Friday, October 31, 2008

Music: It's a Halloween hootenany!

Have a hell of a Halloween, y'all. See you tomorrow.

The Cramps: "Garbage Man"

The Mummies: "You Must Fight to Live on the Planet Apes." Not only is this great tune about the famed Chuckie Heston sci-fi flick, it contains the vocab boosting word "chagrin." How many more rock songs are you going to here today that will contain the word chagrin? None more! That's how many more!

Composed for a 1977 modern dance company in Holland, here's "Soul Dracula."

Mountain Goats: "How to Embrace a Swamp Creature" (Live)

Black Sabbath: "Paranoid."

Danger Doom featuring Ghostface Killah: "Masks."

Nekromantix: "Horny in a Hearse."

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Music: Monster Parties: Fact or Fiction?

When experts disagree, you decide!

You decide by watching this Mr. Show clip.

Than, after the clip, you decide!

Thanks to amigo Raggedy Andy in Sac Town for pointing me to this clip.

Movies: I seen what I saw.

Before I start in on what promises to be a long and rambling review, I need to talk about the Kaiser Dog.

My friend Dave and I have made Saw a Halloween tradition for several years now. Around this time every year, we meet up at Pete's Waterfront Grill on Atlantic in Brooklyn and then catch Saw. I bring this up because the most amazing thing I saw all night was Pete's "Kaiser Dog": a hot dog that's wrapped in bacon and then deep-fried altogether, served with gruyere cheese, sauerkraut, and spicy mustard on black bread. It boggles the mind.

Alright. Now that I've gotten that off my chest . . . confession time.

I've got a weird confession: I don't trust horror critics who don't follow the Saw films.

Well, I mean, I guess I trust them, personally, as much as I would any random faceless stranger I knew strictly from Internet contact.

What I mean is that I don't trust their opinions about horror. I don't understand how such folks can expect to be taken seriously. I'm sure they're lovely people who are kind to children, love their country, pay taxes, drink responsibly, support local music, and help old ladies cross the street. But when it comes time to sound off about horror movies, I pretty much tune them out.

I'm going to go out on a limb and start this review with an unnecessarily confrontational and aggressively over-generalizing claim: If you haven't seen the Saw films, then you really don't care about horror films. Horror-centric critics, both pro and amateur, that opt out of the films, taking either a stand of principled ignorance or an uncritically dismissive attitude, are essentially announcing that they've intentionally removed themselves from the single most important modern horror series currently running.

Okay, that's done. Let's see if such an absurd claim can be defended.

One of the two poles around which the media-hyped non-phenomenon of "torture porn" congealed, Saw survived a tepid critical reception and divisive reactions in the horror-fan base to become the only significant long-running horror franchise created since the height of the 1980s slasher boom. As they've done every Halloween since 2004, Lionsgate has rolled out yet another installment in the series. This gives the franchise the sort of staying power reserved for slasher icons.

Financially, the Saw flicks are, by some accounting, the most profitable horror franchise of all time. The first flick made Lionsgate just over $1 billion dollars worldwide and on all formats (on an initial investment of just over $1 million). Since then, every installment of the series has debuted in as a top five box office contender, snagging between $30 to $34 million dollars on its opening weekend. Since Saw 3, there's been a slight dip in overall profits, but each installment still regularly nets about $150 million in worldwide ticket sales.

Now, admittedly, this is pretty small potatoes when compared to genuine blockbusters. The Disney-backed tween entertainment juggernaut High School Musical 3 rolled over Saw 5 without so much as breaking a sweat on it eugenically perfect lab-grown brow. But, within the confines of the genre, the franchise stands astride the field like a freakin' colossus. In all of 2008, only three genre films came close to Saw 5's opening weekend mojo: Cloverfield, The Strangers, and The Happening. Of these, only The Strangers really required horror fans do all the heavy lifting. Cloverfield and The Happening enjoyed significant crossover attention from people who don't normally bother to go check out horror flicks.

Sure, sure, sure. So it makes bank? So what?

The "what" is this: Even the weakest Saw flick can reliably depend on the fact that the vast majority of horror fans that still watch flicks in the theater will show up to see it. If you wanted to take a quick demographic snapshot of the population that actually supports horror films in theaters, who actually go to see new horror films when they come out, you could do much worse than taking stock of the audience for the Saw films.

The franchise's genre-specific critics who have avoided the series on principle and can’t speak to the pictures are – from a statistical point of view – basically irrelevant. They've made themselves so. They simply no longer share a definition of horror that includes the same material that a majority of the community does. They're like self-proclaimed experts on popular music who really only ever listen to jazz. They are, of course, free to proclaim the utter and unquestionable superiority of jazz over all other forms of popular music, but unless they can cough some knowledge of other music, then their claim is bullshit. Such critics might have a lot of spiffy stuff to say about jazz. They may be veritable libraries of jazz info. But, ultimately, their aesthetic judgments are simply untenable because they made from a position of ignorance.

Despite the tut-tutting of critics who think that the Saw franchise is propped up by a phalanx of teen movie-goers who basically show up because they've got no better option on Halloween, the numbers suggests that Saw out-performs strong horror contenders regardless of the time of release and regardless of whether or not it has got competition. Even when there's a strong October contender, such as the remake zombie flick Quarantine which appeared to challenge Saw's October dominance earlier this month, Saw rolls right over it. Quarantine actually made it on to top-ten box office list its opening weekend, making it one of about ten horror flicks to perform so well all year. Still, Saw's opening weekend just about doubled the rabies-zombie flick's entire month-long performance.

In short, the majority of the audience for horror is watching these films. And they've been doing so in astounding numbers for half a decade now. When somebody claims to be a critic of modern horror films – even if its only in the role as a hobbyist – but doesn't know these flicks, then they're making the implicit claim that they have basically been out of loop with the largest development in the field in the last twenty years.

All this isn't to say that you have to like the Saw films. In some previous posts I did about the alleged torture porn sub-genre, I made the claim that we have yet to see a truly classic "torture porn" film. This would include all five Saw flicks, in my opinion. None of them are so awesome that they'll ever rise to the level of, say, The Shining or Jaws. Twenty years from now, the entire franchise will have most likely settled into the cult status that was the reward of the slashers that came before it. That said, even a critic with an axe to grind is basically talking out his or her ass when they talk about modern horror and can't discuss contemporary horror's single largest moving target. If you make some claim to make about modern horror, unless you're specifically restricting your claim to some minor subset of current films and say as much, you are pretty much making a claim about Saw. If you don't know Saw, then you don't know what your talking about.

Anyway, that's the official policy position of ANTSS.

Doubters, of course, will say that this opinion is really just an elaborate justification for the fact that I've seen every Saw flick in the theater and I'll hiding my resentment over the fact that I'll never get that money or time back.

To those critics I say, what's the point of a self-aggrandizing delusion meant to shield one's fragile ego if you're expected to be rational about it. I've said my story and I'm sticking to it.

Now, on to the review proper:

In Saw V, the mind behind the long-running franchise face a pretty difficult issue: how do you keep the series going when 1) almost all your significant characters have died off, including your star villain, and 2) what do you do with increasingly elaborate and nonsensical backstory that the series drags behind itself like a millstone.

The makers do an admirable job of handling the first issue, but make a mess of handling the second.

