Saturday, July 31, 2010

Movies: Misremembering to be surprised.

In light of the fizzling firecracker that is media coverage of Predators, I decided to revisit the original flick.

Oddly, I was completely surprised by the very first scene.

And, I should add, I've seen Predator more often than I care to remember. In fact, I got into a nearly four-year long debate in college about whether a weapons system like Old Painless actually existed. That's how into the freakin' film I was. (The answer, then as now, is "kinda, but not the way it is represented in the flick.")

And yet, I realized that I've somehow blocked the very first scene out of my mind.

And I don't think I'm alone on this. Running through the criticism of Predator, both among the pro set and the Holly Hobbyists of the personal blog set, is the idea that one of the things that makes Predator stand out is the unexpected, genre-warping second-act twist that, one first viewing, hit folks from out of nowhere.

This despite the fact that the very first scene - what we see even before the credits - is an image of an alien drop ship dumping something on Earth.

Perhaps all the other pro-am blog types mean their descriptions to be taken in a more nuanced way, but I honestly remember the appearance of the alien big game hunter as a complete surprise. I remember the flick starting with Arnie and Co. landing dramatically on a South American beachfront - imagine a reworking of the Air Cav scene for the Reagan Era - and Arnie bantering with Apollo Creed.

But there it is, clear as day, a big ol' "Hey, this is freakin' sci-fi movie and there be aliens in them there footage" scene as the first thing we see. In fact, it oddly resembles the opening shot of Carpenter's The Thing remake, which hit screens nearly five years earlier. I have no idea whether or not this is an intentional homage or a coincidence. My general instinct is to, when in doubt, credit filmmakers with the talent and background knowledge. Given that one can find similar echos to films as diverse (yet, strangely, alike in their white-folks-in-the-bush anxieties) as Apocalypse Now and King Kong, I don't feel wholly out of place giving McTeirnan the benefit of the doubt that the allusion is intended.

More importantly, weird. Why do I always forget that the movie plays the alien card from frame one?

Now that my weird - though perhaps not so weird, does anybody remember that the second act appearance of the alien is a Chekhov's gun? - inability to remember the flick is out of the way, my impressions of the original, viewed decades later, is how dated it seems. Not the effects, which are still beautiful, if no longer state of the art. Ironically, the original Predator's masking effect actually feels right - it's imperfections suggest an actual device at work rather than the seamless irreality of CGI. Rather, it's the action that seems dated. There's something distinctly early '80s about the action.

Action doesn't seem like something that should age. Sure, there are changing norms of acceptable explicitness in films, curves of fx development, and, like all human creative endeavors, the art of disassembling fellow humans into their constituent humans is an ever eager adopter of the latest technological innovations. But action - boiled down to its basic, we're talking about energetic motion - seems like it should be a constant.

But it's none of the factors listed above that date Predator so distinctly. Rather it's the relentless dehumanizing firehose application of violence that captures a distinctly Reagan Era fantasy about the application of power: The narrative of violence is essentially unilateral and what we talk about when we talk about violence is the imposition of our will on a mute world. Post-Vietnam, we strove to redefine violence in terms of mastering the ability to deal it. Emblematic of the shift is the distinction between John Rambo and the Terminator. Both films deal with characters programmed for violence. But, in First Blood, Rambo's hardwired capacity to kill is revolt against his own nature. It renders him both pathetic and monstrous. In contrast, there's a crystalline perfection to the violence of the Terminator. He's without conflict and built for it. (And, in a neat thematic match, he excuses our heroes violence by being a robot, and therefore okay to kill.) The development of the '80s expression of violence would be the story of Rambo's transformation from a nightmare vision of what we'd done to ourselves in order to create a people who are ready to kill into a story of people always ready to unleash hell for the proper cause.

Predator is a near perfect expression of this in that we get two seemingly contradictory, but self-reinforcing projections of this fantasy: First there's the slaughter of the rebel camp, then the mano-a-xeno combat between Gov. Shwarzenegger and the titular alien (not called Predator or a Predator anywhere in the flick - the alien is simply identified as "the creature" in the credits). In the first fight, Arnie's team brings a beat down that is almost comically one-sided. In fact, not almost: Arnold and a handful of his crew find time to crack a few one liners as they mow down scores of left-wing rebels (we learn later of the rebel's Marxist sympathies - the reason it presumably okay to mow them down wholesale). The "fight" at the rebel compound is massacre. And, in the end, Dutch and Co. learn that the whole thing was a snow job. The Marxist rebels have no hostages and they were sent in as assassins. They are upset about being lied to, though this is more because a bond of personal trust was violated and not because they killed dozens of men under false pretenses. It's the killers that are important. The victims, by virtue of being victims, aren't.

