Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Stuff: Bloody good beer.

The Shmaltz Brewing Company - the folks who bring you He-Brew, the Chosen Beer - have expanded their small Coney Island line with the Coney Island Freaktoberfest. This tasty Halloween brew is a nice little IPA with a twist: it has "zombie blood," a tasteless red color dye used in stage blood, that turns the beer a thick red color. In your average pint glass, the beer is an opaque red with a light red-to-pink foam on top.

It is available on tap, so you've got a reason to go out on Halloween. Yeah, I'm talking to you, you couch potato.

For folks in New York, you can find the beer at the following bars. If you're one of those lonely solo drunks, it is also available in a growler at Bierkraft in Brooklyn.

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Movies: Q and A session.

Back in June I reviewed the Larry Cohen creature feature Q.

Last Friday, actually for-reals pro film critic Roger Ebert got around to reviewing Grindhouse (he missed it due to illness). The review is what it is – I reckon, by now, that either you know where you stand on said pick or don't care – but his review does have a wonderful little anecdote about Q. From Ebert:

I recall a luncheon at Cannes thrown by the beloved schlockmeister Sam Arkoff of American-International Pictures. "Sam!" said Rex Reed, after seeing Arkoff's new film "Q," about a Quetzlcoatl that swooped down on Wall Street to gobble up stockbrokers. "What a surprise! Right in the middle of all that schlock, a great Method performance by Michael Moriarty!" Arkoff blushed modestly. "The schlock was my idea," he said.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Movies: Good night.

I think one can say, without fear of overstatement, that Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith's vampire horror mini-series 30 Days of Night is the single title most responsible for jump starting the revival of horror comics. Go into some comic book specialty store and, on any given month, you'll find a short stack of new horror titles, from Eisner-winning continuing series to re-launched anthology series to gore-splattered one shots and collections. Though this is a relatively recent phenomenon. When IDW, then a new publisher on the comic scene, ran with 30 Days of Night, there were so few horror titles out that you could be forgiven if you thought the entire genre had gone the way of the dodo.

Its place of the comic in genre history threatens to overshadow its genuine merits. Unlike other comic milestones, such as Contract with God or The Watchmen, 30 Days f Night isn't a revolutionary work. The slim (under 90 pages) but attractive book relied on straight-forward and tradition narrative techniques; featured a cast of characters that were fairly stock types; didn't push the boundaries of comic content; and had a phantasmagoric painted art style that is not the norm, but clearly owes much to pioneers like Dave McKean. But the value of 30 Days didn't rest on its revolutionary potential. Instead, what it did was show readers and the industry that well-done horror comics could still kick ass. It didn't need to be a great work of literature. It didn't need to fundamentally shift the way in which we thought of sequential art. It just needed to prove that the supposedly moribund horror genre still had some unlife in it.

And that's exactly what it did.

The premise of the comic was brilliantly simple: in Barrow, Alaska, where the sun vanishes for an entire month in winter, a group a vampires, no longer checked by the regular coming of the dawn, come to ravage the town. It's high concept perfection. Even on hearing it, you think, "Of freakin' course, why didn't anybody think of that before?" The plot is about as lean and mean as you can make. There is a slight detour involving the efforts of ancient vampires to keep the existence of vamps a secret and the efforts of a crew of folks from the Big Easy trying to blow the lid off the undead cover-up. But that's a slight intrusion on what is otherwise a straight out story of survival against impossible odds. Basically, it did what the writers of zombie tales quickly discovered was the key to crossover success: it was vampy story as disaster story.

David Slade's new adaptation, the film 30 Days of Night, is, I think, the best adaptation the comic could have hoped for. The protagonists of the comics were a husband and wife team of police officers in Barrow. The other residents of Barrow were basically there to get eaten or get saved. Slade's adaptation complicates the relationship of the central couple (played adequately by the wooden Josh Hartnett and the creepily skinny Melissa George – Melissa, sweetie, I thought it was a special effect or something; we're all worried about you) and adds a handful of fleshed out residents to serve as the holdout crew we'll follow through the assault. The adaptation also wisely cuts out the subplot involving ancient vamps and the vampire hunters. These subplots went nowhere in the original comic and aren't missed here. Trading them off for more time to flesh out the other victims of the assault is a smart choice.

Slade also works from a screenplay, partially created by Steve Niles, that decompresses the action. The original comic – partially due to the limitations of space, partially due to the artistic style of Templesmith (which is better at mood than action) – had a dream-like logic that didn't lend itself to action or suspense. Instead, it was like looking into a nightmare. The film expands on the conflict between the vamps and the humans, with several excellent action/horror set pieces, and manages to build up an entertaining amount of tension with regards to who will and will not make it at the end of the flick.

The film also expands on the role of the Renfield-like "Stranger": the human thrall of the vamps who heads into Barrow prior to the long night, prepping the town for invasion. The flick also more closely associates him with Renfield, making the ties between him and the character of the ur-vamp tale more explicit. In the comic, the Stranger shows up out of nowhere, makes some threats, and that's about it. Here, we see him arrive via ship (with the vamps, just like Renfield and Drac) and he makes his servile relationship clear.

