Sunday, November 30, 2008

Comics: When ANTSS disagrees, you decide!

Screamers and Screamettes, is this the worst idea you've ever heard of or the best? Have your say in the comments section.

For your consideration: Helen Killer.

From the publisher's title specific Web site:

Story Synopsis: Issue 1

1901, Helen Keller, with the aid of a fantastical device invented by her friend and mentor, Alexander Graham Bell, regains her sight and hearing as well as near super-human strength and agility. Helen is enlisted by the Secret Service to protect President William McKinley who has been targeted for assassination by Anarchists. As a deeper conspiracy to destroy America unfolds around her, Helen discovers that her new abilities come with a dark and terrifying price.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Comics: Hats off, gentlemen.

As with so many reviews, I begin this one with a disclaimer. To wit: I'm not your most pop culture savvy horror-blogger.

I don't, for example, watch any television until it pops up on DVD. This is a technical limitation of my television set-up and not an ethical or political stance. My wife and I never bothered to hook up the ol' cable when we moved in and the "garden" level apartment we live in doesn't get a signal on the rabbit ears. Now, nearly seven years after we've moved in, shelling out for something we've done fine without seems silly. Especially these days, when one of us is sporadically employed and the financial pages are considerably scarier than anything bearing the "horror" genre brand. Not that I'm against television. We actually watch quite a bit of television. We're just always several months behind everybody else. Occasionally several years behind everybody else: my dearest and I's latest obsession has been The Addams' Family, meaning we're now caught up with the cutting-edge audiences of 1966.

I bring this up because this pop cultural ignorance means I occasionally step into the middle of a phenomenon, blithely walking into some massive franchise the way white explorers in old Tarzan flicks seemed to home-in on quicksand. I'll pick up a flick, book, or comic and complete it, only to realize latter that, to fully understand what's going on, one needs to have consumed a boat-load of books, several films, and perhaps played a videogame or two. Kinda like the time I purchased a Battle Royale manga and thought I was seeing something new and fresh, only to later be told that BR is a goldmine property in Japan: starting with a best-selling novel, going through two movies, and a 15 volume manga series.

Such is the case with Hatter M, a trade comic collection I picked up merely because the art was from Ben Templesmith. Turns out that Hatter M is a part of a massive mutlimedia exercise in world building. If you really want to figure out what the hell is going on in Hatter M, you need to have read this Eisner-nominated comic, worked through two or three YA novels, played a Magic-style card game, and Lord only knows what else.

So this review of Hatter M comes from a dude who has not, and does not intend to, become familiar with the novels, the game, the chewing gum, the t-shirts, or anything else that would otherwise flesh out the world of Hatter M. If you have done any of this, you already knew 2 billion times what I know about this comic and you should quit reading this blog. And perhaps go outside. And talk to a real woman. Perhaps go on a date – during which you will not discuss the Looking Glass War franchise. Seriously. Get out more.

That said, here's an admittedly limited review of Hatter M . . .

A four ish limited series, the Eisner-nominated Hatter M, penned by Frank Beddor with art by Ben Templesmith, is a dark fantasy/action tale loosely inspired by Lewis Carroll's iconic Wonderland stories. And when I say "loosely," I mean that term in the broadest way you can conceive of the concept. I'm using it in the way one might say, "The Sydney Opera House is loosely based on the Parthenon insomuch as both are buildings."

The eponymous hatter of Hatter M is Hatter Madigan. The world of the Looking Glass War, a growing invasion of the real world by an alternate reality fueled by human imagination, hatters are sort of the equivalent of Texas Rangers: they're bad-asses sent on a one riot, one ranger basis to handle particularly tricky jobs. Madigan was assigned to be the bodyguard of Princess Alyss, a royal of Wonderland directly in line to the throne who fled to the real world, circa 1859, when the royal palace was targeted by rebellious distaff members of bloodline making a violent bid for the throne.

Disgraced that he has lost his charge, Madigan hops through mid-19th century Europe hunting for Alyss. Along the way he runs across other Wonderland ex-pats, creativity junkies who feed off imagination, Kafka-esque anti-imagination educators, and Jules Verne.

"Okay," you might well say. "But how does a mad hatter bodyguard anybody? What does he do, serve tea to attackers? Fight bad guys with nonsense riddles?"

Hatter Madigan's primary weaponry consists of a forest of spinning blades that seem to be able to emerge from any surface on his person or, if necessary, project from his body.

"What? That's got nothing to do with the Mad Hatter."

What you can't see me doing over the Internet is me touching my nose.

This sort of WTF linkage is typical of the series. The Cheshire Cat is now a sort of breed of assassin were-cat, the card soldiers appear to be robots of some sort, the Queen of Hearts is now just one member of an elaborate and extended royal family that includes, oddly enough, Alice, now spelled Alyss.

I don't get it either.

As an exercise in world building, the ideas behind Beddor's Wonderland aren't bad. And the trade edition comes with a handful of nice extras meant to flush out the concepts. Really the only problem is the connection to Carroll, which seems so irrelevant as to be distracting. Beddor's take isn't even a satire or a revisionist undertaking along the lines of, say, Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentleman. In fact, the less you know of the originals, the better you'll like Beddor's Wonderland. If you're familiar with the original stories, you'll just wonder what the heck Beddor's smoking.

The other issue is Templesmith's art. In Hatter M, Templesmith is actually developing a more comic-friendly style. There are several pages where Templesmith manages to make his abstracted, dream-like art communicate motion and action. But, overall, the team of Beddor and Templesmith seems like a poor fit. Templesmith's art is minimalist and doesn't lend itself to Beddor's complicated world building. Furthermore, Templesmith's action sequences are incomprehensible. This isn't a problem in titles like Wormwood, which treat action sequences as vaguely embarrassing things that comic characters must do – they are the proctologist visits of the comic world. But Hatter M is first and foremost an action title. The murky and incomprehensible fight scenes are a disappointment.

Hatter M is an odd beast. On it's own, it isn't bad. The art could flow a little better, but it has a phantasmagoric feel that isn't inappropriate. The writing moves along and there is creativity to burn here. But hanging over the whole affair is the blatant, but then pointless connection of Carroll. One is forced to wonder if was just easier to sell to publishers if it bit off a famous brand.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Link Proliferation: Has anyone seen my keys?

I reckon most of y'all is probably still feeling a mite stuffed, so here's a tiny little helping of links to help you through Black Sunday.


Mistress of the morbid, Chris Quigley, presents a collection of unbelievable head trauma cases, including the case pictured above: a 17-month old child who survived having a set of house keys embedded in their eye and brain.

Um, if that's what floats your boat

Over at Horror News, the "deaditor-in-chief" of Girls and Corpses magazine discusses his typical day:

I wake up around noon, take my meds, meditate in my cabbage patch, surf porn until 5:47 p.m. have a cup Campbells Soup with my featherless parrot "Spooky," play some strip poker at the asylum, cruise the tranny bars until 2:00 a.m., have a warm cup of Ovaltine, freebase, watch Friends reruns and go to sleep in my coffin. Really, I sleep in a mahogany coffin I brought at a funeral Home bankruptcy sale.

These robot overlords ain't such bad guys

Mad science marches on!

Various scientists take a break from their frantic efforts to build human killing robots that run of fear, broken dreams, and babies, to explain why robots might actually be better moral actors than human beings.

Something to ponder when the metal ones come for you.

From the NYTimes article:

In the heat of battle, their [The puny humans – CRwM] minds clouded by fear, anger or vengefulness, even the best-trained soldiers can act in ways that violate the Geneva Conventions or battlefield rules of engagement. Now some researchers suggest that robots could do better.

“My research hypothesis is that intelligent robots can behave more ethically in the battlefield than humans currently can,” said Ronald C. Arkin, a computer scientist at Georgia Tech, who is designing software for battlefield robots under contract with the Army. “That’s the case I make.”


In a report to the Army last year, Dr. Arkin described some of the potential benefits of autonomous fighting robots. For one thing, they can be designed without an instinct for self-preservation and, as a result, no tendency to lash out in fear. They can be built without anger or recklessness, Dr. Arkin wrote, and they can be made invulnerable to what he called “the psychological problem of ‘scenario fulfillment,’ ” which causes people to absorb new information more easily if it agrees with their pre-existing ideas.