To move the series forward, this is the first Saw were the primary trap-maker and killer is not the original Jigsaw. Though the original Jigsaw appears in several flashbacks, the mantle of "Jigsaw" has been passed to Detective Mark Hoffman, one of the officers introduced in Saw 3. Hoffman escapes from the slaughter-house that is the setting for the third and fourth Saw flicks – a charnel house of death traps that pretty much dispatched every significant character from the franchise – with the belief that everybody who could connect him to the Jigsaw murders is dead. Unbeknownst to Hoffman, one other investigator, the relentlessly determined Special Agent Strahm, made it out alive, if a little worse for wear.

What follows is a cat and mouse game between Strahm and Hoffman, the former closing in on the new Jigsaw while the latter hastily prepares as death trap for his pursuer.

As that plot unspools, a second plot unfolds involving a group of five prisoners – all linked by a single murderous mistake – who must negotiate a series of four death traps, each of which seems to demand the death of one of the players if the others are to survive. (For fans of the show Dexter, Dex's long suffering girlfriend Rita – sporting black hair – appears as one of the victims.)

These developments – the bifurcated plotting and the removal of the original Jigsaw – have lead to some complaints from fans of the series, but I personally didn't mind them. The Jigsaw killer has never been an icon in the way the '80s slashers were. It's his methods that are the hallmark of the series. He's got a set of best practices (the traps and ideology), a brand name (Jigsaw), and a mascot (the doll). A truly post-modern movie maniac, Jigsaw isn't a killer so much as a murder franchise. From the second film, the filmmakers have established that the original Jigsaw planned to train little Baby Jigsaws and send them out into the world. That we're now dealing with Jigsaw 2.0 is not only expected, but it is preferable to either dragging out the original killer's influence as if there was no operational limit to his ability to predict human behavior or doing what the slashers would have done and reintroducing him as a supernatural entity.

As for the second plot, the complaint is that the whole thing feels disconnected from the main mythology of the flick. Personally, I took that as an intentional move. Unlike the first Jigsaw, Hoffman is concerned primarily with screwing over Strahm and protecting himself. He's not above picking semi-random victims, building traps that can't be escaped, and generally acting in less cultish, more selfish manner than the original. If the victims in second plot seem like gory red herrings, it's because they are. There purpose there as nothing to do with their crimes and everything to do with trapping Strahm. If people were weird quasi-religious experiments for the first Jigsaw, they're essentially disposable trap fodder for the new one.

What the filmmakers handle less ably is the ever more elaborate backstory of the series. In fact, with several retconning flashbacks, this film simply adds more layers of unnecessary complexity to the tale. At this point, despite the fact that we're starting all over with a new killer, I don't think somebody could start the series with this film. There's way too much knowledge assumed on the part of the filmmakers. This is unfortunate as I don't think anybody watching these films takes the evolution of the Saw mythology half as seriously as the filmmakers do. Every film they've tweaked Jigsaw's motivation slightly – he's gone from crazed cancer patient to religious messiah figure to libertarian social philosopher to his latest incarnation: Zen death trap builder – but the results are always a wash. What could possibly make all the effort Jigsaw puts into to building his traps make sense? The constant revision of the storyline is equally un-involving. Has anybody ever praised a Saw film for its incessant twisting of character backgrounds? I'll admit that the attention paid to the evolving mythology of the series was a pleasant change from the slipshod continuity of the '80s slashers, it now threatens to devour the flicks and reduce all characterization to a series of recurrent cameos.

The production values also seem a tad lackluster in this outing. While some of the traps are classics of their type, the sets seem dull rather than sinister. Shot compositions have a flat, ready for video feel; the washes of sickly color lighting that were so important to the earliest installments are either absent or bizarrely used (as when ordinary water appears to glow neon blue). The acting is adequate for the film's needs. Though we'll never see another cast as almost comically over-qualified as the cast from the first flick, everybody here holds down what they need to do. The unfortunate exception here is Strahm, who screenwriters decided would essentially narrate all of his investigations lest we miss some crucial point. The result is wooden and annoying. To be fair, this might not be the actor's fault. Who could possibly have made such an annoying character trait work?

Within the series, Saw V is middling entry. Its strictly workman like visuals and tangled interest in a backstory that's become more of a hindrance than a boon undermine the interest in a fresh beginning promised by a new villain. Though a handful of the traps are some of the most evil contraptions ever built for the series, this alone doesn't raise the level of the flick. Regular fans of the series will find plenty to discuss, but I suspect they'll find the flick had more promise than it delivered on. People approaching the series for the first time should avoid this one. It's opaque to anybody who hasn't been following along all this time.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Stuff: Torture couture.

I visited NYC's Fashion Institute of Technology yesterday. Their museum is currently hosting a wonderful exhibit on goth fashion: Gothic: Dark Glamour. At first, I was a little hesitant to go. I was worried that I was basically going to walk into a slightly upmarket showcase for Hot Topic-grade junk, but I was honestly blown away. The exhibit's relevance as a historical overview is secured by its scope and depth, while the artistic merit of the show rests on the fact that the designs and items collected are truly beautiful and fascinating.

The show tracks the development of the gothic look back to Victorian mourning clothing – notably the fashionable widow's weeds worn by young women: a look Victorians wittily referred to as "the trap rebaited." From there, you get a flowering of "dark" looks from the 1980s, with a second boom at the dawn of the Twenty-first Century. The exhibit's focus is on high couture designers and their works, but some room is made for examples of youth streetwear and a couple of examples of the "elegant gothic Lolita" look the developed in Japan.

There's a ton to discuss about the exhibit. The show covers the role of Japanese designers in redefining the gothic with a distinctly non-Western flare (interestingly, despite the gothic's Euro origins, the show is dominated by brilliant work from American and Japanese designers), the figure of the dandy, the role of the French Revolution in the development of the gothic novel, proto-vampiric imagery in fashion discourse prior to the publication of Dracula, and so much more that is really is a must see for anybody interested in what horror tropes do once they leave the confines of literature and film.

Given the scope of the show, I'll focus on a single element – the work of Japanese designer Kei Kagami.

Let's start with a comparison.

First, a movie poster:

Second, a fashion photo:

The former is, of course, a poster for Saw. The latter is a picture of a dress designer by Kei Kagami. Kagami's first solo runway show and the premiere of Saw both occurred in 2004. Apparently, while the folks behind Saw were developing their film's look, Kagami was developing a similar look based on his training at the Bunka Fashion College of Tokyo, Central St. Martin's College of Art & Design in London, and a stint as a studio assistant for John Galliano (one of the few non-Japanese or American designers heavily represented in the goth exhibit).

Here's more Kagami.

Interesting, despite the general tendency of horror bloggers – including myself - to go to great lengths to distinguish the nakedly industrial aesthetic of works like Saw and Hostel from the more Romantic look of traditional gothic fare, Kagami firmly places his work within the gothic tradition and sees no contradiction. He has referred to his look as "neo-gothic" and, more entertainingly, spins gothic tales about himself and his work. When singer and fashion reporter Diane Pernet asked Kagami about the inspiration behind a particular line of shoe designs, the designer gave the following story, with Kagami's caps-free writing style preserved:

let me tell you the story of ' a ghost rider that took me to a cemetery in North London '. this ghost story is not scary at all but what happened was true .

let me tell you the story of ' a ghost rider that took me to a cemetery in North London '.
this ghost story is not scary at all but what happened was true .

one day i went to a biker's cafe called ' Ace Cafe' in north London .
on the way home i found a beautiful vintage bike , maybe it was one called ' Vincent black shadow '( sounds already spooky ) , so i decided to chase it. it was a fast bike , i could not really catch up with it but i kept chasing it as long as i could see it .

but when i turned at the last corner , i could not see it anymore , it just disappeared .
i stopped my bike and what i could see was only the entrance of Highgate cemetery .
so i visited this cemetery in the weekend .
there was not the Vincent black shadow there but a beautiful world in shade of Highgate.

