Friday, June 25, 2010

Mad science: Like the fist of an angry god.

In general, I like my end-of-the-world scenarios to be as wacky as possible. Our presence on this globe is so improbable that it just seems dramatically appropriate that our exit should be just as improbable. But sometimes it rewards a person to consider the classics.

Over at the UK screamsheet tThe Independent, Chris Impey revisits one of the 20th century's most enduring contributions to the intellectual dark ride of our apocalyptic imaginations: death by space object strike:

Every century or so, a 10-meter meteor slams into the Earth with the force of a small nuclear device. Tunguska was the site of the last, in 1908, and it was pure luck that that meteor landed in the uninhabited wilderness of Siberia. Every few thousand years, Earth can pass through unusually thick parts of the debris trail of comets, turning the familiar light show of a meteor shower into a deadly firestorm. Roughly every 100,000 years, a projectile hundreds of meters across unleashes power equal to the world's nuclear arsenals. The result is devastation over an area the size of England, global tidal waves (if the impact is in the ocean), and enough dust flung into the atmosphere to dim the Sun and kill off vegetation. That could ruin your day.

Then there's the "Big One". About every 100 million years, a rock the size of a small asteroid slams into the Earth, causing global earthquakes, kilometre-high tidal waves, and immediately killing all large land animals. Creatures in the sea soon follow, as trillions of tons of vaporised rock cause drastic cooling and the destruction of the food chain based on photosynthesis. There's good evidence that this happened 65 million years ago and our tiny mammal ancestors were the beneficiaries as the giant lizards were extinguished.

Mr. Impey also considers such we're-screwed scenarios as "fried by the high-energy radiation of a distant hypernova," "Sun eats the Earth," and one of my new favorites: "the Big Rip." This is the term for the hypothesis that the expansion of the universe might eventually reach a crisis point and the whole darn thing could just unravel. That's right, the universe could break.

So enjoy the weekend like it may be your last! It's always later than we think!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Movies: Robert Pattinson's dead.

Now I don't know crap all about Twilight and it's various incarnations and adaptations. But I do know that the next flick is apparently going to feature Peter "Freakin' Bauhaus" Murphy. In his first film role since The Hunger, Murphy is playing a vampire called "The Cold One." (I think – but in the franchise "cold one" is also a werewolf slur for vampires in general – I think. Who can keep up? Googling this stuff is like throwing yourself into maze where all the direction signs are in foreign language.)

Does this lend the franchise anymore cred in the horror blog-twitter pro-am? After all, there's always the possibility that some Twi-hater could ask: "Murphy's cool with it. And, honestly, am I more horror than Peter Murphy?" The answer, of course, would be no. You're just some freakishly untalented subliterate who rode the coattails of more established bloggers to a middling, but still utterly undeserved level of success. Of course you're not more horror than Murphy. Don't be an ass.

Here's a Bauhaus song to make us all feel better. Here's Peter Murphy, Trent Reznor, and TV on the Radio all doing "Bela Lugosi's Dead."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Movies: How to build a shark.

I don't have any particular insights to share about the images below. I just thought they were spiffy and should be shared. From the Hollywood Movie Costume and Props blog come these tech drawing of Bruce, the mechanical shark from Jaws.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Movies: Here's to new friends.

Girly, the American title of Freddie Francis's 1970 flick Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly, comes deceptively packaged. First, the flick's latest yank-market dress focuses on the unquestionably marketable lolitaism of Vanessa Howard's girl-woman, "Girly," at the expense of the other characters. Second, the marketing copy suggests some sort of torture pornish plot, spiced up with a bit of gender-politics tinged revenge. Reading the DVD box or scanning the Netflix description, one could be forgiven for thinking that you were getting some precursor to the modern torture porn flick, but squeezed into the '80s template of the classic slasher, where sexual desire is punishable by death.

The bad news is that your not getting anything like the horror movie you signed on for.

