Thursday, May 01, 2008

Movies: Abortive.

After mainstream reviewers sprained their collective wrists beating off all over the ham-fisted "satire" of the Joe Dante's astoundingly dumb contribution to the first season of Showtime's Masters of Horror series, Homecoming, it was inevitable that the second series would include several stories that pushed what filmmakers believed to be "hot button" issues into the foreground in an effort to garner some love from straight-world reviewers. Dante turned his attention from the Iraq War to the war between the sexes with his The Screwfly Solution. Dario Argento adapted F. Paul Wilson's Pelts into a gory, sleazy, and surreal anti-fur tale. Rob Schmidt went all Schiavo on us and directed Right to Die. Peter Medak did the camp horror revisionist history flick The Washingtonians, in which we find out George Washington was an evangelical cannibal bent on making the early United States a nation of people-eaters (I kid you not). Finally, John Carpenter used an abortion clinic as the backdrop for his Pro-Life.

As a strategy for garnering more mainstream attention, this sudden interest in the political was a complete flop. First, certain issues, such as the abuses of the fur industry, just don't have the media pull of others. Second, Bush hate operates at a uniquely low level of discourse. If you want discuss abortion in a metaphorical way, you're going to find the level of discourse is intense, emotional, and profoundly personal. In contrast, comedians can score zingers on Bush without trying. I recently heard Bill Mahr get yuks from a studio audience simply by observing, "Does anybody listen to this asshole anymore?" Finally, for all its faults, Homecoming was earnest in its political intentions. That didn't make it a better or smarter movie; but it wasn't using the Iraq War as a semi-disposable prop, an attention-getter that honestly didn't impact the movie in any significant way. None of the "political" films in the second season seemed quite so genuine in their convictions. In many cases, such as Pelts, the issue was simply an excuse to thematically unify the mode violence the director wished to visit upon his characters. In other cases, such as Pro-Life, the director's political point of view was muddled or non-existent, leaving viewers confused as to just what the reason for bring up the issue was in the first place.

The irony might be that failing as propaganda made these flicks better as horror films. Pro-Life is a clumsy contribution to the artistic debate surrounding abortion. It is full of stereotypical stock characters, revolves around a concocted moral dilemma that pretty much makes a mockery of the real ethical implications of the pro-choice/pro-life split, and has a taste for gore and over-the-top violence that nakedly reveals the filmmaker's real interest in the story. Still, if you can get over the considerable tackiness factor, you'll find Pro-Life is more entertaining, disgusting, and thrilling than the ideologically-correct dullness of Homecoming.

The story of Pro-Life is an adequately functional graft of Carpenter's beloved siege plot with a post-Roe v. Wade Rosemary's Baby plot. On their way to work, two abortion clinic workers find a panicked girl fleeing unidentified pursuers along a secluded forest road. They take the girl to their clinic only to find out that she is preggers and wants the baby aborted. They also find out that the girl's daddy is a pro-life extremist (played with cool menace by Ron "Hellboy" Pearlman) whose history of threats and violence against the clinic have forced the clinic to put a restraining order on him.

As the plot unfolds, the young woman's baby grows at an alarming rate and the doctors quickly determine that whatever is inside the girl is not human. The girl claims that she was raped by a demon (in her backyard – the devil lives under her old swing set – no foolin') and the "child" is the off-spring of that unholy forced union. Meanwhile, outside, daddy and his sons get armed and decide to lay siege to the clinic. Things get bloody fast, including what might be the most tasteless torture scene I've seen in long time. If you're eating, skip the rest of this paragraph. Ok? Basically, one of the abortionists gets his fetus-vacuum, or whatever it is called, turned on him. But, since the doctor is a guy, Pearlman's character has to cut him a vagina first. Ugh.

Aside from some not-so-special effects and a trippy, but disbelief inducing, flashback demon rape sequence, Pro-Life zips along. The actors handle the material ably, with Pearlman and Bill Dow, a long-time television and film bit-part man who takes on the role of the clinic's chief physician, turning in noteworthy performances. Carpenter has done so many siege flicks that you'd think he'd be phoning them in at this point, but he manages to keep the clinic assault tense and energetic. There are some weird hanging threads in the script. I'm not sure if I was supposed to be making certain assumptions about the fates of certain characters or if the screenwriters just forgot to follow up. Either way, it is only the sort of thing you wonder about after the movie is over.