Kagami currently operates out of Milan. He has showrooms in London, Milan, and Hiroshima.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Music: Whhhheeeeeeennnnnneehhhh – Whoooooooooooooohoo – Whhhheeeeeeennnnnneehhhh – Whoooooooooooooohoo . . .

This is nobody's fault but my own, but whenever somebody mentions My Bloody Valentine, the middling also-ran '80s slasher about a psycho miner that violently hates Valentine's Day, I can't help but start audibly wailing: "Whhhheeeeeeennnnnneehhhh – Whoooooooooooooohoo – Whhhheeeeeeennnnnneehhhh – Whoooooooooooooohoo . . ." I sound like some demented police siren.

It's a serious condition. Seriously. Quit laughing.

This wouldn't be a problem really except, for reasons totally obscure to me, everybody seems to have decided the coming MBV remake – in 3D nonetheless, the gimmick that made Friday the 13th Part 3 so indisputably the best in the series - will be exempt from the general directive requiring horror bloggers to be hating hard on remakes.

Worse yet, the original MBV is going through a widespread reappraisal by horror fans. Until recently, the flick enjoyed a big fat 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. It's IMDB rating hovered between 2 and 3. These days it has a 14% on Tomatotron and whopping 5 and change on the Database of All Earthly Knowledge. Never one to miss out on the latest geek circle jerk, Quentin Tarantino made sure to drop the title as his favorite slasher flick of all time or until Return to Horror High is ripe for rediscovery.

(I should point out that these are still utterly crap ratings and before people start wetting themselves over the prospects of a new MBV, they should reflect on the fact that this film needed a critical rediscovery simply to reach the dizzying ratings reserved for such genre landmarks as 2004's Van Helsing.)

All this means that people have actually been giving this flick some attention. Consequently, like some kid unwittingly left in front of a seizure inducing Japanimation show, I find my sell innocently surfing the horror-blog-o-sphere to suddenly burst into "Whhhheeeeeeennnnnneehhhh – Whoooooooooooooohoo – Whhhheeeeeeennnnnneehhhh – Whoooooooooooooohoo . . ."

Needless to say, this caterwauling is driving my poor wife mad. In an effort to get at the root of the problem, I've dug out the suppressed memory that causes this neurotic-compulsive behavior: the video for shoe-gazing legends My Bloody Valentine's tune "Only Shallow."

Now that I've fully recognized why I wail like a spastic electric banshee whenever the title of the movie comes up, we should put the results of this autotherapy to the test. Quick, somebody, mention you-know-what in the comments of this entry!

(Just for giggles, there's a wonderful youtube video featuring MBV – the band, not either version of the movie – that highlights one of the weirder features of this icy, moody, artsy, withdrawn group: They were unbelievably loud. Louder than more ostensibly rockin' outfits could ever hope to be. In his excellent 33 1/3 book on Loveless, Mike McGonigal describes the experience of seeing My Bloody Valentine live as the equivalent of standing in front of a jet liner's roaring engine. For an audio/visual illustration of that metaphor, here's a live clip of MBV playing "Only Shallow" live. You don't have to listen to the whole thing. Just listen for the point where, almost as soon as the band kicks in, this bootlegger's video recorder gets utterly overwhelmed by the band's noise.

Ouch. Somebody may have just blown out their camera's mic.)

Monday, October 27, 2008

News: Pentagon prepares to launch Operation Die Human Weaklings!

Whenever I'm watching a science-runs-amok style horror flick, I'm always baffled that the scientists involved seem completely unaware of, say, the almost two centuries of culture and art that have passed betwixt the publication of Shelley's Frankenstein and now that state, fairly unambiguously, that mad science is almost always a shitty idea. You never see a researcher pause, turn to his lab partners, and say, "Hey, does anybody ever wonder if making these sharks bigger, stronger, smarter, and psychopathic is really a good idea? I mean, sure, everybody needs bigger sharks. That a given. But psychopathic? Does anybody even remember why we decided that? Just seems, you know, ill-advised."

Lab partner: "Wait, are you accusing us of playing God in a dangerously irresponsible way? Are you saying we're like Frankenstein?"

Scientist: "I'm sorry. I'm completely unfamiliar with one of the most common metaphors for the dilemma of scientific ethics in Western culture. Forget I said anything. Let's get back to work. We're burning daylight and these sharks aren't going to make themselves into unstoppable killing machines!"

But, apparently, it isn't a lapse on the part of filmmakers. Mad scientists seem to actually work that way.

Last Wednesday, Short Sharp Science, the blog of New Scientist magazine, reported that the Pentagon has put out a bid request for something they're calling a "Multi-Robot Pursuit System." The short description: they want researchers to develop robots that will hunt down things using the same pack logic that wolves and dogs use.

Currently, remote weapons systems are spiffy and all, but a one-person-per-machine ratio means that you take a soldier off the field for every machine you deploy. What, say the brilliant minds at the Pentagon, if you could tip the ratio? One soldier could control an alpha robot and several other robotic weapons systems would follow its lead the same way pack hunters organize their efforts around an alpha hunter. From Short Sharp Science's post:

What we have here are the beginnings of something designed to enable robots to hunt down humans like a pack of dogs. Once the software is perfected we can reasonably anticipate that they will become autonomous and become armed.

We can also expect such systems to be equipped with human detection and tracking devices including sensors which detect human breath and the radio waves associated with a human heart beat. These are technologies already developed.

As if this wasn't Rise-of-the-Machines enough, the phrasing of the request is equally unsettling. The stated function of these robo-packs is to "search for and detect a non-cooperative human." While the language actually means "a test subject who is actively attempting to avoid detection," it is a turn of phrase that makes it sound as if some quisling AI researchers have already decided to welcome our new Skynet-driven overlords.

Lest ANTSS be accused of not going after the low hanging fruit, here's the robo-revolution's version of L'Internationale:

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Books: "Monsters. I think they are so terrible! Somebody should destroy them all so that we, the humans, are safe. You come to castle?"

Simon Rich's second humor collection, Free-Range Chickens, contains more of the short and sweet comedy pieces that his debut collection, Ant Farm, was full of. Each bit only runs one or two pages long. This is just enough time for Rich to brilliantly riff on modern fears, hopes, and humiliations, while never overstaying his welcome. His imagination roams wide and far - from the pre-historical moment when the world's oldest profession was the only profession to an imagined conversation between the various murderous maniacs a 7-year-old Simon imagined gathered in his closet every night (with guest appearances by Freddy and Chucky).

Here's the first of three vampire-marketing gags that appear in the new collection. profile

NAME: Count Dracula

OCCUPATION: Aristocrat

LOCATION: Castle Gothica, Transylvania

ABOUT YOU: I am normal human looking for human woman to come to castle. I am normal, regular human. I like the popular music and television. You come to castle.



Yes, I am of the human race, like you.

The Christian Bible, because I am regular kind of guy.

Monsters. I think they are so terrible! Somebody should destroy them all so that we, the humans, are safe. You come to castle?