His report drew on a 2006 survey by the surgeon general of the Army, which found that fewer than half of soldiers and marines serving in Iraq said that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect, and 17 percent said all civilians should be treated as insurgents. More than one-third said torture was acceptable under some conditions, and fewer than half said they would report a colleague for unethical battlefield behavior.

Unicorns, dragons, bicycles

Here's the Bicycles video for "Oh No, It's Love."

Have a great weekend, Screamers and Screamettes. Don't O.D. on leftover turkey.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Holiday: And now the stuffing starts . . .

There's a shocking number of videos that appear on Youtube when you search the with the terms "turkey attack." Seriously, they freakin' hate us. I don't even like turkey, but now I'm thinking that we're in a "it's us or them" situation.

Jeez whiz. This Thanksgiving, ANTSS expects every man to do his duty! Even you vegan types, swallow your arrogant self-important sense of moral superiority and lend your hand to the Great Fight! Let's give these turkeys hell.

Happy Thanksgiving to all the Screamin' regulars, anybody stopping by for the first time, and you, dear read, yes you.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Stuff: "The Permanent Uncle."

You know those flicks where a bunch of people, most likely but not necessarily young and boorish Americans on vacation, stumble across some isolated community in some out of the way backwater? And, of course, it turns out that the community they stumble on to, though it may seem harmless at first, is actually made up of psychos who engage in all manner of hellaciousness.

I know you know the movies: From Wicker Man to any psycho-hillbilly flick. It is a staple of horror filmdom.

Well, here's the real world analog.

Welcome to Colonia Dignidad, Chile.

From the American Scholar article "The Torture Colony," by Bruce Falconer:

Deep in the Andean foothills of Chile's central valley lives a group of German expatriates, the members of a utopian experiment called Colonia Dignidad. They have resided there for decades, separate from the community around them, but widely known and admired, and respected for their cleanliness, their wealth, and their work ethic. Their land stretches across 70 square miles, rising gently from irrigated farmland to low, forested hills, against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains. Today Colonia Dignidad is partially integrated with the rest of Chile. For decades, however, its isolation was nearly complete. Its sole connection to the outside world was a long dirt road that wound through tree farms and fields of wheat, corn, and soybeans, passed through a guarded gate, and led to the center of the property, where the Germans lived in an orderly Bavarian-style village of flower gardens, water fountains, and cream-colored buildings with orange tile roofs. The village had modern apartment complexes, two schools, a chapel, several meetinghouses, and a bakery that produced fresh cakes, breads, and cheeses. There were numerous animal stables, two landing strips, at least one airplane, a hydroelectric power station, and mills and factories of various kinds, including a highly profitable gravel mill that supplied raw materials for numerous road-building projects throughout Chile. On the north side of the village was a hospital, where the Germans provided free care to thousands of patients in one of the country's poorest areas.

Sounds pretty nice. But, wait, there's more. There's always more:

The truth, so unlikely in this setting, is that Colonia Dignidad was founded on fear, and it is fear that still binds it together. Investigations by Amnesty International and the governments of Chile, Germany, and France, as well as the testimony of former colonos who, over the years, managed to escape the colony, have revealed evidence of terrible crimes: child molestation, forced labor, weapons trafficking, money laundering, kidnapping, torture, and murder. Orchestrated by Paul Schaefer [the group's founder, pictured above – CRwM] and his inner circle of trusted lieutenants, much of the abuse was initially directed inward as a means of conditioning the colonos to obey Schaefer's commands. Later, after General Augusto Pinochet's military junta seized power in Chile, the violence spilled onto the national stage. Schaefer, through an informal alliance with the Pinochet regime, allowed Colonia Dignidad to serve as a torture and execution center for the disposal of enemies of the state.

Falconer profiles the colony's founder and its religious way of life that at first, while certainly not fit for a decadent urban-dwelling libertine like myself, sounds no more sinister than life amongst the Shakers.

But a creeping paranoia about internal corruption and the external threat of communist insurgents turned the colony in a surreal prison. Again, from the article:

The outer perimeter of Colonia Dignidad was marked by eight-foot fences topped with barbed wire, which armed groups of men patrolled day and night with German shepherd and doberman attack dogs. Guards in observation posts equipped with shortwave radios, telephones, binoculars, night vision equipment, and telephoto cameras scanned the landscape for intruders. These were, of course, imaginary. But if invaders were to succeed in getting through the perimeter, they would come upon a second tier of inner defenses: strands of copper wire hidden around the village, which, if stepped on, triggered a silent alarm. Doors and windows in most buildings were equipped with armored shades that could be drawn shut in the event of an invasion. Dormitories were outfitted with alarms and surveillance cameras, and the entire village sat atop an extensive network of tunnels and underground bunkers. When the alarm sounded, as it frequently did during practice drills, men belonging to the security force grabbed their rifles and waited on their doorsteps for instructions.

With no genuine external enemies to fight, Schaefer and his most trusted lieutenants turned their energies inward. The practice of confession provided them with plenty of people to punish. The guilty were starved, threatened with dogs, or beaten—sometimes by Schaefer himself, more often by others acting on his orders. The harshest treatment was reserved for those who, for one reason or another, Schaefer simply did not like. He called them "the rebels." They could be identified by their clothing: the men wore red shirts and white trousers, the women potato sacks over their long dresses. The other colonos despised them, usually without knowing why.

One such rebel was a Chilean colono named Franz Baar, adopted by the Germans at 10. By the time he was a teenager, Schaefer singled him out as a troublemaker. As Baar now remembers it, a group of men approached him one day while he was working in the carpentry shop and accused him of stealing the keys to one of the dormitories. When Baar denied it, he was beaten unconscious with electrical cables—his skull broken—and loaded into an ambulance. He awoke some time later in the Colonia's hospital, where he would remain as a prisoner for the next 31 years.

Baar was kept in an upstairs section of the hospital never seen by the local Chileans who sought treatment there. As he later described to me, his days began with a series of intravenous injections, after which the nurses brought him bread and a plate with 12 to 15 different pills. Once satisfied that he was properly medicated, nurses delivered his clothes and shoes, hidden from him to reduce the likelihood of escape. After he dressed, a security detail escorted him to his job at the carpentry shop. Baar worked on heavy machines in a cramped space. The injections and pills slowed his movements and made him clumsy. Today, scar tissue on his forearms maps the places where the electric saws bit into his flesh. Baar was forced to work late into the night, sometimes until 3 A.M. He was not permitted to eat with the rest of the community. Instead, his meals were delivered to him at the carpentry shop, where he devoured them in isolation.

A still worse punishment awaited in rooms nine and 14 of the hospital, where Baar and other colonos unfortunate enough to draw the full measure of Schaefer's fury were subjected to shock treatments. A female physician worked the machines, her manner detached and clinical. Patients were strapped down and fitted with crowns attached by wires to a voltage machine. Baar told me how the doctor seemed to enjoy watching him suffer. "She kept asking me questions," he said. "I heard what she was saying and wanted to respond, but I couldn't. She was playing with the machine and asking, 'What do you feel? Are you feeling something?' She wanted to know what was happening to me as she adjusted the voltage."

And more:

At the opposite end of the social spectrum from the rebels was a group of boys Schaefer affectionately called his "sprinters." If Schaefer wanted to speak with someone working in a remote corner of the property, he sent a sprinter off to summon him. Schaefer trained his sprinters to assist in even the most mundane of personal tasks, like helping him to put his shoes on or holding the phone to his ear as he spoke. No job was too small. For the boys lucky enough to be chosen, the position brought pride and power.

But this special status was also a source of trouble for them. It was an open secret that Schaefer was a pedophile, just as the authorities had accused him of being long before in Germany. He enjoyed taking sprinters along during his daily tour of the Colonia. Because zippers were inconvenient, their uniforms included loose-fitting athletic shorts with an elastic waistband. He allowed his favorite sprinters to stay overnight in his room in a child-size bed set up alongside his own, sometimes sleeping with two or more sprinters at once. His routine, it later emerged, included feeding them sedatives, washing them with a sponge, and sexual manipulation.

Eventually, Pinochet began using the colony as a torture center and death camp.

