Friday, July 31, 2009

Books: Please please me – by ending this ceaseless flood of zombie crap.

According to the UK Gaurdian, publishers are poised to run the monster-mash up formula that proved so popular for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies into the ground. What's next from the pop-horror factory floor? Zombie Beatles.

From the Guardian:

Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison are starring as zombies and Ringo Starr as a ninja in the latest addition to the publishing's hottest, and oddest, new craze: the monster mash-up.

Alan Goldsher's Paul is Undead: The British Zombie Invasion has been snapped by US publisher Pocket Books for publication in June next year, following in the footsteps of the surprise hit Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which was published this spring, and the forthcoming Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter and I Am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas, all out this autumn.

Goldsher's story starts in a Liverpool maternity ward in 1940, as a newborn Lennon is bitten by a zombie and doomed to wander the Earth for eternity. When he meets McCartney in 1957 he "bites off Paul's ear and sucks out his mate's grey matter, after which he spits a healthy amount of his own brain into Paul's carotid artery - and thus is born the greatest songwriting team in rock history," according to Goldsher's version of the encounter.

Harrison is quickly zombified, and "seventh level Ninja Lord Ringo Starr" is then welcomed into the fold. The Beatles enslave "hundreds of lusty teenage girls", invade the US where they mind-meld millions, releasing albums with hidden messages such as "Please please me by biting your young", "Dear sir or madam, won't you eat your neighbour", and "All you need is eternal life".

Their world begins to crumble when Lennon starts to date eighth level Ninja Lord Yoko Ono, and a band called the Zombies – whose members, Goldsher says, are not actually zombies - seeks revenge.

While it is nice to see that the criminally underappreciated Zombies get a little face time, it’s a shame to see the book hangs its plot on the old, crypto-racist "dragon lady that broke up the band" canard. Though, even that nod to yellow peril anxieties is forgivable next to the fact that it just keeps this interminable zombie moment dragging on.

Perhaps the irony here is that what made the Beatles so great – arguably the single greatest rock band to ever exist – was their originality.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Music: Cave rock.

I've featured Ghoul-A-Go-Go, the improbably nifty cable access kids show with a tiki lounge meets monsters vibe and a surprisingly awesome musical guest list, before on this here humble horror blog. But, honestly, that well's too freakin' weird to not keep going back to.

Here's the garage rock Quest for Fire themed gimmick group the Neanderthals on Ghoul-A-Go-Go.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Under-Utilized Nightmares: The Mongolian Death Worm.

In this shockingly irregular feature of ANTSS, a concept swiped from the brilliant mind behind the I Love Horror blog (see sidebar, then visit, then shower him with praise), your 'umble 'orror 'ost will 'ighlight a few baddies that the fright biz has woefully neglected. In the hopes of ending our ruinous dependence on zombies and slasher retreads, perhaps one of these under utilized nightmares will spark the imagination of a budding filmmaker. Fingers crossed.

Today's 2UN: the Mongolian Death Worm. From the Environmental Graffiti website:

Reported to be between two and five feet long, the deep-red coloured worm is said to resemble the intestines of a cow and sprays a yellow acidic saliva substance at its victims, who if they’re unlucky enough to be within touching distance also receive an electric shock powerful enough to kill a camel.

Given the latin name Allghoi khorkhoi, the Mongolian Death Worm was first referred to by American paleontologist Professor Roy Chapman Andrews (apparently the inspiration for the Indiana Jones character) in his book On the Trail of Ancient Man, in 1926 but he didn’t appear to be entirely convinced about the whole idea. Even though locals were desperate to relay events of when the dreaded worm struck, Andrews writes: “None of those present ever had seen the creature, but they all firmly believed in its existence and described it minutely.” But it wasn’t to stop other inquisitive adventurers taking up the investigative mantle when Andrews was no longer interested, or able to pursue the matter.

Death-worm obsessed Czech explorer Ivan Mackerle gave an even more vivid description of this never-documented cryptid in a 1991 article for Fate Magazine.

Sausage-like worm over half a metre (20 inches) long, and thick as a man’s arm, resembling the intestine of cattle. Its tail is short, as if it were cut off, but not tapered. It is difficult to tell its head from its tail because it has no visible eyes, nostrils or mouth. Its colour is dark red, like blood or salami… It moves in odd ways – either it rolls around or squirms sideways, sweeping its way about. It lives in desolate sand dunes and in the hot valleys of the Gobi desert with saxaul plants underground. It is possible to see it only during the hottest months of the year, June and July; later it burrows into the sand and sleeps. It gets out on the ground mainly after the rain, when the ground is wet. It is dangerous, because it can kill people and animals instantly at a range of several metres.

While the acid-spitting, lightning-bolt throwing worm gets some love in pop culture – the beast was mentioned in William Gibson's recent novel Spook Country and was the central baddie in a comic short story in the Brit sci-fi antho series 2000 AD - it has not, to my knowledge, been used in a horror flick yet.

Syfy Channel, I'm lookin' at you.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Movies: Over and out.

I have a soft spot for movies that pit their supernatural baddies against members of the armed forces. Properly done, the militarization of the victims of a horror film imparts a sense of genuine conflict. When a bunch of boozed up co-ed nymphomaniac camp counselors find themselves the target of an eight-foot tall semi-undead mass murderer, the action that follows resembles either a ritual sacrifice or the relentless grind of a factory farm meat processing plant. But, replace those teens with a squad of soldiers and you've suddenly got a ball game. The presence of significant levels of firepower, a pre-existing command structure meant to handle decision-making in a crisis, the willingness and capacity to meet violence with violence, training that facilitates teamwork between tactical assets, and an assumed minimal-level of individual competence all suggest that, whatever the flick might throw at them, the soldiers have a real chance at surviving.

Of course, this perception is largely illusory. My wife's mother likes to say, "God never gives you more trouble than you can handle." Horror films work on the opposite premise: The danger you face must always be greater than your capacities. Usually this works through a simple logic of escalation. Evil always rises to the occasion. If you've got a bunch of teens on a summer holiday, then a serial killer will come after them. Replace one of the teens with an ex-cop packing a .44 Magnum and the standard-issue serial killer will upgrade to a tribe of mutant cannibals. Dump the teens, remake the cop into a British soldier, add a half dozen other troopers, and the cannibal tribe will transform into werewolves. And so on and so on until you've got the entire military of a nation on one side and a giant city-stomping monster on the other.

But bigger baddies only get you so far. There's a pragmatic cap on the logic of perpetual escalation. Eventually you end up trafficking in such enormous levels of destruction that it becomes virtually impossible to conceptualize a threat that could withstand the onslaught. One workaround for the escalation problem is to hamstring the troops. You can give them incompetent leadership, place them in a training context that requires they have fake weapons, or cast "weekend warrior" National Guard types as your military personnel. Clever directors can also exploit the martial assumption that superior firepower, expertly applied, is what every situation calls for. Pit the troops against a virus, ghost, psychic phenomena, or other un-shootable thing and you've pretty negated their major advantage. Regardless of how it's done, we know on some essential level that being soldiers won't actually help the film's protags.

Still, the idea that being soldiers should matter is crucial to carrying off a good army versus monster flick. We have to feel that we're watching humanity's last line of defense, the people you'd call to handle this sort of thing, do real battle. If the mechanics of the plot are too naked visible, the actions of the characters take on an insignificance that fails to grab us.

The 2008 mercs versus monsters flick Outpost starts as a serviceable horror/actioner. But the logic behind its villainous otherworldly sci-fi Nazi immortals (not actually "zombies" in any conventional sense of the term, as is often stated) so overwhelms the agency of the soldiers of fortune at the films core that the flick's stripped down structure tips from pleasingly Spartan to smotheringly arbitrary. What starts as tension devolves into a forced march. There's plenty of gunfire, gore, and a rich layer of pulpy technobabble to act as eye glue. But once the audience has grokked that the actions of the protagonists don't have any effect on the plot's direction, the narrow pleasures of the film are undermined by the sneaking suspicion that they're just waiting for the film to run out of bodies.

The film starts with a pleasingly bare bones plot. The representative of a mysterious and unnamed cabal of investors pulls together a seven-man team of mercenaries to retrieve an unidentified item from a long-abandoned World War II Era bunker in an unnamed Eastern European country. This lack of information gives the flick a user-friendly, almost videogame-ish feel that makes up for in narrative efficiency what it lacks in depth. (Some of the deleted scenes available on the DVD include extended sequences that build character backstory and motivation, but director Steve Barker wisely left such distractions on the cutting-room floor).

