Friday, December 28, 2007

Movies: This one's for the ladies.

Chicks with marital difficulties lie at the heart of both Let's Scare Jessica to Death, the 1971 haunted house tale, and Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, the 2005 revisionist slasher that was the first episode of the first season of Showtime's horror antho series Masters of Horror.

The latter flick tells the story of Ellen. One night, while driving along a mountain road, she collides with an abandoned car. This collision attracts the attentions of Moonface, a knife-wielding slasher that looks like a cross between the rat-like Nosferatu and former NBA giant Gheorghe Muresan. Moonface pursues Ellen, like you do if you're a slasher. Only, to Moonface's great chagrin, Ellen turns out to be a remarkably resourceful victim. Through a series of flashbacks the viewer learns that Ellen is the wife of a creepy militia-style survivalist (played with scene-chewing gusto by baby-faced Ethan Embry). Instead of running through the woods until she conveniently trips on something – the way Moonface likes to play these things – Ellen goes off on a tangent and starts getting all McGuyver on his pasty butt. Using the skills taught to her by her hubby, Ellen becomes a real match for her would-be killer and the film takes the normal hunt-and-slay narrative of the slasher genre and turns it into something more along the lines of Straw Dogs or Deliverance, where a seemingly soft character is forced to draw on an unsuspected well of kick-assness in order to survive.

The story, based on a short story by genre-fiction jack of all trades Joe R. Lansdale (whose short fiction also provided the inspiration for the wonderfully goofy action-horror flick Bubba Ho-tep), unfolds quickly and ends with a neat twist ending. These days "twist ending" has almost become a dirty phrase. And justly so: for some reason the horror flick biz has caught on to the unfortunate notion that twist endings make a movie smarter. This is, sadly, untrue. A dumb movie with a twist ending is nothing more then a dumb movie with a twist at the end. Still, supposedly shocking endings are tacked on to films in an effort to give them a sense of intellectual heft. At best, these forced twists are forgettable blips that don't do anything but underscore the overall sloppiness of the story. Think of the "twist" at the end of the most recent version of House of Wax in which, in the final seconds of the film, a new villainous family member is introduced. This sounds like a more important revelation that it is: the story's over, the titular building and the two key members inside are dead, and "surprise" villain was a creepy SOB to begin with so it doesn't even change your opinion of the character. It is entirely shrug inducing. At worst, these twists send the film down a sort of intellectual rabbit-hole from which even great films can't fully recover. Despite its slick stylishness and white-knuckle suspense, the last fifth of High Tension lost that film who knows how many fans. And, I should add, not because the twist is so complicated. The only thing confusing about it is why the filmmakers bothered with it at all. To Incident On and Off's credit the twist works, follows logically from the story, and has a real emotional impact. It is what twist endings should be.

Jessica, the titular character of Let's Scare Jessica to Death, has no commando skills to fall back on. Though, even if she did, I'm not sure they would have helped.

Jessica's just finished a refreshing little holiday in a mental institution. Her husband, hoping to get her away from the sanity threatening pressures of New York City, purchases a New England apple orchard and Victorian farmhouse. With another friend tagging along for the kicks, Jessica and her hubby move in to the new place only to find a squatter – a flirty red-headed girl named Emily – has been living the house on the assumption it was abandoned. Emily joins the clan and all seems to be going well until Jessica stars to witness mysterious and sinister things. Is she relapsing into insanity? Emily an the hubby do seem awfully friendly and that's just the sort of thing that would set Jessica off. Or do these weird visions have something to do with the sinister Bishop family whose tragic fates nearly a century ago cast a strange gloom over the town even today?

There's not a whole lot I can say about LSJtD without ruining the fun of it – but I can say that the flick is really a standout flick that fans of slow-building tension and Gothic mystery should make an effort to check out. Clearly the highpoint of director John D. Hancock's career (a spotty run that includes the Love Story of pro baseball, Bang the Drum Slowly, and the 1989 Christmas/animal pic Prancer), he manages to sustain his moody tension without access to elaborate effects, with reliance on overwhelming soundtracks, and without recourse of extensive gore (there are PG-grade shots of bright red stage blood and that's about it). The acting is a wooden, but the actors are given enough to do that you'll focus on the plot without being overly distracted by their efforts.

All and all two worthwhile flicks: the first being good and the second verging on great.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Movies: So to you other kids all across the land/Take it from me/Zombies just don't understand.

Who wudda thunk it? With five adaptations, Richard Matheson's slim vampire novel (weighing in at a slender 160 pages) I Am Legend may well be the most filmed horror novel of the 20th century. Though still well behind the twin titans of Victorian terror – Dracula and Frankenstein – Matheson's vampire apocalypse story beats out King's most filmed work (The Shining, which has two adaptations), is ahead of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hull House (again, two adaptations), tops Lawrence Block's Psycho, and leads the "non-fiction" horror classic The Amityville Horror by three flicks.

Filtering out a relatively unknown Spanish adaptation and a completely forgettable straight-to-video cheapie, you get three remarkably diverse interpretations of the original.

The first film, The Last Man on Earth, stuck the closest to the source material. The baddies are vampires of sorts. At night they come and harass a melancholy Vincent Price who is holed up in his suburban home, now festooned with garlic and crosses the way pre-vampire era folks strung up Christmas decorations. During the day, Vince meticulously searches the town for sleeping vampires and drives stakes through their hearts. The film is a grim, sad affair. Price plays Robert Morgan, the titular last man, as a character who rigorously grinds his way through meticulously organized raids and nightly sieges in order to avoid the clear fact that his situation is useless. It's a film about loss and hopelessness. At one point, Price's Morgan wearily narrates, "Another day to live through. Better get started." Ironically, the vampire hunter is already dead, he just hasn't stopped moving about. And Price makes it clear this is more a product of fear and habit than a reflection of the enduring strength of the human spirit. This film was also the only film that kept something of the novel's O'Henry-esque ending.

The second flick, Omega Man, tossed out the existential angst of the first flick in favor of a more over-the-top approach. Featuring the subtle acting of Charlton Heston as last amn Robert Neville, Omega Man is a sort of clearing house for 70's genre cinema. You get post-apocalyptic sci-fi, blaxploitation, cults, and so on. The vampires of the first flick become mutant cultists, the end is reworked to give humanity a fighting chance, and you get to see Chuck H act all over the damn place as his character goes a little wacky from the loneliness.

The latest incarnation is, despite being the first flick to actually carry the name of the original novel, more a remake of The Omega Man than a return to source material. The cultists get reworked as zombie-like hordes, Heston's wacky hero gets rewored into a more smoldering and wounded protagonist, and the set is a 28 Weeks Later-ish abandoned Manhattan.

Legend isn't a bad flick. There's something remarkably liberating about watching the Fresh Prince, the latest Neville, move about the collapsed city like some urban Robinson Crusoe. Unlike the Price film, this flick is canny enough to admit that some part of us secretly thinks the collapse of civilization would be kind of cool. I watched the flick at the Union Square Cinema in Manhattan and the hoots and cheers that greeted a short shot of a decaying Union Square reveals how cathartic it is to see things break loose and just fall over. Certainly, the Price flick is probably truer to what some lone specimen of humanity would feel. But this is the movies, baby. We want to see the Fresh Prince hauling butt around the city in a boss sports car and hunting deer in Times Square. (Although, do deer swim well enough that they'd get to Manhattan? That's a real question. Does anybody know?) The film is also smart enough to keep some of its funniest survivalist moments hidden in the background for astute viewers. For example, no character ever points out that the Fresh Prince's apartment is clearly decorated with masterpieces plundered from the major art museums of island. It's just a detail in the background, but it's nice that the filmmakers were thoughtful enough about the minor details.

Ultimately, the flick suffers somewhat from being the high-gloss Hollywood version of stuff we've already seen. There's not much here that isn't Omega Man, just better; not much that isn't 28 Franchise Later, just bigger. Legend is a summer blockbuster that, somehow, showed up around Christmas. It's a good summer blockbuster. If you know what you're walking into, you won't feel like your intelligence has been insulted or your time wasted. Still, I couldn't help but feel a bit like Price's Morgan: "Another blockbuster to live through. Better get started."

Friday, December 21, 2007

Movies: Apparently it's the "porn" part of "torture porn" that makes it acceptable to the MPAA.

