Saturday, April 28, 2007

Books: We're going to need a bigger intertextual paradigm.

Besides being one of the "it" buzz books of the moment, Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts is a new addition to that small, and still unnamed sub-genre of horror that includes such allusion-rich and over-designed novels as House of Leaves and Demon Theory. What the former did for haunted house tales and the later did for slasher and B-grade creature features, The Raw Shark Texts does for Jaws.

The plot sounds crazy, so just take it in slowly.

Eric Sanderson is amnesiac. His therapist believes that he's suffering from a sort of extreme psychological defensive reaction stemming from the death of his girlfriend, Clio. This sounds perfectly reasonable, and would make a fine diagnosis, but a short and somewhat uninteresting novel. Mercifully, for Eric and the readers, he begins to receive letters from his pre-amnesia self. Eric 1 (pre-memory loss) informs Eric 2 (post-hunh?) that he is actually the victim of a memory- and sense-of-self eating conceptual shark. These great white mnemonivors are memes that have evolved to swim in our collective intertextuality – the conceptual sphere of ideas and thoughts and communications that flow between media and human agents – and they prey on luckless individuals like poor Eric. Normally, like non-conceptual sharks, they prey on the weak and wounded, like the elderly or those who have suffered extreme brain damage. But in this case, this thought-fish is jonesing for Eric mind-meals.

Hold on. It gets weirder.

These sharks, called Ludovicians, are territorial – in the way that real great whites aren't, but the great white in Jaws is. This means that Eric's pretty much screwed because the shark that wants him will just keep eating away at his mind until Eric dies. Unless, of course, Eric can find a way to kill the shark. This puts Eric on a quest through un-space (the unnamed and forgotten places on Earth that have vanished because they are no longer part of the collective mental map of reality), will pit him against the minions of a networked meta-entity from the late 19th century century, and, ultimately, lead to a massive self-aware Jaws homage show down in the oceans of conceptual space.

You gettin' all that?

More than either House of Leaves or Demon Theory, Raw Shark Texts embraces its weirdness. It has a sort of freewheeling goofiness that reminds of not so much of other horror writers as it does of Douglas Adams. Where House of Leaves borrowed concrete poetry methods to suggest the ever shifting maze of allusions and the ever morphing geometry of the house, Raw Shark Texts includes a flip-book style animation of a shark made entirely out of typographical mainly, I think, because it is fun. This is not to say that Raw Shark Texts completely relinquishes narrative tension in favor of laughs. There are several genuinely creepy moments throughout the novel. But in the end, it is more about wacky ideas, clever allusions, and creative execution than it is about scaring the reader.

Which brings us to, perhaps, the largest potential flaw in the text. The ultimate showdown between Eric and his conceptually toothy problem is an extended, perhaps over-extended, homage to the film Jaws. It goes on for several chapters and, barring some clever meta banter and a fairly timid sex scene (which could have happened in Jaws - things like that just happen on boats), it follows the plot points of the movie extremely closely. This does two things: One, it somewhat mitigates the suspense for any reader that's seen Jaws - and the reader that hasn't seen Jaws would have probably put down the book in confused bewilderment by this point as several descriptions are basically the author saying, "You know, like the one in Jaws." Two, it makes the reader question where homage stops and lazy theft begins.

Raw Shark Texts is not for everyone. I imagine that the relentless barrage of references and winking cleverness will strike many readers as being far too precious. It is, when all is said and done, a pretty precious book. I would understand the complaints of those who felt it was too clever for its own good. But for me, the ride was still worth it. Despite the hipper-than-thou design features and meta-literate film buff allusions, there's ultimately something of the goofy fanboy about RST which redeems it. It is a book that is meant to be enjoyed rather than studied. In this, it lack the earnestness of House of Leaves, the Ur-text off the sub-genre. It was probably a joy to write, and that fun is contagious if you're in the right mind.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Movies: Blood: How far will you go to get it?

According Bloody Disgusting, the horror news site, a director has been attached to the upcoming Dracula sequel currently titled Un-Dead. Un-Dead is being pitched as a direct sequel to the Bram Stoker novel. It picks up the thread of the plot 20 years after the novel closes and, as far as I can tell, ignores the famed Universal franchise and the innumerable "Dracula" pictures Lugosi and Browning inspired.

