Monday, May 31, 2010

Stuff: The Jess List

In my review of I Sell the Dead, I mentioned that my wife generally hates horror films. When she doesn't find them boring, she finds them unpleasant. For her, watching horror is like sitting in a dentist's waiting room: uncomfortable, dull, occasionally punctuated by anxiety-inducing screams. During this explanation, I mentioned that there was a short list of flicks that passed the Jess Test. Though I meant this in an abstract sort of way, a couple of readers asked what films were on this list. So, I asked my wife to write up a list of genre treats that she actually does like. Not all of the works on the Jess List are, perhaps, horror-proper, but they're all what Jess talks about when she talks about horror.

Without further ado, I present to you the unedited, unabridged Jess List, straight from the woman herself:

Shaun of the Dead
The Frighteners
Jaws (but I hate the first shark scene)
I Sell the Dead
Bubba Ho-Tep
Hellboy 1 & 2
Army of Darkness
Land of the Dead
Universal Monsters: Creature of the Black Lagoon, Dracula, Frankenstein (Wolfman is a little lame)
The Thing from Another Planet + remake The Thing (but I have to squint at some parts)
Kaiju movies (Godzilla et al)
Interview with the Vampire (the first R-rated movie I ever saw in high school)
Rear Window (favorite Hitchcock)
Topper (with Cary Grant as 1/2 of hedonistic ghostly couple)
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Disney version; this totally scared me as a kid but is now delicious.)

Jess NOT list (my least favorites):
These are not necessarily bad art. The fact that they linger in memory and come up in conversation indicates that they are in fact especially powerful. But they haunt me in ways I find entirely unpleasant. I have lost nights of sleep to these films, which I begrudge.
The Ring
Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Hitchcock's Frenzy
book: Monster Island by David Wellington (zombie novel, too scary to finish)

TV shows:
Buffy (just the first season; I checked out pretty much after Angel went bad)

Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow
Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link (practitioner of "the new weird")
American Gods & Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
Johannes Cabal, Necromancer & Johannes Cabal, Detective

Sandman (mixed, sometimes nightmare inducing)
House of Mystery by (Fables creators) Bill Willingham & Mike Sturges
Hellboy & BPRD by Mike Mignola

DON'T STOMP THINKING ABOUT TOMORROW! If you haven't entered ANTSS Killer Kaiju contest yet, you freakin' should! It's as easy as stomping on your favorite scale-model city.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Contest: Because other blog fandoms are Tokyo and you, dear ANTSS readers, are Godzilla.

It's been too long since I've thrown a contest here, and it's about time I thank all y'all for following along with my ramblings. So here goes . . .

Hot off the presses, from the kind folks at Collins Design, comes Killer Kaiju Monsters: Strange Beasts of Japanese Film. Part light-hearted reference book, part art book, all city-stomping hotness, this handsome hardcover, curated by Ivan Vartanian, contains production stills, photos of kaiju collectables, poster repros, papercraft build-your-own kaiju, and original kaiju themed-art from artist (including the wonderful kaiju cross-section art Shoji Ohtomo). It's a pop kaiju smorgasbord!

And ANTSS is giving away one copy a deserving reader. Retail value: about 28 Washingtons. Number of dead presidents it's going to cost the winner: zero. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Free-city, daddy-o.

Could you be the lucky winner? Sure. Why the hell not? You're as awesome as anybody! It's your time, dammit! Hell yeah!

What do you have to do to win? Easy. Just leave a comment connected to this post saying what city you would stomp if you were a giant monster and why. Tired of Montreal's smug politeness? Think you might be doing Detroit a favor by utterly destroying it? Think an attack on Bakersfield is called for just because nobody would see it coming? You're the giant monster; you make the call. Just tell me what city and why, and you're in the running. One winner will be selected randomly on June 4th. Only one stomp per player.

Because I'm a cheap bastard, I've got to limit this to players in the United States. Not that I don't want to hear what towns my foreign readers would lay waste to, but shipping costs prohibit me from rewarding you for your destructive impulses. Imaginary chaos and devastation will simply have to be their own reward in this case.

Let the stomping begin!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Stuff: George Romero pulls an evil Captain Kirk from episode 37.

Over at the Boston Phoenix, Peter Keough attempts a Marxist interpretation of the popularity of vampires and zombies:

Maybe Karl Marx, wrong about so much in the real world, could offer some clarification in the realm of make-believe. Could vampires, like the filthy rich, parasitic, aristocratic, and charismatic Cullens, be representatives of the capitalist class? And zombies, those lumpen, lurching, mass-consuming legions, could they stand for labor and the proletariat? If so, vampire movies would embody the audience’s anger and fascination with the money men responsible for the recent economic collapse. And zombie movies would touch on the dread of — and wish for — an uprising of the working against those same exploiters.

Aside from the analysis itself, Keough gives us a little gem of a reaction shot from the father of the modern zombie flick:

Not even George A. Romero, who as much as anyone can take credit for the zombie phenomenon — spawning it as he did back in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead — can explain why they do this. “I don’t get it,” he remarked about these undead wannabes when I interviewed him recently about his newly released sixth film in his zombie franchise, Survival of the Dead, which opens next week. “You just want to say, ‘Get a life.’ ”

Wow. The dude responsible for Diary of the Dead thinks you're the one who needs to get over the whole zombie thing.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Stuff: “Scaled, forked-tongued Lizarde Men from the Deepe” and other hazards of life in the Royal Navy.

This is one of the most disappointing stories ever, but I share it here because I think there's a nifty idea behind it. Apparently, there was a long-standing rumor that the Royal Navy's archive of ship's logs contained a special collection of logs detailing the Royal Navy's various encounters with sea monsters. Sadly, this turned out to be BS. Here' the entire article from The Military Times's "Scoop Deck" blog:

Do the archives of the Royal Navy include volume after gilt-edged volume detailing secret encounters between Her Majesty’s warships and horrifying sea creatures? Do archivists in catacombs deep below Whitehall maintain stacks of leather-bound books with reports about ships battling giant squid, or sea dragons, or the dreaded kraken? Are there pages upon pages of hand-drawn sketches or official — but censored — woodcuts depicting men ‘o war being pulled under the waves by enormous tentacles?

In one of the lamest and most disappointing answers in history: No.

The Ministry of Defence says it has no centralized records of ships’ reports about sea monsters or other unusual maritime creatures. Officials acknowledge there may be interesting details in individual ships’ logs, but there is no immense room with immense, floor-to-ceiling shelves full of 18th Century-era reports like the one about the frigate HMS Sabre, which was lost off the Seychelles after the ship was overrun by what its surviving crew members called “Scaled, forked-tongued Lizarde Men from the Deepe.”

That said, what a cool idea for a novel series. Creative types, I give you the freebie, now scribble fast and get first to market.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Movies: Ain't no sin in Cincinnati.

I was going play this cool and keep my blog cred by not stickin' out my neck for a total ho-hum direct-to-video flick that, perhaps justly, was roundly trashed by the blog-o-sphere. But, honestly, what cultural capital am I worried about burning up?

It's bloggin', not real life.

So here goes.

