Sunday, May 31, 2009

Comics: Oh (jeez) Canada.

In the crowded field of comics blogs, I'm glad there's room for something as quirky and unique as Ecocomics, "where graphic lit meets the dismal science." Most comics blogs spend their time doing three things: acting as volunteer or professional shills that attempt to use their force of personality to impose value judgments on certain works, making structural and functional explorations of how the medium itself functions, and reflecting on biz-oriented news. The differing mixtures and the depth of analysis, filtered through the style and personality of the blogger, gives each comics blog its unique character.

Ecocomics comes at the field from a new angle. It looks at the unlikely overlap between economics and superhero comics, using the endless adventures of the long-underwear and cape set to explore economic issues and asking economically-informed questions about the worlds we see in the comics.

Plus, it's often funny.

In a recent post, Ecocomics asks the question: Why does Canada keep funding supersoldier programs?

In the Marvel Universe, Canada is responsible for creating some of the most deadly super-soldiers in history. Wolverine, Sabretooth, Deadpool, Kane, and Agent Zero were all deadly assassins who were empowered by Canada's Weapon X program. This secret division of the Canadian government went to great expense to create nearly unstoppable weapons (and in almost all cases, allow them to escape shortly thereafter). This gives rise to a single question: WHY?

What threat was Canada so afraid of that the government felt the need to constantly produce human death machines?

"Holy Crap, Quebec is getting uppity again, let's coat another mutant in adamantium!"

Conclusion? Wasteful institutional inertia and weak government oversight are responsible for a oddly large percentage of Marvel's most badass superheroes.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Stuff: If Jack the Ripper didn't exist, we'd have to invent him. To sell papers.

In the past couple of years, Jack the Ripper theories have gone from the baroque to the postmodern. From the numerous suspects put forward by sundry pro-am researchers to the Unified Ripper Theory created for Alan Moore's From Hell, the impulse seems to have been to try to create some grand narrative the encompasses all the messy details of the case. (To be fair to Mr. Moore - though we should hardly bother, he's rarely fair to us – his From Hell is intended more as a artistic exercise than a hypothesis.)

Of late, however, the messy details seem to have won. To steal the words from the magician, "The centre cannot hold." Recently, Stephen Knight proposed that the reason the police could never find Saucy Jack was that there was no single killer. Instead, Jack the Ripper was a sort of folk character/brand name: a bit of street mythology crooks evoked whenever a particularly nasty bit of business went down.

Now, to go full-on Baudrillardean mode, a new book proposes the theory that Jack the Ripper was a media invention cooked up to give circulation numbers a boost. Here's the 411:

Jack the Ripper was a forgery invented by journalists to link a series of unrelated murders and sell newspapers, according to a new book.

The unsolved murders of five prostitutes in London's East End in 1888 have spawned innumerable theories over the identity of the 'real' Jack the Ripper - with candidates including artist Walter Sickert, Alice In Wonderland author Lewis Carroll and even Queen Victoria's grandson the Duke of Clarence.

But now historian Dr Andrew Cook claims to have blown all these theories out of the water by dismissing the notion of a brutal, murderous spree by one 'serial killer' altogether.

Later in the Daily Mail Reporter article:

Dr Cook says streetwalkers Mary Nichols, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Kelly, Elizabeth Stride and Annie Chapman were killed by different men, as were the six other Whitechapel victims often added to the Ripper's toll.

He takes his evidence from police and medical experts at the time who expressed doubts about the single killer theory even as it began to take hold on the public imagination.

The senior Whitechapel policeman at the time of the killings admitted in his retirement speech that he did not believe Mary Kelly was killed by 'Jack the Ripper', Dr Cook points out.

The assistant police surgeon who examined all five victims, Percy Clark, told the East London Observer in 1910: 'I think perhaps one man was responsible for three of them. I would not like to say he did the others.'

However, comments like this were a drop in an ocean as the myth of the lone rogue killer took hold of the Victorian imagination.

Dr Cook shows that the newly-launched Star newspaper was the first to claim that one man was behind three of the 1888 killings.

Even though most experts today agree that two of these - Emma Smith and Martha Tabram - were not carried out by the same man, the Star's prurient accounts of the on-going murders massively boosted its circulation.

This reminds of the Ripper's boast in From Hell that he will give birth to the 20th century. Moore's own lines appear to have been reworked and trumped by modern Ripperologists.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Link Proliferation: Cows, bunnies, Nazi apes, and other lesser breeds of vampire.

Mad Science's Who's Who.

Wired runs trading-cardish profiles of some of the finest names in contemporary mad science.

My favorite bit of research is described thusly:

Aiming a beam of light at a glass slide in 2006 and 2007, Moddel asked test subjects to use their brainpower to increase the amount of reflected light. Expected reflection: 8 percent. Measured reflection: 8.005 percent. This represents a tiny but significant demonstration of mind over matter, Moddel says. Asked to decrease the amount of reflected light, subjects had similar success.

Apparently, the human mind can increase or decrease the amount of light reflected off a surface, though only in amounts well below the human threshold to perceive it. This must surely rank as the crappiest superpower ever.

Alternate Vampire Species

If you have not yet read B-Sol's excellent Top 10 Least Frightening Vampires list yet, go ahead and do that first.

Back? Groovy.

So thinking on the vampires I would have added to the list, it occurred to me that all my not-so-scary vampires made the list because they weren't human. So, without further ado, here's some non-human vampires I think deserve a little Interwebs love.

Zoltan: Hound of Dracula

In the Russia, more than 200 years ago, Dracula, Lord of the Vampires, attacked a woman only to be foiled by the dog of a local innkeeper. Furious at the presumptuous pooch's intervention, Dracula turned his fury on the hound and sucked its blood instead. This turned the dog into Zoltan: the Hound of Dracula!

Perhaps the finest vampire-dog horror flick ever made, Zolton not only features the titular dogpire, but also is notable for the appearance in of Zolton's vampire off-spring. That's right: vampire puppies!

Bessie the Hellcow

In 1670, a starving Dracula was unable to find a human victim to sustain him and opted, to Bessie's eternal chagrin, for a beef dinner. The cow died and rose again three nights later as Bessie the Hellcow.

On a 300-year-old quest to destroy Dracula, Bessie the Hellcow tracked the Lord of Darkness to the outskirts of Cleveland. There she crossed paths with Marvel's mightest hero: Howard the Duck. Sadly, despite being perfect for the miniseries, Marvel decided not to work Bessie into the newly reconstituted Midnight Sons, the monster-hero team at the center of their fourth Marvel Zombies outing.

Along with Zoltan, Bessie's story leaves a foul taste in the mouth of those vampire fans who fancy the idea that vampires represent a dark and seductive aspect of human sexuality. Without exploring the subject too deeply, let's all just agree that it's hard to be sexy when you're giving a cow the ol' Transylvania hickey, as vampire fans call it.


The former commander of the Third Reich's sinister Primate Patrol, Pryemaul (pictured at the far right, standing in front of the ghost of J.E.B. Stuart) began his comic book career as your garden-variety fascist ape soldier. After Germany lost the war, this simian stormtrooper hid out in the Amazon with the remains of his ape army.

Eventually an encounter with the DC's Anne-Rice-ripoff, Lord Andrew Bennett of I, Vampire fame, turned Pryemaul into DC's only talking Nazi vampire ape. Practically tailor-made for use by Grant Morrison, I have no idea why he did not feature in prominently in DC's Final Crisis "blockbuster."


This horrific hare appears on both B-Sol's original flavor list and the shameless ripoff you're reading now. The long-running vegetarian vampire bunny villain-turned-uneasy-hero of a popular children's book series, Bunnicula made his first appearance in 1979. He's appeared in seven books and one film – which is really a heck of a career for any horror character (he's two novels ahead of Lestat).