I think this project sounds like a great idea. After all, Coppola managed to provide the old vampire with some fresh blood by revisiting the original novel and making what, so far, is the closest filmic adaptation (and even that is pretty wide from the mark – adding the whole Mina/Drac backstory that is completely absent from the source text). Revisiting the original novel, even in such a roundabout way, might make for a solid script.

What gives me pause, though, is the choice of directors. According to B-D, Ernest Dickerson, who shot the post-Boyz in da Hood thriller Juice ("how far will you go to get it?"), will be helming the new pic.

Don't get me wrong. I actually kinda liked Juice. As far as the late 90's glut of neo-blaxploitation films went, it was a stylish, thoughtful, and remarkably restrained flick. Compare its slow build and carefully drawn character interactions to the over-the-top violence and repeated lectures of the more famous Menace II Society and you might be forgiven for thinking Juice was actually the better flick. But since then, Dickerson cranked out Surviving the Game (an Ice-T-centric reworking of The Most Dangerous Game), Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight, and skateboarding-meets-basketball sci-fi sports flick Futuresport ("starring" former television Superman Dean Cain, singer turned movie un-star Vanessa Williams, and Wesley "I'll be Blade one of these days" Snipes). After that short and unhappy decline, he's mostly done television stuff. Some of it, including stints on HBO's fine crime drama The Wire, is good stuff; but we know what they say about second acts . . .

Monday, April 23, 2007

Movies: 'Cause I'm weirdo. What the hell am I doing here?

Creep is the poor man's Descent, which is kinda a good thing – insomuch as Descent is a pretty good movie – and kinda a bad thing – insomuch as you can't watch Creep without constantly comparing it to that superior flick.

The plot of Creep is, like the plot of most great horror flicks, effectively simple. Kate, a German ex-pat living in London (played by the chick from Run, Lola, Run), leaves a fancy party to take the tube (that's what London-type Britishers call their subway system) to a party where she plans to seduce George Clooney. To spare the budget strain of having to hire Clooney, the filmmakers have Lola pass out a bit on the tube platform. She wakes up to find herself trapped in the now empty station. Shortly after establishing that she's stuck as stuck can be, a mutated mole person begins to stalk Lola through empty stations, the occasional train, and numerous gothic tunnel structures designed by the more unbalanced members of London's civil engineering community.

There's much to recommend Creep. Despite hand cam work and what appears to be digital video shooting, the film looks quite nice. The stations have a sort of lifeless, sterile gleam. The tunnels and other subterranean locales are meticulously filthy and decayed. I imagine one scene, involving an abandoned underground medical facility, slick and begrimed with mud and blood and lit with a weak yellow wash that makes everything seem jaundiced, would be enough to give neat freaks the willies for weeks.

The characterizations are so good as to boarder on being wasted. Lola is a great example of this. For all the acting she does, it does not really change the fact that she's not required to do much but scream and run and pant. The Morlock is another great example. Under all that make-up is Sean Harris, or, if you prefer, Ian Curtis from 24 Hour Party People. Harris, who is criminally under-used because of his atypical looks, is a truly remarkable Method actor and his C.H.U.D. character is fabulously over the top. From the animal-like sounds Harris emits to his bizarre physical ticks, he a joy to watch. But again, not even he can make the viewer forget some glaring gaps in narrative and logic. All the cast members make a game effort to push what is a fine and perfect serviceable horror flick into the realm of classic. Ultimately, however, they just don't have enough to work with.

There are two flaws that prevent Creep from truly becoming a classic. The first is a weak narrative. Watching the flick, one can't shake the feeling that the writer/director had scenes he knew he wanted to hit, and just tied them together in a convenient, if not very logical or sensible, way. In the bonus features (and it is still a good enough flick that I was curious enough to check out the bonus features), he director claims that he was not intimidated helming his first picture because he loves cinema and, when in a pinch, he just thinks about what previous directors have done. While this seems quite pragmatic, one wonders if the script was put together in a similar fashion. It feels a bit cut and paste.

