Thursday, March 29, 2007

Book: All hail the king, baby.

My friends and I (yes, screamers and screamettes, check the plural, I had like three of them at the time) were once discussing what film held the dubious distinction of the best horror movie to suffer really horrible sequels. Conventional wisdom is that sequels are always worse than the originals, but sometimes we're getting down to really fine distinctions. Is Urban Legend 2 really all that worse than Urban Legend? Perhaps, but who's keeping track?

What we were talking about were those rarer cases where a truly classic film drags behind it, like somebody leaving the head and unknowingly trailing a bit of toilet paper on their shoe, an embarrassing string of truly crap flicks. Jaws exemplifies this. The first Jaws flick is a truly great film. The second is a semi-competent, but wholly unnecessary project. Jaws 3 is a god-awful mess that works only as camp. The fourth and hopefully final Jaws, "This time it's personal," is essentially an unintentional parody.

Though we didn't think of it at the time, William Tsutsui, historian and Godzilla fan, makes an excellent case for the original Godzilla being the greatest horror film to be betrayed by vastly inferior sequels. In his book, Godzilla on My Mind, Tsutsui takes a quirky tour through the global phenomenon that is the Godzilla franchise. He covers the creation of the iconic big lizard, discusses the string of films that followed (perhaps the longest running franchise in screen history), Godzilla's status as a globally recognized figure, and even the American linguistic quirk of adding "-zilla" to things in order to suggest great size or rampaging destructiveness.

Though much of the info in Tsutsui's book makes for interesting trivia, the material on the creation and reception of the first Godzilla movie is wonderful. Tsutsui frames the Japanese original in its historical and cultural context, revealing not just the general nuclear anxieties that helped fuel the film, but pin-pointing specific historical incidents that were reworked for them film. For example, the original Godzilla contains a scene in which a small fishing boat encounters the giant monster. Apparently, this was an allusion to a contemporary nuclear tragedy. A Japanese fishing boat sailed too close to a U.S. nuclear testing area. The fishermen received lethal doses of radiation and their irradiated catch enter the Japanese food market before people knew what was going on. The fear of poisoned food and out of control nuclear testing was still in the papers when Godzilla hit the screen.

Tsutsui also reveals the profound impact the first Godzilla film had on its makers and viewers. He quotes one filmmaker as saying that he believed the release of Godzilla would actually scare the world into stopping all nuclear testing. Now that’s ambitious filmmaking! Viewer reactions, from those who saw it as parable for the dropping of the A-bomb to those who read in it a longing for the return of Japanese militarism, are also surveyed.

Though the entire book is full of amusing and interesting details, it is this insight into the first flick that makes the book well worth reading. Part scholarship, part love letter, Godzilla on My Mind is a fitting tribute to the King of Monsters.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Movie: There was something awfully familiar about the way that male nurse grabbed that half-naked chick.

First off, Prison of the Psychotic Damned (also know as Prison of the Psychotic Dead) is a great title. The Psychotic Damned would be enough for most flicks. Prison of the Psychotic or Prison of the Damned, both equally fine, if not particularly grabbing titles. But there's something about the pile of all the terms together, jamming all these loaded terms together, but cutting it just before it lapses into parody (Bloody Cursed Torture Asylum of the Homicidally Psychotic Hungry Damned for Beyond the Grave) that promises solid horror entertainment.

And, for the most part, PPD manages to deliver on that promise. Partially because of the occasional flashes of real talent that went into this low budget shocker; but partially because the makers of PPD had a secret weapon: one of the most photogenic horror sets in recent history. PPD tells the story of a team of paranormal investigators who, in order to investigate reports of supernatural activity, spend a single hellish night in Buffalo's long-abandoned Central Terminal railway station. Most of the film appears to have been shot on location and, as far as sets go, Central Terminal ranks up there with The Shining's Overlook Hotel and Session 9's Danvers Hospital. Once an awe-inspiring art deco shrine to the romance and power of train travel, Central Terminal fell into disuse and decay. The faded grandeur of the station is powerfully evocative of past times, of people and dreams gone – in short, the place just looks haunted. Furthermore, the epic scope of the structure dwarfs the actors, as if the haunted station, without the help of special effects scares, was threatening to swallow them. Every shot the camera captures within Central Terminal can't help but capture the station's gothic, spooky atmosphere.

