Sunday, February 28, 2010

Movies: Eighties night.

Visionary filmmakers don't just come up with a clever pitch or a few kooky shots. Any boob can figure out a way to "show you something you haven't seen before." After all, cinema is just over a century old. If considerably older media can still retain some shock of the new - we still have novel novels, for example - then we shouldn't be surprised that cinema's creative storehouse is far from exhausted. No, to be a visionary requires more. Visionaries find some new way to explore a genuine human experience and then thoroughly immerse themselves and their viewers in the lived reality of that experience. The bring us the real and familiar at an angle that forces us to revaluate what we believed we knew. At some point in the writing stage of Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, Ti West said to himself, "Ti."

Well, actually, because he's him, he'd be speaking in first person. But I think it's important to keep the awareness of the artifice of the idea that I somehow know what Ti West was thinking in the forefront of your mind because the illusion of seamlessness is a tool for social control. It's part of my commitment to politically switched on criticism and the reason why ANTSS is the blog that believes there's no school like the old Frankfurt school.

Where was I?

Oh, yeah. "Ti," Ti said. "People sometimes piss blood. It's true. They have to pee and blood comes out instead of piss. Sure, sometimes it's blood mixed with piss. Or, you know, it's some STD maybe and it's all squishy. But people get sick or they get punched in the kidneys or something and, whammo, blood out your dick. But you never see that. In Lethal Weapon, when Riggs gets worked over, he doesn't have some scene where he's pissing blood. But it's a real thing. There's a whole unexplored country of human reality begging for examination. And it's something Hollywood, with its airbrushed Disney attitudes, has ignored. I'm going to put pissing blood in my next movie."

And right there, if Ti West had stopped, he'd be simply a clever filmmaker. Bloggers would clap. When some blogger made the inevitable "Top Ten Pissing Blood in a Horror Movie Scenes" list to fulfill their weekly list obligations (though, honestly, every time a horror posts a list, an angel loses its wings - don't do it!) West would rank in the top quartile.

But West didn't stop there.

He thought, "And I'm not just going to throw in some half-assed scene of pissing blood as some random day's martini shot. No siree Bob, I'm going to commit to the program of pissing blood in cinema. I'm going to show multiple consistencies of urethra-centric desanguination. And the most important varieties of weenierated bloodletting are going to be hightlighted with a stable, long take, medium close up. You know, so people really feel like they're that penis and smegma is really passing through them."

Ti West set out to be for blood coming out your third leg what Robert Burton was to melancholy. And that fateful decision is why Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever is about 7 billion times better than Ti West's other experiment in 1980's archeo-filmmaking, the abortive House of the Devil.

Ti West has always been a filmmaker who pulls inspiration from the history of horror cinema. The Roost was a veritable taster's menu of 20th Century horror, from the radio show and the 1960's TV horror host to Blair Witch style indie minimalism and the zombie renaissance. The Trigger Man fused naturalistic indie aesthetics with survival dramas (like Deliverance) and slasher tropes to create a surprisingly effective hybrid. So it's no surprise that his last two flicks borrow heavily from previous eras of film. But West has always been a master of sampling; he's never let sampling be the master. And there's the rub. Despite, or perhaps because, Spring Fever lost its central guiding vision and became a hurried collaboration, it is never in thrall to its diverse sources. It's bitter sarcasm - as little more than a "fuck you" to the studio system that spawned it - gave West the distance he needed from the project to not get lost in it. The producers who then reworked the flick after he wrapped admit that they approached less as a work of art and more as a dare. The result is something bracingly anarchic. House of the Devil, on the other hand, wears its source material like a straightjacket. The project of recreating, rather than exploring, a justly neglected Reagan era mutation of the Satanic cult trope robs West of his own creative impulses and traps him in a joylessly reverent mode that the source material hardly merits.

Energetic, bitter, fast, and sloppy, Spring Fever plays like punk band who has decided to give a double bird to the label signing the checks. It isn't just the most punk flick made in the last decade, it's a specific punk song: the Pistol's EMI. Consequently, it's a hot mess. But it's a driven hot mess. The flick picks up from a scene of the original Cabin in which the original's lead falls into what appears to be dammed area, tangling with a diseased corpse, and catching the flesh eating super-disease that is the franchise's chief baddie. From there we find out that the tainted water is collected and shilled by bottled water company. The shipment heads to a local high school. The water is used for to mix up a prom punch (and, to seal the deal, the filmmakers have an infected dude piss into the punch bowl - which goes ultra-pear-shaped and becomes our first pissing blood scene) and makes what had, until then, been a cheese ten prom comedy become something like Masque of the Red Death on crystal meth.