The second problem is completely unfair, but unavoidable. If you've seen Descent, you can't watch this film without comparing the two. The dark, underground set. The pale, mole person villain. The female protagonist. The UK accents. It is unfair, but inescapable. Creep is a fine film in its own right, but it is not as good as Descent and suffers by the comparison. Actually, I couldn't help wonder if the writer/director, one Christopher Smith (which sounds like a fake name), won't follow the same trajectory as Descent director Neill Marshall. Like this film, Marshall's first flick, Dog Soldiers, was a good flick that didn't quite make the "great" cut due to some clumsy bits and uneven tone. Perhaps, like Marshall's fledgling effort, Creep is the promising opening jab that will be followed by a stupendous uppercut. Smith's next flick, Severance, described as The Office meets Friday the 13th, might just make him one of horror's A-list names. I'm curious to find out.

I'm probably being too hard on Creep. It is guilty of not being as great as it wanted to be – though it does a good job with what's it got and is a solid horror flick. If it asks to be compared to a horror film of The Descent's caliber, it deserves credit for aiming higher than, say, being yet another remake of a '70s horror flick. Using the sensuous Famous Female Aviatrixes Film Rating System, I'm giving Creep a solid Helen Richey. Sure, she's no Amelia Earhart, but she set a 10-day air endurance record (with mid-air refueling). That's pretty boss in its own right.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Comics: Doll versus doll.

Let's review the brilliantly simple premise behind the Devil's Due Publisher series Hack/Slash: Cassy Hack, the "final girl" survivor of a slasher rampage, now spends her time dressing in skimpy Goth/punk outfits and dispatching slashers. She's got a sidekick named Vlad – a mountain of a man who was a slasher in training before Hack liberated him from his would-be mentor. Think of the series, which began as a group of haphazardly released one-shots several years ago, as the Misfits to Buffy's Third Eye Blind. It is good spirited and sly, but straight forward and unabashedly violent; it skirts self-parody without lapsing into postmodern narrative tricks; and though it constantly risks utter absurdity, its love for the trappings of the horror genre prevent it from lapsing entirely into teen-soap territory.

Most importantly, it is fun. Let's not forget that.

In fact, my only on-going complaint with the comics was something the comic makers didn't have much control over: Due to the rights and franchises involved, Cassy Hack and Vlad couldn't go up against the familiar slashers we all knew. Mostly our intrepid slasher-slayers went after original killers or tongue in cheek clones of famous slashers. This was okay, as far as it went. But we wanted a real dust up. If you're going to create characters who kill slashers, eventually the reader is going to demand we see how they measure up against Jason, Freddy, Leatherface, and the other murderous madmen who are the touchstones of the genre.

Finally, this month, Cassy and Vlad got to mix up with a franchise fiend. In a special one-shot issue available at your finer comic purveyors, the duo cross paths with the demonically diminutive Chucky.

The plot actually ties-in into the continuities of both franchises. The central villain, a religiously inspired maniac who intends to "save the soul" of Cassy Hack even if it means causing the mortal coil a stupendous amount of damage, is a returning character from the Hack/Slash one-shot "Girls Gone Dead." In that previous one-shot, Cassy defeated her by setting her on fire. Ouch. Now extra crispy and bent on revenge, our mad villain wants out of her charred body and into the body of Cassy's gigantic and powerful partner. If only there was like a voodoo amulet that could . . . oh, hey, wait! Enter a dismembered Chucky, sitting in the evidence room a North Hollywood police station after getting the business end of an axe at the close of Seed of Chucky. Our villain revives the Chuckster, heads down to New Orleans, sets a trap for our heroes, and swaps bodies with Vlad. Ultimately, Chucky and Cassy join forces to get Vlad back into his body and retrieve Chucky's magic amulet.

It is a goofy contrivance, sure, but no more forced or goofy than the plot twists that drove Universal's old school monster mash-ups. Just picking it up you've pretty much admitted you're reading it for the opportunity to watch Cassy and Hack mix it up with Chucky. How the writers get us there seems somewhat irrelevant.

