Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Meta: My better half.

Pictured above, standing in front of the art section of McNally Jackson: SoHo's finest source for vendible books, are me and my lovely wife. She's the one on the right.

No, your right.

While I'm normally one to avoid this sort of self-display – after all, you didn't come here to read about me – I have to mark the occasion of our anniversary.

Thanks Jess. I love you.

As for the Screamin' fancy, come back tomorrow. We'll, um, I don't know, do Jeepers Creepers 2 or something.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Movies: Snow job.

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

- "Fire and Ice," Robert Frost

On first seeing the trailer for The Last Winter, Larry Fessenden's snowbound 2006 eco-horror, I thought that it might very well be his The Thing. What, exactly, Fessenden's The Thing would look like, I wasn't sure; but I'd dug his urban vamp tale Habit and was a fan of his previous snowbound monster flick, Wendigo - which actually serves as a prequel to Last Winter in some odd ways – so I was willing to see what shook out. Sadly, the results are decidedly mixed. Often visually pleasing and suitably eerie, the film suffers severely from a too-baggy plot and drama killing scenes of heavy-handed green-guilt exposition.

The movie begins with a corporate propaganda film-within-a-film explaining that, decades prior to the events of The Last Winter, the North corporation (the film's conveniently evil nature exploiter) sent an exploratory well into some frozen patch of desolation nestled in the bleak heart of an enormous stretch of government-owned Alaskan wasteland. The results of that test were never released because changes in government policy locked the company out of public lands. But, to the great joy of starving oil executives everywhere, evil environmentalist fat cats and the political cronies were swept out of office and elected officials more sensitive the press concern of Energy Independence™ were voted in. Now, just miles away from the mysterious and abandoned original test well, a new project is starting up. And progress, by Americans, for Americans, is on the march again!

In practical terms, this means that we get to strand a handful of folks in a claustrophobic base camp – a series of stitched together trailers that, inside, possess all the charm of a particularly sterile DMV – until something cracks or the forces of nature, from plain ol' hypothermia to the more exotic "things man was not meant to know," do them in, which ever comes first.

The Last Winter wears its sources on it sleeve, for better or for worse. One of the better influences is the superlative 1951 Christian Nyby classic Thing from Another Planet. Though now far eclipsed in fan appreciation by the Carpenter remake, I've always admired the original for its characterization. The surly, already somewhat crazed characters of the remake always seemed to me to just be waiting for a chance to turn into paranoid psychos. Like Nicholson in The Shining, they don't give the viewer confidence that the things might have turned out even had outside evil not intruded. By contrast, the characters in the original appear confident, happy, and friendly. They also partake of that Hawksian professionalism: a refreshingly utopian view of competence that makes heroes out of men that know what they are doing and exercise that skill in an ethos of noble responsibility. When stress starts to weigh on them and trust begins to disintegrate, it seems as if the characters have genuinely lost something. The horror of the original Thing is that our best and brightest might find themselves unequal to a task and crumble under the pressure. In contrast, it is almost impossible to imagine what the protagonists in Carpenter's The Thing might actually be studying. Or, for that matter, why anybody would have armed such a hard-drinking, drugged-out, daft, and embittered crew. The research station in the first film resembles a scientific outpost being supplied by a crew of professional soldiers. The research station in the second film resembles a penal colony. Given the choice between these two options, LW tacks towards the original. Sure, the corporate taskmaster (played with familiar gruffness by Ron Perlman) is a bit of a blockhead, and the machinist is perhaps a bit too fond of his booze – but all in all you get the sense of trained folks, working under harsh conditions, to get a real job done. From their dialogue filled with authentic sounding slang to the passive aggressive "office politics," this feels like it takes place in a genuinely adult world. (I got the same refreshing quality of adultness of the demo crew in Session 9.) Whether horror is just innately a juvenile genre or whether modern horror is simply besotted with an infantilizing nostalgia, it is nice to see a horror film that goes against this grain and has genuinely mature characters in it.

Some other great influences positively inform the flick. The stark, snow-blinded visuals of Carpenter's The Thing seem to have inspired Fessenden's beautifully minimalist cinematography (though the cryptic box that marks the sinister old test well seems a nod to the Nyby original). The film even contains nods to Jack London's work, most notably his classic short story "To Build a Fire." The plot's incrementally building tension also calls to mind classic ghost stories. Not so much any particular film, but rather the sort of slow accumulation of incidents that make the characters realize that the entire haunted mansion, boat, graveyard, laundry machine, whatever, is working against them ever leaving. It has that classic structure.

Some other influences don't wear so well. The film contains what appear to be nods to Event Horizon and Resident Evil which, if intentional, makes The Last Winter the most extensive film homage to the works of "auteur" Paul W. S. Anderson yet created. So, um, it's got that going for it.

There's some other snags too.

Perhaps the fatal weakness of making a mostly smart and well-made flick is that what missteps do occur become glaringly obvious. First, after establishing that the characters in this film aren't a bunch of morons, LW requires the characters do quite a few truly boneheaded things. Most notably, when one of the youngest members of the crew goes mad and stumbles out into the artic night in his birthday suit, carrying a camcorder, determined to record the existence of a ghost he claims is haunting him, the footage the rest of the crew recovers clearly shows something bushwacking the crazed and doomed man. Instead of rewinding the film and attempting to figure out what monstrous thing might have just killed one of the crew, the crew chief destroys the tape. Hey, if it is a well-known fact that there's no such thing as monsters, then the camera must be mistaken or crazy too. The last thing anybody needs is a panicky camcorder getting everybody all riled up!

As unfortunate as some of these sudden attacks of the stupid are, they are almost so common in the creature feature subgenre as to constitute a convention in and of themselves. They don't grate as badly intrusive eco-minded monologues and montages which, aside from their horror-killing pedantic tone, feel like out of place, last minute add on. For example, in one of the scenes, one of the station's consulting environmentalists thumbs through a notebook he's keeping and we hear an internal monologue about how everything has collapsed, there is no hope, something it out to get them all, we're all doomed, DOOMED, I say! However, in the very next scene, however, he seems as chipper as the next guy; he's concerned about the environmental impact of the project, but hardly convinced that its ramifications are apocalyptic; and he seems to have pushed the whole "something there is that does not love a drilling station" fear out of his mind.

I don't particularly have a problem with eco-friendly subtexts (in fact, I seem to be on some sort of roll with the green-themed horror stuff, though the trend was unintentional). If that's what fuels the filmmaker's vision, then go to town. The issue is that these somewhat hamfisted interludes clash with the rest of the film's efforts at building an aura of mystery. If the film were entitled Larry Fessenden Explains Global Warming, with Occasional Monsters then the tone would be fine. But the "haunted tundra" vibe's artificiality is highlighted and its menace strangely drained whenever the film fails to trust the viewer to make the necessary connections and smothers the action in an unnecessary coating of exposition.

The end result is a respectable and often eye-catching flick that feels hobbled by the awkward earnestness of its message. It's not a bad film, but it isn't one of Fessenden's best.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Your new favorite unstoppable doom scenario from the Department of Crazy Crap You Didn't Even Know You Had to Fear.

Leading researchers at the DoCCYDEKYHtF headquarters in Gantsmouth, North Carolina (pictured above), have discovered the horrifying fact that Earth may be trying to kill us.

That's right, even as we speak – or, you know, as I write and you read, though, really, I've written this perhaps hours or days ago, so the illusion of contiguous presence in our communication is really more of . . . We don't have time for this! The freakin' planet Earth wants us freakin' dead!