As a general rule, I try to avoid bringing up politics in this blog. We're talking about blood and gore and cannibals and the like and I guess I just don't see why I should drag down the level of conversation to the gutter of politics. Sure, in a general way, I touch on issues when they pop up, for better or (more usually) worse, in the films and books I review. But mostly I reckon you didn't come here for my views on politics – after all, I'm just some dude who blathers on about horror stuff, what the hell are my qualifications to tell you what to think about politics?

Besides, there are few pits of rabid prejudice, poisonous spite, and crippling ignorance deeper than the political-blogosphere.

I say this all as a preemptive apology for linking you to a political blog in this entry. Today's story is important enough, I think, to merit the act; but that doesn't make doing it any less unsavory.

Think Progress, a liberal issues blog, posted an interesting story recently on a MPAA decision regarding the one-sheet for a recent documentary on the death of an Afghan taxi driver identified only as "Dilwar." According to the documentary makers, Dilwar was captured by US forces in Afghanistan and, thought he had no ties to terrorist groups or activities, was tortured to death by interrogators at the US prison at Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan.

The poster for the film (shown above) features a doctored image of two soldiers leading away a hooded man in handcuffs. The image contains pieces from two different journalistic photos.

Variety reports that the MPAA declared that the poster was unsuitable and that the documentary makers would have their rating revoked if they used the poster in their advertising. The MPAA objected to the image of the hood.

The point is this: this poster, with its allusion to the actual practices of torture currently condoned by the government of the United States, is considerably more restrained, tasteful, and socially significant than more violent torture-themed posters approved for horror flicks like Hostel and Saw. The one-sheet for the latest flick in the Saw franchise features a woman strapped into a torture device and wearing a hood made of red fabric and a boar's-head mask.

What's the lesson? If your film features torture, you'd best make sure it is gratuitous and, if possible, pointless. There's nothing less acceptable in film then the ugly truth.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Movies: Bird is the word.

When I first moved to New York City, I thought the Town That Never Weeps would be filled with hidden pockets of eccentric coolness. You know, tiny little restaurants ain't nobody heard of, bars that only a select group of regulars frequent, small parks forgotten by the baby-stroller pushing hordes and radio-blasting juvies – places to discover for yourself. It did take long to realize that, for the most part, the city is pretty frontier-less. Especially in the age of blogs and user-driven regional web sites, no patch of land remains unexplored, reviewed, and assigned a one- to five-star rating.

There are exceptions, sure. But they're few and far between. There was the old dive bar Siberia, for example. This place was well-known, but I found that very few of the many of the folks who had heard of the joint had ever actually visited. It was genuine hole being situated as it was in a subway stop – the 51st station on what was the old 1 and 9 line. Not that Siberia was the world's greatest bar or anything. It was actually pretty scruffy. The ambiance was heavily Gitmo, the furniture looked like it had been thrown on the street and the street threw it right back, the beer selection was strictly utilitarian, and the bathrooms were so ill-lit that you were forced to make a choice: either pee in the dark with the door closed for privacy or leave the door wide open so you could actually aim. I should add that both bathrooms had several fist sized holes in the wall, entry points for things that lived behind the walls of 51st Street stop. If you were gutsy enough to pee in the dark, you'd get treated to the sound of things creeping out of their lair to see what you were and to guess at whether or not you were edible.

Despite how dismal the joint could be, it attracted loyalists. Some of the regulars were simply maintenance alcoholics from the office building above the station. They were grabbing a bit of Dutch courage to steel themselves for the transition between grinding work drudgery and soul-destroying suburban home hell. But, aside from the chemically dependent boozers, there were people that could have easily gone anywhere and chose to be in the dungeon-like Siberia,

I can't speak for everybody, but part of the charm of the place for me was that it was a find. It was exactly that sort of word-of-mouth hideaway that rewarded a the adventurous with a story; it was in and of itself a prize for folks who would go a little out of their way for something unique or unusual.

I bring this up because genre entertainment often plays the same game: you think you're going to run into diamonds in the rough all over the place. You imagine that you'll stumble across that curious flick or forgotten book or what-have-you. The truth is that the field as a whole seems heavily weighted towards junk and what isn't crappola is usually thoroughly documented, reviewed, and rated.

So, imagine my surprise when, reading the reviews of horror-blogger Mermaid Heather (see sidebar), she gave a five-out-of-five review to a flick I've never heard of before. This lady has reviewed what must amount to a couple hundred flicks by now, and you can count the number of fives she's give on your fingers. And here's a complete unknown grabbing a five. Was this one of those elusive gems? A genuine find?

The flick in question is the somewhat cryptically titled 2004 film Dead Birds: a semi-Lovecraftian dark house horror set in the latter years of the Civil War. The movie begins with a bloody bank robbery. The perpetrators – a group of Confederate deserters, a freedman, and a nurse – take their loot and head of to a plantation their leader knows to be deserted. On finding their way to the old house, the gang finds themselves dragged in the supernatural carnage left there when the mansion's previous owner accidentally-on-purpose tore open a hole between this universe and the next, letting all sorts of otherworldly nastiness pour through. Ultimately, the flicks boils down to a simple main conflict: can this armed gang keep their crap together long enough to make it through a single night on the plantation?

I was not disappointed by Dead Birds (the title, according to the director, refers to a dead bird that appears in the yard of the plantation, evidence that suggests nothing can survive the curse of the plantation). The first feature-length flicker from director Alex Turner (son of famed jazz album cover photographer Pete Turner) plays like the work of comfortably established director. It looks polished, achieves a level of tension that threatens to leave the viewer physically spent at times, and is confident enough with its elliptical plot that it makes demands of it viewers without lapsing into lazy storytelling or easy explanations. Shot on location at an actual decaying plantation house, Turner and his crew make the most of the dim period lighting, achieving some set-ups that would be the envy of directors working with much bigger budgets.

There are some flaws in the flick. The period setting is essential to the story, which makes the occasional anachronisms all the more jarring – apparently the nurse in this gang has figured out the importance of sterilization well in advance of the rest of the medical establishment. Also, despite a pretty nifty creature design, the CGI effects distance the viewer rather than pull them in.

These don't take away from the fact DB is a genuinely good flick. I'm somewhat baffled as to how this movie didn’t garner more attention on its initial release. With so much substandard junk littering the low-budget field, DB stands head-and-shoulders above most of its b-flick kin. The flick is the most promising debut I've seen in awhile and well worth checking out.

As an aside, the film also got me thinking about how odd it is that slavery doesn't play a significant role in the collective imagination of horror cinema. Our various modern wars, from WW I to the current war, have given us all manner of monstrosity. The various nightmares of the Western expansion have resurfaced in the form of cannibal flicks, sundry Native American tropes (from wendigos to that ever-popular cause of trouble: the Indian burial ground), and even camp mash-ups (see Billy the Kid versus Dracula). The Civil War makes its appearance, but most often in the form of weird Southern revenge flicks like 2,000 Maniacs and it re-makes and their sequels. Even the American Revolution has given us a single well-known icon: the Headless Horseman.

But slavery – a 400-year-old display of horror and human cruelty played out on an unimaginable scale – seems to have inspired very little in the way of horror flicks. Slavery played minor part in the Candyman franchise and I can think of minor a reference to it in I Walked with a Zombie, but otherwise it seems remarkably absent as a topic in horror cinema. This strikes me as curious. Horror often finds its greatest traction in the stresses and anxieties of a culture and I submit to you that the legacy of slavery remains one of the greatest sources of anxiety in our culture. Even from a strictly thematic standpoint, you'd think it would come up more. One of the most shopworn narrative devices in horror cinema is that the deeply wronged seek revenge in horrific ways. What group of people were ever so deeply wronged as the victims of slavery? And yet, even in Dead Birds, the fact that our ill-fated plantation owning necromancer owned slaves is a fairly minor plot point. He's cursed not by the fact that he systematically visited the results of the one of most brutal system of de-humanization ever devised upon a group of innocents, but by the considerably more spookshow idea that he dabbled forbidden magic – the latter apparently being the more sinister crime.

Perhaps the issue's too sensitive even for horror folk to touch. Perhaps people are afraid to drive off white audiences. Who knows? Whatever the cause, it seems like a conspicuous absence.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Meta: Somebody please think of the children!

For those who haven't noticed, a new link has popped up on the ol' ANTSS sidebar. If you haven’t tried it yet, clickee on over to Kindertrauma. Seriously. Do it! I promise you'll like it. Look, just click over once; if you don't like it, I promise we'll stop.

