Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Stuff: And the dessert specials this evening are revenge and an orange crème brulee with poached quince compote.

The horror-themed web site The Monster Club has an excellent archive of old-school Halloween appropriate radio broadcasts.

The collection includes well-known classics, such as Welles' famous Mercury Theater War of the Worlds adaptation. However, there are some odd surprises mixed in. For example, there are several radio adaptations of then-popular suspense films. I've always known that radio plays were sometimes adapted into film, but I was unaware that this process cut both ways and was surprised to see how long these adaptations continued to be made. The Monster Club collection includes adaptations of The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Birds, The Wizard of Oz, and Gaslight, among others.

Even if you don't have time to listen to anything, the titles and show summaries for many of the lesser known broadcasts are worth the click through. Series include the The Price of Fear, Beyond Midnight, and the wonderful The Strange Dr. Weird. Here are a few choice episode summaries:

The Snowman Killing: A family with 2 boys moves into a new house. One boy begins to see a snowman no one else can see, while the other develops an odd malady.

Sub-basement: A mal-intending man takes his cheating wife to the sub basement of the department store where he works and discovers a horrible creature.

An Eye for an Eye: A chef creates a fantastic new dish, live octopus. Unfortunately, revenge is on the dessert menu. Starring and hosted by Vincent Price.

The collection also features performances from some of horror's most famous icons: including Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and, my favorite, Vincent Price.

Speaking of the price of fear, the whole darn collection is free. All treat, no trick. Happy Halloween.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Movies: How I stopped worrying and learned to love the bomb . . . and the taste of human flesh.

I did not have high hopes for the remake of The Hills Have Eyes released earlier this year. The original, while fun, was not a particular favorite of mine. Perhaps more importantly, it wasn't the sort of film I thought would be improved through the simple addition of more gore and slime – the overarching concept behind remakes since Bay started producing his somewhat tedious remakes of iconic '70s horror flicks. Happily, and somewhat to my surprise, the remake was better than I think anybody has reason to expect.

The plot, a reasonably close adaptation of the original, involves a family traveling West who takes one of those many unfortunate short cuts that litter the imagined landscape of the modern horror film. It is this family's bad luck to run afoul of a clan of mutated flesh-eating morlocks – the descendants of a mining community that refused to leave the area when the US government decided to use the area around their mining town for nuclear testing. The how and why of the situation is interesting, if not particularly convincing, but it does efficiently get all the elements into place: stranded family, harsh desert, mutant cannibals. What we've got is the classic Beau Geste trapped and surrounded scenario. Will the family pull together? Can they fend off their relentless attackers? The same plot has served Hollywood in across genres, from Rio Bravo to Aliens, for as long as people have been going to the ol' picture show, and it is so popular for a very simple reason: done well, it gives good movie. And, for the most part, The Hills Have Eyes is a well executed, tense, and worthwhile addition to the long tradition of the "circle wagons" sub-genre.

Much of the credit goes to the dramatic sensibilities director and screenwriter Alexandre Aja brought to his remake. One of the secrets to his success was the realization that tension, and not gore, is the real core of the "circle wagons" style film. Yes, there's gore in them there Hills, but the real core of the flick is the ever increasing tension and the cat and mouse game between our fish-out-of-water protagonists and their cannibalistic counterparts. The gore, what there is over it, is deployed to elevate the stakes and not as a sort of nerco-porn collection of travesties to wallow in. For comparison, think to that banner movie of the new horror revival Hostel. How much abuse was really necessary to tell the viewer that the characters were truly and deeply in horrific danger? Certainly some torture helps heighten our fear, but eventually we're not adding to tension so much as emerging ourselves in the details of bodily mutilation as a form of shocking our jaded sensibilities – pursuing excess as a way to get the jolt of the new (and it is at that tipping point that the guiding imagination behind Hostel shifts its sympathies from the side of the tortured victim to the sadistic thrill craving torturers). Instead of simply throwing around buckets of gore, Aja, who is not shy when it comes to aesthetic splatter, uses every violent incident to add an edge to the mounting levels of tension. This strategy explains why Aja is happy to off characters in the blink of an eye or even off screen, denying the gorehound his or her visual money shot, but increasing the viewers' sense of the protagonists' powerlessness. This is not to say Aja has made a gore free film – we get treated to a meat freezer of human parts that would make the Texas Chainsaw Family salivate as well at the now obligatory "hero loses some fingers" shot (the wound of choice for the new horror director – it is the perfect damage as is induces crazy squirming among audience members, but does not kick in their disbelief when, despite the pain and blood loss such a wound must actually cause, your hero continues to fight, run, and otherwise generally function). Interestingly, much of the gore comes from our heroes picking off mutants with axes and the like and from the violence the mutants bring down on our heroes. Again, the gore functions dramatically, emphasizing how savage our once innocent family has become in response to savagery.

The second secret to Aja's success is the use of imagery so seductive and powerful that it overcomes logical objections. This is, I think, what shows that that, despite the English dialogue, its origins in an American cult classic, and its American setting, Hills is very much a European horror film. Europeans have made an entire subgenre of horror that operates primarily on style over substance. From the iconic Eyes Without a Face to nearly any film from the Italian masters of horror – in the old world, creating an luxurious dream vision of the horrific trumps narrative logic or even the use of cause and effect. This is way Europe elevated the work of Poe and Lovecraft years before Americans realized what these homegrown horror masters had produced. There is even a familiar Euro-horror pattern that we see in Hills, namely: Take hero, remove to dream-like setting, sever ties from real-world, now pile on psycho-horror images. Think Susperia and Phenomenon. Heck, think Oasis of the Zombies or Werewolf in a Girl's Dormitory or Murder Mansion. All these movies start with our heroes not just finding themselves out of their normal surroundings, but in a surreal, almost magical and otherworldly place. The viewer is prepped for the illogic of what will follow by repeated warnings and ominous suggestions that they are no longer under the old order of the real (think of Phenomenon's wind that everybody suggests always blows and drives people mad – the idea is that the very weather in the place is insane).

In this film, Aja uses decaying fencing, faded signs with warnings from the government on them, the fading cell phone connections of our primary hero to suggest a drift into an alien otherness. His sun-blasted desert reminds one of an alien, lifeless landscape – even down to a visual allusion to Luke Skywalkers high-tech binoculars from Star Wars. This family didn't just drive into the desert; they've driven to another world were the normal rules – not just of civility, but of logic – don't apply. This division is necessary because there is a lot that is illogical, if not outright stupid, about the plot. For example, though the mutants' isolation is the key to their continued existence, apparently enough people come through their desert hellhole that they can live pretty exclusively on long-pig and even manage to keep a meat freezer full of seemingly fresh human parts well stocked. Also, though authorities are well aware of the missing folks these mutants have been offing regularly (and presumably in great numbers) since the 1960s, they've been unable to find either the above ground town the mutants call home or the giant crater full of victims' cars. This is especially absurd given the first people we see killed are a government research team. While one presumes a good number of the civilian victims could have all been lured off their path and therefore lost to any who might look for them, the government research team was presumably intentionally in the former radioactive zone, with their bosses fully aware of where they were sent. Still, while watching the film, these objections get rolled over by the excellent pacing and superior visuals. In our case, my friend and I even commented on some of these problems as we watched, but we were to into the flick to let our brains ruin it.

Aja pulled this same trick with less success in his breakout film, the much loved and much reviled High Tension. There, he attempted to use strong visuals to cover up a plot that simply does not work. Though the film has its fans (I'm one of them), even the most devoted of its supporters must try to explain away that films confused and unnecessary ending. I've heard nobody say the ending "works." At best, people argue it should be ignored in the light of better parts of the film. Here, the trick is much more effective.

There is a second way in which this is a very European flick. The somewhat pointless display of the target family's ultimately useless faith, the simplistic conflict set up between the clichéd right-wing thuggish father and the initially ineffective liberal wimp, the Lolita-ish teen daughter, the cultural artifacts the viewer sees are limited to barely heard crap rock and a short clip of Divorce Court – this family is some sort of Euro-intellectual's stereotype of the all-American family. The setting, a vacuous nowhere-land that swallows its residents whole, is the "no there there" visions of America related by Baudrillard, Bernard-Henri Levy, and dozens of other slumming French philosophers given horrible, literal life. The mutants are an odd study in the American body. Their deformed bodies are metaphors only slightly less subtle than the bloated American forms waddling through The Triplets of Belleville. It is an odd study in America has horrible nightmare vision, a weird byproduct of European's love/hate relationship with the US.