Spring Fever knows it's '80s horror. West et al hit the obvious allusions. Leaving Carrie out of a blood-soaked prom-center teen scream pick would have made the allusion naggingly conspicuous by its absence. But West and Co. look past the straight horror canon to dig up resonant images from flicks as diverse as One Wild and Crazy Crazy Summer, Donnie Darko, and (an ANTSS fave) Class of 1984. The filmmakers crib some visual style from the period as well, bathing selected scenes in candy-colored lighting. Even the synth heavy soundtrack of original songs made to sound like intrusive pop needle drops evokes the commerically-minded sonic clumsiness of early John Hughes.

Despite the flurry of allusions, CF2SF is saved from becoming a paint-by-numbers experiment in recreating '80s teensploitation by a bitingly satiric Mad Magazine sensibility that helped the filmmakers keep the source material dancing to their tune. In contrast, House of the Devil is in hock to the sources it borrowed from, a debt that's all the more deadening for being utterly unnecessary.

Intended as a homage to "satanic panic" flicks of the 1980s, House of the Devil is gets the worst of both worlds: It is neither a particularly accurate recreation of the flicks its meant to emulate nor a creative and innovative film in its own right. House tells the story of a cash-strapped college student hired to provide in home care for an elderly woman on the night of an eclipse. It all turns out to be a trap and, before the flick is over, our heroine is tapped as breeder for one of His Satanic Majesty's demonic servants.

West paints himself into a corner with House. Because of his sure filmmaking instincts, House is far superior to the vast majority of flicks in the subgenre it pays homage to. West, for example, is not bush league enough to think that a scene filmed in front of a religious symbol is inherently more meaningful than one that isn't. Nor does he fill his soundtrack with bad "gothic" compositions and hokey boy choir pieces. In fact, despite the 80s trappings, the film is recognizably a piece of his larger oeuvre: It has a slow burn structure, uses minimal dialogue, and avoids backstory and explanation. (So much so that at least one normally astute reviewer wondered in his review where the baddies left to in the flick; in fact, the flick implies that they never left the area around the house.) Much has been made of how exacting a forgery House is, but I find it hard to believe people who have made that claim have any knowledge of flicks from the subgenre. None of the post-Exorcist/Rosemary flicks were ever this competent.

Unfortunately, West's ill-considered commitment to following in the steps of crap hamstrings the film. West's normal slow burn strategy works because his films are building towards a novel experience the viewer isn't ready for. Furthermore, West is a master of details (I suspect he cranked out the period detail in this piece without even breaking a sweat), though those details are never simply window dressing. In Trigger Man, for example, the long intro contrasts with the sudden and inexplicable appearance of the sniper and the use of a sniper, instead of a more traditional slasher figure, radically transforms the movie. In House, the fine details are irrelevant because the viewer is aware that West is recreating a familiar plot. The '80s details are there because, you know, its the '80s.

If horror has an Achilles heel, it is the genre's tendency to mistake nostalgic pandering for depth of context. With House, the genre's best hope made that error.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

"It's a blessed condition, believe me": Images of African Americans in horror cinema #20.

Throughout February, ANTSS will be running images that reflect - for better or worse - the image of African Americans in horror cinema.

Danny Glover in Predator 2, 1990.

Friday, February 26, 2010

"It's a blessed condition, believe me": Images of African Americans in horror cinema #19.

Throughout February, ANTSS will be running images that reflect - for better or worse - the image of African Americans in horror cinema.

Ving Rhames, Mekhi Phifer, and assorted cast members from Dawn of the Dead, 2004.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Comics: Buried alive.

Tomorrow night, you could do you normal Friday thing and soil handfuls of tissue while whispering sweet nothings at Suicide Girls downloads. Or, you can save your dignity and your tissues by going to Desert Island - one of Brooklyn's finest post-Android's Dungeon era style comic shops - and celebrate the first ish of We Will Bury You.

Brought to you by the creative team of Grant, Grant, and Strahm, We Will Bury brings the Roaring Twenties to a screaming halt. Set in an alternate version of the Silent Cal years, the comic follows the adventures of a thief and an anarchist escort as they struggle for survival in a zombie-ridden Manhattan. The signing is from 7 to 9. Be there or be L7.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"It's a blessed condition, believe me": Images of African Americans in horror cinema #18.

Throughout February, ANTSS will be running images that reflect - for better or worse - the image of African Americans in horror cinema.

Poster for Lucky Ghost (1942) featuring Mantan Moreland and F. E. Miller.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Mad science: Cum on feel the pink noise.

Neuromathematics, the dauntingly named practice of mathematically modeling neurological processes, may have revealed the deep structure of the language of film editing. James Cutting, a psychologist at Cornell in Ithaca, New York. From a survey of 150 Hollywood movies, Cutting proposes that the pattern of editing in narrative film reflects the pattern of focus and distraction found in the human brain.

In the 1990s, a team at the University of Texas, Austin, measured the attention spans of volunteers as they performed hundreds of consecutive trials. When they turned these measurements into a series of waves using a mathematical trick called a Fourier transform, the waves increased in magnitude as their frequency decreased.

