Thursday, May 29, 2008

Stuff: A Defense of Torture Porn – Part 4: If the Screaming of the Tortured Is Too Loud, You're Too Old

Before we launch into this, the last of my series of posts dedicated to the defense of the horror subgenre oft dubbed "torture porn," I think that I should give you a peek behind the curtains and reveal a little about the creative processes behind ANTSS.

If other bloggers were to launch on an extended series of posts about what is possibly the most controversial development in the genre in the last decade (second only to the fast zombie versus slow zombie debate) they would do a considerable amount of prep. They'd re-watch essential films, gather expert opinions, reread key splatter-punk short stories and novels, find historical precedents, maybe do some shadowboxing and windsprints. They'd be sure to stretch so they didn't pull a hammy. Then, limber and brim-full of learnin', they'd outline their argument, carefully draft and revise their posts, consider possible criticisms and answer or incorporate them.

But that's not how we do it here at ANTSS. Instead, I read a roundtable on the LOTTD blog and said to myself, "I've got some opinions about this issue. I should just write them down. No forethought, no research, no draft: just write it all out." And I did. And here we are, three posts and a tub-full of verbiage later. Problem with this fire from the hip methodology of mine is that it means some really half-baked concepts get pushed into the marketplace of blog ideas without diligent product testing and a full QC review.

Now, as I reach the end of the series, the feedback I've been receiving shows me that some of the theories I've advanced about "torture porn," specifically some of the criteria in my definition, just don't stand up under close scrutiny. So, like all good bloggers, I'm going to simply cover my lack of thought by doubling the energy of my defense.

I kid.

Instead, I'm going to do something a little different. For this final entry, I'm going to carry out the last bit of my series – discussing the final two points of my proposed definition. I'll tighten it up a bit for space considerations, but I'll finish what I've started. Then, when I'm done, I'm going to switch gears and eat a big ol' heaping plate of crow. MMmmmm. Crow. What I'll do is bring up some of the most important criticism of the series and either attempt to expand or clarify my explanation to account for the feedback or simply point out that the critic is correct and admit that I don't have a good answer for them.

Sound like a plan? Okay. Let's put the last two criteria to rest, shall we.

The last two crucial aspects of torture porn are:
4. Self-aware earnestness.
5. A hyper-contemporary political outlook.

Of the two, I believe the first requires the least explanation. Like so much cinema after the post-Taratino indie film boom, torture porn flicks are dense with allusions, meta-references, in-jokes, and fan-service. However, in contrast to meta-horror like Scream or Behind the Mask, torture porn is relentlessly earnest.

We could spend several entries chasing down instances of the self-aware postmodern techniques in torture porn, so let's just pull out some from a single flick. For genre fans, Hostel 2 cast the director of Cannibal Holocaust as a fastidious, Hannibal-Lecter-style cannibal. It includes a visual homage to Blood Sucking Freaks in the death of Weinerdog, a scene that also drops a historical allusion to alleged mass-murderer Elizabeth Bathroy. For fans of the series, the film includes a subtle joke about the means used to lure the victims of the first film to the Hunt Club's hometown. (If you missed it, one of the women in Hostel 2 asks if Slovakia was the site of recent war: something that was told to the boys of the first film to convince them that the male to female ratio was wildly imbalanced in their favor. The siren that lures the girls to their doom states, correctly, that there hasn't been warfare in the country since WWII.) Also, answering charges that he used female nudity gratuitously, Roth placed a shot of a detailed portrait of an impressively-sized penis in the flick.

We could go on with this game (we haven't even broached the issue of Saw's weird, looping narrative), but I think we've established the principle. Torture porn is often allusive, playfully self-referential, even outright goofy (for example, the adoption of the Internet meme "It's a trap" for the tagline of Saw IV). Charges that such films are tediously humorless, stupidly linear, and single-mindedly realistic is a serious mischaracterization. Now, obviously, trying to be humorous, even darkly humorous, isn't the same thing as actually being funny and the charge that Roth simply isn't as funny as he thinks is nothing I can defend against. Although if you think his efforts at humor in things like Hostel 2 are heavy-handed, watch Cabin Fever. It'll make the head-as-footie-ball scene look like Oscar Wilde-grade wit.

The sense that these films more monochromatic, more focused and "real" than they actually are comes from the fact that, in the end, no matter how strange or tricky they may get, they are also earnest. Viewers aren't supposed to laugh off the pain and suffering they see on screen. It hits viewers in the gut and knowing that, for example, a certain torture technique is an allusion to an obscure 70s grindhouse flick doesn't make it any more pleasant to watch. In torture porn, pain and fear are serious stuff.

This earnestness is the source of torture porn's controversial moral ambiguity. Unlike so many horror flicks, torture porn doesn't have an easy moral escape hatch for its grim depictions of violence. Classic horror's reliance on the supernatural and, later, on monster-as-moral-lesson plots ("Don't play God, Doctor!") ensured filmmakers always had a Get Out of Responsibility free card in their pockets. Exploitation cinema retro-ists can appeal to camp irrelevance. A soft-core movie about Nazi torture sex camps? It isn't really objectionable – it's camp! Exploitation flicks also find cover under the defense that it is supposed to be objectionable. Button pushing is often given as a self-justifying goal. The beauty of this is it turns the conversation away from moral issue ("Is it really okay to trivialize the Holocaust just to make a sleazy T&A flick?") and makes it an abstract intellectual game ("The taboo busting nature of this difficult cinema that isn't afraid to get blood on its hands . . ."). The slashers, to which torture porn is most often compared, pulled a similar trick by quickly lapsing into self-parody. The films' dangerous elements sound became a fairly mundane set of narrative rules and all that was left was to chart progress in the terms of the relative creativity of kill scenes. The slasher villains became supernatural, their plots became formally rigorous, and the films became more and more ostentatiously ironic or repetitive; e.g., "Jason in Space!" "D&D in Freddy's Dream Dungeon," or "Yet Another Family Dinner with the Leatherfaces."

Torture porn has not yet taken either of these outs. Though that's a blessing and a curse. The issue with torture porn is that it has, in my opinion, never forcibly or successfully addressed the morality of its use of violence. In Hostel, which most directly addresses the issue of using torture for entertainment, the filmmaker practices the moral detachment mentioned in the opening post. Roth simply abdicates the responsibility to the view. In Saw the increased focus on the messianic ideology of Jigsaw is, perhaps, supposed to justify the suffering we watch. However, Jigsaw's philosophy in simply nuts and it is unclear just how much we're supposed to take it as a genuine justification. It is a profoundly unsatisfying a moral excuse. It is possible that this is the great Catch-22 of torture porn: it may have found a topic that can't be discussed artistically without lapsing into unjustifiable exploitation and brutality. Who knows?

The final criteria for torture porn is a post-1960s/70s political outlook. Torture porn is a product of millennial culture. Hostel is overtly global and concerned with anti-globalism insomuch as the film dramatizes a culture were the market seems to provide the sole measure of right and wrong. Saw has slowly built up a sort of post-liberal ideology (though, as I've said, it's not always clear how seriously we're supposed to take it) that resembles the bizarre Zen fascism of the guys from Fight Club. The conflicts so crucial to horror films since the 1970s are simply not that crucial. Identity politics (the sexual politics of slasher flicks, the monsterization of homosexuality) are simply not all that important to torture porn. Hostel features a gay torturer, but both Hostel and Hostel 2 feature gay protagonists and the later makes the heterosexuality of its chief villains part of the plot. For all of Jigsaw's vaguely religious overtones and somewhat conservative moral code (he's apparently really against adultery, for example), identity issues aren't moral issues for him. That is to say, he never goes after anybody because they're gay or black or a woman. Religion, in either villainous or heroic representations, was another big issue for horror flicks. It is remarkably absent from torture porn. Jigsaw seems to be the founder of his own secular cult of personality and the villains and protagonists of Hostel, even the Americans, seem to be at home in a modern secular Europe. (You could argue that there's a strong Holocaust theme running through the Hostel flicks, and I'd agree with you; but that's a topic for another time.) Even traditional liberal and conservative positions get jumbled about. In Hostel, for example, it isn't clear exactly what were supposed to make of the victims' earlier visit to a legal brothel. Are we being told that all flesh peddling in morally equivalent? Are we being lectured about using desire as our chief moral guide? Linking exploitation of sort the Hunt Club practices and legalized prostitution is a notably moralistic note strike. In Saw, Jigsaw's person-by-person approach to moral education assume personal responsibility is the only significant factor in a person's moral development. He has no time for sociological arguments about poverty, class, or race. People do bad things and he gives them a do-or-die chance to get their crap together. His stance is all the more stark for being contrasted to the generic "just want to help people" liberalism of his social worker wife. Torture porn's contemporary outlook contributes, I think, to the poor reception of torture porn among many blog critics. Not only are the films extreme and visceral, to older critics used to different set of ideological assumptions, they appear nihilistic.

