Thursday, April 29, 2010

Art: The masks people wear.

It's been forever since we've done one of these. For new readers, I used to regularly share images of gas masks on a semi-monthly basis. No reason, other than I find them strangely captivating. In this batch look for the image of Hitler youth training for chemical warfare. The photog's shadow serves as a powerful and ominous visual.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Meta: Pod people.

You might have theorized that the reason I hide my face behind a mask and communicate almost entirely through the written word is that my face is horribly mutated and my voice sounds like the churning of a million blood-gorged insects attempting to free themselves from a vat of semi-congealed KY jelly.

You can test half of your conjecture by clicking over to I Love Horror and listening to his inaugural Horror Round Table pod cast.

That's right, CRwM speaks! And speaks! And speaks some more!

The lovely and talented Brad, of I Love Horror, invited the lovely and talented Vardulon, of Castle Vardulon, and the lovely and talented Divemistress, of Zombots, (see the sidebar for all magical links to all this talented loveliness) to discuss the state of horror, remake madness, sexism in horror, and other topics.

And then Brad added me. Was it a mistake? Or did Brad do it to the Internet on purpose? You'll have to listen to find out.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was not actually sitting at a round table. In that sense, the title of the pod cast is deceptive and I apologize for that in advance.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Movies: Personal filmmaking.

Odd as this sounds, I'm actually impressed by how atrocious the new Jonah Hex movie looks.

I had recently heard that execs so hated the flick that they demanded 50 new pages of material be created and shot for the already wrapped project. Watching this, I wonder if those demands were not corrective, but punitive. Looking at this Syfy channel sneak peek, I can't help but imagine that some suit decided, "I am tired of these shit comic book movies, people. I'm not only going to ruin your movie, but I'm going to bury it in huge piles of runny, steaming, stinking fail that it will strike fear into the next knuckle dragging funnybook huckster who thinks he's got one of the broke dick comic properties to sell me."

This isn't indifference (see Gondry's Green Who?), simple incompetence (see The Fantastic Four flicks, any of them), or even Oedipal egomania (see Miller's The Spirit, or, better yet, don't). This feels like somebody expressing a visceral, personal hatred of the product in question, like they took the movie as a personal affront and just unleashed every bad idea they could think of on the poor film. "Yeah, tough guy? Some movie just got itself packed with allusions to Sonnenfeld's Wild Wild West. Not so tough now, are you?!"

"Chill out boss. Jonah Hex has learned its lesson."

"I don't want it smart, I want it dead. Tell the writers I want more dialogue for Ms. Fox. Boatloads more."

Kind of breathtaking in a way.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Movie: New details in the Bambi case come to light.

The strange, abortive history of the Meyer helmed, Roger Ebert penned Sex Pistols film - Who Killed Bambi? - came in this blog a couple weeks ago. For the curious, Ebert has posted his entire, unfilmed WKB screenplay on the Chicago Sun Times site.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Books: Dogs of varying ages attempt to learn tricks of diverse vintage.

The origin-story of Peter Straub's latest novel, A Dark Matter, can be profitably compared to the origin story of Stephen King's latest novel, The Dome.

King's "new" book is actual a manuscript from the '70s that he decided to dust off, unaware that its basic premise was the central gag of The Simpsons Movie. Despite King's interest in format exploration (from the serial publication of The Green Mile to pioneer efforts at electronic publishing), there's something telling that he's pushing 30-year-old work out now, and that sits just fine with everybody. It seems appropriate, fitting even for an author who famously revisited his own masterworks again and again, who dredged up his early career nom de plume to produce a work two decades later.

By contrast, Straub's new novel owes a debt to the work of Brian Evenson, a genre warping author whose sadly under-recognized work sits at the weird intersection of pulp and experimental art. And I don't mean this in some "I saw some similarities" clever critic way: Straub's introduction not only thanks Evenson for the inspiration, but mentions that one specific scene in the novel is modeled off a scene in Evenson's own The Open Curtain.

When King needs inspiration, he looks back. When Straub needs inspiration he finds it in the work of a guy who not only wrote one of the definitive texts on the mindbending prose of Robert Coover, but who also contributed a story to a collection of stories that takes place in the Halo game universe.

This is not to say that one approach is necessarily better than the other. In fact, there's a sort of quality assurance that comes with King's approach. Like a top level athlete, King has perfected his performance in a highly specific and limited field. The pleasure of King is the pleasure of knowing that you're in the hands of a master, and that mastery is predicated on the idea of him doing the very thing he's mastered. When I was young, I remember people who weren't particularly into boxing making jokes about how upset they would be if they bought the pay-per-view Tyson fight and Tyson ended it in a minute and some change. But these were the folks who never bought in to a fight. The people who paid to see Tyson do his thing never complained. That was the point of seeing Tyson. Reading King's like that.

Straub's something different. The pleasure of reading Straub is the pleasure of watching a master restlessly push himself to find the limits of his own talent. Straub's interest in the New Weird, that liminal genre of fantasy and postmodern lit, which Straub dubbed "the New Horror" in a recent anthology he edited, has kept him on the vanguard of his chosen field, but that comes with a price. King's like early career Tyson: the result is rarely in doubt. Struab's newest work is more like a tightrope act. It requires skill and training and the careful dexterity of a master, but it still courts disaster. And whatever the outcome, it's interesting.

I wish I could say that A Dark Matter was a triumph, but it's more interesting than successful.

Yet another autopsy of the '60s, A Dark Matter plays with shades of understanding. It's a tragedy about the inability to communicate wearing the Halloween mask of a horror novel. At its core is story of a group of friends who, in their youth, were pulled into the orbit of a somewhat sinister, but mostly pathetic guru. Their cult of personality disintegrated when a black magic ritual when awry and one of their number died in the process. The novel follows the one friend who didn't attend the ceremony - now an adult who made his fame and fortune writing a thinly veiled fictional treatment of the event - as he tries to piece together what actually happened that day.

