The scent of madness: The flowery horror of “Little Joe”

The first thing I noticed about the film Little Joe was the color palette. The tones of red and purple were present in many scenes, from the startling red hair of the main protagonist, to the eerie magenta glow of the greenhouse of the titular pseudo MacGuffin: the bloody tendrils of the plant itself. This palette, which drenches the scenes, is a signal to numinous occurrences.  The color primes us for the subtle, hypnotic effect, and this color motif is the thing that stays with me. 

Little Joe is about Alice, a scientist at a botanical biotech company who develops a flower that releases a scent that makes people happy. She calls it an “anti-depressant” plant, one that requires the owner be devoted to the care of the bright red bloom. Against company procedures, Alice brings the plant home for her son, who she feels guilty about neglecting. Soon, she notices subtle, disturbing changes in his behavior.

Little Joe is an example of Weird Cinema, at the interstices of several genres, including science fiction and horror. But the pacing takes cues from psychological thrillers. While there are moments of suspense and eeriness,  this is a more cerebral type of horror, one that relies on ambiguity. The slow blooming, unfurling Little Joe plants are accompanied by ambient whispers that tingle along your spine. The influence of the plant is suggestive, and rather than over the top madness, the effect seems to be a malingering indifference to the world.

(Also, the idea of a supernatural flower in the purple-pink spectrum of course reminded me of the Marsh Bell!)

On “Moonlight”: in praise of blue black boys

I finally saw the movie “Moonlight” over the holidays. I am pleased that it was nominated for 8 Academy Awards. Adapted from the play “In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue,” the film is, among other things, a coming-out story of a young black man, set against the backdrop of the 1980s war on drugs. It’s a sparse film, full of small gestures and precise performances. The main character is seamlessly played by three actors, from prepubescence to young adulthood.


The resonance between my 2013 YA novel BEREFT and the film is very strong. Like the character Chiron in Moonlight, my 13-year old character Rafe faces bullying and lives with his mentally unstable mother in an inner city neighborhood. (BEREFT differs in that it focuses on Rafe’s school life when he gets a scholarship to a Catholic prep school).

The importance of the movie, which centers on black queer love, cannot be overstated.
Our stories are finally getting the recognition they deserve.

Twelve Years a Slave: The True American Horror Story

If the American spirit were to be personified, she wouldn’t look like Lady Liberty. She would be a woman of color with scars on her flesh, calligraphic tattoos of pain and suffering. All of the progress and expansion of the U.S. has been gained through the genocide of the indigenous population and slavery. (Not to mention the initial hazing period that many immigrants still go through). This sordid history is sometimes hidden or romanticized.  When I was a student at a mostly white high school, I distinctly remember my 10th grade history teacher made a point that some masters loved their slaves and treated them like family. Mind you, I was not militant back then. Far from it. But I knew that I was being feed a line. I recall thinking to myself, why does she want to believe that so damn much? This desire to turn the matter of slavery into a Gone With the Wind fantasy of crinoline hoop skirts, palatial mansions and sassy, loyal mammies most recently surfaced during the Paula Deen affair.

12 Years Post
Yesterday, I saw Twelve Years a Slave with my mother. That movie should be required viewing for all Americans. The scenes of torture are beyond horrifying. They are soul-destroying. I found myself wishing that the black characters would all commit mass suicide. The movie goes beyond the whippings and dehumanization. It illustrates the mindset and the methods to bolster the Peculiar Institution. The enslaved had to be constantly terrorized and believe that their lives were expendable in order to maintain the status quo. The beatings in this film are relentless and graphic. Solomon Northup encounters two masters during his enslavement. The ‘kind’ master simply lets his overseers do his dirty work. In the end, Northup is sold to the ‘bad’ master, who has a more hands-on approach. Both masters are nominally Christian, with the second one given to bouts of religious mania, even as he abuses his ‘property.’ The mistress of the house wears outfits to rival Scarlett O’Hara’s, sumptuous gowns of silk, velvet and lace. But beneath the surface trappings of grace, she has a sadistic streak. Black people were things, beasts of burden to these ‘people.’

A recent article in the Guardian had a critic questioning why yet another film needed to be made about slavery. It was an article steeped in privilege, blithely unaware of how slavery is is belittled in the American discourse.

I wish that my 10th grade history teacher had watched this movie.

Conjuring Subtexts: thoughts on the movie The Conjuring

I finally saw the horror movie The Conjuring this week. It had all of the things I love about good horror movie.
▪ Atmospheric
▪ Slow build with lots of plausible deniability
▪ The handsome Patrick Wilson
▪ The brilliant Lili Taylor (whom I sat near in RL in a restaurant; ask me about it sometime)
Like Sinister and Insidious, The Conjuring proves that you can scare people with a minimum of gore. I hate violent and slasher films. I can’t watch torture porn, like the Saw and Hostel franchises.

My main criticism with the movie is with the third act, when the mystery is revealed. I actually think it would have been scarier if the line between actual possession and mental disturbance was blurred. We all have dark, atavistic urges and voices hidden deep within our brains.

Annabel doll
Annabel doll

One of the tropes that The Conjuring (and Insidious and Sinister) keep returning to is the idea of possession. An exorcism is the dramatic denouement of most of these films. When I was a child, I couldn’t bear to watch the mother of all demonic possession films, The Exorcist. An innocent person taken over by an evil entity doesn’t really terrify me, per se. And the staples of possession: ravaged, tortured voices, blasphemous oaths, levitation and puking don’t bother me, either. What scared me as child, and still scares me, it what happens to the possessed spirit. Insidious is the only movie I know of that explored the limbo where the ensnared soul was housed.

I am also disturbed with the whole Christian rites as being the only panacea against such evil. What happens if you get possessed and you’re an observant Jew, or are Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim? One of the subtexts of this subgenre is that Christianity is inherently good, something I don’t believe. In The Exorcist, the devil uses a pagan entity, Pazuzu, to get into Regan. According to Babylonian myth, Pazuzu, despite (or even because of) his scary appearance, could be used to drive away other evil spirits. This whole subtext of Christian hegemony kind of spoiled The Conjuring for me.

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