Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Movies: You're going to have to find yourself some other urban hellhole to haunt.

Today the city of Chicago takes the wrecking ball to the high-rise at 1230 N. Burling St., marking the beginning of the end for the final building in the infamous Cabrini-Green housing project.

Known to horror fans as the home of Candyman, Cabrini-Green was a real place. Named after Frances Cabrini - religious activist for the poor and the first American canonized by the Catholic Chruch - and Congressman William James Green, the projects grew organically from a row of house built in 1942 to, by the 1960s, a cluster of highrise apartments housing more than 15,000 people.

Initially, the residents of the project were Italian immigrants and their descendants, but social economic shifts meant that residents of Cabrini-Green were predominantly African-American by the early 1960s.

Real life violence haunted the CG. Before the initial row houses were built, the area that would become Cabrini-Green was known as "Death Corner" and was infamous for the number of organized crime hits that took place there. Still, the specific decline of the project can be traced to the post-World War II years when a cash strapped city started withdrawing crucial public services from the residents (such as regular police patrols) in an effort to save money. Even the lush green lawns that surround the apartment buildings were paved over to save money on lawn care.

In the 1970s, the city installed steel fencing in all the open pathways on the outsides of the apartment buildings. This feature - the prison-like metal fencing outside every apartment's doorway - can be seen in several scenes in the original Candyman. Meant as a safety feature, it had the unintended consequence of turning the blocks in armored fortresses for gang members who could now see the police without the police seeing them. In 1970, two police were killed by an unidentified sniper who picked them off from one of the now protected walkways.

By the 1980s, Cabrini-Green's rep as a gangster haven was a national embarrassment. Mayor Jane Byrne, in an effort to rehabilitate the project's image, moved in to a Cabrini-Green apartment. Even with her impressive force of bodyguards, she didn't last more than three weeks. Byrne's retreat from Cabrini-Green was widely seen as sign that the project was past saving.

Perhaps the height of the project's infamy came in 1997, when a nine-year-old girl, known in the media as "Girl X," was found raped and poisoned in one of the Cabrini-Green stairwells. Girl X survived her assailants attack, but the attack left her blind, paralyzed, and mute. The Cabrini-Green based Gangster Disciples street gang turned into a violent vigilante posse, with orders to find Girl X's attacker and beat him to a pulp. The fact that a gang seemed more likely to find the attacker than the police speaks to how far outside the civilized norm more folks considered the CG. Eventually the police did catch the perp. He was tried and given a 120-year sentence.

The projects are going to be replaced by mixed income housing. There's some controversy about the number of houses and apartments slotted for lower income families. Activists say that the new plan will not accommodate the number of lower income families displaced by the demolition of Cabrini-Green.

It's just a rumor at this point, but Target might be building a store on the site. Maybe that's where Candyman will go.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Music: Schoolly D(emon)

What with side projects, day-job obligations, and whatever else distracts one from one's creative outlets, it took the indie rock outfit Rival Schools a decade to get their new album together. For the first video of this much-delayed platter, lead singer (ex-Gorilla Biscuts/Quicksand frontman) Walter Schreifels and the boys pay homage to a horror classic.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Stuff: Pause for reflection.

Over at The Atlantic, they're using a piece by Nathan Fox - artist of the comic ANTSS just posted about - to illustrate a lightweight think piece called Our Zombies, Ourselves. I'm not sure that writer James Parker drops any science the average ANTSS reader doesn't already know, though he gets points for correctly identifying the earliest known English appearance of zombies: William Seabrook's over-the-top voodoo study, The Magic Island. Plus, he opens with an interesting question to ponder. Why didn't the modern zombie arrive earlier?

The most surprising thing about the modern zombie—indeed, the only surprising thing about the modern zombie—is that he took so long to arrive. His slowness is a proverb, of course: his museumgoer’s shuffle, his hospital plod. Plus he’s a wobbler: the shortest path between two points is seldom the one he takes. Nonetheless, given all that had been going on, we might reasonably have expected the first modern zombies to start showing up around 1919. Twentieth-century man was already moaning and scratching his head; shambling along with bits falling off him; desensitized, industrialized, hollowed out, metaphysically evacuated—A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many … Had some trash visionary produced a novel or play about the brain-eating hordes, or a vers libre epic of viral undeadness, it would have gone down rather well, at this point.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Comics: Don't let the pigeon drive us straight to hell.

