Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Roommate

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (L) Roger Ebert () Fr Dennis (3 ½ stars)

IMDb Listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert’s Review -

“Says here that if he takes all his meds, he’s fine.”
“What if he doesn’t take his meds?”
“Well, I guess he wouldn’t be fine.”
– from the movie “Wag the Dog”

The Roommate is a movie that really isn’t intended for anyone over 25. It’s just that I grew-up (was a teenager/college student) in the heyday of the mad-slasher flicks of the late-70s early-80s and I’m gonna give myself a pass ;-).

And then movies like this are always fun to analyze. What makes a horror movie work? Well, Stephen King, a true master of this genre, writes in his book The Danse Macabre that the movie has to touch a nerve. That is, the movie has to tap into a fear/anxiety that exists in the society, and the greater the fear/anxiety being tapped, the more successful the movie.

We live in a time when tens of millions of people, often young people, are on psychiatric mediation for all kinds of ailments from the very serious (schizophrenia) to the less serious but often debilitating (depression) and the question/anxiety does arise: Who among these people really needs these medications (and wouldn’t be able to function safely without them)? And then what kind of dangers arise when they don’t take these meds properly? We also live in a time when there’s ever increasing pressure to get a college degree. As such, people who a generation ago could have been happy, productive citizens in the trades, doing line work at a factory and/or just being married are now being forced to go to college, where they may be honestly out of their depth. Finally, we live in a time when every year there seems to be a mass shooting at a university (Virginia Tech, N.I.U.) or one perpetrated by a troubled college student (like the recent mass shooting in Tuscon), where a common denominator has been that the perpetrator in question was average or below average at school and if there were other options might not have been going to college at all.

So the increasing commonality of psychiatric medications and the pressures to go to college form the subtexts to The Roommate.

As a slasher movie, The Roommate then follows conventions that anyone who was a teenager in the late-70s / early 80s would recognize. A "good girl," Sara (a nice biblical name) played by Minka Kelly from a "small town" in the Midwest (where "good people" live) comes to Los Angeles (the big city) to go to college. In the 1970s-80s the "good girl" would be so obvious in these movies that we, teenagers, would immediately identify her as “the Virgin” (not necessarily thinking of the Virgin Mary, though as we’ll see below, _not_ necessarily far off in her role in fending off/defeating Evil). Then there’s “the slut,” named Tracy in this movie, played by Alyson Michalka (of the TV series Hellcats), who’s promiscuous and in the 1970s-80s would end up with a harpoon put through her head or chest. There’s “the monster,” Rebecca (another biblical name actually), played by Leighton Meester (from the TV series Gossip Girl) who plays Sara’s troubled roommate. There’s the "angelic boyfriend" of the "good girl," named Steven, played by Cam Gigandet who protects the "good-girl/Virgin" for a while, but ultimately it’s up to the "good girl" to defeat "the monster." There are even an assorted number of bigger and lesser “jerks” who get punished for their sins by “the monster.”

Innovations on the conventions of the 1970s-80s “mad slasher” flick include the following:

First, The Roommate is rated PG-13 (as opposed to the “R” ratings of most of the 1970s/80s era flicks) so the “body count” in the movie is actually quite low and “the gore” is at a minimum. This is probably smart because movies like this have TEEN written all over them and it makes no sense making the movies “R-rated” and thus needlessly encouraging “rule breaking” by teens and causing moral dilemmas to parents.

Second, the “good girl” Sara is _no longer_ a virgin. In the movie, she does sleep with her "angelic boyfriend" and doesn’t particularly mind the antics of the “slutty” Tracy. Interestingly enough, another recent horror movie Drag Me to Hell actually plays on this exact point very well – should we really identify with / feel sorry for the “good girl” when she’s no longer particularly “good.” Yes, one can be “sweet” but is that really being “good?” I LOVED Drag me to Hell and consider it the best horror movie in a generation and of the caliber of Psycho and the The Exorcist, but that’s another story ... ;-). However, in The Roommate, Sara retains archtypical “good” qualities. She may put-up with/forgive Tracy’s promiscuity but she herself isn’t. She’s more or less monogamous. Her high school boyfriend dumped her, but then she’s loyal to her new "angelic" college boyfriend. She resists the come-ons of others who would hit on her. Perhaps most controversially, Sara doesn’t engage in lesbianism, portrayed briefly in the movie (PARENTS take note ...) in _decidedly deviant tones_. Actually, the mad slasher flicks of the 1970s/80s had a decidedly “conservative tone” when it came to sexual morality as well – the “slutty”/promiscuous always met bad ends.

Finally, the “monster,” Rebecca, was female. That’s actually surprising given both that the "monsters" in the 1970s/80s mad slasher flicks were generally male (Jason, Freddy Krueger, etc) and the perpetrators of the recent shootings at universities were _always male_. The monster being female, however, serves to soften the movie. Often in the past, it was understood that the “monster” had “a story” as well. I think it’s easier to identify with “the story” of a troubled female than a male. Further making “the monster” female helped provide sufficient distance between _the movie_ and the horrific _reality_ of the recent school shootings. Finally, the choice of making the monster female helped the producers of the film to keep the movie’s “body count” at a manageable level for both the PG-13 rating and audience acceptance.

The trajectory of the plot of The Roommate is straight out of the conventions of the 1970s/80s movies of its kind. After introduction to the cast of characters and giving the audience time to make moral assessments of them, the “monster” goes to work destroying the guilty. A final confrontation comes between the “the Good Girl” (in the 1970s/80s “The Virgin”) and “the Monster.” The "angelic boyfriend" is a help but ultimately it is up to the “Good Girl”/”Virgin” to defeat the "monster" herself.

THAT “THE VIRGIN” WOULD VANQUISH “THE MONSTER” IS STRAIGHT OUT OF VERY TRADITIONAL CATHOLIC MARIOLOGY, where it is the Woman (Mary) who destroys the Serpent “crushing his head with her heal” (Gen 3,15). Pretty much every single “slasher” movie of the 1970s/80s used the same formula. The formula was most clearly seen in the first Terminator movie, where the Monster (the Terminator) being a modern day incarnation of “the Dragon” of Revelation 12 sent “to destroy the future savior of the world” is vanquished in the final scene when the heroine, _carrier_ of the future savior of the world, Sarah (again with a Biblical name) crushes the head of the Terminator (who’s lost his legs (becoming like a Serpent) but still grabbing at her feet), doing so by _kicking on a mechanical press_, which does the crushing job for her.  Note, I evern wrote an article about The Marian imagery in the Terminator movie soon after finishing the Seminary.

In the case of The Roommate, the new Sara doesn’t destroy the monster by crushing her head, but vanquishes her in a manner that’s so obviously stylized/symbolic that it pays homage to the formula again, if carried out in a slightly different way. You can’t do the exact same thing over and over again ... some variation is fair, even if the same basic formula is used.

Anyway, The Roommate is a great ride. Like every successful horror movie, it helps express fears/anxieties that certainly do exist in our society today. And the movie plays out using a classic formula at least as old as the New Testament. I wouldn’t recommend the movie to young kids. Some parents will have issues with some of the sexual portrayals in the movie, though no nudity is shown. Overall, as I said at the beginning, the movie has TEEN and COLLEGE STUDENT written all over it.

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