As a comment on abortion, the film is a mess. The crisis that propels the plot – "What if it's a demon baby?" – is the sort of "What if you kill the next Shakespeare/let the next Hitler live?" sort of thing that only passes for debate on the Internet. Other than serving as a plot point (and it ultimately isn't even that as the demon baby is too far along to abort pretty early in the film) and as a setting, the whole issue of abortion simply isn't all that important to the film. Either out of disinterest or an effort to complicate the issue by having characters come at it from novel perspectives, the film ends up simply burying the abortion issue in irrelevance. It quickly becomes clear that this flick takes place in some other world and the abortion we're discussing is a completely fantastical contrivance. But this is, I think, a good thing. Does anybody really watch an installment of Masters of Horror to help them get a grasp on one of the more contentious political issues of our time? And, if they did, would their point of view be intelligible anyway?

For many viewers the simple fact that it brings up abortion but then takes the whole thing so lightly will push this flick into the realm of the irredeemably tasteless. And there is little reason to argue against this view; the film's accomplishments are so modest and limited as to make arguing for its importance as a statement on abortion impossible. But, looking past the somewhat cringe-inducing attempt at a political subtext, Pro-Life is an entertaining installment the MoH series.

7 comments:

Dave said...

It is worth noting that the co-author of Pro-Life, Drew McWeeny, is also known as "Moriarty," one of the amature film douches who run Aint It Cool News. This is his first flick, and judging from the reviews, probably his last.

SpaceJack said...

The only MoH episode I can remember enjoying was the John Landis one, which was a straight-up revenge/horror/comedy. I got depressed by how bad most episodes were, and gave up halfway through the first season. This series should have been great.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Dave,

There is something about this film's confused and mostly half-assed treatment of abortion that does sorta scream "middle-aged middle-classed Internet dwelling geek." The scripting was adequate to let Carpenter do his thing, but that was about it. And the fates of several characters are so suddenly dropped from the flick that the viewer is left to think, "Well, I guess they died then. Or something."

More importantly, it is always a bad idea to name your internet persona after a genius, real or imaginary. Because you've got to be a boneheaded dork to think you can fill out those shoes. Which means the moment you pick up a name like Moriarty is the exact same moment you tell everybody you're not so very bright.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

As a horror blog host, I've learned to lower my quality bar. The same way sword-swallowers and ladies of the night learn to suppress their gag reflex through long years of training, I've numbed my minimum threshold for film quality acceptability. Consequently, I've been ok with most the MoH's I've seen.

For me, there's been only one out-right dog. The rest have been couch-potato fodder with a few gems thrown in.

I do have to admit that I might also have been starving for anything to wash the bad taste of Tintorera out of my mouth.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey again,

Unrelated to anything - but if you follow the sidebar over to Mermaid Heather's blog, you'll find a trail for an upcoming horror flick that stars the chick (name escapes me at the moment) who plays Dexter's sister in the TV show Dexter.

SpaceJack said...

I know, I know, it's my own fault, really. I'm one of those mainstream cinephiles who mostly enjoys horror crossovers that get mainstream critical acclaim.

The main reason I've been watching horror in recent years is because I've actually been finding more interesting cinema in this genre than I am in drama or action.

I'm not sure if this means I'm becoming a genre fan, or if people like me are ruining genre.

SpaceJack said...

Re: Trailer with Jennifer Carpenter:

What can I say but NOOOOOOOOO! in a Darth Vader voice. Another Blair-Zombie movie? She's way too good for that.

In Emily Rose, she did about 90% of the special effects just with acting. Sadly, I found the film itself to be totally unworthy of her performance.

And filmed in night-vision? Where will it end? Will we be exptected to pay theatre prices to see mocu-horror YouTube videos on the big-screen? How about this for an idea then: In 1997, a horrifying series of events was recorded on a web cam using RealVideo version 1.0.

Ah well. Off to see mainstream Iron Man tonight.