“I like to watch them”: EYE WITHOUT A FACE (Ramin Niami, 2021)

Has there ever been an era when people were more connected and yet more alone? A person I know (no names – you know who you are) subscribes to social media posts but never, ever posts or comments. The ultimate loner, though, is the geek sitting in a darkened room and relating to people on his screen, people who don’t even know he exists.

That is the plot of this quirky movie, which brings Hitchcock’s Rear Window into the twenty-first century. In that film, Jimmy Stewart played a photographer who is confined to his apartment in Manhattan with a broken leg. He watches his neighbours, without their knowledge, even giving them nick-names. A harmless hobby, until it isn’t – one of his neighbours seems to have murdered his wife.

In EYE WITHOUT A FACE, it’s not just a guy with binoculars and a zoom lens. That little hole on the top of your laptop screen? Yeah, it’s a webcam, and it comes on when you Zoom or Skype. What does it do the rest of the time?

Well, the nightmare scenario is that it can be hacked and used to see what is going on in your home, WITHOUT YOUR KNOWLEDGE. Is it true? I’m a blogger, not a hacker, so I can’t say for sure, but I know a couple of programmers who have band-aids over their laptop cameras. So there’s that. Also this article.

Anyway, for the sake of enjoying this movie, assume that it’s not only possible but common. You’re going to get the band-aids now? It’s OK – I’ll wait.

The protagonist (he’s no hero) is Henry (Dakota Shapiro – who, IMDB tells me, comes from Byron Bay!), a hacker, a stalker or perhaps more accurately a voyeur as he likes to watch. Henry wouldn’t have even noticed COVID lockdowns as he almost never leaves his home except to walk the dark, melancholy streets of LA, thinking about his angry, spiteful father, a man he sees in a devil mask.

Henry sees himself as the “guardian angel” of the women whose cameras he has hacked. And yes, not coincidentally, all those over whom he watches are good looking young women, and he chats with them. For the first few minutes of the film, it looks like a dialogue, a Zoom call in which he wishes them a polite good morning and comments on whatever they are doing, but we quickly realise that they don’t answer – they don’t know Henry is watching. They don’t even know he exists. They are so close, yet totally unattainable to a shy introvert like him.

Henry’s flatmate is, Eric (Luke Cook, another Aussie, who played Lucifer in Sabrina) and he is almost Henry’s opposite – more interested in putting his own selfies and vodcasts on the web than seeing what anyone else is up to. He meets women on line, but doesn’t remember their names after one-night stands. Henry reaches for his monitor to stroke their hair, Eric wants to seduce them.

Eric warns Henry that he is staring into the abyss, and if you do that too long, as Nietzsche said:

What does Eric, the struggling Australian actor in LA, mean by quoting Nietzsche? Well, he does do a lot of drugs, but there’s still a point to his warning. Nietzsche is perhaps best known for stating that

“God is dead… and we have killed him… Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Nietzsche was warning that a world without supernatural judgement could easily descend into nihilism, a feeling of alienation and hopelessness, an abyss that has no meaning or purpose. Darwin had disproved the superstitions about humans being somehow higher than animals, leaving us as just smart apes, and Nietzsche urged a further evolutionary leap: to become the Übermensch, the super-man who will rise above the mob. We need to become gods, or at least angels. Hannibal Lecter has a bit to say on the subject.

But Henry is no god, nor is he, as he thinks, a guardian angel. He stares into the abyss of the empty, depressing lives of the women who unknowingly show him their own forms of despair – one is a singer whose partner sees her purely as sexual relief, another sells tawdry on-line sexual fantasies, another seems to be killing people to make head-soup. He has the eye of a god, his computer and their webcam, but none of the powers. The abyss of their lives and deaths is what Eric is trying to warn him about. It’s a world of alienation and superficial relationships involving intimacy, often remotely, but without love. He laughs and cries at their antics and their awful boyfriends, as if he is watching a series of soap operas. Perhaps he is. The abyss is gazing into him, and seeing only death and darkness.

Eric is intrigued by Henry’s hack and wants to meet these women. Henry swears him to secrecy, so of course we know this is not going to end well.

One of the women Henry watches, Tessa (Ashley Elyse Rogers) does webcam porn – men pay her to fantasise oral sex – with a strawberry or a peach standing in for their cocks. Eric finds her on Instagram and brings her home to meet Henry, who freaks out.

Eric hasn’t mentioned the webcam; he’s told her that Henry is an Instagram follower. But later, Henry calls her on her paid sex-line, hoping just to chat, and this time she freaks out when she realises he knows where she lives. Hanging up the sex line, he watches her on her hacked webcam as, terrified, she loads a gun and puts it under her pillow.

