Saturday, January 31, 2009

Books: The zombie plague enters its malingering stage.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains."

Here's the press release copy:

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies features the original text of Jane Austen's beloved novel with all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie action. As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton—and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she's soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers—and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield as Elizabeth wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead.

Complete with 20 illustrations in the style of C. E. Brock (the original illustrator of Pride and Prejudice), this insanely funny expanded edition will introduce Jane Austen's classic novel to new legions of fans.

I like the little bit at the end that suggests that this will result in legions of new Austen fans.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Stuff: If you live in the Austin area and kicked-in your zombie survival plan, you can come up from your basement now.

Some wags hacked into two roadside electronic billboards meant to warn Austin motorist about road conditions and changed the message to read "ZOMBIES IN AREA! RUN" and "CAUTION! ZOMBIES! AHEAD!"

Local news station KXAN was Johnny-on-the-spot with hard-hitting coverage as this slow-news-day-special exploded across the greater metropolitan Austin area.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Movies: Stranger things have happened.

In the asymmetrical wake of the media/genre-fancy reaction to the barely-there subgenre of "torture porn," the bar for announcing the birth of a new horror subgenre fell through the floor. Hence, by the arrival of 2008's The Strangers, the debut effort of writer/director Brian Bertino, critics scattered throughout the pro am horror blogging world could confidently speak of the new "home invasion" subgenre of horror; this despite the fact that the new genre could really only be said to consist of four or five notable movies, one of which (Funny Games) was actually a remake of a decade-old flick. Of the home invasion flicks, The Strangers became something of a standard barer for the alleged subgenre in that it was the most financially successful of the lot and, in a surprising counter-programming victory, it was released against Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and managed to score numbers that made some of the horror scribes wax poetic about the coming age of horror box office dominance.

I bring this up not because I do or do not but the existence of a home-invasion subgenre, but because I think it got lumped into "the next big thing" so fast that a taxonomical error occurred. You'll get the most mileage out of The Strangers if you look at it not as another step in the larval-stage of the forming home-invasion genre, then as an efficient and smart revisionist piece that belongs in the venerable slasher genre.

The horror fandom is about to be up to its collective nips in slasher remakes. Somewhere, in some dungeon-like level of the development bunker in the subbasement of the Lionsgate Traumfabrik, some luckless assistant is trying to find out who owns the rights to Splatter University. So, before mediocre drek like My Bloody Valentine: Film in Super Suck-o-Surround become the gold standard by which we're all expected this newest wave of slicers and dicers, I'll like to at least try to make the case that The Strangers illustrates how smart filmmakers can keep a genre vital without lapsing in ironic self-parody or slavish dogmatic adherence to form. Furthermore, the box-office for The Strangers proves, if not that we're headed into a new Golden Age of Horror, at least that genuinely lively and evolving works can be entertaining and appeal to a mass audience.

If you missed out on The Strangers, the recap is super-easy. We open with the discovery of a gruesome crime scene, with a voiced-over 911 call describing the carnage.

Then we flashback for the majority of the flick's slim-and-trim 85 minute running time.

Enter young couple, Kristen and James. After attending an amigo's wedding, K and J are headed to his father's house, an ever-so-secluded ranch house set among an impressive stand of towering pines. All is not well with our protagonist couple. At the wedding, James popped Kristen the Big Question. She said no. On arriving at the house, the two mope about in the strewn rose petals, chilled bubbly, and other wreckage of James's matrimonial plans.

They are interrupted briefly by a spacey young girl, face shrouded in the pine-shadowed evening darkness, who knocks on their door and asks if somebody neither James nor Kristen have ever heard of before is home.

To avoid the long road trip home, James calls a friend and arranges a ride home (he's going to leave their Volvo with Kristen) and then goes out for a head clearing evening drive.

Happily, pulling us back from the brink of mumblecore, enter a trio of masked psychos. Home alone, Kristen becomes the target of these relentless tormentors – two women and a man – who pound on the doors and windows, leave sinister messages written on the windows in red paint, and, worse yet, seem able to enter and leave the house at will. James's arrival doesn't scare off the attackers, but emboldens them.

The rest is a cat and mouse game played between the trio of attackers and our frightened couple.

Simple, no?

Visually, the movie's got a crisply professional look that's awash in autumnal colors and inky black shadows. The sound design – which begs for a spiffy home theater set up – fully uses the conceit of the limited space, with heart-stabbing bumps and clatters coming distinctly from different locations around the house. The acting ranges from fair to excellent, with the actors managing to even squeeze in a genuinely touching moment between their screaming bloody murder. All in all, a solid genre work.

Okay. Here's why The Strangers is the one of the best slasher flicks in the past ten years. Discussing Frank Miller's Spirishtar, Curt "Groovy Age" Purcell dropped a mighty, mighty rumination on what makes a "reimagining" work. Cribbing from the Groovy One:

Miller's reimaginings of Daredevil and Batman are hyper-faithful, by which I mean he zeroes in on certain core facets of their characters and worlds, and heightens those facets to defining principles. He's not imposing something external on them; he's bringing out what's implicit and, in retrospect, essential. The precision and rigor with which he accomplishes this constitutes his departure from previous depictions.

The Strangers is a hyperfaithful slasher insomuch as it finds the real core of the genre and makes it the defining principle. The flick is the final chase – that one long stretch of tension where the final girl runs and stumbles throughout the set in an effort to escape the baddie, never fully eluding him and managing to stumble into the remains of all his previous work – exploded into the length of a feature. Bertino trimmed the genre most tedious excess. He's disposed of the disposable characters, starting the flick with just his final girl and her boy. Gone are all the vestiges of the Reaganite neo-Puritanism. Instead the "axes for kisses" approach to sexuality that was such a crucial factor in the first gen slashers, there's a chillingly nihilistic lack of motivation. (Curiously, the victim couple is, refreshingly, caught not in the throws of hormonal passion, but tackling with an inability to leap to the next stage of a relationship: a most likely intentional, but completely fitting metaphor for the state of slasher genre as it heads into its third prolonged adolescence.) The decision to have these killers pop up ex nihilo is far from cynical though; it is refreshing. Why do cinema slashers kill? Is it really because they hate life and joy, or can't afford traditional store-bought meat products, or have mommy issues? No. The motives of just about every cinematic serial killer, from Bates to Jigsaw, seem, in retrospect, a bit silly. Rather, the carnage exists because screenwriters decree it. There's something pleasing efficient and honest about the lack of backstory here.

In focusing on the real delight of slasher flicks, that wildly tense moment, The Strangers reveals the errors of subpar efforts like the earnest, but ill-conceived Halloween remake (which made the mistake of amplifying non-essential, rather than essential component) or the half-assed, cynical pandering of flicks like My Bloody Valentine (which viewed the genre as little more than a laundry list of crap one had to throw up onto the screen).

Not that The Strangers is perfect. True to form, the flick requires moments of victim stupidity that push against viewer tolerance levels. Also, Bertino occasionally mars the visual storytelling with inexplicable shaky handcam work, as if sections of an earlier first-person p.o.v. effort somehow made it into the work. But both these factors are understandable in terms of genre conventions and first-time director flubs. They don't slow down the ride.

Before you shell out another 12 to 15 smackers for the next sequel/relaunch/reimagining filmed in Smell-Surround!, at least consider re-watching The Strangers instead. You'll have more fun.

Music: And, yet, he’s somehow still less embarrassing than The Streets.

Almost out of the woods. Thanks for your patience, y’all.

In the meantime – with the emphasis on mean – I present the following musical “treat.”

Regular reader and forgiving commenter asked what horror villain I’d blame my recent lameness on. Good question. I blame the hypnotic power of the Leprechaun’s dope rhymes.

Must. Stop. Suggestive. Dancing. Resist. Background. Vocals. Must . . . Post . . . Film and . . . Book . . . Reviews . . .

Monday, January 26, 2009

Meta: I'm sorry. So sorry.