Though most of this film's punch comes from the great set, its story isn't without its charms. The filmmakers wisely decided to stick with a reliable, but still flexible formula. Sure, we've seen paranormal investigators get what's coming to them since the Wise's superlative The Haunting (actually, I've seen a few great silent short films from the 1920s that use the same plot, but let's stay canonical for this discussion), but the basic formula allows enough room for interpretation that a clever filmmaker can use its conventions as a frame without being caught in a rut. In fact, the film's weakest points are when it rambles away from the plot. For example, a short intro focusing on a particularly busty character flipping out in her flophouse apartment seems overlong. (This particular scene is only redeemed by the gratuitous nudity it involves and by the appearance of regular commenter and all around nice guy Screamin' Cattleworks – ladies, calm down, Screamin' Cattleworks is not the one who gets gratuitously nude.)

For the most part, however, the film works well enough that the budgetary restraints and the strictly serviceable acting don't become bothersome. Well enough, in fact, that many of the scares are genuine. The director even knows when to pass on the obvious scare in favor of building up the tension and teasing the audience just slightly. In the hands of an incompetent director, tricks like that fall on their face. But here, the succeed more often then they fail.

PPD is not a great horror flick – except that one scene with Screamin' Cattleworks that will change forever the way you think about male nurses wrestling with half-naked women. It is the work of devoted and talented people with, perhaps, more genre knowledge and moxie than actual movie-making chops. Still, there's enough good stuff here to keep the interest of the viewer and the movie never feels like a slight throw away. I suspect the viewer feels a little of the earnest intention of the filmmakers: they want to make something fun, and a little scary, that didn't suck. That's as noble and honest a goal as you're likely to find among contemporary filmmakers. Using my recently revised Butterflies of India Film Rating System, I'm giving Prison of the Psychotic Damned a fine, if not socks rockin', Common Cerulean. Yeah, it ain't no monarch or nothing, but it is still a butterfly and that's not half bad.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Music: Hayseed lycanthrope.

"I stared doing Hillbilly Werewolf because I thought that there needed to be a guy in a zombie suit playing rock n' roll."

And from that humble dream, Hillybilly Werewolf was born.

A two-man lowest of the low-fi psychobilly freak-out, Hillbilly Wolf consists of the titular lead singer and Josh Lowery, the relatively sane drummer. It is just two dudes, but they kick up a racket something fierce. I think of HW as a sort of Screaming Lord Sutch for the post-White Stripes era.

Here's a live clip of this gothabilly duo at Otto's in NYC. Watch stupefied as they bludgeon their way through the final song of their set. I'm especially fond of the wonderfully over-the-top false start and the gorilla sounds Hillbilly Werewolf emits at the beginning and end of the song.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Movies: The girl next to the girl next door.

Seems I misled all you Screamers and Screamettes when I said that the film adaptation of the Ketchum novel (itself based on a true story) The Girl Next Door was coming out under the title An American Crime.

In fact, it appears that there will be two different films dealing with the Likens torture case. The first, An American Crime, already discussed in this blog, is directly based on the Likens case. The second film, The Girl Next Door, will be based on the novel of the same name, making it something like an adaptation of an adaptation.

I have a hard time believing we need two flicks about this crime out there at once – especially as this second flick looks like it will get stomped by the star power and A-List behind-the-camera talent of American Crime - but that's why these folks are the filmmakers and I'm just the blogger.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Stuff: What about "Ketchup from the Black Lagoon"?

There's naught sweeter to a blogger than the celebrity commenter and this humble little blog is rapidly becoming the freakin' Viper Room of horror blogs!

Besides Screamin' Cattleworks, who appears in the soon-to-be-reviewed Prison of the Psychotic Damned, we've had painter Isabel Samaras, whose surreal pop vision helped us give Lily Munster a stylish send off.

Now, joining this select group of V.I.P.-posters, we hear from Victor "The Undertaker" Ives, the zombie king numero uno behind Haunted Hot Sauce.

The Undertaker writes:

Hey all,

I realize this is an old post but I just had to respond.

I've been a "zombie-holic" for most of my life. For some reason, the thought of the living dead seemed more believable to me than some of the other Hollywood monsters and therefore more frightening. It's only because of the recent zombie trend that people are interested enough in my products for me to build a business from it. I'm in zombie hot sauce heaven! Not only am I able to build a small business creating zombie-themed hot sauce products and building cedar coffins, I get to talk about it all year long w/ fine folks such as your selves. Feel free to contact me if you're interested in pursuing one of your other monster-themed hot sauce ideas...sounds like fun! Thanks!!