All and all, despite its flaws, Aja proves that he's a developing a real mastery of that uniquely European hallucinatory style of horror. In this case, he may have outdone a lackluster original film by bringing his Continental style to it. He certainly out did his previous film. Head for the Hills, it's worth the rental.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Comics: Damned if you don't.

Now this is what I'm frickin' talking about!

This week, Oni released that first issue Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt's five-issue limited series The Damned. It was another crowded week on the horror comic shelf – besides the usual tangle of zombie titles, this new work was going up against the gorgeous first issue of the new vampire series Impaler, the Showcase Phantom Stranger, and Dynamite's guilty pleasure Army of Darkness vs. the Reanimator TPB collection – and, having missed advanced press on this thing, I almost passed it by. And that would have a cryin' shame because it has, in the space of a single issue, jumped to the top of my read list.

The Damned is a creative fusion of horror comic tropes and 1920s gangster flick trappings. It follows the story of Eddie, a man with a most unusual curse. Eddie has a hard time staying dead. When he gets whacked – as one does when one is a gangster – he croaks just like anybody. But, should somebody touch his body, Eddie's fatal wounds transfer themselves to the toucher and Eddie is up and walking again, some new scars the only sign of his latest demise. Personally, Eddie's sick of the whole thing, all he wants is to be left dead so he can rot away in peace. But local gang boss Alphonse Aligheri, a horned demon with a fondness for natty suits and the finer things in life, needs Eddie. See, somebody is trying to queer a profitable peace treaty between the demon and a rival gang boss. It could be anybody: an out of town player making a move, a rival gang, somebody in his own organization. Eddie's the only guy he can trust because Eddie's been dead for the past three days and couldn't have been behind the trouble. Aligheri makes Eddie an offer. If Eddie fixes this little problem, Aligheri promises to quit digging him up. Eddie, eager for his true and final rest, takes the job.

There are superficial similarities to Dracula vs. Capone, which also serves up a tale of supernatural monsters and pin-striped gangsters. However, that series is really little more than a fun excuse for monster mayhem and tommy-gun trouble. It's a clever, but strictly light-weight project. The Damned is stronger stuff. In many ways it resembles the fully realized (if not fully revealed) criminal underworld fantasies of things like the superlative 100 Bullets. The dialogue, while full of tough-guy genre staples, is fresh and sharp. The characterizations are built on a bedrock of genre archetypes, but then twisted and reworked until they've got new life.

The black and white art is good. Though not as stylistically arresting as the neo-noir of Miller's otherwise knuckle-draggingly lame Sin City, it uses a naturalistic look to help make the strange and bizarre elements of this particular world seem everyday. It also deploys subtle cartoonish elements to great effect. The impossibly lanky Eddie, his face criss-crossed with scars from untold numbers of offings, is immediately visually appealing.

To top it all off, the first issue is a double-sized, commercial-free dealie for just $3.50. When other comics are bloating up on ad pages and charging us extra for it, this is a sweet little deal. Smart, good-looking, fun, cool, and cheap – if this was a date, you'd be all over it by now.

Damn good stuff.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Stuff: Cenobite case-mod – which is the nerdy way of saying "I made my computer look like the puzzle box from the Hellraiser flicks."

From my amigo David Ewalt over at Digital Download comes this odd little bit of Halloween creativity.

Some dude's new case-mod makes his computer look like the puzzle box – "the Lament Configuration" for those hardcore fans – from the Hellraiser films. For added cool points, an image of Pinhead's famous phiz glows through the casing when the lights are out.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Event: "But then maybe a spiritless age deserves a spiritless death. It is not for me to judge."

In 16th century, musicians dedicated to the performance funerary violin joined together to form what would become the oldest surviving artistic guild in England: the Guild of Funerary Violinists. Funerary violin music grew out of the Protestant Reformation. With the end of concept of Intercession, the idea that only priests could petition God on behalf of the souls of the departed, violin musicians filled the spiritual vacuum that death of priestly ritual left behind. The original funerary violinists would begin playing at funerals as early as the late 1586, with a well-reported performance at the funeral of famed poet Sir Philip Sidney. Granted official status under a warrant from Queen Elizabeth I, the Guild of Funerary Violinists spread the unique genre of funerary violin through England. By the 17th century, the art form was common throughout the Continent, especially in Protestant countries. Funerary violin truly becames its own genre when Friedrich Heidebrecht produced the first funerary violin suite in 1670. Funerary violin reached it peak during the Romantic Era, only to fade from memory in the modern era. The death of funerary violin was the product of specific political and religious purges as well as broad cultural trends. The Vatican-led Funerary Purges of the mid-19th Century were an enormous blow to the Guild. Furthermore, modern attitudes regarding death made the intensely meditative and melancholy art form seem morbid. Finally, the modal and tradition bound form, which rigorously eschewed virtuoso performances, failed to appeal to experimental and aggressive modernists. By the end of World War I, funerary violin was practically extinct.

In September of this year, the UK-based publisher Duckworth released a curious tome titled An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin. In the book, author Rohan Kriwaczek, the current acting President of the Guild of Funerary Violinists, lays out the history of this most obscure and unjustly forgotten genre of classical music as well as provides biographical sketches of the most important and notable funerary violinists. Kriwaczek's book is at once a lament for the neglected art form he loves and a thoroughly researched introduction for the music scholar and the lay reader. It is difficult to think of a better place to start exploring this fancinating subject.

In fact, there's only one flaw with book – it is completely made up.

Shortly after its publication, scholars, musicians, and historical experts all told the New York Times that there wasn't a shred of evidence to support any of Kriwaczek's claims. As far as they know, there was never a Guild of Funerary Violinists, no special genre of funerary violin music, and no massive effort to destroy the form. It is, they decided, a massive hoax.

Or is it?

This Halloween, Rohan Kriwaczek, author and acting President of the Guild of Funerary Violinists, will be performing funerary violin music live at McNally Robinson Bookseller's in SoHo. The performance starts at 6 PM. Either you'll get to see one of the last remaining practitioners of a forgotten art doing his thing or you'll get to be in on one of the most charming literary hoaxes in recent memory. That's what we call a win-win situation.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Music: Dig this.

Though they began musical life as the less than inspiring Bob's Vegas Five, the Undertakers soon found a necrological shtick that would keep the kids coming back for more. Combining funerary fashions with goofy on-stage antics and off-kilter performances, the Undertakers rode the post-Beatles wave of Liverpool hype to achieve cult status in the Merseybeat Era.

The early career of the Undertakers weirdly shadowed the early career of the Beatles. Like the Beatles, the Undertakers worked out the kinks in their road show by undertaking a grueling tenure in Hamburg's Star Club. Later, on returning to Liverpool, they were courted by Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Unwisely, perhaps, they turned Epstein down and took the road less traveled by the Fab Four.

The Undertakers signed to Pye records and were teamed with producer Tony Hatch for a series of singles. Unfortunately, Hatch and the group did not see eye to eye. Hatch wanted the Undertakers to tighten up their anarchic and wacky performances, essentially draining the group of much that made it unique. This conflict of artistic visions combined with lack of label support doomed the Undertakers to cult status. Not that the Undertakers didn't try to break into the public consciousness. During a European tour the group tried to grab headlines by arranging to get two of its members busted at Checkpoint Charlie on a currency smuggling charge. Apparently currency smuggling doesn't bring the same bad boy cred as drug offenses and the music world answered the publicity stunt with a collective shrug of indifference.

Check out this wonderful Undertakers page at the Merseybeat Nostalgia Web site. There you can hear an almost Sonics-ish version of "Money" by the 'Takers as well as three other tunes from the boys in black.

The collected singles of the Undertakers can be found on the Big Beat album The Undertakers: Unearthed.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Attractions: The scariest thing since loganberry-based drinks.

