Monday, November 30, 2009

Movies: Wu of the Dead.

Though extensive work has gone into unearthing Christian symbolism in zombie narratives, here's a less analyzed Black Muslim take on Romero's Of the Dead franchise. From the RZA's new book, The Tao of Wu:

When I first saw Night of the Living Dead, I was scared to death. But when I watched it again at the age of sixteen (when they were up to Day of the Dead), I'd gotten knowledge of myself, and could relate to what it was saying about America. The dead were alive, but they were blind, deaf, and dumb. So to me, they were symbolic of black men in America.

The dead in those movies are alive- that's just a description of physical matter, it's active - but they don't have life. Life comes when you have knowledge, wisdom, and understanding, when you can see for real, touch and feel for real, know for real. Then you are truly living.

Finally, all the Of Dead films work as metaphors for the Five Percent [The Nation of Gods and Earths, also known as Five-Percent Nation of Islam - CRwM]. The survivors are holdouts living among the mentally dead. And interestingly, they tend to be led by black men. At the same time, though, after the black man survives - he fights off destruction through the whole movie - a white man kills him.

Though factually wobbly at the end there - the black protags survive Dawn and Day - the analogy actually works far better for me than efforts to fit Romero's flicks into a Christian framework. The origin of the Five-Percent name stems from their belief (and this is a profound simplification) that 85% of humanity are blind to knowledge of themselves; 10% understand some of the divine knowledge needed to be fully realized humans, but ignore or lie about this knowledge for personal gain (notably, Christian preachers and scholars who teach about an incorporeal, or "mystery," God to advance their own political agendas - left and right); and a final 5% who understand and spread the truth, known as poor righteous teachers. The idea of a tiny, fully alive and self aware minority surrounded by a globe of the half-alive fits like a glove with Romero's flicks.

I wonder what insights Buddhists, more mainstream Muslims, and other non-Christian religious peoples could bring to the table.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Over There: Horror films and the War in Afghanistan - Part 1: Sand Serpents.

American horror cinema is nimble. Surprisingly so given its dependence on genre formulas and the genre fans' insatiable appetite for re-heated leftovers. Despite the antiquity of many of the genre's most beloved tropes - the specters that haunt modern day-traders and their spiritually besieged girlfriends are fundamentally the same beasties that spooked our preliterate ancestors thousands of years ago - horror cinema is quick to assimilate our latest fears and anxieties. From genuine threats, like nuclear weaponry, to passing fancies, like the 2012 "prophecy," anything that makes us antsy is just waiting for an enterprising low-budget filmmaker to give it the fright flick treatment. The ambulance chaser of our psychic landscape, horror's often the first on the scene of any disaster, ready to help us frame up our latest fears and happy to make a buck or two doing so.

Wars would seem to be an exception to this. During the Second World War, Hollywood kept the homefront eager for slaughter by filling theaters with hundreds of patriotic flicks featuring our fighting men and women in action. Yet surprisingly few horror films made in that period - 1941 to 1945 - overtly mention the war and none are set on the frontlines or featured characters directly involved in fighting. Certainly there were exceptions to this rule: King of the Zombies and Revenge of the Zombies (1941 and 1943) feature Nazi zombie makers, 1942's Black Dragons has surgically altered Japanese saboteurs as the baddies, Dark Waters (1944) includes a torpedoed passenger ship as a backstory plot point, and Return of the Vampire (1944) is set in London and features regular blackouts and bombing raids (and the vamp baddie, in a remarkable example of good taste, poses as a Jewish refugee from Eastern Europe). But none of the era's classics - The Wolf Man, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Uninvited, The Body Snatcher, and Isle of the Dead, not to mention the sub-classic, but still beloved, late entries into Universal's Dracula and Frankenstein franchises - seriously engage with what must have unquestionably been the single greatest source of anxiety for American film-goers.

The same can be said of Vietnam. Though the "crazy vet" character quickly became a stock character (courtesy of Bob Clark's Dead of Night and other films), Vietnam War era horror flicks that are linked with the war in the critical imagination are usually thought of as metaphorical commentaries on the war era or as products of the cultural wreckage the war caused. For example, many cite the grim, relentless tone and naturalistic visual style of Last House on the Left as a product of Vietnam, but its source material is older and the film is not objectively about the conflict. Even after the war, references to the conflict were usually oblique: Piranha and CHUD (1978 and 1984) feature bio-weapons intended for use against Charlie turning against Americans, House and Jacob's Ladder (1986 and 1990) feature 'Nam vets who are literally haunted by their past, and one could make the case that the unidentified sliver of South American jungle in Predator (1987) is really just a stand-in for the jungles of Vietnam. There must be, in the vast spread of horror flicks, some flick that features soldiers in the Vietnam War coming up against monsters and spooks, but to date America has yet produce a horror film set in the Vietnam War that has the equivalent status of R-Point (2004), South Korea's box office hit spookshow about Korean soldiers battling for their lives inside a haunted abandoned Vietnamese hospital.

Perhaps the magnitude of war simply dwarfs he ability of horror filmmaker to contain it meaningfully in tried and true horror frameworks. Compared with the brutal acts of warfare, their own quiver of spookshow tricks just don't measure up. The savagery of, say, My Lai starkly reminds of how silly and harmless most of cherished horror tropes are. More cynically, perhaps the filmmakers know that their monsters and madmen slashers are the stars of the show and putting their commodity in a setting where their killing prowess would suddenly look bush league is bad for protecting brand identity.

Regardless of the reason, American horror cinema, which is otherwise quick to exploit timely preoccupations, has long avoided setting movies in a on-going conflict. It is noteworthy, then, that the War in Afghanistan is the setting of no fewer than three horror films in the past two years. The Iraq War, true to American horror tradition, remains predominantly an influence and allusion. While drama and action filmmakers have had little compunction (and, notably, little success) about tackling the war head-on, horror filmmakers have mostly kept their distance. Where it has been the direct subject of a horror flick - Joe Dante's truly execrable Homecoming - the film has focused on the homefront impact of the war and the machinations of the administration who lied their way into the conflict. But, for some reason, filmmakers have decided that the on-going conflict in Afghanistan is ripe for horror genre exploitation. In 2008, Daniel Myrick, of Blair Witch fame, helmed The Objective, a supernatural thriller involving a squad of soldiers on the hunt for Bin Laden. The next year, Red Sands and Sand Serpents streeted, each featuring U.S. troops battling monstrous threats in the Afghanistan hinterlands.

We'll start this tour of this unique subgenre of modern horror with the Syfy fodder Sand Serpents for no other reason than that happened to be the first flick that came in the mail from Netflix. In what might be one of the strangest business strategies ever, Syfy has apparently decided that it is going to corner the market on "it's a lazy Saturday afternoon and finding the remote would be harder than sitting through this movie" films. Sand Serpents is a slightly above average component of Syfy's vast plan to conquer that crucial 18 through 35 lazy-and-can't-find-remote demographic. Directed by Jeff Renfroe (who apparently knows that his involvement as the editor of Anvil! The Story of Anvil means he need not produce anything else of last quality to secure his place in film history), Sand Serpents follows the misadventures of a small squad of Marines who are sent to recon an unused sapphire mine. To save time, screenwriter Raul Inglis (best known for his cartoon scripts and the narrative interludes in the video game Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects) rolled out his characters from a NPC random encounter generator in the Twilight 2000 rulebook. We've got all the classics here: There's the bespectacled intellectual (the Sassoon), the rough-edged soldier who's in Marines because of a "hometown jam" (the Springsteen), the green recruit leader who must earn the respect of his men (the Tori Montroc), the tough as nails sergeant (the Rock), the racist lughead (the Vig), the guy whose always got a bad feeling about this mission (the Lemchek), and the outsider specialist (the Ripley). There's also some cannon fodder (the Fodder). Despite his apparent comfort with cliché, Inglis forgets to include the loyal native (the Benny Fish), the dude who loses his shit (the Hudson), or the guy from Brooklyn (the Brooklyn). Whether this is because Inglis is tired of these particular types or due to the fickle nature of Twilight 2000 NPC generator, I don't profess to know.

