Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Music: The preference of monsters.

Classical pianist and blogger Jermey Denk ponders the role of classical music in horror flicks, with an emphasis on scenes from Twilight: New Moon and Silence of the Lambs.

As you can imagine, most of the music of Twilight is a spool of new age melancholy-lite with interchangeable aspartame chords and a spectacular disregard for monotony and cliché: the sort of thing you run across 12-year-old girls playing, to express themselves, on upright pianos in junior high chorus rooms after the last tater tots have been shoved down the last pimply gullet of the last smug bully before the last bus creaks out of the parking lot, sending wheezes of diesel sadness into the dusk as yet another chalky day of teaching scrawls to an end . . .

I was just settling in with my movie nachos, just getting used to this aural upholstery–anything that does not kill you, etc. etc.–when (suddenly!) a few notes reminded me that there might be a better world. Bella gets knocked against a wall, her arm’s bleeding and in a flash Dr. Cullen–a vampire who has virtuously pulled back his fake hair and steeled himself to resist his blood-urge–dismisses his weaker, ravenous vampire relatives, and prepares to stitch up her gaping wound. As he stitches, we hear [Schubert's setting of one of Goethe's poems, original post contains an audio file - CRwM].

This was no nacho hallucination! There really WAS a Schubert song lurking in this teen vampire romance … and not just Joe Schubert Song, but a setting of one of the greatest Goethe poems. But why this song? And why Schubert? My mind immediately and shamelessly ran after musicological ramifications: “Schubert is sucking at the neck of the subdominant, to demonstrate vis-a-vis the fangs of his modal mixture the inadequacy of conventional polarities of dominance” . . . Though I dismissed the notion of a hidden musicological agenda I suddenly wondered how many vampires take refuge in the musicology faculties of our nation’s universities.

This was one of these moments where Popular Culture decides for a capricious instant that Hundreds Of Years Of The Western Canon are temporarily useful for appropriation; it does classical music a huge favor by Noticing It. Lovers of classical music are supposed to beam and pant like a petted dog, grateful for any and all attention. Wag wag, woof woof, good boy, go play in your cute tuxedo now! Classical music often serves an iconic, representative, dubiously honorable purpose in popular film, and this instance of classical quotation–besides reminding me what a steaming load of crapola I had been listening to previously–reminded me very much of the famous scene in The Silence of the Lambs, where Hannibal Lecter brutally murders and partly eats his two guards to the strains of the Goldberg Variations.

In both these scenes, classical music becomes an emblem of distance and detachment. Cullen is looking directly upon blood without giving in to his hunger; he is practicing Zen-like separation from desire. Lecter has a very different detachment, the detachment required to kill perfectly, ruthlessly, without regret or remorse; his is the detachment, the disconnect, the absence of “normal” emotion which marks sociopathy.In both scenes, the music is ironic. It’s effective in a way that horrific or disturbing, i.e. “appropriate” music would not be. Its meaning lies in its otherness … While Lecter commits one of man’s darkest taboos (cannibalism), behind him rings the decorum and organization of Bach, with its peerless canons and schemes and rules; the Goldbergs whisper to our ears all the connotation and comfort of human Enlightenment, while the Dark Ages scream at our eyes from the screen. Cullen is stitching a raw wound; he fills a bowl full of blood … The camera lingers on both, in the way we imagine Cullen’s eyes unconsciously might; meanwhile the song proceeds in uncanny calm, a calm which feels strange against our sense of a repressed murderousness. The calm is a classical music calm, an alien calm, it evokes the price and pressure of Cullen’s self-repression. I have noticed often that the forces of Hollywood cannot use classical music to express “normal” emotions, but only extremes, only things that must be seen weirdly, in reverse.

In both scenes, blood. Both Lecter and Cullen traffic in blood, and their bloodiest scenes bleed classical music. Yes, we can say, the director is suggesting that classical music is “beauty” against which the horrors of bloodlust are seen more starkly. But if the music is supposed to be the opposite of the bloody scene, isn’t the implication somehow that the beauty of classical music is “bloodless”? Lecter is a soulless monster, and he loves Bach; Cullen is a soulless vampire, who uses Schubert to calm himself while he repairs a wound. Always soulless; always other; always anachronistic; classical music is the preference of monsters. I can see how the age of the music connects to the immortality of the vampire, I can see how the Bach connects to Lecter’s genius, but why must classical music be the language of monsters, of the fringe?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Books: Call backs.

The most unsettling thing about the English translation of Ryu Murakami's Audition, the novelistic source for the flagship Asian-extreme cult hit of the same title, is the curious sense of déjà vu. This is, of course, partially due to the face that, unlike the book's original readership, you've most likely seen or heard of the flick long before any exposure to its source material. Though another source of your déjà vu is the book's cover: A minimalist eye in a circle pattern that recalls Chip Kidd's early, non-collage, J-pop themed work, the instant reaction on seeing it is to ask, "Didn't Vertical publish this four years ago?"

In fact, this is the first time Murakami's novel has appeared in English and it's coming out with the Norton colophon on the spine.

It's hard to imagine that this particular tome has much of an audience outside of the curious cultists of the widely praised 1999 Takashi Miike adaptation, so I'll state that the plot of the flick and the book are essentially the same. The book includes more preliminary meetings between love-seeking widower Aoyama and the mysterious Asami. The book never shows were Asami lives, so the who subplot abut the previous victim now living in a bag happens only in the film. The film also shifts plot points around, getting to the confrontation scene quicker. Curiously, the film chooses to make a image of Aoyama's last wife the thing that focus's Asami's vengeful rage on Aoyama. In contrast, the book makes a mention of Shige, Aoyama's teenage son, the thing that drives Asami into a murderous rage.

The real distinctions between the book and the novel come in 1) the characterizations of the two main characters, 2) Murakami's aesthetic philosophy of tell don't show, and 3) an almost aggressively retro sexuality that's so misogynistic I would have been tempted to view it as satirical if I detected even the slightest hint of smirk from Murakami.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the book and its adaptation is the way the author originally conceived of the two main characters. Miike ran with a haunted, somewhat fragile Aoyama. Until his interest in Asami is awakened, the viewer got the feeling that he was being frog-marched through the motions of the wife-finding process by his friends and family. As Murakami wrote him, Aoyama is a more confident character. He's made peace with the passing of his first wife by throwing himself in his work. His sexual needs he's met through the judicious use of bar wenches and professionals. At the opening of the book, Aoyama realizes that he's gotten the business to where it needs to go and he is finally ready to consider remarriage. Instead of situating the emotional core of the character in conflict between the memory of his first wife and his growing passion for a new woman, Murakami built the character around his sudden, irrational, obsessive interest in Asami. He's not torn some much as head over heels.

