Thursday, September 30, 2010

Movies: Nagging persistence of the dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus the CGI is embarrassing.

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

Friday, September 24, 2010

Books: Gay for Johnny Depp?

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

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Under-Utilized Nightmares: L'Acallemon.

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

Today's 2UN: L'Acallemon, or as us monolinguals call him "the Gator Man."

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Books: Reheated leftovers?

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 10, 2010

Books: This is monstrous!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Movies: I've got "cannibals" written on one hand and "Franco" scrawled on the other.

The very idea of a Jess Franco cannibal picture called to my mind a scene from Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter. In that superlative flick, Bob Mitchum's surreally hammy psycho preacher, Harry Powell, relates a quick summary of all Christian theology using his two prison tats: the words love and hate inked across the flesh covering his metacarpals. The short review of several thousand years of religious thought involves him intertwining his fingers and physically acting out the struggle between good and evil, flipping his fists and raising and lowering his hands to show the relative strength of each concept.

For this review, you can imagine me doing pretty much the same thing, only I've got cannibals written on one hand and Franco scrawled on the other. (Though the technical details of the execution of said tattoo elude me at the moment.)

Long time readers of this blog know that I break for two subgenres of fright flick: alligator/crocdile pictures always have my attention and you can always interest me in a cannibal flick. We won't dwell on the charms of crocogator stories here, but a quick rehash of what makes cannibal films so interesting to me might be in order. Mainly, there's something pleasingly simple about the motivations of the baddies in such flicks. Sometimes a filmmaker decides to slather an ideological gloss over the whole thing - á la Cannibal Holocaust - and use people eating as a critique, but these efforts are almost universally doomed to self-parody by the extreme nature of the act they evoke.

Even in Deodato's infamous flick, perhaps the most intellectually overworked example of the subgenre, the idea that our violent, neo-colonialist filmmakers are punished for their hypocritical "civilized" mentality requires two conceptual slight of hand trick. First, the filmmakers themselves aren't deluded about themselves or human nature: they've filmed man's inhumanity to man and make no bones about violence, created and represented, being their bread and butter. They're, in a sense, cannibals. Second, the "natives" that ultimately turn the crew into brunch are, even prior to the intrusion of the filmmakers, a pretty nasty bunch: we see them delivering death-by-rape punishments to their womenfolk and, oh yeah, they think people are food. When the documentary makers and flesh-eaters finally clash, it has all the moral aspects of a dogfight: man is wolf to man, regardless of the man. It seems clear that Deodato wants to invoke some cultural relativism here, but the practical result of that is to announce that only the film crew's actions can be judged and it relegates the moral character of the natives to some sort of black box, which then transforms them into a plot device rather than characters. His effort to critique the filmmakers' inhumanity requires using humans as props.

Far better to avoid trying to make a moral case for anthropophagy and just pit a bunch of suckers against people-eatin' people. Admittedly, this is probably no less dehumanizing and racist, but then you at least avoid making an ass of yourself by flaunting your intellectual and moral superiority as you commit the same foul.

Which brings us to Jess Franco's Cannibals - a.k.a. Mondo Cannibale, White Cannibal Queen, Eaters of Men, The Goddess of the Barbarians, The Cannibal God, Mondo Cannibale 3: The Blonde Goddess (the movie is at once the original and its own sequel - this represents Franco's greatest cinematic innovation), and, of course A Girl for the Cannibals. Franco, as unconcerned about the politics of cannibalism as his is about the elements of good filmmaking, avoids tangling his slender flick in the weeds of moralizing.

Cannibals opens on an ill-fated Amazon expedition. The expedition's leader, Dr. Taylor, and his family are attacked on their boat by the oldest, least fit, whitest cannibal tribe in the Amazon. Human meat, Franco seems to be telling us, is not lean. Mrs. Taylor is killed and eaten on the boat. Like all good Euro-cinema cannibals, this tribe often takes its meat raw and on-the-go, and they think nothing of pausing in the middle of a sneak attack to grab a little person tartar appetizer. Dr. Taylor and his young daughter are taken back to the village. There the good doctor loses his arm, but manages to escape. He leaves his daughter behind.

Flash forward - crippled and emotionally scarred (but not too emotionally scarred, he's working on a new love interest in the form of his nurse), Taylor approaches the wealthy Barbara Shelton and her weirdly fey older-man toy Fenton to back a rescue expedition. They agree, but on the condition that they can come along. Why? I'm not sure. See the Amazon, shoot some cannibals, maybe find the half-chewed remains of this dude's baby girl. It'll be a lark.

As good an idea as a pleasure jaunt into cannibal country is, it all goes so very unexpectedly wrong. Socialites and local guides fall before the arrows and dental work of the flabby foe. And, to top the whole thing off, the premise of the "rescue" is compromised when Taylor discovers that his daughter has gone native: she now the White Goddess of the tribe. We know to capitalize that as her proper title because the cannibals, whenever they mention her, break out of the painfully lame ooga-booga of their native tongue to say, in English, "White Goddess."

So, which fist wins?

Sadly, Franco is not a spice. The genre pleasures of the cannibal flick evaporate in the face of the limitless indifference of Franco's rigorous commitment half-assed filmmaking. Slackly paced, barely acted, peopled with the worst blackface tribe this side of a Dan Rice show, and hobbled by a laughably crappy script, the whole thing is a testament to the career of a man who famously claimed that he's never made a movie he liked. I hear you loud and clear, Jessie.

Really, the only thing worth pondering about the film is whether or not Jess Franco hated the idea of making a cannibal so much that he botched it on purpose. I don't propose the possibility to be flip. In an interview in the special features, Franco makes his contempt for the cannibal features his flick apes (perhaps satirizes poorly?) clear. He refers to them as "stupid," which appears to be Franco's go-to condemnation (for example, he expresses his contempt for Sabrina Siani by calling her the Queen of the Stupid People). He especially mocks them for their extended bouts of viscera eating and claims that the longer a flick lingers on such things, the stupider it becomes. Then why, we're then forced to ask, is Cannibals punctuated with repeated close-up, slow-mo scenes of Franco's un-natives gumming raw steak? In fact, these endless scene that are so extremely shot that they nearly become abstract cinema are the film's most distinctive visual feature. Franco made sure to pack his flick with what he states is the stupidest part of any cannibal flick. Is it a mistake? Or did he do it on purpose?