Sunday, August 31, 2008

Stuff: The haunted houses of Coney Island: Part 2 - Spook-A-Rama

The second stop on our tour of Coney Island's haunted house rides is the wonderfully retro-named Spook-A-Rama. Spook-A-Rama is located in shadow of the Wonder Wheel. It is the oldest haunted house ride in Coney Island.

This famous dark ride was built by Fred Garms. Fred was the son of Herman Garms, the visionary Coney Island developer who created the Wonder Wheel. Garms, like his father, thought and built big. The original Spook-A-Rama ran the length of a city block. When it opened in 1955, the ride filled three buildings and its cars ran over a quarter mile of track, including intro section that ran through a translucent plastic tunnel that took rides under a waterfall of colored water. The ride was billed as "the world's longest spook ride."

The modern Spook-A-Rama is considerably smaller. Of the three structures originally dedicated to the Spook-A-Rama, only the middle and second largest building still houses the ride. The largest building is now dedicated to an arcade and the building that once housed the colored waterfall is now given over to various carnival games.

Unlike the other two haunted houses, Spook-A-Rama's exterior is pretty modest. It is a single story high and does not feature an elaborately painted façade. It does, however, feature two excellent animatronic components. The first is called the Reaper.

The photo above was taken with the glare off the Reaper's plexi-glass case. You can see from the reflection that 1) my wife is blonde, 2) my friend A. is really tall, and 3) the Wonder Wheel is literally a stone's throw away. The Reaper is situated out in front of the ride. He warns the weak of heart and other unfit specimens not to dare mind-shattering and unspeakable horror that is the Spook-A-Rama.

The other piece of animatronics appears on the roof of the ride. Just as Ghost Hole has its massive mascot, the Dark Prince of Love, Spook-A-Rama features a similarly oversized beastie: a spear-wielding, demon-headed, undead thing dressed in tatters. By virtue of his Year_zero weaponry and his castaway chic outfit, we've unofficially dubbed him Skeleton Crusoe.

Skeleton Crusoe stands about ten to fifteen feet high and, when functioning, alternately stands and squats above the dark rides entrance way. Admittedly, a giant skeleton popping a squat might not be the epitome of terror, but of all the oversized mascots, Skeleton Crusoe is the most detailed, best built one of the trio. He's also kept in the best repair.

For all the continuity of location, Spook-A-Rama's exterior has undergone near constant innovation. Before Skeleton Crusoe arrived, the roof of the ride featured a cartoonish cyclops who was surrounded by an ever changing and seemingly random cast of characters – including, at one point, life-sized sculptures of Laurel and Hardy. The cars have been swapped out numerous times, first with cars from a defunct Steeplechase Park dark ride in the 1960s and then with cars from a dark ride in Salem, NH, in the 1980s. There's only one constant: the entrance and exit doors, featuring paintings of eyes, have been part of the ride since it first opened.

On the spectrum of jump-out versus tableaux style scares, Spook-A-Rama features the greatest number of jump-out scares. Most of the ride's various gags lunge, fall, or swoop out at the rider. For fans dark rides, there's an added attraction to Spook-A-Rama's fright pieces. The on-going renovations to the ride have turned the inside of the ride into something like a fully-functioning museum of dark ride history. If a gag from the early days of the ride is still working, Spook-A-Rama doesn't rip it out. Consequently, riders are treated to a variety of scare sets that cover more than half a century's worth of dark ride style horror.

Here's an incomplete ride through. The poppin' fresh dance music was added by the filmmakers and is not part of the ride itself. Enjoy!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Stuff: The haunted houses of Coney Island: Part I – The Ghost Hole.

As the plans for the massive redevelopment/plunder of Coney Island have, yet again, been delayed, my wife, my friend A., and I took the opportunity to sneak off to New York's faded and fabulous boardwalk Babylon and experience the decaying playland's trio of terrifying haunted house rides.

We began our tour with the Ghost Hole, an independently run dark ride situated outside the two major parks of Coney – Astroland and Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park – and just down the street from Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs.

Originally part of an amusement park in Ocean City, Maryland, the Ghost Hole (formerly the Hell Hole) was sold and shipped to Coney Island in the mid-1990s. Of the three haunted house rides in Coney, it's the youngest.

The façade of the Ghost Hole is the most modern, having a graffiti-like feel to it. It features three animatronic elements. The first, on the far left as you face the ride, is a demon stirring a cauldron. Sadly, the demon no longer works. It's still mounted on the ride's exterior, but it doesn't move. On the far right, there's a tangle of three snakes that bow up and down. Astute riders will notice that there is actually a mount for a fourth snake, but it has slithered off somewhere.

Every dark ride at Coney features some massive beast, a sort of dominant totem figure, that centers the exterior design. For the Ghost Hole, this figure head is a giant red demon that my friend A. simply refers to as the "the Dark Prince of Love."

I'm just guessing, but I reckon the Dark Prince of Love is 15 feet or so high. He stands astride a set of speakers that blast his roar into the construction site across the street. His jaw is nicely articulated, though not always perfectly in sync with his roaring – he's a demon from an Italian horror flick, I guess. He's also got an embarrassing hole in his loin cloth that reveals he's got nothing but an empty void for a crotch. He is understandably upset by this. Here's a YouTube clip of the Dark Prince of Love in action.

Besides having a name that sounds like a euphemism for something particularly disreputable ("I'm going to Coney to ride the Ghost Hole"), the Ghost Hole features a particularly vile bit of animatonic theater for the strong-stomached riders to enjoy while they wait in line: a animatronic man who is simultaneously vomiting and suffering from projectile diarrhea. That's right, a robot fighting a war on two fronts. It's all class at the Ghost Hole.

If a photo isn't doing it for you, here's a video somebody posted on the YouTube, complete with retching sounds.

I place the dark rides of Coney into a spectrum between two idealized categorical poles. This isn't an official taxonomic method used among fans of dark rides or anything, it's just something I use to describe the differences between dark rides. On one end of the spectrum, you've got the jump-out ride. These rides scoot you around a track and attempt to traumatize you by having suddenly appearing monsters lunge toward you. There's a lot of flashing lights and loud, abrupt noises. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the tableaux ride. These rides roll you past elaborate set ups, parading you through a series of terrible scenes. These rides move a little slower. The rider is supposed to soak in all the unpleasant details. All dark rides fall somewhere in between these two poles, mixing elements for both approaches. Of all the dark rides in Coney, the Ghost Hole is closest an even mix of both jump-out and tableaux scares. There's a lot of sudden, rushing monsters, but they've also included several inventive, relatively detailed scenes that the rider lingers over. On the downside, one of the set ups is what is supposed to be a man puking. Enough with the bodily functions, Ghost Hole! On the plus side, though I don't have any good images of it, the ride features a jump-out giant alligator. And, as we all know, giant alligators and crocodiles make anything better.

Here's YouTube ride through (complete with commentary by unimpressed filmmaker and companion). Enjoy!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Movies: Down to the wire.

The idea behind Deathwatch - the 2002 Michael J Bassett fright flick – is pretty simple: a soldiers versus spooks tale set in a haunted German trench during the height of World War I.

