A quick note on 3D

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Whilst I may be straying somewhat off topic here, I thought since the new Underworld film has been released in (not-so) glorious 3D, I should probably briefly say something about the (arguable) travesty of the form.

A long time ago, in the age where cinema tickets were cheap enough to go more than once a week, and films weren’t illegally available, or watched online, the possibility of 3D seemed like a tantalising technological advancement. Cinema was (and still is) about the experience of watching a film, and if 3D could enhance this experience by pushing more of our sensory buttons, then logically, our experience would be improved. In theory, it sounds like a good idea. 

In real life, the opposite seems to be true. I have yet to meet someone who is genuinely excited by the prospect of viewing a film in 3D (although most will concede that Avatar was more impressive in the format, but that is usually the limit). 

Perhaps it is because of these:
Uncomfortable and distracting....

That’s one theory, anyway. The glasses are a prominent physical reminder that you’re sat in a darkened room staring at a screen. It is somewhat alienating, and leaves viewers focusing on the effects they have paid extra for.

The figures speak for themselves:

And down we go...

There is, in colourful graph form, a display of the tailing off of 3D viewing figures. Cinema going has been decreasing overall, with multiplexes fighting illegal downloading, and the easy availability of films through other formats. But films still have an impact. What I’m saying is that 3D films don’t make much of a difference. People know and love 2D films – the picture is mammoth, the sound all-consuming. Why does another variable need to be thrown in to the formula? As for why audiences are turning away, well, I’ve already mentioned one theory. The other is the obvious one of cost. In this economic climate, people are not as inclined to go to the cinema as they previously were, and when they do go, spending £10 on a ticket seems fairly redundant considering they can get the DVD for less than that only a few months later. Few films actually attract the need to see the film now and some of those films are ones that have made more of an impact on culture. Some of them are sequels which rely on the previous success of related films, and are a ‘safe’ bet for cinema-goers, who know what to expect. But in any case, given the choice, most viewers pick 3D. This also could be down to our inexperience with the form in much the same way as talking films. When it was first released, the format was more popular because it was an interesting gimmick. Now the novelty has faded it seems borderline useless; merely an add-on for the noise-offensive of blockbuster cinema, 3D can be seen as an assault on the senses rather than any kind of enhancement. Which is my opinion as to why it hasn’t proved as popular anyhow. Any other thoughts are most welcome.

What is worrying though, and perhaps it shouldn’t be entirely unexpected, is the fact that two of the most recent vampire outputs, Fright Night and Underworld 4 have been moulded into the format. What does this say about the popularity of monster films? That they have reached a peak, and are worthy of the visual atrocity that is 3D? Well, both these films adhere to the categories I mentioned before. They both rely on the previous successes of other related films (one being a remake, and the other a sequel), so their success is somewhat guaranteed, regardless of format. For me though, I’d like to keep my monsters in 2D.

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Gender Divisions & Monsters

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Hot, isn’t she? Jessica Hamby (played by Deborah Ann Woll) of True Blood, in the promo shot for season 4. Jessica is a vampire recently created by Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer). She was created when she was a virgin, so she has to effectively lose her (physical) virginity every time she has sex. Sounds to me like a painful and mildly humiliating experience. Yet, this fact is celebrated somewhat amongst the other (male) characters. Jessica, once a young girl rebelling against her strict Christian family is now defined primarily by her sexuality. This is familiar territory for vampire fiction, and something I want to question: why are the majority of female vampires defined by promiscuous behaviour, or sexual desirability? I thought we were beginning to mature somewhat as a society, to see beyond attractively packaged flesh? Evidently not.

In shows other than True Blood, take for example….Being Human, which showcases both British and American* attitudes to vampirism, and femininity, the same thing occurs. The female vampires present, Lauren (UK) and Rebecca (US) are used as bait to lure male vampires back to the cult. They were created during sex, and subsequent scenes have them having sex and feeding on blood, so there isn’t much else to establish them as characters in their own right. They just play the generic female temptress role.

