Friday, August 31, 2007

Movies: Good morning, Captain.

Before we get to movie review: a little thought experiment. Imagine being at the autocratic whims of a leader who, in the name of keeping you safe, is willing to sacrifice your freedom, trample the law, and commit unspeakable crimes. Now imagine, if you can, that this leader's power is completely unchecked. Sure, there are legal limits to their authority. There's even a perfectly legal and bloodless way to remove this power-mad dictator from his command. But, seemingly, everything works to keep the man in power. Crimes are reinterpreted as accidents. People refuse to stand up and potentially be branded troublemakers. Others chose to believe that the state of affairs is only temporary; they just need to wait it out. And still others are content with their lot, unwilling to risk what little freedom and security they already possess in a bid for more. So, in this fantasy scenario, conditions would worsen. Eventually, even the policy of keeping your nose clean and minding your own business would become impossible. To ignore the increasingly untenable would require deliberate and willful ignorance. Dissidents wouldn't just be targeted by the leader; ultimately their own friends and coworkers would isolate them as well, trying not to get dragged into a situation they know they're already a part of.

Pretty hard to imagine, hunh?

The dynamic described above is at the heart of 1944's Ghost Ship, an effective and engaging thriller that can be found packaged with The Leopard Man in the TCM Val Lewton collection.

Part suspense flick, part message picture, Ghost Ship follows the adventures of an Earnest Young Sailor taking his first long voyage. He signs on as the third mate of the Altair, a cargo ship sailing the Atlantic. On board, he meets the Captain, whom, at first, he treats like a father figure. However, after the Captain makes a spectacularly crappy choice regarding a basic safety procedure, the EYS begins to doubt the Captain's competence. These doubts become even more serious after a "troublemaker" on the crew dies in what seems to be a freak accident. Convinced the Captain is a murderer, the EYS takes his complaints to the shipping company only to have them dismissed. The EYS is dismissed from duty and loses his job.

Through a shore leave misadventure, the EYS ends up back on the Altair as it heads out to sea again. Once underway, the Captain begins to play a lethal game of cat and mouse with the sailor, all under the nose the crew which refuses to take the sailor seriously, lest they be accused of mutiny.

While billed as horror flick – as was Bedlam, another non-horror Lewton film offered in the collection - Ghost Ship is not so much horrific as it is a well-plotted, effective suspense film with just a schmeer of message pic to give it a little dramatic boost. The acting, while not brilliant, is adequate enough to carry the story along without becoming so wooden that you get distracted. Lewton second stringer Mark Robson boxes well-above his class and, with the exception of a somewhat ponderous Greek chorus device (in the form of the internal narration of mute crew member), he turns in a work that packs more visual intensity than his previous offering would suggest him capable of. He also does some wonderful stuff with sound design, most notably in his clever matching of jarring music and visuals. The best instance of this being a brutal knife fight set to the soundtrack of a Caribbean sailor's jaunty ditty – sort of a distant spiritual predecessor to Mr. Blond's torture scene set to Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle with You."

There's probably some mileage a historically minded viewer could get out of reading Ghost Ship as a bit of World War II Era anti-fascist propaganda. More interesting to me is the fact that the film, by avoiding overt references to the war or any particular leader, becomes a more general and, perhaps, more profound story about power and its abuses. This lack of historical context means that, despite some predictability, the flick still plays pretty fresh today.

Using the mother-approved Communities of Alberta Film Rating System, I'm giving Ghost Ship a solid Wetaskiwin. Perhaps it doesn't rank as full-fledged forgotten classic, but it is certainly an over-looked gem.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Movie: Bonfire of the Inanities.

The flicks of Dario Argento, the legendary Italian horror director, seem to be an all or nothing proposition. His work is either utterly brilliant, such as the justly praised classic Susperia, or they are abysmal, such as the absurd and tedious Stendhal Syndrome. Unfortunately, Inferno, Argento's follow-up to Susperia and the second film in the Three Mothers trilogy, firmly belongs in the latter camp.

Inferno involves a young woman who, after reading a book about the sinister Three Sisters, becomes convinced that one of the creepy witches is trapped in the basement of her New York apartment building (New York being played by sound stage in Italy). This is bad news as, not only are the Three Sisters the very personification of fear and death, but they also make your neighborhood stink. Seriously. Because our curious heroine knows too much, she's quickly dispatched by the forces of eeee-vil. Enter her brother, who has the raw on-screen charisma of a man who has accidentally stumbled onto a movie but has decided to make a go of it. This dramatic null-value will finish his sister's investigation and, ultimately, come face to face with the almost scary witch.

