Perhaps horror is of our own making. We are ever so gently doomed by the walls of society we have put up to protect ourselves, yet they only ever hurt us. We live in a consumerist society, one that sucks morals from the soul in the race to gain more. Shopping malls are abandoned as apocalyptic shells, a wasteland left behind as we move on to the next big way to spend. For a film from 1983—the heart of the mass-produced mall boom— Cecelia Condit’s Possibly in Michigan feels as if its cultural critiques were made yesterday. Following two women, Sharon (Jill Sands) and Janice (Karen Skladany) who are stalked through the local mall by a cannibalistic masked serial killer named Arthur (played at different points by Bill Blume, Stephen Vogel, and, at one point, Condit herself), they turn the tables on him to kill and eat the cannibal when he follows the two women home.
Condit’s other films are also short and experimental, focusing on feminist themes. They often re-purpose fairy tales, juxtapose and cross-fade with nature imagery, and use heavy symbolism. She covers broad topics such as gender roles, abortion, Alzheimer’s, climate change, and motherhood, often using children as protagonists. None of her other films are quite the enigma that Possibly in Michigan is. It is a musical; any dialogue in the film is half-sung half-spoken, to deeply unsettling effect. It started out as an oddity playing Channel 4 in the off hours before dawn, until a VHS transfer leaked on Reddit in 2015. The curiosity piqued the interest of many, and the film slowly began to enter the experimental canon. The lo-fi aesthetics are one of a next wave of do-it-yourself filmmakers, the nineties kids with Super-8 cameras looking for inspiration.
The lesbian subtext is also worth noting. Throughout the film the women are together as a pair, and are nude when they dine on their prey. For a richly imagery-laden film, this choice cannot be a coincidence. Lesbians serving abusive men as a meal isn’t exactly a new trope, with examples appearing in media as mainstream as Fried Green Tomatoes (1991). The ending is also a little inside joke about misandry, with the uneaten parts of the body thrown out with the garbage to be collected, a little play on the phrase ‘men are trash’. The man in question certainly fits the bill, and he isn’t exactly out of the ordinary when it comes to statistics. The mall, the man following women, and the act of taking out the trash— it is all so mundane in its presence that we begin to wonder if we are living this very same life. Stereotypes claim lesbianism and misandry go hand in hand, so this moment only furthers the queer-coding of the characters. This isn’t the only time Condit has touched upon LGBT themes; All About a Girl has many routes to explore through the lens of gender, and the defiance of it.
“Love shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg” is said in the film, and acts as a sort of central thesis. There is the literal loss of limbs, with the dismemberment and dining-on of a cannibalistic serial killer. There is also the metaphorical version, in the way of love. The women are in a world that monetises anything, and in a world with an ever-present male threat of bodily harm. This simple statement, reminiscent of one of Jenny Holzer’s truisms in its phrasing, is intensely literal, a simplification of the eleven minutes of madness. The chaos is hardly held back, with Lynchian rabbit masks, and rainbow flashes of colour leaking out in transitions between shots, an editing room decision that makes it all the more uneasy. We never quite know what will come next until it’s over, a strategy that has been poorly utilised as of late in the pure-jumpscare side of horror.
It’s not surprising that Gen Z has latched onto it as a curio from the past. In the summer of 2019, the audio of the film resurfaced on video app TikTok, where teens would lip-sync to the eerie music bits. A decrescendo of “no no no no no no no” plays in the film, and the lip-sync videos would show this part, and other sing-song dialogue like “She must have been out of her head” in a style reminiscent of Kate Bush, with glitchy, retro inspired effects overlayed. For a generation that not only has more access to the arts than ever before, but is significantly more aware of the pitfalls of capitalism and consumerism, the film is the perfect fit. It’s queer, independently made, has strong feminist and anti-consumerist messages; tailor-made for a generation of young artists and activists craving to get back into the DIY spirit in a world where art has been co-opted by studios whose only desire is money and prestige. It is a call back to simpler times, one where the avant-garde film-making movement was still small enough to stand out with just a camera and some friends.
It isn’t unusual for older, near forgotten films to have a resurgence among the younger generation. For a larger example, Elaine May’s gangster friendship movie Mikey and Nicky (1976) had a recent resurgence on ‘Film Twitter’ among teens and young twenty-somethings. They resonated with the close, dependent friendship between the two men (or possibly more than friends, as many have recently proposed). A similar trend happened with Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) as well, that time because of the thoroughly modern practical effects used to show the vampire appear from a mountain— an effect as stunning today as it was in the silent era. These little resurgences among teens are hint at what will soon be reevaluated to fit the new generation’s film canon (the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer (2008) has experienced quite the defence as of late). These trends from the past are often films by women ignored at their time of release, a show of how the next wave of cinephiles is actively searching for equity. The contemporary social messaging, and the factor of ‘wow, how did they do that with the technology back then?’ factor means that film can still get a reappraisal by the youth, no matter its age and origin.
by Sarah Williams
Sarah Williams is a film writer who loves Portrait of a Lady on Fire, empathetic foreign cinema, experimental films that give you headaches, but mainly just Portrait of a Lady on Fire. She is currently directing her first feature film, which feels like it’ll never be finished, and will be the first to reclaim New French Extremity classic Martyrs as a feminist film (ironically or not, we shall not know). You can find her on Twitter @peppermintsodas and on Letterboxd @dselwyns
Categories: Women Film-makers