Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Stuff: Is your dog a werewolf?

I'm currently reading Toby Barlow's Sharp Teeth, the newest entry into that curious subgenre of high-lit horror that's home to such books as House of Leaves, Demon Theory, and Raw Shark Texts. Sharp Teeth is, I kid you not, a free-verse epic poem about werewolf gangs fighting for territory in modern Los Angeles. A full review should be forthcoming. In the meantime, check out Barlow's site for an important public service announcement.

You should also check out the neato animations that various folks have made to illustrate short passages from the text. It's fun stuff.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Comics: Army of One (Made from Many)

I don't have much to tell you about this other than the dudes behind it are also behind the revisionist old-school sci-fi neo-pulp adventure title F.E.A.R. Agent. I just thought the poster was made of awesome and thought I should share it.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Movies: A right to be hostel.

Greetings fright fans. I apologize for the dead air. After weeks of homebound freelancing, your humble horror host went out and joined the vast ranks of the regularly employed. I'm still getting over the shock of waking up before noon, but I think I've recovered enough to start writing again.

Since we're discussing personal stuff, I also would like to point out that, for some reason, it seems like I cannot carry out even the most basic task these days without cutting, scratching, or otherwise perforating myself. As it stands now, I have a single finger that doesn't have some nasty little slice on it and my right forearm has an angry red 4 inch long slice on it. It's healing, but ugly and unpleasant.

As yet, we've got no good explanation for my sudden vulnerability to life's sharper corners. I'm not generally accident-prone. My wife thinks it's because my skin is dry, and therefore more likely to split on impact with pointy things, due to seasonal weather changes. She thinks I should put on lotion. I think I might have cut in line in front of an ancient gypsy and she's cursed me to a supernatural death of a billion little cuts. I feel I should devote my energies to finding this witch and forcing her to reverse the curse. This may require I go freelance again, 'cause gypsies are tricky and I can't be tied to an evenings-and-weekend-only schedule if I'm going to find her. My wife says this is "idiotic." Oh, please: "seasonal weather changes." Honestly.

Speaking of perforating: today's flick is Hostel: Part II, Eli Roth's follow up to his seminal horror hit Hostel. For those who follow the blog, I did not have a great opinion of the first flick. Capsule review: Hostel was a great looking gore fest that failed to hide its trashy and cheap core with a shallow cover of awkwardly ill-thought-out anti-Americanism. It was this emptiness at its core, its inarticulate grasping towards anything to say while throwing young bodies into the chopper, that made it, somewhat justly, the poster-flick for the short-lived but much analyzed "torture porn" moment.

With Hostel: Part II Roth found an intellectual purpose sufficient to justify the horror. Instead of relying on a vague and nonsensical notion that the victims of the first flick deserved to be tortured to death by rich foreigners because they are boorish, Roth wisely shifts the guilt from the backpackers to the real villains: dudes and dudettes who would pay money to torture people to death. In this sense, the film is a quantum leap ahead of its predecessor. Unfortunately, putting the film on more solid thematic grounds doesn't entirely eliminate the sense that we've seen most of this material before. Roth now has a good reason to subject us to the horrors of his snuff club, but he's lost the shock value that was such a crucial piece of the first flick's power.

Like the first flick, this film follows the misadventures of three American students – wealthy art students studying in Rome – as they are lured to Slovakia, checked into the titular boarding, and trapped in the pay-to-play abattoir of the first flick. Despite the fact that Roth's changed the gender of his main characters (and made them just slightly less stereotypically the "ugly Americans"), the plot is remarkably similar. We've got two close friends and the outsider third traveler: hotties Beth and Whitney and awkward pity-friend Lorna, played with Dawn "Wiener Dog" Warner gusto by the fabulous Heather Matarazzo. Like the first film, none too subtle hints of homosexuality linger about one of the protagonists. They are even dispatched in the same order as their male counterparts. (I don't think it'll surprise anybody to find out that poor, not-hot Wiener Dog gets it first – being trussed up naked in Roth's most obvious homage to Blood Sucking Freaks and then being bled dry in a literal bloodbath for a client identified as "Mrs. Bathory.") The major change is that Roth has wisely twined this narrative with a parallel story detailing the journey of two clients – Todd and Stuart – as they go from their comfortable upper class yuppie existences to become torturers in the Elite Hunt Clubs slaughterhouse.