Dear Screamin' Cats and Kittens - and especially you, generous and kind reader - I must beg and grovel for your forgiveness.

I haven't posted in like two billion days (in hamster days and metric). I could try to pass it off as the consequence of sudden over-employment (the curse I wish on all freelancers) or cop 'tude and claim that there's been naught worth my writing about.

But we'd know those would be lies. Damn lies!

The simple truth is that I'm a fool. That's right. I'm a blind fool who has simply taken you - gentle, wonderful, intelligent, and let's not mince words here, downright sexy (y'all know what I talkin' and don't pretend you don't) reader o' mine - for granted.

Please be patient. There are more posts in the works. Here at the ANTSS labs, we're putting the jumper cables to the neckbolts of flick reviews for The Strangers and Mister Vampire, and book reviews for Tashen's Horror Cinema book and a truly horrible, horrible comic book about a hipster, tattooed, Gossip Girls moody boy, Zen monk Frankenstein's monster (seriously, yo, it was worse than whatever worsetiness you just imagined).

In the meantime, for public penance, for abusing the near-sacred faith you - yes, you, dear reader - put in me, I offer this musical apology.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Books: Impossible, you say? Nothing is impossible when you work for the circus!

The cover copy of Johannes Cabal the Necromancer erroneously, I think, compares Jonathan L. Howard's new picaresque horror-comedy to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the magisterial historical fantasy by Susanna Clarke. This comparison seems based solely on the fact that both books feature magicians and footnotes. But where Clarke's a world builder, Howard's best at making set-piece scenes; where Clarke constructs elaborate epic-grade plots, Howard's book moves forward with a shambling and footloose episodic pace; and where Clarke loving details the minute mechanics of her fantasy realm, Howard gleeful mashes up genres, glaring anachronisms, tone-shifts, and downright wacky humor into something held together more by momentum than logic. For my money, the strong point of comparison would be the Pratchett and Gaiman comedy Good Omens, with its gag-laden Python-meets-Omen plot of celestial bureaucracies, bumbling witchfinders, and so on.

The high-concept premise of Cabal is Faust meets Something Wicked This Way Comes. Only this time, the readers should be cheering for the evil circus rather than the soul-fodder.

The titular hero, necromancer and socially maladjusted jerk Johannes Cabal, cut a deal with the devil. It was standard dark-knowledge-for-soul dealie, but one of the unforeseen side-effects of soullessness, a local suspension of reliable causality, has put a real halt to Cabal's necrological researches. Consequently, Cabal goes to Hell to get his soul back. Being a sporting sort, Satan ends up agreeing to a wager: If Cabal can sign up 100 souls for His Infernal Majesty within the agreed timeframe, then Cabal can have his own soul back. To help Cabal out, Satan even gives him use of a sinister traveling circus, apparently one of several such soul-snatching circuses operating in the living world at any given time.

For advice on handling the rubes, Johannes calls on his estranged brother Horst. There's a bit of bad blood there as Horst is a vampire than Johannes trapped in a particularly foul crypt years ago. Still, Horst has always been more sensitive the emotional lives of others and he's not such a bad sort. Johannes then uses his powers to resurrect his staff and whip together some freakish performers. Decked out with props and crew, Johannes hits the open road (or rails, as it were).

Along the way Cabal will run afoul of an army of mad Cthulhu cultists, poorly constructed pocket universes, the ghost of a WW I soldier, disgruntled demonic militarists, damned bureaucrats, curious ex-police detectives, corrupt local politicians, and more.

Howard's writing style is firmly in the tradition of other UKian genre jokesters. Aside from the Pratchett and Gaiman connection, there's something of Douglas Adam's quirkiness about the whole endeavor. This approach, which piles up one off-kilter concept after another until the narrative just sort of ends, has some serious flaws. Often, the incidents and writing feel rushed. Perhaps it’s a byproduct of having been more influenced radio (The Goons) and television (the 60s and 70s Brit comedy boom), comedy, but these books seem to have an "all-surface" quality to them. The fun of these novels is their rapid pace, unpredictable plotting, and snappy style. This unquestionably delivers the ha-has, but it sacrifices a certain depth of characterization and emotional impact. But isn't that kind of like complaining that the vegetarian options at a BBQ joint are lacking? What did you think you were getting? Howard works the sub-genre well and he even adds a bracing dash of bitter misanthropy in the form Cabal, who is mostly a faux-baddie but occasionally manages to do something genuinely and thrilling heartless. He also manages to shift the tone a bit, including some scenes that flirt with real emotional weight. Both touches are welcome additions to this type of book.

Light and likable, with some nice hints of gloom, Howard's book is currently slated for a July release where it should find favor beach readers looking for something a little more eccentric. Doubleday's the publisher, the hardback is going to set you back 25 clams.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Movies: My cruddy valentine.

I went to see My Bloody Valentine 3-D, the gimmicked-up reheat of the also-ran 1981 slasher of the same name, at a sold out showing in Union Square. In the seats ahead of me were two young men, drunk as lords. One, to my right, was a short and round Caucasian with thinning hair, a drooping expression, and a perpetual look of mildly frightened disappointment that made him look as if all the world was made of sharp objects and he was a drifting balloon, losing altitude and air pressure. The other, a lanky white dude with an angular face, thin lips, and a faux-hawk do, had a single conversational setting: spasmatic. His expressions were a toxic logorrhea of foul language, broadly played blackface usages, and awkwardly mixed sports/military metaphors: "Please nigga, that fuckin' bitch got to realize we're behind enemy lines, pushing into field goal position. True dat." Whenever the thin one gushed one of his spews of nonsense, he would lean hard towards the fat one, as if he intended to slip his companion the tongue or, perhaps, bite his nose off. The fat one shrank repeatedly from these repeated violations of his territorial bubble, until, by the time the previews were rolling, he was draped over the armrest of his seat in a posture reminiscent of Jacques-Louis David's slain Marat. His eager companion appeared to be shouting into his left armpit.

If, like me, you wonder just who Hollywood makes films like Miss March for, you may wonder no longer. The trailer for the film, which is a dumbed down Old School or a slightly smartened up Brown Bunny, seems to have been the single greatest aesthetic experience that Skinny ever had. Every joke elicited body-convulsing paroxysms of laughter. Every line pierced his very soul, illuminating the human condition and speaking truths long buried within him that he was no longer able to express. One half expected him, as the Elector of Bavaria did on hearing Mozart's Idomeneo, Re di Creta, to stand and proclaim to the heavens that the miracle of creation was now finally and well complete. Instead, of course, he simply menaced his companion's armpit with the roaring opinion that, "That shit was off the fucking hook, yo!"

This pair of cinema lovers continued this routine through the first twenty or thirty minutes of the film. Despite a steady barrage of shushes, Skinny would provide regular updates on the film's progress to Tons-of-Fun's hearing impaired armpit. When he felt that strict reportage would not adequately convey the emotional content of what was transpiring on screen, he would add some insightful personal assessment. Not content to simply remark that one of the women involved in the flick was attractive, Skinny loudly informed Chub Rock's pit that he would "pop her in her shit chute."

This particularly ripe expression of his passionate attraction to the actress Megan Boone crossed the line for his neighbor his left, a stubby dark-haired woman who suggested that he should save up his comments until the end of the film and then, after the credits roll, give Fats Staller's armpit his complete and thorough assessment. He suggested that she should attempt to fornicate with herself. She suggested that her boyfriend would object to that and, in fact, he would object to the very idea of further suggestions. Stewed in Dutch courage and perhaps momentarily dazed by the distorting effects of his Buddy-Hollyish 3-D specs, Skinny announced that he would not hesitate to engage this woman's boyfriend in fisticuffs. At this point, the boyfriend intervened. He was a large, shaved-headed man slightly smaller than the state of Montana. Pointing at skinny with a hand the size and density of a frozen turkey, he enthusiastically welcomed the invitation to brawl with Skinny and added that if Skinny did not allow the film to finish sans commentary, he would introduce specific moves to the planned bout that were most decidedly not according to Queensbury. (Although, given the verbs and body parts involved, Queensbury's son, Lord Douglas, may well have recognized these proposed innovations to the sweet science.)