Finally, though the film has some genuine shots of beauty, Slade is selective in his efforts to capture the look of Templesmith's art. He avoids the slavish visual loyalty one sees in many current comic adaptations. The vampires look very much like Templesmith's monsters. These are not suave, seducers. They have shark-like mouths, never bother to clean the gore of their animalistic feeding off of themselves, and dress like homeless Euro-trash. In one scene, the lead vamp actually slicks back his hair with the blood of a victim his ripped open. That's the sort weird rawness Templesmith brought to his vamps and it is captured here. But, for the most part, Slade eschews the dream-like surrealism of Templesmith's art. People will argue about this, but I think it is a smart move. What film can give us that comics can't is the sense of bodies moving through space. In film, a sense of space is crucial to creating tension and action. Recreating the look of the comics would have hobbled the film.

The chief problem with 30 Days of Night is that the film does not share the relationship to film horror that the original comic shared to the genre of horror comics. The original comic simply had to be good to instantly become the best horror comic on the market. The comic just had to prove that horror comics were still viable. But the film comes out on what might be the tail end of a long and remarkably creative horror flick boom. There's a way in which the film can't just be "good." To stick out, the film would have to be brilliant. Unfortunately, it isn't brilliant. 30 Days is a well-made, solid flick. It doesn't drag, it doesn't make you feel stupid for paying 10 smackers for your ticket, and you'll feel a couple of "holy moley" moments. That's nothing to sneeze at. That may be a modest success, but it is undeniably a success. But it can't recapture the eye-opening excitement of the original comic. That feeling was a product of the unique moment the comic was released. Even the comic, picked up now, can't recreate that experience.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Stuff: Some quality time with junior.

The New York Times has a nice article on trying to get a new generation of filmmakers to appreciate the artistry of classic horror films, specifically the nine nourish and mood-soaked productions of RKO's horror-unit head Val Lewton (whose works I've reviewed with great pleasure in this very blog).

From the article:

I was all of 5, and I had stumbled on the original “King Kong” on television. I didn’t switch it off. Instead I turned down the volume and hid behind the couch. Every time I peeked, things only got worse: Now Kong was chewing on a native like a toothpick; now he was squashing another into the mud with his giant foot.

My dad tells the story of how he got home, found the television on, silently, and then noticed the top of my cowering head. On screen Kong ran amok. My dad asked if I was O.K. “I’m fine,” I reportedly said.

Then — and I remember this distinctly — he leaned over and switched off the set, and Kong was gone, and waves of relief rolled through me.

Fast-forward about 36 years. My own son, Dean, is about to turn 8. He was completely unfazed a few years ago when I first played the original “King Kong” for him. “Look, look — this is scary,” I said as the Skull Island climax began, eyeing him but getting nervous myself. I felt a little of that old hide-behind-the-couch instinct coming on.

“What?” Dean shot back as Kong rampaged. “He looks so fake.”

The article includes links to clips from the original King Kong, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Lodger.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Movies: And now, ladies and gentlemen, the host of our show . . .

The Host, the 2006 Korean creature-feature from director Joon-ho Bong, came with some out-sized expectations. There was the collective cooing of the blogging classes, with folks throwing about term of praise like "brilliant" and "best of the year" and "the greatest thing out of Korea since pickled squid in a can." You can expect a certain level of hyperventilation out of the bloggers. Horror bloggers, unlike many all-pro film reviewer types, see loads of horror films. This rarely makes us highly discerning critics of the genre. Instead, it means we're often up to our nips in crappy films. We spend an inordinate amount of time doggedly plodding after absurdly half-assed storylines, suffering abysmal acting, and forgiving lame direction and effects. The cumulative result of this collective cinematic masochism is that, when we find a movie with even a passable amount of talent, skill, and polish, we tend to hail it as something like the second coming. But The Host was actually getting good notices from the slumming mainstream types. The NY Times and other respectable rags were giving the pic high marks for the stylishly retro monster approach and the smart integration of current environmental and political themes.

What's the official ANTSS position: The Host doesn't completely live up to the hype, but what it can deliver is worth checking out.

The central story of The Host is wonderfully simple. One sunny day, for no particular reason, a big monster slumps out of Seoul's Han River and goes ape in a nearby park. After the monster's apatite for destruction is sated, it snags a young girl and returns to the river, specifically a series of sewer tunnels our beastie calls home. As the authorities do not believe the girl is still alive and wish to quarantine all those who came in contact with the monster, it is up to the mildly dysfunctional members of the girl's family to come and save her.

The monster is wonderfully designed, looking something like an angry black train engine constructed out of random fish parts. It's confusion of fins and tentacles, claws and gills makes for a delightfully freakish beast. The nasty's mouth is made of many distinct toothy, grindy, sucky parts that it alone ranks as one of the most wonderfully bizarre bits of creature design in recent memory. Whenever this nameless monster is trashing its way through the picture, the film is firing on all cylinders. The filmmaker has a real feel for beast-driven mayhem and the joy with which he uses his monstrous star comes across.

What prevents the film being the out and out classic it is occasionally billed as is a long, dreary middle in which the monster fades into the background (making only a few fan pleasing cameos) and a somewhat nonsensical subplot about a supposed disease spread by the beast takes center stage. Here, the actors, who were sufficient to acting opposite a neato special effect, are pushed beyond their capacities in a failed bid to add gravitas and create a strong sense of backstory. Furthermore the disease subplot, which is what ushers in all the geo-political blah blah, is such a dramatic and narrative dead-end that whatever political points the director and screenwriter wished to make are lost to unnecessary complications and viewer indifference.