Buffalo, the City of Good Neighbors, is justly proud for many things. It is the home of underappreciated blue-collar rockers Wide Right. Teddy Roosevelt, never fussy about beltway traditions, was sworn in as president not in Washington D.C., but in Buffalo (though historians believe President McKinley's taking a bullet to the head in Buffalo might have had something to do with Teddy's unorthodox choice of locations). Honest folks washing down an honest Mighty Taco with an honest splash of Aunt Rosie's – yes, the Nickel City, is a city.

Though, for the kind of folks who slink about this site, nothing quite sums up the charm of Buffalo like Fright World: the city's enormous 5-in-1 haunted house extravaganza. Housed in a gigantic 50,000 foot building, Fright World encompasses five distinct "haunted house" environments. Wrap your head around that. 50,000 square feet of screaming, bleeding, scare-ifying haunted house action.

Of special interest to "Screaming" regulars will be a Halloween screening of a film featuring blood-flow provided by none other than "Screaming" comment-leaver and general provider of moral support, Mr. Cattleworks.

If you are in Buffalo this Halloween, go to Fright World. I'll be scarier than the Millard Fillmore museum. (That's the last Buffalo reference I had. Sorry. I was going to do some thing like: "puts the eerie back in situated at the confluence of Lake Erie and the Buffalo and Niagara Rivers," but that was too much of a mouthful.)

Check the trailer:

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Comics: Come Hell and high water.

After years of sporadic and half-hearted attempts to convert their vast back catalogues into revenue, both DC and Marvel have hit upon a winning way to resell old stories. Marvel's Essential series and DC's Showcase series utilize a black and white, no-thrills format to get a crap-load of classic stories back into circulation cheaply and profitably. And it is working. Not only are the big two comic company's now cranking out phone-book style collections, Image is currently bringing Spawn back in to popular format. Word is that the popular Savage Dragon might get the same treatment soon.

All in all, this has been a boon for fans Silver Age horror titles. Marvel has re-issued its major horror series and DC has compiled its popular anthology series House of Mystery. But the impact of the series is being felt beyond the popularity of the reprints themselves. Fans snatching up these reprints have shown a surprising amount of love for properties that haven't seen the light of day in years. And here come the re-launches! At Marvel, it looks like the late 70s again: Luke Cage is a major hero, the blaxploitation –ish Misty Knight gets a book full of forgotten b-listers, Iron Fist is back, Moon Knight, Ghost Rider.

Perhaps the oddest of the Marvel revivals is newly launched Hellstorm: Son of Satan mini-series. At Marvel, during a brief moment in the 70s, Satanism was, for lack of a better word, hip. Satan himself made several appearances in titles like Tomb of Dracula and when he himself didn't appear he was serving as some hero's origin story (Ghost Rider) or showing up as some "not-really Satan but sort of" character (Mephisto, for example). Out of Marvel's short-lived infatuation with Satan came Daimon Hellstrom, a.k.a. Hellstorm, a brooding superhero whose powers came from his being the son of the Lord of Darkness himself. With his name swiped from the popular Omen series and his look swiped from Kirby's design for DC's The Demon, Hellstorm was not one of Marvel's most innovative creations. Still, he was remembered fondly, and with Marvel robbing graves in the Cemetery of Under-utilized Properties, it was only a matter of time before he was dug up and dusted off. (An alternate, unpowered, suck-job version Hellstorm appeared briefly in Marvel's series The Ultimates, but it was a completely different character there and more of a satire than a revival.)

Re-launched as a five-issue mini-series, the new Hellstorm hit the stands last week. The cover was promising: a painted image of our hero, rendered in washed out reds, oranges, and yellows, evoking Brandon Lee in The Crow. Sadly, even that slight promise is not lived up to. Hellstorm, originally a bit of a copy, is not so much re-invented and re-stolen. Now instead of being a visual rip-off of DCs Demon, his is a swipe of DC's John Constantine. The plot involves Hellstorm arriving in post-flood New Orleans (in one of Marvel's less tasteful editorial moves) to investigate some unsettling dreams he's had. The idea that clues to the future come to Hellstorm in his sleep is paradigmatic of the lazy way in which the plot builds. Hellstorm doesn't so much investigate events as he has visions, bumps into people who randomly tell him pertinent info, and accidentally stumbles across important doings. For example, while sitting in a bar, a random doctor comes up to him and says: "You're not from around here. You don't have the look. Listen: you're going to think this is crazy, but I'm pretty sure I saw a woman give birth to a kid who, a week later, could walk and turn into a bird." A clue! Another case solved by Daimon Hellstrom! The woman in question turns out to be an ancient Egyptian goddess and the world's going to end or something. Truth is, you'll have to tell me, because I'm not going to follow the series.

The art, while functional, is workman-like and pedestrian. Scenes of gore have haphazard red splashes about: blood as abstract impressionism. Bodies get torn and appear to be hollow or made of a solid and consistent red mass. People in Hellstorm's world are apparently made of red Play-Dough. Continuity from panel to panel is all cock-eyed: Was the floor covered in blood? Maybe? Who can remember all of these things?

Finally, the one thing worth checking out the comic for – a charming group of flesh-eating demons that disguise themselves as NOPD – seems weirdly distasteful and shows what a crap idea it was to stage the comic in New Orleans. Real disasters and comic book heroes are a lousy fit. I know that many people contributed to post-9/11 anthologies and whatnot – but real disasters just don't make sense in the world Marvel has created. Let's say, for example, the Katrina happened in the Marvel Universe. Such a massive disaster would have immediately sent heroes scrambling south to airlift the entire Astrodome out of the imperiled city. Even if they were late to the scene, somebody would whip up some time travel device or whatnot and save the day. We've seen Marvel's heroes go to greater lengths for considerably less. So, not only is it illogical, but as it is used in this comic, it is simply in poor taste. Either the flood is simply window dressing, in which case the demonic police and the allusions to the disaster are just for mood, or, even worse, they are going explain the narrative significance of the disaster (it will be the work of Satan to get Hellstorm to . . . who knows what, something bad, I guess, he's the devil after all), turning a real tragedy into a plot point in their exceedingly silly story.

Final call: avoid Hellstorm. If you want to check out a revival that is hitting all the right notes, I recommend Marvel's excellent Moon Knight re-launch or their top-notch Heroes for Hire, which brings back the fun of the kung-fu choppin', jive talkin' Marvel 70s. If you won't have anything but Hellstorm, check out the Essentials: Marvel Horror collection which reprints several of his original adventures.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Food: And silly little me thought that variety was the spice of life.

While I feel it would be wrong to blame the current relentless trend of zombified everything on the fine folks at Haunted Hot Sauce, perhaps the first zombie-themed hot sauce, I would like to point out that zombie ketchup, zombie mustard, and zombie relish can't be far behind. Sure, there's a long trend of horror-themed kiddie foods. But when people start pushing condiments that tie into a specific horror trend, isn't it time we let that trend rest for a bit and move on? Seriously, couldn't we have done one zombie bottle and then make the green one a Frankenstein's monster dealie. Or "Howlin' Good Hot Sauce" with a werewolf. Hell, I'm getting so tired of zombies that I'd accept "Blobby Blob Hot Sauce: It's Blob-tastic."

Please, for the love of all things good and true in horror, let's stop beating the undead zombie horse.

Don't let that stop you from buying some hot sauce though. 'Cause hot sauce is good stuff.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Music: Jump back, Jack.

I don't throw around the phrase "Renaissance man" lightly. I think it has been abused to the point of semantic uselessness. Unless I'm discussing a European male of great and varied accomplishments and who lived between 14th and 16th century, I try to avoid the term. However, polymath and scare-rock icon Screaming Lord Sutch really tests the limits of my resolve not to slap on the RM-label.

Famous for his horror-themed rock shows in 1960s, Lord Sutch (born David Edward Sutch – he legally changed his named to "Screaming Lord Sutch" in the 1960s) is also the author of a quirky autobiography - Life as Sutch - and a founding member of the Monster Raving Loony Party, the party of choice for the UK's surreal voter.

Screaming Lord Sutch killed himself in 1999, ending a career that was, if not always successful in the traditional sense, always colorful and, somehow, even kinda inspiring. Below you can see an early video for Screaming Lord Sutch's most famous tune: "Jack the Ripper."

Note: "Scopitone" refers to an old jukebox that actually showed "videos" as well as played music. The blog address flashed in this video is a clearing house for Scopitone info and works from the first age of music video. It is worth checking out.

