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Don’t know how I missed this one so far, but just re-watched Dario Argento’s Phenomena and it totally fits, though with a disappointing ending from a GU perspective. And with the added bonus of featuring Jennifer Connelly, just a year before she would go on to star in Labyrinth. (Her character is also named Jennifer.)

Jennifer is sent to a Swiss boarding school by her absentee movie star father (her mother having abandoned them earlier). One of the first things she learns is that there is a serial killer on the loose, stalking teenage girls. Jennifer sleepwalks, and she also has a psychic affinity with insects. Both of these end up getting her enmeshed in the mystery of the killer, with the help of a friendly local entomologist (and a lot of maggots – this is Argento after all). But they also get her labeled insane by the headmistress, who tries to send her to an asylum. Jennifer escapes and is able to start tracking the killer, but when one of her companions is murdered too, she tries desperately to get back home.

When the Adversary is revealed, there is sort of a one-on-one confrontation (actually, a few of them), but each time someone or something else ends up doing the dirty work, rather than the girl herself. She does however have a very creepy descent underground in the basement of the killer’s house.

(This being giallo horror, it was over-the-top, but the enjoyment of that was made more surreal for me by the fact that the copy I was streaming would periodically switch to the Italian dub version for a little bit, and then suddenly switch back to English.)

 

From time to time I come across something that isn’t really a Girls Underground story per se, doesn’t include nearly enough of the specific plot elements, but nonetheless has a Girls Underground feel to it. Such was Manual Cinema‘s production ADA/AVA. (I was lucky enough to watch it today on the last day they were streaming it for free, but here is the trailer below. I highly recommend it if it becomes available again.)

I saw Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein in person at the end of February and it was stunning. They have a totally unique fusion of shadow puppetry, live acting in silhouette, live music and sound effects, producing a sepia-toned silent film type of experience, but you’re seeing the behind the scenes at the same time as the finished effect. It’s hard to describe, but pretty mind-blowing to watch happen right in front of you.

ADA/AVA is about an elderly woman whose twin sister dies, and her journey into the mysteries of life and death, via a carnival mirror maze. It’s fantastic, both endlessly clever in execution while simultaneously being beautiful and touching. So I dub Ada an honorary Girl Underground (and possibly the oldest one yet!).

Thanks to a reader recommendation, I recently watched the 2016 film The Gatehouse, which despite its low budget and less than stellar acting did tap into some nice folk horror themes and was a solid GU story as well.

Eternity, 10, lives with her father (who in this case functions mostly as a companion), her mother having drowned. They have moved to a strange building that was previously the gatehouse… to something, possibly the forest itself. A monster lives in these woods – or is it a forest guardian, an ancient spirit? Something is killing people, regardless.

Eternity obsessively digs for treasure all over the place, and her mother’s spirit begins to manifest, leading her to uncover a weapon. She wins an ally in her babysitter who has also experienced strange things, and receives guidance from a psychic. Eventually Eternity and her companions discover a secret basement in the gatehouse and venture underground to explore. They think they must prevent the antlered creature from taking the stones that protect the forest, but in the end it is revealed that the real Adversary is human, and Eternity faces off against him alone, and defeats him with the weapon her mother led her to, although she may have lost her father.

(As a side note, this was an okay movie but I just noticed the absurd pull quote on the image here says “All the markings of a Shyamalan epic” which either means the reviewer was on some pretty good drugs, or really doesn’t like M. Night Shyamalan very much.)

I have read and watched some real dreck in the hunt for more Girls Underground stories. The 2017 DTV movie Stickman is not the worst, but there’s not a lot to recommend it either. I am a sucker for creepy spirit creatures who are summoned by unsuspecting children or teens and haunt them to their graves, but…. this one was pretty mediocre and unoriginal. I’m not even going to worry about spoiling it because it’s not worth protecting.

Emma (second Emma in a row!) is in a mental institution for killing her sister and mother as a child, but of course she didn’t do it, it was the Stickman, who was originally invoked by her sister via the standard creepy rhyming poem, and then transferred its attention to Emma once she read that poem aloud. She lives in fear of the Stickman attacking her in her dreams, and must ward him off through drawings each night. (These drawings of the Stickman, scattered throughout the film, are way more interesting and spooky than the actual thing itself, which would have benefited from more suggestive shots and less full-on exposure, being rather uninspired CGI.) Her initial companion is a troubled kid on the ward with her.

When Emma is released to a halfway house, she meets a group of girls who become her new companions, much to their detriment, since when a Girl Underground in a horror movie starts losing her companions, it usually means they die violently. When the meanest of the girls teasingly reads aloud the poem, the Stickman starts coming after all of them, this time in reality instead of dreams. They return to the asylum seeking answers, and discover the full backstory, which includes a retroactive betrayal by that first companion. Eventually left on her own, Emma ends up at the house where it all began, but is robbed of her chance to defeat the Adversary alone, and instead the first companion finishes the job. Which redeems him, I guess (though lots of people are now dead), but doesn’t really give much of a satisfying ending to her story.

