Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Music: "Unbearable suspense and sadistic terror grip the senses!"

We haven't done a music bit since, oh, a dog's age. So, Screamers and Screamettes, I bring you the moody cinematic glory that is Zombi!

Zombi is a prog-rock outfit. I know what you're thinking: "But CRwM, prog-rock is so uncool that in some countries education officials actually distribute King Crimson t-shirts to high school students as a form of contraceptive."

And you'd be right. For the most part prog-rock is vast wasteland of pretentious musical wankery. But, fear not, this will be cool. I promise. If it isn't, you have my permission to select one of the sites listed on my sidebar and never visit it again. That'll teach them to expose you to new things!

But where was I? Oh, yes. Music. Zombi is a "the p word" band, but one that seems to be less influenced Pink Floyd than by the The Goblins, the source of the churning rumble heard on hundred of Italian-produced high-gloss horror flicks. Their thick sonic assault sounds like the soundtrack to some lost Dargento film. It is also kind of mesmerizing in its relentlessness.

The following clip is from a live show from last year. In it, Zombi performs their tune "Surface to Air" off their debut album of the same title. Enjoy.

On a much lighter note, while looking for this particular clip I found the A+ super-good trailer for the craptastic Astro-Zombies, inspiration for the classic Misfits song. Nice.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Movies: Now who's the dork?

There's really very few good things I can say about the German zombedy Night of the Living Dorks. In this film's defense, I feel I brought the flick upon myself. I picked up the case as the rental place, read the description, and saw that it promised to be a combination of wacky '80s high school comedy and zombie horror flick. I believe, though I could swear to it, that it had some really unhelpful bit of generic praise – "This is so cool!!!" – attributed to Ain't It Cool or some similar site on the cover.

So, basically, I knew exactly what I was getting into. And yet, of my own free will, being of sound mind and body, I rented it anyway.

I don't know. Some self-destructive urge, I guess.

The plot of NoLD goes thusly: You've got a trio of best friend dorks. There's are nebbish hero, who lusts after the hyper-Aryan "Officially Hottest Girl in School." Unfortunately, the OHGiS, pronounced "Oh-Jis," is inevitably dating a rich and buff sadist who takes Dork 1's panting interest in the OHGiS as justification for ritualistic humiliation. Dork 2 is the "wacky" one. Somehow, despite the kid's bounty of sexual experience, limitless supply of drugs, and seemingly effortless access to alcohol, this kid remains a dork and hangs out with kind of kids who regularly end up on the business of wedgies. Now in my high school, this kids vast store of arcane pharmaceutical lore and the ease with which he scores functional grade mind-altering substances would make him somewhat socially acceptable, if only in a formal trading partners sort of way. But, in the world of this film, such social achievements get him nothing. Dork 3, a skinny and bespectacled nerd, is the only one of the three who runs the risk of becoming interesting. He's actually a bit of nasty character. Buttoned down and beloved by parents, he's actually seething with resentment and rage. He keeps a little book in which has an enemies list – a long collection of the names of anybody who ever wronged him. From a horror fan's perspective, it is a promising sign. One other character deserves a mention. Dork 1's neighbor, a goth hottie, serves as his confidant and don't-you-see-you-love-her counterpoint to the vacuously endowed sexiness of the OHGiS.

The Dorks, after several unfortunate encounters as school with bullies and whatnot, end up tagging along with Goth Girl and her ebon-clad amigos who, somehow, have scored the ashes of a genuine zombie (we this zombie get cremated in a short expository scene prior to the opening credits), and intend to use it in a magic ritual. The ritual's a bust, but the Dork Triumvirate ends up get good and covered in powdered zombie. On the way back home from the ritual, they get involved in a fatal care wreck and all die.

Had the movie actually ended there, I would have been completely happy.

Unfortunately, there's more. The Stupor Friends come back as zombies (highly-functional articulate zombies) and soon realize that being undead has some advantages. They can no longer be hurt, they've got extraordinary strength, and they no long need worry about alcohol poisoning. Now, blessed with un-life, Dork 1 can fight back against the bully and make sweet, sweet zombie love to the OHGiS.

