Saturday, February 28, 2009

Movies: Run from the border.

Amongst my people, there is well-known bit of folk wisdom that I present here in the native tongue:

La domina masklo estadas pli ol dudek jaroj aĝa kaj ĝi tenas sian postenon proksimume dek jarojn.

There is no exact English equivalent, but it can be roughly translated to "El Santo will get you through a movie without redeeming qualities better than redeeming qualities will get you through a movie without El Santo." Not just a clever turn of phrase, scientists at leading places were science is done have tested this hypothesis under the most rigorous conditions – and it don't get none more rigorous than the truly dire 1977 stinkeroo Santo and the Mystery in the Bermuda - and the rule has held.

This is not to say that all Santo flicks are equal. Over-generalizing bloggers prone to intellectual laziness tend to group Santo flicks into a three-tiered taxonomic system. At the top Santo Chain of Film Being are the Golden Trio: Santo versus the Vampire Women, The Witches Attack, and The Diabolical Axe. Not only are these three films my personal favorites, but a strong case can be made that the physical laws that govern the structure of the universe persist in their current form because this order of reality is a necessary condition for the existence of these three films. In another universe, under different physical laws, there would either be too many top-level Santo films, which would cause all reality to explode due to awesomeness overload, or too few Santo flicks, which would cause the universe to collapse in an implosion of pointless misery.

Under the Golden Trio is the Silver Horde, a dozen or so flicks that consistent deliver the wrasslin' action, loopy filmmaking, and life-affirming heroic nobility that fans of El Santo demand. Though often marred by clunky plotting and speed-bump "dramatic" scenes, these flicks have a bright, fun pop appeal that carries you right over the rough patches. As an added bonus, they often involve some character culled from the old Universal Monster stable – some distant relative of Frankenstein, one of a pack of wolf men, or Drac, natch – which provides a nice point of entry for those unfamiliar with the Man in the Silver Mask.

Finally, there's what Santo-superfan and surrealist anthropologist George Bataille called "The Accursed Share." These limp late-career flicks can be tough going even for the faithful. By the late '70s, Santo films just weren't the moneymakers they used to be. This meant smaller budgets and casts padded out with comic relief sidekicks and a rotating slate of pop singers. To make matters worse, Santo was getting a bit long in the tooth himself, so there's usually less rough housing and the mandatory wrestling scenes are increasingly handled by cutting footage of past actual matches into the flick. That's not to say that even these flicks don't have their draw, but it isn't where the Santo novice wants to start.

Today's flick, 1979's Santo and the Border of Terror, is a pretty typical example a work from Santo's accursed share. The flick is built on a neat premise. It pits the Hero of the Multitudes against a slave labor ring that disposes of unwanted or troublesome workers by using them as raw material for an organ harvesting sideline. Oh, and it's a musical. That's right: the flick is a lucha action musical about the modern slave trade and organ harvesting. Unfortunately, the film just cannot deliver on all the high strangeness that premise implies.

The film starts with two workers making a deal with a coyote (in the people-smuggler, not dog-like desert scavenger sense) to reach the North American plantation of one Mr. Richards. One of the laborers, Laborer 1, needs the money badly to pay for the eye transplant operation of his girlfriend's, the Nightclub Singer, blind little sister (BLS). Laborer 2 has some backstory about an old mother who needs help or something, but it never really comes up. He's there because he, like Nightclub, is a minor musical star and that gives him an excuse to kick into the occasional musical number.

Santo gets mixed up in all this sorta by accident. Unable to find a convincing way to fit Santo in this drama, the filmmakers decided he would just show up. Literally. When the Laborers, Nightclub, and the BLS are walking home one night, they get jumped by some thugs. Santo and his comic relief Manager, happen to be nearby. The Man in the Silver Mask opens up a can of whoop-ass on the thugs and, Q.E.D., he's in the story.

Laborers 1 and 2 make their way in the US and start to work at the Richard's farm. The farm is run like a prison camp by a brutal, but cowardly Overseer and Dr. Sombra, the morality-impaired medico who seems like a nice enough guy until he's got you on the slab. Ultimately, Nightclub starts to wonder what happened to her beau and asks for Santo to intervene. Santo and his painfully unfunny manager make the scene and start solving the mystery in Santo's own inimitable fashion.

So, what in Borders works? Despite the overall predictability of the plot, there's some clever twists and oddities thrown in to keep the viewer interested. For example, there are at least three major villains in the piece, but what they all know and just how evil they are is unclear. Mr. Richards, for example, seems to understand that he's getting labor for cheaper than he should, but it isn't clear just how much he understands about daily life on the farm (and he clearly doesn't know that workers who've "left to go home to Mexico" are actually being chopped up into spare parts). The Overseer is a bully and douchebag, but his real moral failing seems to be cowardice. It's unclear if he knows that nobody ever gets paid, but it's clear that he's not cool with the dissection and sale of workers. However, being a coward, he doesn't blow the whistle on the doc, but rather attempts to use his knowledge as leverage to get away from the farm with a bit of cash. Admittedly, this ain't the most complicated characterization you'll run across in a flick, but it adds a refreshing dynamic, giving the baddies varied and shifting motives and allegiances. The film's conclusion is also morally ambiguous. The BLS gets her vision back, but the eyeballs come from one of Sombra's victims. I don't know if the viewer is supposed to care (after all, the victim's not coming back and not using the eyes to save a girl's vision would be wasteful), but the fact that nobody mentions this moral paradox is dissonant note that runs contrary to the we-all-laugh-and-freeze-frame ending viewers see. The topical content of the film is handled well. Unlike the dreary lectures at the ass-end of Mystery in Bermuda, nobody lectures viewers about the dehumanizing effects of the US immigration policies when coupled with a voracious market for cheap labor. Plus, there's Santo being Santo. That should be enough.

What doesn't work is a much longer list. The dialog is painfully wooden. The acting is subpar, even for the subgenre of lucha action flicks. This is especially true in the case of Santo's manager, who is actually so unfunny that he might have single handedly discovered some sort of comedic anti-matter, "jokes" that actually destroys any joy and mirth it encounters. Though there's a certain charm to the artless way in which musical numbers are included in the flick, this charm is overwhelmed by the mediocrity of the tunes themselves. The special effects are a drag and, despite the wonderfully grand guignol premise of the film, we get no gore whatsoever. Seriously, a film about an organ harvester and there's not even so much as a bloody butcher's apron to be seen! WTF? OMG, DSKWWACTS? IAHDAMLJ, ICTYTM. Late stage Santo doesn't have the moves he used to, so the wrestling action is quite tame. Finally, the voice of the BLS is what I imagine is so unbelievably unpleasant that it's a wonder nobody's tried to weaponize it. Certainly this shrill, flat, dentist drill of a voice would be a more effective torture method than, say, waterboarding.

Perhaps, like me, you're one of those sad Santo addicts, living on the fringes of society, stealing car stereos to pay Netflix bills and sustain the habit. If so, then by all means, check out Border of Terror. If, however, you are a normal human being with a healthy and regular relationship to movies starring legendary Mexican wrestlers, then I'd give it the pass.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Mad science: Epidemic spread dynamics + basic multiplication + "it's called fiction" = no vampires

At the University of Central Florida, Costas Efthimiou, groundbreaking researcher in Taking Things Way Too Seriously Studies, has ruled out the possibility that vampires exist using the power of math!

A researcher has come up with some simple math that sucks the life out of the vampire myth, proving that these highly popular creatures can't exist.

. . .

Efthimiou's debunking logic: On Jan 1, 1600, the human population was 536,870,911. If the first vampire came into existence that day and bit one person a month, there would have been two vampires by Feb. 1, 1600. A month later there would have been four, and so on. In just two-and-a-half years the original human population would all have become vampires with nobody left to feed on.