In truth, no one knows how many people were killed inside Colonia Dignidad. One former colono recently told Chilean government investigators that, on Schaefer’s orders, he once drove a busload of 35 political prisoners up into the Colonia’s wooded hills and left them in an isolated spot by the side of a dirt road. As he drove back down alone, he heard machine gun fire echoing through the forest. No bodies were ever recovered. According to at least one former high-ranking colono, the bodies of executed prisoners were exhumed in 1978, burned to ash, and dumped in the river. Others claim that the dead were buried in individual graves scattered about the hills and valleys. All that seems certain is that many of the prisoners who went into Colonia Dignidad were never seen again.

After the collapse of Pinochet's U.S.-supported dictatorship, the colony's founder took it on the lam, but was eventually caught.

Paul Schaefer was extradited to Chile aboard a military transport plane several days after his arrest and placed in a maximum-security prison in Santiago. In May 2006, he was convicted of child molestation and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He received an additional seven-year sentence in August 2006 for weapons violations, and three for torture. Further prosecution is being considered on charges of forced labor, tax evasion, kidnapping, torture, and possibly murder. Schaefer is 86 and confined to a wheelchair. His health is poor and he is attended full-time by a nurse, but his mental condition seems to have improved: "He was cold and arrogant," said one of the judges who interrogated him for several hours in Santiago. "Every so often he would call in the nurse to check his blood pressure. When I asked him questions, he pretended not to hear."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Stuff: The "Vault 50" films.

As regular readers may remember, a recent "poll" conducted by HMV listed what it claimed its customers thought the top 50 greatest movies were. This list raised the hackles of many a horror blogger, mainly due to the list's currency and perceived Americo-centrism. Later it turned out that the list was not a poll so much as ranking exercise: viewers were required rank flicks from a list of titles HMV provided them. Still, there was the idea out there that people who really love horror could do it better.

Now the diligent B-Sol of the A-list horror blog Vault of Horror drops the "horror snob's" top 50! And what an odd and interesting list it is. Here's just the top ten. You can clickee on over to Vault for the full 50.

1. Halloween (1978) dir: John Carpenter
2. The Exorcist (1973) dir: William Friedkin
3. Psycho (1960) dir: Alfred Hitchcock
4. Night of the Living Dead (1968) dir: George Romero
5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) dir: Tobe Hooper
6. Frankenstein (1931) dir: James Whale
7. The Shining (1980) dir: Stanley Kubrick
8. The Thing (1982) dir: John Carpenter
9. Alien (1979) dir: Ridley Scott
10. Nosferatu (1922) dir: F.W. Murnau

Compared to the HMV list, the Vault 50 is certainly more nostalgic. The HMV list titles clustered around recent releases: 16 of the 50 titles, about 32 percent of the list, were from the '90s and the first decade of the new century. By contrast, only three of the Vault 50 titles (only six percent) debuted in the last two decades.

Curiously, by some measures, the Vault 50 is actually less international than the HMV list. Taking the broadest view possible of "international" and including expat filmmakers who made films in America, both the HMV list and the Vault 50 get 11 non-US filmmakers in their top 50 lists. Taking a stricter view of the international issue and counting only non-English films, the HMV has only six flicks, while the Vault 50 has seven. But, perhaps most interesting, if you ask for a global scope and look at non-North American and non-European films, the Vault 50 falls silent. There are no films from Asia, Australia, Africa, or Latin America on the Vault list. The HMV list, however, contains four flicks from outside the American-European zone: three Asian films and one Australian flick. UPDATE: My apologies, there is one Mexican film on the list. I mistakenly believed Alucarda was from Spain, but it is actually from our fine neighbors to the South.

Another oddity of the Vault 50 is the strong showing of sequels and remakes, despite the horror blog community's general disdain for contemporary remakes and sequels. Even if you don't take the broadest sense of the terms and do not treat, say, every Dracula film as a remake of Nosferatu, you still get seven remakes and sequels on the Vault 50. That's about 14 percent of the list and as large a representative group as non-English flicks. Only two such films appear on the HMV list (only four percent) and both titles are flicks that appear on the Vault 50. It would seem that horror snobs like franchises and remakes more than the average population. And, honestly, that kind of makes sense. Half the point of remaking a flick or rolling out a sequel is to capitalize on the knowledge of the previous flick. And who has a better knowledge base than the horror fans?

There is another notable trend in the Vault 50, though I'm not sure it can be described just in terms of titles and numbers. It seems to me that the Vault 50 is somehow narrower in general scope than the HMV list. The films cluster around thematic centers. For example, there are 3 versions of Frankenstein and 3 versions of Dracula and 4 Stephen King adaptations on the list. Taken together, these would represent the single largest significant grouping on the list. There's also the quirk of including an original and the remake on the same list – it happens, for example, with The Thing - which one imagines didn't happen on the HMV list because they thought it was a bad idea to try to sell two versions of the same flick in the same marketing push.

All in all, a thought provoking list. It was fun contributing and I'd like to send a hearty Screamin' thanks to B-Sol: you are a scholar and a gentleman. And the boys in legal tell me I can't say any of the other things you are over the Internet!

Opinions, cheers, jeers? What say you Screamers and Screamettes?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Movies: The old new flesh.

First and foremost, even for it's early 1980s timeframe, the animated trailer for Cronenberg's 1983 flick Videodrome may rank as the single worst trailer in the history of film.

When I was young, one of the local theaters used to have this trailer for their on-going "Midnight Madness" screenings. It was a late-night showing that was always a double-bill of some shock-schlock thing followed by the The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

In practice, everybody watched the first flick and then walked. It wasn't that the budding pyschotronic film cultists of my hometown disliked Rocky Horror. It was just a bad structure. If you really wanted to see TRHPS, then you got all dap, slid on a comfortable pair of fishnets, and slathered on your momma's best lipstick. Assuming you did all that, the last thing you needed to do was sit through some other flick, especially one that might have attracted a fair share on non-Rocky types not dressed like ten buck under-aged rent boys during Fleet Week. Consequently, except on the extremely odd nights when some large pre-planned party of Time Warpers would descend en masse and fill the seats, the film spooled out to a mostly empty theater.

That projectionist must have sat through Rocky Horror some four hundred thirty times. I suspect that there are special clusters of neurons storing every second of that film, coiled up like sleeping brain worms, in the gray matter of that poor projectionist. I wonder if he killed himself eventually.

But I digress.

To advertise this thrice-weekly cultural extravaganza, the theater had a customized cartoon trailer featuring a guitar-wielding rockstar who looked kind of like a neon green stalk of broccoli with a voice like a poor man's Wolfman Jack. He'd thrash out some bad pseudo-Zep riff and then howl. He'd give some banter about how rad Midnight Madness was. When it came time to say the names of the movies, his animated mouth would freeze open for a second and an obviously other voice, often one registering a clear gender disparity, would say, in the bored voice teenaged employees reserve for answering the phones of workplaces that pay minimum wage, the title of the first flick. Then Wolfman Whack's animation would kick back in and he'd threaten the audience with yet another showing of Rocky Horror. Behind Wolfman Whack, for the entire length of the trailer, was a visual effect that I'm pretty certain was achieved by filming a lava lamp for several days and then speeding up the result.

I bring his up because I feel the trailer for Videodrome would have made the creators of the Wolfman Whack spot, previously the most cringe-inducing bit of film marketing I knew, hesitate.

"Should we turn this in?"

"Maybe we should shoot another spot and go with another rocking piece of neon produce? That tested really well with Rocky Horror fans. There's that neon pink Swiss chard we storyboarded . . . "

"Who are we kidding? We don't have time to make a new trailer."

"Damn! If only we hadn't wasted all that time on that tongue animation bit! That was like twenty-six hundred man-hours. We're screwed. Do you call Cronenberg or do I?"

"Paper, scissors, rock?"

I just had to get that out of the way before the review proper.

Trailer not withstanding, Videodrome, an early entry in the now legendary output of David Cronenberg, is amazing.

I saw it ages ago and, when it arrived in its jaunty little red Netflix envelope, I was briefly concerned that time and tide, which wait for no film, will have dated the film, turning the brilliantly imaginative horror film I remembered in a time capsule museum piece.

