Monday, August 31, 2009

Follow-Up: Big damn bugs.

In the last Link Proliferation post, I included a link to a story about the Australian giant burrowing cockroach. The story claimed - and I passed along said claim - that the beast was possibly the world's heaviest bug.

Not even close, say Queen o' the Macabre Chris Quigley. She's got a post running down the biggest bugs and topping her list is the enormous Goliath Beetle (see above), which weighs in at 115 grams or about a fourth of a pound.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Mad science: We have the tools to rebuild Bowie.

Dr. Nick Troop, at the University of Hertfordshire, created a concordance of Bowie lyrics, cross-ref'ed the results with commercial success on an album-by-album basis, and then created a program that would create new lyrics based on the results. The end result would, statistically, be David Bowie's most commercially successful song ever.

Finally, Bowie's transformation from human to abstract process will be completed!

I know, Dave. It's no "Dance Magic." Still, you can't argue with science!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Movies: "In my evil corporation, the end of the world will mean every day is casual Friday from now on."

My wife walks into the living room where I'm watching Russell Mulchay's Resident Evil: Extinction, his Anderson penned, '07 contribution to the surprisingly long-running film arm of the Resident Evil cross platform franchise. She sits down on the couch.

W: Is this that zombie movie?

CRwM: Sort of. It's like a zombie movie set in the world of Thunderdome. Though the zombies don't seem that important in this one, really. And they swapped in an evil corporation instead of Tina Turner.

W: That was the movie's first mistake. Is Leeloo Multipass wearing chaps?

CRwM: There more like garters. Combat garters.

W: Combat garters?

CRwM: So she doesn't overheat.

W: Is she a robot?

CRwM: No. She's like a clone super-soldier thing with psychic powers. I'm thinking that there was middle movie between the first flick and this one and, as astounding as it seems watching this, I think we're expected to have watched all these films in order, for continuity. Though, honestly, knowing why Leeloo Multipass has to vent heat through her upper thighs wouldn't, I think, make much difference in your like or dislike of this thing.

W: You're making this up.

CRwM: Not the psychic super-soldier clone thing. The heat venting isn't so much made up as a conclusion that I'm drawing. Her other clones do most of their fighting in combat boots and a little red party dress.

W: You're making that up.

CRwM: No, seriously. And that's all I can figure. Psychic super-soldiers must require that their nether regions be free of constricting cover. Since Leeloo is clearly a mouth breather, I'm assuming that it isn't an oxygen exchange issue. And nothing is, um, exuded from there – so it isn't, um. Anyway, I'm deducing that it is a heat sink dealie.

W: That's quite a deduction.

CRwM: Perhaps "I'm choosing to believe" would have better described the mental process.

W: I don't think I gave this movie enough credit for complexity.

CRwM: That's its secret power. Most films require suspension of disbelief. This flick demands massive applications of directed and purposeful nonsense theorizing just to process even the smallest parts of it. In a way, it's very involving. Kinda.

W: Hey, the lady from Heroes!

CRwM: Yeah. She's the leader of this convoy of pure strain humans. Getting them safely to Alaska, where presumably the virus that causes all this trouble hasn't spread, is the conflict here. There's also something between Leeloo and that guy, who I'm calling Mr. Rugged. Though I think that's explained in the missing middle flick. But you'll find their relationship is inert enough that not knowing what their deal is in no way impacts your understanding of their interactions.

Scenes pass.

W: Suits. This must be the evil corporation.

CRwM: Yeah. Though why they are still a corporation is weird. Like, the world ended. The shareholders either live in bunkers or are zombie chow. There is no more profit or loss because there's no economic system except, maybe, barter. And yet these guys still wear suits and have ID pass lanyards and stuff. In my evil corporation, the end of the world will mean every day is casual Friday from now on.

W: I wonder if they still swap business cards when they meet. "Hi, Mitchell from Trading-Cigarettes-for-Bullets division." "Hi Bill. I'm Feinstein, from Hiding-in-Bunker, and this is Davidson, from Accounts Payable."

CRwM: See, the movie's kind of generous in the amount of room it gives you to fill in the details.

W: That's one way to think of it.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Link Proliferation: 'Cause it takes different strokes.

Your Cold, Cold Heart

And I thought horror fans argued about weird crap . . .

Anil Aggrawal, a multi-degreed professor of forensic medicine, has published a paper in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine that attempts to establish a definitive taxonomy of necrophilism.

I kid you not. The paper's available for free online, if you dare.

Curiously, the prof saves the first three categories in his ten-tiered system for pseudo-necrophiles. As the prof would have it, Class 1 necros are role players who enjoy sex with live folks who pretend to be dead. The prof says that this should properly be called "necrobiophilia." The prof includes this salacious little tidbit under the description of Class 1 necros:

Certain Parisian brothels cater to this perversion: the prostitute is made up like a corpse with a pallid appearance, dressed in a shroud, and lies in a coffin (often known as casket sex).

Ah, the City of Lights. What don't they do in Paris?

Horror fans might want to take note that the prof pathologizes vampire fantasies in which "the lover simulates a killing by biting the neck." Fantasizing that your lover is a zombie falls under this category.

Class II psuedonecros are, in the prof's terms, "romantic necrophiles." The prof describes these somewhat tragic figures:

These are normal bereaved people, who cannot bear separation from their loved ones. They do not seem to agree that their loved ones have died. They mummify their loved ones' body parts (or parts of them) and continue to relate sexually to them much as they did in life.

That's what normal bereaved people do?

Finally, Class III psuedonecros fantasize about making the beast with two backs, one back of doesn't move much, and will go to places like funerals and graveyards to get it on. The good professor states:

Some may be seen masturbating during funeral sermons or dirges as they sit in a crowd of mourners.


Anyway, essential reading for fans of Clive Barker.

Your New Least Favorite Thing

The Australian newspaper The Daily Telegraph introduces us to the Australian giant burrowing cockroach. How giant?