As silly as all that is, it can't match the rage of commenter Weyland S, who is disgusted, and I mean caps-lock DISGUSTED, by Efthimiou's mathematical shenanigans. Prepare to be schooled by the Internet's last righteous man!

For the record, I do not believe in vampires.

Like the Amazing Randi, this person is dressing up his own prejudices, assumptions, and personal philosophy in the language of science in an attempt to hide the fact that his arguments are based on these things under a veneer of scientific-seeming speech. This is exactly what pseudoscientists do.

He makes his argument rest entirely upon unjustified assumptions. Vampires bite one person every month? Vampires have no self restraint at all and will continue to turn people even when their ecological balance is in peril? Vampires always turn a person into a vampire every time they bite? Victims never get away? Vampires never die? All assumptions. Most not part of traditional vampire lore. To rest a conclusion based on making numbers and such up out of whole cloth IS NOT SCIENCE.

This person claims he wants to improve the scientific education of the lay public, and reduce pseudoscientific nonsense. But he is a pseudoscientist. This is not reasoning, this is gross chicanery. If this person wants to improve understanding of real science elsewhere, he'd better get his own house in order first.

The editors of should be ashamed for letting such blatantly unscientific nonsense pass itself off as rational discourse on their site.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Books: A man's home is his castle. And mausoleum.

All apologies to Grant Wood, but there's something almost paradoxical about the idea of an American gothic. Certainly, the lack of standard genre trappings and settings doesn't help: America's most famous castle is probably Disney's Snow White Castle. But, more importantly, it's the combination of a prevailing American fantasy of self-invention, our amnesiac's sense of history, and the vastness of the American landscape that all work against it. Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy both riffed off this idea in bits each did regarding the Amityville Horror flick. The former involved a man giving ever stupider justifications as to why he wouldn't move from a haunted house ("Sure, the kids turn into bats; but the value of the land alone . . .") and the latter was about how short the flick would have been if the comedian had been the one living in the house ("What a lovely old house." "Get out." "Too bad we can't stay though . . ."). Gags aside, both jokes speak to the same point: How could one get tangled in the web of associations and implication of the traditional gothic when you can always just move and start over? If Disney's fairy-tale castle is our most famous keep, it's telling that its "occupants" are predominantly tourists breezing through on their way to Tomorrowland.

Despite this seeming incongruity, there's a rich thread of dark romanticism in American lit. Poe got around the problem of the unsuitability of American soil by planting his tales in an imagined Europe. Hawthorne used the insular social world of New England as his isolated and sealed off environment (ironically, he was unable to keep his grim Puritan poker face when he moved the setting of his last novel to Europe, native home of the gothic). The haunting legacy of slavery and bloody defeat provided the sense of unavoidable accursedness necessary to fuel an entire school of Southern gothic works, from Faulkner to Wise Blood to Beloved. Though its now seen as slumming, there was a time when even the country's most urbane writers would craft the occasional gothic: James's Turn of the Screw and Wharton's Ethan Frome being the iconic examples. A coalition of often nameless, probably underpaid copy-engines kept a cottage industry of mass market paperback gothics on the shelves, reaching some sort of cultural highwater mark in the 1970s – when Rice became a perennial seller and Flowers in the Attic became a touchstone of illicit YA tween chick lit.

Still, the dominant features of America's mythical landscape tends to be open roads, not mist shrouded moors; bustling cities, not decaying manor houses; well-tended suburban lawns, not crumbling family cemeteries. This gives the whole goth tradition, despite its long history, something of a pulpy, not-quite-respectable appeal. Done well, a good gothic delivers serious literary quality and, somehow, still feels vaguely naughty. Imagine art-porn that was, impossibly, both good art and good porn – that's the kick of a good American gothic tale.

It's this kick readers can find in the tricky postmodernism of Castle, by J. Robert Lennon, and the aggressively retro-gothic A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick. The former is a clever update of some traditional gothic tropes while the latter is expertly-handled throwback, a richly imagined gothic that feel like it could have sat on shelves next to Wharton's famous book nearly a century ago (except for all the frank descriptions of semi-incestuous sex, of course).

The high-concept pitch for Castle - it's Deliverance by way of Kafka, with just a hint of Frankenstein for spice notes – promises boatloads of weirdness. Lennon delivers on this promise admirably. Eric Loesch, an Iraq War vet with a tangled family history and nasty scandal hanging over his military record, returns to his hometown in upstate New York. He purchases a secluded house out where he plans to live out his remaining days in hermit-like isolation. This plan hits a surreal snag when Loesch discovers that there a small castle, complete with turrets and everything, smack dab in the middle of his property. This bizarre turn of events takes on a more sinister aspect when it becomes clear that the castle and its mysterious occupant are connected to Eric's guilt-haunted past.

In the best gothic tradition, Lennon takes the metaphoric connections between people and places and manifests them. Just Poe made Usher's skull-shaped home literally reflect every stress, strain, and crack in the cranium of its unraveling owner, Lennon makes Loesch's story is almost too-nakedly allegorical: A man with a troubled and mysterious past must investigate a lock-up keep situated in the heart of his dark private forest. Not the most subtle extended metaphorical conceit committed to paper, granted; but the gothic tradition hasn't generally been big on subtlety. Strip away the contemporary trappings and Castle's set-up wouldn't feel out of place in a Shirley Jackson novel or one of Lovecraft's weird tales of twisted, doomed families.

Where Lennon most clearly breaks with the gothic tradition is the telling is in the voice of Eric Loesch. Operatic emotions explored through explosions of overheated prose are a hallmark of the genre. But Loesch is a maddeningly different creature. Loesch's narrative voice is the Lennon's secret weapon. Emotionally dry (almost barren, really) and meticulous, bitterly defensive and self-assured, Loesch's narration is a hypnotic drone that lulls readers into a false sense of confidence. He seems like he doesn't belong in his own novel, like he walked in from some nature-writer's book or from a quiet domestic novel about the desperate and restrained lives of New England families. But, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that he's not only an unreliable narrator, but that he's more damaged and insane than anybody in book (with the possible exception of our mystery castle-dweller).

Lennon expertly shifts between exacting detail and fantastic horror, giving his tale the crisp realism of a well-remembered nightmare. The end result is somewhat marred by an awkward attempt to create a metaphorical parallel to the prisoner torture scandals of the War on Terror, the results of which are neither insightful or illuminating. Still, aside from that one misstep, Lennon's curious thriller is a refreshingly odd slice of genre fiction and it is bound to please fans of "new weird" horror and genre bending mysteries. Castle is published by Greywolf Press and streets in April.

In contrast to The Castle's updated approach, Goolrick's A Reliable Wife is a full-on, unapologetic, old school gothic. Set in the first decade of the 20th Century, the novel focuses on the tangled lives of four characters: the aging but still powerful Ralph Truitt, wealthy and isolated founder of Truitt, Wisconsin; Catherine Lamb, his mail order bride with a tainted past and murderous intentions; Antonio, the illegitimate son of Truitt's first wife and a music teacher, a bitter libertine who has swoon revenge on Truitt; and, through her ghostly and suffocating absence, Truitt's ex-wife, the mad and decadent Emily. If the dramatis personae didn't tell you what kind of book we're talking about here, the locales – the opium dens, a seemingly perpetually snowed in farm house, and an abandoned European-style mansion built in the middle of nowhere – and plot – a murderous conspiracy, secret identities, guilty pasts, suggestions of sadomasochistic and incestuous relationships – evoke everything from Wuthering Heights and Rebecca to the works of de Sade and Poe.