In the second act of the film, by far the most interesting segment, Our Men at War start to get picked off by the Predator. The reason this section has always interested me most is this because it's here that the flick threatens to eat itself. Prior to now, the crew were straight out of central casting: the stoic indian, the weary warrior, the nice guy, the nerd, the redneck - and so on. Suddenly they all begin to crack. They show fear and their personalities cleave in bizarro, not totally logical ways. My favorite scene in the whole flick appears in this section: When Bill Duke's crazed Mac character, nearly exhausted, is chasing after the beast while wheezing out Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally." There are more thematically sound scenes - such as the brilliantly thunderous impotence of the scene where our panicked boys level the jungle in a vain attempt to tag the invisible Predator - but few get at the surreal bad ugly that threatens to engulf this flick like the disjointed, grim nakedness of this moment.

At this point in the film, it would seem like the script's been flipped and it is now the American soldiers's turn to feel what it is like to be on the receiving end of violence. It would seem as if they've been put in the place of the freedom fighters - oh, um, I mean, Communist militants they slaughtered. But, as depicted, the relationship is not all that similar. Even at the worst moments, the mercenary crew is not summarily slaughtered like the rebels were. Right when the flick looks like it's about to spiral into some dark pit of craziness and doom, the third act redeems act one and two by evoking another myth of American might. Less you think that the soldiers' ability to turn the rebel camp into an al fresco abattoir was simply due to their technological superiority, Arnie taps into the rugged lone American archetype, the survivalist killer frontier spirit that allows him to defeat the beast and demonstrate that our dominance is natural, Darwinistic.

He even survives getting nuked, so as to suggest that, while we are the only country to use a nuclear weapon in combat, we could totally take it too if we had to.

Curiously, John McTiernan, the director of Predator, put this kind of supermanish unilateral hero out to pasture himself. Recent Sly Stallone blamed - believe it or not - Tim Burton and Michael Keaton for killing off the muscle-bound action icons of the 1980s. But Sly utterly misses the point. John McClane, with his abused body and edge of panic approach to heroics, was the beginning of the end for Arnie. Not that McClane was somehow less a fantastic projection or any less morally complicated. Heroes always overstep the bounds of the moral order. (Even Atticus Finch breaks the law.) McClane reintroduced an almost Buster Keatonish sense of scale. McClane, even before the first bullet flew, was out of his class. With his informal, off-duty cop clothes in the dapper corridors of high-powered business, he doesn't fit from the jump. And his efforts always seem last second, barely pulled off, half inspiration and half luck. The image I feel most captures McClane's appeal is him, trailing a A Better Tomorrowush ribbon of blood into the bathroom to dig glass out of his feet.

That, it seems to me, was the beginning of the end for Dutch-style action hero. But then I couldn't even remember the whole spaceship at the beginning of the movie, so what the hell do I know?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Stuff: Because owning a silver cross you could maybe melt down into a bullet isn't really "werewolf insurance."

I don't often get the chance to throw a link to an insurance site up on ANTSS, so when it does happen I feel weirdly elated. Term Life Insurance, of all folks, has actually whipped up the following table of super serious, very real threats for you to ponder when you debate just what sort of coverage you need. Click to read the whole thing.

Term Life Insurance

Via: Term Life Insurance

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Guest Blogger: The other kind of pirate chest.

For the first anniversary of the wonderful
Pauline's Pirates & Privateers blog, I was asked to do a guest post. The good captain was generous emough to let me get on in my standard long-winded manner: I got carried away and turned in a big ol' two-part meditation on naked breasts, pirate queens, gay pirate marriage, the economic logic of mono-gendered pirate crews, working class revolt, Eugène Delacroix, patriarchy, and the single most expensive porn film ever made. You can read the first part today and check out the second post tomorrow. While you're there, be sure to wish the blog a happy birthday.

Huzzah for Pauline!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Music: Throw them into the pit!

With their smartly stupid sound, which fuses Black Flag-ish hardcore with sludgy arena rock, and their wry humor, which is an ironic piss take on the trendy pop flavored consequence-free fauxmosexuality that is the radical chic of our modern straight white male hipster, Gay for Johnny Depp is the new Nation of Ulysses. Here's their "Shh, Put the Shiv to My Throat." There's blood and an allusion to Twin Peaks, so I'm countin' it legit as a horror bloggy thing, though it probably ain't.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Movies: They don't have to die; it'd be fine if they just went away.

The man who queues up SuicideGirls Must Die gets what he deserves.

Billed as the world's first "reality horror film," SGMD is a clunky, tedious mix of Jersey Shore, Blair Witch, the Syfy channel's Scare Tactics, and those old Making of the Swimsuit Issue specials that HBO used to run between airings of Supercop. The premise of the flick is that ladies at the SG headquarters decide to hoax a dozen or so of their bepierced and heavily-inked ladies by dragging them up to a cabin under the guise of a calendar shoot and then convincing them that they've become the targets of some stalking, murderous creepy person or persons.