Shortly after their arrival at the target, the crew is fired upon from dense woods surrounding the bunker. Convinced that they're outgunned, they hunker down. As they explore the bunker, they crew begins to fall prey to a seemingly unstoppable enemy who, despite the mercs best defenses, slips in and out of the bunker, killing with impunity.

In the meantime, their employer reveals that the target of their search is a "unified field generator," a bizarre bit of strangely Buck Rogers-ish tech that sits at the heart of this otherwise straightforward run and gun. Though I recall many Brits bemoaning the historical inaccuracies of American flicks, the backstory regarding the UFG shows that Americans have no monopoly on bad history or science. Attempting to explain the UFG, the employer explains that four forces govern the behavior of matter in the universe. He doesn't say what they are, but so far, so good. He explains that unified field theory explains the link between these forces. Then, he goes of the rails. Basically, in this film, the unified field acts like the "one ring to rule them all" of time and space. With a unifed field – which is less a mathematic explanation of the links between nuclear forces, gravity, and electromagnetism than a new super energy – people could bend the rules that govern physics. We're told that Einstein was working on the unified field until he saw the detonation of the test a-bomb at Los Alamos. Worried about its destructive potential, he stopped working on it. (In fact, Einstein wasn't at the Trinity test, the a-bomb has little to do with unified theory, and the famed physicist never stopped working on unified field theory.)

The Nazis, it turns out, were ahead of the curve on the UFG and used the unified field to experiment on their own troops, turning them into silent, shambling things that can teleport, become solid or immaterial at will, and exist in a sort of timeless neverwhere outside of their bodies (which are piled up, perfectly preserved, in a cell in the bunker).

The rest of the flick follows our ever-dwindling crew as they slowly come to terms with truth about their unbeatable foes and getting soundly thrashed by Nazi ghosts from beyond time and space.

Though somewhat formulaic, the pick gets creativity points for its innovative and quirky monsters. I suspect the repeated use of "zombie" in reviews and commentary about this flick has to do less with intellectual laziness than with the fact that they're virtually impossible to classify using standard horror beast taxonomies. Furthermore, even in its less innovative aspects, the film's shot with a crisp confidence that carries the viewer over the less interesting bits. The acting is well handled, though nobody is given much beyond broad character types to deal with.

Ultimately, the real problem with the flick is that you can practically see the characters' strings being pulled by the director. For all the shouting and firing, characters are powerless to stop what comes their way. This powerlessness drains the fight and kill scenes of their drama and raises questions about the seemingly nonsensical way in which the Nazi unified field ghosts, or NUFGs, behave. (Even the script gives a nod towards this problem by having a character wonder aloud why the seemingly invincible NUFGs are taking so long to kill them all. He receives no explanation.) The end result is a sort of viewer indifference.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Music: "And we didn’t even consider it hard work."

The music blog The Quietus has an interview with punk early-adopter and queen of the proto-goth scene: Siouxsie Sioux, much of it focused on her long history with the BBC. This sometimes stormy relationship began before Sioux ever took the stage as a singer: During the Sex Pistols' notorious appearance on Bill Grundy’s Today show, it was Sioux who became the target of Grundy's dirty-old-man comments, which in turn inspired the Pistols' history-making f-bombs. The interview spans her entire career and includes several video clips of BBC performances. It would be worth alone for this gem of a sentence in the interview's biographical intro:

Born Susan Ballion in Kent, she nearly died of a stomach disorder not long after her father – a scientist who milked snakes of their poison to develop serums – succumbed to an alcoholic’s death.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Link Proliferation: There will be bloodsuckers.

Okay Screamers and Screamettes. Even an "underemployed" hobo like yours truly gets to have a vacation – and by vacation I mean that I'll be spending the weekend in the Brooklyn jail as part of a slightly diminished sentence for vagrancy. ANTSS would like to thank the Honorable Victoria S. Lippmann for being a real sport and showing the sort of compassion for the Forgotten Man that is apparently well beyond the capacities of NYPD Officer Cedric Russert.


While I do my time in "The Brick, " as I think I'll try to convince the other inmates we call it, I leave you with the following links for your weekend amusement.

Vampire Economics

The Econocomics blog asks "Are Vampires Good for the Economy?". Although they don't get into the unlikely economics that drive HBO's voap opera True Blood, they do cover the comics continuation of the Buffy show, which has apparently gone semi-True Blood and started normalizing the vampires of their world.

The post starts with arguments from comedian Michael Ian Black:

In his book, My Custon Van, he argues that cape manufacturers, garlic farmers, coffin makers, and angry villagers (by this he means suppliers of tools such as torches, spikes and crosses) would see net growth. Furthermore, he discusses the notion of a "vampire tax" or the idea that vampires would be more likely to attack individuals of lower socioeconomic backgrounds, who have less adequate means of protecting against an attack. This, he argues, would serve to reduce spending on social welfare programs, such as Medicaid, since more lower-income individuals enroll in these programs.

Although he predicts net losses to the makers of fake plastic and wax vampire teeth as well as the travel and tourism industries, he concludes that a small to moderate vampire army would be beneficial for the economy in the long-run and offset any potential short-run losses.

From there blogger ShadowBanker goes on to discuss vampire insurance, changes in the entertainment industry, and the question of what happens to Social Security when a section of the eligible population is immortal.

We're Here, We're Insincere, Get Used to It

Over at the Daily Beast, contributor Michelle Goldberg takes up True Blood's queer/vamp metaphor and finds the show's vampires as gays conceit lacking.

From her post:

What’s fascinating and disturbing about True Blood are the weird, seemingly reactionary politics underlying much of the mayhem. True Blood doesn’t share Twilight’s Victorianism, but in a way it’s even more anxious about sex. Indeed, the show’s universe is like the right’s worst nightmare about post-gay-liberation America come to life.

Based on a series of books by the mystery writer Charlaine Harris, True Blood draws a clear parallel between vampires and gays, one that at first seems reminiscent of the X-Men. As the show begins, vampires have “come out of the coffin,” demanding a proper place in society after endless years of existing in the shadows. A Japanese company has manufactured a synthetic blood substitute—called True Blood—removing the need to hunt humans. But not everyone is willing to accept vampires as equals—in the opening credits, we see a sign saying “God Hates Fangs,” while throughout the series, newscasts and magazine covers reference the fight for vampire marriage.

This conceit is cheeky and clever, but it has troubling implications, because the vampires, political rhetoric aside, aren’t really interested in joining human society. Unlike the misunderstood X-Men heroes, most of the vampires we meet are arrogant, perverse, and cruel—everything the far right believes gays to be. True Blood is set in the marshy milieu of small-town Louisiana; the local vampire headquarters is tawdry, decadent nightclub called Fangtasia, where human tourists come for the kink and some are ensnared and corrupted. The vampire leaders are voracious and vain; in one of this season’s most darkly funny scenes, one of them dismembers a man while getting foil highlights, then frets about the blood in his hair.

She later proposes an alternate motivation on the part of the show's creator. Perhaps, she theorizes, the entire show is a bizarre satire of efforts to normalize homosexuality from the position of a romanticized notion of homosexuality's rebel/outsider status.

Underlying much antigay literature is the unspoken assumption that homosexuality, while disgusting, is also unbearably tempting. And so, in True Blood, is sex with vampires. Sookie aside, those who crave it are somewhat pathetic—they’re referred to, derisively, as fangbangers. Human-vampire carnality is often rough and humiliating. When there is love involved, it’s laced with darkness, tragedy, and pain.

It’s hard to tell what creator Alan Ball, who also made Six Feet Under, is up to here. He’s openly gay, so he could be simply tweaking conservative fears. Or, like Rupert Everett, maybe he’s reacting against the domestication of gay life. Speaking to The Daily Beast in April, Everett railed against gay marriage, saying, “I want to be illegal. I want to live outside the mainstream.” In this spirit, in True Blood, the attempt to mainstream the denizens of a nihilistic demimonde is, at best, a bit of a farce.