In the characters of Todd and Stuart, Roth's finally targeted a rhetorical villain worthy of his nightmare: free market capitalism run amok. This theme hid on the edges of his first film, unacknowledged by a director trying to cash in one an easy generic "Americans are dummies" vibe. While he tried hard to make his backpackers the morally and intellectually bankrupt ones, he was creating a vision of Europe where everything, including people-flesh, was available for a few Euros. And yet that system, the debasing of everything to the level of commodity, seemed to escape his notice. H2 gets the bigger picture and makes it the picture. Roth's second Hostel flick is one of the most effective satires of capitalist ideology I've seen. The flicks most chilling moment comes not in gory torture chambers beneath the post-Soviet brutalist factory in Slovakia, but during a brilliant montage in which a collection of wealthy men and women bid Ebay-style for the right to torture-kill our unwitting heroines. It's a scene made all the more chilling in relation to the recently much publicized scandal involving the ex-governor of New York and an Internet prostitution ring that offered its wealthy clients women ranked and priced for easy purchase. (In a touch Roth would, I think, appreciate, the images of women on the real site always had the prostitutes' heads removed from the picture, giving the weird sense that one was just buying a headless body.)

Roth's new found satiric sharpness is welcome, but it doesn't overcome the biggest problem with Hostel: Part II: we've seen it all before. Roth's best stuff is the new subplot involving the clients – and this film is at is best when showing the bizarre world of the clients and club owners – but he still spends most of his time with the fairly uninteresting and cookie-cutterish victims. Roth doesn't have any sympathy for the victims in his flick. He's made them a bit brighter, a bit less annoying, but they are still there mainly to end up in the torture chair and no amount of characterization tweaking hides that. Given Roth's bent towards the torturers, he'd be better off just making that his focus. The time he spends basically re-shooting his first flick, but with chicks where the dudes used to be, feels wasted.

Hostel: Part II is a mixed bag. Roth finds a framework that really makes the whole concept transcend its original torture porn premise. Unfortunately, it suffers from the fact that we've already become inoculated to his brand of shocks. In a way, the Hostel franchise has fallen victim to its own success.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Music: "Cry, Werewolf, Cry!"

Normally, I take no small measure of pride in the posts featuring slices of horror-themed music. My loyal public, all six of you, really demand the best, and I, your humble horror host, get a real sense of fulfillment when I can bring it to you.

And then, sometimes, I just post a POS tune from Euro-trash hair metal rockers Sha-Boom and am done with it.

Sha-Boom's lamer than lame "Werewolf" is from the band's third album and can be found on their 2008 greatest hits compilation: Fiiire. The extra vowels are necessary because, you see, so many people are so very excited by the possibility of a Sha-Boom greatest hits album that they cannot constrain themselves from drawing out their vowel sounds.

Belgian hair stylist: "Have you heard about the new Sha-Boom album?"
German leather pants monger: "Iiindeed. Iiit iiis called Fiiire! III'm so exciiited my speech patterns are effected!"

This is perhaps the worst horror-themed tune I've ever posted on ANTSS. Though I feel I must warn you that it's chorus, which uses the lead singer's accent to force a rhyme between "cry" and "wild," is strangely addictive. I won't be held responsible for anything that happens to the sanity of any reader who gets this tune stuck in their noggin.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Books: The All of Cthulhu.

Despite the dire abundance of predictions informing us that book-centric literacy is relic of now by-gone technological paradigm, the sub-genre that would seem most likely to suffer extinction when pitted in Darwinian struggle with the Internet – quirky reference tomes on niche topics – still seems quite lively. In this respect, Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H. P. Lovecraft would seem an exemplary book. On glancing the title, I must admit that my first thought was, "Certainly there's a wiki or blog or something out there that does this. Is anybody really going to hand over a Jackson just to get it in dead tree format?" But thumbing through its nearly 350 pages in the shop, I liked the not-always obvious film choices, the co-authors' willingness to give points for earnest (if sometimes amateur) efforts, and the wealth of supplementary materials they packed into their book. So, in answer to my own question, "Yeah, somebody out there will probably drop twenty Washingtons on just such a book."

