About Plutonian Press

Friday, June 25, 2021

Interview: Gemma Files


Today we have an interview with Gemma Files! Gemma has been a force on the horror literature scene for around twenty years now. Almost a genre unto herself, she is a definite forerunner of the current weird horror scene and a monumentally important figure in the history of horror literature. With constant new works coming out from Gemma’s pen, she is as vital and as current now as she was with her first horror tales. One of the things I love about Gemma’s work is how self-obsessive and personal it is, whether she is writing queer westerns seething with sinister occultism, love stories that go beyond death, mysterious tales of ancient alien forces infecting our world, or stories of kinks pushed to the limits of our flesh, Gemma writes the kinds of works that only she could write, and the horror literature scene is a better place for them. 

I feel that with your collections Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart you exploded onto the field of horror fiction with an incredible new and personal voice, and are one of the true originators of what one would call modern-day weird horror. Breaking away from what a lot of more mainstream horror was doing, here was fresh work that was bizarre, erotic, confrontational, and poetic. It’s incredible the vitality and the freshness that you have maintained along your writing career!

Thank you very much! At the time, I went very quickly from the high of “oh, someone wants to publish literally all the fiction I've written thus far” to “man, it's like both those books dropped into a fucking well and disappeared, especially The Worm.” This was around 1999/2000, because I'd hooked up with the publisher at WHC 1999, which I attended because I'd won the International Horror Guild award for Best Short Fiction for “The Emperor's Old Bones”; it was a whirlwind of amazing feedback, as writer after writer I'd admired for years basically came up and told me they'd been following my career. My career. Which, at that point, broke down to me writing weird, hypersexual stories in my underwear at 2:00 AM from a tiny little no-bedroom apartment in Toronto, at least two of which I'd sold to a magazine run off on a mimeograph machine and put together with electrical tape, for the grand payment of $5.00 US. I had no idea I was even making any sort of impact at all, up 'til then. “I've been incredibly lucky,” I remember saying to my Mom, a bit later. “But was it luck, or was it work?” She asked me. I'm still not sure.

You have had a new collection come out from Grimscribe Press, “ In That Endless, Our End “, and it is just a masterclass of using various tropes, genres, and styles to express a very personal voice. Why is writing horror fiction important to you and what is it that keeps you coming back to it?

I used to say that I'd started out writing SF but very quickly figured out I don't know enough about science to fake my way through a whole story, but that's not really true—my real first influences were space opera and fantasy (especially unabashed decadents like Tanith Lee, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, C.L. Moore, and Robert E. Howard). When I was in the worst part of my life, however, I finally collided with vampire fiction through the one-two punch of Dracula and 'Salem's Lot. Previously, I'd been absolutely terrified by any hint of horror, especially in terms of horror films...one of my most frightening memories involves trying to “watch” The Shining on blocked motel cable during a school trip to Nantucket, which reduced the movie to occasional flashes of blood and the soundtrack. But I'd also always been fascinated by stuff like history, mythology, archaeology, monsters, witchcraft (which I studied as a haphazard practitioner), the Fae, etc. 

With 'Salem's Lot, I suddenly saw how horror could infiltrate the present day, how it might have relevance even to my own current world of adults who got drunk and smoked too much weed, of EST and Inner Child therapy, of disco music and bell-bottoms and bullying. Then, in middle and high school, I started boosting terrible horror boom paperbacks from bookstores and eventually imprinted on people like Anne Rice, Robert R. McCammon, Skipp and Spector, and Peter Straub, whose characters had a psychological realism I recognized, and mirrored. Horror just seemed more believable than most other stuff, to me; it echoed the various observations I'd made while trying to negotiate my way through the world as an undiagnosed neuroatypical child shoved into a woman's post-puberty body, too smart for my own good, with shit impulse control and no social skills to speak of, vibrating with horny rage. It still does. 

The big thing that resonates with me in horror even now is that horror deals with the most universal feelings, the biggest questions, and it takes them on directly. One of my autistic tendencies is that I hyperfixate and monologue about my hyperfixations, while another is that I used to try to bond with people by blurting out far-too-intimate anecdata, because for a long time I valued honesty over making people comfortable. (Note to self: When people ask you how you are, just say “I'm fine, how are you?” and let them talk, like a quote-quote “normal” person.) But all the things I ever felt that I'd been ostracized for talking about in public worked perfectly as fuel for my horror writing—they just fit there. Then I discovered Clive Barker, Kathe Koja, Caitlin R. Kiernan, and I realized that with horror, there were no rules—you could make poetry out of your own pain, wax rhapsodic about your strangest fantasies. 

Essentially, as Yukio Mishima put it, my heart's yearning has always been for Night, and Death, and Blood. Horror helped me realize that there was a place to put all that, somewhere I could produce the kind of stuff I'd always wanted to read—the kind of fiction which tells you that you can be a terrible person who does terrible things and the world around you won't crack apart, or if it does, maybe that's for the best. I often talk about “monster pride,” and for a long time, I really did think I was a monster. That there was something inherently wrong with me, simply because of the way my brain worked and the stuff I was interested in. Horror accepted me and helped me heal from a lifetime of internalized ableism, gender issues, sexuality issues, rage issues, etcetera...it lets me be my best self, both in real life and otherwise. It's where I feel most comfortable, and useful.

Maybe an over-asked question at this point, but one still very relevant. The age of Covid and the shutdown of a large chunk of our civilization has changed the lives of, I would assume, every single person on this planet in some way. And a lot of people are getting hit hard. Disease, unemployment, social isolation, and a creeping uncertainty about the future seem to be the landscape we find ourselves in. What role do you see horror, as a general genre and as a literature, playing in this new strange reality we find ourselves in?

