Monday, December 27, 2010

Movies: "You are not content with the stories, so I was obliged to come."

Rewatched Candyman this afternoon. I can't imagine anybody needs a review of this film, so I'll jump straight to my random thought: No flick less justly categorized as a "slasher" than Candyman.

The Clive Barker sourced fright flick, lensed by Bernard Rose, was partially a victim of timing. Film critics, especially the collective pro-am that dominates the dialogue regarding horror films, trade heavily on taxonomic and genealogical observation (both of which speak to core competency: a bent towards the trivial and citizenship status in a large, clannish interpretive community), a strategy that leaves them constantly reaching for existing interpretive models and repeatedly cramming new works into the intellectual boilerplate of previous films. When Candyman appeared in 1992, surrounded by the rotting odds and sods of the long since creatively bankrupt "slasher" moment in American horror cinema, the slasher subgenre was the Procrustean bed the fright fancy chose to stretch the film across. To this day, Candyman is widely considered a slasher: the horror-centric Bloody Disgusting site and the post-Whedon "geek culture" list-and-link-dump UGO site both list the titular baddie in their "Top N Slashers" lists.

To be fair, they're not alone. When composer Philip Glass, who gave the film its revisionists gothic organ and chorus score, saw the finished product, he was so repulsed that he withheld the release of the soundtrack recording for nearly a decade. He had scored the film thinking he was contributing to an artsy indie flick. He felt betrayed by the director. The derogatory Glass used to describe Candyman was "slasher flick."

Either as a slam or critical observation, the label of slasher doesn't fit Candyman. Instead, what Rose delivered was curiously retro gothic tale that owes more to classic Universal monster flicks than it does cynical slaughters of the 1980s.

Candyman himself belongs the odd tradition of monstrous nobility that descends straight from Lugosi's Dracula. Displaying some typically Barkerish traits, Todd's Candyman is a cursed decadent, an envoy from some place beyond our understanding of good and evil, a Romantic and aristocratic character who, it is revealed, is something of a vampiric psychic tyrant, kept somehow in unlife by the fearful worship of the downtrodden residents of Cabini-Green, Candyman's urban Transylvania populated by updated peasants.

The plot has a love-beyond-death seduction angle utterly foreign to the golden age slasher. In fact, the plot somewhat mirrors the plot of Coppola's Dracula relaunch - which emphasized the "weird love story" that was mostly marketing BS in the original film - that appeared the same year.

The film's first coda, with Candyman dropping what's essentially a "we belong dead" line as he and his bride are trapped in a giant bonfire, evokes the two Whale-directed Frankenstein films. We even get angry "villagers" with torches!

Candyman's charms have been buried too long under the misconception that it was just the weirdo entry in the slasher flood. The misappropriation of the flick by subgenre partisans has obscured what it really was: a genuinely interesting effort at updating classic gothic tropes for a modern, urban context. I would argue that the flick wasn't completely successful, but I believe the fusion of an intellectual, urban sensibility with deeply felt traditional gothic themes prefigured quite a bit of the "New Weird" aesthetic of urban fantasy. As source of future inspiration, it languishes in a genre ghetto it doesn't belong in.

I wonder too if we shouldn't credit the film with being an early innovator in the lavish squalor aesthetic that became the signature style of some many modern horror flicks after Fincher perfected it in Se7en. John Doe's nameless city could easily contain this imagined version of Cabrini-Green and you feel like you wouldn't be surprised if Virginia Madsen's Helen came across Jigsaw's bathroom-of-death in some less used section of the project.

Time is ripe for a re-evaluation.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Movies: Without a paddle.

So Joel Schumacher.

Yeah, I know. Right?

So, this cat starts his directorial career with a Lily Tomlin comedy based on a not-comedic Richard Matheson novel.

He delivers two '80s classics in a row - St. Elmo's Fire and The Lost Boys - and INXS's "Devil Inside Video" (not to mention the stylistically sharp Flatliners).

But before all that, he turns his hand to a stateside attempt at a Euro style sex farce featuring swinger semi-incest.

Then, of course, there's the weird Falling Down, a the sheep in wolf's clothing film that, despite its clear plotting that D-Fens was nuts from the jump, became a political rally point for the sort of genre-guzzling white male middle class jackass who takes a factory-standard antinomianism from every creative work they see as an excuse to play the victim and point out that they're smart enough to read something into a film.

Flashforward to the his bizarro world kamikaze takes on the Batman mythos. Like Burton, Schumacher was smart enough to realize Batman was a pop icon evolved from thousands of influences, serving the needs of millions of fans, rather than, say, a "realistic" figure. Unfortunately, Schumacher seems to have been open to every crappy influence, every shitty idea. The day-glo disasters he delivered are rightly reviled and I can only hope that when the inevitable "rediscovery" happens, by bloggers of future desperate to score hit numbers off the "scandal" of their original take on the films, I am dead and buried.

(Aw heck, somebody should just kick it off. Tired of the lame "Black Swan is teh horrez!!" meme snagging traffic digits, start penning your "Batman and Robin: the Definitive Take on a Legend?" post now.)

What comes after the plastic nipple Batman? Why, a flick about snuff films, of course. And then - what the hey! - a Dogme 95 remake of the first half of Full Metal Jacket!

I bring all this up to point out that Joel Schumacher, director of today's flick - the solid, if unremarkable Blood Creek (2009) - has actually had a hell of a career. And, yet, there are few directors less interesting.

He's an anti-autuer, the last of the workman directors: a weird holdover from the days when you got your assignment, you shot it, and you moved on. Watching a Schumacher movie is to be transported back to a time before French film theory elevated the status of director to make it the equivalent of Artist with a Capital A. He's a technically-proficient skilled laborer working with other skilled specialists to get a product to market. This is director as factory foreman.

And, ultimately, that's what Blood Creek feels like: a competently made product as devoid of the stamp of individual artistry as a lug bolt. That doesn't mean that its devoid of interest, or even beauty. If you've got a set of lug bolts, look at them with open eyes and you'll see a certain futurist glamour there. Still, that's a product of the inevitable gaps that occur whenever a mind considers the work of any human hand, not matter how standardized. It can't be said to reflect the artistic intentions of the guys and gals down at the RAD GmbH factory.

Blood Creek takes its inspiration from a classic American hoax. Inspired by then theories, now since proven, that vikings explored America nearly a century before Columbus's much celebrated "discovery," hoaxers in Oklahoma and Minnesota created rune stones: slabs of stone a few few long and about a foot wide, covered in "ancient viking runes." The first stones were discovered in the 1890s by farmers and sent to the University of Minnesota and Chicago (it's unclear if the farmers were in on it, or if they were the first victims of the hoax). Since the initial "discovery," stones popped up every few years, as late as 1967. The stones caught the public imagination in the 1910s and '20s. Stories of viking raiders doing savage battle with Native American warriors showed up in newspapers and pulp fictions (such a plot inspired a cycle of "Conan" stories, for example). However, nearly every reputable linguist and historian has declared the stones fakes. This doesn't stop hobbyist and local boosters from touting their authenticity; but as much as I think it would be awesome, the stones are utter bullshit.

That said, here's the link - part of the original defense of the hoax was that scholars couldn't translate the stones because the farmers who found it, not knowing the value of what they'd discovered, used the stones to build their farms. In the case of the most famous stone, it was said to have been used as the stepping stone to the discoverer's granary. This alleged abuse left the stones illegible to experts, thus negating the experts' testimony.

Here's the narrative hook of Blood Creek: During the Depression, Nazi scholars were sent all over the US to use the rune stones that rube farmers have built into their farms to conduct an ancient ritual that would put the ultimate occult power into the hands of the rising Nazi party. One such mission goes pear shaped, and the Nazi occultist is trapped on the farm he was sent to. Decades later, two brothers on a mission of revenge assault the farm and unknowingly unleash the seemingly undying occultist.

Zombie horses show up too.