"Native to western NSW and north Queensland, they can reach 30 to 35g and more than 85mm in length," Sydney University senior biology lecturer Nathan Lo said yesterday.

For us Yanks, that's roach that's 3 1/3 inches long and weighs about 1.2 ounces.

Aside from their grotesquely enormous size, these roaches exhibit numerous behaviors that are almost unheard of among the insect world.

"Giants can live up to eight years, which is pretty amazing for an insect.

"When they give birth it's to live young, not eggs, and they leave the babies in their burrows, come out in the evening to collect leaf litter and bring it back to the burrow for the young ones to eat.

"They look after them for several months."

So they're excellent parents, apparently.

Not weird enough? Okay. People keep them for pets. One roach can fetch $100 and people say the roaches make excellent pets.

Go figure.

What Baby Wants, You Better Damn Well Want Too

So, Lauren Bacall has Twittered about her hatred of the Twilight franchise. From her feed:

Yes, I saw Twilight - my granddaughter made me watch it, she said it was the greatest vampire film ever. After the 'film' was over I wanted to smack her across her head with my shoe, but I do not want a (tell-all) book called Grannie Dearest written on me when I die. So instead I gave her a DVD of Murnau's 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu and told her, 'Now that's a vampire film!' And that goes for all of you! Watch Nosferatu instead!

Which makes me think, "Holy crap. Lauren Bacall is still alive? And she Twitters?"

(Though, as soon as I write that, I remember Dogville and Mandalay, so I guess I somehow knew that she was still kicking around.)

More importantly, what an astounding way to make sure the younger generation learns to hate classic cinema. "You like crap. Watch this on assignment and become a better person who is more like me."

Elsewhere on her feed she tells readers that they must watch 8 1/2 or they will burn in hell.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Stuff: And Mrs. Barrett would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn't been for you kids!

Forgive me if my recent infatuation with the archives of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle is wearing thin on you screamers and screamettes who don't dig the wacky Victoriana. But this story from August 29, 1901 issue had a goofy charm to it and I couldn't keep it form myself.

Cryptically titled "Only One Foot Was Visible," today's story covers a haunted house that caused a stir in Fort Hamilton, a neighborhood that grew up around the Fort Hamilton Army Garrison in Brooklyn.

The ghost, described a female figure about 35 years of age, appeared regularly in the windows of an abandoned home on Fort Hamilton Avenue and Ninety-second Street. Occasionally she was robed in white, but some spotted her dressed in black. Witnesses – and there would eventually be many witnesses – claimed that audible moans came from the house whenever the ghost would appear.

As luck would have it, the building across the street from this haunted house was the home of two Brooklyn police officers: Patrolman Frank Many, who lived with his mother, and Detective Martin White, who lived with his wife. Mrs. Many was the first to spot the ghost. According to the story, Mrs. Many saw the ghost several times. When she told her skeptical son of the restless spirit, Frank "scoffed at the idea and paid no attention to the matter at first."

I can only assume that, eventually, his mother's nagging wore down Patrolman Many's resistance to the idea of the continued existence of the spirit after bodily death. Without a word of explanation as to why Many changed his mind, the article states that Many "spent several nights trying to solve the mystery of the ghost, but although he would see her, yet she always eluded him."

Having now seen the specter, the patrolman called for back-up and enlisted the aid of Detective White. White, apparently without the aid of Many, also "for several nights . . . kept vigil, but failed to capture the woman."

By this point, the presence of the ghost had the whole neighborhood in an uproar. Speculation about the identity of the ghost became a popular pastime. As nobody could think of a suitably tragic candidate from the house's past, many wondered if it wasn't a a spook that had immigrated from some more tragic place. Crowds gathered around the house nightly. Some nights more than 200 people came to see the spirit. The ghost was seen regularly, but then, inexplicably, disappeared for days. After several nights, the excitement began to die down and the crowds dwindled away to nearly nothing.

Then, as suddenly as she had vanished, the ghost re-appeared. Accord to witnesses the spirit was "robed in white" and she "appeared at the window, uttered a few mournful sobs and disappeared."

A frustrated Detective White decided that he'd had enough and he broke into the house. A mob of men and children followed him. From the paper:

They searched every hole and corner of the house, and just as they were about to give up the hunt, White saw a woman's foot inside the old fireplace. Stooping down the detective discovered the ghost. He dragged her out into the room, tore away a sheet from the woman's head, and discovered a trim, but greatly frightened woman. She was Mrs. John Barrett, who had making her home at the house, and the ghost business was merely a sham to keep people from entering the house.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Music: The f'ing champs.

A surf rock tribute to perhaps the greatest collection of crime fighters ever? The very idea knocks Blue Demon's socks on his ass! See figure 1 below.

Here's ANTSS fave The Ghastly Ones doing their Los Campeones Del Justicio live. Dig, my little screamers and screamettes.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Meta: Coming attractions. Now with working links!

Next month, ANTSS will be celebrating its third anniversary and you're all invited to attend!

Long time readers may already know that this means we'll be running our annual tribute to frights and fantasy in the silent film era. The first year we called it "The Silent Scream Series." Then, "The Son of Silent Scream Series." This year you're all cordially invited to swing by "The House of Silent Scream Series."

This year, not only will I be doing my regular reviews of genre classics from the dawn of the film age, but I'm bring along a whole bunch of friends to lend a hand.

Guest bloggers and I will be sounding off about sexy robots, scandalous vamps, mad scientists, famous surrealists, secret societies, fantastic monsters, and more.

Do come. We're all so looking forward to your presence.