Count Duckula

A spin-off of the spy-spoof toon DangerMouse, Count Duckula's origins are handily covered by the show's intro.

He is, like Bunnicula, a vegetarian. He's also a bit of a doofus.

Okay, who'd I miss?

You know, looking over this list, I have to say that I think vampire fans protest too much about the Twilight phenom. I mean, really, are sparkly vampires somehow less canon than a cape-sporting bloodthirsty bovine? Is it really possible to desecrate a image of a monster that already boasts a talking ape proponent of National Socialism among its numbers?

Cave Diving

Regular readers may recall that we've been following along with Aquarium Drunkard's on-going series revisiting the first four albums of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. After the well-received From Her to Eternity, the Brit rock press savaged Cave and Company's sophomore effort, Firstborn is Dead. NCBS's next platter, the even more Americana-soaked Kicking Against the Pricks was the group's rejoinder. From the AD post:

“In the biblical sense, Kicking Against the Pricks means something like fighting windmills. This meaning is most important to me,” Nick Cave told Dutch rock writer Tom Engelshoven, explaining the title of his 1986 covers album. “But,” he went on, “if you ask me if the word ‘Pricks’ refers to certain people in a non-biblical way, then I answer: Yes. And I mean journalists.”

Following the release of 1984’s From Her to Eternity, Nick Cave was lauded as some sort of upside-down Return of Christ by the British music press. And of course, those same journalists would, one year later, trample all over the far superior The Firstborn is Dead. Kicking Against the Pricks came as part of Cave’s reaction to the letdown, a direct fuck-you to the journalists who, in their fervor to find a savior in rock ‘n’ roll, ended up crucifying anything that lets them down. It’s an ugly game, one that we Americans learned pretty well, and Cave’s reaction is admirable. And, rather than give the long-form writers something to muse over and get smug about, Cave played the trump in the ’94 interview: “There is no concept behind it,” he stressed to Engelshoven, “except maybe that we need not be ashamed of showing our influences.”

The post includes free downloads of the thematically consistent "I'm Going to Kill That Woman" and "Hey Joe."


Regina's Spector's new video for "Laughing With," is packed with allusions to classic surrealists masterpieces. And it's got Regina Spector in it. She's easy on the eyes. Like a softer Tori Amos with all the "call me Titania, dear mortal rumpling" preciousness scraped off. And the curls. Those are nice. Um.

What was I . . .

Oh, yeah. A video. Here you go.

Laughing With

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Books: In state.

If asked my opinion of author Brian Evenson prior to reading of Fugue State, the new short story collection by the critically-acclaimed novelist, I would have damned Evenson's work with faint praise. Based on my lukewarm experience of The Open Curtain, I would have probably given a noncommittal answer along the lines of, "Interesting." The Open Curtain was a strong starter that showed great promise, but it never hooked me emotionally. Still, I couldn't entirely discount Evenson's talent. Especially his ability to capture the worldview of damaged, cracked, and possessed individuals.

In an essay about Roger Federer, David Foster Wallace tried to imagine what it was like to play tennis as Federer. The trick to understanding Federer, Wallace decided, was that you had to view the world in relativistic terms. From the frame of reference of a non-Federer, Federer is amazingly fast with an uncanny capacity to find and connect with the ball. But Federer doesn't understand the world in terms of his lightening speed or relentless accuracy. Rather, from his frame of reference, the rest of the world is slow. The ball, to him, seems fat and sluggish. He may understand, on an intellectual level, that this perception is a result of his unique speed. Existentially, however, his heightened speed is the baseline. Federer doesn't live in a world where he's leopard; he lives in a world were everybody else is a sloth.

Evenson has a special talent for describing the haunted world of the mad and cursed in relativistic terms. In The Open Curtain, a young man finds himself haunted by a religiously-motivated crime that lurks in his Mormon community's past. Whether he's "haunted" in a poetic or supernatural sense becomes, through a meticulous act of mental and spiritual archeology on Evensons part, an academic question. Once you've truly become haunted, the ghosts no longer need to be real. As Evenson's character falls deeper and deeper into his unique frame of reference, he ceases to be somebody suffering from a unique nightmare and became the one man who can see the dark and portentous resonances that everybody else – a world of sloths – cannot or refuses to see. That's Evenson's unique capacity, a fine tuned form of Keats negative ability to project himself in the minds of others. In Evenson's relativistic world, the mad don't live prosaic lives punctuated by crazy and inexplicable incidents. That's what the world of the insane looks like to sane people. From within the framework of madness, the world makes complete sense. (In fact, what's a better definition of insanity than that the world makes total and complete sense all the time.) Those who don't share the frame either don't get it, refuse to get it, or are pretending not to get it.

Do crazy people know they are crazy? Evenson's answer seems to be, "No. They know you are."

What makes Fugue State a break out work is that Evenson's unique gift for describing the world from within the frameworks of unique experience has expanded to capture all modes and manner of expression. There are several horror stories in Fugue State, but they rub shoulders with comedies, tragedies, sci-fi fantasy, domestic drama, and shaggy dog stories. And nearly every single story out of the nineteen collected is a complete and utter success.

Screamers and Screamettes, we aren't even half over with this year and it's been a great year for "hopeful monsters" in genre lit. J. Robert Lennon's Kafka-by-way-of-Deliverance novel Castle, Robert Goolrick's reinvigorating A Reliable Wife, and Nick Antosca's twisted and philosophical Dante's tour of a soul-killing roadside netherworld Midnight Picnic. In an average year, that would be as much as I'd have the right to expect. But Fugue State not only joins the slowly growing ranks of liminal-genre awesomeness, but actually raises the bar.

The book starts out with quartet of solid singles. The opening story, "Younger," showcases Evenson's ability to fully invest in a mindset. Less a story than a character study, it details the conflict between two sisters, one of which has never been able to get over what, according to the other one, was a completely innocuous and mundane incident. Mapping out two contrasting mentalities, each complete and consistent, but utterly incompatible, yet strangely intertwined, is safely in Evenson's wheelhouse. It's like starting an album with a track that could have been on the last album. It says, "Hey, it's me. Remember where we left off?" Evenson then takes that technique and pushes it in "A Pursuit," a David Lynch-esque chase story, and "Mudder Tongue," a nightmarish tale about a man be abandoned by language. (Is it magical realism or a rigorous depiction of neurological condition? That's the beauty of what Evenson does here: Life described in sufficient detail is indistinguishable from magic.) This is followed with the brilliantly satiric "An Accounting," which is a smart take on the current apocalyptic trend in genre lit. Fusing religion, a post-doomsday road tale, and ritual cannibalism into an efficient and laugh-inducing tale, Evenson's made the anti-Road. I won't be able to watch that movie now without giggling.

Other standouts include the office life satire "Ninety Over Ninety," the surrealistic take on the consequences of mime-sex "Invisible Box," and the post-modern Gothic "In the Greenhouse." The prize jewel in the collection is "Girls in Tents." A domestic drama about a disintegrating family, it is told in a manner that evokes the best of Millhauser. There's not a single supernatural element in this story, but it feels like a modern fairy tale.

Some of the stories feel a bit underdone, as if they were ideas for a larger work that never developed. And, unfortunately, there is "Alfons Kuylers," which perfectly captures a Poe-ish tone, but then devolves into a plot so shopworn that I thought I had read this story before only to realize that I've essentially read it several times before.

Still, even at their worst, the stories in here have a genuine, crackling life to them. It would be dishonest to say, given the range of Evenson handles ably in this collection, that Fugue State is a collection of horror stories. But, for fans of Evenson's darker stuff, this is a brilliant showcase for his capacities as a writer. For anybody unfamiliar with Evenson, this book is the place to start.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Music: Moonwalk macabre.