The curious thing about A Dark Matter is that is isn't exactly Rashmon-like: Nobody disagrees about the most significant details of the event, so the event in question is never really a mystery. (To be fair, Rashmon isn't very Rashmon-like either - like the term "Kafkaesque," which is used when things are Orwellean, the adjectival form of the proper noun has proved more useful in day-to-day conversation and has long since overwhelmed the details of the real; which is, perhaps, the most Rashmon-like thing about Rashmon.) The result is a spiral narrative structure. With each retelling, the events of the disastrous ceremony are fleshed out and told with greater nuance or given a slightly different spin. The pattern is pleasurable, but the major downside is that there's no dramatic tension. We know, from the start, who survived, what happened, and who paid for it. It's a novel that begins by telling you exactly how it all ends.

The spiral structure of A Dark Matter is a bold move. It basically throws down the gauntlet. It disarms the most obvious and powerful weapon a genre writer's got in his arsenal: plot. Sadly, it's a bold move that Straub can't quite pull off. Wrapped in the familiar trappings of a "what happened" '60s tale, the narrative innovation seems oddly out of place; like a 2D movie shoehorned into 3D, the novel feels like a story he had on hand that he then forced into the this curious structure.

Still the spectacle of a master who could have phoned it in trying a trick that undermines one of his greatest strengths is bracing. It's the kind of no-net risk taking that should be encouraged. By incorporating the innovations of the New Weird, and doing so on such a broad and deep level, Straub hits the reset button on his writing development. He reverts back to novice level and pulls off a noteworthy debut. Is it polished, perfect? Far from it. But it has the energy of an explorer behind it. It's a hell of a trick.

Ironically, after forty years of writing, Straub's become a new voice to watch.

By contrast, Sarah Langan's Audrey's Door is firmly in the young novelist's wheelhouse. Returning to the surrealistic supernaturalism of her debut novel, The Keeper, Langan's latest welds a sympathetic drama of damaged, haunted losers to a haunted house plot heavily influenced by landmark works like Rosemary's Baby and Repulsion. There's also hints of Farris's And Then We Came to the End and even satiric evocations of the shallow tropes of post-Sex in the City chick lit.

In this case, the titular heroine, scarred by the insanity of her alternately smothering and negligent madwoman mother, attempts to create a new life in Manhattan. Her reinvention leads her to a eccentric high-rise apartment with a sinister secret. The building, designed by a demon-haunted insane genius, is a conduit for Lovecraft-ish menaces from beyond, and Audrey appears to be the key to unleashing this unnameable horror on the world.

The joy of Aubrey's Door comes chiefly in Langan's specific mastery of a style of horror all her own. Langan's feeling for her protags, the attention she lavishes on the details of their inner lives, is unique among modern horror authors. Often horror characterization is a matter of making characters sympathetic enough to give the horrors that descend upon them some sharpness. Langan, by contrast, relies on the unlikely proposition that a human being, rendered with sufficient honesty, will always become a dramatic locus of sympathy because they will seem alive, and all humans would rather see life prevail over death. Langan's characters don't need to be likable, just real. The confidence Langan places in the empathic capacity is the single greatest act of respect for fans that you'll find in genre lit - any genre - today.

Admittedly, there is a nearly oppressive air of familiarity here. Langan's moved much of the action to an urban setting, but she can't resist a long interlude in a recession ravaged Midwest town that resembles the struggling small towns of her first two works. This interlude serves as an odd allegory for the artistic project of the book; Langan is ready to move on, but still has to wrestle with the material that so strongly defined her early voice. (The mother/daughter relationship at the core of the book is another handy allegory for the creative tug-of-war being worked out in these pages.) There's a familiar shagginess to the end. Endings are the hardest things to pull off and a particular weakness of Langan's, though she gets credit for daring something completely new to her novelistic work: a (qualified) happy ending.

Langan dares less than Straub does with his book, but she gains more from her less ambitious bet. Fans of Langan's previous novels, especially The Keeper, will find much to dig here. Audrey's Door won the Stoker, and with good cause. Still, there's a nervousness about the book that suggests Langan's impatience with her own tools.

With the next novel, I hope Langan pulls a Straub.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Stuff: Portrait of a serial killer. And some landscapes.

In 1957, Life magazine sent a team of photographers to capture the unfolding Ed Gein case. Online, Life's created a slideshow of the images those photographers created.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Movies: His son killed Hitler.

I knew the murder of Adolf Hitler as a fact.

Sheldon Roth is the father of director and actor Eli Roth. Over at Patheos, an online religious journal, Roth has an interesting post about what it felt like to see his son assassinate Adolf Hitler in the spelling-challenged film Inglourious Basterds.

From the post:

What I scarcely expected were the overwhelming feelings that flooded me as I witnessed the scene in the film, Inglourious Basterds. I watched my son, in his character of "The Bear Jew," machine-gun the Fuhrer's face to a bloody pulp. In that moment, I felt that my beloved boychik was carrying out wishes of mine from my Brownsville, Brooklyn childhood, wild longings from a lifetime of agonizing over the Holocaust. I felt a powerful mixture of rescue, revenge, redemption, relief, and a strange grief. My son was sacrificing himself for all of us. He was doing what I could not. And I cried.

And later:

It strikes me that what these questions fail to take into account is that there are two kinds of facts: historical facts and emotional ones. Emotional facts, or feelings, are a condensed, animal form of personal history; expanding them tells the story of one's life. Feelings are just as much reality as facts. Art, similarly, functions as a condensed statement about life. When art resonates with an audience, those emotions are real -- they cannot be dismissed because the story is "historically inaccurate."

Quentin Tarantino understood that it was more important to be emotionally accurate than to follow a story previously written by history. Art must resonate with a truthful emotion inside the viewer in order for it to survive, and, if not, it falls by the wayside, disregarded, and dies a forgotten work. So, where do Inglourious Basterds and my reactions fit into this picture?