For those who want to play catch up, here's look at what we've done in the past:

Silent Scream Series 2007

Waxworks, dir. Paul Leni, 1924

Frankenstein, dir. J. Searle Dawley, 1910

The Bells, dir. James Young, 1926

Eyes of the Mummy, dir. Ernst Lubitsch, 1918

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, dir. John Robertson, 1920

Son of Silent Scream Series 2008

Au secours!, dir. Abel Gance, 1923

The Man Who Laughs, dir. Paul Leni, 1928

The Lost World, dir. Harry O. Hoyt, 1925

The Penalty, dir. Wallace Worsley, 1920

Call of Cthulhu, dir. Andrew Leman, 2005

Monday, August 24, 2009

Art: The fumes of romance.

Before the month's out, it is time to indulge in ANTSS semi-monthly parade of gas mask weirdness. Regular readers know that I like to fly my gas mask freak flag now and then - it has more to do with my love of its bizarre aesthetic and my love of the Golden Age Sandman comic book character than any kink o' mine. Here's a new batch of gas mask pics to ponder.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mad science: What "Harold and the Purple Crayon" can teach us about the mechanics of supernatural horror.

Why does the supernatural make sense?

Zombies don't metabolize because they're dead. This means they're not digesting food. Which means that shouldn't eat at all.

Vampires come out at night because sunlight hurts them, but apparently moonlight – which is just sunlight bouncing off the face of the moon – doesn't give them any trouble.

Ghost are the spirits of the dead which live on beyond the extinction of their mortal bodies – but then why are some ghosts depicted as being clothed? Did their pants have a spirit that lives on beyond the extinction of their owner?

And, yet, it makes somehow makes sense that zombies crave brains, vampires work the night shift, and ghosts aren't all nudist.

Here comes the science.

The Frontal Cortex neuroscience blog has an interesting article on "double scope integration," or the human ability to spontaneously generate meaningful intellectual frameworks between two distinct, even contradictory, realities. Lehrer gives an example from the children's classic Harold and the Purple Crayon:

All of which leads me to Harold and the Purple Crayon, one of my favorite childhood books. (The book is written for three-year olds.) The conceit of the book is that Harold has a magic crayon: whenever he uses this purple Crayola to draw, the drawing becomes real, although it's still identifiable as a childish sketch. For instance, when Harold wants to go for a walk, he simply draws a path with his crayon - this fictive path then transforms into a real walkway, which Harold can stroll along. When Harold's hand wavers and he draws a mass of squiggly lines the end result is a stormy sea.

Harold is a perfect example of what's known as "double-scope integration". This is a fancy term for something we all do everyday, and have been doing since preschool. In essence, double-scope integration (aka "conceptual blending") is the ability to combine two completely distinct concepts or realities in the same blink of thought. For instance, even young children are able to seamlessly blend together the world of actual space-time (in which purple crayons don't create walkways or moons or oceans) and the world of Harold, in which such things are possible. The text only works because such cognitive mergers are possible: after Harold draws a new object, the rules of the real world still apply. So when he draws a mountain (and then climbs the mountain), he still has to make sure he doesn't slip and fall down. When he does slip - gravity exists even in this crayon universe - Harold then has to draw a balloon to save himself.

Lehrer then goes on to quote cognitive psychologist Mark Turner (who was among the first to seriously study the phenomenon):

Double-scope integration integrates two mental assemblies, two notions, two thoughts that conflict in their basic conceptual organizations, because they are based on conflicting frames or conflicting identities. The result of this integration is a new conceptual array, a "blend," that has a new organizing structure and emergent meaning of its own. In "double-scope" integration, there are two input menial spaces that we typically keep quite separate, but there is also the invention of a blend that draws crucially on both of them.

To keep the discussion in the wheelhouse of this blog, successful double scope integration is the key to why supernatural horror. Despite what would seem like a fatally flawed set of contradictory ground rules, supernatural horror can be easily understood and enjoyed because readers and viewers create ad hoc, temporary, and evolving bridge between the rules of the real world and the often limited rules of the imagined, supernatural world.

Take, for example, Slimer, the gluttonous green ghost that became the mascot of the Ghostbuster franchise. Though Ghostbusters is dubiously a horror flick, Slimer is indubitably a ghost, so he'll serve for our purposes here. Slimer is an excellent example of how double scope integration not only blends the fantastic and the real, but how this blend can evolve to accommodate new info.

In Slimer's first appearance in the first film, he's floating beside a room service cart, chowing down on the food arranged on the cart. He picks up plates of food and shovels them towards his mouth. Most of the food misses and tumbles down the front of his pear shaped, floating body. At this point, Slimer has the physics of a solid body. When food hits him, it bounces off and moves downward. He also follows a sort of common sense physics that suggests that the broader, fatter part of his body should hang lower and he should maintain an upright posture even though gravity seems to have no effect on him. Furthermore, when Ray attempts to capture Slimer, the beastie takes off and reveals that ghosts – though propelled by no visible source and using no visible means of locomotion – are subject to acceleration and deceleration. Not just that, but ghosts get winded. In the following scene, Slimer encounters Venkman and the ghost appears to be panting.

That a ghost can be out of shape, must adhere to the x-y-z of 3D space, and will exhibit inertia and momentum is somewhat silly given the creature's otherwise total disregard for biology and physics, unnecessary. But it makes the double scope integration easy. We're given enough of a "hook" to blend Slimer's behavior into the rules of the real world.

Once that blending starts, viewers and creators can even exploit a certain level of flexibility – even when the new info contradicts what we've already established as the ground rules of the supernatural event. In Slimer's case, Ray's attempt to blast him sends him rocketing down the long hotel corridor. Slimer then vanishes through the wall. Slimer is, somehow, intangible. This despite the fact that Slimer acted like a solid body before. After establishing his intangibility, the next time we seem Slimer consume food, it will pass right through him: In the ballroom scene, the ghost drinks a bottle of wine and it dribbles straight through his body and on to the table he is hovering above.

But, weirdly, we'll see Slimer eating once more in the film – briefly during the "ghost explosion" scene he appears from inside a street-meat hot dog cart – and he's solid again.

So what are the "rules" for Slimer? Is he solid? Is he intangible? Impossibly both?