The idea has obvious merits. As a setting, World War I is underused by horror makers. This despite the fact that trenches make for brilliant closed sets. You don't have to build some fortress structure or old musty castle; just dig a ditch in the ground and move props around to give the viewers the sense of a sprawl tunnel network. Nobody can tell one mud hole from the next, so you'll cut costs like nobody's beeswax. Moreover, current pop history consensus on the war writes the whole thing off as a monumental bonfire of tragic human stupidity and waste. Unlike, say, our current protracted struggles abroad, which can always be about money and oil if no particular ideology gives you reason enough, it is hard to find the thread of any intelligible motivation for the Great War. Nearly a century later, people still argue about why it happened and just who caused it. The conflict has an aura of fated tragic doom that fits in nicely into the tone of a modern horror film, especially a ten-little-Indians style ghost pic like Deathwatch.

There is, of course, a downside. No war is ever pretty – though they sure can be photogenic – but it seems to me that World War I was, in some special way, notably crappy. From All's Quiet on the Western Front to Good Soldier Švejk, from In Parenthesis to Johnny Got His Gun the First World War produced horrors rather than heroes and became the seminal point for the modern anti-war protest work. (The irony, of course, is that anti-war works have proven utterly useless. They don't end warfare, but rather simply kill off the idea that war could be heroic. Bereft of heroism, war is now simply an extension of national might, exercised with grim realpolitick brutality. After stripping off the gloss of lies that made war palatable, these works ensured that we'd get used to fighting unpalatable wars.) The war was felt as a collective trauma, not a civilizing triumph. And justly so: chemical warfare, offensive weaponry that far outpaced the defensive strategies of the day, and a suicidal notion of what constituted battlefield honor made the trenches uniquely nightmarish morasses of slaughter. The modern horror director needs to ask himself, "Now why do I think the addition of ay supernatural shenanigans will seem scarier than what already exists?" If you treat your WWI setting with any level of seriousness, then there's a good chance that whatever haints you cook up are going downright timid next to the wholesale carnage that was the everyday reality of the trench.

Somewhat predictably, Deathwatch manages to use its WWI setting effectively, but ultimately it cannot avoid making the supernatural elements of the film seem somewhat trite and unnecessary.

The film starts with a disastrous over-the-top (literally) push that separates a handful British troops from their company. After playing "the lost patrol" for a short time, the group finds a mostly deserted German trench. Despite the enormity of the trench system they've found, there are only three Huns in it, desperately manning a barricade that seems, illogically to the Brits, to be defending the Germans from the rest of the trench structure. In the short battle for control of the trench and its aftermath, two of German's die and one flees into the trench. The Brits secure the trench, recapture the German, and attempt to radio HQ. To their dismay, HQ is announcing that there were no survivors from the push. According to HQ, our heroes are dead.

Over the next two days, somebody or something begins to attack the troops. Inexplicably, soldiers are picked off one by one. Already battle fatigued, paranoia begins to take hold and the soldiers begin to turn on one another. Eventually, the full scope of their inhuman adversary becomes clear to them. But, by that time, it may be too late to save what's left of the unit.

The plot is, to anybody familiar with R-Point, Dog Soldiers, or even Aliens, pretty standard stuff. Army versus The Unknown Thing! Still, personally, I dig that stuff. There's something about using military forces, rather than a gaggle of hapless teens or tourists, that ups the stakes. The army represents the final argument of kings, as it were. They're supposed to be the ones who are trained and equipped to handle threats to our existence. The conflict between armed soldiers and uncontrollable dark forces seems, to me, to bring the conflict between humanity and the uncanny to its ultimate limit. This is humanity at its most pugnacious. If these guys can't hold the line, who can? Also, the cinema of war films has given us a system of archetypal characters that a competent director can tap into, piggybacking on tradition to do get the work of characterization done quickly. In Deathwatch, we get a sampler platter of classic types: the stoic and competent second-in-command, the psycho war-lover, the Bible thumper, the coward, the upper-class twit CO, the subaltern (the Scot being the minority here), the logical and humane medic, and so on. Admittedly, these characters are only slightly more textured than the types populating your holiday-themed-slasher-camp flick (the jock, the slut, the nerd, the good guy, the final girl), but they've been so honed by master filmmakers – if Ford, Fuller, Walsh, and others had made slashers instead of war pictures, those movies' stock characters might be better – that they perform their narrative tasks so well that we don't notice their essential artificiality. Finally, the solution to the problem posed earlier – how do you keep the horrors of war from overwhelming your more ephemeral and ghostly terror? – is to essentially trap the characters in this one trench, far away from the conflict. Barring some quaint slang, the film quickly ceases to be WWI specific and the troops become generic soldiers from any conflict, anywhen.

Really my only issue with the plot has to do with the supernatural elements of the story. Supernatural horror is easy to abuse. Once a screenwriter has introduced non-naturalistic elements into the plot of movie, there's a real tendency to let narrative logic unravel completely. The idea of characters slipping into some non-rational twilight zone is fine, as far as that goes. But the problem is that dramatic conflict requires cause and effect. Too often, supernatural elements in horror stories become deus ex machina that cover up sloppy writing and rob characters of a sense of agency. When characters are simply being pulled this way and that, the idea that they should be striving to master their fate gets thrown out the window. In such as cases, the viewer becomes acutely aware that characters are living and dying simply because the filmmakers have willed it so. There's nothing wrong with supernatural horror, but it is tricky: it's done best by people who refuse to take the easy out it offers. In Deathwatch, the filmmakers don't lose control over their story until the very end. Then, suddenly, spooky stuff starts happening not because the logic of the story demands it, but mainly because the filmmakers need to wrap things up.

The film looks good. Director Bassett lavishes attention on the squalid details of trench life. The thick mud, the rats, the decay – it is enough to make this humble horror host happy that nobody has yet perfected the cinema tech necessary to deliver synchronized smells. There's some clunky CGI, but it is used sparingly, so it goes by without jarring the viewer. The gore effects are minimal, and most have to do with the violence of the war and not the acts of supernatural entities. The acting is solid, if not astounding. Jamie "Billy Elliot" Bell, whose been in everything from the indie post-Dogme 95 Dear Wendy to blockbusters like Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong, leads the cast in the role of cowardly Pfc Charlie Shakespeare.

Grim, eerie, and relentless up until its loosely plotted final act, Deathwatch is a solid, but not great, flick.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Comics: Snippet.

Bartholomew of the Scissors, no. 1, the first issue in the Blue Water Comics series penned by League stalwart Chad Helder and sporting some truly fascinating art from Daniel Crosier (with “graphics” by Joel Robinson – I admit, I don’t know exactly what that entails, but if he contributed to the unique look of the book, he deserves props), is a cryptic and compellingly raw mix of cosmic horror, X-Files-style plotting, slasher-grade violence, references to King and Lovecraft, and J-horror tropes. Helder/Crosier/Robinson et al have pulled together an intriguing and original first act that combines familiar ideas in a fresh way, giving iconic horror concepts an invigorating shot in the arm.

First, let's talk plot. As this is the first ish, most of the work here the necessary, but often thankless and therefore neglected, work of introducing characters, laying down ground rules, and introducing plot threads that will demand more attention later. Helder takes to the work with genuine vigor. The central story involves a sinister ghost child, the titular Bartholomew. Prior to becoming a decidedly unfriendly ghost, Bart was murdered by an unnamed man who dressed the young Bart up as a girl, recorded his violent demise, and then broadcast it upon the Interwebs. Understandably bitter, Bart now brings down all unholy hell on anybody who finds and watches the broadcast of his murder. And I mean bring down with a capital B and D. Bart's S.O.P. is a particularly nasty bit of business called the scissor swarm – a brutal barrage of flying scissors that turn their intended target into a flesh, bloody, and unhappy pincushion. Parallel to Bart's homicidal revenge plot runs the story of Jessica, who has access to a supernatural fire entity that may be barely controlled manifestation of her id or may be some freaky monster using Jessica in some as yet unrevealed manner. Then there's the tired, yet stoic and determined Gordon Watt: paranormal investigator and Bart chaser. Imagine somebody cast Gary Oldman in Commissioner Gordon mode as Mulder in X-Files and you've got a idea of the character. Oh, and let's not forget the cult that appears to worship some sort of Lovecraftian jellyfish. There's a lot more introduced than solved here. Though Helder does some pulling together: Watt recruits Jessica for his hunt and the cult dangles safety from Bart as the bait that lures in one of their less fortunate recruits. Still, the best measure of the writing is that I look forward to the solution of these mysteries with anticipation rather than fatigue.

