Playing Catch-Up: The Stanford Prison Experiment and The Tribe


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The Stanford Prison Experiment (dir by Kyle Patrick Alvarez)

The Stanford Prison Experiment tells a true story.  It’s important to point that out because this is one of those films that, if you didn’t know it was based on a true story, you would probably be inclined to dismiss as being totally improbable.

In 1971, Professor Philip Zimbardo (played in the movie by Billy Crudup) conducted a psychological experiment at Stanford University.  A fake prison was built in the basement of a campus building, complete with cells and even a room to be used for solitary confinement.  15 students volunteered to take part in the experiment.  For $15.00 a day, some of the students were randomly assigned to be prisoners while others got to be guards.  The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks but Zimbardo ended it after 6 days.  Why?  Because the students had started to the take the experiment very seriously, with the guards growing increasingly sadistic towards their “prisoners.”  Afterwards, many of the prisoner students claimed to have been traumatized while the guard students felt they were just playing a game.

(As one of the guards says in the film, “Am I still going to get paid?”)

The Stanford Prison Experiment tells the story of that controversial experiment and it is, at times, quite a harrowing experience.  Interestingly, when the film begins, the focus is on the prisoners.  I immediately noticed that Ezra Miller was one of the prisoners and, being familiar with his work in Perks of Being A Wallflower and We Need To Talk About Kevin, I naturally assumed that the majority of the film would revolve around him.  After all, among the actors playing the prisoners, Ezra Miller was the “biggest name.”  And, when the film began, it did seem to be centered around Miller’s likable and rebellious presence.

But then something happened.  Miller faded into the background.  In fact, all of the “prisoners” faded into the background and the actors became almost indistinguishable from each other.  Instead, the film started to focus on one of the guards.  Outside of the prison, Christopher Archer (Michael Angarano) is a laid back and rather amiable California college student.  But, once he shows up for the night shift, Archer starts to talk about all of the prison films that he’s seen.  He starts to speak in a Southern accent.  He says stuff like, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”  And soon, Archer is making the rules inside the prison.

In much the same way that Christopher Archer takes over the experiment, actor Michael Angarano takes over the film.  While Zimbardo and his colleagues watch Archer’s actions with a mix of fascination and fear, the film’s audience becomes enthralled with Angarano’s intense performance.  Wisely, neither Angarano nor the film allow Archer to turn into a cardboard villain.  He’s not a bad guy.  Instead, he’s playing a role.  He’s been told to act like a guard and that’s what he’s going to do, regardless of whatever else may happen.  The most fascinating part of the film becomes the contrast between Archer the likable student and Archer the fascist authority figure.

It’s frustrating that more people didn’t see The Stanford Prison Experiment when it was released in 2015.  Considering the blind trust in authority that is currently so popular in certain parts of the American culture, The Stanford Prison Experiment is a film that a lot of people really do need to see and learn from.

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The Tribe (dir by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)

Anyone who says that they truly understand everything that happens in the disturbing Ukrainian film The Tribe is lying.  Taking place at a school for the deaf and exclusively cast with deaf actors, The Tribe is a film where everyone communicates in Ukrainian Sign Language and there are no subtitles.  However, the actors are often filmed with their back to the camera and occasionally, their hands are out of frame so, even if you do know Ukrainian Sign Language, there’s still going to be scenes where you have no idea what anyone is saying.

And it’s appropriate really.  The Tribe is a film about alienation and, by refusing to give us either an interpreter or subtitles, it forces the audience to feel the same alienation that the film’s characters have to deal with on a daily basis.  It quickly becomes obvious that these permanent outsiders have created their own society and the least of their concerns is whether the rest of the world understands it.

What can be learned about the film’s story largely comes from the body language of the actors and the audience’s own knowledge of gangster movies, which is what The Tribe basically is.  A new student at a boarding school for the deaf is recruited into a gang that deals drugs and pimps out two female students as prostitutes at a truck stop.  When the new student falls in love with one of the girls, it leads to some truly brutal acts of violence, all of which are somehow made more disturbing by the fact that they take place in total silence.

(The talkative criminals of most gangster films allow audiences to focus on something other than the violence.  When people talk about the opening of a film like Pulp Fiction, they talk about John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson talking about Amsterdam.  They don’t focus on the guys getting gunned down in their apartment.  In The Tribe, there are no quips or one-liners before people are hurt and we are forced to pay more attention to the consequences of brutality.)