This property is known as a 1/f fluctuation, or "pink noise", [pink noise (left above) is imaged in relation to white noise (right above) - CRwM] and in this case it meant that attention spans of particular lengths were recurring at regular intervals. The pioneering chaos theorist Benoit Mandelbrot found that annual flood levels of the Nile follow this pattern; others have observed it in music and air turbulence.

To find out whether the length of camera shots in films might follow 1/f too, Cutting measured the duration of every shot in 150 high-grossing Hollywood movies in various genres released between 1935 and 2005. He then turned these into a series of waves for each film. He found that later films were more likely to obey the 1/f law than earlier ones (Psychological Science, in press). But he stresses that it isn't just fast-paced action films like Die Hard II that follow 1/f. Rather, the important thing is having shots of similar length that recur in a regular pattern throughout a film.

The text can get a little dense, but the executive summary goes something like this: When human's focus on something, they don't throw an intense laser beam of concentration on it. Rather, we look for patterns that define the object observed and groove along on those patterns. To many breaks in the pattern and the object starts to require serious expenditures in energy to puzzle through it. Too much similarity, we zone out.

Cutting's argument is that the editing techniques of Hollywood style narrative follow the generalized pattern of human attention. They fall in the sweet spot that requires our attention but doesn't overly tax the system. Cutter, in a refreshingly non-Bordwellean turn, doesn't suggest this formal element "explains" movies.

Cutting suggests that obeying 1/f may make films more gripping because they resonate with the rhythm of human attention spans, but he doubts that directors are deliberately using mathematics to make movies. Instead, he thinks films that happen to be edited in this way might be more likely to be successful, which in turn would encourage others to copy their style. This would explain why a greater number of recent films tend to follow 1/f.

Cutting, a film noir fan, is the first to admit that shot-pacing isn't everything: he found that the lengths of shots in film noir movies are typically random and not correlated with one another on any timescale. Star Wars Episode III (pictured), however, which he describes as "just dreadful", adheres rigidly to 1/f. He says that a good narrative and strong acting are probably most important.

Cutting's work does jibe with some other work in the field:

The attention theory chimes with other recent work, Tim Smith at the University of Edinburgh, UK, tracks the eye movements of movie-goers. He has shown that the editing style of modern films results in more people being focused on the same areas of the screen at the same time. He has interpreted this as a sign that audiences are more attentive to the film.

UPDATE: Another article discussing the same work by Cutting and others gives Cutting's hypothesis on just how the pink noise pattern became so prevalent in Hollywood blockbusters.

These researchers don't believe that filmmakers have deliberately crafted their movies to match this pattern in nature. Instead, they believe the relatively young art form has gone through a kind of natural selection, as the edited rhythms of shot sequences were either successful or unsuccessful in producing more coherent and gripping films. The most engaging and successful films were subsequently imitated by other filmmakers, so that over time and through cultural transmission the industry as a whole evolved toward an imitation of this natural cognitive pattern.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

"It's a blessed condition, believe me": Images of African Americans in horror cinema #17.

Throughout February, ANTSS will be running images that reflect - for better or worse - the image of African Americans in horror cinema.

Industry advertisement from Variety promoting Abby (1974) and featuring the likeness of Carol Speed.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

"It's a blessed condition, believe me": Images of African Americans in horror cinema #16.

Throughout February, ANTSS will be running images that reflect - for better or worse - the image of African Americans in horror cinema.

Poster for Welcome Home Brother Charles (1975), featuring Marlo Monte.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"It's a blessed condition, believe me": Images of African Americans in horror cinema #15.

Throughout February, ANTSS will be running images that reflect - for better or worse - the image of African Americans in horror cinema.

William Marshall and Vonetta McGee in a production still from Blacula, 1972.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

"It's a blessed condition, believe me": Images of African Americans in horror cinema #14.

Throughout February, ANTSS will be running images that reflect - for better or worse - the image of African Americans in horror cinema.

Will Smith in I Am Legend, 2007.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"It's a blessed condition, believe me": Images of African Americans in horror cinema #13.

Throughout February, ANTSS will be running images that reflect - for better or worse - the image of African Americans in horror cinema.

Eugene Clark in Land of the Dead, 2005.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Movies: Piggly wiggly.

In Teddy Wayne's upcoming novel Kapitoil, a fable of business and family ethics set on Wall Street in dwindling twilight of the 20th Century, Qatar (pronounced like "cotter" and not "kay tar," I've just recently learned after a lifetime of mispronunciation) white collar migrant programmer and mathematical genius Karim Issar is invited to the Limelight by two co-workers. The co-workers use the popular ten point scale to evaluate the appearance of the women in the club. Karim, the narrator of the novel, observes:

They observe the dance floor and and assign ratings to different females from 1 to 10. They say an overweight female is "the worst" and is "four 40s deep," and rate her a 1, which means 1-10 is a poor scale, because it assigns a point even when someone is "the worst" and there exists only a 9-point range.