I'll be the first to admit that the log line sounds promising in a trashy b-movie sort of way. And, honestly, it's hard to imagine that anybody picking this film up won't find enough to keep themselves interested. The visuals are strong; imported talent Darko Suvak (who, oddly enough, did cinmo duties on 8MM 2) washes the screen in inky blacks, deep blood reds, and muted yellows. Go-to-Nazi Michael Fassbinder does as good a job as one can do buried under make-up: the Nazi magi needs to carve runes into himself to keep going, so his body is a nasty patchwork of decay and black metal scar-graffiti. Like so many plots involving magic, the whole moves forward on a series of periodically introduced "oh, I forgot about this rule, but . . ." moments that will either count as world building or a cop out depending on your personal preferences.

What's the take away? I've had Blood Creek in the to-be-reviewed queue for something like a month now. It's been sitting there so long because I simply couldn't find enough to say about it one way or another. It's a film that exists beyond criticism by virtue of the fact that it has this dumb, mute, rock-like factuality. It's there to fill a segment of time. There's nothing else to be said about it.

Well, one more thing. On the directors commentary, Schumacher discusses the effort required by the actors to perform some of the more physical scenes. As he talks, he drops this fabulous line about his feelings regarding asking the actors to do demanding things: "That's great filmmaking, unfortunately." Three of those words totally apply to Blood Creek.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Movies: It could have been worse. "Twelve" could have been one of ours.

Here's one end of the year list that dominated by horror: Film Drunk's list of the 10 weakest box office performers of the year.

That's right, fright fanciers, scare flicks disproportionately dominate the list with a whopping 40% of the year's biggest clunkers stinking up the bottom of the barrel. Here's the breakdown by genre:

Horror: 4
Comedy: 2
Sci-fi: 1
Drama: 1
Western: 1
Action: 1

To be fair, this list is the product of a very specific methodology: the losers were determined strictly by box office take. Because cost isn't figured in, you get a very skewed sense of the disaster these flicks may or may not represent. For example, I can't imagine any of these flicks was a fiasco on the scale of the Airbender flick, though that film certainly took in more at the box office.

Still, nearly half? And one of which was turned in by a guy regularly hailed as a master of the genre?

Oh, well. There's always next year.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Movies: "It’s disenchanting, but it’s not difficult."

Today in the Grey Dame, Chuckie Closterman take time out from the normal music beat to ponder the oddly reassuring image of the living dead:

"I know this is supposed to be scary," he said. "But I'm pretty confident about my ability to deal with a zombie apocalypse. I feel strangely informed about what to do in this kind of scenario."

I could not disagree. At this point who isn’t?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Mad science: Body disposal pro tip.

Without fail, the same issue comes up after Thanksgiving year after year. If you're anything like me, you're looking at the aftermath of your Thanksgiving feast, scratching your head, and wondering, "How the heck do I dissolve a human body? And how long will it take?"

Happily, this year, the social science blog Barking Up the Wrong Tree has go us covered.

Below is the entire copy the article, but you'll need to go to the source to follow all the links:

Assassins for Mexican-American drug cartels have been dissolving their victims' bodies in chemicals, according to a piece published Tuesday in the New York Times. The process is known colloquially as making pozole, in reference to a traditional Mexican stew. It can take several hours to make a pot of pozole. How long does it take to dissolve a human body?

About the same, with the right chemicals and equipment. The assassins typically use sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide, strong bases commonly known as lye. (The Times story misidentified their reagent of choice as an acid.) Heated to 300 degrees, a lye solution can turn a body into tan liquid with the consistency of mineral oil in just three hours. If your kettle isn't pressurized, you won't be able to heat the solution much above the boiling point of water, 212 degrees, and it might take an additional hour or two to complete the process. Narco-hit men did not pioneer this technique. Adolph Luetgert, known in his day as the "Sausage King of Chicago," dumped his wife into a boiling vat of lye in 1897, then burned what was left. Police eventually found bone fragments in the factory's furnace.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Movies: Could Obamacare have prevented the Jigsaw killings?

It will serve to be sufficient review of the allegedly final Saw flick that, as the movie slumped towards the final scene of a seemingly interminable 91 minutes, I had time to wonder: Would Obama style health care reform have prevented the creation of Jigsaw, the conceptual franchise-like serial-killer meme embraced by the various murderers of the film series?

Admittedly, it's a bizarre idea, but not one without merit.

Let's review the convoluted origin of the Jigsaw meme. Start with John Kramer, a seemingly wealthy architect or engineer. John cooks up the basic Jigsaw concept when he weaves together three key motivational threads: 1) a sort of gonzo moral hyper-libertarianism that arises from a miscarriage his wife suffers, the product of an unintentional act on the part of a petty criminal/junkie; 2) an obsession with the idea that the precious gift of life is being squandered by the majority of people, a product of being diagnosed with inoperable cancer; and 3) a messianic view himself as the man who has a teachable insight into the value of life and how this value can be understood only through facing death in a test-situation, a product of a failed single-auto accident suicide attempt John made after losing his wife and learning about the cancer diagnosis.

Let's assume that these three events are all necessary conditions for the creation of Jigsaw. If John suffers Event 1 without 2 and 3, he becomes a Glenn Beck fan and Tea Party movement organizer. Unpleasant, sure; but not a serial killer. Event 2 without the others and he is just a man whose successful life is cut short tragically by cancer. Event 3 requires events 1 and 2, so it can't occur in a vacuum. Events 1 and 2, without the failed suicide attempt, just leave John a bitter, terminally ill man, but he'd stop short of becoming the head of a moralistic murder-cult.

Though John is mastermind of the whole Jigsaw thing, he's not the sole Jigsaw killer (which is really more of a philosophy or a brand, than an individual). To truly "stop" the Jigsaw killings, I think we'd have to show that none of Jigsaw's various acolytes would have developed the concept on their own. So let's run through the Junior Grade Jigsaws and lay out their origins.

Amanda Young: Amanda was a dead-end junkie with a tangential connection to the miscarriage that started John's transformation. She was an early Jigsaw victim who, after escaping the head-mounted reverse bear trap, became a semi-convert to John's ideology. Later, it is revealed that Amanda doesn't really care that much about John's philosophies – she build's deathtraps, not tests, for example – but is motivated more out of some Stockholm Syndrome-esque love of John as a father figure. (Debatably, none of the Junior Grade Jigsaws seem to actually care about John's philosophy – which makes John, oddly enough, a total failure on the messiah front.)

Mark Hoffman: Detective Hoffman comes to Jigsaw's attention when he discovers Hoffman is conducting vigilante killings under the guise of Jigsaw traps. Viewers discover that Hoffman has a history of police brutality prior to his posing as Jigsaw or becoming a part of the actual Jigsaw killings. Even after joining up, Hoffman's motivations never jibe with John's, a conflict that plays out through the last three or four flicks.

Jill Tuck: Ex-wife of John, it's somewhat unclear whether or not Jill is really a Junior Grade Jigsaw. Her early appearances in the film suggest that she is not linked to John's post-Jigsaw existence in any important way; but, as the film series progressed, there were more and more hints that she was aware of John's actions (Hoffman claims she knew from the get-go) and may have even assisted in his murderous activities. Regardless, she only kicks into serious levels of Jigsaw-like activities after the death of her ex-hubby and the delivery of posthumous instructions on how to protect his "legacy" by offing Hoffman, who is more interested than outright murder than John's odd notions of spiritual trial through extreme mortification.

Lawrence Gordon: Prior to his run in with Jigsaw, Larry was a successful, if self-absorbed doctor, who liked nabbing a little ex-martial nookie now and then. Like Amanda, Larry converted to Jigsawism after surviving his own trap experience.