The combo works fairly well. The past few years have seen numerous movie psychos make the transition from film to comic. Avatar produced of collection of poorly received issues based on New Line's trinity of horror icons: Freddy, Jason, and Leatherface. Ultimately, these made the jump to DC with mixed, but mostly positive, results. Chucky, perhaps one of the silliest slashers ever created, makes the transition well. He is still quick with the cheesy puns and pop culture references, but his comic book persona seems smarter and more deliberate. After watching him play henpecked hubby and clueless dad, there's something cool about watching him get back to his gleefully murderous roots. While Cassy and Vlad prove the equal of the famed cinema slasher in the carnage department, Chucky ultimately steals the book. He fits well into the strange, darkly comedic, semi-parodic world of Hack/Slash and he adds to the bloody fun.

The book has some flaws. The story feels compressed. The book jumps suddenly from one scene to the next and the lack of transitions seems sloppy. It almost seems like the writers had a mini-series in mind and, last minute, things were trimmed down to a single 40-some page one-off. This becomes especially weird in the last scene, where Cassy goes from recovering from injuries in a hotel room to a final fight with Chuckles in a swap without so much as an explanation of how our two star characters ended up there.

Still, it seems foolish to quibble about such details when one of the major characters of the book is a homicidal children's doll. We're not talking Proust here. Hack/Slash has been about delivering reliable horror tinged kicks to genre fans, and in this Hack/Slash versus Chucky does just what it is supposed to do.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Stuff: If I do not survive this [noun], my executors may put caution before [mental state] and [verb] that it meets no other [body part, plural].

For a little fun on Thursday, here's a site where you can play with H. P. Lovecraft "Mad Libs." You fill out a list of animals, body parts, adjectives, and so on. You know the drill. Punch in your words and hit the submit button. The site will then plug your words into a template built from Lovecraft's "Shadow Over Innsmouth."

And yet I saw them in a dinnerless stream -- maximizing, hopping, productizing, bleating -- surging inhumanly through the amorphous moonlight in a grotesque, giddy pants of fantastic nightmare. And some of them had wimpy tiaras of that nameless eggshellish-gold metal ... and some were strangely monocle'd ... and one, who led the way, was clad in a ghoulishly actionable khaki wrist watch and striped trousers, and had a man's felt hat perched on the shapeless thimble that answered for a ear lobe.

I think their predominant colour was a hot pinkish-green, though they had white nostrils. They were mostly gregarious and illict, but the ridges of their backs were plantagenet. Their forms vaguely suggested the anthropoid, while their heads were the heads of baby rhinos, with prodigious jaded colons that never closed. At the sides of their necks were palpitating kittens, and their long hedges were webbed. They hopped irregularly, sometimes on four legs and sometimes on one hundred. I was somehow glad that they had no more than elevteenth limbs. Their litigating, baying voices, clearly used for popular testicles, held all the actionable shades of expression which their stuffy faces lacked.

But for all their monstrousness they were not unfamiliar to me. I knew too well what they must be -- for was not the memory of the fastidious tiara at The Dome at the 1936 World's Fair still fresh? They were the blasphemous owl-frogs of the nameless design. . .

Monday, April 16, 2007

Movies: Makes Sophia Coppola's appearance in "Godfather III" look like a great idea.

Like Alfred Hitchcock, who Dario Argento paid homage to in the 2005 mash note flick Do You Like Hitchcock, the old Italian master seems to have entered a sort of uneasy old age. Like the Hitchcock of Frenzy and Family Plot, Argento seems to work in fits and starts. Sometimes he seems to be courting mainstream audiences (see The Card Player), other times he's fully in the luxuriously creepy and hypnotic groove that nobody else can quite do – but even then his flicks are more "interesting" than "good."

The Stendhal Syndrome his 1996 horror-thriller is clear from the second category of late-era Argento. The film follows the misfortunes of a young police officer, played by the laconic Asia Argento, as she pursues a mysterious serial rapists/murderer. The trail leads her to the Uffizi gallery of Florence where she finds out that she suffers the eponymous syndrome – the symptoms of which, if the film is to be believed, include intrusively soundtracks, swirling editing, and falling victim to some very cheesy CGI effects. This would be bad enough for our heroine, but things get even worse as the serial rapist and murder catches and violates her.