The good news is that you getting a small little gem of a flick: an acid-etched portrait of the absurd Victorian ideologies that, even today, hang over any discussion of family life. Surreally straight-faced, gleefully inappropriate, and possessed of that wonderfully British ability to be grotesque and reserved at the same time, Girly is one of the best satires of the nearly-inherent amorality of family life ever made. And who better than the Brits to pull it off? For at least three generations, Brits have creatively and comically wrestled with problem of arbitrary authority. It's a legacy of the last remaining monarchy. From the Goon Show's love of militarized nonsense ("Seagoon: Bloodnok, parade your men!") to Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks, there's a brilliant and essential tradition of British comedy that recognizes that order and reason are, sadly, too often strangers. The result is an absurd world of rules, but no purpose; law, but no justice; church, but no faith; government, but no leadership; dictionaries, but no meaning.

And what social structure better epitomizes this horrific state of affairs than the modern family? You've got the authority of the parent figures, whose power is nearly absolute, but also merely an accident of biology. Despite hundred's of years of political evolution, parental authority, with its fascist combination of righteousness through physical superiority and general immunity to the will of the governed, is a monstrous throwback to our cave days. Combine that with the family's tribal clannishness and the idea that, whatever the norms of human behavior are, they stop at the homestead door to be replaced by the wise rule of the parents, you've got the mother - metaphoric play on words intentional - of all grotesquely arbitrary systems of order.

And yet, family often gets a pass. Steeped in Dickensian a mythology of childhood, besotted with "angel of the house" ideology, Brits often laugh off the creepy mini-monarchism of family life, treating these micro-dictatorships as little more than a delightful eccentricity.

Which is why its so delightful when somebody finally says, "Oh, for fuck's sake, let's just say it! This is basically a Ministry of Silly Walks with more doilies."

The plot of Girly will be familiar to horror fans. It's a Boy's Own Paper version of Texas Chain Saw Massacre. (And weirdly evocative of the echo-titled Mum and Dad, which brought the influence full circle by making ostentatiously Brit version of TCM and ending up with a working class splatterpunk version of Girly.) Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly live in a massive, rotting castle of an estate, living out some bizarre fantasy of British gentry family life. Sonny and Girly regularly leave the estate to gather "friends" - homeless drunks and the like - whom they bring home for games and treats. Eventually the guests figure out the family is utterly nuts, which leads to a crisis with the fam, which leads to an early demise for the guest.

This pattern begins to unravel when one of the new friends decides that, despite the clear homicidal insanity of the family, he likes the financial and sexual advantages family membership could confer to him. Consequently, he begins to navigate the Wonderland-by-way-of-Most-Dangerous-Game household with an eye to installing himself in the role of the missing patriarch.

(This twist strikes me as a distinctly national flourish: the idea that, despite the horror of the situation, you could make it work for you belongs to a long tradition of anti-hero station-climbers. It appears here and in the much more violent and viscerally unpleasant Mum and Dad. For contrast, the transformation of Stretch from victim to chainsaw wielding madwoman is treated as a descent in the TCM franchise.)

So, what are you not going to get with Girly? Despite the blood splattered packaging, you're not getting gore. There's a body count of, I think, three, in Girly, and though one of these is quite fierce in the violence suggested, there little to no blood on the screen. I don't want to suggest that this is a failing. In fact, I think that's part of the gag. The film's making fun of the way the Cult of Domesticity hides all manner of creepy crap. This overt and clumsy nod to propriety underscores propriety's role in hiding the submerged, sinister Freudian currents of family life.

The semi-feminist empowerment vibe you catch from the ballyhoo is an empty promise as well. The character of Girly is fascinating. There's a reason the rerelease suggests she the anchor of the film. Her strange balance between vapid nymphet seductress and young woman coming into her own power steals every scene she's in. Curiously enough, even the filmmakers seem confused by Girly. Sometimes the camera seems to want to linger on Girly's nubile flesh, as if unaware that Girly's eroticism suggest a fault line in delusion of the family. Other times, the film is overtly suggesting that the family contains the seeds of its own destruction, and Girly embodies that potential. (A situation that is made all the more ironic insomuch as New Friend's lever into the family is Girly's budding sexuality, the very thing that threatens to tear the family apart.) This isn't to say that feminist critics won't find something interesting about the character of Girly. In Jury of Her Peers, a massive history of women's literature in America, Elaine Showalter suggest there are three levels of cultural production that should interest feminists. First, there's anything that is the output of female creators. This holds a historical and archival interest. Second, there are cultural productions meant to overtly promote feminist ideologies. The political importance of this seems obvious, but it's artistic limitations are perhaps less obvious - in horror terms it leads to a feminism that pretends that feminist horror began with Buffy and persists only in her many clones. Third and finally, there are representations of women that reveal the symbolic status of women in their era. Girly is a near perfect exemplar of the third type. At once pitiful and predatory, infantile and aggressive, innocent and overripe, she's the Euro-trashy sister of Lo, wobbly and overburdened with an excess of male anxieties and signifiers.