Whew. There we go. Ultimately, what I'm trying to argue is torture porn, if it does truly exist as a genre, is being greatly mischaracterized. Critics have argued that it consists of "flat" films notable only for their dogged adherence to a stylistically inert realism. I make no claims for the genre's inherent greatness. But, by looking at two of the most accepted example of the genre, I hope I've made the case that there is considerably more going on then critics of the genre care to admit. The films can be stylistically advanced, morally complicated dark fantasies that help us struggle with modern anxieties and ideas. I'd be the first to admit that, so far, films like Hostel and Saw have achieved more technically than they have intellectually. Hostel never fully owns the moral dilemma at its core and Saw has put forth a confused and somewhat incomprehensible solution to moral problems of torture porn. Still, even on a cursory look, they reveal far more than straw man characterizations allow. Torture porn is the most significant horror development in decades. I think blog critics and other fans of horror owe it to themselves and the genre as a whole to honestly and seriously consider its promise and limitations.

Now, who wants crow?

The first serious criticism of this series that I must address comes from Screamin' Sean Collins. Screamin' Sean suggests that I've used circular logic in constructing my definition of torture porn. Basically, I picked a tiny sample size of movies that justified criteria in my definition. Then I used the existence of that same criteria in the films I selected as proof of the correctness of my definition.

First, in my defense, the reason I focused on Hostel and Saw is that they seem to be the only two franchises everybody agrees upon. I did leave the possibility open to other flicks, even non-horror films, being included.

That said, I think he's correct. If I had undertaken a serious effort to create a comprehensive canon of torture porn films, I think we'd be looking at a very different definition of torture porn. I suspect that I would be forced to drop or seriously alter the last criteria. Certainly Touristas partakes in some of the anti-globalization theme Hostel does; but Audition has a good old "battle of the sexes" theme going on. Girl Next Door deconstructs the myth of American innocence, but gender politics are also central to it.

Anyway, I recognize now that limiting the scope tailored the response to a high degree. I still think many of my criteria would stand and expansion of the films under review, but I am certain I'd have to revise my definition.

I also think that somebody needs to theorize two types of torture porn: one is a subgenre and the other is a specific approach to material. This would help explain torture porn outside of a horror context. For example, there may be torture porn in 24, but I don't think most fans of the show would argue that the whole show is, itself, torture porn. I didn't make that leap here because I limited myself to torture porn as a horror subgenre. Still, there's more thinking to be done there.

Sean's criticism leads to an import objection raise by ANTSS regular Screamin' Spacey. Spacejack doubted my contention that Hostel and Saw were overtly political. He agrees that there's themes regarding the treatment of people as commodities and whatnot, but he doesn't feel their explicit enough to call them political themes and he especially things Jigsaw's ideology is so tangled and crazy that it doesn't amount to much in the way of a political ideology.

I see Spacejack's point. To reiterate, I'd probably have to reconsider that criteria if I add more flicks to the canon. Still, I perhaps should have avoided using terms like "overt." I think there's something interesting going on with the themes addressed in these films, but "political" does make it sound like it is something spelled-out and explicit. If I had it to do over, I'd rethink that criteria.

Another interesting criticism came from Matt M., who left a comment on Screamin' Sean's blog. Matt agreed with the idea that torture porn was not primarily realistic, but questioned my characterization of the visual style of torture porn. Connecting the visual style of Hostel and Saw to Se7en works, but what about films like Wolf Creek or, and this is my example, the faux-doc Poughkeepsie Tapes? Some arguable examples torture porn (though I don't think Wolf Creek counts – but still, it is arguable) clearly don't have the lush, polished disarray of a pseudo-Fincher flick.

This was a good point and one I must admit I didn't have an answer to. The solution may have been brought to my attention by ANTSS commentator Bruce. He pointed me to the Umberto Eco's Travels in Hyperreality which greatly expands the notion of the hyperreal by simplifying the idea to its essence: taking the strategies of presenting the real and emphasizing them to make something more-real-than-real. I'm not completely ready to say this answers Matt's concerns as I haven't read Eco in a dog's age. Even if it does answer Matt's criticism, his issue with my linking the Fincher look to the entire genre of torture porn is a point well taken. My characterization was an over-generalization based on the fact that I used too small a sample size.

I'm sure others have serious criticisms that are worthy of close consideration. Please, send 'em along. But, Screamers and Screamettes, I'm going to close out this series here. Thanks for indulging me. Stay classy.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Books: Distilled spirits.

In Heart-Shaped Box, author Joe Hill follows the misadventures of an aging former rock star whose life goes kaput when he purchases a ghost over the Internet. But why just read about it when you can live the adventure?

Screamers and Screamettes, I present Ghost In a Bottle: The one-stop-shop for your spectral-retail needs.

From a recent article on this unique start-up:

John Deese said he has ghosts trapped in bottles.

“This was actually the first one that was caught, in Decatur County, Ga., in an old farmhouse,” Desse said, showing off one ghost in a bottle.

While Deese said he contracts with professional ghost catchers around the country and that it’s the ghost catchers who actually stuff the phantasms into a bottle, he wouldn’t elaborate on exactly how the ghosts get into the bottles.

“Well, if you went to KFC, you wouldn't ask for secret recipe,” Deese said. “They’ll go in and catch them from haunted establishments, cars, hotels, maybe even graveyards.”

Whether supernatural or just a spooky novelty, the ghosts in bottles come with a warning -- open at your own risk.

“Some people will open the bottle and say they don’t get results and it’s just a fun conversation piece. Others say, ‘There’s strange things happening in my house. Where're my car keys? Where's the remote to the TV?” Deese said. “The ghost in the bottle is more toward Casper the Friendly Ghost than the Exorcist. We're kind of in the middle.”

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Stuff: A Defense of Torture Porn – Part 3: The Infernal Machine

To recap the previous entry, I attempted a shot at defining what makes something torture porn. Though I imagine my jerry-rigged set of subgenre tags leaves much to be desired, we've got to proceed from somewhere, so I'll continue to reference my five basic criteria:

1. A strictly non-supernatural outlook emphasizing human agents
2. A hyper-realistic visual look
3. The dramatization of paranoid helplessness
4. Self-aware earnestness
5. Overtly political post-Clinton outlook

This entry will focus on the first three criteria in an effort to answer the charges that torture porn is inherently uncreative, senseless, and un-artistic.

Some critics maintain that the issue with torture porn isn't the level of violence, but the fact that torture porn is allegedly an artistic dead-end. Critics claim these flicks place a premium on the realistic representation of pain and suffering, the ultimate goal of which is the evocation of an automatic physical response. These flicks exist to show hurting in order to kick in a primal fight-or-flight response. At its most elaborate and thoughtful, this criticism takes a form I'm going to call "High Horrorism."

High Horrorism is more of a stance towards horror than a critical orthodoxy, so trying to pin down some magic list of tenets for the approach would be impossible. Still, I think you can capture a sense of the High Horrorist ethos in broad outline. High Horrorism is the creative flipping of Victorian horror norms. At its center is an early 20th century psychological concept: the uncanny. The uncanny was first proposed as a literary concept by Ernst Jentsch, who in 1906 used it specifically to describe "doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might be, in fact, animate." In 1916 Freud expanded the concept to include notion of the familiar that is unfamiliar. He specifically focused on uncanny repetition: doubles, random numbers that keep popping up, that sort of thing. High Horrorism has expanded this concept even further defining it broadly as, with all apologies to Led Zeppelin, "what should never be." Real horror, as opposed to an unthinking visceral response to shock, is pondering the depthless void that opens up when one is confronted with the impossible that is. A strong line of the High Horror aesthetic traces from the works of the Romantics (Shelley, Hoffmann: whose story inspired the coining of the term "uncanny," Poe) to the Victorians (Stoker, Blackwood) on through to the last significant gasp of literary High Horrorism: the early Moderns (M.R. James, the ghost stories of Henry James, Lovecraft). High Horror tends to run towards the supernatural, the stylish, the inexplicable, and the abstract. Horror is, in some ways, the opposite of the real. To make the impossible possible becomes the goal of the horror writer and that is best done through a combination of stylish pyrotechnics and heavy use of symbolism. Horror is a break in real: it is never realistic. Like their Victorian predecessors, High Horrorism is still obsessed with sex, deviance, and the fluidity of identity politics; though the influence of Modernism – through Freud and the twin James's – flips the script and tends to view these suppressed forces as something in need of liberation or exploration.