I'm vague on the number of actual models involved in this fiasco because, despite their professed commitment to individual expressions of sensuality, I'm incapable of telling apart most of the ladies in the film. One of them is a bit tubby, one's a red headed giantess, one's black, and one is named Fractal (she only does this sort of thing to help pay for rental time on the LHC in Geneva - time is money and mommy's willing to flash a little flesh if it means new a conjecture resolving the hierarchy problem). Otherwise, they're all "that mouth-breathing one with the tattoos ."

On a conceptual level, there's plenty that's interesting about SGMD.

First, there's the play on the perceived authenticity of porn, a subgenre that even film scholars tend to mistakenly invest with an aura of the real. As one of the two "body genres," there's a myth that situates pornography as an unmediated experience: You're really seeing sex laid bare and you consume it at a gut level. In contrast, there's at least three levels of performative fakery at work in this flick. There's the schtick of the SuicideGirls company, the America Apparel of softcore. Its rebel pose and for-women-by-women pitch ignore the fact that the biz is owned by a gent and the SG look has produced a factory-standard monotony in its visuals. Then there's the stated hoax-centric filming process. Then there's the fact that, in actuality, the hoax was a hoax and it is pretty apparent from the jump that everybody is in on the joke (in several of the scenes involving the girls wandering off on their own, shadows of sound crews are visible).

Second, the flick gets dangerously close to a neat idea when it pulls this L'avventura bit with Fractal. Over the course of the film, a small crew of girls (and an unacknowledged, poorly hidden sound crew) go to a small island to shoot Fractal's pin-up shots. After the shoot, Fractal walks into the woods to take a leak. She vanishes. The island is searched and she's gone. Had the movie milked this surreal idea - that a model just vanished from this tiny little island in Maine without reason and then let the other models puzzle out what this inexplicable disappearance meant - you might have gone somewhere. Sadly, it never gets that interesting.

Third, there's something bizarre about a porn company that's been accused of exploiting its models creating a flick that involves them pretending to vanish models after they've served their purpose. Was this a brazen provocation aimed at critics? Or an odd slip that revealed the real ideological stance of the company?

But that makes it sound more interesting than it is. SuicideGirls Must Die pulls off the trick of making nudity and murder dull as a particularly slow Real World episode and achieves the miraculous in doing what I thought no film could: It made me nostalgic for Blood Monkey.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Movies: Fangbanging in the BK.

Brooklyn's own BAMcinématek has come up with a pretty good alternative to roasting outdoors and sweating your way through the dregs of the summer. Their new series, Bela Lugosi's Dead, Vampires Live Forever, gives you a reason to hide in darkened, air-conditioned theaters for the rest of the summer. Highlights include:
  • Live musical accompaniment for Murnau's silent classic, Nosferatu
  • Probably one of the few chances you'll get to see the Hammer lesbo vamp flick The Vampire Lovers on the big screen
  • The Spanish language version of Browning's 1931 vamp cinema milestone Dracula
  • The wry art house vamp flick Nadja followed by a Q&A with the director Michael Almereyda
There's nine flicks on the slate and the whole runs throughout August.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Movies: "The Most Successful Horror Movie Series."

According to Reuters, this year at the San Diego Nerd Prom, Guinness World Records will officially bestow the title "Most Successful Horror Movie Series" onto the Saw franchise.

Admittedly, by "success" Guinness is talking strictly in financial terms. Still, the numbers are impressive. Adjusting dollars for purposes of comparison, we get the following worldwide box office revenues:

Halloween (10 films, including the two Zombie directed remakes) = $366,893,444
Friday the 13th (12 films, including the 2009 remake) = $465,239,523
Nightmare on Elm Street (9 films, including 2010 remake) = $446,590,447
Saw (6 films) = $738,465,450

I don't have a lot of new analysis on this, so I'll just do a quick re-cap of a point I made previously regarding the series. I think the overwhelming, and to many bloggers completely baffling, success of the Saw franchise is mainly a generational thing. Bloggers, by and larger, represent an older generation: the post-boomers, Gen X, whatever you wish to call it. There's is a tiny generation. They were dwarfed by the boomers and now they are vastly outnumbered by the rising generation after them (which is, so far, the largest generation America has ever seen). When we talk about the horror icons that are precious to horror fans from the Slasher Era, we're talking about characters beloved by one of the smallest cohorts of horror filmgoers ever to buy movie tickets. That these same characters dominate criticism on the blogosphere gives them an air of importance and relevance that, in reality, is simply a byproduct of the fact that most bloggers are self-selected representatives of that same tiny cohort. In fact, outside of the clique of '80s horror nostalgists, I suspect these characters just aren't that important to most folks. By contrast, assume that every generation has some minor portion of folks who become horror fans and that this proportion to the larger generation is roughly stable, then you've got a truly massive cohort of horror fans who want their own icons, their own stories. And perhaps that's the real crime of the wealth of remakes and reboots: It robs one generation of its own chance to be a part of a story, instead holding them hostage to the tired, reheated stories of a previous generation.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Mad science: Start by asking them how their flight was. And while they're distracted, go all Wolverines on the green bastards!