The same thing goes for most other vampire shows I can think of (and I’d be thrilled if anyone could point me to one where the same thing doesn’t happen). Even the supposed first vampire, Lilith, was all about blood and sex:

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Lilith was, according to myth, created at the same time as Adam, and saw herself as his equal (and god forbid any woman should have done that back then…). She refused to be submissive and was banished by God to the demon realm, and her children were doomed to be demons too. There are various interpretations of the story but others that occur posit Lilith as a succubus, who used the semen of men to create children to go forth and destroy. She also would drink the blood of others, and steal small children and devour them (which is something that again comes up in Dracula with the baby-eating female vampires).

But why now, when we’ve had so many other positive female role models, has the mythical genre come to a grinding halt? Even the supporting female characters in these shows often rely on men, despite their obvious ability to look after themselves (Buffy, I’m looking at you).

Another thing – when vampires are ugly, or brutally violent, they are predominantly male again. There have been critics to argue that vampires themselves are feminine creatures due to their modus operandi and the parallels with vagina dentata and evocation of acts like fellatio. But, vampires can both create and destroy. There has been a tendency to focus on the more destructive qualities of the figure, whether it be through mass slaughter, or by putting humanity into near-extinction by excessive ‘turning’.

For once I’d love to see a female vampire who wasn’t sexually alluring. And it’s not as if there’s an evolutionary reason for gender in the afterlife: most vampires cannot have children, so they are stripped of the potential for what defines their gender. This in itself shows how much the myth is a creation of man – the gender constructs, useful for their application in the real world, are theoretically useless in the world of monsters, yet the response is still human.

The question is, now that vampires are becoming increasingly feminised, and even the male vampires being defined by their sexual prowess, will the vampire do away with the gender divide all together?

*Please note, I’m well aware that the ‘US’ version of Being Human is filmed in Canada, and produced by a Canadian company. Buuut….it’s set in Boston. So there we are.

Mutable monsters

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There was once a time when monsters lurked under beds and in closets; dim shadows that kept us in check, dogging our nocturnal moves. All it took to instill fear and terror in an audience was a sinister shadow on a wall, creeping up the stairs, or a swift shot of an eye seeking out its prey.

Now, however, this fails to inspire the same sense of urgency, apprehension and well, fear that it once used to.

Lurking figures haunched over sleeping victims used to be what was terrifying. To most, the idea seems outdated, cliched, and nothing like how our films and fictions portray modern fear. These monsters were scary simply because they had no voice; they could not explain their motivations or actions, nor could they tell you what they were going to do. Now, however, the voices of our monsters are a riotous mess of sound: excuses, explanations and back story. I’ve mentioned before about the humanisation of the monster. This here is the biggest step towards it. A coherent vocal output equates a consciousness. Rather than growls, or moans, verbs and softly sighed adjectives are spewed forth, pleading with the audience to reconsider the sides of good and evil. Not to say that all monsters are now good. What it has done is to show how human error and miscommunication has contributed to these monsters being cast at one specific end of the moral spectrum.

One of the better examples is the recent update of Frankenstein which has given the monster a voice. Cumberbatch and Lee-Miller
Danny Boyle’s interpretation saw the monster (alternately played by Cumberbatch and Lee-Miller) explain his evil actions, and place part of the blame at the feet of his creator. Whereas the original story did see Frankenstein speak, here, his backstory is shown, and the development from an infant understanding of the world to an embittered view of it is detailed. It originally served to highlight the perils of scientific experimentation; here, it is more of an explanation for the moral waywardness of an individual.

In other mediums it has been seen too: the vampires once mere shadows and enigmatic dialogue have been endowed with an entire life story that involves them fighting in some kind of war, ennobling their existence, and absolving them of some of their other crimes. It has created a condition of unaccountability for the monsters we so faithfully follow. Their actions are not their fault, but are a product of their life experiences. To start a conversation over whether outcomes are about choices made or situations imposed would be fruitless. Regardless, these monsters are being explored in an entirely different way from those of old. And who is to say they shouldn’t be? There’s no reason we should blindly accept tales with a big bad wolf or a giant without exploring their motivations. But to completely ignore the implications of our verbose villains would be incredibly short-sighted.