The biggest surprise for fans of the film will be Asami's original. Unlike the film, with its sinister scenes of Asami living in her psycho-spartan living quarters with the mauled near-vegetable previous victim, Asami in the book seems like a fully functioning individual. She's talkative, charming, and out-going. She's more sexually aggressive and engaged with the world around her. She's up front about her grim background, which is revealed in conversation in the book well before we get it in the film. In contrast to the film, Asami is mysterious only in that not all the details of her reported backstory line up. She's still mighty crazy, as Aoyama learns to his great dismay, but she seems less like a utter psycho with a thin layer of sane than a most sane person with a overly powerful crazy trigger. The difference this makes is notable. From the book, one gets the sense that Asami was actually in-it-to-win-it before her jealousy over Aoyama's son flipped her crazy switch. This potential for happiness is something the movie, with its considerably more insane Asami, dismisses fairly quickly.

Though I actually prefer the leads as Murakami conceived them, the book doesn't quite impress the way the film does for two major reasons. The first of these is Murakami's style.

Murakami (the other Murakami of Japanese lit fame) is, if his press is to be believed, something of a minor god in the Land of the Rising Sun. Called the "Maradona of Japanese literature," a rock star who cranks out novels as well, he won his first major lit award when he was still a college student. His books regularly chart and, as of this writing, six of his 15 novels are translated into English. In '05, The New Yorker featured one of his short stories. So, I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that the ham-fisted voice of Audition was some sort of one of experiment of his and that he's not usually this bad. I've never read anything else, so I'm just taking that on faith. But I find it hard to believe that a writer whose style evokes allusions to Dan Brown at his most tour-guidey cast such a large shadow. Maybe the Japanese mean that Murakami is to literature was Maradona is to literature. To be fair, Murakami's writing is considerably more brisk than Brown's: Audition weighs in at a slender 180-odd pages and it can be easily read in a sitting. Still, both show a weird tendency to give brand names and exact measurements where more qualitative description is needed, replace figurative language with Google harvest, and use exposition to such a degree and in such a way that you get the feeling neither trusts the reader to make the correct mental links. For example, Murakami's idea of foreshadowing is to simply break the flow of the story and explicitly tell the reader that Aoyama did not know the "unspeakable doom" that is going to befall him. Thanks for the heads-up, Ryu. Murakami is careful to leave no stone unexplicated.

If the prose can sometimes seem graceless, it's downright nimble compared to the book's thematic engagement with gender politics in modern Japan. Murakami has a theory about the anxious relationship between the sexes in modern, post-economic miracle Japan. It goes like this: Bitches is crazy.

Many critics tried to draw feminist gold out of the violent arc of the protags' ill-fated affair when Miike's adaptation hit American shores. It's a doomed project that even Miike warned against, but the temptation to try read Asami's gore-soaked rampage as poetic vengeance for the phallocratic dominance of the male gaze is too strong to condemn critics who copped that easy out. These film studies degrees aren't going to give themselves out, after all. But the truth is that Miike's Aoyama is simply too much of a nebbish fool to take seriously as the symbol of the patriarchy. From the moment he meets Asami, it is immediately clear that he's out of his league and under her control as assuredly as the chopped-up sack dweller she keeps at her flat. As for the moral complexity of the issue, while Aoyama's methods were insincere, so was Asami's presentation of herself as anything other than a psycho who keeps crippled victims back at the pad to torture. The only the juvenile moral absolutism that holds Asami, as the oppressed, can do wrong would suggest the scope of their crimes are in any way commensurate. The despised sometimes become despicable. Anyway moral vision that can't accommodate that fact of human nature is as much an exercise in projection as Aoyama's love-blind fetishization of Asami is.

But I digress. Murakami's vision at least has the benefit of being unambiguous. Aoyama's first wife is a distinctly Pacific Tiger reworking of the Madonna archetype. She was Aoyama's link to a wealthy family. She supported his career. And when it came time for Aoyama to scratch that itch with a extracurricular nookie, his sainted dead wife took it with the dignity and class and stoicism that, the reader is meant to believe, was the true measure of Japanese womanhood. She put up with his adultery without complaint and dedicated herself to the raising of their son.

In contrast to his dead wife, the women Aoyama meets in his quest to find a new wife are shallow, psycho, slutty, gold-diggers. When Aoyama first broaches the idea of finding a new wife, his friend proposes the audition system partially because he's convinced that a good hearted doofus like Aoyama would be eaten up by the girls that prowl the streets these days. When Aoyama's son is told that his pops is back on the market, he warns him about a 15-year-old girl at his school who turned out to be running an after-school sideline as an S&M dominatrix. The repeated refrain of these warnings is, "What the hell is wrong with women these days?" Shige repeated discusses how he plans to get his bride mail order from some Eastern European country that can be take the adjectival form of "breakaway." They'll at least be grateful. Lest we think this is some sexist observation, Murakami puts this same warning in the mouth of one of Aoyama's female employees. A young woman whose success as a buyer of foreign media rights, Murakami notes, has been her ability to suppress her own opinion and reflect the opinion of the masses. (With profound insight in the psyche of the female of the species, among the four non-vile women in the book are Aoyama's corporate lackey and his maid: both women he employs. The third is maternal barmaid figure. The fourth's dead before the novel begins.)

Notably nobody says anything like, "Who are these sick guys who are shelling out yen to get nasty with an underaged dominatrix?"

The British edition of Audition, by Bloomsbury, was released with the cheeky tagline, "Where have all the good girls gone?" Norton has the good sense not to go that route. And that's the best sense on display here.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Movie: Showing the monster.

When I was in college, I had a roomie - a big-time King fan - said that H. P. Lovecraft's greatest flaw was that he "showed the monster." I assumed, at the time, he was evoking the horror fancies widely held and oft repeated axiom that what one imagines is far more horrific than whatever one sees. (Aside from vastly over-estimating the imaginative powers of most of us, this bit of conventional wisdom has long since passed from insight to received orthodoxy to ill-understood critical superstition: "Subtle" is now applied to movies paradoxically as a form of praise not because the films are subtle in anything they do, but rather because there's a general consensus that subtle is good.) Though, on thinking further, I realized that my roomie's complaint could hold equally to King, an author he held to be the pinnacle of horror lit. Sooner or later, King puts his cards on the table an one sees the Overlook's topiary come to life or the giant sewer spider who was just pretending to be a freaky clown. King shows the monster, so the reveal was not, in and of itself, a deal breaker.

