed? The risk/reward calculation here escapes me. Surely, even if they’re running low on ammunition, the thing to do is to barricade themselves and try to hold out. I also don’t know why they attempt to defend the entire house right from the start. The smart thing to do would be to try to defend a smaller area with only a couple of (perhaps smaller) access points.
*. I understand that you can’t kill a werewolf with normal bullets. And I understand that these werewolves have spectacular self-healing powers (a bit of lore that goes all the way back to the disappearing scars on Larry Talbot’s chest in The Wolf Man). But just considering basic physiology and physics it seems like these creatures should need a bit more time than they take to get over the amount of bullets pumped into them. I mean, they’re not zombies.
*. Or are they? This is really more of a zombie movie, at least in terms of its structure and the pattern of the plot, than it is a werewolf movie. It’s more bite than bark. A zombie outbreak would also have made more sense, as the basic premise here is insane. The government knows about the werewolves and so sends in a small group of special ops soldiers, with no back-up, to capture one, by using a team of unsuspecting regular soldiers as bait? This is so ridiculous it doesn’t even pass horror-movie muster.

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*. I wonder why the werewolves have a dog, since clearly Sam doesn’t like them. Everybody knows that dogs and werewolves don’t get along.
*. I wish there was more here on the whole werewolf pack. The idea of a messed-up or dysfunctional family could have allowed for some interesting play. But as noted, this is a werewolf movie that really isn’t interested in the werewolves, or the idea of lycanthropy, at all.
*. There are a number of film references dropped throughout (Marshall has a thing for this), but I had a hard time buying Cooper saying that they were going to blow up the shed and make it look like Zabriskie Point. That’s a bit obscure for his character, isn’t it?
*. I couldn’t figure out exactly what Megan’s game was, though this may have been partly the result of studio meddling. Apparently they demanded that Marshall connect her up to Ryan in some way, which made the back story a bit of a hash.
*. Though it’s very conventional and without any real twists or surprises (aside from the obligatory), I still thought this was a fun movie. The werewolves look OK and the action sequences are well handled. In particular, the big fight where Spoon throws everything in the kitchen but the kitchen sink at the werewolf is great. There are also a few nice little touches like the clouds of breath coming from the back seat of the jeep and the dog tugging on Sarge’s intestines. That might not seem like a lot, but in a movie like this it’s such moments that last.

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Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001)

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*. Henry James famously described Victorian novels as “loose baggy monsters,” and I couldn’t help thinking of this when watching Brotherhood of the Wolf. Not because of the appearance of a loose baggy monster but because of what James was being critical of: the plot.
*. The story here is long, cumbersome, and full of pointless detail. The starting point for most of the initial reviews was to highlight how much of a mongrel it was. David Edelstein thought it “a movie that endeavors to moosh together every successful cross-cultural action picture ever made.” Roger Ebert: “Brotherhood of the Wolf plays like an explosion at the genre factory. When the smoke clears, a rough beast lurches forth, its parts cobbled together from a dozen movies.”
*. There are two problems with such an approach. In the first place, the movie risks turning into an anthology of clichés, as only the better-known elements from the various genres are quoted from. Everything is borrowed and nothing is new.
*. The second problem is that of coherence. How well do so many disparate parts fit together? Here: not so well.
*. I don’t mean in terms of not making logical sense. I have no trouble believing in a Native American who knows kung-fu, or even crediting the existence of whatever that creature is that they supposedly dragged back from Africa. What I can’t abide are the jumps from romance to horror to historical costume drama to political conspiracy thriller to action flick, with none of these genres being used to inform the others.

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*. Then there is the problem of length. The version I saw ran to 140 minutes, which I think is the shortest version out there. There’s also a 150-minute director’s cut. It must be awful. At 140 minutes I came away thinking that at least half an hour, and maybe as much as 45 minutes, should have been cut.
*. Am I just against long movies? No. But there were whole chunks of this one that were unnecessary. Monica Belluci is always easy to look at, but has almost no function here. And even though they had all the time in the world to explain it, the plot itself remained a mystery to me. At the end I still didn’t know what the Brotherhood were up to, or who they were. The fight scenes were overlong, repetitive, and gratuitous. Making things even worse, or giving another turn to the rack, director Christophe Gans can’t resist grinding things down into slow-motion every few minutes, for no reason at all that I can see.
*. I didn’t care for Gans’s direction at all. He seems to have only two strings to his bow: (1) the aforementioned slow motion and (2) crane shots. He indulges both over and over again. Like everything else in Brotherhood of the Wolf, they get old in a hurry.
*. As for the beast, I thought that it was an interesting and somewhat original-looking critter, but the CGI is terrible. Then again, it was 2001.
*. It did well at the box office, for being a foreign film, but aside from looking pretty in a fittingly fairy-tale sort of way I can’t think of anything to recommend it. It’s a cheeseburger of a flick, covered in “the works.” I didn’t come away impressed by the fact that they can make cheeseburgers like this in France. A royale with cheese, I heard someone once say.

