Thursday, April 24, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Contracted (2013)

At least two horror films of recent vintage have focused intently on the subject of disease, and even specified the vector for that disease: unprotected or casual sex. 
In particular, two movies -- Afflicted (2014) and Contracted (2013) -- explore this topic, showcasing couplings that end up spreading, respectively, vampirism and the zombie plague. 
The sexual encounter in Afflicted, however, is consensual, whereas the one in Contracted -- though described as “a one night stand” in the film’s promotional materials -- certainly fits every definition of date rape that I’m familiar with.
Nomenclature aside, Contracted, from director Eric England is a really good-looking, well-acted horror film, and one that deals intelligently with a lot of unsettling and difficult psychological material. 
In short, the film concerns a young woman, Samantha (Najarra Townsend), who contracts a disease after being drugged and raped at a party.  She then spends three harrowing days attempting to ignore and deny her condition, a herculean effort that ends with her actually spreading the deadly disease further rather than hindering it.
As a character piece about a woman who has been treated criminally, and who must cope with a horrible personal situation, Contracted is largely compelling. 
Yet the film also loses significant steam in its third act because the physical, outward signs of Samantha’s disease are so blatant -- and so repellant -- that there is no way in the world that her friends, employers, family, and so forth wouldn’t drag her, kicking and screaming if necessary, to a hospital emergency room.
Instead, these characters persistently make selfish, dysfunctional demands on Samantha, even in the face of her obvious bodily disintegration.  One opportunist, Riley (Matt Mercer), even attempts to have sexual intercourse with Samantha, despite the fact that one of her eyes has turned a jaundiced yellow, and she has developed a horrible gray rash on her mouth and jaw.
Samantha looks, literally, like the walking dead.
No matter how horny Riley is, his actions seem unlikely, especially in a youth culture that obsesses on fitness and looks. No self(ie)-respecting millennial is going to make love to Samantha in her compromised physical condition.
The sub-text in Contracted is, no doubt, that a person in need or experiencing emotional difficulty, like Samantha, often feels isolated, alone, exploited, and unheard. Indeed, she is constantly victimized by those in her life who want to be with her sexually, and is seen by such vultures as nothing more than an object of desire. 
This is how the rapist, B.J. sees and treats her. This is how Riley treats her. This is how another prospective lover Alice (Alice McDonald) treats her as well.  And finally, this is how Samantha comes to treat others.
Yet, finally, Contracted parts so resolutely with any sense of reality that identification with Samantha’s victimization is sacrificed.  Not even strangers to Samantha react appropriately to her, given her corpse-like appearance. 
Thus one begins to feel more and more disconnected from the film’s narrative, no matter Contracted’s noble or artistic intentions.

I’m going through change. I need someone that cares.”
In Contracted, Samantha, a lesbian, has broken up with her girlfriend Nikki (Katie Stegeman), and decides to attend a party thrown by her friend, Alice.  
There, she encounters a stranger, B.J. (Simon Barrett) who hands her a spiked drink.  B.J. takes the incapacitated (but still protesting…) Samantha back to his car and rapes her there.
The next day, Samantha begins to exhibit signs of illness. She receives a phone call from Alice, warning her that the police are searching for B.J. and that anyone who knows anything about him should file a report.  Samantha ignores this advice and contends instead with her deteriorating physical condition.
Samantha wakes up bleeding, suffers auditory hallucinations while working at her job as a waitress, and finally goes to see a doctor. He tells her that her heart rate is unusually slow and that her ear canals are infected. But other than those symptoms -- and a severe genital rash -- she seems to be okay.
But before long, Samantha starts bleeding from the eyes, and her hair starts falling out in clumps.
Alienating her over-bearing mother (Caroline Williams), Samantha looks for help anywhere and everywhere, but soon finds herself acting violently…even murderously against the important people in her life.

