Tuesday, April 07, 2009

LOTT D: Toxic assets?

NY Times theater reviewer Charles Isherwood takes a look at the new Trroma-inspired off Broadway musical The Toxic Avenger. To this blogger, the review suggests that this is one of those things you either decide you're into or you throw it a pass, but it is pretty much exactly what you think it's going to be. More interesting is Isherwood's rapid oscillations between elitist disdain and displays of "hey, I'm just a regular guy" wackiness. Check the end of this excerpt:

Actually, the dopey, intermittently funny show that opened on Monday night at New World Stages is not the first all-singing, all-dancing adaptation of this horror spoof dreamed up in the 1980s by Lloyd Kaufman, the no-brow auteur behind the nigh-legendary cheesy-flick manufacturer Troma Entertainment.

Um, it’s not even the second.

This new version, with book by Joe DiPietro (“I Love you, You’re Perfect, Now Change”) and music by the Bon Jovi member David Bryan, is at least the third attempt to transform Melvin, the geek turned righteous monster of the movie, into a Sweeney Todd for our times. Clearly some fictional characters are born to sing, but who could have imagined that Mr. Kaufman would become the new Metastasio?

If you can’t quite place Metastasio, he wrote opera libretti in the 18th century that were used and reused by various composers. Possibly this review is the first time these two artists’ names have ever appeared in a single paragraph. (And by the way, wouldn’t Metastasio be a great name for a superhero?)

To be fair, Isherwood's not above this campy self-referential trash cult stuff. He later opines:

Musicals based on preposterously unlikely material have become fairly commonplace — we have already been exposed to “Evil Dead: The Musical,” for heaven’s sake — so you don’t get a free pass for simply choosing a cheesy movie and making it sing. The joke is getting stale. “Little Shop of Horrors,” perhaps the progenitor of the genre, had wit, charm and a melodic, lovable retro score. Only a few songs in “Toxic Avenger” rise above the generic in either music or lyrics. (Mr. DiPietro wins a point for rhyming “macho” with “gazpacho,” but would a girl who thinks Toxic is a French name really know about that Spanish soup?)

We'll leave the aside the incongruity of wondering if a blind librarian would know gazpacho is, but not wondering why exposure to toxic waste gave Toxie superpowers instead of cancer. Rather, I think he's pulling his punches here. What he's really lamenting is the idea that, if you work in certain subgenres, you don't really have to try to produce quality. It's that free pass mentality that says, "I'm making a [fill in vaguely disreputable entertainment varietal]; quality is beside the point." This free pass mentality carries with it an often unspoken corollary that demanding quality is, somehow, elitist. As if to demanding that a third-time rehash of a production at least include some good music is the equivalent of declaring that theater has been dead since the Puritans pulled down the original Globe.

Recently, Roger Ebert hit a Isherwoodian note in his review of the new Last House on the Left. Like the Toxie musical, the new Last House is the latest addition to a long line of remakes, being the second remake of a remake. At the Hall of the League of Tana Tea Drinkers, it was decided that we should compose a response to Ebert's pan, specifically focused on this line:

Other scenes, while violent, fell within the range of contemporary horror films, which strive to invent new ways to kill people, so the horror fans in the audience will get a laugh.

That's certainly a zinger, composed intentionally to tick off a bunch of people Ebert thinks should be harassed. His characterization of horror film fans is broad and derogatory and his dismissal was sure to kick of wave after wave of pro-horrorist rodomontades. Though Ebert was an important defender of the original Halloween and (as his review mentions) the original Last House, fans have suggested that he doesn't understand the horror genre. Even more hysterically, some suggest that Ebert's a snobbish elitist, which ignores the fact that he wrote the Citizen Kane of trash flicks: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Still, despite it's fan-baiting sharpness, that line is not, I think, the heart of Ebert's jeremiad. That appears in the paragraph previous, emphasis mine:

Not many unseasoned audience members will find the 2009 rape scene "toned down," and indeed I found it painful to watch. In the 2005 film, it was so reprehensibly and lingeringly sadistic, I found it unforgivable. So now my job as a film critic involved grading rape scenes.