I think that a lot of people—mainstream people—spend their whole lives pretending that if they ignore or deny the fact that bad things do indeed happen, those things won't happen to them. And I've always found that attitude pretty ridiculous, not to mention more-than-borderline harmful; it's like that New Age bullshit about how if you allowed yourself to entertain dark thoughts, you'd eventually get cancer. (CANCER DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY, GOODNIGHT!) It cultivates a flinch response to anything that makes you uncomfortable to consider, which means you never go any deeper than you feel like you have to. 

But a long time ago, I realized that the only thing I could say I absolutely knew in any true way was myself, which—when you think about it—does sound damn autistic. Through therapy and experience, I was forced to analyze my own reactions and habits, my internal tapes, my traumas, in order to just grow enough of a shell to make it through my daily interactions with a world I still felt as if I had no real part in. To get a job, to have relationships, to find a way to live that wasn't constantly painful for me, or the people around me. To love not just other people, but also myself. 

Horror is very good for playing out your darkest “if this/then this” chains of association. Horror presumes that darkness is not just a part of the universe, but a necessary part—that it teaches you what you can survive, how much stronger you are than you think. That it provides the contrast needed to understand what really matters. And all of those things are very useful skills to cultivate when the world around you seems just as traumatized as you are, if not more. When “nice, normal people” start worshipping false idols and strange gods, bending every hint of morality into an excuse for forever-war, screaming at each other about stuff that has nothing to do with anything, not only questioning the idea that things are indisputably true or false but actively implying that you can just lie about how you want things to be and the world will simply...reshape itself. I couldn't make this shit up, I sometimes want to say, except (of course) that I know damn well I can, and have, and will do again. More grist for the bloody, eternally-grinding mill.

TL;DR: On some level, I've always felt we lived in a horror universe, and now we kind of do. It's not like I'm happy about it, but it's kind of ironic if nothing else. 

Your early horror fiction seemed, to me, to largely be about characters having to come to terms with the darkness that lurked inside their very bodies and minds. Characters that were faced with the bleakness of reality, both in relationships and in the possibilities of existence, but either tried to take on and embrace the icy desolation of life or tried to overcome it. Your more recent horror work seems more concerned with characters who find themselves in some nebulous mystery and finding the limits of what can be known about oneself, the human, and the outside world, the non-human. These characters usually ending up in some kind of state of vertiginous confusion. Obviously, there is an interplay throughout all your work of various styles and obsessions, but there would seem to be a definite shift in the direction of your work. Would you find this a reasonable quick assessment of the changing of your horror fiction over the years? How do you see where your early horror fiction stands compared to recent works? 

Hm. Well, I think that evolution has a lot to do with the idea that, in hindsight, I didn't really know who I was back then. That I was still sort of...circumscribing the limits of my own personality and imagination, mapping out what I was and wasn't prepared to do. I think things changed, or started to change, around the time that my son was born. He'll be seventeen this year, which is frankly insane, but he's my soulmate, the love of my life. I've learned more about myself through my interactions with him than any other relationship has taught me. And now I know what I can do, what I'm capable of, who I am, in a far firmer and more...positive way than I ever did before. He's made me patient, and kind, and considerably less full of the sort of rage I only much later realized was actually fear disguised. I used to think I hated people, but now I know I was simply afraid of them, and that I have no reason to be; sure, they can hurt me, even kill me, but they can never destroy me. 

So yeah, my older stuff was maybe more colourful, a bit fairytale-ish, almost comic bookish in its gleeful excess, and I think I can still do that, when I want to. But all the stuff in “In That Endlessness, Our End” came out of a period of great upheaval, when everything I'd assumed was stable was suddenly overthrown. Trump was elected. Literal Nazis popped out of the woodwork. My publishers collapsed. I lost half my friends, possibly forever. And this is all before the fucking pandemic. It was like I could see something coming, and I knew it was bad, but not how bad. And now I do, and I'm still here, and so is my son, my husband, my family, my life. Maybe it's luck, maybe it's work. One way or the other, I believe I'll just keep going. 

You are a well-known critic and fan of cinema and the horror film, let me ask you this, if you say, instead of pursuing writing you had become a successful filmmaker, what are some horror films that you think would kind of give a view as to the kind of horror films you would have liked to have created? Films that represent you as an artist and have similar viewpoints and obsessions as you? 

In a lot of ways, I think of my fiction as my “films.” The great part about writing stories is that you can control everything, pop in and out of people's thoughts and perspectives, produce the perfect sound and/or image right on cue. You don't have to negotiate, or cooperate, or care about what price your ideas are exacting on the team supporting and enabling them. I used to tell my screenwriting students that the sooner they understood they were writing a template or blueprint that a whole bunch of other people were (hopefully!) going to make into something they might not even really recognize at the end of the process, the better. I understand the necessities of production; I've been around it all my life, watching it from both behind and in front of the camera. It's a lot of hard work, and I'm definitely not qualified for it. 

That being said, however...the films I admire take horror seriously, aren't afraid of excess, and have a weird sort of romance about them—something blood-soaked and beautifully photographed, grotesque and arabesque in the Poe-like sense, with a nice sense of both the liminal and the numinous. I'd love to do an adaptation of Elizabeth Hand's “Near Zennor” with an overall Kiyoshi Kurosawa feel but a touch here and there of Guillermo del Toro, in keeping with its Creepy Narnia/Alan Garner's Elidor sensibility. And speaking of which, how about a Ben Wheatley-style version of Elidor, set in the 1970s, with a screenplay by Stephen Volk channeling Nigel Keale? Or a version of Stephen Volk's Whitstable, maybe animated, with rotoscoping based on extracts from Peter Cushing films? Or a Clive Barker anthology film combining “In The Hills, The Cities,” “The Age of Desire,” “Down, Satan” and “The Testament of Jacqueline Ess,” as interpreted by Marjane Satrapi, Brandon Cronenberg, the Brothers Quay, and Rose Glass?

