I watch a lot of horror films, both old and new, and I can’t help but see trends that thread through each era of horror cinema history. The last ten years has showcased an exploration (often with a heavy dose of pretension) of grief through horror tropes. The fifties were full of science fiction and horror that released the anxieties inherent in the Cold War and the atomic age. The 80s were all about killing sexually active teens. Each generation of horror filmmakers brings their fears and anxieties to the screen. The two films that were imposed on me by Grindhouse Theology contributor, Trevor Almy, Bonehill Road and The Brain Hunter, are no different.
…with the exception, that is, that they are not good films. Their average ranking on my Letterboxd profile is 3/4 of a star. You are correct, that is not a whole star. Unless you round up, but only chumps and engineers do that.
However, there is one aspect of their low budget narrative torture that I found to be compelling and not consistently found in contemporary horror: the obvious villain. When I say “obvious,” I don’t mean the creature that scores front-and-center placement on the video covers— that’s too obvious. What I mean by the term is found in a human character who upon first introduction is pegged automatically by the viewer as a villain and turn out, lo and behold, to be a villain. Just not the villain. Am I being clear here?
Current horror doesn’t want you to know who the villain is or they want you to think that someone is a villain that actually isn’t a villain even if they aren’t necessarily “good,” in the traditional sense. Or they want you to think that no character in the film is the “good” person, the hero. Therefore modern horror loves the anti-hero, because they are “complicated,” “realistic,” “human,” and cannot be made into the hero or the villain with ease. They are unclassifiable.
These two films seek to bring the old-school, obvious bad guy back into vogue. Sure, Bonehill Road is about werewolves that seem to really only be interested in abused and exploited women and the extra-planetary demon of The Brain Hunter appears to only appreciate the well-preserved, pickled brains of clearly the dumbest and most big-breasted women the director could find. However, clearly viewers are not meant to relate with these creatures who glory in their place of primacy within the film, but in the really bad humans who inhabit the same landscapes as these creatures. Yes, I do mean Coen Anders (played by Douglas Epps) of Bonehill Road and Cliff (played by Gerard Luning) of The Brain Hunter.
Bonehill Road follows an embattled mother, Emily, and her daughter, Eden, who have escaped an abusive household only to happen upon a road that is plagued by dime-store werewolves. They meet Coen at a post office when Emily unsuccessfully makes a call on a public phone. Coen is walking in as Emily is leaving and as he asks if they need help and tells them to have a nice day, the viewer goes through this process of registering his character:
“Wow, this guy appears to be dressed like a Nirvana fan from the early nineties who happened upon a Zoltar fortune teller machine and wished he was older and then became that long-haired, hippy pot-smoker that is probably still wearing the same clothes he did in 1994.”
“Also, he is socially awkward and seems like he is probably undressing the mother with his eyes. Yeah, he is definitely undressing her with his eyes and he clearly likes what he sees with that smirk on his face.”
“Man, the camera is still lingering on him. He is still standing there, holding the door, and smirking. I guess he will probably play a part later on in the film and it definitely cannot be a heroic part what with the creepy smirk that rape-y way he undressed the mother with his mind powers.”
Turns out: he is a serial killer! One who likes to capture and torture women by carving their skin off slowly and feeding it to them. Or tying them up with rope and sitting them at a kitchen table and sautéing their friend’s flesh to feed them. When that part of the film takes place, the viewer is validated in their integral and intuitive investigative ability. This is indeed a bad man. He will not save the day; this has now been affirmed.
The Brain Hunter takes a different tact in introducing its obvious villain to the industrious and ever enterprising sleuths who choose to watch the film. I would try to, first, explain the plot of The Brain Hunter to you for context, but I am unconvinced that even the writer and director could tackle that feat. So just know that it makes no sense but has a demon in it that eats brains.
In what becomes one of my favorite editing choices in any film, an older woman walks out of a store and meets a younger woman who she apparently knows. They strike up a conversation about their day and about life and all the typical small talk expected from people you know, but wish you didn’t. Right in the middle of this conversation the younger woman looks up and randomly says, “Hi, Cliff!” Our introduction to “Cliff” happens in a sudden jump cut to an older, perpetually drunk man who totally looks like a “Cliff” (and who looks like he may jump off a cliff at any moment due to the perilous discrepancy between expectations about his life and the current state of his life). The edit happens in such a way that we are given a new lighting, it does not look like the same area, time of day, or perhaps universe as the last scene with the two women talking.
It is at this point that the viewer, recognizing this space-out-of-time editing effect that this guy is clearly up to no good. He yells in his best mumbly old man voice something about kids being on his lawn or being an obvious bad guy or some such babbling that old men do from time to time within the ravages of alcoholism. What is worse, he is clearly an old alcoholic who comes from another dimension. A much sadder alternate universe.
Once again, the viewer rejoices when we come to find that Cliff is indeed helping kill busty women in order for the brain hunter demon to suck up their purified brains. Once again, we are exalted in our Holmes-ian detective skills. He, too, is not a good man. But he is also not the worst man. That would be the bluish-gray Avatar demon. Unlike Bonehill Road, however, we are offered a surprise when we learn the backstory of Cliff. Turns out he was the ex-husband of the woman who birthed the demon. So like a good, but perhaps gullible, ex-husband, he cares for the child of the woman who left him. This is a thing that we have always understood ex-husbands to do for the women that leave them. It is shorthand, normally, for someone who is not all that bad of a guy, but since this child is a demon who wants brains, we are brought back to the truth that Cliff is, in fact, not good even if he does care for his ex-wife’s child from a alternate demon world.
What Bonehill Road and The Brain Hunter accomplish is giving the audience back the feeling that they are smart, that films can be figured out before they end. They do know the difference between a person who is good and bad even if they voted for Donald Trump in the last election. Films like these make viewers feel good about themselves. That they have control over things. That they will be able to tell the difference between a bad guy like a serial killer or a trans-dimensional old alcoholic and a “good guy” like Donald Trump, our President.
However, these films present a problem to the simplicity of this form of thought. Both the obvious “good guys” and “bad guys” die in the films. What does this say to those same viewers? That it doesn’t matter whether you are good or bad for you will still become worm food. Which basically means that my whole reason for writing this ode to the obvious villain is kind of pointless, because, in the end, contemporary horror film wins again. Really these are just low budget deconstructions of good and bad characters which show that in the end we are all the same. And that you might as well vote for Joe Biden who may succumb to cognitive decline if elected over the “good guy” (nay, “The best guy. The best of all guys!”) Donald Trump, because, really there is no such thing as good or bad. But there is such thing as pretension which is significant in contemporary horror. So, that is cool. Also, you will die if you aren’t already dead. Sorry ’bout ya.