Above: Train them now! An oversized head? Make sure it's dead!

The regular "Examiner" column at Slate answers the question: "Do we have an alien-contact plan in place?"

The answer: Not for any situation where we'd really need it. There is an existing protocol, proposed by SETI, for reacting to the discovery of a signal from the far reaches of space.

The protocol, adopted in 1989, is that if someone detects a radio signal seemingly indicating that we're not alone, he should get in touch with SETI researchers, who will help him verify whether the signal is really and truly evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. At that point, he should notify the International Astronomical Union as well as the United Nations and relevant research organizations. On the finders-keepers principle, the discoverer would get to make the first public announcement, but data should be made available to the international scientific community. (Source coordinates, however, would be kept secret, to avoid a situation in which anyone with a radio telescope could start up a conversation.)

And that's all Kool and the gang; but what we all really want to know is if there's a plan for dealing with aliens who show up all determined to blow up our major landmarks, kill our leading citizens, and run off with our women folk. Aside from "contact Will Smith," there is no plan.

In the farfetched Hollywood scenario wherein we detect an alien spaceship or aliens send us a Greetings, Earthlings!-type message—all bets are off. (If the Pentagon or some such has a plan for how to deal with contact, it's classified.) Naturally the response would hinge on the nature of the contact: peaceful or violent, needy (give us fossil fuels) or helpful (cold fusion). Many scientists, including Stephen Hawking, believe that contact with intelligent aliens would end badly for us—we'd be the Native Americans to the alien Europeans. "I imagine they might exist in massive ships," Hawking said recently, "having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach."

Lacking official protocol, those worried about first contact can turn to the very unofficial Introduction to Planetary Defense: A Study of Modern Warfare Applied to Extra-Terrestrial Invasion. Like Hawking, the authors believe humans would play the part of Native Americans circa 1492. They also think that, in light of the sluggish global response to natural disasters, there's little indication that we could react effectively to invasion. Since we'll probably be technologically outmatched, the best defense strategy would be guerilla warfare.

So we graffiti alien installations with "Martians Go Home" and start making Molotov cocktails. Apparently plan A is more Red Dawn than ID4.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Movies: Cut to the chase.

Laid to Rest, writer/director Robert Hall's '09, was a bit of a dud with slasher fans. Fans of slashers cited its believability shredding plot, the quality of the acting, the thinness of the characterizations, clumsy dialogue, and over-reliance on jump scares as reasons for their dislike. Though, honestly, those are hallmarks of the sub-genre and are as integral to classic slashers as edged weapons and torn teenage flesh. On almost every standard metric, Laid to Rest falls pretty much dead-center in slasher quality bell curve.

That said, there is something odd about the flick. In approaching the shop-worn clichés of the slasher flick - tropes that had exhausted their dramatic and horrific potential nearly two decades ago - Hall tries to keep things free by 1) going outside the big franchises for inspiration and 2) taking an absurdist, minimalist approach to the material.

The baddie of L2R is Chome Skull: a mask-wearing, knife-weilding slasher straight out of slasher central casting. For an insane homicidal loner, Chrome Skull's a fairly dapper gent: his matching death's head mask and baroque barbed knives jump out against his understated thin suit, with militaristic flourishes that are both handsome and functional (the smart epaulette on is right shoulder serves as housing for his camera), and plain black tee. Furthermore, the innovative use of medical adhesive to secure his strapless mask in place gives him a sleek profile that Jason and Michael Meyers must surely envy. Despite the nice character design, there's a tiring sameness about Chrome Skull. He looks like one those satirically derivative slashers that appear in Hack/Slash. At one point, threatened by one of his victims, Chrome Skull unsheathes his knives and sighs wearily, as if to say, "Back to the old stab-stab." The viewer can sympathize.

It isn't the update look of his killer that's Hall's smartest redeployment of vintage '80s horror detritus. Rather it's the heavy borrowings from Phantasm and The Hitcher, two second-tier flicks, that give this unnecessary trip down retro lane some spark. Though the look is Voorhees by way of The Sartorialist, the Tall Man and his funeral house trappings are equally evident. The overall plot, in which Chrome Skull doggedly pursues a single victim through the lonely back roads (here the Southeast rather than the Southwest) punishing anybody unlucky enough to cross paths with his victim, owes far more to relentless John Ryder than the teen slaughtering villains of the bigger slasher franchises. Hall also reconfigures Phantasm's unusual team dynamic, pitting his killer against a oddly assembled group of determined fighters rather than a relatively defenseless gang of kids. Sure, this doesn't elevate L2R beyond the level of reheated cultural leftovers, but at least we're not being asked to eat the same three meals we've been served over and over.