I'm not qualified to speak specifically to the issues Goldberg raises. After some initial attempts at watching True Blood, I found the series not to my tastes and haven't tried to keep up. However, I sympathize with the tone of the article. In fact, I would go even further and say that a vast majority of the political and social allegories in horror flicks are half-assed, shallow, fail to offer novel insights into the issues they purport to reflect, and are usually so poorly constructed that they force even less reflective viewers to assume the messages are simply insincere.

Why are the political messages in horror films almost always profoundly unsatisfying?

Sure, as Soon as There's Trouble It Suddenly Becomes MY Bloody Valentine

The music blog The Walrus has three mp3s of previously unreleased My Bloody Valentine tunes. From the post:

All 3 sound like they are from the Isn't Anything period, or the EPs in between that album and Loveless. As one member on the MBV forum points out, "Kevin Song" most likely never got past the demo phase. It’s a cool tune, nonetheless, as are "Bilinda Song" and "Cowboy Song". The latter of seems to be the most completed of the 3, and is reminiscent of "Feed Me With Your Kiss". Suddenly it's 1990 again!

Stay classy Interwebs. And all credit for the comic of a ninja doctor talking to Ben Franklin goes to the web comic Dr. McNinja.

(And don't worry, I'm really not going to jail: just Connecticut.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Movies: But it's got a great personality.

It is pretty easy to dismiss Scott Reynolds's 1997 The Ugly as a cut-rate Kiwi knock off of the far superior Silence of the Lambs. After all, that's pretty much what it is. The flick revolves around a very familiar premise: a woman must conduct personal interviews with a incarcerated serial killer, finding the truth about his past while resisting the caged psycho's efforts to crawl inside her head. Admittedly, The Ugly includes a whole supernatural angle and there's a distinctly un-Silence-ish focus on the life story and thwarted central love of the killer (though, honestly, this seems as if it was heavily "influenced" by Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer); still, it's hard to shake the feeling that you've seen the film's core premise done better.

That said, after the initial disappointment, I found myself digging on The Ugly to a surprising degree. While the plot seems to be, at best, a serviceable jerry-rig of parts from better flicks, the film brings a pleasingly excessive, low-fi, originality to its visual presentation that reminds me of the giddy stylistic excesses of flicks like Evil Dead and Dead Alive. Not that The Ugly has the same splatter aesthetic – compared to the goo and gore of those other two films, The Ugly is downright demure. Rather, like Evil Dead and Dead Alive, The Ugly loses its stylistic inhibitions as it goes along, getting aggressively odder and more boldly quirky even as it settles in a predictable narrative mold. The film gives off a sort of film tech geek charm, a product of its formal playfulness, that I thought was genuinely amusing.

For example, during one of the film's many flashbacks to episodes within our killer's bloody career, we see Simon (the film's homicidal protagonist) off a dude outside a rock club. The scene's only soundtrack is the power pop that, one assumes, is pouring out of the club. Simon catches a glimpse of a witness: a young girl inside what appears to be an abandoned furniture factory next to the club. Simon bursts into the club after her and, once inside, the music stops and the film is silent. Watching this scene, I assumed that the change in the soundtrack was strictly diegetic. The sound cut off because the characters where now isolated from the source. However, as Simon and his witness play a frantic game of hide and seek in the factory, the sound cuts in and out, alternating between blasting cheese rock and silence. Ok, I thought, so it isn't diegetic; instead, the filmmakers are having a little fun with sound design. However, at the end of the scene, Simon catches the witness and notices that she's got a non-functional hearing aid. She's deaf. The sound was, in fact, diegetic from the start and it was switching from the Simon's "point-of-hearing" (if that's a term) to the witness's throughout.

The film's playful style isn't always so clearly in the service of some descriptive or thematic function. Throughout the film, for example, blood is depicted as being inky black in color (except for one odd scene at the end of the flick where blood runs a standard red). Why? I have no idea. One could also make a drinking game out of every time an empty shopping cart appears on screen. I might be missing some profound significance empty shopping carts have in New Zealand culture, but I doubt it. They're there because they're there. Drink.

There's also the curious acting style that's too straight-faced to be overtly campy, but too broad to be considered realistic. This is most notably true of Roy Ward's Dr. Marlow, who seems like a bizarre impersonation of a B-movie asylum warden. As the movie goes on, even Marlow's outfits get more and more like something out of Mark Robson's 1946 crazies-and-costumes melodrama Bedlam. And his final scene is so inexplicable as to be laugh inducing, and intentionally so I think.

Still, unlike Jackson or Raimi's films, The Ugly never just takes off the breaks and goes nuts. Both Evil Dead and Dead Alive fulfill their narrative designs by the three-quarter mark and then become a sort of plotless action/comedy splatter showcases. In contrast, The Ugly has a narrative arc it is wedded to and that keeps it from spinning off the rails. Which is unfortunate as the plot is the film's weakest element and this forced march along a very well tread saps the energy of the flick, chills the mood, and smoothers the wild energy that might have elevated it to cult fave status.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mad science: You are getting sleepy . . . and homicidal.

The latest issue of European Neurology contains an article on Georges Gilles de la Tourette (after whom Tourette's syndrome is named, he's the gent shown above) and his role in the public hysteria about criminal hypnosis that engulfed French pop culture at the end of the Nineteenth Century.

Here's the abstract:

Hysteria and hypnotism became a favorite topic of studies in the fin de siècle neurology that emerged from the school organized at La Salpêtrière by Jean-Martin Charcot, where he had arrived in 1861. Georges Gilles de la Tourette started working with Charcot in 1884 and probably remained his most faithful student, even after his mentor's death in 1893. This collaboration was particularly intense on 'criminal hypnotism', an issue on which Hippolyte Bernheim and his colleagues from the Nancy School challenged the positions taken by the Salpêtrière School. Bernheim claimed that hypnotism was not a diagnostic feature of hysteria and that there were real-life examples of murders suggested under hypnosis, while hypnosis susceptibility was identified with hysteria by Charcot and Gilles de la Tourette, who saw rape as the only crime associated with hypnotism. The quarrel was particularly virulent during a series of famous criminal cases which took place between 1888 and 1890. At the time, it was considered that La Salpêtrière had succeeded over Nancy, since the role of hypnotism was discarded during these famous trials. However, the theories of Charcot and Gilles de la Tourette were also damaged by the fight, which probably triggered the conceptual evolution leading to Joseph Babinski's revision of hysteria in 1901. Gilles de la Tourette's strong and public interest in hypnotism nearly cost him his life, when a young woman who claimed to have been hypnotized against her will shot him in the head at his own home in 1893. It was subsequently shown that hypnotism had nothing to do with it. The delusional woman was interned at Sainte-Anne for mental disturbance, thus escaping trial. Ironically, Gilles de la Tourette may have been partly responsible, since he had been one of the strongest proponents of placing mentally-ill criminals in asylums instead of prisons.

Though we now know that hypnosis is an induced state and that a hypnotic subject cannot be compelled to commit acts against their will, neither fact was widely understood by psychologists in the late 1800s.

Much of this had to do with the fact that hypnosis - then also traveling under the names mesmerism, animal magnetism, and forced somnambulism – came to the attention of the medical community not through study and field observation, but through various pop culture channels, such as stage magic acts and sensationalist newspaper accounts. Often these accounts muddied the issue by conflating hypnotic states with other ailments, such as epilepsy or "hysteria" (the Nineteenth Century's catch all mental ailment). By the time hypnosis became a subject for serious study, these dubious links were so firmly established in the marketplace of ideas that few doctors bothered to question the assumption. Consequently, even medical professionals held to the view the hypnotic states were symptoms of some other illness. More over, hypnosis was not something done to a subject, but rather a psychological flaw within a subject that could be triggered – accidentally or intentionally – by external stimulus.

Because it was as much a pop phenomenon as a subject of medical research, the public's wild imaginings turned quite lurid. Stories about criminals using hypnosis to carry out their foul deeds filled stages, dime novels, and news columns. One of the most common accusations was that men were exploiting hypnotized women, taking advantage of their hypnotic state to rape them. Most infamously, in 1888, Henri Chambige was accused of hypnotizing, raping, and then murdering Madeleine Grille.