In fact, this whole middle act, and the somewhat puzzling fallout from these scenes that flows through the rest of the flick, seems to me to be the unfortunate manifestation of a common wrongheaded conceit of horror film criticism: movies "about something" are smarter and better than movies that aren't overtly "about something." This powerful bit of hogwash has become so entrenched in the critical community that I think filmmakers are actually influenced by it. They go out of their way to load their films with overt political and ethical commentary because they erroneously assume that such content guards them from making crap. Sadly, only talent, skill, and taste can safeguard against making crap. Shoving your political opinion into a garbage flick doesn't save it. It only makes your crap more tiresome.

Let's look at a specific and glaring case. George Romero has steadily increased the ideological load each of his flicks must drag along. Would you say that this increased political spin has resulted in better and better films? Was Land of the Dead really better than Night of the Living Dead? If anything, the increasingly overt political content has weakened his films and confused the basic premises of his entire series. For example, using the zombies as some sort of symbol of imperialist backlash in Land confuses the fact that zombies are after humans for reasons more dietary than ideological. It’s a lousy metaphor and a muddled plot point.

For years, horror fans and filmmakers have understood that the most charmingly laughable scenes of the classic horror flicks from the Universal Big Bang to the 1950s revival was the scene where some square-jawed and absurdly earnest scientist stepped forward to explain to the moral and social significance of the plot to the other characters. More often then not it was a fairly standard lecture on keeping science within the bounds of reason. Sometimes, in your less square flicks, it was a bid for sympathy for the creature: "But is it really that different from us? Sure, it feeds off human blood, emits a deadly radiation that melts the skin off our bones, and hunts with a savage and unreasoning thirst for death. But, don't we humans do the same thing? When we fight wars or play hockey or shop for intriguing undergarments, aren't we doing the very same things we condemn this monster for? Who are the real monsters here?"

The "about something" content in most contemporary horror films is as subtle, deep, and meaningful as the "et tu, monstro" speeches of the old flicks.

Possibly worse than the intentional inclusion of political pap is the moralistic whitewashing of flicks otherwise free of this sort of junk in a bid to make interest in them more palatable. No filmmaker reveled more in this post-production accumulation of social significance than Roth with his torture-porn revival flick Hostel. In an effort to make that flick's repellent allure less tawdry, critics happily provided a supposed subtext of a critique of American hubris. Really? Everywhere these jackasses go they encounter a post-EU Europe that can't drop to it knees fast enough to supply people with whatever they want provided the Euros are right. They've walked into a distinctly Euro-flavored free-market nightmare were human slaughter for entertainment needs no more justification than it is profitable and the film is supposedly about American hubris?

This isn't to say that horror can't or shouldn't be "about something." One could argue that simply by virtue of presenting concrete manifestations of our own collective nightmares all good horror films always contain a socially significant subject. What scares us is important by the very fact it scares us. If that's too abstract, there are subtle ways to integrate social themes and messages. A good horror movie riffs on the social anxieties we feel without giving away the game or leaving us with a "and knowing is half the battle" style take home message. There is, I think, a curious anti-media message in The Ring which is all the more interesting for never having some character step forward and say "Do we really want to be the sort of society were a tape people know will kill them would still be a threat?" In fact, it is this oblique approach to the social issues raised by the film that made Rings, the filler short the studios created to bridge the first remake and its sequel, so much better than Ring II, with its overt bits about child abuse.

Enough ranting – see what ranting can do to any endeavor? – back to film at hand. The Host is a brilliant creature feature that gets bogged down in the middle by an unnecessary and self-important "issues" subplot. But never fear. In their infinite benevolence, the consumer electronics industry has given us the ultimate weapon against this sort of thing: the skip chapter button. Use it judiciously and you can keep The Host brilliant.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Movies: A bad day fighting kill-happy commandos is still better than a good day at the office.

In my review of his debut effort, Creep, I wondered if writer/director Christopher Smith's second feature would rocket him into the a list much the way Descent rocketed its director, whose Dog Soldiers was a good but not spectacular first feature, into horror fame.

I've finally got around to seeing Severance and, unfortunately, it isn't the break-out flick I'd hoped it would be. It is a competent, solidly made film. It expands the number of characters the director must juggle, takes him out of the easily controlled confines of the tube sets of his first flick, and generally shows a director that is getting better with each film. But, sadly, what it won't do is blow you away.

Severance follows a group of British and American arms dealers. These aren't badass Lord of War types, but white-collar office drones: the kind of folks who file the Lord of War types' expense account requisitions. These cube dwellers are sent of into Hungarian forests as part of a paid retreat/team building exercise. Their bus stalls out and they end up hiking to what is supposed to be luxury lodge. Instead, they end up at an abandoned structure that is, sadly, next to a mental hospital used by Eastern European powers to contain war criminal types. Apparently, the various nasty wars caused by the disintegration of the Soviet Union left Eastern Europe with enough psycho war criminals that a special facility was called for.

Before we can get to deep into the characterization of any of our office drones, we subject them to the predations of a small cadre of kill-happy ex-genocidal troops and the blood starts flowing in earnest.