For proponents of High Horrorism, torture porn fails on several levels. First, relentless realism is the bane of true terror. Realism creates works that are flat. The terror they evoke is pre-intellectual, readily explicable, and dissipates as soon as it is understood. Torture porn, they say, can't haunt your dreams. You need proper ghosts for that. Torture porn is also lacking in valuable symbolism. Torture is torture. It doesn't appeal to your deeper, hidden anxieties and fears. It doesn't explore the dark recesses of sexuality or identity. It is what it is. Finally, torture porn is small potatoes compared to the "unnamable" horrors that are the stock and trade of High Horror. The suffering of single individuals, while repugnant and morally revolting, is nothing compared to the revelation of a vast and cruel void over which all life teeters.

These criticisms are not entirely without merit insomuch as they rightly pinpoint the strength and artistic value of High Horror. High Horror has a rich history and continues to be a well-spring of important genre work. Furthermore, I agree that a significant amount of the power torture porn has is invested in the fact that human suffering evokes an immediate and powerful response the precedes intellectualization. That seem undeniable to me. However, the binary thinking that would hold High Horror up as the superior opposite of torture porn doesn't work. Mainly due to the fact that High Horrorists' characterizations of torture porn is almost entirely incorrect.

The first three criteria of torture porn would seem to be the most self-explanatory, but they also seem to me to be the least acknowledged. Taken together, our first three criteria amount to this: torture porn is not, in method or in aim, realistic. It is a fantasy. It represents a nightmare vision of the world to an audience that has, by and far, simply outgrown the psychological models and social preoccupations of the High Horror generation. With the taboos of Victorianism and Modernism packaged and sold as entertainment, the dark and secret places of High Horror have become an amusement park. Psychological depth is now leveled and medicated (what Freud is to High Horror, Zoloft is for the torture porn set). We no longer explore the jungles of our psyche; we just pave them over. The void that so terrified Victorians and their intellectual descendents is now the norm: a secular scientific mindset tells that a vast and cold universe that mocks the scale of humanity is, in fact, the reasonable way to look at things. It's Cthulhu's universe; we just live in it. Modern creators of horror and their latest generation of fans know the uncanny too well. They live there.

First, let me defend my claim that torture porn is fantasy by focusing on the visual style that has become torture porn's most distinctive trait. The look of torture porn is not realistic, but hyper-realistic. It is a highly artificial approach that takes the trappings of realism and blows them all out of proportion. The result is a lavish, over-stuffed look – most often taking an archetypal image and stuffing it to the breaking point. This is most apparent in the dungeon settings of the two Hostel flicks and the bathroom set of the first Saw. Both sets are not just dirty, but absolutely coated in grime and slime. One imagines you could get tetanus of the eyeball just from looking at them. But neither represents what (sadly) we know torture looks like. Real torture, when governments undertake it, is conducted not in sewers, but in relatively orderly places that look disconcertingly like hospitals. Why leave a filthy crime scene behind? Mud and crud tends to trap potential clues like hair, foot and fingerprints, and so on. The answer, of course, is that these aren't "real." They visually represent the feelings the idea of torture evokes. Men in rubber aprons, faces hid behind monstrous brass and steel facemasks, power tools inexplicably left to rust (despite the fact that they are supposedly the property of an elite club of super rich people) – it all suggests the moral, spiritual, ethical decay of what's happening. The whole visual approach adopted by Roth and Wan is not realistic some much as it represents the typical strategies of film realism – a little grime here, some busted glass there – and invests it with symbolic purpose. The very fabric of their films' worlds reflects the mental state and fate of their characters.

As a historical aside, despite the roots of torture porn going back to exploitation cinema, I think the visual style owes much to the high-gloss, high-res squalor of David Fincher's Se7en. The home set of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is another influence, but it lacks the finish of Fincher's flick. Whatever debts torture porn directors owe to grindhouse cinema, it is not the source of their visual style.

If you had to pick an iconic symbol for this visual approach, it would be the surreal and absurd death raps of the Saw. Jigsaw's various devices are more than just traps, they are over-the-top representations of brutality. Where a few levers and screws would do, Jigsaw's machines are jumbles of inexplicable gears and spikes, covered in grease with illegible meters studding them. The clank and grind like they might, at any second, fall apart on their own. They are also always absurdly outsized. In the first Saw, one wonders how it is possible that the fairly pint-sized Amanda could ever hold up the contraption she's forced to wear, let alone escape from it. In their absurd machininess, Jigsaw's traps resemble the Romanticized steam-and-gear devices worshiped by streampunk types, only in this case we've got a nightmare vision of technology instead of a semi-utopian fantasy of human invention. (The Hostel equivalent of this is, I think, the mysterious and evocative device that appeared in the marketing, notably on the DVD box-cover. Monumental, black, sinister, vaguely insect-like: though a real object, the visual presentation made it a repository for meaning and fear. It is, by the way, a towel clamp and is generally used for holding back medical curtains.)

Jigsaw's traps bring us to the first and third criteria. They are visual metaphors for a paranoid helplessness that is to torture porn what the inexplicable void is High Horror. The old boogymen of High Horror – sex, human irrationality, the primitive self – just don't seem that scary anymore. What is scary is living in a system where all those things, with all their destructive capacities, will be bought and sold, catered too, and encouraged. Long before anybody ends up on a torture table, the characters in torture porn are trapped. Either they are being hunted by an impossibly smart cult of murderous death-trap tinkerers or they have been commoditized and traded on a wired-up global victims market. Ultimately, the only way to survive an encounter with either system is to assimilate into the system. In Saw it means you play by Jigsaw's rules. In Hostel you have to drop enough long green to pay for the privilege of switching positions with your torturer. But, even then, you've done nothing but survive. The overwhelming logic and perfect operation of these systems means that there no way out, no position from within the system that you can fight it or change up the game. It isn't irrational so much as inhumanly rational. It's the modern void: despite all the advances made politically, medically, culturally, and technically, the defining feature of the modern world is exploitation. You're a victim or you're an exploiter.

In torture porn, real horror isn't finding an inexplicable break in the real. In fact, such a break would be liberating as it would imply something greater than the system and the possibility of transcending the system. In torture porn the horror is the real. The impossible and the unspeakable are readily available and organized for maximum market efficiency. All you need is the scratch. Compared to all-consuming logic of power and victimization, Cthulhu is kind of a wuss.

It should be pointed out that this horrific vision of inescapable fate is not to be taken as an actual diagnosis capitalism, neo-conservatism, or any other "-ism." Though Roth and the crew behind Saw have, I'm sure, opinions on globalism and the like, these are not primarily works of propaganda. They are allegories that point to no specific analog. In real life, we see these systems everywhere and are aware, on some level, that we are morally implicated in them. We buy some jeans and are vaguely understand that we might be somehow complicit in truly horrific behavior. Saw and Hostel are symbolic moral labs were we can mentally explore those notions' worst extremes. (This extends, I believe to the behavior of watching violence for entertainment purposes, but we'll talk about that next time).

Okay. That's enough of that. One more to go, then we'll return to our regularly scheduled, review-centric horror blogging. Can you dig it?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Stuff: A Defense of Torture Porn – Part 2: What Are You Talkin' About?

First, I'd like to thank everybody who took time to comment on the previous post. I'd especially like to thank Sean, who took my misreading of his definition of torture porn with a level of friendliness and class that is often sadly lacking on the Internets these days. In recognition of his utter and complete classiness, ANTSS would like to take this moment to officially append the honorific Screamin' before his name. Arise Screamin' Sean. One of us! One of us!

Alright. Back to business.

I start this post somewhat at a loss. In the previous post, I dismissed the notion that there was such a thing as torture porn. You, dearest reader, could be forgiven for wondering what exactly we still have to talk about. Or, even, why I continued to use the term "torture porn" in the title. How can I propose to defend something that doesn't exist?

Before we go any further then, let's define our terms. This is a horror blog, so I'm going to be talking mostly about horror films. I'm going to continue to use torture porn as the term for a subgenre of horror film. I'm also going to set a sort of canon. I believe that there are only two significant film franchises that everybody agrees belong to the torture porn genre: Saw and Hostel.