As good as the writing is, BotS's secret weapon is the art. One of the reasons that Helder's use of familiar horror tropes doesn't feel shopworn is that BotS doesn't look like any comic book you've ever seen. What I think is going on is this: the art is drawn, then etched into wood, then photographed, then touched up and overlaid with lettering elements and the like. The edgy, sketchy art incorporates the grain and knots of the wood. It's pretty brilliant and it gives the whole thing this great primitivist feel – like you found the untutored artwork of some backwoods horror cargo cultist who has been receiving stray de-scrambled snatches of fright flicks and, not understanding he's seen several different movies, stitched them all together in some wild masterwork on the wall of his shotgun shack. The irony, of course, is that is it serious work making this stuff look like it just happens. This is especially admirable considering they could have phoned this in. Successful horror series have gotten by with considerably less ambitiously idiosyncratic art.

All in all, an auspicious beginning.

Now I know what you're thinking. "CRwM, you're one of them!" you say. "You League guys always stick up for one another."

Fair enough. To prove I'm not just saying nice things because Helder's a card-carrying LoTTD member, I'm going to say something critical of the comic. The jellyfish monster looks a bit like an irate Jell-O mold with streamers coming from it. To be fair, seeing a giant, sentient Jell-O mold with streamers coming from it would scare me in real life, but on the page, it is more odd than frightening.

There. Now that BotS has felt the sting of my acidic insight, it's clear CRwM is nobody's stooge. With my street cred fully intact, I give Bartholomew of the Scissors the ANTSS seal of approval. It's from Blue Water, cover price: three Washingtons and some change. Don't wait for the trade paperback. People who wait for the trade paperback are worse than Hitler. You know who you are.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Stuff: "They say that the Coconut Creme Swirl sleeps."

McSweeney’s online auxiliary has a fun spoof for fans of the deeply purple gothic prose of H. P. Lovecraft: Luke Burn’s
"Selections from H. P. Lovecraft's Brief Tenure as a Whitman's Sampler Copywriter."

A couple of quick tastes:

Coconut Creme Swirl

They say that the Coconut Creme Swirl sleeps. But if the dread Coconut Creme Swirl slumbers, surely it must also dream. It is certain that while it dozes the Coconut Creme Swirl is absorbed by terrifying visions of exacting its creamy tropical vengeance upon mankind! Consume the Coconut Creme Swirl before it awakens to consume you!

Caramel Chew

There is a dimension ruled by a blind caramel God-King who sits on a vast, cyclopean milk-chocolate throne while his mindless, gooey followers dance to the piping of crazed flutes. It is said that there are gateways in our world that lead to this caramel hell-planet. The delectable Caramel Chew may be one such portal.

Toffee Nugget

Few men dare ask the question "What is toffee, exactly?" All those who have investigated this substance are now either dead or insane.

Dig in.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Movies: Don't be taken in by his evil grin.

In the interest of full-disclosure, Screamers and Screamettes, there's something I need to confess before we get to the review of Rogue, Greg Mclean's 2007 follow-up to his Dundee-ate-my-slasher-flick Wolf Creek. The confession goes like this: If you want a good review from ANTSS, then put a man-eatin' alligator or crocodile in your flick. That's all it takes.

Shameful really.

I'd like to tell you I demand innovative visuals, solid and involving story-telling, and a deft directorial hand.

But that would be a lie. Sure, I dig all that stuff. But if you want to guarantee a five-star, two thumbs up, whoopjamboreehoo wonder review, then all you need to do is put a big toothy amphibious lizard in your flick.

Why? I don't know. Why does anybody like anything? The heart wants what the heart wants.

Anyway, so publicly recognizing that I may have no critical distance on Rogue whatsoever, let's get on with the review.

Rogue represents the third flick ANTSS has reviewed from that most wonderful of croco-gator-centric film subgenres: the crocodile horror film loosely based on actual events. The first, Primeval, involved a fictional new crew's efforts to capture Gustave, a real-life giant African killer croc. The second, Black Water, was loosely based on the story of an Austrailan man who was chased up a tree by a couple of saltwater crocs. Rogue comes with its very own real world inspiration (though it is more Primeval than Black Water in its relationship to its source). Rogue was inspired by a saltwater croc named, of all things, Sweetheart. Back in the late 70s, Sweetheart, a 5-meter long beastie who weighed in at a ton and some change, got territorial about a popular fishing hole. Though crocs don't tend to attack boats, Sweetheart put the chomp on several fishing boats, actually sinking more than one. From that humble tale, the mighty beast of Rogue sprang forth.

The plot is simple. A sampler box of Euro and American tourists load on to a river tour boat. After some nicely shot nature footage and some efficient characterization, the tour group turns to head home. But before the group can get back to civilization, the group spots a signal flare and goes to in search of the distressed boat. What they find, of course, is a sunken boat and one really big freakin' crocodile. The boat is sunk, the tourists find themselves on a slowly shrinking tidal river island, and the chomp-chomp-chomp ensues.

In contrast to Wolf Creek, which exploited the gritty feel of digital to harken back to the low-fi aesthetics of '70s flicks, Rogue is shoots for high-gloss, effect heavy, big blockbuster, epic feel. This isn't another Aussie Chainsaw Massacre; this flick wants to be Oz's Jaws. Despite the new, slick packaging, some of Mclean's visual touches carry over. Most notably, Rogue is served up with a heaping side of the lyrical natural Romanticism that seems to be a sort of shared national trademark among Australian horror filmmakers. Thematically, Mclean also lightly revisits the urban versus rural man thing that was the core of Wolf Creek, though here it plays out as a series of fairly harmless bit of character development. Mclean also backs up from the gore factor. Though the body count is actually higher in this film, much of the violence is of a chomp-and-vanish nature.

The cast is willing and able; though, after some initial interaction, they're not given a whole lot to do other than play out a handful of classic crisis-film archetypes (he's the doubter, she's the crying one, he's the one who hopes to make up for past failure) and scream a lot.

Like the shark in Jaws, Mclean keeps his croc off screen for as long as he can. This is, by now, standard operating procedure for any monster-in-water flick. When the beast finally does appear, it looks fine. It is much better looking than, say, a Sci-Fi Channel original, but it still looks rather odd next to the actual crocs used in Black Water.

So, where does Rogue fall in the croc-flick spectrum? Rogue is a polished, expertly handled creature feature. Like a solid pop song, its pleasures are satisfying, if somewhat narrow in scope. I'm going to slide it under the grim and haunting Black Water, but above the uneven and politically awkward Primeval.


"A Moment for the Bloggers" is an irregularly regular feature on ANTSS where I, your humble horror host, tries to share a little nugget of wisdom about bloggin'.