Stay Rotten,
Victor "The Undertaker" Ives

So the question I put to you, Screamers and Screamettes, what monster-themed hot sauce should we propose?

Monday, March 12, 2007

Movies: Least pleasant Web site in recent memory.

Read this whole thing before clicking any links. I don't want to be blamed for you calling up any weird crap while your boss is looking over your shoulder and anything like that.

Ok? Ok.

In what might end up being a Blair Witch like example of promotional materials being better than the film they're promoting, and online ad site for the upcoming Hostel 2 is as creepy as anything seen in the first flick. The entire site seems to be a collection of security cameras placed throughout one of the torture-franchises several institutions. With some random background sounds (they don't appear to be sync'ed with any particular scene) or real discernible gore, we watch the everyday workings of this hellish place. It is all the more chilling for its banality – looking like some cross between a factory, a cheap gym, and a POW camp. This magnifies the most powerful aspect of the film, the creepy way in which money turned torture into just another job, and creates a horrible vision of human meat as cheap commodity.

That said, it doesn't free the Hostel franchise from its most glaring moral failure: sympathy with the torturers, rather than the victims. In fact, the site distills the aesthetics of the first film into its essentials and lays bare the flicks cheap, exploitative core. The victims are literally nameless and voiceless and the entire site is a celebration of the total and institutional process of turning their pain into entertainment. This is site is the closest thing to the Platonic form torture porn you're likely to see.

I don't know that there's anything literally NSFW, exactly, but I can't imagine that it would be appreciated at any office.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Comics: Avengers disassembled . . . with a chainsaw.

Earlier this month, Marvel trotted out their bestselling zombie-variant heroes again for an unusual team-up. After trying to eat the Fantastic Four, and chomping down on Galactus, the undead anti-heroes face off against one of pop cultures most prolific zombie slayers: Ashley J. Williams, better known as Ash, the S-Mart sales clerk turned Deadite killer (re-killer?) from the Evil Dead franchise.

Marvel Zombies vs. Army of Darkness is one of the more promising monster mash premises of late. The set up is simple: Ash, tumbling between various planes ever since the Necronomicon knocked him out of dimensional whack, gets dropped into the alternate Marvel continuity where the Marvel hero population is zombified. For those true comic geeks, the crossover even fits into the general continuity of both comic companies. This mash occurs after issue 13 of Army, but some time before the Fantastic Four discovered the zombie-plagues dimension. He arrives right as a mysteriously infected Sentry begins to contaminate the rest of the world's super-powered beings.

Now it is impossible to pretend that this mini-series is anything but stupid fanboy fun – but what great stupid fanboy fun it is! The key to the whole Marvel zombie shtick is watching the noble heroes we've grown to love doing absolutely horrific stuff. This is what allowed the Marvel franchise to stick out from the current glut of zombie products. And, in this, Marvel vs. AoD doesn't disappoint. We get several panels of the rotting Avengers chewing up innocent civilians, including one of Hawkeye chomping directly into some nameless zombie-fodder's head.

It is hard to imagine that Marvel was completely comfortable with this idea. After all, you can't imagine Disney putting out some product in which we see an undead Mickey Mouse ripping apart Donald Duck with his teeth. That said, Marvel seems perfectly content to keep cranking these monstrous gore-fests out so long as they make money.

On a strictly fanboy level, the concept of a Marvel universe full of zombies does raise some questions. Comic dorks, like myself, want to know how it is that certain Marvel characters are even eatable. Wouldn't zombie teeth just break on the rocky body of the Thing? Are gods like Thor edible? What about aliens like the Skrull member of the Runaways? Can they get turned? Sadly, the authors don't seem too interested in exploring such issues. For example, issue 2 promises us a scene with a zombie Howard the Duck (a being that doesn't even have any teeth) and, as much as I like that idea, it does suggest that they decided to skip the details in favor of getting as many character cameos in as possible.

(Actually, even more puzzling, what about Marvel's already undead characters? Can the half-vampire Blade be only half-zombified? Wouldn't Dracula – who interacted with several heroes during his run in Tomb of Dracula - have to take action against this threat to his food source? And what about the Simon Garth, the Zombi? Does he get doubly zombified if bitten? Or, perhaps, it un-zombifies him? And Ghost Rider and Morbius and . . . It is enough to drive a comic nerd insane!)

But enough geeking out – basically, we're going to get Ash pitting his chainsaw, boomstick, and clumsy wit against rotting versions of Earth's mightiest heroes. It is hard to imagine you need more inducement than that.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Music: Far better than warlocks in leopard-print Speedos.