The problems with Inferno are, it seems to me, endemic to Argento's entire body of work. As a director, Argento relies on visual bravado to charge through plots as thin and full of holes as a deli-sliced sliver of Swiss. Sometimes, this strategy works. In Susperia, the lavish sets and beautiful imagery take our mind of the fact that you don't even have to pretend to know what is going on to enjoy the flick. In some instances, Argento even manages to turn his fairly weak narrative sense into a dramatic strength. There's something fairy-tale like about the creaky plotting in Phenomena that adds, rather than detracts, from the film.

Problem is that Argento's visual sense is not always up to the challenge. Compared to sets of Susperia, which are like some Beardsley illustration come to life, the apartment sets of Inferno are mundane and timid. Where expressive lighting drew you deeper into the phantasmagoric world of the former film; in Inferno you're more likely to find yourself wondering why somebody painted all the street lights of New York City red. Unable to lull to viewer with the hypnotic force of his style, Argento leaves us free to puzzle over dead end subplots, details that never add up, and plot twists that are more confusing that shocking.

I've got no beef with putting style before substance. If you can make it work and that's how you want to swing, that's cool. But if that's the plan, you have to carry it off, and that's a lot harder than it sounds. Argento's done it before, but he doesn't do it here. Using the hard-hitting Cast of the 1913 Silent Film Classic The Rose of San Juan Film Rating System, I'm giving Inferno a weak Vivian Rich.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Stuff: Happy Birthday, Howie.

So, if he had actually made a dark deal with eldritch powers beyond the kin of mortals, H. P. Lovecraft would be 117 today.

In tribute, here's the complete episode of The Real Ghostbusters in which our boys in gray cross proton beams with Cthulhu.

Here's part 1: "Your precious book of spells will be quite safe here."

And here's part 2: "The most opportune place for the cult to perform the ceremony is the southern tip of Brooklyn: Coney Island, to be exact."

Monday, August 13, 2007

Movies: People are people, so why should it be . . .

For some reason, I've always mingle the titles of Wes Craven's Last House on the Left and The People Under the Stairs. I don't know why this is. The former, which I've seen several times over the past two decades, is a grim and nasty low-fi shocker. The latter, which I saw for the first time this weekend, is a bizarre marriage child's adventure flick, dark fantasy film, and grindhouse brutality. Think Goonies meets The Girl Next Door with a dash of family-style Chainsaw Massacre thrown in, if you wrap your noggin around that mess of mashed-up elements. Two less similar films would be hard to find.

The plot of People involves a young boy known as Fool who joins ghetto-Fagin Leroy (played by Ving Rhames, the flick's only "star" in one of his occasional pre-Pulp Fiction roles) to rob the house of the cruel landlords who are threatening to toss Fool's family – completely with deathly ill mother – out onto the street. The target of the robbery is the gold coins the landlords supposedly keep in their home.

The robbery, as these things so often do, goes all pear-shaped on our heroes when they find that the intended victims of their larcenous ways are, in fact, a crazy pair of violent nut cases who count among their many hobbies the preservation of Victorian furniture, the firing of large caliber weapons, the feeding of human flesh to their killer dog, and the keeping of a small tribe of cannibalistic teens locked in their basement.

Oh, they also have a waif of a young girl pulling a solo Flowers in the Attic bit in one of the upstairs bedrooms and a teenage boy living behind the walls and in the crawl spaces of the house.

Fool survives his original encounter and returns home with some of the loot; but he made a promise to return and free the young girl. Will Fool survive the final showdown? Duh Duh Dum!

I think that covers it.

People Under the Stairs is a very uneven flick. I give it credit for trying to pull together so many disparate elements and, remarkably, it manages to fuse quite a bit of its curious material into a lightly involving bit of cinema. There is something genuinely exciting about the "treasure hunt" plot and the surreal fairy-tale trappings. It is hard not to root for Fool as the stakes mount and the situations he faces get weirder and weirder.