Oh, if only it were all that easy. First, the boys have to figure out how to keep their rapidly disintegrating bodies from completely falling apart. Second, they got to deal with Dork 3's "Trenchcoat Mafia" grade anger management problems. Dork 3, you see, rapidly develops an insatiable hunger for human flesh and decides, rather than laying chicks, he'd prefer to eat his way through his enemy lists.

To consider Night of the Living Dorks is to give it too much credit. It is a horror comedy that is neither horrific or comedic. The movies premise is a dog. The one promising possibility, that Dork 3 gets really creepy and gives the movie some real edge, never gets played for anything but laughs (and not even really that because the filmmakers can't seem to get laughs out of anything).

I'm trying to think hard about something nice to say about this flick and here's what I can come up with:

First, it is nice to see a zombie flick that returns to the magical, voodoo-based model. It's been a long time since we've had a zombie that wasn't the product of chemical weapons or a virus or whatever.

Second, the OHGiS takes her shirt off and she has lovely breasts. Not spectacular breasts, mind you. Not the sort of breasts that can carry an entire feature. But they make a game effort to save the film and I don't think they should be accountable for what ultimately transpires.

That's all I got.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Movies: More tired than dead, really.

I did not have high hopes for Diary of the Dead. The idea of re-setting the "Of the Dead" series so we could see the opening days of the zombie plague was, I thought, a profoundly uninteresting idea. The advantage the "Of the Dead" series had was that we got to leap into the story, post-zombie crisis. We don't have to waste time watching a bunch of characters figure out what we already know. We can get right to the good stuff. Besides, we've had quite a few years of zombie flicks re-hashing Zombie Week 1 or what have you. Do we really need yet another movie showing what's essentially the same scenario. The only less interesting than that premise was the "twist": the movie will be a Blair Witch vérité-style thingie, so we can witness the zombie nightmare with value added shaky camera work.

As low as my expectations were, Diary of the Dead actually managed to underwhelm them. Diary of the Dead is definitely the worst flick in the "Of the Dead" series and it might very well be the worst flick of Romero's career.

The plot of Diary is perfectly serviceable if not particularly interesting. A film school crew is making a mummy-centric horror flick of in the woods when they hear news that dead people are coming back to life. They don't fully believe it, but they decide that something's up and they'd better get somewhere more secure than the middle of the woods. The group splits up. The "mummy," a snotty trust fund kid, grabs a dame and zips off to his parents Wayne-manor grade estate. There they plan to wait out the disaster Masque of the Red Death style. The rest of the group decides they need to follow Jason, director of the film within a film and the character that "shoots" most of the film, back to school to make sure his girlfriend is okay.

After securing his dame, the cast hops in an RV and starts making their way across Pennsylvania, presumably to get to their various homes. What follows are episodic zombie scenes that involve, among other things, a mute/deaf Amish farmer, a group of African American separatists who view the zombocaust as their chance to run things, rogue National Guardsmen, and a swimming pool full of living dead folks.

From a production standpoint, the film fails on so many levels. Even by the standards of the series, which has never been super strong in the acting department, the acting is pretty crappy. This isn't helped by the fact that Romero burdens his struggling thespians with atrocious dialogue. For some reason, Romero feels the need to have his characters narrate what we see. After shooting three zombies in a hospital, one of the characters says, "I just shot three people in less than 30 minutes." Characters will point to some dead person and say, "Look, he's dead!" Characters constantly recap the story for other characters. They share deep thoughts like, "It used to be us versus us. But now it's us versus them. But they are us." Indeed.

The plotting is haphazard. I imagine there is a certain temptation in writing a road movie to let things side a bit. You can just write a scene, end it, pile everybody in the RV, have 'em chat a bit while scenery rolls past the window, and then just throw them into the next scene. You don't have to sweat connecting them scenes or anything because we'll assume they spent the time just sitting the RV, waiting for their next adventure. After all, there's always a good reason to stop somewhere: gas, food, lodging, "maybe this guy has a working phone," and so on. The end result is a start/stop pace and a bunch of scenes that seem almost randomly strung together. The flick really only picks up in the final scene, when it gets somewhat surreal and grimly silly. This is a pleasant change from the clumsy drama and shallow efforts at gravitas that dominate the first four-fifths of the flick, but it is too little, too late to save it.