In contrast to the tight-lipped narrator of The Castle, Goolrick's prose is intricate, elaborate, and intense. Reflecting the genre's pre-Freudian roots, the traditional gothic's purple prose is partially the result of the minute observation of extreme mental states without falling back on the medical shorthand of pathological labels. (Indeed, the ascension of therapy culture is, in some ways, partially responsible for the decay of the gothic tale's stature: forcing it into strictly supernatural byways or rendering it strangely quaint.) Goolrick recaptures this intensity in prose that feels vintage without feeling recycled or tired. His doomed, beautiful creations contain thunderous emotional storms, all of them described in pleasingly obsessive detail.

Goolrick's made a wonderful book about damaged people doing horrible things to one another. It's entertaining without feeling thin, dark without being draining, and twisted without being heartless. A Reliable Wife is going to have the Algonquin Books logo on its spine and will be available March 31st.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mad science: Slasher physics.

The Guardian has an article on the work of one Dr. Sarah Hainsworth, of the Space research Centre of the University of Leicester: the Fredrick Winslow Taylor of the slasher world. The good doctor is studying just how sharp (and sharpish) things poke through the human body. From the article:

Dr Sarah Hainsworth is an engineer who, for the past few years, has been investigating the sharpness of knives - and not just knives, but screwdrivers, scissors and even ballpoint pens. Any implement, in fact, that has featured as a murder weapon. "If you give somebody a knife and ask them if it's sharp, how do you measure that? How do you quantify sharpness?" Hainsworth asks. "I suppose that's what we've been trying to do."

The cutlery industry has measured the effectiveness of the slicing edges of blades designed for chopping up vegetables or carving meat, and how best to maintain that sharpness, she says. "But what nobody has really done is to investigate the sharpness of points." They certainly have now. Hainsworth sometimes spends whole afternoons dropping knives from various heights on to foam or legs of pork - a close substitute for human skin - and recording the results in finest detail.

Hainsworth found herself in this curious specialization after she was approached by a solicitor who thought that data on the amount of force his client used in a stabbing might influence sentencing; a perp who used less force, the thinking went, was not trying to hurt somebody as badly as somebody who went all crazy with the stabby stab. For those of the slasher-fan persuasion, however, the results are essentially a close-up, slow-mo take on the work on your favorite villains.

Using high-speed video film, they have gained a better understanding of the "mechanism" by which blades penetrate skin. This shows that there are a number of stages. At first contact the skin deflects around the knife tip. At a critical stress level the knife penetrates the skin. After penetration the sharpness of both tip and blade are important in determining how much further the knife goes in.

Stress is an engineering term expressed as force, measured in Newtons divided by area, Hainsworth explains. The force required to stab a person with a sharp knife is less than you might expect, she says. "Often, once the point has gone through the skin, the force required to go further is even less."

. . .

Other factors come into play in a stabbing, for instance the angle of strike and the width of blade. In further research, Hainsworth will replicate knife attacks using an accelerometer, a device that records the rapid changes in force used.

In her experience, the kitchen knife is the weapon most commonly used in murders. In recent years, more and more of these have been made with sharper tips - not necessary for the slicing and peeling most are designed for. Hainsworth suspects this is because people buying knives are often seen to check out the tip on their thumb rather then the long edge, and manufacturers have noticed this tendency.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Stuff: Zombies and your money.

As if pop horror's seemingly endless wallowing in zombie crudolla wasn't spirit-killing enough, the phenomenon has reached a new misery inducing levels by being linked to the other great soul-numbing fact of modern American life: the economy.

Welcome to the era of the American zombie bank.

For a group not noted for their poetic sensibilities, financial types have some truly descriptive and colorful slang. Way back in 1997, in a Wall Street Journal article about the "lost decade" in Japan (a ten-year slump in Japan's economy experienced zero growth), economist Edward Kane coined the term zombie bank. Zombie banks are created when a combination of government support and shady accounting practices not only prevent banks from failing, but turns them in sucking black holes of crappy value. In the colorful phrasing of WSJ reporter Martin Mayer:

Such walking dead devour their own good assets every night, and thanks to the magic of compound interest they become exponentially more insolvent . . . But governments and central banks vouched for the zombie banks, which were able to keep borrowing dollars from banks in other countries.

In theory, a propped up bank could be saved by the correct balance of wise stewardship and carefully managed injections of cash. In practice, a often badly handled combo results in a bank that just keeps negating the cash injections with its ever growing debt. This doesn't just obliterate any wealth the government may throw at the bank, but starts to drag on the health of other banks. As mentioned above, the zombies continue to borrow money just like a healthy bank would. Unfortunately, this wealth doesn't circulate back out into the system in the form of profit-generating loans. Instead, like the government support, it vanishes down the ever-growing debt-hole of the zombie bank.

This grim term invented to explain the collapse of the Pacific Rim economic boom has, zombie-like, risen again. Only, this time, experts are using it to describe American banks receiving bailout money from the gov.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Movies: Who can possibly save us?

Last night, I caught the F13 remilkshake at the Court Street Theater in downtown Brooklyn.

Regular readers should recognize the name, but ANTSS newcomers might not understand the locale's significance. Court Street is home to Brooklyn's, if not the world's, finest cinema-going audience: a collective we at ANTSS lovingly call "the Courtesans."

The Courtesans are to film what the groundlings were to Elizabethan theater, only with more loud cell phone use and less livestock. (In fact, the receiving and placing of high volume calls is so common that the funniest moment of any film at Court Street is the most certainly ironic "Please silence your cell phones" slide that appears before the trailers roll.)

Because this was an 8:25 showing of a movie filled with brutal acts of violence and extended sequences of partial female nudity, about a third of the movie's audience consisted of tots aged 4 to 12. It isn't that Courtesans are, perhaps, liberal to a fault when it comes to their whelps' media intake. They are just frugal: A movie ticket costs considerably less than a night of babysitting. The potential cost of years of therapy for the children is cleverly avoided by revealing to the child the fictional nature of the filmic construct. That is to say, you simply tell the traumatized tike that they are dumb for being scared and laugh at their delightful displays of extreme distress. This is what educational theorists refer to as a teachable moment.

I bring this up because it was just such a mind-raped little nipper that provided the new Friday the 13th repackaging with its finest moment.

About three-quarters of the way into the flick, Jason gets around to dispatching the lone African American member of the victim set, a dude named Lawrence. Now Larry seems like a clever enough cat. Sure, like all African Americans in horror flicks, he feels the need to constantly remind his friends that he is, in fact, African American. Sample dialog from an as-yet untitled slasher project featuring an African American character:

"Anybody want a beer."
"Yeah, the black guy will have a beer."
"Do you have a preference? PBR or Sam?"
"Would you have asked that of a white guy?"
"Um, probably."
"What, you'd deny me the essential disconnect of my experience as a African American in a white man's world?"
"Look, I just wanted to give you a choice."
"You can't give me anything. Freedom can only be demanded and taken. A black man learns that early in life."

If you're writing a slasher novel or film script, feel free to dumb that down a bit and plug it right into your work. Free of charge.

That quirk aside, Larry's displayed average intelligence throughout the film, which makes it odd that he ultimately decides to not listen the two characters that have their crap together and venture out to the tool shed to find another member of this doomed troupe, a character we've already seen Jason send to the Great Beer Pong Game in the Sky. To assure the remaining Jason fodder that he will emerge from this quixotic mission unscathed, he gestures to a wok and fire poker he is using as his buckler and bodkin and says, "Don't worry, he won't touch me."

With friends and audience put at ease, Larry marches off.

After some musical ominousness – the score consists mostly of what sounds to be an instrumental version of Nine Inch Nails "Something I Can Never Have" played at sub-Codeine speeds – Larry and Jason find one another and Jason tries to make with the killy kill, ma ma ma. But, Aw NO! Larry ain't havin' it! After a short scuffle, Larry gives Jason a smashing elbow to the face mask.