Here is the thing. I am very social person, but the people in my village are not so good to be friends with. For instance, sometimes they say things that are not true about other people in the village. It is not good to believe all the things that are said in my village.

Yes. You bring children to castle.

I like walking around in sunshine, eating regular foods, sleeping in normal human bed. I am regular human. Here is thing though: when you come, it is better if you come at nighttime. You stay in your own private room at top of staircase. You have normal, regular sleep experience. In the morning, we go outside in the sun.

I am my own boss.

If you want to read Drac's ad promoting Castle Gothica as a teen summer tour location or his mailer for a dubious Red Cross blood drive ("The blood you send is for the normal humans."), then check out Free-Range Chickens. FRC, from Random House, is out now and will run you 17 Washingtons in hardback.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Stuff: Faux pas of the damned!

Stolen from the delightful I Love Horror blog. Do visit them, won't you.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Movies: Ils communication.

Them, the 2006 francophone home invasion shocker (Ils in its native tongue) and not the 1954 classic about giant mutant ants attacking Los Angeles (though both flicks do feature extensive tunnel systems in their final scenes), is film whose modest ambitions pay off in effective and pleasing ways. Using really brilliant sound design, a wonderful cavernous mansion set, an elegantly simple plot, and a couple of game actors, the director/writer duo David Moreau and Xavier Palud deliver on of the best of the recent crop of French horror flicks, and they do it without clumsy bids for sociological relevance (I'm looking at you Frontier(s)) or needlessly "arty" inscrutability (and now I'm looking at you: last fifteen minutes of High Tension).

The story is simple. A young French ex-pat couple, writer Lucas and French teacher Clementine, spends the weekend in their large, but decaying country home. Before they get in even one good night's sleep, a gang of mysterious evil children begins terrorizing them. For next hour (the film clocks in at a svelte 77 minutes), Lucas and Clementine run for their lives, pursued relentlessly by these faceless attackers through home, forest, and what appears to be an abandoned underground bunker.

That's it. Pretty simple.

The pleasure of watching Them is similar to the pleasure one gets watching the performance of a great athlete: you're watching excellence within a well known and narrowly defined field of endeavor.

Despite title cards that warn viewers the film is based on a real story (and, apparently, is was loosely inspired by an actual crime), the plot is ruthlessly focused on Lucas and Clementines' long, brutal night, avoiding any exposition or tangents that produce drag. Even the characterization is economical. There are a few scenes that quickly establish Lucas and Clementine as a happy, functional couple and that is that. What more do we need to know? Even the overall narrative structure is bare bones. There's a disposable prelim round kill – a mother/daughter team gets dispatched pre-credits to establish that the villains are no joke – and then we get down to business. At the end of the flick, there's a close out scene with a couple of title cards to sort of tie up some lose ends, and then that's all folks. In a way, the film's structure reminded somewhat of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Not that the plots are similar or there's any theme or tone connections – in fact, if children didn't play such as sinister role in the film, it would barely score a PG-13 – instead, one gets the sense that the film gives us a little prep, then shots through the scares, and then says, "Hey, I'm done." It doesn’t conclude so much as just stop. I don't mean it as a negative criticism. It's actually refreshing. In fact, I think the movie could even have done without the last title cards filling in some details.

Visually, the film is a slick production. It has the richly textured feel that has become the dominant visual style of contemporary horror. Somebody recently described the style as "dreary," but I don't see it that way. In contrast to the bright, high-contrast colors of '70s Euro horror or the muted we-know-we-end-up-on-VHS palette of '80s slasher flicks, the colors in films like Them form deep pools of warmth or darkness covered over in an a subtle gloss – like the worlds depicted in these films are always just seconds away from a thunder storm. This gives the sets an anxious beauty that heightens the sense of detail rather than dulls it. Combined with an almost obsessive eye for set design, it gives the viewer the impression that the characters in these films live in world of accumulated detail, rather than a world designed to make a single artistic statement. It's HergĂ© by way of Se7en rather than the seductive 1970s art-house nightmares of the Euro set or pseudo-verite of something like TCM. The direction is confident, though the characters sometimes get lost in murky lighting and the result is not tension but eye strain. I would also add that there were some scenes in which the spatial relationships within the house were lost on me: Are we on the roof now? Is this the greenhouse we saw earlier? Overall, though, the directors manage to keep everything lucid, which is no small task considering that this movie is pretty much a 60 minute long game of cat and mouse.

The real technical achievement is the film's sound design. For most of the movie, the kiddie cult that brings our protagonists so much woe exists mainly as a series of slashing flashlight beams and a web of shouts, clicks, whistles, and other signals. It turns them from a gang of kids into a sort of airborne toxic threat – they don't surround the house so much as settle on it. It is genuinely brilliant. Possibly the best use of sound in a horror flick I've seen since Cloverfield (though considerably less deafening). The effect was slight dampened by my lack of a home theater, though viewers with the full-on sound set-up are in for a treat.

Them is arguably too slight a film to be a classic. It won't shift how you feel about the genre and it's not likely to haunt your dreams. But it is solidly suspenseful and delivers fully on everything it promises. It's hard to find fault with that.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

LOTT D: Want a little fromage with that whine?

Let me tell why it's cooler than cool that Casey Criswell – the blogger behind Cinema Fromage (a long-time feature on the ANTSS sidebar), one of the gang behind the Bloody Good Horror podcast, and the sterling human being lucky enough to be married to lovely and talented Colleen: The First Lady of Fright – is now a member of the august League of Tana Tea Drinkers.


Too bad, I'm going to tell you anyway. When you don't live on my blog, you won't have to live by my rules.

There's a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story called "Earth's Holocaust." In it, the inhabitants of our little home planet decide that life is essentially suffocating under the weight of past culture. The burden of what's come before, the long trailing chain of history, literature, art, philosophy, and all the rest of it, is stifling humanity's ability to create anew. It is dooming modern artists to endlessly parrot universally acknowledged masterworks and creating a tyranny of the dead ideas over the living. To solve the problem, humanity consigns all its culture to a massive bonfire in one of the expansive plains of the Midwest. Genealogies, heraldry, historical documents, letters, plays, paintings, novels, money, clothes – all that can be tossed to the flames is burnt away.

The point – and I know some of you doubted I had one here – is that the horror blog-o-sphere sometimes reminds of Hawthorne's pre-bonfire world. It is so often so besotted with nostalgia as to be blind-drunk on it, so focused on the past of the genre that there's no hope for the future, so utterly backward that the thought of moving forward is pretty soundly mocked.

But not Casey.

Casey's blog won't hesitate to drop some horrortastic science about a classic like Young Frankenstein, The Brood, or even Something Wicked This Way Comes, all of which were recently featured on his blog or podcast. But what Casey does that makes him a real HERO OF THE INTERNET™ is give massive amounts of time to new releases, especially straight-to-DVD releases. And he reviews these puppies with wit, insight, and genuine good humor, eschewing the condescension and cynical "been-there-done-that" attitude so many horror bloggers take to anything made after 1989.

He's one of a handful of horror bloggers – including ANTSS fave Mermaid Heather and Black Horror Movies (one of the newest additions to the sidebar) – who care about what's going on now and cover contemporary horror with real energy.

Plus, he writes sentences like this: "If you refrain from seeing this due to the name, you’re a goob!"

Anyway, enough jibber jabber! Go check him out and congratulate him. I command it!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Books: The mechanics of nightmares.

