Monday, May 25, 2009

Disability, Gender and Horror in "Planet Terror" and "The Orphanage"

Note: this post contains spoilers for both films mentioned in the title. If you haven't seen either of them, and would like to see them without knowing what happens in them beforehand, then don't read this before watching them!

The Orphanage (original Spanish title El Orfanato), directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, and Planet Terror, directed by Robert Rodriguez, are two recent-ish horror films which, like many in the genre (but possibly more explicitly than most) contain strong disability themes. Both films, according to Wikipedia, originally came out in 2007, although i'm not sure if the UK cinema release of either was in 2007 or 2008; I have owned DVDs of both for several months, but only got round to watching them in the last couple of weeks, hence my reviewing them now. Apologies to Lisy and Tera for stealing their blogging turf ;)

The films are from opposite ends of the horror spectrum (Planet Terror is a homage to 1970s "exploitation" films, with an emphasis on gore, action, special effects and "rule of cool" characterisation, while The Orphanage is more of a supernatural/psychological "chiller", with quite an "arthouse" vibe (although it has to be noted that anything filmed in a language other than English and/or subtitled tends to get put into that category in the mainstream press, even if it's wildly inappropriate)), and they have extremely different visual styles. Nonetheless, there are several parallels between them; both were produced by a more famous director than those who directed them, and used that director's name heavily in marketing (Quentin Tarantino in the case of Planet Terror, and Guillermo del Toro in the case of The Orphanage). As well as the disability themes, both play to an extent on gender roles using female protagonists (conventionally or otherwise), and both can be seen (albeit through readings that may not necessarily correspond with authorial intention) as critiques of paternalistic medical and social "care" systems.

In Planet Terror, the main protagonist (played by Rose McGowan) is a sex worker who becomes disabled early on in the film, losing a leg as a result of a zombie* attack, and first gets a broken-off table leg as a makeshift prosthetic, then later (actually surprisingly late in the film for me, given it being the iconic image that was plastered everywhere of the film) gets her leg replaced with a machine gun, which she uses (rather implausibly, seemingly able to fire it by moving the leg stump alone - tho that fits in with the general over-the-top, stylised tone of the film, a Tarantino hallmark shared with the somewhat thematically similar Kill Bill) to massacre zombies and save the day, thus gaining power and purpose as a disabled person with assistive technology - in fact, becoming an effective saviour of humanity as implied by the ending - that she never had in her pre-impairment life, which, IMO, even if Rodriguez didn't realise it, is an audacious subversion of the usual disability tropes found in horror and action films (where disabled characters are nearly always either pathetic victims, mentor/mastermind types detached from the action, or monstrous villains/antagonists).

*Some purists may argue about whether the "zombies" in Planet Terror are actually zombies, as they are mutated by a virus rather than reanimated from the dead by supernatural means. However, they act like zombies, and even on the DVD cover Planet Terror gets described as "a kick-ass zombie movie"... so i'll call them zombies for convenience.

A secondary protagonist, a female doctor (played by Marley Shelton) at the hospital where the zombie plague is first discovered, is also rendered (temporarily) physically impaired by her abusive husband (who is also a higher-ranking doctor, played by Josh Brolin) when he finds out she is attempting to leave him, by injecting her hands with anaesthetic and paralysing them. Despite this, however, she still manages to escape from the cupboard he locks her in, get into her car, rescue her son and drive to her father's house, while fighting off several other antagonists along the way. Brolin's character is also portrayed as enjoying the power he has over his patients in a particularly arrogant and sinister way, and can be seen as representing the authoritarian nastiness of patriarchal medicine (one could even see Shelton's character as representing a more positive vision of medical professionals allied to their patients or the community rather than to "the system", or as a medical professional whose "switching sides" by becoming disabled herself parallels her decision to liberate herself and her son from the abusive family relationship). Brolin's character also ends up becoming one of the "infected" himself, linking his patriarchal and medical authority with the military-industrial conspiracy origin of the plague.