Now is filming your own daughter's rape scene a brave directorial move or just sleazy? Before you make a decision on that, I want to point out that previously, in a gratuitously weird CGI shot, Argento took the camera down Asia's throat. Innovative camera work or freaky Freudian incest moment? You be the judge.

Despite the brutality of the attack, the police officer escapes the rapist. He gets away and she ends up on administrative leave. The impact of what has happened to her has knocked her life out of whack – though the film seems to strangely hedge its bets about whether it was the attack of Stendhal syndrome or her being the victim of rape that has so impacted her, as if Argento seems to think that fainting in the presence of classic art and being raped where emotionally equivalent.

Eventually, growing increasingly isolated from her co-workers and her boyfriend, the officer returns to her hometown. Unfortunately, the rapist follows her and she is captured yet again. The rapist holds her prisoner in what appears to be an empty sewer shaft and rapes her, again. (Is Argento twice as brave for filming his daughter's repeated rape, or is this twice as icky?)

At this point in the movie we get into a handful of twists that I cannot get into without giving up what is supposed to be the chief mystery of the flick. Suffice it to say that things get weirder from her on in.

Rarely do I see a movie that I cannot form a clear opinion of. The Stendhal Syndrome is one of those odd works. Compared to my favorite Argento flicks, like Susperia and Phenomena, it has a more gritty, less dream-like quality. This is not to say it is more realistic. Instead, it doesn't have that sort of hypnotic power that the other films, which lose in a world of their own making, have. This is a strangely flat, toneless film. This isn't to say that it is poorly shot. But for a filmmaker like Argento, the film's dull colors and inert sets are strange. (He even manages to shrink the Uffizi gallery - TSS being the only film ever allowed to film inside – into a strangely generic feeling place. How could the director of Susperia not exploit a set like the Uffizi gallery?) The plot is compelling, but marred with what can only be described as overt moments of incestuous weirdness. It is, by Argento's own standards, trashy. Finally, unlike the female leads of Susperia and Phenomena, Asia Argento's cop is purposefully less likable and sympathetic, a point which we can't discuss further without stepping on the end of the flick.

In the finally analysis, what to make of this curious flick? If you're not a fan of Argento, I'd avoid it. This oddity doesn't really showcase the rich, literate style of horror that's made him a legendary horror director. If, on the other hand, you are a fan of the man, then this flick is worth seeing if only to see the famed director work in an unusually restrained visual mode while attempting to work with such strangely unhinged personal subject matter. Borrowing the Rest Stations of the A5 Autoroute Movie Rating System from Roger Ebert, I'm giving The Stendhal Syndrome a reserved, but not necessarily condemnatory, Km 211 Le Bois Moyen rating.

It has been theorized that legendary horror writer H. P. Lovecraft suffered from Stendhal Syndrome; only in his case it was architecture and not paintings or sculptures that set him off. In a private letter to one of his friends, he described reacting to the architecture of New York City with such overwhelming emotions that he nearly fainted away in the street. Some have theorized that the surreal, monumental, and otherworldly architecture that appears regularly in Lovecraft's stories was inspired in part by his own extreme reactions to architecture.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Music: Even I, Lucas, have heard the legend of the Fish-Man. And I, Lucas, have heard this song about him too.

As the Screamin' Regulars already know, CRwM's got a bit of thing for the Gill-Man. I'm a sucker for the The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

I really should just break out the classic trilogy, do a massive freakin' review, and get the whole thing out of my system. Unfortunately, that sounds suspiciously like work. So, instead, I present to you a music tribute to the fishiest of Universal's classic creatures from the rockabilly group Rusty and the Dragstrip Trio.


Monday, April 09, 2007

Movies: Double bill, but half the thrill.