Visually, Girly is a remarkably conservative flick. Especially if you consider that fact the fact that flick is coming of the tale end of '60s cinema. The film looks good, but the the editing is rigorously traditional and the style calm. It may have been an intentional display of reserve to anchor the surrealism of the story in a "realistic" visual vocabulary. Regardless of the reason, it is notable.

Girly, honestly, is a failure as a horror film. But I think it's marketing as a genre piece is misleading. Check out Girly as wonderful example of black humor. It's near perfect in that weight class.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Music: Henry's downloaded it like 50 times already.

Now you to can sing along with Glenn! Download yourself "On a Wicked Night," a free Danzig tune and howl away.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Meta: Unmasked.

Sorry Screamers and Screamettes. I need to post this somewhere and extract the URL. But, the mystery is over: that's CRwM, sans mask.

Mad science: All the dead are vampires.

Vampires are essentially a Romantic and Victorian phenomenon. Prior to that, a vampire was one of any number of distinct and mostly unrelated local folk beasties. But an explosion of vampiric literature and art in the 19th century began to establish, for what would ultimately become a global audience, the norms for vampires. With the exception of the wonderful Chinese jumping vampire, almost all notions of what a vampire is pretty much a reaction to the Romantic/Victorian template, itself a massive constriction of the diverse and regional sense of the term. (That last bit is worth noting when encountering purists' arguments about what should and should not be considered a real vampire: There's no original vampire; it was always already a mess of different influences, original inspirations, and second-hand ideas.)

At the Chronicle of High Education, science writer turned horror anthology editor Michael Sims attempts to find the
cultural and scientific roots of the Victorian vampire boom. And he comes up with some neat ideas:

The vampire story as we know it was born in the early 19th century, as the wicked love child of rural folklore and urban decadence. But in writing these depraved tales, Byron and Polidori and company were refining the raw ore of peasant superstition. And the peasant brain had simply been doing what the human brain does best: sorting information into explanatory narratives.

I found lots of reports of vampires from Europe—from urban France, rural Russia, the islands of Greece, the mountains of Romania. Along the way, I was reminded of something I already knew but hadn't thought of as relevant in this context: During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, dead bodies were a common sight. Plague and countless other illnesses ravaged every community. Corpses of the executed and tortured were displayed in public as warnings, even left hanging as they decomposed.

Few bodies seemed to rest peacefully even in the ground. Often people in the 18th century had an opportunity not only to see corpses but also to glimpse them again after they were buried. Urban cemeteries were densely overcrowded, sometimes with the dead stacked several graves deep, causing horrific spillage during floods or earthquakes. More corpses than the ground could accommodate resulted in the stench of decay and the constant risk of disease. Grave desecration was also common; a thriving trade in illicit cadavers for medical students joined a vicious rivalry between competing religious groups. After Louis XIV abolished the convent at Port-Royal des Champs as a hotbed of Jansenist heresy, drunken locals dug up nuns' bodies from the cemetery and fed them to their dogs. Corpses of executed heretics were dragged through the streets, then reburied in too-small graves by breaking the body into small pieces.

Sims thinks this familiarity of death lead to the development of erroneous notions about what death should look like: a corpse gently sleeping for eternity. The actual messy process of decay is not so pleasant. And this unpleasantness was interpreted as something out of the norm.

As I continued digging into the literature, I wondered: If ordinary people were encountering the corpses of the recently dead or even long-dead friends and relatives, what were they actually seeing that they misinterpreted and then wove into a vampire mythology? Not surprisingly, no one understood the process of decay within a subterranean chamber. They had no forensic body farm at which to chart a corpse's fade from nauseating stink to cautionary bones.