The title of Patrick McNamara's Nightmares: The Science and Solution of Those Frightening Visions during Sleep is a bit of a foolish brag. There's plenty of science in these pages, but it all adds up to is one big unsolved mystery. Collecting the latest neurobiological research, McNamara finds it easy to debunk many previous theories and lay assumptions about nightmares (for example, he dismisses the entire body of Freudian dream analysis in a single short paragraph), but he finds it considerably difficult to construct a convincing theory out of what remains. McNamara's solution: Nightmares are an adaptive trait meant to strengthen the sense of self in the young and increase the stature of nightmare sufferers in society through the act of retelling the nightmare in a compelling way. If that hypothesis rubs you the wrong way, rest assured that going into the details of the hypothesis won't resolve any issues you have with it. I have a hard time defending it because it looks half-assed to me. Much of the defense for the adaptive nature of it comes from the sort "just so" stories that make evo-devo the must suspect thing to evolve out of evolutionary theory since social Darwinism. Perhaps somebody with a deeper background in the materials would disagree.

Despite the troublesome central idea, the real value of this tome for the lay reader like myself is the wealth of curious details it collects about the creation, source, and content of nightmares. Although the cover suggests a popular investigation, the book is not written for the casual reader and getting through some of the jargon and citations can make one feel a bit like a sandpiper. Still, there's some fascinating stuff here.

So, instead of doing a typical review, I thought what would be most interesting is to simply cull a handful of details from the book and share 'em with you, my ever-lovin' Screamers and Screamettes.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the choice bits of data from McNamara's Nightmares:

1. Rates for nightmares are somewhat predictable. In children ages 3 to 6, nearly 50% of their dreams are nightmares. This number drops to 20% between the ages of 6 and 12. After age 12, the rate of nightmares drops to just 8%. A small segment of the population suffers frequent nightmares, defined as one nightmare or more a week. Women are disproportionately represented in the population of frequent nightmare suffers. In fact, women generally suffer more nightmares than men. Nobody knows why.

2. The content of nightmares shows some interesting correlations across age. Almost all nightmares, at any age, feature pursuit of conflict with threatening strangers. However, the presence of supernatural threats or monsters concentrates in the certain age groups. The lowest age group mentioned above (3 through 6) dreams about monsters and anthropomorphic animals nearly all the time. Then, inexplicably, monsters and supernatural figures feature in fewer and fewer dreams. Kids ages 6 to 12 dream less about monsters and more about threatening human strangers. Finally, and just as mysteriously, monsters and supernatural characters return to plague adults again. This reflects general trends and individuals and individual nightmares might not follow the rules. But, overall, there seems to be a pattern.

3. In the dreams of children, there seem to be gender-specific variations in levels of perceived "victimization." Young boys start off with high levels of victimization dreams – like some character from a Hostel flick, they imagine that they are under attack and that they can only sit there and endure it. These levels drops consistently over time until they reach the levels found in adult dreams. Young girls, on the other hand, start with relatively low levels of victimization, not all that dissimilar to the levels found in adults (though skewed by the frequency of nightmares which adults don't come close to matching). Then, over time, these levels increase and dreams of victimization become more common. After hitting a peak in late childhood, these levels begin to subside again, lowering to meet adult norms.

4. The issue of whether or not dreams are metaphors for events in the dreamer's life is complicated. All dreams, and specifically nightmares in this case, have access to the dreamer's memories – but only certain types of memories. Except in the really young and in those suffering from post-traumatic stress, nightmares do not have access to your episodic memory. Instead, they're drawing on your semantic and process memories. This has to do with when memories are encoded during sleep. During REM sleep, when normal adult nightmares are most likely to occur, your brain is encoding abstract conceptual meanings and wiring you brain for common, repeated actions. In short, you tend to dream like an amnesiac. You know what a mother is, but you probably don't specifically think of your own mother. You might dream that you're back in college, but it won't really be your specific college campus. Content studies of dreams reveal that, in adult nightmares, less than a quarter of the elements involved (characters, set, etc) are familiar to the dreamer. There are exceptions, of course, but generally your dreaming in abstractions, metaphors without a stable reference.

5. The brain activity of adults suffering nightmares suggests that we experience them not as a slowly building increase in levels of anxiety, but as a series of successive shocks – a bunch of jump scares, to put it in horror film terms. During a nightmare, there spikes in the dreamer's PGO (pontine-geniculo-occipital) waves. These waves are responsible for the "visual" nature of dreams – the phenomenon of believing you "saw" the dream even though you weren't using your eyes. These waves are also connected to your waking orientation response, the automatic response that kicks in when you're startled in waking life. When you get a jump scare in a movie, you're basically feeling awake what you're feeling over and over again when you have a nightmare. This startle response is no joke. Though most healthy individuals have nothing to fear, nightmares can put stress on the cardiovascular system and there's an increased chance of cardiac arrest during a nightmare.

6. Nightmares are, according to the good doctor, "hyperassociative." That is to say that we store our semantic memories (the raw material of nightmares) in networks of shifting associations. Nightmares storm through these links, connecting crap together in overly abundant ways that would be non-functional in waking life. However, there is an artistic parallel. The gothic aesthetic, with its lush and overly-strained metaphors (think of the house in "The Fall of the House of Usher" – it equals the family, Usher himself, a human head, and so on . . .), is possibly the closest intentional and waking humans have gotten to reproducing the construction process of nightmares. The chief distinction is that gothic works build on a chain of meaningful associations while nightmare's are free of that constraint. Could you make a surreal gothic?

Okay, that's enough stuff. We could go on, but then we'd be getting into some pretty esoteric stuff. Like I said, these factoids are pulled out of context and turned into normal-ese for popular consumption. McNamara's actual prose is dense and aimed at the scholar and mental health care professional. As such, unless you're a glutton for punishment when you're on some intellectual hobby-horse, just incorporate these tidbits into your cocktail hour conversation and let it go at that.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Stuff: The hoax was the real hoax.

Michael Socolow, writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, takes a hard look at the most famous Halloween hoax of the media age and takes the opportunity to poke some holes in the reputation of Orson Welles' legendary War of the Worlds radio broadcast.

From Socolow's "The Hyped Panic Over War of the Worlds":

The "War of the Worlds" broadcast remains enshrined in collective memory as a vivid illustration of the madness of crowds and the deeply invasive nature of broadcasting. The program seemingly proved that radio could, in the memorable words of Marshall McLuhan, turn "psyche and society into a single echo chamber." The audience's reaction clearly illustrated the perils of modernity. At the time, it cemented a growing suspicion that skillful artists — or incendiary demagogues — could use communications technology to capture the consciousness of the nation. It remains the prime example used by media critics, journalists, and professors to prove the power of the media.

Yet the media are not as powerful as most think, and the real story behind "The War of the Worlds" is a bit more complex. The panic was neither as widespread nor as serious as many have believed at the time or since.

Nobody died of fright or was killed in the panic, nor could any suicides be traced to the broadcast. Hospital emergency-room visits did not spike, nor, surprisingly, did calls to the police outside of a select few jurisdictions. The streets were never flooded with a terrified citizenry. Ben Gross, the radio columnist of the New York Daily News, later remembered a "lack of turmoil in front of CBS" that contrasted notably with the crowded, chaotic scene inside the building. Telephone lines in New York City and a few other cities were jammed, as the primitive infrastructure of the era couldn't handle the load, but it appears that almost all the panic that evening was as ephemeral as the nationwide broadcast itself, and not nearly as widespread. That iconic image of the farmer with a gun, ready to shoot the aliens? It was staged for Life magazine.
[Famed photo featured below - CRwM]

So where did the enduring legend of nationwide panic comes from?