Now that the opening weekend take of Grindhouse hasn't even measured up to half the $30 million Miramax dropped on simply marketing the retro-tastic neo-trash double header, it seems like Tarantino has, officially, his first bomb. His co-director, Robert Rodriguez, is likely more calloused to the feelings watching one of your flicks sink at the box office must give rise to. Being one of America's most notable and least consistent directors prepares one for the slings and arrows of outrageous financial fortune. But for Tarantino, failure on this scale must be a somewhat new sensation. Not to mention it must all be somewhat confusing to the spastically boyish director. His previous two flicks – the Kill Bill films – mined much of the same disreputable genre territory to produce a commercial and critical hit. Success for Grindhouse should have been a matter of course. But here he is, opening weekend and nothing but a big, ol' double feature flop to show for it.

And, I'm sad to say, he and Rodriguez somewhat deserve it.

Unless you've been living in a particularly remote cave in some unusually desolate part of the world, you know by now that Grindhouse is a 3 hour 10 minute flick that consists of two short films – Rodriguez's Terror Planet and Tarantino's Death Proof - surrounded by retro rating warnings, a quartet of trailers from movies that don't exist, and interrupted occasionally by fake film damage and two "reel missing" title cards.

Of the two, Rodriguez's outing is the weaker, which is unfortunate as it means you're sitting through nearly an hour and a half of mediocre film before really getting to something interesting.

Terror Planet suffers from "The Byrne Problem." Forgive me the digression, but it will tie in, I promise. Anthony Burgess's (the British novelist perhaps best known in America as the man who wrote A Clockwork Orange) last book before his death 1993 was a long mock epic poem called Byrne. The premise behind the book was that Byrne was the absurd and narcissistic last grand gesture of Michael Byrne, a truly horrible poet that reaches the dubious "heights" of his artistic achievement during the Nazi's rise to power in the 1930s. It is at once a devastating send up of pretentiousness and a meditation on talent and inspiration. Here's the catch: to get this though, you have to read a really horrible novel-length epic poem. Certainly, it is intentionally bad. The clumsy rhymes, the lag wit metaphors, and the drunkenly staggering rhythm were all part of Burgess's joke. But does it matter. At the end of the day, joke or not, if you want to read Byrne, you've got to read a fistful of really shitty verse. So, "The Byrne Problem" can be summed up thusly: intentionally creating bad art does not solve the problem that you made bad art.

Though it is intended as a loving send up, Terror Planet is 90 minutes of bad film. To be fair, Rodriguez seems to have taken the project to create an old grindhouse-style flick earnestly and, despite the recent flurry of rose-tinted revisionism that now depicts that era of the crap exploitation flick, creates just the sort of cheap-o, illogical, gore splattered, mindless film that was a staple of the genre. Terror Planet involves a group of rogue US soldiers who, after getting exposed to a zombifying biological weapon for killing Bin Laden off schedule (seriously), unleash the agent on a unsuspecting Texas town. Ultimately it is up to the local police, a truck driving super gunslinger, and an ex-stripper turned one-legged killing machine to save the day. Silliness piles upon silliness in a Sci-Fi Channel original-grade plot. None of this is redeemed by Rodriguez's trademark kinetic visual style, which he reins in so that he can better recreate the clumsy filmmaking of a real grindhouse horror cheapie. The editing looks like it was handled by a blind man working with a meat cleaver and some duct tape. Set-ups are static and un-inventive. There are bizarre and unnecessary close-ups, some on the ample anatomy of the flick's female characters, but mostly on irrelevant and un-aesthetic details.

I have no doubt all of this was intentionally. Robert Rodriguez was, I'm certainly, trying very hard to recreate the look and feel of a cut-rate. The problem is, he pulled it off brilliantly, which is to say, he made a bad movie. Terror Planet is the sort of film you might run across on cable on some lazy afternoon and watch solely because nothing else is on. That was, in fact, the fulfillment of Rodriguez's ambitions for the film, which, in a way, makes it even sadder.

