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.


spacejack said...

Way back before I ever got to see the movie Jaws, I thought it was the scariest thing ever. The poster, the commercials, everything about it seemed terrifying. Even seeing the Peter Benchley book in the bookstores added some aura of legitimacy - not only is this a horrifying movie, but it's based on a critically-acclaimed book by a serious author.

But at the end of the day, I could push it out of my mind and say "It's okay. I live thousands of km away from the ocean."

Unfortunately for me however, the success of Jaws spawned copycat movies like "Alligator", bringing the fear a little closer to home: An alligator, flushed down a toilet growing to monstrous proportions in the city sewers? That just seemed waay too plausible.

I saw that Joe Dante MoH episode. Man, it was terrible. Nevermind the political grandstanding, I thought it was in pretty bad taste to make those sorts of assumptions about what dead soldiers would think or do.

As for John Sayles, even when he's doing a leftist movie like Matewan, it doesn't stoop to anything like that and the movie still stands on its own merits.

Anonymous said...

When we were discussing "issue-content" in horror films in your earlier post, I wondered about the John Sayles written horror films. I hadn't seen them in a while, and I wondered how they held up.
It's good to see that this one does hold up and also offers a model for those filmmakers interested in incorporating some message or at least, food for thought, in their horror flicks.

That's too bad about the MoH episode, though.
You bring up an excellent point with the quote from Warshow.
Also, the comparison of old "educational films" to the Village Voice review is terrific and depressing if that is indeed a quote from a VV review of the episode.

A great post and about an important and timely topic, too. And I don't mean the war, I mean criticism of the war, and for that matter, what passes as criticism or better, a thoughtful, creative address of a hot social or political topic.

If only all discussion about any controversial topic, whatever side, were as well thought-out and laid out as this post.

Kudos, kudos, kudos.

Anonymous said...

So we had a movie about zombie/reanimated war vets, but it didn't have Daulph Lungren or Van DAMMAGE!~!! in it ? I think someone needs their filmmaking license revoked.

And did the Dracula movie at least have a good soundtrack, if nothing else ?

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

In the late 70s, Sayles was apparently the go-to guy for Jaws rip-offs. He also wrote and Piranha. A flick directed by Dante - which brings us full circle.

From such humble beginnings . . .

CRwM said...

Screamin' Cattle,

There's a lot you wouldn't want to copy from Alligator, but I think it is still fun.

And the Village Voice quote is definitely real. I gave the blurb from the box, but the full quote is: "The dizzying high point of Showtime's new Masters of Horror series, the hour-long Homecoming (which premieres December 2) is easily one of the most important political films of the Bush II era."

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

I said we were never going to talk about the Dracula flick again and we're not going to.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen that MoH episode, but I agree with spacejack about the presumptions of speaking for the dead soldiers.

All this talk makes me think of that Bob Clark horror film about the Vietnam vets. I forget the title, but I've read more about it especially with this Iraq deal going on now.