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Freddy Vs. Jason

 

Gen-X-Review-Freddy_vs_JasonHistory is dream no one wakes up from alive, and the new slasher film Freddy Vs. Jason reveals a trail of tears leading through the last three decades of horror films to an original body: My body.


I want to start with a little cultural fable before I begin this week’s review. It’s the sort of Cinderella story they don’t teach children today – The Marquis de Sade version where the evil prince keeps Cinderella locked away as living pornography, relishing her helplessness and his sense of power and dominance.


In this story a child is born to young parents in 1968. Rosemary is thrilled when she gets pregnant, but later comes to believe her son is evil personified, not only dangerous, but intimately polluted, dirty at the core. She attempts to abort the child, but it somehow lives despite her.


Across the world other women were also giving birth to horrid monsters, mutants, and demonic spawns. Some had misshapen heads – a sure sign that they were evil, I guess – while others appeared to be normal little babies only to turn on their innocent parents at the last moment. Possession was as common as the measles, and if the child wasn’t born bad it was certainly too receptive to the demonic takeover.


Rosemary’s Baby survived in Damien from the Omen franchise. He passed his evil on to his cousins in the It’s Alive series and guided Linda Blair in The Exorcist. He had cameos in hundreds of bad horror films, from the Prophecy to The Demon Seed. He was in the prime of his power in the mid- to late 1970s, when his universal scorned was coupled with fear.


His parents couldn’t understand him and the culture didn’t want to support him, but at least everyone respected his power.


Then, abruptly, in 1979-80, the rules changed. Young adults who had secretly feared and loathed children finally became fed up with the ungrateful little brats who just flat out refused to die for them. Damian’s voice changed on his sweet sixteenth birthday and he felt the new thing in the air. He was no longer something to fear and destroy: Now he was something to hunt for sport.


He was slaughtered in funhouses, crushed by demonic automobiles, buried alive. All the creative psychic powers once attributed to him were now used against him and he died elaborately: Axes splitting him in two, shovels ripping through his belly, hooks catching in the hollow of his eye…


This is the story on my generation. Not every age pretends its offspring are rotten to the core, killing them first in the name of public safety and then because it’s good fun to watch teenagers being dismembered. It takes a very special time to produce adults who pay to see children as monsters, victims and deviants.


At the time kids my age welcomed the slasher films, since an occasional adult was killed alongside the scores of teenagers, which seemed refreshing at the time. We’d already accepted ourselves as soiled, maybe even cursed, and we took our cinematic deaths with a healthy dose of irony, often cheering on the killers.


Which brings me to Freddy Vs. Jason. Finally.


The Friday the 13th series set the bar for ’80s horror films. The story followed Jason, an increasingly menacing mass murder, as he swathed his way from one teenaged community to the next. The first film of the series was almost suspenseful, borrowing it’s ending from Psycho, but as the series continued its plot became more or less at the service of its violence.


Jason is not born a villain, like Damien, but learns to become a monster. We are told through the films that he drowned at a lake when two camp councilors were busy in their bedrooms, and Gen-Xers identified with him on many levels. As latchkey kids, abandoned, neglected, and ultimately rendered valueless, we understood what pissed Jason off.


It was just too bad that he was taking his rage out on us and not the adult population that had deserted him.

In 1985 low-budget director Wes Craven released A Nightmare on Elm Street, which introduced Freddy Kruegger, a dream demon who had murdered countless kids, been killed, and yet somehow rewarded with supernatural power. Like Jason, Freddy singled out teenagers, but unlike Jason he murdered to satisfy his sadistic desires, not avenge some wrong. Freddy embodied what we knew from the world: Those in power would turn nasty, making us squirm and run, ultimately absorbing us as easily as a chicken McNugget.


In bringing these two creatures together, Freddy Vs. Jason’s filmmakers needed to bridge their worlds, create a plausible plot line, and contend with their natural chemistry. Would these monsters get along, bonding over the good times of the seventies and eighties and exchanging recipes or would there be friction, awkward silences. Would it be a love connection or something very different?


It has been years since Freddy walked freely in the dreams of the children of Elm Street. Like any god, he has lost his power as people stopped believing in him. In order to create fear in the population he resurrects Jason from the dead, hoping that he will frighten the children back into Freddy’s arms. The plan appears to work, but Freddy becomes greedy when Jason kills too many young people, stealing their souls from the dream demon.

It’s Jason’s moral duty to destroy sinners and force the protection of children, and he performs his tasks with cold efficiency, an unlikely angel of retribution. Attacking a rave, he is doused in pure alcohol and lit on fire. Grabbing a machete he walks into the crowd, striking down the wicked and sending the others scattering back to their homes, where they should be on a school night.


Jason is the classic victim-turned-victimizer, so caught up with an emotional trauma that every action is merely an articulation of the same abuse over and over again. He murders, but his actions are almost forced by an unseen hand and the damage he does is the effects of longstanding psychological damage. Freddy, on the other hand, is just a jerk: He kills because it’s fun, and punishes because he’s in a position to do so. In the end both murder, but is one less evil by virtue of the fact that he’s reenacting primal childhood shock?


The film pushes its moral questions quietly, while Jason impales and dismembers teens and Freddy curses like the Wicked Witch of the West and occasionally burns his name into young flesh. By the time the audience knows it’s cheering for one of these mass murders it’s too late. An improbable Rocky movie presenting the dumbest fight scene seen since Superman II, Freddy Vs. Jason is an unexpected delight.