As for the subjective camera work, it’s a failed aesthetic choice because the film never really commits to it. Unlike Blair Witch or Cloverfield, the conceit here is that the footage from the character/filmmaker's camera was edited so as to include film from a second camera, other camera sources (such as security cameras), and resources like video clips grabbed from online sources. To top it off, the camera never misses anything. Furthermore, unlike Blair or Clover, there's no sense that your not getting the whole picture. Every time a zombie pops out, every time somebody offs a zombie in some gory way, and every time some character gets it, the camera's right there, with the action nicely framed in the middle of the shot. Basically, the whole first-person cinema thing is a wasted, unused opportunity.

Really the only thing the conceit of the subjective camera does do is give Mr. Romero a hook from which to hang some political content. And that's definitely not a plus. As the "Of the Dead" franchise has gone on, the plots have been forced to carry more and more of Romero's ideological baggage. The political observations of Night, while sometimes strained, were unobtrusive. The anti-commercial message of Dawn, on the other hand, was front and center. Day's "who are the real monsters" shtick was considerably less powerful than Night's similar theme, mainly because it was so over the top and overt as to be shrill and bothersome. By the time we get to Land, it feels like we're getting a checklist of generic liberal talking points: race, check; wealth is the bad, check; our enemies aren't as bad as our leaders, check. It was tiresome and made for a clunky, preachy flick.

In Diary, Romero takes on the YouTube/Facebook/media culture we now live in. No longer content to bludgeon us with his messages, Diary provides Mr. Romero with a narrator so he can lecture us directly through an in-film mouthpiece. That would be bad enough, but the fact that Mr. Romero doesn't seem to have any coherent thoughts on the subject. In one part of the film, his in-flick puppet praises the bloggers and YouTube posters of the world for being a source of truth when the mainstream media lies. Later, however, this same narrator will moan that, when you have thousands of different voices out there, all putting their spin on something, it make the truth impossible to find. Everything the movie has to say about the media, its effects on us, and its impact on our culture is of that nature. It’s a collection of shallow, contradictory statements that all sound like they were pulled of the jacket copy of a random selection of pop media study books. There's actually an interesting way in which Romero's lack of anything cogent to say about the wired world is reflected in his representation of how tech works. For example, in this film, when digital signals start to fade, you don't drop the signal and get a dead screen. Instead you get static, like an old television set gets when its bunny ears aren't receiving a channel clearly.

I can help but feel this is part of the general exhaustion of the zombie theme. Perhaps zombies aren't really the universal metaphor, ready to help you make whatever point you can shoe horn into a flick. I think it's time Romero put the zombies away. I'd argue that his two most interesting and creative flick, Martin, suggests what he could do if freed from the shackles of the "Of the Dead" franchise. Here's hoping.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Movies: She's gotta habit.

Larry Fessenden seems to evoke some pretty visceral reactions. And weirdly, the love/hate demographic seems to divide neatly into IMDB/Netflix clusters. If you're on IMDB, you'll find Fessenden's 1997 vampire flick described as "an indie masterpiece" and "stunning." As for Fessenden, he "embodies much that is great about no-budget, maverick filmmaking." But, lest you think all America has fallen in love with this indie filmmaking scamp, the Netflix folks have given it an underwhelming 2 stars on average. Though many reviewers gush, those reviewers whose star-rating matches the site-average tend to drop the word "pretentious." Perhaps the most energetic suggest you "rent this DVD for the hilarious self-delusion evidenced in the 'Making of' segments." Ouch. (Double ouch because the "making of" features do suffer from this weird navel-gazing self-aggrandizing tone.)

Habit, to get everybody up to speed on the flicker in question, is a low-fi vampire flick that takes place in the somehow still un-gentrified corners of Manhattan. (Despite being filmed on location in 1997, this flick looks like it was filmed on location in 1977.) Sam, an aimless alcoholic bartender reeling from the one-two punch of the death of his father and the loss of his girlfriend, meets the sexy and intriguingly mysterious Anna at a drunken Halloween party. Increasing, Sam is drawn to Anna in a creepy, obsessive sort of way. But Anna's hunger for him seems more, um, utilitarian. Is Anna a vampire? Or has Sam well-pickled mind final given out on him? Duh, duh, dum.