The other thing that helps L2R differentiate itself from the copies, remakes, reboots, relaunches, re-imaginings, reinvestments, rebrandings, and what have yous is Hall's distillation of the slasher formula to its minimal elements. Hall's flick is essentially an extended final girl chase with all the unnecessary slasher baggage trimmed away. Hall spends as little time on background and characterization as possible. The victims of slasher flicks were always plot points disguised as human beings. With their lack of depth and the irrelevance of their characterizations, they all might as well have been shipped straight to Haddonfield direct from some overseas victim factory. (It is a sign of how little characterization actually took place in any of these movies when the people will cite as an example of good characterization the fact that a specific character fights back against their killer.) Hall recognizes this and embraces it. His final girl, credited as "the girl," literally comes out of a box without a past. She starts the film by crawling out of a coffin with no memory of who she is or why she's in a coffin. The result is a light-weight, nimble flick that runs off grimly absurdist humor. (One of my favorite touches is fact that Chrome Skull, the only slasher to have customized license plates that advertise his identity, actually has a briefcase that matches his mask and weapons - told you he was dapper!)

So why didn't slasher fans go for this? I'm not sure. I suspect that Hall's attempts to streamline the sub-genre stinks of heresy. Slasher fans worship their genre and worship needs ritual. The slasher formula exerts such a powerful drive to orthodoxy because it is so near-perfectly ritualistic. The positives of Laid to Rest are not strong enough to counterbalance what you lose when you deny viewers the ritual pleasures of genre.

L2R is middling slasher. If you're moving-watching agenda has room for such thin pleasures, you could do worse.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Magazines: Your editorially-mandated vigor for all thing horror appalls me.

In Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, there's a scene in which the the reader is subjected to the rodomontades of a city booster organization that exists nominally to promote the attractions of the booming town of Zenith; but, in reality, their utter indifference and contempt for all things not Zenith, means that they function as an echo chamber hallelujah chorus, a fevered roundtable of self-aggrandizement at which every discussion topic, every idea, bends back to the simple conclusion that Zenith is paradise on Earth and its noble citizens the chosen people of the one true God. Underneath all the civic good feeling, of course, is a simmering undercurrent of commerce: Be a good town, bring in more people, make more money. The brilliance of the civic booster organization is that it merges pride and joy with the promotion of naked commercial interest.

One feels the same relentless drive to praise at the core the newly revived Famous Monsters of Filmland. With issue 251, the magazine once again slouches towards magazine racks everywhere. FM isn't a magazine that covers horror-themed events so much as it is tireless advocate for the genre. This isn't journalism or scholarship, it's horror boosterism. And, of course, under it all is the same drive for commercial promotion. One wonders why people buy commercials in Famous. Most of the stories are ads. Take the not one, but two stories about the Predator franchise. Despite the fact that the overall story arc for this particular Hollywood property is that it has been one-hit wonder that people apparently can't stop diluting with lesser follow-ups - a couple of which are spectacularly embarrassing - Famous dutifully retraces the well-tread ground of the original (though this might be the first review of said film that uses the term "gravitas" in earnest while discussing the classic sci-fi/actioner) and breathlessly asserts how the horror community waits, aquiver with anticipation, to see the new one ("Horror-fans went mad with the news . . ."). Not only is this one more story than the franchise rates, but it is impossible to tell which story is less needed. Were the editors concerned that readers were unfamiliar with the original Predator? Or did they think there was a burning desire out there to see the past six or seven months of Internet-based PR hackery collected into a single place, in dead tree format?

Perhaps most notably, by my count, there are only two mentions of the three middling to horrible sequels. The first comes in the piece about the new flick. There's a brief mention that the new monster makers felt Predator designs after the first film bulked up too much. Though, honestly, that was the least of the problems that plagued those flicks. The second is a short reference to the fact that the actor who played the first Predator, Kevin Peter Hall, reprised the role for the sequel. No reference to the fact that the franchise has been slowly rotting ever since the first. No reference to the prevailing feeling amongst fans that Robert Rodriguez's mission was essentially a sort of code blue, last ditch effort to revive a franchise that hadn't delivered the goods in more than 20 years. Nothing to suggest what reviewers are now confirming: Caution is the better part of fanboy exuberance.