As a Thursday bonus, here's a few seconds of a more deliciously unhinged live performance of "Jack the Ripper." Watch the audience reaction.

And a little something extra, for the loyal "And Now" fans (fan? anybody?) who have read this far. Below is a clip of the White Stripes performing a short bit of Sutch's signature tune.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Books: Better dead than red?

When I was a kid the survivalist fantasy of choice was "Commie invasion." Fueled in part by the right-wing wet dream that was Red Dawn, me and my youthful amigos were convinced that, at any moment, we might be required to raid a sporting goods store, flee into the woods, and fend of the advancing tide of the advancing tide of Commie with good old American know-how and shotguns. Ignoring the taint of Reagan-Era paranoia, the scenario had a real Huck Finn quailty to it. It was all about leaving the current, comprosmised world behind, living off you own hidden (but always there) resources, and creating something new that's all the truer for its isolation. This is its appeal. It is an escape fantasy that diguises the morally questionable act of running away with the narrative trick of making the flight required and out of our hands. We want the humdrum work-a-day world stripped away and replaced by a world were every action is essential and each and every day is crucial. The world has meaning again because, at square one, what we must do is perfectly clear and the stakes are always total.

This same heroic survivalist spirit - but with zombies instead of Commies - is at the core of Max Brooks's World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. A fictional work of oral history covering a global-scale zombie infestation, Brooks's work is a flight fantasy played out on an epic scale. In Brooks's novel, the infestation starts with "Patient Zero," a young Chinese boy who gets zombified and infects a handful of other villagers. The Chinese government swiftly destroys Patient Zero (so swiftly, in fact, that the hint is given that PZ is not actually the first zombie) and covers it up. The Chinese government's efforts to suppress the spread of zombie menace are, of course, ineffective and, before you mumble out that you crave brains, zombies are popping up all over the globe. Through the first person narratives of dozens of characters, the novel charts the rise of the zombie hordes, the decline of civilization, the human counter-offensive, and the slow climb back to a living-dominated globe. We see some countries completely collapse under the strain (North Korea) while others develop in predictable (China goes democratic - don't tell Guns 'N' Roses) or unexpected ways (Russia becomes a theocratic czarist nation). We see the developing war from the eyes of housewives and generals, doctors and priests, footsoldiers and lost children. Brooks even takes time to tell us what happened to the astronauts stranded on the International Space Station.

World War Z is an interesting hybrid of a book. The oral history approach is novel and Max Brooks, whose previous book was the underwhelming Zombie Survival Guide, proves that he has the writing chops to develop distinct voices for his many different speakers. Brooks is also adept at creating arresting images and scenes. However, the format also has some crucial drawbacks. First and foremost, some of the suspense of the book is undermined by the fact that you know not only do the individual interviewees survive, but that humanity wins out in the end. Part of the framing device is that Brooks (playing himself, so to speak) gathered these interviews as part of a UN fact-finding mission. Before you've gotten out of the introduction, you know that the zombie menace was pretty much completely wiped out. The second element which somewhat undermines the sustained menace is the fact that the interview-by-interview structure makes the while thing feel like a collection of short stories rather than a novel. This impression is all the strong for the fact that some interviewee's tales are so much more detailed, powerful, and exciting than the stories of other interviewees. Finally, because every interviewee speaks in a realistically average speaking voice, the verbal artistry necessary to create the proper mood and tone of terror is strangely lacking. Like reading the eyewitness reports of any disaster, it is the scope of events and not the retelling that evokes a response. Since none of us has even indirect experience with fighting the living dead, the emotional register of the book is often oddly flat.

Another unusual element of the book is Brooks's interest in all matters military. Brooks's interest is almost exclusively focuses on the military response to the zombie menace. After giving us a few stories from the panicked populace at the beginning of the zombie take-over, the book becomes increasingly about the armed forces and the war. In a way, World War Z more properly belongs to the subgenre of war sci-fi than it does the genre of horror fiction.
These issues aside, however, Brooks has likely set the bar for depicting the "zombie world" scenario. The scope of what Brooks depicts is so massive and so thought out that one suspects this novel will become one of those seminal works that inspires others create work within the world it envisions. You can imagine future works containing zombies that are "Brooksian" or containing soldiers who refer to zombies as "Zack" (the way Germans became Fritz or the North Vietnamese became Charlie). In this, Brooks approaches the world-building fiction of Lovecraft, an author who, though completely dissimilar in style, also built a sort of "creative world" for others to inhabit. In this aspect, for the zombie fan and anybody else not yet zombied-out, Brooks's novel is likely to be essential reading in the same way Romero's Dead Series is essential viewing.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Movies: Have ghost, will travel.

I've spent a fair amount of time wading through the low-budget flicks found on shovelware collections and I've come to believe the there is an inverse relationship between the quality of a film and the number of different titles it has. Perhaps, like human criminals who hide their misdeeds under multiple aliases, these cinema crimes must travel under assumed names. Or, maybe, the filmmakers, facing budget and talent restrictions at every other step of the creative process, indulge themselves in one of the few elements of film production that's free, making up titles, and they compensate for other their work's other weaknesses by over-endowing their creation with names.

Whatever the motivation for name proliferation, the theory holds true of today's flick: Ghost Gunfighter, Last Chance, and High Tomb.

Filmed on cable access grade video tech, this 1980s flick begins in the desert near the California/Mexican boarder. There a knife-wielding corpse dressed in cowboy duds digs itself out of a shallow grave and attacks to backpackers. After overpowering them, the ghost cowboy drags them to a blacksmiths shop where he butchers them with the aforementioned knife.

And then cut to the frat house for the nation's oldest college students. Three men – named Jock, Nerd, and Musician – and there women – Blonde, Black, and Brunette – all decide to take a break from what must be their 17th year of undergrad study and take a road trip down to Mexico. Along the way, a helpful gas station attendant directs to a dirt road short cut that will shave hours off their time. Off course, they get lost, their car craps out, and they find themselves in a ghost populated solely by one creepy old caretaker. After much witty banter and ominous, but not particularly relevant events that would be foreshadowing in some other movie that actually followed foreshadowing up with the things foreshadowed, the men and women stay the night in the town's hotel. There Brunette finds an old-timey sepia toned photograph of a woman who looks just like her. What could it mean?

That night, the creepy caretaker has a run in with the ghost gunfighter who brains the old caretaker with the caretaker's own cane. But, before his death being whacked about the head until dead, the caretaker pleads with the gunfighter, promising that he didn't tell the students anything. The plot sort of thickens.

The next morning our students find the old man dead, but he is no longer the recently murdered caretaker. Instead, the state of his body suggests he's been dead for decades. Furthermore, they find the caretaker was looking at a photo of him and the old-timey analog of Brunette when he was whacked. Suitably freaked out, the students decide that they are going to take off. They make it to their car only to find it has been destroyed. The message "Death To All" is scrawled on the passenger side door. The students attempt to walk back along the dirt road only to find several minutes later that they are, impossibly, back at their care. They don't have long to ponder this bizarre twist as it is at this time the ghost shivs Blonde. Apparently, the ghost need only appear to his victim, so he jabs her right in front of everybody and even hangs around a bit to admire his handiwork. This particular effect, having Blonde's POV shot of all her friends looking down at her panicked, while her attacker just stands there with his knife, invisible to the others, is a nice touch and I would love to see it used in some better-made flick.

No we're in the movie proper. The ghost starts picking off the students one by one, while they desperately look for something to defeat him. Ultimately, in a nice mid-film twist, we find out that the ghost town isn't an abandoned town from the frontier days. It is actually an old film set and the ghost is the angry spirit of an actor who went on a shooting rampage back in the 1930s. This is a clever little trick and works well, though it isn't enough to save the movie.

In fact, despite the general crappiness of the overall film, numerous individual elements work better than they should. The whole thing strikes one as the work of uneven talents, occasionally possessed of the occasional great idea, but either unwilling or unable to execute to better effect. Though I can't find anything else the director did, the actors (surprisingly) have stayed extremely busy. Jock has appeared in several horror sequels, from Stepfather II and Texas Chainsaw Massacre III to two different Puppet Master flicks. The producer and actor Musician, another veteran of the Puppet Master series, was also in the MST3K favored flick Soultaker (the poster for which can be seen on the wall of his dorm room around minute 3 of this flick). Brunette, a third refugee from the Puppet Master series, was actually in a film with Dennis Hopper and Tom Sizemore (the dog Ticker where Brunette somehow played the commander of a SWAT team).