To make the genre tag meaningful, I'm going to propose a handful of stylistic and elements that I believe genuinely tie these films together:

1. Torture porn is strictly materialistic and humanistic in outlook: These films do not rely on supernatural elements or non-human agents to justify their set-ups or deliver their shocks. But this is not the same thing as saying that they are realistic. A point we'll get to later.

2. Torture porn relies on a hyper-realistic visual style: These films have a gritty, more-real-than-real look that emphasizes a sort of lavish squalor. Critics often mistake this for "gritty realism," but it is, in fact, an elaborately artificial approach that has its roots not in horror genre pictures, but mainstream crossover works.

3. Torture porn dramatizes paranoid helplessness: This is somewhat clumsy, but it is as close as we can get to the common "there's torture" while actually fitting the plots of the movies under discussion. The amount of torture in any given "torture porn" film is pretty small. What the majority of these films show is people slowly, seemingly inevitably, heading towards a horrible fate. I'd argue that, rather than the torture, is the source of their impact.

4. Torture porn's primary tone is one of self-aware earnestness: Unlike its most immediate predecessors, the exploitation cinema of the 1970s and the slasher flicks of the 1980s, torture porn is meta (like so much post-Taratino genre cinema, it is awash in allusions and references) but un-ironic (despite its hyper-referential nature, it is not meant to mainly be a giant in-joke for genre fans). This self-awareness means that these flicks also take the relationship between the viewer and the film seriously, something utterly lacking from the pandering of exploitation cinema or the winking irrelevance of slasher flicks.

5. Torture porn is often overtly political, but removed from 1960s/1970s style liberalism: Both Saw and Hostel wear their politics on their sleeves. The former has increasingly given over screen-time to the mystical libertarian philosophizing of Jigsaw, the Ron Paul of cinematic serial killers. Hostel, which muddled through several intertwined themes in the first film, focused it anti-globalization message in the second flick. What's interesting about these flicks is that they take for granted the fights older critics, especially those raised on horror from the 1960s to the 1980s, continue to fight: identity politics, liberal/conservative divisions, religion versus freethinking. Torture porn is decidedly modern. While exploitation and slasher cinema had its last gasp in the Clintonian Era (with Tarantino and Scream), torture porn represents the cloudy morality, global scope, and paranoia of the now – an era of Bush's Wars and a Democratic candidate who openly praises Reagan.

Arguably, other horror films belong in the canon. The critical and popular bomb Captivity was deliberately TP'ed-up in an effort to cash in on the alleged popularity of the hot new subgenre. It was so completely rejected by fans and foes alike that it would be hard to justify discussing it in the context of trying to discover what makes torture porn so popular. Captivity suggests the premise is false: it isn't very popular. Faux snuff like The Poughkeepsie Tapes and August Underground hit many of the criteria, though I have doubts about them meeting the second criteria. One could also make a solid argument for Girl Next Door, the direct to DVD adaptation of the Jack Ketchum book of the same name, and the Japanese shocker Audition. But, as I mentioned in my previous post, these are fairly cult-grade flicks. They hardly represent some flood of torture porn into the mainstream. I'm sure there are other horror flicks I'm forgetting, but I think this is a suitable framework for thinking about these flicks for now.

(As an aside, I feel these distinctions provide some useful purchase on non-horror flicks as well. The brutality of 24 doesn't really fit the template because it doesn't fit our third criteria. The terror suspect's fate simply isn't that important and the crucial paranoid helplessness of the victim is never the point. Instead, the will-he/won't-he of the torturer is the crucial point. The Passion of the Christ wouldn't count as torture porn because it fails to meet the first criteria. Regardless of whether or not one believes in Christian theological doctrine, the movie exists in a dramatic world where, for example, mystical connections like the rending of the curtain in the Temple and Satan are real. However, this is a horror blog and I leave non-genre connections and explorations to somebody else.)

Okay. That's enough for now. Personally I'm no big fan of horror bloggers just spinnin' their wheels, fill-auss-o-phizin' like we're more than hobbyists. If I was reading somebody else's blog, I'd get bored just about here. So, we're going to shut this down at this point. The next installment of this series will focus on the criticisms of "realism" in torture porn. Don't miss it. I'm going totally cop English major tude and dub something "High Horrorism" in tribute to "High Modernism." It will be ostentatiously pretentious. Be there.

Books: These sharks aren't going to get larger, smarter, and more lethal by themselves.

Where would horror be without the mad scientist? We'd have no Frankenstein's monster. Godzilla would be pointlessly unstoppable. The Invisible Man would be tediously opaque. No giant insect swarms would threaten the heartland. 28 Days Later would be about a charming, but otherwise uninteresting bike messenger going about his daily routine.

Who brings extinct and absurdly dangerous animals back to life through the magic of cloning? Who makes sexy jungle-cat women? Who is there to tell us when humanity is simply too degenerate to survive?

Mad scientists, that's who!

Daniel H. Wilson and Anna C. Long's light and loving tribute to this crackpot stalwart of the Evil Community, the Mad Scientist, has a great feature that is one of those "of course, why didn't I think of that" concepts. After providing dryly tongue-in-cheek thumbnail sketches of a variety of fictional and historical scientific figures, the authors diagnose them using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition Text Revision or DSM-IV-TR, as those in the head-shrinking game call it.

Aside from a clever way to tackle fictional characters, the analysis summaries sometimes provide humor by juxtaposing the emotionless jargon of the psych-biz with the over-the-top wackiness of these characters. For example, Dr. No's overall assessment read "serious impairment: murderous tendencies; flat affect; no friends." Seth Brundel of The Fly fame is described as having a "unique medical condition: DNA combined with housefly DNA." One imagines med students looking at a chart and nodding, "Yes, I see. Housefly. Interesting."

The book treads a little lighter when dealing with historical figures. It avoids some obvious candidates, most notably Josef Mangele. The authors assumed, correctly I'd wager, that the comedic tone of the book would simply be overpowered if one had to tackle the grim brutality of Mengele's particular brand of mad science. There's also the question of whether it is cool to put out a psychological diagnosis for a real human in the same way you'd do it for a fictional figure. If the book were more serious about its approach, one could take issue. As it is, though, it is really too much of good-natured and slight project to be taken so seriously.

Look for The Mad Scientist Hall of Fame at your local vendor of readable materials. Expect a 14 Washingtons price tag and the Citadel Press logo on the spine.

The image is from a t-shirt from artist Joshua Kemble. If you want to rock the League on your torso, you can secure yourself on the tees at Threadless.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Stuff: A Defense of Torture Porn – Part 1: The Genre That Wasn't

If there is a JLA of horror-bloggers with classic taste and post-grad approaches to film criticism, it is probably the League of Tana Tea Drinkers. The LoTTD regularly gets together to shoot the shit about horror tropes and trends. If you're interested in thoughtful blogging about horror, usually horror from the Universal Age to the 1980s, then they are well worth checking out.

Recently the august members of the League took up the not-so-burning issue of "torture porn," the supposedly mainstreamed horror subgenre known in the critical and fan press primarily for its extensive images of human suffering. The League's reactions were officially mixed; but even those with no particular issue against the conceptual category seemed to, at best, damn it with faint praise.

What makes this almost unanimous reaction of condemnation, be it faintly dismissive or stridently disgusted, all the more interesting is that, by their own admission, none of the League seem to be able to pin down the subgenre or point to unique characteristics.

The first blogger to sound off brings up that narratives of brutal human suffering, often for the flimsiest or least palatable reasons, are fairly common in the Western artistic tradition. He sites Biblical tales, such as the beheading of John the Baptist, and Shakespearian scenes. He misses Dante's Inferno, perhaps the most extended literary riff on torture and suffering ever committed to paper, but his point is firmly made: extended and graphic takes on human torture are nothing new.

To hammer the point home, the next League member lays out a wonderful list of torture-centric flicks. Running from the 1930s to the 1960s, the mad genius behind Blogue Macabre drops the titles of a handful of notable horror films, all of which use torture as an important narrative element. He could have gone even further back. Part of the plot of the silent film Waxworks hinges on the torture techniques of Ivan the Terrible. Still, keeping it within the parameters he discusses, the blogger makes his point. Is the alleged subgenre in question is actually something new under the sun?