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Ginger Snaps (2000)

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*. Is there anybody who doesn’t like this movie? And by that I really mean is there anybody who doesn’t like Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins)? I guess there are such curmudgeons out there, but (for once) I’m not among them.
*. According to director John Fawcett the two girls “began as caricatures [like] . . . sticky Edward Gorey girls . . . or a Tim Burton drawing.” But they both outgrow the role of Goth girls, becoming a unique clique of two: sharing a deep bond but playing well against each other. Ginger is sexy and aggressive, Brigitte withdrawn.
*. It’s important that we like Ginger and Brigitte because Ginger Snaps is a human werewolf movie. Which is a label I’ll try to explain.

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*. We can think of werewolf movies as forming a continuum running from man (or woman) to wolf. At the far end we have the werewolf as pure creature. Think of the pack of wolves in Wolfen or the Beast of Gevaudan in Brotherhood of the Wolf. Or, if you don’t think those are real werewolf movies (and technically they aren’t), think of movies like Dog Soldiers or Howl, where we barely see the original beasts in human form.
*. At the human end of the continuum the focus is on the person who’s infected with the curse of lycanthropy. At the extreme edge of the continuum I’m drawing we have movies where it may not even be clear if the character is turning into a wolf or if it’s all in their head. Cat People, which isn’t a werewolf movie but very much fits the model, is a good example, or She-Wolf of London, where lycanthropy is just a psychological ruse being played on the heroine.
*. In the middle are most of the movies we think of as the classics of the genre. Lon Chaney Jr.’s Lawrence Talbot, done up in Jack Pierce’s original make-up, for example, is both a tragic human character and a monster.

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*. The reason I bring all this up is because Ginger Snaps is definitely more of a human werewolf movie, meaning it’s more interested in the characters than it is in the monster. So it matters that the Fitzgerald girls are so likeable, and it’s less important that Ginger’s werewolf make-up is pretty awful and the werewolf itself moves awkwardly and looks more like a wild pig than a wolf. (On the plus side, at least it isn’t CGI.)
*. What’s so scary? A girl turning into a monster? Yes, but there are a lot of other scary things going on as well. I’ll number a few.
*. (1) Life in the ‘burbs with all its conformity and going nowhereism. On the DVD commentary writer Karen Walton puts the matter rather forcefully: “I hate suburbs, I think they’re awful places, I think they do awful things to people” Wow. That’s strong stuff. I mean, I don’t like suburbs either but I don’t know if I’d go that far.
*. (2) Sit-down family dinners. These have long been a horror film staple and here they are presented as almost a form of torture for the girls. Though I think this may just be part and parcel of a more general dislike contemporary horror movies seem to have for the traditional family.
*. (3) The fear of growing up and turning into your mother. Understandable, I suppose, when she’s made up like Mimi Rogers. Though it’s interesting that, as with Ginger and Brigitte, the stereotype characters in the movie (like Mimi Rogers’ Mom or the Cool Girl Trina at school) have an extra dimension in this movie, giving them a bit of reality. It may not seem like a lot, but it really helps give the movie a special texture.
*. (4) Menstruation, a.k.a. “the curse.” Yes, that can be scary. As are all of the teen rites of passage here, like boys, piercings, drugs, peer pressure, and even acne.

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*. Further to this final point, I found it interesting listening to the commentaries that the link between lycanthropy and menstruation was apparently an afterthought, or at least not part of the original conception of the story (which was apparently more of something in the Cronenberg body-horror vein). Initially Fawcett and Walton hadn’t seen the connection with transformation of the body and adolescence. I think most people see this as being what the movie is all about, and indeed a number of critics found it too obvious and intrusive.
*. Is it a feminist horror film? I don’t think so. I think it’s just a horror film concerned with female characters, and that it doesn’t carry any particularly feminist message. It is “female-centric” (Fawcett), but aside from wanting to stress the point that the boyfriend doesn’t save the day I’m not sure there’s more to it than this. Slightly troubling is the moment at the end when Mom suggests that she and the girls just blow up the house and run off on their own. “Just us girls.” I don’t know if the plan is to blow up Dad with the house, but Mom doesn’t seem too concerned about him either way. Men don’t understand.

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*. Fawcett mentions on the commentary that he thought this would be the first werewolf film in history without a shot of the full moon. Actually, it’s a well-known bit of movie trivia that The Wolf Man doesn’t have any shots of the moon.
*. As with most great little movies, the crew really come through. Most of the names are mentioned by Fawcett in his commentary, and for many of the same things I flagged in my initial set of notes, but they’re worth repeating. It’s very nicely photographed by Thom Best, and terrifically lit, giving the effect of washed-out days and orange nights. Best really makes a little go a long way. Wardrobe by Lea Carlson is great, as the girls don’t just look like Goths but dress with a realistic and individual sense of style. Mimi Rogers is also very well turned out in her domestic-eccentric outfits, including jack-o-lantern earrings on Hallowe’en. The score by Mike Shields is resonant and moody, and the sound design by David McCallum works really well. I thought the noises the werewolf makes tearing apart the house at the end really stood out, which is a point that Fawcett remarks on as well.

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*. Ginger Snaps is not the best werewolf movie ever, but the fact is that it came at a kind of trough in the genre. I think Walton says on the commentary that the last great werewolf movie before this was An American Werewolf in London, which had been nearly twenty years earlier. Since then the Howling franchise had played out, but there hadn’t been much else going on. Perhaps Silver Bullet (1985), Mike Nichols’s Wolf (1994), and Bad Moon (1996) might be mentioned. But that’s not a lot of activity. In the twenty-first century things would take off again with CGI transformations and new monsters, but I don’t think this was progress. In most of these movies werewolves became something like zombies: less characters than a kind of stock prop.
*. They made a couple of sequels, neither of which went anywhere. Given all the difficulties involved in the business of film production (movies are as conformist as the suburbs) you have to accept the success of movies like this as something rare and impossible to duplicate. So enjoy it. Chances are you won’t see anything else like it for a while.