I pick on these two Predator articles because they reveal the deadening aspect of Famous's relentlessly promotional style. Despite allegedly having two different authors, there's a sort of monotonous official cheerfulness, blended with a toadying care not to step on the toes of the corporate money, that makes Famous as close to a pop culture Tass as one can get in a free, capitalist society.

Even where the question of slavishly bending the knee before the dollar men is irrelevant, such as the issue opening think piece on "The Importance of Horror" and the profile of Karl Freund, this boosterish quality leads to Mojo-ism. Once, in my impressionable youth, I read a Brit music mag that actually put on its cover the blurb "Nevermind the Beatles, Here's the Shadows." The inner article told the story of how the now relatively obscure Shadows actually made a slight dent in the American market before the Beatles. Though, that wasn't the way the story told it. Drunk on it's own iconoclastic discovery, the article lost all sense of scale and suggested a proto-Brit invasion had been staged by the Shadows all by their onesies. This is, of course, rubbish. The Beatles don't get to be the basis of the term "Beatlemania" because they put a dent in the American pop charts. Anywho, I was suckered and bought this huge old box set of Shadows stuff, waiting to hear music that would make me "nevermind the Beatles." For those unfamiliar with them, the Shadows are a Brit surf band (which is a choice paradox in itself) and take my word for it when I tell you that you don't need to listen to several hours of their music to realize the Beatles' place in rock history is secure. Ever since that incident, magazine overhype, driven by the need to promote an endless stream of new heroes and lost gems, has been know among my people as Mojo-ing. Fall for it, and you've been Mojo-ed.

Famous is Mojo-ing porn.

My favorite example of Mojo-ing comes in the profile of Karl Freund. Now I'll admit that Freund is a sadly overlooked figure in horror cinema history. But writer David Alex Nahmod Mojos the crap out of Freund's career. In this obsessively worshipful piece, we learn that Fruend's camera work on The Golem is what makes it superior to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. On the basis of his camerawork, Freund is compared obscurely, but favorably to director D. W. Griffith: "Lillian Gish said that D. W. Griffith gave film its grammar. But it was Freund that freed film from its constraints." (This is a particularly fine example of Mojo-ing as it is utterly meaningless, but uses a recognizably cliched bit of praise to keep us from unpacking it. What does that sentence even mean? He freed film from Griffith's grammar? From the constraints of stage conventions? Freed film from the constraints of film? What would that even mean?) He knocks Tod Browning down a peg or two. Freund, we're told, is the single person most responsible for the look of classic horror. In his discussion of Metropolis, the writer blames the slow parts of the flick on that hack Fritz Lang and gives all credit for anything that works in the flick to Freund. Freund also built the first commercially viable electric car (Big Oil suppressed his invention), cured cancer (Big Cancer suppressed that), solved the mystery of traveling through time (suppressed by calendar publishers), and definitively located the elusive g-spot (this wasn't suppressed; dudes just ignored it).

This blogger-ish tendency to get its world rocked by every minor connection it finds become clownish after just a few pages. Furthermore, it leads to a level of discourse you can currently get for free on in the horror blog-twitter pro-am. Lazy scholarship defending half-baked theories? You're soaking in it!

Taking the long view, one can recognize the historical roots of this problem. The relaunch issue is bookended by Ackerman: the front features a letter to the fans from the Acker-monster. In the back, there's a collection of testimonials - more like a final fan letter collection than an oral history - informing us what a hell of guy Ackerman was. That the rest of the magazine is basically trapped in the space between monuments to Ackerman is as apt a metaphor for everything that's wrong with Famous as you're going to get. From '93 to '07, the editorship of Famous was, depending on your point of view, assumed or highjacked by a cat named Ray Ferry. The legality of Ferry's assumption that FM's copyright had not been maintained, Ferry's real crime in the eye's of FM-ites is that he didn't worship at the altar of Ackerman. He treated the Acker-monster like the hired help (which, according to Ferry's view of the situation, was exactly what Ackerman was). This toxic business deal turned into a nearly decade long battle between Ackerman and Ferry for control of the rag. In 2000, the courts sided with Ackerman, but - somewhat inexplicably - nobody moved on the bankrupted Ferry and he was able to crank out issues into 2007. The FM War ended in late '07 with another regime change: a private equity investor named Philip Kim bought the distinctive logo and title and negotiated with Ackerman to gain control of attached rights in exchange for guarantees that the mag's look and feel would be maintained.

The result, the decision to save Famous Monsters of Filmland came with a rider that stipulated that the had to stay a museum piece.

FM one-long-huzzah approach to "journalism" was, in Ackerman's day, a somewhat reasonable approach to the imagi-movies (Ackerman's term for the mix of genre's he loved: horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and so on). Not because the quality of films was, in Ackerman's time, any better than our own, but rather because the genre was then a sort of intellectual and cultural reservation for ideas and tropes the mainstream considered infantile, repulsive, foolish, and whatnot. Horror, sci-fi, and fantasy needed cheerleaders to establish their legitimacy. But that battle's over. Genre is the new mainstream. Ackerman won.