Now there absolutely nothing wrong with Severance. It looks good, the characterizations are well handled, the comedic touches are welcome and not overbearing (except in one instance were an utterly unnecessary joke tips too far into the realm of farce – you'll know the one I'm talking about the second you see it), and the blend of black humor and gore occasionally reaches the level of brilliance. For example, there's one scene involving one of the office workers getting his leg mauled in a bear trap. The repeated and ineffective efforts to get him free are both cringe inducing and sickly comical. There are also so some wonderfully creative grace notes. The most notable of these is a scene in which three of the employees relate three different legends they've heard about the lodge they're staying in. Each story is shot in a radically different style: the first is shot as a silent film and borrows details from Nosferatu; the second tells the story about the war criminals interned nearby and is shot in a hand-cam verité style; and the last story, a goofy sex fantasy, is shot in the soft-focus cheese style that '70s era pornographers thought looked classy.

Unfortunately, the end result is something less than the sum of its parts. I feel kinda bad about this, 'cause my last review sorta damned Chris Smith with faint praise and this review turned out the same way. Smith seems to me to be a creative, talented, and smart filmmaker with a surprisingly broad knowledge of film behind what he does. Yet, his works remain more promising than fulfilling. Severance isn't a bad flick. If you're looking for a rough little bit of horror action with a touch of humor, then you could do a lot worse then to check out Severance. I end this review as I ended the last one, wondering whether Smith's next movie will be the one that puts him on the A-list.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Stuff: Yum yum.

Halloween is about ghost and goblins. It is a time when we get make faces at the devils of our worse nature and play at evil. Its roots date back to ancient folk rituals of . . . blah blah blah.

Halloween is, first and foremost, about candy. You knew this as a child. And, admit it, you know it now as an adult.

Epicurious, the cooking web site, has laid out a spread of tasty articles on Halloween grub, decorations, and entertaining – and they've got a fantastic slideshow of some of this Halloween's neatest treats.

Above is a coffin featuring the bones of a white chocolate skeleton that you can assemble before devouring. Other notable sweets include chocolate cockroaches (crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside) and chocolate Day of the Dead skulls "available in Venezuelan white chocolate, milk chocolate with gray sea salt and hickory-smoked almonds, and spicy dark chocolate with Mexican ancho and chipotle chiles and cinnamon."

Dig in, Screamers and Screamettes.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Meta: Now for something completely different.

Though it wouldn't classify as "horror" in any traditional way, I thought I'd use the blog to shamelessly promote my first-ever published work of fiction. That's right, baby, I've gone from copy slut to copy whore – CRwM's getting paid for it now!

The story, titled Abstract, was commissioned by – of all places – Forbes as part of a special report on the future and scenario planning. Warren Ellis, Cory Doctorow, and Max Barry were among the others commissioned for work.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Movies: Show some skin.

Counting the original short story, Dario Argento's Pelts, one of his contributions to the on-going Showtime Masters of Horror series, is third version of the story I've come across. The second was the comic adaptation of the same that appear in the pages of Doomed (reviewed, precious reader of my heart, in this very blog).

The plot of the original involves a trapper who, while checking his fur traps, comes across several bizarre little animals, the likes of which he's never seen before. Being a trapper, he immediately takes them home and skins them. Problem is that contact with these things brings doom: usually you maul yourself in some horrific and bloody way, but, sometimes, if you get lucky, you might end up getting it in a struggle with somebody close to you and you'll both do each other in. Joy! We watch the furs make their way up the fur trade chain, killing folks all the way, until, finally the furs put paid to a fur coat maker and the woman he wishes was his girlie.

Argento follows this structure loosely – the movie revolves around a collection of cursed pelts – but he expands on nearly every aspect of the story, in most cases expanding on the original in some significant way. First, Argento makes the fur coat maker the central protagonist of the tale and reworks the coat-maker's doomed un-relationship with an ex-model lesbian stripper into the central conflict of the tale. This is a significant shift: in the original, the furrier is just another link in the chain of the curse. This is a smart move. The furrier (played to sleazy perfection by, of all people, Meat Loaf – who I notice is now going by a weird combo of his real name and the nickname his gym coach gave him: "Meat Loaf Aday") is a completely unsympathetic and revolting character, but the focus on him gives the story a dramatic unity. In Argento's version, we get a context for the whole story. The furrier is a small time player in the fashion biz: he gets the second tier materials, works with (this is suggested, but not ever stated) illegal labor, and has no real hope of being anything else than a bottom feeder in industry. To make things worse, he's obsessed with a stripper with lesbian tendencies who seems to enjoy taunting him. A more out of luck loser, it is hard to imagine. Argento spends quite a few feet establishing that this guy is looking for a break, and is undeserving of one, before he introduces the pelts.

The second major derivation has to do with the pelts themselves. Instead of making them the skins of some unknown animal, the pelts are raccoon pelts. The raccoon pelts are linked to some strange ruins and a country-witch character that serves to provide exposition. On one hand, this does explain why the pelts are cursed. Unfortunately, it also causes the careful watcher to ask just what ancient city of Native Americans is supposed to exist in Washington state. It's an explanation that opens up more answers that it settles.
But this is a minor misstep.

Overall, Argento's gives the Masters of Horror a genuine shot in the arm. It is a violent, dark, and trashy bit of work, but it so vibrates with energy and life that it captures the attention of the viewer and holds it as surely as the steel jaws of a raccoon trap. Pelts is the blackest, most bloody installment of the Masters series I've seen, but it never seems pointless or pandering. I must admit that I'm mixed on Argento, but this one is a solid work – one that follows Jenifer, another win – and makes Argento's contributions to the series well worth the attention of any horror fan.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Comics: Hex sign.

