Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Movies: There is no right one.

I'm going to cheat a bit on this one. This is a review of Let the Right One In. By the time I finish typing this sentence, it will be the 4,724,049,182nd review of Let the Right One In on the Internet. Of those, nearly 4,724,049,173 of them do a better job of summarizing the flick than I could do. So, here's the lazy man's way out of this problem. I'm just going to link to one of those better reviews and avoid the heavy lifting. Click over to Arbogast, get the 411, and then come back if you're still curious about what I have to say.

Oh, hi. You're back. Okay, so I'll make with my little review now.

Critics have, I think, been both right and wrong about the much-lauded Swede vamp import Let the Right One In.

What are they right about?

I'm going to have to add my voice to the great mass of self-appointed Interweb pundits who have claimed that Let the Right One In was, hands down, 2008's best flick. An intense, moody, mature work of art, Let the Right One In is a confident success on almost every level.

Visually, the film smartly blends the painterly vistas directors like Greenaway and Hanke to the needs of its pulpy subject matter in a way that feels neither gimmicky nor like the slumming of dilettantes. Set among the grim blocks of a 1980s housing project and the bare, hypnotizing birch forests that surround the complex, the film has a strangely beautiful bleakness to it. One has to cast back to Erik Skjoldbjærg's 1997 detective thriller Insomnia, another art house provocation disguised as pulp fiction, to find a backdrop as powerfully grim.

The film relies on the acting chops of two child actors – a disaster-courting move that a lesser flick wouldn't have recovered from. Cleverly, the film escapes the trap of having the children communicate emotion by establishing a sort of affectless hyper-Method, the semi-official acting style of the Euro art scene, as a baseline. Characters in this film listen to somebody speak; then they pause, as if to ponder every possible nuance and shade of meaning of what they've heard; and then slowly reply in sentences so carefully measured and fully enunciated that one imagines the characters selecting the most appropriate phrases they can find out of a tiny stock of pre-made government-approved phrases designed by a committee following the same brutalist muses as the architects who designed the characters' block homes. It is, in its way, as fake and stylized as opera acting or the scene gnashing camp of Vincent Price, but it so perfectly fits with the rest of the film, the snow-blinded colors, pale and sickly interiors, and lifeless forests, that it doesn't jar. In a way, the short-lived debate over subtitling was somewhat irrelevant. How these characters talked was more important than anything they had to say. These characters speak in unpainted brick and frost.

Finally, the baggy, slow burn narrative structure is a deceptive trap; as it untangles, you realize that every thread was going to some into play somehow. The film's divergent story lines come together so effectively that anybody how has paid even the slightest attention is going to feel rewarded for their efforts. In fact, that's the brilliance of the LtROI's particular fusion of art house and genre filmmaking: The film demands you work a little, but then it is sure pay you for making the commitment.

There is a downside to making viewers feel like they've got to puzzle out the piece. Which brings us to the second obvious question of the piece.

What have reviewers got wrong?

Before we get into this, you should really go see the movie and decide what you think about it before I start running my mouth. Going beyond this point means you agreed to me running my mouth off.


For all the trash talking mainstream horror audiences have been eager to pile upon Twilight, there appears to be a near universal desire to turn Let the Right One In into little more than a slightly more toughened-up version of the same story. The relationship between Oskar and Eli has been described as "puppy love." Critics have suggested it is a tale of "friendship" between the inhuman Eli and the social misfit Oskar. The idea that this is a film about the awkwardness of first love has been proposed by several reviewers.

I think this interpretation misses the "horror" of this particular horror film entirely.

Early in the film we learn that vampires (cribbing an oft ignored part of vampire lore) are obsessive about puzzles. They are really good at them. Much better at them, actually, than humans are. I think that odd little fact is the key to the flick as a whole.

Eli doesn't love Oskar. She's trapping him. And he can't put the puzzle pieces together to see it.

The central plot of Let the Right One In - stripped of the post-Buffy, pseudo-Freudian, semi-Twilight Romanticism - is about a Dracula in search of a new Renfield. When the film opens, Eli is cared for by an aging, tired man named Hakan. Reviewers often describe Hakan as a father figure who is trying to keep Eli's existence a secret by killing for her. But Hakan isn't a father figure. He's the previous Oskar.

When Oskar and Eli first meet, she's hesitant to befriend him. As Hakan continues to fail at his task of finding fresh food for Eli, Eli's interest in Oskar grows. Eventually Hakan so botches a blood-gathering attempt that Eli must dispatch him. Curiously, Hakan's final attempt to secure blood for Eli is so poorly executed, viewers should, I think, consider the possibility that it was a suicide run.

She then attempts to gather food on her own, but without the beard of a "serial killer" to hide her feeding, she makes a hash of it. Not only does she arouse the suspicions of the other block residents, but she is spotted and unintentionally creates a new vampire who makes an even bigger mess of things.

At a loss, she approaches Oskar and, cleverly, gets him to drop his guard. As in much traditional vampire lore, the bloodsuckers can get you until you invite them into your home. Eli waits until Oskar's mother leaves the house one night and then comes to his door. She informs him that she has to be invited in. He asks what would happen if he didn't invite her. Here, she could say, "Good question. I'd be powerless to do shit to you in you home. In the interest of preserving some sort of power balance in this relationship – what we me being a vampire or fatal power and unknown age and you being a love struck 12 year old, perhaps I shouldn't come in." But she doesn't. Without explaining what it might mean for his health should she go all bitey, she walks in and begins leaking blood out all of her facial orifices. Panicked, Oskar immediately invites her in and she returns quickly to health.

There are other hints regarding Eli intentions. When Oskar embraces Eli, most notably after she pulls her "let me in or I'll hurt myself" stunt, he embraces her face to face. When Eli embraces Oskar, she does it from behind, facing his back. This is the same way she takes the victims we watch her feed off. The implication is that Oskar is not a love interest, he's a resource.

Further, in response to Oskar's awkward and unsure advances, Eli repeated mentions that she's "not a girl." This is, I think, meant to be an earnest confession of the fact that she isn't potential romantic partner. Loving her is not unlike falling for a female tiger or shark: She's female, but there's a crucial species difference there.

Finally, there's the "age difference." Vampires who don't want to be vampires have a really easy way out. As happens to the new vamp Eli accidentally makes in the film, they can simply extinguish themselves in the sunlight. (NB: All of the characters Eli let's into her life, either as a man Friday or a fellow vampire, end up destroying themselves.) Eli, notably, is not suicidal. Much has been made of her "need" to feed, but that doesn't excuse the fact that, if she believed people weren't cattle, she could do something about it. So, I think it is safe to conclude that Eli is content to be killer and a predator. She must also then be content with the fact that she won't age, but any humans around her will. She knows Hakan got old and just couldn’t cut it, no pun intended, anymore. Why then, if she knows this, does she not offer to turn Oskar into a vampire? Because she doesn't want him to suffer being a vampire? That doesn't make sense. She's not suffering. Suffering vampires turn themselves into Roman candles. I propose that she doesn't offer him vampirehood because she needs him to grow old. He's more useful as an adult and, when the time comes, it's comforting to know he comes with an expiration date. She can, after all, get another Renfield. She got Oskar after Hakan died, didn't she?

The real horror of the flick lies in the fact that Oskar is happily setting himself for the life of misery and exploitation that Hakar leaves so painfully in the early part of the film. Ironically, much has been made of the creepy relationship dynamics of the vampire/human pairing in Twilight, but cult horror audiences and mainstream critics have been seemingly uninterested in exposing the same abusive dynamics at work here. (It is because of the gender switch? Try to imagine the response to this film if the genders of the protags were swapped.) But Oskar's blinded by his by love. We know what's going to happen to him, but he doesn't get it. That's the scary thing.

Which lead us to the trick of the title: Let the Right One In. No other vampire ever tries to gain entrance into Oskar's home. Just Eli. The choice implied by the title is nonexistent.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Music: Monster mash.