First, says Socolow, the scope of the panic was hyped and expanded by the media and Welles, both of which knew a good story when they saw it.

The news media loved the story, and Welles loved the news media. The panic became a global story literally overnight. Even the Nazis could not resist commenting, noting the credulity of the American public. Americans certainly appeared gullible, but they were not alone. The news media, handed a sensational story of national scope, reported every detail (including fictional ones) about Welles, the program, and the reaction.

Welles's greatest performance that evening wasn't in the studio; it was in a hallway, at the improvised news conference, when he feigned a stunned, apologetic demeanor. In reality, as Paul Heyer notes in The Medium and the Magician, Welles carefully concealed his satisfaction with the hysteria while expressing concern over the rumors of deaths attributed to the program. The threats of investigation coming from the Federal Communications Commission bothered Welles, too, but they were primarily CBS's problem.

Second, Socolow points to loss or supression of the only significant statistical effort to gauge just how widespread the panic really was. The night of the broadcast – actually the night before Halloween – CBS executive Frank Stanton and sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld created a quick statistical survey methodology and, without running it past Stanton's bosses, conducted the only timely, national survey. The results of this survey are a mystery. If the data still exists, CBS keeps it under lock and key.

Instead of the survey, the data that forms the backbone of the "everybody panic!" myth comes from social psychologist Hadley Cantril and his 1940 book The Invasion From Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic. Instead of conducting a national survey, Cantril based his study on 135 inteveiws.

Admitting that his interviews did not comprise an accurate sample of either the national population or the radio audience that evening, Cantril nevertheless filled his short volume with narratives of terror and fear. The interview subjects — all from New Jersey "for reasons of finance and supervision" — were found by the "personal inquiry and initiative of the interviewers" hired by Cantril. They were a self-reporting, self-selected cohort. Cantril did attempt to interview people identified in newspapers as frightened, but that effort proved almost entirely futile.

Such reliance on qualitative measures, while using an unrepresentative sample, only begins to hint at Cantril's methodological problems. Cantril's estimates of how many people actually heard the broadcast, and how many were frightened, are wildly imprecise. Because CBS's Mercury Theatre on the Air lacked sponsorship, the C.E. Hooper Company, the commercial ratings service used at the time, did not rate Welles's program. The American Institute of Public Opinion national survey (taken six weeks after the program, following an avalanche of publicity) found 12 percent of respondents claiming they had heard the broadcast. That represents an audience of almost 12 million Americans — a number that is certainly far too high. Slightly less than four million Americans had tuned into Welles's Mercury Theatre on the Air the week before "The War of the Worlds."

From such disparate approximations Cantril offered the "conservative estimate" that six million Americans heard the broadcast. The public-opinion institute's survey found that 28 percent of the listeners believed the broadcast contained real news bulletins, and of that 28 percent about 70 percent were "frightened or disturbed." These numbers undercut several of Cantril's assertions about the scope of the panic; they reveal that about three out of four listeners knew the program was fiction. So Cantril did what many social scientists faced with disagreeable data do: He spun the numbers. The low numbers, he wrote, represent the "very minimum of the total number actually frightened" because "many persons were probably too ashamed of their gullibility to confess it in a cursory interview." He candidly admitted that "there is the possibility that some people heard so much about the broadcast that they reported actually hearing it."

In other words, Cantril concluded that many respondents probably lied.

Stanton and Lazarsfeld sound mocked Cantril's methods and conclusions, but the myth of the broadcast's power was becoming criticism proof.

At the end of the article, Socolow suggests that the enduring appeal of the myth has to do with a certain sense of intellectual superiority, bred of some widely-held but poorly supported academic and lay stereotypes:

That is the ultimate irony behind "The War of the Worlds." The discovery that the media are not all-powerful, that they cannot dominate our political consciousness or even our consumer behavior as much as we suppose, was an important one. It may seem like a counterintuitive discovery (especially considering its provenance), but ask yourself this: If we really know how to control people through the media, then why isn't every advertising campaign a success? Why do advertisements sometimes backfire? If persuasive technique can be scientifically devised, then why do political campaigns pursue different strategies? Why does the candidate with the most media access sometimes lose?

The answer is that humans are not automatons. We might scare easily, we might, at different times and in different places, be susceptible to persuasion, but our behavior remains structured by a complex and dynamic series of interacting factors.

Later media theory, and empirical research, would complicate and refine those earliest findings. But the basic problem of audience reception remains stubbornly resistant, and as long as the mass media exist, we'll have empirical studies with dueling conclusions concerning effects. Many people, including scholars, will continue to believe something they intuitively suspect: that the media manipulate the great mass of the nation, transforming rational individuals into emotional mobs. But notice how those who believe this never include themselves in the mob. We are, as the Columbia University sociologist W. Phillips Davison once pointed out, very susceptible to the notion that others are more persuadable than ourselves.

Would you have fallen for Welles's broadcast? If not, why do you assume so many other people did?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Music: Witches (and werewolves) of the Stone Age.

Built out of the stitched together remains of Kyuss, the Queens of the Stone Age have gone through two names and nearly annual staff changes since their formation in 1997. Trying to pin down just who is further complicated by the fact that the Queens love nothing quiet so much as jamming with a guest, which means well known, but temporary faces keep popping up. These guests have include the Strokes' Julian Casablancas and Nirvana/Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl (who not only did duty as drummer on the group's 2002 Songs for the Deaf, but toured in support of the album). As of this year, I think only one member from the original line-up remains on the permanent roster: singer/guitarist Josh Homme. Given all that swapping and whatnot, let's say that counts for our normal intro and leap straight into the music.

Screamers and Sreamettes, I bring you two – count 'em: TWO – big songs for the Queens of the Stone Age. Here's the Queens "Burn the Witch."

Still ready for some rumbling, hook-heavy rockage? Good. 'Cause I've got a second platter ready for you. Here's Queens of the Stone Age's "Someone's in the Wolf."

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Movies: True horror stories.

Before we get to the movie review, I thought I'd share a bizarre meta-data fact about And Now the Screaming Starts. A slight majority of the readers who stop by either come directly here (they've got the blog bookmarked or type it right into their browser's address bar) or they come from links on other blogs. The rest find ANTSS through Google searches. And the number one topic that leads people to this blog is the 1965 murder of Sylvia Likens. This handily beats out the next two highest-ranking topics which are, in order, Gustave the enormous man-eating African crocodile and the haunted house rides of Coney Island. Curiously, these searches are looking for non-fiction subjects. I have yet to get any searches for the The Girl Next Door or Primeval, the fictional works inspired by these cases. People want info on the real-life stories, not the fictional re-imaginings.

I bring this up because today's film, 2007's An American Crime, purports to be "the true story" of the Sylvia Likens murder, unlike 2007's The Girl Next Door which exists twice removed from the incident, being an adaptation of the novel of the same name, itself very loosely inspired by the infamous crime. Though An American Crime is probably not considered a horror film in a tradition sense, being perhaps better labeled a dramatic film about a horrible event, I've covered previous adaptations, so I feel its appropriate to cover it here.