All and all, while not a complete dud, I would rustle up your horror kicks elsewhere. Using my trusty "Unsigned Primary State Highways of Virginia" movie rating system (patent pending) I rate Ghost Gunfighter, under all its names, a Route 785.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Music: Because you're his.

Screamin' Jay Hawkins is one of those singular characters who is either completely nuts or utterly brilliant, depending on who is passing judgment. In this clip from a Canadian television show, the High Voodoo Priest of Rock and Roll Freakery works his way through "I Put a Spell on You." This clip is especially nice in that it features Sreamin' Jay's long-time collaborator: Henry the cigarette smoking skull. Enjoy.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Movies: I wish I had Jesse's girl.

In my review of the new comic series Dracula vs. Capone, I discussed the mini-genre of the film team-up. These films are the product of nuanced philosophical argument that goes like this: A is good, B is good, therefore AB kicks ass.

We can use this formula to explain many modern cinematic mysteries. For example, why was Pirates of the Caribbean II so inferior to its predecessor? Let's break it down.

Pirates are good. Zombies are good. Therefore pirate zombies kick ass.

Because this sentence makes logical sense, we can see why the first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, worked. Now let's analyze Dead Man's Chest.

Pirates are good. Rejected villain designs from the '80s cartoon 'Tigersharks' are good. Therefore piratical rejects from 'Tigersharks' kick ass.

This statement is illogical because the second sentence introduces a false premise. We now understand why the first PoC flick was so much better than the second.

The film reviewed today breaks down like so:

Jesse James is good. Frankenstein's monster is good. Therefore, Jesse James fighting Frankenstein's monster kicks ass.

Did the formula work? Somewhat.

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter is one of the 50 titles found on the shovelware Chilling Classics DVD set. It's a charming low-budget throwaway that works, when it does, mainly because of its unpretentious effort to fuse together the B-flick clichés of discount-brand westerns and drive-in monster movies.

The flick starts in a small Mexican town. This town has a serious problem. It seems that ever since two doctors moved into the creepy mission up on the hill (a wonderfully ineffective matte painting) the young men of the town have been turning up dead. Unable to stand the misery, families have been fleeing the village and, when the movie starts, the place is pretty much a ghost town.

One of the doctors in question is Maria, the daughter of Frankenstein. Though not that Frankenstein. She is, technically, the daughter of Frankenstein, but of, like, Ned Frankenstein, general practitioner. The Frankenstein you're thinking of was her grandfather. The title is somewhat deceptive on this point, but who would watch a flick in which a famous outlaw meets the Granddaughter of Frankenstein? It would sound silly.

Dr. Maria Frankenstein, like nearly all of her accursed clan, is trying to carry on the work of her illustrious predecessor. She and her bother, the whiny and unhelpful Dr. Rudolph Frankenstein, fled to America so they could continue their work in secret. However, work has not been going well. Maria is running out of chances to get it right. Apparently, the key to getting a re-animated body to work is in the artificial brains Maria's grandfather built. Fortunately for Maria, her grandfather left several working artificial brains behind when he passed away. Unfortunately for Maria, they seem to be a one-shot usage sort of thing and Maria is down to her last artificial brain. What she needs is some big, strong, hulking man to work on. (Don't we all, sister.) But where could she ever find such a man?

Meanwhile, famed outlaw Jesse James and his big, strong, hulking man of a friend, Hank, are down on their luck. The James gang has fallen apart and our outlaws are reduced to fighting impromptu boxing matches for meals. But their luck's changing. James meets up with the remnants of the Wild Bunch, who have themselves fallen on hard times, and he agrees to help them in a heist that could get his fading outlaw career back on track. However, all our crooks are not united in purpose and arrayed against the common enemy. One of the members of the Wild Bunch resents Jesse and Hank coming in on the job and getting a share of the pay-off. This weasel snitches to the sheriff in hopes of collecting the reward on Jesse's head. The heist goes pear-shaped. The Wild Bunch, except for the Snitchy McStoolie, end up dead and Hank catches a bullet. He and Jesse are forced to flee the scene.

Now on the lam, Jesse and the wounded Hank run into a Mexican family that is fleeing the town plagued by the Doctors Frankenstein. The family's young, sassy daughter, Juanita, tells Jesse (or "Yessie Yeahmes," as she says) that she knows where they could find a doctor. But, she warns, the doctors she's thinking of are evil. Jesse says that evil's good. This is an emergency after all and beggars can't be choosers. Juanita, who rapidly develops into a love interest, agrees to lead the outlaws to Frankenstein's mansion.

Once Jesse and Hank arrive at the mansion of our good doctors, Maria greets them warmly. She immediately realizes that Hank is exactly the big, strong, hulking man she needs for her experiments. She also decides that Jesse is hot stuff and starts putting on the moves.

Will the law catch up with Jesse? Who will win Jesse's wild outlaw heart? Will Hank end up a mindless, deathless creature under the command of the evil Dr. Frankenstein?

(The answers are: kinda, Juanita, yes.)

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter is one of those cheapie disposables that fly-by-night outfits cranked out by the dozens as something for 1960s teens to ignore as they engaged in petting-sessions in the back of the theater. A slight diversion, but only just. Using my patented "Popular Avicides" rating system, this movie is strictly chloralose.

For film buffs, the movie might hold some interest as product of the insanely prolific William "One-Shot" Beaudine. In a film biz career that stretched from 1912 to 1967, Beaudine cranked out between 350 to 500 films. Back in the '20s and '30s, Beaudine was a respected director. He worked with superstar Mary Pickford on a couple flicks and his film Sparrows was supposedly a major influence on Charles Laughton's classic Night of the Hunter.

During the Depression, One-Shot (so named for his habit of getting every shot in one take) went overseas to crank out flicks for a British studio. This three year absence from Hollywood (during which time he cranked out 13 films) was enough to bury his rep. When he returned in 1937, Beaudine became a strictly Poverty Row director. The most famous of these flicks was the "hygenie" film Mom and Dad. This pseudo-documentary promised to explain the "facts of life" and, ads claimed, included actual footage of a baby being birthed. The flick featured a marketing campaign that would have made William Castle green with envy. Men and women had to attend separate showings. Nurses (actually actresses) were on hand to help with fainters. A phony doctor ended each screening with a lecture about the importance of sexual education. Called "the Gone With the Wind of exploitation films," it was a massive success and was one of the top-grossing films of 1947. In 2005, Mom and Dad was added to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.

Happy to work on any project that paid, this avowed atheist behind the nation's most successful exploitation film also cranked out 11 films for the evangelical Protestant Film Commission. The man who once worked with Mary Pickford also directed several television episodes of Lassie for Disney.

Beaudine retired in '67, Hollywood's oldest and most prolific director. One-Shot passed away in 1970. It is unlikely that Tinsel Town will see the likes of him again.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Movies: Three ring circus.

In his super-sized tome Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace describes a video that kills anybody who watches it. When the terrorist who made the tape is asked why he created such an odd weapon, his reply is that it was designed to kill only Americans. He claims that only Americans would, knowing that the tape will kill them, watch it anyway. He thinks a uniquely American combination of jaded thrill-hunger and media addiction makes the citizens of the United States particularly vulnerable to such a weapon. In this review, we'll be watching Wallace's theory in action by looking at three movies that feature movies that kill: Cigarette Burns, Ring Two, and a short film called Rings, which is featured in the extras of the Ring II DVD.

Let's start with Cigarette Burns. This short flick (clocking in at under an hour in length) was John Carpenter's contribution to Showtime's "Masters of Horror" series. I don't get Showtime, so I'm just now catchin' up to the rest of y'all.