According to a deliciously fear-mongering piece in NewScientist, the planet Earth regularly "flushes" its eco-system in an effort to rid the planet of destructive elements. Dubbed "Medean events" – named after the child murdering sorceress of Greek myth in a satiric jab (who says scientists don't have a sense of humor) at the popular Gaia theory – these global corrections involve, to quote NS, "drastic drops in biodiversity and abundance driven by life itself." In layman's terms, we're talking about worldwide, spontaneous multi-species extinctions.

Unlike "global warming" or "asteroid strikes" or any other of the millions of man-made or extraterrestrial apocalyptic scenarios we tend to focus on, the creepy thing about Medean events is that they do not represent a breakdown of the global ecosystem. They aren't the product of attacking mother Earth. Instead, the Medean hypothesis suggests that ecosystems regularly correct them in spectacularly catastrophic ways. Mother Earth has evolved to regularly slaughter most of her "children."

By way of example, 2.5 billion years ago, all life on Earth was microbial. The planet was home to a teeming diversity of tiny life. Because the life spans of these tiny little beasties were so short, the planet was nearly the Platonic ideal of an evolutionary laboratory. It may well have been Earth's singular greatest moment with regards to the sheer diversity of life on the globe. But then, some almost infinitesimally small subset of these mini-monsters evolved the novel capacity to photosynthesize: turning sunlight and carbon dioxide into energy and releasing oxygen. This evolutionary leap was an utter disaster for life on the planet. For an overwhelming majority of the microbes on Earth oxygen was a deadly toxin. In short order, only photosynthesizing plants and a handful of microbes that evolved to adapt to an oxygen environment survived.

The NS article has a spiffy timeline of the Medean events.

What's the take-away? You are not Mother Earth's precious and unique little snowflake. She's not really that kind of mom.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

True Crime: "Mr. Wan, Saw 7 is calling on line 1 for you."

Germany is looking down the shaky and forgetful barrel of a new era of crime. The citizens of that fair nation live in the terrifying shadow of a recent explosion (read "two known cases") of what the ever-quick-to-dub media has dubbed "silver crime."

What, pray tell, is "silver crime." We turn to the Time UK Online for a little enlightenment:

A group of well-to-do pensioners who lost their savings in the credit crunch staged an arthritic revenge attack and held their terrified financial adviser to ransom, prosecutors said yesterday.

The alleged kidnapping is the latest example of what is being dubbed “silver crime” — the violent backlash of pensioners who feel cheated by the world.

“As I was letting myself into my front door I was assaulted from behind and hit hard,” the financial adviser James Amburn, a 56-year-old German-American, said. “Then they bound me with masking tape until I looked like a mummy. I thought I was a dead man.”

He was freed by 40 heavily armed policemen from the counter-terrorist unit last Saturday. The frightened consultant was in his underwear, his body lacerated by wounds allegedly inflicted by angry pensioners.

The group of "impoverished" pensioners included two couples that lost a sack of Euros in the American housing market. The first couple used the cellar in the vacation home to hold the financial advisor hostage. The second couple, a pair of retired doctors, supervised the abuse. The frightening, if fragile-hipped, foursome hoped that they could beat the financial advisor into giving back all the money they lost.

The financial advisor almost escaped when, after stripping him down to his skivvies beating him badly enough of break a rib, the four amateur torturers allowed their victim a backyard smoke break.

"Oh, God! Please don't kill me! And, um, can I smoke in here?"
"In the house. Ah, no."
"Then, if you're not beating me right this moment, could I step out and have a quick smoke."
"Of course, my dear man. We're Germans, not savages. Besides, the wife's missing her stories. We can pick this up in thirty. That work for you?"

The financial advisor made it over the vacation house's back wall – the cash-strapped pensioners were so poor that they couldn't even build a decent backyard wall for their vacation house – and went running in his tightie-whities for help. However, the pensioners gave wheezy chase to the fugitive financier, shouting that he was a thief. (Having stolen, apparently, several bruises, cuts, and a single pair of briefs.) A "helpful" group of young men subdued the nearly naked "burglar" and, as you do, handed him over to the two old couples chasing him. The police, presumably, would have better things to do than investigate a robbery.

For attempting to escape, the financier was beaten again.

Convinced that they'd finally broken the suit's will to resist, the elderly couples had the advisor fax a request for funds to a Swiss bank. The advisors fax contained a coded message that played on the fact that the German word for a financial policy is spelled like the English word for "police." His captors did not notice the call for help and, a short time later, the counter-terror unit arrived.

Comic cred goes to Dinosaur Comics.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Television: Tru that.

I can't imagine that you’re a reader of a horror blog and you need a rundown of the premise of HBO's camped-up vampire soap True Blood; but, because this post questions an apparent contradiction in the series's backstory, we need to cover the premise anyway.

In the world of True Blood, vampires have recently "come out of the coffin" and now live openly among the people they used to treat as food. Previous to this, the vampires lived in total secrecy. Despite their individual power, this secrecy was necessitated by they fact that the vastly larger human population would, once aroused to the dangers of predation, rally and destroy the vamps while they slept. (Plus, there's something supremely unwise in waging total war against your food. If you win, you're screwed.) What's made this vast sweeping social change possible is the invention of an artificial blood substitute, TruBlood, that can fulfill the nutritional needs of vampires (though it apparently lacks the emotional kick of chomping down on humans). Although TruBlood might be considered a necessary good insomuch as without it vampires go on killing and human must kill them, within the context of the show it is distributed – at least in the Western world – in a manner similar to sports or energy drinks. Now we know from details in the show and the marketing materials that surround it, TruBlood was invented by a Japanese scientist.

Now here's the problem: The creation of TruBlood as a globally available product contradicts the backstory of the show. The concept requires that, for some extended period of time, a substantial number of humans knew about vampires prior to the widespread availability of an alternative blood source. But, contrary to the show's premise, this did not lead to the destruction of vampires.

Although the story of the creation of TruBlood is, I believe, not thoroughly detailed in the show, we get some hints to the drink's origins from other semi-canon sources: notably "marketing materials" HBO created for the TruBlood drink as part of their first season online ad campaign and a 1-ish True Blood prequel promotional comic in which a non-show vampire character discusses the first time he heard of the existence of TruBlood. From this material, we get the following bits of data:

1. TruBlood exists prior to its use as a dietary substitute to human blood and vampire outing occurs prior to TruBlood's worldwide use as such. From the promotional comic, we learn that Japanese vampires are the first to "discover" TruBlood's vampiric use. Convinced that the product's nosferatu-chow application is a paradigm shifter, Japanese vampires start using online forums to contact other vampires and promote the notion of coming out. This is important as it suggests that the notion of coming out occurs prior to the widespread availability of TruBlood. Indeed, the widespread availability of TruBlood, especially as a sort of high-end energy drink, would be predicated on the notion of the notion of a vampire market for just such a product. It might seem obvious, but it bears repeating: It appears that vampires "came out of the coffin" after an alternative to predation existed, but such an alternative was widely available.

2. There are, apparently, cultural distinctions in predation that suggest regional variations in just how "hidden" vampires population might have been prior to the revelation. The comic suggests that Western vampires, prior to the decision to "come out," lived under severe cover. Feeding, it is implied, most typically ended in the death of the victim. This seems to have been a matter of the feeding vampire covering its tracks, as it is well established that vampires can feed without killing. It is assumed that very few, if any, humans in Western culture knew of the existence of vampires. By contrast, there are very nebulous indications that Japanese vampires and their human victims had some sort of more consensual and knowing relationship prior to the revelation of vampires to the living. What exactly their relationship was and what that meant for what the developers of TruBlood is never explicitly stated. It does, however, leave open the possibility that TruBlood's developers may have known of the existence of vampires even prior to working out a viable alternative to predation.

