Anna Biller’s The Love Witch: A Feminist Approach to the Alternative Horror Genre

THE LOVE WITCH-illustration

Anna Biller’s faux-1960s alternative horror film, The Love Witch (2016), follows the narcissistic and eyeshadow obsessed Elaine in her search for the perfect fairy-tale romance. The self-proclaimed “Love Witch”, Elaine (played by Samantha Robinson) is a woman who uses home-made love potions, sex spells, and her own mysterious allure to seduce men until, of course, it takes an unexpected turn for the worse.

Aesthetics and visuals are central to the film. The costumes, scenery, cinematography, and soundtrack are all carefully directed and consulted on by Biller herself, a Cal Arts graduate. The sequences seem spontaneous, taking on a life of their own beyond the linear plot of the picture. These vivacious, colourful, and intrusive statements guide the film from the tropes of a mainstream horror flick to the unconventional features of an independent art film.

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In the director’s statement for The Love Witch, Biller mentions, “While I am quoting genres, I am using them not as a pastiche, but to create a sense of aesthetic arrest and to insert a female point of view.” Although Biller takes influence from aspects of the alternative horror/thriller genre, she uses a perspective that twists the typical male gaze of that genre, and brings about a sense of female empowerment. By using her knowledge of what men want, Elaine controls her own sexual agency.

This feminist concept is intermingled with the rules of witchery and the occult within the film. This is evident when the members of Elaine’s cult discuss how the strength of a woman’s sexuality both excites and challenges men’s patriarchal position in society, and how this makes men feel inclined to “put women in their place.” It is the figures of magic who bring attention to this, and the concept is juxtaposed with Elaine’s controversial behaviour regarding her lovers. Elaine uses her attractive persona to seduce men, but with her potions and her high expectations of romance, she “loves them to death.”

In a twist, Biller presents the dichotomy of Elaine’s lack of concern regarding her lovers with their increasing emotional attachment and eventual toxic separation from her affection. Elaine lacks any moral conflict in her actions, believing that the tragedies that result are simply a shame.

Biller borrows from the trope of the 1960s femme fatale, utilizing their hatred of betrayal by former lovers and twisting it so the woman gives the man what he wants physically but uses magic to separate herself from the emotional response he desires. Here, Biller references the social ideology in which men are thought to lack an emotional response in relationships. The moment Elaine denies her lover an emotional response is the moment that he starts to long for her love and support.

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Another vital aspect of the plot is Elaine’s obsession with fairy-tale romance. Despite the contrary ways she exhibits this, she greatly desires a relationship in which her love is fully requited and without complications. While Elaine presents herself as imposingly stern and careless, she fantasizes about a pseudo-medieval scene in which she rides off with her prince charming, away from the difficulties of a mundane life.

When Elaine’s curious landlord Trish (played by Laura Waddell) snoops around in her apartment, we are exposed to the hyper-erotic drawings and paintings that cover the room. These depict explicit scenes in an artistic style that is unexpectedly harmless and bubbly. This seems contrary to the darker erotic aspect of the film’s visuals, but its absurdity and spontaneity are central to the alternative rhythm of the plot, and play on the extreme paradoxes in Elaine’s character.

Overall, Anna Biller’s The Love Witch explores the rhetoric of the ill-fated search for a perfect love affair. In unison with the occult genre, this results in over-the-top dramatic sequences, stunning visuals, and a soap-operatic flair. Although the film is identified as a horror/thriller, it most definitely isn’t the type of film that has you at the edge of your seat in anticipation. Rather, the overly dramatic acting, quick-cut sequences, and flashy and comical costumes leave you with a smile plastered across your face.

-Contributed by Mia Carnevale

Harry Potter and the Crisis of Sorting

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Image from bustle.com

It’s safe to say that Harry Potter blazed many paths. It brought life to a dying publishing industry, it launched the young adult and children’s genres into the mainstream, and it gave adults and children alike an outlet for their imaginations. But perhaps most importantly, it spawned one of the most important debates of our era: which Hogwarts house is best? (It’s Ravenclaw)

Being sorted into a Hogwarts house is both a serious privilege and a touchstone of identity for characters in the series and readers alike. Take the traditional Gryffindor pride shared by the Weasley clan, or Harry’s fear of ending up in Slytherin. As any Potter reader would know, this enthusiasm doesn’t just stay in the pages. If you haven’t deliberated seriously over which house you belong in, are you even a real fan?

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Image from mentalfloss.com

Later young adult books have tried to capitalize on this notion of self-identification by means of community, but none of them have been as popular or long-lasting as the Hogwarts houses. For The Hunger Games, it’s a matter of choosing one’s district, which differ in terms of main exports and class distinctions. For Divergent, you choose one of five factions, each placing priority on a different personality trait. But being part of one of the four Hogwarts houses goes beyond these other choices. Choose your Hogwarts house, and you will be part of a lifelong community that shares your values and ambitions.