In an afterword attached to the tail end of TPB collection of the Pigeons from Hell mini, script from Joe R. Lansdale and art by Nathan Fox and Dave Stewart, essayist and novelist Mark Finn quotes Robert E. Howard discussing his folkloric sources of inspiration:

But no Negro ghost-story ever gave me the horrors as did the tales told by my grandmother. All the gloominess and dark mysticism of the Gaelic nature was hers, and there was no light and mirth in her. Her tales showed what a strange legion of folk-lore grew up in the Scotch-Irish settlements of the Southwest, where transplanted Celtic myths and fairy-tales met and mingled with a sub-stratum of slave legends. My grandmother was but one generation removed from south Ireland and she knew by heart all the tales and superstitions of the folks, black and white, about her.

This bit comes from a letter addressed to H. P. Lovecraft. Howard and Lovecraft had a curious relationship, part mutual fan club and part professional rivalry. This particular missive was part of a multi-year long debate between the two titans of genre lit about the nature of barbarism and civilization. Howard, of course, made romanticizing the noble savage the cornerstone of his writing career. In contrast, Lovecraft viewed the barbaric impulse as atavistic in the worst possible way. For Howard, barbarism was the pulsing will to power that ran through the blood of all men in spite of the softening influences of modern culture; for Lovecraft, barbarism was the bloody nihilistic abyss that lurked underneath the fragile scaffolding of civilized progress. [For a more nuanced take on this debate, check out reader Taranaich's post in the comment section - CRwM]

One imagines that Lovecraft shuddered at Howard's breezy, energetic intellectual miscegenation; for Lovecraft, mixing is almost always equal to tainting. Howard, by contrast, happily suggest that the mutt is always the healthiest dog. Setting aside the unfortunate fact of Lovecraft's view on race, Howard's description of his inspirations points to another, more strictly aesthetic, contrast with Lovecraft. "Pigeons from Hell" actually incorporates the conditions of its own creation as a plot point: just as the story rose from a tangle of sources, the key developments in the story's narrative arise from the interplay of cultures and historical conditions. In Lovecraft, more often than not, humanity is attacked from the outside or brought down by an internal imperfection. Either some eldritch thing that shouldn't be phases into the dimension to melt your brain or you discover you've secretly been a fishman all this time. By contrast, in "Pigeons," we get a horror that is the product of a manmade disaster. The supernatural horror of "Pigeons" is the residue of normal human evil, specifically the evil of slavery. In Howard's work, you get the sense that human behavior can get so bad, it poisons the very earth, leaving behind a lethally toxic spiritual superfund site in need of karmic cleansing. The descendants of the sinners and their victims are doomed to fight the same struggles, paying the same steep costs, until the original conditions of the original violation are finally resolved.

Lansdale, Fox, and Stewart manage to capture the same feeling in their modernized adaptation. The plot, a few "why won't my cell work" moments aside, will be immediately recognizable to readers of the original. Two sisters find out they've inherited a decaying white elephant of a plantation way the hell out in bayou country in New Orleans. They visit it, with a small posse of their city-folk friends in tow, to see if they should tear down the joint and try to sell off the land or simply tear up the deed and forget the rotting pile even exists. What they find, of course, is that the primary crop of the old plantation is market-grade freaky shit. And this freaky shit comes in bulk. Zombies, ghosts, black magic, trees that turn into snakes, monsters - should anybody survive, I think we can all agree the answer is to just tear up the deed.

What's nice about Lansdale's plotting, which reflects a similar arc you'll find in the original, is the value it places on the characters as protagonists. What first appears as an riot of threats and uncanny assaults is, as the characters work through their experience, revealed to be a complex web of supernatural interactions, relationships, alliances, and antagonisms. The plantation isn't just haunted: it's got its own supernatural ecosystem. The benefit of this approach is the sense the reader gets that the agency of the protagonists' is not wasted or superficial. Occasionally Lansdale, either out of loyalty to the source story or unfortunate error, lapses in to overt string-pulling: the most notable instance being the appearance of an ancient African American hoodoo man whose chief power is the ability to conjure up massive amounts of exposition.