A remake of a shot-on-video film school project that he once showed on a New York cable access television, Habit is an indie flick before that term encompassed such slick fare as Hard Candy. The film has the raw feel of something shot on the fly, taking advantage of what the city streets could offer by way of sets. The cast, with the exception of Anna and Sam, seems to have mostly been amigos of the director. It ain't going win any awards, but it does give the viewer the sense that all the characters are simply random New Yorkers they might run into on any given day. Whether the gains in verisimilitude outweigh the occasional pain of having to watch some really wooden acting is, I suspect, going to depend on how strongly built up your immunities are to the common failings of art house or straight to vid flicks are. I didn't mind it much, but I may be overly lenient in such matters.

All in all, Habit is a smart, innovative twist on a very established subgenre. It weaknesses are typical of the sort of small-scale flick it is and you couldn't call them unexpected. I dug it.

Which leads me to ask, why the violent split in fan opinion?

I think the problem is that Fessenden makes genre films that don't particularly appeal to fans of horror films as fans of horror films. Let me try to unpack that mess of a sentence. Whatever the stylistic concerns of his flicks, Fessenden doesn't seem particularly interested in giving genre fans the horror flick staples that so many find an important part of the genre's pleasures. He doesn't subvert genres or play with viewer expectations. That would be too gimmicky. Instead, he approaches his subjects – all horror archetypes: mad science, vampires, the werewolf, the alien/other invader – as if he were the first guy to ever do such a film. He strips them of their cinematic history, their genre trappings, and the accumulated analysis that cling to them; then he starts again with a template of his devising. With Habit it feels like he's some curious visitor from another planet where they just heard of, say, Dracula. He just doesn't feel the need to carry all the cinema baggage of an entire 70 plus years of filmic adaptation and analysis with him.

The result is a weird sort of freshness that actually levels the playing field between genre fan ad non-fan. The horror fan brings this whole context of vampire cinema to the table only to find out that Fessenden doesn't have any interest in it. What he does to Dracula in Habit is the opposite of what Craven did to slasher flicks in Scream: the film is the opposite of an in-joke and it gives you no extra points for prior knowledge.

I think this accounts for both Fessenden's draw and the reason his films kinda fail it as "horror" movies. With regards to the former, Fessenden's ability to unironically take things back to square one gives his flicks some real energy and life. He's got something of the innately talented primitivism that makes Fuller such an interesting director. With regards to the later, it separates his work from the genre and the pleasures of genre fandom in strangely uninvolved way. He's the horror director who really doesn't care about horror and, for some horror fans, this feels like some high handed intellectual put down – the same feel sci-fi fans get when some author who has clearly written book full of sci-fi tropes tells the press that they don't write sci-fi because that's for kids. In Fessenden's defense, I don't think he means to be dismissive. I think he likes the imaginative of possibilities of horror, but he's just such a singular figure that his flicks might as well their own odd little genre.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Opinion: A modest proposal or "Godzilla versus Jason."

So the horror blog-o-sphere waits with bated breath (but not baited breath – it's short for abated and it means you're holding your breath – the source of the phrase, "Don't hold your breath" – but I'm suddenly on a tangent and we haven't even gotten a whole sentence out – the shame) to see if Robert Englund is going to reprise the Freddy role in the new remake, re-launch, re-imagining, re-re-re of Nightmare on Elm Street. The general consensus seems to be that the whole of horror fandom pities whoever the hell picks up the Freddie mantle as Englund pretty much made it all his for so long.

The subtext of this conversation is that the venerable franchises of the '80s are between a rock and a hard place.

Basically, nobody wants just keep grinding out sequels. The sequel game has been one of diminishing returns: generally less money goes into each flick in the effort to ensure a profit, these increasingly crappy flicks rightly draw fewer viewers, the studios see profit and invest even less in a sequel, which draws fewer people, and so on and so on. It becomes a race to the bottom. The ultimate end of it would be that the studio makes a flick that costs less than the cost of a single ticket to try to make a profit off of the last poor schmuck that cares.