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The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009)

*. Here your commentator takes a deep breath.
*. Yes, you can say a lot of bad things about this movie, all of them true. It’s vile. It’s disgusting. In a perfect world it would never have been made.
*. If it were just a despicable film though I don’t think it would have had the kind of impact it’s had. The worst movies ever made are almost entirely unknown because nobody’s seen them. People did see The Human Centipede, and indeed among a certain segment of the population it became quite popular. So all of the venom directed against it suggests that there was something there, aside from the obvious.
*. Leaving aside the obvious, the premise, for just a moment, I’ll say I thought this was a reasonably well-made movie. It looks good. The house, both interiors and exteriors, is well presented. There are a few style points. Some of the suspense sequences are effective. The scene where Lindsay is trapped in the swimming pool is harrowing. Dieter Laser turns in a memorable camp performance as the Nazi Dr. Heiter. In brief, I don’t think the movie offends to make offence a skill, but it does show evidence of at least some talent at work.
*. On the downside: Tom Six can’t write dialogue. The plot is full of what have become conventions, starting with the flat tire (Kim Newman: “underneath an extremely repulsive concept, this is a relatively conventional horror movie”). The cast outside of Laser, though making sacrifices for their art above and beyond the call of duty, aren’t very good.
*. So, a mix of good and bad. I’d even say that for a film of this kind the good outweighs the bad. Then we have the premise. Which is that the mad doctor performs a reverse-Siamese operation on three young people: crippling them and joining together their gastric system by attaching them mouth-to-anus, thus forming a “human centipede.”
*. It’s an appalling idea, and I suspect much of the film’s notoriety initially arose from it being one of those movies that you watch on a dare, and maybe watch again with someone so you can see their reaction to it. In this way it’s no different than the “2 Girls 1 Cup” video (official name: Hungry Bitches).
*. In fact, I think Hungry Bitches, a porn video where two girls share vomit and excrement, is very much a relevant title in the context of a discussion of The Human Centipede. Obviously both movies feature girls being forced to eat shit, and both are also a kind of porn.
*. You really can’t miss that here. Look at the way Heiter straddles over the one girl (after giving her the date-rape drug Rohypnol) while injecting her with a hypo, and then sighing with what is clearly orgasmic release. And the training scene where he yells at Katsuro (the “head” of the centipede) to “Feed her! Feeeeeeed her! Hard!” and barks at Lindsay to “Swallow it bitch!” needs no further comment.

*. I assume someone has pointed out the sexism of having the male being the head of the centipede, and thus the one who doesn’t have to eat any shit. I wonder if the misogyny (a word that I think Six, an enemy of political correctness, would despise) fails to bother people, given how much else there is to be offended by.
*. The porn angle also suggests we look again at the label of torture porn. The sexual/fetish feel to the proceedings (already discussed) was not lost on the adult industry, which quickly had its own fun with the concept. But what about the torture part?
*. Roger Ebert: “It’s not death itself that’s so bad. It’s what you might have to go through to get there. No horror film I’ve seen inflicts more terrible things on its victims than The Human Centipede.” I think I’d say the same, but in furtherance of what moral point?
*. In his seminal torture-porn essay, which was published a couple of years before this film came out, David Edelstein remarked that “Some of these movies [Hostel and Wolf Creek were his main examples] are so viciously nihilistic that the only point seems to be to force you to suspend moral judgments altogether.”
*. I think that word nihilism is the key. You can’t have moral judgments in a nihilistic universe. And nihilism is clearly where twenty-first century horror has been heading. Think of the explosion in zombie films, the main argument of which is (as I have argued elsewhere) that we should just go out and start shooting other people in the head. “I don’t like human beings,” Dr. Heiter says. This is the philosophy of the zombie apocalypse. As Kim Newman observes, “clearly, misanthropy is in style”: “the message of the twenty-first century is that Other People are Shit.” Or they’re made to eat it.
*. For further evidence, look at the normalization of the dark ending, where movies like the Paranormal Activity films, or Rec, or Eden Lake, or Sinister, or The Witch, have all or most of the good/innocent characters killed at the end and evil triumphant. I guess in this one Heiter dies too, but two of the three centipede segments have preceded him and Lindsay is left suffering an even bleaker fate.
*. What we’re talking about here is something more than just an attempt to up the ante for jaded audiences. It’s an outright rejection of any system of moral values (in particular, those associated with faith and family) and a declaration of war against humanity. I’m not being prudish about this, but I am genuinely curious as to how widely adopted the message of “I don’t like human beings” and “Other People are Shit” has become. We seem to have lost our belief in life being worth anything, and indeed take pleasure (the pornography of torture and cruelty) in rubbing everyone’s nose in it. I think this is what Ebert meant when he refused to give The Human Centipede any stars and said it “occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.” There is no order in its universe, no justice human or divine. And it is not an outlier in this regard.
*. Just on the matter of justice, it may be worth noting that Six’s inspiration for the concept was an idea he came up with for punishing child molesters. How this led to a film where innocent people are tortured in this manner seems like a fair question. Indeed, it’s not just innocence that is destroyed, but it is Lindsay’s return to rescue Jenny that is her downfall. No good deed can go unpunished.
*. One defence of the movie that’s often made is to argue that it’s really a comedy, but if so I can’t see what it’s sending up. Satire is a moral tool, and if The Human Centipede is satirizing the excesses of contemporary horror movies, on what ground is it standing when it does so? I think there may well be comic elements in it, but it seems to me that the laughter is just as heartless as the cruelty, and really part of the same mindset.
*. By the same token, Six’s statement that it’s an anti-fascist film is even thinner. Heiter is just a stock villain. This movie has no politics.
*. So much for general reflections.
*. It was originally marketed as “100% medically accurate.” It isn’t, but then The Texas Chain Saw Massacre wasn’t an account of a true crime either. These are just ad lines. But the appeal to truth works.
*. I know it’s pointless to ask, but still: just what is Heiter up to? I realize he hates human beings, but he seems to have had some genuine attachment to his “beloved 3-dog.” So what was his point with all of this? I suspect he thinks he’s an artist even more than he wants to play God (if there’s a difference). In what may be a relevant bit of trivia, those are Six’s own paintings decorating his house.