Never one to stifle innovation, Skinny stood up and requested that Montana and his female companion, whom he may have slandered when he insinuated that she was an accomplished exemplar of the world's oldest profession, join him in the lobby. All three left. As Montana slid his considerably mass past Heavy D, he offered the portly and silent man an undercard match. A lover and not a fighter, Chub Rock reacted with a sort of sudden recoiling action, not unlike the contraction of a slug that's been salted.

I bring this up because, at that moment, my companion and I had to decide whether to follow the combatants into the lobby or stay with the film.

We chose, after no small amount of hasty and whispered deliberation, to stick with the movie.

While not exactly a decision I'll regret all my life, I now think Dave and I chose unwisely.

The new Valentine, no longer all that thematically linked to the titular holiday, has been relocated to the fictional mining town of Harmony. The film opens with a montage explaining the origins of the flick's famed gasmask wearing slasher: Harry Warden. Warden, we learn, was the sole survivor of a multi-fatality accident in the Hanniger mines. The accident was the direct result of the incompetence Tom Hanniger, the owner's son. Shortly after Warden is pulled out of the mine in a coma, the montage reveals that Warden's survival was predicated on the fact that he pix axed the miners he was trapped with to conserve his oxygen.

Flash forward a few years. The now disused mining tunnel is a teen party spot. Our core cast - Tom, his girl Sarah, and the jealous Axel – join a largest number of relatively nameless slash fodder for this rave up on the site of Harmony's largest industrial accident/mass murder. On cue, of course, Harry Warden wakes up and goes all stab stab, slash slash, like you do in these pictures. After slaughtering everybody in the local hospital, apparently with his bare hands, the recently recovered from a multi-year coma worker suits up into his old mining outfit, dons a gasmask, and pix axes the crap out of about a dozen kids. However, before he can send Tom to the great mountain removal pit in the sky, the town's two police officers intervene. They shoot Warden several times and chase him deeper into the mine. Later, we learn, Warden is presumed dead in a mine collapse. Of course, the body is never recovered. Is it ever?

Flash forward again: ten years later. Tom, unable to deal with fact that every time he gets near the mines it means that a bushel of people will end up with fatal pix axe wounds, has returned to Harmony after a self-imposed exile. He's come back to sell the mine and bury the past. Unfortunately for Tom, and anybody who thought this puppy was going to clock in at a reasonable time, two things stop him. First, his relationship with Sarah (now wife of ex-rival Axel, himself the police chief of Harmony) shows signs of renewed vigor. Second, speaking of renewed vigor, Warden seems to still be twitching too. Tom's return to the town marks the kick off of a new spate of pix axe murders. The rest, as they say, is misery.

My Bloody Valentine - oh sure, once it starts sucking eggs it's suddenly MY bloody valentine – is a soulless rehash of a mediocre flick. More bland than bad, it's a movie so predictable, so obvious, and so safe that it mild success seems effortlessly secure and overtly cynical. Seemingly written by committee, it ploddingly hits every point on the You-2-Can-Write plot specs provided in Writing Classic Slashers for Dummies while unwisely adding all the worst elements – all the un-mystery and none of the leavening wit – of a post-Scream Era slasher revival film. The end result is a leaden bore of film that pads a straight-to-video hour-and-twenty minute slasher with an extra near-thirty minutes of domestic drama and mystery moments that will actually make you long for brisk efficiency and taut professional focus a Kevin Williamson flick.

Only two things spared this flick a Sci-Fi Channel premiere: an extended nude scene and 3-D. Neither is quite enough to save the film. Like the film's plot, there's a bit too much sag in the nude scenes. As for the 3-D, while technically quite proficient, it is a fairly unnecessary gloss that hinders, rather than liberates the film. The 3-D is crisp and pleasingly clear, but it gives everything a weird "diorama in a box look," ties the hands of the cinematographer and editor by demanding unnecessary long takes and goofy extreme close-up, and it rarely used to significant effect (and how could it be when the exact same film also needs to be screened in not 3-D formats?).

No doubt there are partisans of the previous incarnation of Valentine that will feel some affection for this uninspired reworking. One of the few slashers that didn't manage to wear out its welcome by featuring Fat Boys theme songs, kung-fu battles with Busta Rhymes, or outer space adventures, Valentine's box office failure and subsequent neglect must now look something like integrity. By never venturing to Manhattan or rapping in music videos, Valentine's killer – the wonderfully designed Harry Warden – never lapsed into self-parody. Still, this retroactive re-evaluation of the original had more to do with the decline of more famous slasher icons than anything else. It wasn't that Valentine (and other such flicks, like The Burning) is so great, but rather that they never had the chance franchise-up and flood the market with inferior product. (A chance that the remake, with its "set-up the franchise" conclusion, seems more than willing to rectify.)

That the original owes its cult status to simply not decaying into utter suckitude is fitting. The remake is a giant ode to fan settling and a refutation that horror, as a genre, has room for new ideas, innovations, or growth. I read an online critic that praised My Bloody Valentine for catering to tastes of the 40-and-over set, and he was spot on. The new Valentine is the Big Chill of horror.

Still, the 3-D glasses are kind of neat. I kept mine in the hopes that I'd someday be given something worth looking at.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Stuff: The sinister werecow of Babylon.

Vaughan Bell, at the ever entertaining Mind Hacks blog, points to a new study of clinical lycanthropy – the delusion that one can change into an animal – that cites 20 new cases of the uncommon condition in the Iraq.

Bell gives the entire abstract, which I'll reproduce here:

Lycanthropy alive in Babylon: the existence of archetype.

Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2009 Feb;119(2):161-4; discussion 164-5. Epub 2008

Younis AA, Moselhy HF.

OBJECTIVE: Lycanthropy is the belief in the capacity of human metamorphosis into animal form. It has been recorded in many cultures. Apart from historic description of lycanthropy, there has been several case reports described in the medical literature over the past 30 years. METHOD: We identified eight cases of lycanthropy in 20 years, mainly in the area of Babylon, Iraq. RESULTS: The most commonly reported diagnosis was severe depressive disorder with psychotic symptoms. The type of animal that the patients changed into were mainly dogs (seven cases) and only one case changed into a cow for the first time to report. CONCLUSION: Lycanthropy delusion is a rare delusion but appears to have survived into modern times with possible archetypal existence.

That's right: a werecow! Indie horror filmmakers, get those scripts a grinding!

I couldn't find a picture of a were-cow proper for inspiration, so here's two wall-mounted robotic cow tongues created by Korean artist Doo Sung Yoo.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Stuff: "Obviously, my evolution has taken place at a rapid pace."

To let you really know that I'm back, we're going to drag today's entry back to an evergreen topic here on ANTSS: torture.

Hey, if you're going to be blocked from work computers as sheep, might as well be blocked as a wolf. That's what Grammy ANTSS always used to say.

In certain sections of the Axis o' Blogging, there's an increasingly shrill chatter about the likelihood of prosecuting Bush administration officials for war crimes in connection with the administration of torture both domestically and abroad. What has passed without much notice is the sentencing of one Chucky Taylor (shown above), born Charles McArthur Emmanuel, the first U.S. citizen to ever be convicted under the federal anti-torture statutes of the United States of America.

Earlier this month, the Honorable Cecilia M. Altonaga of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida handed down a sentence of 97 years, ensuring that Taylor, an African American native of Dorchester, Massachusetts, will most likely die in federal prison.

Altonaga, a Bush appointee and one-time short list contender for the Supreme Court, called Taylor's actions "sadistic, cruel and atrocious." She went on to say, "It is hard to conceive of any more serious offenses against the dignity and the lives of human beings."

