Monday, October 31, 2011

One of Us! One of Us!

One of the pleasures of October is the chance to discover horror movies that have, for one reason or another, slipped through the cracks. These are sometimes movies that through no fault of their own have been murdered by their distributors. These are sometimes pleasant surprises. This year's surprise is Blood Moon (2001, directed by Thom Fitzgerald, aka: Wolf Girl), a film originally made for Canadian television and given its frankly awful title by its American distributor. This has been made to look like a cheesy werewolf movie. It turns out to be a fairly sensitive examination of what it means to be a freak, of what it means to be "normal," and what it means to change during adolescence. This is closer in spirit to Tod Browning than it is to Paul Naschy, and closer in spirit to John Cameron Mitchell than it is to either of them.

The story here follows two sets of characters: the various performers in Harley Dune's traveling freak show, and the townies in the unnamed Canadian town where the freak show has set up camp. In particular: Tara Talbot is a girl born with hypertrichosis, meaning she's covered head to toe with hair. She makes her living with the freak show as a "wolf girl," but inside, she pines for a normal life. Among the townies, we are introduced to Ryan Klein, whose mother is a scientist for a cosmetics company who offers Tara a "cure" to her condition, a radical new and untested drug designed for depilation. Both Tara and Ryan have been targeted by Beau and his merry band of teenage sociopaths, who torment both of them. Beau has a secret of his own, as does his girlfriend, Krystle. Unfortunately for both of them, Ryan's drug has unfortunate side-effects that Tara cannot control. It all ends tragically.

The real surprise here is how sensitive the drama is. This is the key to the film, because what horror there is in the film stems from the awful dramatic turns it takes rather than from gore and violence. There is violence, but it's not the featured attraction. Blood Moon is also unashamedly genderqueer, whether by association because it features such icons of androgyny as Tim Curry and Grace Jones in the cast, or outright by casting Jones as a hermaphrodite and surrounding her with transgender dancers. Certainly, this is a movie about the bullying of queer youth filtered through Tod Browning's freakshow. The movie deadpans most of this, though some of the queer content of the freakshow acts is explicit. This may have been made for television, but it's not afraid of the bodies of its characters and features several of them in the nude. You can draw a parallel between body image and identity in this film from the way it depicts the physical shortcomings of its characters.

The actors are game for all of this. Victoria Sanchez delivers a sensitive portrayal of our wolf girl. She's obviously normal in all of the ways that should really count, but she can't express her normality because of both her physical appearance and the profession she has chosen to pursue. Her desperation provides the movie with its narrative motive, but that doesn't make it any less affecting or particularly contrived. It's a difficult role and she pulls it off. More interesting is Shawn Ashmore as Beau, a role that requires a startling amount of self-effacement on the part of the actor. The movie provides as his motivation the idea that he has an incredibly tiny set of genitals, and then requires the actor to appear in a scene of full-frontal nudity to display this fact. Ashmore is a brave son of a bitch for taking the role and appearing in the scene, because its a challenge to any image we might have of a matinee idol or a manly man, and these kinds of things spill over into the image we hold of actors beyond the film frame. This is doubly brave because Ashmore apparently didn't use a body double, and I wonder if the member depicted on film a prosthesis. Among the other actors, Grace Jones makes the largest impression, in part because her character is visually flamboyant and in part because she gets a couple of musical numbers as a spotlight. Jones has always dabbled in androgyny, but here takes it to an extreme as a vertical hermaphrodite. She, like Darlene Cates's fat lady, represents a surface that belies the person inside. The freak show audience is only going to see that surface, a fact the movie deplores. It hammers this home after Beau is killed and left in the woods with his pants down for his friends to find. That all they can focus on, even in death, is the size of his cock is the film's true horror. Whatever humanity he may have had has been erased by the identity enforced by his body.

On the flipside of the freak show is a dim view of the conformity of cis-sexist heteronormativity. The real freaks in this movie are the ones who are trapped in a rigid normality enforced by the expectations of the broader culture. Beau isn't allowed to be a man if his cock is tiny, Krystal isn't allowed to be a lesbian, and the repression of who they are turns them into monsters. Even Tim Curry's character, though he seems kindly enough, comes across as vaguely exploitative as the owner of the freak show, with a sense of entitlement as the "rescuer" of his workers. He's a patriarchal figure and he comes off badly, though perhaps not as a monster. Ironically, as Tara, our heroine, becomes more and more "normal," the more and more she becomes monstrous herself. The filmmakers behind this movie are queer themselves, so none of this is either accidental or buried in layers of subtext. This has a statement to make, and it doesn't feel any need soft-pedal things. They manage this feat without engaging in hyperbole or exploitation, which is a mercy to those of us watching the film who, like the characters on screen, are freaks in our own right. Which, if you get down to it, is every single individual in the world.

Current tally: 29 films

First time viewings: 26

1 comment:

Jared Roberts said...

Sounds very interesting on its own merits. But when you mentioned Grace Jones, I knew I must track this one down. Thanks for writing about it.