After some efficient backstory setting up their mission parameters, our troops march almost immediately into an ambush. They are overwhelmed by Taliban forces and those that survive the initial attack, about five out of the initial seven, are prepped for videotapped beheadings. This scene gives us a hint of why many filmmakers hesitate to set their monster pics in a live-fire war: Nothing that follows in the movie has quite the tension of watching seven bound and blindfolded soldiers beg for fruitlessly beg for their lives. Ultimately, the soldiers are spared. As it turns out, the ambush above the mine sent tremors deep through the mine structure, awakening massive three, maybe four gigantic sand worms - several stories tall, with a mouth roughly the size of the Holland Tunnel - from their slumber. The sand worms breach the surface with the force of a small earthquake, sending the Taliban soldiers out to see what the heck is up. They are, to say the least, unprepared to deal with the sand serpents and quickly become serpent chow.

Spared the serpent's immediate onslaught, the Marines slip their bonds and regroup. Their movement arouses the ever-peckish titular monstrosities and, after the beasties whittle the number of Marines down slightly, the Marines ponder just how to make it back to base when any movement on their part brings serpentish attention.

The Marines eventually break for a nearby refugee camp. Built on the remains of what appears to be a bombed out brace of block houses, the concrete rubble foundation of the refugee camp serves as a deterrent to serpenty predations. There the team meets Amal and his daughter Asala, two refugees who are willing to to help the Marines if the Marines agree to take them out of the Taliban controlled region. The Marines and the refugees hatch a plan that involves a mad endgame return to the serpent infested mine and call for evac. It's not a utterly crap plan, but you could count the numbers who survive it on a single hand. And not even your single hand, but the hand of a dude who had one of those horrible woodshop accidents they warned you about in high school.

From a strictly horror-fan perspective, Sand Serpents may just squeeze into the the middling territory. With none of the aw-shucks wit and charm of Tremors or raw power of Aliens, its two nearest cinematic predecessors, it comes off as a unoffensive, by the numbers run-and-gun. Relatively speaking, the effects are top notch for a Syfy production. But that's relatively speaking. While this film puts The Snakehead Horror to shame, it's a stain on the shorts of Cloverfield. That said, there is an odd charm in watching the lengths the filmmakers will go to in order to avoid showing the sand serpents. In fact, the film depends on the fact that we most often register their presence solely by the panic reactions of our protags: We've see that the serpents are big enough and fast enough to snatch Blackhawk choppers (or the Syfy-budget equivalents thereof) out of the air, so seeing them on screen in most scenes would just make us wonder why they don't snatch our unlucky heroes up.

As an artifact of the Afghan War era, there are two major points of interest. First, there's the characters of Amal and Asala. During an extend sequence in which the Marines use the mines to escape - apparently the rock the mines cut through to to thick for the meddlesome beasties - the up-to-then trustworthy father and daughter duo have a weird exchange. The father starts to head down a mine and then, after some consideration, changes his mind and directs the Marines down a different shaft. His daughter then intervenes and says that they are headed in the wrong direction. Amal ignores her and maintains his stance. Now, eventually, the Marines pop out of the mines and there are Taliban crawling all over the area. But, before they surface, there's a whole scene in which a sand serpent chases them around the mines, pretty much messing up any chance we'd have to know if the Marines ended up where they were being directed. Was Amal leading them into a trap? Did he start to, change his mind, and then get pressured by his child to carry out the plan? Honestly, I'm a bit hesitant to not put this all down as a product of sloppy writing. To believe that Amal or Asala was leading the Marines into a trap would require we believe that the Taliban plant two people in a refugee camp they had no reason to believe the Marines would go to. They would then assume that the Marine would agree to travel through the mines, though they didn't know about the serpents (which had eaten every last one of the first Taliban squad) which was the only reason the Marines had to travel by mine shaft. Still, the impression you get while watching it is one of potential betrayal, never fully resolved. Where we betrayed? Do we even understand enough to know if we have or haven't been betrayed? While far from the overt racism of Pvt. Jackass, the squads resident spokesman for ethnic hatred, it speaks to a more subtle unease about whether we truly have allies, even when our best interest coincide.

Even more interesting than than the nuanced unease about our Afghan allies is the bizarre final scene of the flick. In the last moment, the remaining two Marines and Asala, the potentially traitorous Afghan girl, lift off in a chopper. Suddenly, a sand serpent rears out of the surface and lunges toward the helicopter. One of the Marines, wearing a confiscated suicide bomber belt of explosives, leaps into the maw of the beast. He detonates, saving the last Marine and the little girl. Watching this, I couldn't help but be reminded of a truly odd essay by Sunny Singh called In Praise of the Delinquent Hero, or How Hollywood Creates Terrorists. It's long been a curiosity among anti-terrorism experts that terrorist seem fascinated by American genre cinema. Terrorists often select their nom de guerres from American action cinema lore. When NYPD anti-terror agents unravelled a plot to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge, they found that they terrorists referred to the famous landmark as "the Godzilla bridge," an allusion to the '98 Emmerich flick (not only do they want us dead, their taste in films is horrific). Indian essayist Singh suggests that the connection runs deeper than average pop fandom. She suggest that genre cinema has given terrorists the mental justification they need in the form of the "delinquent hero." Think a War on Terror update of the Kracauer thesis. This figure, in Singh's words, embodies "distrust of sociopolitical institutions and individuals, the privileging of individual judgment over the status quo, and, finally, the utility of violent force in achieving goals, even if it means going beyond the pale of law." (The complete essay is available in How They See Us, edited by James Atlas - buy indie and remember: more of the dollars spent at your independent retailers are circulated back into the local economy.) Though too wrapped up in the military command structure to truly be delinquent heroes, the film does show our Marines clashing and outsmarting an incompetent and avaricious command structure, ignoring their orders because they decided their is a higher set of values they must follow, and using force to solve their problems. Though I find Singh overreaches in her essay, the irony of the fact that hero Marine becomes a suicide bomber would not be lost on him.

[UPDATE: See Singh's comment below; not only because she calls me out on an embarrassing assumption on my part, but because she directs you, dear readers of all genders, to an online version of the essay mentioned above.]

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Books: Everyday people.

Looking through the graveyard of genre lit, the literary genre I think I would have least picked to pull a Black Lantern would have been that "jungle adventure" genre. Spawned of explorers tales and given a literary template by Robinson Crusoe, the fine genre of white adventurers subduing the natural order (along with any natives who might be at home there) was later perfected for the colonial era by Haggard and Kipling, and finally recast as a pop confection by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It isn't just the problematic racism of these texts that give us pause, there's a fundamental belief in the triumph of reason and order in these books that, as early as Conrad's quintessential deconstruction of the genre in Heart of Darkness, struck many readers as hollow and, in the case of pulp engines like Burroughs, unearned. Indeed, after Heart of Darkness, the primal jungle was recast not as ground to be conquered, but as the graveyard of civilization and reason. When we ponder the fate of white men trapped in a green hell, we're more likely to think of Col. Kurtz than we are of Allan Quartermain.

And yet, two of this years best novels have been smart, literate, exciting takes on the fatally discredited genre. First there was the new English translation of Albert Sánchez Piñol's Pandora in the Congo. ASP's novel intertwines three versions of the same tale: a pulp hack author's retelling of a disastrously failed jungle expedition, interrupted with the "director commentary" of author explaining what he understood to be the truth of the tale he was freely adapting, framed with the true story of the expedition's collapse. The brilliance of Pandora is that it simultaneously delivers the pulpy goods while at the same time adding layers of narrative self-awareness that, at once, deepen our connection to the familiar pulp pleasures and bring them to the surface for genuine self-critique.

Second is the curious Torston Krol's The Dolphin People. A Swiss Family Robinson for the post-Cannibal Holocaust set, The Dolphin People - the first novel by reclusive Queensland Aussie ex-pat Torsten Krol - is a savage revisionist take on the jungle adventure tale.