I'm on the fence about Fox and Stewart's art. At its best, it reminds me of non-Mignola B.P.R.D. stuff. It has the vibrant line work that seems not so much sketchy as literally shaking with life. In fact, there's often a solidity to the characters that gives them a realistic density on the page that I find lacking in the Hellboy spin-off. The downside is that there's a static, disjointed quality to the art - as if everybody has been posed for still shots and then moved to the next set-up without concern for continuity - that leads to busy, murky panels and action that doesn't flow. That said, I'm inclined toward a thumbs up as I think some of the problem with the art comes from constraints imposed by factors outside the artists control. The project's fair tight pacing requires an insane about of visual information be packed onto every page. This keeps the story moving at a brisk pace, but robs the artists of the room they'd need to really bring their all.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Music: "I shall reign, I reign, I have reigned, I am without a kingdom."

One of the most reliable needle-drops in film history, Carmina Burana's Medieval-style chanting and ominously forceful rhythm make it the go-to choice for horror filmmakers trying to serve up their dose of the uncanny with a schmear of religiously tinged gravitas (as well as action filmmakers who have dropped it into hundreds of film trailers). Go ahead and listen to this familiar clip – which appears in the trailers of hundreds of films, from Natural Born Killers to South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut - and we'll catch up on the other side.

Despite the eldritch trappings, Carmina Burana is not an artifact from the Middle Ages. It's not even really a straight-forward religious song. The work was composed over the course of 1935 and 1936 by the German composer Carl Orff. The lyrics, which most powerfully evoke the feel of the Dark Ages, do come from a collection of Medieval poems original written in Latin, Proven├žal., Old French, and Middle High German (often the poems appear in an odd pidgin fusion of two or more of these languages). Although we now associate these lyrics mostly with tense action film sequences or moments of uncanny horror, the original collection was written as a satire. The poets, a collection of church scholars, used verse to create Rabelaisian satires of the Catholic Church's power structure. Of the 228 poems in the collection, 55 poke fun at the church, 40 are about drinking and gambling, 131 are somewhat randy love poems (with a special fondness for the seduction/rape of shepherdesses – a class Medieval religious scholars apparently found especially enticing), and a final two are spiritual pieces. The book was discovered in 1806 and Orff seems to have run across it in Wine, Women, and Song, a collection of poems featuring more than their fare share of wine, women, and song, anthologized by the famed English cultural historian John Addington Symonds. Symonds's collection featured translations of some 40 poems from Carmina Burana. Orff not only composed the musical setting for the poems, giving a bombastic context for the poems' often surreal and scandalous imagery, but he conceived of a richly multimedia experience for the whole work: a combination of moving sets, elaborate costumes, operatic acting, and music that he called the Theatrum Mundi. The youtube clip above shows all these pieces in action.

Orff's piece does arrive with some sinister baggage. When Orff's composition premiered in 1937, Nazi censors were nervous about the overt eroticism in some of the lyrics. However, government officials failed to take action and the work quickly became one of the most popular pieces composed by a German during the Nazi Era. Orff's own relationship to the Nazi party remains a touchy subject. Though never a major figure of the Nazi's efforts to deploy the arts for the glorification of their regime in the way Leni Riefenstahl, Orff did officially submit music to replace the banned music of Jewish composers and, in a particularly damning incident, refused to assist a friend who was arrested in connection to the anti-Nazi White Rose resistance movement. Some later historians have claimed Orff was himself part of the White Rose movement, but the evidence for this is somewhat lacking.

Whatever the reality of Orff's political sympathies during the time, his work emerged from the era unscathed: by the 1960s it was a standard piece in the quiver of any significant classical orchestra. Modern music critic and scholar Alex Ross actually makes the case that its popularity is linked directly to the fact that the music itself lacks any ideological thrust: "That Carmina Burana has appeared in hundreds of films and television commercials is proof that it contains no diabolical message, indeed that it contains no message whatsoever." For horror fans, however, the charm of the song is the faint suggestion of the diabolical. It's just diabolic enough.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Movie: "Have noted 52 distinct uses of WHOOOOOOOOOOOO!"

