Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Girlhouse (4 Stars)

"Porn is not what it used to be. It's moved forward. It's mainstream and accepted".

This is my Halloween Challenge film #26. It's a Canadian slasher film made in 2014 which I'd never heard of until today when I was browsing a list of Amazon Prime's horror films. That's probably because it was released direct-to-video. Why did that happen? It's a high quality horror film, much better than many other films that make it into cinemas. Maybe it's a type of racism. Canadian films aren't taken seriously.

There's so much that I could write about this film. It has depths of meaning and social commentary that deserve much more than one of my short reviews. Let's just start with the quote above. Porn isn't what it used to be. That's true. I'm old enough to remember the old days. If you wanted pornography you either had to buy a magazine or go to a back-street cinema. In England, where I grew up, there were two sorts of pornographic magazines. There were the "soft porn" magazines, in which there were pictures of naked women. Magazines like Playboy, Penthouse, Mayfair, Men Only, Escort, Razzle and probably many more that I've forgotten. I first got to know them at home. My father had a secret hiding place in a box on top of a wardrobe. The box contained documents about table tennis matches -- my father was the secretary of the Walsall Table Tennis League -- and the magazines were stashed at the bottom. I wonder whether my mother knew about them. I never asked. I probably first discovered them when I was 12. I checked the box about once a month, and the selection changed. There were never more than half a dozen magazines, but some went and some came. I soon learnt how to tell the difference. I didn't like Playboy and Penthouse; they were too smooth and artistic, too American. I didn't like Men Only, Escort and Razzle (all published by Paul Raymond), because the girls looked too slutty. Mayfair was the best, and I even bought copies occasionally when I was older. It was a good compromise between sexiness and stylishness. Sadly this changed when Mayfair was bought by Paul Raymond in 1990. It became a clone of his other magazines.

The soft porn magazines were usually sold in normal bookstores like W. H. Smith's. There were also "hard porn" magazines which contained photos of men and women having sex or engaging in fetish activities. My father never had magazines like that, they weren't his style. I sometimes saw them at friends' houses when they had somehow got their hands on a copy. They were only sold in "adult bookstores" which didn't allow anyone under 18 to enter. By the time I was 18 they were obsolete. They'd been replaced by "sex shops", which specialised in videotapes, new on the market at the time, but also sold sex toys. I remember briefly walking into a shop like that when I was 20, but I felt so uncomfortable that I walked straight out again.

I never visited any adult cinemas in England. I had no interest, even when I was old enough. On one occasion I visited an adult cinema while I was at university in Berlin. My favourite musician was Klaus Schulze, and he had written the soundtrack for a hardcore sex film by Lasse Braun, "Body Love". I felt very awkward buying a ticket. I felt like yelling "I'm only here for the music", but I kept my head down. The film wasn't quite as bad as I expected, but that was the first and last time that I ever visited an adult cinema. I didn't even watch another hardcore pornographic film at home until 30 years later, but that's another story.

I know I've written a lot, but there's one thing that should stand out: in the good old days before the Internet pornography was an overt affair. You had to go somewhere in person and hand over your money in a cinema or shop. There was the danger that you would be seen by a neighbour or work colleague. This is the biggest change in pornography today. Nowadays pornography is a very private, discreet affair. It's something that you can sit and watch at home without anyone knowing.

Does that make it better? Not necessarily. There's good and bad pornography today, as there always has been. As I said above, I considered Mayfair good and Razzle bad, although I admit it's a matter of taste. Some people liked reading Playboy. I didn't. I don't claim to be a connoisseur of Internet porn, but I'll make one sweeping statement: the good pornography is for sale, the bad pornography is free. That makes sense. A company that makes money from selling pornography online can invest the money they make into better cameras, more skilled actors, better settings, etc. Anything that's free is either amateurs having sex in their bedroom, or it's a haphazard mix of material stolen from other web sites, often poor low resolution copies.

One of the booming areas of Internet pornography today is webcam sites. I tried to find out how many there are, but I can't give an answer. It's a large number, at least 20, maybe many more. Most of them are advertised as free, but after signing up for a free membership you find that you can only enjoy tasters of what's on offer. To see everything you have to pay money. That's a good business strategy. Some webcam sites feature professional porn stars who appear in films, but most feature amateurs. For some reason the majority of the amateurs are from Colombia and Romania. There are different features available from one site to another, different prices, different amounts of nudity shown for free, different video quality, but one thing is common to all the webcam sites: they're about chatting with naked girls.