Any variation from "normal" in the grave provoked fear, yet there isn't really much of a norm in the process of decay under different circumstances. Some coffins protect their residents better than others. Lime helps preserve a body, as do clay soil and low humidity. Graves in different climates and latitudes vary, depending upon air temperature and humidity, soil composition, and insects, not to mention those invisible sanitation workers who turn us all back into the dust from which we came—and of course in the 18th century, no one knew that such creatures existed.

Many natural changes after death were judged to be evidence that the late lamented had turned into a bloodsucker. Like hair, fingernails don't actually continue to grow after death, but as fingers decompose, the skin shrinks, making the nails look abnormally long and clawlike. You begin to look as if you're turning into a predatory animal. Dead skin, after sloughing off its top layer, can look flushed and alive as if with fresh blood. Damp soil's chemicals can produce in the skin a waxy secretion, sometimes brownish or even white, from fat and protein—adipocere, "grave wax." In one eyewitness account from the 18th century, a vampire is even found—further proof of his vile nature—to have a certain region of his anatomy in a posthumous state of excitement. The genitals often inflate during the process of decomposition.

And what about the blood reported around the mouths of resurrected corpses? That too has a natural explanation. Without the heart as a pump to keep it circulating, blood follows the path of least resistance. Many bodies were buried face down, resulting in blood pooling in the face and leaving it looking flushed. Sometimes blood also gets lifted mouthward by gases from decomposition. Vampire stories recognize that death is messy.

It's interesting stuff. Plus, Sims found this brilliant quote:

The scholar Marie-Hélène Huet sums up the subtext of many early vampire accounts: "All the dead are vampires, poisoning the air, the blood, the life of the living, contaminating their body and their soul, robbing them of their sanity."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Comics: Once Smurfs go black . . .

The story is familiar: A lone Patient-Zero is exposed to a dangerous new contagion that alters them into a mindless predator. Efforts are made to contain and treat the infected, but Patient-Zero breaks free and spreads the disease. Soon, the infected outnumber the healthy and things look bleak . . .

You've seen it before.

But have you seen it in Smurf Village before?

Comic Book Legends (one of the maybe 3 comic blogs consistently worth reading) has a wonderful story on the Les Schtroumpfs Noirs: "the Black Smurfs."

I'll let columnist Brian Cronin explain:

The Smurfs (or, as they were known in the Franco-Belgium comics where they debuted, Les Schtroumpfs) first appeared in comic writer/artist Peyo's light-hearted sword and sorcery series, Johan et Pirlouit (Johan and Peewit) in 1958. They were quite popular and by 1959 they were starring in their own back-up stories.

Their first album came out in 1963, titled Les Schtroumpfs Noirs - the Black Smurfs.
And the Black Smurfs, their first solo comic title, was basically about zombie smurfs!!!

You see, a Smurf in the comic is stung by a rare fly who effectively turns him into a zombie (his skin turns black). He then bites other Smurfs, who ALSO turn into zombies!

The comic was never reprinted in the United States (I don't know why - likely the "Black" thing, but perhaps the zombie aspect of it, also?), so I'll have to share with you the French pages (Smurf comics aren't exactly hard to follow, luckily)...

He then gives you every page of the short story. Click through and scroll to the bottom of the page. Bonus: There's a bit about Simon Garth, Marvel's Living Zombie in there as well.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Stuff: Bedeck thyself.

Threadless is having a big ol' $10 t-shirt sale. You can snag this bad boy, Alex Solis's "Battle of the Giants," and a ton of other nifty designs for a Hamilton a shot.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Music: "The girls are saying that you're wrapped too tight."

In the world of horror rock, the B-list rarely sees love. There's more Drac, Frank, and Wolf Man tunes than you can tip a Marshall stack at, but you don't run across a ton of tunes singing the praises of the Blob, for example. (Though the Latin-jazz influenced bubblegum of The Five Blob's "The Blob" is nice, it doesn't have the presence on Halloween mixes that lesser vampire or werewolf tunes do.)

Today, we get snippet of one of the best songs about the Mummy, another under-represented baddie from the filmland. I Was a Teenage Mummy a 1992 indie that aped the teen-horror schlock of the '50s. One of the highlights of the flick is the wonderful soundtrack filled with fuzzed out modern rockabilly garage groups. Below is the trailer, with the A-bones squonked-out sax-enhanced theme song "Mum's the Word."