*. We’re into the world of medical horror again. I wonder if this counts as a real trend or if it just seems that way. Most horror movies are aimed at young audiences, and most young people have little experience with the authentic horrors of the medical system. Nevertheless, it’s such a real and powerful anxiety it probably still resonates. For what it’s worth, Six claims he has a fear of hospitals and I found the (mercifully brief) operation scene here tough sledding. I really can’t stand this stuff.
*. I feel like Katsuro’s big speech at the end should mean something, relating to or explaining his suicide. But I can’t figure out what it might be. At that point, his situation is the furthest it’s been from hopeless.
*. Our standards for what we find disgusting are fluid. Eighty years ago Dracula and Frankenstein were considered shocking. The Exorcist had people throwing up and running for the exits. In twenty or thirty years will we look back at The Human Centipede as something quaint and humorous? I think it’s at very possible. Just on a second viewing I found it had lost most of its shock value.
*. Will it become a cult film? Maybe (that is, if the label “cult film” still means anything). But I’m not sure Six helped it in this regard with the remakes. Or at least he didn’t with The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence). Some people rate the second entry highly.
*. Newman found it “never quite as outrageous as it threatens to be,” and I think that’s true. At the same time, I think it is pretty explicit. About the only place where they avoid showing us more is in the operation scene. Much is made of the fact that we never actually see shit, but given the premise how could we? Unless it’s coming out of Jenny, and that wouldn’t mean anything. I think Six makes it clear when the “feeding” is taking place.
*. Perhaps after a while we’ll see this as less a game-changer and more of a representative film of its time, along the lines I’ve already mentioned. It’s typical of a generation of horror that no longer tries to do much along the lines of suspense or even shock but instead just presents us with an experience of suffering that we have to endure. Is there a value in that? I endured it but I don’t think it made me a stronger or a better person. And worse was to come.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

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*. In the twenty-first century the classic slasher horror films of the ’70s and ’80s were all being remade, their franchises “reset.” I’m not sure why. The short answer would be to cash in on what were recognizable brand names, but as a creative challenge? These cover versions brought little that was new to the table, and they all looked exactly the same (many of them being the product of the same production company, Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes, which was created specifically to make low-budget horror flicks).
*. What is new with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the title now renders “chainsaw” as all one word) isn’t an improvement, and what stays the same probably wasn’t worth keeping.
*. For example, why set the movie in 1973? To get rid of everyone’s cellphone? Anachronisms pop up. “Sweet Home Alabama,” which they’re all singing at the beginning, hadn’t been released yet. As Kim Newman remarks, “gym-toned 2000s starlets like Jessica Biel and Eric Balfour just don’t look like hippie chicks and dudes.” Those big round bales of hay we see out in the fields didn’t come in until later. Apparently even the make of chainsaw is an anachronism.
*. Just sticking with the chainsaw for a second, I want to say something. Let’s get real. If you hit so much as an old nail or a bit of wire the chain on a saw is fucked. You certainly can’t grind them on tire irons, or cut through car roofs with them, or slice through steel barrels, or saw them into cement floors. That would destroy the saw right away. And they don’t run that long on a tank of gas (or oil, given how much it seems to be burning). I think the chainsaw here must have been purchased at the same magical store that sells those guns that never run out of bullets in action movies. No matter how much work Leatherface makes it do, it just keeps going.
*. Something else that stayed the same is cinematographer Robert Pearl, who also shot the original. Newman mentions how “the look is more highly wrought” because Pearl had “the resources to make the grime almost pretty.” He doesn’t say whether he thinks this is a good thing. I certainly don’t. The original film’s grunginess was a big part of its success. This movie just looks like all the other horror resets: slick, without being unsettling.
*. Newman does flag “a certain inauthenticity which comes with trying to redo a property that achieved near-perfect form  the first time out.” The original was always going to be a hard movie to remake (or follow up, for that matter) given that its success was so much the result of its shock value, cheapness, and rank unpleasantness. So much of what it did has gone on to become cliché, which is what a lot of this movie turns into at the end. There’s the car that won’t start. The basement step that breaks through. The rats scurrying over the person who’s trying to stay quiet and hide. The last girl in the tank top. They didn’t need any of this.