Lest we forget that Halloween is rollin' around, the fine folks at DC Comics have produced a special Halloween issue of Jonah Hex everybody's favorite horribly mutilated Wild West bounty hunter. (Shown above dispatching the Man of Steel - clickee to see more big.)

Jonah Hex - a former Confederate cavalry officer who, after the war, became a notorious bounty hunter – is one of the most recognizable characters in funny books. See, Hex had an unfortunate run-in with some irate Native Americans and the result is a mug that could scare vultures off a gut wagon. The left side of Hex's face is completely normal. He's a blond and he's normally got a few days worth of stubble on him. The right side, though, that's a different matter. His right eye is large and saucer-like, as if the lids of his eye have been cut away. The skin of his right cheek was also stripped away, forming a sort of wedge shaped area where, even when his mouth is closed, his teeth and gums are visible. Finally, in what is perhaps the neatest bit of character design in the DC Comics universe, this weird strip of skin comes from an attached point under his right eye, hangs lose over his mouth, and re-attaches just above his chin. How in hell did that happen? Did some hack sawbones have this extra strip of skin and decided that he'd better save it somehow? I don't know. But it does add this surreal, gross touch to the character.

Despite his zombie-like appearance, Hex's earliest adventures were never really all that supernatural. He started his career in pages of All-Star Western, later to be renamed Weird Western Tales, the sister title to Weird War Stories. Both titles were showcases for genre bending tales that mixed horror elements with Western stories and combat tales. Oddly, as if it were an expression of his sour and contrary personality, Hex's stories remained firmly and solely in the Western idiom. And he stayed that way for more than a decade, branching off into this own book in '77.

In 1985, Jonah Hex was cancelled, but the character was retooled into sci-fi hero. With the help of some time-travelers Hex ended up in a post-nuclear war Mad Max type scenario. This played poorly in the US, but was well received in Europe, where the appetite for stories of America after the fall knows no bounds. This bizarre Hex Beyond the Thunderdome detour lasted all of 18 issues before it too was cancelled.

Hex lie fallow for several years until, in 1993, noted novelist and short story author Joe R. Lansdale created the first of three mini-series that placed Hex in a true Western/horror context. Lansdale's first series, Two Gun Mojo pitted the West's ugliest hero against a evil gang of sideshow freaks and the zombie of Wild Bill Hickcock. This was followed by Riders of the Worm and Such, which featured Hex going up against what's essentially Cthulhu, and Shadows West, in which the bounty hunter faced off against ghosts.

(As an aside, Hex got his day in court when the albino Texan music legends the Winter brothers sued DC for defamation over the appearance of the Autumn brothers, two albino mutant Cthulhu worshippers that appear in Riders of the Worm and Such. The Winters lost the case.)

In 2005, Jonah was back in a regular series. It was back to basics for the new creative team. Hex was stripped of all time-travel gimmicks and hoodoo trappings and returned to his role as a thoroughly unpleasant bounty hunter of dubious moral standing in a dark, but somewhat realistic West.

At least, until Halloween.

The Halloween issue re-unites Hex with two of DC's other Western heroes: Bat Lash and El Diablo. Bat Lash is a dandified gambler of the "Maverick" variety. El Diablo's a weirder sort – think of fusion between Zorro and Ghost Rider and you'll have an idea of what we're talking about. El Diablo is a lawyer by day, but at night a hell-spawned demon takes him over and, wearing Zorro-style mask and cape, he takes to the dusty streets of the West to punish the evil with his flaming bullwhip. I kid not.

The plot of the Halloween issue involves Hex becoming possessed by El Diablo's demon and taking on a witch and he zombie horde. It ain't Shakespeare, but in the words of Jonah Hex: "Lead, not words." All hell breaks loose, so to speak, and the carnage equals Halloween fun.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Movies: Secret re-agent man.

Before we get into the review of The Re-animator, indulge me in some chatter about H. P. Lovecraft, whose "Herbert West – Reainmator" serves as the basis for the film.

I think I stated this before, but I think it’s worth repeating: the work of H. P. Lovecraft is deceptively attractive for cinematic adapters, though it is, if you think about, remarkably resistant to visual representation. There are several reasons for this.

First and foremost, Lovecraft's baroque style puts some bizarre demands on the visual form. Whatever the plot of a Lovecraft story, it is his style that is his most distinctive marker. In fact, fans and detractors alike tend to overstate just how precious and purple his prose gets. This is because it is the flights of fancy - those weird spills of archaic and awkward description – that stick in the mind. We can argue why Lovecraft was so quick to lapse in this rich and pulpy prose, and whether this tendency was good or bad for his writing, but these debates would just underscore how central his unique style was to everything he wrote. I've yet to see a Lovecraft adaptation that is as visually lavish and weird as Lovecraft's writing is linguistically overwrought and strange.

Second is Lovecraft's disdain for characterization in a traditional sense. Lovecraft's characters are either 1) intentional ciphers (see Herbert West), 2) humans that exist solely to get wiped out by forces beyond their control (see the farm family from "Color Out of Space"), or 3) shattered minds contemplating their own dissolution (see "The Tomb"), that last being a writing trick that gives them an illusory depth not unlike the vertigo-inducing suggestion of depth you get when you looking at your reflection as it is bounced back and forth between two mirrors. At his best, Lovecraft doesn't waste time with love interests, the bonds of friendship, emotional developments, and so on. His characters don't have the time or resources to handle any of that common human stuff. When you're being crushed by your maddening knowledge of the unfathomable and infinite evil that forms the very fabric of this fragile and indifferent universe, who's got time to call their girlfriend?