At this point . . .

Horror filmmakers, nota bene.

The audience went abso-freakin'-lutely bonkers. The Courtesans were – every man, woman, and child – in agreement that Lawrence's elbow smash was the single finest moment ever committed to cinema. The crowd, firmly in Jason's camp when he was trimming the unsightly edges off the Caucasian and Asian American community, suddenly turned on their taciturn hero. Larry was the man.

Jason, temporarily dazed (not so much out of pain, but simply due to the sheer audacity of Larry's behavior), let's Larry slip out of the shed. Once clear, Larry makes with all do haste to the MVHA. Sensing a historic shift in the paradigm of predator and prey, the audience cheered Larry on. People stood up to holler their support. I think I actually saw two young men, overcome with the immediacy of the moment, spring up and begin running too. It was a riotous outpouring of support.

When Jason, also booking it to the MVHA grabbed a hatchet, the audience began trying to warn Larry. Sadly, Larry didn't even it see it coming when Jason launched the hatchet straight into his back. Felled, the audience's avatar collapsed on a pile of chopped firewood. The Courtesans were stunned. For a brief moment, they'd dared to open their hearts up to the possibility of hope. And now, it had ended, as so many dreams had, in a big honking hatchet in the back.

From the silence, some young kid, his voice straining in anger and dismay, screamed out, "Save him, Obama! Save him!"

And everybody laughed.

And that was about the neatest thing that happened in the film's hour and 30-odd running time.

As a side note, E! reports that F13 history making box office take on opening weekend has been followed up by another record-breaking weekend, in the other direction:

Ticket sales for Friday the 13th fell dropped plunged 81 percent from last weekend. According to Exhibitor Relations, that's the steepest-ever descent for a film playing at more than 3,000 theaters. The record previously belonged to the aptly named Doom, which went skydiving without a parachute in 2005.

That's more informative than just about anything I could say about the flick.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Link proliferation: "Killinger: The Case of the Curse of John Wilkes Booth's Mummy"

Sic semper mummyus

R. J. Brown has a article on the bizarre posthumous career of actor and presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth. Brown gives a quick overview of the once popular "Booth's not dead" subgenre of conspiracy theory and the delves into the story of David E. George:

On January 13, 1903 a man in Enid, Oklahoma, by the name of David E. George died. in his last dying statement, the man confessed to his landlord, Mrs. Harper, that he was in fact John Wilkes Booth.

Though few believed the story, enough saw truth (or profit) in it to have George's remains mummified and put on display. And, in true mummy fashion, the mummy of "John Wilkes Booth" carried with it a curse:

The postmortem career of John Wilkes Booth, whether it belongs to true history or folklore, none-the-less provides a fascinating story. The mummy scattered ill-luck around almost as freely as Tutankhamen is alleged to have done. Nearly every showman who exhibited the mummy was subsequently ruined financially. Eight people were killed in the wreck of a circus train in 1902 on which the mummy was traveling. Bill Evans, a wealthy carnival king, who bought the exhibit in later years was financially ruined by continual strokes of bad luck after the purchase. Finis L. Bates, the original owner, wrote a book in 1908 entitled "The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth" which attempted to prove that the mummy was in fact John Wilkes Booth. he suffered much ridicule because of that book and died penniless in 1923. Perhaps the only person to sponsor the mummy and not suffer strokes of financial bad luck was Reverend True Wilson. It must be pointed out that Wilson was largely responsible for originally getting the prohibition law passed. However, shortly after Wilson bought the mummy, the repeal of the prohibition law was made official. (Let each reader make their own determination as to whether this was a cause-effect in this case or not.)

It was that or "Bonnie and Died"

From Dustin via the blog of McNally Jackson, SoHo's finest purveyor of vendible books: "More exciting than James Bond, Mike Hammer, Travis McGee and then some!" Alan Scherstuhl, the man behind the Crap Studies column of Kansas City's The Pitch, presents the pulp-trash overload that is Killinger: The Rainbow/Seagreen Case.

Here's a little taste of the unique literary stylings of Killinger author P. K. Palmer:

"Killinger turned to face her. There was a definite interruption in the pattern of his white shorts."

"Killinger feinted with the start of a kinkeri, a genital knee-kick designed to castrate without use of a knife."

"The man looked at the long splendid legs before him. He looked up past them and past the glorious rounds of the breasts at a wondrous face and long tawny hair. He rose to introduce himself. 'My name is Jeddediah Killinger the Third.'"

Are we not Neil Young?

This may cause a feeling of dread and horror or it might make your day.

In 1982, Neil Young (under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey) co-directed – along w/ bud Dean Stockwell – an apocalyptic comedy about a dorky garage mechanic who refuses to let the fact that an impending nuclear war is about to end all life on Earth diminish his dreams of rock and roll stardom.

What? Not weird enough you say?

Okay, the flick – made for $3 million over the course of 4 years - features Dennis Hopper at a time when his daily intake of sundry bad substances had reached a heroic three grams of coke a day, 30 beers, an unknown amount of marijuana, and numerous Cuba libres. Plus, it has Russ Tamblyn, best known as Riff, the leader of the Jets from West Side Story.

What? Still not weird enough?

Alright, because I like you – I wouldn't do this for any other crowd – I'll throw in, as the stars of the flick, Devo.

Here's Neil Young and Devo performing "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)."

Neil Young & Devo

But she would have killed in the extemporaneous speaking portion of the program

Welcome to the inaugural installment of "What horror movie are we today?" Today, we're Audition. From the folks at CNN:

A married Chinese businessman who could no longer afford five mistresses held a competition to decide which one to keep.

But the contest took a fatal turn when one of the women, eliminated for her looks, drove the man and the four other competitors off a cliff, Chinese media reported.

The spurned mistress died and the other passengers were injured, the reports said.

In a way, they were all victims of the ailing global economy:

When the economy soured, the businessman apparently decided to let go of all but one mistress.

He staged a private talent show in May, without telling the women his intentions. An instructor from a local modeling agency judged the women on the way they looked, how they sang and how much alcohol they could hold, the Shanghai Daily said.

The judge knocked out Yu in the first round of the competition based on her looks. Angry, she decided to exact revenge by telling her lover and the four other women to accompany her on a sightseeing trip before she returned to her home province, the media reports said.

It was during the trip that Yu reportedly drove the car off the cliff.

Fan shut down his company after the crash and paid Yu's parents 580,000 yuan ($84,744) as compensation for her death.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Movies: Sweet little thirteen.

Being neither a fan of the original series nor having any real interest in the relaunch, I'm somewhat surprised at how interesting I've founding the critical reactions to the new film.

Perhaps the strangest phenomenon spawned by the Friday the 13th remilkshake is, unlike the treatment of the original, this flick has entered the pop culture sphere with a resounding shrug from the non-horror world. To the world outside of the horror blog pro-am circuit, Friday is just another flick breezing through the multiplex. Compared to the moral outrage, protests, and (mostly in Europe) occasional censorship that slashers met on their first outing, this relaunch might as well be a movie featuring a lovable cast of computer generated puppies and kitties for all anybody seems to give a crap. Citizens groups used the opening date as a chance to time-shift their Valentine's plans to a night when more tables would be available; mainstream reviewers saw the whole thing as little more than a laughable excuse to business expense a box of Milk Duds; and nary a peep was heard from the pre-Millennial horror set, as they were to busy trying to figure out them new fangled ticket kiosk machines to register their normal apocalyptic note about how nothing worthy has happened in the genre since Mountaintop Motel Massacre.