Other, more elaborate crimes were suggested as well. The public became fixated on the idea of crimes being committed by an innocent hypnotized proxy. In 1890, this cultural boogeyman came to be embodied in the persons of Gabrielle Bompard and Michel Eyraud (shown above). Bompard and Eyraud were lovers who killed a local bailiff (a sort of semi-private collections official) with an elaborate hanging mechanism of Eyraud design. While Gabrielle seduced the gentleman in her apartment, Eyraud lowered the device around his neck and hanged him. Immediately after the murder, relations between the two murders started to disintegrate. And I do mean immediately: While the body of their victim was still dangling in the air of their apartment, the lovers supposed quarreled, Michel punched Gabrielle, and then they had sex on the floor. After dumping the body of their victim in a trunk and tossing the trunk in a nearby river, the murderous couple fled to the United States. However, the collapse of their relationship but an unbearable strain on them and Gabrielle returned to Paris and turned herself in. Michel was captured a short time later. Gabrielle's lawyer, either genuinely convinced of the possibility or simply taking the tenor of the times and going with it, claimed that his client was the hypnotized dupe of Eyraud.

The case became a public spectacle and became the focus of an intense medical debate over the limitations of hypnotic influence. On one side was Tourette and company, who claimed that hypnotized victims could not be compelled to commit murder. Against them was Hippolyte Bernheim, who claimed to have conducted experiments that proved a hypnotized subject could be talked into killing someone. The experiments involved hypnotizing patients and then convincing them to attack a third party with a weapon the doctors knew to be fake, but the patients believed was real. The details of these experiments – the rate of attacks, who was hypnotized, etc. – are no longer known, but the results were such that Bernheim was convinced.

Bompard's defense did not get her off the hook, but it may have saved her life. She was ultimately sentenced to 20 years. Michel Eyraud was guillotined.

Tourette's involvement with criminal hypnosis hysteria has a weird epilogue. After the Eyraud-Bompard case, Tourette was shot and slightly wounded by one of his own patients. The assailant was a Rose Kamper-Lecoq, who claimed she attacked the doctor under the mesmeric influence of an unknown party.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Books: The literary legacy of Stephen Eff'ing King.

One of the odder phenomena of 1990s horror was the high-culture canonization of Stephen King. From genre hit to book-factory, the commercial success of the King author-function was secured by the end of the 1980s. But, sometime in the mid-1990s, King made the leap from household product (as Clive Barker remarked, there are two books in every American household: one is the Bible and one is a novel by Stephen King) to respected lit lion. In 1994 short works bearing his byline started popping up in The New Yorker. A few years later, in the Whitney approached him for a handmade art book project, slapping the highbrow seal of approval on him. By the time the decade was over, The New Yorker was running profile pieces declaring him America's most essential storyteller. King's rep as a master of narrative is now firmly established in literary culture.

However, there's an unexamined tradition of verbal innovation that we should not overlook. According to Jesse Sheidlower's The F Word, a pleasingly comprehensive historical dictionary of the development of swear word, Stephen King can claim credit for the first written instance of not one, but two variants on "the F bomb" (though not the term "the F bomb" itself, which first appeared in print in 1988 in the pages of Newsday).

King's first major contribution to mankind's understanding of the many nuances of the fucking, in its literal and metaphorical senses, appears in his never-quite-done milestone The Stand. In that ever-metastasizing novel, King added a meaning to the nearly century-old term fuckery.

The word fuckery, meaning a brothel, first appeared in print in 1906, gaining a second sense of "intercourse" by the 1961. In 1978, Stephen King innovated a third sense that, stunningly, moved strictly into the abstract realm of ethical philosophy. King used fuckery to mean "despicable behavior, (also) treachery." From The Strand:

This was an act of pure human fuckery.

King's second inno-fucking-vation appeared in the pages of his 1986 novel It. There King fused two popular derogatories to create the portmanteau word fucknuts, meaning "a stupid or contemptible person." Here comes the literature:

"Why did you do that?"
"Because I felt like it, fucknuts!" Henry roared back.

I feel fucknuts is a particularly charming coinage in its combination of a classic obscene term with a coyly infantile euphemism. That mixture of cynical bitterness and awkward innocence is true art.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Stuff: Fearful taxonomy.

I came across this curious bit of cross-cultural anthropology in, of all places, the online music criticism of Mark Iosifescu. His discussion of the low-fi, short-lived fuzzed-out psychedelic metal outfit Clockcleaner starts with an examination of the Japanese concept of bukimi, a perhaps uniquely Japanese varietal of dread:

The Japanese word bukimi goes some way toward accounting for the anticipatory dread that can creep insidiously into the lives of we otherwise sensible workaday souls. Meaning roughly ‘weird,’ but connoting ‘ghastly,’ ‘ghoulish,’ ‘eerie,’ and so on, the word was, per Robert J. Lifton’s 1967 book Death in Life: The Survivors of Hiroshima, rather ubiquitous in the recollections of those who had escaped that terrible event. Though the city’s inhabitants couldn’t literally have foreseen the imminent devastation or the form it’d take, they nonetheless may have been united in an uncannily inexplicable sense that said something was coming. Some vague opening of their perceptual space allowed for the distinct psychic likelihood of an event unprecedented, even in wartime. It was a sense afforded both by outward observation (as citizens of Hiroshima had eyed their city’s relative paucity of bombings with increasing anxiety as the rest of the country was bombarded) and deeper forebodings, ones less rational and more intuitive. The psychic space had, somehow or other, been cleared for unnamable catastrophe, and, in retrospect, this bukimi stands out.

The concept of bukimi shares obvious similarities to the post-Frued concept of the uncanny, that "unknown known" that suddenly opens up a vast negative space underneath the familiar. In fact, the Japanese phrase "Bukimi No Tani," coined by Japanese robotics maker Masahiro Mori, is the source, when translated, of the term "Uncanny Valley," the theoretical spectrum of negative human response generated by robots that look to much like us to be clearly machines, but not enough like us to fool us into thinking they're human.

The term is also akin to the Gothic sense of terror, which is the dreaded anticipation of a horrific experience. Indeed, one of the elements that differentiates bukimi from the uncanny is the sense of doomed fatedness it shares with Gothic terror.

Unlike both, however, there also an element of almost parodic grotesqueness. Bukimi implies a certain primal, illogical threat; but, the term also requires a certain level of gut-level intuitive logic. In the case of Hiroshima, there was a certain sense that, under the bombing schemes that had leveled so much of urban Japan, Hiroshima was due to get it. This is, in fact, the same sort of vague "logic" that gives slot machine players a sense that a certain machine is primed and that made Londoners desperately search for the deeper rationality of V2 rocket strikes. It isn't logic in the Russell-Whitehead sense, but rather the result of our brains inherent need to order things into meaningful patterns. It's the logic of luck and irony. Curiously, in Japan, the Garbage Pail Kids were called Bukimi Kun: the connection being that the wildly grotesque and seemingly anarchic forms of the children were, in fact, the obvious, if absurd, fulfillment of the logic of their joke names.

Perhaps the most obvious contemporary horror film expression of this sensibility would be J-horror, with its emphasis on sinister forces intruding on the relentlessly mundane everyday world, it's love of countdown style narratives, and the weird sense one gets that the baddies rigorously follow an idiosyncratic but standardized operating procedure. The "mystery" aspect of the best J-horror plots – where the motive and method of the intrusion must be deducted – fits with the bakimi's necessary balance of the observable and the unfathomable.

Perhaps what's most interesting about the concept of bakimi is that it suggests just another small aspect of the larger, and mostly unmapped, taxonomy of distinct aspects of the emotion we often lump under horror. Some critics have already done some work on this. There's the Victorian idea that divides horror and terror based on an effect of anticipation. Curt, of the beloved Groovy Age blog, has suggested that supernatural horror produces a distinct effect that cannot be replicated by horror that relies on naturalistic means. The concept of "body horror," a term advanced (I think) by Joan Hawkins, suggest a specific sort of effect made possible only by a direct appeal to the gut rather than the brain. And there are, of course, many others. I wonder: Given the time and will to conduct a suitably rigorous survey , could some produce a sort of Periodic Table of Horror Effects? Or, more likely, a Burton-ish Anatomy of Fear?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Music: Where the sun don't shine.