There is a single relationship that shows up again and again in Lovecraft's work. We'll call this relationship the "um friends." In several stories, Lovecraft pairs two gents together. One of them is the protagonist and the other is the narrator. It is not totally unlike the Holmes/Watson thing, only, instead of solving crimes, our duo shut themselves into castle-like mansions and perform "unspeakable rites to eldritch gods." Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. These pairs are always old friends, the only close friends either of them seem to have. One is always the dominant friend, usually the one who lures our narrator into an "appreciation of the occult." And the narrator is always vague about just how they spent their time, supposedly because their sanity is shattered or they've seen things to monstrous to describe.

Here's Randolph Carter, from "The Statement of Randolph Carter":

As I Have said before, the weird studies of Harley Warren were well known to me, and to some extent shared by me . . . As to the nature of our studies – must I say again that I no longer retain full comprehension? . . . Warren always dominated me, and sometimes I feared him . . .

The narrator of "The Hound" discussing his friend:

Wearied with the commonplaces of a prosaic world, where the joys of romance and adventure soon grow stale, St. John and I had followed enthusiastically every aesthetic and intellectual movement which promised respite from our devastating ennui . . . I cannot reveal the shocking expeditions . . .

Again, from "Thing on the Doorstep":

I have known Edward Pickman Derby all his life . . . I found in this younger child a rare kindred spirit . . . what lay behind our joint love of shadows . . ."

I should point out that, despite the general grotesque cast of Lovecraft's world, the narrator's male friends are, when Lovecraft bothers to give them a physical description, usually quite lovely, and almost always in a frail and boyish sort of way. Derby, from the example above, is described as handsome in a soft and boyish way. Herbert West is described in terms Oscar Wilde might have used for a nerdy version of Dorian Gray: "a small, slender, spectacled youth with delicate features, yellow hair, pale blue eyes, and a soft voice."

I'm not going to go so far as to come and say that Lovecraft's "um friends" are gay lovers. Actually, I'm don't think the idea would have occurred to Lovecraft. Instead, let's just say that hyper-intense secretive same-sex social bonds are frequently at the center of Lovecraft's stories and that these relationships occasionally suggest more than friendship.

I bring all this up, because it is yet another aspect of Lovecraft's work that might make filmmakers gun-shy about trying to adapt his stories.

Stuart Gordon's 1985 film, H. P. Lovecraft's The Re-animator is an interesting study on how one filmmaker tackles the issues presented above.

Gordon handles the problem of Lovecraft's unique and bizarre tone by simply shifting the mood of the entire story. What was surreal in Lovecraft's original becomes farce in Gordon's film.

The shift doesn't damage the plot all that much. After failing to bring back his mentor in an Austria medical school, Herbert West (played with wonderfully creepy intensity by Jeffrey Combs) transfers to good Miskatonic U. in Arkham, Mass. There he rooms with Dan, a fellow med student who just happens to be bumpin' uglies with Megan, the dean's daughter and another med student at Ol' Misk. West comes into immediate conflict with Dr. Hill, a famous professor who has a secret creepy crush on the dean's daughter. West eventually drags Dan into his experiments, the dubious and illegal nature of which is revealed to the dean and which leads to the expulsion of West and the withdrawal of Dan's financial support.

Of course, these punishments don't stop West and Dan. Mad science types so rarely just shrug their shoulders, bemoan the lack of funding, and then start up new projects in more secure and better-funded fields. Instead they bust into the school hospital and attempt to revive one of the bodies in the morgue. Things go all pear-shaped on them when the dean comes in and their recently revived subject offs him. Oops. They off subject one and decide to use the re-agent to safe the dean. Things just get worse from there.

Besides updating the story for the 20th century, Gordon condenses what is decades of action into what is maybe a week of plot. He also ups the gore, replacing Lovecraft's precious gothic dread for outright splatter. Finally, the whole thing is given an almost slapstick, over-the-top feel. Not that this is a bad thing. Gordon gets the mix of shudders and scares down pretty well and the result will appeal to those who enjoy horror-comedy flicks like the later Evil Dead 2.

As for the second problem, Gordon does here what he'll do with nearly every Lovecraft adaptation he helms: he'll add a love interest. What better way to give the characters a little development and avoid that pesky insinuation of homosexuality than to add a chick to the flick? In The Re-animator Megan is on-hand with some screaming and some full frontal nudity to ensure the characters are properly motivated and secure Dan's hetero bonifieds. In fact, the movie most diverges from the original story in the last quarter, when Hill develops into the flicks clearest villain and he and Dan struggle over Megan (who, distressingly, also ends up on the business end of the most out of place and disturbing sexual since the tree assault of the Evil Dead series).

The Re-animator, despite the claims of the full title, is not a great Lovecraft adaptation, but is a stand-out in the subgenre of gross-out horror/comedy. Gordon's done better adaptations, but few of those have the sort of anarchic energy and splatter thrills of this flick. Using my top secret Impact Crater on the Anti-Saturn Hemisphere of Saturn's Moon Enceladus Movie Rating System, I'm giving this flick a solid Shakashik. Sure, the thing would probably give Lovecraft a heart attack, but he's already dead so don't worry about it.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

R.I.P.: Nameless here for evermore.

On this day, in 1849, Edgar Allan Poe died in Baltimore, Maryland.