In an effort to break this cycle, franchise owners have decided that the way to save their valuable properties is to hit the reset button. The idea wasn't totally without merit. One of the unfortunate products of the long death-spiral these franchises had entered was the introduction of meta-nonsense, wackiness, and other non-scary elements meant to rejuvenate the flicks. Sadly, it did the opposite. If you could just start over, as if you hadn't turned your characters in parodies of themselves, you could strip that crap out and get back to basics. This was one of the stated aims of the recent Halloween re-launch. Again and again in interviews director Rob Zombie claimed that he wanted to make the franchise "scary again." Get some hip talent, market it as the second coming of a classic. Good times, good times.

It's a great idea. There's only one problem. It doesn't seem to work. Zombie's Halloween was one of the most trashed horror flicks of last year. Not to be outdone, studios are rushing to throw Friday the 13th and Nightmare down the same hole. There's no reason to believe these will be any better. The problem with Zombie's Halloween will be faced by these flicks too. Revisiting a film automatically puts overwhelming restrictions on what you can or cannot do with a flick. At best, you can add some details to the backstory, modernize the filmmaking techniques, and push the gore up to modern standards. That's pretty much it. And that's everything Zombie did and the result was poor. I'm predicting now that the Friday and Nightmare flicks will suck in the same way.

So we're stuck. We can't make sequels and we can just magically restart the series and recapture the magic. What do we do?

The solution comes from an unlikely horror franchise: Godzilla.

Compared to Godzilla, the horror franchises of the '80s are small beer. The Godzilla franchise has reached an astounding 28 flicks. Like the '80s horror franchises, it had been diluted with heavy-handed humor, tweaked with premise undermining elements (like Minizilla), and generally abused in the name of getting asses in theater seats. However, unlike the '80s franchises, the last series of Godzilla flicks was widely praised as being among the best of the series, second only to the original in terms of entertainment value. This is no small feat. Godzilla is not exactly a multifaceted character and one can be forgiven for assuming that, after nearly 50 years, there's not much more to say about him. And yet, the filmmakers behind Godzilla managed to revitalize a property that had sunk so low as to feature its leading lizard doing a little jig after defeating an adversary. The tricks the Godzilla directors used could be used, I think, to get the '80s franchises out of the trap they find themselves in.

In 1999, Toho studios brought back their big reptilian star after a four-year lull. There were two huge factors working against a successful comeback. First, the last batch of Japanese-made Godzilla flicks had been roundly criticized as lacking. Ticket sales were mediocre, their target audiences – Japanese youth – had decided they were unhip relics, and talented filmmakers avoided the projects to avoid getting tarred as a hack. Second, the lackluster American version had been a one-two punch to Japanese Godzilla fans: it was at once upsetting that Godzilla failed to penetrate the American movie biz and upsetting that the American version was such a universally reviled mess. Toho revitalized the Godzilla series by 1) getting rid of continuity, 2) making it a showcase for new and promising talent, and 3) creating artificial scarcity.

Let's talk about getting rid of continuity. The new flicks exist in a sort of "Godzilla universe," but the details of the universe are reinvented with each flick. For example, in the last series some of the films assumed that Godzilla had attacked Japan only once before, others assumed that Godzilla had attacked several times, and one of them assumed that monster attacks were so common that a special UN military force existed solely for the purpose of fighting giant monsters. Some of the films take place in the here-and-now while others take place in the near or distant future. Basically, each film is a stand-alone product. The ground rules for the particular flick are explained in the film through exposition.

The second element: new talent. I'm going to be honest. The use of new talent has been a bit of a mixed bag in the context of Godzilla. On one hand, because we've got hungry directors, actors, and key crew, you get these sort of balls-out spectaculars that are meant to blow the audience away. This is everybody's big chance and they mean to take it. The downside is a tendency towards allusiveness, pandering to the audience, and an over reliance on currently "hip" techniques. For example, the makers of The Matrix should be able to sue the makers of Godzilla: Final Wars for stealing scenes and techniques. Still, it should be said that, unlike many a previous Godzilla flick, Final Wars never lags. It is an insane rush of set pieces and action sequences. And this is typical of all five of the last set of films: they are all made as if the future of the filmmakers' careers depended on it. Nobody phones it in.