At Passover we read of the sages who urge us to tell the tale of the Exodus tirelessly -- one cannot say enough to describe that devastation in the lives of the Hebrews. However, time has laid dust on the tongue's capacity to be fluent in those events. How historically accurate is the story most Jews repeat not once, but twice a year, for some of us even four times, every year of our lives? Reciting the plagues of Egypt is quaintly interesting, but watching Eli turn his armed fury on Hitler in a cinematic oven of burning Nazis is awesome and much closer to my own history.

The Holocaust provides anew an endless capacity to relate Jewish history. I am in my 70s, and all my life I have studied the Holocaust. But I am still startled by the unthought-of newness of stories. I cannot hear enough; it never ends. Inglourious Basterds partakes of the Passover injunction to tell our story. The feelings evoked while watching this film contain our history -- personal and group. The film, though not "factual," represents a psychological reality. This psychological reality is a fact, not empty fantasy. Uncannily, unbidden, a gift-giver, Eli was acting out my dreams, dreams based on my life -- through a film.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Movies: "A human volcano of unpredictable terror!"

I suspect The Sadist, the James Landis helmed 1963 cheapie that features a trio stranded travelers in the clutches of two teenaged psychopaths, is actually more interesting now that it was when it was first released. Made to cash in on Psycho fueled mania for crazed killers, on it's release, the flick must have simply looked like another kooks on a rampage flick. Now, from a distance of more than 30 years, The Sadist stands out far more clearly as stumbling, but still strangely prophetic step down a path to a more purely American horror cinema: a cinematic vision of fear that stripped away the last vestiges of the European Gothic mode that dominated the imaginations of American horror filmmakers until the twilight of the 20th Century and rooted itself in the features of our distinct landscape.

In this respect, Psycho is a great liminal film. Hitchcock's masterpiece has one foot in new paradigm, with its distinctly modern landscapes of cities, empty highways, and seedy motels. It's a landscape of anonymous transience that mirrors the inner rootlessness of the film's protags and victims. But, true to his own Euro roots, Hitchcock never fully shook off the Gothic trappings that, for centuries, defined European horror. The film features a rotting family manse on the hill, a sickly Victorian vision of sexuality that is at once titillated and morally repulsed by deviancy, suggestions of family sins, and fluid sense of identity as a symptom of a world order in chaos. One can even read into the geography of the Bates homestead and business Hitchcock's judgment as to the value of the two paradigms: The Gothic mansion towers over the brutally characterless motel. Psycho belongs, along with American Notes for General Circulation and Lolita, in that genre of works by Europeans both in fascinated and sickened by the vibrant, uncultured barbarism of the Americans. In Hitch's case, he has the ghosts of the old world shred the avatars of the new. He even buries the poor saps in that most American of symbols: Norman puts the corpses in the trunk of a car. Then the car sinks in a swamp. A bunch of corpses in a car, sinking in a cesspool. There are few more pointed satires of American life than Psycho.

Many of the flicks that followed kept that weird split in their genetic make-up, though one imagines that American filmmakers viewed more as a formal and it lacked, for them, Hitchcock's energetic, visceral punch. Coppola's Dementia 13 features a return to an ancestral castle home as a major plot point. William Castle set his Homicidal in a rotting family mansion and tangled the plot up in an inheritance issue. Ancestral blood guilt, one of the pillars of Gothic horror, rears its head again in Taste of Fear, which features a young woman returning to her father's estate. It wasn't until The Sadist and Violent Midnight, the former beating the latter to the theater by just a month, that filmmakers injected a strain of American youth culture into their flicks and inoculated them against the influence. And of those two films, Midnight's visual language borrows so strongly from Psycho that it near fully breaks free from its influence. In contrast, The Sadist seems oddly fresh, both narratively and visually, even today.

The logline is spare and simple: Three travelers ended up stranded at decaying gas station in the California desert and find them selves at the mercy of a pair of Strakweather-inspired teen psychopaths. Watching it now, we can see the flick hit all the necessary marks: the travelers search the place, missing all the signs of trouble that the viewer catches; shots from the stalking killers' POV, including a gun hand shot that strangely presages the standard POV of first-person shooter games; police officers who represent the victims' best chance at freedom, but who turn out to be little more than killer fodder; and a final girl who, in her flight, stumbles across the killers' previous handiwork and is, Chain Saw Massacre-style, saved by a deus ex machina when the film gets fatigued by its own brutality. Oddly, its the very familiarity of these tropes that give them punch here. You don't expect to see this worn pattern played out against the backdrop of the early 1960s. Our male travelers (headed to a baseball game instead of rock concert or summer camp) are in white shirts and skinny ties. Their female companion wears dress and has her hair done-up. They're adult presences that fool you into believing that a certain moral order will prevail. But, as the grim pattern slowly falls into place, you recognize these three as doomed emissaries from a gentler time.

Visually, the film is noteworthy for its total rejection of the lingering Gothicism present in so many of its contemporaries. Gone are the shadow-drenched castles and mansions. The Sadist is set entirely in a sun-blasted service station and wrecking yard. Gone are the themes of blood guilt and family secrets, the backstories of the killers and the victims are almost entirely irrelevant: the film plays out their random, violent encounter in near real-time. The soundtrack mixes jazzy pop and hillbilly country music, often from diagetic sources. Landis's minimal approach was, no doubt, dictated by a nearly non-existent budget, but within those limitations, Landis found a stark and unrelenting style that matches the harsh simplicity of the story.

Though, already, I'm probably over-selling this thing. There's a giggle inducing intro of psychobabble. The acting is often wooden, sometimes to the point of comedy (though, on occasion, the inert face of the young female killer, the product of her inability to act, seems like the perfect expression of amoral soullessness). I personally enjoyed the over-the-top performance of Arch Hall Jr. as the male psycho; but he really chews the hell of what scenery there is and I expect viewers' milage will vary greatly. The pacing in the early stages of the flick drags some. Also, the flick's only available on pretty gnarly transfer, so viewers will have to put up with odd, random visual and audio artifacts throughout the film.