Today, the sort of undifferentiated vigor of the rag seems out of step with our times. It seems quaint and bloodless, two traits we don't need in modern horror.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Books: Harper Lee and Tod Browning.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of the classic novel - one of the many claimants for the title "The Great American Novel" - To Kill a Mockingbird. Since this is a horror blog, I'm not going to dwell on the novel's concise vivisection of class and race mores in the South or it's brilliant, ironic use of a child's perspective to create a classic American mock epic satire (the mock epic is the essential American comedy mode, and something which the WSJ is apparently unfamiliar with).

Instead, I'm going to focus on the cameo Tod Browning's 1931 classic make is in the book. In the first chapter, Lee introduces Charles Baker "Dill" Harris. On first meeting Scout, the novel's six-year-old narrator, and her old brother Jem, Dill (allegedly based on the youthful Truman Capote) discusses a horror classic:

Dill was from Meridian, Mississippi, was spending the summer with his aunt, Miss Rachel, and would be spending every summer in Maycomb from now on. His family was from Maycomb County originally, his mother worked for a photographer in Meridian, had entered his picture in a Beautiful Child contest and won five dollars. She gave the money to Dill, who went to the picture show twenty times on it

"Don't have any picture shows here, except Jesus ones in the courthouse sometimes," said Jem. "Ever see anything good?"

Dill had seen
Dracula, a revelation that moved Jem to eye him with the beginning of respect. "Tell it to us," he said.

Dill was a curiosity. He wore blue linen shorts that buttoned to his shirt, his hair was snow white and stuck to his head like duck-fluff; he was a year my senior but I towered over him. As he told us the old tale his blue eyes would lighten and darken; his laugh was sudden and happy; he habitually pulled at a cowlick in the center of his forehead.

When Dill reduced Dracula to dust, and Jem said the show sounded better than the book . . .

Here's the question to debate: In the film, Dracula is not reduced to dust at the end. Is Lee misremembering? Is Dill Capote misremembering? Or is Dill making up a story based on what he's heard of the film and book in order to impress Jem and Scout?

Have some Lane Cake and celebrate an American classic.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Movies: Constantly intellectually ambushed by the obvious.

I kinda feel bad about this. Here I've not done a movie review in a million years, and now this is what I bring you: Razortooth, Patricia Harrington's 2007 straight-to-video creature feature about an outsized, man-eating freshwater eel.

I feel like a husband who has come home hours late, stinking of booze and cheap perfume, and my only excuse is, "Um, I was attacked. By a giant mutant eel. That stunk of booze and cheap perfume. I'm lucky to be alive and certainly happy to see you again, my dear. How was your day?"

But giant eel is what I've got. So here goes . . .

Razortooth opens with a scene of two on-the-run fugitives fresh from a jailbreak being chased by a small gang of cops through a swamp. You can tell the people chasing them are police officers because they all wear identical t-shirts: black tees with the word "Police" on them. They have no badges; no vests; no holsters and equipment belts; and apparently chased these dudes on foot, as they have no vehicles anywhere.

It's the first of and endless stream of goofy, amateur-hour moments throughout the film. But, honestly, they feel more playful than painful. Not in an ironic, self-conscious way; but rather in a "hey gang, let's make a movie" way. One almost wonders if sales of the video didn't go to save the youth center or pay off Granny's mortgage. A certain underdog-boosting goodwill goes a long way. To return to the police shirt example, it reminds one of the branded thug t-shirts villains in the original West Era Batman show used to wear. It cheesy, but also clearly a product of a production with so little money that most of the prop guns that appear in the flick are BB guns (in fact, one of the officers in the film even gives his gun a pump to build up some pressure - as if the fact that it was a BB gun was actually part of the in-film world). In contrast, Frank Miller pulls the same "uncostume" bit for his semi-disposable thugs in his abortion of a Spirit adaptation, only he thinks the joke is so worthwhile that he not only repeats it throughout the flick, but makes it part of an on-going CGI gag that must of cost him about 20 Razortooths. The former seems auto-Sweded, the latter seems like another sad example of that peculiar brand of Hollywoodland creativity that believes an idea is rejuvenated if one simply does it more expensively.

That said, Razortooth is still a God awful film. The kind of flick where somebody can follow the line "Somebody tore this place apart" with the line "Or something" and think they've really nailed a dramatic moment.