3. That vampires are relatively ravenous. The marketing materials for the TruBlood drink imply that vampires get the itch to drink blood on a nightly basis. In fact, the range given for needing to feed is "nightly" to "six times a night." The show, however, implies that actual feeding occurs less often than this and even suggests – though such reports might be a sort of vampire urban legend – that some vampires can entirely suppress the urge to feed. Let's ballpark it and suggest that, prior to the revelation of vampires to the living world, an average feeding rate was once every six months. The average outer limit of vampire feedings, let's guess, is several years. A vamp can hold back, let's say, three years without feeding if they absolutely must. I'm kinda pulling this figure out of my ass, because we don't have any hard data to go with. Why is this important? Knowing how often vampires must feed, combined with the fact that most pre-revelation feeding led to a human fatality, allows us to start ballparking the human cost of knowing vampires are real, but choosing not to destroy them because you expect a solution to the problem to arrive soon. We need to make another WAG here: How many vampires are there? Despite how common supernatural figures are in the show, I think we're supposed to draw the conclusion that they pretty much a minority everywhere they live. Let's assume that vampires are less than one one-hundredth of one percent of the global population. This is actually an absurdly low number given the number of vampires that appear in the show. But, as you'll see, even this absurdly low number pushes the bounds of belief when we start crunching numbers. If there's a global population of 6,000,000,000 then there are 6 million vampires. Even if every vampire stretched their feeding limits to max, this would mean that, prior to revelation, vampires killed about 2 million humans a year, roughly 170,000 people a month. So, when we say that somebody knew about the existence of vampires, but decided to not destroy them, every month of inaction cost human lives.

Now let's apply some real world factors that I think we can safely assume hold true even if the world of True Blood.

1. Getting a commercial product to a global market takes time. For a comparison, it took Red Bull nearly five years from the moment it penetrated its first foreign market to the time it arrived on US shores. Admittedly, Red Bull isn't a matter of life and death – but one of the curious things about the show it the idea that TruBlood would be distributed like a sports drink rather than, say, like insulin. That's the novelist's choice and not my own.

2. Getting a commercial product to a global market requires a wide and somewhat transparent process that would preclude the possibility of keeping the products sole target demographic, vampires, a secret. We could, I think, assume that vampires found out about the existence of TruBlood through the vampire grapevine. However, even if you assume that your customers were hip, you’d have to convince numerous government and private agencies to go along with your plans.

Add these two together and you've got the following conclusion: The spread of TruBlood must have taken some amount of time, during which the existence of vampires must have been made a public fact.

Armed with this few data points, we can imagine a handful of scenarios involving the development of TruBlood. Instead of writing out a series of hypothetical narratives, I'm going to just ponder a few "what if" options and brainstorm the results of each.

We've determined that TruBlood was functional before vampires began debating assimilation into human culture. However, the hint that Japanese vampires were not a rigorously hidden as their Western counterparts opens up the idea that vampires might have had some hand in the creation TruBlood. This could have either taken the form of approaching the human creators of the artificial blood after it was complete and pitching the drink idea or one can imagine that vampires actually influenced the artificial blood's creation. The latter scenario does not, I think, require that vampires reveal themselves right away. Through the use of enthralled humans and the use of the vampire's mind-control "glamour," one can imagine that a small group of people – say a couple of key researchers – could be influenced to steer the project into directions most likely to produce a dietary substitute. Still, sooner or later, vampires would have to convince medical companies and beverage companies to start producing and packaging the artificial blood in a manner consistent with its current form in the show. At that moment, even if the existence of vampires was not widely known, at the very least several people at a handful of fairly large-sized companies would know of the existence of vampires. Further, it would be in the vamps best interest to keep the circle tight at this point. Until TruBlood is globally available, humans and vampire must necessarily conflict. Also, there's always a chance that the scientists and suits might react negatively, requiring the vamps to damage control the secrecy breech. The smaller the circle, the easier that would be. So let's assume vamp existence was reveled on a need to know basis in these early days.

This might not seem like a big deal, but it means, in essence, that everybody who knew at this point had to understand that, while their companies quietly sat on the fact of vampire existence, a truly horrific number of people were dying. Let's just look at the shortest scenario. Vampires are a total secret, preventing their destruction, until a global near consensus is reached to reveal themselves to humans. They reveal themselves to a small group of scientists, corporate suit types, a few bankers, and, most likely, a government official or two. Everybody who needs to understand why a company would want to release med tech as a sports drink. Keeping the numbers small as I think they could be, we're looking at a group of several hundred people working together for about four years (that's how long I'm guessing it would take to get people to believe in vampires; determine that the wisest course of action was assimilation and not total war; test the product; revamp, so to speak, production; and get government approval, assuming the approval was fast tracked due to the unique situation). During this time people are diligently working away on TruBlood, hiding the existence of vampires. At the same time, vampires, even if they are onboard with the overall plan, could not be certain that the end results will work out. For vampires, you could max out your eating limits, but you'd still have to assume that feedings that ended in death would be preferable to predations that could leave witnesses to your existence. You'd have to keep killing. Over the course of that initial ramp up, we can assume that over 8 million people would have died.

After that initial stage, I don't believe it would possible to keep the existence of vampires secret. The submission of TruBlood for international market approvals would inevitably lead to the question of why humans would drink fake blood. The spread of TruBlood as a drink requires that all the agents – a rapidly increasing network of people distributed widely and therefore unlikely to be influenced supernaturally by vamps – at all the stages understand the real purpose of the drink. Using the Red Bull model, it would take another, say, five years for the drink to spread around the globe. During these five years, humans are aware of the fact of vampire existence and vampires do not yet have a widely available substitute to human predation. Also, to survive, vamps would have still been feeding. However, at this point, we can no longer assume that most or all vampires would decide that murdering their victims was the wisest course of action. Some vampires might well have feed on willing victims, stopping short of murdering them. Others might have partially feed on unwilling victims, figuring that the big masquerade was no longer in danger and they could use supernatural advantages to confuse potential witnesses to their personal crime. Still, others may have simply continued to attack and kill humans, figuring that it is simply the best way to avoid human attention until such time as an alternative is easily available and human reprisals are unlikely. (Which brings up another unlikely factor in the decision making process that must have gone on: Just a vampires would have to assume the possibility that humans might not go for the plan, humans would have to assume a voluntary stop in predation was far from certain. In fact, in the show, predation still regularly occurs. Why would humans go through all this trouble just to secure an false peace that ensures that they'll always lose any interaction?) Still, even if we assume that vampire related deaths took a plunge, feedings would have to go on. Given that, by the time show takes place, voluntary feedings are only starting to become faddish, we can assume they weren't the dominant form of vampire feeding. Let's say, though I find it unlikely, that nearly half of all feedings were voluntary during this time. That would still mean that more than 10,200,000 people were attacked, some percentage fatally.

Even though we can't know the details, we can confidently can state that no matter how TruBlood was developed and spread, it required that public and private institutions around the world to work together to produce, approve, distribute, and sell the new product, during which time humans were aware of the fact that vampires were killing humans at a million people a month.