That Piranha (Aja, 2010) features both a cameo by Academy Award winner Richard Dreyfuss and a close-up CGI monster-fish regurgitating a half-eaten penis says something about modern horror, but what it says, exactly, I don't know.

In fact, I'm at something of a loss when it comes to saying anything about Piranha as the film is basically discussion proof. This isn't because there's nothing to say about the film, but rather because the film is so self-aware in its embrace of every strength and flaw and so meticulously explicit and thorough in its construction that the movie is immune to any significant attempt at analysis. The cinematic equivalent of a cigarette, it's exhausted in the act of experiencing it. Which is, perhaps, the wittiest joke in a film that otherwise favors sub-frat grade chuckles: Aja made a 3D movie that is all flat surfaces.

The fun-horror crowd is fond of defending the endemic stupidity of so many horror flicks with the argument that the viewer fails to "get" these films because they can't shut off their brains and just enjoy them. It isn't that the films are crap; it's that you haven't performed the necessary infantilizing auto-lobotomy required to find their level. For what it's worth, that's not what's going on in Piranha. The flick isn't mindless. It's weirder than stupid: Aja approached the task of recreating a slice of retro schlock horror as if he'd been tasked with restoring Michelangelo's David, and the result is a relentless excavation of guilty pleasure cinema that seems more like an autopsy than a celebration. What the viewer feels isn't so much fun as an excess-induced abobamiento.

Typical of the surreal approach of the film is the joyless, anthropological approach it takes towards the Spring Breakers who will eventually become the titular beasties' main course. On the DVD making-of clips, there's a telling moment when Aja discusses his fascination with Spring Break. Growing up in France, he never experienced anything like Spring Break and confronted with this distinctly American bacchanalia, he says that he spent a lot of time researching it. One imagines him freezing framing episodes of MTV Spring Break and writing down things like "inverse relationship between height and number of breast flashes" and "have noted 52 distinct uses of WHOOOOOOOOOOOO!" The result curiously stagey for what's meant to be an orgy of young ids unleashed. For example, for all his study of Spring Break, Aja decided that the Breakers would be grouped into themed boats. You can tell the members of every krewe apart and reckon your position on the lake by costume-signal. (He didn't just adopt any anthropological eye, he specifically channeled Levi-Strauss.) It's Spring Break as as a structuralist study.

Another great example of Aja's curious stagey-ness is the famous "two girls underwater" scene. In what must honestly be ranked as 3D only genuinely interesting deployment, Aja films what is meant to be a underwater lesbo scene intended for inclusion in a Girls Gone Wild style porno. What ensues is a languorous synchronized swimming scene that simultaneously evokes the beauty and the beast pas de deux in Creature from the Black Lagoon and the elaborate bathing beauty scenes that used to appear in Busby Berkeley joints. What it doesn't look anything like is porn, especially porn that is essentially improvised on location by an intoxicated cast and crew.

Again and again, Aja pushes the flick into these weirdly inert abstractions, unable to hide the fact that his capabilities as a filmmaker can't really be contained in such a crappy project. In Piranha we get to witness the curious spectacle of a filmmaker trying to make a completely dumb film, in homage to other dumb films, and not being able to dumb himself down enough to do it convincingly.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Music: "Yeah, sure Satan rules. But that doesn't mean that I can't be practical."

Apparently the Future of the Left plays Haxan in the background when they play "You Need Satan More Than He Needs You." So here's the two things put together.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Movies: There's no cannibalism in the champagne room.

How can you tell when a trend has lapsed into decadence? Some might suggest that the widespread use of sub-genre formulas is a good sign post. When the creative petrol of a movement is spent, the modern cultural industry, with its accountant's heart and its rat-like aversion to the new, ensures that a trend can coast on the fumes for years. Still, some of the best genre entertainments boldly and sincerely embrace the predictable elements of their genre. Besides, genre works pull so deeply from archetypal forms that it's something of a fool's game to try to separate out laziness from profundity.