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*. A good example of the higher production values leading to disjunctive results can be seen in the crazy family’s house. In this movie it looks like the mansion from Giant, especially given its isolation. It appears especially ridiculous at night, backlit by what seem to be stadium lights. I didn’t buy it for a second.
*. Then there are the big changes to the story. The concept of the crazy all-male family is exploded in a misguided attempt to build up more of a back story or mythology and include more family members (whose exact relations remain obscure). But the original family were characters. These are just freaks and types.
*. Leatherface has a name (Thomas Brown Hewitt), but seems even less sympathetic a figure. The franchise has always had problems with Leatherface, as he is both the iconic villain and a big baby.
*. Even more puzzling is the lack of any reference to cannibalism, which is the crime that basically defined the first film. We visit a slaughterhouse here, and there’s a crude likening of Erin to a slab of beef in one scene, but there’s no suggestion that the family are actually eating people.
*. Of course in those early shock horror movies sex and violence were always near allied. And they still are, which means basically you have to amp those qualities up: making it sexier and gorier.
*. On the former front, Jessica Biel looks entirely edible here, bouncing around in an hourglass-accentuating outfit which even turns into a wet t-shirt that she jiggles about in at the end. This is another example of a disconcerting upgrade, as Biel is just so damn sexy it makes you feel dirty watching her suffer. I also thought it kind of sad how her character Erin is wrong about everything. Then when she has to kill Andy, do you think she might have thought of a kinder way of doing it than stabbing him in the gut and disembowelling him? Holy harakiri.
*. As far as the gore goes, it seems fairly standard. It isn’t there to shock or create suspense, but merely to depict people suffering. This makes you feel dirty too.
*. A lot of effort went into making Tobe Hooper’s film into a franchise. Including all of the sequels and prequels and resets and spin-offs there are (as of this writing) eight titles in the Texas Chainsaw canon. I don’t recall any of them after the first being any good.
*. Give Platinum Dunes credit for making an unpleasant film. At least if that’s something you want to give credit for. To be honest, I was checking my watch a lot near the end, wondering how much more I had to sit through. Too much.
*. Roger Ebert hated (hated, hated) this film. Here’s how he starts off his review: “The new version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a contemptible film: Vile, ugly and brutal. There is not a shred of a reason to see it.” And here’s how he ends: “Do yourself a favor. There are a lot of good movies playing right now that can make you feel a little happier, smarter, sexier, funnier, more excited — or more scared, if that’s what you want. This is not one of them. Don’t let it kill 98 minutes of your life.” He’s right, and I think he was more sad than angry. So am I.

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Eden Lake (2008)

