Different kinds of monsters, or, Del Toro’s decline…

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Now, I’m a big fan of Guillermo Del Toro. Cronos was an excellent film, not least because it featured a vampiric protagonist and some awesome set-pieces (that watch!). Then there’s the classic Pan’s Labyrinth, which features some of the weirdest looking and imaginative monsters on screen I’ve seen for a while, and was rightfully met with the critical acclaim it deserved. Some hated Hellboy, but the first one at least wasn’t a bad film. And although the source material wasn’t his, there was still a healthy dose of monsters involved. 

I’d rekindled my love of him last year when I read The Strain trilogy, which links to my research perfectly (9/11 + vampires) and things were starting to go so well again.

But then, oh no. OH NO. Pacific Rim. 

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Before I get bashed in the face with some Del Toro – loving logic, let me explain why I think it’s going to be a disappointment.

1. The trailer. I know, thou shalt not judge a film by its trailer…but in this case. The sound effects, the panning shots, the overdramatic fight between humanity and the aliens….everything screams TRANSFORMERS. And not in a good way. I mean Michael Bay’s bastardised version of the franchise. 

2. The film is about pitting aliens against robots. It’s clearly aimed at 13 year old boys. So why do I care, considering I am neither of these things? Well, Del Toro has become a master of monsters, and he’s trying to position aliens and robots as monsters. Which they’re clearly not.

3. Del Toro has described the film as a “beautiful poem to giant monsters.” See the above point. Robots are mechanical and even those with AI cannot be imbued with the emotions of a monster or villain that are required – vengeance, anguish, psychopathy. They’re cold functioning circuits. And aliens…well, they’re closer to the line but still without the classic traits of the monster.

4. He’s written a story about the incredibly cliched ‘us versus them’ situation. Which, arguably, is a staple of monster fiction – as they are opposing, they are inhuman, and they define our humanity. But if you were going to make a film about robots versus aliens, why not make it more complex than just a glorified battle sequence? (with undoubtedly a brief romantic plotline thrown in there, a hero ‘stepping up’ and a bad guy dying…)

I’m only angry about this because I love you, Del Toro. Go back to what you’re good at. Put down the Transformers DVDs and come back to the light….

Monsters of 2013

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Well, apparently we didn’t get enough of the monstrous last year. And because I spend far too much time thinking about them, here’s a list of upcoming films to sink your teeth into….

Warm Bodies

Ah, the old ‘sentient zombie’ trick. Always a good romance story. WARM BODIESOh, wait, I’m thinking of vampires. Although it looks more like a comedy than anything else, it’s still taking a leaf out the vampire tome and attempting to bridge the gap between the undead and us, despite the tricky logistics. Could be terrible, but a different take none the less.

World War Z

world-war-z-trailer-brad-pittI’m just about to read the book, and everyone who’s read it says it’s excellent. About time we had a decent zombie novel. And film adaptation. Plus Brad Pitt. He’s good at those monster things.

Monsters University

Hey, who said it had to be serious monsters? Making monsters cuddly since 2001, Pixar return with their attempt at continuing the franchise, though no one says that’s a bad thing when Sully is involved…

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Only Lovers Left Alive

More vampires! Tom Hiddleston! Tilda Swinton! only-lovers-left-alive-posterThis looks like it will be excellent. Plus the description sounds like this: Adam (Tom Hiddleston), an underground musician reunites with his lover for centuries (Tilda Swinton) after he becomes depressed and tired with the direction human society has taken. Their love is interrupted and tested by her wild and uncontrollable little sister (Mia Wasikowska). (imdb.com)

Byzantium

Neil Jordan returns to form (I hope) directing another vampire film with the gorgeous Gemma Arterton and Jonny Lee Miller. This one focuses on the bond between mother and daughter, so here’s hoping it won’t be a descent into a vampy love story unlike the films of recent years…

I, Frankenstein

Not out til September, this film is apparently about Frankenstein’s creature finding himself caught in a war between “two immortal clans”. Whether that’s vampires or lycanthropes is something else entirely. Bill Nighy’s in it too, which probably means it’ll be good. Unless it’s a child’s film. We’ll see.

Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters

MV5BMjA4MDQwODg2NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTc5ODc2OA@@._V1._SY317_Gemma Arterton again, and Hawkeye, I mean, Jeremy Renner as Hansel and Gretel…because now they’re witch hunters and that makes sense. Still, the trailer has suitable amounts of gore, despite the premise being witches eat children and are all hideous. Could be fun.

Beautiful Creatures

From the trailer, it’s painfully obvious that this is Twilight with witches. But this time, the ROLES ARE REVERSED. It’s the guy who’s the human, and the girl who’s supernatural. I’ve seen the trailer. It could be good, but will definitely be good if you’re a teenage girl.

In sum: Less vampires, more witches, and sentient zombies. Monsters are definitely undead.

True Blood: undead religion and the politics of fear

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Post-series finale is usually about the time, for some odd reason, that online media becomes crowded with speculation. About the next series. But what about the one we’ve just seen? There’s a weird trend that involves discussing how events could or should happen. What we should be doing is looking at what we’ve just seen.

So, I haven’t done this before, but I’m going to look at some of the key things in Season 5 of True Blood. Mainly because it was awesome, and for those of you who haven’t watched it, you really need to. It’s not just some airy undead romance. This season, more so than the past few, have been riddled with religious, political and downright confusing themes.

For those uninitiated, a bit of backstory. Sookie is a waitress/faerie who can read minds – she met a vampire and became embroiled in the world post True Blood – that is, after the vampires had ‘come out of the coffin’ and were able to subsist on a synthetic blood substitute named Tru Blood (and yes, a multitude of articles have been written about the writer Ball’s allusion to gay rights). There is a vampire authority, and the whole thing is set in the Southern town of Bon Temps, so we have backwards views to help illuminate the fucked-up-ness of everything that’s going on.

Season 5 began with Sookie saving her friend Tara by turning her into a vampire. The whole show is a confusion of werewolves, faeries, shape shifters, but unquestionably, vampires are the main storyline. And vampires aren’t particularly nice. Here, we see Bill and Eric, vampires with a position of authority, being kidnapped and taken to the secret underground lair of the Vampire Authority. They’re wanted because they didn’t kill off a vampire who went against their ‘values’ – ie, wanting to eat everyone, killing people on live TV, etc. (There’s a great video clip here)

They turn up, and they’re greeted by being closely guarded, and given iStakes to wear (even vampires need apps, apparently…):

 

Anyway….the whole story arc of the series revolves around the goings on at the Vampire Authority, which, surprise surprise, turns out be corrupt. They all get high on the blood of the original vampire, Lilith, and believe they’re ‘god’s children’, with the God in this case being Lilith – she apparently put humans on earth for vampires to eat. Of course. The series is basically showing us a reversal of roles from Season 2 where the Fellowship of the Sun had the humans as the corrupt, violent, religious authority. This time it’s the vamps that are the bad guys. Well, they do find some way of shoeing in the hypocrisy of the fundamentalism human religions too in the form of Reverend Steve Newlin. In Season 2, he was the leader of the Fellowship, and they tortured vampires in the name of God, as well as committing terrorist acts. Wonderful. Well, come season 5, he’s now gay and a vampire.

Ain’t that just peachy?

It’s interesting to see where the series has gone and it’s commendable. The writers have shied away from maintaining Bill as the romantic lead, and focusing the story around a relationship between a human and a vampire. Perhaps it’s because of the negativity surrounding Twilight and its reception. Whatever, well done. Political and religious corruption never goes amiss.

Here, the religious group the vampires have formed is fraught and tense. Members of the authority spend the majority of the time making sure they look behind them in case a member decides to go rogue, believing they are truly the ‘chosen one’. As for how it has affected the humans – well, they blew up the factories of Tru Blood and set the blame elsewhere. A snide comment on political actions being disguised if there ever was one.