Formed originally as a folksy duo by the name Unitard, singer Karen O and guitarist Nicolas Zinner electrified their sound, hooked up with drummer Brian Chase, and became the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Producing a strong of critically and popularly successful albums and EPs, the trio emerged as one of the few "it bands" to survive the post-White Stripes neo-garage bubble.

The YYY's new long-player, It's Blitz, expands the groups sound, adding dreamy electronica, dicso, and even a hint of Celtic traditional to their rock palate. The video for the second single from that album, "Heads Will Roll," features a Michael Jackson inspired werewolf that not only has some nice moves, but goes all chomp-chomp-slash-slash on the audience and band. Dig, Screamers and Screamettes.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Mad science: This really calls the methodology of the Martyrs group into question.

So, for those who missed the review of the much-discussed French import shocker Martyrs, the plot of said film revolves partially around a cult of atheistic spiritualists who endeavor to gain hard evidence of the persistence of life after death by torturing captives into a nebulous state of being suspended between mortality and life.

Apparently, that method kinda sorta but doesn't really work.

According to a 1984 study recently rediscovered by the brains at Mind Hacks, one out of every four hostages put in "life-threatening situations" experiences intense visions. "Isolation, visual deprivation, physical restraint, violence and death threats" contribute to the experience.

Unfortunately, these visions are hallucinations.

The 1984 study included case studies from a wide variety of subjects: people who have been held captive by terrorists, kidnappers, rapists, robbers, enemy troops, and even (alleged) UFOs. (The latter were added to include cases of unverified periods of captivity.) The paper is free, but the repeated stories of captivity make for intense and not particularly fun reading.

Now there's no reason that the makers of Martyrs knew of this study, but it is interesting. Given the fact that one of the characters in the film has a hallucinatory avenging spirit hanging about her, would it be totally roaming off the reservation to theorize that this cult is really just repeatedly abusing folks in a hallucinatory state. But they, unaware of how common hostage hallucinations are, have convinced themselves that they are receiving visions of the beyond. Consequently, this cult just keeps torturing folks on the basis of a handful of mental breakdowns they erroneously take to be "visions."

Could that be why Garrett Vader kills herself after telling her follow cultist to "live in doubt"? Perhaps it isn't a mean-spirited act, but one meant to save the cult from becoming disillusioned and realizing that they been not only murderous, but utterly moronic? That would make her the titular martyr, in a way.

I like the idea that one of their victims – the one with the attached faceplate – serves as an allegory for their entire project. She literally cannot see, but they continue to whip her into what they assume will be a visionary state. She's a nearly literal example of the blind leading the blind.

Makes the whole thing a sort grim comedy of misinterpretation.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Movies: Memorial Day weekend with the ol' parental units.

A solid and squirm-inducing entry into the "girl in a dungeon" subgenre, the filmmakers behind the microbudget Brit torture porn Mum & Dad set out to create a distinctly British Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In an interview with writer/director Steven Sheil, he's explicit about this goal. Fascinated by what he calls the "fucked-up family" trope, he wanted to give the concept a distinctly Hillingdon accent. The result is a sort of bracingly tasteless, nihilistically absurd, inky-black comedy that, while confidently executed and fully committed to its grim project, is so foul that even those horror fans with extensive exploitation and torture porn experience will find themselves wondering just why they are suffering through this.

More a horrifically surreal study of a handful of satiric character types than a "story," the plot of M&D is easy summarized. Lena is a Polish immigrant working on the night shift cleaning crew at the offices of London's Heathrow airport. One night, she meets the loquacious Birdie and her sullen, silent adoptive brother Elbie. Lena opens up to her new friend despite reservations over Birdie's very fluid sense of personal property rights and hints that Birdie's personality goes from friend to bitch with great speed and little warning. When Lena, due to some clever stage management by Birdie, misses the night shift shuttle, Birdie offers her a ride. If Lena comes home with them, Birdie's dad would be happy to drive her to her apartment. The house, she's reassured, is just a short walk away and Birdie's dad will be happy to do it.

Of course, it is all a trap and, instead of going back to her apartment, Lena ends up trapped in a nightmare house full of vicious sadists.

Before we get to the vicious sadism, I should mention that Sheil actually handles the mandatory mise en place grunt work with atypical style. Many horror films rush to get their victims lined-up or traffic in this weird sort of characterization seemingly meant to make us hate their main characters, presumably so their violent demises will be that much welcome when they do inevitably come. In contrast, the beginning of the M&D quietly and sympathetically shows tired and lonely people bonding over a fairly thankless job. Sheil's sense of narrative efficiency means we don't spend more 10 or 15 minutes on this intro, but it was well done. You can imagine that, in some other film in some parallel universe, Lena takes the cab home and lives out the rest of her life in a nice little indie drama about immigrants and working-class London social norms.

In our world and in this film, however, she's clubbed, drugged, chained to a bed in the basement, and wildly abused for the next 70 minutes or so. Here the film's plot and the filmmaker's interest diverge. The ostensible story is Lena's struggle for freedom. But what the filmmaker really wants to do is hangout with the family, using them as a sort of wildly grotesque parody of British working class family life. The result is a sort of looping narrative of chores and outrages that resembles a sort of bizarro world family sit-com. I remember when Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers came out, a film critic for the Washington Post praised Stone's creepy use of the sit-com format – complete with canned laughs – to present Mallory's backstory. Full of none too subtle references to alcoholism, incestuous sexual abuse, and regular child beatings, and anchored around a chillingly slimy performance by Rodney Dangerdfield, the scene was a standout in a film packed with over-the-top scenes. Still, the reviewer mused, the curious thing about that scene was why Fox didn't already have a show like it one the air. Steven Sheil has, essentially, made the pilot for that hypothetical television series. (The sense that you're watching some television show go off the rails must be even stronger for Brit viewers who will recognize Lena – played by Olga Fedori, soon to be in the Wolf Man remake – as a reoccurring character on EastEnders.)

The clan, in this case, consists of the titular Mum and Dad, the two siblings viewers met in the airport, and – after a long bit of suspense as to what exactly lives in the attic – the nearly vegetative Angela (the Brit analog, I guess, to the mummified attic-dwelling grandparents of the Hewitt clan). The interplay between all these characters is the real meat of the flick. Dad is a portly, brutish figure – a sort of ape-ish man boy constantly demanding a dignity that is underserved. Cruelly disciplinarian, his own lusts and drives are given free reign. Think of a fusion between Leatherface, Benny Hill, and Archie Bunker and you've got vague approximation of Dad's character. Obsessed with porn and such a grotesque sexual predator that he literally fucks the organs of one of his discontinued adopted daughters (the close-up image of the abused organ leaking his seminal fluid probably ranks as the top "thing CRwM didn't need to see" in all cinema), he is simultaneously so desperate for affection that he looks on the verge of tears when he asks Lena if she wouldn't mind giving him a foot massage. In all of his inarticulate, collapsed, furious and stupid monstrosity, Dad, played by Brit-tube vet and Sid and Nancy alum Perry Benson, is one of the most compelling villains in contemporary cinema. Assuming you can stomach watching him.

Curiously, Mum and Dad aren't a team. Though they share co-leadership duties, Mum is the more emotionally manipulative of the two. She is constantly framing her own perversions – she, like Dad, is a sexual predator (though, unlike Dad's polymorpheous sexuality, she seems more strictly lesbian) and she enjoys carving elaborate patchworks of scars into her children – as the kinder and gentler alternative the abuse Dad would bring if she were not there to "protect" her children. In a way, Mum is really the more sinister of the two in that she's just a hateful and vile as Dad, but she wants you to be grateful for what she's inflicting on you.