Here's today's helpful hint. When you don't like a flick, don't give into to your impulse to prove you're smarter than the filmmakers by questioning the "realism" of their flick. You know what I mean: questioning how a flick's spaceships would work or whether it makes any sense that zombies would walk a certain way or whatever. This isn't because filmmakers aren't capable of committing howlingly stupid blunders. Believe me, they are. It's because the moment you do this, you inevitably say something that reveals you own ignorance. It can't be avoided. It is, like the speed of light or the coolness of Mexican wrestlers' masks, one of the constants that form the infrastructure of the universe.

Let's talk cases. While looking for images of Rogue's poster, I came across a review that hated, hated, hated Rogue. But instead of simply saying that they found the CGI croc unconvincing, they had to start ranting on about how filmmakers use crocs because they can always "fudge a meter here or there" and make their crocs unrealistically large and threatening. In fact, the beastie in Rogue measures a consistent 7.5 meters. While large – the average is about 5 meters – it isn't unheard of. It's even a whole meter smaller than the largest on record. According to National Geographic, the biggest saltwater croc ever caught was slightly more than 8.5 meters long. So, while Mr. Can't-Be-Bothered-to-Google ranted about the intellectual laziness of Mclean et al, he really just revealed that, unlike the filmmakers who labored months and months to get their flick in the can, he couldn't be bothered to do even the minimal amount of research needed to write a blog post that was free of grotesquely smug stupidity.

Take away: Be careful when disparaging the work of others. You don't want to sound like a pompous and ignorant jackass.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Music: What’s Japanese for "rudeboy"?

Okay, so a Japanese ska band might seem like a bit of a stretch, but legendary ska guitarist Dennis "Blackbeard" Bovell said of Nippon's leading purveyors of ska, "I'd make time for Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra anytime." If it is good enough for Blackbeard, then it is good enough for the likes of ANTSS.

In the 1980s, said Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra started playing street corners and bottom-tier club dates. The natty rockers have grown themselves a bit of fanbase since those early days. Here's TSPO playing their classic "Monster Rock" to an absurd number of fans.

Have a great weekend, Screamers and Screamettes.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Movies: I’ll polish him off.

Hello my lovely little Screamers and Screamettes. We’ve got something a little special for you today: a guest blogger! That’s right. Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was just so overwhelming that your humble horror host had to get himself a partner. So, playing Mrs. Lovett to my Sweeney is the lovely and talent Rachel, one bloggers behind the of the horror collective Top Horror Movies Club.

Here’s how we’re going to do. Rachel is going to review for you the Burton flick in all its lush, musical, gory glory. Then your humble horror host will ramble on a bit about the sources of Sweeney Todd’s story and we’ll discuss some of the differences between the various incarnations of Todd.

So, Screamers and Screamettes, tuck in your bibs, pick up your knife and fork, and get ready to dig in.

Never Forgive, Never Forget
By Rachel, Top Horror Movies Club, who is looking for other bloggers to join her. Swing by if you are interested.
Top Horror Movies Club

I'm not a musical fan.

I find them on the whole kind of boring and melodramatic.


My association of musicals would be The Sounds of Music, or Hair and although both of them deal with the hard and painful reality of war the presentation is clean and somewhat naive - (maybe because in real life soldiers don't march into a plane waiting to be taken probable death, singing...)

The combination of a musical, with the story of a maniac demon serial killer, throat slashing barber and a sweet if some what twisted human pie shop owner is to curious to pass by without at least stopping to wonder what on earth is in that movie.

Add Tim Burton and Johnny Depp to all that and you've got one of the most curious and original movies in the last decade. I am not the only one who thinks that - Sweeney Todd won 17 awards, among which were an Oscar and a Bafta and was nominated for 24 more.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler musical, telling the story of Benjamin Barker a.k.a Sweeney Todd, Who returns to London, after being sent away by Judge Turpin for crimes not committed (The Judge is sweet on his beautiful wife). On return after many years he looks for his wife and daughter, only to find that his wife is dead and his daughter the evil Judges ward.

Never forget Never forgive.

He opens a barber shop above the premises of Mrs Lovetts' (Played by Helena Bonham Carter) meat pie shop. A filthy establishment, over run with roaches, and known for having the worst pies in town.

The two become partners in crime - he slaying his victims on his rigged barber's chair, flipping the chair upside down and shooting them down into the basement through a trap door in his floor to fall on there heads and be grind and cooked in Mrs Lovetts meat pies, which the Londoners now come in droves to eat.

All of this demoniacal and wonderful horror happens to the sweet sounds of music and song (well not so sweet but you know what I mean), in Tim Burton's wonderfully excessive story telling style.

Never forget Never forgive is Sweeney Tod, Ex Benjamin Barkers motto. This is a story of a bloody revenge stopping at nothing and of great love. Amidst all the blood, (which is plentiful and spurting) it is a story of a man obsessed with revenging the death of his lovely wife, of a woman obsessed with this man and how obsession and revenge can twist ones mind.

Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter where perfect for the parts they played.

In preparation for the roll Helena took both singing and baking classes and practiced them simultaneously, in order to prepare herself for the real thing. Johnny Depp on the other hand preferred to find his voice though the score without the help of a music coach. Both of there methods worked well. Singing baking and murdering at the same time is not an easy thing to accomplish and Helena Bonham Carter has it down to a tee.

Because of the weird combinations going on in this film, the results though very horrific leave you with a totaly different feeling than your regular horror movie does. You are not just scared or horrified or in suspense - You are all of the above, and also strangely elated and in love, like you are when you see a great piece of art, concert, play or movie. This elation is usually not one of the feelings I would tie in or associate with horror - and maybe this is the main point of difference between Sweeney Todd and your average horror flick. You could say that this is a horror movie with a twist...

In summation Go and rent the DVD - you won't regret it.

Here's the trailer.

And here's Capt. Jack Sparrow singing My Friends

The Sources of Sweeney
by CRwM

To accompany Rachel's excellent review of Burton's excellent Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, I thought I'd discuss the some of the earlier versions of the Sweeney Todd tale and point out a few differences between them.

There's debate over whether or not there was a "real" Sweeney Todd. In the late 1700s, London newspapers did carry a story about a murderous barber operating out of the Hyde Park area, though the details of the crime are considerably more prosaic that the scheme Todd and Lovett concoct. Still, this gives us a killer barber operating in London in the same era in which Sweeney Todd is set. That's a tempting link, if a slim one.

Setting aside the question of historical precedent, looking for the fictional roots of Todd as a purely imaginary character yields much richer results. One of the earliest proto-Todds comes from an anonymously written 1824 story called The Tell-Tale. Set in Paris, this story features a French wig-maker who kills his clients with a razor before disposing of their bodies by handing them over to his partner, a meat pie baker. The Tell-Tale names neither the wig-maker nor the male baker. The story was republished in 1841, just five years prior to the first appearance of Sweeney Todd.

Another early hint of the Todd to come appears in Charles Dickens's 1844 Martin Chuzzlewits. In that novel, a character named Tom Pinch alludes to "preparers of cannibalic pastry, who are represented in many country legends as doing a lively retail business in the metropolis." Though this lacks the character of the demon barber, it hints at Lovett's pie shop, touches on the theme of urban alienation that would become a more important theme in later adaptations, and suggests that Todd-like urban myths may have been in wide circulation prior to Todd’s first real appearance on the scene.

