This week sees the release of three new horror movies: Warm Bodies, Girls Against Boys (both in theaters) and The ABCs of Death (on demand). But it is not enough anymore merely to be a horror movie — now horror movies, in conversation with what came before them in their respective subgenres, must add something new to the conversation, or at least purport to for the sake of "angle." All three of these attempt to do so, with various yet decided degrees of success. Let's explore.
Template: The zombie movie a la Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later
Variation: This one has heart. Literally. In one of Warm Bodies director/screenwriter Jonathan Levine's most gratuitous moves, we see the illuminated heart of our protagonist, emo zombie R (Nicholas Hoult), through his shirt. In terms of content and format, Warm Bodies is the teenage rom com reanimated.
Is it worthwhile?: There will always be post-apocalyptic zombie movies that involve surviving humans having to transport one thing or another, putting themselves in the way of brain-munching undead. Any radical spin on this is a welcome break from the inevitable, deadening monotony. The ideas that love conquers all, even zombiehood (R becomes more human with love, even passing at one point) and that maybe all outcasts need to thrive is some understanding and affection, is ultimately trite and Warm Bodies ends up erring way more on the side of rom com than horror. It is, after all rated PG-13, and the level of gore is lower than even a boring walking-around-doing-nothing segment of The Walking Dead. That said, this movie has a way of gnawing at you, infecting you with its optimism in the process.
Warm Bodies makes lemonade out of rotting lemons and tons of references. As R rescues Julie (Teresa Palmer) from am ambush of his fellow zombies that he initially takes part in (eating the brains of her boyfriend and absorbing his memories), we in turn absorb shades of Beauty and the Beast, King Kong, perhaps Twilight. There is a balcony scene and parental disdain a la Romeo and Juliet and a scene in which R is made over to the tune of "Oh Pretty Woman" that recalls Pretty Woman and Ally Sheedy's de-freaking in The Breakfast Club. Julie holds a Blu-Ray of Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2 up to R's face for the sake of literal comparison, so at least there is some cred there, in case you were doubting.
The sunny approach to the undead would be harder to stomach than your typical gut-buster if Warm Bodies weren't so sharp. Adapted from Isaac Marion's novel of the same name, the film sports clever inner narration from R, who can barely mumble at the start but who learns to communicate more effectively over time. There's satisfying irony when R tells himself, "Don't be creepy don't be creepy don't be creepy," on a forced "date" with Julie, and when he talks about his post-life memory being wiped clean: he can't remember his name or his job "although my hoodie would suggest I was unemployed." The soundtrack, largely hits of the ‘80s, is a little too on the nose (John Waite's "Missing You" features prominently, and the "There is no doubt you're in my heart now" line of Guns ‘n Roses' "Patience" rings through the theater after we've seen R's heart illuminate), but overall this movie is smarter beyond its obligation as first-quarter popcorn entertainment. When R faces a moment of romantic adversity in the middle of the film, he laments, "It's easier not to feel. Then I wouldn't have to feel like this." It's a human sentiment that transcends genre; exactly Warm Bodies' point.
ABCs of Death
Template: The horror anthology a la Creep Show, Trilogy of Terror, V/H/S
Variation: Usually anthologies contain a handful of short films at 10 to 20 minutes a piece. ABCs of Death squeezes 26 films (one for each letter of the alphabet) into about two hours, so that they average less than 5 minutes a piece. There's a real momentum in each to get immediately to the point (which is always death, per the title), even more so with last year's V/H/S, which in the best-case scenario (i.e. Ti West's "Second Honeymoon") didn't let little things like context and deep character development get in the way of brutality.
Is it worthwhile?: Yes. If nothing else, it's a fun interactive experience: only after each short do you find out its title but if you keep track of what letter you're on, this becomes a guessing game. For example, I initially thought that "A" stood for "adultery," unaware that it would veer dramatically into an unpredictable turn (I won't spoil it here). The game is sometimes maddening (especially when the letter's word isn't in English), but always engaging.
The shorts themselves range widely in tone and medium – most are funny, a few are scary. There are some drawn and clay animation examples. Some are linear, others are abstract. Modern horror tropes abound (POV, self-consciousness), as does a deep understanding of the shock value of animal abuse. Now, we don't see any actual animals die (it's all fictional depiction) – this isn't Cannibal Holocaust, but you get the sense that quite a few of the directors involved admire Ruggero Deodato's influential 1980 grindhouse flick.
ABCs of Horror is so packed with twisted imagery and fucked-up ideas (a jerk-off contest to the death that tortures its contestants with some can't-unseeable shit, death by fart, Nazism by way of a cat with a human body) that what is truly frightening about it is its unpredictability. You never have any idea what wild turns the next segment will make. Despite its title, it feels alive and risky, the ultimate commoditization of death as a blur of carnage zooms by for a breathless two hours. It's kind of the antithesis of Amour. You could even call it breezy.
Girls Against Boys
Template: The rape-revenge fantasy a la I Spit On Your Grave, Ms. 45, The Last House on the Left
Variation: Rape-revenge movies are unsettling for reasons deeper than the obvious – when the abused female protagonist finds her voice through vengeance it can feel like a feminist triumph...except first you have to sit through often gratuitously long scenes of her getting raped, which almost always linger enough to feel pornographic and make you wonder just who the intended audience is (it could be actual rapists). Girls Against Boys is a little gentler on its protagonist Shae (Danielle Panabaker), as the rape that spurs her into action takes place briefly and in a background blur (director Austin Chick focuses on a innocence-invoking San Rio key chain stuck in the door of her apartment that she almost made it into on time).
This is still an exploitation movie and it's still going to feel fucked up and unsavory and has no shot at summing up the societal oppression of women (not the least of the reasons why being that a man wrote and directed this), but Girls Against Boys is more sensitive than the average flick of this sort. It argues strongly for female solidarity (when Shae splits from her wild-child friend Lu, played by Nicole LaLiberte, she finds herself in trouble). It at least attempts to portray the atmosphere of casual misogyny that Shae and Lu withstand in order to exist in the world — we see men leering, attempting to get Shae's number as she bartends, wielding their authority like it's a giant cock. After Lu sets off this vengeance rampage in which Shae participates not just willingly but giddily, it also accounts for why Lu is capable of such fucked-up shit in a bit of satisfying, slyly humorous subversion to victim clichés.
Is it worthwhile?: I think so. Lu and Shae ultimately use societal expectations to their advantage – the men they kill have no idea what's coming for them because they just see a pair of girls standing before them and girls are weak and harmless, right? Girls Against Boys is endlessly conversant with the tradition it operates within (Shae almost gets raped a second time, in a turn reminiscent of Abel Ferrara's masterpiece Ms. 45), but it uses nuances to create a more responsible statement. It is aware of its potential status as a discursive lightning rod (these things tend to be), and accounts for that as well: the film opens with Shae in a college lecture about the work of Japanese visual artist Aida Makoto, during which her professor explains the "a fine line between post-feminist critique and blatant objectification." If any subgenre could use some on-the-nose awareness, surely it is the rape-revenge one. The subgenre doesn't necessarily deserve Girls Against Boys, but it's better for having it.