“‘There’s this character, the dark stranger, and it’s like he created himself to lead me.’ ‘Where is he leading you?’ ‘I don’t know, but it’s gotta be better than here.'”

The Dark Stranger, directed by Chris Trebilcock, was uneven at best in terms of writing and acting, but totally won me over with it’s solid GU plot, creative incorporation of comic art, and a huge emphasis on The Power of Story.

Leah is a teenager struggling with mental illness, whose own mother was similarly tormented and committed suicide. She also inherited her mother’s artistic talent (well, we presume – her mother’s paintings in the movie are strangely childish and amateur looking for a supposedly great artist, though Leah’s own graphic novel style is portrayed much better).

After some of her own blood accidentally mixes into her ink, Leah begins falling into fits where she draws an ongoing story without being aware of what she is doing. This story-within-a-story (one of my favorite devices!) is basically a mythologized version of her life, which turns out to be closer to reality than she realizes at first. In it, a shadowy man comes to take the protagonist away to an underground world (which is also a carnival!); this man starts appearing to Leah in her everyday life as well. Blood appears to link them, and as she continues to make art with it, he begins manifesting physically and murdering her allies. But Leah can find clues to what is happening and how to defeat him within the story she is unconsciously creating.

After meeting a man who serves as guide and advisor (and who reveals a long history behind the current events, which connects Leah to her mother’s struggles as well as many other “insane” artists), Leah and her companions are pulled into the otherworld (visualized as if the comic had come to life, which was well done) by the dark stranger. He kidnaps her companions in order to force Leah to finish the story by killing herself. But she claims her own power and volition instead, and writes her own victory.

The new movie Gretel & Hansel is, of course, based on the fairytale, but as the re-ordering of the name shows, it places Gretel in a more prominent position and ends up being more of a GU example by far than the original tale.

Teenaged Gretel and her younger brother Hansel are cast out by their half-mad mother (their father already dead), and set off into the forest. Along the way they eat some mushrooms* and spend some time without cares. In the search for a means of survival, they end up at the house of a strange old woman (Holda, a name taken from another German fairytale) whose table is always mysteriously laid with abundant food. They decide to stay with her for a while, and Gretel becomes a sort of apprentice in herbcraft and other arts, while Holda begins to reveal that they are more alike than expected, and encourages Gretel to embrace her inner witch (therefore adding a “temptation by the Adversary” element). But when Hansel goes missing, Gretel rejects everything in favor of saving him (and ends up saving the souls of other lost children as well). She discovers Holda’s true nature, along with the truth about that food she’s been eating (it’s not good news). She defeats the witch, but in the end she may be becoming an adversary herself after all.

While I loved the visuals and a few of the ideas, ultimately I found this movie to be disappointing – a rather weird backstory that didn’t make much sense to me, an off-putting voiceover by Gretel now and then, and too much style over substance. But, I find it fascinating that when people elaborate on the older stories that formed the foundation of the GU archetype, they end up adding elements to make them more fully part of that archetype, possibly without even realizing it.

*The mushrooms, of course, are fly agaric, although they are strangely unrealistic in their appearance. Like so many other media representations, however, this one fails to accurately portray anything about such mushrooms, including how they must be prepared to become psychoactive and not just nauseating (pro tip – do not eat them raw!). For more about fly agaric, see my blog Raven’s Bread.

The new film Paradise Hills (dir. Alice Waddington) is much more style than substance (or even, coherence), but the style is fantastic. It was definitely worth watching just for a fun and dazzling scifi/fantasy/thriller, and it was a by-the-book Girls Underground story… but ultimately, didn’t have much to say that hasn’t been said better before. It doesn’t quite look like anything before, though, and that unique aesthetic kept me interested.

Uma is a wealthy girl whose family wants her to marry a man she despises. When she refuses, they send her to a surreal island reform school for uncooperative rich girls, run by a domineering but elegant headmistress (clearly the Adversary right from the start, in classic Red Queen fashion), who employs a cadre of handsome young men to keep the girls in line. Her fellow prisoners become her companions, but she is also joined by her secret lover, who infiltrates the island in order to rescue her. Eventually she discovers they are all being drugged nightly, and that’s just the beginning of it. Once it becomes clear that this place is definitely as sinister as you might suspect, Uma makes a desperate dash for freedom, uncovering many secrets along the way, including a betrayal by one of her companions. In the end she must confront the headmistress, revealing how she is connected to everything (quite literally, in a bewitchingly visualized but somewhat random and undeveloped denouement), and defeat her to make her escape.

Tigers Are Not Afraid (original title: Vuelven) is a beautiful but painful tale told with a fantastic touch of magical realism that also turned out to be a good Girls Underground example.