Another interesting proto-Todd is found in the anonymously penned 1844 thriller Joddrel, the Barber, or, Mystery unravelled. Joddrel, the titular murderous barber, dispatches clients by putting a wooden stake through their head. This bizarre murder method may have been a nod to the then popular vampire craze kick-started by Varney the Vampire, published by the same publisher who published Joddrel.

After several near-Sweeney's, everybody's favorite murderous hairstylist appears proper in an anonymously written 1846 serial called The String of Pearls. Readers familiar only with the later adaptations will be surprised by the original story. Pearls is a traditional mystery tale. Johanna, originally the daughter of another Fleet Street merchant and not Todd, and her companion, one Colonel Jeffery, search for her missing lover, a returned sailor named Mark. Eventually the search leads them to the operation of Todd and Lovett. Mark, it turns out, is imprisoned under Lovett's shop, producing human-meat pies as slave labor. This is a radically simplified summary. One of the major differences between the original tale and its later incarnations is the number of subplots and the vast cast of characters that appear in the book. Todd and Lovett stock villains in an ensemble cast here, notable mainly for the almost out-of-place gruesomeness of their crime.

Todd's star potential was quickly recognized by the reading public. His catch phrase "I'll polish him off" caught on in the vernacular and the next edition of The String of Pearls came published with the subtitle "The Barber of Fleet Street." In 1852, an American author released an authorized (that is to say, plagiarized) version that dropped the original pearl reference altogether and came out under the more familiar title Sweeney Todd.

The first stage adaptation of Todd's story happened in 1865, but you'll forgive us if we jump straight to Sondheim's 1979 musical: Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a Musical Thriller. This Tony-winning play debuted in New York and starred Angela Lansbury as Lovett. In keeping with the general trend of foregrounding the character of Todd, Sondheim not only simplified the overly fussy tangle of plots by running them all through a revenge plot centered around Sweeney, he also tried to suggest that Sweeney – despite his freakish psychology and bloodthirsty murderousness – is some sort of everyman character. In "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," a musical number cut from the Burton adaptation, a Greek chorus of urban types claims that Todd's rage stems from his inability to let the past go. He kills the present because it isn't the idealized past. (This explains, I think better than the film does, why Todd seems so uninterested in his family now – he only cares for his memories of them.) Giving Todd these motivations is a radical revision of the original, where Todd is little more than a particularly grisly thief.

Here's a YouTube clip of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" as performed by school students – because it is awesome that school students would be allowed to put this play on:

Tim Burton's film is a close adaptation of the Sondheim musical, but the differences are telling. Burton's Todd has the revenge motive of Sondheim's, but Burton cuts the Greek chorus from the film and, by extension, cuts the overt efforts to suggest that Todd's problem (and the audience's too, if the chorus is to be believed) is that he cannot suffer the present because he's in the grips of an idealized past. In fact, Burton seems almost complicit in Todd's fantasy of the past. In the original musical there are hints that Todd's wife might not have been quite as pure as Todd likes to think. When Todd returns to London, she hasn't just gone crazy, she's become a whore. The first line she delivers to Todd is an offer of sex. He, trapped in his own mind, doesn't recognize his own wife. By contrast, Burton's take on Todd's past is without shading. His Todd had a perfect life and lost it. By making him a profoundly wronged man, he makes him something like an unhinged dark avenger. Burton somewhat justifies Todd’s grandieous nihilism.

As an aside, the book is explicit that the chair in Todd's barbershop drops backwards. In the original, it is the fall on the head, and not a sliced throat, that kills Todd's victims. Every stage version has gone with a chair that shoots people feet-first into their meat pie future. It is a nice nod to the original that Burton's chair drops folks head-first to their doom.

For readers interested in hunting down previous versions of the Todd story, I recommend you start with Sondheim's musical. While Burton's stunning visuals are impossible to produce on stage, Sondheim's original has nuanced levels of meaning that Burton skipped over. Sondheim's work should appeal strongly to anybody who enjoyed the film. The original serial is currently available from Oxford Press under the title Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It's got Johnny Depp on the cover. Honestly, I find the original a bit dry. The scenes involving the central mystery of Mark's disappearance move quickly and hold attention, but the book frequently chases some other plot down the rabbit hole (as in the entire chapter detailing the domestic squabbling of Johanna's parents) and drags. Fans of Victorian lit, historical mysteries, and Todd complete-ists won't be disappointed.

Famed novelist and comic book writer Neil Gaiman and artist Michael Zulli produced a small pamphlet called The Sweeney Todd Penny Dreadful. This pastiche included original art, excerpts from previous versions, reproduced period art, and commentary on the evolution of the Todd story from Gaiman. The work appeared in the sixth issue of the horror comic anthology Taboo. It was meant as a preview for a Sweeney Todd mini-series. Unfortunately, the series never materialized. Fans of Gaiman's work will just have to imagine what he would have done with the tale.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Movies: It's a dead man's party.

The first recorded use of the word "parody" in the English language is, oddly enough, a definition of the word: 1598, Ben Johnson, "A Parodie, a parodie! to make it absurder than it was."

Murder Party, the 2007 indie horror comedy by director/writer Jeremy Saulneir, takes the already over-the-top conventions of torture porn and, in the spirit of Johnson's definition, makes them mo' absurder.

The plot of murder party is wonderfully simple. On Halloween, a lonely man by the name of Chris finds an unaddressed invite to a "murder party." Seeing this as a rare opportunity to get out of the house and live a little, Chris whips together a knight costume out of some old moving boxes and heads off to the party. To his dismay, the party turns out to be part of a demented art project. Four incompetent wannabe art hipsters plan to execute Chris: it's murder as transgressive performance art. The would-be artists hope their homicidal handiwork will impress a particularly vile art/drug dealer who claims to hold the purse strings to a boatload of grant money. Tangled motivations, drug induced stupidity, professional and sexual jealousy, a trap-within-a-trap plot, and the sudden appearance of a surprisingly tenacious will to live in Chris all ensure that the party disintegrates into bloody mayhem.

Visually, Murder Party is a functional piece of work. Unlike the works it spoofs, MP is not particularly stylish. It has the grimy look, but you won't mistake it for the opulent squalor of Saw or Hostel. That said, there's a welcome competence here at work that deserves praise. Saulneir enjoys playing with the space his warehouse set provides and he directs action without losing a sense of continuity or fudging things by losing the viewers in a flurry of cuts and edits. This is, I think, promising. Somebody with a solid grasp of the basics can grow stylistically, but stylistic bombast has a way of fooling the novice into thinking their flaws are flourishes.

Where Murder Party really shines is in its script. The dialogue snaps along, allowing the actors to fill their parts comfortably. The movie captures the earnestly over-serious and smug tone of torture porn while, at the same time, showing how surreal the "morality" of such films is: the artists, who can argue about the thematic and cultural implications of the word "nigger," seem to be unable to grasp the idea that killing somebody might be wrong. There's a odd but intentional obliviousness that hangs over the actions of the film's main characters that will remind some viewers of the strange justifications torture porn directors use to make cases for their films: Roth claiming that his depiction of a Europe where everything is for sale is a indictment of American smugness or the impenetrable philosophizing of Jigsaw from the Saw franchise that is increasingly "the point" of the films.

The intelligent writing is especially appreciated since it makes MP better than it needs to be. One can imagine an alternate version of Murder Party. This alternate version, created by lazier and less creative folks, has basically the same plot but instead degenerates in a vacuous exercise in gory physical abuse. Instead of wit, all you would have needed was a marginally competent make-up artist. That would have been more than enough to ensure the film gets some sort of traction with the gorehound film-as-endurance-test set. But the makers of Murder Party decided to do something different. And it pays off.