But my roomie was, I think, right in that there's something odd about reveal in Lovecraft's works. When he claimed that Lovecraft's biggest flaw was the reveal, I agreed even though, on further thought, I think it is a misdiagnosis. What's unique about Lovecraft's reveals is that they're bizarrely precise. Think of it this way: We all know what Cthulhu looks like. My wife, who has never read a single Lovecraft story and kinda totally hates horror as an entire genre, knows what Cthulhu looks like. Stumpy legs, pear shaped body, decorative bat-like wings, octopus head. (That's perhaps the most fun sentence fragment I've ever had the pleasure to write.) Not only can my dear wife tell you what he looks like, she can recognize cartoonish abstractions - I have t-shirt with a fairly minimalist cartoon Cthulhu at a pay-phone making the "collect call of Cthulhu" that she thinks is kinda charming in a utterly dorky way - and she gets jokes that require you have a semi-detailed mental image of the beast. The reason she knows that Cthulhu is suffering from middle-age spread is that nobody ever represents him any other way. There's a curious continuity to visual representations of Lovecraft's monsters that, I think, can only partially be ascribed to artistic tradition and the normal course of influence. Much of this continuity is do to the fact that Lovecraft often gave abnormal exact descriptions of his monsters. I say "abnormal" in the sense that Lovecraft intended his beasties to be sanity-shattering unspeakables from beyond space and time, yet there's usually one witness who - despite being rendered to utter insanity by their encounter with other dimensional bad craziness - provides readers with a detailed account of the monster that resembles some ecologist's field report. Lovecraft's monsters are visually stable because he left little open to debate.

I can understand why a fright fan would perceive this as a flaw. The conflict between the mind-breaking nature of the beast and the calm the precision of the narration seems like a tonal stumble. It seems as if we're being asked to believe that the narrator, confronting something that defies all reason and embodies the fragile mortality of all life as we know it, took scrupulous notes. But what makes Lovecraft's horror universe unique is the insight that our sense of the real is relative. People on the insane train look like a mad blur as they shoot by those of us standing still on the platform of Not Crazy Station. But if you're sitting on the train, you perceive the details of everything inside the passenger car with "normal" clarity. It's all the stuff on the platform of Not Crazy Station that looks like a confusing smear of light and color. The mad in Lovecraft's world are not deranged because they've taken leave of their senses. Instead, their frame of reference has shifted to include details that undermine their previous paradigm. Once they've fully witnessed the horror that undergirds the flimsy structures of the modern world, how are they supposed to make sense of the insubstantial details that make up the mundane world the rest of us live in? Madness in Lovecraft's universe isn't a dark form of mysticism, it's the survivor's guilt of the witness.

Takashi Shimizu's 2004 grindingly bleak vampire un-romance, Marebito, is the first Lovecraftian film I've ever seen that captures that unique precision. A low-fi moody horror that embraces it's limitations, the cold and exacting spirit of Marebito prefigures the icy aesthetic of the much-loved later vamp flick Let the Right One In, though the former completely lacks the latter's genuinely subtle deconstruction of vampiric romanticism.

Befitting the best filmic treatment of Lovecraft's insight into the psyche of witnesses of the deep horror of the universe, the chief protag of Marebito is a chronic witness. Masuoka (played with dead pan schlubbishiness by Shinya Tsukamoto) is a freelance video journalist whose professional life is basically a gloss on his kink. A video feed junkie, Masuoka lives a shut-in otakuish existence alternately sitting in front of a bank of video monitors or walking the streets hidden behind a video camera. He so obsessive that, even without a camera, his standard vision appears to include static and other video artifacts. One has to give credit to Marebito for finally giving a character a dramatically sensible reason for continuing to record his horrific misadventures. The flick's first-person bits exist not because it makes sense that anybody would film such things, but rather because Masuoka is a compulsive filmer.

Masuoka is also a wonderful example of that most Lovecraftian of characters: the terror connoisseur. Masuoka is driven to break the ice of his frigid existence by subjecting himself to varieties of terror. The downside is, of course, that Masuoka is always seeking greater and greater terrors. At the point we meet him, Masouka is already declaring things like fear of death to be mediocre strains of fright.

Masouka's life takes a swerve when he films a suicide in the Tokyo subway. Convinced that the dead man had experienced some transcendent horror, Masuoka plunges into the tunnels under Tokyo to experience this suicide-inducing horror for himself. There he finds an unbelievably immense network of tunnels and ruins - a series of subterranean works that link the worlds cities and constitute a near "hollow earth" world of their own - built by ancient civilizations and unknown powers. He also finds a naked, feral young woman chained to deep within the ruins. In what might well be intended to be taken as an expression of suicidal tendencies, Masuoka takes the captive home.

Masuoka gives his new roommate the name F. Like an adopted stray, F initially spends most of her time hiding behind the furniture. She doesn't eat or drink and, according to Masuoka's voiceover narration, she's only awake for about three hours a day. She doesn't speak and she seems unable to make any sort of vocalizations. She has a mouth full of distressingly sharp chompers. Not long he brings her home, F is stricken with some wasting disease. She begins to weaken and suffer seizures. After suffering an injury - he gets his ass handed to him by a guy who takes offense at his incessant videotaping - Masuoka discovers that F has a Audrey II-ish thirst for blood.

As if keeping a nameless young feral blood-drinking chick in your tiny studio wasn't hassle enough, Masuoka must also deal with a possibly cracked woman who insists that Masuoka is her husband and a mysterious man in black who can talk without opening his mouth and appears to have designs on F.

Some props need to be given to Tomomi Miyashita, who has the thankless task of acting out the role of F. x F may be the worst role ever written for a woman. A lolicon Kaspar Hauser, F is an extreme embodiment of a dozen or so horrible feminine stereotypes: helpless victim, irrational womanhood, man-eater, voiceless sex object, prematurely ripe nubility, and so on. But Miyashita plays the hell out of it by grounding her performance in astutely observed motions. Her F evokes a mishmash of animals, from spiders to bear cubs, giving an absurd character a realist weight that it probably didn't deserve.

Despite the claim made in Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H. P. Lovecraft, I do not think Marebito is intended to be understood as an adaptation of any specific Lovecraft story. There's an explicit mention of the Mountains of Madness, but that's about as far as it goes. Rather, this flick is set against the backdrop of a Lovecraftian universe. What the film nails like no other Lovecraft influenced film does is the concrete details of the uncanny. Discussing the decision to use Dali as the designer of the dream sequences in Spellbound, Hitchcock said that Dali understood the crisp nature of dreams. We don't experience dreamscapes as a hazy, wispy ghost world. It feels solid. The uncanny in Marebito has that solidity to it. An exemplary moment in the flick is when, exploring the seemingly endless Tokyo underworld, Masuoka runs across the man he saw commit suicide. They have an extended discussion and, eventually, Masuoka lets drop the fact that he saw this cat plunge a big freaking knife into his own eye and up into his brain. Without any notable distress, the dead man decides that, if he's really dead, he should probably not hang around talking to live people. He turns out a lantern he's holding and vanishes. Much is made about the horror trope of the "thing that should not be." Though what's usually being discussed is some familiar hack-piece of horror schlock, the borrowed Gothic finery of a past era wrapped around the soft-core proclivities of modern era. Marebito recovers a deeper sense of the uncanny in that it shows how natural the impossible can feel. It's easy, too easy, the film says, to suddenly be too far lost to return to the normal.