The result of the widespread "sure, whatever" feeling is that, long after the hoi polloi have gone back to less embarrassing pursuits and the Plat Dunes professionals have returned to their meeting rooms to spec out the Roman numeral bearing offspring (Friday the 13th Part II: Jason is Our 401K), the only ones left to energetically debate the alleged merits of this flick are the long-time fanboys and -girls. For outsiders, it all gets a bit esoteric. If you weren't born between 1965 and 1975, then the debates about the relative merits of the new F13 have something of the flavor of theoretical schismatic communist politics: While the various folks involved seem to be able to get wound up about the distinction between Mao-leaning neo-Council Communism verses a retro-flavor militarist post-Hoxhaist Trotskyism, it all sounds the same to un-indoctrinated. Still, if you're willing to grant that the various folks involved are, in fact, seeing distinctions that, to your eye – untrained as it is by the fact that you've seen and enjoyed movies made after the Reagan/Bush years – are imperceptible, then there's still a strange fascination is watching the family fight.

Not unlike the Shiite/Sunni split in Iraq, one side's got the numbers while the other has years of practical experience. The vast majority of the slasher fancy has decided that, somehow, the new F13 doesn't measure up. While this seems to be the majority viewpoint, such critics are in a pretty tenuous place. After all, it isn't like we're evaluating a remake of Citizen Kane here. A lo-fi giallo rip-off, the F13 franchise has been corny for longer than its been worthy. To suddenly evoke considerations of quality seems like you're moving the goal posts.

In opposition to these nay-sayers, we've got a hardy minority who, even though they are outnumbered, have the great advantage of historical continuity. They're in the position of defending the indefensible, which has been the default position of the F13 fancy for nearly 20 years now. While apostates struggle to suddenly apply some sort of critical criteria to their once thought-proof pet franchise, the defenders can rely on years of experience dismissing the notion that films should aspire to quality. The F13 Tories can comfortably announce, "What were you expecting? It's a Friday flick – we don't do plot, or characterization, or drama, or sequence of events, or cause and effect, or main idea and supporting detail. It's this utter lack of concern for anything resembling filmmaking that equals fun." And then, if they're feeling their critical edge-on, they might add, "What happened to you guys? You used to be cool."

Even stranger, nobody seems to be really defending the quality of the film. What's at stake seems to be whether or not your allowed to demand quality in the first place.

This debate actually touches on a problem central to modern aesthetic theory. John Ruskin identified it as the "Chuck Berry Eats Poop Problem."

A little history. In Prisoner of X, a hilariously foul memoir of working two decades for Hustler, Allan MacDonell identifies one of his less savory tasks: watching, validating, and then negotiating the price for stolen celebrity sex tapes. This was back in the day before the miracle of the Interwebs basically automated the gig. Sometimes, on good days, there was a Rabelaisian carnivalesque aspect to the gig. There's something irresistibly funny about the idea of Ted Turner, Hanoi Jane, and an unidentified third party making the beast with three backs – especially when Jane is wearing some prodigious hardware and gets a bit Operation Barrel Roll on the Teddy Boy's rough road. Mostly, however, the content of these tapes and amateur loops was simply sad: the sordid kinks of legends already pickled in the formaldehyde of pop's collective conscious, old gods nearly gone who were still getting their dirty kicks while the world measured them out for a memorial plaque at the appropriate Hall of Fame. Such is the case with Chuck Berry.

MacDonell had the displeasure of negotiating for a tape that showed the man who wrote "Sweet Little Sixteen" eating fecal matter fresh from the backdoor of several anonymous partners. I know it's hard to believe the man who was caught video taping the WC-using patrons of his unfortunately named Southern Air restaurant could be a bit pervy when came to subject of bodily waste, but there it is.

But here's were Chuck Berry's predilections enter the realm of aesthetic philosophy. According to the source of the tape, Berry wasn't just some opportunistic poop-eater. Berry was a connoisseur de merde. Like all discerning aficionados of disreputable pleasures, regardless of the genre of kick, he developed an otaku-like passion for crap. He established a private ranking of his favorite providers, a sort of excremental Tête de Cuvée list. He would have his grand cru producers pinch off a loaf in white Styrofoam containers, neatly organized and labeled, for later consumption. In short, he became the Robert Parker of shit.

The "Chuck Berry Eats Poop Problem" is, thus, a two part dealie. Part Dealie the One: It is possible to apply the methods, mentality, and obsessive passion of the connoisseur to anything. And, Part Dealie the Two: Doing so doesn't mean your not still just talking about shit.

I have yet to see the new film. After dragging my horror wingman Dave through I can't think how many torture porn, man-eating plant, and similarly dubious horror experiences, I think I owe him this one; we're probably going to catch it this weekend. That said, I'm going to have to say that logic pretty much demands you side with the Tories on this one. The Friday flicks have, for that vast majority of the series, been Berry-chow. The first flick, with its effective use of a crisp and minimal visual style and its clever narrative structure (the girl who gets all the "clues" is essentially in a subplot that never fully links to the main story), is about as fine a piece of genre hackwork as you could ask for. The second film, which takes a welcome turn towards the grotesque, wasn't bad either. But, after that, the Friday franchise becomes, for non-devotees, a monotonous blur – excepting game efforts to go-wacky and set Jason's shenanigans in Manhattan (a sad bait and switch, unfortunately) and space. Too much a product of their time, the F13's cynical morality – in the 1980s, if you said that one's amoral sexual choices justly lead to a horrible death, you were either a teenager discussing slasher flicks or, sadly, the President of the United States talking about something else – their sub-music-video grade depth, and their lack of any sort of passion for quality hasn't allowed them to age well.

Given this, the loyalists are right to ask, "You had a lamprey-like lip lock on P. Doonie's dump door – what the hell did you think was on the menu?"

Not that the splitters don't have reasons. Among the most common are the film makes no sense (a opposed to the rigorous logic that was the hallmark of the series prior – e.g., Jason being alive in the first place), that the new Jason acts out of character (there's apparently something about Jason, some aspect of his nature invisible to the average viewer, that would prevent him from, say, using a bow and arrow to kill somebody), and that there aren't enough nods to the fans (despite the whole movie being fan service since Scream's Ghostface Killer is the slasher anybody under 30 grew up with).

That said, isn't it a bit of a pyrrhic victory? When "Your problem is that you've forgotten how to enjoy eating shit" is the strongest defense that can be mustered for a flick, it's hard to get excited.

But, since 2009 marks the semi-official "Return of Fun Horror" – meaning we've got remakes, relauches, and formula fodder coming out the wazoo, metaphorically – there's not much to do but kneel down and put on a bib.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Mad science: Scared stiff?

Writer Coco Ballantyne (seriously, I did not make that up) whips up a quick report on the mechanics of scaring people to death for Scientific American. From her report:

A Charlotte, N.C., man was charged with first-degree murder of a 79-year-old woman whom police said he scared to death. In an attempt to elude cops after a botched bank robbery, the Associated Press reports that 20-year-old Larry Whitfield broke into and hid out in the home of Mary Parnell. Police say he didn't touch Parnell but that she died after suffering a heart attack that was triggered by terror. Can the fugitive be held responsible for the woman's death? Prosecutors said that he can under the state's so-called felony murder rule, which allows someone to be charged with murder if he or she causes another person's death while committing or fleeing from a felony crime such as robbery—even if it's unintentional.

But, medically speaking, can someone actually be frightened to death?

Martin A. Samuels, chairman of the neurology department at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, sez hells yeah and explains how it happens:

In the modern world there is very limited advantage of the fight-or-flight response. There is a downside to revving up your nervous system like this . . .

The autonomic nervous system uses the hormone adrenaline, a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, to send signals to various parts of the body to activate the fight-or-flight response. This chemical is toxic in large amounts; it damages the visceral (internal) organs such as the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys. It is believed that almost all sudden deaths are caused by damage to the heart. There is almost no other organ that would fail so fast as to cause sudden death.