The question is: Why would any government have allowed that to happen? It makes no sense. Take the United States (please!). Assuming that vamp's are equally distributed among the human population, then there are only 300,000 vamps in the US. That's not even enough votes to carry a city election here in New York. Yet between the time Japan reveals their existence as a fact and the time TruBlood can act as a complete substitute to predation, those vampires would have offed more than 400,000 people. Why would the US government do such a thing? It would be like allowing serial killers to operate freely because a Japanese corporation says it is bringing to market a sports drink that will definitively cure their homicidal impulses, during which time they will actually kill more than their own number.

Following the show's own premises, the revelation of vampires, regardless of the existence of a food alternative, should have led to a conflict between vampires and humans that ended either in the wholesale destruction of one (vampires) or both groups (vampires and humans). That it didn't makes about as much sense as glittery vampires.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Books: Freddy's heat bills are atrocious and that money's got to come from somewhere.

So let's say you're some forest dwelling slasher. You live a simple, Thoreau-esque life. Your needs are no lavish. You have a pair of overalls and some army surplus. You have a head bag for casual wear and a hockey-mask for formal occasions. You don't watch television, play video games, or read – so your entertainment costs are at a minimum. You don't pay rent because you would presumably disembowel anybody who came to negotiate a lease for the accursed patch of sleepover camp that you call home.

Still, there are those unexpected costs that creep up on you. The cost of arrows, for example. Sure, a study machete will get you through a good 98% of teen slaughter situations. But it's nice to have ranged attack options. And you know you don't have time to go around recovering every arrow you let fly at some undergrad doofus who decided to leave his empty beer cans and spent Coney whitefish all over your nice clean woodland. These kids roam in packs and there's always a lot of screaming and yelling and running. Oy, the endless running. It gives me pains! Those 390 A/C/C Pro Superlight alloy/carbon broadheads you liter about really start to add up.

What? Make your own arrows? Sweetie, please. You're a slasher, not the last Mohican.

So you need money, but what to do? You can't just get a job. If the locals see you, you'll lose that all-important edge of sinister mystery. Plus, like, you're kinda justly wanted by the law for being a mass murdering psycho. What you need is a lucrative option that takes you far from your core market, allowing you to capitalize off your image without diluting the brand identity in your core market.

Well, you're in luck, my homicidal friend. Welcome to your new revenue stream. Pulp fiction book covers in India!

The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction is a sampler-plate intro to the delightful world of Tamil-language newsstand lit: a pulp universe recognizably similar to our own mass-market pulp alternoverse, but filtered through distinct cultural norms and given a unique spin. Editor and translator Pritham K. Chakravarthy selects ten notable Tamil-language market lit legends that give new readers a sense of the range in subject and tone of the Tamil pulps. I don't know that fans of American pulps will find their new favorite author hiding in these pages, but the talent on display in these stories is undeniable. Furthermore, the combination of familiar tropes and foreign culture make reading the volume a surprising pleasure, like eating comfort food that somebody has spiked with a particularly rich and unusual spice.

Why should a shambolic, seemingly sub-literate mass murderer like yourself care?

One of the treats included in the Tamil Pulp Fiction anthology is a series of color plates showcasing the trippy covers of this market lit. Several of these covers include images, both iconic and obscure, from American horror flicks. Below are samples of covers that rip off images from the legendary, The Exorcist, to the cult, Fright Night. The crappy scans are my fault. Chakravarthy's book contains high-quality reproductions of these and dozens of others.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Stuff: Dress code.

I post this knowing full well that it may cause Dave – the poor guy I regularly drag to Court Street Theater to check out whatever drek might be bad enough to start a riot there – to entirely empty out his life savings.

But it seemed nifty enough to warrant the risk.

The Brit-based Hide Your Arms t-shirt blog has a spiffy list of 101 of the best robot-centric t-shirt designs with links to the online vendors who will hook you up. Here's a few of my personal faves.

We need to face it. Most of us look better dressed. Make with the click-click and suit up. As a special limited-time offer, tell the folks at the participating t-shirt stores that you're from And Now the Screaming Starts and they'll answer, "Say what now? Never heard of it."

Friday, June 19, 2009

Stuff: Horror will no longer be worth watching when it is no longer worth banning.

Lately, the question of "how far is too" far seems to have started popping up around the horror blog-o-sphere. There was a mini-symposium on the matter at Vault of Horror, featuring B-Sol and BJ-C (the inseparable Tracy and Hepburn of horror blog world), and ragin' RayRay (political blogger behind Non-Partisan Witch Hunt).

Now there's a interesting back and forth between Curt, the Groovy One, and Sean, who is quite the deal in his own right and it is a failing on my part and not his that I don't have a nickname for him ("the Thin White Lantern"? too obscure? too jumbled?), about the literal bloodbath scene in Hostel II: Electric Drill Boogaloo. This starts in Curt's post on said movie and continues on Sean's blog.

Whether horror can or cannot (or should) go too far isn't something I really intend to address here. I believe my views on the matter are fairly eccentric and reductionist so there's no need to hash them out in open debate. Instead, I though we'd focus in on a curious trope that pops up in both exchanges.

In clarifying his reaction to the bleed out of Wiener Dog, Sean says:

It was precisely because it had all that "it's only a movie" nonsense surrounding it--and I'm thinking less of the Euro-horror sensuality in the scene itself, which is fine, and more of the splatstick stuff in the climax, which undercuts the whole film--that it bothered me so much. It's kind of like the bit in Inside that made me turn off the movie. If I'd been watching Henry or Dahmer or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or something similarly weighty and serious in intent, I'd have stuck with it, but to violate that particular taboo in the name of a slick, glossy (if gory), credulity-stretching thriller? Thanks but no thanks. Ditto the demise of Weiner Dog. Paradoxically, it's precisely the lack of realism that makes these sequences tougher both to watch and to justify. If i'm going to watch a nude woman get tortured to death, I want to feel like I'm eating my vegetables, not Cookie Crisps.

In his contribution to the roundtable exchange, B-Sol gives Roth's first Hostel flick a verbal smackdown:

My main problem with Hostel was that I found it to be a movie created for the sole purpose of showing me graphic depictions of dramatized torture. The plot was paper thin, as were the characters, and it was quite obvious that Eli Roth's goal was to titillate through violence, without even the flimsiest of dramatic justifications.

BJ-C hits a similar note discussing the on-film slaughter of animals in the infamous exploitation flick Cannibal Holocaust:

The same could be said for the Animal massacres in Cannibal Holocaust. However, as much as I personally cannot agree with killing animals for the sole purpose of "entertainment", the film was killing the animals to make a point.

Finally, RayRay sounds off with a comparison between Rob Zombie's debut and Roth's sophomore effort:

At the same time, movies like the Hostel series and Turistas, and other so called 'torture porn' I can consider having gone too far. Why? I suppose this has something to d with my distaste of the unnecessary cruelty embodied by such films. "Unnecessary cruelty? But that's what those movies are about!" some might retort. Yes, and that is all they are about. One might even then question me about the difference between House of a Thousand Corpses and Hostel. And I would say that the difference lies in the stresses the director one puts on what we see.

In House of a Thousand Corpses, the director created characters to identify with and against that had substance, and in one or two, they were more than a little campy. The violence was a means to an end, as well as a symptom of some greater sickness in those characters. There was more to the movie than just violating the human form.

