December 2010 Entries
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The Gothic Undead: a 21st-Century Interpretation(29 May 2015)
By Ms Emily Zarka
Fair warning, this movie is the strangest of the all the texts I have covered this month, (which is saying something), but is evocative of the current vein of undead films in this century thus far. In general I believe that almost all undead texts in the last 15 years can be divided into two categories—straightforward vampire or zombie movies, and the more allegorical films that play with the genre. Unsurprisingly, the more exploratory (and often more provocative) narratives come from independent and foreign production houses.
A recent addition to the undead genre blends ghosts and the Gothic with a coming of age story where the “monsters” defy traditional classification. Based on Christopher Barzak’s novel One for Sorrow (2007) and directed by Carter Smith, the 2014 film Jamie Marks is Dead can best be described as eerie. Saturated in grey lighting the rundown small town setting cannot easily be placed into any particular decade. The opening scene introduces the audience to Gracie, a rock-collecting teenager who stumbles upon a body next to the river. The dead boy, Jamie, dressed in nothing but white underwear indistinguishable in color from his chalky skin, lies in a shallow grave with a note clutched in his hand. Flashbacks reveal that Jamie (who bears a striking resemblance to a buff, demonic Harry Potter) was a friendless and bullied loner.
His tragic and mysterious death is unsurprising to a modern audience flooded with news stories about teen suicides. Also heartbreakingly predictable in this day in age are the allusions to Jamie’s sexuality including his potential homosexuality and rumored victim of rape. Only two sympathetic peers seem to honestly grieve for the dead boy: Gracie and track star Adam. The two become acquainted after crossing paths by the river where Jamie’s body was found, formally meeting over a makeshift shrine Gracie crafted. As their relationship develops, it quickly becomes clear that this couple is embroiled in a love triangle—with Jamie.
Staring out the window in Gracie’s family McMansion, a modern interpretation of the Gothic castle only seen on screen shrouded in the darkness of night and unnervingly empty (her parents are always absent and never appear even as a disembodied voice), Adam sees Jamie standing in the thick woods surrounding the house. Gracie admits that she has seen him before she ignores him stating, “I don’t want a dead boy lurking outside of my house, okay? And neither do you.” Given that this is a horror movie, Adam does not head her advice and develops a very complicated relationship with Jamie.
I do not want to give too much of the plot away, and to be honest, a simple summary would be a serious disservice to the complex themes of the film. Instead, I will discuss the allusions that render Jamie Marks is Dead an undead text, and not just a ghost story.
First off Jamie himself is not a misty, spectral image. He is fully tangible and capable to touching the living as well as solid objects. The laws of physics similarly bind other “ghosts” appearing throughout the story; we do not see walking through walls or levitation in this film. However, everyone cannot see him. In a crucial scene, Adam speaks to Jamie while facing his bathroom mirror. Although the audience hears both boys’ voices, a viewer perspective shot shows the room in empty, and we only see Jamie in the mirror. This puts him in the traditional apparition category, although his physicality suggests otherwise. Anytime a physical, touchable corpse inhabits the boundary between life and death, I want to label it as undead.
Luckily for me, Jamie possesses another trait that makes my attempt at classification more valid. The teenager needs to feed. The dead boy subsists not on blood or flesh like his vampire or zombie brethren, but in words. I have only ever seen this device used in one of my all time favorite undead films Pontypool (2008) where language causes a zombie-like epidemic in a small town. Unlike this earlier film, however, the undead character in Jamie Marks is Dead consumes language for a positive effect. Jamie tells Adam, “But you can help me.” When Adam asks how he can aid the boy an expression of panic briefly clouding is face is quickly replaced by confusion when his new undead friend merely says that his aid can come in “a word…it could be anything.” Following this conversation is what I am going to refer to as the first “feeding” as Adam whispers a single word into Jamie’s ear causing him to enter a trance-like, drugged state of satisfaction. Throughout the movie these feedings become increasingly erotic as the “prey” bonds with his hunter/haunter. Their foreheads pressed together, lips almost touching, Adam gives his words directly into Jamie’s mouth.
(A "feeding" in action)
The most compelling evidence of Jamie’s undead status comes from the teen himself. Jamie refuses to answer all questions regarding his categorization as dead or alive. When asked “Are you real?” Jamie only says “I won’t hurt you.” The query “You’re like dead right?” receives the retort “Don’t worry about me.” While this undoubtedly makes the movie more compelling as the audience desperately hangs on to the plot despite its moments of lunacy, these conversations are not superfluous. Like Jamie’s unspoken sexuality, self-labeling is not important to him or the overall message of the film. Like other Gothic texts the supernatural elements of the story only serve to emphasize the questions surrounding human existence rather than its answers. We fear what we do not know, and while death is unknowable, it is understandable and explainable. The undead cannot be readily rationalized, making them absolutely terrifying, and completely captivating.
As I have shown this month, the undead literally cannot die. Their presence in our society continues to develop and expand along with technology and storytelling. While the Gothic genre did not create undead folklore, it certainly solidified its significance. When the Gothic and the undead intertwine, horror becomes even more evocative and exploratory for both elements create an atmosphere of tension that provides the perfect environment for allegorical representations of the all too real terrors in our own world.