Finally, another important lesson we can learn from the Godzilla franchise has to do with "clustering" the releases. Toho has learned that it is really easy to just keep cranking out flicks. But then you end up in the death-spiral that '80s slasher franchises are stuck in. Better to release a string of flicks and then dry up for a few years. Toho regularly produces as string of flicks, then retires Godzilla for four or five years, then releases a batch of new flicks. This requires some self-discipline. For example, Toho intended for the last series to extend for three films. It lasted five. Still, they could have gone on and on, dropping costs and accepting small and small returns. Instead, they left while the party was good. Don't drown your viewer in inferior product and they'll come back when you're ready to release more product.

I propose that the owners of the horror franchises of the '80s learn from the Godzilla franchise. First, adopt a looser approach to creating sequels. Let's take Friday the 13th as an example. Instead of adding more an more flicks to the current story, just set some ground rules involving Jason, Crystal Lake, and so on. After you've done that, let each film take a different approach. Does nobody know that people who go to Crystal Lake are asking for it or is it something everybody knows? Is Jason just some guy or is he some magical and unkillable zombie? Set this up with each flick and don't require each and every film to toe the same line. This opens up the stories that can be told and would encourage creativity. I would even drop the numbering system. Just give the films unnumbered titles like the Godzilla franchise or even the James Bond franchise.

Second, use real talent. "But wait," you might well say. "Rob Zombie came fresh off The Devil's Rejects and he went on to make the subpar Halloween." Of course he did. Zombie's best film was his most creative. House of 1,000 Clichés and Halloween are just too beholden to other flicks. Imagine if he'd been told, "Hey, Zombie, here's the keys to the Halloween franchise. Do whatever you want." There's no point in getting good directors and good screenwriters, and then putting them in the straightjacket of a remake. Find talent and let them do what they do best.

Finally, do the math on the value of your franchise. You can kill the goose that laid the golden egg by driving your franchise into the ground or you can keep it evergreen by avoiding overproduction. Pick one?

There's actually an interesting test of these theories already going on. Over at DC/Wildstorm comics, they've got the rights to the New Line horror franchises: Texas Chainsaw, Nightmare, and Friday. The comics follow the basic rules described above. They don't just retell the film stories and, where it helps the story, they break with the continuity established in the flicks. They've put real talent on the titles. Finally, they haven't made the title monthly. Instead, each title exists as a collection of loosely connected mini-series, each with its own narrative arc. The results are mixed. Nightmare has been so-so, but Friday and TCM has been to notch. Still, I'm willing to bet that 2 out of 3 is a better ratio than we'll see out of these remakes.

No strategy can ensure that every flick in a franchise will be a success. But I think going this route would make each flick an event. Each film in the franchise would worth checking out because you'd now you were going to get something new.

Anyway, that's this horror blogger's opinion.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Comics: Majors and generals.

Greetings, Screamers and Screamettes. Today, your humble horror host brings not one, but two comic reviews. That's right, boys and ghouls, AANTS is giving you both barrels of four color stupendiosity!

I've pair these two comics not because of any linked theme or similarities in their stories. In fact, it is hard to imagine ay two horror comics that could be more different. Instead, I think they both show what you can do in comics that I don't believe you can fully pull off in any other medium. These are great horror comics, each great in their own way.

First, we've got a historical horror comic set in the endgame on the European front in World War II. Desperado Publshing's Common Foe, written by Shannon Eric Denton and Keith Giffen with art by Jean-Jacques Dzialowski and Fredrico Dallocchio, is driven by a pretty simple high concept premise: US and Nazi troops fighting the Battle of the Bulge accidentally unleash a horde of blood-hungry demon vampire thingies. The soldiers must learn to fight together, natch, or end up monster grub.

With that, you've learned every essential bit about the set up and plot of the book.

The second book, Josh Simmons' House, has a deceptively simple premise. Three people go exploring a massive abandoned structure and run into disaster. The book is drawn in an expressively cartoonish black and white, contains not a single bit of dialogue, and is an utterly haunting slice of thoughtful horror despite the fact that we have no villains, monsters, ghosts (well maybe perhaps a tiny little glimpse of one - but that's not a sure thing), or slashers. Just three folks and a horrible accident.