As nifty as that accomplishment is, Marebito is a seriously flawed film. What was meant to be a sort of deliberate, stately pace often feels glacial. In a 90 minute flick, we don't reach the underworld until the half hour mark. We don't discover F drinks blood until we hit 50 minutes. I'm all for letting a flick develop naturally; but when a 90 minute flick feels like it's dragging, then you've got a pacing problem. The glacial pace of the film kills efforts at suspense. The end result is that the film is grim, but rarely tense. Worse yet, there's a late game "twist" that is, as so many of these surprises are, unnecessary and illogical. I'm not sure what screenwriting textbook out there is telling students there must be an act three game changer in every story, but it is seriously time for film schools to consider adopting a different text.

Too somber to be fun, Marebito is a curious if not entirely successful take on the vampire theme. Still, it is an earnest experiment that hits on several levels. In the horror blog game, "different" is reserved for sloppy gonzo films of the exploitation era that are, in fact, depressingly common. There are entire bloggers who have made their careers praising the seemingly endless march of these "unique" product lines. Marebito is truly different. Like They Come Back, which came out the same year, it takes a familiar horror premise and goes in a creative direction so odd it stretches the definition of horror. The cost of this innovation is that its footing is unsteady. Whether that's for you or not, I leave to your discretion.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Stuff: Consider the bloodbath.

Because I'm a horror blogger, I don't feel weird saying that I've been pondering a bloodbath. Specifically, I've been pondering the claim that the Countess Elizabeth Báthory (Báthory Erzsébet in Hungarian) bathed in the blood of her victims to preserve her youth and beauty. I've just completed The Blood Countess, the Andrei Codrescu. This literary shot of, literally, blood-soaked Eastern European history has given me a curious appreciation of one of Eastern Europe iconic historical monsters. But let's just talk bloodbaths today.

From a historical standpoint, the reality of the countess's legendary bloodbaths are ill supported by the record. During the countess's semi-secret trial, which lasted from 1610 to 1611, Báthory's accusers compiled testimony from more than 300 witnesses. The court notaries were all-to-happy to record any scrap of evidence that Báthory was a psychopathic witch. Their records are full of descriptions of brutal torture and savage sexual abuse. And yet, despite the value such a story to prosecutors, the court records are entirely silent on the issue of bathing in blood.

The first written record of the famed Báthory bloodbaths appears in a 1729 tract titled Tragica Historica. This tract, written by a Jesuit scholar, is the earliest written account of the case. However, the scholar had no access to the court notaries' documentation (the witness testimony was not released until 1765 and was not published until 1817). Where this scholar heard these accusations is unclear. Perhaps, with their obvious themes of feminine vanity and blasphemy, the Jesuit simply made up the stories to make an instructive example to the faithful out of the Protestant countess's downfall.

From an anatomical standpoint, a bloodbath seems no more likely. First and foremost, there's simply not that much blood in the human body. The average human contains about 1.3 gallons of blood; that is just slightly more fluid than comes in a large jug of milk. That's plenty to splash over yourself, but hardly enough to fill a tub with. One could assume, of course, that Báthory used the blood of more than one victim per bath. (Claims of the total number of victims she claimed vary wildly, from the low 30s to more than 650. The latter number is unlikely, but, for our purposes, it the range allows the distinct possibility of multiple victims.) Let’s assume Báthory had a fairly small tub to bathe in and that she was trying to get away with using as little blood as possible, so we’ll say she needs 25 gallons.

By my way of thinking, the biggest hurdle Báthory would need to overcome to actually bathe in human blood is the conflict between the time it would take to desanguinate an entire human body and the speed with which blood congeals. Congeal-rates are hard to pin down because exposure to oxygen is a factor, so every specific container has a slightly different congeal-rate. But we can conduct a thought experiment. Just like breathing a fine red wine, the congealing of blood is a product of the surface area available for air/blood interaction. How much air touches the surface of the blood has an impact on how fast the blood congeals. In this case, we've got a scenario in which we have a deep reservoir of blood with a relatively small surface area exposed to the air. Unable to conduct any real experiment, I propose that an analogous scenario happens when people make blood pudding. To make blood pudding, you cook the blood in a large metal pot. Though the size is off, the proportion of surface are to depth isn't bad. According to a random selection of blood pudding recipes, cooks report that serious congealing begins in about 5 minutes. By 10 minutes, the blood congeals into solid lump. Again, a bath tub full of blood would be much larger and take more time, but even if we triple the congealing time, we're making a mess of this whole thing in about a quarter of an hour. Let's be generous and take an outside figure. Our hypothetical blood bath becomes a gooey, clumpy, gravy-like mess at the half hour mark.

So, how long does it take to desanguinate somebody? That's an interesting problem. First, desanguinating somebody is actually really, really hard to do. Even if you have a Hostel II scenario, in which a living victim is upside down and their heart is helping pump the blood out, only about four pints of human blood will leave the body before the person dies and the heart stops beating. With modern technology, you can pump the blood out yourself, but the process is not quick. With the tech Báthory would have had at her disposal, the time and effort increases greatly. And time is not on her side. Assuming you go low-tech, for each victim, you're only getting about half a gallon of blood every five minutes. Done serially, you'd have congealing problems before you got even three gallons. Theoretically, one could try to drain all the victims in parallel, but then you'd need an ever-larger draining pan, which would mean an increased congeal-rate as the surface are increased air/blood interactions.

Just taking into account these issues, we can see that truly bathing in blood would have been a massive undertaking. It would have involved at nine least victims, all extensively prepped. It would have required a pair of butchers that trained for the event. None of that would have been impossible, mind you. But it seems, given what an elaborate and not especially secret undertaking it would had to have been, unlikely that nobody in the voluminous court records would have mentioned it. Considerably less ornate and private instances of sadism made their way into the record.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Music: "A working example of faith versus physics."

El-P and Nine Inch Nails.

Pairing Mr. Reznor with Mr. Meline - post-industrial music's iconic one-man army with the mad genius ringleader of DefJux's left-field circus - is one of those ideas that so obvious that nobody thought to do it for an embarrassingly long time. Though I imagine everybody involved wondered if putting two artists with such distinct production approaches was letting one too many cooks into the kitchen, the result - "Flyentology" off of El-P's excellent I'll Sleep When Your Dead - successfully fuses Reznor's droning, crunching death disco dirge with EL Producto's cubist take on the driving, propulsive Bomb Squad Era thumping that once served as the engine room for band's like Public Enemy.

It works, is what I'm saying.

Plus the paranoid sci-fi horror invasion cartoon that serves as its is nifty.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Music: Ain't no hole in the washtub.