The inevitable lapse into self-parody? It is one thing to deploy humor, but the idea of a lapse into self-parody is one did it unintentionally because the restrictions of a genre left you nowhere to go but Stupidsville, U.S.A., and you bought that ticket thinking you were going to Awesome Town. To use a non-horror example, Airplane isn't a lapse into self-parody. It's just a parody. Day After Tomorrow's "we're outrunning cold" scene: that's self-parody. This seems like a no-brainer. When the possibilities of a genre have been so thoroughly explored that any existing avenues basically require that you're an idiot to make or consume the product, then it's time to smack the trend on the ass, say "good game," and tell it to hit the showers. Problem here is, outside of the genre, almost all of the genre looks like self-parody. I don't know whether this is because connoisseurship is prerequisite to genre understanding or whether genre fans are simple too close to know when they're shit's become retarded. Is it that you need a deep and nuanced understanding of zombie films to truly grasp the brilliance of Survival of the Dead or have a small group of true believers convinced themselves that Romero's late career disaster is not a cinematic abortion?

When no systematic approach is available, then the best you can do is pick an arbitrary point and map out the trajectory of the waning trend from your specific frame of reference. So long as you admit your frame of reference is singular, you'll allow others, each observing the same phenomenon from their distinct frames of reference, to make whatever calculations to sync up the observations. Applying this pragmatic solution to the problem, I'm defining my frame of reference thusly: A trend is creatively bankrupt when, within a single year, you get two films mashing-up the trend with strippers.[1] This sounds like a pretty clumsy tool for sorting out the messy field of tropes, but applied correctly, you can really get some fine-detailed results. Take, for example, Robert Rodriguez's 1996 crime flick vampire Holocaust flick, From Dusk Till Dawn. Here two trends, vampires and dead-pan pomo crime flicks, ran up against a stripper in the shapely form of Salma Hayek. There would be no other vampire stripper movies that year, leaving the vampire flick plenty of room to further evolve. The dead-pan pomo crime flick, on the other hand, was also caught slipping Jacksons into the garter of Demi Moore in that year's Striptease. It was the first step on the road to Truth and Consequences, N.M..

From that frame of reference, the year 2008 was officially the year the zombie thing hit intellectual and creative rock bottom. That was the year horror fans were afflicted with Jay Lee's Zombie Strippers and Jason Murphy's Zombies! Zombies! Zombies![2], two films boasting the same log line: zombie outbreak traps survivors in a strip joint.

In the defense of both flicks, the two-stripper-flicks-a-year thing isn't meant as a value judgment. It's simply a law of the universe. The same way the impersonal physical facts of a black hole are imbued with no ethic aspect past vast cosmic indifference, these stripper/zombie movies weren't made to kill of zombie films nor is there something so bad about these films they somehow fatally compromised an otherwise healthy sub-genre. Both films are pitched as nothing more than tasteless horror-comedies. And if you haven't seen worse horror films than either of these offerings, then you simply don't watch many horror films. Nevertheless, despite the manic relentless drive of each of these pics at their best, there's something exhausted at their core. One imagines them personified as one of the strippers they feature so prominently: torn between giving their umpteenth by-the-numbers lap dance to any slob-ola who will fork up enough cheddar and roaming the back of the club listlessly, hoping to run the clock out and remain relatively unmolested until closing time.

Of the two films, Zombie Strippers is the better flick. Admittedly, this is a bit like asking which would you prefer: a punch in the crotch or a kick? The answer is a punch, of course, but it will suck big time either way. Even if we restricted ourselves to comparing production values, name casting, and the willingness to show naked breasts, we'd have to give the dubious title of "Best Stripper-Containing Zombie Film of 2008" award to Zombie Strippers. After an oddly low-rent opening action sequence, ZS manages to find some visual pizzazz despite its tiny budget. This is in part because Lee sporadically embraces a color-saturated minimalist aesthetic that gives the absurd proceedings a pop-art feel that 3Z lacks. The visuals of 3 Z are deeply indebted to the "late American indie broke" aesthetic. From the cheapie visual effects to the sheer number of shots that take place in a set the script must of described as "External. Parking Lot where there's nothing in frame that could cost us any money," the movie is what happens when the limits of imagination and budget don't act as a spur to creativity.

But, honestly, the money issues aside, what gives ZS the edge up is its surprising taste in inspirations. ZS really has two stories going on at once. There's the bog standard Beau Geste plot of hold survivors fighting off a horde of zombies, and then there's the plot actually involving the zombie strippers: a plot that owes less to horror film tropes than classic show biz melodrama. And that weird blend is what gives ZS whatever kick it can claim.

