Friday, September 14, 2012

An Anthology Film Marred by Poor (s)Execution

Little Deaths (2011)
Directors: Sean Hogan ("House and Home"), Andrew Parkinson ("Mutant Tool"), Simon Rumley ("Bitch")
Seen via: Image Entertainment DVD (R1)
Rating: 5/10

I absolutely love anthology horror films. There's just something about short-form stories that seems so well suited to horror - an opinion I could probably trace back to my love of scary campfire tales and urban legends. Remember how satisfying it was to read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as a kid? You know, the ones with the infamous Stephen Gammell illustrations:

A good anthology film brings me right back to that feeling of not knowing exactly what I'm going to get, just that it's going to hit hard and fast. I also really like how filmmakers are freer to experiment in shorter films and can run wild if they choose. The stakes are a little lower when you're only asking someone to invest 20 or 30 minutes into a film, so "why?" can easily become "why not?" Unfortunately experimentation can be risky, and a solid collection of shorts seems really hard to pull off. For every Creepshow, I count at least two Chilleramas.

So it was with high hopes that I went into Little Deaths - a British horror anthology film consisting of three shorts focusing on the intersection between sex and death. First off - what a great title, right? It's taken from the French phrase, "Le Petite Mort," which refers to the antiquated notion that each orgasm spent a small part of the human soul. Now that's scary enough for a short film in and of itself. Secondly, this is a really intriguing idea  - hell, the blurry line between pleasure and pain was essentially what (personal all-time fave) Hellraiser was centered around.

The first film in the trilogy is "House and Home," a story about a nice, well-to-do couple who do their Christian duty of loving thy neighbor by inviting homeless people into their house and offering them meals. And afterward, well, then there's some literal "loving your neighbor" going on... Right away, this one sets the tone for the rest of the anthology and lets you know that no punches are going to be pulled. While there's some pretty graphic stuff here, I never felt that it crossed the line into tastelessness. More is implied than shown. The class dynamics are played up quite a bit, and the story is a nice little metaphor for the rich feeding off the suffering of the poor. At least, until the tables are turned. This is where things get a little iffy. The ending of this film didn't work for me at all. Let's just say it ends up reinforcing all the bad things that the (clearly evil) protagonists believe.

In the second segment, "Mutant Tool" (yes, it's exactly what you think) things take a turn for the stupid. There's a new drug on the streets, one that's driving Jennifer to work the streets to get her fix. Her boyfriend / pimp is involved with the production, which... Okay, I'll just say it: it involves stealing organs to feed to a giant-dicked Nazi monster whose semen is distilled to make a super-drug. If that wasn't enough, then there's the drug's side-effect, which links the mind of the user with the monster. Kind of like E.T., but - wait, no, not at all like E.T. This is not an idea I'm intrinsically opposed to, but come on, don't treat it so seriously! It's a Nazi penis monster! If all this sounds great to you, then go for it. Enjoy it without me.

Finally, "Bitch" brings things back down to earth with a tale set firmly in the real world. Peter and Claire are a couple who are into some kinky stuff. The bitch in this relationship is clearly Peter, who's constantly being dominated by Claire both in the bedroom and in real life. When she takes things a little too far (at the S.C.U.M. goth club - awesome name) and brings another guy home for a threesome (which Peter's promptly excluded from), he decides to get revenge by exploiting Claire's one fear...  The revenge sequence and finale during which this takes place wins the award for LONGEST montage ever. Seriously, we're easily talking ten minutes here. I was sold on this in the beginning, since the relationship dynamics are pretty interesting. It's really a shame that when things turn sour for Peter and Clair, this film just gets predictable.

A common thread in these films is that they take a definite turn for the worse at the ending, namely after the big reveal. Let's recap what we have. Homeless people portrayed as cannibalistic monsters, a mutant Nazi  penis, and a man who kills his girlfriend because she cheated on him. Hmm.

Not all of these ideas start out bad - they're actually intriguing stories until they sabotage themselves. When the endings do kick in, we get two ideas that are vaguely offensive and one that's just plain stupid. I'll let you pick which is which. All in all, the good ideas and very nice production are botched by carelessness. So my message to filmmakers is: make sure you're aware of what your film is saying. Otherwise you might run into a situation where you - whoops! - indirectly reinforce classism or get needlessly misogynistic. Also, ask yourselves, does this film really need Nazis? (Hint: the answer is probably no.) I want to be challenged by controversial ideas, but for that to happen they've got to be handled more skillfully than they are here.

In all honesty, I wasn't outraged at all watching Little Deaths. However dumb these films end up being, they're largely entertaining. Maybe I expected too much from the theme, but I really do think that the intersection between sex and horror could lead to some really interesting stuff (provided that everyone agrees to avoid the tired rape-revenge formula). In the meantime, I'll keep on hoping that we'll get a really solid anthology sometime soon...and head back to my Scary Stories anthologies.


  1. I was honestly shocked at the strain of misogyny in this movie and then I watched V/H/S, that other big indie anthology movie, and its even more extreme in its hatred of women. I am still trying to puzzle the two movies out and think about why this new generation of male indie horror filmmakers are not evolving in their gender politics. I spend a lot of time thinking through the deep-seated homophobia and sexism at the heart of many classic horror movies, but it seriously bums me out that the next wave of filmmakers (a) contains barely any women, minority, or openly gay folks and (b) they're politics are even more retrograde than the moviemakers of the 1960s/70s....

    1. I was planning to write about V/H/S at some point, but couldn't bring myself to do it. It took me three tries to finish that movie, and was I so done with it when it was over. I've been really disappointed with Ti West lately - I'm not sure if you've seen The ABCs of Death, but his entry in that is even worse than his V/H/S contribution. Laziness is the only word to describe it. I had such high hopes after House of the Devil and The Innkeepers! I'm hoping he'll turn things around in the future.

      I've also noticed a lot of misogyny in horror as of late, and wonder why it goes unchecked. Is it as simple as the fact that the directors responsible are (to my knowledge) straight and male? Maybe the positive feedback from dudebro horror fans reinforces stuff like this, or at least drowns out the criticism? It seems to be more prevalent in anthology films, so I wonder if there's some echo chamber effect going on where directors end up reinforcing each others' bad ideas.

      I'm with you 100% on the notion that horror needs to grow out of all the racism, misogyny and homophobia that haunts its past. Unfortunately I think a significant portion of the populace still genuinely fears things like gay rights, women's rights, and racial equality, even if it's only subconsciously. Playing up those fears by coding villains/monsters as minorities and then letting them get destroyed by the (white, often male) heroes is an easy way to appeal to the masses. So much of old horror centers around conservative values being eroded by an external "evil," and I think it's hard for many filmmakers to overcome those trappings... especially when it means deviating from such well-worn formulae. It's a shame that a fundamentally transgressive genre like horror can be so content with the status quo.

  2. I've been watching a lot of horror Horror anthologies, Trilogy of Terror with Karen Black was very good, Body Bags was also decent and I love Creepshow. I watched VHS which I found disappointing and ABCs of Death which was really pretentious for the most part. So for me, older anthologies really win. I've got about 3 or 4 more on my watch list too

  3. Some in the spiritual arena of thought accept as true that they "must stop" the "gay agenda, whatever that might be. Of course, there are folks who are very obstinate in the GLBT community about certain issues such as gay marriage and they demand to be heard and are vocal on the following stage over this debate. When I read the gentleman's essay arguing that no one is born gay, I certainly understood where he was coming from, as he felt as if the ""gay agenda" had come too far, and so, he is just as adamant about pushing back now.