The filmmakers of An American Crime put the issue of realism front and center. The film begins with title cards that not only give viewers the standard "based on" disclaimer, but also claim that the film is drawn from information in the court transcripts. The story will be familiar to anybody who has seen the aforementioned film or is familiar with the case. In 1965, the Likens, two traveling carnies, leave their daughters, Sylvia and Jennifer "Jennie" Faye, in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski, a single mother with a house full of kids. (The real Baniszewski had seven children, but only six appear in the flick for some reason.) Unbeknownst to the Likens, Baniszewski has a history of mental trouble, and an alcohol problem.

At first, things are awkward, but not entirely unpleasant. The nomadic life-style of the Likens family has meant that Sylvia and Jennie have never had many friends. They enjoy suddenly finding themselves among a whole tribe of kids. Sylvia begins to meet people at school and, aside from Gertie's chemically driven moodiness, there's not much to complain about. Though there are some creepy hints of the horrors to come. Gertie is capable of sudden and explosive violence. And Jonny, the sole boy in the family, seems to take pleasure in small, but disconcerting acts as cruelty, such as leaving a dog's food dish nearly out of reach of the animal or abusing the toys of his sisters.

In less than a week, the inoffensive Sylvia finds herself pulled into a family struggle between Gertie and Paula, the eldest and slightly out-of-control daughter of the Baniszewski clan. Not understanding the family dynamic, Sylvia quickly becomes the scapegoat for the Baniszewski clan's social and financial woes. The mentally unbalanced
Gertie starts to subject Sylvia to series of increasingly horrible punishments, beginning with whippings and getting rapidly worse. Sylvia is trapped in an insane cycle of punishment and groundless accusation – every thing Baniszewski does to her seems to confirm, in the twisted mind of Gertie, the need for further torture. Things come to a head when Gertie accuses Sylvia of sexual improprieties with some local boys. As punishment, Gertie forces the horrified Sylvia to sexually violate herself with an empty Coke bottle as the Baniszewski children and a neighborhood boy watch. This torture is interrupted by the arrival of more family members and Gertie, deciding that Sylvia is to corrupting an influence to leave free to roam, sentences her to be locked in the basement. When Sylvia resists, the Baniszewski children literally throw her down the stairs.

What comes next is a matter of the historical record. For several weeks, the Baniszewski children and numerous neighborhood children come to "play" with Sylvia. She is beaten, burned, stripped and hosed down, denied adequate food and water, and otherwise tortured. Both young men and young women take part in her torture. Most of this occurs with the knowledge of Gertrude Baniszewski, who acts as if the children are playing house and not slowly killing a young woman. Eventually, under the direction Gertie, a neighborhood boy brands "IM A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT" on Sylvia's stomach. This whole latter part of the flick spools out as a long, horrific montage of outrages, much of it filmed from the first person perspective of Sylvia (as if she's fading in an out and all she's conscious off is a nightmarish series of disjointed painful attacks), punctuated by short dramatic set pieces. There's also a short, hopeful dream sequence that serves to cruelly elevate the hopes of the viewer. The conclusion is foregone.

In the end, Sylvia dies from the treatment. Panicked, the Baniszewski children call the police. Officers arrive on the scene and Jennie, who has been silent all this time, fearing the same treatment, tells the cops that she'll tell them everything if they'll take her away from the torture house.

The narrative of the film jumps between Gertrude Baniszewski's murder trial and the events unfolding in flashback.

Honestly, I don't know what to tell you about An American Crime. It is well written and beautifully shot by writer/director Tommy O'Haver (who shot this nightmare as the follow up to his 2004 Ella Enchanted - I kid you not). The acting is fine, though many of the characters seem to intentionally be a sort of appendage of the Baniszewski family-beast, so they don't have a lot to do. Ellen Page, in a reversal of her avenging angle role in Hard Candy, plays the martyr here. It's a kinda thankless role. For a considerable portion of the movie she has to act semi-conscious and on death's door. It is hard to make that role your own. Plus, given the horrendousness of the crime, the tendency on the part of everybody who has tried to work with this material is to turn Sylvia into flat icon of purity, violated by a cruel world. This is weird because it seems to imply that the horror of the incident was that she was innocent, instead of making the moral stance that nobody, anywhere, under any circumstances should be treated this way. Compare this to Boys Don't Cry, which had the same producers. Nobody felt the need to make Brandon Teena's behavior beyond question – including minor criminal activity and the ethical implications of her deceiving others about her identity – but the result in no way mitigates the horror one feels at what happened to her. What happened to Sylvia Likens wasn't wrong because it happened to a nice person, it was wrong because it happened at all. I know this sound obvious and utterly moronic to even make such a point, but in our current judicial and moral climate it is, sadly, not a universally accepted concept. Acting-wise, the real standout is Catherine Keener, who actually flirts with making Gertrude Baniszewski sympathetic before the character slides into irredeemable vileness. This is a pretty gutsy move and many reviewers have expressed disgust at Keener's effort to humanize Baniszewski. It would be a much more comfortable story if Baniszewski wasn't, in fact, a human.

[I'm adding this revision the day after posting. It occurs to me that I should clarify what I mean by "cleaning up" the Sylvia character. I've left it too vague and I worry that some reader will think that there was something in the true story that implies she might have caused or deserved her fate. This isn't the case. What I'm talking about it a minor whitewash of the details of her life. For example, she and her sister were, in real life, left at the Baniszewski house because their mother, in whose care they were in, went to jail for shoplifting. When they first met the Baniszewski daughters, the Baniszewski girls told them they could spend the night at their house. Sylvia and Jennie did so without asking their parents' permission because their mother was in jail and their father wasn't in town. Their father didn't find the girls until the next morning. In the film, this incident is portrayed as a daytime, after-church visit. In the film, both Likens parents are in the girls' lives and the father picks them up before sundown. The implication is that the Likens had it hard, but they were essentially responsible normal parents. The film also glosses over something the Likens girls' father really told Gertie Baniszewski. When he left them, he left Baniszewski with some vague directive about "straightening out" his daughters because he felt their mother was letting them run wild. Another example of the filmmakers ignoring Sylvia's real life details is the fact that Sylvia once admitted to shoplifting. This is notable in that one of the first times Sylvia was punished by Baniszewski, the rough treatment was supposedly punishment for leading the Baniszewski kids to shoplift. None of that appears in the flick. Does any of this imply what happened to Sylvia was right? No. Even if she was shoplifting - which is by no means certain - the vicious nature of the Baniszewski clan's crime makes it obvious that the motivation was not disciplinary. What the Baniszewskis did is still a horrific crime that staggers the imagination.]

Still, it was an oddly empty film experience. Despite the "realistic" label it wears – which is, I imagine, the film's first line of defense against those that would label it exploitation – there's something strangely stagey about the undertaking. I say this ignoring the factual liberties (the oddest is the transformation of Paula Baniszewski into a more sympathetic character). First and foremost, there is the Sunset Boulevard/Menace II Society style first person narration from beyond the grave: Sylvia narrates a few sections of the flashback. Second, there's the historical setting. The Baniszewski home at 3850 East New York St, Indianapolis, (you can Google map it if you like) is not far from the downtown of Indianapolis and it isn't the sort of suburban utopia we've come to equate with American innocence through nostalgia exercises like The Wonder Years. Yet there's something wrote about the period atmosphere here – sun-drenched and bopping along to a selection of period correct pop hits – that seem to imply they exist not in 1965, but in the fantasy realm of the prelapsarian youth of America. This becomes important because the film makes a bid for social relevance later when Sylvia's narration attempts to position the crime as one of those moments when the country as a whole lost its innocence. Both historically and aesthetically, that's a hard proposition to swallow. In contrast, the fictional Girl Next Door frames its narrative is terms of the guilt of the young narrator who stood by and did nothing. Lacking in historical gravitas, it nevertheless achieves a greater universal theme. Whether we've let evil triumph by simply failing to actively be good is a perennial question. The courtroom drama falls weirdly flat because we know how the story ends. The result is that the framing device feels too much like a tool for shoe-horning research details in.