By way of tribute: here's John Astin reciting Poe's "The Raven."

And here's the bizarre beginning of Roger Corman's extremely loose adaptation of "The Raven," starring Vincent Price and the voice of Peter Lorre.

Finally, the greatest of adaptations: the Simpsons do "The Raven."

Friday, October 05, 2007

Movies: Atacan de las brujas.

There's so much to say about The Witch's Mirror, Chano Urueta's 1962 masterpiece of Mexican horror cinema, that I can't think of any clever way to start my review. So, let's cut to the chase, right? You Screamers and Screamettes are busy folk and you ain't got time for pussyfooting around. Here's the skinny: The Witches Mirror is one of those rare films that genuinely deserves the title of "overlooked classic." It ranks up there with other classics from the decade including Robert Wise's The Haunting and Hitchcock's Psycho.

That's a bold statement, but The Witch's Mirror (neé El Espejo de la Bruja) will take the Pepsi challenge against any landmark early-'60s horror flick and more than measure up.

Let me make the case:

Exhibit 1: The director

Film buffs might recognize the director from his handful of acting roles in American flicks, most notably in his performances in Peckinpah's Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. But, as a director, Urueta's career stretched back to the silent era. His first directorial gig was on El Destino, a 1928 Mexican silent. After establishing himself as a talented director, Urueta went north of the boarder in an effort to make it in Hollywood. The project that was to have been his big American debut was plagued by bad luck and the flick was eventually scrapped. Prematurely washed up in Tinsel Town, Urueta went back to Mexico and worked behind the scenes for legendary Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, who was then in Mexico shooting documentary footage after his own rejection by Hollywood (however, unlike Urueta, Eisenstein's bum's rush from Hollywood was given extra urgency by the State Department, who deported the director because he was a commie). After his tenure with the Russian master, he settled into the Mexican film industry, cranking out more than 100 flicks before his death in 1979.

Now, exposure to directorial legends is no guarantee of directorial prowess. Keep in mind that Spanish horror hack Jess Franco spent some time working for Orson Welles. But Uruerta seems to have been a bit of a sponge when it comes to film-making techniques and approaches. His films, mostly genre flicks, have a real technical polish to them. These aren't B-grade flicks churned out to make a quick buck. Uruerta, long before it became the SOP of indie film, combined technical proficiency, an encyclopedic knowledge of film, an edgy zeal for envelope pushing, and a genuine love for genre pictures into a smart, entertaining approach to making movies.

Exhibit 2: The flick

The Witch's Mirror tells a convoluted tale of murder, black magic, mad science, ghosts, and revenge. The picture opens up on Sara (the witch of the title) looking into her mirror (the mirror of the title) and showing her goddaughter, Elena (not anywhere in the title), that her husband, the wicked doctor Eduardo, plans to do her in and marry Deborah. Elena refuses to believe her witchy godmother (why a Satanic witch is anybody's godmother is never explained). Desperate for help, Sara appeals to her master, the head honcho of Hell himself, to protect Elena. Satan says, "Sorry, she's scheduled to go" and refuses to help. Before the night is out, Elena is poisoned by her husband.

Flash-foward: Eduardo marries Deborah and brings her to the castle-like mansion he shared with Elena. There, Sara, kept on as the housekeeper, and the ghost of Elena begin to torment to couple. In an effort to resist the ghost, Eduardo breaks the titular mirror with an oil lamp. The flaming oil magically covers Deborah, who was reflected in the mirror along with the ghost of Elena. She survives, but her face and hands are roasted away.

Determined to restore his new wife to her pre-sizzle beauty, Eduardo begins rebuilding her face using skin retrieved from the stolen corpses of recently deceased young women. His quest to save his wife's looks get obsessive and, eventually, he actually commits murder to obtain a pair of hands for Deborah.

Witches are, if horror films are any indication, heroic grudge holders. Sara summons the spirit of Elena to posses the hands Eduardo intends to give to his new wife. The transplant is successful, but, while test-driving her new limbs, Deborah attempts to strangle Eduardo. It is the vengeful ghost of Elena that now controls Deborah's limbs. And she's got plans for Eddie. Stabby sort of plans.

Witch's Mirror's effective plot, a pleasantly over-packed mix of horror tropes and melodrama staples, alludes to everything from Eye's Without a Face and The Uninvited to Hitchcock's Rebecca and Welles's Kane. It's all given extra punch by Urueta's direction, a shadowy and stylish visual approach that brings to mind the best of Unviersal's classics horror flicks while, at the same time, embraces so many effects and tricks shots that one is reminded of early Hitchcock. Furthermore, Urueta spices up the flick, especially some of the later scenes in Eduardo's human chop shop, with a level of casual gore thcat, while perhaps a bit tame by modern standards, must have been truly shocking for the time. The dismembered corpses – handless and headless in several cases – and the furnace in which Eduardo and his assistant methodically dispose of the bodies distantly foreshadows such banally evil slaughter houses as the Hewitt place and the disposal area in Hostel.

Exhibit 3: The DVD

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that CasaNegra, a DVD production house dedicated to high-quality releases of classic Mexican genre flicks, did a bang up job on this disc, even down to the menu screen. Watching these older, often neglected flicks is too often a masochistic undertaking that requires you squint at a crappy print of the flick and strain to hear a murky soundtrack. Mirror looks and sounds great.