G is for "Goth girl being chased by a big monster puppet." And that's good enough for Canadian retro-chic new wavers You Say Party! We Say Die!

Despite their going for broke in the "awkwardly long and unhelpful name challenge" (against such stiff competition as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead), Say Die make poppy, punky rock suitable for a blah Monday afternoon. Enjoy, Screamers and Screamettes.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Movies: Shoot. Bungle. Oversell. Regret.

If one is going to grant the existence of a "torture porn moment," then I would propose that it started in 2004, with the release of the first Saw flick, and ended in 2007, with the crash and burn release of Captivity, the film that carries the odd burden of being the movie that killed torture porn.

With a script by cult horror legend Larry Cohen and double Oscar nominated director Roland Joffé behind the cameras, it's hard to believe that Captivity is, first, a torture porn flick and, second, such a bomb. But the backstory to this curious little flick is considerably more tortured than any of the characters in it. Penned by Cohen as a psychological thriller about modern celebrity culture, the film was shot as a joint US/Russian production and was first released in Europe.

The American co-producers, After Dark Films, had originally tossed in money on the assumption that Captivity would be part of their "8 Films to Die For" film series. Seeing that they had some solid product from a notable director (though, it is easy to overstate the talent of Joffé: he did shoot The Killing Fields and Vatel, but he is also responsible for the Super Mario Bros. movie and the infamous 1995 "happy ending" film version of the Scarlet Letter - the only film, to my knowledge, that has an IMDB comment threat titled "anal masturbation?") they decided to go full theatrical with it. However, they also decided that the flick, if it was going to compete in the US market place, would need to be torture porned up. For the American theatrical release, new scenes were shot involving the torture of characters the viewers never even get names for, some scenes involving the "torture" of our main character (supermodel Jennifer Tree played by Elisha Cuthbert), and a series of scenes in which the baddies knock Jen out via gas, the last of these meant to cover up the lack of transitions between the new scenes and the original film. Not content to make a chopped-up hash of the flick, After Dark then got themselves embroiled in a controversy over advertising the flick. Famously, their posters for the film, which erroneously suggested the flick followed the plot of the Hostel films, outraged Los Angeles citizens groups and nearly launched a Seduction of the Innocents-style Congressional hearing about the state of horror films.

Bruised by the dust up, but no wiser, ADF decided to re-brand the film as some sort of point zero torture porn – the flick so extreme and out there that even its adverts had to be suppressed. As news of the flick's Frankensteinian nature started to circulate through the Interwebs and a fan backlash – both from contemporary horror fans who thought the half-assed jerry-rig job was ill conceived and from the graying mainstream fandom who relished the chance to take down anything remotely tarred with the torture porn brush – began for form, After Dark began a campaign of Kool Aid consumption that rivaled the absurdities of the Silicon Alley bubble. Trying to hype up the film's taboo shattering rep, ADF head Courtney Solomon spread far and wide the news that he planned to throw a premiere party designed to piss people off. Even the NY Times took note:

Having already provoked parents, women’s groups and the ratings board with explicit ads for the coming torture movie “Captivity,” Mr. Solomon and his After Dark Films now intend to introduce the film, set for release July 13, with a party that may set a new standard for the politically incorrect.

For starters, Mr. Solomon has ordered up what he calls the three “most outlandish” SuicideGirls available from the punk porn service, even if they’re as frisky as the ones he is told once set a Portland, Ore., restaurant on fire. Some lucky fans will get to take the women as dates for party night, July 10, on two conditions: “People take the date at their own risk, and everybody on the Internet gets to watch.”

Cage fighting too is likely. Mr. Solomon’s planners are angling for Kimbo Slice, the bare-knuckle bruiser whose vicious backyard brawls are a Web favorite and who made his Mixed Martial Arts debut on Saturday.

But the warren of live torture rooms is a must. As Mr. Solomon envisions it, individuals in torture gear will wander through the West Hollywood club Privilege grabbing partygoers. All of which is a prelude to an undisclosed main event that, he warned last week over slices of pizza a few doors from his company’s new offices on the Sunset Strip, is “probably not legal.”

“The women’s groups definitely will love it,” Mr. Solomon hinted. “I call it my personal little tribute to them.”

After such ostentatious levels of douchebaggery on display, is it any wonder that everybody – from media pundits to the average fan – wanted this film DOA?

Curiously, the "women's group" icon that decided to make the death of Captivity their personal mission was Joss "I Heart Grrrls" Whedon, who not only likened the trailer to CNN footage of the public stoning death of a Kurdish woman, but formed a campaign to strip Captivity of its MPAA rating. Lest the comparison of the trailer to genuine news-snuff seem extreme, the Times actually referenced the infamous Hustler cover of a woman's legs sticking out the top of a meat grinder in its review of the film. Actual women's groups seem to have taken no particular notice of the flick.

The end of this whole sad and silly tale is that the flick died in theaters. The public was convinced that it was some knuckle dragging exercise in woman torture and horror fans had suffered about all the grandly asshole-ish behavior from ADF's they were going to take. The Bloody Disgusting site gave Captivity the less-than-coveted title of "Worst Film of the Year" (though this means they ignored considerably more qualified "classics" as Incubus, The Reaping, the second effort at an Aliens vs. Predator flick, Grizzly Rage, Motorcross Zombies from Hell, and Welcome to the Jungle).

Perhaps most notably, in a stunningly unaware moment, Solomon claimed that the death of the film was due to the audience's exhaustion with torture porn. Solomon told CNN, "It's overkill. I think audiences have said, 'I've had enough.' It's as simple as that." Not that the film didn't have its defenders. Viewing it counter-programming to the latest installment of Harry Potter franchise, some thought that the death of Captivity marked the death knell for horror in general. But, for the most part, fandom welcomed the demise of the flick and held it to be the last gasp of torture porn.

All this makes watching the Captivity, several years after the brouhaha over torture horror and the marketing controversy have settled into the forgetful oblivion of the horror fandom's selective memory, a curious thing. You kind of want the film, a movie that, in its own weird way, is one of the most influential flicks in rise and fall of one of horror's most controversial subgenre, to be either an utter disaster or a hidden masterpiece. Sadly, it's neither. A neatly agoraphobic curiosity marred by the clumsy inclusion of invasive and nonsensical torture scenes, the shaggy and uneven nature of the finished product takes what might have ended up a nice little cult hit and drags it down into pointlessness.

The plot has and almost Endgame-ish charm. A supermodel named Jennifer and a garage worker named Gary wake up in an underground dungeon, held captive by an unknown person or persons. Together they theorize about their fate, plot their eventual escape, and develop the sort of erotic bond that Hollywood assumes all men and women under duress develop.

This mole-like existence is semi-randomly punctuated by the intervention of an outsized, masked, and rubber-gloved prison keeper who, when the spirit moves him, knocks out one his prisoners and tortures them. The tortures, while clearly meant to be Saw-ish, seem oddly lazy, as if the torturer was totally going to make some giant Rube Goldberg terror-device, but, like, totally ran out of time, so we're totally just going to, like, use these thing we've got scattered around the basement. The tortures also are, unintentionally I think, oddly comedic in their pointlessness. In one situation, Jenny must "choose" between shot-gunning her yappy lap dog or getting a shotgun blast in her own face. The strain this scene makes to achieve emotional effect – Gee whiz: her or the annoying teacup fuzzball, how to ever choose? – is typical of the contrived drama of all the tacked on torture scenes. The most infamous of which involves the torturer, whose name turns out to be Ben, making a human-parts smoothie which Jen is forced to consume through a beer bong. Or, human-smoothie bong, rather. This alludes visually to an earlier scene in which, during happier days, Jen made a smoothie. But, one may ask, why the allusion? Was making a smoothie a bad thing to do? Does the killer hate smoothies? Is this revenge for drinking smoothies? It is a pointless parallel.