Kindertrauma is one of the most original sites in the horror-blog community. The blog is dedicated chronicling all those books, television shows, and flicks that scared the crap out of us when we were little. Some entries cover straight-up horror flicks (if the site is to be believed, the '80s slasher boom has left the current crop of 30-somethings with some pretty deep scars), but several entries cover those innocent childhood pleasures that, for some sadistic reason, turned on us: like the "space vampire" episode of Buck Rogers.

The bloggers behind this treasury of tot terror, Uncle Lancifer and Aunt John, happily take traumatic tales from their readers, so feel free to drop them a line about the bit o' media that left you permanently afraid of clowns/water/spiders/Santa or whatever else.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Comics: Who is Jenifer's legal father?

Not to long ago on this here site I mentioned that Dark Horse had snatched up the rights to the famed horror-antho titles Creepy and Eerie. Well, two bits of follow-up.

First, Dark Horse didn't buy up those two titles so much as they entered into an agreement with New Comic Company to jointly create archive editions of previously published material and re-launch the series.

This is significant because – and here's the second bit of follow up – the original writers and artists are worried that they'll be screwed by being shut out of the profits made on any re-issue of their work.

The backstory: New Comic Company was formed in 2007 by the NYC-based Submarine Entertainment and the LA-centric Grand Canal Films to handle the acquisition of the famed titles from Warren Publishing.

Warren Publishing, founded in 1957 by James "Jim" Warren, was responsible for a host of horror titles: Creepy, Eerie, Famous Monsters of Filmland, The Goblin, Monster World, The Rook, Screen Thrills Illustrated, and Vampirella. In a clever move to duck the Comics Authority Code, a self-imposed censorship code instituted in the wake of the Congressionally-lead witch hunt that lead to the collapse of the EC funny-book empire, these titles were classified as "magazines" and not "comic books." The success of these grim not-comics brought Marvel and DC back into the horror game, creating the 1970s horror comic revival. Warren's funny-book empire expanded to eventual include such notable non-horror titles as the The Spirit, a re-launch of the legendary Will Eisner character with covers by the comic master himself.

The role call of folks who worked on these titles is something like a who's who of modern comic art and illustration: Joe Orlando, Neal Adams, Gene Colan, Frank Frazetta, Alex Toth, Russ Heath, Wally Wood, Dave Cockrum, Richard Corben, Frank Frazetta, Vaughn Bodé, H.R. Giger, Basil Gogos, and Boris Vallejo among others.

Film-fans who have never picked up a comic book have been exposed through the work of Warren Publishing creators through Showtime's Masters of Horror series: Jenifer and Pelts, two of the series' best episodes, were adaptations of stories from the magazines.

Here's the problem: ever since Warren shuttered its doors, people have debated who truly owns the rights to the work Warren published. This week, New Comics and Dark Horse sounded off with an odd: "We do, but we're willing to share."

Here's the press release:

The publication rights to ‘Creepy’ and ‘Eerie’ were lawfully and properly acquired in 2007 by New Comic Company from the original copyright holder and publisher Jim Warren and Warren Publishing. Those publishing rights have been reasserted by the renewal of the original copyrights by New Comic Company.

Further, the chain of title was cleared after a bankruptcy of the original Warren entities and subsequent to a lengthy litigation between Warren and Harris publishing.

New Comic concluded a deal with Dark Horse Comics in the spring of 2007 to republish the original editions of ‘Creepy’ and ‘Eerie.’ New Comic Company and Dark Horse have always intended to compensate original creators and welcome their participation in the creation of the archives and in new editions of Creepy and Eerie and look forward to a good working relationship with any reasonable human beings who present themselves. The principals of New Comic Company are devoted fans of the magazines since boyhood, are firmly supportive of artists rights and look forward to re-connecting with former Creepy and Eerie artists and writers.

The take home lesson kiddies? Hold on to those rights.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Movies: Lovely Bones it ain't.

In some alternate universe, a better place perhaps, there are federal laws about when shops can start playing Christmas music and if you can find just one person – a single human being – who thinks you're swell, then all your food is free and all you can eat forever. In this wonderful place, the Internet is made of whiskey (somehow) and you can access it for free anywhere. There, in this perfect place, the better a food tastes, the thinner it makes you. Children are born cute instead of purple and wrinkly and they grow normally for the first year and a half – then they sudden become college-age and vanish except on holidays. There are no political parties and all of our leadership positions are filled via a jury-duty like system. In this blessed universe, sleep is not only always completely restful, but it acts as a rigorous form of physical exercise. And there's such a thing a beer ice cream and it's good somehow instead of utterly gross as one imagines such a thing would really be.

When they have the Academy Awards in this place, they don't give out a prize for Best Supporting Actor (an award for supporting, please, they're just lucky to have work and that should be reward enough). Instead, they give out the much-coveted Most Gooey Feature Award. And every year, the award goes to Peter Jackson's 1992 splatter-fest Dead Alive (née Braindead).

(The Best Actress Award is replaced by the controversial Best Reference to an Episode of Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp, Award – but that's a different blog entry.)

Taking the slapstick gore antics of his '87 alien invasion flick Bad Taste to giddily surreal heights, Jackson delivers what must be the one of the slimiest flicks ever made. According to that source of all knowledge – the Great IMDB – more than 300 liters of fake blood was spilled all over the climactic final scene. The site reports that Jackson's crew was pumping the stuff all over the actors at a rate of nearly 5 gallons per second. Lordy.

Despite how bloody and deliriously unhinged the flick becomes, the film starts out rather modestly.

The first surprise of Jackson's flick is that it is a period piece. It is set in New Zealand during the 1950s. Period cars, trolley trains, and so forth all add the setting. Why set it half a century back in time? I have no idea. It does allow Jackson to send up the sort of wooden acting one equates with melodramas of the period – which also helps him cover for the fact that his actors aren't that great. But that's a lot of effort to go through for a few era-dependent gags. I can't explain it. It is what it is.

The story, what there is of it, starts on Skull Island. Yep, that Skull Island apparently: in a curious bit of career foreshadowing, Jackson's first visit to the home of King Kong can be found in the opening scene of Dead Alive. There we watch as a New Zealand zoo official eludes a tribe of not so PC-natives in an effort to deliver his captured Sumatran Rat Monkey to a zoo in kiwi-land. The less-than-great white hunter doesn't quite make it, but the rat monkey, and effectively nasty bit of stop action animation, does. (To bring things full circle, a crate labeled "Sumatran Rat Monkey" appears on boat in Jackson's Kong remake.)

Our hero, Lionel, a goofy dweebish sort who suffers under the oppressive tyranny of his particularly unpleasant mother, starts the film by developing an awkward romance with a local shopgirl. His mother, in an effort to nip her boys amorous adventures in the bud, follows him and his lady love to the zoo. There, she's bitten by the rat monkey. This is bad news as the rat monkey has some sort of zombie-making sepsis going on. The beast's bite slowly turns Lionel's mom into an undead creature that craves the taste of human flesh (and, occasionally, porridge). A dutiful son, Lionel tries to keep his mother and her people chomping tendencies under wraps. This puts a terrible cramp on his romancin' and, ultimately, fails to prevent the spread of undead-ism.

Things go from bad to worse, reaching the aforementioned blood-soaked climax wherein Lionel and his babe are caught in a house full of zombies and must battle it out with the shuffling horde using things like lawn mowers (a source of a good portion of the 300 some liters of fake blood used). Jackson's zombies aren't slouches in the undead department. They take absurd amounts of abuse and just keep coming. At one point, Lionel is menaced by the animated innards of a zombie that, despite falling out of their body casing, still pursue our hero. In this flick, the only way to stop a zombie is to thoroughly pulp it – which our hero does with much gusto in a final fight scene that last a good half hour or so.

Many reviews of Dead Alive mention is as a "disturbing film." This, I think, gives the wrong impression. This film might upset your stomach, but that's about as far as it aspires to go. Sure this flick pushed boundaries, but they are simply boundaries of taste rather than ethical or aesthetic boundaries. It's a gross-out comedy that uses zombies and blood instead of potty jokes (well, as well as potty jokes, let's say). It has more in common with flicks like Army of Darkness - though it is considerably more gory than that film – than it does with endurance test flicks that leave you feeling hollowed out. The real question here isn't whether or not you'll be shaken and disturbed by the flick as whether or not you'll find it nauseating and pointless. Dead Alive is a very specific kind of joke and, if that humor isn't your speed, then the whole thing will just seem like a clumpy meaty mess that goes nowhere fast. I enjoyed the flick, but even I started to glaze over near the end there when the gore-gags were coming so fast and furious that the cumulative effect was more numbing and boring than distressing or exhilarating. Still, the movie isn't overly long. Jackson knows he's pushed the limits of his audience's humor and wraps things up neatly and quickly before it all gets stupid of tedious.