The film reveals the generational and ethical forces at work in the horror film genre. Jason is a Gen-X anti-hero, destroying evidence of the kind of decadence embodied in a Charlie Manson or Thrill Kill Cult. Freddy clings on to his sadism, remembering the good old days when youngsters were disposable toys for aging boomers, but what he really does is remind us of our own history relative to horror films.


The sadist stepped out of the corner and you saw with horror that it was always just you, watching yourself with a smug sense of moral outrage.

 
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Open Range

 

Gen-X-Review-Open-RangeThe American continent is an enormously greedy land. Its fertile soil absorbs all stories into itself: Gunfights, romances, events so strange and mysterious that only a rock could keep quiet about them. The vast Western plains can forgive anything, even a movie so small that it could fit on the end of a matchstick.


Kevin Costner's Open Range is disappointing, not because it’s a terrible film, but because it isn’t as big as it could be. It retreats from its opening scenes like a man rolling up a large, red carpet, pulling everything back until only silhouettes and stick figures survive. Marching toward its violent vanishing point, Costner’s film disappears just as it should gather strength. Not so much simple as simplistic, the ending unravels in a series of empty gestures and rote ceremonies that feel both outdated and dishonest.


It didn’t have to be this way. Costner’s Western plains are awe-inspiring, and he certainly has an eye for details. The film opens in a valley so large that it bleeds off the edge of the screen. Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall), Charley Waite (Kevin Costner), Mose Harrison (Abraham Benrubi) and “Button” (Deigo Luna) live on the margins of this world, herding their animals through the huge white spaces on maps.
Free grazing their cattle far away from the confines of prairie towns, Spearman and his men honor each other and perform their mostly solitary tasks with quiet dignity. They live in tight confines with one another even as the landscape threatens to swallow them up.  It is as though the openness has made them value the best, most human part of each other, and although they disdain civilization, they are a very civil group.


The West resists meaning. Rivers run through the center of small towns and the huge landscape may unexpectedly shrink to a small, mucky island. The world is unpredictable, but ultimately fair, and the group accepts its sudden changes. One day it might be large enough to hide a herd of cattle and the next Spearman and his men might find themselves pinned down under a tarp, playing cards in a 10-foot square of muddy earth as torrents of rain floods the valley floor.


These men learn to persevere by living in close accord with nature, but after they’re forced near the small town of Harmonville they face challenges that do not exist in their world. The town marshal (James Russo) is owned by the largest rancher in the area, and free grazing is seen as a crime by these men, who want to fence off the West for themselves.


Boss is a man of principle, with secret dreams of settling down himself, and the small crew exists as an organic family. The residents of Harmonville, on the other hand, live under the tyrannical rule of Baxter (Michael Gambon), a sinister ranch farmer, and the community is a reflection of his authority: Upheld by power, wealth and prestige, a place where men follow money, not morals.


Boss is a leader because he has the personal integrity to lead; Baxter leads through exercising power, frightening the defenseless and corrupting those who would serve a higher law.


The film succeeds best when it’s exploring the relationships between Boss and his men or the contrary nature of the Western landscape. The town is paradoxically the least civilized corner of the West, and the movie does a good job in setting up the basic binaries between economic and organic interactions and uncovering the shady use of power.


However as the film lurches toward its inevitable shootout it loses its integrity. Waite is undoubtedly the least complex character in the film, but he increasingly becomes its subject, wrestling away control from Boss and the impressive scenery. The obligatory romance is unconvincing and the movie loses its focus as it adjusts primarily on Costner.


It has been cruelly suggested that Costner made a western so he could hide his balding scalp beneath a cowboy hat, but I don’t believe it for a second. I think he made Open Range to show that he could act even more stiffly than John Wayne.


Touché, Mr. Costner! Job well done, sir!


The fact is that Costner is the worst actor in the cast, and turning from Boss to Waite is the biggest mistake in what could otherwise be called a fine, little movie. Costner is an AM star, incapable of transmitting anything but the basic frequency of things. I understand that he believes he is interesting by virtue of his rugged good looks alone – don’t we all – but he really needs to understand his limitations as an actor if he’s going to star in movies he directs.


(I’m sure there are people who enjoy Costner’s acting, but there are folks who enjoy clam juice. I gather Costner is a similarly acquired taste.)


I will simply suggest that a person incapable of conveying emotions is likewise an unsuitable vehicle to build psychological tension, which is integral to Westerns. The romantic interchange between Waite and a seasoned actress who should know better (Annette Benning) totally flops, and Costner can’t even seem to develop rapport with the crew’s lovable dog. I spent the first twenty minutes of the film in terror thinking Duvall’s character would die, leaving every bit of screen time to Costner.


It was a moot point, since Duvall is eclipsed by the time the gunfight rolls around. So instead of Boss’ intriguing homespun wisdom about anarcho-cooperatives we get Costner, smashing down walls, shooting the hell out of maybe 30 bad guys, wooing the locals with his aforementioned rugged good looks...


Believe it or not, this gets grating, especially when Benning’s character confides in Waite that she’s not young anymore. Now I’m no Doctor Phil, but if a woman tells you she’s not young or pretty you had better offer some reassurances. Costner, who is not exactly in his prime himself, should take off his hat to expose his bald spot and say, “Well mam, neither am I” but instead he tells her that that’s okay with him. He doesn’t dig young, good-looking chicks anyhow. Or something like that.


Open Range is a fine, small film despite constant interruptions from its star and director. Costner is his own worst enemy, and his final creative act is unfortunately a disappearing act. It takes a sort of corrupt genius to create something so small from such big ideas.

 
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