Thursday, March 03, 2011

Atavistic Loathing

This is the nature of genre: there is nothing new under the sun.

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about Primal (2010, directed by Josh Reed), in which my friend lamented that it totally looked like a dozen other horror movies she had seen in the last several years. She's right, of course. This is a variant of The Ruins, mixed liberally with every zombie film since 1980 or so. My response to her was that if you want something truly original, horror is probably the wrong genre to go poking around in. There are, what? Maybe five original horror movies? If that?

Primal is yet another entry in the "hot college students get out of their depth" sub-genre, this time at a remote location in Australia where something has been turning people and animals in to marauding monsters since the dawn of time. The long-ago primeval victims left cave paintings as a warning, which, of course, attract college students who have an interest in anthropology. In the area around the paintings, the animals are particularly aggressive, all the way down to the insects. One character is attacked by a rabbit that has horribly mutated teeth. Another goes skinny dipping and emerges from the water covered with leeches. She winds up sick in her tent, with her teeth falling out. Soon, she's a raving nutter, who only wants to kill and eat what she kills. The various characters are bumped off one by one until only the final girl is left.

It's not entirely by rote. Primal does actually tap into a common nightmare in which the dreamer dreams about their teeth falling out. It's a dream that I've had, so it strikes home. The setting is novel, too, and the familiarity of the whole thing is mitigated somewhat by the the fact that it's snotty bourgeois Australians this time round, rather than snotty bourgeois Americans. I find that exploitation just sounds better with an Australian accent these days. And it does have a moderate surprise at the end when the cause of the nastiness turns out to be an actual by-golly monster, a beastie escaped from some Lovecraftian pastiche or--more to the point--some Japanese hentai tentacle porn. And here's where the movie kind of head's south for me:

When we're down to our final girl, she escapes to the cave where the ravenous nutters won't go. They're afraid of the cave, it seems, and soon she finds out why. She finds one of her friends there--a friend who had disappeared earlier, presumably falling victim to either the plague or one of the plague's victims. Her belly is visibly distended, as if she were pregnant. We see this as our final girl is lashed by the tentacles of our beastie in a prone, spread-eagle position. To hammer home what's going on, her friend cuts open her belly with a machete and lets what's in her uterus spill onto the ground. Then we get a tentacle rape scene, in which the instrument of rape is the gaping maw of monster, which performs a ghastly parody of cunnilingus on our final girl.

Let me back up for a minute here.

Our final girl is a rape survivor whose ordeal has left her with a post-traumatic case of claustrophobia. The way this movie is structured suggests a plot built around this event as a kind of Outward Bound program for her rape trauma, which culminates in her overcoming her claustrophobia after being orally raped by a big tentacle monster! After which, she discovers the cojones to do what her compatriots have all been too, well, human to do to save her own life.

Okay, I know this is a horror movie, but let's have some perspective here. One of the functions of genre is to test characters in extreme circumstances to see how they jump. There's a certain amount of abstraction involved with this, but the ability of really GOOD horror movies to get under the skin of the audience is predicated on the characters revealing character traits that are not entirely inconsistent with their demonstrated characters. The genre may not be realistic, but the way people behave when confronted with the horror should at least have some passing acquaintance with the way real people behave. You don't get this at the end of Primal. Instead, you get a gratuitous rape scene after which the victim sheds her prior trauma? Really?

Rape imagery is always problematic in horror movies. I don't want to be a scold about this, because I think the genre has dealt with the subject matter better than most people credit, but there needs to be some kind of justification. The monster in this movie exists ONLY to rape the final girl. It has NO other function in the story. Would the movie work without this scene? I think it could in the hands of a creative director. Hell, you could even keep the monster. But that's not this movie, unfortunately. The way this plays out strikes me as the result of flow-charting rather than naturally writing the story. The genre demands a final girl, so it provides one. It adds insult to injury by stripping away the character's compassion towards her friends at the end of the movie. The last line of movie, after our heroine has dropped a rock on the head of the first girl to fall victim to the plague is "Cunt."

Way to end the movie with some internalized misogyny, guys. Feh.


Andrew said...

The teeth falling out dream is the only recurring dream that I have....
Actually, it more like I dream about my teeth crumbling. I'll tap on them, and to my horror, big chunks break away. By the end of the dream, my mouth is empty.

Anyway, Primal sounds like a pretty standard sort of scare flick. Still, I've got it in my queue somewhere, and will probably give it a chance, anyway.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Andrew. Most of my own dreams about teeth involve them being loose rather than falling out, but these are all in the ballpark.

It's a pretty stock movie, unfortunately.

Mykal said...

it turns out crumbling, blackened teeth (Andrew) is a fairy common nightmare. I don't have it myself, but probably will now.

Reading your review, Dr., I imagine the film would have gone south for me about the same point as it did four you. Hating women seems to be OK, even cool and hip, in a lot of movies today. That can't be a good thing.

The film seems to have had some pretty kick-ass ideas up to that point, though.

Jenn said...

Excellent analysis, as usual, Morbius. I actually had all the same problems with this - culminating in the ultimate WTF after the tentacle monster oral rape scene.

What a waste in that is all fell apart in the end. I rather liked it up until that point. The very existence of the monster is only to administer the oral rape, which is completely fucking unnecessary. The whole thing would have been so much more effective if the water had just been infected or the animals have a particular crazy brand of rabies or something. Keep it simple, ya know.

Oh well. It wasn't a total waste of time and it kept me entertained for an hour or so.