The Sadist would be worthy of recommendation if only for its status as a curious ancestor of the slasher cinema and torture porn that would follow decades later. Happily, it is much more than that. It's a snapshot of an under-discussed moment in American horror cinema, the transition to wholly native sources of fright. It's the moment cinema shook off the ghosts and specters of Europe, the contrived monsters of the mad science lab, and fanciful invaders from beyond, and instead took a long, hard-boiled look into the madness that Jim Thompson said was the birthright of all the pure products of America.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Movies: Just wild about Harry(hausen).

The Telegraph has a charming profile of
stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen.

From the article:

Ray Harryhausen, the greatest stop-motion animator in the world, met the writer Ray Bradbury when they were both at high school in Fifties Los Angeles. Every Thursday they would see each other at Clifton's Cafeteria, a kitchily exotic spot where the weekly meeting of the Science Fiction League took place. The boys would dream about rockets reaching the Moon or Mars, or of men living on space platforms, leapfrogging their way across the galaxy.

The two Rays were also crazy about the prehistoric past. One day they made a pact that Bradbury remembered in a speech decades later. "We said: 'We're going to grow old but never grow up'," Bradbury said. ''We’re going to stay 18 years old and we’re going to love dinosaurs forever.'"

Sadly, Harryhausen thinks modern effects can get the hell off of his lawn:

Harryhausen's films were storyboarded to a neurotic degree. "We usually took six months to lay our pictures out, so there would be a minimum of waste," he says. "I made 400 little sketches which were published in the script." Understandably, he's dismissive of the extravagance of modern directors. "They don’t seem to care today," he says. "They spend $200 million on pictures, which is just pathetic! It's a waste."

So has he been to see Avatar, the most expensive film ever made? "No, I haven't. Films meant everything to me at a certain age, but as you get older you lose some of that drive." What about something that touches him more personally – the 3D remake of Clash of the Titans? "I haven't been involved with it at all. I was surprised when I heard about it, because I thought we'd made the definitive version!"

Harryhausen made some experiments in 3D himself in the early Fifites, but swiftly realised that it would make the already tortuous process of animating figures completely unbearable. Today, he doesn't find the idea of 3D particularly exciting. "It's another means of entertaining. If somebody can work a yo-yo and make people interested in it – that’s entertainment!"

Worth the quick read.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Music: An American Werewolf in America.

I'm not hip enough to the symbolic economies that regulate the balkanization of popular music to actually know, but I'm going to theorize that every cultural movement instantly produces a mirror image to counter it. Unlike a physical shift, these opposite forces are rarely equal. Case in point: The rise of post-sincere corporate pop, epitomized by figures like Lady Gaga, to something like a national style has, oddly, coincided with the resurgence hardcore punk. The latter's sudden shot in the arm has hardly raised it to the level of significance of the former. It's hard to imagine, no matter how far this trend might go, that sponsors will ever scramble to pony up cash for product placements in a ten-minute short film featuring Toronto's Fucked Up. (Whereas LG's "scandalous" video features three direct pay-to-play placements and at least two placements that are the result of corporate connections between her label and other corporate entities.) Still, this unexpected boom in hardcore sounds might be the best thing Gaga LLC did for music.

Today's twin blast of of hardcore comes from the All American Werewolves, a nicely ragged unit from Lexington, Kentucky. The first tune is "The Devil Rolls On;" the second is "Alligator." Neither feature autotuned vocals or conspicuous Miracle Whip placements.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Movies: "Are you the guy who keeps calling?"

I should begin this review by stating that D-War, the '07 CGI-heavy action fantasy Korean import had a major strike against before I clicked the "Watch Instantly" button. Prior to that, it was implicated, through no fault of its own, with one of the least pleasing video shop customers I ever had the joy of encountering.

I crossed paths with this dude may nearly three years ago at the my neighborhood video shop. Before he lumbered in, there were three folks in the shop. I'll set the scene.

The clerk is thin. Maybe in her late twenties. She's got dark hair – almost black – and large brown eyes. Pale skin. She always wears purple. It isn't something you'd notice on your first trip, because her clothes are always very nice and you don't get the sense she would wear something ugly just because it was her signature color. Still, after a couple of trips, that's what she does. I've never asked her about it. Once you do realize it, the odd fact can't be ignored and it gives you the sense that she's got some kind of uniform. It contrasts with the otherwise casual atmosphere of the place. This curious formality combines with her quiet manner and always seemingly alert eyes to give her this unshakable aura of slumming it. She should be behind the reception desk of a fashion magazine, or discussing Stoppard with her younger sister over brunch at Five Points, or in some sort of situation where she could say, without a hint of irony, "You ride with such audacity, Miss Tennent."

But no. She's not being told "Darling, Karl never has to wait" or picking at tea-smoked trout with orange, red onion, frisee, mint and lemon pressed olive oil while her sister discusses the passions of Vissarion Belinsky or riding with the Margot Asquith. Instead, she's here, waiting for you to decide whether you feel more like watching Good Luck Chuck or revisiting Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever.

We'll call her the Duchess.

I hasten to add that the Duchess is never anything but polite. She never comments on the obvious lameness of your selections or acts as if you're bothering simply by being there. She's quite nice and polite. The feelings of inferiority are the product of something pre-behavioral. She's got class and you don't. And you're more aware of this than she is.

I've realized that I actually upmarket my choices when the Duchess is chief officer on deck. My familiarity with modern Norwegian cinema is almost entirely due to the fact I don't want to be the recipient of the tolerant and graceful pity shown people who drop Torque on the Duchess's counter.

Anyway, that's the Duchess.

The other guy, Stawberry, is searching the shelves. He wears a light brown winter coat and an olive drab jeep cap.

I don't know him.

And me, you know me.

So around 8:00, this couple walks in. The man's big – in all directions. He's got a shaved head, and his pear shaped body is constrained by a pair of jeans and a black leather jacket covered in punk band patches. He looks like he just busted out of an anarchist fat camp.