A friend joins the overweight female, and she is additionally overweight, and Dan says she's "even nastier" and also assigns her a 1, even though if she is in fact inferior, she should receive less than 1 (or the first female's rating should retroactively rise slightly). This is why the Y2K bug is happening: Humans usually do not anticipate what comes next after what initially seems to be the limit, so they programmed their computers to function up to the year 1999 and not 2000. Even Jefferson and Dan, who are resolving this problem nonstop, did not consider the maximum-limit issue in this context. But possibly it is because they have been drinking alcohol, and also they are not the most considerate people.

This passage sprang to mind while watching Kim-Jin Won's 2007 horror flick, The Butcher. I couldn't help think of those critics who suggested that flicks like Hostel and Saw were about nothing but the physical act of torturing people. They were ultra-thin works devoid of sub-, con-, or urtext. It was just about the image of the human body being put under extreme physical duress. Honestly, this appeal to meaninglessness is almost always the last refuge of the useless critic. All expressions, no matter how vapid, are born of time and place and directed by human intention. There's always something beyond the literal.

(NB to bloggers still riding the dead "about nothing" horse, the smart critic has moved on to "it's got no soul" as their non-point point of choice. It's a vague, yet nuanced sounding critique that the film in question lacks the key, but intangible essence of authenticity. Though criticizing a flick for not having something that you can't define or identify is no less lame as critical position, it places you in a comfortably religious realm of argumentation: the existence of soul - as either a religious concept or a aesthetic principle - is simply a matter of faith and those who disagree with you are simply non-believers, to be pitied or demonized as needed. The argument has a ruthlessly mindless efficiency in that it doesn't invite counter-argument the way claims of meaninglessness inevitably do.)

More importantly, The Butcher, like the proverbial second fat chick, forces us to reevaluate what we assumed was the limit of torture porn. If the Hostel franchise, with its ugly American characters and the overt reworking of free market logic as deathtrap, was the zero point of meaning, the The Butcher either dips into negative numbers or forces us to start adding numbers to our ranking of Hostel.

A stripped down, real-time experiment in brutalizing the audience, The Butcher takes the framework of the infamous torture porn subgenre and distills it, boiling the concept down to a starkly unpleasant 75 minutes. In that time the film asks a single question of the viewer, "How much suffering would you take before you sacrificed another to end it?"

Set in an abandoned industrial fossil, the real-time film covers a single shoot by a trio of snuff filmmakers. The flick fuses the first person POV approach of Blair Witch and [REC] to the hyper-squalor vibe of torture porn: The film is cobbled together from footage shot by the snuff filmmakers and footage shot from cams attached to head harnesses strapped to each of the victims. There's the nameless director, his assistant, and their hulking star: a massive, violent, inarticulate monster who wears a pig mask throughout the flick and is identified by the filmmakers simply as "the Pig." The filmmakers alternate between maniacal bloodlust and clock-watching boredom. The director takes a call from his church-going mother. He and his assistant discuss the difficulty of getting good victims and the nature of the market (the American market is especially ravenous when it comes to their product, we're told). Absurdly convinced of their own value, jealous of their prerogatives as "artists," yet desensitized and incapable of human sympathy (perhaps the sole prerequisite of artists) as death camp doctors, the director and assistant anchor the film with their oddly inhuman presence. Their skewed values - they see Americans as perverse for craving their product, but that a strange professional pride in cranking out snuff - tempt the viewer to consider the whole film as an satire on the hyper-stylized violence and clumsy moralism of Korea's contribution to the "Asian extreme" genre.

Satire or not, they make for great villains. Though the link is most certainly unintended, the bizarro professional pride of the filmmakers reminded me of the lamentations of Wall Street bankers post-collapse. In their ability to sever their moral compunctions from the professional act of feeding a market for which they felt nothing but contempt, the snuff filmmakers of The Butcher perfectly, if unintentionally, represents banal professional evil. When you hear the filmmakers bitch about their work conditions, you get the same little throw-up in you mouth that you get when you hear some architect of the Great Recession wonder, "Why aren't they grateful?"

The exception to this is "the Pig." A too-obvious borrowing from Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the Pig is naked copy of Leatherface. That said, I think Won should at least be given credit for emphasizing some of the characteristics that make Leatherface memorable. Like his original, Pig has an odd relationship with the "family" of filmmakers around him. He's a prima donna. Moody, excitable, easily offended, but also desperate to be praised, the Pig seems to throb with a thoughtless murderous energy that is barely kept in check by the surreal professionalism of the other two filmmakers. This vibe of monstrous childishness is often lacking from the descendants of Leatherface, but the Pig's got it.