Tarantino, the more consistent and thoughtful of the two filmmakers, avoids the "The Byrne Problem" by cleverly betraying the project's premise. Death Proof shares the same relationship with exploitation cinema that the rest of Taratino's films have had: he uses his love and knowledge of the genre to steal and refine its best moments. Tarantino didn't really make a grindhouse-style film (it is telling that the fake dust spots and film damage that was digitally added throughout Terror Planet is almost entirely absent in Death Proof), he made a Tarantino film that was influenced by those genre filmmakers who, despite working in a critically reviled context, managed to create unique, energetic, and enduring films. Where Rodriguez recreated the experience of seeing a bad film in a crappy theater, Tarantino fuses Russ Meyer revenge chick flicks with the sure cinema instincts of Monte Hellman and creates a solid flick that is influenced by exploitation cinema while transcending its origins.

Death Proof involves the psychopathic Stuntman Mike. Mike gets his kicks through vehicular homicide. He takes his stunt worthy car and gets himself in accidents that are always fatal to the women he stalks. However, as luck would have it, Mike picks on a trio of women that includes a couple of female stunt drivers and, instead of easy pickings, we get one of the longest, most intense car chase scenes to grace the screen in a long time.

Death Proof is the least of Tarantino's films. It is well-built, smart fun that suffers from the fact that Tarantino is not a horror filmmaker. His instincts are to let characters yap on and ramble. We get too much talking and not enough tension. After one particularly horrific scene, we spent most of the movie killing time until the big chase. When that comes, it will pull you in. But, until then, you feel every minute of the flick as Tarantino's characters do what everybody in the Tarantino universe does: they discuss old cult flicks (nobody in the world Tarantino lives in ever reads).

I do have something to praise without qualification. The four faux trailers are, each and every one, brilliant. Rodriguez turns in a trailer for Machete, a violent revenge flick, that packs more fun into its four or five minute running time than we find in all of Terror Planet. Shaun of the Dead's Edgar Wright turns in Don't, a wonderful send up of British haunted house flicks from the groovy era. Rob Zombie gives us the absolutely gonzo Werewolf Women of the S.S., featuring a cameo of Nicholas Cage as Fu Manchu (I kid you not). And, I'm shocked to say, Eli Roth's slasher-flick trailer for Thanksgiving is so spot on and funny that it might be the best moment in the film. We've had our differences in the past Eli; but good job.

There are some great moments in Grindhouse, but they are too few and far between to justify the 3 hour running time or the $10 movie ticket. This puppy was made for DVD. Using my mathematically precise Ships the British Royal Navy Has Named After the Port City of Bristol, I'm going to give Grindhouse a middling "wooden screw frigate launched in 1861 and broken up in 1883."

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Music: Let's go to the hop.

Zombina and the Skeletones are a horror-tinged psycho-billy/punk unit from Liverpool, England. The current line-up includes front-woman Zombina Venus Hatchett, Doc Horror on gee-tar, Jonny Tokyo on keyboard, Jettison Dervish on bass, and Ben Dur in the engine room.

Their first album, the Love Bites EP was released in 2000. Since then, Zombina and the Skeletones have been remarkably prolific. They've released five EPs, including Halloween and Christmas-themed extended players; three albums, including their latest, the concept album Death Valley High; and a thematic trilogy of singles.

Here's a fan video for Z and the S's "Zombie Hop." It combines live footage of the group spliced with clips from the Z-grade Redneck Zombies. Enjoy!

Here's their video for the more pop-punk "Nobody Likes You When You're Dead."

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Movies: I walk the line. With a zombie.

Way back when, in the Golden Age of the Hollywood studio system, even their cheapies seemed classier. At least, you'd think so checking out Val Lewton produced double-header I Walked with a Zombie and The Body Snatcher. Part of the 5 disc/10 movie Lewton retrospective released by Turner Entertainment, this two-for-one disc is a prime specimen of the top notch, classy, gothic film Lewton produced during his brilliant, but brief, four-year run as head of RKO's horror unit: a run that produced at least one certifiable horror classic a year and exploited the talents of several then-minor but soon to be famous directors.