Tasteless, clumsy, lopsided in pace and construction, needlessly excessive, and embarrassingly self-important, The Hills Run Red is best slasher film in two decades.

Here's the thing with slasher flicks. They all remind me of this old joke: A traveling salesman from Cincinnati made a trip to Iran. (NB: This joke's so old that "Iran" meant 1,001 Nights and not an America-hating theocratic dictatorship.) While there, he was picked up by a princess who felt this strange, pale American was an freakish lark.

When this worldly traveler returned to Jefferson Avenue, he described his adventures to a friend. He told his pal of the princess's exotic beauty; the opulent palace she took him to; the priceless vintage wines they drank; the perfumed baths they took, waited upon by flocks of pale, virginal beauties; the orchestras of blinded eunuchs who serenaded them; the jewels and silks she discarded; and, at last, every sensuous detail of of the princess's shimmering, transcendent nudity.

"And then what?" the salesman's friend gasps.

"Oh, well then its just the same as it is in Cincinnati," the salesman says.

Whatever the foreplay looks like - be it the color-by-numbers knuckle-dragging of the originals, the pomo gags of Scream, or the 3-D projection of the Valentine reimangling - there's a stunted simplicity to the concept of the slasher that's the ultimate pay-off: It's always the same as it is in Cincinnati.

The beauty of The Hills Run Red is that it is happy to be in Cincinnati. It doesn't have twenty years of criticism-proof nostalgia hanging around its neck like a millstone. The makers don't have to worry about hand-holding a generation of fan-entitled middle-aged amateur critics. The result is a film that's pleasingly nasty, joyfully slight, and possessed of a nimble disrespect for the genre that birthed it. In an era of bloated remakes that mistake market penetration for archetypal significance, The Hills Run Red comes the closest to providing the cheap, sullied, dirty, semi-trangressive pop thrill that slashers used to deliver before their audiences resembled Old Home Week crowds.

This isn't to say that THRR is dumb. It's smarter than your average slasher. But it never forgets that we didn't queue up a flick called "the hills run red" to get a lecture on the socio-political ramifications of post-Hostel retro-slasher semiotics. THRR giggles all the way through, but only because it is having a blast and wants you to join in. Unlike the slavishly dogged, emotionally dead recreations that gracelessly spill out on the big screens, it isn't obsessed with limning the rules and preaching to the cult. It's an Anita Loos to their Ayn Rand. (That metaphor pushes all bounds of sense, but it's the only way I could think of to work in Anita Loos, to whom I owe the Cincinnati joke.)

To the degree that slashers have plots, The Hills Run Red focuses on a small crew of would-be documentary filmmakers searching for the legendary complete cut of the titular film: an early Eighties slasher so foul and repulsive that it was pulled from theaters after a brief, scandalous run and never seen again. The leader of this doomed trio discovers that the film's reclusive director's daughter is a stripper at a remarkably well-appointed roadside adult entertainment establishment. (Not that I frequent such places, mind you; but the private rooms are large, genuinely private individual rooms with a whole couch for a single client - I'm in the middle of planning a bachelor party so I'm unusually sensitive to such logistical concerns at the moment.) After essentially kidnapping the girl and holding her through an enforced withdraw of her dope addiction, the documentary director enlists her in the search for the missing film. She tells the documentarian that the director of the missing film - which featured a hulking, malformed, porcelain-mask-wearing mass murderer Babyface - died a decade earlier. However, the director's isolated cabin in the woods, the set of the original film, still stands and is full of The Hills Run Red memorabilia. Perhaps the flick is there.

The documentarians go to the house and, after a few tense scenes, they find the missing film. The cabin is full of old editing and projection equipment, so they watch the film there. It turns out that the film is much more than a cheap slasher flick. It's a undiscovered gem of outsider art. The technique and artistry on display reveals the mind of brilliant, raw talent. The documentarians realize that they've rediscovered a hidden genius of American cinema and, along the way, the shattered daughter of the infamous director and the wounded director of the documentary learn to love again.

Not really though. The film within a film was basically snuff. The daughter's in on it. Pretty much everybody dies. Or gets raped and dies. Which is still dead, of course, but worse.

What's interesting about The Hills Run Red, in the admittedly limited way that slashers can be interesting, is that it, along with Ti West's Trigger Man, it represents the possibility of truly new slasher. Rob Zombie's Halloween films flirted with updating the genre, but ultimately they got tangled up in the imperatives of the marketplace (need to push the franchise's saleable IP markers) and the vampiric life-draining demands of fan-entitlement. What Trigger Man and THRR benefit from is the lack of franchise history. It frees them to create a slasher particular to their time and place. For example, The Hills Run Red doesn't just occasionally borrow the visual language of torture porn, the tension between the formalized, fossilized formulas of the slasher and the more anarchic, unpalatable norms of its replacement subgenre appear as a plot point.

The film also gets a boost from the acting which, about two-thirds of the way into the film tips into a near-camp range that suddenly gives nearly all the actors a sure footing. After struggling for almost 45 minutes to give naturalistic performances, director Dave Parker let's his cast go ape and it gives every performer the freedom they need to hit bizarre operatic heights. There's something pleasingly John Waterish about this film's approach to characterization. Sophie Monk, who has a truly delightful evil-grin face, especially benefits from the freedom to go crazy. Danko Jordanov, stuntman turned slasher actor, should get a few props to for his turn as Babyface. The brilliance of his role is in it journeyman quality. He's weirdly efficient and coolly logical: In one nice touch, he's dispatched the boyfriend of the lone girl in the crew, so he fishes out his cell and starts calling numbers until his next victim's cell starts to ring, allowing him to locate her. The film within a film set-up gives him a distinct focus as a killer who needs to hit his marks and deliver what he's there for. The "creative kills" so beloved of genre fans are the work of others: the directors. I can't think of another film in which the role of the slasher was actually constructed to fit the world of a film as the stuntman who inevitably plays the baddie experiences it and the result appears in the finished product. Jordanov also, for a character who has a single line in the whole film, delivers his dialogue with surprising and well-chosen understatement.

I could ramble on, but you get the idea.

There are a million slasher lovin' dudes out there that will be happy to tell you that The Hills Run Red isn't a patch on whatever slasher they cuddle close at night. And their right. Because it isn't about the cinema necrophilia of '80s slasher love. The flicker ain't perfect, but at its heart is the desire to push things forward.

And I'm all for that.

Let's get the heck outta Cincinnati for once.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Books: The lion, the witch, and the uncanny.

I owe this find to my wife, who hipped me to this passage. Below, C. S. Lewis discusses the difference between fear, which he sees as an apprehension of danger, and dread, which he equates with the uncanny and a religious concept of the Numinous.

Aside from being an unexpected, but lucid voice in the on-going discussion about the varieties of horror, I also find Lewis's insights interesting for calling into question the common "just so" story that horror, as we now conceive of the emotion that fuels of genre entertainments, has some clear lineage to the psychological lives of ancient ancestors. While he doesn't doubt that our ancestors lived in demon-haunted worlds, he raises the question of whether one could conceive of supernatural forces when one hadn't conceived of a "natural" world. If everything is supernatural, isn't that your natural? And, if that's so, is the uncanny a fear of relatively recent vintage (in terms of the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution)?

