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Issue 16,  August 3, 2009     —      Wider Screenings, Spiderman in Hell

In this issue:   FEATURE: Eldon Taylor, The Genie    Warren Wojnowski, Essential Law of Attraction Lessons from Wallace Wattles   Ann Ronan, Your Mindset is the Biggest Key to Your Self-Employment Success   Guy Finley, How to Use the Power of Inner Storms to Live Stress Free   Mark Bowser, How to Create an Ocean of Referrals!   Sharon Elaine, Affirmations for Luck   Wider Screenings, Spiderman in Hell   Events   Reviews   Earlier issues   Submit Article

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Wider Screenings
columnist Robert Cettl has a B.A (Hons) in Film Study from the Flinders University of South Australia, which included an international scholarship to the University of Southern Illinois in the USA.  He has post-graduate qualifications in Librarianship and Information Management from UniSA.  In addition to popular DVD reviewing, his writing for McFarland (one of the leading American publishers of film non-fiction) has been collected by such as Yale University Library and the British Film Institute.  His forthcoming work for this market (for release in 2010) is Terrorism in American Cinema: a comprehensive analysis of terrorism as a genre from fears of PLO inspired homeland attacks in Black Sunday to the outright denouncement of the Bush War on Terror in W.  His previous work includes the above extracted Film Tales, now on sale and coming soon as an ebook through Inkstone Digital and Amazon Kindle in association with No Limits.  For analysis and commentary on individual films mentioned in this column (and hundreds of others) and for updates on the latest Hollywood hits and choicest DVD releases, Wider Screenings is now on Twitter.  Any @ reply will be duly answered – there are no automated DMs or tweets.  If tweeting, please mention film title in tweet: requests for films/DVDs to be reviewed are welcomed and given priority.  Free print copies of Film Tales can be won in the tweet ‘n win Film Buff Quiz.  First tweet request being incorporated into Wider Screenings is a retrospective of actor Warren Oates beginning with the film Cockfighter, a seldom seen look at cockfighting in the Southern States and a film still banned in England.

                                                        with Robert Cettl

Spiderman in Hell
Gen-Y Laws of Attraction amidst Freudian vs. Jungian Allegory in Contemporary Horror Cinema

Spiderman director Sam Raimi’s latest horror film opus Drag Me to Hell is an intriguing capitulation of two trends in the horror movie and a disavowal of any rationalist attempt to negotiate the supernaturalism of the genre.  The plot of this Gen-Y comedic-horror film (replete with the kind of 3 Stooges gross-out horror that Raimi brought to his earlier Evil Dead trilogy, especially Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn) concerns a bank loans officer who, in order to appear tough enough to get a promotion, denies an elderly gypsy woman an extension on her mortgage.  The old woman begs for compassion but receives none, upon which she curses the protagonist via an old gypsy incantation.  Soon, the protagonist notices that strange things are happening and she consults a psychic / spiritual advisor who informs her that she has been cursed and set upon by a demon which torments its victims for 3 days before coming to drag them to Hell and feast on their soul.  Distraught, she takes it upon herself to try and appease the demon and end the curse, eventually seeking the help of an experienced medium in a séance designed to summon the demon and trap it.

It’s a hodge-podge of supernatural horror clichés of course, carefully re-invented for the Gen-Y success-driven agenda.  From a poor background, the protagonist longs for the kind of affluence that comes with promotion, financial security and rewarding emotional relationships – “success” in the uniquely American sense of the word.  Her actions in denying the mortgage extension were designed to attract the likelihood of promotion: action brings consequence.  Her boyfriend (Justin Long – a new Gen-Y icon thanks to recent roles in He’s Just Not That Into You and Zack and Miri Make a Porno) is a successful psychologist, with a Freudian background, from a rich family who are pressuring him to find a woman more suitable to his station than a former poor farm girl.  The protagonist longs to impress her boyfriend’s parents and be accepted into his life.  Long, however, is a minor character, so weak and timid as to be ineffectual in the drama: far from the boyfriend to the rescue, it is up to the protagonist to extricate herself from the supernatural entanglement.  Indeed, Long doubts the truth of the supernatural scenario from the outset, almost getting into an argument with the psychic / spiritual advisor about Freudian psycho-analysis as opposed to Jungian archetypal unconscious symbolism, the psychic allowed the last word by saying that Jung should not be disregarded simply because he re-introduced God and divine spiritualism into the psycho-analysis equation.

It is here that the film makes its sub-textual agenda quite clear – the Freudian disavowal of the supernatural vs. the Jungian embrace of it.  In that, the film effectively summarizes the two conflicting traits of the contemporary horror film.  The horror film’s origins lie in supernatural myth – werewolves and vampires being typical examples.  As a genre, the construction of fear in the genre relied on the monster beyond human accountability: otherworldly and evil, these creatures preyed on a humanity unable to combat them and living in fear of them, protected against them through the actions of spiritually aware guides (usually religious).  Freudian psychoanalysis as popularized in the mid 20th Century relocated these myths of supernatural and superstitious origin within the human psyche – taking the vampire for instance, the monster became recognizably human, less an evil than psychotically deranged.  Thus, from the mid 1950s, the horror film splintered into those which maintained the origins of the genre in pseudo-religious superstition (the demon from Hell being the most popular villain) and those which sought to relocate “horror” as an indication of human psychological aberrance (rooted in the case studies of murderers and sexual deviants that littered the works of psychologist Krafft-Ebbing).  While the supernatural horror film devoted itself to other-worldly intrusion on the physical realm, the new “humanist” horror film devoted itself to psycho-sexual aberration as centred on the new “monster” of the 20th Century, the serial killer.

