Friday, November 16, 2012

In order to avoid clawing off my own skin while watching Bug, I theorized about horror movies

Due to a recommendation from Jonathan, and a desire to show solidarity with my fellow Tracys, I streamed Bug last night, a 2006 psychological thriller directed by William Friedkin and based on Tracy Letts's play (he also wrote the screenplay), starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon. I watched despite my antipathy for a) bugs; and b) Ashley Judd. This is how strong my loyalty is to Jonathan recommendations and other people named Tracy.

And I loved it. And it was immensely, almost unbearably, difficult to watch. The film traces the co-dependent psychological breakdown of Judd's Agnes and Shannon's Peter within the increasingly claustrophobic and bizarre confines of Agnes's seedy motel room. To say too much about the origin of the hallucinations would be to rob the screenplay of its emotional and dramatic power, but I will share with you their nature: Peter convinces Agnes that the room is infested with near-invisible aphids that hatched from his body, and that the bugs periodically burrow into the both of them to feed on blood. And join me now in a *shudder.* The film is an assault on the senses (I can only imagine what it would be like to see it performed live). The ears are invaded by jangling telephones, chirping smoke alarms, and a buzzing air conditioner vent. The eyes narrow at the harsh blue light of bug zappers reflecting off of tin foil. And the skin, literally, crawls. It's impossible to watch Agnes and Peter clawing at the insects they believe to be swarming on their bodies without scratching in sensory sympathy.

Shannon's performance is a revelation, with which Judd, and Harry Connick Jr. (!) as her abusive ex-con ex-husband do their best to keep up. His character is physically and emotionally, literally and figuratively, ripped open by his paranoia. Watch the film to watch him. But a subsidiary, and wholly solipsistic, element of Bug that temporarily distracted me from my physical and emotional discomfort (in a good way--art should make you uncomfortable) was Agnes's particular brand of victimization.

I watched another low-budget, but imaginatively rich, horror movie a few weeks back, A Horrible Way to Die. Though Die is inferior to Bug in every cinematic category, both horror plots are provoked by a heroine, damaged by an abusive and traumatic past and trying to start her life over again, willfully entering into a relationship with a dangerous man. Both women, Sarah and Agnes, have jobs and female friends, but are desperately lonely and healing from deep and profound personal losses, particularly Agnes, whose son was kidnapped while under her care ten years earlier. It is this emotional isolation that opens the door to Kevin (in Die) and Peter, as surely as more literally isolated heroines opened the door to (non-sparkly) vampires in horror texts past.

During the course of each film, Sarah and Agnes embrace stories, about themselves and their lives, that place them in grave physical danger, because those stories, as unbelievable, or horrifying, or in Agnes's case, psychotic as they may be, are less scary and threatening than the truth of their emotional isolation and loss. To get all metatastic, they write themselves into the horror plot by and through their desire for emotional (and also heteronormatively romantic) connection with a man.

At this point, I'm left with more questions than answers. Is this a new theme in (indie, story-centered) horror (after all, I've only got two examples)? Is the agency demonstrated by these heroines enough to code the trope feminist, or is it a new sort of naturalism, in which unattached women are punished? Are these films commenting on the modernist anxiety of social isolation? Anyone? Anyone?

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