Here's Lewis from his The Problem of Pain:

Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told ‘There is a ghost in the next room’, and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is ‘uncanny’ rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply ‘There is a mighty spirit in the room’, and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking—a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it—an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare’s words ‘Under it my genius is rebuked’. This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous.

Now nothing is more certain than that man, from a very early period, began to believe that the universe was haunted by spirits. Professor Otto [I have no idea who Otto is – CRwM] perhaps assumes too easily that from the very first such spirits were regarded with numinous awe. This is impossible to prove for the very good reason that utterances expressing awe of the Numinous and utterances expressing mere fear of danger may use identical language—as we can still say that we are ‘afraid’ of a ghost or ‘afraid’ of a rise in prices. It is there- fore theoretically possible that there was a time when men regarded these spirits simply as dangerous and felt towards them just as they felt towards tigers.

. . .

Now this awe is not the result of an inference from the visible universe. There is no possibility of arguing from mere danger to the uncanny, still less to the fully Numinous. You may say that it seems to you very natural that early man, being surrounded by real dangers, and therefore frightened, should invent the uncanny and the Numinous. In a sense it is, but let us understand what we mean. You feel it to be natural because, sharing human nature with your remote ancestors, you can imagine yourself reacting to perilous solitudes in the same way; and this reaction is indeed ‘natural’ in the sense of being in accord with human nature. But it is not in the least ‘natural’ in the sense that the idea of the uncanny or the Numinous is already contained in the idea of the dangerous, or that any perception of danger or any dislike of the wounds and death which it may entail could give the slightest conception of ghostly dread or numinous awe to an intelligence which did not already understand them. When man passes from physical fear to dread and awe, he makes a sheer jump, and apprehends something which could never be given, as danger is, by the physical facts and logical deductions from them. Most attempts to explain the Numinous presuppose the thing to be explained—as when anthropologists derive it from fear of the dead, without explaining why dead men (assuredly the least dangerous kind of men) should have attracted this peculiar feeling. Against all such attempts we must insist that dread and awe are in a different dimension from fear.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Comics: All aboard that's going aboard.

Bram Stoker's Dracula is an oddly uneven book. It's front-heavy. All the great stuff - Harker's time in Drac's castle; the voyage of the Demeter; Lucy's transformation, death, resurrection, and destruction - happens in the first half or two-thirds of the book. With the possible exception of vampiration interruptus scene, a near perfect vision of the Victorian nightmare projection of sexuality, the last third's pretty slow going. Though we're meant to get the feeling of mad dash through Europe, the result is a strangely emotionless list of ports of call and overland routes, punctuated by repetitious portents from Mina, and ending in a dud fight that end's the count's bloody undeath in an almost exhausted way. Consequently, when artists of various types take up the threads of Stoker's original, it's almost always elements from the early portion of the novel that they focus on. Prequels that give us backstory for Dracula and his three wives, for example, pick up the somewhat hanging thread of the monstrous femme vamps of Drac's mini-harem.

Personally, my favorite episode has always been the short, but sweet log of the doomed cargo ship Demeter. For those who have never read the book, the Demeter is the unlucky ship that has the displeasure of shipping Drac's coffin from mainland Europe to England. Unfortunately for the crew, the count wakes up hungry and starts picking off the sailors one by one. The whole incident is related through the captain's log, so the presence of Dracula is never fully revealed; he's nothing but shadows and fear, a creeping absence, a roll call of names of the missing. In a brilliant closing move on Stoker's part, the bit ends with the lone captain writing down his plan for reaching England, a plan rich in dramatic irony as the readers knows the moment he says it that it ensures he's powerless against Dracula. In this short scene, Stoker truly plays far above his standard level. Here the collage format of the novel, elsewhere little more than a somewhat clumsy lift from Wilkie Collins, is essential to the story: the tension in this scene doesn't come from any ambiguity of the fate of the sailors - they're prey and they never have a chance - but from the fact that the reader understands the situation and the sailors do not. It also has a taut economy to it that is atypical of the rest of Stoker's novel (see previous about endgame).

It has long baffled me that the scene on the Demeter has often been overlooked by adapters and revisionists. The first film adaptation, Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu, included an extended scene based on The Demeter's last voyage; but after that it largely vanishes from the adaptations; Browning's 1931 classic merely alludes to the scene, setting the mold for the majority of adaptations that followed. It seems like perfect horror premise: a crew, trapped on an inescapable boat, hunted by a sinister power from beyond. This is the very template of a million sci-fi/horror flicks, from The Thing from Another Planet to every flick in the Alien franchise.

So, it was no small thrill to hear that, not one, but two projects were revisiting the hulk of the doomed Demeter: a limited series comic from IDW and a flick in-pre-production-limbo flick. We'll have to focus on the one that actually exists at this point. Penned by Pumpkinhead screenwriter Gary Gerani and illustrated by the mixed media art of Stuart Saygar, the expansively titled Bram Stoker's Death Ship: the Last Voyage of the Demeter expands the Demeter scene into a four part mini-series. Promising, but not completely filling, Death Ship reveals what I didn't understand, but what adapters of Stoker's tale seem to have grasped: the Demeter scene is actually really tricky to adapt.

There's a harsh catch-22 at the heart of the task. The bit works because Stoker struck a near perfect balance between the relentless narrative drive of the scene and the amount of detail needed to sell it. At it's heart, the Demeter scene is a countdown to Dracula's arrival in England. The crew of the ship that carries him there is barely sketched out: there's the bold one, the drunk, the kid, and so on. What's important about them in the pace of their deaths: one after the other, the period in between getting shorter and shorter. It's like the heartbeat in Tell-tale Heart or the carpet/hardwood Big-Wheel scene in The Shining in that its power comes from it ever-tightening rhythm. Mess up that coiling rhythm and you mess up the scene.

This means that Gerani is between a rock and hard place. If you're going to make the voyage of the Demeter your story, then you need to flesh out the roles of the crew. In the original, the continuity of the captain's voice is hook enough to hang the interest of the reader upon. We need more detail, or we won't give a toss what happens to the crew. However, every added detail adds some drag to the plot. How much stuff can you add on to Stoker's original streamlined narrative before the drag impacts the speed and, by extension, screws up the pacing that is essential to its dramatic power. The creator's of Death Ship understand that more is not necessarily better in this case. They flesh out the crew as little as possible, working with narration and montage to suggest depth of character rather than risk dragging down the narrative chasing greater detail. The sacrifice, of course, is that the impact of the story comes at a remove. The reader cares less about the fate of the crew and, instead, the story's significance comes from our knowledge of context. This gives the whole thing an air of irrelevance rather fated doom.

That said, I think Death Ship suffers somewhat in a monthly format. The pacing of the story and the pacing of the comic biz do not work well together here. Gathered together, and read in a single sitting, I suspect the story will regain its drive and the economic characterization will seem more like a part of an overall artistic design and less like a conspicuous lack. Delivered as a tight, swift-moving whole, it'll better reflect the atypical verve of the original. Right now, it feels like a bit of a tease.