On a couple of occasions, a random and unnamed character, seemingly unknown to Jen and Gary, and certainly unknown to the viewer, gets smashed, melted, or otherwise discomforted with extreme prejudice. Why? Because, really, torture porn requires some sort of body count to make the threat palpable to the viewers. IRL, torture, even non-fatal varieties, tends to leave the victim physically and mental broken. It's inherently harmful. In horror cinema, however, where the emotional and psychological impact of violence is almost always downplayed (a move necessitated by factors as diverse as reliance on second tier actors, the fact that physical damage is more camera-friendly than mental scars, and, of course, the fact that most horror fans want their carnage served without any messy issues of consequences dragging down their fun), communicating the danger of torture requires some bodies hit the floor. These throw away "characters" exist solely to be processed quickly into corpses.

The end result of all this is a plot that feels exactly like what it is: a slightly absurdist one act (Joffé worked with Stoppard before his career degenerated to this level) that is padded out by patched-on scenes of ludicrous violence. The stitched-on torture scenes try the patience and end up creating a grating number of continuity errors, undermining what might have otherwise been a pleasingly tight, if not groundbreaking, hour show.

Visually, Joffé dials back the look most associated with torture porn. The film avoids the color-washed steampunkish noir of the Saw franchise or the hyper-squalor of the Hostel flicks. Instead, the scenes Joffé shot have a strange tidiness to them, a clean-lined, exposed-materials, efficiently lit functionalism to them that suggests dungeon planned by Ochs Design. The dungeon master's home, when we finally reach the surface, is a crisp modernized take on a Victorian look that wouldn't be entirely out of place in a Scott Jordan catalogue. Notably, the add-on scenes lapse into the grunge and grime that is the semi-official look of torture porn, suggesting that the unit behind those scenes either didn't see or didn't care about the flick they were creating footage for. The acting is adequate to the needs of the film. Oddly, it is more difficult to buy Ms. Cuthbert as a supermodel than as a woman trapped in an insane dungeon by a madman. I'm not really familiar with her work on 24, but I suspect it prepped her better for the latter than the former. Ben is a nicely handled character – strangely cuddly and effeminate, with the petulance one finds in young boys that think they're smarter and more worldly than they really are – though he's under used.

Captivity is, at best, a middling film. At worst, it gets awfully tedious. That said, its rep as one of the worst films horror flicks ever is, I think, highly overstated. If you haven't seen dozens of far worse horror flicks, then you're probably just don't watch many horror films. That said, there's almost no reason whatsoever to recommend Captivity on its own merits. Rather, it stands as an interesting case study in how even middling flicks with virtually no audience can, in an odd way, shift the course of the genre. That context alone is the only thing that makes the flick stand out.


Here's the complete text of Whedon's opening shot at Captivity. I post it here because I don't think my previous description quite captured the tone of Mr. Buffy's indignation. Plus, I like how he signs his screeds.

From: Joss Whedon
Sent: Thursday, March 22, 2007 10:17 PM
To: Advertising

To the MPAA,
There's a message I'm supposed to cut and paste but I imagine you've read it. So just let me say that the ad campaign for "Captivity" is not only a literal sign of the collapse of humanity, it's an assault. I've watched plenty of horror - in fact I've made my share. But the advent of torture-porn and the total dehumanizing not just of women (though they always come first) but of all human beings has made horror a largely unpalatable genre. This ad campaign is part of something dangerous and repulsive, and that act of aggression has to be answered.

As a believer not only in the First Amendment but of the necessity of horror stories, I've always been against acts of censorship. I distrust anyone who wants to ban something 'for the good of the public'. But this ad is part of a cycle of violence and misogyny that takes something away from the people who have to see it. It's like being mugged (and I have been). These people flouted the basic rules of human decency. God knows the culture led them there, but we have to find our way back and we have to make them know that people will not stand for this. And the only language they speak is money. (A devastating piece in the New Yorker - not gonna do it.) So talk money. Remove the rating, and let them see how far over the edge they really are.

Thanks for reading this, if anyone did.
Sincerely, Joss Whedon.
Creator, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"

Friday, March 27, 2009

Link Proliferation: Something more nefarious?


The new video for Department of Eagles' "No One Does It Like You" features ghosts, desert warfare, and lots of dancing.

Aren't You a Little Short for a Stormtrooper?

In my callous youth, I used to hold the seemingly unironic enthusiasm of the cosplay/LARP/SAC set in contempt. But as I've (hopefully) become less of a judgmental prick, I've increasingly come to see these folks as kinda noble, in a quixotic and no-freakin'-way-I'd-ever-do-that way.

Miami News has a nice gallery of sundry costumed types. Be sure to read the intro of the article. Is this paranoia or an effort to tap a Superman/Clark Kent vibe?

They serve your food. They sort your mail. They man the ladder trucks. They are your accountants. Your nurses. Your personal trainers. But when they are finished cooking your food and bagging your groceries and driving your children home from school, they become something bigger: a heavily armored stormtrooper, battle rifle in tow. A demure Gothic Lolita, smiling shyly behind linen and lace. A short, sword-wielding night elf, enacting a living role-playing game. Super Mario himself.

Stilled Life

Mistress of the macabre, Christine Quigley, has a neato post about the art of Frederik Ruysch: famed for his anatomical tableaux mounts. From the post:

While a number of Ruysch's specimens survive, these dioramas did not. They are only known through the detailed engravings by Cornelius Huyberts (1669-1712). Ruysch created about a dozen of them, with themes of vanity and the brevity of life. What appear to be rocks are kidney- and gallstones; the trees are injected and hardened arteries and veins; the bushes are preserved lung and other organ tissue; the worms and snakes are intestines; and the handkerchiefs held by the fetal skeletons are abdominal membranes.

April Fools, Puny Humans!

Push the Skynet clock another five minutes towards midnight. At the NY Times "Bits Blog" – via the Digital Download - comes the impending doom that is the Conficker worm.

Ewalt's executive summary:

On April 1st, as many as 12 million computers around the world will form a massive botnet and cooperate together towards an unknown end. They're all infected with the Conficker worm, a piece of software of unknown origin described in the New York Times Bits blog.

The scariest thing about the Conficker worm is that we don't know what it's supposed to do; the infected computers will form what may be the most powerful parallel computer, but to what end? Is it a prank? A giant spam engine? Something more nefarious?

From the Times story:

An examination of the program reveals that the zombie computers are programmed to try to contact a control system for instructions on April 1. There has been a range of speculation about the nature of the threat posed by the botnet, from a wake-up call to a devastating attack.

Researchers who have been painstakingly disassembling the Conficker code have not been able to determine where the author, or authors, is located, or whether the program is being maintained by one person or a group of hackers. The growing suspicion is that Conficker will ultimately be a computing-for-hire scheme. Researchers expect it will imitate the hottest fad in the computer industry, called cloud computing, in which companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems sell computing as a service over the Internet.

Earlier botnets were devised so they could be split up and rented via black market schemes that are common in the Internet underground, according to security researchers.

The Conficker program is built so that after it takes up residence on infected computers, it can be programmed remotely by software to serve as a vast system for distributing spam or other malware.

Several people who have analyzed various versions of the program said Conficker’s authors were obviously monitoring the efforts to restrict the malicious program and had repeatedly demonstrated that their skills were at the leading edge of computer technology.

For example, the Conficker worm already had been through several versions when the alliance of computer security experts seized control of 250 Internet domain names the system was planning to use to forward instructions to millions of infected computers.

Shortly thereafter, in the first week of March, the fourth known version of the program, Conficker C, expanded the number of the sites it could use to 50,000. That step made it virtually impossible to stop the Conficker authors from communicating with their botnet.

"It’s worth noting that these are folks who are taking this seriously and not making many mistakes," said Jose Nazario, a member of the international security group and a researcher at Arbor Networks, a company in Lexington, Mass., that provides tools for monitoring the performance of networks. "They’re going for broke."

Sounds Like Another Bloodsucker Ploy

Breath easy, Boston. According to Boston Channel 5, "there are no vampires at Boston Latin School."

Here's the story:

There are no vampires at Boston Latin School, says headmaster Lynne Moone Teta.