Fleeing the carnage of post-World War II Germany, Erich sails to Venezuela with his mother and his younger brother. Erich's father, a tank commander in the Nazi army, died on the Russian front. Erich's uncle, a death camp doctor on the lam in South America, has asked for the hand of his sister-in-law for marriage. Erich's mother, not wanting the boys to be fatherless and eager to leave the devastation of Germany, agrees. After a quick marriage ceremony, the doctor and his new family fly in the Amazon, headed towards the oil fields were Erich's father acts as the on-site medical officer. A storm brings their plane down and they are rescued by a native tribe who mistake them for magically transformed dolphins (the river dolphins of the Amazon are bright pink in color).

The good news is that a German sociologist, a professor who left to study the tribe years before the rise of the Nazi and the advent of war, lives with the tribe. He acts as the family's interpreter and guide. The bad news is that the family quickly finds out that demi-god-like status is a gilded cage. The family most constantly negotiate the complex social structures and expectations of the tribe, all the while maintaining the fiction of divinity, or face the the tribes most likely fatal displeasure. It's not ruining the novel to tell you now that it doesn't work. It spectacularly and utterly doesn't work.

Krol has said that the fictional tribe at the heart of the story is a composite. Presumably to stave off accusations of exploitation or sensationalism, the author's tried to make a claim for the novel's realism. I understand the impulse, but I think it's a bit disingenuous: For all the research he might have done, this book's heart beats to the tune of Modo Cane, Cannibal Holocaust, and similarly exploitative flicks. Krol's narrative features Nazi's, death by piranha, cannibalism of the death, extended drug freak out sequences, hermaphroditism, unnecessary surgery, bloodshed, sex, and as much excess as one could reasonably ask for. The difference is that Krol's book doesn't take the cheap cop out that the trite shockers of the exploitation era did. Krol's jungle doesn't show everybody to be savages. Instead, it show's everybody to be human, for better or worse. It's this genuine sympathy for human weakness that separates Krol's debut from the exploitation genre it shares so much with. It's also what makes it a great read.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Movies: The Cat Piano

I owe this gem of a find to commentator Emazzola who left a lead to it in the comments to my post on the grotesque katzklavier, a keyboard that plays cats. Check out "The Cat Piano," a short film from The People's Republic of Animation, directed by Eddie White and Ari Gibson. A trippy beat fable set in a fabulous musical Interzone between Disney's Aristocats and Pépé le Moko's Algiers; "The Cat Piano" uses jazzed up Silverstein-esque narration to tell a dark fairy tale of music, love, and a giant katzklavier.

Dig, Screamers and Screamettes. You wont be disappointed.

Thanks Emazzola.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Meta: Watch us pull an upset!

Screamer, Screamettes, and the curious passersby, lend me your ears!

Long time readers have probably figured out that I'm not a big "blog award" type of guy. It's always nice to know you're well thought of, but I don't tend to run long strings of blogger-gifted awards and the like on the side of my blog. It's just not my scene.

That said, B-Sol of Vault of Horror is running an interesting feature he's dubbed "Ms. Horror Blogosphere." Think of it as the Ms. Universe for women who have strong opinions about the film work of Paul Naschy or the have contributed to the Great Fast Versus Slow Zombies Debates of the '00s.

Breaking somewhat out of character for a second, I'm going to urge every single person reading this blog entry to go to Vault of Horror and vote for Heather Santrous, the blog mistress of ANTSS fave Mermaid Heather.

"But CRwM, why should we go so far out of our way - that's like two whole mouse clicks - to vote for Heather?" you may well ask.

I'll tell you why, my skeptical friend.


1. If you enjoy ANTSS, you owe Heather a vote of thanks.
Heather's own blog was, a little more than three years ago, was what inspired me to start a horror-centric blog. She was an early supporter of my work and has been part of the ANTSS story ever since. So if my blog has even given you a chuckle, something to think about, a new band to listen to, a movie to check out, or just a way to waste the work day away, then please show a little appreciation by throwing a vote to the woman who, in a way, started it all.

2. Heather's made of awesome.
Before she got a gig, Heather posted a movie review on a near daily basis. There are blogs that have gotten famous boasting of their similarly prolific posting, but Heather quietly rocked that post-rate as a regular thing. On top of that, she posted regularly on a second blog. I don't know how. Just made of awesome, I guess. Admittedly, her posting has slowly slightly of late, but only because she's now working in a forensics lab. That's right, she's just slowed down a little bit so that she can WORK AMONG THE SECRETS OF THE FREAKIN' DEAD! That's called talking the talk and walking the walk!

3. Because rooting for the underdog is emotionally rewarding.
As of this writing, the candidate in the lead BJ-C, the woman who writes Day of the Woman. DotW is the "sister blog" of Vault of Horror, the very blog holding the contest! (Look below the poll and you'll see the promo link to her blog.) This isn't to suggest that there's any cheating or favoritism at work here. B-Sol and BJ are both stand up folks and they run a fair game. But let's be honest, Day of the Woman has a definite home court advantage. A vote for Heather is a vote for a dark horse candidate. When the dust settles and everything's over but the screamin', win or lose, won't you feel a little bit better knowing the your vote went for the scrappy newcomer that nobody thought had the heart to go the distance? Sure you will.

4. I wasn't going to mention it, but . . .
Given the current dust-ups about feminism and horror, I was kinda surprised to see that most of the candidate posts included glam shots. Will the Mr. Blogosphere contest have every spookshow-manfan posting shirtless beefcake shots? (Calm down Sean - we know.) But, since I didn't make the call to include them, I feel comfortable pointing out: She's a looker. Not only are you voting for a prolific, inspiring, genuine person; you're voting for swell-looking lady. You know, if that sort of thing matters to you. Which we know it doesn't. But if it did, you know, hypothetically matter. She is. Just saying.

5. Make your vote matter.
Horror blogging is a crowded field and there's a ton of good work out there. Many of the candidates on B-Sol's list have been doing great work for a long time and have justly earned themselves great reps in the horror community. A few could be called, without fear of exaggeration, major pillars of the horror blogosphere. But, our great numbers can also be a weakness. With so many of us, some bloggers just slip by the crowd. Wouldn't it be great if the "Ms. Horror Blogosphere" were used to promote a rising star. Instead of tacking yet another icon to the ever-growing sidebars of widely praised bloggers, let's turn this into an opportunity to get an under-recognized voice out there to the wider reading public. A vote for Heather will actually make a difference.

There you go. That's my pitch. There's more than 20 excellent candidates up for your consideration. So go, vote. And let's make Heather our Ms. Horror Blogosphere.

Movies: On Heck Street, just off Darn It Boulevard.

The Legend of Hell House is one of those odd cultural artifacts that, whatever is own merits, gets magnified by the needs of critics who are not so much reviewing the text as using it as an ideological bludgeon.

An early pioneer of the contemporary mania for taking a classic work (say, Barchester Towers) and adding heavy-handed horror tropes to it (say, sexy vampires), the relentlessly prolific Richard Matheson's 1971 novel Hell House was basically a tarted up remix of Shirley Jackson's famed 1959 spook book The Haunting of Hill House. Though, in Matheson's defense, when he decided to tart it up, he tried hard to make his tart the craziest girl working the street.

A temporally displaced Victorian Gothicist, Jackson's icy horror has at its core a deep hatred of the humanity's inherent weakness born of a compassion so strong it turns toxic. Like one of those insane billionaires who end up locking themselves in a sterile room to protect themselves from germs that exist mostly in their mind, the insane passion of Jackson's best work is driven by an imaginative empathy with people that digs immediately down to something that appalls and repulses her. This is readily detected in her overtly fantastic works, from the Gothic Hill House and We've Always Lived in the Castle to that high school English staple "The Lottery," but is just as true with her meticulously drawn fantasias of modern urban life, like the James Harris cycle.