(Before we get of the criticism of the second blogger, I think there is something worth noting about the use of the term "classic horror." The period this initial critic pulls titles from extends nearly three decades: the 1930s to the 1960s. Later, another round-table participant will push the bar to include grindhouse exploitation cinema into the realm of worthies. Finally, the term "classic" will get appended to 1980s slasher flicks. The classic period of horror, with all the connotations of quality and cultural worth the term "classic" implies, would seem to run from the birth of the Universal monsters up through the late '80s, when the slasher phenomenon would enter a self-parodying doldrums. In short, everything is a classic except for what is happening right now.)

For all this exploration of the roots of torture porn, none of the critics ever successfully try to map out the genre they're critiquing. The Saw and Hostel franchises are mentioned repeatedly. The Hills Have Eyes, presumably the remake, is mentioned once, though where the extended torture scene in that film is eludes me at the moment. The neo-slashers Wolf Creek and High Tension get name-checked, though the later seems like a real stretch to me as we get none of the extended and focused abuse that supposedly marks the genre. Turistas was marketed as a tropical Hostel, though many viewers (like ANTSS favorite Mermaid Heather) would doubt the appropriateness of the label. The Devils Rejects, that bizarre splatter-Western-road-crime flick, has moments of great tension (the psycho-sexual harassment of the women at the motel) but nothing approaching the sustained physical abuse of Hostel. You certainly wouldn't say that scene was the central point of the flick.

Even given the problems with the canon as constructed here, at least there's a real effort here. Several of the critics dismiss the films at hand without having seen them. One of the critics freely admits that he's never seen any of the alleged "torture porn" films (he openly bases his critique on the marketing and second-hand buzz of the flicks and, in my book, gets full points for putting all his cards on the table) and another seems to take her refusal to actually watch the films she's critiquing as matter of pride.

Here's my question: if extreme violence and torture are not new and nobody can point to a body of works that show enough common traits to lump them together in any meaningful way, then what the hell are we all talking about?

The truth about the torture porn genre is that it simply doesn't exist.

We have, at most, two franchises that everyone can agree on: Hostel and Saw. Of those two, Hostel's second outing was a mediocre box-office performer. Only Saw, which has successfully made itself into a Halloween ritual for teens, continues to reliably bring in the dough. And, it should be noted, that the vast majority of the violence in the Saw flicks is not, by most standard definitions, torture. The injuries and deaths inflicted upon the victims in Saw are usually self-inflicted, most often through a relatively fast acting device, and are acts of psychopathically misguided benevolence. All the other nominees for the genre are questionable, flops, or so obscure that nobody gives a crap. It is a stretch to call this a genre. Compare it to, say, the two genuinely significant subgenre's of the '90s and double-aughts – J-horror remakes and zombie flicks – and we're talking about an incredibly insignificant portion of the horror bandwidth.

To complicate matters, the term itself was not coined to meaningfully identify a subgenre of horror. The credit for this muddled term goes to New York Magazine reviewer David Edelstein, who entitled his 2006 film think-piece "Now Playing at Your Local Mutliplex: Torture Porn." Edelstein certainly focuses on horror flicks like Hostel and the like, but it should also be noted that he drops in The Passion of the Christ and Reservoir Dogs. More importantly, the identifying trait of "torture porn" is not that it depicts violence. The kicker is that the makers of these flicks evoke what Will Self calls "moral displacement." Discussing the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs, Self says: "We lose sight of whose exact POV we are inhabiting. The sadist who is doing the torturing? The policeman? The incapacitated accomplice? It is this vacillation in POV that forces the sinister card of complicity upon the viewer. For in such a situation the auteur is either abdicating—or more likely foisting—the moral responsibility for what is being depicted onscreen from himself to the viewer." It is this complicity, which is a morally, aesthetically, and philosophically complicated sticky wicket, that is the key feature of the films Edelstein was designating as torture porn. As a sort of totemic figure, Edelstein evokes "Will Graham in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon—a genius serial-killer tracker because he can walk through grisly crime scenes and project himself into the killers’ heads. He’s both the instrument of justice and the empathic consumer of torture porn."

Edelstein's coinage is a far cry from current, depleted, and somewhat pointless use of the term we find dominating horror debates. I'll borrow the definition of a favorite blogger of mine. Sean Collins writes: "Torture porn" (noun): Horror films in which the physical brutalization of a person or persons, frequently to death and always while somehow immobilized or held captive by the brutalizer or brutalizers, is the primary locus of horror in the film. [Update: Sean Collins has replied to this post and explained some of the important nuances I may have missed in unpacking his definition. Check out the comments section. Thanks Sean!] Let's set aside that this does not, even on a plotting-factual level, describe several of the films labeled torture porn by the folks in the LoTTD round-table. What bothers me more is the "primary locus of horror" part. It takes what was most interesting about Edelstein's original coinage – that it isn't just what we see, but how we see it that is the source of unease – and strips it down to the point of becoming a tautology. The point of the torture porn film is torture because that is the point of a torture porn film. It is this impoverished version of Edelstein's term that helps fuel the most common criticisms of the genre: that the pain is the only point, that they are all the same, and that they sacrifice style and artifice for a relentlessly unaesthetic "realism" in the pursuit of sharpening the impact of the gore. It feeds into the very notion that you could dismiss these films without seeing them because, well, their torture porn, right? You know what you need to know.

As it is used in the horror blog-o-sphere, torture porn is a little more than a slur. It doesn't describe any meaningful subset of films, fails to illuminate any significant feature of the films being discussed, and encourages the off-handed dismissal of the films under consideration.

Whew. Let me rest my fingers a bit. In the next section, coming soon, hopefully, we'll discuss common criticisms of horror porn. You wanna talk about torture porn? Wait until you slog your way through that!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Movies: Cabinessence

Watching Cabin Fever long after seeing director Roth's Hostel mini-franchise take off is a curious experience. First, it gives one a profound notion of just how far Roth has progressed as a director and writer. Second, it points to some stubborn qualities that, since we've seen them appear in three flicks (and even his fake trailer for Grindhouse), we can definitively point to as the limitations of Roth's talents.

Cabin Fever tells the story of a group of highly-grating twenty-somethings who rent a secluded cabin in the unnamed wildness of some meticulously backwater place. After a bit of exposition to establish that these characters have some history together, Roth inflicts them with a particularly nasty flesh-eating virus that not only begins to strip away their flesh, but also makes them victim to an unending barrage of horror film allusions. As the virus gets more bloody and mushy, paranoia sets in and our protagonists turn on one another. This is particularly unfortunate as their rotting condition attracts the attention of the local populace and constabulary, both of which hold remarkably simple, if blunt, views about how public health issues should be handled. Stuck between gun-totting mountain-folk vigilantes and a disease that's part ebola and part Red Death, our heroes find themselves trapped in a bleakly unpromising position.

Cabin Fever is the work of a director who is unusually accomplished on a technical level, but utterly lacking in anything particularly interesting to say or do. CF looks good. Roth suffers from the unfortunate beginner's-notion that simply turning a camera on a pretty lake will give you beautiful shot; but, for the most part, the rich detail that made his two later films so visually arresting is on display. The set design for the titular cabin is packed with fine details and Roth shoots it in such a way that it shifts from generically cheesy to sinisterly claustrophobic. He's also excellent at getting the maximum bang for his buck out of the effects folks. In this we see the foundations of Roth's style.

What Roth has improved on considerably is characterization. When I reviewed Hostel, I opined that the American tourists were annoying enough that they almost justified the existence of snuff-clubs. Compared to the teens in Cabin Fever, the jackass youngsters of Hostel come off like witty/smooth combos of Oscar Wilde and Cary Grant. Watching Roth try to invest the cast of Cabin Fever with some life is painful. For realz. Like reach for the remote and fast forward until we some blood painful. It's debatable if the girls from Hostel 2 are a step backward (though the character work in that flick is, I think, redeemed by his work with the predators, who remain Roth's most interesting characters to date). Still, even the girls of H2 aren't as bile-inducing as this crowd. I should point out that this isn't, I think, the fault of the actors. They've got a script which requires them to act against rotted hobos, extreme skateboarders (in an inadvisable cameo by Roth), and other bizarre non-sequiturs. They're game, but the can't make us give a crap about these thoroughly disposable characters.

