2017 Film Essays

Genre Whiplash: The Surprising Genius of Karyn Kusama

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February 1st marked the beginning of Women in Horror Month, which honors female creators of the horror genre. Historically a bit of a boys club, horror cinema has experienced an influx of fresh, female voices in recent years. These women, writers and directors alike, have subverted the genre by turning stale horror tropes upside down. In a genre that has been overrun with predictability and found-footage rip-offs, a little innovation is a welcome change. Many horror filmmakers achieve new and exciting results by blending horror with other genres such as the Western (Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), Science Fiction (Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon), and Gothic Mystery (Oz Perkins’ I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House). For Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body, The Invitation, XX), horror works best when mixed with satire, gallows humor and meaty social commentary.

Horror films with an undercurrent of social satire are nothing new. After all, Dawn of the Dead famously mocked consumerism. However, there are few directors in the modern Horror landscape that tackle the delicate balance between satire and fear as well as Kusama. The trouble with linking horror, humor and social commentary is that it’s a distinct struggle to honor all of the film’s components while still maintaining a cohesive (and genuinely scary) narrative. Kusama has managed to walk this delicate line in her two most popular films: Jennifer’s Body and The Invitation.

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Now, plenty of critics have already spent time singing the praises of The Invitation, so its inclusion in this piece is likely not much of a surprise. Jennifer’s Body, however, may be a bit unexpected. Most viewers remember it as a midrange about Megan Fox becoming possessed by a demon. At worst, it was considered a bit of softcore horror pornography for lonely teenage boys. At best, it was considered to be along the lines of the unholy spawn of The Exorcist and Mean Girls. However, the film pairs a disarmingly clever script (thanks to Juno’s Diablo Cody) with some rather potent (though not at all subtle) statements about teenage friendship, the commodification of tragedy and the demonization of young female sexuality. Jennifer’s Body is not executed perfectly, but it exhibits the traits that make Kusama’s directorial influence so special. The film alternates between a teen sex comedy, a satirical horror comedy and a completely earnest horror film. The genre whiplash is a bit clunky, but its jarring effect serves the film surprisingly well in terms of keeping the audience on their toes. There is no moment that captures the spirit of the film better than a scene that occurs fairly early in the movie. Jennifer (Megan Fox) is ushered into the tour bus of the film’s villains, a devil-worshipping indie rock band whose malicious intentions are so comically clear that they might as well be twirling a handlebar moustache and winking directly at the camera. As the doors to the bus are shut, and Jennifer finds herself alone with the band, Kusama treats viewers to a vulnerable close-up of her face, focusing on the primal, intense fear. It’s not an exaggerated moment played for laughs. It’s the same look that one might have if Buffalo Bill ordered you to put lotion on your skin; it’s the expression of a character realizing they may not not survive the night. It’s completely chilling, particularly for the film’s target audience of teenaged women. This moment illustrates Kusama’s penchant for abrupt tonal shifts and her ability to emphasize a sense of unease. It’s a technique that she uses, to incredible (and far subtler) effect, in The Invitation.

The Invitation, as many critics and viewers have pointed out, has quite a lot to say about the nuances of belief, the trap of politeness and the politics of recovering from a breakup. Much like Jennifer’s Body, the film’s general concept does not begin to scratch the surface of what it truly captures. Set against a backdrop of interpersonal awkwardness and ham-fisted attempts at religious conversion, The Invitation feels more like an homage to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf than a horror film. At least, it appears that way at first. Murky relationship drama and pitch-black humor give way to an eerie atmosphere of paranoia. The satire in The Invitation is much less humor-driven than Jennifer’s Body, highlighting the absurdity of forced politeness and social mores without expecting viewers to laugh. Like in Jennifer’s Body, however, nothing is more upsetting and effective than when the absurdity is ripped away in favor of a real and tangible threat. For example, there’s a scene that would likely be played for laughs in any other film. The hosts of a dinner party show their guests a video that explains the religious organization they have recently joined. It’s stilted, strange and clearly related to some sort of cult. The new age music and general good-vibes platitudes are borderline laughable, until the film cuts to a real-time depiction of a young woman dying. The shift in tone is nauseating, and one can’t help but feel just as shocked as the party guests. Even the conclusion has one of the most spine-tingling closing shots of recent Horror history.

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Horror fans have always enjoyed films that hold up a mirror to the darkest parts of society, and the darker parts of ourselves. We can see this in older films like Rosemary’s Baby and in more recent films like She Who Must Burn and Get Out. The human capacity for cruel behavior is an excellent source of horror, relatable and recognizable. However, most of these films do not simultaneously mock these darker parts of humanity or cut fear with laughter. Why add humor? That’s simple: because humor is disarming. As an audience, we long for a reprieve from cinematic tension. By providing viewers with a satirical undertone, Kusama offers a place to rest, making the subversion of viewer expectations all the more potent. Just as bright light makes the darkness seem ever darker, sporadic levity gives the subsequent horror a far more visceral impact. This critic hopes that Kusama continues to deliver nuanced work that walks the line between genres, mixing levity with tragedy and pure horror. There is something so inherently human (and so inherently horrifying) about the marriage of these two elements. After all, the longer we look at ourselves in the mirror, the more likely we are to see something that we hate.

Addison Peacock (@Addison_Peacock) is a writer, actress and french fry enthusiast; a student living in Northern Virginia. She is currently pursuing a BFA in Musical Theatre and hopes to study writing in graduate school. You can read her words on Twitter, The Establishment, The Horror Honeys and The Mary Sue. If horror is your thing, you can also hear her voice acting work as a narrator/actor on The NoSleep Podcast.

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