A little backstory on Lewton before we hop into the two flicks. Born Vladimir Leventon, the future director came to America with his family when he was five. Though it doesn't seem to have done him much good, he was the nephew of the scandal-ridden silent screen vamp Alla Nazimova. Lewton spent most of his early career as a freelance writer. He cranked out copy for newspapers (he was booted from one paper for fabricating a story about a mass kosher chicken die-off during a New York heat wave), weekly magazines, the pulps, and even wrote a bit of pornographic erotica. Anything to pay the bills. The name Val Lewton was originally a nom de plume. Vlad used it on the cover of a few of his novels before picking it up semi-permanently for the movie biz.

In 1933, Lewton got a job work for David O. Selznick. He acted mainly as a story editor, but the job morphed into something more like a behind-the-scenes jack-of-all-trades. During this time, he famously contributed several scenes to Gone with the Wind - most notably the long crane shot of what seems to be endless rows of Confederate wounded, suffering and expiring under a waving Confederate flag. For nearly a decade he ran around the RKO lots, doing random chores and picking up the movie biz through osmosis. In 1942, he was appointed the head of RKO's horror unit. He was to crank out crowd pleasing theater fillers, in a hurry and on the cheap.

Funny thing happened, though. Lewton turned a steady profit and filled the theater seats with fare that was definitely down market – he once said, "You shouldn't get mad at New York reviewers. It is actually very hard for a reviewer to give something called I Walked with a Zombie a good review" – but, in hindsight, it is clear he also made some very good films. Lewton's horror flicks are literate, well shot, thoughtful, and steeped in a classic gothic sensibility. His movies were so much better than they needed to be that, even now, they can take the viewer by surprise. You settle down, expect some good old-school horror cheese, and, instead, you're pulled into the work of a man film critic James Agee claimed was one the three most creative figures in Hollywood.

I Walked with a Zombie is often considered Lewton's finest outing. Based on a series of "scientific" articles about the practice of voodoo in Haiti, Lewton decided the original story was weak on narrative drive and wed the zombie and voodoo trappings to a rough re-working of the plot of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. In Lewton's hybrid, a young nurse is hired by a wealthy sugar plantation owner to care for his wife, in a coma like state since suffering a rare tropical disease. There she is pulled in the gothic family politics of the plantation and the hidden world of voodoo thriving outside the walls of the estate. Despite its European-gothic-by-way-of-voodoo-magic exploitation angle, the semi-anthropological thrust of the original articles was not lost on Lewton and the finely realized details of the film make it one of the few Hollywood horror films in any era to treat voodoo and the Caribbean culture that created with a modicum of sincere respect. Many of the most effective moments of the film deal not only with the horrors of voodoo magic, but with the enduring legacy of slavery and colonialism.

The film also benefits from the pairing of Lewton and one of his most accomplished regular directors: Jacques Tourneur, director of the horror classic The Cat People and the noir landmark Out of the Past. Tourneur's use of lighting and set and his smooth, polished professionalism, all conspire to give I Walked with a Zombie a classic look and feel that completely transcends its poverty row origins. You feel like your watching some strange, surreal A-picture.

In the second feature, The Body Snatcher, Lewton again benefits from an excellent director. This time the director seat holds up the talented ass of Robert Wise, who would later go on to direct The Day the Earth Stood Still, Run Silent, Run Deep, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles, and, one of my favorite horror flicks, The Haunting. (He also did the first Star Trek film, which isn't my cup of tea, but regular reader Screamin' Dave might get a kick out of the mention.)

The Body Snatcher, loosely based on a Robert Louis Stevenson short story, follows the misadventures of two 19th century doctors who find themselves blackmailed by the murderous grave robber who supplies their medical school with cadavers. Wise's film is somewhat hampered by a too-chatty script, but it does boast something Tourneur's film lacks: a wonderful performance by Boris Karloff as the Gray, the sadistic body snatcher. It also features Bela Lugosi in a minor, but effective role.

Neither of these films is truly frightening by modern horror standards. Instead, it is probably better to think of them as gothic dramas, maybe even horror melodramas. Still both films are classics of the genre and well worth your time. Using the Lifetime Achievements of William Withering Movie Rating System, official movie rating system of the European Union, I give I Walked with a Zombie a superb "invention of digitalis" rating and The Body Snatcher a somewhat lesser, but still fine "first English-language botany text to use Linnaean taxonomy." A solid two-film package.