More than two decades have passed since its premiere, and Videodrome is still as creepy, surreal, and puzzling as I remembered it.

As I suspect that many Screamers and Screamettes may be familiar with the flick already, let's make quick work of the traditional plot summary:

Max Renn, despite having one of those "cyberpunk" names that sound like they belong to sub-Robert Hill stable porn stars, is a high level executive at an on-the-rise television channel that has made a name for itself broadcasting extreme sexual and violent content. In his never-ending pursuit of new lows, Max stumbles across a scrambled broadcast of what appears to be snuff television: an endless series of men and women tortured and dispatched in a orange and black room. The show's called Videodrome.

Convinced that this insane show is the future of entertainment – at least until the masses coarsen again and need even more extreme shocks to get their kicks – Max attempts to hunt down the makers of Videodrome. The search becomes even more urgent when Max's lover, a radio help line host with a pain fetish and the even pornnier name of Nicki Brand, vanishes in her attempt to land a guest spot on the show.

Max's search leads him to a fanatical cult of television worshipers, lead by a dead charismatic media philosopher who communicates with the faithful solely through prerecorded prophecies and McLuhan-like aphorisms. From them, Max learns the truth about the mysterious torture show: it hides a mysterious signal that transforms the mind of those exposed to it. As Max's mind begins to disintegrate under the influence of this mutating signal, and his body begins to sprout new orifices and defensive mechanisms, his quest leads him to Spectral Optics, the mysterious creators of the signal. Trapped between the media-madness of the Cathode Mission and the techno-terrorism of Spectral Optics, Max becomes a pawn in a mad conspiracy to control the future of human evolution. Death, explosions, tummy-mounted vaginas, and techno-human biomechanical splatteriness ensues.

Now I'll be the first to admit that there's a lot about Videodrome that hasn't aged well. The fact that the plot's Philip K. Dick style nightmare centers around videocassettes and television broadcasts feels dated. Ironically, I don't think it is a tech issue. The cassettes that carry the toxic signal here seem no less sinister for being slightly archaic. They seem like the beta version of the contagion-carrying cassettes that would later be the viral medium of choice for Samara. In fact, the datedness of the tech kind works in its favor. In a way that, say, the 8-track and the vinyl record don't, the videocassette still has an aura of shoddy, illicit simplicity. Somehow an unlabeled cassette seems mysterious – anybody could have shot anything. An unlabeled DVD or CD-ROM just looks like a drink coaster. Rather, the datedness has to do with television as the metaphor of the ubiquity of media. There was a time, from say the late '40s to the early '90s, when you could think television represented the nth degree of media penetration. Now, in the age of Blackberries, Twittering, and Youtube, the idea that broadcast television represented the end of the real and the tipping point that tossed humanity into a completely Baudrillardian hyperreality seems, if not naïve, then at least a tad premature. Max, baby, you ain't seen nothing yet. There's also a few gaps in the narrative structure that jar once the shock of initial contact has worn off. (Admittedly, one could, I guess, claim these gaps were intentional products meant to communicate Max's deteriorating state of mind, but that seems like a cop out as narrative weirdness is regularly and overtly credited to Max's rising level of insanity, but simple lacunae aren't.)

Still, those flaws are minor compared to what works. First and foremost, the look of the film has actually grown on me. I like the look of this pic better than I did when I originally saw it. The flat, seediness of the images on the screen was unimpressive the first time I saw the film. I thought what Cronenberg managed to do was more notable in spite of the crappy production values. Now I've come around to thinking that the washed out, dead-feeling, aggressively unattractive look of the film is not only intentional, but an integral part of that crucial Philip K. Dick vibe he's getting at. Part of the crucial craziness of Dick's dark fantasies was the idea that these world- and century-spanning conspiracies could come to a head in the shoddy living room of some strung-out nobody junkie in a clearance-worthy suburb of a dead town. Videodrome has the same feeling. The sinister, perhaps apocalyptic media virus is product of this cruddy little lens grinding shop in a crap section of Toronto – not a bunch of suits in a skyscraping corporate HQ or a bunch of lab coats in some underground max-security research facility. And the opposing force, the fanatical church of television-worshipping postmodernist, is headquartered in a flea-bag homeless outreach facility; it's the kind of place that makes nice neighborhood get all NIMBY. It's also a prefect visual match for the acting of James Woods (doing an early version of the thing that Peter Weller would later ride into parody in Robocop and Naked Lunch) and Blondie's blunted affect depiction of a pain junkie.

Most importantly, Videodrome remains one of the few truly original horror films out there. Even if its media politics have aged slightly (and I'd make the case that this is not because the film was wrong, but that we've grown more naïve about media effects), it remains an example of what a new horror template might look like.

Pop horror, it seems to me, has a peculiarly nasty relationship with its own history. On one hand, the genre is overdetermined by a handful of master archetypes that artists and fans compulsively, almost neurotically return to. While, at the same time, the extensive depth that even the average horror fan brings to the table means that every new work is expected to innovate these archetypes, even when the ground is thoroughly and utterly eroded. The result is, too often, a massive body of stunted visions and a genre that proceeds into the future with a half-hearted, shuffling stagger. Innovation can't get too innovative, or we break what tepid magic these rest-home worthy phantoms still lay claim too. So, instead of new ideas, we simply pack more and more "relevance" into the same six or seven images. Archetypes like the vampire may be able to carry the anxieties of each successive generation, but we've piled them so high with ideological baggage at this point that they look less like dangerous predators of the dark id and more like comically overloaded bellhops.

In Videodrome, Cronenberg spawned new mythologies for new anxieties. He gave a new age its own monsters. And his template is so innovative that, even now, it has the nervous hum of the urgently new. Is it a sci-fi flick? The "mysterious signal" would seem to give the strange visions and surreal manifestations of Max a naturalistic explanation. But does it? The scientific explanation so defies the rules of physics and biology that the mystical ramblings of the TV church are equally sensible and (un)explanatory. So is it a supernatural horror film? The events in the film certainly aren't "realistic" in any sense, nor does Cronenberg seem particularly interested in convincing us that he's playing by any restrictive notion of the real. But what, then, of the possibility that Max is simply going bonkers? A possible interpretation, but not one that Cronenberg bothers to make certain. It is as if Davy boy says, "Hey, if it helps you sleep, then think what you want." The insanity defense is potentially valid, but neither definitive nor, most importantly, comforting. Even if Max did go nuts, wasn't that the point of the videodrome signal? Cronenberg built a movie where even realizing the main character made it all up doesn't mean that the monster isn't real.

Videodrome is mutant genre fiction at its finest. A hopeful monster of a flick that waits for a new generation of creators to spread its brilliantly adaptive qualities throughout the horror genre.

Honestly, y'all probably don't need me to say tell you this, but Videodrome is freakin' awesome.

Except for the ultra-shitty trailer.

PS – special thanks to the boys of Canadian Horror Cinema. The gents behind this young, but equally hopeful monster of a blog dropped a Videodrome in-joke into their blog the other day, sending me back to this awesome flick. Long live the new flesh: Support your up-and-coming horror bloggers!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Movies: Santo, fun-sized.

In 2004, Cartoon Network managed to produce a handful of animated Santo clips. This somewhat obvious step of animating the lucha legend is actually a remarkable achievement in that the Santo estate has been notoriously gunshy about signing up with American companies. Anybody who has seen "Sampson versus the Vampire Women," the chopped up and name-changed Americanized version of "Santo vs. Las Mujeres Vampiro" might understand why. Still, however this coup came about, we're all winners.

The shorts, a series of five quick flicks that make a nod to Santo's beatdowns of various stalwarts of the Universal horror stable, collectively tell the story of Santo versus the Clones. These shorts, to my knowledge, have never been featured with subtitles or been dubbed. However, I don't think you need to speak Spanish to enjoy them.

Screamers and Screamettes, here's Santo, "El Enmascarado de Plata," the Hero of the Multitudes, in Santo versus the Clones, episodes 1 through 5.


Santo versus the Clones, Episode 1

Santo versus the Clones, Episode 2

Santo versus the Clones, Episode 3

Santo versus the Clones, Episode 4

Santo versus the Clones, Episode 5

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Stuff: Something from the Department of Crazy Crap You Didn't Even Know You Had to Fear.