I propose that, given the Junior Jigsaws' histories, none of them would have become Jigsaw without John's interaction. Amanda would have perished in some appropriately sordid junkieish manner. Jill would have never received any instructions about trap building or acolyte killing. Hoffman might still be a killer cop, but he'd never have the template of Jigsaw to hide behind and he doesn't seem creative enough to have cooked up the idea by himself (the contrast between John's demented creativity and Hoffman's vigorous, but simplistic, violence is one of the contrasts exploited in the film). And, without falling victim to a Jigsaw trap, there's no reason to assume Doc Gordon would live out his life as anything other than a tail-chasing, low-grade douchebag of a medical professional. In summary, if something could have prevented John from becoming Jigsaw, nobody else would have picked up the pig mask and all of Jigsaw's victims (not just the dozens of trap victims, but the two teams of SWAT personnel and the handful of police officers and FBI agents that died in violence related to the case) would have all lived.

This is where the issue of Obamacare comes in.

In descriptions of the Saw franchise, John's discussed as have inoperable cancer. This term might be technically correct, but the commonly understood sense of the term as it is used to describe John – that John was doomed the moment he was diagnosed with cancer – is misleading. John's cancer was, apparently, to advanced to consider an operation to remove the cancer. However, even within the film series, we learn that John was not out of medical options. In Saw VI, it's revealed that John approached his insurance provider – the in-jokily named Umbrella Health – to request that the company help cover the cost of an experimental intervention's clinical trial. Umbrella – specifically, executive William Easton and his crew of hand-picked denial specialists – denied John coverage to save a few bucks, closing John's last door to treatment, creating the second condition (and, by extension, the third) necessary for the existence of Jigsaw.

Under Obamacare, John couldn't have been denied coverage for the experimental intervention. Currently, it is illegal for insurance companies to deny you coverage if you want to participate in a clinical trial. This was law several years prior to the current wave of reform. However, in some states, companies must pay for the clinical trials, but may stop "routine" coverage – that is to say, they'll pay for you to participate in the clinical trial, but you have to pay for every other cost (doctor visits, prescriptions, etc.) – during the trial. Under the health reform bills signed into law by President Obama, not only are insurers required to cover clinical, experimental treatments in a trial setting, but they must maintain a national baseline of routine coverage throughout. So, under Obamacare, John Kramer would have had coverage for the experimental treatment he requested.

Would this have, for certain, prevented John from becoming Jigsaw? Nothing's for certain. We can imagine a scenario in which John takes the treatment, nothing happens, and the second necessary condition for the creation of Jigsaw is still in play. That said, I think it is more likely than not that entering John in the clinical trials would have ended the Jigsaw story before it ever began. Best case scenario, John's cured. The second necessary condition for the creation of Jigsaw never develops. No reverse bear traps or giant pig ovens. Even if the treatment didn't take, there's the question of timing. By denying John coverage and creating the second necessary condition while John was still possessed of some measure of physical strength, Umbrella Health leaves an important window open when John is both obsessed enough to become Jigsaw and healthy enough to do it. The more time John spent in a clinical trial, unconvinced of his doomed state, the less time he has as Jigsaw to create plans and recruit able bodies to replace his ailing one. In this second scenario, I think you've neutralized Jigsaw by stalling John's conversion to the point where he'd either lack the time to become Jigsaw or be so frail that a suicide attempt would be something he'd be unlikely to come back from.

Conclusion: We can't say for sure whether Obamacare would have prevented the birth of Jigsaw had it been in place when John needed it. Still, it's good to know that, come 2014, we can worry a little less about future Jigsaws being made.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Television: "Your inner monologue is the conscience of America."

Entertainment Weekly
has a profile of Peter Weller, focusing mainly on his turn in latest season of Dexter. In it, readers discover that Robocop is, among other things, a UCLA PhD candidate in Renaissance Studies. I kid you not. This odd story leads to this interesting bit:

"I'm finishing my Ph.D. in Italian Renaissance history. I just passed my oral exam. One of the guys on my committee is from Cambridge, a professor, Peter Stacey — he’s a genius. He’s also a Dexter freak. I brought him to the Dexter set, and he had this great take on the character. He said, 'You know who Dexter is? If you watched Dexter from outside the US, you'd see immediately. He's the history of America: a child born in blood, condemned to tyrannize — like a child — but possessed with the voice of its Founding Father, pointing him in the right direction. He's the ultimate vigilante. A creation like Dexter sees itself as the world's police force except it has a conscience, which is the voting public.' Stacey told Michael C. Hall, 'Your inner monologue is the conscience of America.'"


Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Stuff: Don't ask me, I just roam here.

Over a the Texas Observer, Owen Egerton files a jokey pop culture observation piece that leans heavily on the horror-as-current-events-allegory shtick. Right at the closer though, he pulls out a curious - and, as far as I know, previously untheorized - allegorical parallel between the divided American consciousness of our morality as individual actors in the context of our awareness of our nation's moral (or lack thereof) standing in the globe with the group dynamics of zombie flicks. Here's Egerton:

Over the last decade it’s become difficult to tell who the monster is. All too often we are the invaders, we are the torturers, we are the ones who terrorize. We no longer need an alien force or lab-manufactured monster. All we need is ourselves. Of course, it’s not any one of us. It’s our country.

Perhaps this explains the resurgence of the zombie film. The horror of zombies is all in their numbers. You can’t blame any single zombie for the chaos of Dawn of the Dead (2004) or Zombieland (2009), just as you can’t blame any single American for the crimes committed in our nation’s name. Any one of us is just another harmless, fun-loving, pleasure-seeking American. Like zombies, we don’t move that fast or think that fast. We spend our time loitering, every now and then pausing for a quick bite. Like zombies, one or two of us can be annoying, especially when vacationing in Europe, but no real threat. But take us as a mass, as a mindless herd of flesh-eaters driven on by base hunger, and we spell worldwide doom.

Zombies as self-absolving symbol of actorless, emergent evil? Interesting.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Books: "And right away, I was scared. We were all scared."

In his new book, The Lampshade, journalist Mark Jacobson investigates the origins of lampshade made out of human skin: a lampshade that was purchased for $35 at a yard sale in New Orleans and may be one of the infamous lampshades that Ilsa Koch (inspiration for Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS) allegedly constructed for her husband out of the skin of Jews slain in Buchenwald. The majority of Jacobson's investigation focuses on the possibility that this grisly artifact was a product of the Holocaust, but he also investigates the possibility that it might be a native product of New Orleans voodoo culture. From gallery owner and "biological and transgressive" artist - meaning he makes art out of biological matter, including parts of humans left over from medical dissections and autopsies - Andy Antippas, Jacobson learns about the Ekoi, "a warlike culture from Nigeria known for painting large, flowery murals and making giant masks, often from human skin."

Armed with slender lead, Jacobson searches database of the Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy Project, which contains digital records of the French slavers that trafficked Africans through the bustling slave auctions of Louisiana from 1719 to 1820. He finds a record of just two Ekoi slaves sold at auction in New Orleans. One, a woman named Felix, was sold for $430 in 1792. The extensive records the French slavers kept contained the following comment on the sale: "Woman is pregnant."

Oddly, the name links with a story Jacobson heard from New Orleans music legend Dr. John. According to the good doctor, a Creole regular at the Saturn bar was a voodoo practitioner of sorts and he was well-known for making masks out of human skin. "Slip them right over your head, " Dr. John tells Jacobson. "Give yourself a whole new face." This strange character's name is, curiously enough, Cheeky Felix.

Could Cheeky Felix be the great-times-ten grandson of the slave woman Felix? Was there some bizarre family tradition of Ekoi flesh-mask making that was passed down from generation to generation for nearly three centuries? Jacobson's curious, if not totally sold, and he attempts to find Cheeky Felix. Dr. John tells him that the Neville brothers - yeah, believe it or not, the Neville "the Meters" brothers - might know where Cheeky Felix is.