So, how do you know if Jackson's pic is right for you? There's one scene in the flick in which a young woman's head splits open and out of her ruined cranium crawls a zombie baby. It had tunneled up through her and emerged at her face. Having read that description, pick the option that most describes your reaction:

A) "Yeah, I could see that being done in a funny sort of way."

B) "I just threw up in my mouth a little."

If you answered "A," then queue this sick little puppy. You're in for a treat.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Meta: Flatulating my gassy bloviation all over the Internets.

Hell truly hath no fury like an Internet reviewer.

This one comes from a user going under the nom de Net "Scone Mason." Get it? Scone Mason. See what he did there? Watch out, Sconey Maloney kicks it up to a whole 'nother intellectual level in a second.

This is a review of House of Leaves, the cult hit spook story that used concrete poetry techniques, stunt layouts, and other tricks to tell the story of a young man obsessed with a manuscript purporting to detail the contents of a documentary about a haunted house.

Let's let the Sconester take it away.

This book was incredibly dull pseudointellectual gimmickery.

"Dull" count: 1

Bret E. Ellis's much touted blurb should be embarrassing to him, but more so to those who buy his books.

I'm not sure what exactly he means by "much touted" here. In standard English the phrase means to hype something up, to make much of it. Ellis's blurb is just stuck on the book like several others. The blurb itself isn't made much of. Perhaps he meant the blurb itself was doing the touting - but that's what blurbs do so it would be sort of like saying "the Crest add, which shamefully promotes Crest toothpaste . . ."

I can't say whether or not Ellis is embarrassed by the blurb. I can say that, as a person who has purchased some of Ellis's books, I can't seem to muster the proper amount of shame. My therapist and I will work on the crucial Ellis blurb issues in the future.

To mention Danielewski's charade in the same sentence as Pynchon, Wallace, and Ballard shows only that Ellis hasn't read any of those other writers. King, who is indeed the King of Hacks, is a proper comparative I suppose.

Ouch. I should add though that Pynchon once blurbed a Tom Robbins book - so treating blurbs as if they were anything other than a sort of cheap round agents force their writers to pay for now and then is, I think, a somewhat sterile exercise.

In Infinite Jest Wallace used copious footnotes to help tell the story.

Actually, the notes in Infinite Jest are endnotes. 'Cause they come at the end of the book. Hence the "end."

In House of Leaves there is one footnote that helps tell the story, and that is the group of letters from Johnny Truant's institutionalized mother. Those letters are the best part of the book. The rest is typing. 99% of the footnotes can be ignored, and as you approach the end, you can pretty much skip every other paragraph to the finish. Fake scholarly works inserted into a rewriting of The Amityville Horror (or pick your haunted house story) do not make it scholarly.

I assume he picked Amityville and then added the "or whatever" because the house in Leaves really doesn't do anything that the house in Amityville does. The latter is haunted by the residents who were murdered there previously, has imaginary friends appearing and disappearing, possesses its inhabitants, has swarms of flies buzzing everywhere, rotting meat smells, and so on. There was, if I recall, a mystery room the Amityville folks found in their basement - a sort of crawl space behind their washing machine. Still, that doesn't seem to explain why the former house - with no ghosts to speak of, no flies, no blood and ooze running down the walls, no demonic voices or pig-like imaginary friends, no any Amityville-ish traits - is a copy of the latter.

I think what the Scone Ranger meant to say was something along the lines of "I'm pretty sure this is an unoriginal rewrite of something that, if I had read it, could point to at this very moment." And who can argue with that?

Lots of Latin and Greek references do not make it intellectual, and telling a story within a story does not make it literary when you don't care about the people involved.

Damn right. French is the language of vapid intellectuality. And the measure of all literature is whether or not you care about the people involved. Everybody knows that. That's why The Velveteen Rabbit is the cornerstone of Western literature.

None of these characters is particularly endearing, and putting the words on the page in imitation of the geography the characters are experiencing is impressive only to those easily impressed.

So, yeah, fuck you readers! I should point out that the funniest thing Scone-and-Rag Man does here is shotgun wedding to completely unrelated ideas into a single sentence, stretching the power of the poor comma until it screams. Check out this sentence. The first clause - dependent? who cares? - is about how none of the characters are endearing (not like, say, the endearing Oedipa Maas or those lovable wheelchair-bound assassins in Jest) and the second - is this the dependent clause? are there any dependent clauses? at least give us a sanity clause - is about layout issues.

High school kids probably love this book. Or college business administration majors.

Yeah. What the hell are you? Some sort of business administration major? Get a life!

Actually, I'm a little embarrassed by Here-I-Go-Again-On-My-Scone here: he clearly pulled his punches. I think he wanted to say something like "only poor and uneducated people" or "only blacks and Chinamen" would be impressed, but he was worried that this would make him sound like some sort of jackass who used stereotypes as an intellectual crutch.

Anyone who wants a challenge or to read something experimental should try Robert Coover's The Public Burning or John Hawke's The Beetle Leg.

Again, he's pulling his punches. I recommend sending several books through a shredder. Then taping them back up in random order. Read that mess, you mammer-jammer. Now we're talking about R-E-A-D-ing, baby. Anything less rigorous than this and you're just one of those pussy business administration majors that reads for pleasure or the sensation of novelty or escape or whatever pathetic excuse you cling to. You don't want people to think you're a pussy business administration major? Well, do you?

If this book changed your life, you need to get out more, go to a bookstore, then get in more.

This might be true. The only reason I stop to mention this line is that I don't believe anybody in the comment chain mentioned anything about this. If we're going to attack fanatical readers that don't exist, let's really make them crazy, right? Say: "I've heard that some people have been trading away their own infant children for copies of this book. I think those people are daft!"

There is nothing deep or deeply intellectual about this book, it is not a difficult read, unless you are unable to physically turn the book to read upsidedown or sideways, and there is certainly nothing to lead any well-read person to compare it to Wallace, Pynchon, or Ballard.

This is another one of those great pile-on sentences, like Scone-some Dove was trying to get the most out of some one-trip critical term salad bar. Does something have to be difficult to read to be "deep or deeply intellectual"? Wouldn't that make the instruction manual to the Airport wireless router I've got more "deep or deeply intellectual" than, say, Darwin's Origin of Species, which is written in a pretty straight forward style? Doesn't this make Edward Lear a more "deep or deeply intellectual" author than Pynchon, because Pynchon at least makes sense?

THere was not one sentence in this book that made me laugh the way Wallace does, or marvel at its genius the way Pynchon does.

Ballard has suddenly dropped out of the running. I don't know why. As for laughing, Leaves isn't really a comedy. I don't want to suggest that its not being a comedy could possibly account for lack of ha-ha's. Indeed, maybe it is a sign of just how crappy a writer
Danielewski is that he was unable to write a drama-horror book that didn't send Pay-Scone into paroxysms of school-girlish twittering. Or, you know, maybe he didn't write any gags. I'm just saying it's a possibility and we should keep our options open.

As many have pointed out, it is simply dull. I think a lot of people probably love the fact that they can say they read a 700 page book that is actually about 100 pages long if all the nonsense is removed and there aren't 20 pages with only one sentence or one word on them.

"Dull" count: 2

This is true, I know many people who regularly say, "
I read a 700 page book that is actually about 100 pages long if all the nonsense is removed and there aren't 20 pages with only one sentence or one word on them." They've got a club that meets regularly at the Brooklyn Central library. The coffee is free. I recommend it.

Most of all it's dull.

"Dull" count: 3

Right. We got you. It's dull.

I usually toss aside a book this boring, but I wanted to be able to review it in its entirety.

Um, what? He read the whole book solely so he could produce this? He thought his crucial insights into the book - limited mostly to a discussion of a single footnote, the layout, and one of the marketing blurbs - was so essential, so important, so vital to our needs that he sacrificed himself for our greater good.


Now I feel kinda like a total asshole for making fun of him.

I mean, I don't feel like as big of an asshole as Give A Dog A Scone is for finishing a book he hated just so he could flatulate his gassy bloviation (look it up, Sconed Age) all over the Internets. But still, I feel a bit bad.

I don't know Danielewski personally, but as a writer he and Ellis are a good pair, all hype. Two literary big hats with absolutely no cattle.

I like that touch. I do that myself when I'm reviewing Dickens. "Dickens and I don't travel in the same circles, but . . ."