The title refers to the circular marks that appear in the upper corner of films to communicate to the projectionist that it is time to change the reels. The era of digitized filmmaking, distribution, and projection is slowly, but unavoidably, sending the cigarette burn on its way to becoming a historical film studies artifact on par with live piano accompaniment. Which brings us to an interesting thread that tends to run through almost all of these "media products that kill" films. The media products in question are almost always quaintly outdated. Despite the 21st century setting, the Ring flicks all revolve around a video cassette, not a DVD. The madness inducing flick in Cigarette Burns appears on these giant, old-school film spools. Even the imagery in both the Ring video and the film within a film in Cigarette is notably retro: they are both bad imitations of the silent era surrealist landmark work Un chien andalou. I don't know if this is a product of the slow trip from concept to finished film versus the rapid manner in which media platforms evolve. Technology moves faster than culture these days. Maybe it has to do with nostalgia on the part of filmmakers for the mediums they fell in love with versus the mediums they now work in. There needs to be a sort of magically dangerous black-box quality to a medium for people to feel something spiritual is happening within it. Filmmakers, having seen the guts and innards of modern filmmaking might need to look back towards their own first encounters with the medium in order to evoke that awe-filled ignorance. Perhaps the ever-improving quality of formats is to blame. As playback improves, the artifacts of transmission that were once ignored are eliminated in the quest for an illusion of a truly un-mediated experience. This makes it difficult to visually represent the medium itself. That is to say, DVDs lack the lines, the static, the hissing, the stuttering flicker, the things that made you aware you were watching a video or film. Think of something like the Ring and you realize the ghost is identified with the medium's limitations. The ghost is static and jagged cuts and artifacts left by tape damage. Perfect fidelity doesn't leave you any room for hauntings.

But I digress, Cigarette Burns involves an art house theater owner who is hired by a creepy rich dude (played with typical slimy grace by Udo Kier) to find the only remaining print of the film La Fin Absolue Du Monde. This film was shown once in a Paris film festival and it drove the audience into a violent, insane frenzy. The French government seized the film and destroyed it. Or so they thought. Turns out Udo's hip to the fact that a copy of the film still exists. How? See if you can follow this: Udo knows a copy of the film still exists because he keeps an angel chained in a room off of his study. This angel was captured and mutilated to make the infamous movie. As such, it is bound to the print of the film and, if all the prints had been destroyed, the angel would no longer be bound to this plain of existence, or something like that. In desperate need of the money, the theater owner takes the gig.

Cigarette Burns suffers from the 50-minute format of the television series. There is a substantial subplot involving our hero's dead wife and his vengeful father-in-law that is compressed to the point of becoming a plot detail instead of genuine character development. The smaller scale of the project as requires that characters relentlessly push towards the conclusion of the story, often at the expense of suspension of disbelief. For example, seeing a captive angel with his wings chopped off doesn't a) give our hero pause about working for Udo or b) convince him of the reality of the film he's looking for. He takes it as he'd take a gig to find one of the several pairs of ruby slippers used to make the Wizard of Oz.

The film also suffers from somewhat clumsy borrowings. At one point in his search, our hero stumbles across a cult of Fin worshiping snuff-film makers. The scene belongs in Hostel II and is such a bad fit here that the film doesn't even bother to explain how our hero gets out of it. The plot also reminds me of the film-studies-monograph-meets-horror-novel Flicker, though, if it was a source, it is not listed as an inspiration. The use of the circular cigarette burns as a visual motif obviously echoes The Ring. Finally, the film within the film reminds me, as I mentioned earlier, of the Ring video and Un Chein. Why do all killer movies look like bad NIN videos? Wouldn't it have been more interesting if, as in Flicker, the movie itself is not scary. The method to the madness could be in editing techniques, a secret series of cuts that creates a pattern the human mind can't handle or something. Just once, let the killer flick be a musical or a love story.

Overall, however, Cigarette Burns works. The mystery element keeps the viewer's attention. The acting is serviceable (with the exception of Kier's slimy collector, who is a pleasure). The gore is well handled. There's an especially nice bit when Udo threads his own intestines through a projector. The scene is not particularly bloody, but the concept is so wonderful that it transcends its execution. The ending is definitive and satisfying. A minor and effective work, but no masterpiece. Using my well-loved "Legends of Turkish Volleyball" rating system, this gets three out of five Sinan Erdems.

Unlike Cigarette Burns, the sequel to The Ring falls flat on its face. Directed by the Japanese filmmaker who created the original Ring, the second outing is a dull, pointless, and illogical waste of time that makes so little sense that it actually undermines the premise of original.

Ring Two finds the reporter, Rachael, and her son, Creepy Kid, living in the small Oregon town of Astoria. She is working for the local rag when a local teen dies under mysterious circumstances. Rachael figures out immediately that the boy was the victim of Samara, proto-long-haired Japanese evil ghost child. Rachael finds the tape responsible for the youth's death and destroys it. This, apparently, breaks the well-established rules of Samara's game and allows her to begin doing pretty much whatever the hell she wants to anybody at any time, regardless of tape watching or television proximity or any of the other things that marked the previous film. The result is that Samara appears and attacks seemingly at random. Instead of feeling that you're watching a plot unfold, you realize you're watching thematically-link but essentially random images pile up. Eventually, somebody tells Rachael how to get rid of Samara, but that doesn't work and some other, completely unrelated thing dispatches the little ghost girl (maybe – leave everything open for a trilogy, natch). This may rank as one of the sharpest declines in horror franchise history – right up there with Jaws II for worst follow-up up to a genuinely good film. In the "Traffic Circles of Washington DC" rating system, this lemon doesn't even rank a full Pinehurst Circle.

Just about the only reason to rent Ring Two is a short film you can check out in the special features section that I believe, if memory serves, is called Rings. Though only about 15 minutes long, shot on a virtually nil budget, and having a cast of nobodies, Rings approaches genuine moments of horror film brilliance. Shot as a sort of "link" between the first and second film, Rings tells the story of a young man who finds an underground subculture dedicated to exploring the mysteries of Samara and the killer video. These groups expose their members to the video tape and then record what happens during the 7-day countdown. When the experiences of being a video victim get too intense, the tape is passed along to another member in the group. Our new recruit, hungry for new thrills, is determined to take the Samara video death trip further than any other videonaut has gone before.

During the course of the short film, we get to see how the subculture links with other groups over the Internet and even has developed their own slang. This, more than the random plot of the genuine sequel, speaks to the draw of the killer video/film concept, which is, really, the draw of horror films. How much can you take? It also harkens back to the concept I brought up at the beginning of this entry: how far can your own courage and wit hold out in the face of the unknown? Americans aren't especially thrill-hungry and media-addicted. After all, the Ring concept is as old as Wallace's book and has its origins in Japan. Instead, what Wallace failed to get as is a uniquely American faith that with a little planning, a bit of smarts, and some guts, you beat anything. Can you outsmart and contain the danger or are somethings not meant to be explored? Americans clearly believe the former. Does anybody doubt that, in the real world, if hipped to the existence of something like Jason, that American teens would be buying up Jason as Che t-shirts and going to Camp Crystal Lake in droves to get photos of the deathless mass murderer? Wouldn't somebody have tried to contain and exploit Jason in a sort of mass murderer Jurassic Park?

This is classic stuff. Unlike the protagonists of Ring Two who are essentially victims who get battered around until they accidentally stumble on a solution, the kids in Rings are genuine actors in their own story, trying to beat Samara at her own game, and this sets up real dramatic tension. With the concept behind Rings, the people in charge of the franchise had the real sequel that needed to be told. Instead, they wasted the chance. In the unlikely event of a third Ring flick, they should revisit this wonderful short. Using the "Bands of Gary Moore" rating system, this short film gets a full Thin Lizzy.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Comics: Despite what the song says, Freddy isn't dead. But you could be forgiven for thinking so.

Sometimes you just don't know how good you've got it, 'till it's gone.

Case in point: The Avatar Press comic titles based on New Line's trinity of slasher icons.

In '05, Avatar Press, one of the many indie comic presses that thrives in the market niches un-served by Marvel or DC, started producing several mini-series and one-shots based on the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchises. These comics were, for the most part, pretty lame. I felt the writing was uninspired, the art sub par, and the scares non-existent. The TCM series, which I was most excited about, not only takes place in the revamped universe of the remake, but it suffers from the sameness that plagued the actual film series. How many times are we going to see this family kidnap a girl to add to the brood? The Nightmare books were less creative than the films that inspired them. Liberated from the necessity of having to actually produce dream sequences under the tight budgets of the films, the dream worlds in which Freddy lives and hunts should be more amazing than ever. Sadly, the thread of darkly joyous surrealism that ran through the film series was hardly on display in the comic. Only the Friday books really pushed the character – which is odd if you consider that, as a character, Jason offers perhaps the most limited dramatic range. A plot involving Jason taking on a paramilitary unit designed to capture and destroy him and a story which pitted the contemporary Jason against his futuristic Jason X counterpart were entertaining. Still, even these titles suffered from mediocre art.