This turns out to be a dead end for Jacboson. The Neville brothers are apparently not big flesh-mask types. But Jacobson's interview, in which the brothers Neville discuss New Orleans urban legends and the strange role horror cinema played in segregated New Orleans, leads to a surreal appearance by ANTSS's favorite monster: the Gill-man from the Black Lagoon. Here's Jacobson:

I gave Cyril the short version of the lampshade story and he was interested but again insisted that he had little to add. "Well," he finally allowed, "there was the Gown Man. If our mother wanted to keep us home, she'd tell us about the Gown Man. He was this big white guy in a hospital gown, and he'd snatch you off the street, put you under his arm, and take you over to the dissection room at Tulane University medical school. They'd pull of your skin and you'd get chopped up by medical students, practicing their autopsies."

"They had the Needle Man, too. Supposed to shove a six-inch needle in your eye, suck your brain right out from the socket," Aaron Neville chimed in.

Showtime was approaching and Cyril looked about ready to say good-bye when he said, "There is this one thing. Don't know if it helps you or not, but when we were kids our parents used to send us to this Boy Scout camp y the Lake. We'd play ball and that, but on Wednesdays we went to the movies because that's the day they set aside for black people to go to the movies.

"They always showed these horror movies, like Attack of the Crab People. Creature from the Black Lagoon. The usual shit, trying to scare us, but the movies were so corny, we'd just laugh. Then there was this one time the movie came on and you could tell from the first second this wasn't going to be the same old thing. The film was all messed-up-looking, with these scratches in it. At first you didn't see anything. It looked overexposed. Then you saw these people coming out of what looked like a giant hole. These skinny, skinny people, their eyes sunk deep inside their head. They were wearing what looked like striped pajamas. They showed these dead bodies, stacked up. And right away, I was scared. We were all scared. Because we knew this wasn't something fake. It was real. Remember that Aaron?"

He nodded.

"Then they had these other people, marching by. And I think I saw that thing you're talking about - a lampshade they said was made of human skin. That was really scary."

"You're talking about footage from Buchenwald. The Buchenwald concentration camp," I said.

"Some concentration camp, that was for sure," Cyril answered. "Long as I live I'll never forget those pictures. Give me the chills thinking about it even now. Because there are two things about seeing that movie that have always stayed with me.

"First of all, I couldn't believe white people would do that to other white people. But even more than that was the question about why they picked that particular Wednesday to show that particular movie to us - the kind of message they were trying to send."

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Movies: Downward spiral.

Early in The Descent: Part 2, the much reviled follow-up to The Descent, there's a scene where a tracking dog is unleashed and sent into the elevator house of an abandoned mineshaft. The dog spends a few seconds in the darkened interior of the building without making a sound. The dog's handler and the deputy accompanying him grow concerned and begin to approach the hole in the door the dog used to enter the decaying structure. The dog suddenly bounds out of the building, dashes past his two startled handlers, and races down the dirt road behind them.

What scared the dog?

Because anybody watching this flick presumably saw the first installment, the assumption is that the dog saw one of the troglodyte baddies that live in the seemingly endless cave system that serves as the setting of both flicks. Given what viewers would know at that point in the flick, it's a valid hypothesis.

But we later learn that the elevator house is several stories up from the entrance of any cave entrance. And the nearest cave entrance is actually sealed off. There are no creepy crawlers in the elevator house; unless one wants to propose that a caveman spooked the dog, then quickly crawled down a couple hundred feet of cable, then sealed the cave entrance behind them.

So what scared the dog?

I propose that the dog, finding himself unleashed, realized that this was its only chance to get the hell out of The Descent: Part 2 and took it.

Smart dog.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Stuff: "A buffet of flimsily contained id."

Sloane Crosley, the publishing marketer turned essayist shown above eating who knows what, is so totally over the Halloween thing.

Scare quote, as it were: "Perhaps it’s because this city has such a buffet of flimsily contained id to begin with. There are a whole lot of people living here who don’t need to let loose on Halloween — their psyches are pretty unstructured on an average Tuesday."

Friday, October 22, 2010

Art: Does it itch?

The monster mash-ups of writer Tim Hall and artist Jen Ferguson combine lovely visual tributes of classic creatures with deadpan gag dialogue. Above is my fave, the wolfman.

Wolfie and more will be on display at Bergen Street Comics, Brooklyn's finest comic shop, Saturday, the 30th. Free grub is likely. Shindig starts at 8:00. I'll be there. I'll the ravishingly handsome motherfucker who answers to the name of Joe Slick. I'll be wearing a white suit with a purple carnation. Do say hi.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Great Slasher Reaserch Project of '10: End of Step 1

This post is the official announcement of the completion of the first stage of the Great Slasher Research Project of 2010!

We had more than 50 sources - ranging from scholarly texts to trait lists submitted by readers - who came up with 43 distinct traits that define the slasher movie subgenre.

Taking the most consistent identified traits, here are the elements that we've collectively decided define the subgenre, in order of votes:

1. Single or small group of human killers
2. Multiple kills
3. Killer exhibits focused hunting/stalking behavior
4. Pre-selected victim pool, determined by victim trait or location
5. Succession of kills over time
6. Killer was wronged or has a tragic past
7. Killer uses personal, low-tech weapons (no traps, guns, bombs, poisons)
8. Killer's identity is a secret
9. Final survivor or small group of survivors fight against the killer
10. Predictable order of kills determined by victim traits

Notably, the final girl and the predictable victim order, both common tropes in horror criticism and meta treatments of the subgenre, just barely made the cut.

Thanks to everybody who helped out. I'll be announcing the second part of our research project - and how you can help - shortly. Stay tuned, fright fanciers.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Great Slasher Research Project of '10: Last Call for Comments!

Alright, Screamers and Screamettes, it's the last day for comments in the first part of the Great Slasher Research Project of '10.

This s**t just got real!

We've email and comment responses from more than 40 readers, as well as definitions I've culled from academic sources. All told, we're gonna aggregate more than 50 trait lists to create our working "formula" for slasher flicks.

But I can still use more data. The more answers folks submit, the better our definition will reflect the general understanding of what a slasher flick is. So whether you're a long-time slasher flick aficionado or you haven't seen a slasher flick since that VHS tape of Friday the 13th scared you into half a heart-attack at your 14th birthday party sleepover, I want to hear from you.

You can leave an answer here or on the original post, just leave an answer. Do it, for science. And the children. But mostly science.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Movies: Think of it as the small plates version of Alive.

The strangers-in-a-madman's-death-trap set up of Steven Hentges's 2009 film, Hunger, immediately calls to mind the standard-bearer franchise of the much maligned torture porn subgenre, Saw. One of the character's evens suggests that the trap they find themselves in is game and, in order to survive, they need to successfully play the trap out. Within the world-logic of the film, the character's suggestion makes no sense. The maker of the trap has left no instructions and there's never any clear condition the trapped characters can induce that would bring the game to satisfactory conclusion. For the characters, there's no reason to assume they're in a Jigsaw-like game. Rather, this odd assertion is a muffled sort of fourth wall breach; it's the director and writer indirectly communicating the viewer that, yes, they know, there's a seven-film large elephant in the room.

As it turns out, there's little of extreme body trauma and gore sadism that mark the torture porn subgenre here. If anything, the film's links to Saw (and to Saw's absurdist French cousin, Martyrs) come in the form of retroactively calling attention to Saw's curious place in the "mad scientist" strain of horror. Hunger is no torture porn film. Instead, the flick is poor man's No Exit, a slow burn psychological stress exercise that attempts to ground to tension in the decaying characterizations of its protagonists.

The first 10 minutes of Hunger are visually arresting. In keeping with the demands of the strangers-in-a-trap framework, Hentges opens by introducing us to the protag cluster one-by-one, each entering the scene in a way meant to instantly communicate who the leader is, who the traumatized one is, who the crazy dangerous one is, and so on. Though we're walking on narrative ground so well-tread it's got ruts dug through it, Hentges gives the scene some kick by filming it entirely in ill-lit extreme close-ups. The characters become pale face-splotches hanging in a seemingly endless expanse of inky blackness; the emotions the project are explicit to the point of actor-exercise overtness. The viewer hears action, see reaction shots, and loses any sense of the characters spatial relationship to one another. And this goes on for about a tenth of the movie's running time, well past the point where the viewer's wondering if the whole movie was shot in this bizarro horror take on Dreyer's Joan.