Though I do like Saygar's Dracula. More Man-bat than Bela, Saygar's vampire is an impressive beast.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Stuff: Bustin' still makes them feel good . . .

God bless Improv Everywhere, God bless the NY Public Library, and God bless the Ghostbusters.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Movies: Turning tricks.

Often, it's unclear what's a trick and what's a treat.

When Warner Bros. and Legendary backlisted the Bryan Singer produced, Michael Dougherty helmed antho spookshow film Trick 'r Treat in 2007, the filmmakers must have felt like they were on the business end of one hell of a trick. Not only did the film languish on festival circuit for two years, but planned comic tie-ins were put on hold. Synergy fail.

Though, in retrospect, it may have been the best thing that could have happened to the movie.

With supply restricted, demand grew. Unintentionally, the film added another nostalgic feather to its war bonnet of nostalgic tropes: It became a cult film you actually had to seek out in order to see. Furthermore, it became a genre rally point; its creation of of a rapid critical consensus that the film was a love letter to the genre quickly lead to the widespread perception that the film's backlisting was another us-versus-them sign that the suits just "didn't get horror."

All of this somewhat obscured that fact that Trick 'r Treat is really a middling film. But it is mediocre in an odd way: TrT is an odd experiment in testing whether a film's saving graces will allow the viewer the forgive its weakest bits. Or do the highs and lows cancel each other out, leaving you with a fairly unimpressive flatline?

Depending on how you count, TrT intertwines four to six slender plots into a single movie that clocks in at about 70 minutes. Comic book "animated" segments and the occasional narration boxes serve to orient the view and connect the film to is genre ancestors. (In a happy accident, the film's delay squelched the planned media blitz that was to accompany the flick, so the other obvious function of these segments - to make a little extra cash by pushing the comic tie-in - barely registers on the viewer.)

The script cleverly manipulates the film's timeline to prevent the feeling that we're just watching a handful of cobbled together plots, but ultimately the antho format is the film's greatest limitation. The focus on short narrative segments keeps things pleasingly taut, but also prevents the film from doing anything other than becoming an efficient plot engine. And, to that end, most of the plot's are fairly mundane: two of the main plots are victim reversal stories and one is an extended fight sequence. Only the first extended story line, a nicely Coen Brotherish darkly sly take on the efforts of a suburban serial killer to dispose of a body contains a richer emotional plate, genuine laughs, and some real suspense. Though even that story line suffers greatly from the narrative demands of the anthology format. In a Hitchcock movie or a Coen Brother's film, that scene would have been a real nerve rattling set piece. But without the time to develop the characters or the plot, the scene feels devoid of consequence. It never really matters to the viewer what happens.

The acting suffers the same fate. TrT contains one fine performance (Dylan Baker), one fair one (Brian Cox), one unfortunate one (Anna "Oscared Too Soon" Paquin), and a slew of passable ones. But all of them, even the best, feel vaguely phoned in. The puzzle piece script gives them little to do but hit their marks and say their lines. Occasionally their sole function is to walk through a scene and remind us of how cleverly the film is put together. Ironically, this might have actually been better if the performances were uniformly crappy. In a lesser film, this self-conscious plotting would be a welcome distraction. Here, however, it feels invasive and overtly contrived.

This isn't to say that film is a disaster. The production values are slick and the film's visual inspirations extend to include sources such as Diane Arbus. For the thinness of the plot, the film is never dull. Easily accessible pleasures are found in abundance. Still, the overall result reminds one of a dog on leash: whenever the film threatens to stray or get into something interesting, there's a quick tug and the film is yanked back to a more familiar, regular direction.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Movies: That funky monkey.

There's nothing wrong with Blood Monkey that couldn't be solved by watching another movie instead.

Because I try to keep things snark lite, I'm going to focus on the good parts of Blood Monkey.

First, Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham gives one of the best lines of any mad scientist ever. When asked how he could use humans as bait to lured his carnivorous, super-smart monkey prey out into the open, he answers, "Science, that's how!"

Feel free to use that answer whenever anybody questions an obviously boneheaded move.

Second, there's a scene where the baddie monkeys mark the doomed scientific expedition by urinating on their tents. It's not a short scene. Urine rains down on these tents for several seconds.

This scene isn't good in any noteworthy way. I mention it here because it will make you wonder just why such of long scene of out-of-frame monkeys sending long streams of urine on to a bunch of tents managed to make it into any film whatsoever.

One imagines director Robert Young getting a phone call from producer Chuck Salmon: "Bobby, baby! Love the script. Love it. L U V love. I sometimes take it to bed with me and roll around with it. I wanna have this script's nine little scriptly babies. That's how much I love this script. One thing though. I thought we agreed on more monkey piss."

"We talked about it, sure. But Mr. Salmon, I think we use the monkey piss scene for all it's worth."

"What are you talking about, Boberino? Listen baby boy, in this life, you can't be too skinny or have too much monkey piss in your movie. It's box office golden shower! Orson Welles said that. I'm going to send over another screenwriter. He's a monkey piss expert. He'll help us punch it up. You can thank me when you see all this monkey piss on the screen."

Trying to imagine the logic behind that scene is another joy the film offers.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Stuff: "Dig down far enough into this oogly-googly magnetism, and you will find yourself kneeling before the most depraved and nihilistic of gods."

One of the oddest things about the enduring popularity of the work of H. P. Lovecraft is that, among all the various cult fandoms in horror, it might the intentionally goofiest. Despite the relentless nihilism of the Cthulhu mythos and the grim and somewhat humorless rep of the author himself, Lovecraft's fans enjoy being silly. Really really silly. Is it a reaction, conscious or otherwise, against the bleak core of Lovecraft's art, some mass subversion in the guise of fan love? Is it a natural consequence of Lovecraft's famously overwrought prose? Perhaps, as time has pushed his unique style closer and closer to self-parody, Lovecraft's fans have stepped in to make the parody explicit.

I've never been able to rig up a satisfactory answer, but Erik Davis over at HiLobrow stares into the face of wacky madness and confronts the rise of Cute Cthulhu. [Warning, the illos get very NSFW at the end of the essay - CRwM] From his article:

At the risk of madness, we must study the anomaly at hand, that monstrous correlation known as the Cute Cthulhu: the chimeric fusion of Lovecraft’s obscene and infamous octopoid monster with that gooey, hard-wired mammalian sentiment now propagated through Japanimation, infantilizing design, and the spewing cute feeds of the Internet. Cute Cthulhu entered our dimension in force a decade ago, when Lovecraft’s “green, sticky spawn of the stars,” who even now lies dreaming in the sunken city of R’lyeh, transformed into a cuddly green plush toy designed and sold by a company called ToyVault.

What's he conclude? Well, half the fun is getting there, but I'm no tease:

But here is the great secret, my fellow mortals: cute is the true horror, the ultimate obscenity.