This isn't horror in even the broadest sense of the term, but if you're as old as I am, then Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas just might have been an important part of your Christmas seasons back when HBO seemed to play it regularly every holiday season for nearly a decade. I think it's fair to say this now deuterocanonical holiday flick has got a special place in the heart of Southern folks of certain age.

If any of that means anything to you, Aquarium Drunkard has posted a dubiously legal soundtrack to the entire flick. Get it while you can.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Music: Neo-prog taco-eating werewolf.

And he fights a vampire.

Here's Bear in Heaven's "Werewolf."

It's like two dudes who got too old and got kicked off the set of New Moon had a drunken brawl outside a Motel 6 in Rich Creek, Virginia, while a Catherine Wheel tribute band attempted its first Lungfish cover in the background.

At least, that's what I thought it was like.

Bear In Heaven - Werewolf from Hometapes on Vimeo.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Movies: Da' mystery of less boxing.

The social contract between audience member and auteur is signed on the basis of the of the promise of the title. A title vouches for everything that follows and, boiled to its very essence, the experience of film appreciation is the raw and immediate moment of feeling the joys and disappointments of working out that promise. NB: This is different than film criticism. Film criticism is to film appreciation what conducting an autopsy is to watching ballet.

Given that, consider the promise inherent in the title of Douglas Kung's 2006 genre mash-up soap-fu horror actioner: Shaolin vs. Evil Dead 2: Ultimate Power. Seriously. Read it again. Shaolin vs. Evil Dead 2: Ultimate Power.

That's an insane promise. It isn't Shaolin vs. Evil Dead 2: Mediocre Power. It isn't Shaolin vs. Evil Dead 2: Sufficient Power. Shaolin vs. Evil Dead 2: Plenty of Power. Shaolin vs. Evil Dead 2: Perfectly Adequate Power.

This is Shaolin vs. Evil Dead 2: Ultimate Power! Shaolin! Evil Dead! Ultimate! Power! You need that many exclamation points just to say the freakin' title right. Here's one more! 'Cause it can take it!

If jaded film criticism had a face, that title would punch it in the nuts.

Of course, as any horror fan knows, the defining characteristic of horror fandom is disappointment. When Sturgeon proposed his law that 90% of creative endeavors are crap, he did warn us that our culture would store all that crap in a single genre.

To nobody's surprise, Shaolin vs. Evil Dead 2: Ultimate Power cannot live up to the promise of the title. It makes a game effort, but what film can support that many exclamation points?

The flick starts off with a well crafted bit of wirework-fu, as a Shaolin student named Dragon and his wife Phoenix take on a crew of raping and pillaging banditti. During the course of the battle the bandit queen - a wonderful, but wasted character, but that's kind of the film's signature move: this flick throws away material that filmmakers of greater sanity and competence could build careers on - strikes Dragon and Phoenix wit a poison tipped sword.

The poison doesn't immediately off either of our heroes, but "uncle" - the elder statesman of the Shaolin temple clan of D & P - warns Dragon that the poison has tainted the growing child in Phoenix's tum-tum. The poison complicates Phoenix's labor and she dies in childbirth. The loss is especially bitter because, just as Phoenix passes away, a young student from a neighboring temple arrives with an elixir which can retard advance of the toxin. Uncle tells Dragon that he must take the elixir in order to give Innocence, the aspirational name given to Dragon and Phoenix's tainted spawn, a moral counterbalance to the toxin in his system. Dragon also ends up adopting the young messenger, Roam Chow.

As Dragon ages into the leader of the clan (characters in this flick experience Peanuts-style aging: they age in spurts, stalling out for a bit at the next dramatically convenient age), he struggles to tame his son's vicious tendencies. Dragon places a young female martial arts student under Innocence's supervision, hoping to inspire some sense of responsibility and honor within him. But, Innocence is one of those primally savage creatures: Like Grendel and happiness, civility seems to pain Innocence. It's at those moments one realizes that the character's name is not ironic.

It becomes clear to Dragon that Innocence is a jerk. Convinced that Innocence's cruelty makes him an unsuitable leader, Dragon chooses his adopted son as the next leader of the clan. This goes over like a tub of warm vomit with Innocence, who promptly flees the temple with a stolen magic sword. The rest of the movie tracks the parallel lives of Roam Chow and Innocence as they head to their inevitable collision.

Sadly, it's that collision that is the film's Achilles heel. The first two-thirds of the flick recall the dense, operatic story-telling of classic epic martial arts action filmmaking. That the film captures that sense is all the more noteworthy given the film's technical limitations: Shot in dim digital video and marred with subpar CGI, the film's sweeping scope is achieved in the face of truly mediocre visuals. However, by the end, the plot goes from cleverly tangled to baggy. Even under the more relaxed rules of martial arts cinema, the film introduces inexplicable complications and resolutions and becomes a mess of unnecessary starts and stops that kills forward momentum and sorely tries viewer patience. This confused jumble even overwhelms director Douglas who, painted into a corner, ends his flick with a sudden, out-of-nowhere villain-offing meteor strike. Seriously. It's like they ran out of paper for the screenplay and decided to type on the final line: "Exit all, hit by meteor."

To make things worse, the whole "versus the evil dead" bit of the promise is buried in the last third of the flick. As part of the third act pile on, an army of leaping vampires is thrown into the mix.

Lest I make this sound like a candidate for psychotronicness, SvED2UP (pronounced "saved 2 up") is not some raw explosion of cinematic craziness. The film drags through what should be a mind-blowing climax. That the final act is sloppy is, perhaps, excusable. That it is oddly boring is less so.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Mad science: Ancient Europeans were sick puppies.

Wired Science reports a grisly archeological discovery:

At a settlement in what is now southern Germany, the menu turned gruesome 7,000 years ago. Over a period of perhaps a few decades, hundreds of people were butchered and eaten before parts of their bodies were thrown into oval pits, a new study suggests.

Cannibalism at the village, now called Herxheim, may have occurred during ceremonies in which people from near and far brought slaves, war prisoners or other dependents for ritual sacrifice, propose anthropologist Bruno Boulestin of the University of Bordeaux 1 in France and his colleagues. A social and political crisis in central Europe at that time triggered various forms of violence, the researchers suspect.

“Human sacrifice at Herxheim is a hypothesis that’s difficult to prove right now, but we have evidence that several hundred people were eaten over a brief period,” Boulestin says. Skeletal markings indicate that human bodies were butchered in the same way as animals.

The article gives the grim details:

Work from 2005 to 2008 — led by Andrea Zeeb-Lanz and Fabian Haack of the archaeology division of Germany’s Directorate General for Cultural Heritage — unearthed additional human bones, mainly skulls and limb bones bearing incisions. Remains of an estimated 500 people have been found so far.

Pottery resting among the bones accumulated over no more than a few decades, the researchers say. Some pieces came from Neolithic sites located 400 kilometers from Herxheim.