After spawning the barely alive Angela, Mum and Dad increase the size of the clan by "adopting" sons and daughters. Birdie, the chatterbox "daughter," best reveals the bizarre dynamic that holds "kids" to the family. Forever fearful that Mum and Dad will, one day, stops screwing them and start dismantling them, the children of the clan must play a constant game of one-up, appealing to the "love" of their parent/tyrants while making sure that their other siblings are always on the outs with Mum and Dad. Think of a game of Big Brother where those booted from the house are, instead, horribly violated pre- and post-death. Those siblings who don't make the grade either end up as sexual aids or dinner, seeing as Mum and Dad are definitely not signatories of the Asner-Struthers Pact of 1975. This puts all the siblings in cruelly untenable position. They must constantly bring in fresh meat for Mum and Dad, but any one of these new playthings could potentially figure out the rules of the game and flip the script on you, meaning that you and not the new bit of flesh is headed to the basement mattress of the dinner table. To further complicate matters, Mum and Dad's fantasy of domestic bliss requires that all this bizarre gaming of the sibling system be somewhat covert. The conflict between the expert, but perhaps too settled and complacent gameswoman Birdie and the desperate-too-survive-and-escape Lena makes for most of the drama in the plot.

Elbie's, sadly, is a bit of a dud in the equation. Intended to be a mystery, he's not given enough serious material to give him the illusion of depth. There are hints of what the character could have become, and those moments are ably handled. Seemingly sympathetic, the silent and stoic Elbie (played by a game Toby Alexander who makes the most of what little he's got to work with) reveals himself to be capable of profound cruelty. In one scene, Lena has provoked the wrath of Dad. He ends up zipping her into a piece of luggage (the whole family works at Heathrow – Dad's a luggage handler) and he wails on the canvas bag with a large mallet. He then hands the hammer to Elbie who, at first, gives the bag a few half-hearted whacks. But, as Dad watches on, the blows become harder and more frequent. Eventually, Elbie is really having at the bag, with Lena inside. He doesn't stop until Dad pulls him off and pets him affectionately. The expression on Elbie's face is at once exhausted, repulsed, fearful, and exhilarated. Is Elbie just letting out the pent up feelings that his captivity must fill him with? Does he, like Birdie, think a new sibling is a threat that must be snuffed? Is he, like Dad, just desperate for any sort of approval that he'll get it however he can? Scenes like this threaten to give his character real depth, but they are too few and far between to really build into anything.

Visually, Shiel's flick is efficient and effective. He places a premium on clear storytelling, with clear establishing shots and carefully handled traditional editing. He likes a palate of washed out lights and dark grime that places his film closer to the lavish decay of Hostel than the color-washed dark pop look of Saw or the artsy crisp look of Martyrs. That said, Shiel makes a few first-feature mistakes. Given the emphasis Shiel places on clarity of narrative, he often loses viewers in regards to the layout of the clan's house. Compare this to the film's most obvious influence. After a single viewing of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, most viewers could draw a diagram of the Hewitt House. Here things aren't so clear. In fact, after mentioning the basement several times, I'm now thinking that Lena's room and Dad's torture chamber are on the second floor of the house. Maybe.

Also, given his preference for strictly narrative storytelling, Shiel makes a few diversions into idiosyncratic narrative techniques that really stick out. Most jarring is the use of shots of planes arriving and leaving the nearby Heathrow airport. Meant to provide a sort of visual ellipses, the are unfortunately more evocative than Shiel intends. I assumed they linked to Lena's immigrant past and, perhaps, pointed to a reading of the film that posited it as some sort of absurdist nightmare about the sacrifices one makes to assimilate into a new culture. That is, I think, more than the film intends. The planes are, I've concluded, intended as mini-breathers that have been included to give an external structure to what would otherwise be too numbing and repetitive. The irony is that many viewers find the planes themselves maddeningly repetitive.

Mean-spirited, brutal, tasteless, and juvenile – it is hard to recommend Mum & Dad. Well-built, honestly consistent in its aims and effects, and containing a couple of remarkably solid performances, M&D is also the most unpleasant flick in the already universally unpalatable torture porn subgenre. It lacks neither the pop sensibility of the Saw franchise, the rigorous aesthetic polish of Hostel, or the gloss of high-minded pseudo-intellectuality of that redeemed Martyrs for many. But, in its hints of an almost Swiftian misanthropy, it suggests that torture porn may have finally found its artistic purpose: as the satiric equivalent of a Tactical Long Range Nuclear Sanitizer. That makes for an interesting theoretical development, but not a pleasant viewing experience. Watch at your own discretion.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Books: Family circus.

The marketing boys and girls at Underground Press should just slap a big sticker on the cover of The Pilo Family Circus that reads: "Tomorrow's Hipster Classic, Today!" Seemingly designed for cult status, Will Elliott's debut novel comes with not only an about the author page, but an about the book page that informs you, among other things, that this was the sixth-novel length manuscript Elliott produced in what he considered his "four-year 'apprenticeship' period learning the craft." That the craft of novel writing can be learned in four short years must surely come as great consolation to the budding novelists among the Screamers and Screamettes. It also tells you that Elliott experimented with sleep deprivation as a method of inspiring him, though the influences of the anti-psychotic (Elliott's schizophrenic, don't you know) he was on should not be ignored. "Some of the novel reflects this 'fevered' state of mind," the reader is told.

Lest you think PFC is some scrawled outsider-art wackiness, the second paragraph of the about the book page tells you that the books won an impressive string of awards in the author's home country, Australia. I know the awards are impressive, because the book tells me so: "Though this list of rewards is remarkable, more remarkable is the breadth of the awards—from high literature to horror and back again." Say, now that you mention it, that is quite remarkable.

The intro is written by Katherine "still coasting on Geek Love" Dunn, who compares the Elloitt's writing to everybody: Chandler, Kafka, Swift, Homer, Orwell, King, and others. (Trying wrapping your brain around the kind of writing that would need to fall smack dab in the middle of that Venn diagram.) Another blurb adds Palahnuik and David Lynch to the mix.

Finally, the plot is about an underemployed Gen X-er who gets shanghaied into a circus of the damned that runs mainly on a heroin-like "wish dust" made of human souls.

A few of the chapters begin with epigrams boosted from Nick Cave tunes, natch.

The whole thing seems like some sort of McSweeney's troll: a smartass gag intended to spoof the image of the maladjusted angry young loner and his edgy cult hit.

But, in fact, The Pilo Family Circus is a real book – or, I guess, since even a satire of a book is a book, an earnest book – by the very real Will Elliott. Seemingly written, as promised, in a sleep deprived and heavily medicated daze, PFC is a phantasmagoric shambles: a pile of confused images, cribbed plot lines, broad slapstick, and juvenile allegories, the book's got a sort of headless rush that propels you along, but the lack of sustained value, either in the form of solid writing or original insight, means that the ride is ultimately a disappointment.

The novel opens with Jaime, a fairly generic "nice guy" type who works as the concierge at a gentlemen's club in Brisbane. The "club" seems mainly to be a cathouse for the well-heeled; but worry not, Jaime blithely avoids the issue of working for place that pedals femme flesh by simply ignoring it. We're to believe that he couldn't find any other job that allows him so much personal reading time while on the clock.

One night, on the way home from work, Jaime's car stalls and he find himself, somewhat inexplicably, caught up in the shenanigans of a trio of violent, mentally unstable, incredibly pain-resistant clowns. In the confusion of the scene, Jaime finds and pockets a small packet of some unknown powder.

The clowns discover that Jaime has their powder and they terrorize him and Steve, one of Jaime's chronically filthy and pointless roommates. Eventually Steve and Jaime are "recruited" to join the clown's circus: the titular Pilo Family Circus.

Of course, the circus is no ordinary traveling show. Run by a pair of demonic brothers, the circus exists on a small patch of nowhere, shifting from town to town in a restless search for new attendees. They need a constant steam of new audience members because the attractions at the circus are actually part of a soul harvesting op. Souls, in PFC, come out of people in small crystals. After the circus closes each night, an army of dwarf carnies sweeps the fairgrounds for soul crystals. This is then processed into dust, which is then cooked and consumed.

