Sunday, December 26, 2010

Go To Hell For the Holidays

The YBCA had a horror series programmed in December. I was able to watch three films in the series.

Feast of the Assumption: BTK and The Otero Family Murders; documentary; (2008) - Official Website
Wolf Creek starring John Jarratt; directed by Greg Mclean; (2005) - Official Website
Meat Grinder; Thai with subtitles; (2009)


The series wasn't strictly "horror." Feast of the Assumption: BTK and The Otero Family Murders was a documentary about a man whose family was a victim of the BTK serial murderer in Kansas. BTK stands for Bind, Torture, Kill which was the modus operandi of the killer. Over 17 years, BTK killed 10 people including his first victims - 4 members of the Otero family. On January 15, 1974, Joseph and Julie Otero and their children Joseph Jr. (age 9) and Josephine (age 11)) were murdered in their Wichita house. There were three other Otero children who were not at home that day.

Feast of the Assumption follows Charlie Otero, one of the surviving kids. Charlie was 15 when the murders took place. The film starts in the mid-2000s with 50something year old Charlie locked up in a New Mexico prison. I'm not sure what director Marc Levitz saw in Otero that made him think a he was worth a documentary. Otero had been in scrapes with the law since the murders which is not surprising. Over the years, Otero learned that his family had been the first known victims of BTK who was still at large.

When filming of Feast of the Assumption started, I think the intent was to follow Otero around as he deals with his emotional baggage. Despite his scrapes with the law, Otero turns out to be rather well adjusted for a man who family was murdered. He certainly doesn't appear to have the inner rage that I would think a man in his position would have. As I recall, he did not drink or do drugs and was not prone to violence. In short, he didn't seem to make a compelling subject for a documentary.

Then amazing things began to happen. BTK was caught. In 2005, Dennis Rader, an animal control officer and active in his Lutheran church, was arrested in Wichita. Otero followed the trial. I can't recall if he testified but he definitely read a statement during sentencing. Rader was sentenced to 10 consecutive life terms or a minimum of 175 years in prison.

On the day before Otero spoke at Rader's sentencing, he learned his son whom he was largely estranged from, had suffered an accident and likely suffered permanent brain damage. This was the only time Otero showed any anger or rage towards his circumstances and most of his anger was directed to Truman Capote whose work In Cold Blood motivated BTK or at least, Otero believes that.

I've written much so far about a film that I didn't really like too much. BTK's life would have been fascinating because he turned out to be a monster. However, Charlie Otero's life was frankly boring. The most that can be said about Otero is that he has lousy taste in women if the film is any indication. Other than that, he seems too nice and otherwise bland to have a documentary devoted to him. I'm sorry for what happened to him and his family but I didn't really feel this documentary needed to be made. That sums my impression of the film. I kept waiting for an emotional gut punch or Charlie's triumph but the film never delivered.


In the synopsis of the film, YBCA claimed Wolf Creek as "possibly the best horror film of the decade." The Australian film was directed by Greg Mclean whose most recent work is the disappointing Red Hill which I saw at the Mill Valley Film Festival. I see a trend developing. In both films, Mclean sets the action in the Australian Outback and in both cases, the locals come off looking like inbred psychopaths. Wolf Creek seemed like the bastard child of Deliverance and Crocodile Dundee.

Wolf Creek is about three young people driving across Australia. They stop to sight-see at a meteor crater and return to find their car is disabled. Fortunately, a rugged bushman (John Jarratt) comes along to give them a tow. However, once back at his compound, he drugs their water and tortures them. I won't spoil the ending but what the YBCA trumpets as "possibly the best horror film of the decade" stuck me as derivative and nothing special.

After the screening, the YBCA staff invited the audience to discuss the film. Jesse Hawthorne Ficks was in the audience and praised the film which he saw in Montana on Xmas day. One of the YBCA programmers mentioned he was tired of the misogyny in horror films. That's like someone saying they are tired of the gratuitous sex in porn.

During the discussion, it became clear to me that I cannot "get into" horror films. Unlike some other genres, I cannot suspend disbelief when watching horror films. As a result, the violence and degradation depicted in the films become passé to me. All I can really do is enjoy the film for it mechanics. Is the director able to startle me or skillfully interject dark humor? Does the film build the suspense level even when you know what is about to happen? A horror film become more of a litmus test of a director's skills. Any horror film content is ignored by me as being res ipsa loquitur. That is, horror films are ridiculous by definition so why apply real-world analysis or thought to the films?


That leaves Meat Grinder which was far from engaging but the best of the three I saw. This film follow a woman who runs a noodle shop. She has a "secret ingredient" and let's just call it soylent green. Apparently, to make the best noodle soup, she needs fresh meat so she keeps her captives alive for several days after beginning the butchering process. This plot premise has been done many times; most famously in Sweeney Todd.

Meat Grinder delves into the psyche of the woman who commits these heinous and sadistic acts. Much is made of her speaking to her past and future selves at the bottom of a jar of water. I felt the scenes were contrived and less than effective. Set in the 1970s, some scenes of social unrest were mixed in to better effect but they were quickly discarded. Ultimately, I had little empathy for the woman and wanted the film to end so my suffering could too. However, Meat Grinder attempted to be something more than a slasher film; its reach mostly exceeded its grasp.


The series was unsatisfying for me but at least it represented a nice try by YBCA to program something different within the horror genre.

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