Fox News, the source of so many of the truly scary shows one finds on the tube these days, brings you something new to worry about.

According to the Fox 10 News, a Phoenix-area woman went into the hospital to have a potential tumor removed from her head. When doctors went into her skull to remove the tumor, they found a live tapeworm residing in her gray matter.

You can pick up these worms by eating undercooked pork or from contact with folks who don't wash their hands after using the bathroom. Apparently it is pretty uncommon, though not as uncommon as it used to be. The report says that the doctor who removed this particular brain worm removed five others in the last couple of months. Other doctors in the same hospital have run into them too. The operating doctor thinks this sudden rash of cases is a fluke.

Even better, there's video: Say hello to this lady's brain worm.

Quote of the day: "It could have ate holes in her brain, like an apple."

Friday, November 21, 2008

Link Proliferation: "Girls Priced to Sell!"

The Gutter Waits for Girls Like Me!

Over at the Alphabet Soup blog, designer Michael Doret reveals his pulp-tastic cover design (shown above) for Tashen monumental (336 pages of lurid goodness) True Crime Detective Magazines: 1924-1969.

In his blog entry, Doret discusses the thinking that went into his work and shows some of the source material he used as inspiration.

Systematic horrors

NME described London's Silvery as what would happen "if Damon Albarn spent the 90's taking acid."

Here's the steampunkish, darkly trippy video to their song "Horrors."

Exit plot, chased by bear

Though not horror focused, NYTimes has a short article on the work of David Kirkpatrick, one of the founders of MIT newest Media Lab project: the Center for Future Storytelling.

From the article:

The center is envisioned as a “labette,” a little laboratory, that will examine whether the old way of telling stories — particularly those delivered to the millions on screen, with a beginning, a middle and an end — is in serious trouble.

Starting in 2010, a handful of faculty members — “principal investigators,” the university calls them — will join graduate students, undergraduate interns and visitors from the film and book worlds in examining, among other things, how virtual actors and “morphable” projectors (which instantly change the appearance of physical scenes) might affect a storytelling process that has already been considerably democratized by digital delivery.

The lab will work alongside major film studios to try to re-teach the art of narrative to Hollywood.

But Mr. Kirkpatrick and company are not alone in their belief that Hollywood’s ability to tell a meaningful story has been nibbled at by text messages, interrupted by cellphone calls and supplanted by everything from Twitter to Guitar Hero.

“I even saw a plasma screen above a urinal,” said Peter Guber, the longtime film producer and former chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment who contends that traditional narrative — the kind with unexpected twists and satisfying conclusions — has been drowned out by noise and visual clutter.

A common gripe is that gamelike, open-ended series like “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Spider-Man” have eroded filmmakers’ ability to wrap up their movies in the third act. Another is that a preference for proven, outside stories like the "Harry Potter" books is killing Hollywood’s appetite for original storytelling.

Dance, dance, execution

From the vaults, here's a 1922 short feature of the ballet, The Danse Macabre. Look for the nicely animated title sequence and the nifty Death-as-fiddler costume.

Dispatches from the Poe Wars

WHYY's Babbitt-blog It's Our City, sounds the alarm for Philly to get its crap together with regards to the on-going battle of what city gets to claim Poe as their own:

With the Bicentennial of Poe next year (he was born Jan 19, 1809) all the Poe cities-Bmore, Philly, NY, Richmond and Boston-are rolling out the red carpet for Poe tourists. Baltimore has two websites promoting its events. Last month, they held a press conference to promote the Bicentennial which is still making waves in newspapers and news sites online. Richmond has a website, as well. And now Boston, the city with the smallest of claims to Poe’s Legacy (his actress mother gave birth to him while passing through on a theatrical tour), is hosting a two day celebration and calling for their city to recognize Poe as own of their own.

Philadelphia has lots of events planned for the Bicentennial, or should I say, the Park Service and other groups have lots of events planned. There is no organized effort to reach out to the Poe tourists (and believe me, there are lots of them), bring them to Philly and show them why this is his true “literary” home. So far, all Philly has done is bring in Elvira for a couple Halloween events. Do they have any plans to promote the Bicentennial next year?

"The horned beasts of suck"

Speaking of literary feuds, perhaps the weirdest feud I've ever heard of is currently "raging" amongst fantasy authors of the YA-ish persuasion: zombies versus unicorns.

I kid not.

It apparently started when, in a discussion of Simon Pegg's hatred of running zombies, novelist and academic Justine Larbalestier dropped that she thought unicorns were "metaphorically as dead as the dodo."

The seemingly all-pervasive Io9 has the round up of shots fired in this crucial conflict.

Zombie unicorn mask (above) by flickr user MATTY™.


Speaking of zombies, I highlight this page of the upcoming Zombie Cop graphic novel – you see, he polices zombies, so he's zombie cop in the sense that he's the cop of zombies; but he also IS a zombie, so he's a zombie cop in the sense that he's, you know, a zombie cop, so it works on many levels – because of the sound the guy getting disarmed makes: "GAAAAAAAH!!"

Isn't the more the sound you make when you spill something on the couch, rather than when, say, a zombie – regardless of its connections to law enforcement, official or otherwise – rips off your freakin' arm?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Stuff: Voodoo economics.

Are you worried that some black magician has stolen your genitals?

I understand the concern, but breath easy. Nobody has stolen your genitals. What you're actually feeling is the psychological effects of currency devaluation.

Andrian Kreye, editor for the "Arts and Ideas" section of the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, explains the connection:

The larger the number of people who cause an error on a vast if not global scale, the more difficult it is to find conclusive explanatory models. The larger the error, the more surreal the attempted explanation will be. In West Africa, for example, at the beginning of the nineties, a regional recession triggered a wave of superstition. In countries like the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Senegal, the myth of the "voleurs du sexe" made the rounds. Black magicians, according to popular belief, robbed innocent men of their genitals, by chanting magic spells while shaking the hands of their victims. None of these cases of course were ever proven. However, the deadly side effect of the superstition were massive witch-hunts with angry mobs chasing alleged genital thieves across town, finally stoning them to death.

Some psychiatrists in Senegal found a perfectly sound explanation for this phenomenon. The reason for the recession had been a devaluation of the West African Francs, the regional currency strongly dependent on the French Francs and the goodwill of the Banque de France.

Most people of West Africa might have encountered hardship at one point or the other. But in most cases the underlying causes had been clear–drought, floods, or wars. An economic austerity measure such as the government mandated devaluation of a currency caused widespread confusion. The superstition engendered by this economic confusion could be explained in very simple psychological terms: Because the breadwinners had been de-empowered, i.e. emasculated, their angst turned into fears of castration that were taken out on alleged genital thieves who in turn were punished by lynching.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Books: The Dickens, you say?

After the critical and popular success of his epic length historical monster tale, The Terror, you could look at Dan Simmons's newest novel, Drood, and think that he'd learned two lessons from his last outing.

First, go historical. The Terror made a supernatural thriller out of the mystery surrounding a famed missing arctic expedition. Drood makes a wild penny-dreadful style mystery tale out of the twilight years of famed literary lion Charles Dickens.

Second, think big. Very big. Even in paperback, The Terror was a brick of a book. Drood is a real doorstop as well. For those unfamiliar with the publishing biz, a galley is an advance copy of a book that is run off pre-publication to get the tome into the hands of reviewers, store buyers, and so on. Generally, the galley is made of lighter, cheaper, inferior materials – it isn't built to last, just to be reviewed quickly. Even if the book's coming out in hardback (or cloth, as they say in the glamorous corridors of the quality lit biz) the galley is most likely paperback. Even in galley from, sans the hardback binding and heavier paper, Drood weighs in at about two pounds.

Aside from these immediately obvious points of reference, there's even a tiny bit of content overlap. The real life Dickens and Wilkie Collins, hereafter designated as RDickens and RCollins (to distinguish them from Simmons's fictional characters, hereafter designated FDickens and FCollins), created a play inspired loosely by the disappearance of The Terror expedition. Simmons has a little fun discussing the maudlin sentiments and purple prose FDickens and FCollins drape over the gaunt skeleton of the mysterious disappearance, giving fans of the previous book a darkly comedic study in contrast.