Thus, Planet Terror is, for me, that unusual thing, a relatively-mainstream horror movie that seems to be thoroughly and unambiguously on the side of the oppressed - unlike the many other horror films in which disabled or otherwise marginalised people, when they gain power, use it for evil and have to be destroyed, in Planet Terror they are the protagonists and use their power to save the world (and even survive at the end, where the male, non-disabled, martial arts expert protagonist dies!), while the establishment-upholding institutions (medical, police and military/government) are portrayed as corrupt, evil and monstrous. (thanks to Tera for that insight :) )

The Orphanage is rather more ambiguous. The plot centres around a couple with an adopted son who buy the former orphanage that the mother (played by Belen Rueda) grew up in, with the intent of re-opening it as a "home" for disabled children. Their son is himself disabled, albeit without knowing it at the start of the film, as an HIV-positive adopted child (it's implied by his appearance and some incidental dialogue, but not explicitly stated, that he was presumably adopted from an institution in a developing country, probably (given the Spanish-language setting) somewhere in Latin America - although this isn't really touched on in the plot), but his parents are keeping this from him "for his own protection". The boy's finding out about his impairment and his origin, however, lead into the supernatural events of the plot, involving the ghosts of children who lived in the orphanage in the adoptive mother's childhood, who eventually lead both son and mother to their deaths.

The villain of the film is a former care worker at the orphanage (with the highly ironic name "Benigna"), who turns out to have killed the other children whose ghosts haunt the orphanage, after they caused the death of her own facially disfigured son, Tomas. However, Tomas and the other children all seem to be working together as ghosts, with no sign of enmity or tension, which strikes me as something of a plot hole; I was expecting Tomas' ghost to be an antagonist because of a grudge against the other children. Of the other ghost children, one is stated to be blind, while another wears a leg brace, but their impairments are incidental to the plot. The disabled children for whom Rueda's character had intended to reopen the orphanage are only shown briefly (although it looks like actually disabled child actors were used for the parts, albeit probably more accurately described as "extras" than "actors"), and again not much is made of disability as a plot element here.

Overall, The Orphanage felt to me like a film which could have made much more of the themes of disability and institutional "care" which formed the backdrop to its plot than it did; I was expecting it to have a much stronger theme of the true horror inherent in a segregated and institutional setting itself (as well as more of a presence of the disabled children the protagonists were reopening it for). It's also a much less radical film in its treatment of gender roles than Planet Terror - it follows typical horror film conventions of "emotional" female characters being much more receptive to the supernatural than skeptical, "rational" male characters, of women's primary identity being as mothers protecting their children, and of the "caretaker" role (whether seen positively as nurturing or negatively as authoritarian oppression) as a primarily female one. (In this it can be contrasted with del Toro's earlier The Devil's Backbone, also set in an orphanage and featuring ghost children, in which it is an abusive male authority figure who is led to his death by the ghosts, who can be seen as (anti)heroic rather than antagonistic.)

Laura, the main protagonist of The Orphanage, in some ways parallels Dakota, the secondary protagonist of Planet Terror: both are mothers of sons of a similar age whose sons die in ironically tragic circumstances, both are temporarily physically impaired by the actions of an antagonist, and both have husbands or male partners who are oppressively scornful and dismissive towards them (albeit one portrayed as actually abusive, while the other is merely the standard supernatural film "disbeliever" or "skeptic" character). Both also have antagonistic counterparts (Benigna and Dr Block respectively) who personify the authoritarian paternalism of medical and social care that disabled people are subjected to. However, Laura herself, as a (presumably) fairly rich and privileged international adopter of a disabled child, who plans to open what is still essentially an institution for other disabled children, is open to criticism as the same sort of "do-gooding" paternalist. (It's a subtle but pleasing parallel that both Laura and Benigna separated their own disabled sons from the other children in the institution - also, Laura's own rise from orphaned/institutionalised origins to proprietor of the same institution could be seen as showing an assimilation process of oppressed people being socialised to imitate, and ultimately become, oppressors.)

Both Planet Terror and The Orphanage are visually stunning films, although they use extremely different visual styles. Both also have flawed plots, in which some events seem implausible even given the supernatural settings and certain elements do not (IMO) entirely satisfactorily hold together. Both, however, are recommended for critical viewing, although of the 2 Planet Terror is the one that i think is the most radical and positive in the way it presents disabled and otherwise oppressed characters.

I find it interesting that this is somewhat the opposite of how the subgenres of horror film that The Orphanage and Planet Terror are representative of generally tend to get percieved - the subtler, more psychological "arthouse horror" of The Orphanage being generally praised by more intellectual critics and seen as more "alternative" and for the more "aware" or "discerning" viewer, whereas the gory, effects-heavy "action horror" of Planet Terror (and the older "schlock" or "exploitation" films that it draws on for inspiration) tends to be seen as the sexist, anti-intellectual domain of macho adolescent boys, and as using minority stereotypes in crudely exploitative ways. However, here it's Rodriguez's "exploitation" horror (with its roots in pulp sci-fi magazines, circus freakshows and the like) which is ultimately more subversive and minority-positive than Bayona's "intellectual" work. (It's worth noticing that the disability arts movement has a long tradition of reclaiming and subverting exploitative "freakshow" imagery, with Tod Browning's classic film Freaks as an arguable antecedent).