The fullest description of the bizarre life and times of Chucky Taylor, American son of African warlord Charles Taylor, can be found, in of all places, Rolling Stone magazine, in a 2008 article writing a few months before Taylor's conviction.

From the article:

Emmanuel and Taylor eventually moved into a cozy apartment together. They soon had a son, Michael, who passed away at seven months, and a daughter, Zoe. On February 12th, 1977, after a torturous labor, Emmanuel gave birth to Chucky; he weighed 12 pounds, 14 ounces. Chucky had gray eyes and a ghostly pale complexion, a vestige of Emmanuel's white grandfather. When Charles Taylor arrived at the hospital, "he didn't believe that the boy was his kid," Emmanuel says. "He didn't look like he was a black baby." They named their son Charles McArthur Emmanuel.

The couple never married, but they enjoyed several idyllic years in their Dorchester apartment. "We lived together for eight years," Emmanuel says. "I was considered his common-law wife."

During Chucky's first year, Emmanuel was the breadwinner, though Taylor juggled jobs at Sears and Mutual of Omaha. Chucky, Emmanuel says, "was the happiest baby." One day, around Chucky's first birthday, Taylor saw his son drinking from a baby bottle. He plucked it from his son's hands and threw it out the window. "You're too grown for bottles," he declared.

Despite moments of domesticity, Taylor led a separate life outside the home. He partied and protested with other Liberian activists living along the East Coast. In 1980, he traveled back to Liberia just in time for a coup by a small band of army officers. In a volatile political climate, Taylor quickly proved to be a canny opportunist: He married the niece of a general, ingratiating himself with the new government. He called Emmanuel, asking her to move to Liberia, but she refused.

Later, after Taylor was caught stealing from the post-coup government, he fled to the US. There he was arrested by US Marshals, but escaped the Massachusetts jail he was being held in and fled back to Africa.

Emmanuel moved on with her life. In the mid-1980s, she married a man named Roy Belfast and relocated the family to a two-story brick home on the corner of a quiet street in Orlando. Chucky slept in a small bedroom, barely big enough for his bed and dresser, but he made room for a turntable, a mixer and a massive set of speakers. As he grew from a boy into a teenager, his light complexion darkened. He began to strongly resemble his father, who was drifting in and out of prisons in Ghana and Sierra Leone, and into Muammar el-Qaddafi's paramilitary training camps in Libya. In 1989, on Christmas Eve, Taylor re-emerged as a self-styled revolutionary leader, invading Liberia with a small band of guerrillas. A month later, Chucky went with his mother to the Orange County Clerk's Office and changed his name to that of his stepfather, becoming Roy Belfast Jr. "I was his father at the time," Chucky's stepfather says simply.

A few years later, right around Christmas, Chucky answered the phone at home. Now in his early teens, he was a quiet kid, awkward and shy. The man on the line asked to speak to his mother. Emmanuel wasn't home at the time, but before Chucky hung up, the stranger explained that he was the boy's father.

"My dad called," Chucky announced when Emmanuel returned home a short while later. "I didn't want to talk to him."

Emmanuel was stunned. It had been so long since she had heard from Taylor, she couldn't understand what Chucky was telling her at first. "Who's your dad?" she asked, bewildered.

In 1990, young Chucky went to visit his father. Impressed by the importance and power of his father wielded in Liberia, the young Taylor was unable to readjust to life in America. In 1994, he got in trouble with law and, rather than face jail time, he was shipped off to be with his father. By that time, Taylor had "officially" been elected President of Liberia:

Taylor had finally been elected president, sweeping into power with 75 percent of the vote. His campaign slogan was a bizarre mixture of honesty and thinly veiled threat: "He Killed My Ma, He Killed My Pa, But I Will Vote for Him."

Despite a tempestuous relationship, Taylor put his son in charge of the nation's Anti-Terror Unit. The federal indictment describes the unit's tactics:

In April 1999, a rebel group attacked the town of Voinjama, near the border with Guinea. As described in the federal indictment, Chucky traveled to a checkpoint near the site of the attack with members of the Anti-Terrorist Unit. Civilians fleeing the town streamed over the St. Paul River Bridge, deeper into Liberia. Chucky stopped a group passing through the checkpoint. He asked whether there were rebels among them. According to the indictment, he then "selected three persons from the group and summarily shot them in front of the others." The ATU detained several survivors and brought them to the base at Gbatala; by that time the prisoners had been pistol-whipped by Chucky and several ATU officers. The prisoners were then tossed into pits, which were covered with iron bars and barbed wire, and subjected to a laundry list of torture, including being burned by cigarettes and having plastic melted on their genitals. At one point, according to the indictment, Chucky ordered the execution of a prisoner, but when an ATU officer raised his gun, Chucky instructed him to cut off the man's head instead. Several officers held the man down, forcing his head over a bucket. "The soldiers then severed [the victim's] head by cutting his throat from back to front as blood dripped into the bucket, while he screamed and begged for his life," the indictment states.

After Taylor's government collapsed, Chucky did what any kid raised on American pop culture would do: He made a gangster rap album.

Chucky followed him there, and over the next several years his life took a nomadic turn. He ventured to South Africa, Libya, Paris and London. In 2005, he spent several weeks at a studio in Trinidad, recording 20 hip-hop tracks. "I grew up in the era of hip-hop," he says. "Obviously, my evolution has taken place at a rapid pace. It is a snapshot of my mind frame at that time." Federal agents confiscated a notebook of his lyrics, which included the lines "We ain't takin' no slack/Y'all try to tackle mine/Layin' bodies in stacks" and "Take this for free/Six feet under is where you gonna be."

You can hear a fairly crappy track from Taylor's album, an awkwardly produced contempo-R&B influenced track called "Angel," at the end of the Rolling Stone article. It is, in my humble opinion, painfully awful.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Books: Killing Poe in the classroom or "Some motherf*****s just have it comin'."

Good morning my little Screamers and Screamettes. I'm back at the keyboard. I hope the Blog-a-matic 3400 Mark 9 Content Creation System found some interesting material for you while I was gone.

Today, we're going to go a little upmarket and check in at The Smart Set, Drexel University's snark-besotted culture site, and see how they're commemorating the Bicentennial of Poe.

Here's the grabber for the article "Poe at 200":

There are lessons on the horror writer in every American school. And they are crap.

The author goes on:

2009 marks the bicentennial of Edgar Allan Poe, arguably the most famed and influential writer in American history. Not only does his work entirely limn the culture, but he also created no fewer than two genres of popular fiction — mystery and modern horror — almost single-handedly. Virtually anyone in the U.S. can recite his poetry (a few lines here and there, at least). His personal life and ambitions inform the clichés of the starving writer in his garret and that of the mad genius. And it's nigh impossible for someone to graduate from an American high school without having read him.

Poe was also a player of hoaxes, a plagiarist, had a substance abuse problem, and couldn't keep a roof over his head. Poe was a proponent of slavery, the worst sort of would-be social climber, and married a 13-year-old girl in his cousin Virginia Clemm. None of this information is new, of course — these fun facts are probably the answers to a fill-in-the-blank quiz given each year in some sixth-grade classroom in Ohio. The problem is that Poe has been so completely taught that he is very rarely read with the eyes of a reader.

Unlike Hawthorne, with whom he is often paired in criticism and in those awful "language arts" classes, Poe had little interest in portraying a true-to-life America or plumbing our historical discontents. Many of his stories take place in a world either fancifully sketched out or left purposefully ambiguous. In stories such as "The Tell-Tale Heart," the confession the narrator gives in order to prove his sanity occurs in a functional vacuum. The settings of "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Man of the Crowd," and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" could be identified as Spain, Venice, London, and Paris, but the locations are more like panoramas made from magazine clippings than they are representations of the actual places. Poe even moved American stories, such as the true crime of the murder of Mary Rogers in Hoboken, New Jersey, to an explicitly parallel universe in which the murder finds its double in Paris: In "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" the Seine spells the Hudson River, and the Paris of the story is rather oddly New Jersey-shaped.