What Avatar did do well was gore and the covers. The creators on the Avatar series were not afraid to spill blood and viscera by the bucket-loads. In fact, I would have to say that, in many ways, the gleefully sanguine manner in which these artists approached the destruction of their titles' supporting casts out-did the source movies. The covers, too, were exemplary. Each Avatar title came in several cover variants, almost all of which were wonderful portraits or action shots of Freddy, Jason, or Leatherface. In fact, if anybody from Avatar reads this, I would happily purchase a collection of just the covers. They were brilliant.

Overall, though, despite the bloody contents and the cool covers, I was actually excited to hear that New Line had dropped Avatar and, instead, licensed their legendary properties to DC comics. I hoped that DC would take these famous monsters of film land and actually make something truly worth reading out of them.

This week, the first issue of DC's new Nightmare on Elm Street series was published on their WildStorm imprint. The first ish makes me realize what a good thing we had goin' with Avatar. DC's Freddy is to Avatar's Freddy what post-Army Elvis was to pre-draft Elvis. DC's Freddy, while perhaps more polished, has been tamed. The story is, as far as Nightmare plots go, just serviceable. New kids come to town, one dies, the other learns about Freddy. Certainly, there is a level of genre "sameness" to slasher flicks, but the series that produced the "Dream Warriors" plot could give us something more creative than this. Perhaps worse, the gore is gone. We've got a body count of two. One girl gets the business end of Freddy's glove (off panel) and ends up in blood stained bedding. Another kid gets torched. Freddy ties him to a one-armed-bandit style school desk on top of a pile of books, pours gasoline on him, and then sets fire to him with a match. That's it. For a character in series known for constantly elevating the bizarreness of its methods of dispatch, the deaths in the Simpsons spoof of the Nightmare series were more creative.

In retrospect, even with the QC issues, Avatar's various creators brought an anarchic and disreputable joy to their work. Sure characters were under-drawn and backgrounds were, at best, impressionistic. But the split skulls, torn limbs, and flying guts were intense. Each issue of Avatar seems like it was rushed to get to the good stuff – the crazy, horrific celebration of all the stuff you're not supposed to see. Avatar's books were alive with a rebellious spirit that, while hell on the quality of the books, evoked the sort of maniacal, illegitimate, gory thrills that are the draw of the films. In contrast, DC's book plays it safe. It's a generic work meant to protect brands and sell a product. This new Nightmare might be about the marauding ghost of a pedophile child-killer, but trust me when I say that DC has taken great pains to ensure that nobody could possibly be offended by their Freddy.

Music critic Greil Marcus once said that the moment punk rock was no longer worth censoring, it wouldn't be worth listening to. The same is true of splatter horror. The moment slasher flicks aren't unnecessarily excessive, they aren't worth being afraid of.

Really, the only good that can come out of this is if we get something like a Batman versus the TCM family comic.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Books: A two-for-one deal.

Though the famed conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, only appear in Todd Browning's Freaks for about five minutes, they have one of the most memorable scenes. Violet (if you were facing the twins, Violet would have been on your left) is being romanced by the circus owner. Unfortunately, the footage that informed viewers that he's the circus owner was cut from the film. Consequently, his character just appears ex nihilo, giving the impression that he's some sort of fly-by-night lothario aiming to get something he can only chase when the circus is in town. As Violet and the owner pitch the woo, Daisy, whose character is married to a stuttering carnie who fights incessantly with her twin sister, ignores the couple and reads a book. Eventually, the owner moves in for a kiss and he and Violet commence to smootchin'. Daisy, without looking at her sister, suddenly looks up from her book and sits up straight. Then she closes her eyes and arches her back slightly. It is an uncanny but unmistakable image of carnal pleasure.

In a movie full of surreal, unusual, and often brutal imagery, that scene has always stuck out for me. Partially this is because the scene is one of the best moments of acting in a film filled with second-rate and non-professional film actors. Another reason it sticks out is that it is a typical auteur moment for Browning. The director liked to insert brief, evocative moments in his films where, for only a few seconds, the film completely focuses on a side character. Think of that strange hanging moment when Dwight Frye, as Renfield, crawls towards the fainted nurse in Dracula. That moment, a throwaway scene that is never even resolved, is one of the most frightening parts of that film. Finally, however, the main reason the scene sticks out in my mind is that the twins were one of the few "freak" performers who genuinely lit up the screen. Many of the freakish performers existed entirely as the embodiment of their freakishness. For example, Prince Randian, the armless and legless "Living Torso," is really a non-character. He exists in the film only to shock you with what he is. Randian is amazing, but the connection is shallow, immediate, and passing. It is this reductive gaze that critics of the film pick up on. There is something to the claim the film traffics in voyeuristic cruelty. However, the warm life the twins bring to the film shows the movie's approach to its title characters is more complicated than critics would suggest. The twins come off as stars. The film attempts to embrace their full and complex humanity. Unlike the Living Torso, we can imagine that they have lives, loves, and existence independent of the short scenes that grace.

Thanks to journalist Dean Jensen, we don't have to imagine their lives any longer. Jensen's Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins is the first full-length biography of these two unusual stars.

Named after a highly fictionalized memoir the twins produced late in their lives, Jensen's story begins with their birth in Brighton, England. The off-spring of a single woman and a married man, the twins were left in the care of a barkeep and midwife who immediately began to display them to bar patrons. After tours in England and Australia, the twins came to America and made it big on the vaudeville circuit. Mercifully for the twins, they were produced as a genuine "act." The sisters were trained to dance, act, and play instruments. Though it was impossible to completely shake off the uncanny impact Daisy and Violet had on viewers, the fact that they were performing artists of no small talent helped elevate their act above the sideshow and make them respectable names on the vaudeville stage. As to twins rose in popularity, their "adoptive caretaker" sold them to a couple how kept the twins as virtual slaves. Fearing that unscheduled public appearances would diminish the twins' draw, they were confined to circus train cars or the vast estate their owners built out of the twins' earnings. All external communications were closely watched. Daisy and Violet were held as prisoners. Ultimately, their owners made a mistake and allowed the twins access to a lawyer. In a celebrated court case that grabbed national headlines, Daisy and Violet were emancipated.

Unfortunately, in many ways, their best years as a box office draw were behind them. Though they still toured and performed, the death of vaudeville and the increasing public distaste of "freak" acts took a heavy toll on the twins' popularity. They appeared in Freaks only to have that film become a legendary bomb. While Daisy and Violet actually agreed with many of the film's critics, the backlash against the film was an indication that their time as performers was passing. They went from lavish vaudeville settings to county fairs. From county fairs to drive-in movie theaters. What little of their fortune was left was blown on producing the truly horrible Chained for Life, a curious z-grade flick that Daisy and Violet delusionally believed would revive their careers. Finally, having squandered their hard-earned fortune and being unable to land gigs, they took a job in a grocery store. They couldn't even keep that gig: the often ill-tempered Violet insulted a customer and they were canned. A local church offered them rent-free housing, and it is in that house that the sisters died. Daisy went first. They think Violet might have held on for a couple of days, refusing to get help, determined to die still connected to her sister.

Jensen's book is a solid, well-researched work. The style is clean and lively in parts, but it never rises to the level of something you'd read for its own sake. Daisy and Violet are the draw here and it is the sheer tragic and frustrating oddity of their story that makes the book compelling. A good read for those interested in the twins, the vaudeville era, or in that strange jewel in the Universal monster-flick crown: Browning's Freaks.

Jensen's book is published by Ten Speed Press and is scheduled for release in November.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Comics: I never drink . . . bootleg hooch.

Some concepts are just so goofy, such bluntly designed vehicles for instant fanboy kicks, that they become cool. One of these concepts is pitting Dracula, vampire king of the damned, against Al Capone, king of Prohibition Era Chicago. And this is exactly what the somewhat un-creatively titled comic Dracula vs. Capone does.