What i would really love to see is a horror film with disabled protagonists played by disabled actors, with the themes of institutions and their lingering, haunting legacy as used (if not explored as deeply as they could have been) in The Orphanage, but with the style and attitude of Planet Terror. (I'm sure the likes of Mat Fraser and Nabil Shaban would be interested in such a project, if there was a director and finance to get it off the ground. While doing dream casting, i'd love to have Sarah Gordy playing a protagonist and Liz Crow playing some role in either producing or directing...) Now that would be a true successor to Freaks. However, in the absence of such an imaginary film (and the extreme unlikeliness of anything like it ever happening), Planet Terror and (to a slightly lesser extent) The Orphanage are both above average for "mainstream" cinema, and worth watching for anyone with an interest in either "genre" films or in disability and its intersections with other oppressive systems...


Lisa said...

I agree with you on Planet Terror, but I thought The Orphanage was shit.

That's as close as I get to intellectual reviewing without more tea.

Tera said...

Steal my blogging turf whenever you want to--this was awesome.

"thus gaining power and purpose as a disabled person with assistive technology - in fact, becoming an effective saviour of humanity as implied by the ending - that she never had in her pre-impairment life"I've been trying to think horror/suspense/sci-fi, etc. movies where a disabled person saved the day *as a disabled person* so strikingly, and all I can come up with is the movie "Silver Bullet," which was based on Stephen King's "Cycle of the Werewolf." (Boy in wheelchair vs. werewolves...in the movie he has an older sister, but I can't remember if he does in the book or not). It's been a while since I've seen/read either one, and King has done very stereotypical things with disability in other places--the character with Down Syndrome-as-friendly-alien in "Dreamcatcher," for instance. And "Rose Red" has a *very* strange twist on Hollywood's autistic savant stereotype, which I then saw repeated in another movie.

There's also a disabled character in a horror/sci-fi spoof from the 80s called "Night of the Creeps" who is interesting by being...not very interesting. He's in the "goofy best friend" role, and very likeable and funny, but his disability is never explained or even referred to, really. Which I think is subversive in itself, but becomes even *more* subversive when you consider that his name is John Carpenter Hooper. (All the major characters are named for famous horror directors). Because Tobe Hooper is responsible for "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," which had a disabled character who whined all the time and slowed everyone down. J.C. is as heroic as everyone else, though he does succumb eventually. (He dies in a very "goofy best friend" way, too, rather than in a "weak disabled person" way).

And when you add in the whole "using an assistive device as a weapon in an iconic way" thing, the only book/movie I can think of is "No Country for Old Men," where the non-disabled villain killed people with an oxygen tank. Which is, of course, *way* different than "Planet Terror."

Also, another thing I thought of reading your earlier comments about "Planet Terror" and watching the movie again: the ending implies that Cherry (Rose McGowan) and Dakota are lovers. (FYI: Dakota has a cameo in Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof," also). Which strikes me as highly unusual, since in a lot of exploitation/horror movies lesbians are only there for sex scenes to turn the het male viewers on. So we've got powerful queer women and powerful queer disabled women, too. (Or maybe I'm reading too much into it, which could be true :)).

"However, here it's Rodriguez's 'exploitation' horror (with its roots in pulp sci-fi magazines, circus freakshows and the like) which is ultimately more subversive and minority-positive than Bayona's 'intellectual' work."Excellent point, this. I was also thinking that the exploitation genre might be particularly suited for such "diamonds in the rough" as "Planet Terror": the films are cheap to make and, unlike arthouse stuff, tend to be profitable. Thus, the exploitation film is accessible to a wide variety of filmmakers with a lot of different viewpoints. (Because, really, if you've got corn syrup and a camera, you're golden :)).

Also, exploitation films--in both the earlier and later parts of the 20th century--dealt with subjects most mainstream movies wouldn't touch: drug abuse, disability, rape, etc. (I can't think of any movie earlier than 1972 that deals with rape as frankly as Wes Craven's "Last House on the Left" does--even in Sam Pekinpah's psychological thriller "Straw Dogs," the main character's wife seems to enjoy being gangraped). A lot of these subjects are for pure shock value, of course, but they're still conversations contemporary mainstream films aren't having.

Man, that was rambly.

P.S. You're still planning on exploring H.P. Lovecraft's neurodiversity, right? ;)

Jain said...