These filmmakers start with four victims: two men, two women. The victims are bound at the wrists and ankles. They have ball gags in their mouths. The assistant reveals that two of the victims, are actually married. The other two are strangers. That's all we ever learn about the victims. The married victims have names, but they aren't particularly important to the "plot," such as it is. We're going to develop a quick nomenclature system right here to distinguish these basically interchangeable meat slabs: married male = V1, married female = V2, unmarried male = V3, and unmarried female = V4.

The plot: After some shop chat, the filmmakers decide V2 should be the first to go. When V1 protests, he's beaten until his vomits on himself. V2 is dragged to the slaughter chamber and Pig decides that he doesn't like her smell and refuses to kill her. The director and his assistant decide daylight is burning and swap out V2 with a double header of V3 and V4. Off-screen, we here them get dispatched noisily and quickly. Turns out Pig got overly excited and failed to drag out the murders to a suitable running time.

Distraught as the waste of victims, the filmmakers drag V1 and V2 into the now blood-soaked slaughter chamber. The director cuts a deal with V1, if he can withstand 10 minutes of torture without asking the filmmakers to quit, then the filmmakers will let his wife go unharmed. Failure to last the full ten minutes means the filmmakers will kill V1 and his wife. V1 agrees and the Pig goes to work. First V1 is beaten with a hammer about the head and neck. Buzzed with bloodlust, the Pig then rapes V1 for a minute or two. Finally, Pig takes a chainsaw and chops V1's left hand in half.

This breaks V1. He begins to beg the director to stop the torture. Because V1 was unable to last the full ten minutes, the filmmakers turn to kill V2. V1 begs for a second chance. The director offers an alternative deal. Seems the director feels the snuff op has gotten in a creative rut. There's more than one way to skin a human, but the filmmakers feel they've pushed the whole extreme slaughter thing as far as it can go. If V1 can provide them with a truly novel idea for killing V2, then the director will let him go. No new ideas and the filmmakers will kill both of them. Faced with the prospect of more pain, V1 embraces his new role as slaughter consultant and provides the killers with a novelly grotesque way to dispatch his wife, V2. The director approves of the new plan and they let V1 go.

V1 limps his way out the ruin/studio, incurring even more damage when he steps in a particularly nasty bear trap left around by the filmmakers to deter snoopers. Meanwhile, the filmmakers begin to execute V1's plan for killing his wife. The Pig, overzealous in his duties, offs V2 before the filmmakers can fully execute V1's plan. Foiled twice in one day, they give chase to V1 who manages to escape by stealing one of the filmmakers' cars. Safely away, V1 breaks down and cries.

Roll credits.

Weirdly paced, lacking dynamic characters (though not devoid of characterization), hanging on a barebones plot, filled with dialogue that's mostly grunts and screams, and hinging on profound betrayal that makes the sole survivor's victory of impossible odds a bitter triumph that forces the view to wonder if death wouldn't have been better, The Butcher is a thoroughly unpleasant film. And, for now, it may well represent the height (or nadir, depending on your point of view) of the torture porn aesthetic. And, as such, it makes for an interesting test case for some of the claims made about the subgenre.

First, despite The Butcher's refusal to add backstory to the elements within the film, even this minimalist assault on the senses isn't without context or broader meaning. The filmmakers are an acid etched portrait of Won's perception of the South Korean film game circa '07. Long protected by an isolationist quota system, Korean filmmakers could depend on a certain marketshare by virtue of government mandate (similar systems exist in countries all over the world as bulwarks against what's perceived as American cultural imperialism). In '07, the Korean quota system crumbled. In a free market, Korean filmmakers saw their marketshare evaporate to imports. The negative impact of the removal of government protection was exacerbated by the spectacular failure of several big budget homegrown productions. Increasingly, filmmakers turned their attention to the production of extremely violent productions meant for overseas consumption - films meant to be gobbled up by an American audience with a seemingly unquenchable appetite for films in which Asians do horribly violent things to one another. The Butcher shows this cultural logic taken to its absurd extreme: the sacrifice of local value for a degrading product meant to appeal to foreigners hungry for exploitative fare. Arguably, The Butcher, made outside the studio system for a pittance, is exactly the kind of film it professes to mock, though I have my doubts. Compared to stylish fare like Oldboy, The Butcher tries hard to avoid entertaining the audience. It alternates between tedium and discomforting imagery in a way that's meant to abuse the viewer rather than pander. Of course, there will always be people who find that entertaining. Whether that makes Won's film insincere or foolish rather than biting is something individual viewers have to decide.

Second, this raw "torture porn" flick complicates the idea that the point of torture porn is the sick thrill of allowing the viewers to vicariously torture folks. In fact, a majority of flicks in the subgenre focus intensely on the victim's experience rather than the experience of the torturer. By locking most of the film into the literal POV of the victims, The Butcher gives this thematic logic is purest visual expression. Any critical assessment of the subgerne predicated on the notion of identification with the torturer fails to reflect the prevalence of this victim-centric experience.