Estrella is a girl living in a Mexican city which has been destroyed by drug cartels. Her school is shut down after a shooting, and her mother has disappeared, most likely killed by the gangs (the fact that her mother keeps appearing in haunting visions cements the idea that she is now a ghost). No friendly or helpful adults seem to exist in her world – she is more alone that even most other Girls Underground.

Estrella falls in with a small group of orphans living on the streets, one of whom has recently stolen a gun and phone from a major player in the gangs. When the gang retaliates and kidnaps one of the orphans, it is Estrella who is sent in to rescue him, which she does, granting her a firmer place in the group. But eventually it is revealed that she was not the one to shoot the kidnapper, and her friends turn their backs on her.

Guided by visions of dead people, and now certain that her mother is among them, Estrella leads a final charge against the gang and its dangerous leader. With all her friends either killed or escaped, she alone descends into a room filled with the bodies of the gang’s victims, and lures the leader inside where the ghosts take their revenge.

This is one of the more dark and violent versions of the archetype I have seen, reminiscent in many ways of Pan’s Labyrinth, which also used the very real horrors that humans inflict upon each other as the setting for a lone girl’s dangerous journey.

“They will all abandon you. All you have left is my desire for you.”

I’ve covered a lot of horror movies (and a few books) here, because it seems to be a frequent genre for Girls Underground stories, especially those featuring an adult protagonist (and as I’ve mentioned before, these “girls” often have much darker fates than their younger counterparts, which will be confirmed by this current entry). I’ve profiled some of the classics of the genre, but somehow entirely missed the 1992 original Candyman (a sequel is in the works, which will be especially interesting considering the director Jordan Peele has already made one GU movie), even though it fits perfectly. Doubly negligent on my part since Candyman has long been one of my favorites (can anyone resist Tony Todd’s velvet voice beckoning to “be my victim”?), and I found on a recent re-watch that it has held up well over the years.

Helen is a graduate student studying urban legends, and one night invokes the titular boogeyman as a game, making the crucial mistake that sends her into the otherworld – both in the sense of embroiling her in the history of this phantom killer, and in the sense of stepping into a dangerous crime-ridden housing project, far from familiar territory. Her companion is her fellow thesis-writer, Bernadette. As Helen uncovers the mystery of the Candyman, he begins appearing to her, always causing her to black out and resurface in the midst of some gruesome scene – which then makes her the prime suspect in several murders, leading to her commitment in an institution. He kills her companion too, and her husband betrays her – she is alone. Candyman insists that she must surrender to him willingly, join him, in order to save an innocent child he has kidnapped. He tempts her with immortality. She seems ready to make the bargain, but at the last minute sets him on fire and rescues the child, although she loses her own life in the process. Now Helen has become a Candyman-like figure, able to be summoned in the same manner, ready to wreak bloody vengeance (another Girl Becomes Adversary).

What I noticed in particular this time around was that in its own way, this is all about the Power of Story. What the Candyman wants most – what he thrives on – is belief. The legend must continue, and it was Helen’s work trying to explain it and therefore weaken its power that threatened him. With her final act, she made such an impression on the public that she became a legend herself, therefore gaining the same kinds of powers and his promised immortality.

I recently watched Wildling, directed by Fritz Böhm, and by the end I had concluded that it at least qualifies as an Honorable Mention here.

Anna grows up with a man who is (to us) obviously not her father, who keeps her locked in a room with warnings about the monsters (called Wildlings) that prowl the woods looking to eat small children. When she enters puberty, he gives her drugs to suppress it, making her ill. Eventually, he attempts suicide, but bungles it, ending up in the hospital, and Anna is rescued and fostered by the local sheriff while she acclimates to society. She befriends the sheriff’s younger brother who becomes her companion, and is assisted by a wild man living in the woods. Her adjustment to the world of school and parties is interrupted by disturbing physical symptoms of her transformation into something else (and a new set of instincts that cause her to tear out the throat of a bully who tries to rape her).

Just as Anna is learning more about her origins and true nature, she is suddenly thrown in jail for the bully’s murder. She escapes, and takes off into the wilderness. She is pursued by law enforcement, but more dangerously by a group of wildling hunters, including her so-called “father” (now recovered from his botched suicide attempt and having learned no lessons whatsoever). In a final confrontation, she unleashes her animal self and triumphs over her former captor, free now to fully become the wildling she was meant to be.

An exploration of story…

In which I describe examples of the Girls Underground archetype that I have discovered in literature and film. For more information regarding the concept, including its earlier incarnations in fairytales and mythology, visit the pages linked above. Here is a list of all the examples I have covered thus far.

The Oracle


THE GIRLS UNDERGROUND STORY ORACLE - tapping into the Power of Story for guidance and insight. Learn more here.

Alice Days

Celebrate one of the primary inspirations for Girls Underground - Alice in Wonderland - with a holiday down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass! Check out the Alice Days page for party ideas, movie recommendations, and more.

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