I thought The Orphanage was generally rubbish and was disappointed when I saw it cos of Guillermo Del Toro’s involvement. There were a couple of things I found interesting tho. First is that Laura’s son is adopted (which could have been a plot device to explain why he’s HIV positive). As the film revolves around Laura protecting her son and ultimately killing herself to be with him, it’s a positive portrayal of how non-biological parental relationships can be as powerful as biological ones.

That her son’s impairment is HIV is also interesting. It may have been chosen because HIV is still perceived as something to be feared and is more of a ‘horrifying’ impairment, like Tomas’ facial disfigurement.

Planet Terror rocked ☺. An interesting contrast is between Cherry and the character of Valeria in Amores Perros. Both are beautiful adult women who use their bodies for a living (Valeria is a successful model) who both lose a leg in traumatic circumstances. In contrast to Cherry, Valeria ends up a lonely recluse after having her leg amputated as she is no longer considered beautiful (nor thinks she’s beautiful herself) and can’t get work as a model. Cherry only strips because it's just another (shit) job whereas Valeria is successful and famous and her identity is tied up with internalized standards of 'beauty'. (the plot of Amores Perros is way more complicated - that's just one element of it).

shiva said...

Tera: I read somewhere that the inspiration for the gun-as-prosthesis was... some other old, probably fairly famous zombie film(?) in which someone's hand gets chopped off and replaced by a chainsaw... which is vaguely familiar, but i can't place it exactly. Also, i'm fairly sure there are lots of characters with hands/arms replaced by weapons (none i'm aware of with legs, tho...) in old sci-fi TV series, comics, toy lines etc, altho specific examples are eluding me at the moment.

I didn't catch the implication that Dakota and Cherry are lovers at the end, but then, that's the kind of implication that i'm *never* likely to catch, unless it's made incredibly explicit (either someone saying it out loud or blatantly sexual behaviour between them)...

Yes, i am still intending to write about Lovecraft, i just haven't got round to it yet. Also need to find a cheap copy of an anthology with The Shadow over Innsmouth in it...

Jain: I think HIV was probably chosen mainly for plot reasons: that it's asymptomatic with regular treatment (so possible to keep from a child that he has it), but would result in death if left untreated (I can't think of any other well-known condition that would be true of, except diabetes, and that's generally seen as pretty prosaic, whereas HIV has the "edginess" factor of association with sexuality, the "Third World" and conspiracies).

I haven't seen Amores Perros, but from its Wiki article it looks vaguely interesting. Might get it if i see the DVD cheap somewhere. (I'm not a fan of dogs, tho, so might be prejudiced in watching it by that.) The portrayal of acquired impairment leading to loss of identity and purpose sounds pretty tiresome, tho (see all those other films about suicidal disabled people, Million Dollar Baby etc).

BTW, how do you do that little smiley character?

shiva said...

Oh, something else i forgot to mention about Planet Terror: being unfamiliar with Rose McGowan when i watched it, i actually thought she might have been a genuine amputee actor, and the earlier scenes with both her flesh-and-blood legs were CGIed, rather than the later scenes with the table leg and gun taking the place of her leg.

(Although i did think it was stretching credibility a bit for someone who had just lost a leg to be as mobile with a makeshift prosthesis as she was, or not to be having enormous levels of pain and balance problems - but this being Tarantino and Rodriguez, of course style triumphs over plausibility, and nothing she did that wasn't very obvious CGI (such as the "fire the gun to leap over the fence" scene, and her general ability to apparently fire it by willpower alone) struck me as being impossible for an amputee actor who was used to hir impairment to do...)

Jain said...

Aye I wouldn't watch Amores Perros if yer not too keen on dogs.

I typed my comment in word first hence the smiley ☺

Anonymous said...

"I read somewhere that the inspiration for the gun-as-prosthesis was... some other old, probably fairly famous zombie film"

Sounds like Army of Darkness.


AnneC said...

I just watched "The Orphanage" today, without knowing much about it other than it had involved the same guy who did "Pan's Labyrinth" (which I liked a lot). "The Orphanage" was definitely an interesting watch in some ways and I wasn't bored, but there certainly weren't any surprises...seemed like more of a "character and atmosphere" film.

However, the one thing that struck me (and that you alluded to as well) was the fact that the whole premise of institutionalization was NEVER questioned, not even by the "good" characters. I know that doesn't have to be the theme in every movie, but still...it was almost bizarre how innocuous the whole concept was played as, despite the obviously evil acts of the social worker character, etc.

Also I found the ending really confusing...I had to read about it online to find out what actually happened, because all the imagery was sort of shuffled together and I didn't recognize corpse-boy probably due to the lighting, or my TV, or faceblindness. :P