The other storylines in season 5 – faeries and werewolves – were eclipsed by the brilliant political mastery of the Vampire Authority possessed by religion. The Authority began the show admitting that the religion of Lilith that they supposedly adhered to was for ‘tradition’ and ended with half of them dead in the name of God. It seems we’ve turned a corner. Vampires are now the bad guys again; perhaps shown best by the transformation of Bill from humane, loving partner of Sookie from season 2 (when all the vampires were being persecuted) to batshit mental/power crazy blood god:

 

 

Vampires clearly have a place in popular culture. The precise need, as always, will evolve and change over time. I think we’re beginning to see a change from the saccharine portrayals of late to a more monstrous version imbued with the evils of power, religiosity and wielding the politics of fear.

Wolf Girls Blog Tour: Monsters in Menopause

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I’ve long been interested in monsters; firstly that common monster slinking the streets, the female teenager. She’s poised on a threshold, waiting for magic, imagining, dreaming, wondering how she’s going to turn out.   It’s the core question of those years; how will I turn out? Will I become one of the beauties with a stun gun in her belt, or one of the tortured and teased, so foul I force suitors to flee?

Literary monsters have to wrestle with the same fate; will your creator make you ugly or beautiful? Will you be the handsome broad shoulder slim-waisted Spiderman spinning webs to get the girl, or a creepy Caliban trapped and terrifying? The fact that all monsters in earlier life are preoccupied by sex makes this doubly hard to deal with.

In my earlier novels my monsters were fully human and pretty sexy, but lately I’ve stripped back the human and slapped on the hairy.  For some reason after twenty years of writing pretty realistic contemporary fiction I’ve suddenly scratched out a stubbly fistful of stories about vampires and werewolves. The creatures who crawl out of these tales are not the hormonal hotties who’ve sashayed into my novels, but the lunatics at the other end of the breeding spectrum; menopausal malcontents.

If there’s a reason for this reimagining it’s that using monsters as characters re-enchants the ordinary.  This ordinary being the next monstrous time of wondering, imagining transition, very different to the magic of adolescence: middle age. The shift from young towards old, when again we ask, how will I turn out?  Will I be straight-backed, silvery, calm and wise – a Gandalf – or dribbling, warty, haggard and screeching – a Baba Yaga?  We just have to wait and see.

For the female monster this menopausal transition is particularly powerful.  No longer competing for mates she casts off the constraints of sex, of attracting, breeding and nurturing. Even better, she becomes less self-conscious, and so stronger and potentially more dangerous.

Recently I’ve published my first werewolf story, Fur, and my hairy heroine is approaching menopause.  The Change leaves her transformed in more ways than one.  It sees her turn away, alone and unnoticed, to face the dark.

Fur is narrated by this woman’s husband who can’t believe what is happening in his home as his wife gets hairier, begins to run at night and lets her blonde curls go grey.  He doesn’t like it one bit; in fact it downright terrifies him and he plans to do something about it – but he hasn’t reckoned on the force of a woman transformed beyond his wildest imaginings.

The lifelong question for all of us, and certainly all monsters, is will I ever be truly loved?   For the older, uglier, hairier, female monster the answer is, alas, probably not, certainly not in the way you once were.

But don’t despair, let yourself go, run for the hills; instead of love, for the first time, you have freedom.

Helen Cross is the author of three novels, many stories and regular plays for radio. Her werewolf story is published in the new anthology of female werewolf fiction,  Wolf-Girls, Dark Tales of Teeth, Claws and Lycogyny published by Hic Dragones.

Monsters & Tim Burton

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Think weird, kooky, monstrous, and you think Tim Burton, the man who made oddball mainstream. But has Burton made weirdness passé?