So what makes Common Foe great? It exploits the comic medium's unique sense of the immediate. Of all the popular arts, comics seem to most often get linked to movies. This is unsurprising given the combination of visuals and dialogue, not to mention the industry-wide assumption that the goal of comics is to aspire to film – in fact, many comic artists now get gig storyboarding flicks and Marvel's own guidelines to writers suggest getting some film writing experience before tackling comic writing. But, I'd like to suggest that some comics often resemble the perfect pop single. They are direct, immediately involving, memorable, and with just enough layers of artistry to not make you feel stupid for giving them a little attention. This is exactly was Common Foe does. It takes its premise and delivers on it with a slick and professional precision.

The comic opens with a bang. A handful full of American soldiers are fleeing a horde of strange monsters – part zombie, part scarecrow, part shark. Explosions, gun fire, the Americans lose a Joe, and, finally, find shelter. In this brief moment, one of the GI's has a flashback that explains how the soldiers got in this bad situation. Far from the main battle front, two units – one American and one German – fight to control as town of no strategic significance. As one of the characters puts it: "The only reason they want it is because they think we want it." For the first fourth of the book, these two groups pound each other mercilessly. During a lull in the combat, the Germans notice that some fire has busted open what appears to be a well. Strangely, the stones of have small crucifixes carved into them. A local superstition perhaps? Whatever, they are in the middle of a war. The well is left unsealed. Enter the beasties. For the remainder of the book, the American and Nazi soldiers will battle a seemingly endless number of demon-things. The creatures shrug off gunfire, so the soldiers are reduced to running and hiding, setting explosive traps, and trying to keep alive until sunrise. The beasties, you see, don't like the sun.

The characters are stock and the action somewhat predictable, but the pace – which comics can crank up even past what films can deliver – and strong visuals overpower these. This is an army versus monster story the way "Good Vibrations" is a just a pop love song. It knows exactly what it needs to give you, and delivers fully on the promise. This would be too limited of an achievement for a film or a novel. A novel would demand more backstory and, as a film, this would feel curiously one-note. But it is a strength comic books have that they, like hard-liquor, can get more powerful through the process of distillation. This title's pleasures come from the efficient and competent way in which the book so expertly focuses on doing exactly what you know it would, leaving you with a feeling that more "writerly" comics no longer seem to credit as a worthy goal: you're left thoroughly entertained.

If Common Foe is the perfect pop single, Josh Simmons' House is the indie rock experiment. A wordless, black and white comic, House tells the story of three folks who explore a massive and rooting old home, and ultimately get separated and lost within its twisting corridors. The characters are all nameless. One is a young man, he seems to be the one who is encouraging the group to explore in the house in the first place. The second explorer is a lively, athletic blonde. She and the man will develop a romantic connection through the course of the story. Finally, we’ve got a stand-offish semi-Goth chick. The action starts off slowly. There's something child-like and almost sweet about the characters. The house they're exploring resembles the grim fortress asylum of Session 9, but they seem so eager and happy to explore it that the mood is lighter. Slowly, inevitably, the thin, intricate line-work of Simmons' grows heavier and dark pools of black ink crowd the page.

I don't want to give away much more of the plot other than to say it hinges on none of the standard horror devices. There's an accident and the characters are left to fend for themselves. They don't have to battle monsters or discover any great mystery about the house (and there are several curious things about it). All they need to do is find one another and get out. Despite this lack of standard horror elements, Simmons' story is as dark, grim, and despairing as anything I experienced in the genre. It goes deeper than scares, evoking a sad dread that is, in the end, harder to shake off.

Perhaps even more than Common Foe, House could only be a comic book. It exploits the most obvious feature of comics: the gutter, the break between panels. Comic readers get so used to the break, we tend to forget what a powerful impact it has on narrative. As a comic reader, we "fill in" the time and content of gutters. The trick is, the time element isn't a set thing. We look for clues in the panels that precede and follow the gutter, adjusting our expectations accordingly. We fill in the necessary content in the same way. This expectation that we'll need to fill in huge gaps in the story is part of the reader/writer contract all comic readers make with comic creators and it allows the comic creator a considerable amount of narrative freedom. For example, the lack of dialogue is a striking feature in House, but it doesn't have the same impact that making a silent film or a novel without any dialogue would have. Readers assume these characters are talking and that we're just not hearing it, something akin to the "fill in" we already have to do. It makes the way Simmons withholds info from the reader a subtle game. It's a game Simmons pays well. He purposefully undermines our ability to "read" the gutters, leaving us – like his characters – bewildered and lost. How long have they been trapped? Where are they in relationship to one another? Eventually the negative space of the gutters will grow, leaving characters and actions trapped in disjointed bits of panel – sometimes little more than a spec on a otherwise inky black page.