Part burlesque act, part rock outfit, part performance art happening, part goofy joke, Brooklyn's Witches in Bikinis is one of those ideas that's so packed with entertaining goodness that it defies classification.

A troupe of six singing and dancing young women in brightly colored wigs and bikinis (finally, some truth in advertising), backed by a quartet of instrumentalists, the WiB bounce, prance, and vamp their way through songs about alien surf chicks, haunted subways, horror-flick final girls, and, of course, themselves. Their mix of 60s girl group pop and junk culture imagery, delivered with conviction that can compensate for the occasional lack of finesse, is nearly camp perfection.

And, if their surf-rock-meets-cabaret music isn't your cup of tea, you still get to watch a bunch of girls dance around in bikinis. Everybody wins.

Here's the group performing their signature tune.

Here's their sci-fi surf tune "Alien Surfer Babes."

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Movies: Don't quit your day job.

When Shakespeare wrote "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," I'm almost certain he was talking about the truly mediocre Audition by the consistently "oh-so-shocking" Takashi Miike, the tirelessly prolific standard-bearer of Asian extreme cinema.

For those who haven't seen this flick, I'm about to drop major spoilers all over this review; though, to be honest, the film's lethargic pacing and complete lack of interest in causality mean that the very concept of a spoiler is somewhat inapplicable.

Here we go. The plot of Audition involves a widower who, at the prodding of his son, who like dinosaurs (I mention this because it is the most salient bit of characterization Miike gives us regarding the son), decides to get remarried. Problem is the widower doesn't really have a particular woman in mind. He just wants to get married. This sort of thing counts as a psychological motivation in the world of Audition.

The widower explains his problem to a showbiz amigo of his and the buddy offers to hold auditions for fake flick. The widower can pick his new wife out of the clutch of wannabe actress that show up. This sort of thing strains credulity when it serves as the basis for a comedy, but Audition treats this moronic plan with an almost epic gravitas that would itself be funny if the flick appeared to be in on the joke. What, is Internet dating to straight forward? One almost wonders why nobody suggests he should dress a woman in order to truly meet his future wife before he proposed.

Anyway, the auditions go well and the widower finds the mysterious, by which I mean painfully un-emotive, woman of his dreams. The two lovers go on a series of dates so stilted that they'd be painful to watch if the pace of the movie wasn't so soporific it numbed viewers beyond the capacity to care. Supposedly the widower gets obsessed by love, though this is depicted mainly through long shots of him starring at the telephone with an expression that resembles the look of a man wondering if the feeling is his stomach is nausea or gas.

Throughout, the audience has been privy to the fact that the mystery girl seems to spend her free hours sitting in a unfurnished home, sitting next to the phone, and watching a dude she keeps in a sack roll around. Apparently, we're supposed to think this behavior is weirder than the behavior of a dude who invents a fake movie so he can select his future wife from a stack of wactresses' résumés.

Like one does when one meets a mysterious girl whose references don't check out (or maybe they do – we're told early in the film that none of he references connect with real joints – but later in the flick, we watch the widower use them to track her down), the widower conspicuously avoids introducing the girl to his friend or his son. Instead, he decides that their third date will be a beach getaway where he'll pop the question. He takes his would-be bride to a cute little hideaway and they make sweet, stilted love.

Then she disappears in the middle of the night. She's suddenly gone without a trace.

She no longer returns widower's calls and his obsession/appearance of gastrointestinal discomfort gets worse. Eventually he launches on a search for her, using all the leads in the résumé we were told were nonexistent. The widower meets a pervy crippled dance instructor and finds out the owner of the bar that employed mystery girl got brutally slaughtered.

Finally, everything comes to a gory conclusion when the mystery woman shows up at the dude's house to torture him to death for the whole audition ruse thing. Seriously. She thinks that lopping the widower's feet off and sticking needles in him is commensurate with the crime of lying to her.

One could argue that her being a serial killer and not bringing it up is equally dishonest, but Miike seems to actually be on her side. During the interminably un-shocking "climax" of the flick, we find out that the widower also once slept with a woman he works with, but did not pursue the relationship further. This tidbit is apparently supposed to further explain why this dopey son of a bitch gets butchered and treated like a human pincushion.