Part of this horrible obscenity lies in the ability of cute to undermine human reason and agency. The return of the Great Old Ones will reduce every human being unlucky enough to be alive to utter helplessness. But so too do we all become drooling sock-puppets of mammalian algorithms when confronted with furry exteriors, chirpy voices, disproportionately large eyes and heads, charming reductions of scale, and goofy facial expressions. Just watch heads turn in the grocery aisles as a particularly photogenic baby gets paraded by on the shopping cart, or watch your own heart melt when that little puppy with the velvety ears stumbles over a bone. Dig down far enough into this oogly-googly magnetism, and you will find yourself kneeling before the most depraved and nihilistic of gods: the abject.


If you've got enough sanity points left, check it out.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Movies: 1) Collect dead, 2) ?, 3) profit.

Glenn McQuaid's 2008 period horror comedy, I Sell the Dead, passed the Jess test.

Regular readers will know, but for the newcomers, my wife pretty much hates horror stuff. She'll make a few exceptions: Shaun of the Dead is a household favorite, for example. But, mostly, she's pretty much immune to the genre's pleasures. I don't think this comes from a particular aversion to being frightened. She doesn't mind suspense or even the occasional repulsive image in her entertainments (she is, after all, a mystery reader, so she's not unfamiliar the multitude of crappy ways a person can meet their end). Rather, she's turned off by the thematic focus of most horror films. Too often horror flicks are exercises in genre repetition or experiments in emotional relentlessness. Both of these goals result in a constricted thematic rigor. In the former case, the idea is to hit all the certain marks in an acceptably semi-novel way. In the latter case, you try to strip everything from your thematic palate but the emotion you're magnifying. For Jess this means that, more often than not, she's going to be discomforted and bored. For Jess, watching a horror film is like being trapped on an incredibly uncomfortable bus station seat for two hours. And she forgot to bring a book.

But not I Sell the Dead. A sometimes silly, sometimes biting mash-up of Hammer trashshop glam gothicism, R. L. Stevensonian satiric adventure, and Raimi slapstick horror, I Sell the Dead plays a genre juggling act and manages to keep enough balls in the air to never be just one thing.

The plot of I Sell the Dead revolves around the pre-beheading confession of Arthur Blake. Former apprentice-turned-partner of grave-robber Willy Grimes, Blake is telling his story a priest who is creating one of those wonderful "lives of the scoundrels" pamphlets that our forefathers ostensibly read for moral instruction, but actually read for a violent and sordid glimpse of humanity at it's most corrupt. Blake lays out of tale of how the Grimes/Blake partnership went from plain old grave-robbin' into the far more lucrative field of specialized weirdness collecting. If you need a vampire to study or are looking to get your hands on the corpse of an alien, Willy and Arthur are your men. However, like any lucrative field, strangeness collecting draws competition. In this case, Grimes and Blake find themselves on a collision course with a rival band of grave-robbers who are far worse than any of the supernatural beasties our ghoulish protags have ever dug up.

Much of the film is powered by a handful of great performances. Sadly, Ron Perlman's performance as the priest recording Blake's last words is marred by an awkward attempt at an Irish accent. Though John Speredakos's channeling of Day-Lewis's Bill the Butcher makes for a magnetic baddy. And Fessenden's Grimes is one of best etched characters in modern horror film. Alternately predatory and paternal; occasionally wise but so often foolish; he jealously guards his independence despite the fact that he's, at heart, a coward; Fessenden's been in the game long enough to know what makes good characters work isn't consistency, but believable contradiction.

The film's humor runs from dry to broad, and it's helped out by a refreshingly inversion of the standard relationship between the undead and the living. There's a million ways to approach the whole monster thing, but they mostly fall on spectrum of between awe and disenchantment. At one extreme, the monster represents something uncanny, a tear in what should be that is a sort of black hole of understanding. There's a dark and sinister majesty to such beasts. The original Dracula, with his trappings of royalty and its surreal actions, is an iconic exemplar of baddies at this end of the spectrum. At the other end, monsters are threats, exotic and extreme perhaps, but essentially part of the natural order and bound by rules. We might not understand the why of each rule, but the rules are fairly clear. A good example here is Zombieland, with its running gag of zombie safety rules. It's worth noting that disenchantment doesn't require the monsters be given an non-supernatural explanation. Instead, it happens when the phenomena in question becomes so commonplace that people start treating as just another hazard in a world of hazards.

I Sell the Dead is too comedic to be awe-struck, so it's firmly on the disenchanted side of the spectrum. But its sly wit serves up a critique of its very approach. For Grimes and Blake, vampires and zombies are dangerous, but predictable occupational hazards. But, beyond that, they are also exploitable resources. Grimes and Blake never wonder what the persistence of life of death means in spiritual or cosmic terms. When the corpse of an alien is snatched from them by a UFO, their worldview is so limited that, instead of wondering what it might mean that we're not alone in the universe, they simply see it as lost revenue. They don't just live in a disenchanted world. They tame the undead and then turn them into profit. Specifically, they turn them into profit by selling them to collectors and people who want to dissect them. In that sense, what they most resemble is horror filmmakers. And their clients, they're horror fans and bloggers.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Stuff: Sympathy for the poor devil.

Over at the Frontal Cortex blog, Jonah Lehrer discusses the insights psychopaths give us into moral behavior. His takeaway is that morality is an emotional, rather than a rational, response to the world around us. His argument rests on the fact that psychopaths "seem to have perfectly functioning minds. Their working memory isn't impaired, they have excellent language skills, and they don't have reduced attention spans. In fact, a few studies have found that psychopaths have above-average IQs and reasoning abilities; their logic is impeccable." The problem is that their emotional reactions are stunted or nonexistent. Which leads us to the part that gets interesting for horror fanciers:

When normal people are shown staged videos of strangers being subjected to a powerful electrical shock or other painful stimulus, they automatically generate a visceral emotional reaction. Their hands start to sweat, and their blood pressure surges. But psychopaths feel nothing. It's as if they were watching a blank screen. Most people react differently to emotionally charged verbs like kill or rape than to neutral words like sit or walk, but not psychopaths. The words all seem equivalent. When criminologists looked at the most violent wife batterers, they discovered that, as the men became more and more aggressive, their blood pressure and pulse actually dropped. The acts of violence had a calming effect.

So, despite the conventional wisdom assumption that psychopaths would show an obsessive interest in media violence – think of Patrick Bateman's use of Texas Chainsaw Massacre as porn – the research suggests otherwise: Horrific images bore psychos.

This reminds me of an assertion made by horror writer Joe Hill that the defining characteristic of horror was sympathy. In his Heart-Shaped Box his smuggles in something of a manifesto: "Horror was rooted in sympathy, after all, in understanding what it would be like to suffer the worst."

Perhaps psychopaths reveal something fundamental about the sensation of horror. One of the traditional knots of horror fandom is how one should divide the horror experiences into a taxonomy. The explicit versus the implicit, terror versus horror, the uncanny versus the possible, and so on. But, the odd immunity of psychopaths to horrific imagery might suggest a common, more primal connection. Perhaps, no matter how you slice it, all horror, regardless of final affect, starts with a moral sympathy. Before you can anticipate the terrible or revolt at the image of the horrible laid bare, you have to be able to create a connection between the suffering or threatened other and yourself. That link is a prerequisite act of sympathy.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Real estate: Looking for a place to wait out the zombie holocaust?