The woman who is with him is slightly less plump, but she makes up for it by wearing the clothing of her pre-teen cousin. The faux valor jogging suit and black-and-pink-with-sparkles Baby Phat winter coat strain and cut into her ample form, giving her the shape of a helium balloon on its last legs, when touches leave irregular dents and lines across its surface.

"Hey," says the man in a loud voice that fills every corner off the rental joint. "You guys got that dragon movie?"

"Are you the guy who keeps calling?" asks the Duchess.

He walks past her without answering and goes to the new release shelf. "Shit. Where's the dragon movie?"

"It's checked out. And late. Like I said on the phone. Many times."

"What's wrong with the guy?"

"He's usually very good about due dates."

"Well he's not now. Can I call him?"


"'Cause I'll be like, 'Man, what's up with the dragon movie, bitch? I'm trying to see it, man.'"


"Man," he says dejected.

"We don't need a movie," says his female companion. Her voice is nasal and flat, and she pushes her words through what sounds like a deep reservoir of mucus in her throat. It sounds like somebody trying to plow a vat of Vaseline with an electric razor.

"What else is new - that's good?" The man adds the last bit with a touch of wise bitterness, as if he wants her to be well aware that he knows a tsunami of DVD are "new" simply by accident of time-space, but he is demanding something that lives up to the aesthetic standards of the dragon movie. You won't be able to shovel any crap off onto him, Duchess.

The Duchess, not willing to be implicated in this man's selections, gestures to the new release shelves and says, "Anything labeled new is new."

By this time the Incredible Bulk has been joined by his lumpy lady.

For the next fifteen minutes, the Bulk and Bumpy will alternate between the following three actions:

Thing the first. With her voice like a desperate insect trying to fly out of a pitcher plant, Bumpy will suggest a movie and the Bulk will shoot it down by stating that they've already seen it. He will then try to remind her of the flick by recounting choice details.

"What about this one?" she gargles.

"We've seen that one, remember? It's got the guy and he's got a car. And there was a cop who saw a guy die."

Or . . .

"You remember: the house and the girls like you did this and he goes there and she gets killed later. Remember?"

Or . . . 

"That's the one with screaming 'Daddy! Daddy!' while that guy's chopping up guys in the woods."

Or, most cryptically . . .

"That one's got a face."

That last one makes him start up in this strange braying laugh. His companion starts yelling at him to stop. For several minutes the sounds, like a donkey being tortured with a band saw, fill the shop.

Thing the second. The Bulk is also fond of holding a DVD box high above his head and then shouting to the Duchess, "Have you seen this?" Then he lowers the box again, as if he'd already forgotten what he's held up, then hoist high the box again, and shout out the title.

Whether she answered in the affirmative or negative, he'd ask if it was any good.

"Hey! Have you seen this? . . . um . . . The New Adventures of Old Christine, season 1."

"No, I haven't."

"Is it any good?"

"I couldn't say."

Thing the Third. Occasionally, the Bulk stumbles across a movie so good, so important, so crucial that he just has to have it for his own collection. After determining that he can order movies from the shop, he would simply shout his orders to the Duchess. 

"Holy shit," the Bulk says.

"What?" strangles Bumpy.

"This is Caligula. It's like the greatest movie of all time. It's go that guy who played in Clockwork Orange only this is better cause its got like porn in it."

"You want to watch it?" Bumpy says, her words rising from the muck like the undead Nazis of 1981's Zombie Lake.

"You don't watch this! You've got to have this, to own, for yourself. Hey!"

"Yes," the Duchess, still tolerantly reserved, says.

"Can I order Caligula?"

Apparently he has a two-flick cap because he finds a new movie and then swaps out one of the two films he's just ordered with the new one. It is a slow process involving what seems like thousands of titles. Eventually he manages to narrow it down to National Treasure II and Freddy versus Jason. The latter actually beats out The Big Lebowski which, while quite humorous, lacks the archetypal resonance that FvJ delivers.

"Wow," says Bumpy, congealingly. "You know a lot of movies. How can you remember all these movies?"

"I'm like a cinimaste [rhymes with fin-eh-paste - CRwM], you know? Movies are important."

As is good lighting. Before leaving the store he asks the Duchess if they could also order him a lamp like the one the shop had at the clerk's counter. She says she'll look into it.

Finally, movies ordered and rental selection in hand - The Dark Crystal as it turns out – the Bulk approaches the counter.

"I might get a job here," he says.

"Really. Did you leave a resume?"

"Yes." Pause. "No. But I talked to somebody. You know, I can always use a night gig, right?"

"Was it the owner? Sabine?"

"Is she a big fat chick?"


"Then it wasn't her. And it was a guy. And I really didn't say anything about it. Not until I get
my resume together, right?"

"Of course."

"Maybe we'll work together."


As he is turning away from the counter, he notices a small plastic figurine with a bright yellow push button in its base. When he presses it, the figure repeats one of a trio of phrases. I know there are three phrases because he pushes the button seven times before Bumpy gasps, "Let's go."

He pushes two more time after she leaves.

"See you later."

"Goodbye," says the Duchess.

The end.

So I watched D-War fully aware that it was the kind of movie this gentleman was all about.

And I saw nothing to change that grim assessment.

However, because I watched this fully aware of the level of suck I was most likely getting into, I feel it is uncharitable and slightly disingenuous to hassle the flick. So, instead, I'm going to focus on an aspect of the film I actually enjoyed.

About two-thirds of the way through this flick, a giant dragon, a squadron of mini-dragons, and an army of magical knights on lizardish steeds goes up against the U.S. Army. The scene plays out like a particularly nifty cut scene in a sadly unreleased video game.