Third, The Butcher reflects an important aspect of the subgenre in that it is a film produced outside the states. The impact of torture porn on American horror cinema is vastly overstated by critics. Recently I read the blog of film studies professor who lamented that her students tastes ran towards the "torture porn fare Hollywood has been pumping out in spades." In spades? After the disastrous crash and burn of Captivity, only a single franchise in the subgenre seems to have any life in it - Saw - and even that is reportedly shutting down after the next installment. Compared to the endless flood of zombie-fare, torture porn was a minor blip on the Hollywood scene. The subgenre's afterlife has mostly been in foreign productions, where its found a home in the cultish "extreme" currents of various national cinemas.

More a curiosity for those who view horror as a sort of emotional endurance test than an enjoyable film, The Butcher is a near perfect example of the horror genre's least understood, most maligned subgenre and a stands as a challenge to professional and amateur critical establishment that has never developed an approach for dealing with the inevitable consequences of the concept of fear as entertainment.

Monday, February 15, 2010

"It's a blessed condition, believe me": Images of African Americans in horror cinema #12.

Throughout February, ANTSS will be running images that reflect - for better or worse - the image of African Americans in horror cinema.

Frances Dee and the shadow of Darby Jones in I Walked with a Zombie, 1943.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

"It's a blessed condition, believe me": Images of African Americans in horror cinema #11.

Throughout February, ANTSS will be running images that reflect - for better or worse - the image of African Americans in horror cinema.

Publicity still for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987), featuring Ken Sagoes.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

"It's a blessed condition, believe me": Images of African Americans in horror cinema #10.

Throughout February, ANTSS will be running images that reflect - for better or worse - the image of African Americans in horror cinema.

Ernest "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison and Harold Lloyd in Haunted Spooks, 1920.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Movies: After our Tigeropotomus project fell through . . .

Karen O'Hara, Syfy Channel's director of original movies, just dropped this tweet earlier this week:

Just got off the phone with the legendary Roger Corman who's doing a new movie for us this year. Yes, it's the long-rumored SHARKTOPUS! . . . Spent half an hour discussing what a sharktopus should look like, how many mouths it should have and how it should kill.

This shocks the hell out of me. I find it hard to believe that a whole 30 minutes of conceptual planning would ever go into a Syfy Original Movie.

Thanks to Dave for calling this to my attention.

"It's a blessed condition, believe me": Images of African Americans in horror cinema #9.

Throughout February, ANTSS will be running images that reflect - for better or worse - the image of African Americans in horror cinema.

Poster for The Thing (1982), featuring, among others, T. K. Carter and Keith David.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Real estate: Greetings from Shutter Island.

Though set on an isolated, God forsaken island off the coast of Massachusetts, much of Shutter Island was filmed in the decidedly in-land town of Medfield, population 12,836. This nice little burg attracted director Martin Scorsese's attention because it's home to the Medfield State Hospital - a massive (58 buildings on 900 acres) and picturesque mental institution built in the late 19th century and closed in 1994. At its peak, the asylum held more than 2,000 patients - about a sixth of the population of modern Medfield.

It's a popular stop for urban explorers. To see Shutter Island landlocked and Leo free, check out the following galleries:

Abandoned But Not Forgotten

Abandoned Places

There's a nice tour of the hospital's graveyard at Grave Addiction.

You can also get a bird's eye view of the hospital from Google maps.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"It's a blessed condition, believe me": Images of African Americans in horror cinema #8.

Throughout February, ANTSS will be running images that reflect - for better or worse - the image of African Americans in horror cinema.

Duane Jones as Ben in Night of the Living Dead, 1968.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

"It's a blessed condition, believe me": Images of African Americans in horror cinema #7.

Throughout February, ANTSS will be running images that reflect - for better or worse - the image of African Americans in horror cinema.

Virginia Masden from Candyman, 1992.

Monday, February 08, 2010

"It's a blessed condition, believe me": Images of African Americans in horror cinema #6.

Throughout February, ANTSS will be running images that reflect - for better or worse - the image of African Americans in horror cinema.

Marlene Clark on the set of Ganja and Hess, 1973.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Movies: Credit in the straight world.

If 2009 is remembered as the year the fright fancy and its hordes of posting pro-am pundits saved Paranormal Activity from languishing in obscurity, we should also not that it was the year the nattering nablogs of negativity unjustly killed Jennifer's Body before giving the flick its day in the court of public opinion. We shouldn't be able to trot out the rodomontade without also owning the mea culpa.