Poe's stories won't lead to ersatz history lessons about the Puritans or any of the moral instruction that too often accompanies the reading of literature in schools. They don't exist here, or anywhere else we could identify on a map as part of a dual language arts/social studies curriculum.

Later, in what I think is the most thought provoking part of the article, we get a rundown of Poe's amoral approach to horror – an approach the article's writer contrasts with other crypto-moralistic modes of "transgression":

Poe was one of the first authors of modern horror in that he was not interested in resolving the social trespasses his work depicted with pat morally correct endings or appeals to cosmic justice. In this way, he was also one of the only modern purveyors of dark fiction. The bloodiest slasher flicks often betray a Puritanical ideology, with only the virginal characters allowed to survive. Gangsta rappers love their mamas and write songs about them. Noir writers made sure their sleuths had a code of ethical conduct, even if it only consisted of a single line they would not cross but that the baddies they hunted would. Stephen King's novels summon up dark miracles that threaten families, towns, and occasionally civilization itself, but these evils are put down more often than not thanks to the power of friendship.

You can find "Two-Fisted Poe" and other wacky delights in Martin Kupperman's Snake 'n' Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Music: "Extravagant experimental explosion sound!"


Welcome to the third day of AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS auto-posts. Today's AND NOW THE SCREAM STARTS post comes to you from Blogger's own Blog-a-matic 3400 Mark 9 Content Creation System. Though CRWM is unable to create a post today because he or she is unable to fulfill his or her blogging obligations, the Blog-a-matic 3400 Mark 9 Content Creation System will create a custom blog in the field of HORROR/MUSIC tailored to the unique style of CRWM. His or her fans shouldn't notice the difference.


The woman who shouts and the person who greeting shouts! Today, because you are waiting in anyone as much as possible the girl of that kind of boy and it is good, and as for me who for robot gag of all contribution am patient, there are two - that's it; those of your finger, baby - 2 video it counts the right of. First, the band Wild Beast. Dig quirkiness of theme of the deck of tarot; " The Devil' s Crayon."

From extravagant experimental explosion sound, here's to low loyalty; sound earnestly: Clinic, to which has been attached, "The Witch."

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Stuff: "Resistance is not useful!"


Welcome to the second day of AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS auto-posts. Today's AND NOW THE SCREAM STARTS post comes to you from Blogger's own Blog-a-matic 3400 Mark 9 Content Creation System. Though CRWM is unable to create a post today because he or she is unable to fulfill his or her blogging obligations, the Blog-a-matic 3400 Mark 9 Content Creation System will create a custom blog in the field of HORROR/ROBOT REVOLT tailored to the unique style of CRWM. His or her fans shouldn't notice the difference.


The invincible robot troop has come destroying. Resistance is not useful. It constitutes simply in order as for moving became tired and to die. There is no desire. It nominates that you ask in order to make the mercy where the death where I find and the closest computer or electric appliance, with your knee time do not have, and am fast before that, pain is small possible.

Part article:

It’s not hard to see the appeal of robots to the Pentagon. Above all, they save lives. But they also don’t come with some of our human frailties and foibles. "They don’t get hungry," says Gordon Johnson of the Pentagon’s Joint Forces Command. "They’re not afraid. They don’t forget their orders. They don’t care if the guy next to them has just been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes."

Future belongs to us completely, - it ends the time of humanity!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Music: "Dampened by insanity!"


Welcome to the first day of AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS auto-posts. Today's AND NOW THE SCREAM STARTS post comes to you from Blogger's own Blog-a-matic 3400 Mark 9 Content Creation System. Though CRWM is unable to create a post today because he or she is unable to fulfill his or her blogging obligations, the Blog-a-matic 3400 Mark 9 Content Creation System will create a custom blog in the field of HORROR/MUSIC tailored to the unique style of CRWM. His or her fans shouldn't notice the difference.


Today fan girl person and boy: that the host of my and your and the private friend of end is CRWM. Today, because the joy of your viewing and the education which is promoted, as for me. "It shows in you of music video of for the sake of; Under the Pines," depending upon the band Bodies of Water. As for thrill to the domestic drama, you are addicted to the panting of the kind of power which makes the fear of tragedy and the magical using dog hold which are dampened by insanity!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Art: A short announcement followed by the art of J. R. Williams.

All right, Screamers and Screamettes, I'm going on to "auto-post" for a few days. I've got to head out of town for a funeral and even I, perhaps the most low-rent personage you've ever had the displeasure of knowing, am not so bereft of class that I'd blog at a funeral.

So, in the mean time, through the wonders of technology™ - technology is a registered trademark of Globamark Corporation LLC: "Making your future brighter by owning it." – a couple of, hopefully, interesting post will get thrown up on to the site in my absence.

I'll be back on Friday. Stay classy, Screamers and Screamettes.

To start the ghost blog period off right, soak up a little cultcha why don't ya with the awesome post-pop art of J. R. Williams. Here's a collection of his most monstrous paintings, illustrations, and digital comic collages. Featuring guest appearances by the Addams Family, Screaming Lord Sutch, everybody's favorite resident of the Black Lagoon, and many more.

You can find more of his work on Flickr.

J. R. Williams originals are available at his page at the Comic Art Collective.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Stuff: In which we learn what a dybbuk is, read smack about the movie "The Unborn," listen to an exorcism, and check in on Hitler and Judas.

On the Jewsih culture web site Nextbook web site, the new horror flick The Unborn gets some attention because its spectral villain is not just a ghosty, but specifically a "dybbuk": "In Kabbalah and European Jewish folklore, a dybbuk is a malicious possessing spirit, believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person."

The Nextbook review of the flick isn't very flattering. According to the reviewer, the movie is lamely unoriginal in most parts and insulting where it is original. From the review:

The Unborn is not terribly scary, and it's humorless (unless you count the scenes with the homicidal six-year-old, which had the audience guffawing at the screening I attended). Aside from its Jewish angle it's as predictable as all the other horror films that studios dump into theaters every January. The old Hungarian, Sofi Kozma, is Casey's grandmother. She survived Auschwitz as a child, but her twin brother didn't. The siblings were subjected to one of Josef Mengele's perverse experiments, in which the brother had something toxic injected into his eyes to make them blue. (Since, you know, blue eyes were important to the Nazis.) The brother died, and then he came back to life. But he wasn't the same anymore—he was a dybbuk! Yes, here's a mainstream horror movie aimed at teenagers—complete with video IM'ing and babysitting and vodka-and-Red-Bulls—that has a dybbuk as its villain, and goes to awkward lengths to explain what a dybbuk is.

In her skillful accent, Jane Alexander says that she and her fellow kiddie Auschwitz prisoners could tell that her brother was no longer her brother. He had neon-blue eyes and a ghostly pallor. "So I killed it," she says. Yep, she killed her own brother at Auschwitz. (And you thought The Reader was the most deplorable Holocaust-exploiting film now in theaters.)

Shame the review makes it sound so dull; I wasn't interested in the flick until this review underscored the whole folkloric angle. The reviewer giveth and the reviewer taketh away, I guess.

The experience isn't a total washout though. The review contained this odd tidbit that I found interesting:

"My main source of research was watching real exorcisms on YouTube," Yustman says in the press notes.

There are exorcism videos floating around on Youtube?

No. Not really. Not that I could find. At least, no good ones.

One of the most popular seems is this collage of alleged images and audio recordings of the exorcism of on Anneliese Michel.

Michel was born of German Catholic parents. Her family belonged to a rebellious strain of Bavarian Catholicism that had rejected Vatican II reforms.