The full song's available on iTunes and Amazon for download.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Movies: I suggest social promotion, if only to avoid having to see this one again next year.

There's a bizarre allegorical mirror at the heart of The Final, Joey Stewart's 2010 torture porn-lite teensploiter. In the film, a group of clever young people steeped in horror flick conventions and lore band together to create an allegorical atrocity for mass consumption. Which, in broad terms, is what the Stewart and his crew are doing as well. Neither atrocity comes off as planned. A Saw for the post-Columbine teen set, The Final is a plodding combination of promising ideas and poor execution. The result is a film that has plenty to talk about, but is stammering and tongue-tied. It's exemplary of a sadly too common failure in horror: a film that is "about something," but simply isn't very good. Such film suffer from Romeroism.

Stewart starts off strong enough. Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Final is that it seems to spring up directly from the headspace of its main characters. Like the children combatants of the superior Battle Royale, the teens in this film find themselves thrust into a situation that taxes the limitations of the cognitive tools they have to make sense of the world. The result is they must rely on the rough and naked products of their own imaginations, such as the painfully earnest goth girl diary entries we hear in voiceover, or the ready-built tools of the media sphere around them, as when the aforementioned diarist adopts the look and mannerism of Asami from Miike's revenge-horror Audition to carry out her own revenge plot. The most emotionally real characters in The Final fluctuate between these extremes of helpless vulnerability and a detached, learned cruelty that's the only enduring thing the adult world bequeathed them.

In contrast to Battle Royale, the world of The Final seems like a projection of this mindscape. BR focused on the collision of youth and adulthood; The Final starts by removing adults almost entirely from the picture. This absence is communicated in the film's first act by making sure the faces of the adults in the film are always obscured. (Think of the Austin Power's bit where the characters' naughty bits are always conveniently covered – it works like that.) Without the stifling effect of adult authority, the characters live in a world made up of operatic emotions and vapid received stereotypes. Every bully is not just a jerk, but the biggest a-hole you can imagine. The school's mean-girls aren't just self-absorbed drama queens, they're sadist driven to seek out a constant stream of fresh hells to inflict on others. Consequently, there's a dramatic logic to absurdly extreme revenge plot the underdogs – a costume party that turns into a subCaptivity-grade torture-fest – cook up. In a world where everybody relentless follows trajectory of escalation based in simplistic logic of their characterization, then any revenge plan must skew towards the most horrific and definitive result. This relentless logic of character feels appropriate because the filmmaker initially handles it with ironic detachment. Unfortunately, that doesn't last.

By the end of the flick, Stewart trades in his winningly ironic and satiric tone for the less attractive tone of a hectoring afterschool special. I can see why Stewart might have felt the need to throttle back. When the world seems to reflect the tumult inside out victims-turned-torturers, the films builds quite a bit of sympathy with them and comes dangerously close to working as a sort of apologia for school shootings. As a remedy, Stewart slips in a character that acts as our moral touchstone: a generic "nice guy" who, despite the easy charisma of actor Jascha Washington, is intrusively out of place. Furthermore, the return of adult figures to the plot, complete with lessons about bravery and honor, feels like a total loss of nerve. This feeling is compounded by the bloodless torture-scenes that follow. When it is time to unleash hell on his characters, Stewart's resolve fails him.

Perhaps this could all be forgiven, but an unevenly paced script and lackluster visuals give you ample time to ponder why The Final isn't coming together. The result: a D, at best.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Mad science: "You know that she is in a movie in which sharks eat people; she thinks that she is living a normal life."

Paul Bloom, Yale psych professor, has an extensive and excellent article about the pleasures of the imagination posted on The Chronicle of Higher Education. Bloom discusses the role of imagination and focuses on those liminal experiences that seem to hold over both real and fictional stimulation. The whole article is worth your time, but I pull out a little extract here because it discusses the first kill in Jaws, a horrifying scene I recently wrote up as an unofficial entry in Arbogast's "One I Would Save" blog series.

Here's Bloom on the role of empathy death of Chrissie Watkins:

Often we experience ourselves as the agent, the main character, of an imaginary event. To use a term favored by psychologists who work in this area, we get transported. This is how daydreams and fantasies typically work; you imagine winning the prize, not watching yourself winning the prize. Certain video games work this way as well: They establish the illusion of running around shooting aliens, or doing tricks on a skateboard, through visual stimulation that fools a part of you into thinking—or alieving—that you, yourself, are moving through space.