Specifically, the adrenalin OD screws with the operation of the muscle system that regulates the rhythm of the heart. An overwhelmed regulatory system can trigger a rhythmic pattern that is, in the understated parlance of the doctor, "not compatible with life."

The doc goes on to point out that any strong emotion can trigger a similar response:

Any strong positive or negative emotions such as happiness or sadness. There are people who have died in intercourse or in religious passion. There was a case of a golfer who hit a hole in one, turned to his partner and said, "I can die now"—and then he dropped dead. A study in Germany found an increase of sudden cardiac deaths on the days that the German soccer team was playing in the World Cup. For about seven days after the 9/11 terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon there was an increase of sudden cardiac death among New Yorkers.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Music: House of the dead.

Fever Ray's cryptic and creepy video for their "If I Had a Heart" reminds of the mansions scenes from Diary of the Dead, except it's, you know, not preceded by 50 minutes of crappy movie and has been shot with a modicum of care and skill.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Link proliferation: Rocket from the womb.

Now somebody's going to have to knit the prostate of Jason Voorhees

And you thought there wasn't anything scary about the Twilight franchise.

In what might be the weirdest display of fandom I've ever encountered, here's the womb of Twilight heroine Bella, complete with half-human/half-vampire mutant fetus, made out of felt.

Space rock

Regular readers know that I've got a handful of critical blindspots. No matter how discerning I may try to be, any work that falls in one of those blindspots is getting a more than a fair shake on this blog. These aesthetic Achilles heels include, but are not limited to:

1. giant alligators and/or crocodiles
2. lucha flicks
3. horror or sci-fi themed rock groups
4. anything in which the Creature from the Black Lagoon makes an appearance

The Spotnicks, Sweden's finest Space Age themed surf rock combo, belongs in category 3. Here's their "Rocket Man," performed in full-battle dress.

Cannibal holocaust?

According to CNN:

Five members of the [Amazonian] Kulina tribe are on the run after being accused of murdering, butchering and eating a farmer in a ritual act of cannibalism.

No arrest warrants have been issued because Brazilian authorities are legally restricted from entering Kulina tribal lands, near the Brazil/Peru border.

The victim was herding cattle when he met with a group of Indians who invited him back to their village.

"They knew each other and they sometimes helped one another. They invited him to their reservation three days ago and he was never seen again," Clementino [Village Chief of Staff for the Brazilian town of Envira - CRwM] said.

"The family decided to go into the reservation and that's when they saw his body quartered and his skull hanging on a tree. It was very tragic for the family," he said.

"Who counts dead humans?"

The pan-Euro culture rag Eurozine has posted a jargon-laden, but still fascinating story on the political implications of a post-Soviet literature that writer Dina Khapaeva claims is "overwhelmed by all kind of magic and monsters – vampires, witches and werewolves."

While there's a lot of academic blah blah to wade through, there are more than a few gems worth discussing amongst fans of supernatural horror. Here's Khapaeva on the social context of Russian horror/fantasy:

The nightmare of post-Soviet fiction, which is full of macabre atrocities, consists not only in the triumph of supernatural forces over humans. It is also to be found in the absence of any plausible distinctions between good and evil, which results in the advocacy of narrow-minded selfishness. The main novelty of gothic morality consists in its attitude towards morality itself. Morality is considered something to be avoided, something that can influence the hero's life in the most negative way: "If this guy gave up his selfish wheeling and dealing, his life would certainly become worse. The more morality, the more misfortune", says the vampire-hero of Night Watch. True, such an attitude towards morality stems from a radical reconsideration of the place of humans in the general system of values. Morality as such is dismissed as an irrelevant atavism. Indeed, what moral norms could be applicable to monsters, to vampires – to non-humans?

Of course, the new attitudes towards morality revealed by the world of fantasy fiction are not reducible to the difference between "fiction" and "reality". A simple mental experiment helps to prove this statement. If we remove the vampires, werewolves and witches from these narratives and substitute them with cops, gangsters and their victims, if we parenthesize the witchcraft and the magic, the story would not differ much from a pale description of everyday Russian life.

Curiously, while American's like to frame horror and fantasy in terms of liberation – either in the form of a coded embrace of the other (monster in the closetism) or in the form of some tricked out post-Freudian model of suppressed desires (the turgid sexuality of neo-Victorian high horrorists) – Kaphaeva sees a very different dynamic at work in post-Soviet gothic works:

The main feature of gothic morality consists neither in a rejection of the old ethical system ("hypocritical Soviet morality"), nor in an embrace of a new ethical system (the "strict but fair" rules of the mafia). Gothic morality is a denial of any abstract system of values that could be considered equally pertinent for all members of a given community. Consequently, moral judgment becomes concrete, situational and totally subjective, a deictic gesture that assigns the predicate "good" or "bad" to this or that concrete practice taking place here and now. Power to make such a "moral judgment" is restricted to the boss – the head of the clan, the mafia godfather, the director of a company or rector of a university. The compromise reached by the different clans is also concrete and situational, and is justified not in terms of universal values but in terms of the personal relations between the heads of the clans.

The total denial of morality leads to a cult of force. Gothic morality considers murder an everyday routine – who counts (dead) humans? "Life against death, love against hate, and force against force, because force is above morality. It's that simple," concludes the hero of Night Watch.

She ultimately sees post-Soviet gothic horror and fantasy as creepy, nihilistic resurrection of a sort of cultural Stalinism:

Gothic society does not simply generate a social alternative to democracy: it profits from every loss of democracy. Gothic society has no respect for individuality or privacy, and openly contradicts the idea of human rights. Such social organization leaves no room for public politics and leads to the closing of the public sphere.

She ends with perhaps the bleakest description of Russian social dynamics I've ever read, evoking a system "zona": a form of political and criminal oppression that flourished in the Soviet Era gulag system.

The most important feature of gothic society is the way the zona, the particular form of Soviet camp, is converted into a founding principle of post-Soviet society. Since the inception of the Gulag, the Bolshevik policy was to mix criminals with political prisoners. Criminals were considered by the Soviet regime "socially proximal" and were allowed to impose criminal norms on the rest of the prisoners, thus helping the wardens to run the Gulag.

The zona permeates various aspects of social life and relations in Russia; its legacy is not limited to the post-Soviet prison and army. Aside from its most notorious and obvious manifestations – such as camp slang's transmogrification into the language of power and literature, the convergence of mafia and state; or the unbelievable degree of corruption – the rules of the zona are reproduced in the principles of social organization. The total absence of resistance to camp culture, the incapacity, due to the long tradition of their contamination under the Soviet regime, to distinguish clearly between the zona and "normal life", and the unwillingness to reflect on the history of the concentration camp make today's Russia especially vulnerable to a gothic path of development.

Even I, Lucas, attended the NYC Comic Con

Here's a little snappy snap of everybody's favorite Gill Man at the NYC Comic Con.

And, while we're on the subject of Comic Con, here's a boss Cobra Commander outfit somebody worked up.

Finally, though it was a great costume, this dude in the well-executed Blackhawk costume didn't seem to get much love in the post-Con costume pic collections. Perhaps the reference just doesn't snap with kids today. At ease, flyboy; ANTSS still digs you.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Books: The short, strange, and fake life of Abu Tubar.

I recently finished Wafaa Bilal's autobiography/project diary Shoot an Iraqi. Netizens may remember Bilal's "Domestic Tension" project: a conceptual art piece in which the Iraqi-American Bilal spent a month living in a small room with a paintball gun that remote Internet users could control and fire (pictured above). Bilal created the piece after receiving the news that his brother had been killed in Iraqi, the civilian victim on an airstrike that had been targeted by a Predator drone.

