Top 10 Horror Films of 2010
#8 Piranha 3d
Directed by Alexander Aja
There is nothing particularly funny or poetic about the carnage in Piranha 3D. Even “disturbing” seems a bit too strong a word to describe the excessive, but still somehow palatably cartoonish bloodshed on display – can a film about pre-historic. bloodthirsty piranha really be disturbing? Tonally, this film is nearly impossible to pin down, and that is part of its appeal. It lends the film an air of unpredictably, while also aiding Aja’s apparent commentary on American exploitation films. While most of the film is played for laughs, the presentation of the human body as a sexual object as well as a source of food is purposefully conflated in an intelligent and engaging way.
This association, however, works with mixed effects. Purposefully or not, this film is not sexy: it presents very sexualized images which happen to also be very bland. Though this tends to work as there is little differentiating of the human body as a piece of meat (in the figurative and literal sense), the lack of genuinely arousing sexuality tends to underscore the strength of the prospective romance between the teenaged leads. Though Kelly (Jessica Szohr) certainly puts herself into sexualized situations and is never judged or punished for it, her chemistry with Jake (Steven R. McQueen) is nothing short of chaste. This development pushes for unnecessary moralism in a film that otherwise does quite a good job at deconstructing the tropes of the genre.
Piranha 3D quite successfully attempts to equalize the presentation of the female form. Though it very obviously has it both ways, the clever jabs at the false integrity of promoting sexploitation films as tributes to the female form make it worthwhile. This is explored during an early sequence where an adult film director shoots two of his actresses swimming and caressing underwater with Delibes’ “Flower Duet” as the soundtrack. This kind of “artistic” scene is not unusual in skin flicks posing as horror films, and they are as wonderfully out of place here as they are there. The use of fading from one shot to the next, plus the overriding and consistently contradictory commentary from the director about both its artistic value and wanting to get just the right shot of his model’s ass is a brilliant summation of a lot of the ideas Aja is working with.
Elizabeth Shue is cast as the sheriff, and she fleshes out what is without a doubt the strongest role of the film. Though she could have easily been fetishized, or her strength diminished due to her being a woman, she remains one of the few characters in the film who is completely self-possessed. It also strengthens the film’s take on female sexuality and due to the strength of her performance without never feels like a token ‘empowered’ woman role.
The film similarly uses its violence to literally turn people into meat. Not in recent memory has there been a film that is quite as bloody and gore-filled as this. The particularity of the piranha’s violence is that it rarely obliterates the entire human body, rather people are left half eaten or a little chewed up. Even for a monster film, the reduction of the body to food is rather extreme. There is really no real point of comparison in this regard, and the film drives home the images of half eaten bodies time and time again. They never become any less shocking, perhaps in part, because they often look like something you’d see in a slaughterhouse or a butcher shop.
Outside of the visual excess of the film’s violence and sex, the film’s humor is really hit or miss. The dialogue in particular just seems off; many of the one-liners feel tacked on or suffer from bad timing, and inevitably fall flat. It is only Christopher Lloyd (who channels himself circa 1985 with aplomb) who is consistently hilarious. However, to the rest of the cast’s credit, if everyone had channeled his energy level, the result would be slightly overwhelming.
This is a film to be experienced, though it is not for the faint of heart. It is brash, numbing, shocking and laugh-out-loud hilarious. Its underscoring commentary on films of its type is equally engaging, however hypocritical some of it may be. Though Aja’s consistency as a filmmaker can certainly be put into question, he remains an interesting figure in the contemporary horror scene. It will be interesting if after this venture if he will return to his more independent roots or continue to produce deceptively mainstream Hollywood horrors.
#7 – I Spit On Your Grave
Directed by Steven R. Monroe
The original I Spit on Your Grave was made under the title Day of the Woman and played in some theatre chains and horror festivals under that title in 1978. It didn’t attract much attention until it was picked up for distribution by The Joseph Gross Organization in 1980 and given the lurid, exploitative new name. There, it developed a reputation as one of the most notorious films ever made. It was promptly banned in countries such as Germany, Australia, and New Zealand, and labeled a “Video Nasty” in the UK. In the US, it achieved new levels of notoriety with critics like Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel who had called it the worst film they had ever seen and launched a successful campaign to have the film pulled from the United Artist Theater in Chicago. Ebert later referred to it as “a vile bag of garbage…without a shred of artistic distinction,” adding that “Attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of my life.”
The idea for the 1978 version came one night after director Meir Zarchi helped a rape victim to a police station, where the police were of no help, and he was driven to tell a story of a woman getting her own justice. The original film is neither as bad as many classic reviews would have you believe, nor anywhere near as important as some may think it to be. Regardless if you consider it a misunderstood feminist film or simply condemn it for its nihilism and cruelty, the film suffered from it’s low budget, poor direction and some terrible acting. In this remake, a young woman (Sarah Butler) suffers a multiple rape by four country men, then hunts them down and kills them all. There’s not much difference in terms of whatever little plot the first film had, but unlike many horror remakes, Spit not only captures the spirit of its predecessor but is clearly the better of the two. The 2010 remake wisely takes liberties in changing everything that was wrong with the first film and succeeds in doing so.