What Roth hasn't improved on is controlling his narrative arc. It strikes me that Roth gets a boss idea, figures out how to justify the idea, and then doesn't know how to close the deal. In all three of his films, the trap he sets up from the beginning slowly closes around his characters. The strength of his ideas is that they are built like traps. There's a relentless, unforgiving, mechanical fatedness to his concepts. However, in the last act, one character always suddenly bursts free of the trap and then, adrift, ends up running through a pointless and anti-climactic dénouement. It happens in CF, with a character suddenly running into what I assume are supposed to be comedic scenes, a deer "attack", and other time-padding senselessness. It happens with the looping escape-unescape-escape in Hostel. And it happens with the flatly unfunny close in Hostel 2. In a debut flick you might think this was just lack of experience. But, given the fact that every flick he's done has it (and even the Thanksgiving trailer spins wildly out of control), one has to wonder if he's just blind to the fact that it robs his films of some of their punch.

Should you catch Fever? Pretend you can see me shrug. It is functional flick with some nice gross-out moments and a novel slasher-without-a-slasher feel to it. But fans of Roth's lavish squalor with find that approach still a work in progress here. The film further suffers from the fact the Roth's annoying characters and meandering end make the film's opening and closing a bit of a slog.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Movies: Why are Aussie vacations so darn dangerous?

In a perfect world, Netflix would be able to point you to just about any genre you could think up. No matter how obscure, idiosyncratic, or otherwise uninformative.

For example, one of my co-workers likes watching flicks that feature boarding schools. I don't know why. She didn't go to a boarding school. She doesn't have any kids, let alone any that go to a boarding school. I put it down to her being originally from Massachusetts. But, whatever the reason, she should be able to find movies by asking for "semi-twee boarding school movies." She'd maybe get Dead Poets Society, the History Boys, Cider House Rules, The Emperors Club, and so on. The "semi-twee" would spare her such flicks as Boarding School, the early '80s German sex farce (?), that would come up in a straight out keyword search, but doesn't really have the vaguely gay, emotionally-crippled, school tie aesthetic she's specializing in.

I bring this up because, on this dream Netflix, a search for "monster crocodile flicks based on true stories" would yield you at least two hits: Primeval and Black Water. It's a genre waiting to explode. With a little attention from filmmakers, I think "monster crocodile flicks based on true stories" could be the next "J-horror remakes."

We've already covered Primeval, so today we look at Black Water.

Like the former film, the latter, a small-scale 2008 Aussie creature feature, is based on a true story.

The Real Story

In 2007, an Australian cattle rancher named David George was tossed from his horse. He suffered a blow to the head. In a dazed and semi-concussed state, Georges recovered his horse and mounted up in the hopes that the horse would instinctively ride home.

Instead, the horse lead Georges in an isolated mangrove swamp in the Cape York region. Worse, while staggering about, Georges's horse disturbed a crocodile nest, royally pissing off the resident crocs and their touchy friends.

To escape the enraged lizards, Georges abandoned his horse and quickly scrambled up a mangrove tree. The horse was eaten. The crocs kept Georges treed for an entire week. So he wouldn't fall out of the tree in his weakened state, Georges tied himself to the trunk. Georges later told reporters "Every night I was stalked by two crocs who would sit at the bottom of the tree staring up at me. All I could see was two sets of red eyes below me and all night I had to listen to a big bull croc bellowing a bit further out. I’d yell out at them, ‘I’m not falling out of this tree for you bastards’.”

Eventually, Georges was found and rescued by a helicopter crew who had to drop a rope to him and lift him out of the croc-infested area.

The Film

Despite having a real story as inspiration, Black Water most resembles not the misadventures of David Georges, but rather another recent Aussie flick (itself "based on true story"). Like Wolf Creek, the film follows three young folks on a vacation gone awry. Even the gender mix is the same: two girls, one guy. There's the road movie aspect and the slow-build into that follows our trio through a tourist trap or two. Two of Wolf Creek's minor themes even pop up again: the lush beauty of nature and class of a modern, urban, educated Australia with its much mythologized, wild, primitive fringe. But, instead of a psycho-version of Crocodile Dundee, we get an actual croc filling the role of stalker.

Our film opens with a trio of young vacationers – sisters Grace and Lee, and Grace's boyfriend Adam – saying goodbye to Grace and Lee's mom. We quickly establish that Adam's an office drone, Grace is preggers (but Adam doesn't know), and Lee is the baby of the group. Unlike Wolf Creek, this film doesn't spend a lot of time getting to know these guys. They are meant to be almost generic Everymen and Women. All we need to know about them is that they're essentially nice folks. After a montage scene in a croc farm and a short bar scene in which our heroes decide to take a river tour, we've got our principles in a little motorboat and headed into the mangrove swamp.

Before you can "chunder on a bunyip's budgie smuggler" (as the Australians say), a particularly mean-spirited croc tips over the boat and gobbles-up the guide.

Our lucky threesome scrambles up the nearest mangrove tree. Temporarily safe, the trio assesses their options. They can make a mad lunge for the boat, which floats tantalizingly close to the base of their tree. They can try to use the tangle of mangroves to get free. By hopping from tree to tree, mayhaps they can stay high and dry while reaching terra firma. Or, of course, they can wait for a rescue that may well not be coming. And all the while, as they debate, small splashes and water ripples let them know that the killer croc.

The script is tight and effective. Many Interweb critic-types have opined that the idea of watching three folks get stuck up a tree is tedious. This does the clever script, which makes the most out of a minimal cast and a villain that, Jaws-like, you almost never see, a serious injustice. The characters, while not much deeper than the waist-high swamp water that surrounds them, feel real enough to give the danger their facing some traction. You don't love these poor vacationers, but you don't very well want to see them get torn apart by a crocodile. After a slight drag, necessary to rule out the "let's just sit here" plan, the movie moves on at a nice clip, with our heroes trying outsmart the sinister, seemingly omnipresent croc, or a "pash nut out larrikin" (as the Australians say).

The film looks good. Like Wolf Creek, Black Water is strangely romantic about the natural landscape. The details of the mangrove swamp – from close-ups of its less sinister fauna to cut shots of the way light plays on the swamps inky black water – are loving shot. When I was watching Wolf Creek, I ascribed this to the fact that the filmmaker was a painter prior to picking up the camera. Now I'm thinking that we might be seeing some national tag. Regardless of the origins of this trend, it makes for some odd juxtapositions. Imagine, for example, if somebody shot a Friday the 13th film and was determine to not only kill off campers, but shoot Crystal Lake itself as a beautiful place. It leads to a sort terrible sublime sense of things: nature is overpowering in simultaneously good and bad ways.

The croc, actually played by several different veteran crocodile actors, usually looks great. There's a couple of shots were I think we're dealing with super-imposed images and the result is clunky. I respect the impulse to work with real beasties over CGI or animatronics, but the results occasionally look worse. Gore effects are minimal. For a croc attack pic, it's quite restrained. The film emphasizes tension and suspense over the horror of bloodletting.

In the limited genre of "monster crocodile flicks based on true stories," Black Water towers above the competition. Opening it up to the broader, "alligator/croc rampage" sub-genre and I'd say that Black Water probably ranks in the top ten. As a horror flick in general, I'd say Black Water holds it own. I'd recommend it next time you "come to raw prawn some shonky trackie daks" (as the Australians say).

Monday, May 12, 2008

Books: Ghost on the highway.

The vengeful ghost at the center of Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box isn't the product of a cursed bloodline, a disrespected cemetery, an unfortunately placed Indian burial ground, or any of the many time-tested methods author's deploy for producing spooks. Instead, he's purchased over the Internet. This is, I think, an apt metaphor for Hill's pop culture conscious and leanly modern approach to the age-old traditions of the ghost story: his book is slickly functional, quick, and delivers the goods.

The surly anti-hero of Heart-Shaped Box is Judas Coyne. Judas is a somewhat over-the-hill rock legend. He's living out his post-band years in relative isolation on an upstate New York farm, enjoying the reliable low-yield fame of an icon elder rock statesman and finding physical satisfaction in a steady string of semi-disposable goth nubiles who still seek the orgasmic favors of the failing rock god. His current bedmate is Georgia, a former stripper nearly 30-years Judas's junior. The only other person who shares Judas's bucolic exile is Danny, Judas's sycophantic personal assistant.

One day, Danny receives an unusual email regarding an item up for auction on an eBay-like Internet auction site: a haunted suit. The seller claims that the buyer will get a Western style black suit complete with one ghost. All sales are final. Judas, who collects the creepy detritus of the goth culture that once surrounded him and his band mates (occult books, black magic paraphernalia, a real snuff flick), buys it immediately.