Truthfully, it doesn't matter. The viewer is given enough info to double scope integrate and, once that's possible, there's little to be gained by adding complex ground rules in order to somehow reconcile the mutually exclusive concepts you're working with.

However, our capacity to double scope integrate does have limits. One of the classic traps of supernatural horror is to fall into narrative structure in which weird crap just keeps happening, but there appears to be no particular rhyme or reason to it. A great example of this is the subpar sequel to The Ring. Like much J-horror, The Ring encourages double scope integration by basically laying out it ground rules from the start. The Ring II is such a profound failure because it throws out those ground rules without ever giving us any replacement concepts to integrate with our knowledge of the world. The result is a series of scenes which, even when creepy, make no sense and do feel like a narrative.

So why does Slimer function when post-tape trapped Samara doesn't? I don't think there's a strict answer to that. That's why, even when science can give us insight into the process, it remains a question of artistry.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Movies: And there's the hitch.

Here's an odd tidbit about your humble horror host.

When I first arrived in New York, some million or so years ago, I took a small photo of C. Thomas Howell to one of the sketch artists in Central Park and asked him to make a portrait from it. The photo was Howell in his snow-camo from the bleak winter of the Wolverines' betrayal in the searing and powerful classic Red Dawn. I explained to the artist that it was crucial to capture what Tommy was feeling inside: a restless hunger for vengeance tempered, just slightly, by a tragic awareness that chosen path would lead to his doom. "He's an angry man," I said. "But he knows his anger will destroy him."

The artist nodded gravely and then got to work.

The finished expression was not exactly what I'd hoped for. The finished product featured Howell, wrapped loosely in white swatches of camouflage as if it were a jaunty head scarf, AK-47 tucked in his arms, with a vapid "Hey, I'm a tourist in New York" smile on his face. He looked serene and placid, like he was thinking back to a really fun field trip he'd once been on as a small kid. "Remember the Field Museum and Robin MacGower was total afraid of the dinosaur skeletons? What a fun day."

I was still too much a not-New Yorker to kick up a shit storm, so I ended up owning this picture of a combat-equipped C. Thomas Howell giving the world a vacantly satisfied grin. I must have had that thing hang on my walk for a year or two before I finally gave it to the Salvation Army.

Watching Howell's engaging 1986 road thriller The Hitcher made me realize that I really should have held on to that thing.


But we still have The Hitcher.

If you haven't had the chance to see it, The Hitcher is one of the better flicks to emerge from the morass of 1980s horror. Though it was then, and remains, overshadowed by works in the more iconic slasher franchises of the day, The Hitcher is generally fondly remembered for baddie Rutger Hauer's wonderfully restrained performance and the flick's several memorable set pieces. I think, however, that the movie deserves more credit than that. I praised 2008's The Strangers for taking a basic slasher outline and stripping it down to its barest essentials and then executing the streamlined plan with earnest intensity. Director Robert Harmon and writer Eric Red (who later penned the script for Bigelow's Near Dark and Blue Steel) pulled off the same trick more than 20 years earlier. Harmon and Red strip the whole slasher formula to its core concept: the chase.

Though other characters, most of them expendable, pass through The Hitcher, the story is really just about two men. Delivering a car to California, young Jim Halsey attempts to fight the soporific monotony of the desert highway by taking on a hitchhiker. Enter serial murderer "John Ryder," who is in Jim's car for only a few minutes before he's threatening to carve Jim up. But Ryder quickly ends up a victim of his own nonchalant attitudes about road safety when Jim realizes that the passenger side door is not fully latched and he pushes the non-seat belted Ryder out.

Some psycho killers would have just let that go. You can't gut them all, you know? But Ryder's not that kind of guy. He begins stalking Jim, killing people who cross Jim's path but leaving Jim himself unscathed. This is a particularly nice touch as it puts a novel twist on the paradigmatic power imbalance between slashers and their victims. In your generic stalker pic, the victims are powerless to save themselves. In The Hitcher, Jim's the safest guy on the screen. He's powerless to save anybody else. Worse yet, he ends up becoming the killer's unwitting partner in so much as his efforts to save himself, which require contact with others, are what brings more flies in Ryder's lethal web.

As trail of corpses and carnage that follow Jimbo about gets wider and wider, Ryder frames Jim for his dark deeds, forcing Jim to run from both the five-o and the psycho. He finds some aid in the form of Nash (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a kindly truck stop waitress who ends as Jim's hostage/accomplice. Though the generic role is no great showcase for Leigh, the relationship between Jim and Nash is refreshing. A lazier flick would have just written them up as a love interests and been done with developing them. Instead, Nash and Jim have a pleasingly conflicted relationship. Neither really character really trusts the other, whatever sexual interest might have existed is quickly overwhelmed by the violence they've witnessed and perpetrated, and the two interact with somber determination that shows they can already tell that this story does not end with the phrase "happily ever after." I don't want to overstate the depth of these characters. Typical of everybody Jim meets, Nash is really little more than an earnestly played and well-written cliché. Still, the atypical relationship they share gives this grim flick a hint of pathos.

Eventually Jim and John's nasty game comes to an end. John, inscrutable as always, chooses to end the chase, confront Jim, and do it all in a way that clears Jim of the airtight frame John trapped him in. As with everything else in their relationship, John does this unilaterally. What could be another twist of the knife into the shambles of Jim's life turns out to be the end of the game simply because John wills it. Jim gets his life back, but Nash looses hers.

With John in custody, we learn from the police that they have no records for him. Not only does John have no criminal record, they don't have any paper evidence of his existence at all. Jim leaves the police station just as officers are dragging John to the bus that will take him to prison. Jim realizes that the conflict isn't over. As John quickly breaks free of his restraints and overpowers his guards, Jim highjacks a police cruiser, and chases John down for a final showdown.