Students at the school, which was founded in 1635, began e-mailing news organizations Wednesday night with the strange story of vampires roaming the halls.

"Supposedly 3 students believe that they are vampires and today when a student was bitten the police were informed," wrote one student in a message to TheBostonChannel.com. "I heard that one girl was arrested another suspended."

Police, however, denied reports that anyone at the school was bitten.

The rumors were strong enough to cause anxiety among the student body and disrupt classes on Thursday.

Guess what franchise's popularity among teenage women is mentioned tangentially. C'mon, just try.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

News: Ooo eee, ooo ah ah, ting tang walla walla, bing bang.

I don't even know how to introduce this, so let's just cut straight to the article from the BBC about what appears to be a giant, possibly government-backed witch hunt in Gambia.

Up to 1,000 Gambian villagers have been abducted by "witch doctors" to secret detention centres and forced to drink potions, a human rights group says.

Amnesty International said some forced to drink the concoctions developed kidney problems, and two had died.

Officials in the police, army and the president's personal protection guard had accompanied the "witch doctors" in the bizarre roundup, said witnesses.

Gambia's government was unavailable to comment on the claims.

The human rights group asserted that many of those abducted were elderly.

The London-based rights group said the witch hunters, said to be from neighbouring Guinea, were invited into Gambia after the death of the president's aunt earlier this year was blamed on witchcraft.

To put this in scientific context, in 2007 the president of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, announced that he had developed a cure for AIDS. MSNBC describes Jammeh's treatment:

From the pockets of his billowing white robe, Gambia’s president pulls out a plastic container, closes his eyes in prayer and rubs a green herbal paste onto the rib cage of the patient — a concoction he claims is a cure for AIDS.

He then orders the thin man to swallow a bitter yellow drink, followed by two bananas.

“Whatever you do, there are bound to be skeptics, but I can tell you my method is foolproof,” President Yahya Jammeh told an Associated Press reporter, surrounded by bodyguards in his presidential compound. “Mine is not an argument, mine is a proof. It’s a declaration. I can cure AIDS and I will.”

To properly work, the cure must be taken on a Thursday and, more troubling, the patient must stop taking any anti-retroviral medicine.

Though it is not clear exactly what he thinks he is doing, critics have suggested that Jammeh's faith in his herbal "cure" stems from his mistaken notion that AIDS is caused by some sort of intestinal parasite. He also claims to be able to cure asthma and high blood pressure.

To put this in a human rights context, Jammeh – who is, curiously enough, the Vice President of the International Parliament for Safety and Peace – has been linked to the deaths of 12 student protestors, at least 2 journalists critical of his administration, 44 Ghanaian immigrants, and 10 foreign nationals denounced variously as criminals and spies. In 2008, he announced that his government would begin a policy of beheading homosexuals. Several years ago, folks started an online petition to get the International Criminal Court to indict him for crimes against humanity.

Jammeh is actually serving his third term as president, winning the 2006 election with nearly 70% of the popular vote.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Movies: QFD.

A sequel to the remake of the original - but not a remake of the sequel of the original - The Hills Have Eyes 2 gets some credit for ambition, but then squanders most of the goodwill it threatened to build up on slick, but vacuous, execution. With hints of occasionally subtle characterization, provocative social subtexts, a genuine expansion of the franchise's backstory, just a hint of a homo-social man crush, and an extended allusion to Greco-Roman mythology, T2HE2 (pronounced "tea two, he two") sounds awesome on paper. Sadly, the finished product swaps high pro glo and frantic action for story development, making this a blood-spattered Goonies for folks who thought The Descent was too cerebral.

The film picks up several years after the close of the last flick. The US Army, eager to cover up that fact that a colony of mutated humans has been living in the caves of the Army's now defunct nuke test site, launched a search and destroy mission that wiped out the remnants of the mutant family left over from the first film. To be sure we suffer no more unsightly mutant flare-ups, the Army sent in a bunch of scientists and civilian contractors to the place electronic surveillance around the mouth of the mine system that served as Mutant Central. The film opens with these folks sending a call for supplies to the base. And then gettin' the business end of a mutant insurgency.

Cut to base. A ragtag group of woefully incompetent National Guardsmen are training, to epic fail result, for a tour in Afghanistan. Because they need to do a little punitive desert survival training, the CO sends them to deliver the supplies requested by the now mostly dispatched scientists. When the citizen soldiers arrive on the scene, the movie begins in earnest and it becomes a straight-forward run-and-gun exercise, with the soldiers facing of against the poor country relations of the X-Men.

T2HE2 has some nifty stuff. First, although the soldiers are – like all soldiers in horror films must be – a hopeless group of jackasses, the film spends less time than average showing us the standard "breaking down under pressure" scenes. We get a few "Game over, man!" set pieces, but the film manages to stay admirably on point with regards to the fact that these people are trained soldiers who are determined to survive. We must still wait for the day when professional soldiers in a horror movie actually exhibit the training and skill that make real life US troops such frightening instruments of destruction. (Hold this ratio in mind for a moment: In the infamous "Black Hawk down" incident in Somalia, just under 20 US soldiers died; enemy and civilian casualties were estimated to be between 1,000 and 1,500, with another 3,000 to 4,000 wounded. This is not to celebrate our ability to kill others, but to illustrate that, when put in a situation where their use of force is unchecked, the average US soldier is capable of bringing a truly staggering amount of violence to bear on a situation. Against what amounts to a handful of particularly ornery Tusken Raiders, it seems to me that contest would be incredibly one-sided.) But this is a nice step in that direction. As a fan of army vs. monsters flicks, a critical soft spot I picked up from watching "military vs. giant bugs" flicks on Saturday afternoon television, I especially appreciated a scene in which the embattled Guards execute a clever ambush to draw one of the mutants out of hiding.

Second, the new mutant designs are nice. The premise of this flick is that the mutant colony shown in the first flick was simply one of several mutant clans. Another group, even more mutated, existed deep within the mines. Their links to the upper world were presumably severed when the surface clan was wiped out, so they just now surfaced. More monstrous and freakish than the first group, they make for pretty nifty beasts. Two standouts include Chameleon, a mutant whose sores and densely-packed goiters resemble the rock surface so closely that he can blend in with his surroundings, and the mutant's alpha male, Daddy Hades. Like his mythological namesake, Big Poppa has a thing for kidnapping womenfolk and dragging them down into the underworld. However, where Hades was ostensibly in love with Persephone, Daddy H really just needs ovum to continue the species. The new mutants, we learn, are an all male society. (Unfortunately, unless you stick around for the credits or read the comic prequel – scripted by the Gray and Palmiotti team behind the current Jonah Hex comic series – you'll never catch the mythological allusion. Director Weisz didn't find it interesting enough to warrant any mutant speaking Daddy's name, wasting that particular opportunity.)

Hades's compulsory mutant repopulation initiative, and what it means for the Guard unit's two female soldiers, brings us to the topic of gender in T2HE2. This film struck me as a movie that really, really tried not to be stupid about gender. But it couldn't help itself. Sure the women get cutesy names while all the guys go by their last names or suitably jockish nicknames (like "Crank"). And sure, once we get down into the caves, the women can't get down to their olive drab GI issue tank tops fast enough. But, on the whole, the women, the next door girl type Amber and the no nonsense MILF Missy, are slightly more likable than their male counterparts, less prone to self-destructive impulses or stupid bravado (though the whole unit is the victim of the piece, so everybody manages to catch more than a few attacks of the stupids), and actually do a respectable amount of the action-hero labor. There's a hint of a romantic entanglement between Amber and one of her male counterparts, but the film wisely dispatches the male half of the duo early, leaving her a clear field of movement for the rest of the flick. The film not only allows its female leads full rights as protagonists, it actually hints at an awareness of their position as "inside outsiders" within the unit. When the women serve as bait in a mutant trap, their discomfort with their male teammates' easy willingness to so use them is palpable. Later, when Missy is captured, the men in the unit – despite having received the same info as the women about what mutants do to lady guests – are quick to write her off. Amber, however, makes it her mission to find Missy and either free her or put her out of her misery. Finally, when Amber is caught slipping a bullet into her pocket – saving one last round for herself – she gets a lecture from one of the men about how dead is never better. Her expression reveals that she's not worried about dead. That this plays out fairly subtly, almost as if it were a decision by the screenwriters or actors that the director was unaware of, drives it home more poignantly than if the female leads had all been post-Buffy style women warriors. One imagines this is how feminism really happens in rigorously all-male environments like the military: on the sly and quietly, in plain sight, but coded.