Unfortunately, the patchwork approach is also the film's greatest weakness. Deft directors can blend shocks and laughs, but Wes Craven occasionally dips into that sort of inky dark behavior that isn't so much shocking and disturbingly dispiriting. For example, for all the horror unleashed by the creepy landlords, they are mostly absurd characters who strike the viewer as vaguely comical in their excesses. What, then, are viewers supposed to feel when they get treated to a scene in which the female landlord forces her girl captive to take a bath in steaming hot water in order to wash away the dirt touching an African American boy has left on her? Suddenly we've gone from a cartoonish evil to a genuine sliver of nightmare. And the film just as suddenly wants to turn back into a cartoon and carry on as if nothing happened. It leaves a bit of a bad taste.

The People Under the Stairs is a mostly entertaining flick whose spastic exuberance sometimes gets the best of itself. Its strange combination of children's adventure and adult horror brings to mind a sort of American, suburban, silly answer to del Toro's more accomplished, more serious dark fantasies. Using the fan-favorite Concepts from Differential Geometry Movie Rating System, I'm giving People a fair Pullback rating. This weird little flick will deliver the goods provided you don't expect a hardcore horror film or demand to much of its modest fantasy plot.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Stuff: Goodbye, Dante's Inferno

The last of the three original parks of Coney Island, Astroland - home of the famed Wonder Wheel and Warriors - will be torn down soon.

For those who do not live in NYC and will not get a chance to get out to Coney Island before October, when the season officially ends, then this may well be you're last chance to see Dante's Inferno: the oldest of the two haunted house rides in the soon to be demolished Astroland theme park. Enjoy these photos, and my apologies for the blur – I'm not much of a photographer.

Here's a photo of the large yellow demon and Dante's Inferno sign that dominate the exterior of the ride. If you look closely, to the left of the demon, you can see one off two three-headed dragons that appear in the upper corners of the ride's exterior. The dragons used to flail their heads about, but I haven't seen them operational in a dog's age.

Here's a close-up of that yellow demon.

Here's a bit of the facade. This is to your right as you sit in the cars, before the ride begins.

More of the outside decoration. With ride employee.

This odd character is actually hidden away behind the ticket booth. He's actually a really nice monster, so I'm not sure why they've hidden him away. He used to actually "pop" out of the facade of the ride - an effect accomplished by the harness frame you can see under the beast's chest - but, like the three-headed dragons, he hasn't been fully operational for some time.

The second haunted house ride in Astroland is the more recent Spook-A-Rama. Here's a pic of the signage. Again, sorry for the crappy photo.

Since he's not that visible in my crappy wide-shot, here's a close-up of the monster on top of the Spook-A-Rama.

(Bonus: Eagle-eyed readers might be able to pick out the back of my newly-minted wife's head in the Wonder Wheel shot. She's the one wearing the brown baseball cap, a gift from the fine folks at Jack's Coffee in Greenwich Village.)

Monday, August 06, 2007

Book: The demon weed with roots in hell!

Critical reaction of Scott Smith's second book, The Ruins just released in mass-market paperback, was decidedly mixed. This is, on reflection, unsurprising. His debut effort, the blockbuster A Simple Plan, was one of those crossover genre hits that manages not only to deliver the goods, but touch a deep and resonant nerve. Mining the same ground as its spiritual predecessor, the genre-crossover classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madres, the plot was brilliantly straight forward. A group of three men find a bundle of cash. To keep it, all they have to do is keep their mouths shut and trust one another. Of course, everything goes to utter hell and what could be an exercise in suspense nastiness turns into a brutal portrait of human souls turned monstrous by greed.

In contrast, The Ruins features a super-intelligent man-eating plant.

Seriously. Like a more vicious, splatter-punk version of Audrey II.

You can see how many critics, especially those who had perhaps felt that they were already dangerously close to slumming it when they read Smith's first novel, turned up their noses. After all, is their any creature feature cliché cheesier than the man-eating plant? Images of shambling men in rubber tree-suits spring to mind; maybe you imagine foam "vines" swung about wildly on visible wires.

Well, the disdainful critics were full of poop. Smith's novel takes the hokey B-movie concept and strips it clean of every last vestige of Navy Versus the Night Monsters camp. Using a finely drawn cast of characters and placing them in a plot that is as eerie and surreally inevitable as the snap motion of a Venus flytrap, Smith builds a novel that, despite its bulky 500-page length, is taught and merciless. The Ruins worthily fulfills on the promise of Smith's exceptional debut.