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*. Well. This was really no fun at all.
*. Of course it wasn’t meant to be fun. But I’m not sure if it was meant to be this unpleasant.
*. The set-up reminded me of Funny Games. These are not dead-teenager movies, where obnoxious kids are sliced and diced by a psycho slasher, but movies about the bourgeoisie being threatened by those same obnoxious kids. Where’s Jason when you need him to put the fear of God into these little shits?
*. I wonder if this is part of a natural maturation of the genre. Those kids who were frightened by slasher films in the 1980s are grown up and have jobs and families. Now they’re frightened of the little monsters they used to be.
*. That’s one interpretation. There’s quite an angry political reading pursued in a book called Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones. “Chav” is a derogatory British term for someone young and lower class (both economically and culturally). The subtitle of Jones’s book tells you what he sees as really being afoot in the representation of chavs in the media, and Eden Lake is his Exhibit One. As I recall, he makes a pretty convincing case.
*. Obviously this is a movie that’s mad as hell about something. Hence its unpleasantness, and the fact that it is bending over backward to be so unpleasant. The way poor Jenny here just keeps jumping from the frying pan and into the fire goes well beyond belief, taking us into the realm of nightmare and fantasy. In other words, it’s a movie straining to make a rhetorical point.
*. I’ll get back to what that point might be, but now I’d like to say something by way of explanation of just why I found this movie so sickening. I think the best way to proceed is by saying what I didn’t find disturbing.
*. In the first place, I didn’t mind that the villains were kids. We’ve been here before: as long ago as Village of the Damned, and throughout the 1970s with cult flicks like Devil Times Five and Who Can Kill a Child? We’ve also known, at least since Freud, that kids really are little monsters. Brett (Jack O’Connell) is one of the single most repellent characters I have ever seen in a movie, and somehow he manages to get upstaged by his dad in that regard. But that’s not something I hold against Eden Lake.
*. Second: I wasn’t upset by the mindless cruelty. Or at least not that much. While it isn’t particularly gory, this is yet another entry in the depressing list of torture cinema. I don’t like seeing torture (and I’m strongly opposed to it under any circumstances), but there’s no denying the way it has taken hold of the popular imagination, and having scenes involving torture doesn’t necessarily make a movie unwatchable.
*. Third: I didn’t object to the dark ending. As with torture, this has become a staple of twenty-first century horror. I’ve written about this before in relation to films like Paranormal Activity and Sinister, but you can see it everywhere in the horror movies of this period. Think of Rec and Rec 2 or The Witch. Eden Lake is no different, and even its ending that pulls the rug out from under you recalls such pure genre flicks as The Descent: Part 2 and House of 1000 Corpses. I don’t know why today’s horror films have adopted this nihilistic point of view. It’s sometimes said that such endings are more “realistic,” but this is rarely the case and is particularly far-fetched here. As already noted, it’s hard to believe Jenny would find herself delivered into the hands of the gang’s parents at the end of this film, and that they would turn out to be even worse than their kids, but I guess it’s what the age demanded.
*. Fourth: While I see the point Jones makes in Chavs, I didn’t mind the politics. OK, so this is a movie that fears and hates (or demonizes) the working class. As with the other items I’ve touched on in this list, that doesn’t disqualify it from being effective entertainment.
*. But having said all that, I have to now say that I honestly found this movie to be unwatchable. And if you follow this blog at all you know that I set the bar very, very low in this regard. I mean, it seems obvious that the pursuit of Jenny through the woods in her increasingly bedraggled state is meant to recall I Spit on Your Grave, which is usually considered to be one of the most deplorable movies ever made. But I found Eden Lake an even rougher and more dispiriting experience.
*. Why did it get under my skin? Two reasons, both relating to its realism. I know I said that the plot is unrealistic for its coincidences, and it’s close to being an idiot plot with all the rather bad decisions Jenny and Steve make, but in at least two respects it hit home, at least with me, as being authentic.
*. In the first place, there is the bullying. The movie pushes this to an extreme, but it gets it right. Brett is like Aguirre in the jungle, whipping his troops into line behind him. And like Aguirre, he exerts a kind of brutal charisma over them (I wrote more about this on my notes on Aguirre, the Wrath of God). The business with the loser kid Adam trying to suck up to Brett and then being necklaced is far-fetched, but it has a psychological accuracy. Of course, we’re not at all surprised that Brett’s father is physically abusive, because we know how this shit rolls downhill.
*. The second bit of realism that really bites is in the presentation of, yes, the working class. Kim Newman has something interesting to say about the differences between the yuppie couple and the chavs: “It’s not about economics, it’s about attitudes. A primary school teacher [Jenny] may have middle-class values, but Brett’s parents [he’s a contractor] have more money.” This might be mistaken. One suspects Jenny and Steve are from money, which has in turn shaped their attitudes. Brett’s family is not. There is a class difference, and while it’s true that the working class are being demonized here, their resentment rings true. We don’t like to dwell on it, but the fact is, a lot of the contractors and tradespeople who work on the homes of the upper class really do hate the people who own these homes.
*. The movie obviously loads the deck against the louts, but the quarry/lake is being gentrified (and gated) in a way that is of no benefit to them. That is to say, it’s being taken away from the townsfolk to make way for “yuppy cunts” (the graffiti on the back of the Eden Lake sign): the kind of people who will despise the locals. The main point being that the two classes cannot get along. Meanwhile, the parents of the little monsters are left to “take care of their own.” This is something they may be doing a miserable job of, but it’s all they have to take any pride in.
*. In short, while the movie is an exaggeration, I did feel, with more than a little painful regret, that I actually knew these people. I’ve known Bretts. Maybe not as violent, but psychopathic bullies none the less. I’ve known contractors who hate the people they work for, even to the point of openly talking about wanting to kill them or destroy their homes. So all of this rang uncomfortably true.
*. To give credit where it’s due, it’s also a well made movie. The performances are all quite good, with the kids even holding their own with the grown-ups. The tension is tightened professionally. The plot itself struck me as very stupid, but you can’t have everything.
*. It is, however, an almost unbearably nasty and depressing film, without a moment of humour or psychological relief. You really do have to wonder where we go from here. We’re getting to the point where today’s horror movies are about nothing so much as the hatred of life itself.

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The Amityville Horror (2005)

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*. Once more into the past, dear horror buffs. Led again by Michael Bay, who also re-set Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Doesn’t he have anything better to do?
*. This is a profoundly unoriginal movie. I’m not saying that because it’s just another franchise re-set looking to cash in on a brand name. I mean that it looks just like all the other horror re-sets from the same period: slick, dark, and depressing.
*. Perhaps most noticeable is the fact that despite being set in 1975 (they were making a cursory nod at being based on a “true story”) it looks nothing at all like the period. Most obviously, James Brolin was pretty much the definition of what a shaggy hunk of ’70s beefcake was supposed to look like. Ryan Reynolds is a buff, body-sculpted, twenty-first century dude, complete with a well-defined inguinal ligament crease.
*. Is Reynolds miscast? Muscular goofiness worked in Deadpool, but here I don’t think the part called for a comic actor. I say this despite not liking the general humourlessness of these re-sets. But I just can’t take Reynolds seriously enough for his George Lutz to be as threatening as he needs to be.
*. I was surprised how close the script stuck to the original. Yes, they downplay the priest (who is really no help at all), but it’s still the same story, with most of the same basic elements. I thought it odd that the fly attack didn’t look any better than it did thirty years earlier. Perhaps being attacked by a swarm of flies is just a hard sell, even with CGI.
*. More is made out of the difficulties of setting up a second-try family, which was really soft-pedaled in the original. Though in the end nothing much is done with it. Actually, the end of this movie feels really rushed. And despite presenting more of a back story, I was still confused as to what the whole point of it was.
*. For example, why does the resident devil, who clearly has something against Christianity, make George put crosses on all the coffins he makes? What’s his game?
*. The first movie was a mess. The franchise was a mess. The re-set took all of this and turned it into a bright and shiny new mess. I don’t think it’s worth bothering with unless you’re too young to have any memory of how it all got started. Since Michael Bay is proud of making entertainments for teenage boys, that might be taken as an endorsement.