There was the time when monsters were feared, the time of Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde et al. That time passed. Then we moved through the various interpretations of monsters. Far from being demonic and belligerent, they were warped by Hammer Horror’s rendering of them as kitsch. Then suddenly, they got cool again – vampires were rockstars, literally. Audiences went crazy for the dark side, and not in the Vader sense. Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands showed up and gave us a different kind of monster. Something not monster, nor human.

Depp’s portrayal of a sensitive loner who is an outsider because of his differences was sweet. Sympathetic monsters were nothing new – Rice’s Interview showed us that vampires have feelings too. But Burton’s creation was not alluring in the typical monstrous manner. Instead, the film focused on the weirdness, the reaction to the weirdness, and the curious social dynamics that separated normal from weird. Although in some respects, Scissorhands can’t be classed as a monster, it was a huge step towards that direction. However, instead of relying on the sexual or charismatic allure of the monster to make up for his transgressions, Burton/Depp played on the classic feelings of exclusion. Every outsider, or viewer with a soft spot for creepy, softly spoken weirdos got to root for the protagonist for a change. This outsider wasn’t cool, and didn’t have any of the classic redeeming features. Instead, he was just nice.

Burton has continued his trend for weirdness in his cinematic career, and consistently courting Depp for any role that involves heavy make up. Anything with a remotely gothic spin, and Burton’s in there like a shot. Showing us all what monsters are like underneath all the angry rage, blood and murder. Or just showing us how monstrous humanity is in comparison. Because that’s what it’s really all about here. The so-called monstrosity of these characters pale in comparison to the viciousness of the humans that taunt, tease and exclude the quirky protagonists. And for a while, it worked. Monsters, and stories with a dark and/or morbid edge were mainstream.

But then Burton made Dark Shadows. I suppose it couldn’t have been long until he got to grips with a vampire, but he managed to. 
And once again, he brought Depp along for the ride. Don’t get me wrong, I do love Burton. I think he’s done good things for the world of film. I’m just not so much of a fan of his take on Dark Shadows. It’s the same formula as many a Burton film. Hadley Freeman wrote something about this issue which you can find here. Arguably, it’s a refreshing take considering the cloying taste of the overemotional vampire who believes he’s destined to be with a human (Twilight, Vampire Diaries, True Blood) but it just felt like the humour was forced, and that Barnabas Collins was the epitome of the comedy vampire. But, really, honestly – the vampire as a figure can be seen as mildly ridiculous. Even so, it’s useful metaphorically. Parody seems a little heavy handed.

I thought that was bad, but Burton’s obsession with putting his own goth-lite spin on everything monstrous became hideously apparent when I saw the trailer for another of his upcoming films (whilst watching Dark Shadows) Frankenweenie:

Guess what? It’s Frankenstein, but with a kid and a dog. Oh, and it’s in black and white, so therefore it’s still creepy. Or something. Yes, it may be teaching kids about death and how to mourn the passing of a dog without trying to hitch him up to electricity and bring him back to life, and the name of the film is cutesy enough to make it memorable.

But are we oversaturated with Burton-esque monsters? He’s got a sizeable share of the market, let’s be honest. He’s also succeeded in making ‘weirdness’ mainstream (and there will be those of you who disagree with this. I’m overemphasising, but for good reason). Aren’t monsters supposed to be a little out of the ordinary? Or are we so numbed to their presence that they’ve just become another way of pointing out our own weirdness?

Where are all the bad monsters?

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Source: dribbble.com via David on Pinterest

Following on from my last post….I decided to go to Pinterest and see what happens when you type in ‘monster’. The same thought occurred to me last week when I was watching the Avengers; Black Widow listened to Loki spew some typically vile description of violence, turned away, and muttered ‘you’re a monster.’

So, we still have the separation between the aesthetic and the psychological – obviously, that’s never going to change. But our mainstream monsters (and superheroes are monsters in their own way if we take figures like vampires to be monsters – they’re all human 2.0, much like superheroes like Thor, Captain America and The Hulk) are so human that it’ll take a lot for them to look like monsters.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and there’s a summer of vampire related films coming up. With PhD research focusing on things other than just monsters, it’s hard to write a post that doesn’t bore readers with discussions of 9/11 and identity theory.