Is it possible to negatively review something on the Inter-web and not sound like a jackass? This is actually a real question. I've done my fair share of trashing product I thought was subpar. But then I read some crappola like this and, aside from giving me yet another reason to hope the terrorists win, it makes me wonder if I shouldn't adopt a Believer-style review policy: only write about stuff you like.

What say you, loyal readers? Should ANTSS adopt a "if you can't say something nice" policy?

Books: Reheated leftovers.

"Well, I'll tell you, the reason I think we've got another go-round, George, is what's not here. All the meaty bits, if you catch my drift. Familiar?"
- From Jack Ketchum's Offspring

Horror-blogging icon, tastemaker, wit, humanitarian, Charles Nelson Reilly fan, philosopher, and all around swell human Stacie Ponder of "Final Girl" fame once opined that the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise suffered greatly from the odd tendency of that particular product to produce sequels that were more remakes than sequels. Instead of extending the storyline, each sequel would be the first flick with more or less gore as the filmmaker's tastes determined. Perhaps family members would be added or dropped, but you could expect to see teens stumble across the old homestead. Several would get quickly processed and one of them, the final girl, would end up at a surreal feast with the family. To be fair, I'm not certain that TCM's sequels are any more derivative than the sequels of other franchises (barring Jason's recent space adventures, which possibly show how being utterly non-derivative is no guarantor of success). I think TCM sticks out because no matter how the story template shifts, something like the dinner scene always seems to pop up as a sort of showpiece scene. Since the dinner scene was one of the most memorable scenes in the original, its constant reappearance strikes us as especially glaring. Take the second TCM: with its bizarre carnival setting, almost slapsticky humor, and neon color scheme it is about as far from the original as you can get and still get away with calling it a TCM flick. But, despite all this, when the overly long and too familiar dinner scene pops up, a dragging and weary sense that we've seen it all before takes over.

My point is not to argue with Final Girl or defend the TCM franchise as it is to suggest that sequels are hard to pull off. People want more of the same, only different. Give us too much of the same and we horror fans will bitch that we got nothing but a re-shoot of the original; change too much and we'll bitch that you lost the spirit of the original. I almost feel bad for the suckers that end up helming sequels. Almost – they've made too many utterly disastrous sequels to excuse them completely, right?

Unfortunately, Offspring, Jack Ketchum's sequel to his cannibals of Maine thriller Off Season, is on of those sequels that tries to give fans more of the same, only different, and somehow misses the mark.

The plot is remarkably similar to the original: the residents of a Maine shore house will be attacked by a tribe of feral children tuned cannibals. Jack adds a joker to the deck in the form of an ex-husband psycho who may turn out to be more dangerous than the cannibals and ups the ante by putting a couple of children in harm's way. Aside from that, we've got pretty much the same book. After a few chapters of character development and some ominous foreshadowing, the house is attacked. Some of the cast dies. Some are dragged to the tribe's cave. Some give chase. We've seen it.

Not that Jack doesn't try. I might be splitting some very fine hairs here, but this outing seems a little less gory than the first book and the extra inches freed up by the dialed down splatter are given over to developing the characters in the tribe. In the first book, the cannibals were basically monsters or animals – not so much characters as crisis that must be dealt with. In the sequel, Ketchum sketches out a sort of Search for Fire-esque social structure. The cannibals have also developed language use, something I don't believe they had in the first book.

Offspring is a perfectly serviceable thriller. It lacks the gravity of Ketchum's Girl Next Door and the ruthless simplicity and exhilarating bloodthirstiness of the original. After all, we're talking about a book about a bunch of cannibals chewing their way through coastal Maine. If you're looking for Proustian introspection or the psychological rigor of Henry James, you should probably stay away from mass-market paperbacks featuring a meat cleaver and a human skull hanging above a soup pot on the cover. The book delivers what you'd expect. The only complaint is that Ketchum often delivers more than what you'd expect and, this time, readers don't get the A-game.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Music: What can't you find on Youtube?

Honestly. What did people do before Youtube? I don't recall. Did we all just sit around wishing we had some place to go where you could find videos of Bowie performing his mega-stellar-deluxe-super-plus-ultra-maxi-heavy-flow-with-wings hit "Putting Out Fires (The Theme from Cat People)"? I shudder to think.

Admittedly, the live version's got a little more petrol than the all-cheddar recorded version, but you'll get the idea. Plus, Bowie apparently told his hairdresser, "Can you get it to go a little more Gary Glitter, man? Yeah? Far out."

Far out, indeed, Mr. Bowie.

Since we're on the topic of Bowie's cinematic highpoints, here's his fine work in 1986's Labyrinth:

Good times, good times.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Movies: The cat came back.

Of all the movies produced by Val Lewton during his now legendary stint as the horror-show unit head at RKO, perhaps none has inspired more tributes and caused more ink than The Cat People. This 1942 flick, directed by Jacques Tourneur (the finest of Lewton's stable of directors – which also included Robert Wise), was named dropped in The Kiss of the Spider Woman, remade and tarted-up by Paul Schrader in 1982, and is a staple of horror revivals, film studies classes, and discussions of noir style.

As an aside, if you really want to know horror, listen to every painful second of David Bowie's "Putting Out the Fire (The Theme to The Cat People)," one of the White Duke's least impressive and most gratuitously '80s outings. Several medical studies in Europe have actually linked a pattern of repeated listening to "Putting Out the Fire" with increase incidences of rectal cancer; that's how bad the song is. It appears on the 2002 two-disc Best of Bowie. I specify the year here because, realizing that the word "best" carries a specific meaning to most of the English-speaking world, EMI dropped the tune from the 2004 release of the set.

But enough about Bowie's less-than-greatest hour and back to the flick in question, the original Cat People is the first flick on a two-feature disc, the first of five double features in the TCM Lewton collection. The story is a classic boy-meets-girl, boy-marries-girl, girl-turns-out-to-be-a-cursed-cat-monster story. We open on Irena, a raven-haired beauty sketching the black panther in its cage at the Central Park Zoo. Irena's played by French import Simone Simon, whose Marseillesn accent is sufficiently non-Parisian enough to sound suitably exotic without being quite identifiable. Irena catches the eye of Oliver Reed: All American. Played by square-jawed, hyper-vanilla Kent Smith, Ollie is a sort of Everyman in the Grey Flannel Suit. Ollie puts some smooth moves on our foreign-born beauty and soon they're dating. Eventually Ollie wants to do some light consensual lip wrasslin', but Irena puts the kibosh on any physical contact. She explains that she descends from a long line of cursed villagers. The cursed women of this village, when they "fall in love" (read: "do the naughty"), have the tendency to turn into cat monsters and claw up their men. How this has lead to there being a long line of such women is unclear. My admittedly scant knowledge of Darwinism suggests that this particular trait would pretty much ensure the extinction of folks carrying it – but let's not dwell on this as it is a mere bump in the road compared to the narrative obstacle I'm going to ask you to leap next.

Ollie, after being cock-blocked for their entire dating history (or kiss-blocked, as it were), decides that he just can't take it anymore and does the reasonable thing: he marries Irena. That's right. Without so much as exchanging a smooch, Ollie decides that Irena's cat people story is just a manifestation of some erotic frigidity. And nothing heats up the sexually frigid like marriage – it's a well-known fact! He figures that he's a patient guy and he can just wait out whatever deep-seated psychological trauma makes human contact so horrifying to Irena. Our heroes get hitched and settle into married life. Sure, things are a little weird: Irena's obsessed with cats, has the tendency to scare pet birds to death, and enjoys chasing bits of string maybe just a little too much (okay, not that last bit). Ollie's hottie blonde coworker (the blonde = good, dark haired = bad correlation in these old flicks is remarkably consistent – it's like there was some clause in the SAG contract) suggests Irena should see a shrink, which introduces the pompous and sleazy Dr. Judd, who starts taking a more than strictly Hippocratic interest in the exotic Irena. Everything comes to a bewhiskered head when Irena's jealousy over Ollie's blonde "um-friend" and the creepy attentions of the good doctor make her "break all kitty on this ishi, yo," as the gentlemen down on the corner phrase it.