With the possible exception of Rob Zombie's second visit to Haddonfield, no movie arrived in theaters with the critical consensus so firmly set to thumbs down. It was an affront the the fraternity of serious horror guy bloggers who, according to at least one post on a major site, viewed it as a ideological Trojan horse meant to sneak feminists behind the genre walls. It was an affront to self-described feminists who defended the existence of feminist horror films, but showed their commitment to the common cause by throwing the then-unreleased flick under the bus. In what surely ranks as 2009's Finest Moment in Horror Blogging, one self-appointed member of the fright fan feminist vigilance committee managed to both advance the cause of feminism and refer to Megan Fox as a "skinny bitch" in a single post. (She was, in all fairness, kinder than her readers, who later burnished their feminist credentials by calling Fox a "bimbo," "trash," "tramp," and, to gain the added rhetorical power of what linguists refer to as the ass force multiplier effect, "tramp ass.") The film's plot was dismissed as stupid - because satanic emo bands are more absurd than, say, an Eastern European gypsy in California throwing a curse on you because her house was foreclosed on or waiting until after you're living with somebody to tell them that you're the target of demonic stalking ("sorry honey, slipped my mind") - and the filmmakers labeled as slumming hacks trying to cash in on the horror boom that loyalists presumably have been supporting for years.

Narratively flawed, ideologically suspect, inherently insulting to its presumed audience, when Jennifer's Body finally came out, it was basically screwed.

If there's a hero of the curious story of JB's cyber-mob induced still birth, it is the author of comment linked to the "skinny bitch" story who wrote, "The film has yet to air. It would be worth viewing before deciding its fem-horror value. I think." Sadly, that proposed standard for horror bloggers remains largely aspirational. It's a sign of the strength of the critical group-think that tends to dominate our blogs that such an obvious statement would be qualified with the conditional "I think," as if it was some incomprehensible personal quirk of the writer's that she preferred people known what the fuck they're talking about before opening their mouths.

In this case, it would have saved us quite a bit of bile. Oddly enough, now that the dust has settled and bloggers have mostly turned their invective at one another for perceived slights in various internet popularity contests, a handful of late viewers catching Jennifer's Body have realized, to almost nobody's surprise, it's a pretty good film.

Helmed by Karyn Kusama and penned by Diablo Cody, Jennifer's Body is a horror tinged comedy that focuses on two friends: the popular, overbearing, and oversexed titular Jennifer and the mousy, submissive, eternal sidekick Needy.

BFF's with less than subtle lesbonic overtones, J and N's relationship is one of those toxic friendships that maintains a rickety semblance of genuine support strictly due to the fact that its deep and regrettable personal costs fall just short of the benefits of the positive emotional feedback loops between the two. Needy surrenders her personality, sexuality, and external relationships to Jen. In one telling episode, she puts all three on the altar of her friendship by ducking out on a night with her boyfriend, dressing according to Jen's required dress code (which ensures Needy won't outshine Jennifer), and plays second fiddle to Jen on one of Jennifer's missions of sexual conquest. The upshot is that she gets regular crumbs of attention from somebody she is unabashedly allowed to adore. Jennifer, in turn, gets to bask in this worship. However, worship comes with its own cost. Jennifer's got to play the goddess, always on, always desired, unfailing, perfect. This circle between the two is so constricted and intense that they've developed an idiolect out of odd rhyming slang, bit of pop culture detritus, and in-jokes that have gone stale and solidified into metaphors. Some critics have, unjustly, attacked Cody's dialogue as over-stylized and a poor reflection of how modern teens talk. This misses the point of the banter between Jennifer and Needy. It isn't how teens talk. Even the other teens in the film don't get it. In one scene, Needy's boyfriend requests some translation help because he's not in on Needy-Jen speak. It's a unique language special to these two people - it's how they talk when they don't see anybody else in the world.

(Since we're on the topic, how the other characters in the film talk is no less stylized, but to a very different and more satiric end. The rest of the teens speak in an allusive language of borrowed emotions. It's a trick used to great effect in Battle Royale. It suggest an emotional life that far outstrips an ability to express it and gets mauled and transformed by the effort to compress it into the containers of received expression. The emotional lives of the young are, from their relative viewpoint, always radically new. Inside the head of each teen, they are the first person on Earth to, say, ever fall in love. But the expressions they have to make this experience make sense are, for the most part, mass produced, cynical, tired, retreads. They borrow words with frustrated conviction, until they grow into us and figure out that life is easier, if less colorful, matching your ideas to fit the tools you're given. The adults, suitably, speak fluently in the comfortable cliches of therapy, public service announcements, and false cheer of institutionalized camaraderie.)

The plot proper kicks off when Jen drag's Needy to a z-grade music club to catch a hopeless also-ran emo group called Low Shoulder (think of a more awkwardly earnest version of the band that actually wins the Battle of the Bands in School of Rock - they're that crappy). Jennifer approaches this as the predator - she's longing to bag one of the band as yet another notch - only to become the prey; under the mistaken notion that Jennifer is a virgin, the band nabs her when the crumby dive their playing goes Station and roasts most of the patrons. Turns out the band is tired of indie obscurity and has decided to sacrifice Jennifer to the devil in exchange for the rock and roll lifestyle that their sub-modest chops cannot provide.