There's something that borders on the ironic about the fact that there are now enough film adaptations of Lovecraft works to warrant a guide. Lovecraft himself was no fan of the medium. According to the preface by Lovecraft scholar (and editor of the Penguin Lovecraft anthologies) S. T. Joshi, Lovecraft described the art of moving pictures as "utter and unrelieved hokum." Despite the old master's definitive harrumph, co-authors Andrew Migliore and John Strysik have hunted down more than 150 pages worth of adaptations, homages, and shameless rip-offs, both for the big screen and television. In quick-moving, fair, and occasionally humorous one- or two-page reviews, our authors not only run down obvious selections, such as The Re-Animator or Dagon, but they dig up Lovecraftian references in the damnedest places: such as an extended riff off the Old Ones and Cthulhu that appears in an episode of kiddie-anime Pokemon clone Digmon: Digital Monsters. I kid not. In fact, as nice as the reviews of direct adaptations are, Migliore and Strysik's most interesting reviews cover flicks that I suspect even a horror fan with more than a passing interest in Lovecraft may have missed. Their look at international films is especially appreciated. Extending the Digmon example, the guide's author introduce a whole strain of Lovecraft-love to J-horror flicks. Apparently several of the directors and screenwriters behind the J-horror Renaissance are big time Lovecraft fans. Go fig? All told, five different Japanese film and television treatments of Lovercraft's work make the cut. They also include Italian, UK, Mexican, and Chilean films and TV shows. Even when I had heard of these flicks – such as the J-horror Spirals - I often had no idea they were inspired or influenced by Lovecraft. The even include a selection of shorts – often notable fan-flick stuff or film school projects – in a special section.

I also appreciate the tone the authors' take throughout their book. It would be very easy to imagine that a book like this could devolve into an effort to set the "party line" on film adaptations. The reviews would then be little more than exercises in determining who did or did not meet the purity test of the author's self-selected defenders. The fans of other pulp masters – notably Philip K. Dick fans – are notorious for that sort of thing. Instead of putting themselves in the role of "Defenders of the Faith," the authors come off as two guys who dig on Lovecraft and get a really kick out of sharing this pleasure with others. This isn't to say that they're uncritical: if a movie is a stinker, they don't hesitate to let you know. By the same token, they have some strong positive opinions on films genuinely regarded as failures. Migliore and Strysik call them as they see them and make no bones about it. Still, they ultimately seem more interested in seeing what people are doing, how Lovecraft is being reinterpreted, and tracking his influence in unlikely places. I note their generous tone because it is a welcome change from the seemingly universal shrill and grating tone of persecution and superiority that fans of pulp and genre work often adopt when introducing their cult heroes to a wider audience.

The first half of the book is all reviews; the second half is dedicated to a short, but nifty, gallery of production art and other interesting graphics (with several plates in full color) and a series of interviews with directors, actors, and other Lovecraftian filmmakers. The gallery has some boss stuff, including an original painting of Hellboy inserted into the classic story "Mountains of Madness" and stills from the fabulous opening credit sequence from Beyond Re-Animator. Fans of horror comics will also find top-notch stuff from Richard Corbin and a whole set of conceptual art for "Shadow Over Innsmouth" by Bernie Wrightson. The interviews include both obvious choices, such as go-to Lovecraft adaptor director/writer Stuart Gordon, with more obscure, but still entertaining selections, such Tom Sullivan, the artist behind the covers of the Cry of Cthulhu role-playing game who went on to work on the 2005 retro-silent Call of Cthulhu flick.

I really only have one complaint – the editing of the edition I have is spotty. Now, I'm well aware that my own editorial practices here at ANTSS leave much to be desired. My defense is that I'm not charging you for the privilege of putting up with my editorial blunders. Furthermore, we're not talking grammar-geek quibbles here: for example, the review of Hellboy is cut off mid-sentence and hangs unresolved. Should the book head into another printing, these could be cleaned up easily, I think.

For the person who could take or leave Lovecraft, this book is not going to turn you into a true believer. However, for fans of the man, Migliore and Strysik have produced a real treat. The guide is well worth checking out.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Movies: Nak nak. Who's there?