For stories, though, you have access to information that the character lacks. The philosopher Noël Carroll gives the example of the opening scene in Jaws. You can't be merely taking the teenager's perspective as she swims in the dark, because she is cheerful, and you are terrified. You know things that she doesn't. You hear the famous, ominous music; she doesn't. You know that she is in a movie in which sharks eat people; she thinks that she is living a normal life.

This is how empathy works in real life. You would feel the same way seeing someone happily swim while a shark approaches her. In both fiction and reality, then, you simultaneously make sense of the situation from both the character's perspective and from your own.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Movies: The two Palmer girls.

One of the finest pieces of horror criticism comes from Bart Simpson. During the first "Treehouse of Horror" special, Lisa reads Poe's "The Raven" to her brother (who agrees to be subjected to a book only after Lisa assures him that he will not learn anything). When the narrator of Poe's "The Raven" searches for the source of tapping at his chamber door and finds an empty hall, Bart says, "You know what would have been scarier than nothing? Anything."

Bart's objection is, I think, demonstrably false: the world's full of anythings that aren't particularly scary. That said, the more general assertion that "The Raven" just isn't scary is spot on. It is a point even Lisa concedes later when she speculates that earlier audiences of poem simply must have been easier to scare.

Though, honestly, even early audiences of "The Raven" didn't find it particularly scary. Elizabeth Barrett, in a letter to the poet, claimed the poem produced "a fit o' horror" but admitted the mixed emotional response when she claimed that "Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it and some by the music." The poem's style, more often than its supposedly horrific content, was the source of most criticism, favorable and negative. Though, notably, one critic for the Southern Quarterly Review seems to have agreed with Bart and Lisa, claiming that the poem's scares would only work on "a child who had been frightened to the verge of idiocy by terrible ghost stories."

So, even adjusting for shifting cultural context, one comes to the conclusion that "The Raven," one of the cornerstones of the American horror tradition, simply isn't that scary.

In the horror blogosphere, many many posts have been dedicated to parsing out the experience of horror. We draw fine distinctions between various flavors of dread and speculate about their sources and the effects that best produce them. Less attention has been given to the odd phenomenon of horror that isn't scary. We should take care to separate this subgenre from horror that fails to be scary. It's possible to try to scare your audience and not succeed. Instead, what were considering is a genre of horror that purposefully chooses some other emotional register as primary mode. The dread in "The Raven," despite its gothic mood and trappings, is more akin to melancholy than fright. It's a grim meditation on death. A dark mirror of the transcendent function dead lovers served in Renaissance poetry, Poe's poem is about the inescapable and inevitable pain of loss that eschews the trope of redemption (completing a program of literary subversion that began 300 years earlier with Philip Sidney's "Astrophel and Stella" poem cycle). It's about being epically sad.

It might not seem like such a leap from fear to depression, but one can just as easily find comedies that would be welcome on just about any horror blog. Erotica, adventure, romance . . . we could go on, but that belabors a seemingly obvious point: Horror, as a genre, seems almost boundlessly flexible, even to the point of undermining the emotional response that the genre's name would seem to elevate as its highest and clearest goal. Though perhaps the point isn't particularly obvious. One still finds people attempting to work up definitions of horror that will exclude random work X from the genre by appealing to some reductive, "purified" definition of the genre. Looked at from the position of how the genre is experienced by creators and consumers, such efforts seem always already doomed.

I bring this up because Lake Mungo, the 2008 faux-documentary ghost tale from Joel Anderson, is one of the best horror films of the first decade of the 21st century. And it is too good a horror film to worry about being scary.

I'm a couple years late to this particular party, so I'm not going to bother with a long summary of the plot. In short: The Palmers, a New Zealand suburban family, lose their teenage daughter, Alice, on an outing to a local swimming hole. They gain a modicum of fame when local media outlets find out the dead daughter is haunting their house. The haunting turns out to be a hoax. However, after the media loses their interest, weird things keep happening. In an effort to get to the bottom of these strange events, the family uncovers a second life that their daughter led and these secrets overturn what they believed they knew about Alice.