What I liked about this scene was the hastily assembled military resistance to the magic dragon army is hopelessly outnumbered, but not useless. The film shows that modern military hardware, wielded by competent soldiers, is devastating. Too often, filmmakers assume that big monsters (I'm looking at you Clover) reach some sort of magic size where they simply shrug off the effects of conventional weapons. This ignores the fact that large-scale conventional weapons are capable of obliterating an unbelievable amount of mass. So if your monster has mass, it isn't just shrugging off tank shells and air-to-ground missiles as slight inconveniences. Even if we assume these weapons are mere pin pricks to outsized beasts, with modern rates of fire, we're talking about potentially thousands of pin pricks a second. That's gotta hurt.

It makes what would normally be the perfunctory "it's winning" scene into a genuine fight.

And that's the one good thing I have to say about that.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Books: Your Twi-hate is strictly amateur hour stuff.

Sure Twi-bashers talk about Twilight, but are they ever going to do something about it? Well, somebody out there is trying: According to the American Library Association, Twilight made 2009's
most challenged books list.

Here's the winners:

1. ttyl, ttfn, l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle
Reasons: Nudity, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs

2. “And Tango Makes Three” by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
Reasons: Homosexuality

3. “The Perks of Being A Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky
Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Anti-Family, Offensive Language, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs, Suicide

4. “To Kill A Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee
Reasons: Racism, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

5. Twilight (series) by Stephenie Meyer
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group

6. “Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

7. “My Sister’s Keeper,” by Jodi Picoult
Reasons: Sexism, Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs, Suicide, Violence

8. “The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things,” by Carolyn Mackler
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

9. “The Color Purple,” Alice Walker
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

10. “The Chocolate War,” by Robert Cormier
Reasons: Nudity, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

Now that's how you hate on something, ladies and gentlemen!

Admittedly, the folks who hate the fact that vampires sparkle and the folks who object because they find the neo-Victorian relationship of Bella and Ed "sexually explicit" probably agree on little else, but the enemy of the enemy is your friend and all that.

On a sidenote: Just listing these titles with the objections made against them, and no other info, makes all of them sound really awesome. I've never had any interest in the work of Jodi Picoult, but "Sexism, Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs, Suicide, Violence" all in one book? Hot damn.

On another sidenote: I wish they'd been more specific with the charge against And Tango Makes Three: "penguin homosexuality".

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Mad science: How werewolves became imaginary.

Over at the Fortean Times web site, writer Brian Regal tracks the history of the werewolf feared monster of Europe's darkest forests to figment of the imagination. The broad arch of the werewolf's lapse into fantasy is familiar, but Regal points out that the extent to which the werewolf became strictly fictional is uniquely notable:

For most of recorded history, the half-man, half-wolf lycanthrope reigned supreme as the creature travellers most feared encountering in the woods and along dark roads at night. Numerous legends concerned werewolves – the awful deeds they committed, how to protect against them, how to kill them – and belief in their reality can be found in many cultures from ancient times to the present. But while the werewolf still holds a place in fiction and films, few people today actually fear meeting one in reality. Many individuals and groups actively search for cryptids, but there are no werewolf-hunting organisations. So – where have all the werewolves gone?

From the late 19th century on, anomal­ous primates like the Yeti, Sasquatch and Bigfoot nudged aside the wolfmen of old and stepped forward to occupy the niche of this fearsome man-like monster. But what accounts for this curious transformation?

Regal starts his story with a discussion of the dog-headed proto-werewolf of Greek legend: the Cynocephali, the race of dog-headed men that even included (in the lore of the Eastern church) St. Christopher, pictured above. He notes that, curiously, Europe started to dismiss the possibility of werewolves even as its belief in demons and witches proved fatally strong:

Despite the widespread cultural acceptance of werewolves as a reality, by the late 1500s some European writers were questioning the concept. While belief in witches flourished with murderous abandon, views on werewolves had little consistency in learned circles, and though werewolves often found themselves associated with witches, no werewolf ‘craze’ ever developed. In fact, there are only a few werewolf trials on record. As the Enlightenment dawned, a debate ensued over whether demons could transmute a human into a werewolf. Philosophers and theologians wondered whether the human soul was capable of becoming genuinely bestial, and such theological reservations posed the same problems for werewolfery as evolution did two and a half centuries later. It was during this period of scient­ific revolution that psychological, rather than physical, explanations for lycanthropy gained currency.

Ultimately, he argues, the rise of Darwin put paid to the wolf man. Evolutionary theory began to kill off the beasts of myth, replacing them with an equally fantastic, but more "scientific" zoo of missing links, prehistoric survivals, and "nature's mistakes" (though Darwin himself was dismissive of any notion of a missing link). Notably, apes - and their cryptid shadow relatives, Bigfoot, yeti, sasquatch, the stink ape, and so on - became the beast-man link of choice.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Books: Jibber-jabber.

Though I can't seem to embed the video here, this here click-click will take you to a video of Sir Christopher "Blood of the Saxon Men" Lee reading Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky."

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Movies: Bitching and moaning.

There's a story, one of those industry stories that may or may not be true, but it's good and telling, and that's a good as true - better than true - in the business of making dreams, so people keep telling it.

Before the sputtering collapse of the Sex Pistols, punk Svengali Malcolm McLaren was trying to assemble a film project that he'd already titled, with uncharacteristic honesty, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. There was already something of a script and, from the details I've gleaned from the various sources I've run across, it was something of a mess of a film. A phantasmagoric collage of unconnected provocations, it was meant not only to ensure the impresario's status at the UK's most scandalous entrepreneur, but to put his increasingly rebellious help - the Pistols themselves - in their place. For example, the plot would have required John "Rotton" Lydon to play act his way through an incestuous affair with an actress playing his mother, a shot at the fact that Lydon's family bonds were one of the reasons he was never as fully under the sway of McLaren's spell as some of his other bandmates (most notably and regrettably Sid Vicious).

UPDATE: Roger Ebert recently wrote up the full story of the Meyer/McLaren unpartnership, for the details as Ebert remembers them - along with portions of Ebert's unused script for the film - click over to the Chicago Sun Times. If differs from this version is many important respects.