The pits that surrounded Herxheim provided no protection from invaders but may have marked a symbolic boundary for a ceremonial settlement, Boulestin proposes. At first, Boulestin’s team, like Orschiedt and Haidle, thought that the dead were brought to Herxheim for ceremonial reburial.

But Boulestin and his colleagues’ opinion changed after they analyzed 217 reassembled human bones from one deposit, representing at least 10 individuals.

Damage typical of animal butchery appears on the bones, including that produced by a technique to separate the ribs from the spine, the scientists say. Heads were skinned and muscles removed from the brain case in order to remove the skullcap. Incisions and scrapes on jaws indicate that tongues were cut out.

Scrape marks inside the broken ends of limb bones indicate that marrow was removed.

People most likely made the chewing marks found near intentionally broken ends of hand and arm bones, Boulestin says.

And later:

Whatever actually happened at Herxheim, facial bones were smashed beyond recognition, “giving an impression of the destruction of individual identity, a kind of psychic violence against the person,” Thorpe says.

In the article, researchers speculate that the community may have faced some catastrophic food shortage that forced these people to dig up and consume their dead. Evidence of reburial ceremonies supports this theory. Chemical analysis may further support this explanation.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Stuff: Creepy Christmas.

Dark Horse has sent out their client X-mas cards and this year they've decided the Uncle Creepy, the cadaverous host of Warren's famed horror antho Creepy, should bring the tidings of comfort and joy. The card's face image is by none other than Bernie Wrightson.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Books: Horn section.

What happens to supernatural horror after it moved past the idea of the uncanny?

There's a scene in Joe Hill' sophomore novel, Horns, in which our main protagonist - a luckless slob named Ig - has a short conversation with a waitress at a roadside bar and grill. For the story to make any sense, you need to know that Ig has two fairly large horns growing out of his head. Ig never gets the idea to pull a Hellboy (though Hellboy himself probably thought of it as pulling a Concrete) and shave them off, so they're fairly pronounced by the time the waitress see them. In the course of their banter, she asks Ig, "Is it a mod?"

Ig confesses to not knowing what a mod is.

She clarifies, "A body modification. Did you do it to yourself?"

This is typical of the book. The supernatural is not awe inspiring or stunning. It doesn't produce existential vertigo or shake the pillars of our understanding of the world. Instead, it is just one more weird-ass thing in a world chock full of weirdness.

At first I was reminded of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, specifically the discussion of how a unicorn sighting, discussed enough, devolves into the common place and is eventually folded into the mundane world and refashioned as a sighting of a horse with an arrow through its head. Though, on further reflection, that analogy doesn't fit. It isn't that there aren't unicorns, to use Stoppard's terms, but rather that they are no stranger than the fact that there are also horses walking around with arrows through their heads.

Which is genuinely weirder: A man who is forced to grow horns or a who decided voluntarily to attach horns to his forehead?

The central problem creators modern supernatural horror face is that the supernatural is neither stranger nor scarier than real life. It is the central problem of the New Horror movement (Peter Straub's term, not mine - take it up with him) and a hallmark of the newest wave of genre fiction, alternately dubbed the New Fantasists, the New Weird, or Interstitial Fiction. And Hill confronts this problem in his latest novel.

Let's get back to Horns. Ig's horns are not a body modification. They started growing after Ig, small time loser black sheep of the wealthy local celebrity family and alleged rapist and murderer, committed sacrilege by pissing on statue of the Virgin Mary during a bender. The statue was set up at the scene of the murder of Merrin Williams, the love of Ig's life and the woman he was accused of raping and murdering. Ig was never convicted of the crime because the DNA evidence the police hoped would connect him to the crime went up in a mysterious fire at the out-of-town lab facility to which it had been sent. Ig, of course, maintains his innocence. But not even his own family doesn't believe him.

The disfiguring nature of horns turns out to be the least of Ig's problems. He soon discovers that the horns have an inexplicable power over others. Whenever somebody sees the horns, they begin to tell Ig about their deepest, darkest, secret desires. Then, inevitably, they ask Ig's permission to act on these desires, they ask for permission to sin.

Remember those old cartoons where an anthropomorphic duck would be at a moral crossroads, then suddenly an angel and a devil - both Lilliputian versions of the main duck - would appear on his shoulder. The angel would advocate for the moral high ground and the devil would push for committing whatever sin the water fowl was on the brink of committing. Ig basically starts transforming into the devil on your shoulder, the voice of temptation.

Of all the superpowers in the world, the last one you should ever want is the power to read minds. Unfettered access to the unspoken thoughts of others is like unfiltered access to sewer water. There's a reason we don't say everything on our minds. Besides, do you really want to know the sleazy details of your spouse's private kinks? What about you brother or sister's? Mom and dad? Ig finds this new found ability to compel confessions maddening. Everywhere he goes, people see the horns and start chatting away about the worst things they can think of. His doctor confesses the sexual passion he feels for his daughter's 14-year-old best friend. His mom confesses that having kids was the biggest regret of her life. His grandmother confesses that she feigns her senility in order to punish her children and grandchild for their weakness. His father confesses that he bought the arson gig that secured Ig's freedom. A local cop confesses that he cops a feel (pun intended) when he is patting down arrestees. The local gas and sip attendant reveals that he wants to kill his desperately ill wife and start life over again with a mistress in Florida. And so on and so on.

In the midst of all these confessions, however, Ig's brother, Terry, confesses that he always believed Ig's innocence. Ig couldn't have killed Merrin, because Terry knows who did it.

With that confession, Ig's suicidal spiral ends, replaced by a mission of revenge that will put him in conflict with a person whose deep reserves of bloodthirsty evil will prove a match even for a (literal) devil like Ig.

Hill's second novel is less assured than Heart-Shaped Box, his debut haunted road novel. Though this unevenness isn't the product of Hill losing his nerve or doubting his talents. Rather, he bit off more than he could chew. There's at least two books in here: One dark comedy about a man growing into the role of the devil and the other a grim story about a doomed romance poisoned by unrealistic ideals of love. He never full balances these two strands, nor does he fully explore the Ig's new role as the devil (most notably, if he's the devil, does that prove the existence of God?) or the status of Merrin's real killer, who Hill suggests might also be a devil like Ig, but may not be. It's unclear if Hill's ambitions outstripped his abilities or if he lacked discipline to keep things tight. Still, the result is more sloppy than disappointing. For my part, I'd rather have a wealth of interesting, if not fully explored ideas, then a lack of ideas. Furthermore, even in the service of too many ideas, Hill's writing remains fresh and energetic. Hill also has a profound sympathy with his characters - even the most vile. He is willing to climb into their skin and speak in their voice, an abdication of authorial control over the interpretation of their text that is, in its own small way, genuinely heroic.