The plot of the flick involves a handful of excuses to fill a Florida swamp with folks who'd make fine grub for a giant, mutated eel. Somewhat awkwardly, the various plot threads need to happen in the same place (though, maybe not - the eel seems to be able to get wherever it is needed through a truly labyrinthian sewer system that forward thinking civil planners connected to every potential eel-victim kill site), but the are also dependent on happening in parallel dimensions of cluelessness. Violent escaped cons prowl the swamps; but, despite the fact that authorities believe these dudes slaughtered a handful of their Brothers in T-shirts, they do nothing to stop kids camp group from rowing into the swamp. In another instance of "and now you tell me" storytelling, an animal control agent is apparently aware of the fact that a mad science type in the swamp lost his position at a local university for mad sciencey violations of, um, the science code or whatever; but, again, he does nothing to indicate this to a handful of grad students who have shown up at his mad science base camp to help him with his mad studies.

This curious narrative dependence too-late exposition is somewhat explained by the fact that all the characters in the flick seem to be not stupid, really, but rather constantly intellectually ambushed by the obvious. For example, the mad scientist responsible for the beasty at the heart of the film explains a plan for killing the murderous monster. He gives a bit of backstory: An experiment caused the creature to experience amazing, unchecked growth. As it continued to grow, it broke lose from its tank, ate some researchers, and escaped to the swamp. The good doctor then explains that he plans to poison the beast. When the creature busted out, it was x feet long and, the confident scientist explains, he's done the calculations and has brought enough poison to bring even a creature that large down. At this point, one of the grad students wonders if the creature isn't bigger than that by now because, well, you know, the whole unchecked growth/continued growth thing. The scientist and the rest of the eel hunters seemed gobsmacked by this. You half expect the scientist to say, "Ye gods, the boy is right! Gettingbiggerosity, or the trait you non-scientists call 'growth,' does suggest the eel would have grown since then!"

Harrington's made the kind of flick that, prior to unlimited free access to porn over the Internet, used to passingly entertain young boys on bad weather Saturday afternoons. Now these flicks seem to exist mainly to garner snarky, self-satisfied horror blog reviews, and on those terms, Razortooth is a raging success.

As a postscript, imdb informs me that director Patty Harrington was once the casting director on a softcore crime actioner called Hot Ticket (a.k.a. Strip for Action, a.k.a. Hard Run). I don't know anything about this flick other than the fact that its tagline is the priceless "She stripped for a living. Now she must strip to live." Nice. If there's a sequel, I hope they used "You must strip to live on the Planet of the Hot Tickets!"

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Music: "This is what they make you take the medication for."

Aesop Rock and John Darnielle are so zombie that they sneeze tombstones and poop simplistic social themes.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Stuff: The roots of lycanthropy.

Sorry I've been flying under the radar for so long. While I toil away on the next review, here's some quality reading to keep you occupied. First, from the late, great Martin Gardener comes this study of

This choice bit describes the origins of the term lycanthrope:

The Greeks worshipped the wolfgod, Zeus Lycaeus and there are many stories of ordinary men being transformed into wolves and other creatures. In Graves' translation of Greek myths an account is given of the inhabitants of Parnassus who followed a pack of howling wolves to a mountain top where they established a new city, Lycorea. According to the myth, the Parnassians practiced Lyacaon's Abomination, a ritual where a boy was sacrificed and his guts made into a soup which was eaten by shepherds, one of whom would then turn into a tormented werewolf who was condemned to wander the countryside for 8 years, regaining his humanity if he refrained from eating human flesh. According to this legend a full recovery was possible as illustrated in the legend of Damarchus who went on to win a boxing prize at the Olympic Games after rigorous training in the gymnasium. The connection with cannibalistic practices is further illustrated in the legend of Lycaon, King of Arcadia, who was changed into a wolf as punishment for secretly feeding Zeus human flesh.

The article traces the cultural history of lycanthropy (as late as the 1700s, epidemics of lycanthropy would break out and, in one case, a French judge is reported to have condemned more than 600 sufferers to death) and ends on a curious note that suggests our own affection for werewolf fictions may have replaced religious inspirations for the disease. In short, movie werewolves might be creating modern lycanthropes:

To gain an understanding of certain bizarre psychiatric symptoms it may be helpful to consider the effects of religion and culture. At the time of the Inquisition, when the werewolf was a feared satanic representation, the incidence of lycanthropy peaked. As religious beliefs have changed, the perception of the devil as a wolf or goat-like creature has receded but is not entirely unfamiliar. These beliefs may be revived in those suffering from severe depressive illness where they are incorporated into delusions of guilt and sinfulness. Similarly, the cannibalistic and aggressive qualities of the lycanthrope can be traced back to the content of ancient myth and followed through the centuries when the werewolf retained these characteristics. Despite the passage of time, the werewolf remains a powerful and evocative image. The influence of myth and legend has been filtered and obscured with the passage of time but it is likely that the symptom of lycanthropy will continue to be seen as long as tales of the wolf-man can frighten us.