Though their name sounds like the title of some ecchi yaoi manga for tween girls who crush hard on the bishonen, Black Moth Super Rainbow is a famously reclusive neo-psychedelic experiment-pop outfit hailing from Pennsylvania. The core members of the group – who operate under the nom de guerres Tobacco, the Seven Fields of Aphelion, Power Pill Fist, Iffernaut, and Father Hummingbird – had somehow found one another by 2002 and released their first long-player the next year. They then ditched their urban surroundings for a secret headquarters somewhere in the Pennsylvania countryside. For this hidden location, they've cranked out either three or five more albums, depending on who you ask.

Their video for fuzzed out "Born on a Day the Sun Didn't Rise" starts like some Super-8 home video of happy-time hippie highjinks and then goes creepily Manson-esque. I especially enjoy the expression on the face of the square victim – as if getting cult murdered has been the only exciting and interesting thing to ever happen to him. 'Cause, hey, if you're gonna get done in by a trio of blood-crazed retro-chic Bacchae in your own basement, you should try to focus on the positive aspects of the experience.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Movies: In which we vivisect the torture porn issue for the last time.

I find Turistas an interesting film – perhaps, admittedly, out of all proportion to the value of the work itself – because it touches on a theme that pops up now and again on ANTSS: the troublesome concept of "torture porn."

Almost a year ago I wrote a four post series about the much reviled subgenre in ANTSS. It began with the claim that I didn't actually believe there was, in fact, a definite subgenre. As evidence, I pointed to the fact that there were really only two franchises anybody could point to as belonging to the set and, perhaps more importantly, that the original term was coined not to describe a type of film, but a manner of showing violence within a film. Torture porn was something a film did, not something it was. This might sound like an esoteric distinction, but it helps explain how things as diverse as The Passion of the Christ, which is far more brutal than any of the horror flicks so labeled, and the show 24 used to pop up in discussions of the phenomenon. Though I suspected that it was a product of horror fandom's myopic insularity that this phenomenon was perceived as a specifically horror-centric thing – in the Flatland of movie fandoms horror fandom is Pointland – I resigned myself to its use as common parlance and sallied forth to discuss what the subgenre might look like.

I've learned two important things from the experience of writing that series of posts.

First, if you can't put your argument forward in a single post, then don't bother to put it forward. Usage shows that visitors to the blog read the posts as they first went up, but since then the vast majority of readers never ever get past the first post. This is true even when the visitors are directed from blogs that link to every post and urge readers to check them all out. Several hang in there for the second post, and a select few manage to struggle on to the third; but I haven't had but a stray one or two visitors actually make it to the fourth post. This is especially noteworthy since the forth post actually contained a section regarding issues and problems readers had raised during the original series, some of which I had answers for, but many of which I had to simply admit as valid criticism. The number of "I gotcha" posts I get harping on subjects worked through in the forth post is tragic. When blogging, adopt the famed axiom of Phil Spector: "If it can't be said in three minutes, it isn't worth saying."

The second thing I learned from creating the series is that I should have gone with my gut.

There is no such thing as a torture porn subgenre.

In my initial post, I identified what I thought were the few films everybody could agree were torture porn films, and I then identified what I believed to be their common characteristics. Since posting that original series, film labeled torture porn by the horror blogtwit pro am hit the scene that, one by one, systematically demolish every genre boundary placed on the hypothetical grouping. Even the simplest definition – Sean T. Collins applied lex parsimoniae to the problem and developed a suitably Ockhamian definition: "Horror films in which the physical brutalization of a person or persons, frequently to death and always while somehow immobilized or held captive by the brutalizer or brutalizers, is the primary locus of horror in the film." – no longer holds. Why? Because we've mistaken bats for birds under the mistaken notion that all flying things must be the same.

Let's look at the film in question.

Whether it was an intentional effort to cash in a perceived trend or simply the laziness of critics, John Stockwell's action thriller Turistas was saddled immediately with the ill-fitting label of torture porn. A summary of the plot does nothing to disabuse one of the validity of the comparison. A co-ed group of tourists – Americans, an Aussie, two Brits – end up stranded in an isolated section of Brazil. Mercifully, the patch of coastline they find is a tropical paradise of pristine sands, cheap booze, and lovely skin. Not so mercifully, the locals appear to be patched in to an organ piracy network of a nearby mad doctor liberates Euros of their innards in order to provide organs for the oppressed and downtrodden. He's like a kidney Robin Hood.

After the traditional party scene and a suitable number of breast displays, the tourists find themselves doped and robbed. They leave paradise in search of help, only to be lead to the home of the mad doctor. There, one of their number is processed by the good doctor. The rest attempt an escape, leading to an extended chase scene in the jungle. What follows is a running battle through the local jungle and an underwater cave system between the doctor and his henchmen and the would-be non-volunteer organ donors.

I admit that the overall parameters of the plot – young travelers caught in violent exchange with locals, their ignorance of which exacerbates the problem – calls Hostel to mind. But I submit to you that those same parameters describe hundreds of film plots, few of which could be described as torture porn. Furthermore, with its extensive jungle scenes, mad scientist baddie, and an extended chase structure in the latter fourth of the film, I'd say that the flick has as much in common with The Most Dangerous Game and various versions of Island of Dr. Moreau, than with commonly agreed upon torture porn flicks like Saw.

There is the infamous and crucial set piece in which a young woman is disassembled for her medically valuable viscera, but even that most torture pornish of scenes is curious. First, it is debatable whether or not the young woman is tortured. She is most certainly murdered, but the surgery takes place only after the victim has been put under anesthesia. She dies in a chemically-induced haze, making vague grunting noises until she expires. It is unclear how much pain she might be feeling, though her mouth remains ungagged throughout the operation and she does not scream or protest. The implication is that she's knows something is wrong, but she's pretty much gone under an insulating layer of dope. She does not really witness any of what is happening to her. The mad doc keeps up a running monologue of what he's doing and why he's doing it, though she doesn't really hear him. The question is, does this constitute torture? Admittedly, it is an extreme crime. But, oddly, it's a crime that specifically minimizes the suffering of the victim. It is certainly constitutes physical harm, but I'm not sure that it constitutes "brutalization," to use Sean's term. This isn't, I think, out of any humanitarian concern on the doc's part. A struggling and resisting victim increases the likelihood of a screwed up op and slows the whole thing down. Still, the result is the same: unlike torture, the organ theft op is not intended to cause pain and suffering.

Insomuch as torture requires the victim perceive their own torture as suffering, if anybody in the scene is tortured, that grim distinction goes to one of the Brit tourists who, strapped down on a surgical table next to the victim, witnesses the entire operation sans drug-buffer, all the while under the assumption that the same is soon to befall him. However, while this victim's confinement is certainly an according Hoyle torture porn aspect under the Collin definition, he's never physically brutalized. He briefly escapes only to be killed as most of the doomed characters in this film are: sudden death by bullet.

Whether it is locus of horror in the film or not is an equally debatable point. Certainly it establishes the stakes for the characters, justifying why a bunch of relatively pampered tourists are suddenly are extremely willing to not only risk their lives, but also kill others, in order to escape. Otherwise, however, the operation itself is only a tiny bit of the film. Only one of the ten deaths in the film are attributable to the mad doctor's deplorable efforts to reform the organ donor waitlist process. The rest occur during fights in the jungle surrounding the doctor's house (plus one henchmen who dies when the quick to anger doctor stabs him as a definitive review of his less than stellar henching). Even during the operation scene, the gory process does not take center stage. Unlike the claustrophobic, extended scenes of punishment in Hostel or Saw, the operation, which takes up about 4 minutes and 12 seconds of film altogether, is broken up with footage of the rest of the tourists' efforts at escape, which actually runs a slightly longer 4 minutes, 18 seconds. Even when it is the focus of the film, it isn't quite the focus of the film.

My point with this last bit isn't to finally see if Sean's definition fits Turistas or not, but to show that we've got trouble if we try to a definition that suggests that one relatively small section of the flick is the "locus" of the film's horror. We'd have the same problem with Martyrs, which includes quite a bit of horrific imagery and power in the first half of the film, most of which revolves around the revenge plot and the "ghost" that haunts one of the main characters. Yes there's torture, but is the last third of Martyrs its locus? What about Ambition? Is the gory finale the source of the film's horror? Or is it a sort of explosive release of the growing horror the viewer has felt building throughout the movie?