After that introductory scene, the film falls into a far more familiar visual template and viewers find themselves in the factory-standard squalor of your garden variety captivity cave. As our captives are watched ceaselessly by a both sipping, classical music lovin' (vinyl geek, natch) mad scientist, they quickly figure out that the plan is to starve them to death. It doesn't take to long for folks to figure out that people are, in fact, meat. Then it just becomes a game of waiting to see who freaks out first and who becomes long pig.

The emphasis in the flick is on the mounting tension between the protagonists and not the gore and violence of their inevitable regression into barbarism. This pays dividends for watchability: there's little in the way of the torn human form that remains to be innovated and the promise of watching a bunch of folks in a pit turning each other into sausage is not much of a promise at all. This comes at a cost. By replacing the mechanical progress of so many horror flicks with a plotline that amounts to a series of interlocked character studies, the film throws too much weight on the shoulders of its game, but not particular exceptional cast. There are some perfectly adequate performances, but nothing magnetic enough to justify that fact that a significant part of the film is simply these characters sitting around, doing little character building bits, biding time until the next plot point.

The motivation for our baddie is another awkward aspect of the film. The film is punctuated by a series of flashbacks that are meant to reveal the reason the host of this mini-holodomor goes through all this trouble - at least twice, as the characters find the remains of previous experiment subjects. However, his experiment bares to little relation to conditions that created him and the conclusion is so foregone that the whole think seems clumsy rather an illuminating. By the end of the movie, I was convinced that we weren't watching mad science as in "you are conducting science with a reckless disregard for the consequences and the cost in human life," but rather mad science in the sense of "you are crazy and believe that the crazy crap you're doing is somehow science, when it is really just you being crazy."

Despite its imperfections and too often clunky story elements, I found I was willing to cut Hunger some slack. With its emphasis on character over shock, Hunger stretches for something genuinely dramatic. Almost all its flaws are a product of overreach. This doesn't make the flick an less flawed, but one can afford to be generous about honest mistakes.


If you haven't thrown your two cents into the Great Slasher Research Project of '10, why not do so now? It's easy, it's not necessarily the opposite of fun, and it will not worsen any of the pressing and heart-wrenching geo-political humanitarian issues of the day! The project closes for comments on the 20th.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Books: The Age of Tired Monsters?

In a recent interview about his new book, Kraken, China Miéville, Marxist economist and New Weird pioneer, discusses what he believes is the state of monster creation in the early 21st Century. Here's the relevant section of the interview:

BS: One of the things I wanted to ask you about is the talk you did at a Marxist conference called ‘Marxism and Monsters’?

CM: Oh yeah, God.

BS: Because I was obsessed with that talk for ages, and my comrades and stuff we always talk about it. So you talk about these origins of monsters, and the socioeconomic origins, and then I was thinking – nowadays we don’t really invent new monsters, we kinda riff off old monsters like vampires and zombies, we use them over and over again. I wanted to know whether you thought we’d exhausted our ability to create monsters or is there a reason today’s society doesn’t really invent monsters like we used to?

CM: I’m not sure I’d agree, I mean, I think there’s two different levels. On the one hand there’s this kind of endless degraded reiteration of the old tropes, so you get these endless endless endless zombie or vampire films or whatever, but at the same time there is also, I mean particularly within geek culture, that kind of fascination with the monster creation. So, with movies there’s always this thing with like, y’no, ‘did you get to the monster shot?’ ‘Did you see the monster?’ and it’s like ‘what’s it gonna be?’ You remember when Cloverfield came out and everyone was like: ‘what’s the monster going to be like?’ You know, there was all these debates about it. There is still an attempt to create, or self-consciously an attempt to create monsters that haven’t been seen before. Or you think about something like Doctor Who where they’re always trying to come up with the new, y’no – but for me, as you know if you’ve heard the talk, I think the early 20th Century was the high point of absolutely explosive creation in the monstrous. But I would say, at the moment – particularly at the level of vampires and zombies – it’s very tired.

I think probably the ’20s was the anomaly rather than now, I think it was more of a question of that being a particularly fecund time than this being a particularly degraded one. And I think there’s probably more teratological innovation going on now than there was in the 1880s for example. I think it’s very culturally specific and at various moments there’s a kind of upsurge of creativity and others there’s not, so I think at the moment things are roughly sort of in balance, you know - we have a lot of very very tired stuff, there’s still some things that are interesting, but most of the time monsters disappoint. Like Cloverfield when the monster is revealed you’re like, uh. *laughs* And that’s a separate issue. But as to the social reasons, why there is such an obsession with sparkly vampires, or whatever it might be, I mean that’s a whole other question – then you have to get into the specifics of each case. And these things are very fashion driven, so, angels are something they’re trying to do at the moment. Angels are very trendy. So overall I think this day and age is kind of middling, in terms of monster creation.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Great Slasher Research Project of 2010: Keep 'em comin'.

I've got just over 20 responses in comment form and in emails. Thanks everybody who has responded so far.

For those who haven't yet responded, what are you waiting for? A written invitation?

Well, okay then.

Dear blog reader,

You are cordially invited to participate in the Great Slasher Research Project of 2010. Step 1 of the two step project involves crowd sourcing a working definition of the a slasher film. To help, leave a comment, either here or in the original post, that lists (in no particular order) the elements you believe make a film a slasher film. Don't worry about the answers of others - in fact, don't even read the other responses until you've contributed your own. And don't spend to much time crafting the perfect response. We're looking for a list like so:

1. Something something
2. Things
3. Stuff that is there
4. Nothing that shouldn't be there
5. You know

On the 20th, I'll quit taking suggestions and present those elements on which their was the greatest consensus.

Dress code is casual. You may bring guests.

There's your written invite. No more excuses.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

True Crime: America's first serial killer?

Since his starring role in Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, H. H. Holmes, 1861 to 1896, has widely been acknowledged as America's first serial killer. Holmes' bizarre method of dispatching his victims - through the use of a nightmarish gas chamber and abattoir that seemed, at once, to be an organic outgrowth and a demented satire of the slaughter houses of his adopted Chicago home - carries with it the stamp of modernity: His death chamber was, in essence, a human processing plant, a mechanical expression of homicidal urges that seems to presage the genocidal madness of that threatened to entirely engulf the century to come.

But a new claim by author Jack El-Hai - author of the definitive biography of the inventor of the frontal lobotomy - suggests that Holmes might not have been America's first serial killer. According to El-Hai, that title belongs to the obscure Harry Hayward (note to parents, don't give your kid all-H initials).

Hayward first came to the attention of El-Hai when the author was writing an account of the Catherine "Kitty" Ging case. Ging was a dressmaker in Minneapolis. She began dating Hayward in the early 1890s. Hayward took out an insurance policy on Ging and, in December of 1894, with the help of an accomplice, killed Kitty Ging. The accomplice put a .38 slug in her head.

His capture and convict was a pretty straight forward affair. His accomplice was caught right away and, under police questioning, he gave Hayward up. Hayward was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. He was the last person to get the death penalty in Minnesota. After him, the state abolished capital punishment.

End of story. But something about Hayward stuck with El-Hai. He couldn't get over the murderer's casual sociopathy. From El-Hai:

He never expressed remorse; he laughed over Ging’s fate and disparaged her as a stingy woman unwilling to keep his wallet fat. He joked and kidded his way to the gallows. Only the noose silenced him. . . Hayward’s brutality seems so out of place in 19th-century Minneapolis, so modern. I couldn’t shake off the memory of the killer’s calm, confident face. He seemed extraordinarily manipulative, cold-hearted, and dangerous.