The introduction of Pottermore made this choice a reality, as readers could take an official online test that would sort them into their house. But wait—there’s more! Did you think that the customization of your wizard identity starts and ends with your Hogwarts house? Pottermore also offers the chance to get your wand (which, remember, chooses you), featuring different lengths, woods, and cores that vary in accordance with your personality. Then you can take the test to find your Patronus—your magical guardian, able to be summoned at will, representing you in animal form (good luck not getting a wild boar… not that it’s supposedly my Patronus or anything). Then, finally, head on over to Ilvermorny, the USA’s own wizarding academy, to be ceremonially sorted once more.

After taking all these tests, based on your favourite book series and developed by the brilliant J.K. Rowling herself, you may feel slighted by the results. Perhaps you’ve considered yourself a Ravenclaw your entire life and have now been declared a Hufflepuff. Maybe your Patronus ended up being a wild boar (I am, ahem, not speaking out of personal experience for either of these things). Don’t throw out your prized Ravenclaw scarf just yet—you may be curious to know what your sorting reveals about you.

A recent study using 132 Pottermore test-takers has shown that what house you prefer reflects your real personality. Those who choose Slytherin, for example, are more likely to exhibit narcissism, while those who prefer Ravenclaw display a higher need for cognition. Hufflepuffs are found to be more agreeable, and Gryffindors are the most extroverted. For this study, the chosen house aligned with the candidates’ inner selves more so than what the digital Sorting Hat said.

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Image from harrypotter.wikia.com

Unhappy with the results of your sorting test? Rest easy knowing that the house you belong in is the one you want the most. As Dumbledore said, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

-Contributed by Julia Bartel

A Life in Film: Stanley Kubrick at the TIFF Bell Lightbox

Stanley Kubrick had one of the longest and most fruitful careers in film history. He sought to flesh out the darkest aspects of human existence in his abundance of dazzling films, which are being encapsulated in an exhibition and shown on the big screen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox until January 25.

I went to see Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Bomb (1964) and the Stanley Kubrick exhibition. The great thing about the experience is how much I enjoyed it despite how little I knew about Kubrick going in. I had seen The Shining (1980), but beyond that I was mostly unaware of his exorbitant career and talent. Interestingly enough, I attended the film and exhibition with a friend who is a massive film buff and Kubrick fan, and we enjoyed the experience equally. Whether you go to learn more about Kubrick or to appreciate the talent you are already well aware of, it is a worthwhile event.

To begin with, TIFF incorporated a lot of extra touches to make not only the exhibit, but also the way into the theatres very atmospheric. The elevators in the building and the carpet beside the escalators are made to look like those of the iconic Overlook Hotel from The Shining, inspired by The Stanley Hotel in Colorado. This attention to detail is consistent throughout the exhibition, and gives the entire visit a vibe akin to what Kubrick created in his films.

Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Bomb is a dark, satirical comedy that cautions the what-ifs of nuclear warfare. The events of the movie are amazingly realistic, considering that the characters are all fictional and that the world did not in fact end via doomsday device. Kubrick’s genius comes out in his ability to be as precise as possible in circumstances that are largely made up. In reality, when Truman was instated as president in the 1940s, he very quickly had to make a decision regarding nuclear warfare and the Soviet Union. He invited many advisors to come and discuss the predicament in the war room at the Pentagon, much like president Muffley does in the film.

Although I’m fairly certain nobody ever straddled a missile while waving a cowboy hat as they plummeted to death like the pilot Major Kong does towards the end of Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick uses these fake, fantastic circumstances in order to explore the dangers of the all too real possibility of nuclear military operations. Despite Kubrick specifically addressing the early Cold War, Dr. Strangelove’s exploration of the downfalls of war is just as relevant today as it was when the film was made in 1964, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The film really transcends specific genres—it’s part dark comedy, part science fiction, and part war film.

All of Kubrick’s films presented by TIFF within the next couple of months use the fantastic in order to explore reality. He often used movies to explore the darkest results of common human practices. A Clockwork Orange (1971) tells the story of a dystopian, hyper-sexualized, and hyper-violent English society, while The Shining explores the psychological dangers of isolation. Despite their incorporation of the unreal, his films all provide a commentary on the darkest pitfalls of the human psyche.

Seeing any of Kubrick’s films—especially in a theatre—is a truly great experience that not many viewers today are likely to have experienced. To cap off the whole experience is the amazingly executed exhibition of Stanley Kubrick’s life and films.

The exhibit goes through his films chronologically, starting with Fear and Desire (1953) and Killer’s Kiss (1955), and going all the way through to his last movie, Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Although I knew he had had a long and hugely successful career, it was really wonderful to go through and get a sense of each of the films. Each room was set up in a really atmospheric way. The Dr. Strangelove room had the rectangular lights arranged in a circle, mimicking the lights in the war room in the actual film. The Shining had the Overlook Hotel’s carpets, mentioned earlier, along with the iconic room 237 door as well as the “redrum” door.