One major misconception people may have about I Spit on Your Grave is that it is a straight up horror film, but it isn’t; at least, not in the sense of a slasher film. Instead, it is a horrific story about the human condition, and how far people can actually go if they do not have any respect for human life. The film’s lack of any nuanced structure or emotional subtext makes it seem cold and calculating, when in fact it is a female empowerment fantasy. This is a movie that shows a bruised and battered woman rising above her status as a victim and taking matters into her own hands. For that reason Day Of The Woman would have served for a better title, a title which writer-director Meir Zarchi has always preferred, correctly noting that “it is a lot less sensationalistic.”
The original was a movie made by a man for a male audience, with too many trademarks of the typical exploitative revenge thriller for it to begin to qualify as “feminist” by any meaningful definition. Jennifer plans to kill her attackers, and in two cases, does so by having sex with them first. For any woman, much less a rape victim, this seems like psychological nonsense, and serves one purpose: to show the actress nude as often as possible. This is not feminism, and anyone who screams female empowerment is just as ridiculous as those declaiming it as the lowest kind of trash. Luckily in Monroe’s version, her retaliation is served in a much more believable manner. Director Monroe wisely opts to dismiss the notion that Jennifer must seduce the men in order to succeed in her mission. Her sexual appeal is not used as a weapon here. She preys on the men physically, but more importantly mentally, using superior intelligence to lure them into her trap and exact brutal revenge – thus giving a strong argument for the message of female empowerment, something which the first film fails at.
Another smart move on writer and director is that he does not paint the men as outright monsters. They are family men, all of whom grew up in the same small town and have all formed friendships throughout the years dating back many generations. Chad Lindberg does an outstanding job reprising the role of Mathew, the mentally handicapped boy. His performance is touching and we sympathize for him throughout the film. Andrew Howard, who plays Sheriff Storch, is undoubtedly one of the most menacing on-screen villains to date. Yes the men in this pic are vile, cruel, and unforgivable, but they are never in any way one-dimensional. The men aren’t as stereotypically portrayed as in the 1978 version, nor are they as silly. Any controversy surrounding the film’s depiction of rape and torture is almost immediately squashed by the film itself and the male characters who populate the screen. In fact this is perhaps the most flat out anti-masculine films ever made by a male filmmaker.
A precise and damning indictment of male sexuality, and a look at men who can’t conceive of a world in which a dominant male’s sexual prowess might possibly be unwelcome.
Sarah Butler puts on a harrowing performance as the lead. It’s a brave performance and one that takes a lot from her both physically and emotionally. Unfortunately, like the original, we do not really get to know the heroine very much. After being raped, beaten and left for dead, she returns to take her revenge, but the character never comes across as someone who has gone through the terrible ordeal, nor is she given any reason to have enough knowledge and resources to set up elaborate traps to catch her prey.
The remade Spit is much harsher in its depiction of violence. The original felt a bit neutered (no pun intended) in its presentation, where as the remake is truly disconcerting and more believable. It is one of the most graphically violent films ever made, starting with its opening act, a 20-minute long rape scene filmed in one long, dreadful sequence. But its third-act reversal of male-female power dynamics countered with a noose, castration, gouged eyeballs, flesh eating crows, acid and a barrel of a shotgun shoved up a man’s anus might be too much for even hardened horror enthusiasts. The stomach turning set pieces rival those in both the Hostel and Saw series. After all, the film’s purpose is to spend more time inflicting pain on the rapists than watching them inflict pain on their victim.
Spit is hardly the only “rape/revenge” film, yet other films like Baise-Moi, Straw Dogs and Irreversible have escaped such harsh criticism from the likes of the world’s top film critics. Roger Ebert was in a frenzy over what takes place during the 100-minute running-time of the original, yet he gave the 1972’s The Last House on the Left, (which has more or less the same plot) a rave review. In contrast, Last House which, aside from being loosely based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, is just as exploitative and includes a fairly ridiculous plot gimmick. Siskel and Ebert had themselves to blame for the movie’s instant cult status: In denouncing the film as sick and degrading, they practically guaranteed a cult following, so in that perhaps fans of the genre owe it to them.
This is a well-made film, impeccably shot, well-acted, and will palpably impact those who dare to watch. It is what it is – a rape/revenge thriller with an unusually intense emphasis on the suffering of both the men and the woman. It doesn’t eroticize the rape, doesn’t soften the rape, doesn’t glorify the violence. In this day of gutless remakes and reboots Monroe stays shockingly true to Zarchi’s vision and delivers a product for better or for worse is worth the effort.
– Ricky D