What Judas doesn't know is that the suit is a trap. The suit was sold to him by the sister of a girl named Florida. Florida, nee Anna, was a former groupie who showered Judas with the orgasmic offerings that are the inalienable right of rock stars. When Judas got sick of her mental behavior, he kicked her to the curb and sent her packing. She returned home (to Florida) and, shortly thereafter, killed herself. The sister, vowing revenge, set up Judas to get the ghost. The ghost is the vengeful spirit of Florida's father, a spiritualist and hypnotist who has figured out how to keep his angry soul together after death. Sis and ghost dad have a very personal score to settle with Judas.

After a short build up, Judas's pseudo-family collapses under otherworldly attack and Judas and Georgia hit the road. What follows is a frantic nightmare road-story: Judas and Georgia race to get Florida's sister to call the ghost off, while, relentless and brutal, the ghost of Florida's father gets ever closer.

Hill's debut novel is a shockingly assured performance. His characterizations are economical, but completely effective. Judas is sympathetic, but often a douchebag. Georgia's character starts a cookie-cutter "whore with the heart of gold" stereotype, but is given a depth that makes her something more profound. She reminds me slightly of Angie Dickinson's character Feathers in Hawk's brilliant Rio Bravo: conflicted but strong, good but not innocent. Even bit-part characters, like the brown-nosing Danny, reveal surprising aspects that still feel organic. This attention to detail, the way Hill fleshes out the characters without bogging us down in numbing minutia, is all the more effective for how it weaves into the whole concept of the ghost story. Hill's not so ham-fisted as to make every detail of Judas's backstory relevant to his current conflict, but it is clear that Judas is metaphorically haunted by his past and that his confrontation with the sinister specter that pursues him will also force him to confront how he has contributed to the horror around him.

Hill is a confident storyteller. His pace is quick, but never rushed. He brings a modern and sly sensibility (the characters contact the spirit world through a Oija board and Judas notices that it has "Parker Bros." written on it) to what might, in less competent hands, become a strict exercise in genre-paint-by-numbers. Though he's not reluctant to bring on the gore when he feels it will be effective, Hill gets most of his chills through the skillful creation of surreal imagery. The ghost first appears, for example, as an old man in a dark suit, sitting perfectly still in an antique rocking chair in ill lit hallway of Judas's house. There's no jump-out scares, there's no violent struggle. Just this low key, but clearly out of place figure. Hill remarkably effective with this sort of curious dreadfulness.

The sole complaint I have about the novel has to do with Hill's fidelity to genre trappings. Hill's creativity feels constrained by genre conventions he seems to occasionally go out of his way to honor – as if he didn't want to stray too far off the reservation despite being ready to run. It almost comes too easy to Hill, and as a result, he loses focus and drive near the close. The book ends with some where-are-they-now exposition that almost feels tossed off, as if Hill himself got bored. He doesn't break a sweat and, while you're thoroughly entertained, you feel he could have pushed the envelope. Like Judas's Dodge Charger, it is a nice cruising car, but it's begging to be pushed harder.

But you can't fault a dude for not writing the book he didn't write. As a spookshow thriller, Hill's novel gives all it promises. Heart-Shaped Box, despite its flagging denouement, is a real modern horror classic. It weds old-school horror tropes to a fresh style and makes it look effortless. I can't wait to see what's next.

PS – In accordance with the Joe Hill Review Act of 2006, I am required by law to inform you that Joe Hill is the son of writer Stephen King. So there, I'm compliant.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Music: Songs fit for a King

Here's a curious little tidbit for horror fans. America's top one-man horror franchise empire, Stephen King, wrote up a list of his top 20 favorite songs. Its surprisingly heavy on the country stuff (mostly modern alt-country with a few '70s post-Nashville sound nods), but the list also includes some oddball choices like the Gothic Archies, LCD Soundsystem, and even the '80s hit "Wild Wild West" by the Escape Club. Go fig. Most songs link to audio or video.

So, 20 songs and all you had to do was read one little ol' blog entry. Not a bad way to start your weekend. Enjoy, amigos.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Stuff: Even I, Lucas, have heard the legend of the Fish Man, and I've gone to his music festival too.

The line-up for the annual Siren Festival, Coney Island's summer music blow-out, has been announced. I bring this up because the festival's new event poster features none other than our beloved Creature from the Black Lagoon!

See him? He's there. Click on the image and you'll find him half-hidden behind the Cyclone. He is, by nature, a timid beast.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Movies: What's opera, D. Argento?

The standout image of Argento's Opera is a particularly nasty torture prop that is, perhaps, the most metaphorically freighted bit of slasher tech since Mark Lewis's camera in Peeping Tom. The image is so powerfully stark, S & M chic, and meta that it appears on nearly every poster and box cover for the flick. If you can't make it out in the image above, the brutally low-fi device works thusly: A piece of masking tape, on which the baddie places several needles, is placed under the eye; the result is that an attempt to close the eye results in the needles jabbing the upper eyelid. As the baddie informs his victim, any effort to close your eyes will result in shredding your eyelid.


(Actually, as shown, I'm pretty sure the device wouldn't work. Fitting it to the bottom eyelid would make the needles spread away from the eye. Fitting it right above the cheekbone makes the needles point toward the eye. This, admittedly, would suck, but it wouldn't jab your eyelids. Plant it on the cheekbone and you could blink without ever coming into contact with the needles. Still, in cinematic torture device design, as in gift giving, it is the thought that counts.)

Lest I be accused of making po-mo viewer-response hay out of this, Argento himself admits that this nastiness was inspired by his relationship to his audiences. Argento claims the idea came fairly late in the process of developing the flick. He was working on the film, knew there would be some over the top scenes, and thought that audience members would want to close their eyes at several points in the film. He imagined placing these needle-eye thingies on audience members to keep them looking. Sadly, the law prevented Argento from actually deploying this cinematic innovation and he was forced to settle for using the concept in a purely fictional context. How one suffers for one's art!

This seems to me to be a very European conceit about violently transgressive flicks and the audience for them. For reasons unclear to me, some Euro directors like to think of their films as endurance tests. Metaphorically, Argento wants to torture his audience. I'm reminded of French director Gaspar Noé, who has claimed that he's made films intended to be "universally despised." Noé, in his pandering art house pseudo-provocation Irréversible, actually included frequencies in the soundtrack meant to induce nausea in the audience. The conceit is that the Euro filmmakers are throwing these art bombs into the thick of bourgeois audiences. These thick head cattle-people will, of course, bellow out their rage at having their sensibilities offended. And the artist then takes this bellowing as proof that he's transcended the Victorian values that, somehow, are believed to still dominate society. The films are a test: if you can't take it, you must be some middle-class philistine who "just doesn't get it." Ultimately, this is, of course, a self-serving delusion. The audiences for these flicks want both the extreme horror and the sense that they've somehow transgressed. Like the directors who make them, the audiences for these films are self-selected viewers who want invest these brutal self-flagellations with a sense of intellectual and moral superiority. They've discovered sensations and meanings beyond the mental confines of the rubes that watch mainstream films. Like a whore hired to smack about her john a bit, these directors offer a sense of violation that is, in fact, simply part of transaction between to mutually serving parties. The people supposedly targeted by these flicks won't watch them. Some folks, I reckon, just won't pay to be abused.

The irony is that I too take the needle to the eye trap as a metaphor for Argento's relationship to the audience. Only, for me, I see it as a curiously apt metaphor for why I keep returning to Argento's flicks when he's been so damningly mediocre so many times. As regular readers know, I feel that Argento flirts dangerously with the not-so-coveted title of "Most Overrated Horror Director." Though there are many folks out there with a far greater knowledge of his work than I, what I've seen is wildly uneven in quality. His love of creating visual effects and his almost stubborn refusal to yield anything to cohesive narrative puts Argento into this place where he's either got to wow you with stylish filmmaking or you immediately notice that the whole flick is a shambling mess. By my reckoning, Argento is operating at a 50% wow-rate.

Fortunately, Opera is in the happy-half of that output. The flick follows a young understudy, prosaically named Betty, who is suddenly thrust into the limelight when the diva of a production of Verdi's Macbeth is injured in an auto accident. The new-found fame comes with a big downside: a murderous stalker with a mysterious connection to the young singer's past. As the stalker's deranged obsession intensifies, he begins bumping off the people close to Betty. In the overly elaborate manner of all filmic serial killers, the stalker like to tie Betty up, apply the previously mentioned eye-needle thingy, and force Betty to watch the deaths of her friends and coworkers. The police prove useless and it is up to Betty and the opera's director – a former horror film director turned stager of operas (a nod to an autobiographical "what if?": Argento almost mounted an opera himself, but the deal fell through) – to uncover and thwart the rampaging psycho. The "mystery" un-unfolds in a typically Argentine manner, which is to say that clues appear and disappear with connection or explanation, nobody does much in the way of actual investigating, and, when enough bodies pile up, the killer reveals all in a ten-second bit of exposition that doesn't make all that much sense.