The Tribe is made up of only 34 shots.  The wide-angle lens forces us to consider these alienated characters against the barren Ukrainian landscape and the camera constantly moves with the characters, tracking them as closely as fate.  Intense and dream-lie, The Tribe is a hauntingly enigmatic film.  It’s not an easy film but it is a rewarding one.

The Horror of 2015: It Follows and Unfriended


2015 is shaping up to be a pretty good year for horror.  Here are my reviews of two recent horror films that have recently been getting a lot of attention, It Follows and Unfriended.

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Is It Follows really as good as everyone is saying?

That’s actually a very legitimate question.  It Follows is one of the most critically acclaimed horror films in recent years.  It’s been described as being a “game changer” and as being one of the best films of 2015 so far. But, as we all know, just because a film has been acclaimed by mainstream critics that does not necessarily make it a great film.  The mainstream is just as often wrong as its right.

So, is It Follows really that good?

It is certainly an effective film.  It’s well-made.  It’s well-acted.  Director David Robert Mitchell makes us jump a few times.  The film takes the horror cliché of “sex equals death” to its logical extreme and, as a result, it makes you think about the subtext of many of your favorite horror films.

The film deals with a college student named Jay (Maika Monroe) who has sex with her boyfriend and soon discovers that, by doing so, her boyfriend has passed on a “curse” to her.  She finds herself being stalked by a slow-moving but unstoppable entity, one that only she can see.  The only way to get rid of the entity is to have sex with someone else.

It’s never explained just what or who the entity is or why it’s so intent on killing.  And, for that, It Followsdeserves to be applauded.  Far too many horror films get bogged down in trying to explain the origin of its horror.  It Follows understand just how potent the fear of the unknown truly is and, ultimately, the sight of that shape-shifting entity – always there and always following – is scary precisely because it is so enigmatic.

At the same time, I think it’s telling that It Follows has received some of its strongest support from critics who traditionally do not care for horror films.  In fact, many of the positive reviews for It Follows have been somewhat condescending towards horror as a genre.  “Finally!” the critics seem to be saying, “An intelligent horror film!”

Of course, a true horror fan knows that intelligent horror films are not that unusual.  They also know that It Follows is hardly the first horror film to work as a metatextual commentary on the horror genre itself.  Many of the critics who are currently declaring It Follows to be the greatest horror film ever made are doing so because they don’t understand that the horror genre has been giving us great films for a while now.

It Follows is an effective and scary film, even if it is a bit too self-consciously arty at times.  It made me jump, it made me cover my eyes, and it even made me scream at one point and that – though the mainstream critics may never admit it – is really all that’s required from a good horror film.  To all of my fellow horror fans, I recommend It Follows without hesitation.  But let’s not pretend like It Follows is the first good horror film ever made, okay?

(Incidentally, an indication of the popularity of It Follows can be seen in the fact that this is the fourth review of the film to appear on this site!  Be sure to check out Leonard’s review, the Duke’s review, and the Trashfilm Guru’s review.)

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Unfriended is the best horror film of 2015 so far.

That may seem like a bold statement, considering that Unfriended – while receiving generally positive reviews – has not gotten half of the attention or acclaim that’s been given to It Follows.  As well,Unfriended is a variation on the found footage genre and, as we all know, found footage usually equals bad filmmaking.

But no matter!  Unfriended defies all our expectations.  Considering that Unfriended is basically an 83-minute screencast of a laptop, it should not be scary but it is.  Unfriended should not make you think about real-world issues but it does.  Unfriended should not work but it does.

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Unfriended opens with teenager Blaire Lilly (Shelly Henning) watching an online video of another teenage girl, Laura (Heather Sossaman), killing herself.  Blaire then clicks on a link that takes her to a YouTube video of a drunk Laura at a party.  Underneath the video are thousands comments from people telling Laura that she should kill herself.

However, Laura and her suicide are temporarily forgotten while Blaire skypes with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm).  After a few minutes, Blaire and Mitch are joined by three friends: Jess (Renee Olstead), unstable Adam (Will Peltz), and Ken (Jacob Wyscoski).  It takes the five of them a few minutes to notice that they’ve been joined by a faceless account named billie227.