Admittedly, the story is a bit clunky. In the 1940s and '50s, American cinema became utterly enamored with what was a strangely mechanistic misunderstanding of psychoanalysis. Flicks like The Snake Pit and Dark Voyage reworked horrific mental illnesses into fodder for weepies. Shrink doctors popped up in film after film, conveniently provided exposition at reasonable hourly rates. Hitchcock seems to have used the DSM as a screenwriting handbook, hanging on to his paperback psycho-babble for an embarrassingly long time after others had moved on to more trendy characterization crutches (see Marnie). Cat People is a clear product of that decades long infatuation with the monster that Freud built. It's a film unashamed to include dialogue like "Find me a psychologist, Ollie. Find me the best one there is." This is all a little curious insomuch as the shrink turns out to be a bit of a sleaze-bag and the existence of a sequel called The Curse of the Cat People should give you a pretty good indication of just how rooted in psycho-pathology Irena's problems really are.

Still, despite the leaps of logic required by Hollywood censors and the screenwriter's love of Freud for Dummies, the director and actors manage to make the film hum along. Visually, the flick is a shadow-soaked noir treat. One scene in particular – when Ollie and his blonde are trapped in his office with the only light coming from a series of tabletop light-boxes – is a standout. The acting won't stick with you, but the cumulative effect is to make the viewer pity Irena. Despite the oddity of the character, she seems genuinely trapped on all sides. The film's dramatic tension comes almost entirely from our concern about Irena, even though she's supposed to be the "monster" in this particular feature.

For many modern viewers – as well as for the folks behind the remake - Cat People may go a bit slow. Lewton created this curious hybrid genre of the horror-melodrama. His flicks were stylish, thoughtful productions intended for adult audiences – in stark contrast to the teen-centric fare that's dominated the horror genre from the '50s on. This unique fusion's pace and detailed characterization aren't for everybody. Personally, I dig this flick and think it well deserves its status as the gem in Lewton's crown.

The second feature on the disk is lackluster sequel The Curse of the Cat People. Despite reusing the same characters, the title's deceptive as the cat persons plot is pretty much jettisoned for a whole new set of psych-influenced problems. The film marks the first director credit for Robert Wise (he served as co-director) and contains a few nice scenes. But, overall, the film's a disappointing follow-up.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Books: Missing around.

Et tu, Langan? A zombie story? Is that what we've come to?


Regular readers might remember my gushing review of The Keeper, the debut novel of Sarah Langan. That novel told the tale of the ghost of Susan Marley and the grim fate of Bedford, the blue-collar Maine village that ends up on the business end of her spectral wrath. Langan's ability to intertwine working class desperation with lyrical Gothicism made that first novel one of AANTS' best reads last year.

For her second book, a sequel of sorts to The Keeper, Langan returns to the darkened woods of Maine. This time, the story takes place in Corpus Christi, the affluent hamlet neighboring the now mostly abandoned Bedford. While Bedford's fortunes declined with the retreat of industry, Corpus Christi's hospital became one of the nation's foremost cancer research centers. The influx of grant money and affluent doctors kept Corpus Christi yuppie while Bedford rotted. Before the action begins proper, we learn that the events of The Keeper have turned Bedford into a ghost town. Nobody outside Bedford knows about the sinister events surrounding the death and unlife of Susan Marley, but the lingering environmental fallout of the chemical fire that closed The Keeper is enough to keep most folks away.

Into the ghost town goes a class of school children on a fieldtrip. Seriously. The school approved a field trip into what would rank as America's most famous superfund site. One of the boys on the trip uncovers the remains of some of the Bedford incident's victims. He's quickly infected with a bizarre disease that slowly begins changing him and those he comes into contact with into ravenous cannibals.

It's basically your standard zombie holocaust scenario.

That's not to say that Langan phones the story in. In an unusual twist, the infected aren't utterly mindless. They can talk and communicate with one another. The disease organizes them into a hive-like system with one zombie queen at the top. They can plan and practice deception. And, strangely, they seem capable of limited telepathy. There's also intimations that the virus is an ancient intelligence that's been hunting humans for centuries. Still, despite these innovations, mostly what the infected do is roam the town of Corpus Christi looking for people-meat to chew on.

Despite the reliance on the now relentlessly over-flogged zombie story and its clichés, Langan grew more ambitious with this book. The cast of characters seems larger, but Langan manages her efficient characterizations without losing the focus of the plot or relying heavily on stock characters. Her plot rolls along at a greater clip; Langan trades in the Gothic slow burn for something more like the ever tightening downward spiral of an action/horror tale.

These developments act as much needed counterbalances to the tiredness of the central zombie concept. They also help the reader ignore the confusion that comes from the massive retcon that must be done to shoehorn the Marley ghost story into the new zombie virus framework. Marley wasn't a ghost? She was a psychic zombie? Then why didn't she act like it? Oh well. I think both books would have been better served if they'd just been treated as separate stories.

The Missing isn't a bad book. If you've already read The Keeper and want more of Langan's literate and smart horror, then this is a worthy follow up. If you haven't read The Keeper yet, that's really the place you'll want to start.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Movies: The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Hello, Screamers and Screamettes, welcome to a special edition of this humble horror blog. Today we cover three – count 'em: one, two, three – horror flicks in one entry. Within a single entry, your headstrong horror host will try to cover the 1980 creature feature B-flick classic Alligator, the Masters of Horror episode "Homecoming," and Jess Franco's Dracula.

We've discussed somewhat peripherally the idea that some cats botch their perfectly serviceable horror flick ideas by loading so high with ideological baggage that the flick collapses under the weight. The first two flicks on the docket today are perfect case studies in the do's and don’ts of adding political commentary to your horror flicks.

Alligator is – truth in advertising – about a big ol' gator. But, instead of sitting around in some swamp, gobbling up small mammals and harassing retirees, this ambitious descendant of the dinosaurs terrorizes a city. The plot riffs off the classic urban legend: A pet alligator gets flushed down the toilet and takes up residence in the sewers. This would be fun enough, but a local chemical research firm sweetens the pot by dumping the corpses of illegally-obtained and growth-hormone besotted test animals down the drink. These become gator chow and, after a couple decades of such treatment, we've got an angry gator the size of a car. After a local reporter definitively proves the existence of the giant lizard, the police swarm the sewers to exterminate the beast. Fortunately for viewers, this just flushes the beast up into the city where wacky high-jinks ensue.

Now, admittedly, there's a lot horror fans could dismiss about Alligator: the goofy plot, the no longer all that special effects, and the unfortunate efforts the filmmakers made at representing African American street culture. These elements haven't aged all that well. But, I say that people who can't look past that stuff just hate life and joy and I'm glad – GLAD, I sez – that the pleasures of such top quality cinema-cheese are lost on them. Seriously. Alligator is a freakin' hoot. The script, which is much better than it needed to be, was one of the earlier efforts from later indie icon John Sayles. Lewis Teague, who helmed the pic, is one of those sadly underused bastards who just never got the chance to direct real flicks. He learned his craft as the second unit director for The Big Red One, a production manager on the Woodstock documentary, and as editor on Monte Hellman's Cockfighter. Together Sayles and Teague manage a narrative efficiency and flashes of ruthlessness that echo the (superior) Jaws. An excellent performance by Robert Forster (speaking of sadly underused bastards) as the cop who knows the truth, but gets hushed up by the powerful interests pulling the department's strings, is the cherry on top. Dean Jagger also turns in a wonderful performance as Slade, the "great white hunter" character who comes to the city to hunt the out-sized reptile.

Now, as to the political content of Alligator, Sayles' script manages to get clever little ideological digs in without letting any of them overwhelm the central issue of the film: the fact that a big, hungry gator is stomping its way through the city. We get to see how corporate interests influence the politics of the city, we get some scenes which reflect the racial tensions in the city, and we get a strong environmental message. The film is at its most political in the depiction of how the police react to the gator. After an initial embarrassing show of force, they "play by the book" and make showy, but ineffective, efforts (such as hiring Slade, a more violent version of the late Steve Irwin). So long as the gator is chewing its way through the ghettos, the cops don't sweat it too much. Once it starts eating its way through the white suburbs, people start taking it seriously. Finally, when it threatens the mansions outside town, the cops have no problem throwing out the rulebook and trying anything at their disposal. What's great about Alligator is that all this is thoroughly integrated into the plot without some character, standing in for the conscience of the filmmakers, patting themselves on the back over its inclusion. We understand how ingrained these issues are by watching them play out. We never get a speech in which somebody bemoans that fact that our own environmental negligence has caused this crisis. We never get the hero cop lecturing viewers on how institutional racism has made the gator problem worse. The political content is, in the advice of writing classes everywhere, shown and not told. We don't get a lecture on the ills of the modern city; we just see those ills.