Starting in the late 1960s, Michel was plagued by repeated bouts of crippling mental illness. Treatments seemed to do little to help her and, with the help of various religious authorities, she diagnosed herself as demonically possessed. Michel's behavior, when possessed, was extensively catalogued by her family and members of the clergy. She would rip the clothes off her body, perform hundreds of squat exercises compulsively each day, and eat insects she caught in the home. For days on end she would crawl around the house and act like a dog. Once she found a dead bird and bit the head off. She would urinate on the floor that then, getting on her hands and knees, lap up the puddle.

During the first half of 1976, two Catholic priests performed the rites of exorcism on Michel 67 times. More than half of the sessions were recorded on tape. In these recordings, several possessing demons introduce themselves. In one of the stranger episodes, the spirits of Judas and Hitler make an appearance and actually answer questions put to them by the priests. On tape, the supposed spirit of Hitler mocks atheists for thinking there's no afterlife. Later, the spirit of Judas insults Hitler and assures the priests that Hitler has no authority in Hell.

Through the exorcisms, Michel’s voice sound very much like the voice of the possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist, which had been release in Germany two years prior to the creation of the Michel tapes.

About mid-way through 1976, Anneliese Michel began telling the priests that she believed she had to die in order to redeem the wayward youth of the world and save those Catholic apostates who believed in Vatican II reforms. She began refusing food. At her own request, no doctors were consulted. Before the year was out, Annaliese had starved to death. She weighed 68 pounds when she died.

After her death, both priests and both of Michel's parents were charged and convicted of negligent homicide manslaughter. All four defendents were sentenced to six months of prison time. That time was suspended and they were put on three-year's probation.

For genre fans, Anneliese Michel probably ranks just behind the "Roland," the teenaged boy from Cottage City, Maryland, that inspired the novel The Exorcist, for cinematic relevance. And since you could say The Exorcist franchise buried Roland’s story rather than immortalize it, one could argue that Michel’s story has had a more extensive cinematic run. Michel’s exorcism and death form the basis for two films: Requiem and The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

Friday, January 09, 2009

News: " Frankly, I've heard alot of wild stories in the media . . . "

Is this the next gen proton pack?

I'm somewhat hesitant to post this as the ANTSS staff has been hoodwinked by hoaxers before. I'm thinking specifically about the perennial "London After Midnight found" brouhaha of last year. Falling for that was a pretty boneheaded move, but I managed somehow to tap a vast and previously undiscovered source of boneheadness and pass the "news" on to you, my loyal and unsuspecting Screamers and Screamettes.

So, in that long tradition of handing you poorly vetted and highly questionable information as if it were genuine, I direct your attention to Ghostspy: A blog that's supposedly run by a crew member working on Ghostbusters 3.

There's no reason yet to assume that this is anything but a prank. I picked up the link from the fine folks at Bloody Disgusting and even they claim that the site makes their "journalistic instincts scream "bullsh*t." Anything that makes the folks at BD claim they have "journalistic instincts" is immediately dubious, so lector caveo.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Movies: "According to science, there's no telling who could be eaten!"

I'm not a big one for handing out extra credit on the basis of nostalgia baiting. When I was younger, I was incredibly fond of Saturday afternoon creature feature flicks – mostly Ike Era morality tales about how atomic power will embiggen various segments of the animal kingdom until they pose an existential threat to the more traditionally portioned of us. I still hold a soft spot for these flicks, especially Tarantula, a movie that features, in case you couldn't guess, an outsized version of the titular arachnid causing distress to a desert community until the U.S. Air Force ruins its fun with extreme prejudice.

While I recognize the special power these films exerted over me in my youth, I don't understand the impulse to evaluate current films by the benchmark they set. For some reason, this sort of willful critical retardation is completely acceptable in some mediums and genres and obviously wrong-headed in others. The critical judgments of somebody who maintained that no good novel was written after Annie on My Mind would be justly dismissed off-hand. However, it isn't uncommon to treat the claim that no great horror films were made after the 1980s with a modicum of critical politeness.

This isn't to say that there aren't classic horror films. But, to me, a classic is a film that continues to endure despite, not because, of its connection to the era of its creation. Its style and content continue to be relevant even as the culture changes around them. It somehow always approaches the viewer as a current revelation, not as an emissary from the past.

That said, the appeal of nostalgia is incredibly strong in horror. The impulse to create things that return to the templates and tropes of past flicks in the hopes of cashing in on fond memories drives a considerable portion of the horror genre. And, despite their protestations, fans seem happy to pony up the cheddar for these re-heated leftovers. (Sequels and remakes made impressive showings on both the Vault 50 and Vault Modern 25 lists.) People often site that the draw of horror stems from the primal nature of fear. Perhaps that's true. But there's an even more basic emotion, the longing for the safety and comfort of the familiar, that would seem to exert an even bigger influence on the genre. To ignore the pull of nostalgia is to simply miss the point of many horror flicks.

One such flick is the 2004 Roger Corman produced creature-feature Dinocroc, a giant croc/dinosaur revival horror-action movie that exists mainly to remind us of how much we loved other, better creature features.

To help me grasp the crucial retro warm-and-fuzzy element, I've gotten in touch with my inner child. It wasn't easy. On the advice of my doctor, spiritual advisor, and wardrobe consultant, I had my eternally youthful inner-me surgically removed in 1998. That same year, in desperate need of funds due some unforeseen legal complications that arose in connection to what some uncharitably referred to as "embezzlement," I sold him to a Nike factory in the Liaoning region of Northeast China. Escaping his bondage, he then stowed away aboard a Norwegian tramp steamer headed for San Francisco. There he spent several years at a progressive safari company for hunters of extinct species. The younger me wore the California Grizzly cub outfit. He was hospitalized several times. It was on his fourteenth work-related hospital stay that I was finally able to track him down.

For the purposes of this review, the younger me will be identified as CR. Welcome to the blog, CR.

CR: Yo.

CRwM: CR, we usually start these things off with a plot summary. Will you do the honors?

CR: There's this starting bit about a guy on a boat who is hunting crocodiles, only it looks like he gets eaten. But then, it's like nighttime and he hasn't been eaten. Instead, he's killed the giant crocodile that was going to eat him. And the guy cuts the croc open and there's like a kid in there, visible in the croc's belly. Then suddenly, the dude is all, "Ahhhhhhh" and he wakes up sweaty.

Then the movie really starts. Like, so there's a company, Evil Corporation, and they make genetic stuff. That means, you know, they're going to end up making dinosaurs. 'Cause most genetic corporations exist mainly to bring back really deadly animals or take living animals that eat people and make them even deadlier. That's really like the point of science. Except, instead of making T. Rex's and stuff, they make a giant dinosaur crocodile. Though, really, it's like just a CGI shrunken down version of Gorgo, Godzilla's gay British cousin. This thing breaks out in like the first two seconds of the movie and starts running around the company grounds.

CRwM: Fans of late-onset Corman produced stuff – if that's possible – may recognize the beast as a slightly tweaked version of the "superalligator" from the Corman produced flick of the same name.

CR: The doctor who made the thing is like, "Well, that's not good. According to science, there's no telling who could be eaten!" And his boss, a lady you can tell is evil because she dresses really business-like and has a European accent is like, "We'll hire that guy who was screaming at the beginning of the movie. In the meantime, have some guy go feed it dogs. Because I'm evil."

CRwM: The growth hormone/dog thing is lifted from 1980's Alligator, the John Sayles penned creature feature that is the ur-text of all big bad crocogator films. It's the first in a steady stream of swipes. The employee charged with feeding the croc gets snatched off a pier in a scene that reminds the viewer of the classic, far superior "fishing with a pot roast" scene in Jaws. At times, I caught myself wondering if the script for Dinocroc just read: ". . . and then the Jaws scene, cut to the flashlight in the monster's eye thing from Jurassic Park, cut to shadow in sewer scene from Alligator, and roll credits."

CR: So then there's this kid looking for his lost dog. And the dog catcher - who is like totally hot for the kid's brother, a sculptor who is totally tough, because he's got tattoos, and totally deep, 'cause he mumbles a lot and squints when he looks at people – says she'll help find the dog, but we don't ever see that dog again. I guess the filmmakers forgot about it.