McLaren hoped to rope Russ Meyer, American king of the softcore flick, into shooting this disaster. He flew Meyer and his youthful sidekick and sometime-collaborator Roger Ebert to England. McLaren, in his typically weird simultaneously self-promoting and self-defeating way, sent John Lydon as his representative. Meyer, Ebert, and Lydon met for dinner and Lydon started to trash talk the State's premiere titty flick expert. Meyer, a WWII vet, launched on a classic "if it wasn't for us, you'd be speaking German" diatribe - apparently unaware that a few of the Pistols were infamous for working swastikas into their fashion statements. A physically imposing, near-bullyish sort of man, Meyer actually scared the crap out of Lydon. Lydon backed down and apologized for his behavior.

Later, after the meal, it was revealed that Lydon didn't have enough money for cab fare back home. McLaren had given him just enough to get to the dinner and pay for his meal. Ebert and Meyer questioned Lydon and discovered that McLaren controlled the purse strings, taking essentially everything the Pistols made. And he liked to keep the boys hungry. Lydon hadn't had a good meal in days because McLaren kept him in a state of poverty. Meyer and Ebert got a cab, got Lydon some groceries and some beer, and dropped him off at home.

After that meal, Meyer decided he'd seen enough of the sort of outfit McLaren was running and he went back home.

Meyer was never going to work with McLaren. No doubt McLaren saw Meyer's breast-filled flicks and believed he recognized the work of a fellow soul. McLaren assumed, not without reason, that somebody who makes and exploitation flick is, by definition, an exploiter. McLaren assumed that the Great Rock and Roll Swindle would be a conspiracy of vampires.

But he had drastically misread the nature of Russ Meyer. It's common for film viewers to construct a pathology of filmmakers that's reverse engineered from the final product they've viewed, though this exercise is the equivalent of attempting to diagnose the makers of Rorschach cards on the basis of the images you believe you see within them. What McLaren missed is that Russ Meyer was, essentially, sentimental. At his best, Meyer was a sentimental fool. He believed there was evil and good, that families that didn't love each other were genuinely broken, that betrayal was a sin, and corruption ultimately ate itself from the inside out. His most significant dramatic modes were broad action and comedy, partaking of the lowest common denominator of existence that is also our most essential shared experience, and melodrama, defined by Guy Maddin: "I think that melodrama isn't just life exaggerated, but life uninhibited." It hard to buy this because we often employ a sort of comic book mentality to our assessments of others. We can't believe that there's room enough in one head to believe in good and evil and to be obsessed with giant tits. But, it can happen. Meyer is proof. He earnestly owned his obsessions and his beliefs. In his excesses, he was honest, often embarrassingly and thrillingly so. Perhaps it was a product of Meyer developing his chops as a cameraman in WWII, a residual and unstated bias that what happens on the other side of your lens should matter. If not to everybody, at least to filmmaker.

What Meyer "lacked" that McLaren had was cool detachment. McLaren, despite his importance to punk, did not traffic in excess. He did exactly what he needed to in order to create his desired effect. There's a cold monasticism to McLaren's art that suggests a strategic and outward focus. He's doing everything for the reaction of others. For those with long memories, there's some debate over McLaren's repeated use of the naked photos of the under-aged lead singer of Bow Wow Wow for marketing purposes. (Defenders who cite the artistic allusion to Manet as a dismissal of McLaren's exploitative impulses often ignore that said cover was actually the second nude photo of Lwin that McLaren created to shill his wares, the first being the nude cover of the "I Want Candy" single.) Whatever the ultimate result of the moral calculus on that decision, one can be sure that McLaren wasn't doing it for his own kicks. In McLaren's eyes, Lwin's nubile flesh wasn't an erotic draw. It was a canny investment.

Meyer was one of cinema's last primitives. Uncooth, awkward, vibrant, energetic, forceful, and unironic. For better or worse, he's fully present. In contrast, McLaren approached the medium with the economical and emotional detachment of a junk bond trader.

Rick Jacobson's 2009 Bitch Slap is a fast moving B-flick that shows us what Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! would have looked like if Malcolm McLaren made it.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Stuff: The Men in Black speak.

Even the most sinister of secret black op sites needs a surprising number of independent contractors to keep the place running. Take Area 51, for example. Sure it might be filled to the brim with nameless spooks and technocrats dissecting alien bodies and all that. But there's also a whole cadre of support staff and minor tech support guys who just punch the clock and make a living at the place.

Which poses a problem: You can't have these minor players blabbing about the alien microwave gun the lab boys are using to make crop circles. The conspiracy-minded might suggest eliminating these loose strings. Heck, if we can bump off foreign leaders, we certainly can snuff a cafeteria lady or the random radar operator. Here's the thing though, in the remote locales suitable for secret installations, labor isn't an inexhaustible resource. Not only will you work your way through all the qualified mechanics pretty quickly, but eventually your rep as a place where workers vanish will scare off the rest of the talent pool.

No, as unsexy as it is, better to just swear the little guys to secrecy too.

In Area 51's case, the contractual obligation to secrecy for many minor employees extended 47 years. Which means, for those keeping count, employees who worked the site in the 1950s and '60s are now free to discuss what they witnessed.

Sadly, no aliens.

The Seattle Times interviews are few Area 51 vets, like James Noce, formerly the radar operator at the infamous site. Though Noce has no tales about alien crashes, his recollections about the crash of a A-12 spy plane in 1963 should sound familiar to any UFO fancier.

Noce remembers when "Article 123," as one of the A-12s was called, crashed on May 24, 1963, after the plane stalled near Wendover, Utah. The pilot ejected and survived.

Noce says he was among those who flew to the crash site in a giant cargo plane loaded with several trucks. They loaded everything from the crash into the trucks.

He remembers that a local deputy had either witnessed the crash or had quickly arrived at the scene. There also was a family on a vacation car trip who had taken photos.

"We confiscated the camera, took the film out," says Noce. "We just said we worked for the government."

He says the deputy and the family were told not to talk to anybody about the crash, especially the press.