Given all that, you could be forgiven for thinking that you're going to get The Terror 2: This Time, It's Christmas. But the initial evidence is misleading. Drood is a very different beast. Where The Terror is grim, linear, bleak forced march for a dwindling series of doomed men, Drood is a surreal, tangled, and acid-etched look at the relationship between monumental artists. The Terror was dominated by the crushing narrative logic of overwhelming odds, the sort of mathematics one finds at the heart of body-count films. Drood is a dark funhouse full of sense-warping mirrors, blocked lines of vision, and trap doors.

Drood opens with a direct address to the reader by the book's first person narrator, FCollins. The following tale is presented as a manuscript that FCollins is writing after the death of his long-time friend and collaborator FDickens. The manuscript, we're told, is to be published 125 years after FCollins's own demise. One of the running gags throughout the book is FCollins's increasingly inaccurate suppositions about what the world of Twenty-first Century, the world of his imagined audience, must be like: Perhaps you dress like Hottentots, live in gas-lighted caves, travel around in balloons, and communicate by telegraphed thoughts unhindered by any spoken or written language.

After quickly establishing this framing device, the story starts off with the June 9, 1865 train wreck that nearly sent RDickens to a premature grave and is widely considered to have marked the beginning of a long downward spiral for the great author's physical health. On that day, as RDickens heroically assists rescue works in the search for survivors, he runs across the cadaverous titular Drood: a necrotic man with a skeletal, near-noseless face and a snake's hiss for a voice. FDickens comes to believe that Drood was at the crash site not to help save injured survivors, but to speed them on to the next life.

Using some proto-Holmesian deduction (another running in-joke involves the fact that FDickens and FCollins exist in world that doesn't have Sherlock Holmes yet – consequently they repeatedly struggle to find the now familiar vocabulary of mystery writing that is needed to describe what they're doing), FDickens tracks the mysterious Drood to London's foulest slum and recruits FCollins to assist in the hunt.

The trail leads our two authors to a maze-like subterranean warren-city known, somewhat obviously, as the Underworld. There we learn that Drood rules over the discarded classes, using them as a vast network of thieves, spies, and assassins. FDickens becomes obsessed with the figure of Drood, slowly uncovering his bizarre past: he's the castaway son of an Egyptian woman and a British man, a master of mesmerism, and the leader of an ancient sacrificial cannibal cult that traces its origins back to days of the pharaohs.

FCollins fears that he and FDickens are way out of their league, fears that are compounded when Inspector Field, a former police inspector who acted as a ghetto guide to RDickens and RCollins on various tours of London's worst slums and who was the inspiration for RDickens's Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, contacts him. Field tells FCollins that he has built up a network of freelance investigators, spies, and enforcers with the aim of foiling Drood. Drood, you see, is mad as a hatter. The archfiend wants to bring down the British Empire. Not out of any great love of the oppressed peoples of the world, mind you. He wants to establish a new dynasty of pharaohs in the heart of London. And, as if that was not bad enough, Field believes that FDickens is helping Drood in exchange for Drood's secrets to mastering the mesmeric arts (RDickens was a nut for mesmerism, even going so far as to attempt amateur sessions of hypnotic therapy on various folks).

As the novel progresses, FCollins find himself caught in a secret war between the fanatical Field, the nightmarish Drood, and the increasingly guarded FDickens, who appears to be playing off both sides. Surrounded by treachery and deceit, FCollins's own mind begins to betray him as RCollins's truly heroic levels of laudanum consumption begin to take their toll.

In tone, Drood reads like Victorian "sensationalist" novel – one of those mostly anonymously penned shockers that wrapped murder and mayhem in a thin layer of social conscience, the slim justification for their fixation on the morbid. The most famous of these fabulously trashy entertainments is A String of Pearls, the blood-soaked source of the famous Sweeney Todd, Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It's plot is so far-fetched and the character of Drood so fantastic, that I must admit that I was originally a bit turned off. The wealth of historical detail – sometimes an almost exhausting amount of detail, Simmons does not like to waste any piece of his research – leads one to mistakenly assume that Drood is going to play by the standard rules of historical realism, with some minor suspension of disbelief required to make Drood suitably monstrous. But when the story begins to really take off, that assumption proves wrong. Ride those bumps out though, and you'll be rewarded.

This brings us to my only real reservation about the novel.

The use of real public figures in a fictional setting is tricky. In The Terror Simmons pretty much had a free hand to do whatever he wished. Who, outside of a few devoted followers of the history of artic exploration, would know anything substantial about the men of the ill-fated expedition? Plus, the history books are unable to tell us what happened to the men, so Simmons had a blank canvas.

By way of contrast, RDickens is one of the most well known authors in the English-speaking world. Not only is nearly every scrap he ever published still in print, even tangentially connected works have been granted immortality by virtue of their proximity to him. His wife's cookbook, for example, is still available. If you want to eat spotted dick just the way RDickens liked it (stop snickering now!), rest assured that you can eat that very spotted dick. (Hey, seriously, stop snickering!) Then one has to account for the entire industry of RDickens scholarship, academic and popular, that must account for miles of shelf space. (Just yesterday publishers sent my wife a new book looking at Dickens just in terms of his creation of his famous "A Christmas Carol" short story – at 226 pages, this pop history is about 160 pages longer than "A Christmas Charol.") Furthermore, the use of RDickens and RCollins as a Holmes and Watson duo is nothing new. Not only has it been done before, there is even a long-running mystery novel series predicated on the idea. Finally, and perhaps most dauntingly, for the author thinking of using RDickens of RCollins as the basis of their own FDickens and FCollins, we're talking about two master stylists of the English language. Both of them somehow managed the impossible: they're mimics that can't be mimicked, creating writing that sounds, at once, like the voices of real people while, at the same time, never sounding like anything less than high artifice. How do you recreate that? If you're a writer who reads RDickens and RCollins and believes that you can recreate their success, then I assure you that you are neither a good reader nor much of a writer.

Simmons compensates for the familiarity of his scheme by delivering meticulously researched, but satirically drawn portraits of the two famous men. FDickens is brilliant and prodigiously talented, but he is also one of the biggest jerks to ever play the hero in a novel. He is overbearing, tyrannical, mercenary, and destructive. FCollins is a strange sort of parasite: poisonously envious of FDickens's but unable to live without his approval. Simmons's Wilkie is cowardly and selfish, proud but helpless. At times, Simmons almost seems savage in his take on them. So much so, in fact, that I sometimes found myself wondering just how British readers will take Simmons's novel. As for mimicking their style, Simmons doesn't really try. This is a wise choice, as there's no way to really succeed at evoking RDickens and RCollins's distinctive voices. It does, however, mean there's a weird disconnect between the voice of the narrator, FCollins, and the voice we know RCollins really has.

Those reservations aside, I recommend it highly. It isn't as immediately approachable as The Terror, but it is, in almost all other ways, a more ambitious, daring, and engrossing follow up. Chalk up two big wins in a row for Simmons.

Drood comes to you care of the fine folks at Little, Brown and Company. We're looking at a street date of February 9th, and the hardback's gonna set you back $26.99. Add three bucks to that if you're Canadian to cover Canada's national politeness tax.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Movies: Head over heels in love.

Regular readers know that, as a general rule, I tend not to cut the alleged masters of Italian horror filmmaking much slack. Jeremiads regarding this bunch's heavy-handed "artistry," a seemingly national aversion to the basics of narrative structure, and their much touted stylishness, which is reminiscent less of glamour's swinging age than of Christopher Walken's SNL character The Continental, are practically a regular feature on this here blog.

Well, Screamers and Screamettes, I may have been too harsh on these jokers.

It takes a brave man to admit he's wrong. It takes a considerably less brave man to admit this over the anonymity of the blog-o-sphere. And I, Screamers and Screamettes, am that considerably less brave man!

Now let's no go overboard. I'm still confident that, even when viewed in light of my Saul on the road to Argento style conversion, most of the stuff cranked out by the genre masters of the boot of the Mediterrean is more shit than shinola. There are, however, far greater levels of shinola present than I was previously willing to admit.

And what, you may well ask, is responsible for this change of heart?

Go ahead. Ask. Oh, c'mon. Somebody, please: ask.

Thank you. I'm glad you asked.