In almost perfect contrast, "Homecoming" is a political lecture thinly disguised a zombie flick. Helmed by Joe "Gremlins" Dante, this episode of the Masters of Horror is the weakest of the series I've seen so far. The plot is about as satisfying as a pundit's talking points. Mired in a war overseas – a war launched on with the justification of non-existent WMDs, natch – the President (clearly Bush) makes a public statement to the effect that he wishes the soldiers who have died in the war could come back so they could express how deeply they believed in the cause they died for. Soon thereafter, dead vets start digging themselves out of graves in order to vote against the simulacrum Bush. Along they way we get a faux-Rove and a not-a-Coulter (interestingly, we get no analogs to Powell or Rice, two of the most important players in the lead up to the Iraq War – one wonders if the filmmakers hesitated to create African American villains out of fear of offending the PC sensibilities of fellow travelers). Lest we miss the too-naked political content, we even get a helpful first person narration that explains things like "We'd said we’d count their votes and we hadn't" and "Our lives are precious." To steal a phrase from Raymond Chandler, the whole flick's about "as subtle as a tarantula on a wedding cake." The film feels like some sort of bizarre loyalty oath for modern liberals: a lopsided with-us-or-against-us history of the contemporary political scene as written by the gents who used to crank out EC's horror comics. It isn't enough to believe the current administration is dishonest (which it is), but the flick needs you to believe that it would kidnap and torture Cindy Sheenan into supporting the war (which they obviously didn't). In his brilliant essay "Paul, Horror Comics, and Doctor Wertham," Robert Warshow brilliantly described the cartoonishly simple-minded morality of this thinking:

The assumption that human beings will always follow out the logic of their characters to the limit is one of the worst elements in comic books, and is pretty widespread in them. If a man is a burglar, he will not hesitate to commit murder; and if he is going to commit murder, he is often likely to think of boiling his victim in oil as of shooting him.

Warshow mentions how poachers illegally trapping beaver in the Mark Trail radio serial would unhesitatingly shoot any game wardens they came across, as if the moral flexibility that made one hunt game off season would also, obviously, mean you were cool with capping officers of the law. Often we're smart enough to recognize the stupidity of this moral logic. When an old "educational film" suggests that the first puff of a joint inevitably leads to a life of prostitution and a death in the gutter, we call it camp. When, however, the Village Voice sees the same level of thinking in "Homecoming," it declares the flick "one of the most important political films of the era." What was good enough for the narrative logic of Mark Trail comics is now good enough for political rhetoric. What's remarkable about Bush is not his stupidity, but how he's made all of his critics stoop down to his level.

Alligator is a fun horror movie with a clever social consciousness that elevates the project rather than swamps it. "Homecoming" is an embarrassing indicator of how much the modern left has lost by capitulating to a organized disingenuousness that replaces engaged moral and intellectual effort with a vulgar irony that auto-excuses our own lack of commitment to our ideals. The former is today's good; the latter is today's bad.

Today's ugly is Jess Franco's Dracula. In a misguided bid for credibility, Franco shot a straitlaced version of the famed Stoker novel, eschewing his trademarked sleaze while failing to improve on his lackluster visual style or his lazy grasp of filmmaking basics. Imagine a porno flick that's got all the actual sex cut out of it and you'll have a good idea of what watching Franco's film is like. Let's never ever discuss this movie again.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Books: The road less traveled.

John Maberry is a curious cat.

He's an inductee into the Martial Arts Hall of Fame – an institution I'd wager most folks didn't even imagine existed. In 2003 Maberry joined such luminaries as Toshiro Mifune, Sonny Chiba, Bruce Lee, Steven Segal, and Jackie Chan in the Hall on the strength of his numerous martial arts guides, a program he runs teaching cops self-defense techniques, and – no fooling – his creation of a self-defense program for handicapped folks, including a program for the blind and one for people in wheelchairs. Seriously. It's called "Steel Wheels."

If that wasn't enough, Maberry is also the founder of an online literary magazine called The Wild River Review and he helps run a writing center called Career Doctor for Writers. He's qualified to give advice, seeing as he's got 900 article, two plays, several songs, and sixteen non-fiction books under his belt.

All this feeds into his paying gig as a motivational speaker.

But wait, there's more. He's written extensively about supernatural folklore and, in 2006, he wrote his first horror novel and it won the Stoker Award for Best First Novel. It was also nominated for Best Novel, but not even Maberry can win all the time.

Basically, Maberry is a freakin' overachiever and he'd be easy to hate. Only problem is, Ghost Road Blues, the aforementioned award winning novel, is an excellent book that deserved the praise heaped upon it.

Almost makes it worse, don't it?

Ghost Road Blues is the opening book of a trilogy of grand-scale horror novels set in the fictional Pennsylvania town of Pine Deep. Pine Deep is a mostly rural hamlet with a thriving historic downtown area full of artsy shops aimed at snagging tourist dollars. Many moons ago, a sinister serial killer stalked Pine Deep. A mob of angry townsfolk lynched the killer and, as time has gone on, Pine Deep has embraced the grand lessons of capitalism and turned their bloody past into thriving Halloween-centric tourism industry. The town markets itself as "The Spookiest Town in America."

Only problem is that horror fiction relishes irony and a civic development plan based on something so clearly sinister is bound to bite you in the ass.

Pine Deep's homegrown serial killer isn't dead. The man the angry citizens lynched was the wrong man: a local blues musician who, in fact, had just struggled with the real murderer and had left him for dead. Now both the serial killer – an evil creature that seems to simply wear the guise of a human – and the ghost of the wrongly executed man are going to duke it out again. And right during tourist season, when the potential chaos and body count will be at their highest levels. Into this mix, add a trio of drugged up and homicidal bank robbers who crash in Pine Deep in an effort to escape a drug deal gone amuck. Season with a mayor who sees visions of dead relatives. Stir in a fundamentalist Christian garage worker who has decided that he's the Sword of God – which means blood will be spilled. Arrange against this plague of evils a police force straight out of The Andy Griffith Show. Finally, garnish with too-smart crows, ghost deer, and a sinister living scarecrow animated by the legions of insects that dwell within him. Good times.

GRB is a classic, post-King American horror epic. That means you get otherworldly forces, a semi-rural setting, and multiple interwoven plotlines that blend supernatural scares with the banal evil of dysfunctional families and small town injustices. A thumbnail sketch makes it sound like a same-old, same-old exercise in horror lit, but that doesn't take into account Maberry's writing. Maberry keeps everything snapping along. The descriptions are well-observed, the characters do exactly what's needed of them, and the plot hums. The horror and gore are expertly controlled: you get just enough to scare without tipping over into bloody absurdity. My wife, curious about what was in these horror paperbacks I bring home, read the first few chapters involving a scare that, as the plot moves along, turns out to be a false alarm. She later said to me, "If that's the fake scare, I don't want to know about the real one."

If I've got any caveat to give, it's that Ghost Road Blues is not really a stand-alone book. It has a narrative arc all its own, but it is clearly ends on the assumption that you'll stick around for the next two installments. The second novel, Dead Man's Song, is already out and the third book, Bad Moon Rising, is due out mid-2008. If you don't want to be in for a pound, then don't start. Personally, I think the pound's worth it.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Movies: I came, I saw, I kinda wanted my money back.

Recently, I was brought into a blog discussion as the local authority on the aesthetics and morality of torture porn. It was a bit of miscasting, really, as I'm not that much of a defender of it, but that's neither here nor there. The point of this was the question that kicked of this virtual hubbub was the news that, on its opening weekend, Saw IV snagged the top spot in the ranking of that weekend's ticket sales. The question was something like "What possesses some many people to see such a sick flick?"

I propose that a more appropriate question would be "What possessed so many people to see such a mediocre flick?"

In my review of Saw III I erroneously announced that I had seen the last film in the dwindling Saw franchise. I sincerely wish I had been correct.

The new latest edition to the Saw franchise is superior to the third flick, but that gets you awfully little. The traps take a set back from the Bond-villain grade devices that appeared in the third installment, with a single truly super-villain style device involving being perched on a block of melting ice while two other blocks of ice threaten to swing down and squish the victim's head.