But….after discussing the split between the aesthetic/psychological and continuing to read Danse Macabre by Stephen King, I’m beginning to see a very strong attraction to figures like vampires and werewolves….(perhaps not zombies)

King brought up Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde which essentially is the basis for our modern monsters : outwardly, they have an appearance of normality, but at night, they change into something (or someone) else and run riot, breaking all the social, moral and physical taboos that their previous body had confined them within. Recently (ish), this side of the vampire in particular has had a bloody resurgence. From the Buffy series (1997-2003), we had vampires who looked normal until they were in ‘vamp mode’, that is:

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(apologies for the small picture…)

The only thing stopping all these monsters from being vamped out or hairy and vicious all the time was self control, something spoken of (a bit too) often in modern films, TV shows and books containing monsters. Instead of exploring the fun parts of being a monster, or even the bad parts, most shows focus on the (suffering) protagonist’s extremely strange coping mechanisms for maintaining self control.

Things like True Blood, Buffy, Twilight, Being Human, The Vampire Diaries….even non-human ‘monster’ series like Dexter centre on the need for self control.

The last series of the BBC’s Being Human gave us Hal, who played with dominoes in a bid to stop his thirst for blood:

And when the characters in these texts inevitably lose self control, what happens? Nothing momentous, just the enacting of the expected monstrous behaviour. Why can’t these texts about monsters be texts? Why are they playing at being human when secretly, all we want to do is play at being them?

The only way round it that has been shown is to make the monsters categorically non-human, like in Priest:

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Kinda gross, slightly ripping off Alien, but that’s not the point here….

Why are our human-looking monsters too human? They’re useful for metaphorical purposes, but ultimately, they’re escapism, and part of escapism is watching/reading about things that we can’t do, for whatever reason. The more they act the part of human in a mundane, boring existence, the more we’re going to have to look a bit further for the kind of entertainment we get from dreaming of unreality…

Maybe that’s just me. We love superheroes (as evidenced by the box office stats), and they fulfil any latent desires we have to be special and be able to save the world….so why can’t we do the same with our monsters (arguably, our cultural heritage)? Why can’t we watch as they destroy and devour what we’ve created? There are too many ‘good’, and ‘human’ monsters out there now. I’m not saying I want them all to look like him, above ^^ but it would be nice to see some evil out of something deemed ‘monstrous.’

Monsters & the aesthetic

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A while back I was thinking about what makes a monster, so to speak. Not in the Frankenstein sense, but in terms of categorization. After all, there are lots of things we deem ‘monstrous’ and not all of them look very scary. It’s coming to the fore again in the media with trials and such; the term is usually conflated with the essence of evil. Although, in the same breath, we also call what are arguably quite cute things (such as the monsters from Monsters Inc) ‘monsters’. Stephen King deals with his concept of the monstrous in his book Danse Macabre. And last week, the term was thoroughly examined at a conference entitled ‘Monsters: subject, object, abject’ run by Hic Dragones. The conference itself was good fun – it was nice to hear such a range of disciplines offer their perspectives on different monsters. Whilst I was there, various papers continually came back to the notion of aesthetic monstrousness, rather than the idea of it manifesting in emotional, psychological or behavioural ways.

I’d asked a few friends who like drawing to draw me their concept of the word ‘monster’, and the following pictures were what I received:

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Nichola Collins (@lefthookdesign)

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Adam Patten (who can be found on facebook here)

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Russ Hillier (http://dronedonline.wordpress.com/)

Each are different, and everyone’s concept of monster is different. What I’m interested in are the universal concepts of monstrous that we trot out in media and entertainment – because they’re often no longer used to scare, but as a scapegoat for what we don’t like about ourselves and a way to explore our most primitive instincts.