Weirdly, it's the fake story – the adaptation by Ketchum and the movie made from that – that might better get at what is so important about the Likens murder. An American Crime rightly shows us that what happened was horrific. We watch it, we are repelled by the inhumane acts we see, and we pass judgment. Girl Next Door centralizes the moral dilemma of the witness. We are asked to judge not just the monsters, but those who watch the monsters do their work.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Stuff: You want to suck what?!?!

This is a clip of Richard Pryor discussing The Exorcist and Dracula. It's from his 1974 album: That Nigger's Crazy. What more is there to say?

Though this needs very little by way of introduction, it does need a big ol' NSFW warning. But then you'd probably already guessed that.

For some bonus Pryor sci-fi geek fun, here's a scene from The Richard Pryor Show featuring Pryor as the bartender at the "Star Bar," a bar packed with actors wearing the actual costumes from the Mos Eisley Cantina scene from Star Wars. Again, not safe for work. Of course.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Stuff: A late note on the debate - OR - Why a politician's associations do matter.

Normally, I avoid discussing politics on this site. Unless there's some overt politicizing in something I'm reviewing, I tend to steer clear of the whole filthy enterprise. I don't mind discussing what goes on the dank basements of Eastern European torture clubs, but why drag the conversation down to gutter of politics? Kids visit this site, after all. Besides, if you go to horror Web sites looking for the political insights, I'm not sure anything anybody could write would improve your sorry lot.

That said, I can't be silent anymore. I'm horrified and disgusted at how politically extreme bloggers and the slavish star-struck media have been characterizing the latest debate. By any objective measure, we all know who really won: The Penguin!

Damning stuff that should effectively end Batman's campaign for whatever public office could possibly be open to a masked vigilante who refuses to identify himself.

Sing it with me now:

"Vote for Penguin, yes sir-ee.
He's the bird for you and me.
Clean up Gotham 1, 2, 3.
Vote for Peng-ee!"

Thanks to the wifey and her homegirl - Salamander - for hipping me to this clip.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Movies: Chasing tale.

According to IMDB, the source of all cinema knowledge, George Romero was originally slated to direct Haeckel's Tale, an adaptation of a Clive Barker short story that held down the 12th slot in the first season of Masters of Horror. Romero couldn't fit it into his schedule, which leads one to make the shocking conclusion that some effort was actually put into make Diary of Dead despite the end result. After Romero bowed out, Roger Corman was tapped for the gig. Corman – who actually had a full schedule: in 2006, Corman produced five films and made three appearances in various film and television projects – took the helm, but then bowed out because of health reasons. This led series producer and Haeckel writer Mick Garris to tap one horror-hit wonder John McNaughton. Though, to be honest, what a hit: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. If you're going to do just one major horror flick, coming out with a flick so bleak and grim that the MPAA slaps you with an X not on the basis of the films violence (which is gritty, but not particularly over-the-top even for the time) or sexual material (which, again, is grim, but, again, well in R territory) but for the films "moral tone." Between Henry and Haeckel, McNaughton tried his hand at one other horror flick, the sci-fi/horror/comedy/train wreck The Borrower, before walking away from the genre. Over time he amassed an interesting, if not always great track record. Among other things, he shot the DeNiro/Murray/Thurman romantic comedy Mad Dog and Glory (penned by crime-lit giant Richard Price), the sun-baked cult sleaze-o noir Wild Things, and several episodes of Homicide: Life on the Streets (a.k.a. The Wire version 1.0).

So, can a guy with only one great horror flick to his name really be a "master" of horror? I can't say. But I will say that he does a better job on his episode than many, more firmly established horror directors did on their episodes. Haeckel's Tale is moody, well paced, suitably naughty, willing to be absurd, and makes a stylistic nod to the Hammer period thrillers – all in less than an hour.

Having never read the Baker story, I'm not qualified to tell how loyal it stays to the original. The flick opens with a framing device involving a widower who wants a local witch to bring back his dead wife. The witch says that she will do so, but only on the condition that the man listen to the tale of Ernst Haeckel. If, after her tale is done, the widower is still keen on the idea of resurrecting his spouse, then she'll do it.

Open on a surgical theater in Boston medical college at the turn of the Eighteenth Century. The titular doctor, having studied the notes of one Frankenstein, informs his med school prof that he can re-animate the dead. Forced to make good on the boast, Haeckel makes a mash of it and ends up setting his subject, a female corpse, on fire. After a hearty round of mockery, Haeckel is left with his failure and a local body-snatcher suggest that he should perhaps look in on "Professor" Montesquino. Montesquino, played as a cross between Caligari and a used car salesman by Homicide vet Jon Polito, is a necromancer that Bostonites credit with the ability to bring back the dead.

Doubtful, Haeckel sees Montesquino's show. After watching the necromancer bring back a dead golden retriever (a bit of anachronism: efforts to create the golden retriever didn't begin until the 1860s, with the "first" of the breed being registered in the first decade of the Twentieth Century), Haeckel attempts to bribe the secrets of reviving the dead from Montesquino, but is rebuffed.

Shortly there after, Haeckel receives news that his ailing father has taken a turn for the worse. Haeckel takes to the open road, hiking from the metropolis into the country. On the road, Haeckel finds shelter at the modest Wolfram cabin, home of Mr. Wolfram and his lovely, if creepily otherworldly, wifey: Elise. (As an aside, Elise is played by Leela Savasta, so if you're life has been incomplete because you haven't seen the lovely boobies of Battlestar Galatica's Tracey Anne, then run, don't walk, to your nearest video rental joint.)

I can't go much further without ruining the plot, but rest assured that the Wolframs' have a nasty secret that turns things all messy right quick and involves something that rhymes with "ROM bee hex." I kid not. It's based on a Clive Barker story. You could see it coming. You know what these zombies saw coming?

Where was I? Oh. The movie.

So, aside from the Ye Olde Talke™, which grates a bit before you get into the groove, the period trappings have the lush and stagey artificiality of Hammer or Amicus flicks, though the coozed up climax, if you will, of the flick is considerably more explicit than either of those inspirations implies. The graveyard set is especially nice. The acting is adequate to excellent, with the exception of Elise, who is more of narrative conflict than a character. The plotting moves along purposefully, with enough slack to add some tangential stuff and avoid giving the viewer the feeling that their on a forced march. The mood of the film goes from lushly Gothic to darkly, almost nihilistically, comedic. There is, I guess, a sort of "approval of alternate lifestyles" subtext here, but the metaphor is hopelessly clumsy and one gets the feeling that the message was in the original but that McNaughton didn't give a crap about it. The result is that whatever ideological content there is remains vestigial and under-developed. The film has too much fun with the eerie/goofy surreality of its own plot to try to hone it into some sort of take-home message.

Haeckel's Tale is really one of the highpoints of the MoH series. Playful and nasty, taboo breaking without being ponderous or smug, thoughful without being preachy of clumsily political, it's fun times.