Though not horror (though, in many ways, horrifying) Shoot an Iraqi was my introduction to the curious story of Abu Tubar.

The name Iraqi name Abu Tubar presents some translation problems. Given alternately as "the Man with the Axe," "Father or the Axe," "Father of the Hatchet," or "the One with the Axe," the tricky part seems to be how you translate "abu." Often "abu" means "father of" in a literal, genealogical sense, but it can also express linkages that are not genetic. For example, the famed poet Qais is sometimes referred to as Abu Leila, after his muse. In fact, the links implied by the use of abu can get downright weird. For example, Isa (or Jesus) is sometimes identified as Abu Mariam, which implies he's Mary's father and not her son. To confuse matters, titles using abu are often given as nicknames or used as generic slang terms (in some regions of Iraq, all soldiers are known as Abu Khaleel, the title of the religious figure Abraham, and cops are called Abu Ismael, the title of Ishmael). Confused yet? Wait. Abu can also "owner of" or "the one with." Sometimes this association work through synecdoche: power, light, and water meter readers are often called Abu Electricity, "the one with the electricity."

Regardless of how one translates it, Abu Tubar was the nickname the residents of Baghdad gave to what they believed to be their first serial killer.

In 1971, Iraq was going through a massive cultural shift. Back in 1958, the military overthrew the monarchy that ruled Iraq, leaving leadership in the hands of an anti-British, pro-Soviet military dictator. He was himself overthrown in 1963 by another military coup. In 1969, the government changed hands again. The ruling dictator was toppled by the Ba'ath Party, a secular pan-Arab socialist political organization with roots in Syria. Americans would come to identify this "party" as little more than the bureaucracy of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship; but at the time, Hussein was only the deputy to the party's president. Still, though he would not come into power for nearly a decade, Saddam's rise is part of this story.

The pre-Saddam years were an odd mix of promise and paranoia. With its officially secular and pan-Arabic outlook, the Ba'ath party could be considered progressive, especially in contrast to the religious revolution that shook neighboring Iran to its foundations. However, as a one party system born out of a revolutionary effort against a military dictatorship, the government of Iraq tended towards a grim brand of slapstick Orwellianism.

It was during this paradoxical moment, as the party both pushed toward modernism and attempted to clamp down on the hearts and minds of all Iraqis, that Abu Tubar appeared in Baghdad.

From The First Evidence, the memoir of Juman Kubba:

He was the mysterious serial killer of Baghdad in the early Seventies who murdered whole families together and marked the walls with their blood. He was vicious and savage like an animal. He chopped people up and beheaded them, dismembered them; he threw parts of their bodies all over the house. The crime scenes were ugly and bloody. Baghdadis, the citizens of Baghdad, had never seen such a savage series of crimes before, at least in the recent past. In fact, Baghdad used to be relatively; such things did not happen . . .

These Abu Tubar crimes were serious and everyone in the city was occupied with worry and fear. You never knew where or when he would strike. People were fearful and cautious and did not go out alone. The lively city of Baghdad was paralyzed. A sense of doom spread over all homes. Many homeowners trimmed bushes and trees around their houses to keep the area clear of hideouts and added more lights and left them on all night to feel safe. No one went out by himself or herself, no one stayed out late . . .

The authorities were seemingly powerless in the face of this thug. Everybody was talking about Abu Tubar and the events that had rocked the city and brought it to such a fearful state.

Kubba describes Abu Tubar's MO:

The typical crime of Abu Tubar would start with a suspicious phone call by him or one of his "aides." He picked times when people were alone at home. The caller would engage the would-be victim in a useless conversation, threatening and cursing, and then there would be a knock on the door. The victim of their child might answer the door and Abu Tubar, masked and strong and carrying his bloody ax, would overpower the victim or her children and commence his bloodshed. The crime scenes were often marked with vengeful words or comments written on the walls in the blood of the victims. He also often killed people and dumped them in some remote area of Baghdad.

Powerless to stop the killings, a special cross-departmental anti-Abu Tubar task force, including local police, secret police staff members, and civilian organizers and investigators, was established. Juman Kubba's father, identified in her memoir as "Makki," was tasked with running a center that would collect and investigate phone calls offering tips to the identity and location of Abu Tubar. Not long after its creation, the phone center began to clash with the Ba'athist Party leadership. Leads were dismissed arbitrarily by party leaders and, during the investigation's lowest point, the center was invaded and ransacked by the "bodyguards" of party officials (a militarized security force under the command of Saddam). Investigators assumed that the hostility they faced was due to the fact that many of them, including Makki, were not Ba'athist.

Things came to a head when somebody claiming to Abu Tubar phoned the call center. Like all notable serial killers, Abu Tubar apparently could not resist the urge to boast. Once investigators realized who was on the phone, they traced the call. It was placed from inside the Presidential Palace in Baghdad.

When Makki attempted to follow up on this lead, his team was disbanded and he was thrown into Abu Ghraib.

By now, you can probably guess the horrific punchline.

In 1973, the notorious murderer was apprehended and the slaughter stopped. Bilal recalls watching news of Abu Tubar's capture:

Once the killings were finished they [the Ba'athist authorities - CRwM] made a big display of Abu Tubar's capture, parading him before TV cameras wearing a white lab coat splattered with blood. His wife confessed that she would see him come home every day covered in blood. Even as a child I found it ridiculous – if you were an axe murderer, why would you put on a white medical coat?

We didn't learn until later that "Abu Tubar" was actually Saddam's security service, killing communists, educated people, dissidents, anyone who might stand in Saddam's way.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Music: Los Tiki Phantoms, Go!

We've featured the masked, surfy goodness Los Tiki Phantoms before on ANTSS. Hailing from Barcelona, this horror/bachelor pad themed group's "Regresan de la Tumba" video is a short action flick done almost entirely in papercraft puppets. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Movies: Do you wanna play house?

Filmmakers seem to hate carnies.

Admittedly, real carnival folk are an odd breed. The mobile life, though much romanticized, basically puts you outside of the common experience of most of the population. Like any subculture, there's the colorful slang, notable in this case for its astounding number of terms related to communicating the distinctions and trouble between carnival-goers and the ever changing cast of locals they encounter (carnival relativity: to a carny, the "locals" appear transient). Perhaps most importantly, so much of the entertainment carnivals provide is based on humbug, a tricky and delicate unacknowledged social contract that promotes certain level of well-meant deceit between the parties involved. It's a suspension the normal rules used to evaluate social exchanges and it can turn really bitter, really fast.

No doubt there are, among their numbers, con men and petty criminals. Though this could be said of any professional group – from cops to bankers – and it has to be admitted that, comparatively, even the most legally dubious carny does comparatively little damage when measured against, say, a crooked hedge fund manager or a corrupt politician.

Mostly though, the carny folk I've met funny, kind, intelligent folks. Witty too. For example, I once met a performer who billed himself as Eek the Geek, the Freak with Space on His Face. The latter part of his lengthy moniker referred to an elaborate astronomically-themed tattoo that covered his entire head. I met him after catching his act at Coney Island. His act included, if I recall, of driving nails into his nose, snapping his tongue in a mousetrap, and placing live scorpions in his mouth. After the show, we struck up a conversation and I offered to buy him a hot dog from Nathan's. "No thanks," he said. "I don't put that shit in my body."

I've met college-educated sword-swallowers and know a young woman who gave up a fairly promising career in publishing to become a fire-eater. I've been lucky enough to cross paths with Todd Robbins, head of Coney's sideshow school. Besides being able to eat shards of glass, Robbins in a gentleman and a scholar. He presided over a friend's wedding several years ago. There's also Dick Zigun, the "Mayor of Coney Island." Zigun's life – sideshow performer, oddity collector, married to a genuine Africa princess – would pass any carny stink test. Yet Zigun's also politically-engaged, knowledgeable and passionate about urban development and social issues, and one of the key figures in the movement to develop Coney in a way that would preserve something of its wild and unruly character.

