‘Bleed Like Me’ – 2008 by Wendy McCredie
A full length review written for Montage Film and published during September 2008.
The third feature film by brothers Jeff and Josh Crook, Gruesome (Crook, 2006), earned considerable industry attention when it premiered at a midnight screening during the Sundance Film Festival. There are, broadly speaking, two main types of modern horror film. On one hand there’s the kind that knows all about the last thirty years of horror film theory and criticism and uses it to do something interesting, and there are those that cheerfully ignore three decades of theory and criticism, carrying on exploitively as though the seventies had never ended. Gruesome, happily, falls into the former category. Watching the film it becomes clear why it drew so much attention, for although it begins like a typical teen slasher movie, after the first ten minutes it becomes clear that there’s something altogether more complex and sinister going on. This is a film that takes the identification between audience, monster and victim and turns our perception of that relationship on its head.
The issue of audience identification is one that has been thoroughly chewed over by film critics and theorists over the last couple of decades. Probably the best known, and certainly the most helpful in relation to this film, being Carol Clover’s (Men, Women & Chainsaws, 1992) work on the identification felt by the young male part of the audience with the predominately female victim. If we leave aside the first section (which nevertheless takes on the illusion of dream sequence as the second progresses), the central character of Claire (Lauren Currie Lewis), is being set up as the traditional ‘final girl’ forewarned of the killing to come and constantly on the alert. Her boyfriend Jimmy’s (Cody Darbe) over-sexualised attitude disgusts her, her frame is decidedly boyish and her classes are providing her with clues. Notably in that section it is not until the pair of them sneak off for an illicit sexual liaison that the killer appears marking them out as doomed. She is the one to search for clues and investigate, to fight back – if ineffectually – against the killer with a wrench when he appears at her work. The first degree of identification we experience is Claire identifying with her murderer Duke (Chris Ferry), dreaming flash backs of events and murders from his perspective. Although she keeps dying horribly she seems to be learning more each time, leading us into the false allusion that if she can just understand him then she’ll be able to escape him. However, little clues are scattered around for us to discover that nothing is quite what it seems. To add to the fact that people keep telling her that the man who is tormenting her is dead/in hell, tellingly she is shown having a fight ‘with herself’ – throwing herself viciously around Fight Club (Fincher, 1999) style – and repeatedly meeting her fate by having her face cut off. It is finally her instinctive urge to save her mother (Maureen Olander) that forces her into a position where she must face up to the truth about her situation. She is not who or what she thinks she is, as her mother so brutally puts it ‘you’re not my daughter’ before forcing her too face up to her tormenter-cum-alter-ego. This provides an interesting twist on the notion of audience identification, and the debate over whether the audience identifies most with the monster (especially one whose eyes we see through) or with the victim. If we take Clover’s notion of the binary role of victim and psychokiller in slasher films, Duke is not crying and cowering because he is playing the role of Claire, but instead he plays the role of Claire because he is the one crying, cowering and suffering. Likewise once he accepts that he is really the murderer, the psychokiller if you will, he can reclaim, briefly, his own face, his gender and his role momentarily back in sync. He cannot suffer as fully as necessary in his own form, only fully experience the full hysteria and horror of the fate he inflicted upon her by inhabiting her skin as it is torn apart. He comes to embody the sadistic/masochistic duality of horror movie viewership, he tortures and is tortured at one and the same time.
The use of sound in the film adds potently to the sense of unreality created. The use of hyper-real sound to heighten the tension in horror films is nothing new, but Gruesome is a particularly effective example of this. The evocation of the unpleasant sharpening of hearing, will be familiar to anyone who has ever been spooked while walking or driving home alone in the dark. Traditionally, within the genre of horror the power of the voice lies not in the words that are spoken, but rather in how those words are spoken, far more emphasis being placed upon the unspoken, what the sound tells us without our being consciously aware of being ‘told’. Little of the dialogue is significant, so those sections which are, are generally treated in some way to make them stick in the audience’s memory. Claire’s mother in particular speaks in a strange fashion, voice appearing to be disconnected from her body, serving to emphasise the somewhat off-kilter and slightly sinister presence of her mother, appearing at odd moments when she isn’t lurking ominously in the basement. Sounds are twisted and distorted to emphasise the surreal nature of Claire’s experience. During her flashbacks to Duke’s life the sounds are at their most distorted, but in her ‘reality’ the further she gets from civilisation and the nearer she gets to him the more outlandish and unnatural normal sounds become. The distorted, echoing voices of her friends and loved ones, just out of reach and mocking her helping to build and maintain her paranoia and panic. There’s even a couple of nice aural nods to Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960), early on accompanied by a visual nod as she dries off after her shower, only to realise that someone has been watching her, the screech as she swiftly pulls the curtain aside echoing the musical accompaniment of a more famous shower sequence. Latterly, where Claire standing at the end of her drive can here her mother calling to her from the basement of the house, the voice repeating like a stuck record, that is reminiscent the moment early in Psycho when they can here his mother calling him from the main house, an impossibility given that the house is too far away and, as we later discover, his mother is dead. Within the horror genre, convention takes on the role of myth, acting as a mode of signification to provide the audience with a wealth of information about what they are watching by relating to things with which they are familiar. The familiar tropes and effects of the slasher film genre, putting the audience at ease, leaving them more open to narrative experimentation, as twist being all the more pleasurable and/or disquieting when it comes on familiar ground. While this is most commonly achieved by use of music, positioning the audience in terms of time and place, it is also achieved by use of sound effects and sound treatment. Certain sounds which push buttons within the audience’s collective knowledge of cinema. Modern horror cinema often uses music as a short cut to establish emotional involvement with the audience. When there is such a large amount of music used within a film it is often a trick often used to disguise that little effort has been made to use the soundtrack effectively. It is unfortunate that the amount of music used in this film sometimes obscures the amount of work that seems to have gone into its soundtrack, undermining its effectiveness. Given that the film uses the wide-open spaces of rural Ohio for it’s setting, it is something of a shame that more is not made of the natural aural landscape. The moments when we experience the contrast between the silence of the landscape and the few carefully highlighted sounds (the distorted crow cawing, Claire’s nervous breathing, the sudden appearance of the strange sound that always heralds Duke’s approach) are some of the most menacing in the whole film.
Gruesome employs the unusual, but not unique, notion of the female/victim being actually, one and the same as the male/monster character, a conceit previously employed to considerable effect by gory French slasher film Switchblade Romance (Aja, 2003) but here taken an intriguing step further. While the apparent heroine of Switchblade Romance, conjures up a male psychopath to perpetrate her own murderous actions, despite her friend/victim attacking her with a shovel she never seems to accept what she is or has done, retreating into the safety of her own madness, Duke in Gruesome has no such escape. He is trapped in the role of victim, that he claimed before he died, knowing what he has done and having no escape from his actions. Every loop he learns more and more about the person Claire is/was, to value her life and to want an escape ever more desperately as he gets closer to the truth. He has crossed the ultimate line in identifying with his victim, he has become his own victim; forever reliving the full horror of the death he inflicted upon her. There are no heroes in this film, no one will come and save him, and unlike the traditional ‘final girl’ of slasher films, he cannot even save himself.