In contrast, Matheson's book is the work of a professional thrill provider. What powers it's mad heart is a Grub Street desperation to keep the reader's eyes glued to the the page. Matheson of Hell House is a sideshow barker: He isn't horrified by humanity so much as he's always ready to deliver whatever he thinks the reader wants and he's cynical enough to know that the average horror fan wants to see the freaks. If this sounds like a dismissal, I don't mean it as one. There's a craft to the ballyhoo that, prior to the postmodern transcendence of genre lit, has often been criminally underrated. Feeding the deep desire of horror fandom might not be the most delicate of tasks, but it is a specific skill that requires real talent. Matheson has neither the time not inclination to fuss with the correct proportions of rich veal stock, Valpolicella, and balsamic in a good l'anitra arrosta con salsa di pere balsamico; but only because he busy cooking up the best damn ribs you've ever had. Matheson expertly applies sex, violence, and absurdity the way an expert pit master brushes on his bourbon-based, habanero-infused, cane syrup kissed secret sauce. It's got heat, punch, and sugar - what the heck else do you want?

Because the aging base of the horror blogosphere grew up in a culture besotted with late-stage Cold War binary thinking, we like presenting the interactions of marketplace for cultural products as if it were a zero sum game. Either Jackson plays the ripped-off master or Matheson is a raw example of literature's noble savage. Horror fans, by and large, tend to side with Matheson. Long the red-headed step child of the literary world, our wounded dignity is constantly on the search for perceived slights. The radiant disgust that fuels all of Jackson's works is, for the reader who only ever encounters her horror-related output, often mistaken with a disgust for the genre. She's accused of slumming. Matheson, then, gets points for some sort of deconstructive, almost punk act. His work is treated like a glorious work of vandalism, a blow against some ivory tower hegemony.

But, honestly, that's all bullshit.

Jackson's Hill House is one of the creepiest things ever written and the fact that she's not considered a "horror" author has more to do with the weirdly restrictive nature of genre labels than the shape of her mental universe. As for Matheson, Hell House is the sort of thing he could turn in on spec at the drop of a hat. It is not a howl of primal energy; it's a carnival dark ride spookshow built to give you a high jolt for buck ratio. The connection between the two: Matheson knew a solid framework when he saw it and picked it up. It's easier than building your own and that thing isn't his bag anyway. Matheson plays to his strengths, so he smartly took what he needed to free up his hands.

I bring this up because I feel that it is high time we strip the insincere culture war gloss off our assessments of The Legend of Hell House, the 1971 film adaptation helmed by John Hough and penned by Matheson himself. Looked at without the need to use it as a crowbar to dislodge Robert Wise's The Haunting (and, by extension, that meddling woman who wrote Hill House), the film must stand or fall on its own merits.

Looked at squarely, Hell House is a mildly entertaining haunted house flick that delivers reliably delivers, but suffers from a baggy script that ultimately undercuts the force of the film by stomping on whatever uncanny power a ghost story might have delivered.

The films starts well enough. In an extended, but narratively tight, pre-title sequence, viewers learn that an ailing but wealth man wants to pay a team of investigators to spend one week in "Hell House," the one place where ghostly activity has never been definitely falsified. The team consists of a Barrett, a physicist convinced that the ghostly phenomenon is actually a sort of residue of the energy emitted by previous residents; the physicist's wife, Ann; a spiritualist, Tanner; Fischer, a medium who was the sole surviving member of a previous investigation of the house.

(As an aside, it would have been nice if the scientist on the team had suggested that not disproving something is not quite the same as proving it. In fact, ghostly activity has never been definitively disproven anywhere, because that's not the problem. Proving it is the problem. I can't disprove the existence of the Loch Ness monster, but that's not how science works. You want me to put Nessie in the schema of known marine animals, then you've got to prove her existence. Sadly, the scientist of the team seems unfamiliar with the wrinkle in the philosophy of science.)

The researchers' week starts off slowly enough. But before you can whistle out the entire Casper theme song, an unseen assailant is throwing silverware at our heroes and generally being unpleasant. The ghost, not content to drop heavy objects on our heroes, start possessing the women folk and cause a stray feline to go all Wolvie berserker style on Tanner. As the film progresses, the quartet splits into two groups. The spiritualists focus on solving the mystery of why the attacking ghost is restless and attempt to put him to rest while the scientist and his wife focus on building a sort house de-ghosting machine that will, theoretically, disperse the energies that are causing the haunting. This leads to a lot of awkward discussions about what is causing the haunting: One ghost, two ghosts, red ghost, blue ghost, etc. At first interesting, the viewer rapidly realizes that these conversations are just so many disposable red herrings. For starters, it is unclear what the difference, on a practical level, would be if one or more of the many theories bandied about would be. When invisible forces throw a table at you, does it really matter whether it was one ghost or two working together? Second, the resulting action items of each theory seem to be the same: If its one ghost, the spiritualist tries to contact him. If we're wrong about the identity of the ghost. we try to contact the right ghost. If he's a mean ghost, we contact him to try to negotiate; if he isn't mean, we contact him to ask why he's acting so mean. The view gets the feeling that the flick is just stalling for time.

The film does have many significant saving graces. The lush Hell House set is lovely - a missing link between the stately mansion of The Haunting and the art deco freak out of Susperia's dancing school. The often low-fi haunting effects are arresting (with the exception of an unfortunate attack-by-stuffed-cat scene). The acting is also noteworthy. Matheson left the backstories of most of the group out of the script, so the actors have to make do with characters that are thin almost to the point of becoming cyphers. Still, the actors are game and manage to give their characters not only a fleshy solidity, but add moments of genuinely resonant humanity. Pamela Franklyn and Roddy McDowell especially so.

The filmmakers also edit the film to a herky-jerky rhythm that keeps you pleasantly off-kilter. Viewers often get the sense that they're walking in on a scene already under way, only to be yanked out of it before we get to see the scene through. The stuttering, lurching rhythms of the individual scenes play like a counterpoint to the more relentless passage of time marked by the title cards.

That said, everybody is working against a surprisingly thin script and sadly undisciplined direction. For example, for reasons that are never explained, the film plays out over the lead up to Christmas. Not only is the season never mentioned, the few external shots we get are free of wintery seasonal signs. Nobody seems particularly bundled up for winter weather. There are no roaring fireplaces at night, no frost on the windows. I mention this because this sort of did-they/didn't-they shagginess is typical of the flick: The viewer can never be sure if your witnessing cleverness or sloppiness. Are we meant to watch this and speculate on meaning of the oddly un-Christmasy Christmas? With its themes of family disintegration, lack of good will, a ghostly spirit working through the guise of his son, and so on, it isn't difficult to imagine the underplayed holiday connection is intentional. However, an equally compelling case can be made for the fact that the filmmakers just couldn't be bothered. Elsewhere in the movie they prove blithely unconcerned with fussy little details. For example, when the researchers discover a body that's been rotting since the 1950s, the body is holding glass of red wine the hasn't turned into a crusty purple stain on the glass and it's prosthetic legs are 1970s tech. If that sounds too nitpicky, more obvious are time and date titles that appear throughout the film that seem not to be synced up with the exteriors, which occasionally show that its light outside when the titles claim it is night and dark when it is supposed to be daytime. The end result is that you will either find jarring, underdeveloped elements like this "raw" or "bush-league" depending on your willingness to indulge the filmmakers.

My recommendation. Be indulgent. It's more fun that way. But check the pretensions of greatness at the door. The movie's simple pleasures are best taken straight up.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Music: Torture tunes, part 2.

Previously, my dear Screamers and Screamettes, we discussed the use of music to torture people. Today we flip the script and discuss using torture to make music.

Screamers of all ages and genders, I give you the nadir of musical inventiveness: the Katzenklavier.

From the wikipedia description:

It consists of a line of cats fixed in place with their tails stretched out underneath a keyboard. Tails would be placed under the keys, causing the cats to cry out in pain when a key was pressed. The cats would be arranged according to the natural tone of their voices.

