Wes Craven has always fascinated me as an academic and a filmmaker. He received his undergraduate degree in English and Psychology from Whe...

Why Wes Craven is a Genius Part 2: Red Eye

Wes Craven has always fascinated me as an academic and a filmmaker. He received his undergraduate degree in English and Psychology from Wheaton College in Illinois, and a masters degree in Philosophy and Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Craven continued to work on his Ph.D., but the restrictive traditions of academia prevented him from completing it and he went on to make films instead.

To say all that schooling was for nothing would be a gross understatement. Craven is intelligent and this keen intellect is the source of many of his films’ biting commentary. Take the Scream films for instance. At the beginning of Scream 2, Craven makes a big statement about the horror industry and the audience’s seemingly endless appetite for blood.

To do so, Craven implicates us all in the death of Maureen, the film's initial victim played by Jada Pinkett Smith. As the ghost-faced killer knifes her, Maureen spins around to a sea of ghost-faced masks, making it impossible to distinguish her killer from the enthusiastic audience members dressed in studio-provided costumes. Craven goes further to blur the line between fantasy and reality as Maureen drops dead in front of a movie screen that flashes the demise of the fictional blonde victim at the hands of ghost-face in “Stab”

Wes Craven brings this same kind of intelligence and commentary to his post-Scream films, most notably Red Eye. Though this atmospheric air plane thriller is far less gory than Craven’s other films, like Last House on the Left and the Scream films, he still manages to bring his signature style and gritty realism to the fore.

More of a thriller than a true horror film, I am still captivated by Wes Craven’s Red Eye because of its premise. Lisa Reisert, played by Rachel McAdams, is a hotel concierge on her way to Florida to visit her father. She takes the red eye, a late flight, to get there and along the way bumps into Cillian Murphey who plays Jackson Rippner, (a name with too strong an association with Jack the Ripper to be coincidental) a man who ends up sitting next to her on the plane.

Jack is quiet, dignified and stands up for Lisa when she gets into a scrape with another passenger. We are taken in by this handsome gallant and in another movie he might be considered the lead in a romantic comedy, but this is not that kind of film.

We, like the passengers of the flight leaving Dallas National Airport, settle in for the rest of the film as Jack’s hypnotic voice distracts Rachel from her fear of flying when the plane hits turbulence on lift off. At this point we like him, are comforted by him, which makes his Jekyll to Hyde transformation all the more nail-biting.

Lisa finds herself at the mercy of Jack, who threatens to kill Lisa’s blissfully unaware father if she does not switch the room of an important Homeland Security official staying at her hotel. Why is this change of location so crucial? Because it will allow for the successful assassination of said US government big wig. Lisa is trapped on a plane with a career terrorist.

Post 9/11, the idea of being trapped on a plane with a terrorist packs quite a punch, and I don’t think the premise of this film would have worked quite as well before then. Think back to films like Air Force One or even Executive Decision, which are more action films than horror and end in the successful diffusion of the terrorist threat by a group of highly trained individuals sent by the government: “Get off my plane!”

Here the fear is more personal and civilian, evoking a potent sense of helplessness. There is almost nothing Lisa can do to stall Jack, and her efforts to warn people—the note she writes to the old woman in a book by Dr. Phil, or the message in soap that “18F has a bomb” in the lavatory mirror—are all intercepted.

Lisa’s past trauma also finds strong parallels with the attitudes of Americans after 9/11. She confesses to Jack that the scar on her chest is a keepsake from an assault that happened in a parking lot years before. While Jack misunderstands Lisa’s purpose for telling him this—he tells her that like this current episode of trauma, it is “beyond [her] control”—Lisa’s victimization can be connected to the post 9/11 determination to “never let it happen again” She explains this to Jack right before stabbing him in the throat with a Frankenstein bobble pen.

Looking at Cillian Murphy as a prototype for the new terrorist only heightens our terror. He is a white male in his 30s, more likely to be considered a serial killer than a terrorist. His role explodes any racial or religious stereotypes of the post 9/11 terrorist—for Jack it’s all business.

Eschewing racial stereotypes or profiling, Red Eye instead presents Jack as a kind of threatening sexual other to fill in this gap. His androgynous appearance, enhanced later by an impromptu ascot made out of a lady’s scarf, give us, the audience, something to put our finger on to identify this character as “not right” or threatening.

This strategy fits perfectly with Cillian Murphey’s androgynous acting credentials. Examples of these include Breakfast on Pluto, where he plays a transgendered lad searching for himself in the big city and the thriller Peacock, where he appears as a gender-bending bank clerk.

If you had asked after I watched Red Eye, where I thought Wes Craven was headed I would have said onwards and upwards without a second thought. Now, with the release of My Soul To Take that opened to dismal reviews I’m not so sure.

So, where do you think Craven is headed and what should be his next move?

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post and perspective shared Janette. I haven't seen this since I saw it in theaters and now you've made me want to go back and revisit it.

    I was convinced by an interview he did in Horrorhound Magazine about the merits of My Soul To Take and it having a lot more to offer than what was initially perceived: a rehash of prior works. However, due to bad reviews, largely in the blogosphere, I've decided to pass and wait until DVD time.

    However, after seeing the Scream 4 trailer, I still think ol' Wes has a few tricks up his sleeve. Regardless of how good his films are or if they are hit or miss, you can't deny one thing: the man loves challenging conventions.