The Perfection: Dedication and Depravity Scores a 10

If you’re thirsting for an Asian horror-inspired, stylized roller coaster ride with buckets of tension, look no further than Richard Shepard’s The Perfection.

Charlotte (Allison Williams, Girls, Get Out) is a musical prodigy.  Enrolled in the elite Bachoff Academy where students are hand-picked for their talent, she is destined to become a legendary cellist. Family obligations put her career on hold and 10 years later, Charlotte is ready to reclaim her life.  She reconnects with the school dean Anton (Steven Weber, Channel Zero), and is invited to Shanghai to judge a competition along with the school’s newest star, Lizzie (Logan Browning, Dear White People). The two women soon learn they are fans of each other’s work and become inseparable.  When Lizzie falls mysteriously ill, both their worlds change forever.

Charlotte (Williams) in Shanghai

There’s a fine line you walk when reviewing The Perfection because it presents a unique timeline that catches you off guard, making it difficult to navigate around many a spoiler. What I can say is that the film is exactly what a fan of Asian extreme cinema would enjoy, and Shepard parlays the themes, style and body horror of Asian extremity in an exciting way for North American audiences. He does so not because the film sets the scene in Shanghai or because there are Asian actors, but by using the tone and beats so often used in Asian extreme cinema. Shepard has mentioned in interviews The Handmaiden and Oldboy by Park Chan-wook as inspirations, and I also get a Sion Sono or Takashi Miike vibe as well. The story starts subtly, lulling the audience with romance and kinship that’s sexy and not gratuitous, then landing an unexpected roundhouse kick to our plot expectations. We’re sent reeling just enough to collect ourselves and follow along for the ride.

Both women were made for the all-American girl role; Williams, who played the awful Rose in Get Out, is perfect as Charlotte with her fresh looks and innocence versus Browning’s appeal as the more worldly and tougher of the two. It works well, especially since they’ll need to draw on their opposite bad girl/vulnerable selves later. They both reportedly learned how to play the cello as well, to make their performances believable, and their chemistry is undeniable.

The haunting music was composed by Paul Haslinger, former member of Tangerine Dream, the band so beloved for their numerous film scores, so there’s some major musical street cred involved. I also love that Nicole Snyder and Eric C. Charmelo who both mastered complicated plots for the TV series Supernatural, were on the writing team. Their skill at dealing with intertwining plot threads is well used here.

Lizzie (Browning) and Charlotte (Williams) play together.

Shepard’s The Perfection ultimately captures the intricate web women must navigate for success, the weight of societal expectations, and what women have endured to achieve it minus the male gaze-y tropes. Be prepared for abuse, full-on gore and a whole lot of twists and turns. It’s mandatory to endure all of it for one of the most bizarre, violent and satisfying finales I’ve seen in a long time.

The Perfection is streaming now on Netflix.  Let it be the salve for you jaded horror fans out there.

Book Review: The 1990’s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula

The 90s were a big shiny blur for me. I was a coltish 21 in 1991 and then suddenly I was 30, missing out on being a teen during that decade, but still young enough to consume the teen entertainment up for grabs. During that big shiny blur was a new kind of horror, one that was supposed to speak to the younger generation; a generation who would start trends that changed how we thought about ourselves and the way we saw the world. Sound like a lot to glean from a bunch of glossy studio films made to attract a demographic of magpie youth? Well not so, because in Alexandra West’s latest book The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula, she gives meaning to these seemingly shallow films starring the hottest heartthrobs of the time.

When she launched her book, West mentioned how her taste in film was questioned when she professed her undying support of 90s horror, so it’s nice to see her get a chance to set those side-eyes straight. Sure, there’s a superficiality to films like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Idle Hands, and The Crush at first glance since the stars were plucked from hit TV shows and films for marketability, and they may not have addressed issues in an obvious way, but they earmarked a time when things were changing socially and politically. Each chapter deals with films covering subjects like school life, sexuality, and the undead; and with each film she expertly reveals underlying themes, meanings and societal implications through sociological references and, surprisingly, Greek mythology. These themes were so ingrained I could feel the little lightbulb over my head pinging over and over as I read her arguments that made sense of overlooked cinematic moments.

Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe and Jennifer Love Hewitt of I Know What You Did Last Summer

Entertainment is a reflection of our society, and West is very thorough in her recounting the climate of the 90s, describing a shift from the Regan era to George H. W. Bush, Third Wave feminism, the trauma of mass school shootings, and media’s new role in what Hollywood thought teens valued. They were suddenly put under a microscope through these films, exposing real issues like bullying, classism, and sexual politics. Although a lot of the subject matter in teen horrors and thrillers of the 90s seem to rehash the slashers of the 70s and 80s, West points out that these characters are smarter and more self-aware; resilient during traumatic events where they exhibit an evolved toughness not seen in the final girls of the past. In fact, for me, she puts well-known final girl theories detailed in Carol Clover’s classic book Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film into better context, modernizing the final girl for the 90s.

Neve Campbell as the ultimate 90s final girl, Sidney.

These films aren’t without flaws however, and West makes sure to point out lack of representation and tokenism with characters of color like Jada Pinkett’s Maureen in Scream 2 and Rachel True’s Rochelle in The Craft (with a whole chapter dedicated to the deeper themes in the 1996 teen witch hit). I was pleased to see her write about the backlash against tokenism and “Hollywood’s cultural whitewashing” with the parody film Scary Movie and its sequels. Here, she describes how black comedy powerhouses The Wayans Brothers took horror tropes and turned them on their ear by blatantly pointing out sexual and cultural stereotypes and reclaiming them as their own. She also delves into the history of the sequel machine, mostly fueled by dollar signs when the first films took off (a reflection of the consumerism during that decade), but some were continuations of beloved characters, mythologies and universes. The most well-known example is the Scream franchise and the history of its tongue in cheek but intelligent self-reflective commentary on horror tropes. Who knew a film that took a clever jab at the horror game would historically break the rules of Hollywood itself?