In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security took over the Plum Island, America's infamous animal disease and one-time bio-weapon research lab. Shortly after, they recommended thtat the lab be closed and moved to Kansas. This means, as Christine Quigley points out, Plum Island will be up for sale.

The perfect location for a mad science lab or as a redoubt against the zombie hordes, here's what Plum Island offers:

A Biolevel-3 research facility

A 3-story 4-bedroom fieldstone residence with all the amenities, including an alarm system and a fireplace

A charming little shingled guest cottage

An 1827 55' octagonal stone and timber lighthouse with residence and storage shed

A 1-hour drive by car from New York City, then park in a private 2-car garage on the mainland and take a 5-minute boat ride to the 840-acre island

Swimming, fishing and boating on a private lake

It takes some deep pockets, but aren't you dreams of world domination worth it? With the zombie holocaust potentially around corner, how can you afford not to buy Plum Island?

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Comics: My mash-up pitch? I'm going to put vampires in "Dracula."

It's a shame that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies didn't simply start life as comic book project. The original remix novel, credited to both Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, was, for the vast majority of its fans, little more than a cover. The insides contained too much Austen for your average zombie buff and the book remains one of those strange oft purchased, rarely read hits. For most folks, it's a collectable to be displayed rather than a novel to be read.

The new graphic novel adaptation of P&P&Z actually stands a chance of being read, but it is hard to imagine anybody with such a connection to the original that they'd purchase a second version of it. If they read it, then they've pretty much exhausted the book's central gag (a gag that is exhausted once you've grasped the premise from the back cover marketing copy). If they bought it as a collectable and either abandoned the book or never tried to read it, then they don't care so much for the content that they need a cheat sheet.

Sales concerns aside, the new Tony Lee and Cliff Richards adaptation knows what its audience came for. Writer Lee removes all the Austen you can from the book, focusing far more intensely on the zombies, slaughter, ninjas, and other grab-bag fanboy elements Grahame-Smith jammed into Austen's acid-etched satire of manners.

The downside, I guess, of this is that you lose the aura of punk-ish desecration the original had. Though, honestly, how much of a loss is that for most readers? The power of provocation depends on a violation of accepted values, but was Austen's work so universally admired by fans of zombie pop that it really mattered. The mash-up's "sacrilegious" punch was always more a conceptual than felt thing.

Furthermore, the adapters haven't been able to fix any of the problems that plagued the original mash-up. The joining of Grahame-Smith's modern pop horror tropes (most notably his Buffy-ish take on Elizabeth Bennet) to the crystalline precision of Austen's characterizations is forced and the results are a cast that jerks wildly between extreme personalities for no reason other than that's how the joke works. Nor is the zombie disaster particularly connected to the larger context of the book. Unlike Grahame-Smith's second novel, which uses vampirism as metaphorical way to view the institution of slavery, the monsters here - variously called unmentionables, dreadfuls, and zombies - just show up. Their point is that they're about as far from Austen as you can get. That's it. (In all fairness, this is hardly a unique problem to Grahame-Smith's work; nearly every zombie-in-X book I've ever read basically rewards you for knowing as little as possible about the period in question.)

The upside is the you get a fast-moving period adventure piece that is lightly entertaining, especially if you have no interest in Pride and Prejudice. Even during the conversational stretches, Lee and Richards have the advantage of being able to pack the visuals with allusions to the book's zombie crisis, giving zombie fans something to ponder while the characters re-regurgitate lines from the original-original novel. Further, Richards' art is pleasingly reminiscent of classic heroic cartooning from the likes of Alex Toth. His depictions of the Bennet sisters are genuinely lovely without lapsing into the absurd curves of good girl art.

All in all, not a bad deal for somebody looking for a quick zombie fix, and it comes without all the effort of actually reading a classic. The book's published by Quirk and it's going to set you back about $15.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Music: Lux and Ivy's Favorites

WFMU's Beware of the Blog has an amazing page that, well, I'll let them tell you:

Ok, I got kind of sick of repeating this story 1000 times. So figured I'd include this in the latest volume. I'm the guy who compiles the Lux and Ivy's Favorites Compilations.

It started as a way to keep track of some of the songs Lux, and or Ivy, mentioned in THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE MUSIC BOOK. It was never really intended as anything but a way for a friend of mine and me to have 2 really kick ass compilations.

So we went about the arduous process of finding all the songs mentioned in that interview. It took a loooong time. We used the file sharing program, Napster, as well as our own personal collections. So, one thing lead to another and when word got around that these compilations were out there, they started being traded from fan to fan to fan. So, at some point I decided to put them up on Napster and let anyone who wanted them have them. As the years went buy, more interviews with Lux and Ivy kept popping up, and the list of songs they mentioned got longer and longer. This resulted in new volumes.

They're up to 11 volumes of music that The Cramp's name-dropped as influences, faves, and curiosities. Enjoy.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Movies: The one I would save.

Arbogast, creator of what might be the closest thing to a definitive horror blog, started a blog-a-thon around the concept of those unfortunate horror victims that we wish we could save. Unofficially dubbed the "The One You Might Have Saved," the blog-a-thon results have been downright brilliant.
Check them out, but notice to those with coworkers or kiddies about, Arbo's own entry includes tits and a bush shot. Arbo's loves the ladies, what can I say?

I've never officially managed to throw my hat in the ring for either of the now two waves of entries for this thing because a) I'm a coward and fear the withering gaze of contempt and pity Arbo would give me if he ever read my writing and, more importantly, 2) I've never been able to decide between two victims that shout out for some saving.

Ultimately, I've decided on one.

The person I'd save is Christine "Chrissie" Watkins. You might not remember the name, but I guarantee you remember her: She's the skinny dipping hippie chick who becomes the shark's first victim in Jaws.

My reaction to Christine's death is visceral and always unpleasant.

One can easily over intellectualize the immediate experience of watching a film. Christ-ine (check the name) dies calling to God. Her death is, simultaneously, an act of delivering news to the town. The community will fail to heed the news and be judged for it. If you prefer your horror more secular: The young Christine enters the water on the promise of sexual adventure, when an unseen monster rises from the depths to pierce her body (the damage being localized in the nether regions) and destroy her. Not political enough for you? Reframe the rape fantasy as a class revenge fantasy. Christine is one of the summer people. Those rootless seasonal residents think their money entitles them to treat the island as their own private playground. Her lack of concern for the dangers of night-swimming is a facet of the privilege of the wealthy. Only this time, she pays for it.

But all that's bullshit. Write that crap in the margins of your Bordwell and Thompson to share with your Intro the Film class amigos.

The power of Christine's death comes from the fact that Spielberg frames it so powerfully as to make it something you experience before thought. Like the carpet/hardwood floor countdown scene of The Shining, the scene builds to a climax through the use of dozen nearly subliminal cues.

The scene starts with a subdued soundtrack. A harmonica and guitar are prominent, but they fade along the conversation, replaced by the sounds of the tide. There's a brief moment when the dialogue between Christine and her presumed conquest sticks out, but this is eventually replaced by alternating shots of the famous John Williams motif and a soundtrack where the slightest ripple of water sticks out. As we watch the boy chasing Christine falter, Speilberg even gives us a quick foretaste of Christine's fate. Christine is swimming a leisurely backstroke and, Bubsy Berkley style, kicks up one leg. Then she sinks and the leg, silhouetted against the early dawn sky's reflection on the water, sinks into the dark.