Still, El-Hai could never find any evidence that Hayward was anything other than a desperate kept man who couldn't squeeze his lady for any more dough. Until a random Google Books search showed that Google's indiscriminate scanning of public domain books had digitized an extremely rare book from 1896: Harry Hayward's last recorded confession.

For the rest of the story, check out El-Hai's article at the Minnesota Monthly: The Murderer that Haunts Me.

And don't forget . . .

Submit a list of traits you think make a slasher flick as part of THE GREAT SLASHER RESEARCH PROJECT OF '10: the project so important, it appears in all-caps sometimes. Not all the time though, 'cause that's insanely annoying. Happy slashin'.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Great Slasher Research Project of '10: ANTSS needs your help.

In The Onion A.V. Club's "Gateway to Geekery" series, there's an entry on gateways into the slasher horror subgenre. I don't bring up this article to defend its choice of the film to start with - writer Zack Handlen chooses the ironic, post-golden age Scream as the threshold flick - but to point out his definition of what a slasher film is. From the article:

Plus, just what the hell is a slasher? Even seasoned horror junkies have a hard time agreeing on a definition. Much as “torture porn” resists easy classification (although it seems to be, for whoever’s using the term, “violent movies I don’t like”), a slasher film can only be defined by general terms and personal taste. For the purposes of this article, supernatural killers are out, which means no Nightmare On Elm Street. (Also no Leprechaun, Child’s Play, or Friday The 13th movies from part 6 on.) There’s a killer, or a pair of killers, and they’re bumping off people, until a lone survivor (a.k.a., the Final Girl, a virginal young woman who’s probably a bit smarter than her friends) stumbles across the bodies the killer has carefully planted for her to find; a cat-and-mouse game ensues, the Final Girl turns the tables on the killer, and then there’s one final scare before the end credits.

Definitions are always a sticking point - I think most slasher fans count Freddy's films in their canon - but the problem with this particular formula is that not even Handlen follows it. For example, there's no "Final Girl" in Sleepaway Camp, a film he cites as an example of the genre. Nor is Sidney the lone survivor of the killers' murderous spree in Scream.

This isn't to pick on Handlen's definition, but to point to something that's been nagging me lately: I'm not certain that there is a "slasher" formula. From high-minded criticism (see Women and Chainsaw's, the book that spawned the "final girl" trope) to genre in-jokes (see Scream), there's an long-running assumption that there is a widely recognized, essential "formula" of genre conventions inherent to the slasher film. Some of the elements of this alleged formula can be found in Handlen's fomulation: the final girl, the lone killer, the last jump scare, etc. Others get suggested from time to time: nudity; a punitive attitude towards sin; the presence of a signature weapon; a predictable victim-order that requires minorities and sybarites go before the good, white kids; useless adults and authority figures; and so on.

The problem is, when I start talking cases, most of the films I'd consider slashers omit most of the elements people would put on their list. I'm coming to the conclusion that the slasher "formula" is mostly a critical crutch, a convenient catch-all that lumps together the horror films of a certain era, that has become a fan shibboleth.

But instead of just speculating, I want to put this idea to the test. And that's where you come in.

I need some research assistants for what I'm calling The Great Slasher Research Project of '10. This project will have two parts: First we cook up a working definition of a slasher flick, then we watch a bunch of movies to see if the definition holds. We're going to start that first step today.

Part 1: Create a Definition

When I wrote about the characteristics typical of torture porn flicks, I was fairly called to task for defining the genre in a tautological way: to prove torture porn flicks exhibited certain characteristics, I defined films with those characteristics as torture porn. While that certainly makes arguing one's case easier, it's acting in bad faith as a critic. To avoid this, we're going to crowd-source our definition of the slasher flick. Here's how it will work: from now until the 20th, leave a comment on this post that details elements you believe define the slasher subgenre. To keep things simple, use a standard, list like format. Here's a non-slasher example:

I think the elements common to all chocolate chip cookie are:
1. chocolate chips
2. cookie

That's all you've got to do. Don't worry about other people's responses - in fact, don't even look at the other responses before creating your own - just write out the elements that come to mind when you think "slasher." On the 20th, I'll compile the answers, find a subset of broadly agreed upon elements, eliminate outliers, and we'll have a definition reflects the consensus rather than an individual's point of view.

We'll take that definition and use it to complete step 2.

But that's later! Right now, I want to hear from you. Leave a comment. Tell friends to leave comments. The more data, the better. Comment like the wind, my friend!

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Movies: The 10:45 Meat Train, Local.

Raw Meat, release in '72 under the name Death Line, suffers somewhat from misleading genre expectations. The logline, involving a clan of cannibals prowling the London Underground, and the delightfully lurid title can't help but suggest either a British Texas Chainsaw Massacre or a precursor to Clive Barker's Midnight Meat Train (Raw Meat arrived a decade and some change before Barker's short story published). Sadly, the film is neither of those things. Happily, what it turns out to be is a pleasing, if slight, hybrid gothic fantasy/policer with some nice characterizations, some eye-catching gore work, and a surprisingly sympathetic baddie.

The film intertwines three parallel plots: 1) the police investigation for a missing government official, 2) the rocky romance of the young couple who were the last two people to see the official alive, and 3) the desperate survival efforts of a cannibalistic morlock who, with the death of his female companion, must face the final extinction of his tribe.

Of these three narrative threads, only the story of the couple falls flat. The chemistry between the two, a young American man presumably waiting out 'Nam in the UK and flighty British woman, is notable mainly in its complete absence. The film already casual pace grinds to a near halt whenever it's time for these two to take center stage. I do give actress Sharon Gurney credit for rocking the urban she-mullet look though. Her hipped-up distaff take on the work-in-front, party-in-the-back hairstyle can be found once again roaming freely through the streets of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, and she deserves credit as a fashion pioneer.

The police investigation scenes are carried - or, rather, stolen and carried off - by a hammy Donald Pleasance, whose Inspector Calhoun is a poor man's Morse, a curiously fastidious crank, with a wonderful Wallace-ish Home Valley of West Yorkshire accent. Pleasance seems to delight in Calhoun's petty displays of office tyranny and his vague disregard for civilians - he seems to find crime victims and their demands the only thing that louses up what would otherwise be a pretty cushy gig - and this delight turns what might otherwise be tedious misanthropy into something more comedic and charming. The investigation plot also has a nice cameo by Christopher Lee, who takes the opportunity to trade barbs with Pleasance in a nifty little ham-off.

Balanced against the tone of the police plot, we get the grim adventures of a character identified only as "the Man." Part of a small group of male and female workers that were trapped in the tunnels in a cave in years ago, when we meet "Man," he's trying fruitlessly to keep his bedridden companion - "the Woman" - from death's door. When she passes, Man's priorities shift and he begins to look for a new mate among the people he previously considered foodstuffs. Re-enter the mulleted young woman from plotline one . . .

There's a lot that make no sense whatsoever about Raw Meat. Most notably, one can't help but wonder why, if the morlocks managed to dig their way out, they didn't just leave the tunnels and continue with their normal lives. If you're worried about starving, seems Plan A should be "go to the cornershop" and not "stay in these pestilent tunnels preying upon the occasional late-night train rider and hoping nobody notices our murderous ways." Still, much of the illogic of the basic story is mitigated by the tone of the morlock's tale: it shares more to the gothic subterranean exile narratives of things like Phantom of the Opera than it does to the vérité shocks of TCM (though our atavistic tunnel-people are considerably more downmarket than Erik). Furthermore, while Man is never particularly likable in any way - his diseased appearance and communication limited to subhuman vocalizations makes him sufficiently repulsive - one gets a real sense that he's a human facing the end of his world. There's something of the wounded, and therefore both dangerous and pathetic, animal about him.

Raw Meat isn't the off-the-hook monstrosity that the title and central concept might imply. But if you're looking for something a bit slower, a bit softer, and just a bit more thoughtful, then there's some nice things to be found here.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Movies: Nagging persistence of the dead.