For Ebert, Isherwood, and I suspect a large number of critics and fans, the issue is the gratuity of so much genre art. By "gratuitous" I don't refer to extremely violence (though that is certainly the case in many horror flicks). Rather, I mean the pointlessness of its extremes. In Ebert's review, he contrasts the inspiration for the trio of remakes, Bergman's The Virgin Spring, with the later models. His issue is not, necessarily, with the violence of the latter flicks. After all, the story is pretty much the same between all three films. What he misses is the tangle of revenge and guilt, the questions about justice and the limits of the Christian ethic of forgiveness. In the remakes, all that's left is the killing. He admits that there is a primal tension in the naked struggle to survive – "We are only human, we identify with the parents, we fear for them, and we applaud their ingenuity." – but this is that really enough?

This film, for example, which as I write has inspired only one review (by "Fright"), has generated a spirited online discussion about whether you can kill someone by sticking their head in a microwave. Many argue that a microwave won't operate with the door open. Others cite an early scene establishing that the microwave is "broken." The question of whether one should microwave a man's head never arises.

(As an aside, some have suggested that this line points to Ebert's lack of a clue, claiming that it shows Ebert is unable to distinguish the fictional depiction of murder from the real thing. "Of course you don't really stick peoples' heads in microwaves, dummy," say these critics. What Ebert is really referring to is the moral conflict the parent's feel in the original film. When does justice become bloodlust? That's what Ebert claims is missing from both the film and the fandom that supports such flicks.)

Ultimately, Ebert's correct. He has over-generalized, but he gets the basic dynamic down. Too many horror producers are willing to take the free pass. The rebirth of the slasher subgenre, perhaps the purist expression of the "ugly, nihilistic and cruel" filmmaking Ebert decries (though here Ebert's wrong; these filmmakers very strongly believe in something: they believe they'll make some money), is it most recent example. Uninspired and phoned-in pastiches that are the color-by-numbers paintings of the horror film world, these flicks are the very definition of "free pass." And it’s the fans that are handing the passes out. When fans explain to critics that bad dialogue, lack of characterization, predictable plotting, barely competent camera work, and atrocious acting are part of the point of the subgenre, they're giving these talentless hacks carte blanche to turn in crap work.

I think it's high time for a little elitist disdain up in here and I'm glad Ebert brought some.

Imagine how different the genre would be if fans told filmmakers that every time they were going to kill a bunch of people, they should have a dramatically and intellectually convincing reason to do so.

To paraphrase Kurt Weill, I don't know if that would bring you joy or grief, but it would be fantastic, beyond belief.


wiec? said...

so you don't think the Toxie musical will do for Troma what the Producer's musical did for Brooks?

CRwM said...


Proportionately, it probably works out to about the same.

spacejack said...

I have a mixed reaction to Ebert's wishes. On the one hand, yeah, of course I'd rather watch an intelligent horror film rather than a dumb one. I'm also much more interested in atmosphere and suspense than gore; immersion over innovation in bodily harm.

On the other hand, "ugly, nihilistic and cruel" films are what I'm finding interesting in contemporary horror. I probably won't see Last House on the Left remake - it seems too much of an exploitive, cynical cash grab. But films like Wolf Creek, Hostel and Eden Lake fit that description pretty well. And I think that's what makes them interesting.

I could pick away a bit more at Ebert's review (is it okay to torture and kill the thugs in Virgin Spring because the couple admits what they're doing is wrong and promise to atone?) but overall I think it's a good review, and an earnest and introspective attempt to rate the LHotL remake. (What measure does one use to rate such a film anyway?)

Anyway, I should probably check out "The Virgin Spring" sometime.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

Good points. Though I would say that "nihilistic" isn't the right term here. I think what Ebert's reaching towards is a sense of the inconsequential nature of the violence. Virgin Spring isn't a better film because it takes place in a Christian moral context or because the parents promise to build a church. What Ebert likes about it is that it shows that the taking of life has this moral consequence to it. I think it is open to interpretation whether or not the church is a sop to cover up a more bloody desire for revenge. But flicks like, say, the F13 remake tosses its characters into a meat grinder without any moral or intellectual justification, basically bumping off folks for cheap kicks.

To take it to cases, Ebert think Virgin Spring is justified by its moral seriousness (which isn't the same as correct rectitude, you can be serious and profound in the depiction of moral abhorrent behavior). He also defended the considerably less philosophically ponderous Kill Bill films, claiming they were justified by way of artistic ambition. The violence in those films was not a meditation on morals, but an essential part of the artistic exercise of exploring all those various genres.