These could be debated (along with just about every other torture porn flick), but we could simply toss out the rather unproductive debate by getting rid of the sticking point that torture porn is the essence of certain films. Instead, if we agree with the term's coiner that torture porn is a visual and narrative strategy, and it can be used in many different films and for many different reasons, then we suddenly can discuss the links between Hostel and Turistas, as well as Reservoir Dogs and The Passion of the Christ and BSG (in which I'm told robot torture occurs, as seemingly illogical as that all is: why program them feel pain?) and so on without getting tangled up in the question of whether or not something is "authentically" torture porn. We can also toss out the critically lazy idea that "torture porn" films are some special subset of flicks concerned solely with the depiction of graphic, extended acts of violence. While admitting that there is something distinct and notable about the visual and narrative value of such depictions of violence, it leaves a requirement to confront the rest of the film. To have exhausted one's critic arsenal by dismissing an entire work on the basis of one filmmaking strategy would appear as stupid as announcing that all films that used unreliable narration or extensive montages were pointless. "They're just about narration. Montages are just about the editing – what's the point?"

Anywho, I've never been happy with the concept of torture porn as it is currently used and, on consideration, I believe it is because treating it as genre, instead of a collection of techniques, is inherently unhelpful. As of now – right now, just then, it happened already now – I'm dropping its use as a genre identifier for ANTSS.

That's all very well, you might say, but how's Turistas?

Eh, it's kinda goofy. Attractive kids. Clunky plot. Strained seriousness with an ill-considered and inconsistent anti-colonial message. I wouldn't bother.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Art: The men who brought the zombie to America.

Recently, Publisher's Weekly, casting about for good news in an increasingly bleak biz context, has taken notice of, get this, some sort of uptick in consumer interest for zombie books. I doubt that readers of this blog will be particularly surprised at this President-Garfield-still-dead grade reportage, though the story does show that, really, this publishing "movement" is basically two books: Brook's World War Z and the Austen mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The former's 200,000 copies sold puts it in the realm of genuine hit (20,000 is a solid performance while 1 million puts you in Harry Potter territory), while the latter's rep looks secured on the basis of printing data (600,000 copies, the book's in its 16th printing already), though actually sales data has yet to surface. No doubt the other titles mentioned fetch a pretty penny or two for their publishers, though the data provided suggests that we're looking at two huge redwood trees and a lot of otherwise undifferentiated ground clutter.

Furthermore, to put this new phenom into perspective, the last book in the Twilight series sold 1.3 million copies in its first day of release. Even if every single copy of P&P&Z printed sold – which is unlikely – that single YA vamp book would trounce the combined sales of both titles. For those curious, the sales for the entire series are just south of 30 million. Next time you see somebody bashing the vampire romance franchise, imagine Stephenie Meyers responding, "These jabs sting, but then I just rub some money on the wound and that seems to ease the pain."

Charges of coming late to the not-much-of-a-party aside, the article's author gets extra points for comprehensiveness – the article ranges from Image Comics' excellent Walking Dead series to teen tales like Never Slow Dance with a Zombie - and a gazillion extra points for name dropping the father of American zombies: William Buehler Seabrook.

A restless and often self-destructive man, William Seabrook became a journalist and travel writer known for his extreme tales of far-of lands, retold with lurid detail for the subscribers of Cosmo, Reader's Digest, and Vanity Fair. An uneven and disciplined writer, given over to deploying now embarrassingly simplistic cultural and ethnic stereotypes, much of Seabrook's literary legacy is justly forgotten. However, three major milestones in American literature remain his. In Asylum , Seabrook turned his stay in the Bloomingdale mental institution in New York into the first celebrity rehab memoir. In Jungle Ways Seabrook gave American literature is only extended description of the taste of human flesh produced by a professional writer: "It was like good, fully developed veal, not young, but not yet beef. It was very definitely like that, and it was not like any other meat I had ever tasted. It was so nearly like good, fully developed veal that I think no person with a palate of ordinary, normal sensitiveness could distinguish it from veal. It was mild, good meat with no other sharply defined or highly characteristic taste such as for instance, goat, high game, and pork have. The steak was slightly tougher than prime veal, a little stringy, but not too tough or stringy to be agreeably edible. The roast, from which I cut and ate a central slice, was tender, and in color, texture, smell as well as taste, strengthened my certainty that of all the meats we habitually know, veal is the one meat to which this meat is accurately comparable." Finally and most importantly, in The Magic Island, Seabrook's sensationalist account of his wanderings in Haiti, the author introduced American audiences to the zombie.

It is sometimes erroneously stated that Seabrook introduced the word to the English language, though evidence for the term stretches back to at least the mid-17th century. However, these earliest uses are often vague references to various aspects of Caribbean and South American religions or are now archaic reference to culturally specific phenomenon, such as the resurfaced corpses of the buried dead unearthed by seasonal flooding. What Seabrook did was link the term zombie specifically to the concept of a person raised from the dead, and presented this definition in such a lurid way as to kick off a craze for the reanimated corpses in pulp lit and film. Seabrook's Island hit the shelves in late 1929. By 1932, Lugosi was starring in White Zombie.

The Magic Island includes original illustrations by the mysterious Alexander King, a once prolific and now obscure artist whose bio is lurid as Seabrook's. An abrasive man who was, at times, a painter, a failed playwright, and late night television regular, he was briefly an art thief and was busted after boosting 50 prints from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.

King's images, shown below, are the first images of the walking dead to reach American shores.

[UPDATE: The ever on top of things Zoe has found a link to an online edition of The Magic Island. Check the comments for the URL. Thanks Zoe!]

Monday, July 13, 2009

Comics: Blame it on Kane.

Though he was never popular enough to achieve the iconic status of Conan, pulp legend Robert E. Howard's grim vigilante Puritan Solomon Kane has managed a thoroughly respectable run in the comic medium. Through the 1970s and 80s, the lanky and dour anti-hero appeared in no fewer than eight different Marvel Comics titles, even doing battle with Marvel's Dracula in Dracula Lives!, the ironically short-lived follow-up to Marvel's popular Tomb of Dracula series. The property lay fallow for more than a decade. In 2006, Kane's copyright holder sealed a deal with Dark Horse to bring grim avenger back to the funny books. Dark Horse's first Kane story arc – an adaptation of an unfinished Howard story fragment called "The Castle of the Devil" – ran though 2008 and is now available in the trade.

From the pulp-tastic cover to the final bonus story, Solomon Kane: The Castle of the Devil is a solid product. Benefiting from a tight script; art that fuses traditional illustration with the new nervous line sketchiness of the South American invasion; and a plot full of werewolves, Satanist, and demons; Kane hits an admittedly tiny, but indubitably sweet spot. The comic adaptation, written by Scott Allie with art by Mario Guevara and color by Dave Stewart, not only finishes Howard's story in a satisfactory manner, but uses the medium's visual elements to strip away some of the awkward purpleness of Howard's prose. Lean and efficient, the comic adaptation gives the original a fresh narrative ruthlessness.

The story arc opens as all good pulp tales should: with a fight. A sleeping Kane is attacked by a trio of men. The taciturn wanderer dispatches them with all due gore. He continues his travels the next day. He encounters a young boy on a gibbet and cuts him free before the boy is choked to death. Shortly thereafter, he encounters a chatty bon vivant by the ironic name of John Silent, who quickly becomes Kane's traveling companion. After his encounter with the three would-be assassins and the nearly-hanged boy, Kane has decided to discuss a baron's traditional duties to properly maintain a civil atmosphere of order and peace with the local power: Baron von Staler. Kane and Silent travel to his castle, known in the region as "The Castle of the Devil," and are greeted with surprising warmth by the Baron and his exotic Arabian wife. Of course, this friendliness hides dark secrets buried in the past of the castle. Before long, Kane is clashing with dark magicians, werewolves, cultists, and a quartet of bat-winged demons.

Good times.

As chaotic as the story gets, Allie keeps things streamlined as a possible. Though the dialogue contains "Easter eggs" for fans of the original stories and novels, Allie wisely avoided the reoccurring cast of heroes and villains that filled the Howard's originals. He also stripped Kane of magical items and powers, something that Howard did not do but that I think actually work thematically with the simplicity of Kane's character. In a world of shapeshifters and complicated supernatural bargains, it fits with Kane's literally Puritanical persona that he would trust only his skills and his mundane tools to get his work done. Allie also deftly avoids the relentlessly purple Howardian prose that has sunk many would-be Howard adapter. By trusting the art to communicate Howard's descriptive passages, he can cut down on the more florid touches and focus on plotting and effective dialogue.