One of the joys of the film is Hauer's restrained, yet oddly all over the place performance. Hauer's Ryder speaks almost exclusively in a slow, quiet monotone. He moves languidly, as if he knows he's in a movie and is just hitting marks while everybody else is desperately fleeing him. Unlike the robotic Terminator (release two years prior), whom Ryder most resembles (indeed, he even lifts the "kill all the cops" riff), Ryder seems less determined than cosmically bored. It is as if he's aware of the fact that, as the killer in the movie, he's essentially a different species than the other characters. He knows he's there to kill and they're there to die. But, since he can't communicate this information over the vast gulf that exists between him and all the other characters in the film, he is constantly halting his efforts at reaching them. He'll start to show anger or impatience or even approval, and the go stone faced again. One gets the sense that Ryder is obsessed with Jim because he's the only one who survived an encounter with him and that, somehow, marks him as a special character as well.

In a way, Ryder and Jim's relationship parallels the inert, doomed relationship between Jim and Nash. Just as Jim can't really explain what the hell is happening to him to Nash, and therefore can't really connect, Ryder can't explain the rules of the film to Jim and is, instead, locked in this weird effort to show him how the rules of their world bend for them by virtue of their special status. One imagines that Ryder wants to just grab Jim and say, "Do you think any two other people could live through all this? Haven't you noticed that I'm always exactly where I need to be to run into you? You're not curious about that?" He's like an inarticulate version of the fourth-wall breaking killers in Funny Games, only he's just found his partner and discovered that the one other special person in the world isn't like him.

(This foiled "romance" is given extra emphasis by a scene in which Ryder pretends he is Jim's lover to deflect a construction worker's suspicious interest in them.)

The Hitcher is far from perfect. The longer Ryder's game goes on, the bigger the director and writer felt the stakes had to get. This leads to blow out action sequences that belong in another movie. The sequence in which Ryder shoots down a police chopper with his revolver shows just how cartoonish the action can get. Not that cartoonish violence isn't a hoot, mind you. But it feels out of scale with the rest of the flick.

Still, even with those problematic shifts in tone, The Hitcher remains, in my opinion, one of the gems '80s horror.

Oh, and I should mention, The Hitcher gets credit for showing roadside diners and gas stations that aren't insanely disgusting cesspits. Which is nice.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Meta: Hey! We're famous!

Team ANTSS pulls out a win! For nearly three years now, ya'll have been supporting me as I ramble on about movies, books, comics, and random weirdness. Together we've made the site popular enough to rate inclusion in Ilzoc's "Meet the Horror Bloggers" series on his excellent Zombo's Closet of Horror site.

The closest thing to a "who's who" of horror blogs, compiled by the tirelessly dedicated Ilzoc, and we made it.

Tired of hearing me pompously pontificate about movies, music, comics, books, and random weirdness? Click on over and hear me pompously pontificate about me! It's navel-gaze-tastic!

Stuff: Inexplicable monkey Samara.

Um. Yeah, I know. Right.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Mad science: Modeling our optimum zombie-outbreak response.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal:

The zombies are coming! Quick, call the mathematicians!

In particular, you may want to get Robert Smith? on the phone. (That question mark isn’t a typo. We’ll explain it later.) He’ll tell you that if you try to quarantine the zombies you won’t catch them all, so "it's basically humans fighting it out with slightly fewer zombies than there were before." That’s not what you want, given that you're dealing with flesh-eating, undead monsters that will either kill you or bite you and turn you into one of them.

If you go for a cure, "unless the cure was 100%, which it would never be in reality, you can’t turn all the zombies back." You wind up with "this equilibrium where people are always switching back and forth" between human and zombie. Entirely unsatisfactory.

The only solution — and if we haven't learned this from zombie movies, we haven't learned a damn thing — is to mount wave after wave of military attacks. That should get rid of the zombies in about a week and a half, according to Smith?'s equations. And who can argue with equations?

(We'll pause here to address that question mark. Smith? added it to the end of his name when he was 17, in an effort to distinguish himself from the countless Robert Smiths in the world.)

Smith? got into modeling a zombie outbreak as an offshoot of a class assignment to model the spread of more conventional diseases. If you want to read Smith?'s math heavy paper, "When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modeling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection," a link is provided in the original article.

Notably, Smith?'s calculations run contrary to the live-and-let-unlive necroliberalism found in most of Romero's "Of the Dead" series, in which attempts to establish a peaceful coexistence through either non-aggressive avoidance or, as in the upcoming Survival of the Dead, peaceful coexistence through zombie training or cure development are almost always associated with "good" characters. Perhaps this hard data will allow us to put Romero's zombie appeasement policies behind us. Containment – the strategy Romero believes would be the choice of walled-city dictators – and utter destruction – traditional plan of Romero's military goons and redneck characters – are actually the best strategies, with an edge going to wiping them out. Or, as Smith?'s team discovered:

“While aggressive quarantine may contain the epidemic, or a cure may lead to coexistence of humans and zombies,” they concluded, “the most effective way to contain the rise of the undead is to hit hard and hit often."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Stuff: Horror in space.

In space, of course, nobody can hear you scream. Partially because there ain't a lot of horror up there. Last year, NASA responded to a Freedom of Information Act request for:

1. The list or index or directory or catalogue of books for recreational/off-duty reading at the ISS. [International Space Station – CRWM]

2. The list or index or directory or catalogue of movies and television shows maintained at the ISS.

3. The list or index or directory or catalogue of books of music maintained at the ISS.

The eleven page response from NASA provides some interesting glimpses into the reading habits of our astronauts. It's no surprise that sci-fi books are a popular favorite on the space station. However, it may comes as a surprise that Lois McMaster Bujold, author of the multi-volume Vorkosigan Saga, is the single most represented author in space (with 8 books), just squeezing ahead of David Weber's eight-volume Honor Harrington series. Isaac Asimov has only two books orbiting the planet. Jules Verne a mere one. Arthur C. Clark is not represented at all. H. G. Wells remains a strictly terrestrial writer.