At first billie227 refuses to identity itself but soon, Blaire and Mitch start to receive Facebook messages from the long dead Laura.  Blaire checks billie227’s account and discovers that it belongs to Laura.  At first, Blaire suspects that another one of their friends, Val (Courtney Halverson), may have hacked Laura’s account.  But, after calling Val, they discover that she’s not responsible.

Suddenly, embarrassing pictures start to appear on their Facebook accounts.  Billie227 starts to send them threatening messages and tells Blaire that if she signs off of skype, all of her friends will die. The six friends – all of whom, it turns out, knew Laura – find themselves held hostage by the malevolent spirit and, over the course of the long night, are picked off one by one.

Sad to say, cyberbullying is a reality.  Tragically, people really have committed suicide over things that have been said by bullies hiding behind anonymous online identities.  In the past few years, there have been many films made about the dangers of cyberbullying but Unfriended may be the most effective.  It’s a film that takes the reality of words having consequences to its most logical and grisly extreme.

Unfriended is a genuinely frightening movie, precisely because it is so relatable.  Let’s face it – if an evil spirit ever decided to stalk us through social media, we would all be doomed.  Like the characters in the film, we’re addicted and, as a result, there’s no place to hide.  If an evil ghost wanted to know everything about my life, all it would have to do would be to follow me on twitter or send me a friend request on Facebook.  The film is scary precisely because it brings our age-old fears together with modern technology and it suggests that, no matter how advanced we may consider ourselves to be, we’re still just as vulnerable to all of the old superstitions.

As a result, Unfriended is not only the best horror film of 2015 so far but it’s also one of the best films of the first half of the year.

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“It Follows” That I Should Have Liked This Movie, But —


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A funny thing happened on the way to writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s 2014-lensed indie horror It Follows finding its way into the VOD dump-off land most contemporary scare flicks have reluctantly learned to call home : it got noticed. In fact, it got noticed a lot, and evidently by at least some of the right people, because on the basis of positive “buzz” alone, the aforementioned relegation to so-called “home viewing platforms” was quickly scuttled in favor of a limited theatrical release — which just as quickly became a wide theatrical release — which finally ended with this being one of the most-talked- about “supernatural thrillers” in years.

What I can’t figure out is, I’m sorry to say, is why.

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Don’t get me wrong — It Follows certainly isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m naturally disposed towards rooting for any sort of original horror film that tries to navigate its way through the contemporary morass of remakes and might-as-well-be-remakes because they’re based on concepts that were played out three or four decades ago, but by the time I got around to seeing this flick yesterday, the hype surrounding it was so all-consuming that my expectations were sky high. Maybe it’s not fair to expect any movie to live up to all that, much less a modest production out of Detroit like this one, but I like to think that I’m honest enough with myself (and, hopefully, with the rest of you) to recognize that my belief that this is just a more-stylishly-done-than-usual presentation of a rather poorly-thought-through, and in many cases bog-standard, story would be unchanged even without the profound sense of “well, that was a bit of a letdown” I left the theater with. I’m not holding Mitchell’s rave reviews against him by any stretch, nor is it fair to judge his work against a yardstick fashioned from others’ praise, but hey — I’m only human, and when I come out of a movie that most everyone else has gushed one superlative after another about feeling decidedly unimpressed, I’ve gotta wonder where the disconnect comes from. Am I really that hard to please, or is everyone else just that wrong?

I mentioned my feelings about the film in a horror and exploitation group I belong to on facebook, and a friend on there made an interesting observation — most of the more glowing reviews for It Follows have come from “establishment” critics (as in, those who routinely guffaw at the horror genre in general, when they even bother to pay attention to it at all), while hard-core “horror hounds” have been decidedly less enthusiastic. A quick bit of research on my part found this to be pretty true — sure, most of the “big” horror sites and publications have been effusive in their praise, but by and large the die-hards out there have been a lot more cool towards it.

My theory is pretty simple — they (as in, your major newspaper and magazine critics) haven’t seen this done a hundred times before, while we (as in, Mr. and Ms. horror aficionado) have. And therein lies the entire difference in perception.