First, let me apologize for the title. It was the best your humble host could come up with. It was worse. I originally went through the whole joke and it ended with a "nak your block off" bit. Anyway, I'm sorry, very very sorry.

Let's start this review with a little story. Once the was a film blogger. Let's call her Janet. She was pretty popular, as film bloggers go. Of course, that means she got about one thousandth the readership of just about any review in a major newspaper and perhaps reached slightly less than 1% of the folks a major television reviewer gets. But still, she had quite a few fans. She had even captured the attention of some famous readers – namely a reviewer we all know who, for the purposes of this little illustration, we'll call Klobert Revert. Revert has praised Janet's writing style, good taste, and sharp humor. Janet was gracious. Everybody was happy.

Then, sadly, Brown Bunny came out. Revert, who saw the original cut at Cannes or Sundance or wherever people go to do such things to themselves, famously declared it the worst movie he'd ever seen. There was a very public fight the with film's writer/director/and blow job recipient, we'll call him Limpcent Fallow. Fallow attacked Revert, claimed he didn't understand art, and – in a flourish that underscored just how deep and intelligent Fallow was compared to Revert – made a fat joke that inexplicably compared Revert to a slave owner. However, despite Fallow's belief that Revert looked like a fat slave owner, he did make several cuts and editorial changes to his film. When it was released, it was the edited and reworked version everybody saw.

This brings us to Janet. Janet loves Fallow. And when I say love you best believe I mean love: LUV. I'm not sure what the draw was. She never explained it. The closest she got making Fallow's draw clear for the readers was a strange aside where she called him beautiful and implied that she would like to be accosted by him in a lavatory and have him do things of a naughty nature to her backside. The important thing for our story is that you don't talk smack about the man who should, in a perfect world, be sticking his Little Limpcent up Janet's Brown Bunny. A woman won't stand for it! She attacked Revert and the thrust of the attack went thusly: Brown Bunny can't be the worst film ever made because 1) the version she saw was alright and 2) although she admitted to having never seen the original version, the removal of what amounts to 15 minutes or so of film simply can't alter a movie that much.

Whether Brown Bunny is not among the worst films ever made or whether Janet's burning desire for oily butt-sex with Fallow has blinded her to obvious is not the point so much as the removal of even a minute or two of film can drastically improve a flick. Ladies and gentlemen of the blog, I point to exhibit A: The Ghost of Mae Nak.

A mix of Thai-flavored J-horror tropes and mainstream Western horror sensibilities, British writer/director Mark Duffield's Thai-language fright flick, 2005's The Ghost of Mae Nak, is a well made old-fashioned ghost story that, after a perfectly satisfying false ending, utterly collapses into an unsatisfactory mess in the last six or seven minutes of the film.

Like 1960s Mexican production Curse of the Crying Woman, the chief baddie in Mae Nak is something of a national specter. Mae Nak, or "Mother Nak" in English, was a beautiful young bride who, with her husband Mak, lived in what is now the Phra Khanong district of Bangkok. Nak become preggers and husband and wife eagerly await the baby's arrival. Sadly, before the child is born, Mak is called of to fight the Burmese who, for nearly a decade in the late 1700s, attempted to invade Siam. Mak is injured in the fighting and left of the field of battle. Luckily, a group of monks find him and tend to him. After a long and difficult recovery, Mak heads for home. There he finds his beautiful wife and infant child waiting for him. But, of course, all is not well. His neighbors will no longer come to the home and nobody speaks to him anymore. Those that do eventually speak to Mak try to warn him of something, only to end up dead in mysterious and grisly ways. Eventually Mak pieces everything together and figures out that Mae Nak and the baby died in childbirth. He's been living with their ghosts all this time. Mak flees to a nearby temple and the ghost of Mae Nak, who pursues her husband, is exorcised and sent on to the next life. The ghost is a popular figure in Bangkok. She's been featured in three feature films, an animated feature, and an opera. There is also a public shrine to Mae Nak and her child where devotees leave gifts for her and her child. She gets mostly dresses, which hang behind the shrine. The child gets lots of toys.