Less a horror story than a dark fantasy, Hill's work owe less to the American mainstream horror tradition his father so dominates and more to the eccentric visions of Thomas Disch, the off-kilter Brit sensibilities of Gaiman, instinctual storytelling primitives like Joe Landsdale, and modern genre revivalists like Kelly Link. What links them altogether is their dry, laconic approach to the uncanny. In the traditional horror novel, visitations from the impossible are a source of deep unrest. In works like Horns, they are something to endure or exploit, something to navigate or learn to live with.

Nearly a week ago, I posted the first chapter - a short two-paragraph chapter - of Horns. In it, Ig wakes up with a monster hangover and discovers his horns. Regular ANTSS commenter Sassy said that it reminded him of Kafka, specifically one assumes it reminded him of The Metamorphosis. There is something Kafka-esque about Horns and the New Horror moment it is part of, though it runs deeper than the transformation trope (which is hardly Kafka's invention). It's in the exhaustion of the transcendant, the idea that even visible evidence of a reality beyond our own won't make getting through the long and tiresome day any easier. When people confess their secret sins to Ig, it is hardly a revelation. They do it off-handedly, with the slight sense of relief one feels when you unburden to a stranger at a bar. There's a impatience to it, as if they'd rather quit talking about it so they can just get back to whatever it was they were doing. They embody the modern crisis of modern horror. It isn't that we don't believe in a transcendent world. It's that we're solipsistic to care. We vaguely hope that the banshee's death-signfiying wail won't be so loud as to drown out the crate dive Lady Ga Ga rarities mix that guy who is only sort of our Internet friend made us and we kinda accepted simply because he's a facebook friend but we think Lady Ga Ga is about as musically talented as a canker sore and he's kind of a bore, but still, free music, fuck yeah!

In his defense, Hill works in a narrative reason for everybody's nonchalant attitude to the fact that a devil is prowling in their midst, but it's clear that it is simply a beard. The story doesn't need it and I don't think Hill cared.

Horns is odd in that it is a flawed book that is still quite strong. An imperfect and occasionally unwieldy book, it is the work of an author determined to expand their range and willing to take the occasional fall if that's what it takes to push to boundaries. The result feels jagged and occasionally underdeveloped, but it's never dull.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Books: "Policing gender and punishing girliness."

The American Prospect takes a look at the Twilight backlash and questions its gender politics. From writer Sady Doyle's article:

Twilight is more than a teen dream. It's a massive cultural force. Yet the very girliness that has made it such a success has resulted in its being marginalized and mocked. Of course, you won't find many critics lining up to defend Dan Brown or Tom Clancy, either; mass-market success rarely coincides with literary acclaim. But male escapist fantasies -- which, as anyone who has seen Die Hard or read those Tom Clancy novels can confirm, are not unilaterally sophisticated, complex, or forward-thinking -- tend to be greeted with shrugs, not sneers. The Twilight backlash is vehement, and it is just as much about the fans as it is about the books. Specifically, it's about the fact that those fans are young women.

Twilight fans (sometimes known as "Twi-Hards") are derided and dismissed, sometimes even by outlets that capitalize on their support. MTV News crowned "Twilighters" its Woman of the Year in 2008, but referred to them as "shrieking and borderline-stalker female fans." You can count on that word -- shrieking -- to appear in most articles about Twilight readers, from New York magazine's Vulture blog ("Teenage girls shrieking ... before the opening credits even begin") to Time magazine ("Shrieking fangirls [outdoing] hooting fanboys ... in number, ardor, and decibel level") to The Onion's A.V. Club ("Squealing hordes of (mostly) teenage, female fans") to The New York Times ("Squeals! The 'Twilight Saga: New Moon' Teaser Trailer Is Here!"). Yes, Twi-Hards can be loud. But is it really necessary to describe them all by the pitch of their voices? It propagates the stereotype of teen girls as hysterical, empty-headed, and ridiculous.

Self-described geeks and horror fans are especially upset at how the series introduces the conventions of the romance novel -- that most stereotypically feminine, most scorned of literary forms -- into their far more highbrow and culturally relevant monster stories. At the 2009 Comic-Con, Twilight fans were protested and said to be "ruining" the event. Fans of Star Wars, Star Trek, X-Men, and Harry Potter are seen as dorks at worst, participants in era-defining cultural phenomena at best. Not so for Twilight fans. What sets Twilight apart from Marvel comics? The answer is fairly obvious, and it's not -- as geeks and feminists might hope -- the quality of the books or movies. It's the number of boys in the fan base.

Doyle ends her piece with a look at why feminists should care about the Twilight backlash even if they think the books are a crock. In a neat judo move, she argues that the Twilight phenomenon, considered through a lens other than the heteronormative knee-jerk male panic of most genre critics, might be a watershed moment in considering the role of young women in the marketplace driven public sphere.

Teen girls have the power to shape the market because they don't have financial responsibilities, tend to be passionate about their interests, and share those interests socially. If a girl likes something, she's liable to recommend it to her friends; a shared enthusiasm for Edward, or the Jonas Brothers, or anything else, becomes part of their bond. Marketers prize teenage girls, even as the media scoff at them.

If you want to matter, though, apparently you need boys. The third film adaptation of the Twilight series, Eclipse, will be helmed by horror director David Slade, who has made such movies as Hard Candy and Thirty Days of Night. Even though it will not hit theaters until June 2010, it is already being touted as "darker," more action-packed, and more "guy friendly." Because the popularity of the Twilight formula guarantees Eclipse will be a box-office smash, the decision to consciously appeal to boys seems more like a grab at credibility than at profit. Romance-loving Twi-Hards be damned! Who cares about disappointing a huge, passionate, lucrative fan base if they're all a bunch of girls?

As Twilight demonstrates, not everything girls like is good art -- or, for that matter, good feminism. Still, the Twilight backlash should matter to feminists, even if the series makes them shudder. If we admit that girls are powerful consumers, then we admit that they have the ability to shape the culture. Once we do that, we might actually start listening to them. And I suspect a lot of contemporary girls have more to talk about than Edward Cullen.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Music: Limblessly in love.

Been digging through my old records lately.

For my money - and I'll admit that, given the state of my bank accounts, that's not saying much - The Scream, Siouxsie and the Banshee's debut album, is one of the great "missing links" between chaos of punk and the angular post-punk that followed. Because Siouxsie and company later became one of the foundation groups of Goth, The Scream's best qualities are misinterpreted as failings - its thrashing guitars, for example, aren't praised for their energy but criticized as the undeveloped beginnings of a more lush later style. Though that linear historical view doesn't give The Scream enough credit. The LP was the band's debut, but it wasn't really a novice effort. SS&B had been a going concern for years before a label snatched them up. When any shambling gang of lad's with even the slightest chops was getting signed, SS&B was getting passed by. The upside of the benign neglect was that the unit one hears on The Scream was a well-practiced, road-tested outfit with a strong set of fully evolved tunes. The reason it sounds so odd in retrospect is that it was ultimately a sort of evolutionary dead end. The group went Gothic. They ditched the jerky proto-Gang of Four sharp corners and the grimly tangled vision of modern social life that shared more with Elvis Costello's concept of emotional fascism than it did with the Romanticism of Goth.