Along with the set up of the rooms, their contents were also outstanding. There were tons of on-set pictures from each of the films, along with original scripts and many of Kubrick’s actual notebooks. There was also a great deal of correspondence, some of the most interesting being letters sent between Kubrick and Vladimir Nabokov, author of the novel Lolita, which Kubrick made into a movie in 1962. The exhibit also displayed letters from a Christian action group that strongly suggested that Kubrick not release Lolita due to the highly sexual content of the novel, though the film was, as Kubrick points out in his response, already finished shooting.

It’s difficult to encompass the entire exhibit in words; it’s truly a great experience, and I highly recommend going to see any of the films playing and the exhibit itself. Along with the main exhibit, which has an admission fee, there is also a small free exhibit on the fourth floor of the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The free exhibit dedicates its space to foreign posters, Kubrick’s early photography, and displays about his unmade projects.

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing both Dr. Strangelove and the exhibits. Although I had only intended to see one movie, after seeing the exhibit I’m now interested in seeing as many films as I can. If you are interested in horror, science fiction, or thrillers, I definitely recommend making your way to the TIFF Bell Lightbox before January 25, and go online for ticket purchases because they sell out fast. The link to the exhibition is here!

http://www.tiff.net/cinematheque/stanley-kubrick-a-cinematic-odyssey

-contributed by  Rhiann Moore

Little Bundles of Horror

It is October. This shifting month marks the beginning of our collective descent into celebrating all things creepy, crawly, and pumpkin-related. In the spirit of embracing our fears and the horrors of the world, I’d like to start off the season with a discussion of one of the most infamous horror tropes.

Imagine yourself opening the door on Halloween night to be greeted by a group of small children, all decked-out in their costumes. Pretty adorable, right? However, instead of hearing the familiar joyous chorus of “Trick or Treat!”, they simply stare at you, heads tilted slightly to one side, emotionless and wide-eyed. They slowly hold out their pumpkin-shaped buckets and, feeling a sudden chill down your spine, you drop some tootsie rolls into their containers and then close the door as firmly as you can. Their lingering eyes never leave your face as the door swings shut. They make no sound. They do not move.

Sounds like the prelude to a horror movie, doesn’t it?

The fact is, creepy children have been a part of the horror canon for far longer than their appearance in Hollywood and contemporary film. While movies like The Ring (2002), The Exorcist (1973) or Child’s Play (1988) come to mind, it’s not the grisly acts of murder or projectile vomiting that really frightens us about them. Even without actively doing anything horrific, dead-eyed, creepy children illicit a chilling response in the viewer. Think of the twin girls from The Shining (1980); while they are not the source of danger to our protagonists, the image of their still and emotionless forms haunt the nightmares of many to this day. It’s not their intentions or their actions that evoke our fearful reactions but simply their presence and their very being.

 

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So what is it that scares us about these creepy children? Is it their large soulless eyes? Their unnatural stillness?

From an evolutionary standpoint, our fear of these children doesn’t seem logical. The fear of danger seems to have its origins in survival; it’s logical to develop fear for wild animals or people trying to kill us. It evolved as a pedagogical reaction to keep us away from that which seeks to harm us. So why then do we react so strongly against the presence of these seemingly harmless beings? A study conducted by Thomas Straube in 2010 gives us some insight into how we respond to horror.

In Straube’s study, participants were shown both “threatening” and “neutral” film clips from the 10 most successful movies from the horror genre (The Shining, Psycho and Silence of the Lambs were among the chosen) while being subjected to a brain scan. Interestingly enough, Straube found that the parts of the brain activated during these “threatening” clips were not the parts that respond to fear-learning. This part, the amygdala, responds most to images of wild animals, which explains our fear of monstrous creatures: we fear being devoured or killed. What Straube found, however, is that when we watch horror films the brain functions activated are those processing visual information, self-awareness, and problem solving.

For our purposes, this implies that our fear of creepy children is completely separate from our survival instincts.

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Another theory stems from everyone’s favorite psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (who elaborated on an earlier work by Ernst Jentsch) concerning our fear of the “Uncanny”. The basic concept of the “Uncanny” is that if there is an instance where a thing is both familiar and strange, it results in a feeling of discomfort and fear in the viewer. This concept is further developed  by robotics professor Masahiro Mori, who hypothesizes that the closer a robot resembles a human, the more people will empathize with it, until the point where the response suddenly changes to strong feelings of disgust and repulsion. This sudden dip in the empathy curve is what is known as the “Uncanny Valley”.

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Some robots are adorable…
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…And some are deeply disturbing.