In Hostel violence was the goal. While the premise wasn't terrible, the story never carried further than the murder of tourists. When you think about it, the most clever thing about Hostel is the director makes you into one of the purveyors of snuff, because the big payoff is all about watching what's going to happen to that Asian girl. In Turistas the payoff was watching a dissection of a girl. Is it the violence and the guts, though? No. Rather, it is the lack of story to contextualize the violence.

There's a lot in here I agree with. The bloodbath scene in Hostel II, for example, is oddly dissonant, and not in a satisfying way, with the rest of the flick. I didn't have the same problems with how realistic it may or may not have been, mainly because I don't see the Hostel films as particularly realistic in the first place. But I can see where Sean is coming from. I agree with RayRay that the decisions a director makes to present his material have a moral component to them and it is legit to compare how two directors hand similar material with that in mind. I can't contest B-Sol's argument that Hostel's plot and characters are not particularly complex.

However, there is one element that I feel runs through all these threads that I strongly disagree with.

Again and again we get some sort riff on the idea that violence, even perhaps the most extreme violence, would be okay if it were somehow wedded to a higher purpose. Violence shouldn't be "the point" of violence, but should rather serve "weighty and serious in intent" or be, somehow, necessary. Even, curiously, genuine acts of unnecessary suffering – if one is to admit that animals can in a meaningful analog to the human understanding of the term – are apparently justified if the acts of inflicting the makes some sort of thematic point.

That this refrain shows up again and again (and not just in these exchanges - we could find in almost any mainstream press review of any Hostel or Saw film, for example) is probably unsurprising. We've heard it before. In fact, there's something almost incantory about it evocation.

I don't buy it.

First, basing your critical interpretation on the basis of artist motivation is like building a house of cards on quicksand. What exactly is it that makes, for example, Henry more "weighty and serious in intent" than, say, Inside. One could site the presumption of "reality" (notably, all the examples Sean gives of movies one would be willing to suffer the presentation of extreme violence in are based, however loosely, on actual serial killers). The former is about genuine acts of violence, hence we can object to the level of violence the real situation demanded of the filmmakers, while the latter is simply a violent fantasy. This link somewhat to RayRay's point: In a fantasy, where there is no real life horror to capture, any extremes are purely the filmmaker's whim.

Close examination of the films in question, however, tends to undermine the assumption that Henry is somehow documentary in nature, and suggests that Inside would have just as much claim to being rooted in the realities of human vileness. Though loosely based on the exploits of a real killer, Henry the character in the film and Henry the real life serial killer should not be confused. The film, for example, treats as fact several of the crimes the real Henry falsely confessed to. Though much is made out of his prolific murderousness, the real Henry could only be linked to eleven crime, at least one of which was doubtful enough that even the former Texas Governor, former POTUS, and big time capital punishment booster was unable to, in good faith, carry out Henry's death sentence. Then there's the character of Becky. The "love" of the real Henry's life – the love interest of his movie, if you will – was a 12-year-old, not the adult we see in the fictional work. We could go on, but the important thing is that Henry is a work of fiction, regardless of what inspired it. But what about Inside? It is clearly a work of fiction too. But, if we're going to count inspiration for something, then Inside can claim just a valid a "true crime" pedigree. The makers of Inside were inspired by a true case of pre-natal kidnapping. Apparently, it does happen (in one particularly repugnant case, a woman removed the fetus from her pregnant victim's belly using a set of car keys).

What then of intention? Certainly Inside was made to be a shocker while Henry was conceived as meditation on the existential void of essential loneliness that dehumanizes us. Or, you know, it might have originally been conceived as a wrestling documentary. The project that would eventually form into Henry began life as a documentary about pro-wrestling in Chicago. The producers of this doc had previously worked with director McNaughton on a previous film, Dealers in Death, a documentary about Chicago gangsters made up entirely of public domain footage. They thought they had a lock on the wrestling movie because they had a line on a stash of old wrestling footage that a collector was willing to part with for a song and a dance. But, unexpectedly, the collector jacked up his price and left the producers with a small pile of development capital and no project to use it on. They told McNaughton that he could shoot a feature, but they demanded it had to be a horror film. McNaughton, under deadline pressure, started up attempts to make a creature feature – preferably, he thought, one featuring aliens – but he quickly surmised that his miniscule budget couldn't take the strain the FX would demand. Stuck for an idea, McNaughton caught an episode of 20/20 profiling Henry Lee Lucas. He pitched the serial killer idea to his backers and they ran with it.

This is, curiously enough, not all that different from the germination of Inside. The creators of that film started out to make a horror film. The story goes that they polled their friends in an effort to determine what scared people the most, the idea being that you could quantitatively determine what you horror flick should contain in order to scare the crap out of the greatest number of people. The poll idea, while kind of charming in its "can-do" logic, was a bust. This left the writer/director duo stuck for ideas. Luckily, the quixotic polling process did lead them to an odd story about a woman attacking a pregnant mother and stealing the baby from her womb. This true crime tidbit became the basis for their story. Curiously, the original conception for Inside was that, like Henry, it was going to be shot in a low-key, "realistic" style. Like Henry, this had more to do with budgets than artistic vision. However, when actress Béatrice Dalle joined the cast, the film suddenly got major cred in the eyes of the moneymen and the budget was bumped up. The filmmakers decided the that whole "verité" horror thing had been done to death, so they went with a more distinct and rigorously structuralistic look – a nod to art house filmmakers and the Poe story The Masque of the Red Death. (This actually speaks to the feed-me-my-leafy-greens point Sean makes. The visual cues that signal "just a movie" to Sean were, to the filmmakers, meant to breakaway from a visual pattern that they felt had ceased to actually communicate anything of value. To them, the shock of the semi-documentary style and its tag-function as "hey, this is The Real™" had both been worn away by overuse. Again we see the problem of pinning down intent.)

So which of these films is more "weighty and serious in intent"? The one that originally started out as a wrestling doc, then would have been a movie about alien invaders (if the money had been there), and ended up a fictionalization of a 20/20 episode? Or the one grew out of a misguided effort to pseudo-scientifically determine what the scariest things in horror films were, then morphed into a micro-budget "true crime" thriller, and then expanded due to the involvement of a popular actress and the belief that the whole "realistic" visual style had become a trite cliché? More importantly, even if one of these films was more weighty and serious in intent, how would you prove that?

I don't think you could, because the intent of the filmmaker is something you can't know. It is something you infer, which means that it is, at least partially, in the eye of the beholder.

Which brings us to the second problem: the popular hypothesis that some horror films have no point, so the violence in them is unjustified. By my reckoning, there's two major problem with this premise (there's a host of lesser problems, but I'm going to focus on just two that I think really sink this particular ship).

This "point" that separates good violence from bad violence is, suspiciously like the line between porn and erotica, one of those semi-critical concepts that everybody is happy to simply not define. We know a point when we see it and, by extension, when can tell when a movie doesn't have one. According to B-Sol and RayRay, Hostel is either pointless or, more specifically, that it's point it torture. B-Sol says: "My main problem with Hostel was that I found it to be a movie created for the sole purpose of showing me graphic depictions of dramatized torture." RayRay concurs: "In Hostel violence was the goal."