The plot of ZS ain't rocket science. In a no longer applicable near future in which Bush was elected four times and launched wars against pretty much every country in the world, in the town of Sartre, Nebraska (the film's first joke in what my wife calls the "Oh, you've read a book" vein of "humor"), a lab experimenting with reviving dead soldiers to further usefulness has a mishap. Of course, the zombification experiment escapes the lab and infects the dancers and patrons of a local strip club (in this alternate future, Bush's 12-year-reign has given the religious right enough juice to make strip clubs illegal and they're something like speakeasies, only pedaling sexual frustration instead of booze). The club, the Rhino, run by one Ionesco - hammed up by Robert "Freddy" Englund; credited and refered to as Ian; and the second "oh, you've read a book" joke of the film - is basically the sole set of the flick. It's the films world and the isolation adds to the pop-art comic book feel of the proceedings. As the virus spreads, two narrative threads unfold. Inexplicably, getting zombified makes one insanely hot as a stripper. I say inexplicably because, visually, zombified strippers get just as rotty and grotesque as any zombie you'd care to cite. (In the world of this flick, zombie stuff impacts men and women differently - in a wonderfully daffy jab at scientific validity, a lab coat states that this has something to do with XX and XY chromosomes - with female zombies maintaining a significant portion - speech, motivations, memory - of their mental powers, and men becoming mindless types.) But, like the mauled sensualists of Clive Barker's many works, we're simply given to believe that being dead somehow give you insights to levels of the erotic that living people somehow miss.

Smartly, ZS doesn't drink it's own Kool Aid on the whole massive-bodily-trauma-equals-hottie thing. In this sense, it links up with the remake of Night of the Demons in presenting Barker's bizarre elevation of fetishization as a goof. Once the strippers begin to zombify (which, by the way, is recognized as a word by my spellcheck), the story bifurcates: one plot involves the zombified strippers fighting for male flesh as a commodity: male attention is the currency that buys one a place in the stripper hierarchy and male flesh is the fuel that keeps the women running. The second plot involves the the pure strain humans fighting for their survival against the zombified byproducts of the strippers' civil war. Sadly, the second, less interesting plot takes up most of the screen time. The movie is most alive when we're watching the strippers go at one another. The strippers live in an almost completely female world: they exist as characters entirely in relation to one another and the crisis of the plot basically gives the diretor/writer and the actresses the ability to literalize every conflict and play it out. In the moments in which this is happening, the film is strangely captivating.

In his infamously honest essay about the "talented tenth," W.E.B. DuBois metaphorically the self-destructive impulse of an oppressed community as a bucket full of crabs. When one crab thinks it can make a break, the others, in a panic, grab hold of it and keep in the bucket. I don't know how many readers have ever actually seen a container of live crabs, but DuBios description of the mad swirl of armored and weaponized limbs is brutality correct. At one point in ZS there's a scene in which two zombie strippers fight for the role of queen of the roost. They literally rip one another apart. At one point, one uses her vagina against the other as weapon. It was meant, no doubt, as a gross out joke, but that doesn't make it any less horrible true. When one reads some trash talk article from Jezebel or the Broadsheet about a femme apostate, you can pretty much imagine that fight from Zombie Strippers as the metaphorical equivalent. In that sense, Zombie Strippers is one of the few real feminist horror films in the sense that it makes a horror story out of women-centric relationships where men are reduced to something like a unit of exchange.

That said, Zombie! Zombie! Zombie! is genuinely more interested in its strippers as people. There's a great line in 3Z in which one of the strippers, on being invited to a post-show grub session, says she has to study for her finals and begs off. The idea that a stripper might have a life outside of stripping would be completely alien to the weird hothouse environment of ZS. There's another delightful bit when, on the occasion of one stripper sheepishly mentioning that she has a child, the other stripper launch into stories of their own children. For all it's faults - and they are legion - 3Z is has lucid moments of sincere sympathy with real humanity. There's a nice bit, about 30 minutes in, when, after a panicked crowd flees to the strip joint for safety, two members of the crowd get into a a lover's tiff. It isn't dramatically important, but it feels so correct as to make one wonder if it is improvised. I don't want to overpraise 3Z. This is a flick whose idea of dialog includes the clunker: "Them ain't crack whores! Them bitches is crack whore zombies!" (Not quoted from memory - Netflix has truly revolutionized film scholarship.) Still, it would be unfair to deny the flick its moments of strikingly real interaction.

