***/**** Image B+ Sound A- Extras B+
by Alex Jackson My cardinal rule about documentaries: they shouldn't just coast on the gravitas of their subject matter. They have to have some kind of perspective and work on their own terms. With that said, documentaries about movies are a bit of a blind spot for me, as I have a particularly strong difficulty separating my affection for the film and my affection for what it's about. I know that This Film Is Not Yet Rated isn't very good--it's childish and doesn't mount a terribly convincing case against the MPAA. But come on, I could talk for hours about the MPAA if I could find somebody who would want to listen. Cinemania? Yeah, the filmmakers didn't do much more than point and laugh at those guys. God help me, though, I had a little envy for them: I only wish I could theatre-hop in New York City, exclusively watching the films that interest me without worrying about money or having to review them. I could feel that my critical capacities were being tested in these cases, but I survived. However, when you have a documentary that isn't about merely the movies, but about slasher movies specifically--well, shit, any pretense of objectivity on my part has officially gone out the window.
Going To Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (hereon simply Going to Pieces) is very information-oriented. There isn't any real intercourse between the subject and the filmmakers, who neither seek nor capture the bits of poetry that may exist between the lines. The film does seem to violate my cardinal rule about documentaries, though I'm beginning to question whether that's a meaningful way to approach non-fiction filmmaking. I feel obliged to tell you that Going to Pieces is not good art--not as good as, say, Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography, or even Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream (also produced by and for the Starz! Channel). Then again, does it really matter if it's good art? Is that what we're looking for when we watch a documentary?
Documentarians Rachel Belofsky, Rudy Scalese, and Michael Bohusz (the film doesn't appear to have a proper director, with Belofsky and Scalese credited as producers and Bohusz as editor) share an infectious love of slasher cinema. They successfully avoid the monotony of a conventional talking-head documentary by shooting their interviews outdoors in a dark alley or at a cemetery with a constantly-moving camera. There are tons of well-chosen film clips and a bunch of cheesy gags like quoting Ennio Morricone in cueing a "Spaghetti Slasher" title card. It's not much, but it gives the film a bit of a kick and shows that the filmmakers care enough about the material to not go on autopilot.
Criticism of the genre is answered with a certain amount of defensiveness. A special episode of "Sneak Previews" with Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel devoted entirely to slasher films is featured, wherein Siskel theorizes that the genre's misogyny is a reaction to the Women's Movement. Panel members counter that in slashers, women are oftentimes the killer and men actually make up the majority of the victims. Thing about this rebuttal is that it complicates rather than contradicts Siskel's assertion. Siskel is right that the iconology of the slasher film is inherently "pro-rape" and, yes, that the genre itself is a reaction to feminism. Yet it's a more sophisticated reaction to feminism than he thinks, since it indicates that we'll know women are truly equal to men once we have a female Ted Bundy. The female serial killer is a hypothetical, of course, but the icon is useful for systematically revealing the deficiencies of a cultural movement founded on liberation or, more disturbingly, "empowerment."
I'm not sure where they could have done so, but it would've been nice if Belofsky, et al had incorporated a moment from the "Sneak Previews" broadcast during which the two critics heap praise on Halloween and explain why it is exempt from their criticism. "Artistry redeems any subject matter," Ebert offers. Evidently this is because the artful Halloween works on the "intended" level of a thriller. When a slasher film isn't done as well as Halloween, all that you pick up on is the subtext. Strangely enough, the film is done so well that it blinded Siskel and Ebert to the fact that it's as much about rape as any other film in the genre. Not too long ago, Ebert said that anybody who watches every selection on the AFI Top 100 Movies list would never want to see another Dead Teenager Movie, something he defines as "a movie that starts out with a lot of teenagers, and kills them all, except one to populate the sequel." I wrote in to point out that he awarded Halloween four stars. He graciously responded in his "Answer Man" column that Halloween isn't a Dead Teenager Movie, despite the fact that his definition of the genre fits it to a T.
Still, there's a definite distinction between Halloween and what followed. Belofsky, et al credit--correctly, I think--Friday the 13th for putting the emphasis on gore effects and implicitly encouraging audiences to empathize with the killer. They cynically deliver that which you came for, turning artistry into an unnecessary expenditure. After a few years of this, slasher fans grew bored and wanted something more. Enter Wes Craven's witty and adept A Nightmare on Elm Street, the film that revitalized the dying slasher genre and was such a phenomenon that it helped transform boogeymen like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger into bona fide pop icons. From there the slasher genre grew increasingly silly. It died out and was then resuscitated by Craven's accomplished Scream, which understood precisely how silly the slasher had become. The film doesn't outline this quite so clearly, but thanks to Scream, the slasher was suddenly truly mainstream, and the typical fan now drank Zima and wore Abercrombie & Fitch. The sequels to Scream were literally about as scary as an episode of "Dawson's Creek". We even started seeing slasher flicks with a PG-13 rating. As a reaction to this, we have the stirrings of the "torture porn" sub-genre, an attempt to be divisive within a genre that is now permanently in the public eye.