This is actually less brutal than the original design by the 17th Century monk and cat hater Athanasius Kircher, which was to have induced the cats to make noise by repeatedly driving spikes into their tails. Kircher's gorier model was never built. But not for lack of interest: German physician Johann Christian Reil believed that Kircher's instrument would be a wonderful therapy tool for mentally ill patients suffering from severe wandering attention. His argument was that you couldn't help but focus if somebody played on of these things in front of you.

The 1877 book Musiciana, extraits d’ouvrages rare ou bizarre describes a version of the instrument in action:

When the King of Spain Felipe II was in Brussels in 1549 visiting his brother the Emperor Charles V, each saw the other rejoicing at the sight of a completely singular procession. At the head marched an enormous bull whose horns were burning, between which there was also a small devil. Behind the bull a young boy sewn into a bear skin ride on a horse whose ears and tail were cut off. Then came the archangel Saint Michael in bright clothing, and carrying a balance in his hand.

The most curious was on a chariot that carried the most singular music that can be imagined. It held a bear that played the organ; instead of pipes, there were sixteen cat heads each with its body confined; the tails were sticking out and were held to be played as the strings on a piano, if a key was pressed on the keyboard, the corresponding tail would be pulled hard, and it would produce each time a lamentable meow. The historian Juan Christoval Calvete, noted the cats were arranged properly to produce a succession of notes from the octave... (chromatically, I think).

This abominable orchestra arranged itself inside a theater where monkeys, wolves, deer and other animals danced to the sounds of this infernal music.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Books: "I have information."

Magic is a profession that features a disproportionate number of curious characters. But, even in such a crowded and eccentric field, John Mulholland's career deserves special attention.

Mulholland was, for a time, arguably the most important magician working. For 23 years, Mulholland was the editor of the widely read and highly influential stage magic industry rag The Sphinx. He (along with H. P. Lovecraft) ghost wrote for Harry Houdini. His innovative stage performances were critical and popular successes. But, in 1953, he shuttered his magazine for a new career. He became the CIA's house magician.

Publisher William Morrow is releasing Mulholland's newly declassified The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception. The Boston Globe has a nifty slide show preview.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Link Proliferation: Eat yourself fitter.

"The Ultimate Revenge of the Art Nerd

The New York Times reviews the MoMA's upcoming "Tim Burton" exhibit and, sadly, finds it lacking.

Given the tremendous visual appeal of Mr. Burton’s movies, you would hope that “Tim Burton,” the Museum of Modern Art’s expansive retrospective of his noncinematic art, would be equally exciting. Alas, it is a letdown. Focused mainly on hundreds of drawings dating from his teenage years to the present and including paintings, sculptures, photographs and a smattering of short films on flat screens, it is an entertaining show and a must for film buffs and Burton fans. To see the raw material from which the movies evolved is certainly illuminating. But there is a sameness to all Mr. Burton’s two- and three-dimensional output that makes for a monotonous viewing experience.

I will most likely see it anyway, though it sounds like MoMA's basically installed three galleries worth of Hot Topic merch. The entrance to the exhibit (see above) looks fun.

Roll Save Versus Anxiety of Influence

The Escapist takes a look at the literary influences on the earliest iteration of D&D. Shocking, it isn't the name J.R.R. Tolkien written out 1,000 times.

Still, it's interesting that the game's original foreword, which Gygax penned in November 1973, long before any legal concerns entered into the picture, states: "These rules are strictly fantasy. Those wargamers who lack imagination, those who don't care for Burroughs' Martian adventures where John Carter is groping through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard's Conan saga, who do not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser pitting their swords against evil sorceries will not be likely to find DUNGEONS and DRAGONS to their taste." There's no mention of Tolkien there and indeed, even with the aforementioned references to Hobbits and Balrogs and the like, there are probably even more references to the Martian creations of Edgar Rice Burroughs in the text of the game itself.

How Evolution Makes Some People Better Cannibals

Kuru is to cannibals what mad cow disease is to beef eaters. In Papua New Guinea, where the cultural traditions of once required some tribes to eat dead, the disease claimed more than 2,500 people before cannibalism was officially stopped in 1950.

The legacy has left a curious tag on the genetics of the some of the cannibals and their non-cannibal descendants: In the last 200 years, the cannibals evolved a anti-kuru gene that researchers now call the "most clear but evidence of human evolution in action."

Mead and his colleagues discovered the mutation after comparing stored DNA from 152 dead Fore victims of the disease with DNA from more than 3000 living Fore, including almost 560 who participated in the ritual eating of brains before it was banned.

In 51 survivors and their descendants, they discovered a hitherto-unknown variant of PRNP, the gene which makes prions, the proteins that spread the disease. These prions become malformed and in turn make all healthy prions they encounter malformed as well, in a chain reaction that ultimately destroys brains by turning them into a spongy mush.

The change in the gene comes at a position called codon 127. Throughout the animal kingdom, the codon contains the same amino acid, called glycine or "G", from each parent, giving the form G127G. To their astonishment, Mead and his colleagues found a variant of the codon never seen in nature before, in which one of the glycines has been swapped for a valine amino acid, giving the new variant the name G127V.

Initially, Mead and his colleagues thought that because the variant had never been seen before, it must have damaging rather than beneficial effects. "We thought we'd found the trigger for how kuru happens, that someone ate the brain of someone with the mutation and that's how the disease started spreading through the cannibalistic funeral feasts," he said.

"Instead, we found the complete opposite, which is that it was protective."

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mad science: The uncanny leaps the species barrier.

Seed magazine has a nice piece on neuroscience research aimed at transforming the century-old psychoanalytic concept of the uncanny into a data-supported and more strictly defined phenomenon.

Disturbing experiences that feel both familiar and strange are instances of the “uncanny,” an intuitive concept, yet one that has defied simple explanation for more than a century. Interest in the particular occurrences of the uncanny, in which humans are bothered by interaction with human-like models, began as a psychological curiosity. But as our ability to design artificial life has increased—along with our dependence on it—getting to the heart of why people respond negatively to realistic models of themselves has taken on a new importance. Attempts to understand the origins of this reaction, known since the 1970s as the “uncanny valley response,” have drawn on everything from repressed fears of castration to an evolutionary mechanism for mate selection, but there has been little empirical evidence to assess the validity of these ideas.

The article discusses Sigmund Freud's 40-page essay on the concept and the 1970's essay by roboticist Masahiro Mori that introduced the "uncanny valley" concept. It then goes on to discuss new findings from Princeton researcher Asif Ghazanfar.

Last spring at Princeton’s Neuroscience Institute, Asif Ghazanfar developed a computer model of a macaque monkey designed to interact with real macaques. But the monkeys weren’t fooled. Further testing revealed that, much to Ghazanfar’s surprise, his model was eliciting an uncanny valley response from the monkeys. It was the first time scientists had ever observed such a response in a non-human species.

“By showing that monkeys can do it, several things become plausible,” Ghazanfar says. “One is that there is an evolutionary explanation for the uncanny valley and the other is that it is not something specific to our human, cultural experience.” These findings may for the first time allow scientists to go back through a century’s worth of peculiar ideas about the origins of the uncanny valley and begin putting them to the test.

Ghazanfar puts forth his own non-Freudian theory of the uncanny:

Ghazanfar rejects all of these hypotheses. “What is really going on is much simpler,” he says. He believes the uncanny valley response occurs because an animal—human or nonhuman—is evolutionarily inclined to develop an expectation of what members of its species should look like, a supremely important skill, as it lets the animal know with whom it can and cannot interact.

In this sense, life-like robotic and computer-generated models occupy a weird middle ground in an animal’s mind: They are familiar enough for the animal to consider the possibility that they are of the same species, but strange enough that they don’t quite meet the expectation the animal has developed for members of its species. “Any face that violates that expectation is going to elicit the uncanny response,” Ghazanfar says.

There does appear to be some experimental evidence in support Ghazanfar’s theory. Studies with children have shown that at a very young age, babies do not react negatively to human-like robots. As children grow older, such robots become more bothersome. This, Ghazanfar suggests, might be an indicator that infants have not yet developed a narrow expectation for what a human should like. As of yet, however, he has not tested his theory explicitly.