I was surprised to see that the business self-help book Ten Day MBA appears on the ISS's shelf. What budding capitalist felt, "Sure, being an astronaut is nifty and all – but someday I'll have to get a real job"? Perhaps the strangest book on the ISS shelf is Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, a 1,200 page hardcover doorstop of a book about contemporary Biblical interpretation. The addition of this book is all the more odd considering that the shelves of the space station do not contain a Bible. They do, however, contain Darwin's Origins of the Species.

The sole horror novel available to astronauts is Dan Simmons's Winter Haunting, a spook story about a man returning to his small town home to confront otherworldly evil. Notably, the work is a sequel, though the previous volume is not available up there.

This suggests that Barker's Law – Clive Barker's hypothesis that every American home contains a copy of the Bible and a book by Stephen King – does not hold in space.

I assume that the brains at ground control decided, at some point, that the last thing a bunch of dudes in a small collection of pressurized tin cans floating in a vast all-destroying void needed was a bunch of films to freak them out, because there are very few horror movies maintained on the ISS. Even the titles tat might be considered horror tend to shade into action, thriller, and sciffy genre territory.

NASA reports that King Kong is available, though it is unclear whether astronauts are watching the classic original or Jackson's CGI blow-out. The Matheson adaptation Stir of Echoes, starring Kevin Bacon, is kept on the ISS. Your games of six degrees of separation need no longer be bound by gravity's pull! Finally, The Sixth Sense orbits above us. Though, honestly, it only gets watched once every mission. Once the new astronauts have seen and know the twist, it gathers space dust on the shelf until a fresh batch of newbies arrives.

What do you say, Screamers and Screamettes, should we buy NASA a copy of Alien for the International Space Station?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Movies: Viva le difference.

Over at PopMatters, critic Marco Lanzagorta discusses the traditional American dominance of the fright flick game and the recent rise of France as the go-to nation for high-gloss scares.

After giving a very cursory outline of the international ebb and flow of horror films, tropes, and styles, Lanzagorta runs down a nice list of recent French flicks that would serve as a decent checklist for anybody looking to explore the recent French boom.

In the past few years, French filmmakers have delighted us with films such as I Stand Alone (1998), The Crimson Rivers (2000), The Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001), Irreversible (2002), High Tension (2003), The Ordeal (2004), The Crimson Rivers (2004), Sheitan (2006), Them (2006), Frontier(s) (2007), Inside (2007), and Martyrs (2008).

Some would debate whether Noe's flicks are best understood as "horror" films, but I think somebody interested in the broader trend would do well to get a taste of the New French Extreme's poster boy given that movement helped reclaim extreme violence as a viable subject matter for French cinema (unlike America, where sex is the big taboo, French films have traditionally been more comfortable shedding clothes instead of blood).

The critic then goes on to ask just what the heck is going on in France to fuel this new bloodlust:

Similarly, even though news reports do not show France going through a crisis tougher than any other country nowadays, can we use their cinematic output to conclude that the European country is going through a tough cultural crisis? That is, if the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes were a reaction to the social ills of the era, can we make a similar assertion regarding Frontier(s) and Martyrs?

If you think about it, such questions are not trivial at all. On one hand, the past 30 years have witnessed volumes of academic papers attempting to explain how horror films accurately reflect the cultural climate of the era. On the other hand, we can observe a clear trend of gruesome French films that do not appear to correspond to a troubled social landscape as predicted by modern film theories. Thus, we can ask, is film theory inaccurate on this specific instance? Or better yet, are we failing to see a deep sentiment of anguish and fear in the French consciousness outside their cinematic productions?

In this regard, the problem with film theory in particular, and cultural studies in general, is that they suffer from perfect hindsight and zero foresight. That is, in this field, all the theories and conjectures are based on correlations that have been deduced from observations of past events. Every time a new trend surfaces, cultural theories are modified accordingly to take these social changes into account. As such, to date, their predictive power has been close to nil. But then again, social and cultural effects form complex networks of interactions that are extremely difficult to model and simulate outside the scope of very general trends.

While Lanzagorta is certainly right that France is not bogged down in the protracted, disastrous military misadventures that marked the American horror booms of the late 1960s or the modern era, I think the idea that "news reports do not show France going through a crisis tougher than any other country nowadays" is a bit off. France is currently undergoing the greatest re-evaluation of it identity as a people in nearly 40 years. And the traces of this profoundly painful transformation can been seen throughout many of the flicks the critic lists. Martyrs hinges on a surreally brutal inversion of France's official secularism. Frontier(s) and Inside both explicitly touch on the issue France's uneasy and frequently violent relationship with its Arab and Muslim minorities. The former also evokes France's recent political turn to the right. I Stand Alone deals with, among other things, the difficult problem of economic disenfranchisement in an allegedly socialist nation. This in not to say that all these films are particularly insightful on these topics. I personally find that the intelligence of France's new horror flicks is profoundly overstated. Still, the presence of the themes is overt.

I think it is worth noting as well that, even if you add a few more flicks to the list of French horror highlights, we're talking about a relatively tiny numbers of films. Even at it height, the "boom" amounted to no more than two notable horror flicks a year. Though this certainly reflects an increase in the bandwidth French flicks take up in the attention of the average horror hound, it still represents a very tiny segment of the overall horror world.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Movies: The unacknowledged source for "Drag Me to Hell"?

Over at the regular "Comic Book Legends" column of the Comic Book Resources site, author Brian Cronin takes note of some interesting similarities between the plot of Sam Raimi's much-lauded spookshow thriller Drag Me to Hell and issue 21 of Haunt of Fear.

For those who somehow missed it, Drag Me to Hell tells the story of an ambitious bank officer who denies a gypsy a housing loan. The angry gypsy places a curse upon her: For three days a supernatural beast called a lamia will torment her and, when the three days are up, the beast will drag her soul to hell. She's tormented by this curse and, despite the protests of her well meaning but skeptical fiancée (a psychologist), the cursed clerk visits a mystic. The mystic attempts, with the help of others, to transfer the lamia curse to another victim. However, this transfer ultimately fails and the bank clerk ends up get dragged to hell right as a train was going to run her over.