Unfortunately, all of this interesting work is undermined by the light handling of what might be one of the most cynical scenes in modern horror. At one point, in their desperate search through the mutants' mine structure, the remaining soldiers use the sound of Missy getting raped to "echo locate" her. What is notable about this scene is how unaffecting it is. We're subjected to a few seconds of Daddy Hades forcing himself upon a bent over Missy, then we cut to a handful of soldiers going, "Hey, that's Missy. We'd better hurry up. Though, you know, if anybody wants to stop and discuss strategy and stuff, I'm sure Missy will be fine. It's not like they're killing her, right?" The blogger behind the excellent Day of the Woman blog has justly pointed out that genre cinema and its fans have long copped a trite attitude towards the subject of rape. She points out that most film reviews of Cannibal Holocaust mention the violence done to the characters, but tend to simply skip over the multiple scenes of sexual assault and rape (including my own review, I'm sad to say). I recall I a blogger– I don't recall who now – opining that he assumed "goodthink critics" of the super-bomb Watchmen would attack the film for its depiction of Dr. Manhattan splatting VC. The possibility that somebody might take offense at the idea that a sexual assault so brutal that it breaks ribs would leave its victim pining for more wasn't mentioned. [UPDATE: The reviewer in question was Sean Collins. Sean explains why my mention of this particular example is misleading the comments.] Genre works, and horror especially, have a long tradition of trivialized sexual violence. T2HE2 falls into this tradition of casual sexual brutality and suffers greatly for it. What was meant to be a lively and entertaining run-and-gun exercise, in the vein of Aliens or Dog Soldiers, derails in that scene.

This weird one step forward, two steps back approach is apparent whenever the film stumbles across a socially relevant subtext. The situation our heroes find themselves in, by the admission of screenwriter Wes Craven, was meant to parallel the Afghanistan/Iraq Wars. This analogy holds true in the sense that America got in over its head, but it also seems to argue that Afghans and Iraqis aren't pure strain humans and, by extension, suggests that the only "solution" to the threat they inherently pose (the mutants are cannibals who can only breed through rape, so open dialog and humanitarian efforts would be lost on them – a point made in the film) is complete quarantine or extermination. In the filmmakers' defense, I don't think they hold such views. That their film can be said to express such views is more a sign of the film's lazy construction and not the filmmakers' political convictions.

Visually, T2HE2 is proficient, but not particularly interesting. Filmed in the desert hills of Morocco, the breathtaking landscapes conspire with the film's cinematographer. There's hardly any external shot that doesn't contain some startlingly pleasing terrain. Still, compared to the sun-blasted, dried out, overexposed color palate of Aja's flick, these shots seem a little simplistic and inert. Once we go inside the tunnels, there's a gory charm to the whole thing, but nothing we haven't seen before. Despite the grime and guts, it is certainly less startling than the freakishly macabre test ground homes of the first flick. The acting, like the filming, is functional rather than inspired. The cast hits their marks and delivers their lines, occasionally sliding in bits of admirable work. Quite admirable if you think of how little the script demands from them (mentally and emotionally, I mean – physically, I suspect the shoot was torture).

T2HE2 is more a curiosity than a success. Mechanically entertaining in the disengaged and automatic way that movement and sound inevitably draw our attention, the meat of the film is only passable. It does have the advantage of containing some subtexts that you might have fun teasing out and mulling over, but you'd have to be pretty generous with the flick to claim they are interesting and substantial enough to redeem the flick as a whole.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Art: The healing arts.

Via the Mind Hacks blog, a lovely flickr set of abandoned hospitals in Loughborough, England.

I'm especially fond of the thematic murals and other creative bits left behind by various vandals.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Meta: "I've liked you for a thousand years."

Hey kids, you may or may not have noticed a slow down here at ANTSS. Basically, my high-tech home wireless network, which I made primarily out of stolen alien technology, the parts of dead criminals, and nearly 500 rubber bands, utter collapsed about a week ago.

I've been stealing work time, making pilgrimages to the library, and so on if an effort to work around the increasingly less temporary problem. I fancy I've managed to keep the posts pretty regular, but if you've noticed a lag, I apologize.

Though I owe a special apology to both Mermaid Heather, bloggeress extraordinaire and one of the formative influences on this very blog you're reading, and Curt of Groovy Age of Horror fame, who is the very image of a modern major horror blogger. These two fine folks both selected me to receive the award/meme Premio Dardos and I, in my mind-boggling laziness, have not responded to either of them.

So, first, some thanks.

The lovely and talented Heather is not only a movie reviewing engine – her blog features full reviews of feature flicks four or five times a week – but her willingness to review anything, from the grimmest new fare to the dustiest of classics, makes her standout from a horror fandom that seems increasingly obsessed with jealously guarding ever-narrowing fiefdoms of subgenre appreciation. I started this blog after following her and a few others around and seeing how they did things. In a way, this blog is partially her fault.

As for Curt, anybody reading this blog is probably already familiar with Curt's work. Driven bloggers tend to be a bitter breed, their boundless energy a facet of their seemingly limitless stores of distain. Curt, on the other hand, is one of the most expansive, curious, and demanding horror bloggers pounding a keyboard. He roams wider than most bloggers and, in his searching, asks better questions. Not even the academic horror bloggers I follow tend to chase down topics with the vigor Curt musters.

You can find links to both blogs on the sidebar.

In appreciation I dedicate this posting of Plumtree's "Scott Pilgrim" (the source of the famed comic character's moniker and an insanely catchy song) to Mermaid.

And Curt gets this slice of retro-groovy: "On roule à 160" by Mareva.

Now, who to pass this thing on to . . .

We've got to save that for another post.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Books: 'Round midnight.

Given the well known adage, I probably shouldn't admit that I snapped up Nick Antosca's Midnight Picnic on the strength of its cover. The stark image of the extremely close pit bull filling the bottom third of an otherwise pitch-black cover really clicked with me. It seemed like an album cover for the greatest neo-metal Slint-influenced math-rock band that never existed. It's boss.

Happily, the book inside is pretty sweet as well.

Midnight Picnic takes a somewhat standard spook story plot and jolts into new life through a combo of an early game changing twist and a storytelling style that is refreshingly minimal and dryly witty.

Set in the semi-rural sprawl of West Virginia, the book focuses on Bram, a rudderless and emotionally stunted young man. Bram's wisp of a life is bracketed by two important, but crippled relationships. On one side is his absent father, gone several years overseas to bring fire and free markets to Iraq. On the other is his live-in, a depressive and self-destructive young woman who seems to view their relationship as a sort of starter suicide.

Bram's barely-a-life is overturned when a semi-retarded local boy finds the remains of a long dead boy in the woods not far from Bram's home. This leads the ghost of the dead boy, Adam, to Bram. The set up should be familiar: Adam needs Bram to help him find and punish the man who killed him. When Adam was young, he fled a school field trip group and got lost in the woods. He wandered until sundown and came across the camp of a unhinged homeless man on the lam from the Johnny Law. The homeless guy seemed nice enough at first, but the next thing you now he's got little Adam submerged in a local lake, standing on his chest and neck. But, with Bram's help, Adam plans to even the score. He knows where this homeless guy is living and he convinces-slash-compels through supernatural agency Bram to go to this guy's lean-to shack an burn it down with the man inside.

And then the game changing early twist.