The title pretty much says it all. In Chicago, the "Roaring" part of the Roaring Twenties refers mainly the fire of Thompson machine guns as Capone locks down the city. Fortunately for the good citizens of the Windy City, Capone's reign is not unchallenged. A new threat, in form of an upstart Treasury agent named Elliot Ness and his so-called "Untouchables" are giving Scarface some trouble. As the forces of organized crime and justice prepare to face off, a new player arrives on the scene. Dracula, reawakened by blood-tainted rain, comes back to life with a small army of thirsty vamps. The head blood-sucker plans to use the chaos and random bloodshed of Chicago to hide his efforts to re-establish his rule over the night. And with that bit of backstory, it's on.

Goofy? Sure. But goofy with a pedigree. Horror cinema used to be filled these bizarre mash-ups. Sherlock Holmes versus Satanic cults, Jesse James versus Dracula, any number of monsters versus one another. None of these pictures were, perhaps, cinematic gems, or even highlights of the horror genre. Though they were not without their place. These pictures were treats for genre film fans. Why treat horror lovers to just another werewolf film when you could have the Wolfman face off against Dracula and Frankenstein's monster, all in one film? Sadly, the death of the B-film has mostly ended this sort of silly, but flat-out fun sub-genre. With the exception of Jason versus Freddy and the lame VanHelsing, mash-ups seem to be a thing of the past.

At least, they are on the big screen. In comics, the hybridizing spirit is alive and well. Want to see Mark Twain and Tesla (the inventor, not the band) go up against Lovecraft's Elder Ones? Check out The Five Fists of Science. Can't decide between vampires and pirates? You don't have to with Sea of Red. Want to see Dracula take on the Silver Surfer? I can't imagine you did, but you can find that in Essentials: Tomb of Dracula. What is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen but a giant mash-up? In fact, the efforts of folks like Moore have ensured that the comic mash-up has not only thrived, but gained a level of artistic respectability within the medium that the film variety never achieved.

That's a long way to go to say that the idea is not without precedent. And, if Dracula vs. Capone were just a fun throwaway in this long line of mash-ups, it would still be worth a peek. The art is effective and artist Chris Moreno uses color to great effect. The dark reds and inky blacks of the book are a pleasure. But, what makes it worth the full read is the care writer Jim Krueger takes with the story. The first issue is narrated by three different characters: Dracula, Capone, and Malone, the right-hand man of Ness. Like the original novel Dracula, these narrative voices tend to blend, but unlike the original, the comic uses what might be a failing to its advantage. By weaving in repeated images and motifs – Capone talks about the compulsion to drink, Malone discusses crime sucking the lifeblood of the city, both Capone and Dracula talk about ruling the underworld – the thoughts of the characters mingle into a tangle of metaphors that reflects again and again the themes of the books. The whole thing is better written than you'd expect.

The book is not perfect. In the rush to get Drac to the City of Broad Shoulders, Krueger and company rely on the narrative device that so much blood is being spilled in Chicago that it literally rains blood on Transylvania. An odd idea. The pacing is a bit off too. Stage managing the three-way confrontation between Capone, Ness, and Dracula means that readers are often run through scenes with no time to take in the details. For example, Frank Nitti appears, but his role in Capone's organization is never fully explained. (Not that there aren't some nice touches – in the space of a single frame, a tongue-tied accountant tries to warn Capone about his finances, but Capone's throwing one of his famously violent fits and scares off his one chance to avoid prison.)

Overall, though, these little things are overlooked. Dracula vs. Capone is good stuff. It might not rise to Moore-ish levels of literary pretension, but it is an effective genre fusion and worth the cover price.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Music: Keepin' it under wraps with The Mummies.

Formed in '88 for the purpose of playing loud, trashy, grade-A garage rock, The Mummies delivered their retro-rock meets noise-assault tunes with the help of an instantly recognizable shtick: they played in full-body suits that made them look like they were wrapped from head-to-toe in bandages. Check out this clip of The Mummies in action below.

Sadly, the boys in bandages threw in the towel back in '92. They've come out of retirement twice before, but the best way to check out the band is on their handful of albums. Mercifully, for the new fan, The Mummies, who played on vintage instruments and recorded only on vinyl when they were a group, have gotten over their legendary loathing of digital technology. You can now get their last album Never Been Caught and their singles collection Death by Unga Bunga!! on CD.

Special Mummified Bonus: here's a clip of the The Mummies rocking away on Devo's "Uncontrollable Urge."

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Movies: It's a reverse twist.

In his fake autobiography, Et Tu, Babe?, author Mark Leyner imagines a legal system where the punishment for non-capital federal offenses is forced viewing of hardcore porn with all the sex cut out. I imagine that, in Leyner's alternate universe, people who tamper with the mail or remove the tags off pillows have to watch the film Lukas' Child or Night Beast.

First, a word about the double title. The first title, which sounds more like a Suzanne Vega title and less like a horror flick, appears on the packaging for the DVD. This film is the first feature in the 10 film Brentwood Curse of the Dead box. The latter title, more traditionally cheese-horror, appears in the credit sequence of the movie itself. Use whichever makes you happiest for, just as a rose by any other name smells just as sweet, this movie is a clunker no matter what we call it.

Lukas' Child opens with a several masked and robed characters gathering for a Satanic ritual. If this film is to be believed, Satanic rituals mostly involve men in rubber Halloween masks watching a basement-grade stripper run though what she imagines the dance of the seven veils might have looked like – that is, over course, if Salomé wore a fishnet catsuit and did a lot of bump and grind moves. After five minutes of this (which, while not family-friendly perhaps, doesn't seem particularly sinister) we meet the first half of the title, Lukas Armand. Armand is pasty faced, incomprehensible, sometimes ambulatory, sometimes wheelchair bound movie producer who spends a considerable amount of the film looking confused and slightly senile. Often, he'll even deliver lines and then, as if remembering that he is, in fact, the villain of the picture, then contradict them: "You're free to go dear. Oh, wait. I'm sorry. I mean, you can never leave."

Armand, as it turns out, has been auditioning wannabe starlets and, instead of offering them film roles, has been feeding them to his "child." The "actresses" audition for a role in a horror movie. Lukas' assistant explains, "It's about good versus evil. Only in this case, evil wins. It's a reverse twist." A tsiwt, if you will.

Anyway, the actresses give their addresses to the studio, thinking that the studio is sending over a script. Instead, Armand dispatches his son, Jason, and his Mohawk sporting amigo, Maddog, to kidnap the actresses. The "child," we learn is this demonic looking thing that, apparently, can only eat women in skimpy undergarments. Whether this creature is a genuine demon from Hell or, as Lukas as one point suggests, is just a freakishly mutated human is never definitively decided.

Even in L.A., you can only disappear so many talentless actresses before somebody notices. In this case, that somebody is an Elvis-loving detective named, honestly, who cares? The Detective is enough. Although, even this gives the film too much credit. Several of the establishing shots indicate that the Detective is a member of the LAPD. However, about half way through the film, establishing shots suggest that he is a bail bonds agent. The latter makes no sense whatsoever, so we're going to just imagine that the film was unambiguous about the fact that he's a LAPD detective. Unfortunately for the under-talented actress community, despite the keen deductive skills the Detective brings to the case, he's stumped. The Detective's investigation consists mostly of getting buxom witnesses to strip down for him. Ultimately, it will be a couple of completely nameless children who just happen, inexplicably, to spend their late evening hours spying on the Satanic cult, who report the whole thing to the Detective.

The Detective manages to roll off of the endless stream of naked, but not really hot, witnesses long enough to investigate this lead. Will he stop this mad cult from depopulating Los Angeles of painfully untalented actresses? Do we want him to?

This film is utter crap. Only the cult leader, who looks like a slightly less sweaty Larry Flynt and often speaks in a sort of stream of nonsense world salad that would appeal Alfred Jarry, is an interesting element. The special effects are sub-special and the child, though he looks charmingly old school (little bat wings, small horns, like something out of an old mediaeval manuscript – only, you know, not good), moves so slowly that it takes him several minutes to trap women who are locked in a small cell with him. Avoid this stinker at all costs. Using my traditional Stations of the Monterrey Metro system of film rating, this flick doesn't even rate a single Del Golfo.