While missing most of the incidents in Raimi's movie, the 1953 issue of Haunt of Fear features a young woman under a curse of a lamia. She's got the well meaning, but skeptical psychologist fiancée. And a climax involving death-by-train.

Here's the Haunt of Fear story (to to embiggen):

So, coincidence? Rip-off? Unacknowledged inspiration?

Cronin is hesitant to pull the "rip-off" trigger. From his column: I think it’s almost certainly just a coincidence. It’s not like the stories are even exactly the same. And it’s not like Al Feldstein invented the Lamia – it’s an established demo from Greek folklore (although it’s a demon that has been used in many different ways over the years). But it’s still interesting!

He also adds the following observation, as if to say that it would actually be fair play to rip-off EC.

It WOULD be pretty funny, though, if EC, which was known for essentially appropriating story ideas from various forms of media (without crediting the swipe) was itself appropriated without credit!

In my opinion, there's more than enough unique material in Raimi's movie to avoid the charge of theft. However, if the old comic did serve as an inspiration, then it seems like giving the source a nod in the credits would be the right thing to do. For all of its original material, the Raimi story isn't so far from the Haunt tale that it's impossible to imagine it being an adaptation. If – and that's still a firm "if" – there was some link, it would be a BS move to not explicitly credit the source.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Mad science: The scientific implications of drooling slasher fans.

An article in
Psychology Today discusses an a psych research experiment that used Jason Voorhees's mom as it's stimuli:

Sensation seekers are also particularly drawn to pornographic and horror films. In one study, subjects viewed a 20-minute segment of Friday the 13th. Sensation-seeking people didn't just enjoy the movie more; they actually salivated more, indicating higher levels of alertness and cognitive processing.

Measuring drool might sound like a surreal way to measure attention, but the link has long been exploited by experimental psychologists. The famous drooling dogs in Pavlov's experiments were not drooling out of hunger, but rather from increased levels of attention. On hearing the bell, they began actively searching for other signs that food would be coming. In theory, they could have been trained to associate the bell with walks or petting and they still would have shown spikes in salivation.

The context for the experiment is the idea that certain cultural products appeal to certain personality types. The hypothesis is that fans of horror and porn are "extroverts—lively, active, social people who crave sensory excitement in the art they seek out. You don't have to be a sensation seeker to be an extrovert, but it helps. 'They're bored without high levels of stimulation,' explains Gosling. 'They love the bright lights and hustle and bustle, and they like to take risks and seek thrills.'"

Honestly, I'm not sure I dig this particular hypothesis. I've got two separate, but related, objections. First, the thrill-hunter model seems to best explain the impact of watching a slasher movie in a decontextualized, one-off way. Slasher fans, I find, watch tons of the stuff and, in my experience, value it as much for its formulaic monotony as for the pleasurable shock of emotion. They enjoy the thrill, but aren't big on risk. I mean, c'mon: Can we all agree that the moment it becomes a wallpaper theme, something has officially become not dangerous?

Slasher fans are hardly alone in this. Most horror fans, when it comes to the form and content of their favorite genre, approach works with a profound conservatism. Despite rhetoric about the desperate need for originality and innovation, fans support the general trend of remakes and rip-offs by voting with their dollars. When asked to produce "best of" lists, remakes and franchise flicks regularly appear in higher spots. There are thrill-junkies, of course, and people who want novelty for its own sake, but the characterization of horror fans as craving innovation ignores the same-but-different quality of most horror films.

Which brings us to the dubious link between horror and porn. Though I've always been fond of the "body genres" theory that proposes a link between horror and porn as the two genres that aim for the gut and not the mind, we have to admit that it’s a pretty shaky premise. Sure the shriek of the horror fan and the orgasm of the porn watcher are obvious signs of the physical impact of the films they're watching; but what about the sobs of the person watching a tear-jerker (even the description implies the almost involuntary physical response these films are meant to evoke) or the gut-level thrill one gets from watching an action movie? It also assume there's no intellectual angle to horror films, which is a more haughty way of restating the intellectually-lazy canard that some films, especially those featuring sensational levels of violence, aren't really about anything other than violence. For example, I find most slasher flicks dumb as can be. However, it would be bullshit for me to pretend that many very intelligent folks have teased out all manner of themes and insights from the very same films. More over, it ignores the difference in reception. Horror fans, as mentioned above, create best of lists, debate narrative details, argue the relative values of works, and otherwise engage their favorite works in way that are still relatively rare in world of porn consumption. Whatever the similarities between the genres, there are crucial differences that, in my amateur opinion, make their easy conflation dubious.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Stuff: In the cards.

The Pointless Museum web site has wonderful gallery of horror themed Top Trump playing cards.

Top Trumps was a slightly more complicated version of war. Simplified, you and another player compared “traits” and the card with the biggest number won.

Though many of the cards feature recognizable horror icons, my favorites are those that either botch known properties – like the dandy fop Godzilla in a cape and a gambler's tie – or use a known figure to illustrate some weird, ill-fitting generic horror type – such as the use of the robot from The Phantom Creeps as "the cannibal."

Plus, even I, Lucas, enjoy the card of the Fish Man!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Books: Just in case.