Despite what one thinks would be a certain affinity, Hollywood's carnies are almost always nasty bits of business. With the homicidal somnambulist of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and several variants of Cheney's murderous carny crooks (two versions of the The Unholy Three, The Unknown), filmmakers set the tone early. Sure, there have been some notable exceptions: The Man Who Laughs lets the straight world play the villain for a bit and the titular characters of Freaks are intended to be as sympathetic as they are scary. But mostly, carnivals are a demonic places full of toothless hicks and sly dealers, filthy people who want only to travel from place to place eating souls or similarly discomforting the locals.

The 1981 fright flick The Funhouse is part of this long cinematic tradition. The flick starts with a ice-breaker "kill" that is all the evidence one needs that the slasher formula had already congealed into a predictable orthodoxy by '81. The opening scene, which says "hey, it's a slasher flick" by simultaneously riffing off Halloween and Psycho, starts with a pov shot of a masked killer getting a knife and making his way into the bathroom of a suburban home. In said bathroom, there's some perfunctory T&A, then the as yet unidentified slasher opens the shower curtain and plunges his knife repeatedly at the naked girl. If you ended the flick right there, you would have pretty made yourself a fully functional slasher movie. In fact, you'd have made one of the better slashers as your flick would have been mercifully short and completely devoid of dialogue.

But The Funhouse continues.

The would be vic screams, fights back, and grabs the attackers knife hand at the wrist. The girl is overpowered and the knife slowly descends down towards "Not Rated" territory. Then, before the beaver shot, the knife plunges and bends harmlessly against the girl's tummy. It's a fake. It's a prank by her younger brother, a little scoundrel of a boy who understands that sometimes, for the best pranks, you need to stalk you naked old sister in the bathroom. Sure, it's a little pervy. But later, in therapy, you'll look back on all the time you spent planning and executing you plan to surprise your sister in the shower and you'll just laugh and laugh.

Sadly, sis doesn't take the long-term view of this and chases little brother to his room. And tells him that someday she'll prank him so had that it will scar him for life.

So ends the flicks weirdly Fruedian intro and on we move to the main event. Freshly showered, the girl – virgin good-girl Amy – joins up with hunky boyfriend Buzz, semi-slutty (meaning she's had, dare I say it, sex!) Liz, and Liz's nerdy college-boy man pet Richie.

They go to a traveling carnival and spend a good 50 minutes or so roaming around, enjoying toke breaks, bumping into various carnies (several of who seem to be crazy homeless people), or otherwise dragging everything out. There make important stops for a ominous palm reading, an extended bathroom break for the ladies to discuss the futility of not giving it up, and a few shots of a two-headed cow. For a little dramatic gravity, there are several scenes in which ominous music kicks in and Amy seems to get hypnotized by some detail of the carnival. It is meant to imply that she's seeing sinister portents, but the effect is that she just seems easily confused by motion and bright lights.

As the teen quartet ever-so-slowly makes their way to killy time. We see that Amy's little bro has snuck out, determined to follow his sister to the carnival. Presumably to watch Amy get heavy-petted by Buzz or something. His trip the carnival is considerably more interesting than anything that is going on at the carnival. He nearly gets chomped by guard dogs and crosses paths with a gun-totting motorist of the "Hey little boy, want a ride variety."

As we wait for little brother to arrive, Nerdelmeister comes up with the funnest sounding idea ever! The quartet should spend the night in the carnival funhouse. As a slightly rundown spookshow dark ride is obviously the most clean, comfortable, and sensual place one could chose to lose one's cherry, Amy agrees. Buzz knows that a gentleman makes a girl's first time special, so he opts for the funhouse over the back seat of his Dodge Charger. Liz, because she's had sex before, will pretty much rut anywhere. To the funhouse gang!

At this point the little bro subplot links up to main story. Little bro watches the gang enter the house, posing a normal riders. But, unable to see that they ditch before the ride is over, he doesn't see them come out. He'll spend most of the next 30 minutes or so cautiously eyeing the funhouse. Hey, it's a horror movie, not an action flick. What do you want?

Inside, the teen quartet finds what appears to be the "trippy gnome village" section of the funhouse ride and starts to grope and thrust. In le mode de les années 80, the couples don't find separate, private areas to have sex in. Instead they just start at it about 20 feet away from one another. Hey, we're all friends here, right? Fortunately, the much delayed carnage begins when their romantic interlude is interrupted by a noise beneath them, coming up from the office of the funhouse. Peering through the slat of the floor, the gang witnesses the hulking, masked assistant of the funhouse ride murder the carny fortune-teller in a sex-for-cash transaction that goes awry. The assistant is unmasked as an albino mutant and his pops, the funhouse barker (who looks suspiciously like all the barkers in the carnival), arrives to figure out what to do with the dead fortune teller. Then, happily, Dorkus McNerdy accidentally drops his cigarette lighter through the slats and the chasing and killing begins in earnest.

(And what happens to the little bro? He finally approaches the house, gets scared by the mutant, and then either gets saved or captured and sexually molested by one of the other barkers, depending on how you read the scene. His parents come to pick him up, but he won't talk – either because he thinks his sister hates or because he mistaken believes his molestation was part of her revenge for the prank, again depending on how you read the scene - and fails to explain that sis entered and never left the funhouse. All of this leads to a nicely frustrating scene in which Amy tries desperately, but futilely to signal her parents to free her.)

What follows is an engaging, but fairly standard by-the-numbers stalk-the-teens affair. The order of deaths is the identity of the final girl is obvious from the beginning of the flick, so all that remains is execution. It's worth noting, however, that the proceedings are, by slash standards, relatively bloodless. With the exception of an extended "axe in the head" scene – the victim of which is already dead when it happens – most of the killing is done just off screen and with a minimum of gore. For the look of the flick, Hooper takes cues from the garish lights and colors of the midway. In some ways, The Funhouse seems like practice for the color drenched carnivalesque look Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2. After the sun-bleach minimalist vérité of Chain Saw, it's as if Hooper started working on ostentatiously artificial style, not unlike self-conscious and mannered style of Italian shock vendors. Only, being slightly down home, Hooper keeps it simple and rough about the edges. It's a garage rock to Italy's opera.

Still, it all seems like a dry run, with the emphasis on "dry."

With talent to burn behind the screen – director Tobe Hooper was just two flicks away from his seminal Chain Saw – the real surprise of Funhouse is how bush league the flick feels. The film feels stilted: uneasy with the confinement of the slasher formula, but unsure or unwilling to go in another direction. Again and again, the best work in this flick comes in the form of asides, most of which are left tantalizing underused or frustratingly unfulfilled. The little brothers fate, for example, or the hints that the fortune teller has supernatural powers or that the carnival might be one big family of crazies; all of these feel like elements of the story the filmmakers cared more about than the stalk-and-slay mechanic of the slasher. In this, The Funhouse has more in common with non-slasher 1980s weirdness like The People Under the Stairs and Phantasm. This makes it quirky and interesting, but ultimately the demands of the formula – demands the filmmakers grudgingly acquiesce to in only a half-hearted manner – drag all that is novel and exciting about the film down a too familiar and (even by '81) quite tired rut.

About mid-way through the film, the foursome of as-yet-only-potential victims sees a freakshow display of a pickled punk, a most likely faked-up mutant fetus in a jar of alcohol. Strikingly misshapen and mutated, but dead on arrival and displayed in lifelessness: that's really a metaphor for the flick as a whole. The Funhouse stands as a case study in how pandering to the "keep it fun by giving me more of the same" mentality behind fan orthodoxy smothers interesting works.