To get the whole review-function out of the way, I liked this film. In fact, it's been a long damn time since I've seen a horror film so involving.

There, that's done. Let's talk about the flick now.

Lake Mungo is, curiously, the anti-Twin Peaks. Both works center around the excavation of the hidden life of a deceased teen girl. Alice and Laura share the same last name - Palmer - so it is fair to point out a certain family resemblance. Both works capitalize on the intrusion of the surreal on to mundane world of middle-class life (curiously, despite the idea that Twin Peaks was a logging town, blue collar concerns - union/management conflicts, the tension between resource limitation and jobs, and so on - surfaced obliquely; Twin Peaks was, locale aside, just another suburban nowhere).

What sets them apart is Lake Mungo's sympathy for Alice.

Laura is part of vast horde of fictional young women who meet their demise because they were spoiled. Laura's secret life follows a familiar dramatic arc: The perfect girl wanders off the path. Her sexual awakening is squalid, it marks not so much her introduction into adulthood, but the death of her virginal innocence. And, ultimately, this taint of sexualized corruption is connected to her literal death. Laura Palmer appears wrapped in plastic, washed up on the edge of a lake (another connection between Alice and Laura) because she ceased to be a clueless innocent. Her journey from clueless youth to active agent in the in the demimonde of Twin Peaks was just the first half of her march to the grave.

To be fair, this isn't an overtly wrong-headed notion. For everything that growing-up is, it is also the progression to the grave. In the sense that Laura is moving forward in her life, she's also moving towards her death. Still, this idea of the fatal corrupting crisis has a distinctly feminine slant to it in our culture, especially once sex enters the picture. Male coming of age stories can have a touch of sadness about the edges: think of a bittersweet narration of "and then we never saw one another again, but they are still my best friends" of countless Stand By Me-ish films. But, mostly, the quest for sexual maturity for boys is presented as an adventure or a comedy. More importantly, whatever the tenor of the tale, the central theme is one of completion rather than downfall. At the end of any given "we have to lose our virginity before we go to college" film, the male protags have gone from boys to men. They've become whole. In contrast, the women emerge from the same adventure irreparably broken.

What's interesting about Lake Mungo is that it uses it's dead-pan tone to wreck that idea. Alice, like Laura, kept secrets. But, unlike Laura, her death was, in the end, an accident. She drowned. It had nothing to do with the life she was living. It was the sort of dumb, senseless, stupid death that can befall anybody at any moment. It does not come as a judgment upon her.

Furthermore, the excavation of Laura's life is, oddly, invasive. Meant to solve the mystery of her death, there's something obscene about it. In death, Laura is defenseless and the investigators keep stripping her rep naked. It's investigation as rape. Here, the exploration into the Alice's life is driven by the presence of the ghostly Alice herself. It isn't an unveiling or a confession, but something more personal and profound. It's not unusual for ghost stories to trot out the "unfinished business" trope, but rarely is the business so poignant: Alice haunts her family because she wants the people to love to know her, entirely and truly know her.

And this, ultimately, is what sets Alice apart from Laura. Laura's a McGuffin. Her life exists to give others meaning and every decision she makes is a puzzle piece to fit into the story of her murder. She's a little girl converted in a tragedy by forces that rob her of life. Alice's life, by contrast, isn't a simple narrative. It's a awkward, opaque series of decisions made by a young woman quietly balancing the demands of two worlds.

Uncanny, sometimes heartbreaking, Lake Mungo's a powerful little film.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Contest: Crush crush sweet Charlotte.

The loser of ANTSS "Killer Kaiju" give away is Charlotte, NC. Why? Because it is the stomping grounds of choice for our winner: Aaron White! To claim your prize, shoot me an email at crwm44[the at symbol]yahoo[the dot]com.

A building-sized thanks to everybody who played along.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Contest: Leave nothing but smoking rubble in your wake!

Last day to get in on the action! I'm giving away one brand new copy of Killer Kaiju Monsters, a richly illustrated homage to all things big, Asian, and stompy by Ivan Vartanian. To enter the contest, just click through to the original contest post and leave a comment telling me what city you would stomp if you were a giant monster and why. There's plenty of unstomped real estate left. A winner will be selected at random tomorrow.

Kaiju-Fink art by McNail.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Books: The novel as zombie.