Killing his killer is only the first part of Adam's revenge plan. He intends to chase his quarry into the fading blackness of purgatory – a sort of emotional, surreal endless suburbia of the damned fashioned from the memories of the dead – and continue his torment. As the story goes on, it is clear that Adam's target is more to be pitied than hated and Adam's drive to avenge himself knows no rational bounds. To continue torturing his murderer, he'll drag Bram and everybody he cares about into the unlife of the other side.

Antosca's writing style has a bare, almost minimalist feel that adds a sharp edge of dark humor to the supernatural and mystical elements of his plot. It reminds me of the on-the-road surrealism of Barry Gifford's Wild at Heart or Charles Portis's Dog of the South, but filtered through the "new weird" horror lens of Joe Hill or Jonathan Carroll. Antosca is also mature enough to know that a story about emotionally stunted characters still needs effective and impacting characterization. Zero affect characters are one thing, an unaffecting novel is another. Despite the ghosts, murderers, suicides, and hellhounds that populate the novel, the real horror is Bram's dawning awareness that he's made a terrible mistake, one that he might not be able to recover from simply by detaching himself from its consequences.

Antosca's nicest work comes in the characterization of Adam, the monster child whose unyielding need for revenge drives the plot. Adam isn't evil in any conventional sense. Like all children, he simply can't understand the world past his own limited emotional sphere. He lives in a black and white world, but those colors correlate to want/don't want rather than good/bad. Adam wonderfully illustrates Augustine's claim that the goodness of children is a function of the weakness of their limbs, not the strength of their conscience. That layer of characterization – Adam as egomaniacal mini-god – would be enough to drive the book, but Antosca goes further with it. Adam never really explains his need for Bram in a satisfying way. In fact, as I was reading the book, I felt this was a major weakness on the part of the text. Only later I realized that Adam didn't need Bram so much as he needed adult approval – even if it only came from a shiftless loser who was acting half out of supernatural compulsion. Even after death, the eternally child-like Adam needs his acts vouchsafed by a big person. It's a brilliant touch.

Midnight Picnic suffers slightly from the loose plotting inherent in any ghost tale. Once you put the inexplicable at the center of the tale, cause-and-effect, the most basic particle of plot, takes a real hit. The writer then has to work twice as hard at the atmospherics or fall back on genre expectation. Midnight Picnic takes the former route, but it's refreshingly modern minimalism keeps it from becoming a swamp of purple prose.

Midnight Picnic is a darkly sharp update on the haunted highway tale and the Southern gothic. Morbid and precise, moving and bleakly humorous, it's a real treat for anybody who likes their horror lit just a little off kilter.

MP streets in May. It's published by Word Riot Press (hat's off to the late Impetus Press, which folded before they could get Picnic out) and will run you about $16.00 in paperback.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Link proliferation: Very absorbent.

An All-Male Creative Team You Say?

"Intern Katy" at Jezebel gives this all the intro it needs.

An all-male creative team in Switzerland have created this vampire-themed ad for o.b.

Thanks to Heather for the tip.

"Demonic Interference Can Be Ruled Out."

The typically cocky New Scientist rules out "demonic interference" as the cause of an outbreak of grisi siknis, or "crazy sickness" in Nicaragua.

From the article Q&A with Elie Karam of St George Hospital University Medical Centre in Beirut, Lebanon, who studied an outbreak of mass hysteria in Lebanon during 2004:

What are the typical symptoms?

The first group can be summarised as anxiety symptoms: tremors, shaking, difficulty breathing and feelings of suffocation. The second type is referred to as a dissociative symptom: the person does not recognise where he or she is, seems to be in a trance, looks as if they are in a daze, etc.

Younger individuals, and females, are more likely to be affected.

So far only 43 cases are documented. Karam went on to discuss treatment and community response issues.

Is there a cure?

Not as such. Symptoms always abate within a few weeks. Reassuring the community to reduce fear is key, as is keeping publicity and media attention to a minimum.

The photo above is actually from a 2003 outbreak in Nicaragua that spread through a documented 60 victims.

Pole Position

Speaking of WTF medical stories, the young lad pictured above survived being run completely through by a metal pole. From the Telegraph:

Mihir Kumar was celebrating the Holi festival in Ranchi, India, when the accident occured.

He slipped off the roof of his family home and landed on a five foot-long iron rod that was left standing on a building site.

The pole punched through his rib cage and came out the other side.

His father said Mihir "endured terrible pain".

He was rushed to hospital where he underwent three-hour surgery at the Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences to remove the rod.

He is now recovering in hospital.

Dr Sandeep Agarwal, one of the three surgeons to operate on the boy, said he had miraculously escaped major internal injuries.

What Slashers Owe Torture Porn

The Atlantic has a puff piece on the slasher revival that contains an interesting claim about the role of Saw and Hostel in the revival of the slasher.

Saw and Hostel succeeded, above all, because they are serious slasher flicks. The extremity of their goriness reclaimed the splatter death from mainstream movies (where it’s become unremarkable to see a man fed screaming to a propeller, or run through with a drill bit). And the immersive nastiness of their aesthetic—decayed bathrooms, foul workshops, seeping industrial spaces, blades blotched with rust—distilled the slasher-flick elixir: atmosphere. No franchise thrives without it. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had it: a choking, sunstruck intimacy, with madness pulsing in the eyeballs. Halloween was suburban-autumnal, a minor rhapsody of long shots and breezy streets and scuttling leaves, the whole effect tingling like wind chimes inside the empty psychosis of the slasher Michael Myers. Friday the 13th was strictly B-movie in its technique, but it succeeded in perforating an American idyll: summer camp was never the same after those nice guitar-strumming sing-along kids got slashed in their lakeside cabins.

Where the torture porn flicks adaptations in a Curtesian sense?

It's Alive! And Worth a Fortune!

Above is the "most valuable poster in the world." It's the Frankenstein six-sheet (nearly 7 x 7 feet). As far as anybody knows, there's only one in existence. It's currently the property of a New York. It hasn't been appraised in some time, but estimates put the value at more than $600,000. That sounds low to me as the highest earning one-sheet, for Universal's original The Mummy, fetched a little more than $535,000 at auction.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Movies: Curious George.

It's a curious fact of the pan-medium state of contemporary horror that anthologies are a significant and vibrant segment of the genre in comics and literature, but they've struggled to find legs on television. This despite the fact that, historically, the anthology format has been crucial to the development of the genre in all three mediums. Horror lit has always done much of its best work in the short story format and the anthology has long represented the vanguard of the genre in that medium. Anthologies are arguably still the dominant format for comic horror, as they have been since the 1930s. And dozens of television anthology series, from Twilight Zone to Tales from the Crypt, stand out as genre landmarks. But, today, only comic and literary anthologies seem to still have any life in them.

(Anthology films, by contrast, seem to have always been a fairly marginal phenom within the medium. In the studio system days, they usually functioned as cash cows that could be turned around fast using existing talent stables. In the modern era, they tend to be thinly disguised vanity projects or a work around for cash-strapped filmmakers.)

This break with historical continuity makes the tepid reception and un-mourned demise of series like Showtime's cable-grade Masters of Horror, and its even more short-lived network analog Fear Itself, an interesting puzzle for genre watchers. Perhaps genre television has simply taken a temporary shift towards the soap operatic. It could be that done-in-one stories feel too slight and disposable to fans hungry for Lost-style multi-seasonal epics. There's always, of course, the argument that these series simply sucked and their death is proof that there is some crap not even horror fans will eat. There was, for example, an unfortunate turn towards the preachy after the heavy-handed Bush-bashing zombie episode Homecoming. This was followed by the abortion themed Pro-Life, the assisted-suicide-centric The Right to Die, the anti-fur tinged Pelts, and the gender war informed Screwfly Solution. The never produced third season would have presumably included horror films based around recycling, Congressional earmarks, and the federal government's purchasing of toxic assets. Still, the faults of individual episodes aside, the series boasted quite a bit of talent. The directors list was a virtual who's who of old school American horror, spiced with a few Italian and Japanese imports to keep everything well-rounded. As for source material, the episodes adapted classic comic pieces from well-regarded series as well as short stories from contemporary masters. It's hard to believe that, with that much good stuff on tap, MoH had nothing tasty to serve up to horror fans.