Mario Guevara's art is crisp and his character designs suitably distinguished. His cadaverous Kane is especially nice, showing a nice contrast to the hulking Conan for which Howard is more famous. Guevara gets great mileage out of simple page layouts, maximizing narrative clarity (until the end, when the action sometimes overwhelms him and he loses the narrative flow). Stewart's somber palate completes the package, giving the art a pleasingly craftsman-like feel.

The collection also includes a stand-alone Kane story, "The Nightcomers," and a collection of concept art early sketches. I'm not immersed enough in the minutiae of comic to be the right audience for the background materials, but I though the extra story - a ghost story that emphasizes mood over action - was a welcome inclusion.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Books: "Others are simply too strange and Swedish to ignore."

With e-readers finally making the jump from curio to viable product, the woes of big-box giant Borders, the existence of entrenched sharing tech, and business snake oil gurus hawking a freeconomy (which, to be fair, is excellent timing as so few of us have any money anymore), the band of Cassandras that ritualistically sounds the alarm for the "death of the book" has grown surprisingly large. Though there are certainly those who hold that the material object we call "a book " is an archaic bit of tech that is going the way of the polyspastos; more often than not, what the doomsayers are actually talking about is the end of the book-industry as we know it.

I'm not informed enough to make any sort of claim one way or another. However, I happily note that many of the same advances in production and distribution tech that are supposedly dooming the book are, currently, helping lower the cost of entry for small, niche publishers. I don't know if these odd, obsessive, quirky publishers may or may not be some sort of weather balloon for the coming era of the book-biz, but I do know that they please me to virtually no end.

Take, for example, Bazillion Points Books: purveyor of all things insanely metal. Whether you're looking for "the ultimate blow-by-blow account of Sweden’s legendary death metal underground" or the autobiography of Hanoi Rock's Andy McCoy ("My dad beat my mom, my mom beat my big brother, my big brother beat me, I beat my sister, my sister beat the dog, the dog beat the cat, the cat beat the hamster, and the hamster beat whatever bugs he could find. That was our family’s version of the natural order.") then Bazillion has your next new favorite book.

Even if you're not particularly into rock's lunatic fringe (I, for example, have a medical condition called "kinda being a big pussy" that prevents me from listening to metal's harshest offerings), there's plenty to dig. I know of more than one cult film fanatic who would be happy to receive Daniel Ekeroth's Swedish Exploitation Cinema: An Uncensored Guide to Sweden’s Clandestine Film History. The collected punk zine Touch and Go is pretty sweet too.

Finally, I don't know if it would ultimately bring you joy or grief, but Hellbent for Cooking: The Headbanger’s Kitchen, by Annick Giroux "The Morbid Chef" is fantastic beyond belief.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Mad science: Capturing the Imp of the Perverse.

In 1845, Poe published the short work "The Imp of the Perverse" in Graham's Magazine, the magazine that famously published Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and, later, infamously passed over the opportunity to publish "The Raven."

The nearly plotless tale begins with a seemingly objective – but clearly first-person – description of the concept of the "Imp of the Perverse." The "imp" in question is a primitive, illogical, unproductive impulse that the narrator believes is innate to the human mind. From the tale:

Induction, a posteriori, would have brought phrenology to admit, as an innate and primitive principle of human action, a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness, for want of a more characteristic term. In the sense I intend, it is, in fact, a mobile without motive, a motive not motivirt. Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say, that through its promptings we act, for the reason that we should not. In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable, but, in fact, there is none more strong. With certain minds, under certain conditions, it becomes absolutely irresistible. I am not more certain that I breathe, than that the assurance of the wrong or error of any action is often the one unconquerable force which impels us, and alone impels us to its prosecution. Nor will this overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong's sake, admit of analysis, or resolution into ulterior elements. It is a radical, a primitive impulse-elementary. It will be said, I am aware, that when we persist in acts because we feel we should not persist in them, our conduct is but a modification of that which ordinarily springs from the combativeness of phrenology. But a glance will show the fallacy of this idea. The phrenological combativeness has for its essence, the necessity of self-defence. It is our safeguard against injury. Its principle regards our well-being; and thus the desire to be well is excited simultaneously with its development. It follows, that the desire to be well must be excited simultaneously with any principle which shall be merely a modification of combativeness, but in the case of that something which I term perverseness, the desire to be well is not only not aroused, but a strongly antagonistical sentiment exists.

After quite a bit of similarly thick philosophy, Poe's narrator then explains how he is a victim of the "Imp" himself. The narrator confesses that he murdered a man (using a poisonous candle, like you do) and got away with the crime. However, the impulse to turn himself in to the cops nags at him and, eventually, compels him to work against his best interests and his sense of self-preservation. He confesses to the authorities, is tried, and relates this tale shortly before he's to be taken to the gallows.

The work's form is, in itself, a bit perverse. "The Imp" is an example of Poe's idiosyncratic mini-genre the "essay that turns into a fictional story." What makes these works (his "Premature Burial" is another example of the odd form) weird is that they are self-subverting. In "The Imp," the work seems to advance a theory and then provide exemplary anecdotal evidence in support of that theory. However, the evidence is faked up. The murder and confession are, we know, just an invention of Poe's. Does this mean the theory itself is also just a narrative contrivance? Are we supposed to understand that the first half of the tale presents a sincere observation of human nature or do we put it down as the self-justification of a killer who is trying to convince himself that anybody could commit murder if they'd just been put in his place?

Curiously, some have suggested that the whole thing is a weird justification for what literary historians now dub the "Longfellow War." As part of a larger New York versus Boston culture clash that shaped the direction of American letters in pre-Civil War America (and, as a bizarre side effect, definitely split clam chowder into Manhattan and New England styles – but that's another story), Poe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had a long-running and nasty public feud. At the time, Poe's star sank and Longfellow's rose partially due to Poe's repeated and seemingly inexplicable public attempts at career suicide, including near hysterical diatribes about imagined conspiracies of Boston literary culture and public readings in which he deliberately alienated his audience (most infamously, after promising a Boston audience a new poem, Poe read his interminable and absurdly obscure early work "Al Araaf," then declared that Boston audiences didn't deserve new works, and then stormed off stage). As a manifesto for flushing one's career down the tubes, "The Imp" more than suffices.

Regardless of the sincerity of Poe's concept and despite his statement that the Imp will not "admit of analysis," the NY Times reports that modern psychologists are attempting to capture the Imp. From the article:

“There are all kinds of pitfalls in social life, everywhere we look; not just errors but worst possible errors come to mind, and they come to mind easily,” said the paper’s author, Daniel M. Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard. “And having the worst thing come to mind, in some circumstances, might increase the likelihood that it will happen.”

The exploration of perverse urges has a rich history (how could it not?), running through the stories of Poe and the Marquis de Sade to Freud’s repressed desires and Darwin’s observation that many actions are performed “in direct opposition to our conscious will.” In the past decade, social psychologists have documented how common such contrary urges are — and when they are most likely to alter people’s behavior.

In a recent paper, Wegner proposes that the actions of the Imp, which the good doctor dubs "ironic errors," are a byproduct of the process of error and taboo avoidance:

At a fundamental level, functioning socially means mastering one’s impulses. The adult brain expends at least as much energy on inhibition as on action, some studies suggest, and mental health relies on abiding strategies to ignore or suppress deeply disturbing thoughts — of one’s own inevitable death, for example. These strategies are general, subconscious or semiconscious psychological programs that usually run on automatic pilot.

Perverse impulses seem to arise when people focus intensely on avoiding specific errors or taboos. The theory is straightforward: to avoid blurting out that a colleague is a raging hypocrite, the brain must first imagine just that; the very presence of that catastrophic insult, in turn, increases the odds that the brain will spit it out.

Interestingly enough, even when it isn't causing overt errors, the Imp can apparently distort our perceptions:

Efforts to be politically correct can be particularly treacherous. In one study, researchers at Northwestern and Lehigh Universities had 73 students read a vignette about a fictional peer, Donald, a black male. The students saw a picture of him and read a narrative about his visit to a mall with a friend.

In the crowded parking lot, Donald would not park in a handicap space, even though he was driving his grandmother’s car, which had a pass, but he did butt in front of another driver to snag a nonhandicap space. He snubbed a person collecting money for a heart fund, while his friend contributed some change. And so on. The story purposely portrayed the protagonist in an ambiguous way.