Jaime falls in with the clowns. He gets his face painted and is re-dubbed JJ by the clown's brutish paterfamilias, Gonko. In the world of PFC, getting clown make-up on your face is like drinking the stuff Dr. Jekyll was futzing around with in his lab. It unleashes shadow-side, empowering you to give free rein to you most selfish, violent, and base tendencies. The struggle between Jamie, who fights to maintain his identity, and the increasingly cruel JJ, who wants to be assimilated completely into circus life, is the first of two main struggles in the book.

The second struggle involves a carny revolt against the brothers who run the circus. Many of the carnies, mostly enslaved folks like Jaime, have been secretly forming an anti-Pilo underground, sabotaging the activities of the circus and attempting to undermine the control of the brothers. This circus civil war forms the second major thread of the book. True to form, Jaime and JJ find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict.

Of the two main threads, most of the book's pleasures are provided by the first. The book's opening chapters, in which the hapless Jaime confronts the seemingly bottomless weirdness of life at the psycho-circus, are its strongest. These chapters manage to capture that crucial sense of the uncanny and surreal that is a critical component of supernatural horror. Happily, even Elliott's authorial weaknesses serve him well in the beginning. Jaime's fairly vacuous characterization, for example, makes him a pretty decent avatar for the reader, who can experience the oddness of the circus without the distraction of seeing it "through" Jaime.

Unfortunately, what the first thread giveth, the second thread taketh away. To sell the midway insurgency bit, Elliott needs to flesh out the world of the carnival with enough detail to make the dissident performers motivations resonate. The reader needs to see what they are revolting against, and that requires the dynamics of the circus get laid bare. It's like those old funhouse dark rides; when you see the layout with the lights on, there isn't much to it. On occasion, Elliott's efforts to fill in the details of his world yield pleasing results. The thuggishly abusive Gonko, for example, reveals a paternalistic streak that gives his character a nice hint of dissonance. But far more often, characters that seemed mysterious turn out to simply be flat archetypes. The surreal culture and history of the hell-circus turn out to simply be nonsensical allusions or missteps (making the circus responsible for the Holocaust, for example).

All of this might be forgiven if the book was gonzo enough to roll over the rough patches on the power of its sheer insanity. But, for a book created in a haze of meds and psychological self-torture, Pilo is an oddly lifeless affair. The wish dust the circus is hooked on is a perfect symbol for this: It's a heroin analog right up until the moment when you'd shoot it, where the author decides that it should be drunk instead. Elliott's shy of the needle. Pilo swaps "going there" for pretensions to art, and is left poorer for the trade.

If you're looking for crazy clown action, I'd go downmarket and check out Bryan Smith's Freakshow. Though Smith's book lacks the relentlessly self-promoting fanfare that accompanies PFC, it is a mad, breathless dash through a similar premise. Freakshow relentlessly "goes there," goes out of its way to "go there," and when it gets there, it stays there. Though it suffers from many of the problems that plague PFC, it makes up for it in the ruthlessness of its commitment to entertain. That's worth more than a million "fevered" states of mind.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Music: Other music.

Okay, so apparently the Blitzen Trapper awesomeness needs a little more time in the awesome shop. But that's cool, we'll go to Ha Ha Tonka's ballad-dirge "Caney Mountain" while we wait for the BT video to officially drop.

Named after a Missouri State Park, the Springfield-based indie rock unit formed in '04 under the moniker Amsterband. They released one album under the old name, but had swapped for the current name in time to release 2006's Buckle of the Bible Belt.

I'm a huge fan of the Caligari meets Caroline vibe of this video. I think it captures the sort of rotting-fairground rawness of the tune. Dig, Screamers and Screamettes.

Ha Ha Tonka "Caney Mountain" - Widescreen HD from Barkley MDFX on Vimeo.

The League of Tana Tea Drinkers supporting domestic extremists? It's more likely than you'd think. Maybe.

Shocking title aside, here's an odd story about the weird world of paranoia and suspicion that, despite the dawning of the Age of Obama, we still seem to live in.

It starts like every good WTF story: with a good deed.

On April 29, a link appeared on the League's communal web site that took readers to the following post on Gospel of the Living Dead (my apologies for linking to the author's entire April archive, I can't seem to figure out how to link to individual posts on his blog):

I really think the only thing we should each celebrate more than our own faiths, is the rich tradition of religious pluralism we have in our country. Lots of countries, all over the world and at all different historical periods, have had deeply religious populations. I don't think any have had populations as diverse and respectful as ours. So it's the American thing to do, really. Please consider sticking up for a tiny religious minority as they seek a small recognition of their members' faith and potential sacrifice:

The post ended with another link which took readers to the Internet home of the Asatru Military Family Support Program, a.k.a. "The Hammer Project.". You can check out the web site, but the short version of the Hammer Project's mission statement is that they want to get Asatru's holy symbol – the hammer of Thor – approved for use as a religious symbol in military graveyards.

This certainly seems like an unobjectionable goal and the Asatru faith has the right credentials (it is recognized by the IRS as a non-taxable religious organization). Gospel's to be commended for the display of cross-faith tolerance and I'm actually in total agreement with him that any religion recognized by the state should be allowed to display the symbol of its faith on the gravestones of fallen troops. It's strikes me as kind of a no brainer.

However, because we live in a strange world, I recently ran across a reference to the Asatru church in a considerably less favorable light. The group appears in a March 23rd memo produced by the Department of Homeland Security titled "Domestic Extremism Lexicon."

Intended to hip DHS officials to cultural trends among extremist groups, the lexicon contained the following entry:

racial Nordic mysticism
An ideology adopted by many white supremacist prison gangs who embrace a Norse mythological religion, such as Odinism or Asatru.

Hmmm. That's not good.

Still, before any conclusions are drawn, I feel it is important to state that the lexicon was not without its detractors. Critics said it is little more than a paranoid blacklist and that, because it tars with a particularly large brush, puts completely innocent Americans under suspicion for truly heinous crimes. The DHS claims that the memo was withdrawn "within minutes" of its release – though no reason was given for withdrawing the memo.

So what's up with Asatru? Are they neo-Nazis or what?

The Asatru Folk Assembly's official bylaws contain the following clear denunciation of racism: "The belief that spirituality and ancestral heritage are related has nothing to do with notions of superiority. Asatru is not an excuse to look down on, much less to hate, members of any other race. On the contrary, we recognize the uniqueness and the value of all the different pieces that make up the human mosaic." That's about as inoffensive a stance on race as one can take.

However, the very same group's "Declaration of Purpose" contains the following goal: "The preservation of the Peoples of the North (typified by the Scandinavian/Germanic and Celtic peoples), and the furtherance of their continued evolution."

Then there is the issue of metagenetics: a philosophical stance outlined by the AFA's founder that claims "there are spiritual and metaphysical implications to heredity." A claim he later, um, clarified by stating, "The hypothesis that there are spiritual or metaphysical implications to physical relatedness among humans which correlate with, but go beyond, the known limits of genetics."

Finally, there's the bizarre Kennewick Man incident. In 1996, the AFA sued the United States government to halt the surrender of prehistoric remains to the the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Yakama, Wannapum, and Colville Native American Tribes. The founder of the AFA claimed that modern adherents to the Asatru faith were genetically closer to prehistoric Americans than modern descendents of the various tribes. Courts actually ruled against the tribes – though not really on the basis of the AFA founder's arguments – and the remains were never returned.

All of this could be explained away or dismissed. Metagenetics might be to the Asatru what predestination is to most modern Calvinists, a curio that is still on the books but that is rarely seriously considered. The Northern People thing could be as simple as a group celebrating its historical roots. And the Kennewick Man deal could reflect the work of some minority sect within the group. Ask any liberal mainline Protestant about the behaviors of their more fundamentalist co-religionists and you'll find that, despite the supposed common faith, they are not a monolithic group.