There are two types of horror movies I return to over and over: The ones that make me itch (inspiration) and the ones that make me happy (comfort food). Some of the former include Kairo, Cure, Hellraiser, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, The Devils, most Val Lewton, Session 9, Alien, The Ritual, May The Devil Take You, most David Cronenberg, Brandon Cronenberg's Possessor, etc.; the latter include Dario Argento's Suspiria, Fede Alvarez's Evil Dead, Event Horizon, The Collection, most older John Carpenter, various gialli, Come True, etc. Each list is subject to constant amendment, and each gets longer the longer I stay alive. (BTW, I recently finally watched The Untamed, and enjoyed the hell out of it.)  

A lot of your horror fiction, especially your early work,  I would consider fair to label as “transgressive” with issues of the body, identity, and sexuality. And I guess I mean transgressive as meaningfully pushing at where the socially accepted boundaries of what fiction can discuss and describe are. What does transgression in fiction mean to you? Also, are there non “horror” transgressive works that were an influence on you? Say maybe in the realms of erotica or surrealism or other non-horror genres?

One of the things about transgression, I've come to believe, is that it's less about pushing the envelope and more about questioning assumptions—giving voice to all those thoughts we aren't supposed to have, let alone talk about. I felt like when I had the main character of Experimental Film talk frankly about how defeated she felt when she interacted with her autistic son, that was transgressive—must have been, since it's the thing so many readers and critics chose to focus on. Half of them thought it was morally repugnant, while the other half thought it was brave; the latter half apparently felt recognized in it, which is certainly more what I was going for. In terms of my intention, while I was writing it, I just wanted to be as honest as I could be, and since I ended up making myself cry, I think it probably worked. But then again, I guess I often just don't really think about how other people are going to react when I put something down—it's more about “does this feel right, or wrong? Does it feel organic? Could it go another way? No? Well...okay, then.”

I'm definitely going through menopause now, which is interesting. Sometimes I feel like a total crone, uninterested in anything sexual at all, but then other times it'll all come rushing back and I feel the urge to go nuts with what other people might consider inappropriate content. There are always going to be readers who feel I'm going too far, especially right now, when younger people (she said, in an Old Lady Voice) appear to have decided that any sort of discussion re sex being something that really does happen on occasion because most human beings are saddled with a reproductive system that makes them get horny for each other is somehow triggering. I mean yes, sex can be traumatic, and awkward, and weird, and dysfunctional; it's a super-vulnerable process, often involving inserting bits of ourselves into each other, that can feel amazing even while it looks incredibly silly. It involves a lot of negotiation, or should, and sometimes a bunch of other emotions get caught up in the process, even negative ones. So I might not ever write anything quite as full-bore semi-pornographic as (say) A Book of Tongues again, but I'm also not ever going to pretend it doesn't exist. And I'm never going to completely lose my taste for body horror, considering I'm a lifelong fan of both John Carpenter's The Thing and David Cronenberg.

To some/the majority of people, though, simply not writing from the default can seem transgressive, aggressively so. By which I mean that whenever you slip in information here and there which disproves their assumption that everyone they read about should be exactly like them (white, cis, straight, male, American, conservative, Christian, in whatever combination), these particular readers react like you just played a nasty trick on them. Like: Why you gotta rub my face in all that gay/trans/female/POC etc. stuff, man? Why you gotta make everything political? But I made a decision a while back that I was going to try to write as few default characters as I could get away with, main or otherwise, because frankly, why not? If all they want to see is themselves, they can always look pretty much anywhere else. (I made a similar decision not to show male-on-female rape directly, either, because I'm already seen enough of that in popular media to last me the rest of my life, and I've kept to it. If people find THAT transgressive, then excellent—maybe it'll make them think about why they expected to see it in the first place, as well as how they were trained to think it was “normal.”)

Let me be clear: I like the way things have changed, mainly. I like being forced to consider the perspectives of other people, because part of the pleasure of writing, for me, is allowing myself to inhabit many different sorts of characters with many different sorts of beliefs, experiences, capacities. I may joke about Gen Z and their current flirtation with nu-Puritanism, but I get where it comes from. And I truly believe that the more demand is put on us to be inclusive and just in our fictional portrayals, the more that default will finally start to shift, if only for the simple reason that it'll prove to The Powers That Be how they've been neglecting a whole lot of intersectional markets they could be tailoring their “content” towards. Yes, capitalism is a scourge, but it's pretty practical, too. Sometimes the simple drive to sell stuff for money to new bunches of suckers can succeed in sparking change on an institutional level, even where all the well-intentioned debate in the world doesn't quite seem able to.    

There seems to be a resurgence of really interesting horror films being made recently. Films that seem to combine the adventurously weird films of the 1970s with a more cerebral art house feel. What do you feel about modern horror cinema? Are we approaching a new golden age? And what recent horror films would you single out for excellence? 

Like most things, modern horror cinema cycles back and forth between what sells best and what wasn't made to sell at all, but sometimes manages to find its own set of intersectional audiences. For every Conjuring Part 3 (and by the way, I rather enjoy the Conjuring films), there's a Sator, a Saint Maud, a The Dead Center. Considering how universal the emotions and concepts horror tends to play with, I'm really not surprised that a lot of it tends to be pretty populist, reactionary, and restorative; sometimes I'm even in the mood for that, as my Fun Horror list proves. But I do feel positive about the fact that it's a much wider range of stuff we get to see in general, these days, now that streaming is replacing theatrical as the arbiter of the scene. Tubi is a godsend. I can always find something I want to see, and if I still have to pan through a river of crap to find those nuggets, it goes a whole lot faster when I'm doing it algorithmically.