The cast of Scary Movie.

The surge of teen and young adult horrors coming out now like Happy Death Day, Truth or Dare, and Wish Upon can be looked at with a more appreciative and critical eye once you’ve read Alexandra West’s book on The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle. It’s a fantastic follow-up to her book Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity, and even though there’s a lot of information, it’s concise and extremely easy to digest. For those of you who already love 90s teen horror, it’s pure validation, and for those of you who missed out being a teen during the 90s, it will give you nice insight on something that isn’t as frivolous as you may think.

Do yourself a favour and get The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula here to celebrate Women in Horror Month!

 

Horror Noire: History Lesson, Validation and Hope for Black Horror

I am beside myself with relief, joy and optimism because my life as a black woman horror fan has been validated. When I watched horror films as a young person, I cringed when a black character appeared, certain they were going to be ridiculed, portrayed as a caricature, or something bad was going to happen to them. This was an internalized knowledge I didn’t have to think about, a feeling I had catalogued in my emotional bank because of my own experiences of trying not to be noticed lest someone started to ridicule or bully me, to the point where sometimes I was relieved there weren’t any black characters in a horror film so I could watch without the added anxiety as a person of colour. The origins of this programmed terror of misrepresentation has been vindicated and explained in the documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror based on Robin R. Means Coleman’s extensive tome on blacks in American horror films.

From the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation to the current day Get Out, horror films featuring black characters and actors have an historical significance in how we are seen in society at large. Means Coleman puts all of this in a book entitled Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present. It’s an excellent read outlining decades of misrepresentation of blacks and different tropes (like the magical negro and the myth of blacks dying first in horror), up to the shift in the 90s with urban horror and how we reclaim our stories and representation. Directed by Xavier Burgin, Horror Noire encapsulates the subject matter presented by three film scholars and producers of the documentary: the author herself, Means Coleman, author and teacher Tananarive Due, and Ashlee Blackwell, writer and founder of graveyardshiftsisters.com. Actors like Tony Todd (Candyman), Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead), Keith David (The Thing), Kelly Jo Minter (The People Under the Stairs); and directors like Jordan Peele (Get Out), Rusty Cundieff (Tales from the Hood 1 & 2) and Ernest K. Dickerson (Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight) explore the impact of their films and other classic horrors featuring blacks had, like Night of the Living Dead and Ganja and Hess, on themselves and American culture.

The inclusion of actors listed above as well as Miguel A. Núñez Jr. (The Return of the Living Dead) and Rachel True (The Craft) bring an honest behind-the-scenes account of how they viewed participating in the horror genre and what it meant to them as individuals. I especially loved True’s candid nature, and her appearance in the documentary is important given the recent controversy of her history of exclusion at conventions. If you think there’s a lot of information to take in, you’re right, but the pacing of the documentary is fantastic. The viewer can absorb information covered in the seven chapters of the book without feeling like you’ve missed something, and the discussions, commentary and visuals all complement each other so everything is easily digested.

For this Black History and Women in Horror Month, the fact that there are three black female scholars guiding the documentary is so empowering. They know what it truly means to be “the other” as they move through spaces that may not readily accept them which is key in their examination of blacks in horror. As black women, we are an unconsidered entity; our intelligence is often challenged, and worse yet, we aren’t normally thought of as the go-to for horror. This time, black women are center stage here, scholars who have made it a priority to explore the history of what blackness is in horror films. What’s also important is the expansion of the discussion to include films up to the here and now, and the hopefulness as we see young female directors Meosha Bean and Monica Suriyage talk about persevering and collaborating to make films that represent themselves properly.

Horror Noire (as both a documentary and book) needs to be added to every film studies syllabus. It’s a vital testament to how a society driven by white supremacy can destroy a people with perception and how we can take it back by reclaiming our representation. If that doesn’t work, as Núñez Jr. says, “Black is the new green”, and money talks, so here’s to more black horror making bank and history.

Watch it now on Shudder.com, and if you haven’t seen some of the films referenced in the documentary, they’re also available on Shudder (hooray!). There’s also a code for a 30-day free trial for the month of February (wihmx), so get your popcorn, tone those eye muscles and get to watching!

*Apologies-I’ve taken the troll bait. Horror Noire is also important addition to the education of those who insist on exclusionary tactics; masking their discomfort of including people of colour by saying horror is getting too political. Horror is and always has been political, and whether these folks want to learn from a discussion that addresses the mistakes of blindly accepting misrepresentation is up to them. I encourage viewers to challenge these archaic views in the review section of  Horror Noire on Shudder to set the record straight. And for those who are whining about other people of colour not being included, here are some bullet points:

  • This is about blacks in horror, based on a book about blacks in horror films and black history.
  • There is an insidious and defensive behaviour of denial exhibited by some white (and a handful of non-white) people who tries to diminish anything involving blacks and black people calling out misrepresentation, and it needs to stop, like right now because it’s boring, stale, and pointless.
  • If you want documentaries on misrepresentation of other people of colour in film, they are out there. I shouldn’t have to spell it out for these folks, because there is a thing called Google, but try The Bronze Screen and The Slanted Screen for starters.