CRwM: I'm especially fond of the tattoo on the sculptor's right shoulder as it appears to be the Harley Dividson logo. But, for legal reasons I guess, the filmmakers were hesitant to actually use the motorbike producer's name and the logo's famed banner is just blank. It give the impression that the sculptor lost interest or ran out of money half-way through the process of getting inked.

CR: Anyway, the sculptor and the dog catcher go looking for the dog on Evil Corporation's land and almost get eaten y the dinocroc. The scientist who made the monster saves them. Eventually, he explains that Evil Corporation's Monster Development Division made the thing and that they've hired the dude from the beginning of the movie to hunt the monster down. The dude from the beginning of the movie is this Australian guy, so he's all like, "Gah day, mate. I'm here to kill your croc. Gah day, I'm dingoing in your wallaby." He's a kind of a dill hole.

That night, while the dog catcher and the sculptor get all kissy-faced, the sculptor's little brother goes out looking for his dog. Instead of finding the dog, the croc totally eats his ass.

CRwM: I actually have to give credit to Dinocroc for being so ruthless. The kid not only gets it pretty early, but it is probably the movie's most gruesome kill.

CR: Dude, it like pops through the floor of the shack on a pier and like snaps it's jaws around the kid. And the kids freakin' head pops off and comes zooming at the camera! It was awesome! We rewound that and watched a bunch of times. It was the coolest part of the movie.

The next day, the Australian guy, the sculptor, the scientist, and the dog catcher chase the dinocroc to a local lake off of Evil Corporation land. It's like an all-you-can-eat dinocroc buffet. That's when the second coolest kill of the movie happens: the dinocroc snaps up this water skier on the fly. It's super funny. But when the heroes try to kill the Dinocroc, the scientist falls in and he's like, "According to science, it's eating me!" And he dies.

Then the press and the cops are all up in Evil Corporation's business and the French lady the runs the place is like, "Yes, we're very sad. Talk to our lawyers." Then the cops find the dead kid's bike and his brother's so all-man that when the dog catcher tries to comfort him, he shrugs her off and goes to the bar. And there's some blah blah with the croc hunter that I kind of tuned out.

CRwM: We find out the person in the croc's belly at the beginning of the film was the croc hunter's son. So he's got a thing against crocs.

CR: Was it a dinocroc?

CRwM: Was what a dinocroc?

CR: The thing that ate his son?

CRwM: No. Just a regular croc. But he blames them all for it. That's why he hates them.

CR: But they all didn't do it. It's like being racist against all crocodiles because one of them was bad.

CRwM: Um. Sure. Very, um, astute. Summarize the rest of the movie.

CR: So the cops go to kill the croc. An the dog catcher and the croc hunter are like, "Your attack will never work!" And the chief, who is the dog catcher's dad, says, "It'll work." And then the dinocroc eats a bunch of cops and the chief's like, "That didn't work. My bad. Let's try that other plan you guys wanted to do in the first place."

CRwM: Now leave the story hanging, so you don't ruin it and you leave the reader wanting to see the film.

CR: But instead of that plan working, they hit dinocroc with a train and kill him. After he eats the French lady. How do they do that? You'll have to find out yourselves.

CRwM: Good enough.

So, what did you think of film? Did it appeal to you by evoking the creature features of old?

CR: To be honest, I thought this was – even by the admittedly low standards we hold crocogator flicks to – a weak outing. It's one thing to rely on allusions to connect with your audience and establish certain traditional genre expectations. But what Dinocroc does amounts to little more than cut-and-paste movie making. The filmmakers allow themselves a few comedic touches and can display a pleasing streak of cruelty, but these lively hints of real feeling are far too few in number to redeem the film as a whole. Finally, for fans of the crocogator sub-genre, the Pete's Dragon-ish monster design takes it out of the sub-genre without any corresponding benefit for the innovation – if you're going to go all monster, it should be able to do something you couldn't have done with just a big croc. As much as we love anything with scales, a wetland habitat, and a bad attitude, I can help but feel disappointed by Dinocroc.

CRwM: Wow. Nicely put.

CR: Does this mean I don't have to go back into the cage in the basement.

CRwM: Nice try, little man. Nice try.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Music: Do I know you?

So there this Los Angeles based band called Shiloe. They do a sort of fuzzed out shoegazy post-punk influenced power pop rock and or roll thing. It's cool.

In accordance with the Compulsory Underground Music Online Notification via Myspace Act of 2007, Shiloe has a myspace page. Warning the music kicks in automatically, so mute it if you're in your cube. You drone.

Here's the trio covering Bauhaus's signature tune:

Most importantly, their new EP is actually titled And Now the Screaming Starts!

Why the nerve! I'd have half a mind to sue the pants off these left coast hipsters, if I hadn't stolen the name myself.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Stuff: Wondertales. Not pony tales or goblin tales . . .

In the time-honored debate regarding the relative value of supernatural versus naturalistic horror, one seldom hears somebody espouse a middle-way alternative to the viewpoints each end of the spectrum. Harold Schechter, one-man true crime book factory and the editor of the new True Crime: An American Anthology, laid out the intriguing ground work for just such a position in a recent interview with the Columbus Dispatch.

From his interview:

Q: When a drug dealer shoots someone in a drive-by we barely notice. What sorts of true crimes most intrigue us?

A: From childhood on, there's a deep hunger in our lives for what folklorists call "wondertales": stories that shock, thrill and amaze. Every now and then, a crime comes along that seems like something out of one of the Grimms' more nightmarish fantasies: wicked parents who slaughter their own children, or ghoulish predators who haunt the night, or cannibal ogres who devour the innocent. These are the crimes that resonate most powerfully in the popular imagination - that become part of our cultural mythology.

I like how this suggests that sort of unified theory of what attracts us to horror and folds the supernatural and naturalistic elements into a larger argument. Sadly, Schechter and his interviewer don’t pursue this thread any further. Still, the interview is interesting for what it says about the traditions and future of what might truly be, along with mass-market romance, one of the last “disreputable” genres.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Movies: Who is this Michael Haneke and why is he saying these horrible things about us?

As promised, Screamers and Screamettes, today we tackle Michael Haneke's Brechtian home invasion art-thriller Funny Games. I'm going to be talking specifically about the 1997 original, so folks who signed on to the remake might find their mileage varies. Though, from what I've heard, the two flicks are relatively interchangeable.

In a previous review of Michael Haneke's Caché, I suggested that there are two Michael Haneke's at work in any one Haneke film.

First, there's a somewhat ham-fisted and predictable moralist who seems ever ready to browbeat audiences with a simplistic lesson along the lines of "racism is bad and all white people are guilty of it" or "enjoying fictional media violence makes you complicit in violence, um, somehow" or "love is all you need" or any of a million other fortune-cookie grade platitudes that modern artists can find drifting among the detritus of post-1960 liberalism. This is holier than thou Haneke that many critics and film-goers justly cannot stand. In the interview attached to the Kino edition of Funny Games, Haneke announces that only the people who "need" his film will set through it. More well adjusted, smarter, right-thinking folk will figure out his message right away and leave. Only the violence hounds with a pathological need to watch suffering will stick it out and such people "deserve to be tortured."

The stupidity of this statement is so multi-faceted, that it staggers the imagination and can drive even naturally reserved viewers, like myself, to give their utterly innocent television sets, who were honestly just following orders when they showed this interview, the finger.

But, before one can get mad enough to do actual violence to the guiltless appliance, this same Michael Haneke – the one who says he built a flick to justly torture blood-junkie troglodytes – says that it is a failure of the artist to lapse into easy moral judgments and that he has no interest in "denouncing any person." Later, he also agrees with a comment by another great directorial-sadist, Hitchcock, that "the more intelligent the villain, the better the movie" and discusses how he diligently and happily constructed the film to ensure that his victims were truly and thoroughly screwed.