Anywho, here's some great footage of the band from 1977. The sound quality os atrocious, but the footage is neat if only because it shows everybody looking so damn young.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Over There: Horror films and the War in Afghanistan - Part 3: The Objective

Before we make our third and final stop in this short tour of horror films set against the backdrop of our now rapidly escalating war in Afghanistan, here's links to the first two films in this series. In case anybody needs a refresher before we push on:

Part 1: Sand Serpents
Part 2: Red Sands

Our final film, The Objective, a 2008 genre-stew film by Blair Witch Project co-director Daniel Myrick, was the first of the three Afghanistan set flicks to get made. Set just two months after the 9/11 terror attacks and one month after the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, the film follows a CIA operative and his special forces escort into the Southern Provinces (currently the operational theater of Canada's military forces in Afghanistan) on the search for a mysterious radiation source.

The film's central protag is the Agency spook. He provides a affectless running narration that lets us know from the get go that this operation is not what it seems. He serves as the squads Ripley (the outside consult with a potentially different agenda). The soldiers accompanying him are, as in the other films, familiar types. His unit includes a Rock, a Vig, a Lemchek, and a couple of Fodders. We also get a pick-up Benny Fish to act as a local guide and an inexplicable Australian sniper. Even odder, the sniper later drops a significant bit of esoteric knowledge regarding the 19th century British Afghan War debacle, making him a sort of stand in for all the other white components of Bush's Coalition of the Willing.

Our crew is choppered into the badlands and, before you can turn a video camera on yourself and say you're so sorry, things start to go wrong in strange and unexplainable ways. Radios cease working. The squad is ambushed by Taliban fighters who vanish, even after after taking shots to the head. Soldiers fall victim to mysterious illness and seeing ghostly assassins through their night vision gear. Compasses go on the fritz. The land seems to be morphing around them - putting mountains and deserts where satellite photos show grassland. Even their trusty Benny Fish gets lost and, eventually, so spooked that he commits suicide.

The cause of all this, we later learn, are invisible ancient pyramid-shaped UFOs. Just what these things can do is never defined, so its best to assume that their uncanny radiation can make whatever screenwriters Myrick, Mark A. Patton, and Wesley Clark Jr. need to happen materialize. The whole mission was a ploy to get a bunch of troops to engage these things just to see what would happen when a bunch of panicked special forces guys shot at them and got their dander up. The answer, it turns out, is the special forces guys get screwed.

The Objective is an intermittently ambitious mess of a flick. Myrick started on familiar ground - the lost on mission plot is close enough to Project that one feels the flick should be in Myrick's wheelhouse - but rapidly loses his way. In BWP the sketchiness of the characterization was thematically supported by the found-films backstory. Furthermore, the thin characterization actually helped to make the unlucky students objects of identification. They didn't have any opaque fragments of personality that would stop the viewer from projecting their own personality onto the screen. Here, the soldiers are too alien - with their jargon, their easy recourse to large amounts of tremendous violence, their (remarkably sloppy and non-standardized) uniforms, their chain of command - to embody the average viewer, but too half-finished to feel like complete humans. The odd exception to this is the CIA operative. Though his voice-over is often tedious, as the film progresses it becomes clearer and clearer that he's a grade A sociopath. Not a foaming at the mouth slasher type, but a genuine a-emotional manipulator who can look a dying man in the eye and, before abandoning him to his fate, say, "Your country is proud of you." The CIA spook is the kinda guy who refers to soldiers as "assets" and says this to their face. While this kind of character is hardly a novel creation, Myrick gets points for making this vile jerk the central character of the story. It's a bold move that actually pays off in several key scenes.

Visually, without the found-film conceit as a cover, Myrick proves hesitant to go verite but unable or unwilling to commit to a more efficient, effective narrative filmmaking style. The result is neither fish nor fowl: An awkward fusion that never feels raw enough to sell as unmediated nor tight enough to drive home the story. The result is decidedly uneven. For every intriguing visual Myrick crafts, there are inert, artless stretches of what occasionally feels like lazy filmmaking. Which is ironic if you consider that they were filming in pretty brutal desert conditions. A lot of hard effort went into this film, I'm sure. I simply wish more of it was visible on the screen.

Finally, the plot derails in the last quarter. Once the viewers figure out that there's no "unified" explanation for why ghosts, and vanishing Taliban, and 100+-year-old British soldiers, and so on are all happening to our protags, the film loses momentum and becomes a collection of strung together set pieces, none of which particularly hang together in any narrative sense. The conclusion, a nod to 2001, feels more like a cop out than a wrap up.

Aside from it's obviously fictional genre trappings, The Objective is only barely a movie about the War in Afghanistan. Like Red Sands, this is a curiously American-centric flick. Again, not in a specifically jingoistic way. The Objective presents Americans as the biggest threat to Americans. Rather, this is a film about the post-9/11 mentality of America. It is, of course, a critique of the blood-soaked hubris of the Bush administration. The CIA protag's delusional willingness to march into the "graveyard of armies" on what amounts to a suicide mission for objectives that can't even be described is a fitting avatar for our post-9/11 adventurism. But the toxic, conspiracy choked atmosphere of dissent is just as much a target. The plot of The Objective sounds like a subplot of the unhinged film-rant Zeitgeist or the basis for a particularly juicy post on Alex Jones's site. I remember when, leading up to the '08 election, a blogger I know and respect posted - I believe in all seriousness - a post detailing how Bush and his cronies would seize the reigns of power permanently through false flag terror scares. These scares would give them the power to cancel the upcoming election and establish marshal law. I don't bring this prediction up to measure its accuracy (happily, it was off base), but rather to point out that in the American political culture of the mid-00s this sort of thinking was relatively unremarkable. This movie seems very much a product of those grimly anxious years.

To a degree, all the films in this mini-genre are less about the status of the War in Afghanistan than they are about our own image. To one degree or another, they're all thought experiments of Nietzsche's famous hypothesis regarding those who fight monsters. In Sand Serpents, the filmmakers assume traditional heroics - complete with noble sacrifice - will win the day. Though the fact that their hero's final courageous act is essentially a suicide bombing does little to convince us. Red Sands more pessimistically posits that we won't survive this encounter intact. It's difference between that film's djinn baddie and soldier heroes dissolves quickly, leaving behind a single soldier who is, literally, the monster he fought. The Objective suggests that we probably wouldn't be out looking for monsters if we weren't already a bit twisted inside.