“She’s no longer interested in what our kind has to offer.”
In some sense, Contracted is all about Samantha’s sense of denial, and the way that it systematically destroys her life.  She contracts the equivalent of the world’s-worst-STD and then spends three days trying to ignore it because she can’t accept what has happened to her.
And let’s face it, accepting the truth is hard.
Samantha is a lesbian, and therefore not interested in men, but she acquires an STD from non-consensual sex with a man.  Under normal circumstances, she would have never been in the car with B.J. He tricked her and drugged her to get he wanted.
But she’s the one paying the price…
Finally, rather than accepting how sick she really is, Samantha lashes out at those around her, and becomes, like B.J. himself, a person willing to hurt others for some dark personal purpose. 
I won’t say that purpose is pleasure, because I don’t think pleasure has anything to do with it, in either B.J.’s case, or Samantha’s.
More aptly, after being date-raped and infected, Samantha finds herself powerless and sick, and growing more powerless and sick every moment. 
She thus lashes out, and exerts her power on both Alice and Riley.  And her only power at this juncture is the same power as B.J.’s: to infect the healthy.
Samantha is an intriguing character, a fact which keeps Contracted from totally collapsing most of the time.  She is a talented botanist whose future is riding on her participation in an important contest, and we also learn that she has attempted suicide more than once.
Samantha may be “weak” in the eyes of the world, but she is also, essentially, blameless, at least at the beginning of the film. She doesn’t deserve what happens to her, and furthermore, has no control to stop it.  Samantha is victimized badly and perhaps it is understandable that she would at first refuse to believe what is happening to her, and then strike out against those that she blames.
.But the problem in Contracted is that Samantha never avails herself of the information she could use to help herself overcome her illness. The police have information about B.J. that might save her life, but she never goes to them; never gets that information.  
Worse, the movie repeatedly dangles that information out there to viewers as a possibility, and never follows up on it.  At the beginning of the movie we see B.J. having sex with a corpse, and that act spawns the “illness,” purportedly.  What else do the police know about this guy?
The movie never tells us. It just lets us know that B.J. is dangerous, and the police know it.
Also, I understand fully that Samantha feels “shame” about being raped, but shame becomes secondary when you bleed out into a restaurant toilet, or your hair falls out in big clumps during a shower.
Or when you pull your fingernails off, and your teeth fall out.
The self-preservation instinct, it seems, would kick in and over-ride the shame pathology, wouldn’t it?
Indeed, Contracted would be a much better film if director England had pinpointed and utilized a good visual technique to suggest that Samantha’s mind is compromised by the illness, and that she is misperceiving both the people around her and the actions of the people around her.
These characters all react un-realistically to her physical illness – so blasé about a life and death matter -- that the only reasonable explanation is that Samantha has lost her grip on reality.  The illness has made her paranoid, perhaps.
There are even strangers featured in the film -- customers at the restaurant where Sam is a waitress, for instance -- who don’t respond in disgust and horror to her behavior and appearance. And unlike her exploitive friends, there is no reason for them not to pay attention.  There is no reason for them not to react to her.
Thus the only way the movie makes sense is if we can be made to understand that the events are “filtered” through Samantha’s (diseased) thoughts.
Similarly, Sam’s mom stages an intervention with a stranger, and the first thing he should notice -- the very first thing -- is that Samantha is physically ill, not merely emotionally weak or vulnerable.
I have seldom seen a movie in which reactions to a character are as off-kilter as the reactions to Samantha are in this film, and that fact works against Contracted’s success.  Again, I understand fully that Samantha is supposed to feel alone, vulnerable and victimized, but those feelings must be achieved through legitimate means, not by altering the way the rest of the universe responds to her.
If you or I saw Samantha bringing us food and drink in a restaurant, I guarantee you, we wouldn’t touch the meal.
This flaw established, Contracted is well-made, especially for what I assume is a very low-budget production. I especially appreciate England’s choice to universally frame B.J. as a “blur” in the compositions.  We never get a good solid look at the rapist, except as a flesh-colored shadow, and this fact adds to his sinister nature. 
The “blurred” appearance of B.J. also suggests, on retrospect, that he may have been just as “sick” looking and infected during the non-consensual sex as Samantha becomes late in the film, but that she couldn’t detect his illness in her inebriated/drugged condition.
So Contracted is sharp and incredibly disgusting, but in the end, there seems to be some diffidence about what the filmmakers are attempting to say about Samantha and her life. 
And the film’s conclusion, which seems to set up a Dawn of the Dead-type scenario, doesn’t provide any clarity about it either. 
As an essay on personal disintegration, denial, self-hatred, and shame, Contracted proves occasionally quite powerful.  But by the same token, the film is so unrealistic that it seems something has gone badly amiss, or been badly misjudged, during the creative process.
Just as Nikki helpfully informs a male suitor for Samantha’s affections, the film isn’t quite working with “the right equipment” at times. 

Movie Trailer: Contracted (2013)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

At Anorak: The Five Most Underrated Slasher Films of the 1980s

My new article at Anorak gazes at the 1980s, and the era of the slasher film (or as some call it, the slasher glut...).

FOLLOWING the incredible box-office and critical success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), the slasher film quickly became the go-to-format for up-and-coming horror filmmakers in the 1980s.  These films had titles like Happy Birthday to Me (1981) and My Bloody Valentine (1981), and most of them concerned bloody massacres on holidays.
Although critics denigrated these slasher films as “dead teenager movies” or “knife-kill” films and slammed their apparent sense of misogyny, and formulaic story lines, the slasher craze of the epoch actually produced a number of great and memorable horror films.
 In the thick of things, however, critics weren’t necessarily able to distinguish the good slasher films from the bad ones, and so below is a list of five slasher films that, on retrospect, are much better and much more artistic than their reputations indicate:"

Pop Art: The Last Starfighter (1984) Activity Book

Pop Art: The Last Starfighter (Marvel Super Special No. 31; 1984)

The Last Starfighter Video Game (Atari; 1984)

The Last Starfighter (1984) View-Master

Lunchbox of the Week: The Last Starfighter (Aladdin)

Model Kit of the Week: The Last Starfighter Gunstar (Fantastic Plastic; 2012)

Game of the Week: The Last Starfighter (FASA; 1984)