It seems that our response to creepy children in film stems from their simultaneous familiarity coupled with a strange sense of the alien. They resemble normal children, but there is an unspoken understanding that they are not. This contradicts our instinctual response to children—to protect and to take care of them—with our response to the alien: to guard ourselves from a possible threat. It is precisely this disconnect that causes our feelings of unease; we don’t know how to respond and as a result we distrust our own instincts. It seems that what disturbs us the most about creepy children is that their existence causes us to question what we know of our world.

-contributed by Amy Wang

 

 

 

 

Asian (Mis)Representation in Speculative Film Culture

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Illustration by Ann Sheng

The fact that I had such a difficult time coming up with a list of Asian (especially East Asian) characters in speculative works is a resounding proclamation of the complete and utter lack of such characters. If we take a quick glance at media as a whole, without looking specifically at the speculative (which further limits the pool of candidates), we do see Asian representation in film. But who comes to mind? Leslie Chow of the Hangover series? Lucy Liu in Charlie’s Angels…and Kill Bill…and Man with the Iron Fists? Jackie Chan? Bruce Lee? Already we have all the makings of one big, fat Asian stereotype—for if not the nerdy, emasculate, I-can’t-speak-no-English math genius, then it’s the kungfu  fighting master of the Exotic East.

Let’s eliminate more potential individuals by exclusively looking at Asian characters in speculative media. In particular, I want to examine three characters: Cho Chang of the Harry Potter series; Amber from Sucker Punch; and Trini Kwan, one of the Power Rangers. Asian stereotypes are continually propagated through over-generalized and clichéd depictions of Asian people and Asia itself, further marginalizing an already underrepresented minority. This has profound ramifications because how these people are imagined and represented in media and text ultimately comes to affect how these people see themselves.

 

Cho Chang

While I loved her character in the books, I was exasperated by Katie Leung’s portrayal of Cho Chang in the movie series. Asian heterosexual femininity can often be thought of as inhabiting two spheres: the first is the “butterfly” trope—the helpless, submissive, and timid Asian female; and the second is the “dragon lady” trope—the wily and sexually aggressive Asian woman, à la majority of Lucy Liu’s on-screen characters. Cho Chang undoubtedly falls into the former category, and her constant whimpering and crying throughout the movies made me so annoyed at her performance. The ONLY East Asian character in the series, and she’s as disposable as a napkin. Moreover, there is an undeniable fetishization of her character; she goes around crying from guy to guy, dependent on a male figure for happiness, merely serving as a useless pretty face. And can we just take a moment to reflect on the fact that her name is Cho-freaking-Chang . My love for J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter world is boundless, but come on…Cho Chang might as well have been named “Ching Chong.”

 

Amber

Okay, so Amber is pretty badass, I must admit. She can fight her own fight. But alas, she’s just not as confident as all the other girls in the gang. And this seems to be a pattern with Asian characters—they all have some complex that renders them unqualified to be major protagonists; they’re suitable only as minor characters. Also, take a look at her character portrait:

Amber

Notice the cutesy, bubble-gum pink lollipop she’s holding? And her bunny rabbit man-destroying machine in the back? Like so many other depictions of Asians in the media, she just can’t be a normal cool person. She works at a brothel, but she’s shy; she knows how to fight, but she acts cute. She can never fully be a Lara Croft-type character because God forbid she’d be seen as threatening, and Hollywood seems threatened by Asians who don’t submit to the preordained, and often racist, status quo. Consequently, every bold and awesome thing she accomplishes by herself is veiled by a convenient gloss of Asian stereotypes.

 

Trini Kwan

Three words: Yellow Power Ranger. As if the producers of the show couldn’t make her ethnicity any more explicit, they just had to make sure everyone knew she was Asian by making her costume bright yellow. Because even after decades, we still haven’t moved on from notions of Orientalism and Yellow Peril. Not to mention that’s she’s super “soft-spoken” and “polite” and that she obviously knows martial arts. Obviously.

At the end of the day, I want to find unique and dynamic Asian characters in speculative media that’s not specifically labelled as “Asian Fantasy” or “Asian Sci-Fi,” and where it’s not clearly tinted with a neo-Asian flavour (e.g. set in Ancient China where the protagonist is karate fighting the Water Dragon God of some forsaken cave in the Northern Mountains). I want more characters like Minho from The Maze Runner; I want books that don’t try hard to make their Asian characters explicitly “Asian.” Please, Hollywood writers and directors, take a page out of a book like Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor. She does an incredible job incorporating a mesmerizing story with an informed dialogue about culture, and she respects the fact that race shouldn’t be commodified and condensed into stereotypes.

Finally, I vote no more calling any Asian characters ANYTHING with dragon or jade in the name, or any animal name preceded by a colour (e.g. golden tiger). Please stop.

 -contributed by Janice To