Turistas (2006)

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*. This is a slightly odd, but mostly in a good way, little horror film.
*. It’s not that odd. Eli Roth was apparently approached to direct but he was already working on Hostel, a film it closely resembles in terms of both structure and plot. Both films are prime examples of the tourist-terror sub-genre, whose precise origins I’m not sure of. The white people in Cannibal Holocaust aren’t really tourists, but it’s a similar idea. The Beach isn’t a horror film, but it’s very close in many ways to this film and others like it: paradise turning into hell when the natives fight back (Paradise Lost was the totally uninspired U.K. title for Turistas).
*. The business with the underwater caves may have been taken from The Beach as well. Not the film, but the novel, where they play an important role.
*. Then there’s the matter of politics. This is an area where the connection to Hostel is particularly strong.
*. Here’s Kim Newman with one take on the political message: “The implication, more or less foreign policy during George W. Bush’s War on Terror, is that torture is an unforgivable atrocity when perpetrated on Americans, but justified — and worth cheering — when used by Americans against foreigners. After all, they started it. . . . This pattern, raising a mythical American vice as spurious justification for a sadistic foreign overreaction which is then righteously punished, recurs in the Hostel-influenced Turistas/Paradise Lost.”
*. Well, maybe. But the thing is, Roth was very much against the U.S. involvement in Iraq and the use of torture, and Hostel was meant as an indictment of all that. I don’t think we can see him as a Bush apologist.
*. Turistas is also a little different, in that it doesn’t deal with torture. Even the victims are drugged before surgery, which is a sort of kindness. Instead of being about torture, it’s about reversing a history of exploitation.
*. Is that a spurious excuse for Zamora’s crimes? Yes. And I don’t think John Stockwell is concerned one bit with the politics of the situation (unlike Roth). On the commentary he refers to Zamora’s claim to be working for a “good cause” as a “quasi-Marxist-socialist” philosophy and that’s all he has to say about it.
*. Nevertheless, the class argument is there, as it is, increasingly, in all the Hostel films. This is what I think really lies behind the tourist-terror genre. It’s not so much that the tourists are American as they are white and rich (note how there are always token Europeans included in the mix).
*. We know the rich eat us alive every day. The revenge of the Third World is thus a kind of social or class revolution, much the same thing as the revenge of the country against the city (a traditional theme in American horror films), only conceived globally. Brazil is flyover country. It’s not just that the tourists get off the main highway and find themselves in a primitive and poor backwater, but that they shouldn’t have been driving through Brazil in the first place. Next time take the plane, gringos!

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*. While it’s an interesting political message, it’s also a stretch. If you were going to set up an organ harvesting clinic would you first think of locating it in the middle of the jungle, in a spot accessible only by helicopter or a ten-hour hike? It seems to me the bad doctors in Coma had a slightly better system in place.
*. Heaven knows where the helicopter is landing. I didn’t see any open areas near the house. In fact there weren’t any, which is why you don’t actually see a helicopter in the movie, just a light at the end of a crane.
*. What happens to Liam? He is shot in the leg and then butt-stroked by one of the guards and dragged back into the house. Are his organs taken? Why would they be, since obviously the schedule for harvesting them is now out the window and Zamora has other, more pressing, priorities.
*. It seems odd that this is left as a loose end, but then Pru was supposed to die in the first version of the script and her ghost character is sort of there and not there during most of the escape and ending. Apparently she spent several hours alone in one of the caves, which would have killed her, but whatever.
*. The whole end of the movie after the cave diving sequence kind of fizzles out. Why the hell does Bea stop Alex from bashing Zamora’s head in? He’s trying to kill you, girl! And why would Zamora provoke his hired gun (I believe his name is Jamoru) so crudely? Was he trying to get shot?
*. There was an alternate ending (available on the DVD) that made more sense. Zamora accidently shoots Jamoru and then Alex kills Zamora with the rock. Though I thought we still needed to see Zamora’s head being turned into jelly, like that of the gangster being brained by a fire extinguisher at the beginning of Irreversible.
*. How do the survivors manage to make their way back to an airport without money, cellphones, or passports? Did they bother to report to the authorities or the American embassy what happened to them? Maybe they could have saved Liam! But as the movie ends they seem kind of quiet about everything. Has this just been a vacation from hell that they’d like to forget?
*. Not surprisingly, Brazil’s tourism industry was not happy with the film. The story was originally set in Guatemala but was changed to Brazil. I’m not sure why. If the natives had all been speaking Spanish the producers wouldn’t have had to say what country they were in.
*. As with a lot of notorious “torture porn” horror films, the label doesn’t really fit and the film isn’t even that gory. It is, however, creepy. The thing is, I think surgery scares more people than zombies or serial killers anyway. If Zamora had been working out of a hospital it might have been even scarier.