Mark McGurl takes a look at the bumper crop of zombie books in n + 1 and comes up with a novel thesis: Zombies novels are so hot right now because the novel itself is now an undead genre.

To say that the novel is a zombie genre is therefore not only to say that it may have outlived its life as a key cultural form, animated now only by its connections to film and television on the one hand, the university on the other. It is also to say something about what has often been taken, most recently by Benjamin Kunkel in an essay in Dissent, as the novel’s chief claim to our attention and respect and even political hope. This is its capacity for the creation of deep, psychologically complex fictional characters, the kind we find at the center of realist novels like Pride and Prejudice. Their “roundness” makes space for our fondest hopes for humanity, that it might stop and reflect and set a course for a better world. To the extent that these characters continue to appear in contemporary fiction, do they succeed in killing the crowd of zombies gnawing at the metaphorical door?

The essay focus's almost entirely on the canon of American zombie film and literature (I think Shaun of the Dead might be the only non-US production mentioned), but McGurl manages to get quite a bit of stuff out of the relatively slim sample. First he zeros in on the idea of the "zombie" as a character in a very specific genre sense:

Zombies are “characters” in the sense recently revived by the critic Aaron Kunin—they are a type whose existence extends beyond any one work or even medium. This is why we can speak of “the zombie” in the first place, and why the specter of the ludicrous hovers even over the realist commitment to character. In his book on laughter Henri Bergson observes, “In one sense it might be said that all character is comic, provided we mean by character the ready-made element in our personality, that mechanical element which resembles a piece of clockwork wound up once for all and capable of working automatically. It is, if you will, that which causes us to imitate ourselves.” When “clockwork” characters show up in popular genre fiction, as they so often do, critics are apt to take them as an aesthetic offense to the human. It might be more accurate to say that our aesthetic displeasure in hackneyed types records our confrontation with a truth about the human we would rather deny, but which the zombie brings to the fore. As a kind of character, then, the zombie is a pure negation of the concept of character at the heart of Austen’s realism.

From there he goes on to discuss how the absence of anything like traditional characterization basically forces us to treat zombies as allegories.

So: Zombies are anti-characters, but they do make for good allegories, their very flatness propelling us into speculation about what they might mean “on another level.” Since one thing they mean on that other level would seem to be “flatness” itself, it will not do to criticize zombies for being stiff and uninteresting, as allegorical characters have been for at least a few hundred years . . . [Allegory's] intellectual virtues are too essential to be dissolved into realism and that its most vivid modern manifestations are to be found in genre fiction. Above all, in a way that realism rarely does, allegory gives us a kind of vivid speculative access to the superhuman designs, whether spiritual or natural, that structure consciousness from without. This is especially true of science fiction and horror. These designs may constitute the ultimate reality, in comparison to which ordinary experience is only a kind of dream, but when they are rotated into the space of representation they can look very “unrealistic” indeed. Their realism is what we might call a speculative realism.

Before he finally comes to the punchline:

Once upon a time the designs of allegory were understood by direct reference to theology, and more than a hint of end-of-days religiosity remains in recent evocations of the otherwise secular zombie “apocalypse.” Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is the best known and certainly the classiest example, trading up from the zombie to realistic-seeming depictions of postnuclear cannibals who want to eat a suspiciously Jesus-like boy. But look closely, notes Fletcher, and you will see that modernity brings about a basic reversal in the direction that allegory now tends to move. What used to take us higher toward celestial structures now takes us downward to the physical truths that determine our organic being and give it a hard deadline. McCarthy’s high seriousness as a writer has always coincided with a certain attraction to genre—in his case the western—but in a way the “badness” of actual genre fiction, the kind that never wins big literary awards, is a more authentic expression of our lowly, pulpy state. Real zombie stories are more honest about our essential stupidity than works like The Road, drowning out the last yelps of human pride in the tide of their own mediocrity.

I love that last line.

Which brings up this only semi-related issue. I found the image that kicks off this post GISing for some suitably zombificated imagery to use as an illustration. How f'ed up is that image? Sometimes I feel like the zombie holocaust just can't come fast enough.

DON'T STOMP THINKING ABOUT TOMORROW! If you haven't entered ANTSS Killer Kaiju contest yet, you freakin' should! It's as easy as stomping on your favorite scale-model city.