Sunday, October 26, 2014

Female Bonding

Lake Bell, Kate Bosworth, and Katie Aselton in Black Rock

Black Rock (2012, directed by Katie Aselton) is a feminist variant of a familiar genre trope, in which a group of friends head out into the wild and discover they are not alone, that the something else out there means them all harm. It's a survival horror movie at its base. Like any genre construct worth its salt, this one will support all kinds of themes and agendas. This film concerns itself with things you wouldn't ordinarily associate with the survival horror film in its most basic form: the friendships of women, sexual consent, sexual harassment. I almost wrote "rape survival," but, of course, that's a complete subset of the survival horror film. In its bones, this is an indie drama that veers off course into the territory of the nightmare and gets itself lost in the woods.

The story here revolves around three women: Abby, Louise (Lou), and Sarah. Some time in the past, Abby and Sarah had a falling out because Sarah slept with Abby's then-boyfriend. Years later, Abby still holds a grudge. Lou contrives to bring them both together on a camping trip to an island off the coast of Maine. Unfortunately, they're not alone on the island. Also present is a trio of hunters, who the women invite to share a campfire. Abby, drunk after a campfire dinner, flirts with one of the hunters, Henry, who views this as an invitation. Abby is married, though, and when she rebuffs him, Henry refuses to stop. Rather than submit to rape, Abby brains him with a rock. His friends don't take kindly to this, and decide to take revenge. The three women then have to survive long enough to escape them...

This starts well. Most of the principles involved with this film come from a background of indie dramas, and that pedigree is in full display in the early scenes. More than that: coming from a perspective outside the horror genre leads to the filmmakers sidestepping some of the genre's more annoying tropes. This is a film about adults, which is rare enough among survival horror movies. More surprising, this is a film about women. That none of these characters is an ingenue deflects the horror film's usual male gaze. This film is fortunate, too, in its actors. While Lake Bell, Kate Bosworth, and Katie Aselton (who also directed the film) aren't on the A-list, they're better than the genre usually gets and they all deliver better performances than the movie really demands. Their conflicts at the outset all ring true and their bickering in the early going has a casual naturalism that sells the film, at least for a while.

Unfortunately, this is a film that could have used a more thorough grounding in the genre, because once it plunges into the horror movie proper, all of the good things it sets up in its opening act fall by the wayside. Characters do inexplicable things in this movie, and the timescale starts to dilate the experience of watching things unfold. The hunters in this film are straw men. While it's entirely reasonable that the murder of their friend while he's attempting to rape Abby might trigger bad thoughts, the remaining two men have been nothing but amiable up to that point. Their transformation into the film's bete noir seems out of character. I mean, I get what the filmmakers are after: the veneer of civil behavior is thin when misogyny roils beneath it. Any woman who has spent any time on the internet knows this intuitively. Even seemingly amiable men can turn into Schrödinger’s Rapist. That's a really scary idea and it's one that's ripe for examination in the context of a horror movie. That even seems to be the point of the dramatic about face these characters take. But it doesn't feel natural to this particular movie. It feels schematic, as if they transform more because they're the designated monster rather than because it's organic to who they are. More than that, as antagonists, they're particularly inept. This dampens the film's ability to ratchet up the tension and short-circuit's its ability to scare the audience. A horror movie that isn't scary? Well, that's a grievous failing.

In truth, I wanted to like this movie. I want to see more women taking a chance on making horror films. I want to see the indie sector make more horror films. I want more horror films for and about adults. But I just can't give this film a pass because it's something I want, because it's just not that good. You should be careful what you wish for, I guess.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 15

First Time Viewings: 10

Around the Web:

Kevin at For It Is Man's Number takes a trip to Midian for the restored directors cut of Nightbreed.

Scott at Blasphemous Tomes is swept out to see on the Night Tide.

Tim at The Other Side bathes in Bathory: Countess of Blood

Dr. AC looks at The Possession of Virginia, as he dives into the genre's deep cuts at Horror 101.

Bob at Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind is up to his eyeballs in zombies in Dead Snow 2.

Stacia at She Blogged by Night isn't doing the challenge, but she's on hand as the Poe film makes a pedigreed return with Stonehearst Asylum, which takes on Poe's "The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether."

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