Unlike Curse of the Crying Woman, which barely referenced the original legend, The Ghost of Mae Nak borrows heavily for the popular story. Starting with the name of its chief protagonists, the newly weds Mak and Nak. Looking for a new home in the grim city that is modern Bangkok, Mak and Nak end up buying a unique fixer-upper opportunity in the Phra Khanong district, a once rural area that was incorporated into the voracious and ever expanding urban sprawl. Unfortunately, their little love nest is on the site of the house Mae Nak inhabited more than 200 years ago. Once in to their new home, Mak falls under the sway of the love-starved spirit of Mae Nak, who seems to have decided that the new model Mak is just the thing to replace the husband that fled her long ago. After several inexplicable encounters, Mak is steered by the ghost into becoming the victim of a hit and run. He slips into a coma and, with the traditional roles reversed, it is his wife, Nak, who must unravel the supernatural mystery.

There's a lot to recommend Mae Nak. The flick is shot on location in Bangkok and this gives much of the film stark urban realism that is a real treat for the eye. The film has a real sense for the sometimes poetic details of urban squalor. It never degenerates in some Jacob Riis-style docu-drama about livin' in the big bad city, but it seems to take a genuine pleasure in representing the concrete heart of the modern city. The city also acts a metaphor for Westernization and modernization; the rural ghost is a fine metaphor for the violent and rural history of Siam lurking in the shadows of the thoroughly modern metropolis of Bangkok.

The story, which relies more heavily on Thailand's cultural traditions than, say, The Ring or The Grudge does on any specifically Japanese cultural traditions, is never alienating. Perhaps this is because of the originally English screenplay and the presence of a director from the UK. It combines the Thai source material with J-horror trappings now familiar to a global audience and a villain whose powers are picked up from The Omen. Despite the new context, the story (until the very end, and we'll get to that shortly) has a careful, almost slow build pace that's a welcome nod to classic ghost stories like The Haunted and Poltergeist. The title does appear on the Tartan Asian Extreme label which is, I think, a bit of an overstatement. Aside from one scene in which a plate of falling glass turns a gent into something like a biology textbook cut-away diagram – emphasis on the "cut-away" – the film is more about the characters trying to wrap their heads around the fact that a two century old legend continues to haunt Bangkok than it is about the over-the-top gore one associates with the phrase "Asian extreme."

As an aside, I've only seen three Tartan Asian Extreme DVDs and I have to say that the "extreme' is a bit of a bait and switch. All of them featured some gore, but nothing particularly beyond the pale. Not that I'm complaining. So far, the quality of the Tartan titles seems to be in inverse proportion to their extremeness: the worst being a half-assed abattoir of a samurai flick, the two best being well told ghost stories that spent more time on plot than splatter.

So, what's wrong with The Ghost of Mae Nak. Bringing us back to our original point, the greatest flaw in the flick is the last five or six minutes. After jumping through some hoops to appease the ghost, our characters live happily ever after – or do they! After a perfectly good ending, we get not one, but two "oh my God, it was a dream" style scares. These come in rapid succession and do nothing but undermine the sense of closure and make the previous hour or so of the flick seem slightly irrelevant. I don't pretend what was going through the mind of the filmmakers, but I suspect they've come to believe – as nearly every horror filmmaker seems to these days – that you film is incomplete without a "twist." Problem is that this twist, like so many of the oh-so-surprising endings one sees these days, seems tacked on. The only way it can keep the story going is to basically throw out the rules we've been playing along with and force the story to trudge forward a few more steps. The result, rather than being surprising or frightening, is often frustrating. I'm not against twist endings, but they aren't really twist endings unless the new development stems in a logical, but unexpected, way from the existing information the viewers have. Slamming extra action on to the ass end of your plot isn't the same thing. In this case, it takes what would be a fun and clever flick and ends it on a WTF note from which the viewing experience cannot recover.

So here's my official recommendation, go ahead and check out The Ghost of Mae Nak. Enjoy the real story, and when the movies first ending – don't worry, you won't miss it – shows up, stop the DVD and ensure yourself a pleasing viewing experience. There's a good ending inside The Ghost of Mae Nak, you've just got to catch it.