Except it isn't and wasn't. At least, that's not what I saw. And there are others who would seem to agree with me. After all, if the sole purpose of the film was to show torture and violence, why have most of the torture and violence occur of screen or happen quickly? Of the eight deaths in Hostel, only one is the direct end result of an extended torture scene. The other deaths (off-screen death presumably by torture, suicide by train, pedestrian-auto collision, head slammed against toilet) are pretty tame by even the R-rated baseline of the genre. Furthermore, why leave all the gore and violence, which is allegedly the point of your flick, until the last quarter? If story, theme, characterization, and all that other stuff is just filler, Roth surely could have jettisoned it for the standard hyper-compressed unstorytelling techniques of the slasher and got to the bloody business in the first 15 minutes of the film. Aside from that, what about the dramatic and themes other have seen in the flick: from an indictment of American exceptionalism, to a comment on bandit economics of post-Communist Eastern Europe, to a critique of the immorality of market logic? Personally, I'm fond of the last reading.

So who is right? I'm certain that B-Sol and RayRay are familiar with positive reviews of Hostel that suggest there's more to the film than pointless slaughter. I assume they find these reading unconvincing. If the film had a point, then by their logic it could not have "gone too far." The film might still suck ass, but it's violence would no longer be problematic. But I'm just as certain that the reviewers and bloggers who claim to have found these themes can make cases for them. Which is why using "the point" as some sort of measure of validity is, ultimately, a waste of everybody's time. If the point can't be expected to remain stable from person to person, then how can anybody feel comfortable pronouncing it as the measure between responsible representations of violence and unworthy representations of violence.

Arguably, you could say that holding a hardline on this makes all criticism of anything except the most formal elements of a film moot. I would disagree. I believe that claiming one sees a theme or idea or trope within a film does not necessarily assume that it is the only theme or trope or idea in a film (or book or painting or whatever). While I don't believe that works simply validate any and all interpretations – I think it is valid for critics, and even Joe Schmoe bloggers like myself, to demand that others support their interpretations with valid argument – I do think that the very nature of expression and criticism means that any given work, perhaps even regardless of artistic merit, can support a wealth of interpretations. That said, the argument that a work has no point, the charge of depthless meaninglessness, does necessarily preclude the idea that other interpretations might validly exist. Eli Roth's claim that Hostel is about American arrogance and my belief that it contains a critique of market capitalism might both be right. B-Sol and RayRay's interpretation assumes nobody else could be right.

Which brings us to the third and final point of this post.

And I thank any and all of you that have had the patience to sit through this.

Point #3: The idea of a film with no deeper meaning is a lazy critical crutch because no such thing exists.

Let's try to imagine at film created with the intention of including no content except the depiction of violent torture. It literally has no plot. Because chronology would imply a plot of sorts, let's say that the scenes are shown in randomly selected order. Avoid allowing characterization to creep into our imaginary film, we don't show the same victims and torturers. The film then becomes non-continuous shots of unrelated individuals at various, but non-continuous stages of torture. But, now we've got a problem. How do we randomize the individuals? We can't just cast people as victims and torturers. Our casting decisions would be open to interpretation. We could use only found footage, which would ensure that the footage would contain victims and torturers we had no power of choosing. However, the risk with found footage is that interpretable materials would start to creep in. Too many army uniforms and a viewer could start to formula a hypothesis about the use of political and military might and its morality. What if the found victims included more women than men? We could mix found and newly shot footage to ensure a sort of perfectly neutral mix of figures in our film, but then you start inviting comparisons between what's real footage and what's fake, opening up a can of worms about representation and reality. And I didn't want to mention it before, but the cuts between the shots are another problem. We can't just make cuts, as that would constitute an artistic, stylistic choice. But if we truly randomize the process, we might destroy our original purpose: to show violent torture. It could become an unintelligible series of strobe-like images. We'll have to make a call, which means there will be a decision that viewers can critique.

Let's stop here – though I think we could go on – because I think we've gone on long enough to make the point. Every film, no matter what its final form, is the product of a creative process that inevitably leaves traces of interpretable clutter behind it. No matter how lame or great, no matter powerful or dull, there's always already something beyond the literal. Even if you could somehow remove all human agency from the creation of a film, the fact that you removed all human agency from the creation of the film introduces space for interpretation.

You'll never make a perfectly flat film. To even try is to automatically fail.

This might be obvious. I suspect it is. If so, then why do critics continue to drag out the impossible accusation of pointlessness?

I'm not sure. I think it's a pretty much a slur. It is a semi-ritualized way of justifying the dismissal of a work and its proponents that has nothing to do with actual appreciation of film. I think it replaces attention with presumption. It is a call to stop thinking, to quit questioning, to stop really caring. Worse, at its core, I think the charge contains the implication that films – and by extension any art – don't matter in any way beyond personal taste.

Though, honestly, maybe that's fair to say of film. Perhaps I should just be comfortable with that.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Movies: Something burrowed, something blue.

A satisfyingly slow-burn and low-key historical horror, J.T. Petty's Western period horror flick The Borrowers eschews tired and familiar Western tropes to create a eco-horror that casts the human impact of Western expansion as an especially grisly form of species-wide suicide. This twisting of the dust-covered but still somehow sacred legends of the West – both the Whig history notions of manifest destiny (with its corresponding "gritty and grim" deconstructionists mirror image) and the more PC contemporary fantasy of pre-white America as agrarian utopia – is all the more clever in that Petty rope-a-dopes nostalgic viewers who basically want fanservice. He repeated feints towards these themes, only to subsume them into the quiet and in doomed vision of the West he envisions: a dispassionate, Darwinian vision that has more in common with the ahumanism of American poet Robinson Jeffers than the heroic Westerns of yore, their wigged out foreign counterparts, or the postmodern navel gazing of most contemporary Westerns.

The Burrowers opens in familiar territory. A frontier family been has vanished with signs of struggle. The assumption is that Indians got them. A posse is formed – combining well-meaning, good-hearted types with hard-bitten, cynical, and potentially unhinged types – to go rescue them. The obvious reference is to Ford's classic The Searchers and its epic plot to reclaim a kidnapped girl from Apaches. But, as will happen throughout the film, Petty picks up the allusion, holds it up the viewers, and then sets it down without further development. He seems to be saying, "We all see this is here, right. Now come on, that's not where we're going." It's a weird sort of un-allusion, one that viewers comfortable with horror's insular in-joke Pavlovian fan reward system may find awkwardly stand-offish. What's the point in alluding to all these great Westerns if you're not going to work within their tropes and explore their space? There's almost a sense of presumptuous disavowal in his approach. In the genre's parlance, Petty strays from the reservation.

As the posse gets to their grim work, similar shopworn tropes of the Western genre appear and fade away. We get the homesteaders versus the military, whites versus the Indians, the idealists versus the "realists." But always, Petty undermines these and then tosses them away. For example, Indians appear on both sides of the U.S. versus native conflict, and these quisling Native American don't actually turn out to be the most cynical First Peoples in the story.

Eventually, the posse realizes that they are not on a trail of a war party. Instead, they're marching deeper and deeper into the hunting ground of a species of humanoid/insectile predators that Native Americans have dubbed "the burrowers" for their unsettling habit of paralyzing their prey, burying it in a shallow grave, and coming back for dinner when their victims have rotted and softened just a bit. This revelation comes a bit too late, however, and the posse members who are still alive when the full puzzle has been assembled are forced to seek aid from a tribe rumored to have perfected a method of defeating the beasts. What they don't know is that the tribe's method is about as palatable as the feeding habits of the burrowers.