I find a lot of your work seems to explore the boundaries of “the beautiful” and “the abject”. Do you find beauty in horror and the abject? Or maybe beauty is itself a strange and abject thing/concept? 

On the Weird Studies podcast, Phil Ford and JF Martel have an entire episode in which they unpack the ways that actively perceiving beauty can function as a method for breaking the ties of human experience and touching something Outside, something that changes to fit and educate every individual who interacts with it...it's something that demonstrates the outer parameters of possibility, if that makes any sense. And I guess that idea is something I've found myself chasing all my life, from that time I stumbled over the “documentary” version of Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods on: A moment of numinous realization that would change my perspective on the nature of the universe and my place in it without anything even having to be said aloud. Which sounds religious, I suppose, but why else do we talk about a new world of gods and monsters? See, see where Christ's blood streams in the firmament; see that wheel a'spinning, way up in the middle of the air. Are we husks, or hosts? What can we ever expect, besides a long degeneration followed by decay? What happens to all those thoughts, all that love, when the last electrical charge winks out inside our mushy meat-brains? I mean, it's all the same shit, really.

What are you working on now and what can we look forward to seeing next from you? 

There are three novels I'm currently working on, in no particular order—Nightcrawling, my side project for a good five years now, which is like Experimental Film in that it spins off from a very particular part of my life; In Red Company, which I've described as a combination of The Devils and Midsommar, and takes place in Northumbria around 998 AD; and a currently untitled novel or novella I pitched as “Dracula Untold, except instead of Dracula it's Erzebet Bathori.” I also have a new collection coming from Trepidatio in 2022, called Dark Is Better, and a whole bunch of short stories, because people keep on asking me for those. Which I'm fine with, believe me. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Review: Brian Catling's Earwig


If horror is an unknown figure cloaked in shadow whispering mysteries, then fantasy is a chimera, delighting in transformation and delirium. The ever mutation of previously known forms, the infinite variations of the flesh, and the venturing through different landscapes of the imagination. To take the familiar and make it strange, and to take the strange and make it familiar, this is what fantasy does best. Horror is a genre of a kind of dark revelation, the unknowability of the world and ourselves and the dark secret that lay at the heart of our existence. Fantasy is a genre of travel and voyage, of seeing ourselves reflected in the other and reveling in the infinite possibilities of existence. 

Brian Catling’s short novel Earwig is about a little girl who has no teeth and has had an artificial apparatus installed in her jaw to allow her to wear teeth made of ice, which every couple of hours needs to be replaced with fresh ice teeth. She is overseen by a brutish and dispassionate man, who was contracted to be her live-in guardian in an isolated apartment. Her parents are mysteriously absent and he is locked in with her for most of the day, rarely venturing out for necessities. Into their lives enters a strange being with otherworldly powers and an uninvited cat. This plot summary can not hope to contain all the twists and turns this narrative has in store for its readers. Earwig is written in gorgeous prose, has all these wonderful diversions that the book goes on, and has the bravery to go into both taboo and delirious territory.  It is an overused cliche, but Earwig reads like an extended dream, characters floating in and out of the narrative, abrupt changes in location and time, the unreal and the real melting into each other. 

Earwig has something of the strangeness of middle and eastern European fiction like Grabinski and Schulz, it also shares some genes with southern American writers like Cortazar and Carrington. But this is not to say in any way Earwig is old-fashioned or is in any way a work of homage or nostalgia, Earwig is a shockingly original and modern book. I think some would try to place Earwig in the same category as the urban fantasy works of Mieville and Gaiman, but I think that would be a hideous misinterpretation, while they may have similar sources of inspiration, Earwig is just better written and more honestly creative. Catling is an absolute master of prose and just seeing his choice of words and the interplay of sentences is a delight. Earwig is a very poetic book and should be savored. I would not consider Earwig to be a work of horror fiction, but I do feel it certainly will be something that adventurous horror fans would enjoy. Inside this work of fantasy lurks a very dark heart. Sinister figures, disfigured beauties, bizarre creatures, and a subtle layer of violence and sexuality. 

Predatory Mouth: Thoughts on Under The Skin

She is charming, funny, and a great flirt, when she is seeking to trap her prey, the young men of Scotland. But when she is alone, when she is not hunting, she is not able to talk, hold a conversation, or communicate with those around her. She is mute, confused, and bewildered by all the people around her. She has been created to hunt and harvest humans. Outside of her predatory role, she is truly alien. She seems to have been created, a thing made for a purpose. To mimic humans. But maybe the programming went too far and she started desiring to feel what humans feel, to blend in and become one of them. At that point, she had stopped being useful. Already separated by her base natural from everything natural on Earth, now she is also separated from those who created her. On a mission on a strange alien planet, she loses her way. 

Look around. You, as a human are accepted into culture by your usefulness. And everyone around you has strange motivations and unknowable thoughts. Humans are as alien to each other as much as any creature born on a different planet. You eat, you fuck, you defend yourself from others, violently if need be. Looking around at the landscapes that surround you, you feel like you don’t belong here. 