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*. The final thing that makes Turistas a little odd is the amount of time given over to the underwater stuff. I thought this was effective, if totally unbelievable, in the way most such sequences are. It’s dark down there, people! You can’t see a damn thing, even if you have a flashlight!
*. Stockwell comes from a background in board shorts-and-bikini movies (nice wardrobe double standard there!), so the amount of time spent in the water wasn’t too surprising. And such scenes work in a horror film, as the audience holds its breath along with the people on screen. The low ceilings in the caves add to the claustrophobia and the way the divers breath up the air bubbles is a really neat effect (though Stockwell notes on the commentary track that this is totally unrealistic too).
*. So even though they have no thematic relevance to the rest of the film, the underwater caves do provide a nice twist and the photography is very well done. I suspect Stockwell was more interested in this part of the movie, and his lack of interest in what comes after is what led to the lazy denouement already discussed.
*. In the tourist-terror genre I’d rate this movie below Hostel, about the same as Hostel II and slightly better than The Ruins. It did poor box office, for reasons that I’m not sure I understand. Had a reaction begun to set in? Was it too real, at least as opposed to fantasies like Hostel and The Ruins? Even a bad vacation should provide more of an escape.

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Paranormal Activity (2007)

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*. A budget of $15,000 doesn’t give you a lot of margin for error. You have to do the best you can with what you’ve got.
*. Take a little thing like staging. If you’re stuck shooting the whole movie in the same house (which was in fact writer-director Oren Peli’s home) you have to make the most out of that space.
*. So look at that fixed camera set-up in the bedroom. Pretty much everything scary in the movie is going to be framed in this shot so it has to look right. Dominating the left side of the screen, which is the side your eye is naturally drawn to in any visual composition, is the black void of the open door. And in fact beyond the darkness is further mystery, as the stairway drops off so even if there was any light we wouldn’t be able to see what was going on, or coming up from below.
*. Does it bother you that Katie and Micah never try shutting the door? For an immaterial being who “can go wherever it wants” and “do whatever it wants,” it seems to need a physical passage from A to B. And would it have made more sense to change sides in bed, for Katie to sleep furthest from the door? Sure. But I’ll give Peli some leeway.
*. The “found footage” form requires giving a director more latitude than this anyway. As always in such films it strains credulity that the protagonists are continuing to film the events long after such filming serves any real purpose.
*. I did find, however, that I wanted to draw the line on the suspension of my disbelief in a couple of places. For starters: why don’t Katie and Micah turn the lights on when they’re going around investigating at night? Wouldn’t that be the first thing anyone would do? I think that goes back to evolutionary psychology. When threatened, the first thing humans want to do is see the danger.
*. Even more problematic is Micah’s response to what’s going on. The story begins with Katie bringing in a (cowardly) psychic who tells them what he thinks is happening. Micah mocks him, but seems cool with talking to him. Then, when everything goes spectacularly to hell, he digs his heels in and absolutely forbids Katie to get in touch with the demonologist the psychic had recommended. Huh? How consistent is that? And aren’t they both awfully nonchalant about the stuff that’s happening? Wouldn’t the footsteps in the baby powder be good enough evidence that it would be wise to adopt tougher measures?
*. I had always assumed the name Micah was pronounced “My-cah” but here they say “Mee-cah.” Since the actors are using their own first names (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) I guess they should know. Though there are at least a couple of times late in the film when Katie clearly screams out “My-cah!”
*. The movie had a bunch of different endings. I don’t usually care for this. As I’ve said before, if you have two or three alternative endings it means you don’t really have an ending. That’s all the more so in the case of a film where everything is building up to the ending.
*. As I understand it, there was one ending (suggested by Steven Spielberg) for the theatrical release, another “original” or “festival” version (which ran before Paramount acquired the film), and a third “unrated” ending. Personally, I like the one where Katie cuts her throat. The festival ending has a neat kind of Night of the Living Dead kink in its tail. The Spielberg ending — surprise! — seems the dullest and most conventional. It did, however, allow the producers to extend the story, which was imperative.
*. Ah, to be able to sleep all night, not just undisturbed by demons but without ever feeling the need to go to the bathroom. Youth. It’s the little things you miss as you get older.
*. Micah’s “research” into the subject of possession consists of “reading” a picture book (it might almost be a colouring book) of demons and Googling stuff online. That’s what we’ve come to, folks.
*. Another indication of what we’ve come to: Despite the fact that they’re clearly fighting a demon, Micah doesn’t even consider any kind of divine prophylactic. After the final attack on her we see Katie mysteriously clutching a crucifix, but Micah quickly tosses it away and it’s never mentioned again (at least until Paranormal Activity 2). It seems the devil is still with us but God left the building a while ago. Even the exorcist they try and call is out of town and unavailable.
*. It’s a good little movie that builds nicely and doesn’t make any major mistakes. I can’t think of why anyone would want to watch it twice, but as a novelty flick it works. A novelty flick that took in nearly $200 million.
*. Katie is the sensitive, artistic, emotional type. Micah is a boy who likes toys. The gender message helped make it a hit as a date movie. The takeaways were clear. For guys: if your girlfriend is acting like a psycho bitch from hell, she may just be one (or possessed by one). For girls: if your boyfriend isn’t relating to you, is betraying your trust, is acting like a control freak when really he’s just a slacker who likes to talk big (a day trader in Micah’s case, naturally), then it may be time to unleash your inner weird woman and give him a blast from the pit.