The good news about Survival of the Dead is that it's better than Romero's last outing, the truly dire Diary of the Dead. Unfortunately, the makes only the fifth worst "Of the Dead" film.

I don't mind that Romero's lapsed into self-parody. It's that he's grown unbelievably lazy. Survival is a bizarre zombie Western that sets a bloody feud between two inexplicably fresh off the boat Scots-Irish families on a isolated Delaware island against the ever less interesting background of a zombie apocalypse. As bored as we are by concept, Romero phones it in on every level. His characters are paper thin. The leader of his crooked band of National Guardsmen is a "I look out for nobody but myself" type who, of course, has a heart of gold. He has a good natured, baby-faced sidekick who is, of course, the first to bite it. The Latino soldier is constantly offering up prayers en Español to the saints when he's not trying to lay the only female member of the troop. And she's a lesbian nicknamed Tomboy who, in perhaps the only unexpected move of the whole flick, first appears onscreen with her hands down her pants, churning the butter in front of all the other soldiers, who seem uninterested in her masturbatory display because, the film hints, it happens regularly enough. I'm not sure what this scene was meant to suggest to use about PFC Tomboy or lesbians in general. As it never happens again in the flick and nobody even so much as says, "Hey, Tomboy, you're on guard duty. Try not to miss any zombies because you're busy with all the self-fisting." It appears to be a throwaway scene. But that's not particularly shocking: there's so many throwaway scenes in this picture it's the filmic equivalent of The Mobro.

Our AWOL unit from Cliché Company pick up a random teen - who, hold on for the shock, is wisecracking, tech savvy smart ass who warms up the stone cold heart of the unit leader - and follows a youtube video to Plum Island, Delaware. Unfamiliar with digital technology - remember how those digital cameras kept losing their vertical hold and breaking into static in Diary? - Romero seems to believe that new youtube clips will keep appearing long after the zombie apocalypse has destroyed our power infrastructure. In fact, it's completely unclear what rules govern the post-Zed world of Romero's relaunched "of the Dead" series. Nobody seems to sweat conserving power, but everybody's worried about wasting gasoline. Phones don't work, but all your iPhone apps do. People find wifi in random places, and pick up late night talk shows making bad sub-Carson zombie jokes. The oddest bit is the amount of traffic on the roads. Several scenes in the film suggest the roads are deserted, but some shots include a busy I-95 in the background. Maybe that was just laziness on Romero's part.

The soldiers get to Plum only to find themselves in the middle of a shooting war between rival families, one who wants to exterminate zombies as soon as they appear and another that thinks they can tame and contain them until a "cure" is found. At least one character in the film points out that you don't get a zombie until a person is dead, so by definition zombies are a deviation from a state of death, not life; consequently, curing them would mean returning them to a state of death, a paradoxical state of affairs that makes killing zombies and curing zombies the same thing. This character, in the interest of allegedly dramatic plot development, is ignored.

The soldiers end up taking sides with the "kill 'em" family and there's a big old shoot out in which most of our characters are offed. We find out zombies, when hungry, will eat other mammals besides humans; a fact that Romero seems to think is key, but really, who gives a crap if flesh eating zombies eat everything in their path instead of just every human in their path? Besides, even if you could sustain zombie life, what's the point? If the hypothetical cure for zombies just makes them a corpse again, then you've got the cure: a bullet to the head. If the cure makes them living people again (an unlikely result since so many of them carry around damage that would be fatal is you restarted them as Pure Strain Humans), then you've essentially cured death and you've got a bigger problem on your hands than zombies. The repercussions of that would make the zombie apocalypse preferable.

Happily, Romero couldn't be bothered to parse any of this out. The same spirit that moved him not to bother blocking out the I-95 in his night scenes led Romero to simply throw random, seemingly thoughtful problems at the plot line and see if any portion of any random one of them stuck. The result is people saying a lot of meaningless babble with conviction. Still, this beats out Diary, which embarrassingly bought its own crap about the evils of the Internet Era despite its utter ignorance of the actual details of the Internet Era.

Plus the CGI is embarrassing.

There's a general unspoken rule amongst horror bloggers that you shouldn't speak ill of Romero despite the ever mounting crappiness of his work. Whether this is because people feel early genius forgives later stupidity or because they simply find it bad form to talk smack about an old man, I don't know. The result, however, is that bloggers review Romero's work in bad faith. From here on out, get your reviews of Romero's flicks from the pitiless anonymous hordes of horror site commenters. They've got it right. Romero's later zombie films simply aren't that good. End of story.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Books: Gay for Johnny Depp?

In 1991, a year after Edward Scissorhands first brought the director/actor team together, Tim Burton wrote this poem about Johnny Depp. Click to embiggen and read. The poem originally appeared in Roddy McDowell's Double Exposure, Take Three.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Under-Utilized Nightmares: L'Acallemon.

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: L'Acallemon, or as us monolinguals call him "the Gator Man."

I don't know much about L'Acallemon. Everything I know comes from a single placard at the Historical Voodoo Museum of New Orleans - run by voodoo priest and head doctor in charge of the Temple of Serpents: Dr. John. Here's all the data I got:

The Gator Man (L'Acallemon) protects people from the loup-garou (werewolves). When alligators end their hibernation, Hoodoo practioners perform a ritual to ensure the Gator Man's protection for the next year.

That's all I got. But still, neato idea, right? Hoodoo anti-werewolf champion. I'm in. Totes.

So how about filmmakers, some Gator Man versus Wolf Man action? Let's make it happen.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Books: Reheated leftovers?

Dexter is Delicious, the fifth installment in Jeff Lindsay's series about a serial killer who hunts killers, pits the titular protag against a Goth cult of cannibals who have kidnapped, and are threatening to make long pig out of, two school-aged girls from one of Miami's elite private academies. This new installment is a solid entry in the series, but the strain of developing Dexter - a character who is defined primarily by the twin poles of his lack of emotion and his Big Secret - is starting to put visible strain on the narrative.

Ironically, Dex's third outing, widely panned for its profoundly regrettable side-trip into supernaturalism, may have turned out to be the best thing to ever happen to the series. At this point, Lindsay would have to turn out a pretty dismal book to not land a title above the bar of "worst Dexter ever." Though that's probably unnecessarily harsh: Dexter is Delicious contains all the elements that have made Lindsay's series an unlikely hit and there's nothing to suggest that Lindsay phoned it in or that it won't be happily welcomed by series fans. To clarify the television continuity from the novel series - the two are, at this point, almost entirely unrelated - the new novel finds Dexter the paterfamilias of a curiously functional/dysfunctional family. He's married Rita and become the stepfather of Aster and Cody: both of whom are larval stage serial killers, brutalized by the behavior of their biological father and looking to Dexter to pass along the vigilante code he lives by. (It is a curious conceit of the series that being a serial killer is sort of like being a mutant in the Marvel sense of the term: it gives you heightened senses, allows you to detect other serial killers, and other odd powers.) Dex's sister, a coworker at the Miami PD who is in the know about his extracurricular activities, increasingly relies on Dexter's extralegal capacities. And, in and odd twist, Dexter's biological brother, the baddy from the first book in the series, is back to make amends and help train Aster and Cody in the ways of serial murder. Only Rita, Dexter's wife, and the rest of his coworkers don't know (and a couple of the latter suspect something's up). All of this is complicated by the fact that Dex, after the birth of his first child, has sworn off the whole serial killer thing.

Fans of the Dexter series will find plenty to like here. Dexter's bemusedly sarcastic narrative is awkwardly charming. Lindsay transforms his baddies from pathetic to creepy with pleasing proficiency. The absurdist sensibility that situates the Dexter series firmly in crime-comedy subgenre of Florida crime writing is on fully display. The plotting of the actually mystery is straight-forawrd in that post-Spillane the-answer-happens-to-the-protag way.