The researchers had about half the students try to suppress bad stereotypes of black males as they read and, later, judged Donald’s character on measures like honesty, hostility and laziness. These students rated Donald as significantly more hostile — but also more honest — than did students who were not trying to suppress stereotypes.

In short, the attempt to banish biased thoughts worked, to some extent. But the study also provided “a strong demonstration that stereotype suppression leads stereotypes to become hyperaccessible,” the authors concluded.

Photo credit: Jason.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Movies: In space, no one can hear you suck.

I'm going to propose a hypothesis about Dracula movies. For any Dracula movie that contains a year in the title, the movie's quality is inversely proportional to the absolute value of difference between 1897 (the publication of Dracula) and the year in the title.

To test this hypothesis, we can look at the relative values of Hammer Studio's Dracula 1958, Alan Gibson's Dracula A.D. 1972 (a.k.a. Dracula Chases the Mini Girls, where "mini girls" means girls in short skirts and not, sadly, midget women) and Patrick Lussier's Dracula 2000. The hypothesis correctly predicts that the best of the lot is the stylish and inventive 1958 flick, which some feel represents the high point of Hammer's creative output. The once-trendy cheesiness of 1972 makes it at least fun to watch, giving it second place in our trio. The dour, clumsy, and stylistically inert 2000 performs the worst of all three test subjects.

I bring this up to provide a firm scientific context for my review of Dracula 3000: Infinite Darkness, the low-budget sci-fi/horror/actioner that takes the Dracula mythos and projects it 1,000 thousand years into the future, into a universe of intergalactic space travel, androids, and Coolio.

That's right. Coolio.

This context is important because, as I discuss the film, you might be tempted to think, "What an amazingly wacky flick, I should take pains to experience it for myself!" But don't be fooled. Remember the Dracula Title Year Hypothesis. It's science. You can't argue with it.

The film opens with Udo "anything for a buck" Kier as captain Varna of the spacefaring cargo ship the Demeter. In the first in series of video log entry interruptions that act as a running exposition, Varna explains that his cargo ship is on a return run from the planet Transylvania in the Carpathian system. He also complains of some sort illness has struck the crew.

Cut to 50 years later, and the intrepid crew of the salvage ship Mother (despite all the clamor George Clinton made over the Mother ship in the day, I must say that it's a little disappointing when you actually see it) it on their way to make a quick buck of the floating hulk of the Demeter. The salvage crew is led by Captain Abraham Van Helsing, played by Casper "the friendly ghost of a career" Van Dien. His crew includes the by-the-book second in command and love interest Aurora Ash, played by Baywatch alum Erika Eleniak. There's also the pot-addled 187, played by Coolio, natch. Tiny Lister provides the muscle in the form of the brutish Humvee, who never explains why his nickname means any more to his 31st century comrades than the nickname "Lectica" would mean to us. The brains of the operation is the wheelchair-bound brainiac Arthur Holmwood, whose allusive name is wasted because there's no Lucy Westernra analog. Nor it is explained why, after a century of tech development, the wheelchair apparently remains the best option for people who have lost the use of their legs. Finally, the crew is completed by the inept navigator-intern Mina Murry. Like Arthur's name, it is another wasted allusion.

The crew of Mother reaches the Demeter and, after scanning the ship and finding no signs of life, sends in Humvee and Mina to recon. After a false jump scare, the two test the oxygen in the ship using the traditional method of the sci-fi space explorer: they pop of their breathers and see whether or not exposure to toxic fumes or lack of oxygen kills them. Since they don't die, the ship is declared safe and the rest of the crew boards. Holmwood gets most of the Demeter's systems online while the rest of the team searches the ship. They find a small collection of coffins, the sole cargo of the ship, all filled with sand. They also stumble across the desiccated remains of Varda (what happened to the rest of the crew mentioned so many times by Varda in the video logs is unclear). The corpse of Varda is still clutching a crucifix, which baffles the salvage experts because religion was apparently outlawed decades ago. Whether or not this ban has anything to do with all the Soviet iconography around the ship – Did Soviet Communism experience a second wind and finally crush the West? And, if so, why then are these salvage guys so keen on the market value of the ships they find? – is never explained.

As pleasing as it might have been to watch Casper Van Dien and Tiny Lister debate the merits and shortfalls post-Soviet universal secularism in a universe that clearly allows for the existence of the supernatural, the salvage crew doesn't have time to ponder these abstractions. Almost as soon as the Demeter comes online, Mother "inexplicably" (read, Dracula) decouples and launches off into space. Trapped on the Demeter, the crew starts getting picked off by Dracula. Coolio goes first. Drac turns him into a spastic vampire and orders him to destroy the rest of the team. He attacks his former coworkers several times, eventually turning Mina into another bloodsucker.

During these hit and run attacks, Dracula corners Aurora and makes as if he's going to bite her. However, we find out that he never goes through with it because she turns out that she's an android narc sent by the galaxy police or whatever to keep an eye on Van Helsing's crew of disreputable scallywags. Instead of killing her, she claims Drac spilled his guts to her. He said that Transylvania was a planet of vampires, but Drac's now the last of his kind, the sole survivor from the now dead planet. He wants to get to Earth to get some grub.

Finally, in a fight scene that includes an unnecessarily extensive monologue in which twitchy vampire-Coolio describes masturbating to visions of the second-in-command, Coolio is dispatched by a pool queue through the heart. Sending him to . . .

Now fully convinced that their problems are vampirical in nature, the remaining team members do what anybody would: They google "vampires" to figure out what to do. At this point the viewer learns that the vampire stalking the Demeter is, in fact, the Dracula of Stoker's book fame (traveling under the alias Orlock). Further, we learn that Van Helsing is the great-great-great-and-so-on grandson of Stoker's original vampire hunter. Holmwood freaks out at this notion and suggests that what is really happening is little more than a revenge plot. Drac has waited more than a millennium to end the Van Helsings. Curiously, either his research is insufficient or he simply finds it a coincidence that his name and Mina's also appear in the original story, because those links don't bother him at all.

At this point, viewers can construct a backstory on their own and it goes something like this. Dracula was real. He came to England in the late 1800s and fought Van Helsing and the many suitors of Lucy. He was somehow not actually killed at the end of the conflict. He stayed out of the limelight for a few centuries, apparently having a low intensity conflict with the Van Helsing family. Whenever long distance space travel became feasible, he hopped on a ship went to a distant planet in another galaxy to set up, for some reason, an all-vampire world. Which, in retrospect, was a bad idea. Without something to feed on, the new Transylvania became a dead world. But, Drac couldn't just ditch the dead planet. Instead he waited until the year 3000, when the family he was fighting on Earth would come to him in far space. That way he could combine his vengeance with his move.

The salvage teams google search reveals that sunlight and stakes through the heart are the two ways to kill a vampire. At this point Officer Robot announces that there is no sunlight in the dark of space – an unfortunate mistake since ever freaking visible star is, in fact, a sun and, without atmospheric effects to disperse it, the light they give would be the very definition of direct sunlight – so they'll have to aim the ship at a double sun system and hope they can keep Drac and Vampire Mina of their backs until they get there.

The crew gets proactive and they find Mina sleeping in a coffin. They stake her, but have a harder time with Drac, who manages to vampate Holmwood and Van Helsing. Humvee manage to dispatch the newly minted bloodsuckers, but the worst they can do to Drac is lob of one of his arms when he gets it stuck in one of the ships massive steel doors. Trapped on the ship with a wounded, but still deadly Drac, Humvee and Aurora realize that they cannot prevent the Demeter from crashing into the sun.

Aurora announces that, prior to being upgraded to a cop bot, she was a pleasure droid. She suggests that they spend their last few hours have sex. Humvee picks up Aurora, throws her over his should like a sack of potatoes, and goes off to look for somewhere to have sex.

Their ship hits the sun and everybody dies.

The end.

I actually applaud the makers of this flick for its bizarro ending and their willingness to dispatch their Van Helsing character. Unfortunately, this little treats aren't enough to save the rest of the flick. Visually dull, crippled by a script that is neither scary nor funny, and carried by a cast that seems slightly embarrassed to be there, Dracula 3000 is strongest evidence yet for Dracula Title Year Hypothesis.