Her head emerges and she calls to the boy. The sun's behind her and the water glows. It's almost beautiful, but it casts her features in a dark near oblivion. You can't really read her face. She's simply a female form, calling out for somebody to join her. The nebulousness of her identity is revisited almost immediately: After we see the would-be drunken hook up collapse on the beach, we get a shot from Bruce the Shark's POV of Christine, just a female form, gracefully passing over the surface of the water. Her track across the dim blue background will mirror several shooting stars that appear throughout the flick.

There's that damn music.

We get another above surface shot of her. She smiles, she's happy, she's enjoying being healthy and young and playful. The music stops and all we hear is her deep breathing, from all the swimming, and her splashing.

Then another shot from under the water. She's just a dark shape, clearly female, but any female. Perhaps all females. The music starts again.

Cut to above the surface again. Before the trouble starts, we already know this is the end. The music, which has been a subsurface phenom up to this point, doesn't stop. Our brains our primed for the coming violence.

There's a little tug, and a shocked Christine is pulled down to her nose, but not completely under. There's a pause as she rises slightly and looks around. She looks vaguely upset, but not harmed. Though this only lasts a second. The next tug pulls her all the way under. It happens so fast, a tiny little whirlpool forms where she was. She emerges quickly, her breath, which is astoundingly loud on the soundtrack, is now ragged and uneven. She doesn't even gasp, just makes these uneven breaths before she's under again.

Then the scene explodes. As with the music between the attack shots, the sound acts as a sonic bridge between shots. Christine emerges nearly out of frame and begins to scream, "Oh God!" Her voice is unhinged. She drags the phrase out. Her scream acts as a link to the next shot. She's dragged across screen. There's a light buoy in the background. The light buoy isn't just some clever, ironic metaphor; without it, against the gray-blue dawn, we'd have no sense of her speed. Because we have a stable point of reference, we can sense the power of the beast dragging her.

She's pulled toward the light buoy (the beast must change directions between cuts). And then she stops and is thrown back and forth across the screen. The limits of her jerky movements are slightly past frame on the viewer's left and just right of center on the right. It's a sawing motion that evokes images of the feeling of worrying some meat or a dog working on a bone. Without showing us any blood or even the slightest bit of the shark, we know exactly what we're watching. Her shrieking is punctuated by her cries for help. She screams "help me," then "no," then "help me."

We get a shot of the boy, passed out on the beach. Her screaming vanishes from the soundtrack. I think, oddly, the boy is the viewer. As scary as Jaws may be, there's always a little disconnect. We're watching from dry land, as it were. When we watch the movie, we know we're safe. We always already back on shore.

The soundtrack, notably, doesn't just kick back in. When we cut back to the violently flailing Christine, the soundtrack quickly speeds back to her screaming. This odd stretching of the soundtrack produces a pig-like snort that rapidly resolves into a high-pitched scream. When you first hear it, it almost sounds like the beast is making some grotesque sound. (Notably, great white sharks do kind of snort when they come out of the water; the effect is, I suspect, intentional.) Christine's wailing - banshee-like, literally, in that is sounding doom for many others as well - is punctuated with her screaming, "It hurts."

"It hurts." It seems almost so obvious as to be silly. But that's the point of this scene. Without a clear source of pain, ripped from context, lit to become some ur-body, Christine hangs on our screen, like some image of a saint in the throws of martyrdom. She's embodied pain. She is hurt.

New shot. She's dragged, nearly thrown, against the light buoy. Suddenly, she's no longer being dragged. She holds on to the light buoy and repeats, with her head lowered against the metal frame of the buoy, "Oh god, oh god, oh god, oh god . . ."

Suddenly she's grabbed again and dragged towards the viewer.

The first shooting star is seen behind her in the sky. It's a badly done effect, because it wobbles in sky a bit.

She screams for God now. "Oh God, oh god, please help."

Her request for God to help her will be the last thing we hear from Christine.She goes under and stays under. He has forsaken her.

I realize, as I write, I don't want to save Christine. Some better angel of my nature wants, of course, to reach out and stop her suffering. What I really want, though, is for God to save Christine. I want her cries for help to be answered.

Somebody once wrote that faith isn't the belief that everything will eventually make sense. It's the belief that everything will turn out alright.

Christine's death hangs there, an earnestly nihilistic image of humanity as a suffering body. Her death says to me, "No. Things will not be alright."

If I could save on victim in a horror film, it would be Christine. Because if she could be saved then, perhaps, then there would be the possibility for all of us that things might just turn out alright.

But we never can save her. She always vanishes under the water.

Stuff: Praying to death.

National Geographic has a great online article on the
rise of the Cult of Saint Death, a homegrown saint that Mexico's faithful have developed as a defense against the increasingly mad times they live in. A sort of female Grim Reaper figure, she's the "guardian of the most defenseless and worst of sinners."

Unknown to most Mexicans until recently, this death figure resembles medieval representations of the grim reaper but is fundamentally different from the playful skeletons displayed on Day of the Dead—the day when Mexicans' departed loved ones return to share with the living a few hours of feasting and remembrance. Her altars can now be found all over Mexico, on street corners and in the homes of the poor. Women and men alike are her followers. In the heart of Mexico City, in a neighborhood that has always been raucous and defiant, Enriqueta Romero leads a prayer session in honor of the skeleton every first of the month. Simultaneously flinty, foulmouthed, and motherly, Romero was among the first and the most effective propagandizers of a cult that some believe got its start in towns along the Gulf of Mexico but now covers a wide territory up and down the country. In California and Central America as well, young people light candles in La Santa Muerte's honor and tattoo her image on their skin in sizes small to extra large. A few years ago the Interior Ministry revoked its registration of La Santa Muerte as a legitimate religion, to no effect. Newsstands sell instructional videos showing how to pray to the saint, and even chic intellectuals are beginning to say that the cult is muy auténtico.

The article goes on to say that she's one of several new or reinvigorated saint-cults. Drug dealers worship Jesús Malverde, known as El Rey Guei de Sinaloa, a narco-trafficker who died in the first decade of the 20th century and has since become a folk hero and unholy saint. For the more traditionally minded, the cult of St. Jude Thaddeus, Catholic saint of desperate causes, is experiencing a vigorous revival.

The phenom of narco-saints is not just a Mexican thing. The article points out that members of the infamous Medellín cartel in Colombia are "famously devoted to St. Jude."

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Movies: "B" average.

So I was watching High Plains Invader a Syfy original cowboys versus aliens flick that, against the clear designs of the film's makers, got me thinking.

There's a factoid my wife likes to share. I don't know where she got it from. I don't even know if it's a true story or from a novel she read, so I present it here in the spirit of philosophical musing rather than a statement of historical fact.