Personally, I can't help but wonder if one of the series's greatest strengths – the near complete freedom producer Mick Garris reportedly allowed the various directors – contributed to the problem. On one hand, it meant that each show was distinct and fresh. On the other hand, it produced wide variations in tone and approach. If this lack of series-wide coherence was a spur to greater creativity, it also meant that viewers never really knew what they were getting from episode-to-episode, leaving the larger series with no clear identity.

An example of just how far off the reservation an episode could stray, The Washintonians, a second season entry by The Ruling Class and The Changeling director Peter Medak (perhaps the only director on the MoH roster with a flick currently available in the Criterion Collection), stands out as one of the weirdest episodes of the lot. Basically an elaborate goof, The Washingtonians is a silly, gory mash-up of National Treasure and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It's not without its charms, but it is difficult to imagine an audience that would, at any given time, by as happy to see this episode as they would have been to see Miike grim and relentless Imprint.

The story opens with the a family who, while organizing their mother's estate, discovers a letter that appears to be from the first President of the United States, threatening to devour his enemies' children. This discovery blows the lid off a murderous conspiracy to hide the fact that George Washington – of powdered wig and Father of Our Country fame – was actually a murderous cannibal with a particular liking for virgin girl-child flesh (that, we're told, is the real subtext of the "chopping down a cherry tree" story American children know so well). Apparently, Washington first tasted human flesh in the harsh winter of '77 in Valley Forge. At the lowest point of the revolution, the army was forced to eat the dead to survive. Washington, however, found he rather enjoyed people meat and he took to it with a passion.

Wait, it gets better.

The clan charged with protecting Washington's rep is a cult of powdered wig-sporting cannibals known as the Washingtonians. They jealously guard all evidence of George's culinary predilections and happily feast on those who threaten his legend. They also maintain a lovely collection of forks made from the femur bones of every member of the Continental Congress (though the collection shown seems far short of the 343 forks that should be there). Finally, like their hero, all the Washingtonians have replaced their teeth with a truly rank set of ivory, bone, and wood choppers – the better to eat you with, my dear.

These cultists terrorize the family for the letter, eventually kidnapping them for the inevitable TCM-style grand feast – here done in period costume, giving the gruesome proceedings a discordant touch of class.

If all this flies well beyond you threshold of disbelief, rest assured that it did the same for the filmmaker. The episode starts with anti-Bush jab that makes a weak bid to political relevance, but it can deliver on it with a straight face and one almost wonders if the whole thing wasn't a satire aimed at the half-assed political aims of other MoH directors. Rather than a political horror flick, Medak fashioned something like a conspiracy slapstick. If there's a political undertone to the episode, it's in the way the film joyously lampoons the modern era of paranoid dietrology.

The episode is far from perfect, of course. In an effort to maintain a silly and over the top tone, the show sometimes s more strained than genuinely funny. The acting, while perfectly functional, is broad and unremarkable. There's a child actor involved, and that's so rarely a good thing. One notable exception to this is the work of the excellent Saul Rubinek. His intense Professor Harkinson, a crusading historian who wants to use the family's discovery to destroy the Washingtonians, appears way to late in the flick for my taste. Finally, while there are some gross-out moments and hints of suspense, the episode isn't particularly scary. It is hard to process the threat level represented by a gang of dudes who look like the Upper Crust.

That said, there's still something kinda appealing about The Washingtonians. Perhaps it's just that it is such a stupid idea done so happily. I enjoyed it.

And now, via wiec? (the coolest NYC bank robber since Willie Sutton), George Washington as you've never seen him before: in super low-quality animation!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Mad science: Varieties of fear?

Traditionally, neuroscientists studying the human fear response have proposed a twinned mental process to describe how we deal with scary stuff. This model, the "low road/high road" established in the late 1990s, posits that fearful data takes two simultaneous routes in the brain. The first path – the "low road" – is a quick and dirty assessment system that takes in data quickly (it actually operates fast than vision, so it process fragments of sensory data) and kicks in a protective response. Think of it as your startle response. There are three steps in the low road process:
1. The thalamus – this part of the brain sorts and distributes sensory data
2. The amygdala – this part of the brain decodes emotions, assesses threat levels, and stores fearful memories
3. The hypothalamus – this part of the brain kicks in the "fight of flight" response

The "high road" process adds two steps to the fear response, adding to the overall length of the process and slowing the reaction speed considerably. The "high road" starts at the thalamus, but then goes to the hippocampus, a section of the brain responsible for storing conscious memory and assisting in the analysis of new data. After this, the data loops through the sensory cortex as the hippocampus "checks" its assumptions and conclusions against streaming sensory data. Once the hippocampus has reached a conclusion, it transmits data through the amygdala to the hypothalamus, either confirming the need for a "flight or fight" response or sending an all-clear signal.

For nearly a decade, the dominant theories of how fear works in the human brain have focused on this twinned process. The model has been popularized in the press – forming the basis for the bestseller The Gift of Fear and getting mentions in such pop psych books as Blink - and has even showed up in the pro-am blog circuit, notably in well-intentioned arguments regarding whether or not this has any implications for horror literature and film.

Unfortunately, this relatively simple and elegant model (which I was personally a huge fan of) is about to get more complicated. Researchers led by neuroscientist Larry Swanson of the University of Southern California have established the existence of a fear pathway that does not involve the amygdala. From the report in Science Daily:

The study adds to evidence that primal fear responses do not depend on the amygdala – long a favored region of fear researchers – but on an obscure corner of the primeval brain.

A group of neuroscientists led by Larry Swanson of the University of Southern California studied the brain activity of rats and mice exposed to cats, or to rival rodents defending their territory.

Both experiences activated neurons in the dorsal premammillary nucleus, part of an ancient brain region called the hypothalamus.

Swanson's group then made tiny lesions in the same area. Those rodents behaved far differently.

"These animals are not afraid of a predator," Swanson said. "It's almost like they go up and shake hands with a predator."

Lost fear of cats in rodents with such lesions has been observed before. More important for studies of social interaction, the study replicated the finding for male rats that wandered into another male's territory.

Instead of adopting the usual passive pose, the intruder frequently stood upright and boxed with the resident male, avoided exposing his neck and back, and came back for more even when losing.

"It's amazing that these lesions appear to abolish innate fear responses," said Swanson, who added: "The same basic circuitry is found in primates and people that we find in rats and mice."

What's the take away?

"This is a new perspective on what part of the brain controls fear," he said.

He explained that most amygdala studies have focused on a different type of fear, which might more accurately be called caution or risk aversion.

In those studies, animals receive an electric shock to their feet. When placed in the same environment a few days later, they display caution and increased activity of the amygdala.

But the emotion experienced in that case may differ from the response to a physical attack.

"We're not just dealing with one system that controls all fear," Swanson said.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Stuff: You're still on your own when it comes to pants.

It's Monday, which means a number of you (though fewer and fewer every day, it seems) have to get dressed and go to work. To help you keep your upper regions socially acceptable, the fine folks at Threadless have got a Spring Cleaning sale going on, with some t-shirts going for no more than $5. Below are some nice horror-themed designs for those who want to fly the fright freak flag. Scary clothes at hobo prices! Slash on, you crazy diamond!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Art: Modern art is dead. Or is it the other way around?

Finally, a Beatles reunion! The above untitled 1968 group portrait comes from the brush of underground filmmaker Curt McDowell, the man behind such porn-tastic provocations as 1975's Thundercrack, 1974's Stinkybutt (billed somewhat cryptically as "The film that caused Sheri Milbradt to lose 40 pounds"), and the unforgettable 1972 classic Siamese Twin Pinheads. A long-time collaborator with rebel film icon George Kuchar, Mr. McDowell died of AIDS in 1987.