Henry only leaves the house at night when he goes for his creepy walks, clad in hoodie and avoiding eye contact. But on his return that night, he catches Eric watching “his” women. Upset, he turns the screen to Laura (Vlada Verevko, who, fun fact, was in the movie Hacker). Laura seems to have a lot of different boyfriends – she gives them a drink and then takes them up to her room, but Henry never sees them coming down again. This night she puts what looks like a human heart in a bowl in her fridge, then he sees her dragging what looks like a body bag out of the apartment.

Next day, Laura is cooking dinner for friends – kale pache, literally “head and hooves”. It’s usually from a sheep, but whose head is it this time? Is Laura a cannibal serial killer?

The following morning, Henry and Eric watch her prepare a drink for a young man, and are convinced he is going to be drugged and become her next victim.

Henry texts 9-1-1 (apparently you can) and the cops bust in and find – ginseng. But now she knows she’s being watched and she puts tape over her webcam, but not before promising to find Henry and turn him into dog-food. The rest of the film is the chase, with a twist – you’re going to have to watch it to see the denouement.

What is this parable really about? Henry thinks he is a “guardian angel”, yet he does nothing to assist any of the women with their issues – abusive men, drink, failure or sex. He just watches. The theme here is theodicy – a term invented by Gottfried Leibniz in 1710 when attempting to explain why an all-powerful, loving god would allow evil and suffering. It’s one of the favourite questions of believers, particularly when something terrible happens to them. A common view, particularly in Christianity, is that humans are sinners and evil arises from our failure to repent. It points to a time when evil will be abolished by the coming (or second coming) of a messiah, who bears and cleans away our sins. Henry as Isaiah’s suffering servant?

A variant of this discourse says that God gave humans free will, and although he hates to see us suffer, he can only watch, because intervening would revoke that free will and leave us just puppets. This view sees God weeping in the death camps together with his people.

Then there is the devil, whom Henry identifies as his violent father who brought him up with threats and fists. Henry wishes he could save his “friends” from this avenging, fallen angel who seems to stalk them. Then as he watches, someone starts slitting the throats of the women he has been watching.

Henry think he is the silent, suffering, guardian angel. He sees the women invite toxic masculinity into their lives and begs them (from behind his screen where he can’t be heard) to cease their wicked ways, but he “grants” them free will and does not intervene. Plato said that evil exists because of human “intimate indolence” – we can’t be bothered to combat it. Henry doesn’t try to intervene.

Until he does. Once Laura, the eater of heads, knows he is watching, it’s time for the final judgement, the battle between good and evil.

Is Laura killing and eating people? Is Henry’s dad really dead and gone? Why does Henry keep lathering up and wielding his father’s razor, yet still has a week-old stubble in the next scene?

Don’t miss it. It’s one of those films where nothing much happens for most of it, yet I found it impossible to turn away. The direction, the photography, the acting and the music are superb. It’s not a gorefest, nor is there (much) cannibalism involved, but the unravelling of the story is fascinating, and the idea that we are being watched, by a god, a devil or a hacker, makes for a fascinating story that stays in the mind afterwards, raising all sorts of metaphysical issues, including: why is it OK to eat sheep, but not their heads and hooves? Why is it OK to eat sheep, but not humans? And who is watching and judging us, anyway?

“…would break people’s souls”: AMERICAN HORROR STORIES Episode 3 “Drive In”

American Horror Stories is part of the American Story franchise. It is a 2021 spin-off of the hugely popular American Horror Story, an anthology series created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, who were responsible for other terrifying shows like Nip/Tuck and Glee. American Horror Story is currently in its tenth season, and has been renewed for seasons 11-13. Each season is a self-contained mini-series, whereas in this new series, American Horror Stories, each episode is a self-contained narrative.

While there were cannibals in American Horror Story, (the Raspers in season 2 and the Polk family in season 6), the new series seems to be a lot more into them – the first season has two cannibal stories out of the seven episodes, an impressive 28.6% (if anyone is counting).

Episode 3 is called “Drive In” because that’s where most of the gore happens. Kelley (Madison Bailey) and Chad (Rhenzy Feliz) have been arguing about her reluctance to have sex with him, even though he is playing Bob Ross The Joy of Painting on his laptop (he’s been told it’s a sure fire aphrodisiac due to its reputation for causing a relaxed, tingling sensation known as ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response). Anyway, that trick doesn’t work on Kelley.

Bob Ross is an interesting choice for a horror story opening, as he seems to live on through Twitch and the internet, despite having died in 1995. So much horror is about the undead stalking promiscuous teenagers!

Chad’s friends assure him that ASMR won’t work – what he needs is horror! That’s why horror films are so popular, they are aphrodisiacs, OK? The link between fear and sex – the subject of a whole new dissertation.