There was this museum in the Victorian Era that shelled out a king's ransom for a truly amazing horse statue from the Etruscan period. For decades, this Etruscan horse was the pride of the museum, the iconic piece that served as the synecdoche for the museum the way the Spirit of St. Louis is shorthand for the Air and Space or the two-headed turtle was the symbol of the Freakatorium.

But, as the decades dragged on, the horse looked less and less like an artifact of the Etruscan period and more and more like an embarrassing bit of Victorian hack work. Eventually, the museum launched a study in the piece's origins and found, much to their chagrin, that they'd been conned into buying a fake.

The point of this mini-parable is that you can be so close to your own era's critical assumptions that you are no longer able to grasp them.

In the Great Victorian Horse Swindle story, the end result is that the prized pony ends up an embarrassing failure. Though I think the story can work in reverse too. Which is what brings back to Syfy originals, like the High Plains Invaders.

Syfy channel has made itself into a modern B-movie engine. Like B-flicks of the subgenre's golden era, SFOs are cheaply produced, populated with second-string celebs, filled with not-so-special-effects, frequently rip-off larger budget successes, quick to turn headlines into cheese (see the monster snakehead fish films), and happily recycle concepts (Syfy made two different films about the snakehead fish). The acting, as befits a B, is wooden. Often the dialogue is achingly bad. At their best, they're lively shambles. At their worst, they're God awful, soulless cash grabs. This has always been true of B-movies.

So why are B-films from previous eras so beloved and Syfy originals to roundly hated?

I'm not about to make a claim for the hidden greatness of Syfy originals. In fact, I think they're usually pretty horrible. I believe I've even used "Syfy original" as an insult to describe the failings of other films. High Plains Invaders isn't the worst of a bad lot, but it gives one ample examples of the sort of half-assed filmmaking that's made the brand a shorthand for broad-spectrum systematic cinema suckitude.

The plot is a classic rag-tag band of holdouts story. In the late 19th century, a swarm of giant insect-like alien invaders attack a small Denver town. An unlikely band of folk - from the town's doctor to a mercenary bounty hunter who was just passing through - hole up in the jail and fight for their lives. While never so painfully awful that it punishes the viewer, there's ample evidence of phoning it in on all levels of this thing:

Exhibit 1: Nobody could be bothered to provide the actors with period correct, or even vaguely period correct, firearms. Even if you're not a gun nut - I'm certainly not - you can't help but notice that some of these cowboys are packing heaters from the modern era.

Exhibit 2: The presence of several mini-McGuffinish moments in the script: odd turns of story that seem to happen mainly to pad out the running time and to semi-regularly put our protags in harm's way. There are several abortive attempts to leave town that could be justified as necessary in order to show how thoroughly and completely screwed our protags are, but other plot points are less explicable. For example, at one point, our heroes decide to make it to the jail because of the store of rifles in the jailhouse. However, after getting to the jailhouse and loading the rifles, our heroes promptly forget them and never really use them at all for the rest of the flick. Which raises a question: Does firing a fake rifle really put that much more of a strain on your effects budget? How many pistol shots make up a rifle shot? Could you have deducted four pistol shots and then at least used one of the rifles we spent all this time acquiring once?

Exhibit 3: The entire plot hinges on the fact that one of the characters is a uranium miner and that he understands a) that it is radioactive and b) that is can create massive explosions. The problem with this is that the radioactive properties or uranium were discovered in 1896. Our character is ahead of the curve on that discovery. But that's a pretty minor quibble compared to how the same character creates a nuclear explosion with the stuff: He grinds it into a powder and then sets off a stick of dynamite near it. Without getting deep in the physics weeds on this, releasing the explosive properties of uranium requires action that takes place on an atomic level. Grossly simplified, the element needs to be bombarded with neutrons which then break apart uranium isotopes into two other elements. It isn't like gunpowder. Heat has nothing to do with it.

I don't bring these up in an effort to show I'm smarter than the makers of High Plains Invaders, but rather to show that, from the smallest detail to the largest, the makers responded to cinematic challenges with a resounding, "Whatever."

And, honestly, that's pretty typical of B movies regardless of the era. Anachronisms, meandering plots, and a metaphorical-at-best understanding of science are hallmarks of the subgenre.

But you won't get hordes of monster kids defending Syfy's excretions in their blogs. Navy versus the Night Monsters, sure; but High Plains Invaders, don't be silly.

But why?

There are numerous reasons - not the least of which is nostalgia - but I think High Plains Invaders underscores a specific issue. I propose the following: We accept high levels of cheese in older films because, as time moves on, all older films look increasingly stylized and artificial. The distance between, say, The Thing and Tarantula seems smaller to us than the distance between successful modern horror flicks and High Plains Invader. But this is less a product of critical discernment than the byproduct of the fact that we accept the conventions previous eras of filmmaking as baselines (hyper-artificial rear projection work from the 50s, for example, strikes us as a singular thing, rather than a technique with gradations of successful execution that can be critiqued) while the we're alive and sensitive to fine distinctions in the cinema techniques of our own time (the quality of CGI in a flick can make or break a film for many viewers).

We approach films from our cinematic history with a benign prejudice that what is clunky or awkward in them was simply a given trait of films of their era. So, when we approach a 1950s B-film, we're simply not making the same demands on it.

The curious thing about this phenom is that, unlike the Great Victorian Horse Swindle example that kicked off this post, it actually elevates the works in question. Which makes me wonder, in the year 2060, will High Plains Invaders seem like a better film?

I think it might.

Take, for example, the whole uranium thing. Admittedly, the depiction of uranium in this film is far more accurate than the depictions of nuclear material from '50s and '60s films, where it could be relied upon to throw of a pulsating glow and make humming noises. That said, it is still quite wrong-headed. But, to some degree or another, all scientific claims grow quaint with time. Event correct understandings of the workings of reality tend to come with a fringe of era- and culture-specific oddness that ages poorly. (Darwin, for example, grasped evolution's core truths, but frequently suggested consequences of these truths that now strike us as products of his own Victorian cultural biases.) The result is that, retrospectively, the distance boneheaded depictions of the world and earnest depictions of the world shrink.

For speculative purposes, let's assume that, in the year 2024, somebody in some lab somewhere finds a way to synthesize unobtanium, the currently strictly-theoretical element that serves as the causus belli in Avatar. If this happens (or if some scientist finds a reason why unobtanium cannot exist) then Avatar's visions of militarized intergalactic unobtanium mines will look as quaintly incorrect as the bullet rocket of Méliès's Le Voyage dans la lune. When that happens, retro-cinema fans will have less reason to hassle High Plains Invaders for its boneheaded handling of science. Rather, it will just look like people of the first decade of the 21st century didn't really have any grasp of science. (A fair assessment, really.)

Advances in CGI will make even our best efforts at the art look clumsy, further narrowing the gap between crappola like High Plains Invaders and supposedly state-of-the art flicks like Avatar. When the stuff we thought was cutting edge looks hopelessly clunky and out of date, the distinctions we made between good and bad CGI will vanish for later viewers.

This not to say that you can't make quality distinctions between old films. We do, and should. But it seems to me that these distinctions always come to rest on those most primal artistic elements: plot and character, empathy and insight, line and form. It's these things that remain clear when all the other details blur.