We're told by one of the Indian characters that the burrowers were not a problem until the whites killed all the buffalo, allegedly the preferred food source of the burrowers. Now forced to find other sources of sustenance, the burrowers have turned to humans. This is, I think, another of Petty's curious un-nods to convention. Burrowers may have been less of a problem in the days before the extinction of the bison. But I think Petty strongly implies that this, at best, a half-true "just so story." Here's how I reckon. First, the burrowers' method of attack is clearly adapted to humans. The burrowers are nocturnal and show profound patience. Like good pack predators, they follow their prey for long periods of time, waiting until they see a weak, separated, or otherwise tastily inviting target. This is pretty much SOP for pack predators. What's weird about the burrowers is that their preferred method of dealing with prey really only makes sense if you’re a stationary predator (like a spider) or if you're dealing with a species of animal they would search for and then attempt to care for paralyzed members of the herd (an example of which I cannot call to mind because humans are really the only animals that regularly try this). Think of it this way. Burrowers are crappily adapted to hunt bison herds. Every time they strike, they'd send a herd running and be faced with the choice of staying with their paralyzed prey or chasing after the herd. By contrast, every time they hit a group of humans, the humans bunch up and start searching for the missing humans. The behavior of the burrowers suggests that they hunt humans.

Further evidence to the fact that Native Americans and burrowers have been at one another for a long time derives from the Native American response to the burrowers. Late in the flick, it is revealed that a single tribe, the Ute, has developed a method of fighting the burrowers. All the other tribes know this fact, but none have either bothered to develop their own method or copy the way of the Ute. This is because the Ute basically flip the script on pack predator strategy and booby-trap the weakest link in the "herd" (in this case, herd means group of humans). The method works like this. The bait-human is doped. The burrowers attack and are doped as well. With the burrowers now weakened, the Ute use long spears to pin the burrowers to the ground. The pinned and tranquilized burrows are stuck until sunrise, when direct exposure to sunlight does them in. The brilliance of the method is that, done right, it involves almost no direct fighting, minimizing the chances that humans would get injured. Except, of course, for the poor man or woman you've sacrificed as bait. Why do I feel this is evidence that Native Americans and burrowers have been at one another for some time? When burrowers take on humans, it tends to be a pretty one-sided battle. They are the lions and we're the zebras. In order for a David to beat a Goliath, they have to game the salient details of what system they're in while figuring out what details are non-salient to winning the game. In this case, winning equals not getting eaten. The Ute's method works and the posse fails because they make the socially unacceptable choice automatically give up a human life every time they get into a conflict with the burrowers. This is why the other tribes know the Ute can beat the burrowers, but refuse to adopt their system. I think the tribe wide adoption of this sacrifice system would probably take some time. No Ute wants to die any more than a member of the posse or member of another tribe does. Furthermore, fine detail of the system and its standardization suggest regular use, which requires time. Lastly, the dissemination of this information across dispersed tribes would require some time as well. In Petty's flick, the whites might be new to the fight, but the implication is that the fight's been going on for some time.

This discussion of people and monsters as lions and zebras might seem odd, but I think it I embedded in the flicks tone and characterization. In keeping with a sort of ecological mindset, the main characters in this flick aren't individual cowboys and Indians. Rather, the film follows groups: the posse, the tribe, the Army, and so on. This is another clever subversion of the classical Western paradigm and its discontents. If the classic Western is about the Great Man – be it the noble sheriff or the restless anti-hero – and the various spaghetti and pomo Westerns are about what violent jerks Great Men can be, then Petty's evodevo-Western deemphasizes the role of individual altogether. As in the Ute's sacrificial counter-attack move, the lives of individuals account for little. The bloody process of adapting is the star of the movie. If Ford's great Western vista's suggested a monumental stage appropriate to the passions of his titanic characters, Petty's wide-angle landscapes shrink his characters. The landscape suggests their insignificance. They become a near mirror image of the burrowers: marching lines of ants to match the locust-like swarms of monsters. Its perhaps the sweetest irony of the film that Petty dresses this extremely foreign conceptual approach to horror in the sheep's clothing of America's more familiar genre.

I suspect most fans of the Western will treat this with the same befuddled disdain that greets films like Dead Man and Walker. Though, in many ways, The Burrowers will be even worse for them because, unlike those two flicks, there are few visual cues to tip viewers off to the weirdness at the films core. To steal the words of C. S. Lewis, trying to sell this flick to the nostalgist will be trying "to sell him something he has no use for at a price he does not wish to pay." Because, at its base, it isn't a Western. It is a thoughtful, surprising quiet, and pleasantly unsettling horror flick that happens to take place in the old West.

Plus, it contains one of the funniest add-ons I've ever seen. The DVD comes with a little featurette containing an interview with a woman who plays one of the burrowers. This monster actor's praise for Petty's direction is brilliant and suggests how different the art of being monstrous is from any other sort of acting. Be sure to check it out.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Books: Will the copyeditors make "chain saw" one word?

Not much information yet, but GalleyCat is reporting that Chain Saw director and horror icon Tobe Hooper has just signed with Crown for his first novel. Right now it's got a tentative release date of Halloween, 2010.

No word on the content, but a bigwig at agency that brokered Hooper's deal told GalleyCat the following:

They're an energetic team, and the proposal they created got a lot of attention. The most compelling element of the book is Tobe's use of his own life experiences in the story. He's a master storyteller who mines his own history for the project ... We've begun discussions with several producers already, and are getting a lot of calls as word gets around.

Honestly, it's been awhile since Hooper's done something that really rocked my face off. That said, given the seminal status of TCSM, I imagine I'll pretty much have to cave in to my curiosity and check this novel out when it streets.

Music: Running man.

The Austin-based White Denim tricks out their almost Black Key-ish dirty blues licks with angular vamping and post-punk touches. The trio formed '05 and cranked out a 7" EP, Let's Talk About It, two years later. They followed the EP up with Workout Holiday in '08 and this year's Fits.

Despite the lack of major label backing, they've cranked out a surprising sweet video for their "I Start to Run" that not only showcases their paradoxical sound, but has a sardonic Six-String Samurai/Punishment Park feel. If you have not yet seen the delightful Six-String Samurai, leave work now and go rent it. Hell, in this economy, how long was your job going to last anyway?

But then again, if you haven't seen Six-String Samurai, you probably live in some non-electrified backwater and are not currently reading this.

Enjoy White Denim's "I Start to Run."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Movies: Size matters (just not to these filmmakers).

About half way through 2009 schlock-tacular Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus, my wife and I started questioning just how large the mega-shark, a recently unfrozen specimen of the 1.5 million year old megalodon species, was supposed to be. Sadly, we're never given enough shots of the eponymous cephalopod to even hazard a guess at his size. But the shark, or fragments thereof, appear in several shots with easily measured reference points.

First, of course, we know what species the beastie is supposed to be. We can start from there. Nobody knows just how big megalodon was. Because the monster was a shark, it's skeleton structure was made of cartilage and didn't preserve well over time. As a general rule, all that's left to us is the jaws and teeth. Surprisingly enough, that's really all scientists have needed to estimate megalodon's length. Here's the formula discovered by shark researcher Cliff Jeremiah in 2002:

Megalodon's total length, ft = (Root width of an upper anterior tooth, cm) x 4.5

Pretty simple. Applying that formula to the largest upper anterior megalodon tooth in the fossil record, you get an estimated length of 18.2 meters. That's a little over nine times the average height of an adult male human. Such a creature would weigh about 70 tons.

