Thursday, October 28, 2010

Stuff: "A buffet of flimsily contained id."

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

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

Friday, October 22, 2010

Art: Does it itch?

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

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

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

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

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

This s**t just got real!

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

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

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

Sunday, October 17, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Books: The Age of Tired Monsters?

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

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

CM: Oh yeah, God.

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

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

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

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

Well, okay then.

Dear blog reader,

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

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

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

Dress code is casual. You may bring guests.

There's your written invite. No more excuses.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

True Crime: America's first serial killer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And don't forget . . .

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

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1: Create a Definition

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Movies: The 10:45 Meat Train, Local.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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