Something like Last House - and I must admit that I haven't seen the remake, so I have no idea if he's right or not – can't justify its existence on either level.

Though many would disagree, I actually think the much derided "torture porn" genre is, almost by definition, less cynical than the slashers that preceded them if only in that they admitted that violence and suffering are grim and unpleasant (in comparison to the done-and-next factory rhythm of slashers). That said, Hostel's efforts to tie the violence of the film to exploitative bandit capitalism and Saw's clumsy efforts to provide some philosophical/religious context at least suggested an effort (Earnest? Good question.) to place the carnage in some sort of meaningful frame story.

Talking specific cases, like Hostel, Funny Games, Eden Lake, and Wolf Creek gets trickier. I see value in some of these flicks, less in others. But at least these cases are worth discussing. That's what differentiates them from the slasher retreads (and most of the originals, for that matter): They're worth debating. Try to tease out the moral or intellectual implications of the slaughter in F13 and you quickly realize that the film's been made to avoid any.

I'll admit to finding the inky black stuff bracing. Nihilism, honestly earned and squarely faced, is scary and engaging. The pop repackaging, which is basically teen snuff for quick cash, is just the Hot Topic version for the mall crowds.

spacejack said...

Once again you've clarified my thoughts better and more eloquently than I could. At the very least I have to admit that reviewing horror is a total minefield, and I can appreciate some of the difficulties Ebert must face.

By the way, I think I've finally seen true torture porn: Martyrs is a rare case where I don't know what to say or even think of it, other than that it seems to be the result of combining Hostel and Passion of Christ (which I haven't actually seen, making this a rather flimsy observation.) It's either innovative or inane, I'm not sure which.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

Martyrs sounds like a dare. Consider it queued.

sexy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
CRwM said...


Well observed.

Curt Purcell said...

Sexy is one of the ones that hit me. The other actually had some spamblog, that I flagged.

Gryphon said...

I don't bother much with the "torture porn" stuff, and not at all with the remakes - and I tend to like extreme films. These current ones simply don't grip me at all. I found 'Hostel,' 'Wolf Creek,' 'Inside,' and 'High Tension' and a few others all to be completely uninvolving wastes of my time.

The problem is that they all want to be 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' ('74), but they're not. TCM was a fully imagined movie. It hadn't been done before, and what made it effective was that the filmmakers obviously went to lengths to imagine what it would be like to actually be in that situation. These others begin and end at imagining how to recreate or top what they've seen in other movies, and it shows. Plus they tend to have characters who are little more than irritating props to be taken apart bloodily. Yawn!

I saw 'Inside' the same week I saw Sam Fuller's PG rated 'White Dog,' and the latter actually had moments that that terrified me, in addition to striking many other unexpected and highly emotional notes, while 'Inside' bored me senseless with 90 minutes of trying too hard. 'Hostel' was a long, dull buildup to one especially ludricrous (and anticlimactic) special effect, 'Wolf Creek' had idiot characters who did things people only do in horror movies, etc. Not scary! It probably doesn't help that I was weaned on films like 'Salo' and bootlegs of 'Cannibal Holocaust,' so I'm not so easily shocked. These recent films seek to engage on one level only, and they fail if you're even a little bit jaded, having nothing else to bring you in.

Ebert has seen a lot of movies, and these fans, I presume are kids. I can't blame Ebert for being tired of it all. I'm actually something of a fan of cinematic sadism, and I'm completely disgusted - and not in the intended way. This crap is




Not with my dollars, do I intend to support such shyte.

Imagine if one of these were made by someone with actual skills, instead of by drooling TCM fans like Roth with cameras.

Gryphon said...

One more thing - I've seen 'The Virgin Spring' and, for those of you who haven't, neither the rape, nor the revenge was presented in a remotely exploitative way - the movie went out of its way to be tasteful, and the spiritual element was obviously the aspect Bergman was interested in. It was not a "sop."

That said, I didn't find it nearly as interesting as some of Bergman's other films, and Craven's 'Last House' never impressed me much at all, although I actually did kinda' dig 'Night Train Murders.' Don't ask me why.

Ebert's review mentions another 'Last House' knockoff called 'Chaos,' which I haven't seen and which he despised. Let's face it, it's an exploitable structure, like 'Halloween.' Filmmakers who are attracted to it probably aren't thinking about giving you anything new - just collecting your money.