Her crime is in becoming too good at her job. As she infiltrates human society and struggles to seem “normal”, she inadvertently becomes too human. The character is a blank slate to the viewer, unknowable. But she seems to have made some kind of moral decision, she walks away from her mission and loses herself, escaping away and at first attempts to try to engage in what she perceives as normal human activity. Eating, fucking, seeking companionship. But that all is beyond her, she, at the most inner level, is just not in any way… human. She then attempts to run off to seek solitude. 

The film seeks to pull at the heartstring of the viewer, offering commentary on human relationships, desires, and longings. Only to pull the run under any such notions and show all of these normal activities as largely strange and unknowable even to us humans. The alien in the film can not reconcile human nature and behaviors, and neither can we. 

Her behavior mirrors the experiences of early adulthood. The strangeness of sex, the experience of going out to dinner by yourself, the desperate attempts at forming friendships. Again, these mirror our own experiences. But what is “alien” about her is her motivations. The strange black pool in her abode. The slow breakdown of the human bodies trapped in a kind of floating purgatory. The strange conveyor belt feeding the bits of flesh into a glowing red hole. 

She has one or two “wardens” who watch her from afar, presumably to make sure she does what she has been tasked to do. In their treatments of her, it seems like she is not one of them. She is a tool to be deployed for a mission to be completed. It would seem that she is not of the alien race she serves, but a tool formed of biological parts. And her wardens seem to also be humanoid, it can be assumed they are also tools of their masters. Some serve by hunting/trapping, some serve by being overseers of the whole enterprise. It is interesting that the tool the alien masters use for their hunters is… human femininity. Like a Venus Flytrap, she seduces her victims with sweetness and traps them in some indescribable trap. One would assume that the alien masterminds would want the most efficient and effective methods used in their mission. Classic alien invasion tropes like full-on attacks using devastating alien weaponry, mind control, body snatching, etc are not used. Feminine seduction is the tool they use to accomplish their goals. 

So again, we have a film that distorts what we take as everyday human behavior and makes it strange and unfamiliar. Seduction and production are seen through an unhuman lens. The underlying motivations of society are called into question. Again, she is alien to us, but so is everyone who surrounds us. Your friend's and your family's desires are just as strange and disturbing as any alien being. Science fictional tales of alien invasion and intrusion provide a mirror more clear and reflective than any so-called realist work. 

Alejandra and the Alien: More Thoughts on The Untamed


The bedroom is reeking. Some kind of mix of rot, old blood, saltwater permeates the air. The sheets are moist and dirty. The bed is a symbol of safety and rest. Of an everlasting place of refuge and security that one can always return to. But what happens when the bed is befouled? What once was pure now corrupted? When one’s trusted partner brings another into what once was just shared by just the two of you? Clean sheets spoiled by other bodies, other lusts. 

In Amal Escalante’s film The Untamed, the main protagonist is Alejandra, a mother who longs for a life beyond her kids and her abusive lover. We also have Fabian, her brother who seeks forbidden pleasure beyond the norms of society, there is Angel, her lover who has a dark secret, and there is Veronica who is lost in the world until she finds something so extraordinary that it makes everything outside it unwanted and unlivable. All these characters are seeking something, they feel a call, a subconscious pull for something more. They go to work, take care of the kids, cook, clean, make love to the same person day after day, do what is expected of them socially, they keep a veneer of normality to keep them going, yet they seek something, no matter the cost, that will allow them to feel alive, to feel pleasure in an existence of drudgery and banality. The Untamed is a cold film, a film where it seems love has died unnoticed some time ago. 

Yet, out of the black nothingness of outer space, an asteroid slowly comes to Earth, crashing into some remote part of the woods. And in this asteroid lay some kind of… thing. A thing more pure and focused than the confused people of the earth. It brings a carnality, unrefined. The animals flock to the impact site of the asteroid... and fuck over it. Reptiles, mammals, birds, all are affected by the atmosphere of flesh and desire that the alien thing brings. Sometime later, a couple finds the thing and hides it out in their secluded cabin. They bring it...lovers. Veronica is the latest girl that the couple has brought to the alien. In it, she has finally found something that is worth dedicating herself to, something that brings her pleasure and engagement like no other lover has ever done for her. But the thing is starting to grow violent in its lovemaking with Veronica, the couple urges her to stop, to prevent this from growing more and more dangerous, and to find it another lover. She finds Alejandra and sees the longing for something more in him and brings him to the alien. Then later on Veronica sees the troubles behind Fabian’s eyes, and brings her to the thing. 

And what is this thing? A tentacled delirium lurking in the shadowy corners of a farmhouse. A thing hidden away inside an asteroid from the furthest reaches of space. The lover that is kept secret from your partner. An object of obsession and lust. A reason to wake up in the morning and continue to draw breath. It is a nightmare of tentacles and a face with no eyes. It is snakes and worms and everything that crawls and is animated by filthy desire. It is the thing inside caves and subterranean tunnels, it is the thing inside asteroids and sunless moons, it is the thing inside vaginas and the womb. 

Everyone who meets the alien is irrevocably changed by the encounter. Their lives are simplified, their desires cemented. They know a happiness that before was unknown to them. Yet the thing is growing more violent in its lovemaking, causing puncture wounds and bruises. But it is never said it is angry or behaving in a different manner. Maybe, violence is tied into, in a fundamental way, desire and sexuality? Maybe we can’t fully love something unless it has the capacity to hurt us? All the characters in The Untamed have problematic relationships. Alejandra’s passionless partnership with Angel, Angel and Fabian’s secret shame-ridden affair, Veronica’s desperate seeking for anything that can match her addiction to the alien. Hurt and loneliness are a fact in all these relationships. What the alien offers is the ability to go beyond, to transcend the disappointments of life. After the alien the kids are neglected, jobs left dangling, relationships forgotten. The last scene is Ajejandra’s son pointing out a mysterious stain on her shirt as she picks him up from school, an obvious stain left there from lovemaking with the alien thing. She feels no shame or guilt, taking care of her children is just something she must do in between rounds of seeing her alien lover. 

