November 6, 2008

Trans-Genred -- Jonathan Demme's Oprahcore Horror Experiment

I've never really been able to discern between movies which exist solely to terrify and those which only do so incidentally. As a child I was just as afraid of the marauding wild hogs in Old Yeller as I was of The Creature From the Black Lagoon, and now as an adult I find Glenn Close just as fearsome in Dangerous Liaisons as she is in Fatal Attraction -- maybe more. To this day, my favorite films are the ones that fly just under the radar and freak you the hell out about 40% more vigorously than absolutely necessary.

For this new regular feature I'll be presenting dossiers of my favorite examples (as spoilerlessly as possible), including choice screencaps. I decided to begin with one of the most unjustly dismissed films of the last decade, Jonathan Demme's insightful meditation on infanticide, torture, and the vengeful undead:



Oprah helped make Beloved (handy Netflix link), and she also helped kill it. Her profound investment (personal and otherwise) resulted in the movie being marketed as a heavy drama in which an aging ex-slave finds a new lease on life through a romance with another aging ex-slave. It sounded like a pretentious snooze to everyone not in Oprah's cult, which is a shame considering the film actually rivals The Silence of the Lambs as a showcase for Demme's ability to shock, maim, and cauterize.

Of course, that means that the few gentle souls who actually did show up to catch it in theaters basically received what amounts to a cinematic purple-nurple -- a three-hour hellride in which the horrors of slavery are only the tip of the iceberg. Remember when Chris March made those garments out of human hair for Project Runway and Tim Gunn recoiled, telling Chris that he'd been "in the monkey house" for so long that it didn't even smell bad to him anymore? That's the sort of denial that we can attribute to Oprah here. She was flying high on her own character's redemption-endorphins; she's sort of a redemption junkie, you know. To be fair, she probably wasn't even on-set during the baby murder scenes (though she could have warned people about the exorcism).

While it's every bit as effective a drama as it is a supernatural thriller, without these nastier elements the Oscar-worthy (and -snubbed) cast wouldn't have anything to chew on. It's certainly as dark as the novel it's based on. But tell that to the Oprahites who, within the first three minutes of the film, had to witness a dog in bloody convulsions after being poltergeisted straight into wall. Fortunately the loving hands of Dear Leader are there to pop his eye back into place. (This puts Oprah in the small but elite corps of actors who have actually handled a prop eyeball.)
The house is haunted by the ghost of Oprah's daughter who was an unfortunate casualty of the passage into freedom from slavery (the montages of those conditions alone are enough to earn the film its R rating). When the psycho ex-baby becomes frustrated with her ability to wreak invisible mayhem from beyond, she returns in the flesh, staggering out of the creek fully grown and not really minding if her face happens to become encrusted with bugs.

I don't know how we found ourselves in this parallel universe where Thandie Newton won no significant awards for her performance as Beloved. Every second she's onscreen it's miserably clear that she's just a skin-sheath surrounding a very angry dead baby (one who, anger aside, still has virtually no control over her voice, limbs, or bowels, and spends a lot of her screen-time being propped up by things.)

While to us she seems like pretty much the most frightening unexpected houseguest you could imagine, apparently in the late 19th century you had to be pretty fucked up in order to be deemed truly unsuitable company. Oprah's gang doesn't seem to be fazed by her insectile voice or her fecklessness when it comes to fluids.

Beloved is a ravenous consumer, living on a diet of sugary treats and attention (Oprah accepts the young woman as a sort of surrogate daughter, understandably not realizing that she's actually the undead real daughter she put in the ground many years ago), though ironically she's also prone to snacking on other babies. I think the look on Kimberly Elise's face here pretty much tells you everything you need to know about this movie.

I won't get into the backstory of how Beloved's toddlerhood came to its untimely end, but I'd like to clarify how far Jonathan Demme's willing to go to make you feel really, really upset about it: he is willing to go all the fucking way, that's how far.

I guess that, all things considered, it's not too surprising that Beloved wound up being the sort of undead baby-woman who will totally go all cave-man on your dining room with a fire-poker if she doesn't get her sugar-fix.

Of course, by this point Oprah's character has her own shit to work out. I don't know how many people stayed in the theater all the way to the part where she demonstrates the wrong way to hand someone an ice-pick, but I get a little satisfaction knowing that, had McCain and Palin won the election, the world surely would have seen this side of her again.

Thandie Newton, on the other hand, will probably never bother work this hard on a role ever again. Would you? Though to be fair, she did get paid to do this:

There's a lot in Beloved that I can't show here. It's profound; it's absorbing and exhausting and really will probably make you cry big blubbery tears that you didn't know you had. But the images here aren't just cherry-picked to skew towards horror -- in fact, it's so much harder, weirder and grosser than this, largely because of the skill and effort that everyone put into making it. While it left Oprah's devotees feeling a little... confused, there's no reason why the rest of us serious sickos can't go back and reclaim it for our side.

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