Before, we've discussed what horror comics can't do. Horror novels have the capacity to depict inner emotional states better and are, at their best, more emotionally immersive. Film can deliver the physical sensation of fright like no other medium does. But comics have a unique ability to combine focus with narrative freedom and that opens up the potential for stories you just couldn't do any other way.

As a little treat, for sitting through all that, below is a page from House.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Movies: Here comes the bride.

With all apologies to Jane Austen: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a mad scientist in possession of the secrets of life and death must be in want of a bride. This is the very position that Herbert West and his perpetually unsure assistant, Dan Cain, find themselves in at the open of Bride of Re-Animator, second flick in the Re-Animator series.

After the bloodbath in the Miskatonic Uni hospital that closed the last flick, West and Cain have become Doctors Without Frontier-style volunteers helping patch up the wounded members of a disorganized and badly whipped rebel army in some third world Latin American jungle nation. We quickly learn that the good doctors are not motivated entirely by the better angels of their nature. The surrounding jungles are home to a lizard that produces a chemical that will help West perfect his frustratingly imprecise re-animating agent. Plus, living in a war-zone insures that you get plenty of access to fresh people meat for you experiments. But all good things come to an end and the good doctors are forced to scoot when government soldiers overrun the rebels' hospital. The doctors return to the MU hospital and move into an old caretakers house on the edge of a graveyard – a convenient location as West's need to re-animate dead tissue is becoming increasing like a junkie's need to hit a crack pipe. His new formula re-animating agent means he can now bring individual parts to life and West begins to express his artistic side by creating freakish beasts out of random parts and giving them life. Eventually West and Cain hit upon the scheme of creating an entirely new person out of carefully selected parts. Set against them are a Arkham PD detective who has an axe to grind with West and the still not entirely dead disembodied head of Dr. Carl Hill, West's nemesis from the first film. If that's not enough for you, we also get a new love interest for Cain.

And they pack it all into a slender 93 minutes.

Not unlike the first two flicks in the classic Universal Frankenstein series, Re-Animator and Bride of Re-Animator are interesting in so much as, despite the continuity of story and crew (the producer of the first flick in now the director of the second flick), the films have really different moods and styles. The first Re-Animator focused heavily on the seething creepiness of Herbert West. The plot was a slow build punctuated by ever nastier and more tasteless scenes of gross-out humor. In contrast, the second film is a demolition derby of subplots and surreal scenes. Incidents and plot points pile up willy-nilly as the flick barrels towards its conclusion. The director of the first flick, horror film's go-to Lovecraft adaptor Stuart Gordon, is a more capable and careful director. Brian Yuzna, who helms the second film, takes a more stylish and kinetic approach. Where Gordon used the clean polished surfaces and monotonous florescent lighting of MU Hospital as a counterpoint to the typical gothic trappings of a standard mad scientist flick, Yuzna throws shadows everywhere and loves packing scenes full of grisly details. In the first film, every character seemed caught up in the gravitational pull of West's barely contained insanity. Here, everybody seems to have lost it a little bit, become a little unhinged. All except for West, who comes of as a more boyish and petulant character. Viewers will get more of the bizarre effects from the first one. The gore-level is upped, West's re-animated freaks show some inventive monster design, and the bride creature is wonderfully horrific and pathetic at the same time. In only one instance are the effects not up to the task and hand: the flying head Carl Hill, which has been stitched to a pair bat wings, long pretty bad. (And this is a shame because a maniac head flapping around on bat wings is an almost perfect summary of the surreal aesthetic of this film – if only it had looked better.)

All and all, Bride is an excellent sequel. It extends the story of the first film in a logical way, but is stylistically unique enough to not feel like a retread. Is madcap pacing is a bit sloppy, but it ensures that the viewer is never bored.