The defense rests, your honorses.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Movies: Drive-by suckers.

Despite the abysmal performance of the cinematic multi-warhead bomb that was Grindhouse, the sadly misconceived and unsurprisingly mediocre mash-note of modern film's two chief apostles of b-grade genre fare from the exploitative side of the tracks, there's still a tendency to look at the z-grade fare that flitted across the screens of America's grindhouses and drive-ins through rose-colored glasses. Admittedly, there are enough gems from the era to make one think that we must have been in some savage and raw period of untamed cinematic brilliance. But this ignores the sadder, simpler truth of this low-budget sub-genre: a vast majority of the flicks justly considered "grindhouse" films sucked. They were not so much savage as pointless, not so much raw as they were inept. They were, in short, a lot like 1976's painfully bad Drive-In Massacre.

Drive-In Massacre, directed by porn auteur turned television producer Stu Segall (the man who produced both The Spirit of Seventy Sex - a porno about the erotic adventures of Martha Washington – and the USA Channel's sleaze-lite detective show "Silk Stalkings"), is a frightless, slow, and unsatisfying slasher flick about the ultimately fruitless efforts of California's least competent and physically fit detectives to track down a sword-wielding serial killer before he claims another victim at the local drive-in.

Our story begins with the slaying of the first couple. Curiously, unlike many slasher flicks, the couples in this film tend to get it the moment they decide not to engage in the sort of naughty hanky-panky that, in your typical slasher flick, attracts edged weapons the way poop attracts flies. In this case, the male half of the victim-couple breaks off foreplay so he can lean out of the car to adjust the speaker system and get better sound for the flick the drive-in is showing. For this, he gets beheaded – in a scene worthy of the comedic splatter effects Roth used in his short "trailer" Thanksgiving - and his girlie gets her throat slit. Later couples will be discussing having a child, informing their spouses that they want divorces, and generally acting in about as un-sexy a manner as you please. Some slasher fans might applaud this as a sort of corrective to the seemingly conservative politics inherent in the have-sex-and-die structure common to many slashers. However, it does mean that instead of being distracted by T&A, we're nearly bored to death by crappy dialog. I'm not sure that whatever small gains that might represent in legitimizing the killing habits of fictional mass murderers among the PC crowd is worth the tedium.

Rolling into pasty action are Detectives Leadbutt and Tubby. The detectives question the manager of the Drive-In, an abrasive jackass who looks like Anton LaVey and dresses like Ron Burgundy's poor cousin, and the theater's retarded handyman, a former sideshow Geek and circus swordswallower. This questioning leads nowhere and, over the next few nights, the sword-wielding killer racks up a few more bodies. At no time does it occur to the detectives to close the theater. In fact, a one point, these two detectives release a suspect to see if he'll go to the drive-in and kill somebody. This, the detectives decide, would prove definitively that the suspect is the murderer. How this would later be explained to the courts and the families of the victims is unclear; but, hell, just as you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs, you can't catch a killer without letting him kill some folks.

So that we don't get to close to anything resembling forward movement of the plot, Leadbutt and Tubby interview the handyman several times. That simple description does not do justice to just how painful each and every one of these pointless interviews is. Though the filmmakers never specify exactly what is wrong with the handyman, it seems that he suffers from some sort of mental impairment that causes him to drift off-topic for extended riffs of nonsense in all conversations. To give you an example, here's a review of this movie as the handyman might write it:

This movie is about a drive-in. Hey. I work at a drive-in. People take their cars there. Sometimes in they come in twos. Not two cars. Two people in a car. Then they kiss. I mean, they kiss each other. Not the cars. I don't watch them when they kiss. I look at my shoes. They cover my toes. I have at least three toes on each foot. I used to have more but there was an accident with Slurpee machine. That was when they had watermelon favor and I bought a hot dog. You know, I think those hot dogs are made out of same leather that some people have in their cars. The kind of cars people drive to drive-ins.

If there is any tension in the film, it is a product of the viewer's fear that the two clueless detectives will find themselves trapped in yet another painful conversation with the handyman.

Eventually, after a series of unconvincing red herrings and a pointless montage of the handyman walking among carnival rides, the film simply runs out of suspects – having them all either dispatched by the slasher or, in a moment that threatens to become exciting, getting shot by one of the detectives. Lacking any more folks to hang plot advancement on, the film serves up a title card that tells viewers that the drive-in killings were never solved and even started to spread to other drive-ins.

Then comes the only neat-o bit of the flick: a curious little fourth-wall breaking moment. The film cuts off and an indifferent sounding voice-over announces that it is the voice of the manager of the drive-in you – presumably – are parked in as you watch the flick (the joke makes less sense as you watch the DVD from your couch, but you get the idea). The manager requests you stay in your car and lock your doors. There is a murderer loose in the drive-in! The end.

(Seeing as there's an established pattern in these killings, this reviewer suggests that you and your date should have sex immediately. It's the only way to be sure that killer will pass your car by.)

Though I would normally only say this as a joke: the last few seconds of this film are nice. The whole "he's loose in the theater" bit is charmingly gimmicky, like a slasher nod to William Castle or something. But, still, we're talking about a flick where "the last few seconds of this film are charmingly gimmicky" is the best thing anybody can say about it. A last minute wink at the audience can't redeem this steaming pile. Using the Pulitzer Prize winning Compass Bus Fleet Models Film Rating System, Drive-In Massacre gets a terrible Dennis Lance.