Basically, it took Lamberto Bava, the lesser of two Bava's, to show me the way. And he did so via his 1980 directorial debut flick: the neo-gothic suspense flick Macabre.

I was originally hipped to this pic by long-time ANTSS fave, the lovely and talented Mermaid Heather (see sidebar), who gave the flick a luke-warm review, but praised its bizarre ending and noted some of the more over-the-top plot points. Something in her review must have caught my eye, because I Netflixed it up.

Now astute readers might have eyeballed the date of Heather's review. It is more than two years old. Yes. The middle of my Netflix queue is like the freakin' Bermuda Triangle of films. There you can spy the wreckage of aborted projects – such as the ill-fated "every film of Myrna Loy" expedition of 2006 – and wonder at the ruins of long lost television series I queued up on an extremely short-lived and now utterly forgotten impulse – "Wow, a BBC adaptation of Anthony Trollope's He Knew He Was Right. That's, like, only my eighth favorite Trollope novel ever. That's 100% fun sounding." If it's not at the top, where laziness might get a flick shipped out accidentally, or at the bottom, where impulse selections land before being kicked up, it's possible that a film can spend years in this online equivalent of the Black Hole of Calcutta.

Somehow, enduring God only knows what tests of character and strength, Macabre escaped and made it to my house.

And I'm glad it made it.

Film itself is a sleazy take on the classic gothic trope of love that never dies. We open on a suburban house in suburbs New Orleans. After watching her husband leave for work, MILF-ish housewife Jane slips into some daring daywear and tells her daughter, the creepy Lucy, to look after her younger brother. Jane then dashes off to a nearby boarding house to make the beast with two backs with her lover, the almost entirely characterless Fred. Lucy, clued in to her mother's trampin' about, finds the number to the boarding house (in her mother's day planner, where it is apparently listed as "Mommy's sex with not daddy place – LUCY, DO NOT CALL") and calls to throw a wet blanket on her mother's nasty groove thing. But it is to no avail, her mother's desire is too strong to be sidetracked by a little thing like one's own daughter calling the flop house where you bump uglies with your lover.

As Jane and Fred show they are most definitely down with OPP, Lucy murders her brother. With nothing in the way of pretext or explanation, the girl drowns him in a bathtub.

When the body is discovered, a call is placed to what must be the worst concealed secret rendezvous spot in the history of illicit romance. Panicked, Jane and Fred leap from bed and race towards Jane's home in Fred's car. But, before they can reach their destination, there's an accident and Fred gets beheaded by a highway traffic rail that comes plowing through the windshield.

Thus ends the first 10 minutes of Macabre.

Jane ends up in a mental institution for a year and, after the film takes a short breather, we see she's getting out.

Instead of heading back home, she takes up residence in the same boarding house that she and Fred used to meet at. Robert, the blind owner of the place, is happy to have her stay, but he's confused by some of her activities – most notably the fact that sounds as if she has a guest in her room every night and she and this mystery person do some serious shake-the-room, shout-out-loud, seven-come-eleven grade humping. This is especially heartbreaking for Robert, as he's developing a crush on Jane.

What Robert doesn't know, but we the viewers are hip to, is that Jane keeps a small shrine her lover in her room. Nightly, she "does devotions," as it were.

She also keeps a big old pad lock on the freezer of her fridge. You've probably already guessed why.

Jane eventually makes an effort to reach out to family. She rebuffed by her husband, but her creepy freakin' daughter – who apparently was not discovered as a murder because the death of Jane's son was ruled an accident, the unfortunate consequence of Jane's lust-fueled negligence – starts hanging out a the boarding house more and more often. However, Lucy seems less intent on reconnecting with her mother, than on gaslighting her and driving her back into the loony bin. A short, thinly coded exchange suggests the reason why: Lucy and Daddy are developing an unhealthy interest of their own.

All this comes to a head, so to speak, and Robert, Jane, and Lucy are all put on murderous collision course that becomes a pile-up in the final moments of the flick. Good times.

The key to enjoying Macabre is, I think, revealed by Lamberto Bava in a short making-of featurette that can be found in special features of the Blue Underground edition DVD. Twice in short piece Bava admits that the script was basically a joke. He claims it was inspired by a new clipping he saw, and that he and his two or three co-writers produced the script for laughs.

That's not to say that Macabre is funny. Though, often, it lapses into gross out humor. Rather, it plays out like a burlesque of the gothic. It isn't a spoof, in the way that, say, Airplane! was a spoof of Zero Hour! and similar disaster pics. Rather it just takes the template and pushes every aspect as far as it can go before it gets utter stupid. Every relationship in the film is tinged with a little kinkiness, everybody is off center, nothing's health or stable, and the creepy details just keep piling on until it all fall over – and then gets topped of with a WTF non sequitor that is actually laugh out loud goofy.

Visually, the film is fairly restrained. Bava the Younger does occasionally attempt to lapse in to the visual "lyricism" that's the hallmark of Italian horror, and the result is one too many ponderous and interminable shots of empty stairways. Mostly, Bava's direction is clean, efficient, controlled, and generous. It has a steady craftsmanship that is welcome and necessary. Without the sense of a stable narrator viewpoint that Bava's direction provides, the flick's story would feel so disjointed and absurd that the feeling of mounting suspense would be lost. I should point out too that his direction feels careful and easy despite a tiny budget and a packed shooting schedule – in 1980 Bava not only shot his own debut, but he served as second unit director on both Cannibal Holocaust and Inferno.

In the making of featurette, Bava mentions that he got great feedback regarding Macabre from other filmmakers, but the fans were somewhat indifferent. "Not violent enough," he said. Then, in a display of the dry but over the top humor that informs the film, Bava leans back and ponders his own statement. Discussing a film with necrophilia, incest, child murder, and sexual obsession, Bava says, "To add violence, that would have been in bad taste."

I don't know if its in good taste or not, but Macabre is certainly entertaining.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Movies: "It was in people's brains."

Today we're talking about some pretty grim stuff. Next post, I promise, goof-central as we look at Bava the Younger's take on love, death, and family – and all the various combos thereof – in his classic Macabre. But today, as the utterly unofficial (and somewhat ill-cast) "torture porn dude" of the LoTT-D, I thought I should cover this.

In The Forever War, Dexter Filkins's book-length survey of America's open-ended "war on terror," Filkins discusses one of the more subtle barriers to the growth of a fully-functional, participative democracy in Iraq: the long term psychological effects of life under Saddam. From his book:

Murder and torture and sadism: it was part of Iraq. It was in people's brains.

As an example, he details the fascination of many his Iraqi co-workers with what can only be dubbed real torture porn:

Sometimes I would walk into the newsroom that we had set up in The New York Times bureau in Baghdad, and I'd fin our Iraqi employees gathered round the television watching a torture video. You could buy them in the bazaars in Bagdad; they were left over from Saddam's time. The Iraqis would be watching them in silence. Just starring at the screen. In one of the videos, some Baath party men [The dominant political/ethnic group in Iraq under Saddam – CRwM] had pinned a man down on a floor and were holding down his outstretched arm, while another official beat the man's forearm with a heavy metal pipe until his arm broke into two pieces. There was no sound in the video, but you could see the man was screaming. None of the Iraqis in the newsroom said anything.

In America, these torture tapes got very limited exposure. After the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, several right-wing media outlets produced edited "greatest hits" tapes that they then presented as proof that what Americans were doing simply wasn't that bad. Aside from missing the entire moral point of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the outlets questionably sourced the videos. Most made dubious claims that the source videos were "favorites of Saddam's" or "from Saddam's personal collection" and so on, ignoring the fact that these videos were actually readily available to civilians at fairly modest prices. Perhaps these right-wing talking heads felt it wasn't the right thing to pitch as an emblem that neo-con efforts to revamp the Iraqi economy along more free-market lines was clearly a success.

Oddly enough, the videos origins were mired in profit motive. Saddam's secret police were, evidence suggests, running what amounts to torture-for-profit racket. Again, from Filkins's book:

Al Hakemiya [one Saddam-Era Iraq's numerous torture centers - CRwM] was the first stop in the Baathist detention network, a place where Iraqis were tortured and interrogated before being sent to prisons like Abu Ghraib. But the files strewn about the floors suggested something else. There were receipts for funds and stock certificates and bank ledgers. There were files of title certificates and change-of-ownership forms. Whatever else it was, Al Hakemiya was a shakedown operation.