All praise to the wonderful Mind Hacks blog, source of neuroscience brilliance.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Movies: Why you should always split up.

Recently, in a series of posts about surviving the traps of the Saw franchise, I tossed out the theory that the best way to survive a slasher attack would be, despite the injunctions of many a horror blogger, to split up.

Here's the idea: If you are being targeted by a slasher, you and the rest of your party should book it in opposite directions as fast as you can and continue running until you are either killed, escape the slasher's sphere of influence, or find genuine help (like, say, you reach an Air Force base willing to scramble Apache helicopters to aid you). I hypothesized that, with such a strategy, the killer would easily get one or two victims; but the longer the game went on, the less likely he would be to snag another victim. As time progresses, the distance between targets increases and the knowledge the killer possesses about the location of future victims decreases. At some point, the killer is dealing with steadily expanding distances and he's essentially guessing about where he needs to go.

It sounds good on paper, but the persistence of received wisdom - "Don't split up!" - made me doubt. So, I decided to simulate the problem with a pencil and paper thought experiment.

Though we are all throughly aware that "assumptions" make an ass out of "you" and "umptions," we need to make a few before we can test any theory. Here's what I assumed.

Assumption 1: The slasher is reasonably human-like.
First, strategy of any sort only matters against somebody who exists in time and space. Call it the Freddy Axiom. What's the point of running away from Freddy? He'll just pop out of the wall ahead of you or turn the floor into a giant sweater-wearing snake or something. There's really only one way to beat Freddy and that's to be a person the screenwriters have decided should live. For the purposes our experiment, the killer must move through space and eat up time with his actions.

Assumption 2: The slasher isn't psychic, but neither are the victims.
The slasher is limited in its knowledge of the its surroundings and won't magically know exactly where it's victims are. Slashers, like any predator, have to find their victims. When they can see or hear them, this isn't a problem; but there's an operational limit involved here and, after that, they're essentially on random. This also means that the slasher won't get inexplicably delayed fighting some co-ed who has suddenly discovered that she can throw sofas at a dude using just the power of her mind.

Assumption 3: All things being equal . . .
Because I'm doing this simulation with paper and pencil, we've got to keep it stupid enough for me to actually handle. We're going to assume average speeds. We'll admit that there would be differences in routes and whatnot that would introduce constant variations in speed. But I'm not smart enough to simulate that. We're also going to assume an average kill time. Sure, sometimes Jason just buries an axe in a girl's skull and calls it a day. But, when he's feeling his oats, Jason sometimes ties somebody shut into their sleeping bag and hoists the whole shebang over a tree branch in order to position the victim over campfire. Instead of selecting all the varying kill times, we're going to say that it all comes out in the wash and standardize his kill delay.

Assumption 4: There's splitting up and then there's splitting up.
For our purposes, splitting up means putting an ever increasing distance between you and the other members of your party. Dividing into three groups to explore a creepy farmhouse isn't splitting up.

To test the theory, me and my cubical-mate created a little game. It works like this. There are 8 potential victims and 1 slasher. Everybody starts at a central point. The game goes in turns. Victims always move first. In a turn, each character can move their full movement allowance - measured by an arbitrary unit of length we very scientifically called "a unit." Potential victims always just book it the hell out of there, moving in a straight line away from the central point. They fan out at 45 degree angles. The slasher is free to move in any direction. If the slasher contacts any potential victim, they are removed from play - but killing them takes up the slasher's next turn. Play continues until all players are dead or they have moved 10 units away from the slasher. At that point, the slasher "loses sight" of the players and the slasher's motions become randomized. In theory, the slasher could still catch somebody, but in practice the chances of that happening are minimal (it never happened in any of our games).

We played three variations of the game: Game 1 featured a killer and victims of equal speed, Game 2 featured a killer that was slightly faster than the victims, and Game 3 featured a killer who was twice as fast as his victims.

Despite the popularity of the plodding slasher, we played no games in which the killer was slower than the victims because it became very clear that, according to the game model, a slow and steady killer catches neither diddly nor squat. So, we've learned our first lesson. Wannabe slashers take note: Go fast or go home.

Game results:

Game 1 - The killer takes a victim in Turn 1. And that's it. The killer takes off after his next victim, which he always stays a little more than one unit behind. The other victims begin to disappear off his radar by Turn 6. Curiously, the game - according the the strict construction of the rules - never officially ends because the killer never loses sight of that poor potential second victim. Like Sidney Prescott, Not-Victim-2 is cursed to be pursued for the rest of the franchise.

Game 2 - In the game we ran, the killer moved one and one half units to every unit his potential victims did. As in the slower game, a victim dies right-off in Turn 1. The killer gets another victim in Turn 5, but victims start falling off the radar in the same turn. The killer gets a third victim in turn 13. The killer takes a final victim in Turn 26. At that point the remaining four players have escaped.

Game 3 - In the last game, our killer hauled ass. He could move two units to every one unit the potential victims could move. As in Games 1 and 2, somebody bites it right off. The second victim falls in Turn 3. People start dropping off the killer's radar by the Turn 5. The third victim goes in Turn 7 and the fourth in Turn 13, but by that time everybody else has dropped of the radar.

Conclusions: Splitting up - defined as getting as far from one another as possible as quickly as possible - saves half the party even when the killer is considerably faster than the victims. In fact, after running the game three times, we estimate that even the fastest killer could get no more than five victims. The rest would inevitably fall off the radar and escape.

Admittedly, this is all pretty abstract. We didn't figure in the obligatory twisted ankle, the presence of a second killer, or late-franchise supernatural shark-jumping elements. Still, I think it points to the fact that the conventional wisdom is wrong. How do you survive a slasher flick? Split up!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Movies: "What the hell type of freakshow is this?"

This trailer would be worth a look if only for the fact that it contains perhaps the best use of the shopworn "Inspired by true events" claim I think I've ever seen. Dig hard on the mind-bending horribosity and terrorousnessitude of Bonnie and Clyde versus Dracula.

Special thank to Midnite Media (see the sidebar) who hipped me to this weirdness.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Movies: Wild things.

The Netflix summary of Tetsuro Takeuchi's 2000 flick Wild Zero describes the plot thusly:

After witnessing the band [Guitar Wolf, playing themselves - CRwM] about to be double-crossed by a club owner, Ace helps them seek revenge.

This misses a few important elements. It fails to note, for example, that this entire thing takes place against the backdrop of a giant Plan 9 style alien-invasion-by-zombie-proxy attack, the love interest subplot that goes Crying Game on our hero, or the hard-as-nails yakuza chick weapons smuggler who spends most of the movie in an outfit that's a cross between a houndstooth jacket and a one-piece bathing suit. And that's just for starters . . .

A hyperactive and giddy spasm of filmmaking, Wild Zero plays like somebody let a sugar-high kid with ADD take scissors and tape to a vault of exploitation flick outtakes. I'm not sure that the result is a good movie. But it is something to behold.

If I'm going to criticize Netflix for their effort at summarizing this mess of a flick, I should at least put forth my own inevitably inadequate plot outline. Wild Zero follows a wild couple of days (or maybe one day - it is hard to keep track because director Takeuchi refuses to bend to the creativity-deadening restrictions of time space) in the life of Ace, a hardcore fan of the Japanese rock revivalists Guitar Wolf. Ace intervenes in a tense, post-show Mexican stand-off between the band and the drugged-up club owner. Thankful for the timely assist, Guitar Wolf's lead singer makes Ace his "rock and roll blood brother." The next day, Ace hops on his bike to follow Guitar Wolf to their next gig. As luck would have it, he accidentally foils a gas station robbery, meets the "girl" of his dreams, and gets tangled up in a global zombie outbreak caused by aliens.

And then there's a thing about an arms dealer. And the drugged-up club owner comes seeking revenge too. And he becomes a zombie that can shoot lasers out of his eyes. And everything comes to an end when Guitar Wolf cuts the giant alien mothership in half with his guitar/samurai sword.