It seems that repeated incidents of childhood sexual abuse have turned our mystery girl into a highly efficient and knowledgeable amateur torture enthusiast. We are, it seems, meant to equate the widower's stupidity and regrettable, but hardly uncommon, insensitivity with this early exploitation. According to the NYTime's Elvis Mitchell, the flick is about "the objectification of women in Japanese society and the mirror-image horror of retribution it could create." But there's the problem: how is the fact that the widower is a bit of a clod in anyway the "mirror-image" of actions of the girl in the picture? Her gory assault on the widower is so asymmetrical as to seem to come from another movie. The only way it works is with the comic book logic that used to fuel stuff like the old EC titles, where robbing cash is sufficient justification for being eating by cannibals and the like. Only EC delivered this heavy handed "ethical stance" with a knowing smirk that was the honest admission that they understood you'd come for the scares and not the moral edification. Miike wants you to take his juvenile, ham fisted morality play for real.

A literal description of Miike's flick is the best summary: after nearly two hours of fruitless searching, we get a nonsensical bloody mess. Using the unforgiving Stops on the Kryvyi Rih Metrotram Line Movie Rating System, I'm giving this humorless, pretentious lemon a Zarichna. And I doubt it deserves all that.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Comics: This doesn't royally suck.

Recently, at the New York Comicon, I got the chance to ask the gents at the Silent Devil booth just what happened to their Dracula vs. Capone series. The first of three issues came out several months ago and, since then, nothing. The bad news: the date for issue two is still uncertain. The good news: the series, despite setbacks, is still very much alive and Silent Devil intends to get the series completed as soon as they can.

On getting this bit of info, I thanked the dude at the booth and started to walk away.

"You ever read the first one?" he asked.

"What first one?"

"Before Capone, we did this thing."

He held up the trade edition of the 2001 and mini-series Dracula vs. King Arthur.

Of course, I bought it.

As I've mentioned before on this blog, I've got a weakness for the monster-mash formula of taking two well known characters and ramming them together into a single story. Admittedly, the results are almost always heavy on the cheese and weaker than a strong outing of each character on their own. But I can't help it. It is just too damn fun. How does one maintain a proper critical stance when you're talking about, say, Billy the Kid trying to gun down Frankenstein's monster? If you can, you're a better critic than I – but you're also a joyless bastard that hates happiness and all that is good and true about life.

Dracula vs. King Arthur is actually about as low on the cheese factor as you can get and still have something called Dracula vs. King Arthur. Sent back and time and vampirized by Satan, Dracula tears through the traditional Arthurian legend killing or turning minor and major characters with ludicrous abandon. Arthur and his knights, being completely unfamiliar with what a vampire is (actually, one of the nice touches in the book is that Dracula doesn't know what a vampire is either and most test and explore his new powers and limitations), are routed. Eventually Merlin figures out what they are facing and, armed with water from the Holy Grail, Camelot goes on the offensive. This leads to a wonderfully apocalyptic conclusion that at once subverts and satisfies the Arthurian themes of the work.

The writing is filled with details from the stories of both legends (with Drac built heavily from historical sources rather than Stoker's source novel). The story moves at a brisk pace, quickly dispensing with the exposition and launching into the action. The characters, especially those drawn from the Arthurian legends, stay mostly true to type; but the writers wisely avoid in slavish loyalty to the traditional narrative, happily having such key characters as Lancelot and Guinevere go all bloodsucker on us.

The art is bold and communicates the story well. It occasionally feels thick and cumbersome, but the action is well-handled and the artist even manages to slip in some allusions to prior vampire comics (specifically some references to Marvel's Tomb of Dracula).

I should also mention that Silent Devil continues is welcome tradition of reasonable pricing. The most recent trade of DC/Vertigo's critical and commercially successful Fables collected four 22-page stories (only three of which carried any story arc, one being a semi-disposable one-shot). It padded this offering out with script pages, a few goofy maps, a cover gallery, and several advertisements. For this package, Vertigo wants you so shell out $18.00. Silent Devil's trade of Dracula vs. King Arthur collects four 32-page stories, and includes several pages of completed story not featured in the original comics, a cover gallery, character sketches, and not a single advertisement. Silent Devil's book costs a buck less.

A fun, smart, affordable book – what more do you need?

Friday, March 02, 2007

Stuff: Last look at the Phantasmagoria.

The Phantasmagoria was a haunted house amusement in Tulsa, Oklahoma's Bell Amusement Park. The amusement park closed in 2006 and, after much delay, workers began taking down the rides this winter.

Kirk Demarais, the man behind the always entertaining Secret Fun Blog (see sidebar), gives us a behind the scenes, goodbye tour of the now dismantled haunted house. Check it out.