Murder Party isn't the next Shaun of the Dead. As a comedy its intentions are less dramatic (you root for Chris and he makes a likable hero, but he lacks the genuinely involving character development of Shaun) and its targets are far more predictable (there are few groups more inherently mockable than contemporary art scene bottom-feeders). Still, like a good one-liner, it doesn't need heft to work. Murder Party is clever, fast, and funny. So, what are you waiting for? A written invitation?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Books: Every breath you don't take.

Bareneed, Newfoundland, might seem like a picturesque vacation spot. Somewhat isolated from the neighboring towns, Bareneed is one of those fishing villages where time seems to have stood still. For centuries, locals have grown up near the rough and unpredictable sea and cultivated that rustic stocism city folk consider the wisdom of the laborer. Local lore and customs have been passed down from generation to generation. There's something raw and essential bout life in Bareneed.

Unfortunately, Bareneed is far from a working-class paradise. The Canadian government, citing political and environmental concerns, shut down the local fish processing plants and placed bans on several of the town's most lucrative forms of fishing. The economic fallout has been devastating.

And, of course, there's the mermaids, the murderous ghosts, a mysterious and fatal epidemic, fairies, military quarantines, giant squid, the sea giving up its dead by spewing forth perfectly the preserved bodies of those lost to the depths over the past couple hundred years, dark prophecies, a monster tsunami, and an albino shark with an unidentified head in its jaws.

Tough times all around.

Bareneed is the evocative setting of Kenneth J. Harvey's 2003 darkly fantastical novel: The Town That Forgot How to Breath. The story follows several different characters, both residents and vacationers, as the town faces a supernatural disaster that literally threatens to wipe Bareneed off the face of the map.

The story begins when a local man, a recluse, falls ill with a mysterious disease that causes the victim to simply stop breathing. As Bareneed's local doctor attempts to make sense of this illogical, but rapidly spreading epidemic, curious bodies begin washing up on shore. These corpses, some with clothes and personal items dating back to the 1700s, are perfectly preserved. And these bodies aren't the only curiosities behind hauled up out of the deep. Local fishermen begin pulling impossible, legendary creatures out of the surf. Locals catch glimpses of mermaids, hydras, and what might well be the kraken gliding off the coast. Meanwhile, a reclusive local artist is tormented by the restless ghost of her daughter. The daughter, who was killed years ago when her father kidnapped her and then drowned her in the ocean, has returned, apparently in an effort to convince her mother to join her on the other side. And, if she's going to come over, why not bring a few new playmates along too? The more the merrier.

Over the course of six long days, these stories and several others will intertwine and build to a suitably catastrophic climax.

Harvey's novel is truly one of the more curious additions to genre: it clearly belongs in the subgenre of small town terror, popularized by King and others, but it innovates the form through adopting the logic of legends and folk tales, creating something that occasionally verges on the hallucinatory or mythic. The book oscillates from rigorously observed characterizations and descriptions to archetypal behavior and surrealism. This bizarre balancing act between realism and self-aware literariness is underscored by a curiously fascinating stylistic quirk Harvey has: sometimes he allows one of his own metaphors to suddenly “materialize” within the fictional world he's describing. For example, at one point Harvey describes the sound of a pop song coming through a protagonist's car radio as so sugary it coats the character's teeth. This would be a perfectly descriptive metaphor for the over produced sludge of modern pop R&B, but what happens immediately after Harvey delivers this metaphor is interesting. The character takes the sleeve of his shirts and wipes his teeth. Harvey's thinking about the world is modifying the world in real-time, so to speak. As drastic as this technique seems when I drag it out and isolate it as an example, it is actually pretty subtle in practice. I didn't notice myself at first, but it gives the whole novel this air of deep weirdness.

Harvey's tone is also unusual for a horror novelist. Some writers seem to take a sort of sadistic joy in putting their characters in harms way. Harvey, on the other hand, invests his horror novel with a sense of tragedy, rather than brutality. Unlike Lovecraft's tales (to which The Town has been compared) of a hostile universe, Harvey's universe is essentially good, but off-balance. His characters suffer because they the possibility of joy is real, only difficult to obtain in an ailing world.

Harvey's unique voice and sincerely involved sympathy with his characters are, unfortunately, somewhat undercut by a narrative structure that is weak at the beginning and end. It isn't unusual for these semi-apocalyptic horror novels to devolve somewhat at the end. When authors find that they've got to pull all their subplots together, account for a giant cast, and orchestrate a huge show stopping final act, the result is almost always a blur of events and walk-on appearances that the reader just agrees to ride out. This problem is so common, I suspect most readers now feel that the typically tangled conclusion is less a narrative failure than a feature of the subgenre. However, the slow build at the beginning is a bigger problem. I actually started this book about a month ago, but put it down because it wasn't grabbing me. I'm glad I gave it a second go, but I can imagine many less forgiving readers never get to the good stuff.

Narrative design issues aside, there's very good stuff in store for those with a little patience. Stylistically and thematically, The Town That Forgot How to Breathe is a catch. You can snag a copy of your own paperback copy from Picador for 14 clams.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Books: Killer serials.

Because ANTSS prides itself on bringing you, the reading public, the very best in horror-themed entertainments and because ANTSS is cheap, I'm delighted to point you in the direction of not one, but, count 'em Screamers and Screamettes, two free serialized tales for your devious and deflationary delectation.

The first of these serials comes from Cryptic Bindings, a Seattle-based indie press "specializing in handcrafted fiction and one of a kind art books." The currently untitled thriller available on their site (along with a "name that thriller" contest) is cheap as free. It updates every Monday, so the latest installment is fresh off the virtual press.

Your second serialized tale comes from the pen one-man horror factory Stephen King. Taking the trend of book trailers to new heights, Simon and Schuster is plugging King's new short story collection, Just After Sunset, by turning King's Lovecraftian "N" into an 25-episode series of animated online shorts. The mini-flicks are a joint S&S/Marvel dealie. The series updates every Wednesday, so you've got all day to play catch up before the newest installment drops.

Dig 'em hard, hep cats and cool kitties. They're your new Monday and Wednesday productivity drains.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Music: Show the Goths some love.

First formed as a trio in 1994 out of the remains of Crayons and Wimp Factor 14, the Seattle-based low-fi indie power-pop band Tullycraft pushed a style at odds with the sonic sludge assault that would, by the end of the '90s, become the Seattle-Olympia Axis's official sound.

But, more than ten years later, when most of the grunge titans have imploded, become self-parodies, or simply called it a day, Tullycraft is still making music. They're a testament to the sticking power of talented, committed folks doing what they know they do best.

"Georgette Plays a Goth" is a sweet ode to everybody's favorite youth subculture. This little summer-friendly jam is laced with clever lyric writing, uses '60s bubblegum pop touches like they never went out of style, drops some classic indie rock guitar hooks, and a features a central heroine – the Georgette of the title – who is so appealing that you might find yourself regretting any crap you ever gave Goths.



Here's a live clip of nerdcore rap pioneer MC Frontalot doing his lust-besotted, epically cock-blocked tribute to "every sister with wrist scars and black eye goo." The second song costs you nuffin'. You get it for free, just because I love you all.

Have a good Friday, my dearest Screamers and Screamettes.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Stuff: “It don’t Gitmo better!”