These two works are poster-sized obits of punk Svengali Malcolm McLaren and actress Nicole Kidman by the NYC-based artist Adam McEwen. Here's the artist discussing the fauxbituaries with Interview magazine:

I'm not really interested in celebrities so much-the works are more homages. But the person must be famous so the reader knows that the person is still alive. I'm interested in that brief second when you aren't sure whether Bill Clinton is alive or dead. I only need that moment in order to disorient them enough to sneak through to some other part of the brain-to achieve that split second of turning the world upside down. The obituaries aren't about celebrity. They are more mournful, more melancholy. In a way, they are accounts of certain people's actions taken in an attempt to make their lives better. My first more McEwen one was Malcolm McLaren. I still had a job writing obituaries for The Daily Telegraph then.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Link Proliferation: “Paradise on Earth.”

"Hunky vampires or Barack Obama."

By way of McNally Jackson's blog, which I bite from every week or so 'cause it's awesome, comes a jeremiad about the rise of what the autho dismisses as middle brow escapist genre lit amongst college kids.

From the article:

n 1969, when Alice Echols went to college, everybody she knew was reading "Soul on Ice," Eldridge Cleaver's new collection of essays. For Echols, who now teaches a course on the '60s at the University of Southern California, that psychedelic time was filled with "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," "The Golden Notebook," the poetry of Sylvia Plath and the erotic diaries of Anaïs Nin.

Forty years later, on today's college campuses, you're more likely to hear a werewolf howl than Allen Ginsberg, and Nin's transgressive sexuality has been replaced by the fervent chastity of Bella Swan, the teenage heroine of Stephenie Meyer's modern gothic "Twilight" series. It's as though somebody stole Abbie Hoffman's book -- and a whole generation of radical lit along with it.

Last year Meyer sold more books than any other author -- 22 million -- and those copies weren't all bought by middle-schoolers. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the best-selling titles on college campuses are mostly about hunky vampires or Barack Obama. Recently, Meyer and the president held six of the 10 top spots. In January, the most subversive book on the college bestseller list was "Our Dumb World," a collection of gags from the Onion. The top title that month was "The Tales of Beedle the Bard" by J.K. Rowling. College kids' favorite nonfiction book was Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers," about what makes successful individuals. And the only title that stakes a claim as a real novel for adults was Khaled Hosseini's "A Thousand Splendid Suns," the choice of a million splendid book clubs.

Here we have a generation of young adults away from home for the first time, free to enjoy the most experimental period of their lives, yet they're choosing books like 13-year-old girls -- or their parents. The only specter haunting the groves of American academe seems to be suburban contentment.

I'm honestly conflicted by this article. Mostly I want to dismiss the writer's smug assumptions about the value of genre lit and deflate the self-important image of the '60s as a sort of golden age of intellectualism. Honestly, are college students really all the worse off because we read about Obama's vision for a liberal tomorrow instead of swallowing Cleaver's theories that the rape of white women is a legitimate weapon in the race struggle?

On the other hand, this news is slightly grimace inducing. I'm reminded of Pauline Kael's sad quote: "When we championed trash culture we had no idea it would become the only culture."

What Horror Movie are We Today?

Today we're Primeval.

From the UK-based Sky News wire: 'Monster Crocodile' Bites Girl's Head Off

A crocodile has bitten off a 10-year-old girl's head after knocking over the canoe she was travelling in.

She was on her way to a floating school on the Agusan Marsh in the Philippines when the huge reptile capsized the boat, the provincial government said.

The girl fell into the water during the attack on Saturday, but her headless body was not discovered until two days later.

A classmate who was with her was rescued by a man who had been escorting the pair in another boat, said Ruel Hipulan, head of the private group which runs the school.

"It's a monster crocodile," he said. Witnesses said the crocodile was about 30ft (nine metres) long.

Martians Go Home!

Music video goodness with a "Space Invaders" twist from Röyksopp.

Portrait of the Dictator as Young Man

I first met Kim Jong Il in October 1959. He was a senior at the elite Namsan Senior High School, and I was a 27-year-old professor of Russian at the Pyongyang University of Education.

Kim Hyun Sik was the infamous North Korean dictator's private Russian tutor for more than 20 years. Over at AlterNet, Hyun Sik presents an extended portrait of the early years of the now possibly insane tyrant.

From the article, on Jong Il's installation as commander in chief of the armed forces:

A short while later, Kim Jong Il was named the commander in chief of the Korean People’s Army. And a big sign inscribed with Kim Jong Il’s words, “A world without North Korea need not survive,” was duly installed at the exhibition hall, the nation’s flagship display of achievements in industry, technology, engineering, and agriculture.

On the eugenic policies of Jong Il:

Living under a totalitarian regime requires a daily suspension of disbelief. Nowhere is that more true today than in North Korea, where otherwise ethical people contort themselves into untenable moral positions because they’ve bought into the oft-repeated notion that their country is “Paradise on Earth.” Simply to survive in North Korea, citizens must believe they are living in a chosen land. And when ideological indoctrination morphs into reality, the dictator need not even be nearby to spread fear. Not if average people will do his bidding for him.

All of which is bad news for those who don’t fit into Kim Jong Il’s ideal of a healthy, vital citizenry. In the people’s paradise that is North Korea, disabled -- even short -- people are considered subhuman. In 1989, Pyongyang hosted the World Festival of Youth and Students. In preparing for the international gathering, the entire nation was encouraged to outdo South Korea’s hosting of the Summer Olympic Games the year before. Pyongyang’s event had to be bigger and more glamorous. One such method was to purify the revolutionary capital of Pyongyang of disabled people.

Six months before the festival, the government rounded up all disabled residents of Pyongyang and sent them away from the capital to remote villages. The majority were clockmakers, seal engravers, locksmiths, and cobblers who made their living in the city. Overnight, they were forcibly deprived of the lives they had known.

. . .

My friend, a well-connected physician at the time, told me that he had been ordered by the Communist Party to pick out the shortest residents of Pyongyang and South Pyongan province. Against his conscience, he went out to those areas and had local party representatives distribute propaganda pamphlets. They claimed that the state had developed a drug that could raise a person’s height and was recruiting people to receive the new treatment. In just two days, thousands gathered to take the new drug.

My friend explained how he picked out the shortest among the large group. He told the crowd that the drug would best take effect when consumed regularly in an environment with clean air. The people willingly, and without the slightest suspicion, hopped aboard two ships -- women in one, men in the other. Separately, they were sent away to different uninhabited islands in an attempt to end their “substandard” genes from repeating in a new generation. Left for dead, none of the people made it back home. They were forced to spend the rest of their lives separated from their families and far from civilization.

On Kim Hyun Sik life now:

Thirty years have passed since I last saw Kim Jong Il. Upon leaving Pyongyang, I spent some 10 years in South Korea. And now I am living in the United States, the land of my so-called mortal enemy.

. . .

In 1991, during a stint as a visiting professor in Moscow, I was approached by a South Korean agent. He brought me incredible news. He could arrange a meeting with my older sister, who had fled to the South during the Korean War and later moved to Chicago. Arranged by South Korea’s national intelligence agency, it would be the first time we had seen each other in more than 40 years. All that time, we thought the other was dead. I was overcome with emotion. She begged me to come back to the United States with her and become a minister -- our mother’s dying wish for me. Although I could not return with my sister, it was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Our joy was short-lived. Another agent who had allowed us to use his house as a meeting spot was, in fact, a double agent working for the North. I received instructions from the government to return home the very next day. But I knew very well I couldn’t; I would be killed as a traitor. I anguished over what my failure to appear would mean for my family back in Pyongyang. It’s bad enough for a soldier or a student to defect. But I knew intimate details of the ruling family’s inner circles. Surely they would view my betrayal as a personal insult.

I never returned to North Korea, and I never saw my family again. A few years later, I heard from a well-placed South Korean minister that my family had been sent to a gulag and murdered, the innocent victims of my treasonous crime. To this day, I know nothing of the details of their deaths, or whether they blamed me as they perished.