The serial killer as a character type was at once a monster capable of the most atrocious and horrifying actions and a human being driven by fantasy.  However, increasing behavioural and criminological insights into this new type of killer (indeed a line in the recent From Hell about Jack the Ripper suggests the killer’s awareness that the unique nature of his crimes will lead historians to suggest that he birthed the 20th Century) pointed to their motivation in sexual fantasy and self-actualization through ritualistic, violent homicide.  Thus, unique to this Freudian tale was the incorporation of sexually-driven violent set-pieces.  Such were suppressed (perhaps latent is a better word) in the supernatural horror film and when expressed in increasingly graphic terms within the developing serial killer film proved increasingly problematic for censors and paternalistic moralizers.  Supernatural horror retreated from this behaviourism and asserted instead that there exist timeless forces (naturally of good and evil – as such is the binary opposition behind morally absolutist religious superstitions) which override, influence and can prey on humankind.  Thus, the successful The Exorcist went through a long process wherein the demon-possessed pubescent girl (Linda Blair) is subjected to a battery of psychological tests which prove ineffective until outdated Catholic superstitions of demon possession prove the truth after all: the cursed girl is saved by those with insight into the spiritual realm.

Drag Me to Hell director Sam Raimi is well aware of this tension between psycho-analytic and supernatural cause and effect within the horror film although as a director he sided from the outset in Evil Dead with the supernatural and has generally eschewed rationalist explanations for horror except in The Gift.  Thus, he makes the Freudian psychologist Long the most ineffectual character in the film – after the protagonist is attacked by the invisible demon tormenting her (summoned by an ancient superstitious curse) Long debates post-traumatic disorder with another psychiatrist while the audience is fully aware that the psychic-advisor Long considers a scam-artist is right on the money with his spiritualist interpretation.  Thus, between the Freudian psychologist and the Jungian spiritualist, Raimi sides with the spiritualist and again embraces a Jungian supernaturalism founded on a simplistic good and evil dichotomy.  In short – the protagonist committed an inhumane action (denying the mortgage extension) and was punished according to an infernal sense of karma: wrong actions bring terrible consequences (an inverse application and deployment of the Self-Help Law of Attraction that motivated the protagonist to seek promotion by denying the mortgage application to begin with).  Spiritual absolutism – for Raimi the existence of demonic evil – supersedes any and all rational explanation: evil is eternal and will prey on humans who break absolutist laws of proper moral conduct.

Raimi injects a certain amount of humour into his film in elaborate jokey gore effects so over-the-top as to be hilarious but his moral is spiritualist and his affirmation of the supernatural above the rational infects Drag Me to Hell’s carefully engineered shock effects.  Ultimately, Drag Me to Hell follows a pattern common to post-Freudian horror cinema: human psychology is downplayed and made the irrelevant servant to a supernatural master – the demon persecuting humankind for its wrongs (its humanist moral relativism) in effect by confirming the existence of evil confirms the existence of God (a theme alluded to in recent religious-themed horror films from The Reaping to Mirrors).  That is not to say that Drag Me to Hell is overtly religious: rather it uses the traditional belief in supernatural forces which underlie human superstition and fear of what lies beyond human experience (death, infernal punishment for transgression) and locates these within the psychic-driven belief in forces beyond human understanding that leads many to consult spiritual advisors in order to explain their experience and derive insight into the human condition.  It conjures archetypes of evil in order to confirm the simplistic dualism of good vs. evil absolutism and in the process disavows the complexities of human nature – not even acknowledging the traditionally sexual undercurrents of the horror film – to create a safe, chaste, mass-produced horror film for Gen-Y teens and 20-somethings: this is multiplex safe supernatural horror where fear is a gimmick to maintain a conventional spiritualist view of good and evil.  Far from challenging despite its horror effects, Drag Me to Hell, is thematically a safely reassuring capitulation to supernatural mumbo-jumbo.

* * * * *

The Most Infernal of Voices
(an extract from Robert Cettl’s book Film Tales)

The voice and vocal effects of the demon-possessed little girl played by Linda Blair in the movie of The Exorcist were provided by the Academy-Award winning actress Mercedes McCambridge, most noted for her work opposite Joan Crawford in the classic western Johnny Guitar.  Her agent one day called her and said that director William Friedkin was making this horror film and wanted her to play the voice of the demon Pazuzu.  McCambridge, being Irish-Catholic, was reluctant to play a part in such Satanic subject matter but soon relented when the director said she was the only one for the role.  She then threw herself into characterizing the demon: she hadn’t had a drink for 25 years and had quit smoking for 10, but weird effects happened to her voice when she smoked and drank and so she indulged just for the movie.  She also wanted her own priest to be present whilst she played the part and wanted to be tied to a chair and put through some kind of physical torture routine.  She was so tied up with sheets and put through the paces – all generating her unique vocal effects.  When all was said and done and the film released, she sued the filmmakers when she did not, as per the initial agreement, get a screen credit for her extraordinary vocal achievement.

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