The New York Times has an article on a new "attraction" at Coney Island: the Waterboard Thrill Ride! From the article:

It looks at first like any other shuttered storefront near the boardwalk: some garish lettering and a cartoonish invitation to a delight or a scam — in this case there’s SpongeBob SquarePants saying, “It don’t Gitmo better!”

If you climb up a few cinderblock steps to the small window, you can look through the bars at a scene meant to invoke a Guantánamo Bay interrogation. A lifesize figure in a dark sweatshirt, the hood drawn low over his face, leans over another figure in an orange jumpsuit, his face covered by a towel and his body strapped down on a tilted surface.

Feed a dollar into a slot, the lights go on, and Black Hood pours water up Orange Jumpsuit’s nose and mouth while Orange Jumpsuit convulses against his restraints for 15 seconds.

In my previous series on torture porn, I brought up 1) the sort of extremely stylized hyper-reality of torture porn that makes the real thing seem weirdly underwhelming and 2) the generational divide regarding the reception of torture imagery. Here's an extract that briefly touches on these issues:

Many people stroll by the installation without even stopping to look. As for those who do, Jodi Taylor, house manager for the freak show, said: “Adults find it very shocking, and kids are like, ‘That stinks.’ They’re so desensitized. They have no idea what the ethical issues are. They wish there was water spraying in their face.”

Kids these days.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Stuff: Lit horror classics! Cheap as free!

Audio Literature Odyssey is a boss little site where all-pro voice actor Nikolle Doolin presents free podcasts of literary classics. For the horror-minded Screamer or Screamette, Doolin's got a couple of classics for you. Swing by ALO and listen to the following (listed below with ALO's summary):

Turn of the Screw, by Henry James.
An inexperienced governess takes charge of two orphaned children living on a rural estate. She falls in love with them instantly. Yet, she soon detects that supernatural forces are at play in this idyllic scene. These forces seem to prey directly upon the little ones themselves; and only the governess appears to see and hear them. Real or imagined, can the governess fight these forces, or will she be overwhelmed to the point of destruction?

The Tell-Tale Heart, by Edgar Allan Poe
The old man is kind, but he has a vulture eye and his heart beats like a watch enveloped in cotton. It is too much for the narrator to bear, whose senses are acute. No, the old man must die. Yet, will death stop the beating heart, or will it never cease?

The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was published in the New England Magazine in 1892. The story is told through the protagonist’s journal, which she writes secretly over the course of several months, while staying in a rented mansion. As she narrates the story, she reveals that she has been suffering from a nervous condition and has been prescribed rest with strict orders not to work or socialize. Unfortunately, her husband is a physician who doesn’t think anything is wrong with her that a little rest and fresh air won’t cure. As time passes and the narrator is alienated from the activities and people that enliven her spirit, she sinks deeper and deeper into a depression that preys upon her mind. She becomes obsessed with the hideous yellow wallpaper in her room and succumbs to a delusion, which drives her across the line separating reality from fantasy.

Classy, smart, entertaining, and inexpensive - if this was a date, you'd already be in love with ALO. Now quit reading this silly old blog and download yourself something nice.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Movies: Lordie be-Gordie.

Alright, Screamers and Screamettes, the lovely and talented Heather Santrous, the long-time ANTSS fave (see sidebar) and insanely prolific horror blogger behind Mermaid Heather, has posted another in her on-going series of tributes to modern horror icons. Today's fright-meister: director Stuart Gordon.

And, this time, there's a twist. Heather's made this a joint effort. That's right! Mighty Marvel Team-Up style, this tribute brings together the relentless awesomeness that is Heather Santrous with the completely unobjectionable acceptability of CRwM in one outstanding tribute.

Below, I'll include my complete review of The Black Cat, written for Heather's latest tribute. When you're done, click on over to find more biographical details on Gordon, commentary from both Heather and I on his style and career, and links to five other reviews we've done of Gordon films.

Without overselling it, I think it is safe to say that this is the single greatest team-up since hydrogen and oxygen got together for that whole water thing. Enjoy.

When Mermaid Heather dropped the idea that I should cobble together a guest review of Stuart Gordon’s The Black Cat, his 2007 contribution to the second season of Showtime’s Masters Of Horror series, I actually got pretty excited. First, I’m a sucker for Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptions. Even his minor works in that limited field are, for my money, solidly built entertainment. I have a theory (well more like an intellectual prejudice, based on limited personal experience) that Gordon is at his best, when he starts from a firm foundation in strong source material. If Lovecraft can serve as this foundation, certainly Poe can as well.

Second, "The Black Cat" remains the only Poe story that genuinely unnerves me. It isn’t merely gothic or classically spooky, it actually creeps me out. The first time I read it, I panicked, and was overcome with the need to call my then girlfriend and ask if she was okay. Even now, re-reading it, I get a sinking sensation in my stomach. Previous adaptations of the story (and there have been more than ten, including the classic 1934 Edgar G. Ulmer flick starring both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff) can be charitably described as loose. Most of them are completely new and unrelated stories, with the hopefully crowd-drawing Poe title tacked on. A majority of them at least include a nod to the title and feature a black cat that gets a bit of screen time in some capacity, though not all of them bother with such a minor detail. From what I’d heard and read of Gordon’s adaptation, it clearly took liberties with the source material, but it is widely considered to be the closest anybody has come to a straight up adaptation.

For those unfamiliar with the Poe story, "The Black Cat" is a story related by a nameless narrator on the eve of his execution. He tells the reader that, from childhood, he’s always been "noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition." He’s also always had a soft spot for animals. He and his wife, a similarly soft-hearted soul, turn their house into a veritable zoo. "We had birds, gold-fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat." The cat is named Pluto and it is the narrator’s favorite. More the shame then when the narrator, in the grips of one of his increasingly common alcoholic rages, comes across Pluto one night. "One night, returning home, much intoxicated, from one of my haunts about town, I fancied that the cat avoided my presence. I seized him; when, in his fright at my violence, he inflicted a slight wound upon my hand with his teeth. The fury of a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no longer. My original soul seemed, at once, to take its flight from my body and a more than fiendish malevolence, gin-nurtured, thrilled every fiber of my frame. I took from my waistcoat-pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket!" Ouch.

The cat recovers, but never trusts the narrator again. The guilt over his violent act encourages the narrator to drink even more. Eventually, the narrator grows contemptuous of the wounded beast, and in a spasm of perversity, hangs the cat from a tree near his home. What happens next isn’t fully explained: somehow the narrator’s home burns down. Strangely, the image of the cat, still hanging in the noose, is burned like a shadow into the plaster of a wall, otherwise spared by the flames.

The narrator and his wife move into a new home and, as Poe does love his doubles, the couple adopts a stray cat that looks almost exactly like Pluto. It is even missing one eye. In fact, the only visual difference between Pluto and this new cat is a curious patch of white fur that resembles a gallows. The narrator’s fear, guilt, and anger regarding this new Pluto builds, until one day, he attempts to take an axe to it. His wife intervenes, and still blind with rage, the narrator takes an axe to her. In order to hide the evidence of his crime, he bricks his wife into the wall in their basement. After he’s done, he turns his attention to killing the cat, but he can no longer find it.

Four days after the murder, some police officers come calling on the narrator, looking for his wife. They search the house, and finding no evidence, are about to leave. In an ill-timed spasm of perverse bravado, the narrator begins to remark on the sturdy construction of the basement walls, and to emphasize his point, smacks the hiding place of his wife’s corpse with his hand. From behind the wall comes an inhuman wailing. "Of my own thoughts it is folly to speak. Swooning, I staggered to the opposite wall. For one instant the party upon the stairs remained motionless, through extremity of terror and of awe. In the next, a dozen stout arms were toiling at the wall. It fell bodily. The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators. Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled the monster up within the tomb!"