The mechanics of this particular diabolic deal aren't entirely clear. There isn't an opening on Jennifer that is a veritable Holland Tunnel, so the sacrifice ends up with her partial possession by demonic forces. Though it isn't clear whether or not whether or not the forces of darkness deliver for the band. The band does become instantly popular, but it might be due to nothing more remarkable than the media's maudlin cycle of scripted mourning and celebrity worship. Low Shoulder's, in the media retelling of the club fire, become the heroes of the event. Their rep as the band of survivors who risked their lives for their fans catapults them into the limelight. That the movie leaves open the possibility that where the devils fails, the media helps suggests the focus of much of the film's satire. Though, in an irony that Ms. Cody could well be appreciated, the film falls victim to its own joke: In our boundless hunger for semi-disposable tragedy and associated mawkish rituals of heroism, most of us seem to have long forgotten the odd spectacle of the Station fire and the flick's satirical barb loses some of its sharpness.

Post-sacrifice, Jennifer is reborn with a ravenous apatite for human flesh and, when full of boy meat, Wolverine-grade healing powers. One one hand, her evolution from Hall-and-Oates-ish metaphorical man-eater to a genuine eater of men gives Jennifer a weirdly meta-level view of the world she lives in. It's a curious twist in the flick that, despite the physical attractions of Megan Fox, the filmmakers show that Jen never simply seduces the young men she's preys upon. Her first victim approaches her because he is literally lost and Jen offers to lead him back home. When luring her second victim to his doom, she plays off the fact that he's mourning the loss of his best friend. Only her third victim expresses any sort of attraction to her. Curiously, this attraction is a turn-off for Jennifer until she realizes that Needy finds the boy-lunch somewhat attractive, a wrinkle that compels Jennifer to conquer him in part of her obsession with being the only object of adoration in Needy's world. What changes in Jennifer is an awareness that she's no longer playing by the same rules as everybody else in the film. She becomes a sort of emotional/linguistic chameleon, expertly manipulating the vapid store-bought phrases and emotions that the other characters traffic in. (This is another facet of the clever, if thoughtlessly maligned, Cody-speak of the two leads: Their idiolect is jarringly abnormal because, unlike the easy mass language of the people around them, Jennifer and Needy are the only two people who actually talk to one another.) Despite the marketing, sex isn't what Jennifer wields over her victims. Her weapon is a understanding of the drift and confusion of young men and women whose lives, personalities, and thoughts aren't their own. In an interesting counterbalance to this insight, Jennifer never loses her need for Needy's adoration. Perfection isn't the necessary precondition of a state of goddess-hood, but being worshiped is. Jen gains unspeakable power, but it will never be enough because her sense of being is predicated on the adoration of another. In one telling scene, Jen is flexing her new found power by burning her tongue with a lighter and watching it heal instantly. Though, immediately after watching evidence of her newly indestructible nature, she twists slightly and pats her tummy, concerned about possible weight gain. It's a move more vulnerable than vain. We know who she's thinking of. The boys come to the freakin' yard because she can play them like fiddle. She's worried of being less than perfect in the eyes of Needy.

Ultimately, Needy's not down with the whole demonic eating people thing and the two friends face off. The results are satisfying, if somewhat predictable. Cody's script never gets so clever as to lose momentum and Kusama tackles the material with a energetic pop sensibility that keeps things visually pleasing and narratively clear. The results are a darkly humorous outing that manages to deliver the goods without insulting the viewer's intelligence.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

"It's a blessed condition, believe me": Images of African Americans in horror cinema #5.

Throughout February, ANTSS will be running images that reflect - for better or worse - the image of African Americans in horror cinema.

Prince Randian from Freaks, 1932.

Friday, February 05, 2010

"It's a blessed condition, believe me": Images of African Americans in horror cinema #4.

Throughout February, ANTSS will be running images that reflect - for better or worse - the image of African Americans in horror cinema.

Artist Keith Haring prepares Grace Jones's costume and make up on the set of Vamp, 1986.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

"It's a blessed condition, believe me": Images of African Americans in horror cinema #3.

Throughout February, ANTSS will be running images that reflect - for better or worse - the image of African Americans in horror cinema.

Action figure of Al Matthews's character Sgt. Apone from Aliens, 1986

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

"It's a blessed condition, believe me": Images of African Americans in horror cinema #2.

Throughout February, ANTSS will be running images that reflect - for better or worse - the image of African Americans in horror cinema.

Scatman Crothers from The Shining, 1980

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

"It's a blessed condition, believe me": Images of African Americans in horror cinema #1.

Throughout February, ANTSS will be running images that reflect - for better or worse - the image of African Americans in horror cinema.

Poster for The Devil's Daughter, 1939.