The novel follows the story of four young American tourists (the tourist is the new small-town teen of the horror world) on an off-season vacation in Mexico. There they run across a friendly German tourist, on vacation with his brother, and a trio of rambunctious Greeks who, despite not speaking a word of English, glom on to our protagonists. The German informs them that his brother has gone to an archeological dig in the jungle inland, chasing after a hottie archeologist he met earlier. The group decides that a hike through the jungle might be fun and the four Americans and one of the Greeks take off to make a day of it. To the readers great un-surprise, things go terribly wrong. Shortly after finding the abandoned site, our heroes get trapped there by the locals who seemed determined – lethally so – to keep them at the site of the dig. Trapped without supplies, our heroes' problems get horrifically worse when they find that, sharing the dig site with them, is a system of seemingly sentient vines that live off the fluids and flesh of human beings.

The plot actually shares a sort of conceptual similarity with A Simple Plan. In both cases, our protagonists are stuck in situation that slowly, relentlessly spirals out of control. Though there is plenty of gore and high-res gross out materials (Smith is downright Rabelaisian in his eagerness to depict various bodily fluids), the real violence of Smith's book comes from his own unyielding narrative brutality. Like all good horror authors, Smith is merciless when it comes to putting the screws to his own creations. What makes him a great horror author is that he never loses sight or sympathy for the humanity of his characters. They remain fully realized characters throughout the ordeal. This at once makes the story more involving and more repellant. If our protagonists were the pasteboard cutouts of most low-grade genre fiction, we wouldn't care about them and the slow green deathtrap they find themselves in would be more tedious than frightening. On the other hand, getting to know these characters makes their fates all the more distressing, especially as the bodies begin to pile up.

Thinking back on it now, sympathy is the wrong word. Smith is something like an anatomist of genre fiction personality. His characters are "full realized," but not in the sense that they remind us of people we know. Instead, they are meticulously constructed extensions of genre types – as if he intended to make the trappings of genre fiction real rather than bring a level of the real into the context of genre fiction. This fits with the rest of Smith's MO: just slowly and steadily push everything to its most extreme conclusion.

Smith's A Simple Plan was such a great debut novel that any follow up was bound to receive a mixed reaction. The Ruins not only holds up on its own; Smith should be given credit for taking his brand of relentless psychological suspense and reworking it into a gutsy, gory concept that doesn't feel like retread of modern horror plots or his own instant classic first book.

You can find The Ruins anywhere they sell readables and the new paperback edition will only set you back about 8 smackers.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Movie News: Dead heads.

More news from the "nerd prom," as people seem to be dubbing the Comic Con International in San Diego. Comic Book Resources has an article on a panel discussion with George Romero and J. Michael Straczynski.

Most of the article focuses on Romero and his upcoming Diary of the Dead. He's pitching it a prequel of sorts, saying that it locks into the "of the Dead" continuity at the beginning of the zombie outbreak. This seems a little odd to me as the "of the Dead" films supposed that the flesh-eaters start their reign of terror in 1968 and the new film will be shot in handcam digital-video first-person perspective (think Blair Witch with a more pixilated vibe).

Romero revealed that the style of the film will take a different approach from any of the previous films. Shot entirely on subjective camera and security camera footage, "Diary of the Dead" will follow the story of a group of college students experiencing the first night of a zombie breakout. "That's what this one is, it's about a bunch of college kids that were out doing a school project when the shit hits the fan."

When asked what inspired the premise behind "Diary," Romero explained that he makes his movies based on what he sees in today's world. "'Land' is about the Bush Administration basically," Romero said. "And 'Diary' is about YouTube."

Romero also discusses how little he's actually made off the "Dead" flicks – a bit of a cautionary tale for up-and-coming horror filmmakers.

On the subject of money, Romero revealed that he rarely sees the profits his films produce. From losing the copyright to "Night of the Living Dead" to companies selling the rights to his movies to themselves, Romero doesn't receive very many royalties. Surprisingly okaywith that, Romero explained that even if he had all the money in the world, it wouldn't change how he made his movies. "I'll make ‘em as long as I'm standing," he told the convention goers.

Even though Romero is heralded as the man who created the zombie genre, that wasn't his intent when he made "Night of the Living Dead." Originally, he was simply looking for an extraordinary event to happen to mankind that he could use to push his characters to the edge. The original title of the movie was simply "Night of the Flesh Eaters" until it was later changed.

"And that's how we lost the copyright," Romero said.

Straczynski, producer and writer for such television shows as He-Man, Murder, She Wrote, and Babylon 5, gets some copy near the end, mainly about his in-progress adaptation of the novel World War Z.