To see these creatures talk is one step closer to equating them with ourselves. The same trend is evident in the newest remakes of comic-book hero films. Batman has become a brooding young man, defined by his tortured outlook and the latest Spiderman looks set to be very similar. Heroic acts are no longer enough to keep audience, and neither are the monstrous actions of our onscreen beasts. Perhaps it is because we seek answers to everything, even going as far as to seek blame for catastrophic events (but that’s another post…). To give these figures an explanation for the action goes some way to exploring how in the world we live in, unspeakable acts can happen.

Zombies: monstrous or mindless?

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Considering the title of this blog is ‘Playing God With Monsters’, it’s probably about time I got around to including something other than vampires. So, to consider the figure of the zombie.

The zombie has far surpassed the vampire in terms of popularity. It appeals to a much broader range of people, perhaps simply because it is a state far easier to mimic than that of the vampire, or werewolf. All of us have been there at some point: tired, drained, staring at nothing, moving without thought. These are all features of the figure. What is missing is the urge for human flesh. They can never be exploited in the same way as vampires, because they will never be aesthetically appealing. However, they have undoubtedly changed since their introduction into popular culture.

The myth arose from the Haitian tales of voodoo. A zombie is defined as “an animated corpse revived by witchcraft.”  There are obvious links to the vampire with the corpse theme. A major difference however, is the use of the term “animated”. Whilst the corpses may be physically animated, they lack the mental capacity evident in vampiric creatures. Frankenstein is cited as prefiguring the zombie – another animated corpse, but by science, rather than witchcraft. 

George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, released in 1968, quickly became a cult film. Again, it has fallen prey to the clutches of the remake, but even this shows us that it is far from being a fad. Like vampires, zombies are an idea that has persisted throughout culture.  

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The figure now has appeared in comics (such as The Walking Dead), films, tv series, and videogames, much like other monstrous figures. Now, however, rather than just mindless corpses, these zombies now come with added gore. Whilst it caters to our morbid taste for visual effects, it is also a sign that it too has been exploited and aesthetically modified to garner the biggest appeal, much like the vampire which many eschew. Whilst they may not be attractive, which is a feature that the vampire clings to as part of its mystique (the idea of the beautiful stranger), they are still visually vivid, and evoke the same primitive urges of feeding that the vampire does, but in a more overt manner. 

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In some cases, the figure of the vampire and that of the zombie are conflated (I am Legend, Stake Land amongst others) and in these cases, the parasitic nature of the former combined with the brainlessness of the latter produce powerful messages about consumerism, authority structures and human consciousness. 

But here’s the question: can zombies be classified as monsters?

On the one hand, they have some kind of folkloric background which many other monsters do, and which has been exploited for the use of popular culture. They are fearsome, powerful, and are (in some cases) hard to defeat. 

On the other hand, they are never placed on their own: they form packs and attack en masse (which in itself is a interesting take on herd mentality). They were previously human, yes, but so were some vampires and werewolves. But most other monsters have some kind extraordinary strength, or power (shapeshifting or speed for one). Zombies are devoid- of brains (which they covet), super-strength, and super speed. 

On the surface of it, I would venture ‘no’, but they are becoming so well entrenched in the monster cannon of Hollywood that it is increasingly harder to argue why they should not be included amongst others. Perhaps the popularity of these mute corpses should be telling us something. But what? The ideas of capitalism being critiqued by the figure seems too simple to me: the zombie is popular amongst such a diverse group that it would futile to assign only one contributing factor. The possibility that these figures are simultaneously scary, but appealing to our most primitive desires (survival of the fittest, life after death and feeding) seems far more plausible.

 

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