The make or break in an Argento flick is the look, and Opera has Argento's stylishly overripe fingerprints all over it. The camera swoops, cranes, and twists throughout the flick. Argento punctuates scene with cut shots of characters internal organs – rapidly beating hearts, blood pulsing through veins, and literally thumping brains. Curiously, Argento seems to be under the misconception that the brain, like the heart, beats. Scenes are washed in blues, red, and greens. The sets are lavish. Most of the film takes place in a truly astounding opera house, played by the Parma theater in Italy, and the fashionably appointed and dubiously large apartment of the understudy. (There is, of course, a street shot in which Betty, having survived her first attack, runs through the rain. When in trouble, Argento's women never call the cops or run to a friend's house. They prefer to run through rain-soaked streets until help or more danger finds them.) And the single image of Betty's eye, hungry needles waiting for her to blink, is a mind-haunting image. The soundtrack, while it includes some of the obligatory embarrassing cheese metal, also includes some work from Brian Eno and some interesting scoring by long-time Argento collaborator Claudio Simonetti, former keyboard player for the prog-rock band Goblin. Though not quite as overwhelming as Susperia, Opera is a full offering of Argento's opulently cool filmmaking.

This is a flick for fans of Argento (even fence-sitters like myself), especially his more giallo-centric efforts, to which Opera is an overt throwback. It has all the standard flaws that Argento has, through force of repetition, turned into something like idiosyncratic genre markers. If his lack of narrative logic, disdain for characterization, and soft spot for really bad heavy metal turn you off, you won't find him suddenly reformed here. However, if you dig on his mannered and strangely beautiful approach to horror, Opera's got a lot to like.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Music: Werewolves! Lesbians! Vampires! Nuns! Monday!

A tribute to the trashy and incomprehensible Euro-sleaze subgenre of film horror, the video for the Blues Explosion's (no longer prefacing their collective moniker with the name of front man Jon Spencer) "She Said" is a bizarre mash-up of werewolves, naked nun flesh, and lesbian vampires, all shot in the awkward, cheapo, washed-out style of Jess Franco.

WARNING: This is NOT work safe. If you decide to play it in your cube and are later forced to explain what a group of half-naked nuns were doing writhing across your monitor, you brought the trouble on yourself. Don't tell human resources to call me, 'cause I won't help.

Scare-sounds fans might note that "She Said" is a cut off the Blues Explosion's Plastic Fangs album. Though it isn't really a unified concept album, the cover art and several of the songs have an overt Creepy/EC horror-comic vibe going on. Devotees of musical monstrousness might want to take it home and let it haunt their iPods for a bit.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Movies: Abortive.

After mainstream reviewers sprained their collective wrists beating off all over the ham-fisted "satire" of the Joe Dante's astoundingly dumb contribution to the first season of Showtime's Masters of Horror series, Homecoming, it was inevitable that the second series would include several stories that pushed what filmmakers believed to be "hot button" issues into the foreground in an effort to garner some love from straight-world reviewers. Dante turned his attention from the Iraq War to the war between the sexes with his The Screwfly Solution. Dario Argento adapted F. Paul Wilson's Pelts into a gory, sleazy, and surreal anti-fur tale. Rob Schmidt went all Schiavo on us and directed Right to Die. Peter Medak did the camp horror revisionist history flick The Washingtonians, in which we find out George Washington was an evangelical cannibal bent on making the early United States a nation of people-eaters (I kid you not). Finally, John Carpenter used an abortion clinic as the backdrop for his Pro-Life.

As a strategy for garnering more mainstream attention, this sudden interest in the political was a complete flop. First, certain issues, such as the abuses of the fur industry, just don't have the media pull of others. Second, Bush hate operates at a uniquely low level of discourse. If you want discuss abortion in a metaphorical way, you're going to find the level of discourse is intense, emotional, and profoundly personal. In contrast, comedians can score zingers on Bush without trying. I recently heard Bill Mahr get yuks from a studio audience simply by observing, "Does anybody listen to this asshole anymore?" Finally, for all its faults, Homecoming was earnest in its political intentions. That didn't make it a better or smarter movie; but it wasn't using the Iraq War as a semi-disposable prop, an attention-getter that honestly didn't impact the movie in any significant way. None of the "political" films in the second season seemed quite so genuine in their convictions. In many cases, such as Pelts, the issue was simply an excuse to thematically unify the mode violence the director wished to visit upon his characters. In other cases, such as Pro-Life, the director's political point of view was muddled or non-existent, leaving viewers confused as to just what the reason for bring up the issue was in the first place.

The irony might be that failing as propaganda made these flicks better as horror films. Pro-Life is a clumsy contribution to the artistic debate surrounding abortion. It is full of stereotypical stock characters, revolves around a concocted moral dilemma that pretty much makes a mockery of the real ethical implications of the pro-choice/pro-life split, and has a taste for gore and over-the-top violence that nakedly reveals the filmmaker's real interest in the story. Still, if you can get over the considerable tackiness factor, you'll find Pro-Life is more entertaining, disgusting, and thrilling than the ideologically-correct dullness of Homecoming.

The story of Pro-Life is an adequately functional graft of Carpenter's beloved siege plot with a post-Roe v. Wade Rosemary's Baby plot. On their way to work, two abortion clinic workers find a panicked girl fleeing unidentified pursuers along a secluded forest road. They take the girl to their clinic only to find out that she is preggers and wants the baby aborted. They also find out that the girl's daddy is a pro-life extremist (played with cool menace by Ron "Hellboy" Pearlman) whose history of threats and violence against the clinic have forced the clinic to put a restraining order on him.

As the plot unfolds, the young woman's baby grows at an alarming rate and the doctors quickly determine that whatever is inside the girl is not human. The girl claims that she was raped by a demon (in her backyard – the devil lives under her old swing set – no foolin') and the "child" is the off-spring of that unholy forced union. Meanwhile, outside, daddy and his sons get armed and decide to lay siege to the clinic. Things get bloody fast, including what might be the most tasteless torture scene I've seen in long time. If you're eating, skip the rest of this paragraph. Ok? Basically, one of the abortionists gets his fetus-vacuum, or whatever it is called, turned on him. But, since the doctor is a guy, Pearlman's character has to cut him a vagina first. Ugh.

Aside from some not-so-special effects and a trippy, but disbelief inducing, flashback demon rape sequence, Pro-Life zips along. The actors handle the material ably, with Pearlman and Bill Dow, a long-time television and film bit-part man who takes on the role of the clinic's chief physician, turning in noteworthy performances. Carpenter has done so many siege flicks that you'd think he'd be phoning them in at this point, but he manages to keep the clinic assault tense and energetic. There are some weird hanging threads in the script. I'm not sure if I was supposed to be making certain assumptions about the fates of certain characters or if the screenwriters just forgot to follow up. Either way, it is only the sort of thing you wonder about after the movie is over.

As a comment on abortion, the film is a mess. The crisis that propels the plot – "What if it's a demon baby?" – is the sort of "What if you kill the next Shakespeare/let the next Hitler live?" sort of thing that only passes for debate on the Internet. Other than serving as a plot point (and it ultimately isn't even that as the demon baby is too far along to abort pretty early in the film) and as a setting, the whole issue of abortion simply isn't all that important to the film. Either out of disinterest or an effort to complicate the issue by having characters come at it from novel perspectives, the film ends up simply burying the abortion issue in irrelevance. It quickly becomes clear that this flick takes place in some other world and the abortion we're discussing is a completely fantastical contrivance. But this is, I think, a good thing. Does anybody really watch an installment of Masters of Horror to help them get a grasp on one of the more contentious political issues of our time? And, if they did, would their point of view be intelligible anyway?

For many viewers the simple fact that it brings up abortion but then takes the whole thing so lightly will push this flick into the realm of the irredeemably tasteless. And there is little reason to argue against this view; the film's accomplishments are so modest and limited as to make arguing for its importance as a statement on abortion impossible. But, looking past the somewhat cringe-inducing attempt at a political subtext, Pro-Life is an entertaining installment the MoH series.