Chad’s friends have one ticket left for the drive-in screening of a film called Rabbit Rabbit. The film was banned by Tipper Gore (Amy Grabow) after the audience at the only showing in 1986 started to massacre each other, and she ordered all prints of the movie destroyed. Except they missed one: the director’s cut. Chad dismisses this whole massacre business as an urban legend, but takes the ticket.

As they drive in, a lone woman is protesting, demanding the screening be stopped. She tells Chad she was at the showing in 1986, where her boyfriend plucked out her eye and ate it before being killed himself. He listens politely, but then Kelley turns up with the biggest bucket of popcorn ever created, and he has to, you know, go. Presumably now full of popcorn, Kelley tells Chad that she is finally ready to have sex with him, and various cannibal metaphors fill the cars before the movie starts – Chad and Kelley pashing in his car, fellatio in his friend’s car next door.

Chad and Kelly’s steamy petting fogs up the car windows, so they cannot see the film, nor do they see the mayhem erupting outside, where people are attacking and devouring each another. They try to drive away when a cannibal smashes through their window but they crash, and have to retreat to the projection room, where we see Chad, who just yesterday was trying to seduce his girlfriend by playing The Joy of Painting, use the last copy of Rabbit Rabbit to cave in the skull of the projectionist, who has just eaten her assistant.

Of course, it’s not the last print. There is a rumour of another print being shown next night. Their mission, should they choose to accept, is to find the director and destroy the NEXT last copy.

So, we finally get to the cannibalism, and it’s plentiful and gory, as we would expect. Those affected by the film get bloodshot eyes, their veins swell, and they are only interested in one thing – human flesh. Chad’s best friend approaches as they leave, eyes bloodshot, veins swollen, and Chad appeals to him to THINK! Remember when we were two little boys, innocently watching porn in the afternoons? Now, according to Aristotle’s theory of the human being as the rational animal, Chad’s appeal to reason, love, friendship, shared porn, should have broken through the spell. Ha!

So what’s with this movie, with the most innocuous title imaginable: Rabbit Rabbit? The rabbit is a gentle, timid, vegan animal who is massacred pretty much everywhere he is found, due to his propensity to breed – a lot! Sounds kind of human?

Chad has done some research before going to the movie; he watched, on YouTube, Tipper Gore’s committee condemning the movie and having it banned after the audience massacre in 1986. Banning things is popular in America due to deep religious convictions, but also not popular due to, you know, the First Amendment. Tipper Gore, married to Vice President Al Gore, was responsible for making music companies add warning labels to songs with explicit content around that time, after finding her 11 year old daughter listening to Darling Nikki by Prince, so this is not just idle chatter – she was seriously into banning stuff.

But why is the government banning Rabbit Rabbit and destroying all copies (or so they imagine)? Well, the director, who glories in the name Larry Bitterman (John Carroll Lynch from Fargo and The Drew Carey Show) is asked by Tipper about his claim in Fangoria Magazine that his movie:

“…would break people’s souls, and anyone who saw it would be damaged forever.”

Publicity hype, laughs Bitterman, but Tipper is worried about the effects of violent content on society, which must be an in-joke for Murphy and Falchuk, after presenting us with ten seasons of violent content, and now this gorefest. Critics have been warning about that sort of thing forever. Civil society has been threatened by the Internet, porn mags, the horror genre, and before that television, movies, radio… hell, conservative Cro-Magnons were probably warning about the evils of cave paintings 40,000 years ago.

Is there any sense to it? Can porn turn us into sex offenders, horror stories into cannibals? The internet certainly turns some people into trolls. Bitterman wants to make cinematic history – he tells the teens that this “was his finest hour” – a cinematic happening, a horror movie where the horror isn’t on screen, it’s in the audience. He refers to Friedkin’s (actual) use of subliminals in The Exorcist – two frames of a demon’s face in reel six had people throwing up in the aisles and women going into labour. Rabbit Rabbit took this to the next level,

“The universal combination of image and sound that would trigger the fear centre of every human brain. I studied intrusive memory formation, the CIA hijinks with MK-Ultra…”

Bitterman had jumped the hearing bench and attacked Tipper Gore when she boasted about destroying the prints of his movie, which resulted in him being locked up for fifteen years for assault. His conclusion: “a society that locks up its artists doesn’t deserve to survive.”

There’s another in-joke – the series was made by FX for Hulu. What if a film like Rabbit Rabbit was to appear on, I dunno, a rival streaming platform – imagine the damage it could do!

But there’s another question for us among all the hacked flesh and explosions. Have you ever felt like you are in a horror movie? Maybe while in the throes of a personal tragedy, or watching a pandemic unfold, or contemplating changing climate. Perhaps you’ve wondered if “they” are playing with your brain. Or perhaps they really are breaking your soul. Or maybe eating you alive. Cannibalism is a brutal metaphor for pretty much every atrocity we visit on our fellow earthlings. A movie, a cataclysm, political upheaval – what would it take to start us eating each other?