"We told them there would be dire consequences," Noce says. "You scared them."

As an added incentive, he says, the CIA arrived with a briefcase full of cash.

"I think it was like 25 grand apiece, for the sheriff and the family," says Noce.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Stuff: "Sometimes you're too honest about your feelings."

When I was young, I had these cheapo set of magic linking rings I purchased at Foodini's, a short-lived concept theme-restaurant that was given it's test run at a local mall before vanishing off the face of the Earth. I was never very good with them. The problem wasn't a lack of manual dexterity, but rather that I respected the skepticism of any potential audience enough that I only wanted to perform tricks that could be thoroughly scrutinized later. If the audience couldn't, after I'd finished, manipulate the rings themselves, then I would have felt their own sense of being conned too acutely and the trick would have felt shabby, even if it was expertly executed.

There was one ring trick I was really good at though. It involved taking three identical and unbroken rings linked in a linear series, like a chain, and moving the bottom ring up a link, so that the chain now resembled something like a key ring: the top ring now had two unconnected rings hanging off it. The magical transformation was removing the bottom link from the middle chain and linking it to the top. The change took less than a second and the results could always be safely handed to audience members.

My explanation might have already given away the game, but in case it isn't clear, the key to the trick was simply a matter of forcing a certain perspective on the audience. Remember that all the rings are identical. There was no linking or unlinking going on. I showed the rings in a chain, holding on to the Ring 1, with Ring 2 under it and Ring 3 at the bottom. Then I gathered them all into one hand, waved my free hand in front of them, and slightly shifted my grip so that I was holding on to Ring 2 and not Ring 1. When I released the rings, Ring 2 was the top link and Ring 1 and Ring 3 dangled from it. However, because I explained what I was going to do, people simply assumed the top ring was still Ring 1 and I'd somehow moved Ring 3. I could hand the rings to the audience and let them test it because their test was always the same: They wasted all their time looking for breaks or trying to somehow force what they though was Ring 3 to uncouple.

Instead of making me a cynic (that took a magic trick named "dating Stephanie," which I attempted years later and, thankfully, never mastered), I found the fact the whole trick revolved around a bluff and the contagious nature of misinformation far more interesting than the idea of magic itself. That instant conspiracy of suggestion and unjustified confidence in the very senses that deceived us in the first place was, itself, magical in a way.

I bring this up because, over at the online front of Skeptic magazine, they are featuring a spiffy downloadable PDF of ten easy lessons on how to be a psychic. Specifically, the piece focuses on the "cold read," the art of reading somebody you have no prior knowledge of. Now Skeptic offer this too you as a satiric bunking of humbugs, which is fair: humbugs are what psychics are. But offer it to in the spirit of art appreciation. In the museum of humbugs, there is no performance art as rigorously demanding or highly evolved as the cold read. Done with expertise and style, it can be a beautiful thing.

So, if you think you've got the wits for some quick cash or you're tired of cube life and would like to work from home, check it out.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Meta: Holy crap! We're totally famous!

So Mr. McHargue, of I Love Horror (see the sidebar for linking action) fame, apparently really digs on the blog. So much, he was even willing to face near universal public humiliation by publicly proclaiming his love over at Horror Squad. Seriously:

One of the first blogs I came across when I decided to start my own, ANTSS has remained, at least for me, the standard of excellence among horror bloggers.

That's a man kiss!

Thanks Brad and to any new friends who may have found the blog through his kind write up. I'll keep chugging along and, hopefully, I can keep it all interesting for y'all.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Stuff: "That was a safe assumption, of course, until . . ."

In Details magazine, Jeff Gordinier profiles Matthew Roberts, a rock musician and strip-joint DJ whose search for his biological parents took a turn for the weird that instantly quailfied him for a post on ANTSS.

The adopted son of a "straight-laced" Illinois couple, Matthews started the search for his biological parents in 1999. From the article:

In 1999 he called an adoption-search organization in the Midwest, coughed up a few hundred dollars, and was given her name. She was living in a cabin in Wisconsin without a phone or a car, he says. "The adoption lady kind of warned me, 'Your mother's a little bit off.' Then I got a letter from my mother, and she was talking about her rhubarb and her cats, and I thought, well, she's just kind of a hippie. But at a certain point it became obvious that there was something wrong with her. Mentally." The woman, a Wisconsin native whom he calls Terry, said that his first and middle names at birth had been Lawrence Alexander. According to Roberts, she sent him food in the mail after warning him, in a weirdly winking way, that her own mother had suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a mental disorder that can lead parents to poison their children. "One time she sent me a jar of, like, mystery juice," Roberts says. "It had things floating in it. Then she asked me, 'Did you drink the juice?' And I said, 'No.' And she said, 'You're smart!' "

Roberts was beginning to get a sense of where those night terrors might have come from. Only gradually, he says, did his mother let the narrative wrinkles slip out: that he had been conceived during a hippie orgy in San Francisco in 1967, that his mother's participation in the orgy may not have been consensual, that there were four men present, that everyone at the orgy was dropping LSD, that his mother had apparently continued to ingest LSD in the months that followed. It was all eerily similar to Rosemary's Baby: Midway through Roman Polanski's 1968 film about the prenatal care and feeding of Satan's spawn, Ruth Gordon coaxes a pregnant Mia Farrow into gulping down a frothy, fetid glass of herbal goop. In the movie, Roberts says, "they were doing it to create an Antichrist. Well, in this case it just happened." That was a safe assumption, of course, until the day in 1999 that Matthew Roberts finally sent his biological mother a photo of himself, at about 30 years old, with his piercing eyes and his tangled nest of black hair, and she told him she realized which of the four men at the orgy had to be his father . . .

Go ahead. Look at the pic again and take a guess.

Inmate No. B-33920 at the California State Prison in Corcoran, otherwise known as Charles Manson, the most demonic figure in the annals of American murder.

Seriously, Matt. Ask for that couple hundred bucks back.