So what's the story: has the DHS libeled an innocuous religious group or is there a strain of racial extremism haunting the church? Can any reader, preferably one with actual knowledge of the Asatru religion and its adherents hip me to the facts of the case?

[UPDATE: Two things:

1. Despite my description of blogger and novelist's Kim Paffenroth's post as a "good deed" and claiming that his post is "commendable," there's been some reaction among readers that I'm suggesting he was either implicitly supporting or pointedly ignoring the seemingly unseemly info that I later ran across. For the record, I do not think this was the case. I stand by what I originally wrote: Paffenroth support for the inclusion of of Asatru symbols on the list of religious icons that can be displayed on military gravestones is both geuninely humane and logical. As I said in the article, I agree with him on that issue.

2. I think it is important to note that this may well be a case of all-smoke-but-no-fire. I fully admit the possibility that the DHS list is some paranoid libel on the church of Asatru. It wouldn't be the first time either the current or previous administrations made wildly inappropriate assumptions in the service of "keeping America safe." Not only did Paffenroth not endorse any strain of political extremism, but there may well be no extremism here to endorse.]

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Stuff: Therewolf.

I wanted to plug a nifty post by the relentlessly productive B-Sol of Vault of Horror. Among the video blogs, weekly top ten lists, news bulletins, and paternalistic odes to the joys of raising monster-kids, this engine of Interweb copy has managed to produce the first of three posts on the history of werewolf flicks.

It's nice to see ol' fuzzy face get the B-Sol treatment. Long the red-headed stepchild of the Universal fold, the werewolf's is to the universe of classical monsters what Martian Manhunter is to the Justice League – everybody feels he's iconic, but nobody has ever been able to raise his status to the level of a Frankenstein or a Dracula (the Superman and Batman of the JLA conceit).

From B-Sol's post:

With the highly anticipated Benicio del Toro remake of Universal's The Wolf Man on the way this fall, the time is ripe to take a long, considered look at the history of one of the horror genre's most venerable and beloved sub-categories. Although not quite as popular as its cousin the vampire, and perhaps not as thoroughly explored cinematically, the lycanthrope has nevertheless provided us with some of the most terrifying films ever made.

A beast whose origins go back nearly to the beginnings of Western civilization, the mythological being who can transform from man to wolf under the influence of the full moon has gone through its fair share of Hollywood-ization, much like its blood-drinking brethren. And in general, the history of werewolf films can be divided into three major eras. Today we will take a look at the first.

Most of the comments have focused on the odd film that's been left out, notably the list's lack of reference to the werewolf cycle of Euro-horror "master" Paul Naschy. These omissions don't bother me. You can't cover everything and, while Naschy probably deserves mention for holding the record for most-performances-as-a-werewolf, it doesn't strike me that his body of work has had some massive influence on the development of the genre. Despite their cult status among Euro-horror fans, they're sort of an evolutionary dead end. I think Naschy's the William Blake of werewolf filmmakers: There was nobody quite like him and he left no notable imitators, so he stands alone as a weird one-shot mutation in the genetic history of the subgenre. That's my take anyway.

I would, however, underscore something in his discussion of 1935's Werewolf of London:

The movie is Werewolf of London, and for some connoissuers of vintage horror, it remains the high watermark of lycanthrope cinema. Henry Hull stars as Dr. Glendon, and English botanist who falls under the curse of the werewolf after being bitten on an expedition in the Himalayas. The vast bulk of cinema's take on the werewolf legend is already established in this one film: the transmission through biting, the transformation under the full moon, the beast's desire to destroy that which its human half loves most.

The makeup created by Jack Pierce is striking, and Hull's humanoid, intelligent portrayal of the creature is quite unique, giving us one of the only talking werewolves of the silver screen. The film also puts the transformation scene front and center, a tradition that would continue throughout the history of the subgenre. Werewolf of London remains one of the most influential, and yet also one of the most underrated horror films of the Universal canon.

The biggest paradigm shift Werewolf of London introduced to the subgenre is the "humanoid" part. Prior to Werewolf of London, werewolves were depicted as changing from men into standard issue wolves. After London, the norm would be a mostly bipedal human-wolf hybrid creature. Ancient wolf stories tended to assume either a purely mental transformation (a dude gets on his hands and knees and starts acting like a wolf) or a complete physical transformation (in which the transformed person becomes a wolf-wolf). The ancient idea that the transformation is complete – though often a crucial part of the pre-film folklore - would become increasingly less common.

(There are, of course, dissidents. Perhaps ironically, American Werewolf in London and its sequel mostly keep their wolves on all fours. The Ginger Snaps franchise avoids extensive two-legged walking as well. Sharp Teeth and Sacred Book of the Werewolf are novelistic exceptions to the general trend – both assume a complete transformation).

Still, that's a small quibble. It's an excellent post and worth your attention. Dig, Screamers and Screamettes.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Movies: "Looks like we have a long night of cocaine ahead of us."

Okay, so the upcoming Mystery Team is not, by any standards, a horror flick. But, since we're friends now and I want us all to feel open about our needs, I'm asking you to empower me to share this with you in a non-threatening and groovy way despite whatever preconceived notions we might have about our relationships as "horror blogger" and "person who reads a horror blog."

Mystery Team follows the adventures of three embarrassingly older "boy" detectives who, after their "crime solving" careers peaked at the age of seven, have become the laughing stock of their hometown. Jason, the “Master of Disguise;” Charlie, the “Strongest Kid in Town;” and Duncan, the “Boy Genius,” struggle to keep the faith until they can find a case that will redeem them in the eyes of the community.

In a grim twist, they get their wish when a young neighborhood girl asks the Mystery Team to find out who killed her parents.

Parental homicide is a big laugh area for me – but the trailer also includes saucy language, vomit, sexual congress with baked goods, drugs, gunplay, strippers, and some neat retro bicycles. Not safe for work. The strippers and vomit and swearing, I mean. The bicycles are safe-ish. I guess. Hell, I don't know where you work. Use your own judgment.

Here's the trailer:

Monday, May 18, 2009

Movies: Finger on the trigger.

Here's the thing: Experiments don't always work out the way you plan. That's almost the point of experiments. Ti West's follow up to his critically lauded, but popularly panned The Roost was the rigorously experimental Trigger Man, a Dogme-influenced survival horror tale that bent West's brilliant grasp of sound design and the avant-garde time-cinema of Larry Gottheim to the task of creating a genre thriller about a trio of hunters who suddenly find themselves the target of a sniper. Trigger Man did West no favors with the horror fancy. Once again critics praised his flicks to high heavens, but fans gave the flick the bum's rush. Despite a notable 89% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the collective horror fancy gave the flick a weak four-star rating on imdb. Trigger Man practically begs for this sort of love/hate response. The film is not an unmitigated success. As an experimental filmmaker, West is at odds with his genre-loving fanboy. West wants to throw out all the rules of horror flicks, but he also wants to make taut, well-constructed fright engines. The result is a patchwork of commitments and compromises, some of which pay off and others of which overtax viewer patience. Still, I think the film is worth the serious attention of anybody who is curious about the future of horror cinema.

The plot of Trigger Man is almost absurdly simple. Three Manhattanites (from the Lower East Side, actually – the Pitt Street address of two of the hipsters is shot on location and readily recognizable) go on a hunting trip in a forested region of Delaware. They catch nothing, shoot at some litter beer bottles, and have a couple of cans of Yuengling. Then, without warning, one of the trio is shot in the head. After some running around, the invisible sniper bags a second hunter. Ultimately, it is up to the remaining hunter to wade into the sniper's nest – a massive, rusting industrial center slowly being reclaimed by the forest – and confront this invisible killer.