The torture tapes were partially intended as part of a revenue stream – initially, they were proof to accompany ransom demands; later, after the collapse of the Baathist regime, they became a capital asset.

I've seen one of the edited torture tapes. I'm not going to link it up here because 1) I have doubts as to its "authenticity" insomuch as it has clearly been re-cut by American editors and 2) I don't think I would be comfortable knowing I'd directly contributed to the proliferation of this material.

Why did I watch it?

Partially because I feel, perhaps unnecessarily, that I have a responsibility to do so. As a regular fan of horror films, I basically make play out of some of the worst elements of human existence. I participate in the regular commodification and trivialization of death and suffering for kicks. A quick tour of links on my sidebar will most likely expose you to everything from Holocaust-themed porn and serial rape to all manner of torture and homicide. But it's all played for laughs. Part of me thinks that I shouldn't be allowed to do this unless, when provided the opportunity, I'm also willing to look squarely at the reality of these same things. I know this is an indefensible stance, so I never ask anybody else to take it. It's strictly my hang up and I understand that.

Also, I won't lie and tell you that simple old curiosity didn't play a factor as well. As Conrad wrote: "We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there - there you could look at a thing monstrous and free." The question of torture hangs there like some zero-point of human behavior. I have to see for myself. There's nothing particularly noble about it. Some people just can be told and I guess I'm one of those people.

Finally, and flimsiest of all, I talked a lot of theory and whatnot about the subset of horror known as "torture porn." It kinda made this blog. If you're reading me, chances are you found me through a LoTT-D member link and they hunted me down after my series on torture porn. Or, if my stats are any indication, you've probably come seeking info about some real life horror incident, such as the Likens torture-murder. Given that my comments about torture porn have, in essence, put me on "the map," specifically bold statements about what real torture was like and how little this was reflected in the movies that supposedly trafficked in torture imagery, I should have to see. If I'm going to talk the talk, I should have to be willing to see if I'm right.

On to the film. If you don't want to know – which is understandable – come back tomorrow.

The film opens with a blue warning screen about the graphic nature of the material to follow. These blue screens were slapped on the beginnings of tapes released by the Department of Defense to US journalists. In accordance with DOD rules, the screen plays for 30 seconds. Already the low quality of the much re-recorded VHS source is apparent. Source artifacts blur the bottom of the screen or make it appear as if your viewer has lost its vertical hold. These flaws in the image will occur, on and off, throughout the video.

Next there is a close up on face of a middle-aged man with short black hair and a black mustache. He repeatedly looks nervously to his left. Somebody is speaking off camera, but it is unintelligible. The camera makes a rough cut to a close up the man's right hand. Pan back to a medium shot, revealing that the man wears a knee-length black thoub, the traditional long one-piece top worn by so many Arab men. The dark color suggests that he's in winter wear, but since he's a prisoner and this outfit might be all they gave him, you can't assume the season by his clothing.

He is standing in what looks like a hospital room. Behind him are two made beds, clean white sheets. Two blankets, one dark green and one black with a multicolored pattern on it, are folded at the foot of the bed behind him. A white towel hangs on a hook on the wall over his right shoulder. There's a window behind him. Through the drawn blinds you can still tell it is daytime.

Cut to a close up of a right hand being surgically removed. The hand lays palm up. The skin around the wrist opens in a wide and oddly bloodless gapping whole. Three clamps, one, one up, one down, and on running parallel to the wrist, keep the flesh open. Two hands, one holding a probe of some sort and the other wielding a scalpel, work efficiently inside the whole. The hand holding the scalpel is making jabs at the edge of the hole, widening it. There's a cut and the camera has changed positions, further from the hand. It's later, the removal process is further along. Flesh from the wrist to the mid-forearm seems to have been stripped away. There are no faces visible, but the doctors' – are they doctors? – hands can be seen. One holds the victim's hand steady while another saws away at the connective matter at the wrist. The hand comes off. Cut to a green surgical towel. The hand is tossed on to the towel. The camera records it in a close up. It's on display. The finger-loops of a pair of scissors are just visible in the bottom left hand corner of the screen.

Cut to a crowd scene – dozens of men chanting. Subtitles inform the viewer that they are shouting that they are ready to give blood for Saddam. It was not unusual for Baathist torturers to force their victims to sing or chant or otherwise praise Saddam. Infamously, one victim was forced to sing "Happy Birthday" to the dictator, only to be beheaded as soon as he finished. I cannot tell if these chanting men are torturers or victims.

Next, there are a series of hand dismemberments by blunt force. The victims, several young men, are blindfolded and their right arms are tied flat to a thin plank of wood. It looks, ironically, like their undergoing a process to mend a broken arm. What happens, though, it that they are told to sit down and lay their bound arm on top of a short wall made of cinderblocks. Off camera, somebody chants "Ready?" in distorted and accented Enlgish. Then they shout "Go!" in Arabic. From off camera, a man in a uniform holding a short, thick, slightly curved club runs into frame and takes a lunging chop at the bound arm. Sometimes he takes a practice lunge, mostly he doesn't. If he misses, which he does occasionally, or hits off target and fails to sever any fingers, which he does often, he tries again. Whenever he succeeds, the camera zooms in to survey the damage. The process scatters severed fingers around the seated victims. The victims scream. There's more chanting. The camera pans to the right as one victim is removed to reveal that the chanting comes from a line of club wielding men in uniforms. They chant pro-Saddam phrases as they wait to pulverize someone's hand.

The next scene involves a shirtless man, bound by the wrists and knees so that hangs to the side of a vertical pole. He wears yellow prison uniform pants. He's got a black beard and mustache. Large patches of what appears to be medical gauze are held to his eyes by wind after wind of white medical tape that wraps fully around his head. Behind him is a darkened window and large murals bearing Arabic phrases. As the man hangs off the pole, another man in head to toe black spins him clockwise and counterclockwise. As this man spins him, another beats his ribs with some sort of semi-flexible lash. The two torturers appear to be enjoying themselves. They are almost playful. Whatever one calls this, it's been going on for longer then the viewer sees: the bound man's sides are mottled black and purple, his body gives in a spongy way with every blow. He screams throughout the process.

Cut to two men, one in a military uniform, the other in a tan jacket and black slacks. The man in uniform reads aloud to an unseen audience from the Koran: "In The Law of Equality there is saving of Life to you, O ye men of understanding; that ye may restrain yourselves." The uniformed man then reads out a charge of "failing to complete a special mission" against a man identified as Saddin Ezzedin al-Arousi. The penalty is to have his arm broken in front of his unit. Cut to a prisoner, yellow jumper and black bag bound over his head, seated next to two stacks of cinderblocks. He lays his arm over top of the blocks, forming a sort of bridge between the two stacks. A man in a military uniform, wearing a dark blue bulletproof vest, holds the prisoner's upper arm. Another soldier, again in uniform and vest, brings down a thick wooden club. It bends the arm into the slot between the cinderblocks and then bounces back. The prisoner recoils. The man holding him grabs his arm. The video ends.


First, watching this makes me wonder what kind of mind sees this and thinks, "This should shut up those liberals who are bitchin' and moanin' about torture?" What mind wants to circulate this stuff for a presumed political advantage? (And does the fact that you hope for political gain rather than outright financial gain make you that much different than the amoral shills pedaling these tapes in the Baghdad marketplace?) Admitted, the physical suffering revealed by the Saddam-Era torture tapes is greater, but the calculus of pain and damage done to the victims isn't what tugs on the brain long after you've quit looking at the photos or turned off the video. It's the torturers themselves that stick with you. It's their incomprehensible immunity to the madness they visit on their victims. From the pointing and grinning US jailer to the Iraqi guards who appear to have made a game out of turning a man's insides to pulp. There's something both childlike and monstrous about them, a sickening mix that reminds me of a line from Berloiz's opera of Faust: "Now we will see brutality in all its innocence." That's the line. Once it is crossed, everything seems to be just a matter of time, distinctions of fine degree rather category.

Second, though it hardly seems important, I stand by the division I drew about fictional torture porn and the real thing. There's no real comparison to be made.