As luck would have it, one of the first reference point images viewers can use to scale the Mega Shark is a series of shots in which legendary singer and former Playboy model turned "actress" Deborah "Debbie" Gibson holds a tooth of the giant predator in her hands. The tooth shown in the film bears little resemblance to the triangular teeth of megalodon. Instead, it has one flat edge and one notched, curved edge. In the scene in question, Gibson – in the role of maverick ocean explorer Emma MacNeil – holds the tooth like a knife, the root of the tooth extending past the pinky-edge of her palm. Admittedly, there's no indication that this tooth is specifically an upper anterior tooth – though it did emerge from a whale corpse root side up, suggesting that we're at least looking at an upper tooth. Still, for purposes of estimation then, let's make the assumption.

Now we have to figure out how wide Deborah Gibson's palm is. Let's assume that Ms. Gibson is average – though purely in a statistically sense, there's naught average about the singer of "Shake Your Love" – and the size of her hand falls statistically dead center in the human female range of variation. This is unlikely, but for ease of calculation let's play along. The average length of a grown woman's hand, from longest fingertip to wrist is 18 cm. The fingers make up a little more than half that length, so let's ballpark a safe 8 cm for the length of Deborah Gibson's pinky-side palm edge. Now we apply the formula and end up with a total length for Mega Shark: 36 feet long, about 11 meters.

Mega Shark is actually kind of a runt, by megalodon standards.

Of course, there's an issue with this measurement. Previous to the scene in which MacNeil fondles the monster shark's tooth, the ever-nimble Mega Shark leaps into the air and chomps down on a low flying jet liner. Not just any jet liner: a jumbo jet that, as best as I can figure, is a Boeing 747. Depending on the model, Such a jet has a length of 70 meters.

In the following scene – widely held to be the flick's "money shot" – we see that Mega Shark is nearly three times longer than the plane. Let's be conservative and say 2.5 times as long.

So that actually gives us a shark 175 meters in length. That's a beast nearly 575 feet long. If you're not keeping all these numbers in your head, the tooth from such a shark, according to the Jeremiah formula would have to be 128 cm long, meaning the length of Debbie Gibson's palm would need to be a little over 4 ft long.

But wait, we're not done! Mega Shark gets even bigger.

The picture below is Mega Shark attacking a ship that's only ever identified as a US destroyer.

I'm pretty sure this particular class of destroyer exists solely in this movie. That said, the turrets seen above look a bit like the turrets on an old Fletcher-class destroyer. In the film, the ship fits comfortably in Mega Shark's bite radius. Let's assume that Mega Shark has the same basic proportions of megalodon, though its pretty clear that he quickly outgrew his megalodon status halfway through the flick. The bite radius of the largest megalodon on record is roughly a tenth of its overall length. This is a pretty rough estimate (hence the specific formula derived from tooth root width), but since we're measuring the length of an absurdly large animal that eats airplanes and destroyers for giggles, let's give ourselves the wiggle room. If this destroyer was similar to the Fletcher-class destroyer, then Mega Shark's bite radius needs to be about 40 ft to accommodate the entire vessel. It's overall length would then be a little greater than 400 ft, or about 122 meters. At this point in the film, Mega Shark is as long as 29-story building.

But wait – Mega Shark's got just a little bit further to grow.

In my favorite scene, Mega Shark attacks the Golden Gate Bridge. Why is unclear. Certainly the motorists on it hardly constitute a snack for the now titanic monster. However, it had been lured to the bay with the promise of a mate only to find the whole thing was a trap. Perhaps this bit of landmark vandalism was just a big "screw you" to the humans.

Regardless of the reason, the result is that Mega Shark bites cleanly through the entire 90 ft width of San Francisco's beloved span. Using the same rough calculation, Mega Shark reaches a full, majestic length of 900 ft, 274 meters. Coincidentally, he's about the length of one of the Golden Gate Bridge's towers.

If you've read this far, then you have officially spent more effort thinking about Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus than the filmmakers did.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Books: Your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandpappy's torture porn stash.

A new German history on topic of torture reveals that our distant ancestors showed a profound flair for creating truly crappy ways to treat people. Profiled in the English-language edition of Der Spiegel, Extreme Violence in the Visuals and Texts of Antiquity by Martin Zimmerman, the political use of violence intended to inspire "loathing, dread, horror and disgust."

What do we learn from the bloodthirsty depravity of the ancients? Well, mainly that it sucked to be an ancient Assyrian. From the article:

But the Assyrians seem to have been the masters of brutality. They were also extremely verbose about the grisly ends they wreaked upon their enemies. "I will hack up the flesh and then carry it with me, to show off in other countries," exulted Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian king who reigned from 668 to 627 BC. And his heir liked to cut open the bellies of his opponents "as though they were young rams."

"The king was the deadliest," explains Andreas Fuchs, a specialist in the study of the Assyrians. "It was he alone who decided what would happen to the victims. The ability to make those decisions was the very essence of personal, royal power."

Shock and awe at such punishments permeated every dealing one had with the ruler. For example: "A message from the king to the Governor of Kaleh: "700 bales of straw. On the first of the month, at the very latest. One day late and you're dead."

Provincial governors who did not co-operate could reckon with the most horrible of deaths.

Flaying involved the delinquent official being staked to a peg and having the skin on his back torn off. Staking involved the executioner hammering a stake through the victim's lubricated anus. The goal was to place the rounded, wooden stake so carefully that it only just pushed the internal organs aside. Many victims lived for days skewered like this.

Brutal, admittedly, but even more bizarre is how downright surreal some of these sinister tortures were. The Persian practice of "throwing victims to the ashes" for example, sounds like something the writers of Saw XXIV might well throw into their movie:

The sentence, "throw them into the ashes" meant that the candidate would have to stand for days in a room filled with ash. At some stage the person would collapse from fatigue, at which point they would breathe the ash in. Even if they managed to pick themselves up, their lungs would fill up with grey flakes sooner or later, resulting in slow suffocation.


The images above and below come from the lurid, creepy image gallery that accompanies the article.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

What horror movie are we today?

Today, we're The Ruins.

The latest issue of Science News magazine kicks off a new story about plant intelligence with some imagery right out of a horror flick:

In a somewhat different world, Consuelo M. De Moraes would be revolutionizing vampire fiction.

Her lab at Penn State University studies predators that entangle prey in a tight embrace, pierce victims’ tissue and suck out nourishment. In the last few years, De Moraes and her colleagues have found that the predators even hunt down prey by scent.

Creepy as her predator, Cuscuta pentagona, is, it is also, frankly, a plant. Better known as five-angled dodder, its orange tentacles bypass the porcelain throats of young women in favor of the slim stems of young tomato plants. De Moraes and other researchers are showing that plants behave and misbehave as dramatically as animals. But there’s still not much hope for a feature-length dodder movie.

“I think most people regard plants as being pretty unresponsive and stuck in one place,” laments ecologist Richard Karban of the University of California, Davis. “Now, animals, they’re interestingbecause they can change and act in response to their environment.”

It’s a dichotomy Karban doesn’t accept for one second. When he and an animal behaviorist recently supervised a grad student, he remembers, “I would constantly want to say, ‘Oh yeah! Yeah! Plants do that too!’” Recent findings on plant capacities, he declares in a 2008 paper in Ecology Letters, reveal “high levels of sophistication previously thought to be within the sole domain of animal behavior.”

Even plants less vampirish than Cuscuta vines forage strategically for their food, and there’s evidence that plants fight each other over resources. In a broad sense of the word, plants communicate — some essentially scream for help. Also, a plant can respond to stimuli depending on its history of previous experiences, a tendency Karban is willing to call a sign of memory.