That's it. That's all there is to the story. There's an innocent jogger who gets pulled into to this inexplicable conflict and the corpse of a photographer that suggests the mysterious sniper has been at this manhunt for a day or two. But, essentially, these are just slight distractions included mainly to show how utterly ruthless a mousetrap this flick is. If a character appears in this film, they are either getting killed or shooting their way out.

If the plot is trimmed down, the characterization is less than minimal. West gives the viewers almost nothing to latch on to. Even by genre standards, the lack of exposition notable. We know that one of them is having troubles with his girl, though what the problem is never clear and a tense, but opaque half-a-phone-conversation we get near the beginning of the flick does nothing to illuminate the issue or connect it to the main plotline. We know even less about the other two hunters. One of them seems a bit more buttoned-down than the other two, and he has more experience in the woods. The killers are motiveless strangers, the victims just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, everything that happens to either group plays out with the pitiless logic of an accident. Few films have captured the unpalatable mundane horror of modern violence, the numbing pointlessness of a Columbine or a VA Tech shooting, with such a matter of fact impartiality. Despite the surface similarities – the forest setting, the ten-little-indians plotting, the "last" character convention - Trigger Man's relentless naturalism and its refusal to give the viewer even the slightest bit of forced exposition reveals the Romanticism that drives even the most "gritty" torture porn or slasher flick.

This is not to say that Trigger Man is taboo-breaking in its depiction of gore. By modern horror standards, it's body count is downright demure and the gore that makes it on screen is, though unflinching, hardly over the top. Any gorehound worth her salt should be able to rattle off the titles of a bakers dozen of more hardcore flicks than this one. What is novel is the sudden and strangely disinterested brutality of the film. Like the death dealing sniper who seems to be able to smite our protagonists from an untouchable perch, the film has a chillingly heartless lack of concern for either its victims or killers. The kills in this flick are neither endurance tests nor splatter drenched punchlines. Rather, they have a grim, understated feel that makes them oddly affectless.

Visually, the film is striking. Filmed with a high-def hand camera, the movie starts off with distracting Blair Witch-esque shakes and stuttering, jerky zooms. Happily, the most excessive unsteadiness fades when we get to the woods. There, West opts for long tracking shots, emphasizing the motion of his actors through each composition. This style is not only indebted to avante-garde films like Fog Line, but also the structuralist work of Michael Snow. This rigorous, clinical camera work is often supplemented with a soundtrack that relies heavily on the "found" sound of the film's location. Running brooks, the crunch of boots on gravel paths, and the incidental sounds of the forest are used brilliantly to enhance the naturalistic feel of the film while, at the same time, slyly playing with the dramatic and filmmaking conventions that viewers have become so habituated that they're mistaken for "realism" (a scene in which two characters' dialogue is submerged in the roar of river that runs between them is a standout). I'm torn about the music West adds to his film. After an indifferent needledrop that plays over the credits, West revisits the modern classical sound of his first film. Here, however, the dirge-like Reich-inspired serialist sound is more epic and grand, suggesting the influence of Philip Glass's music for the restored 1931 classic Dracula. The music is, itself, amazing. The problem is that it simply isn't as involving as the rich "natural" sound design West uses so well. I'm open to the possibility that the score is deliberately intrusive. Perhaps it was meant as a sort of Brechtean device, reminding us to keep our distance and reinforcing the clinical affectlessness of the visuals. Still, I feel the flick verged on taking the bold step of not using any music at all, a move that I think West could have pulled off.

Bringing so many experimental techniques into play, while exciting on a meta, does have its drawbacks. The films affectless approach to characterization might be an intentional defamiliarization technique, but it also serves as a real block to emotional involvement. I've seen critics complain that the victims in a certain film are unlikable; the victims in Trigger Man are unanythingable. The filmic approaches of Gottheim and Snow developed in response to a very specific vision. Their use here makes for a very, very, very slow film. The effect can sometimes be soporific rather than exciting. Finally, despite the bold choices West makes, there are other choices that feel like strange relapses into genre convention. Using genre conventions ain't no crime, but like the avant-garde techniques West uses, the conventions have evolved as part of a system. To use them after stripping away their context and their capacity to link emotionally with the viewer is to rob the conventions of their punch.

Ultimately, Trigger Man is one of the most interesting, but not most successful, horror flicks in recent years. West has the convictions to follow through with ideas, though it means that these ideas occasionally trump the need to deliver on the genre's traditional thrills. Still, the vast majority of those working in horror have the clear goal of delivering solid, dependable, effective, and traditional entertainments. Given the entertainment focus of the majority of the field, I think it is good for the health of the genre that there's room for committed experimenters like West.

Word on the street is that West's next two flicks, House of the Devil and Cabin Fever II, both got stuck in post-production hell and were cut up by producers. I hope Trigger Man isn't the last time we get to watch West experiment: triumphs, failures, and all.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Music: I was a teenage caveman.

For the Mute Records release of remasters of the entire Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds discography, the music-mad minds at the Aquarium Drunkard blog at looking at Nick and the Seeds' first four records. They've just posted their thoughts on Firstborn is Dead, the second platter from the boys.

From the post by m garner:

To understand what happened with Nick Cave between From Her to Eternity and The Firstborn is Dead, it’s important to hear Cave’s cover of "In the Ghetto." The song, written by Mac Davis and made famous by Elvis Presley (and, for later generations, Eric Cartman), was left off of the original Eternity LP but found 7" release between the two records. As covers–and particularly Nick Cave covers, as we shall see next week–go, it’s a straightforward affair. Cave’s baritone is rich here, a tone more befitting the smooth, heartbroken tone of the song than the strangle he'd been applying to the rest of the Eternity material. The Bad Seeds show early signs of the tender noise they'd perfect over time, with Blixa Bargeld's guitar feeding back in a sort-of moan while Mick Harvey snaps out a martial dirge. It's a moving performance, one completely devoid of irony, and Cave’s first naked moment as a solo artist.

And, later:

But the real knot in the noose comes at the very beginning, with "Tupelo." Firstborn’s opening track—named for Elvis Presley's stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley—commences with washes of thunder and gunshot and rain, all of which quickly yield to Barry Adamson’s peg-legged bass while Mick Harvey drums out a Bo Diddley beat till the skin starts to come off. This is an apocalypse you can nod your head to. But the track belongs to the Worst Seed and to the images he repeats like funeral rites. Cave barrels through "Tupelo" with paddlewheel rhythm, growling and shuddering at times, but never breaking into self-parody. There’s nothing remotely funny about the scene down south as Cave describes it, wrapping together floods and tornadoes with the Second Coming of Christ and the birth of Elvis and America and who knows how many other things in the tiny town of Tupelo, Mississippi. "The King gonna walk on Tupelo," he wails repeatedly, referring to Elvis and to Christ in a narrative where the death of the day swallows the birth. The scratch of Bargeld's slide guitar is haunting, a sort-of vomiting upside-down John Lee Hooker, whose 'Tupelo Blues" served as an inspiration for the song. As with From Her to Eternity, Flannery O’Connor looms large all over the place, her crutches striking the levees and sending the river scattering into the homes like a pack of wolves looking for anything alive. And the Bad Seeds coo the title out together—"Tupelo"—like combs dripping with honey. And you can hear the waver in Nick Cave's voice as he shakes his head. "Oh God help Tupelo," he says. And the rain begins to pour once again.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Link Proliferation: "His complex mathematical proof indicates that the complete destruction of vampires would not be socially optimal."

Worst. Hangover. Ever.

Via the Mind Hacks blog, the Emergency Medicine Journal has a case study about a guy who rolled into a French hospital for alcohol poisoning. Normally, they take such cases, catheter them, hydrate them, give them a stern talking to, offer them access to an AA group, and send them off with a monster hangover.

