Saturday, May 3, 2014

Movie Review - Chastity Bites

In the name of full disclosure, before I get into my review of Chastity Bites, let me first say that I'm a friend of the writer of this movie, Lotti Pharris Knowles and the director is her husband.  

With that in mind I was already pre-disposed to like the film, or, at the very least be willing to forgive a fair amount, if need be.  Fortunately, my willingness to forgive was not needed.

I'll be the first to admit, the horror genre is not my forte.  While I've seen a lot of horror films, they do not call to me.  There's enough screwed up shit in life that pushing your comfort level by scaring yourself is not something that interests me.  

Chastity Bites is billed as a horror comedy, but really falls more into the black comedy basket in my opinion.  Yes, there are horror elements, but it's not meant to scare.  Like the Joss Whedon written Cabin in the Woods, Chastity Bites specifically calls out horror tropes and flips them on their head. 
There have been several black comedies based in a high school setting over the years; the two most notable that I've seen being Heathers from the 80's and Jennifer's Body from 2009.  In many ways, I see Chastity Bites in much closer kinship to Heathers.  Then again, until someone pointed out to me several days after I saw Jennifer's Body that it was supposed to be horror comedy, I thought it was somewhat of a waste of my time.  Once I went back over the movie in my mind with an eye toward horror comedy the movie jumped from a horridly bad movie to one I could kind of get behind.  

But I had to be told it was horror comedy, which is a huge negative.

Chastity Bites makes no pretensions about what you are in store for. The opening scene pulls you both directly into the theme as well as being pretty damn amusing. I'm not one for spoilers but I will say this: there is a death in the opening scene and my wife commented about the character who was killed off that she could have stood maybe a minute more of their sanctimonious speech has they not been killed off.  That they were killed off in mid speech had all three of us laughing, my 19 year old son the loudest.

So, about the plot.  The movie is set in a small conservative Southern California town where it seems one of the few sole voices of liberal dissent is our heroine, Leah (Allison Scagliotti) a writer for the high school newspaper determined to swim against the current of popularity and let you know she's doing it in both in her writing and her sarcastic biting comments. Leah has one true friend, another outlier, Katharine (Francia Raisa), a shy lesbian who is clearly a romantic, but also self-conscious because of her acne, which she covers up with painted flowers on her face.

Enter the evil.  

We are introduced to the villain of the movie at a cocktail party of "concerned" parents who throw out catch phrases from Fox news with a bitterness only matched by some of the single mothers at the party as they examine the relationships of their exes who have left them for younger women.  The lights dim and a gothic opera ensues as Liz Batho (Louise Griffiths) enters the room looking like a regal porcelain doll with a devilish glint in her eye. Liz has come to town to promote her Virginity Action Group that has Chastity Leaders In Training. 

Liz proceeds to recruit the popular girls in school for her "Leaders," the same girls who's single mothers she also entices with her "illegal" beauty product.  Naturally, our heroine is suspicious, especially after Liz enthralls Katharine into the group.  Research ensues and our journalist in training makes the connection that Liz Batho is none other than the real historical figure of Elizabeth Bathory, the "Countess of Blood," a Hungarian serial killer from the 1600's who believed she would remain young by bathing in the blood of virgins.

You can guess where the plot is going to take you next.

The funny thing is, despite some of the beat-you-in-the-head-with-a-lemon-wrapped-around-a-large-gold-brick humor such as the obvious acronyms and some of the horror movie trope characters Chastity Bites has a lot of subtlety, especially with its social commentary.  I was actually left thinking about several of the themes of the movie well after it was over.  And it's in some of these themes that the real horror of the movie comes from.

First and foremost this movie really is about America's obsession with physical beauty and the lengths some people will go to obtain it.  A second, more subtle theme explores how people can be manipulated, especially by those with a stronger mind (in the movie's case there is some supernatural help).  There is also an undercurrent of longing throughout the movie that motivates several of the characters.  Finally there is the theme of alienation and what people will deny themselves because they see themselves as outliers in society and don't deserve to fit in.  

Of course I could be full of shit here, having taken one too many film study courses in college, and Lotti, when she reads this review, will be laughing her ass off.

Let's jump to the characters both from an acting standpoint as well as writing.

Lotti not only creates believable characters that say things you might expect to come from teenagers and adults, that are full of current social relevance, but their actions are also ones I've seen in the course of my own children's teenage years and the other young adults they interacted with.  While I found the single mothers to be fairly one dimensional, that was intentional as a plot device.  

As a villain, Liz was well handled. Her motive is unfolded at a good pace and you can tell after centuries that she's got some world class manipulation skills even without supernatural help.  While she is a person of what America places as stunning physical beauty, you can tell there is a lot of ugly roiling beneath the surface and it comes out.

Leah's character is an interesting study.  She's strong willed and deliberately places herself outside of society in such a manner that she is an unlikely hero.  But she is a hero nonetheless because her best friend is in danger and she will move heaven and earth to fight for the people she knows as family.

Katharine's character is another standout.  She's a lesbian and has fully realized it, something that is difficult at most times, especially so in high school.  She endures her share of grief for her sexual orientation, but because of the self-consciousness her acne has brought upon her, I don’t think she's yet fully realized she's beautiful in her own right. While it was necessary for her character, I would have loved to have seen some seriously snappy comebacks at the sniping the popular girls dish out to her at the beginning of the movie.

The final character that really shone is Amy Okuda's portrayal of Ashley, the head of the popular girls.  Like the other strong willed characters in the movie, she rules with a force of conviction that overruns (for the most part) the other young women in her clique.  She's on her way to being another world class manipulator out of her intelligence on which way the waters are flowing.

You might notice I've said little about the men in the cast or as they pertain to the plot.

There's a reason for this.  As she's done with many of the horror tropes, Lotti turns them upside down and the males in the cast are there for plot devices.  Even Leah's romantic interest, Paul, another outlier, is left without a lot of depth and, I suspect, deliberately so.  This movie is ultimately a battle between two strong women and, like other horror movies, the opposite sex are casual throwaways.

So, is the movie perfect?

No, but there is nothing that screamed out for condemnation, though I will point out some of my sore spots.  

The direction is handled well, though there where a few quibbles I had with lighting in a night scene and there were aspects of the final battle action that felt a little unpolished, more so than intended.

The makeup effects of the film are very good, especially in some transformative scenes, but I did take issue with the lack of arterial spray in the ritualized neck cutting scenes (only one actually had some spray,) which was especially noticeable in a flashback scene where there is plenty of spray evidence from previous rituals on the walls, but not in the actual action that takes place.

There is a trope in the writing that I felt could have been handled better; a "big reveal" that didn’t have as much impact as it could have and sort of came out of left field, though it was seeded earlier in the film. 

But these are nitpicks rather than complete detriments. 

Overall I enjoyed Chastity Bites and have re-watched twice it since my first viewing.

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