It would seem that horror films that deal with eroticism in a serious way is a minor thread in the cinematic tradition of horror cinema, but certainly one the most interesting. The closest film to The Untamed would have to be Zulawski’s Possession, a film about a relationship that is falling apart and the strange grotesquery that Anna takes as a lover as she cuckolds her husband Mark. I wonder what other films would fall into a “female desire of the monstrous'' subgenre if we consider this as such.  I think of Julia in Hellraiser and Hellraiser 2 seeking monstrous revelation and finding it, I think of Thomasin’s deliverance in The Witch through a horned man and a book signed in blood, I think of Antichrist with a grieving mother finding her true self in chaos and evil. I think of how Ripley keeps going back to the Xenomorph in Alien. It seems to be a rare thing, the horror film about women and their secrets lusts, with a decidedly unsympathetic stance against the male point of view. These women desire the rotten, the corrupted, the evil, and the disgraced. The view of woman as home keeper, child raiser, devoted wife, is taken to with a wrecking ball with these films. The plunge into the abject, the worship of what destroys you, is at the heart of this subgenre. In The Untamed, love is a lie, inside we are all alien things that desire and lust after what can never be had, until death do us part. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The Films of David Cronenberg: A Troubling Joy.


            Is David Cronenberg a cinematic masochist? A fear of penetration, either viral, technological, or pharmaceutical runs through his films, or is it something other than fear? He creates films that obsess over bodily contamination, the penetration of our psyches, the corruption of our physical structures. Sometimes in his films, it is an unwanted violation, sometimes it is desired, sometimes it’s a bit ambivalent. Cronenberg presents these men ( I don’t think it would be out of line to say Cronenberg’s films are pretty much all internal explorations of himself ) whose very sense of self is consistently in danger of being lost or taken over by outside influences. In Videodrome by a malevolent electronic signal, in Dead Ringers by drugs and desire, and in Crash by our cold technological landscape and our need for a transcendent perversity. Their bodies and boundaries are in a state of constant cross-contamination, where they end and the outside begins is questioned. Issues of identity and individuality are deconstructed and examined. His landscapes are cold and sterile, a strong but subtle hint of science fiction to them. The future seems not to be a fertile one, but one that is born dead, one that must be somehow overcome if we are to survive, met head-on by taking our collective blinders off and realizing just how strange all this is, the body, the earth, our very existence. His cinema is one of metamorphosis, his characters never end the film the same as when they began. I think that Cronenberg shares a lot of philosophical concerns with some early Modernist writers along with the more Post-Modernist influence that has been associated with Cronenberg, like Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard. Like Sacher-Masoch, Cronenberg finds a kind of salvation in coldness, sterility, passivity. Like Kafka, Cronenberg sees the self as unknowable and unstable, always changing and never certain where the self begins and the self ends. In a certain way, Cronenberg welds a kind of Eastern European bleak and masochistic existentialism with a surreal and transgressive science-fictional obsessiveness with the body and reality.

        Cronenberg’s films seem to go back and forth between a pessimism about where humanity is headed and a kind of perverse optimism of the new possibilities that the changing face of humanity brings. Personally, I find his more optimistic transgressive horror films to be more interesting, this exploration of deep penetration and viral contamination which finds a kind of troubling joy. This optimism of his can be seen in films like Scanners, Videodrome, Crash, Shivers, and Existenz. I think his more bleak and pessimistic films like Rabid, The Brood, The Fly, and Dead Ringers, tend to revert back to more normal horror tropes, a kind of standard fear of death and the body. In Rabid the protagonist becomes host to a blood-thirsty parasite and is fated to destroy all that she loves. In The Brood strange new forms of reproduction and motherhood are explored, resulting in a young girl being trapped in a cycle of violence and abuse. In Dead Ringers, the Mantle twins, to their horror, have to come to terms that they are in fact separate people with their own inescapable destinies. This brings a profound confusion, The Mantle brothers feel that they are connected in a way beyond brotherhood, they feel that their literal nervous systems are connected. So, when one of them falls in love and their paths start separating, they are faced with the horrible truth that they are in fact, separate people. They find that they are actually both alone on this earth. So one brother falls into drugs, sex, and delusion. The Mantle twins are famed gynecologists, but in their growing paranoia and psychosis, the female body, their chosen subject of study, has become strange and seemingly mutated. The insides of women no longer make sense. What they understood with a medical exactness now has become completely unknown. And when they look at each other, there is a gulf between them farther than galaxies. In The Fly, Seth, while trying to better mankind and advance science, unwittingly becomes something other than human and dooms himself. These films end in ruin and death. But as we shall see in some of Cronenberg’s other films, sometimes out of delirium and bodily corruption comes… weird salvation.