One of the weirdest aspects of 3Z is a strange conflict between the strippers of the film and a group of prostitutes who ply their trade outside in the clubs parking lot. I'm assuming it's the club's parking lot; most of the film's first half hour takes place in nondescript parking lots. For all the nuance the film allows the strippers, the whores are jokes. Their pimp is a buffoon and they are all grotesques. There's a surreal scene in which the strippers and the whores dine in the same greasy spoon and viewer gets to see the differential treatment of the two classes of women. The strippers have shown up to grab a bit of post-work protein, but the whores have shown up to celebrate the anniversary of one year of a certain prostitute's chattel-slavery to their pimp. The celebration of the whores is treated as a lampoon. Do they have children? Are any of them in school? Who cares? 3Z couldn't be bothered. The film posits some weird scale of nobility where stripping is a fine, perhaps even noble profession, but prostitutes are scum. Which is weird, 'cause it's otherwise a remarkably sympathetic film.

[1] This raises a problem: What if the genre trend is strippers themselves? If we're trending narratives about strippers, then every film in the trend features strippers mashed-up - figuratively or literary - with strippers. So is trending strippers like dividing by zero? Not exactly, the idea here isn't that nature abhors a stripper. The question is not the existence of a trend, but whether the trend is crap. Provided the films in our hypothetical stripper sub-genre never came out faster than once a year, we could, theoretically, have a vibrant sub-genre dedicated to the fine art of removing skimpy outfits for money. If, however, the films come out at a rate of two or more a year, we still get a numerically significant trend of stripper flicks. This trend, however, will consist mostly of vapid, junky, dumb flicks.

[2] There's no strictly textual guidance as to whether the title of Mr. Murphy's film should be bellowed, with echo effects, in the style of radio announcer advertising a monster truck show, or does it have more of a plaintive, whiny Jan Bradyish quality. "Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!" or "Marsha! Marsha! Marsha!"? Personally, I alternate between the two styles in response to thematic demands. I leave it as a matter of the reader's taste and conscience.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Stuff: La Muerte Baila la Samba!

Just a quick Friday post-lunch treat: over at the appropriately named Morbid Anatomy blog, you kind find a small, but delightful, collection of Spanish pulp novel covers featuring skeletons.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Television: "You can do whatever you like. I'm going back down to the cellar . . ."

Before Stacie made the stick-figure-horror thing the cornerstone of her vast media empire, there was this:

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Movies: Trusting young normal human girl wanted to watch completely normal human child of unremarkable human parents.

There's probably no better example for how absolutely familiar the well-trod ground over which Babysitter Wanted walks is than the shot of Angie (played by the preternaturally young-looking Sarah Thompson) plucking a phone number off a babysitter wanted flier hanging on a bulletin board on the college commons. It's one of those movie-real moments that only doesn't strike us as fake because we've seen it repeated so often in fiction that we've grown to accept it as reasonable. Like elaborate terrorism-for-hire plots or the idea that mental asylums all look like a cross between Disney's Haunted Mansion and the Bastille, we've seen so many people put up random posters for a babysitter - instead of using their social network of personal connections, as most folks do - that this bizarrely non-discriminating way of hiring somebody to watch your offspring doesn't strike us as odd. Or, to put a finer point on it, we know it's odd because Babysitter Wanted is a horror movie, so we know it's a horrible idea to go to the home of somebody who is fine with any babysitter just showing up. We know the poster might as well read, "Trusting young normal human girl wanted to watch completely normal human child of unremarkable human parents. References unnecessary. Non-virgins need not apply. NO CELL PHONES!" What strikes us as not odd is that nobody in the film thinks that it is odd. It's a genre plot point that's become so comfortable that it doesn't even evoke a twitch on disbelief-suspensometer.