So who is responsible for the demise of the genre? Belofsky and co. don't really know. They love their subject so much that they're reluctant to assign blame. Friday the 13th demonstrated that films don't need to be stylish in order to be successful, they only need to have inventive kills. (The creators of Going to Pieces, mind you, unabashedly love Friday the 13th for what it is.) Post-A Nightmare on Elm Street, we get the "fall of the slasher film" montage. Indeed, A Nightmare on Elm Street did give us Freddy Krueger lunchboxes, but hey, that's pretty cool--and besides, it was a fine film made by a former professor of humanities attempting to explore the burden of consciousness.
Going to Pieces goes over the slasher genre's roots in the Theater of the Grand Guignol and moves on to the respective geneses of Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Prom Night (?!). There are segments on the "rules" of the slasher film, on how some producers actually looked through the calendar for a holiday to make a film about, and of course on the sociological underpinnings of the genre. John Carpenter's claim that Halloween was a product of the Carter administration is a real head-scratcher, but I loved his suggestion that the genre's extreme violence was a reaction to the "body culture" of the 1980s. The idea that the films were about youth paying for the sins of the '60s and that Halloween and the Nightmare on Elm Street films in particular were about the violation of suburban sanctuaries holds up especially well.
Ultimately, Going to Pieces lacks a coherent thesis. It basically throws up everything it can think of relating to the thirty-year history of slasher film and leaves it to us to sort out. There's an objectivity to the approach that protects the filmmakers not only from having to personalize their subject matter but also from exposing their arguments as naïve or possibly wrong. I can't say that it's a challenging moviegoing experience. And yet, with a genre as disreputable as this one, that might be the best approach. It's perhaps the perfect primer for those not familiar with slasher cinema in the sense that you can't help but wanting to fill your Netflix queue with nothing but slasher titles afterwards, and it provides you the fodder to form your own opinion of the genre. You can't ask for much more than that as far as I'm concerned.
Though TH!NKFilm's 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of Going to Pieces is a little bit washed-out and grainy, greens and blacks stand out strongly. I could find no flaw with the Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio, which has plenty of punch despite being conclusively utilitarian. Tucked away among the language options, an audio commentary with Belofsky, Scalese, and Bohusz isn't as redundant as you would think. Bohusz admits that he's largely unfamiliar with the Italian horror films that inspired the American slashers, a fact that has earned him condemnation among some hardcore horror fans. Belofsky and Scalese discuss at length the difficulty of clearing the rights to the films excerpted as well as to the images of Johnny Depp and Tom Hanks.
Other bonus materials include interviews with John Dunning, Paul Lynch, Joseph Stefano, Fred Walton, Stan Winston, and the late Bob Clark. Although Clark isn't featured in the movie proper, his Black Christmas is a considerably more important film than Prom Night, and it probably would have improved Going to Pieces immensely if its origin story were explored instead. At any rate, Clark gives us the skinny on Black Christmas while walking towards a retreating camera, a shot that plays well when intercut with film clips but that gets a little sickening when left uninterrupted. Amusingly, Clark has a Fu Manchu thing going on, wearing a black outfit that looks at first glance like silk robes and squinting while deviously bending his fingers against one another. I think the blame for this lies squarely on the shoulders of the filmmakers. He ends the interview claiming that he told John Carpenter his idea for a sequel to Black Christmas where the killer escapes from the asylum and relocates to a small suburban town. His title would be Halloween. If he could prove that, it sounds like enough for a lawsuit--but Clark says that having an idea for a movie doesn't compare to writing, directing, and scoring one and he doesn't take any credit for Halloween aside from inspiring Carpenter with Black Christmas. And anyway, he was finished with horror films thereafter and had no interest in ever returning to the well.
Dunning is always good company and here he recounts the painful origin story of My Bloody Valentine. He mentions that he has a print of My Bloody Valentine with eight minutes of unseen additional footage and jokes that he's going to put it in the sequel, My Bloody Valentine 2. Fred Walton tells us about how he broke into the industry with a short that formed the basis of When a Stranger Calls; truthfully, I would've preferred to learn the background of his bizarre April Fool's Day. Stefano tells us some Hitchcock stories about the making of Psycho. While there may be new information here, somehow I doubt it. I found the Paul Lynch and the Stan Winston interviews pretty much entirely extraneous. There are also three horror trivia quizzes--"True and False," "Novice," and "Advanced"--running at approximately 25 questions apiece. I believe you can find all the answers in the documentary. The "Novice" and "Advanced" games will not let you proceed until you have answered every question correctly.
Rounding out the disc: forced trailers for .45 (decidedly unappetizing and NOT a remake of Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45) and The Zodiac (NOT the David Fincher film) and an optional one for Going to Pieces; and a special message from film historian Adam Rockoff, who wrote the book Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of Slasher Film and enthusiastically endorses this adaptation. Originally published: September 19, 2007.