The end.

Of all of Poe’s stories, this remains my favorite. It lacks the distancing exoticism of his typically pseudo-European settings (think the fantasy kingdom of "Red Death" or the Inquisition Era setting "Pit and the Pendulum"); or the isolated "closed set" feel of things like "Tell-Tale Heart" (with its unexplained relationship between the narrator and his victim); or the crumbling, otherworldy mansion of the Ushers. The horror unfolds in a normal domestic unit, with a fairly standard dysfunction: the hubby is a boozer. In a way some of Poe’s more famous and gothic creations don’t, "The Black Cat" hits home, literally.

Poe also plays around with the less naturalistic elements of the story. Whether the second cat is some inexplicable avenging spirit, or whether it is just a normal cat transformed to monstrous significance by the guilt of the narrator, is a question that is never definitively settled. We get attempts at "rational" explanations for the cat-shadow image, but they don’t satisfy. And why does the wife not notice or find it odd that a second one-eyed cat has come into their lives, but this one has a patch of hair resembling a gallows on it (an oversight that’s especially odd since the narrator mentioned his wife was prone to occasional flights of superstition)? Horror fans still debate the role of supernatural/naturalistic elements in horror, and the brilliance of "The Black Cat" is that it can comfortably walk in both camps, while giving itself fully over to neither.

So how does Gordon’s adaptation stack up to the original? Gordon’s produced a very odd film, in that it is fairly true to the details and plot of the original (certainly more so than most adaptations), while at the same time quite overt about not being a strict adaptation in any real sense. Instead, Gordon’s taken the plot of "The Black Cat" and used it as an opportunity to create a great big mash note to the man who probably best deserves the title "Master of Horror."

The key change Gordon makes is casting Edgar A. Poe (Poe’s preferred rendering of his name, he kept the "Allan" – the last name of his adoptive parents – notably abridged) as the nameless narrator of his own story. He surrounds the tale with a loose framework of details from Poe’s own biography: making the setting Philadelphia, where the Poes lived for a portion of their tragically shortened married lives, and casting Virginia Poe in the role of the unnamed wife. In Gordon’s telling, Poe is in dire economic straits. He takes on a writing assignment to produce a lurid and thrilling tale, in the vein of "The Tell-Tale Heart." Unfortunately for Poe, pressure drives him to the bottle, and when Poe drinks, he can’t write. To make things worse, while playing the family piano for a man interested in purchasing it, a blood vessel in Virginia Poe’s neck ruptures, which is a gory sign of her worsening consumption.

After that set up, Gordon begins to weave in the plot of the Poe story. Under the tri-part burden of alcoholism, domestic illness, and poverty, Poe eventually snaps and attacks Pluto, the family cat. He graphically removes the cat’s eye and is discovered by his ailing wife. The gruesome discovery is too much of a shock for her and she faints to her death.

After the funeral (held, as was the custom of the time, at the home), Poe goes mad with remorse and rage. He hangs Pluto from the rafters of the home, and then sets fire to the house, with the intention of burning up along with his wife’s corpse. Miraculously, his wife suddenly gasps for air! She is not dead! Honestly, as far as twists go, this is quite the stretch. It is only forgivable here because the concept of being mistaken for dead was such a prominent theme in Poe’s own work, that it feels like an homage or an in-joke, rather than a narrative cop-out. Poe, stunned, manages to escape the home with his revived Virginia.

Installed in their new home, Poe promises Virginia that he’ll avoid the demon rum, and things look like they just might turn around. But, as anybody who ever went to summer camp can tell you, the cat always comes back. A one-eyed black cat enters the Poe residence through the window of the bedroom. Virginia swears it is Pluto, not knowing that Pluto couldn’t have escaped the fire, because Poe killed him before starting the fire. Poe swears it can’t be the old black cat. The mysterious new(?) cat has a white mark around its neck, Gordon’s equivalent of the mysterious noose-shaped patch.

Poe’s promises of sobriety aren’t worth much, and before you know it, he’s at the bottle again. In a booze-fueled fit, Poe decides that he’s had enough of cats, and goes after Pluto 2.0. He goes to axe it and his wife intervenes. Furious, Poe buries the axe in Virginia’s head. They rest you know. He stashes the corpse behind the wall, almost fools the cops, and is given away by the wailing of the cat that was walled in with his wife.

Here Gordon closes out the biographical frame, by essentially pulling an "it was all a dream" stunt. Poe concocted the whole thing as part of the writing assignment he took at the beginning of the film, and the episode closes on Poe finishing "The Black Cat."

Visually, The Black Cat might be the most accomplished episode of the series. It has the high-gloss look of a classic horror film. The film is shot in muted near-grays, that occasionally give way to shocking splashes of red, yellow, and green. This is used most spectacularly in the scenes of gore, which you will find either clash distractingly with the surrounding tone or reverent classicism, or you’ll welcome as signature Gordanisms (violence in Gordon’s films always verges on the absurd, even when it isn’t meant to be comical), depending on how you roll with your fandom.

The screen time is dominated by two characters, Poe and Virginia, both of whom are handled ably. Jeffrey Combs, a native Southerner himself, unleashes his drawl and eats up scenery with an almost operatic zest. His enjoyable bombastic performance is greatly enhanced by an excellent make-up job, including a tremendous fake nose, that makes him look remarkably like Poe. In contrast, Elyse Levesque does an admirable job with a fairly thankless role. Built to contrast Poe’s dramatic gloom, Virginia comes off as a lovely, placid, and mostly uninteresting, angel. Levesque gamely makes do with what she’s got, but she’s not given a lot to work with.

With a full measure of on-screen and behind the camera talent, and a well-rehearsed and cleverly meta script, The Black Cat succeeds in communicating Gordon’s love of Poe and his tale. What it isn’t though, is scary. By using Poe as the main character, we know from the get go that the murder plot is going to be undone and rectified. The tension is undercut by our knowledge that Poe didn’t axe his wife or get executed for murder. Ironically, by weaving historical facts into his narrative, he distances us from the story, going against the terrifyingly mundane setting of Poe’s original. And, to be honest, I’m not sure that Gordon was all that concerned with creating a horror film that recreated the terror of the original. I think Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptations show that he understands that such work demands a sort of loving betrayal of the original. Instead, I suspect he wanted to make a cinematic monument to his hero. What we have here is less a scary story than a worshipful love letter from one artist to a giant in their field. As such, it’s a well made film that is, curiously, more about horror than it is horrifying.

In the tradition of Mermaid Heather’s rating system, I’m going to give The Black Cat three PETA complaints out of five.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Music: Not easily offended.

Retro-post-punk is all the rage amongst the kids these days. Mainly, I think, because of the perennial popularity of hyphens. Part of the rampaging vanguard of angular riffs and glistening synths, Does It Offend You, Yeah? (or DIOYY) is a quartet of chaps from Reading and London. Today's slice of music joy – titled "Dawn of the Dead" – is off their first long-player: 2008's You Have No Idea What You're Getting Yourself Into. Straighten you skinny ties and dig hard, my pretties.

Oh, but a word of warning, there's inexplicable gold pasties and surreal, but bloody, images of dismemberment. If some Puritan at work turns you in because gore, near bare breasts, or Gary Numan-esque snares are inappropriate, don't come crying to me.