The babysitter flier is one of those genre cliches that has become so overused that it no longer seems like a short cut or lazy storytelling, but rather a small shared ritual, like saying "bless you" when somebody sneezes. And in that small space of the knowing exchange of shared meanings, Babysitter Wanted delivers a surprising amount of simple pleasure. This isn't to say that such a willingness to embrace genre expectations doesn't come with some serious drawbacks. BW engages the viewer so effortlessly and places so little in the way of demands on the viewer's attention that the experience is inevitably a shallow one. But some pleasures are narrow. When I was a young boy, I was obsessed with card tricks. My stubby, sausage-like fingers ensured that I would always lack the dexterity to master such tricks myself. I had to content myself with simply learning all the secrets and watching others perform them. When I watch a magician perform a card trick, I (usually, but not always) can see exactly how the trick is done and follow every slight of hand and misdirection. Because of this, I think I enjoy the tricks far more than the uninitiated. For those being "tricked," there's always a hint of potential aggression there. For me, there's the uncomplicated, refreshingly simple pleasure of watching somebody being competent enough to successfully complete a tricky task.

Speaking of cards, let's lay them out on the table. Babysitter Wanted is really nothing more than a poor man's House of the Devil. Or, to give BW its chronological due, House of the Devil is nothing more than an artsy remake of Babysitter Wanted. The plots are similar: young college girl takes a babysitting gig for a family living in a remote house, there's a satanic angle, chasing and sacrificing ensue. But there, the differences end. Reviewers of West's retro fright pic often praised it with negatives: no jump scares, no torture porn, no ADD-friendly pacing and editing, and so on. From the list of negatives, you could imagine a theoretical alternate version of the film that deployed far more typical genre tropes; but you don't have to, Babysitter Wanted is that hypothetical flick.

Aside from storytelling choices, the key difference between the films centers around the treatment of their source material and, by extension, each film's relationship to its genre. BW lacks the period trappings, apparently a major draw for legions of folks who felt that the lack Walkmans in contemporary American cinema was a dire failing much in need of correction. But otherwise, the two films are genetic relations; BW and HotD both draw deep from the well of "Satanic panic" films of the 1980s, only the former does it without the self-conscious display of influences and technique. House treats the whole Satanic stories subgenre as an archival tourist spot, a curious destination to visit and document. By contrast, Babysitter treats it as just another subgeneric tributary, perhaps somewhat attenuated but still flowing, that pours in the mainstream of horror. This is distance is typical of West. The result is that West's work, even at its most energetic (Cabin Fever II), possesses an emotional detachment. This isn't a criticism of West; his most sublime moments often come from his careful indifference to the demands of genre and his movies would lack their delicious sadism if he trafficked in fan-service. In contrast, Barnes and Manasseri are eager to please and driven to fit directly into the expectations of their viewership.

What struck me while watching BW is that we no longer recognize how weird the standard horror flick is. In a way, West's flick is a far simpler beast. Its obsessive awareness of influence acts to restrain it. It wants to be a very specific thing - an '80s cult flick - and only that. By contrast, Babysitter pulls from satanic panic flicks, uses some torture porn elements, throws in some slasher like hunting scenes, goes in for some black comedy, and so on. These things are presented in a oft repeated and utterly familiar context, so the use of these elements doesn't seem particularly surprising or innovative. But, watching them come together, it dawned on me how many influences, how much film history appears in even the most run of the mill horror film. Most horror films, regardless of their merits and intentions, are the result of a century of artistic history and they carry the marks of this heritage, for better or worse, on their face.

One of the most common visual metaphors for evolution is the ascent of man illustration. You know the one: there's a chimp on the far left side, the start of a series of increasingly bipedal and hairless humanoids, that ends with a fully human individual. The problem with that picture is that it suggests variable levels of evolution. Chimps aren't proto-humans that couldn't cut it and therefore never got the bennies of a fully upright posture. Chimps are the result of the same millions of years of evolution as humans. They are equally, but differently, evolved. The same, in a strictly metaphorical sense, can be said of that most reviled of horror products: the "standard horror flick." Babysitter Wanted never voluntarily picked up this burden and it is almost unfair for me to place this weight on such a slender and innocuous flick, but for a brief 93 minutes, the film reminded me that even the commonplace is highly evolved.