Wow. Sorry I gave you crap, Netflix writer. I couldn't do it either.

Guitar Wolf - the band so pomo that, if they didn't exist, Baudrillard would have to invent them - is the perfect band for this exercise. Back in the late '90s, Guitar Wolf was famous for being rock music's most exquisite poseurs. Their leader, named Guitar Wolf as well (the bassist is Bass Wolf; the drummer is, you guessed it, Drum Wolf), was a living museum of rock poses and motions. His concerts were high energy history lessons in classic rock stage presence. But he couldn't play a lick. And I don't mean that in an insulting way. I mean that literally. I remember reading in the now defunct Raygun that, at one concert, Guitar Wolf handed his guitar to members of the audience so they could tune it for him. This story is brilliant, true or not, on so many levels, but what makes it the definitive Guitar Wolf story for me is that it suggests that the at least some of the members of his audience were actual musicians. Unlike like him, they could play. And, even weirder, they were getting into the Wolf's bizarre rock-drag performance. They came for the fakeness.

That was more than a decade ago and, in the interim, Guitar Wolf has learned to play (they sound like a fast, fuzzed out Ramones), lost the original Bass Wolf to a heart attack, found a small measure of brief indie glory on the Matador Label, and are still out there rocking today.

Personally, though I kinda like the clamorous ruckus of Wolf's '03 UFO Romantics, there's something a little sad in Guitar Wolf's transition from conceptual abstract to genuine rock band. The world's full of rock bands; but we only had one Guitar Wolf, whatever the hell they were.

Though Ace is hero of this picture, it is Guitar Wolf, in all their hyperreal glory, that is the heart of the picture. Their post-sincere approach to "art" seems to be this flick's driving philosophy. Takeuchi wallows in unnecessary visual flourishes (such as the penis POV shot of Ace's urine stream in a throwaway bathroom scene) and steals ideas from other pictures with a zeal that suggests that he's not so much without ideas and he simply doesn't recognize creativity as an artistic virtue. The result is a twitchy, sloppy, but weirdly overly-intentional wreck that isn't so much a movie as a hour and a half long fever dream of what rock and roll should be: a world of coolly detached warrior poet philosopher kings who seem to understand the foundations of the real because they live on a different plane than mere mortals.

Plus, the DVD comes with a drinking game option.

I have no idea if Wild Zero will bring you joy or grief. I had a heck of a time.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Stuff: Back to the ol' drawing board.

So I was watching Monster Squad the other night. Normally I wouldn't admit that. Watching Monster Squad, like masturbation, is a youthful pleasure that can still be enjoyed by adults, and is even fun to do in groups on the rare occasion, but isn't something we need to discuss. But we need to discuss it momentarily because of the shirt pictured above.

Early in the movie, we find the vaguely gayish duo at the core of the titular squad getting sternly lectured by their school principal for the unspeakable crime of drawing monsters in their science class. In those early scenes, the squad's soon to be commander and chief is wearing the shirt you see above.

While watching the movie, I thought to myself, "Self, you could totally make such a shirt and sell it on the Internet. Nostalgic horror bloggers would trade you currency for it. That currency could then be exchanged for other goods and services."

I got so excited by the idea of monetizing this hobby of mine and separating you, my dear readers, from your hard-earned cash that I did some web browsing to find an image of said shirt.

Apparently, I wasn't the only one with this undeniably brilliant idea.

So, the bad news is that I still have to work for a living. The good news: You can wrap yourself in a t-shirt that proclaims your deathless love for the movie that made the existence of werewolf testicles canonical.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Music: Torture tunes.

The Wall Street Journal has a short article on some of the songs and musicians that the U.S. military has used to "enhance" their interrogations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The number one tune on the WSJ's short list is disheartening.

1. Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA"
It should stand as no surprise that a large majority of the songs used in Guantanamo Bay consisted of seemingly patriotic ditties like Springsteen's most famous American anthem. One Spanish citizen accused of being linked to the terrorist network Al-Qaida claimed his interrogators played this song the majority of the time during his entire two year stay in the Cuban prison. However, Clive Stafford Smith, the legal director of the UK human rights charity Reprieve, noted that it may not have been the most patriotic choice since "the message of the song is harshly critical of American policy, condemning the war in Vietnam and describing a veteran's effort to find work."

Is there any modern pop song with a weirder political life than the Boss's anti-heroic, bitterly pointed tune? When Springsteen originally conceived the tune, it was low-fi, minimalist number that could have easily found it way on Nebraska or Darkness on the Edge of Town. Eventually, Springsteen decided to go for a cognitively dissonant epic feel that would, at once, be both an ironic take on bombastic American triumphalism and a sonic statement that elevated the size of the story to the point it could not be ignored.

At least, he thought it couldn't. The protest tune quickly became a hit and then, with greater irony than Springsteen could conceive, it became the campaign theme song for Ronald Reagan. Springsteen demanded the Reagan campaign stop using his tune, but the damage was done. It's virtually impossible not to hear this clear non-celebratory song and not catch a disagreeable whiff of (thoroughly undeserved) Reagan Era jingoism.

Though even that doesn't beat the irony of the fact that a song about a forgotten veteran of the archetypal American military quagmire has been refashioned for use as a weapon in our latest foreign adventures.

I wonder if the soldiers blasting this music at prisoners ever listen to the lyrics and ponder how they'll be treated when they come back home. Like the vet in the song, they'll be returning from a massively unpopular conflict into an economy that most likely can't reabsorb them. It must be odd, doing this nation's dirtiest work, all to a soundtrack that serves to remind them of how disposable they are.

The article doesn't discuss the efficacy of blasting loud noise at prisoners, but a discussion of prolonged and repetitious exposure to loud noise appears in John Conroy's Ordinary People, Unspeakable Acts: The Dynamics of Torture. In 1971, twelve Irish prisoners were rounded up by the British government as part of an anti-terrorism push called Operation Demetrius. The prisoners formed the test case for the application of the Five Techniques: a torture regimen devised by the British and Irish governments that included wall-standing (rigid standing positions that prisoners kept until their muscles gave out), hooding, subjection to noise, deprivation of sleep, deprivation of food and drink. The combined affect of these techniques is horrific and potentially deadly. Notably, one of the prisoners interviewed stated that, of all the things that were done to him, he could only remember one of techniques clearly: Years, later he still vividly recalled the noises he was exposed to.

Monday, November 09, 2009

R.I.P.: Say goodnight, Nessie.

In a biography of firebrand revolutionary propagandist Thomas Paine, I once read the theory that, prior our modern moment, it was simply easier to be an accomplished Renaissance man. Paine, who not only gave voice of aborning young republic's revolutionary ideals but was also an engineer and architect of minor significance, was downright myopic compared to some of his contemporaries. To explain this riot of talent (and, perhaps, to assure readers like myself - a man who gets tired pondering a trip to the bank a mere five blocks away - that we're not inadequate in some way) the author proposed that it was easier to make lasting achievements in a broad range of fields back then because, in the late 18th Century, so much still had to be done. The bar to entry in to, say the physical sciences was lower because a man with homemade equipment and a few clever insights was on the cutting edge; as opposed to now, when particle colliders the size of small towns are making the breakthroughs.

As reassuring as this idea would be to somebody like me - whose life is not only not-revolutionary, but perhaps falls slightly short of mediocre (though I've come up with some really funny t-shirts designs that, somebody, I'll maybe put up on Cafepress or something) - I don't think its accurate. After are, the modern age still mints the occasional polymath.

Here's the NY Times obit of Robert Rines: inventor, educator, legal innovator, composer, and monster hunter:

Dollars to doughnuts, Robert H. Rines will be mainly remembered not for holding more than 800 patents, starting a law school or writing music for the stage, but for his dogged pursuit of the Loch Ness monster.

But Dr. Rines, who died on Nov. 1 at his home in Boston at 87, may have outlived the fabled Scottish creature he pursued for more than a quarter century. He had come to suspect that the beast died during his hunt, leaving him to search for a skeleton.