If it delivers on the goods, why does the new Dex leave me feeling indifferent? The problems stem from the increasing inefficiency of the series. I don't want to accuse Lindsay of taking cues from the Showtimes series, but Lindsay has seemingly chosen to develop his character on the same track: making the struggle between Dexter's homicidal impulses and his role as family man the nexus of the series drama. The television series, which has never fully bought into the idea of Dex's psychopathy and has always emphasized the development of character, has made this the center of their show. By contrast, Dexter's unredeemed psychopathy was a strength of book series. It primary benefit was that it helped situate Dex, the narrator, in narrative position of the classic detective. Because Dexter didn't care about his past or his future, he behaved in the oddly impersonal and eccentric manner of any classic detective. Like Poirot or Nero Wolfe, he existed mainly to get involved in mysteries and solve them. There was, despite the bizarre context, a classicism to the early Dexter books that was a real treat for the reader. This narrative efficiency has become increasingly lost as the narrative has soap-operaed out. Second, the gleeful nihilism of the series has been replaced with a drive to build an inner emotional life for the main character. One of the chief pleasures of the early series was Dexter's chipper, yet inhuman voice. This was a character who, when strapped to a vivisection table, would express a giddy curiosity about what what about to happen to him. His inhumanity was the primary source of the early books' satire: the distance Dexter felt from his fellow humans made them charmingly absurd. With the evolution of Dexter, suburban daddy, this voice has gone from absurdist to petty. Dex no longer marvels at the seemingly suicidal antics of Miami drivers. Instead, he worries about speeders threatening his child. He's gone from amoral dissector (literally and figuratively) to a walking "Baby on Board" sticker. Such a development is not welcome.

You got sympathize with Lindsay: he has not made it easy on himself. When the televised Dexter threatened to overshadow him, he made a bold move in a direction that series wouldn't ponder. And he got spanked for it. Unfortunately, to go in the direction of the TV series is to suck the petrol right out of what made the series great, its weirdly amoral ability to romp through the worst behavior humans could offer up. This latest book is a perfectly serviceable holding maneuver, but it leaves me feeling inert. The future of the series depends on recapturing some of that old magic.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Books: This is monstrous!

Even by the the fairly generous unwritten rules of book marketing, the cover copy - "the original zombie story" and "Before Dracula . . . the first book to set a gothic horror story, featuring people who may or may not be dead, in Transylvania" - on the new translation of Jules Verne's The Castle in Transylvania is going to strike some folks as too much of a bait and switch.

The "zombie story" description is the least defensible: nothing in the book evokes zombies, neither the voodoo classic model nor the post-Romero flesh-eating variety. The comparison to Bram Stoker's classic is true in the details; but this is more a product of its careful categorial delineations than the impression it gives the reader. The book was written before Dracula. It appeared in French five years before Stoker's book was published and was available in English two years after its French publication. The plot does contain many gothic elements: crazed royalty, doomed beauties, rooting castles, obsession, and so on. It involves a member of Transylvanian royalty as the chief villain, and said baron is presumed dead and is thought by the locals to have some supernatural angle. But what it ain't is about is a vampire. Or any supernatural threat, actually. In fact, while there are some superficial echoes, The Castle in Transylvania bears no familial resemblance to Dracula. Readers who pick Castle up looking for the seminal literary zombie tale or a proto-Drac are going to leave feeling cheated.

Instead, Castle belongs more appropriately in a counter-tradition of gothic discontents. Running parallel to the rich gothic tradition, there's a loyal opposition of debunkers, satirists, and Apollonians who have found the genre trappings sorely in need of some deconstruction. Often for these critics, the crimes of the gothic are stylistic; from Austin's Northanger Abbey to Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm, the overripe melodrama and morbid self-seriousness of the genre has provided ample fodder to the parodist. In other cases, it is a conflict of world views. When Verne, a member of this latter tribe of anti-gothic scribes, pits human intellect against superstition and the unknown, he bets on the home team. This isn't to say that he's an optimist, exactly. Verne's most famous creation, the grim anti-colonial superterrorist Nemo, is proof enough that Verne didn't insist on a link between reason and morality. Still, for Verne, the world we know is full enough of possibilities for the sublime and the horrific.

Castle reflects this attitude throughout. The book's plot - the pacing of which perhaps too naked reveals its origins as a magazine series - is broken lopsidedly into two acts. In the first, the locals of a remote Transyvanian mountain village attempt to discover whether or not an infamous mad count, thought long dead, has returned to the ruined titular castle. This first act is full of inexplicable events and the sort of genre monkeyshines one expects from a gothic tale. Though even this is delivered with smirk. Verne's predictions - both the eerily prescient and the wildly off-base - and his intellectual bent are often praised, but his unjustly under-celebrated sly humor is on good display in this stretch, specifically in the characterization of the incompetent, pompous Dr. Patak, the village's inadequate "voice of reason." The second act, which finally introduces the book's real hero, flips the script entirely. Our new protag, Franz, shows up with a sack full of exposition and starts Scooby-Dooing the whole first of the novel. Before the last page is turned, the gothic weirdness of the novel has transformed into a mad science tale involving the slick deployment of imagined ancestors of Twentieth Century mass communications technology.

Verne's style further reflects his anti-gothic bent. The Transylvania of Verne's book isn't the mist-shrouded Western European's nightmare vision of their vaguely pagan, uncanny eastern neighbors. Unlike Stoker, who simply imagined the world he needed, Verne used the real country for his setting. Verne's book is packed with geographical, anthropological, and historical data about Transylvania. Too much maybe. Sometimes you get the sense that Verne never met a bit of research he didn't like. Where Stoker is content to tell you that Transylvania weather is mean, Verne prefers to discuss how various individual mountains in the Carpathians are famed for the curious microclimates they produce, the specifics of which he's happy to share.

As an aside, for a long time, English readers were spared some of the worse excesses of Verne's mania for trivia: translations of Verne intended for the casual reader often simply cut out his data dumps. This heavy-handed editing produced novels that emphasized narrative thrust and minimized world-building. The end result of this is that English-speaking fans of Verne have often missed out on some of the more curious details of Verne's works. For example, Captain Nemo's nationality changes between his first appearance in 20,000 Leagues and his final appearance in Mysterious Island. In the former, he's Polish. In the latter, he's Indian. This bizarro swap rarely features in English-language takes on the captain - usually he's just a generic white dude with no reference to the history given in MI or, as in Moore's League, he's straight out Indian with no explanation as to why he was previously a European. This isn't simply laziness on the part of various adapters: in many English translations, the details that reveal Nemo's identity in 20,000 simply don't show up.

Personally, I enjoyed Castle. Admittedly, I read it under extreme circumstances. My wife bought it for me it amuse me while I was confined to an ER bed with nothing else to entertain me except a television that we couldn't turn up the volume on. But even if you're not in a situation where you can't move because you're IV'ed up and you don't know where your pants are, I think the novel offers several distinct pleasures. First, the habitually detailed prose of Verne, when wed to a gothic framework, ends up suggesting the works of H. P. Lovecraft, with all its fake scholarly tone and strangely purple rigor. Second, Verne's worldview charts an interesting third-way between "uncanny is the bomb" and "but it could happen" theories of horror. Verne's story strips away the fear of the uncanny and replaces it with a sudden encounter with what, in later decades, we'd call television, radio, and recording technologies. That sounds mundane, but that ignores the mind-warping nature of the encounter for those at the collision. When first faced with Philo Farnsworth's plans for a working television system, one of the bankers he approached for for funding blurted out, "This is monstrous!" And it is. Verne takes away the threat of ghosts and demons, and it their place he gives us an image of a unseen master who holds a populace in in thrall through media tech and the constant grooming of their own unquestioned beliefs. Instead of spooks, he gives us the secret history of the Twentieth Century and beyond. And that's pretty scary. Verne was no horror writer, but his valuable contribution to the genre is the observation that an explicable monster is still a monster.

Publishers Melville House and translator Charlotte Mandell have done sci-fi and horror fans a real service in making this odd, neglected back into circulation.