 This is what "Girlhouse" is about. It's a house where six girls live. They put on live shows for their customers, some shows free, others for money. It's a 24 hour a day service. All the rooms in the house are available to view, so it's possible to watch the models not just when they're performing, but also when they're asleep, eating breakfast or playing cards with one another. Girlhouse intends to bind customers to their website by letting them get to know the girls as people, not just as naked bodies.

The film follows Kylie Atkins, a student at a university in Charlotte, North Carolina. She moves into the Girlhouse to earn money for her studies. She's still at university, so she isn't in the building all day, but whenever she's there she's being filmed. Often it's casual, but she spends a lot of time in front of her laptop chatting with Girlhouse customers and stripping for them.

We see customers from all over the world, but two are important to the story. The first is Alex, a university student. He's a paying member of the site and calls himself Tugboat. After all, men like to remain anonymous when they're watching porn. He lets his roommate Ben watch over his shoulder, and Ben immediately recognises Kylie. They went to school together. This prompts Ben to wait outside the university, and when he accidentally meets Kylie he arranges to take her on a date. Of course, it has nothing to do with seeing her naked online. Or so he says.

The other is Loverboy. a lonely man who spends all his free time watching Girlhouse. He has a good job as a computer technician, but he's socially awkward and has no success with women. He idolises the girls in Girlhouse, and Kylie immediately becomes his new favourite.

Two people. Two names. Both paying customers. But there's a big difference. Tugboat is a horny young student from a wealthy family. Loverboy is a dangerous man with psychopathic tendencies. He's killed in the past, and he can kill again, if pushed hard enough. The push he needs is when he observes the girls in the house making fun of a photo that he sent Kylie. He knows enough about computers to trace the location of the Girlhouse. He puts on a mask and a black wig and goes on a rampage, killing everyone in the house. Because of the webcams he's being watched by people all over the world, but nobody can do anything because the house's address is secret.

The film opens with a scene that is supposed to show how Loverboy became what he is. It happened when he was about 13 years old. Two girls chase him across the field and corner him before he can get into his house. Why was he running? I wouldn't have run away from girls at that age.

We aren't told the names of the girls in the film, but the one on the left is Camren Bicondova, best known for playing Selina Kyle in "Gotham". She offers to kiss the boy if he closes his eyes. I would have accepted an offer like that immediately.

But it's a trick. As soon as his eyes are shut they pull his shorts down.

It all happened fast. His shorts are below his knees before he can lift a finger to defend himself.

He wants to pull them back up, but Camren's well placed foot stops him.

The battle is lost. Within seconds his underwear is also round his ankles.

Camren and her friend step back to admire the results. Are they impressed?

No. They think it's hilarious.

The boy pulls up his clothes and runs away in shame while the girls laugh at him. Camren mocks him by shouting, "Come back, lover boy". This name stayed with him all his life.

Is this what turned Loverboy into a killer? If you're bullied by girls, will you grow up to hate women? If that's the message the film wants to give I disagree. I was never bullied by girls as a child. I regret it. If it had happened it would have given me something to fantasise about for the rest of my life. I wouldn't have hated girls, I would have tried to manoeuvre myself into situations where it would happen again. Loverboy already had the seeds of hate in him before the girls mocked him. We see that by the fact that he ran away from them. I would have let them catch me.

There's a second bullying scene that happens shortly before his killing spree. Loverboy is in an office repairing a computer server. It's an office in which only women are working. He has to kneel on the floor to access the server. The woman at the front desk opens her legs wide. Loverboy can't control himself, he has to stare. When she sees him looking up her skirt she accuses him of sexual harassment and threatens to tell his boss and get him fired. This is a pattern in his life. Whenever Loverboy feels lust he's humiliated. When he sends Kylie a photo of himself the other girls laugh at him. The result is that he has to kill the objects of his lust.

The film begins with a quote by Ted Bundy blaming pornography for becoming a serial killer.

"In prison I’ve met a lot of men who were motivated to commit violence, just like me. Without exception, every one of them was deeply involved in pornography. The most common interest among serial killers is pornography. Pornography can reach out and snatch a kid out of any household. It snatched me out of my home 20, 30 years ago".

Ted Bundy was executed in 1989, so he's talking about being snatched by pornography in the 1950's or 1960's, long before the days of the Internet. What was the terrible pornographic material that made him a killer? Bettie Page movies? Eric Stanton cartoons?

I already know the interview from which this quote is taken. It's on YouTube. I don't know why the film's director took it seriously enough to quote, as if it has some validity. The whole interview is the babbling of a psychopath who feels no remorse for what he's done. Rather than accept any responsibility for what he's done he blames pornography. That's not a random choice. He was an American, so he picked something that most good Christian Americans dislike, hoping it would make them feel sympathy with him.

Don't blame pornography. Don't blame bullying. If a man kills, blame the man.

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