Dr. Rines died of heart failure, said his wife, Joanne Hayes-Rines.

Dr. Rines took the most convincing underwater pictures of what might or might not have been the Loch Ness monster, so convincing that in the mid-1970s scientists from Harvard and the Smithsonian expressed serious interest. Others were intrigued by his innovative search tactics: He hired a perfumer to concoct a scent to attract the creature and trained dolphins to carry cameras.

In the end, Dr. Rines, a lawyer, said that though he had failed to meet the standards of science, he was sure he could persuade a jury of the monster’s existence.

"They can just call me crazy, and that's O.K. by me," he said in an interview with Boston magazine in 2008. "At least I won't go to jail for it, like Galileo."

Dr. Rines was far more than a garden-variety monster hunter. He was spectacularly polymathic.

He developed electronic gear to improve the resolution of radar and sonar images that is used in Patriot missiles, found the wrecks of the Titanic and the Bismarck and helped pave the way for ultrasound imaging. His patented hinge for chopsticks is less noticed but quite clever.

"Few Americans have made such a sweeping contribution to the process and business of inventing as Robert Rines," said a biography prepared by the Lemelson-M.I.T. Program, which recognizes outstanding inventors and is run by the engineering school of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As a prominent patent lawyer, Dr. Rines greatly influenced the Congressional rewriting of patent laws in 2000, according to Fortune magazine.

In 1973, Dr. Rines founded the Franklin Pierce Law Center to train law students in intellectual property law. It is the only law school in New Hampshire.

Dr. Rines's first love was music, and his family cherishes his story of playing a violin duet with Albert Einstein at a summer camp in Maine when he was 11. He said he played better than Einstein.

As an adult, Dr. Rines combined with the director and actor Paul Shyre to form a theater company to stage plays by Eugene O'Neill and others. He wrote music for most of their dozen or so Off Broadway productions.

He wrote the campaign song for "Hizzoner!" — a one-man play about Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia of New York, written by Mr. Shyre and starring Tony Lo Bianco. The play was shown on public television in 1984 and ran on Broadway in 1989.

Robert Harvey Rines was born on Aug. 30, 1922, in Boston. His father, David, a patent lawyer, helped him try at 6 years old to patent a pocketknife with a fork, spoon and other things. But the idea was already patented.

Robert fell in love with music even earlier and began to play the violin at 4. By high school, he had formed a band, the Six Aces of Rhythm, and was taking composition classes at Harvard.

He left high school early to study physics and engineering at M.I.T., but soon decided he would rather go to Harvard. His father said no, and so he deliberately flunked out. His father kicked him out of the house. He reconsidered and graduated near the top of his M.I.T. class in 1942.

He joined the Army Signal Corps, where his experience in M.I.T.'s radiation laboratory proved critical in helping develop the Army's top-secret Microwave Early Warning System. His radar and sonar patents grew out of this work.

He later worked as an assistant examiner at the patent office in Washington while earning a law degree from Georgetown in 1947. In 1972, he received a doctorate from National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan, since he was there anyway to help Taiwan develop a patent system. He later helped the People's Republic of China regularize its patent process.

Dr. Rines's passion about the Loch Ness monster was kindled in 1972 when he was in Scotland on his honeymoon with the former Carol Williamson, his second wife.

They were enjoying tea with a friend whose home overlooked the loch. Their host remarked, 'I say, is that an upturned boat?"

What they saw was a big, grayish hump with the texture of an elephant’s skin. It rose four feet out of the water and seemed to be about 30 feet long. They stared at it for 10 minutes.

"I don't care what anybody thinks, you have to find out what that was," Mrs. Rines said.

The obsession had begun. There were many trips to Loch Ness, with Dr. Rines applying his sophisticated sonar techniques to find "Nessie." In 1976, the Academy of Applied Science, an organization Dr. Rines had founded, teamed up with The New York Times in 1976 in a joint quest. Results were inconclusive but made interesting newspaper articles.

Dr. Rines later found evidence that the loch may overlay what was once an ocean floor, suggesting to him that a seagoing dinosaur may have adapted to freshwater. But after the 1970s, Dr. Rines and other seekers stopped seeing monstrous manifestations. He thought his quarry may have died.

Dr. Rines taught at M.I.T., Harvard and Franklin Pierce, started a salmon farm and set up several companies to market his inventions. His Academy of Applied Science shifted focus from aiding unusual experiments, like hunting down Bigfoot, to encouraging students to invent.

Dr. Rines's first marriage, to Dorothy Kay, ended in divorce, and his second, to Miss Williamson, ended with her death in 1993. He is survived by his wife, the former Joanne Hayes; his sons, Justice and Robert; his daughter, Suzi Rines Toth; his stepdaughter, Laura Hayes-Heur; and four grandchildren.

His inventions that live on include a way to use ultrasound radiation to treat cataracts that he conceived while having his own eyes examined several years ago. His dream of inventing something to stop tornadoes never materialized.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Comics: Change the record.

One of the oddest things about Max Brooks's popular zombie-centric franchise - the highest point of which is the critic and fan fave novel World War Z - is how haphazardly it all hangs together. The cornerstone of the whole thing is his '03 Zombie Survival Guide, a goofy spoof of the then wildly popular Worst Case Scenario books and their imitators. A gag impulse-buy book, the book and it's author then appeared in Brooks's second book, World War Z: The premise of that novel's oral history conceit is that Brooks was selected for the job of oral historian because his well-known writer of a zombie survival guide is considered essential reading by the humans that made it out of the zombicaust. Aside from the tonal shift - the guide is clearly a goof, but the novel (though often hilarious in the way any really obsessively detailed consideration of the impossible inevitably is) takes its premise as seriously as it can - there's a sort of continuity error insomuch as Z assumes a guide written after a single, global zombie outbreak, but the guide assumes that there have been many outbreaks of differing magnitudes. The latest addition to the franchise, a graphic novel expansion of a section from Brooks's original guide titled Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks, mixes the premises of the first book and the tone of the second. Recorded Attacks posits that zombie outbreaks of varying severity have been a regular part of human existence since the Stone Age and, within the Brooksian world of zombies, certain cultures have highly developed responses to fighting the undead. Though the tone of new graphic novel owes more to WWZ than the tongue-in-cheek meta-ness of the guide.

The comic begins with a hypothetical attack on a tribe of prehistoric humans. From there, readers go to ancient Egypt (where the removal mummies' brains takes on a new significance), the borders of the Roman Empire, and so on, in a rapid tour of zombie/pure strain human history.

Eagle-eyed readers may spot the conflict between this opener and the title of the book. After all, the point of the label "prehistoric" is to underscore the fact that the period in question produced no historic record. Brooks repeated breaks his conceit that the stories in his book are "recorded" attacks. Later, he tells the story of an outbreak that was later reported as a slave rebellion. He actually ends this story with the narration telling us that there was no record of what really happened in that incident, causing readers with a bias towards narrative logic to wonder how, then, could it be in a book pretending to be a collection of recorded attacks.

Those head scratching paradoxes aside, the stories are, on the whole, rather fun. The book's standout is a series of interconnected bits that infect humanity's grimmest crime - the 400 plus years of the Atlantic slave trade - with the zombies. There's an effective and creepy parallel between the predation of the slavers and the cannibalism of the zombies. Ibraim Roberson finely done black and white art is up to the task. He handles the rapid shifts in time confidently and his action and horror scenes are suitably lively and grisly.

In fact, the only thing the book really suffers from is the fact that the zombie markets been absolutely glutted for nearly a decade now. A competently handled, reasonably clever work like Recorded Attacks might have been great in '02, but now it is not only the victim of a crowded field, it trails behind Walking Dead, the definitive comic treatment of the whole zombie thing. There are those who can't get enough of the shambling dead. Such readers will find more than enough to enjoy here to make the book worth their time. For readers fatigued by this endless zombie moment we seem to find ourselves in, this will seem like more of the same.