In this case, the monster hangover wasn't going away. The reason is revealed in the case study's abstract:

Massive alcohol intake usually resolves in a banal headache. We report a case of a patient presenting with acute alcohol intoxication in which the ensuing “hangover” was due to a knife blade deeply retained in the brain parenchyma. This case underlines the unpredictability of retained foreign bodies without a high level of suspicion and a detailed description of the circumstances of admission.

Later in the study, we get this gem:

The foreign body was surgically withdrawn, and postoperative recovery was uneventful. After awakening from surgery, the patient could not remember involvement in an altercation, but witnesses retrospectively confirmed that he was attacked with a knife after drinking with his assailant.


Pics above. The magic of clicking makes things bigger.

"There is something implacably and sadly malign about this world."

Popmatters has a nicely discursive review of Ivan Vartanian and Tiffany Godoy's Japanese Gothic

With its distinctive looks, links to Japanese popular music, and intense marketability, it would be easy to consider Gothic Lolita another clothing trend. There’s no lack of websites devoted to explaining exactly how to dress in Gothic Lolita style, with Tokyopop’s quarterly magazine Gothic & Lolita Bible being one of the most definitive. Among its typical influences are Victorian, Edwardian and Rococo fashions (think Edward Gorey). Other common elements include knee-length skirts with petticoats; shirts and blouses edged in frills and lace; bonnets and parasols.

But don’t come to this book expecting instructions on how to dress. Japanese Goth doesn’t delve into the minutiae of proper ensembles and accessories. It also avoids getting into the Gothic Lolita subcultures such as “Elegant Gothic Lolita”, or “Sweet Gothic Lolita”. Readers interested in the latest variation on the theme probably have their own sources for finding out what’s new. As Takemoto [Japanese novelist and "bard of the Lolitas," Novala Takemoto - CRwM] writes in his introduction:

“Let’s say punk rock was described to you as ‘three chords of rock music played roughly.’ Would that be sufficient? If you looked up surrealism in the dictionary and it was described as a style of art that uses unrealistic depiction, would you understand? In Japan, even now, people ask me ‘What is Gothic Lolita fashion?’ I tell them I don’t know.”

Bloodsucker Population Dynamics, Revisited

Several months ago, I posted a link to a paper by two physicists claiming that geometric progression (a sequence of numbers where each term after the first is found by multiplying the previous one by a fixed non-zero number called the common ratio) proves that vampires could not exist.

The short form of the argument: Vamp feeding produces new vamps, so every time a vamp feeds there are more feeding vamps produced, which means the number of feeding vamps quickly passes the number of available humans. The way the number crunchers worked it out, it would take just two years to turn the whole human population into vampires.

On posting this, ANTSS regular and generally perspicacious fellow Screamin' Sassy noted that the eggheads made some pretty broad assumptions about vampires. Does everybody a vampire bites instantly become a vampire? How often do vampires really need to feed?

Turns out that Sassy wasn't alone. At io9, Mark Strauss, senior editor of Smithsonian magazine, takes a tour of alternative vampire population spread models.

From the article:

Here, Sejdinovic cites the pioneering research conducted by Austrian mathematicians Richard Hartl and Alexander Mehlmann, who published the landmark 1992 paper, "The Transylvanian Problem of Renewable Resources," later followed up by "Cycles of Fear: Periodic Bloodsucking Rates for Vampires" (Journal of Optimization Theory and Application, December 1992). Hartl and Mehlmann argue that vampires would never be stupid enough to deplete their entire food supply, and by applying the Hopf-Bifurcation Theorem (don't ask), they demonstrate how vampires can adopt an optimal "cyclical bloodsucking strategy."

However, there is a serious flaw in the Hartl and Mehlmann model: The assumption that human beings would be docile prey. Their research provoked an outraged response from economist Dennis Snower, who in his article "Macroeconomic Policy and the Optimal Destruction of Vampires" (The Journal of Political Economy, June 1982), declared:

"One wonders what conceivable interest the authors could have had in helping vampires solve their intertemporal consumption problem. The implicit assumption of the Invisible Hand (or Fang)-whereby vampires, in pursuing their own interests, pursue those of human beings as well-is of questionable validity. The study by Hartl and Mehlmann is not concerned with the macroeconomic implications of blood-sucking behavior modes. Nor does it consider the policy instruments whereby human beings can protect themselves from vampires. Instead, humans are modeled as passive receptacles of blood whose cultivation and harvest are left to vampire discretion."

The whole thing is silly fun for the geekier among the horror fancy.

Beach Reading Season Begins

The Pop Crunch mass-cult news site has released its 10 Most Disturbing Books of All Time list.

The selections are a little odd. The Turner Diaries makes it on the strength of its connection to the militia movement and its alleged role as an inspiration to Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh, but Mein Kampf, with its connection to a considerably more destructive and widespread right-wing political movement, was not considered infamous enough to make the list.

Also, reading 120 Days of Sodom is about as emotionally involving as reading the phonebook. I have no doubt that the masochistic souls who trudge through the entire work put down de Sade's tome feeling drained – though it isn't the soul scourging emptiness one feels after you've stared into the abyss; it's the hollow tiredness one feels after an excruciatingly long ordeal at the DMV.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Music: Cave in.

On the 19th – just five short days away – Mute Records will drop remasters of the first four Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds albums. The music-meisters at Aquarium Drunkard use the event to wax poetic about Cave and Co.'s debut platter: From Her to Eternity and offer up a download of the title track for those who don't already have this morbid music milestone on the mp3 player.

From the first post:

The candles freshly blown on The Birthday Party, Angry Young Nick Cave entered a London studio in March of 1984 and, alongside BP leftover Mick Harvey and a host of others, banged and thrashed through seven tracks of what would come to be Cave’s stock and trade: Murder. Deception. Thievery. Loneliness. Literature. All of these done up in a landscape as bleak and terrible as anything Flannery O’Connor ever imagined, and its insides couched in terror. This is the rumbling lodestar in the dark icy sky of Nick Cave’s discography, an almost completely joyless set of songs that are lacking in the humor and grace that would temper his later work. These songs were born straight from the oily fires at the center of the earth.

AD will be following up with reviews of the other three albums in the set: The Firstborn is Dead, Kicking Against the Pricks, and Your Funeral . . . My Trial. I'll link the follow-ups here, loyal readers.

'Till then, why not dig on this live footage of Nick Cave spazzing out all over "From Her to Eternity"?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Books: HODAG!

The University Press of Chicago is offering a taste of historian Joshua Blu Buhs's (real name, swear to God) new book about Bigfoot, everybody's favorite Fortean missing link. The online marketing includes a neat little interview with the author.

The book excerpt not only discusses the origins of the Bigfoot story, but it also briefly recounts the story of the fearsome hodag – which should always be said with near ecstatic excitement: HODAG! – "The Rhino of America's North Woods." Pictured below.

From Blu Buhs's new book:

Lumberjacks, hunters, trappers, and other working-class men had long told stories of such prodigies. For decades, seasoned veterans had funned greenhorns with tales of sidehill dodgers and mosquitoes so big that they sucked cows dry and by having them fetch the equally legendary left-handed wrench. Or they sent them to hunt snipes. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Eugene Shepard, a Wisconsin lumberjack, raconteur, and prankster, announced that he had caught a hodag, the rhino of America’s north woods. Shepard photographed a group of friends killing the beast with picks and axes. The picture was made into a postcard; hundreds of thousands were sold; tourists flocked to Rhinelander, Wisconsin; reportedly, the Smithsonian even expressed interest. Seeing is believing. But the hodag was just a woodcarving. It was all a humbug. American history is rife with such practical jokes, stories of giant turtles and panthers, jackalopes and sea serpents, agropelters and snow wassetts—an entire bestiary of legendary animals. The tradition continued long after the frontier closed. In 1950, for example, the men’s adventure magazine Saga introduced a feature called “Sowing the Wild Hoax” and encouraged the blue-collar men reading it to send in examples of “particularly fiendish” and “unusually funny” practical jokes.