        Cronenberg’s films typically focus on a solitary figure trying to comprehend and engage with a world that is strange to him but also a world that seems like a kind of mirror to his fractured existence. A major theme of something alien infiltrating you and changing you fundamentally seems to obsess Cronenberg. To assume you have control over your mind and body is a fatal miscalculation. To accept the unknown, entering you and mutating your very essence, seems to be a path to freedom, or maybe a path to truth. In his works it seems there is freedom in abandoning yourself and accepting the strange and the perverse into your life, to see yourself as strange and perverse. The desperate holding on to our notions of boundaries is what imprisons us. To let go, to understand how alien we are and how strange everything is, and to finally and fully let go, seems to be Cronenberg’s mission. And this change comes to his characters in many forms. Usually, the corruptor wears the face of seduction in Cronenberg’s universe, luring the protagonist to sometimes ruin, sometimes self-discovery, sometimes both at the same time. Nicki Brand lures Max Renn in with kinky sex, then to full-on penetration of his psyche and the destruction of his physical body. But is this doom, or liberation? In Crash, Vaughan brings James into an erotic world of twisted auto accidents and bodily trauma. The excitements of a future psychology, a future of coldness, perversion, and technological disaster are eagerly awaited and desired. Some innate human wish has been unlocked in our environment of unreality, technology, and the death of emotion. Both ruin and transcendence await you in the crashing of motor vehicles. A kind of troubling joy, a finding of meaning in ruin. The woman in Shivers is a carrier, her body teeming with sexual parasites, bringing a kind of apocalypse of carnal pleasure. Is this apocalypse one to be feared or desired? One of the things that I love about Cronenberg’s films is that there is no right answer, no correct viewpoint. Meaning is subjective, and the body is porous.

Cronenberg’s films disturb because they are not about some evil trying to break into our comfortable middle-class lives. They are not about good vs bad. They are not about the outsider vs the normal. Cronenberg’s films are more concerned with ambiguity and the erosion of boundaries. They posit that we are not what we want to believe we are. We are not stable solid entities. We are more like sentient living bodies of water, oceans full of things entering and leaving, things filling us and exiting out of us. We are some sort of mixture of fungus, bacteria, and mud, walking around infecting each other. There is no eternal “I'', there is only the “I” of right now, which may be a completely different thing tomorrow. What is sex, what most would consider the ultimate joy, but contamination and penetration? To be entered by outside entities, other lives, and have bodily fluids mingle with your inner body, absorbing them. In Shivers, Cronenberg talks about how humans see and engage with reality through a sexual lens. Television is sex. Video Games are sex. Parasitism is sex. Death is sex. It all contaminants and penetrates our existence. Actual, “healthy” reproductive sex as portrayed in most mainstream cinema is a fairytale, a sort of calming lie, the reality of sex far more dangerous and subversive. Cronenberg is the poet of Eros. Strange, dirty, all-consuming Eros. An Eros for the twenty-first century, cold and barren. It is a reproductive urge finding itself at a dead end. We have come to the end of human history, and it is a very strange place we find ourselves. The old ways are just not working anymore, and we don’t know the way forward. We look around at the Earth and feel like strangers here, not connected in any way to nature and what we would naively call the natural. But Cronenberg seeks the positive in all this. His films find joy in ruin and alienation, sometimes a most strange and uncomfortable pleasure. We are alien to each other and to ourselves. The future is dead. We are not what we had assumed. But, for the brave, there is pleasure and freedom to be explored here at the end of times.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Guest Review: Mona Swan LeSueur on The Witch Who Came From The Sea


                “Do you shave with straight razors? Or is this all going to be agonizingly slow?”

Matt Cimber’s “The Witch Who Came from the Sea” (1976) feels like a movie that shouldn’t have existed when it did. Released amongst a slew of exploitation films(and eventually marketed and edited down to resemble one), this transgressive character study was both out of place and in the wrong time.

The story starts out simple enough. Molly (played by Millie Perkins) is out at the beach with her two nephews. While sitting in the sand, Molly observes a few muscle-bound bodybuilders exercising in the distance. One does reps and borderline gymnastics on a pull-up bar. Another lifts heavy weights. A third does leg swings while hanging from hoops. The camera lingers on their chests and colorful speedo crotches. This sensual observation suddenly turns to death fantasy as we see them die one by one. The one doing arm pull-ups falls to the sand, his mouth covered in blood. The one doing leg swings hangs by the chains, his throat veins bulging. We see rotoscoped blood squirt out of the eyes of the weight lifter. The fantasy is then interrupted when one of the nephews asks Molly about their grandfather. Specifically, they ask if there was treasure on his ship when he went down at sea. Molly clarifies that he was “lost at sea”, and insists that he will one day return (despite it having been fifteen years since he was “lost at sea”). They leave the beach and, after a bizarre run-in with a tattooed man (whose name we later learn is the equally bizarre Jack Dracula), they return to Molly’s sister's place to watch TV. Molly loves TV. She reminds us of this several times throughout the film. She frequently talks about TV actors, film actors, football players, you name it.

Molly is also an alcoholic. We see her down a few half tall glasses of straight vodka on multiple occasions throughout the film. The first time we see her drink, she is mid-argument with her sister about their abusive father. The film starts to look dreamy, with the audio distorted and it cuts to: Molly in a bedroom with two meaty football players she saw on TV. It starts out like a sweet and playful kink scene. The three share some weed, have a few laughs, and then she ties them up. One of them promptly passes out from the weed. The other is still lucid enough for fun and conversation. Molly stands on the edge of the bed and teases him, demanding he try to do something with the leg she has yet to tie.  He gently lifts up his leg and places his foot on her chest. She smiles. She grabs onto his foot, gently at first, and then begins to dig her fingers in harder and harder. Things take a dark turn here. She talks about shaving him and bursts into a stoned rendition of the 1880’s sea shanty “Sailing, Sailing”. She retrieves a razor from the bathroom and we see jump cuts of what appears to be her castrating him just out of frame. It cuts away from there. Molly then finds out on the TV that the football players were found murdered. She is heartbroken. Particularly because her nephews were so fond of them. She then goes to serve drinks at the bar she works at/lives in with her boss/lover, Long John, as if nothing has happened.