What's actually weird about the Saw franchise is, against the grain of most horror franchises, the move has been towards increasing narrative complexity and a deepening of the backstory an relationships surrounding Jigsaw, the series now dead star who, through the miracle of nested flashbacks, gets plenty of screen-time. This is less promising than it sounds. When he was reviewing the first Saw flick, Roger Ebert mocked Jigsaw as another one of those bizarre and needlessly complex serial killers who invent overly fussy ways of offing folks main so the plots can drag on. Where's the motivation to do all this work? I have no idea if the men behind the saw franchise read that review, but they've basically reacted to in every subsequent flick by adding on yet another motive for Jigsaw to do what he does. In the first flick he did what he does 'cause he's dying and he's got a big ol' brain tumor that is probably scrambling his regular thoughts. Basically, he's not got long to live and he's batshit crazy so he concocts this bizarre religion around subjecting folks to life and death decisions. In the second flick, this nebulous religion got reified so that we get rules and disciples. The theory here being that adding more crazies to a delusion makes it a religion. In the third film we actually added a whole new reason for Jigsaw to be Jigsaw. See, before he got a tumor, he was in a car wreck that nearly killed him. At the moment, he had this epiphany. His traps are meant to recreate that transcendent moment for the suckers he traps. So, the brain tumor's out. That's just crap that came later. Car wreck, that's the new reason. Plus, in the third flick, what was a vague religion gets so codified that we can actually have an ideological split between Jigsaw and one of his disciples (astute readers just caught the feeble hook on which the plot of S4 hangs – there's more than one Junior Jigsaw). Finally, in S4, we get yet another reason for Jigsaw to be Jigsaw. In this flick we learn that Jigsaw's ex-wife was a social worker at a drug clinic. When she was preggers, one of the junkies she was trying to help robbed the place. She was injured and had a miscarriage. In the hospital, she is drowning in doubt. "I just wanted to help them," she says.

Jigsaw says something like, "You can't save people. They must save themselves."

So, here we have yet another motive – revenge – and a weird reworking of the pseudo-religion of the early Jiggy into something like a serial killer version of mainline libertarianism. In this flick he actually puts a cop through all varieties of hell to "prove" to the cop that he can't save everybody. One assumes that firemen are next, followed by ambulance drivers, then people from child services. Perhaps EPA guys after that. Since we're on the topic, the arc of the flicks has been to make him less crazy and transform him into a gory libertarian superhero. The alpha victims in the first flick were a doctor who was cheating on his wife because he'd lost the zest for life and a private eye who was a semi-creep. Jigsaw's treatment of them was entirely out of proportion. It was the work of crazy man. The victims in this installment include a violent junkie who injured a preggers woman, a serial rapist, a child abuser, a woman who we're told "will go to jail," and a lawyer who defends what we're supposed to feel is scum (Hollywood, for all the use they've gotten out of lawyers, seems feel that not everybody deserves the best legal defense available).


We've already spent too much time talking about it. With its Thousand and One Nights worthy flashback-in-a-flashback-in-a-flashback structure, its slick production values, and its incessant need to heap on needless complexities, no horror franchise has ever worked so very hard to achieve so little. In fact, in that way, the filmmakers resemble their star mass murderer. With his Rube Goldberg inventions meant to teach us that we shouldn't try to teach people stuff, Jigsaw is self-defeating. The filmmakers are in the same boat. They harder they work at this thing, the less it means.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Movies: April might be pretty cruel, but it never chopped up its lovers and made a big freakin' doll out of their parts. Right?

Lucky McKee's debut feature film, the 2002 film May, is a fine addition to the long tradition of revenge-horror flicks.

Unbalanced underdog revenge is one of the more prominent themes in horror cinema. In the alternate universe of horror movies, it makes complete sense that, for example, being taunted and bullied as a kid would make you, later in life, an axe-wielding madman who got your kicks by turning nubile camp counselors into cutlets. Though a host of contemporary characters spring to mind (Carrie, Jason, Crowley from Hatchet, the melty-faced guy from The Burning, and so on), it is a remarkably old pattern. The Golem, one of silent film's landmarks of horror, follows the same pattern. You start with an underdog group (in this case, we've got an entire ghetto of Jewish residents instead of your mutant kid or awkward teenage girl), give them a means for revenge, and then let the revenge get out of hand.

From a filmmaking perspective, this theme does double duty: it gets you a motive for your villain and it's a clever bait and switch that suckers viewers into sympathizing with a character, thus pulling them into your flick.

It's a smart little way to exploit of our innate ethical sense of reciprocity. Some evolutionary biologists have suggested that a handful of hardwired prejudices are at the root of all moral codes. One of these inherent concepts is reciprocity: we expect people treated nicely to behave nicely and people treated poorly to behave poorly. We such behavior sensible and, regardless of the consequences, there's something comfortable in the word making sense. That is, of course, until the mechanics described in part one final start to disgust us. Horror films can exploit our perhaps ingrained sense of reciprocity by pushing it too and absurd and crazy level. By some weird quirk of film watching psychology, events viewed on the silver screen often seem to happen outside any framework of ethical scale. It doesn't make any sense, really, that Jason's mom would decide to arbitrarily show up and slaughter a random group of counselors because, years and years ago, a different group of counselors negligently allowed her boy drown. Why the wait? Why kill other counselors? But, in a film context, we somehow accept that blood demands blood and we accept the notion that it is a sort of permanent rupture – once there's a dead person, all the rules that would limit your response are off. The rupture is, in horror films, the essence of "crazy." Ironically, in action films, it's often not a sign of being crazy, but of holding a monopoly on appropriate violence because you're "justified." Imagine a world in which every kidnapping elicited an institutional response similar to what we accept as appropriate in Commando. In genre films, "crazy" and "righteous" function in pretty much the same way, the key difference seems to be in their selection of targets. What horror films do it find the limit of the mediated moral flexibility, showing how far we can let moral frameworks slide and remain in our comfort zone.

(As an aside, I suspect that the moral flexibility of cinema is a trait of all media, regardless of content. We often talk about content influences on the genre. One popular theory has it that Halloween is the product of news coverage of 'Nam – the latter making the violence of the former a possibility. What if, instead, the capacity to stomach violence and accept its extreme depiction wasn't a matter of content exposure, but something allowed by the medium itself. That is to say, what is the very fact of mediation changes what we will and will not accept as tolerable. We'll happily watch something on a screen that we wouldn't watch with our naked eye, regardless of what it happens to be. If this is true, what does horror cinema tell us about our reactions to, say, the news and what implications would it have for how we ethically evaluate political leaders? I don't have any theories on that. I just bring it up as something worth thinking about.)

May is a classic revenger's tale. The titular character, an awkward woman who had a lonely and psychologically traumatic (though, honestly, not that psychologically traumatic) childhood, finds herself suddenly involved with two lovers. The first is a garage mechanic who, in his off-time, is a would-be horror film maker. The second is a none-to-bright predatory lipstick lesbian who works with May at an animal clinic. These erotic connections start to bring May out of her shell, leading her to volunteer time at a daycare for handicapped kids and to adopt a cat. But, since this is a horror flick, it isn't long before May gets her fragile sense of self completely shattered. Neither affair ends well, the kiddie thing goes disturbingly South, and she ends up braining the cat (perhaps by accident). This all pushes May into a short and bloody downward spiral. Out come the shears and scalpels, off comes the body parts or friends and acquaintances, and everything comes to an appropriately nasty climax - culminating in May stitching together a human sized doll out of the parts of her victims. It all gets tied up with a curiously downbeat and almost gentle conclusion which would seem almost anti-climactic if it wasn't so appropriate.

McKee's direction is assured and he beings a low-key naturalistic feel to much of the movie. In fact, he's so good at making his weird story feel accidental and natural that it sometimes feels like you're watching an off-kilter slacker flick – Edgar Allan Poe's Reality Bites. Though McKee's more acidic view of the people who populate his world is considerably less self-serving then gently ironic flicks of Generation X's awkward twenties. This isn't to say that there aren't some efforts as visual lyricism. In this case, we get flowing scraps of fabric whenever May's at her sewing machine. These scenes are not embarrassing, but they're less compelling than when McKee and Co. are out on the streets, among the full mess of everyday life.

He and his production crew are also great at capturing the telling details of his characters' lives. After we watch a truly goofy black and white short film "created" by May male love interest, the film-within-a-film rolls credits and we see that the character has credited himself in Italian, as if he was an Argento.

Finally, the film hinges on a wonderful performance by Angela Bettis, who has to carry most of the flick. Bettis, who is really too good looking to convince us that May would live in isolation, manages to give us a character who is sad and painfully awkward, while never letting us forget that something really nasty is building up within May. The truly horrific stuff in May doesn't shake until the last half hour or so, and it is a testament to Bettis's chops as an actress that the lead-up never seems to drag.

May is not a by-the-numbers horror flick. Most of the films is a slow burn character study of a figure who wobbles on the line between sympathy and repulsion. In that, it reminds me of Romero's excellent Martin (another M name title – hmmmm – a pattern perhaps?).