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To be sure, Michell has concocted a very stylish little number here — the cinematography and shot composition, the performances, and particularly the sound design are all top-notch. If you don’t watch a lot of horror flicks and are inclined to write the ones you haven’t seen off completely, you could be forgiven for being surprised that some of them are this well done. But when you do watch a lot of horror, and you see vastly superior fare like Starry Eyes garnering far less attention, well — you’re bound to wonder what all the fuss is about in this case.

Likewise, the central premise involving a young woman named Jay Height (played my Maika Monroe, who does a fantastic job) contracting the attention of some sort of malevolent entity after a casual sexual encounter “transmits” it to her might feel reasonably original to somebody who doesn’t “speak fluent horror,” but if you do, you’ll recognize it as a slapdash combination of Shivers-era Cronenbergian body horror and dime-a-dozen, regulation-issue “possession movie” tropes. Furthermore, the idea that sexual “promiscuity” (as in, being female and actually enjoying sex) equals death is the oldest card in the “slasher” movie hand, Mitchell just has the nerve to obfuscate it under a thick enough  layer of pretense that you can be swindled into believing he’s “deconstructing” the whole notion rather than reinforcing it. Trust me when I say he’s clearly doing the latter.

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Another thing that bugged the shit out of me about It Follows is how flat-out pleased with its own supposed “cleverness” it is. Jay and her sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe) live in a house that’s pure 1970s throwback, and most of their friends drive cars that date to that era, but one member of their slacker clique has a flip-open plastic toy seashell that doubles as a Kindle-type device, while their mom has a fancy-ass modern refrigerator to go along with her Curtis Mathes console TVs and outdated brown shag carpeting. The streets and driveways of their suburban neighborhood seem to be populated with decidedly modern cars and SUVs and mini-vans, as well. This dichotomy of past and future might feel right at home in, say, a David Lynch film, or some other equally-channeled-from-the-subconscious story, but in a narrative as by-the-numbers as this one, it just feels like weirdness for its own sake, and a rather naked plea for attention that the filmmakers don’t trust you enough to get on the first pass, so they keep hammering the point home. Think of the scene in the thoroughly risible Juno where she takes a call in her bedroom on one of those old plastic hamburger-shaped phones and, afraid that you’ll miss how cool and “shabby-chic” the whole thing is, they actually have her say into the receiver “sorry, I can’t hear you so well — I’m talking to you on my hamburger phone,” and you”ll get what I’m driving at here.

The final major flaw in Mitchell’s little opus I feel the need to call attention to  is the fact  that he apparently hasn’t taken the time to think through how the whole “STD possession” thing works. The guy who gave Jay the “curse” admits he’s still being pursued by the ultra-slow-motion killer(s) after even after playing hide the salami with her, and in due course Jay herself can’t seem to shake it either after screwing some loser friend of hers in the hospital — even after it kills him. She finally seems to manage to lose her pursuers-from-beyond-the-grave when — spoiler alert! — she has sex with her long-suffering male friend/lap dog Paul (Keir Gilchrist, the second of the film’s pitch-perfect leads), but if this is supposed to be some heavy-handed metaphor for the idea that it’s true love that finally sends the spirits packing, I have to say it falls pretty flat, because when Jay finally relents to allowing Paul’s dream of getting his schlong inside her to come true, it feels more like a combination of pity fuck and resignation to pass it on to him just because she’s tired of being — you know — followed. Yeah, sure, he’s clearly over the moon about her, but she seems to have just finally “settled” for a guy who was convenient and cared about her. Talk about playing into the old “you can’t have everything you want, ladies” and “don’t aim for higher than your station in life” pieces of received “wisdom.”

The big denoument here comes when Paul concocts a totally lame-brained scheme to kill the “stalker force” in a public swimming pool — a plan that has disaster written all over it from the outset (disaster that’s only averted due to the fact that every single one  of the literally dozens of electrical appliances they toss into the drink doesn’t start shooting sparks; go figure that one out), but I’ll gave that a pass because stupid teenagers do a lot of stupid shit. I find it rather useful to mention,  though,  simply because it’s such a handy representation in microcosm for why the movie itself doesn’t work, much less live up to all those hyper-congratulatory blurbs we’ve been reading : it all sounds good on paper for about a minute, but ultimately can’t stand up to any sort of even semi-rigorous examination.