Mary Shelley’s protean, seminal Frankenstein is unique among horror novels in that the legend of its creation is nearly as well known as the book itself. Certainly a scholar might tease out the social, scientific, and historical contexts of Dracula (as Leonard Wolf did for his brilliant annotated edition) or discuss the autobiographical resonances of Poe’s life in his works, but even people with only a passing knowledge Frankenstein probably remember that the book’s origins have something to do with dark and stormy nights, a story contest, and a nightmare. More ardent fans could probably run down a list of guests at the Villa Diodati, understand Shelley's proximity to the political and scientific upheavals of the day, the role Shelley's husband and Bryon may have played in shaping the text (both literally and as influences on Shelley's thinking), and so on. When it comes to understanding the book's continuing relevance, Shelley's reading public has never found itself appealing to academic theories about Shelley's importance. Rather, in a rare example of public and evolving literary criticism, the novel, its titular scientist, and the beast he created are regularly evoked and altered to meet our cultural needs. It is a sign of the book's enduring power that its contexts and subtexts haunt us almost as deeply as the text does.

This complicates another aspect of the book's popularity: the fact that artists are constantly rewriting, revisiting, and reworking Shelley's text. Shelley's monster still looms so large over the genres of horror and sci-fi that thousands of writers, artists, and filmmakers have revised or expanded the book in hopes of teasing out or highlighting new aspects of this familiar work. The impulse is understandable, but the results are almost negligible. With the exception of the first two Frankenstein films, none of these derivative works have ever really altered how we think of the novel. This is partially because the damned monster and his doomed creator have evolved past archetypes into basic components of our intellectual machinery. There are certain social and moral issues we simply can't discuss without arguing in Frankensteinian terms. (Those these issues evolve just as our monster does: for early Victorians, it was the insidious threat of the "dangerous" classes; for Americans in the early Twentieth Century, it was science unbound by ethical or religious limitations; for the post-bomb world, it is the frightening specter of technology that we cannot control.) We don't need these themes teased out for us because we are constantly working the same beat ourselves. The other major factor is that scholars have beat the artists to the punch when it comes to Frankenstein. Want to write a novel about the role of gender in Frankenstein? We already know about the reproduction without female thing; it's been covered. Scientific context of the time? Yep. Social revolutionary ideals? You bet, chief. Doubles and doppelgangers? Sure 'nuff.

The result is that even the best reworking of the original material must fight against an inherent sense of redundancy and irrelevance. What more is there to say?

This problem haunts Peter Ackroyd's The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, a retelling of Shelley's novel that takes the original scientist, sends him to college in Shelley's England, and the tangles him up in the fictionalized lives of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Godwin, Lord Byron, and others. The result is that the currents of politics and science that influenced Shelley's creation are highlighted as things that influence Frankenstein the character to create his infamous monster.

Ackroyd, whose wonderfully odd Milton in America stands as one of my favorite alternate history novels, is no stranger to the subgenre of historical what-ifs. Though he takes great liberties with the chronologies and biographical details of the Shelley's set (for example, Harriet dies before P. B. meets Mary and the couple are married before the famed Geneva trip), Ackroyd's recreation of a society on the cusp of unimagined social and intellectual upheaval feels right. Whereas Victor's scientific prowess was mostly background matter in Shelley's original, Ackroyd firmly situates him in the events of the day. Victor meets real-life scientific figures of the era and discusses "vitreous and resinous electricities" and reads books with delightfully Borgesian titles like A Natural History of Teeth. Coleridge, who makes a cameo in the book, was fond of saying that science was an influence on his poetry. He felt it armed him with a growing arsenal of metaphors that, because they reflected a rigorous understanding of the workings of the word, would impose upon his own insights the logic of reality. Given the wealth of cracked and erroneous theories that passed as scientific truth in Coleridge's day, his conclusion that science metaphors grant intellectual strength seems dubious; but, Coleridge's attraction to the imagery and sound of science is something Ackroyd makes immediately understandable. There's a surrealistic poetry to jargon of Romantic Era science, partially explainable in that so much of it preceded from metaphorical argument. Take this wonderful scene in which Victor debates the nature of the eye with a fellow researcher:

"The eye is a tender organ." He spoke slowly for emphasis. "It swims in a sea of water."

"I beg your pardon. It does not."


"It has roots and tendrils. It is like a trailing plant connected to the soil of the brain."

"Can we say that it is like a lily? It swims on the surface."

Though an anatomically exact description, there's something Monty Pythonish about the whole exchange. Ackroyd has a wonderful ear for such moments.

The plot follows the original in a loose parallel. The monster is made and demands a mate. Frankenstein cannot comply. The creature is angered and begins to take it out on those Frankenstein cares the most for- only in this case, Victor is a bachelor and the targets of the monster's rage are fringe figures from the Shelley circle. However, the end of this version is, I think, certain to piss off many Shelley fans. On reconsidering the book for this review, I've softened towards the finale. At the time, however, I thought it was a crap way to sign off.

Ackroyd has made some significant characterization decisions that cast both Shelley's characters and her real-life contemporaries in a novel light. Mary Shelley's husband is softened around the edges. Ackroyd's Percy Bysshe is an over earnest but charismatic man who seems prone to the occasional dumb slip up, but he isn't a raving egomaniac who is fanatically convinced of his own profound moral insight. John Polidori, often depicted as a kind of sad sack hanger-on of Byron's, comes off as a calm, calculating, and critical shadow to Byron's outsized Romanticism. There's something powerful and sinister about him, which is a refreshingly novel characterization. Among the fictional characters, Ackroyd's Frankenstein and creature switch roles. Frankenstein is a loquacious narrator while the creature is a sullen, terse figure. I thought this was a misstep at first, but the swap has a bigger thematic purpose that's clear by the end of the novel.

Still while Ackroyd's novel is good, what does it add to our understanding of the original? Nothing much. Victor seems more of a scientist, but his of bringing the creature to life remain firmly in the realm of fantasy. The politics of Mary Shelley's creative circle are laid bare, but we were familiar with those and, by pulling his punches, Ackroyd doesn't even give us the group at their most impacting and base.

But maybe that's not what the drives these stories. Frankenstein was, after all is said and done, a well-told story. Perhaps all these artists, regardless of their own contributions to the legend, can't resist taking part in a well-told story. And we'll perhaps never grow tired of reading them because, honestly, what's better than a good story.