One possible answer to this seeming paradox is that Haneke is a hypocritical douche-nozzle who can't even keep his own story straight. And it is hard to argue against that.

But, if you'll humor me, I think that what we've got here is the second Haneke that I was talking about. The second Haneke isn't particulary interested in teaching the sort of moral lessons you expect to find at the end of "very special episode" of a particularly un-edgy sitcom. Despite himself, he's too interested in what makes films work, how genres are built, how audiences interact with films, and how all these things can be manipulated. He simply wants to make a tight, functional, flawless machine of a film and he can't concern himself with making a coherent political statement.

Haneke claims Funny Games is his only piece of agit-prop. But even a cursory examination of that film reveals a work of art too weird, too complicated, and too unruly to even serve its own master's purposes.

We're going to run through the plot quickly.

We start with a family: two parents and one kid. Following the pattern of Haneke's The Seventh Continent (1989: Anna and Georg), Code Unknown (2000: Anne and Georges), Time of the Wolf (2003: Anne and Georges), and Caché (Anne and Georges), the couple at the center of Funny Games is named Anna and Georg.

Haneke's habit of using the same names gives the viewer who has followed his career the weird feeling that Ann(a or e) and Georg(es) are the Kenny of the Haneke film universe. It is as if there's just this one family and the angry God of their reality – Haneke the Merciless – just goes out of his way to absolutely fuck them over in the worst ways his omnipotence allows. If at any time during Funny Games you think Haneke's being unnecessarily brutal to the lead victims, reflect on the idea that this is just one of five horrific fates Haneke has, to date, dealt them.

The film opens with the family on the road, headed to their secluded lake home. Why, oh, why does anybody even go to secluded lake homes anymore? They are, of course, subjected to a home invasion by a duo of relentlessly polite, relentlessly brutal young men dressed in tennis whites and sporting finicky white gloves.

These two assailants, who refer to themselves by a host of different names (Peter and Paul, Tom and Jerry, Beavis and Butthead) and offer a couple of alternative "origin stories" (beating Nolan's Joker to that particular gag by more than a decade), proceed to put the family through a torturous gamut of children's games that have been twisted to accommodate homicidal punchlines.

And, just to spice things up, the assailants are aware of the fictional nature of the film they are in and not only regularly break the fourth wall and directly address the viewer, but also manipulate the medium – with the help of the director – to ensure their uncontested dominance over their victims. They can, for example, rewind sections of the film and erase plot twists that don't go their way or use editing cuts to eliminate in-film space, allowing them to see into and retrieve items from a room on the first floor of a house without ever leaving a different room on the second floor.

One could just wonder how the family stands any chance against such superpowered – for lack of a better term – opponents and, SPOILER ALERT, they don't. All the family members are toyed with and then killed, their suffering intentionally stretched out by the name-shifting villains to fit into a suitable one and one-half hour running time. When the last family member is dead, the duo goes to another house and, with a knowing look at the viewer, the whole thing is presumed to start all over again.

Let's talk about what isn't the major facet of genre subversion here. Haneke 1, and many of the critics who despise him, will tell you that the self-aware monkey-shines of the attackers, especially the way they directly address the audience, makes the audience aware of the fact that they are "accomplices" to murder.

Except that's absurd.

This position might be defensible in some abstract way with regards to some generic "violent films" category, but it is hard to advance this thesis with evidence from the film Haneke made. Why? Because Haneke's po-mo shenanigans aren't just add-ons he slapped on a Straw Dogs remake to make it palatable to the Cannes set. The movie's plot only works if it is a movie in a literal sense. Without the killers' self-awareness as fictional characters and their ability to openly manipulate the film medium in which they exist, the plot doesn't progress the same way. The result is to repeatedly declare to viewers that what is going on is not "murder," but make-believe. At one point in the film, one of our poly-monikered murderers asks the viewers if they believe the family has any chance of surviving the film. "Who are you betting with?" Far from being an indictment of viewers' dubious empathic responses, the effect reminds viewers that neither chance nor sympathy are really at play here. Insomuch as Haneke, by proxy of his imagined killers, is completely in control of his fictional universe, all these characters are simply aspects of the story Haneke tells and their fates were sealed long ago. And not in some meta-discourse film studies way – but as an in-film aspect of the story we know these characters are just and only that: characters. For contrast, during one of the murder scenes, Haneke gives us a long shot of a blood-splattered television. On the TV is stock footage of a race car wreck. Meant, I suspect, as little more than a visual metaphor for the family's worsening condition, it also provides a telling counterpoint to Haneke's overly cinematic tension as it gives viewers the chance to compare a truly random incident of violence within an entertainment context and the highly mannered and overtly manipulative staginess Haneke gives us.

Ultimately, it lets everybody off the hook. Haneke, like his white-gloved killers, never gets his hands dirty because he made a film about violence, rather than a violent movie (though I think it should be noted that there's a single on-screen act of gory violence in Haneke's flick, and that happens to one of the baddies – Haneke's film is really light going compared to the extremes horror fans regularly subject themselves to these days). The viewers are off the hook because the not so "sub" subtext of the film is that the emotional response of the audience is easily manipulated by any halfway competent director. Consequently, how can viewers be held responsible for "who they bet with"? It isn't their choice.

If there's anything truly subversive about Haneke's flick, it all comes from a single scene: a long, emotionally ravaging single take that occurs after the death of the son, the first family member to go. After killing the young boy, the killers leave the house (an inexplicable act until you understand that the killers, by manipulating the film, simply cannot lose – they might as well take naps, run a marathon, or go to grad school in the interim; the universe of the film bends to their/Haneke's will and they can do what they want). Shocked and drained, the parents struggle to liberate themselves from their duct tape bonds. What's notable about this scene is how Haneke, free to explore the emotional range of his characters because he's made their emotions and their impact on the viewer the real crux of his pix, gives the viewer the full and genuinely harrowing reaction parents might have to the violent death of their son. This isn't some stereotypical scene that resolves in a quick cry followed by a vow of revenge or an urgent, "We've got to get going! Now!" These characters really let it all out. Especially Georg, whose gasping and wailing sobs might very well be the single loudest sound on the film's soundtrack. This single scene tells us more about the artificiality of media violence as we usually consume it than all the film's broken fourth walls and meta conversations about the blending of fact and fiction. It gives us a glimpse at what the fantasies we enjoy so effortlessly and without any sacrifice might actually cost. It is in that one moment that Haneke gives genre fans something important to ponder.

Is it the duty of fans to be so self-reflexive? Just because one enjoys the cartoonish violence of gore cinema, must you spend serious consideration on the pain and suffering of real horror? I don't have an answer for that. I feel that there's something so asymmetrical about the easy consumption of symbolic violence and the mind-numbing reality that the relationship demands attention. I also think that denying the impact of violent media – where the individual studies are always too limited, but the literature reviews are never rigorously focused enough – has taken on the same stanky strategies climate change deniers deploy. But does that really make my consumption of media violence any different from somebody who doesn't feel that same? I doubt it. In the special features interview that follows the film on the DVD, Haneke says that being self-reflexive immediately exempts you from the moral complicity of media violence. That sounds more like a statement of an academic's faith in the inherent redemptive value of intellectualization rather than a logical position on the issue.

Speaking of genre conventions, this is a blog review and I've already gone on too long and failed to give you a take-away judgment on the flick. I can't give you back the time you've spent reading this, but I can give you the executive summary. If you're reading this blog, Michael Haneke probably hates you. He doesn't think you're very bright and I'm fairly certain he thinks he's a better person than you are. This is a shame because he makes really good movies. In fact, his movies seem to be more complex and generous than he is. Funny Games is one of his better films. Watching it is something like watching the rules that govern the genre suddenly stand up and start dancing. My recommendation: dance along and leave before the musician starts telling you what they think. When was the last time you heard your favorite musician say anything that struck you as deeply and profoundly as their songs did? It's like that.