“The Witch Who Came from The Sea” was written by Robert Thom (Millie Perkins’ then-husband). He was struggling to pay the hospital bills at the time, so he wrote the screenplay (which includes various elements from his and Millie Perkins’ life). The script is filled with all sorts of oddball dialogue from characters whose names almost sound like comic book characters. Take for example, an exchange between Molly and a tattoo artist named Jack Dracula. While getting a tattoo of a mermaid on her torso, she recalls a nickname she once had when she was younger, and compares her name to his. Jack Dracula responds by simply affirming that Jack Dracula happens to be his real name. Or, another example: Molly goes to dinner with her boss Long John, the TV actor, and the TV actor’s girlfriend. Molly openly flirts with the TV actor and suggests that, since they are not officially an item, his girlfriend should be shipped off to China. The next day, after Molly has slept with the TV actor, the former girlfriend storms up to his big mansion with a revolver and starts shooting at both him and his car. She shouts that she is not going to be shipped off to China. I like to imagine what could have inspired some of these scenes and characters.

As the film progresses, we see the line between fantasy and reality blur more and more. She waxes deliriously about getting “lost last at sea” and refers to the men she is seeing as being part of her crew. At one point while working at the bar, she starts to hallucinate during a shaving advert featuring the TV she just slept with. The ad starts normally, but then he starts to address Molly directly through the TV. He cuts his neck and chest with the razor while describing what he wants her to do to him (this bit feels like it could have been lifted straight from a Nightmare on Elm Street film). At another point, we see her on a wooden raft at sea. She is clinging to the sail and cackling. She is surrounded by the members of her “crew”. All of them have been butchered.

For most of the film, the palette is fairly (and I think deliberately) drab in color. Lots of greys and browns. However, not long after the bloody shaving advertisement, she hooks up with the TV actor again. Only this time, she slices him up and down in his rich, Hollywood bathroom covered in blue. Just like he asked her to on TV. The red blood particularly pops in this scene. She finishes him off with a charged castration. There are a few instances of castration throughout the film. Some literal. Some less so. Muscular, conventionally attractive men all fall victim to Molly’s drunken wrath (and razors). The only man we see her have a seemingly normal relationship with is Long John, who is middle-aged, scruffy, and gentle. There are a few moments where we see them in bed together, in each other's arms, watching TV. A stark contrast to her violent and angry encounters with the men on the TV.

Despite the odd balance of eccentric characters and hallucinatory sequences, the movie manages to feel grounded with the way it portrays Molly’s experiences. In a scene shortly after the football players are murdered, she goes to a party hosted by film actor Billy Batt (a different actor than the TV actor). They discuss the Boticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”. She is fascinated and saddened by the tale of Venus coming out of the sea. He changes the subject and suggests they go have some fun. Any room. Doesn’t particularly matter where. She responds and says: “I think you’re too gentle for me”. Billy, with a single expression and stance shift, becomes the second most terrifying figure we see in the film. They do go off to his bedroom. They start to get intimate. She bites his hand. He slaps her and knocks her over to the other side of the bed. She climbs back up, shouts at him, curls her hands like talons, and leaps off the bed. She bites his ear. He then knocks her on the floor outside of his bedroom. The other party-goers completely dismiss Billy and make sure that Molly is alright. Most other films would portray the party guests rushing over to Billy to make sure he is alright. Not this film. Or take for example, the ending. After coming to terms that she has been murdering people, she rushes over to her boss/lover Long John and a regular, Doris, to confess her crimes. The police are on their way. Now, you might expect a film from this era to show her friends trying to restrain her and prevent her escape, which then leads to a dramatic apprehension sequence, followed by a sneak peek at her stay in an asylum. Not this film. Instead, she asks to see her nephews one last time. Then, surrounded by the people she loves, she takes a large amount of painkillers and slowly drifts off to an eternal slumber. Perhaps this is why, despite all of its idiosyncrasies, that it feels so lived in. Or perhaps it is because of those idiosyncrasies?

This film also has a particularly noteworthy stamp of disapproval. It was one of the original 72 video nasties (though it was not prosecuted). I suspect its inclusion was not solely due to the castration and blood sprinkled throughout. Those elements are fairly tame compared to other entries on that list. But rather, I believe it was included due to the portrayals of child abuse laid bare through flashbacks to times we learn Molly refers to as being “lost at sea”. “We were lost at sea so many times”, she recalls in the ending scene. 

There were few films at the time that truly recognized women’s suffering without being exploitive, yet this film (which I must reiterate was written and released in the 1970’s) respectfully tackles this subject in a tasteful and frank manner. The only other film that even comes close to accomplishing what this film does would have to be David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” (1992), and that film was greeted with lines upon lines of women at the cinemas when it was released in Japan. Sadly, “The Witch Who Came from the Sea” never received such a treatment upon its initial release (even after they issued the lurid poster featuring a nearly nude Molly raising a dagger in one hand, while also sporting a dripping severed head in the other). The film was censored to varying degrees in its initial theatrical release and remained relatively obscure until a number of uncut theatrical and home media releases started cropping up in the last couple of decades.

“The Witch Who Came from the Sea” might not be the first film that comes to mind when you read the words inspiring cinema, especially considering it is a sad horror film that deals with alcoholism and child abuse, but having watched it twice in one week (the second time with a friend who expressed a similar sentiment), I can say with certainty that this low-budget feature inspires and instills hope in struggling creatives due to what it achieved with so little. This refreshing gem of a film is finally getting the due it deserved so many decades ago.

As of this writing, “The Witch Who Came from the Sea” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, The Criterion Channel, as well as the Arrow Video Channel on Apple TV. It is also available from Arrow Video on Blu-Ray/DVD for you collector types out there. Sailing, sailing, over the bounding main…