Showing posts with label horror. Show all posts
Showing posts with label horror. Show all posts

Monday, July 21, 2014

Flicker by Theodore Roszak

Repost from 2009.

Theodore Roszak's 1991 novel Flicker concerns a young academic named Jonathan Gates and his spiraling obsession with an obscure German horror filmmaker named Max Castle. Castle was one of many Germans who came to Hollywood after World War I. Due to his obscure religion and the handlers from the religion that came along with him to Hollywood, Castle was eventually reduced to directing trashy, incoherent horror films after being dismissed as "difficult to work with." Castle was rumored to have died in a plane crash over the ocean at the age of 42. The novel follows Gates for roughly 20 years in his hunt for information about Castle, Castle's religion, and the lost or uncut versions of his films. Roszak does show off his history degrees by having Castle's religion tied to the Knights Templar, as well as being knowledgeable about film history. It is only when Gates begins to ironically preach about the films that are now considered cult classics, but were midnight movies in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and how they are bringing about the downfall of the world does the novel start to lose hold. It is that Gates never resolves his opinion of the cult movies of the 1960s and 1970s, nor is self-aware enough to know that he is obsessed with them and that his work on Castle may have partially brought these films about (at least in this fictional world, Roszak almost fully ignores the real-world events of the 1960s and 1970s in the novel), as well as his obsession with a young director also in Castle's religion who is making nihilistic "cult"-type films. Roszak seems to be implying that these types of films will bring about the downfall of the world, either overtly or subtly, but if that is the message, then it is extremely muddled.



Roszak barely covers how the Vietnam War, the impeachment of Nixon, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and how these events effected the films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is only treated in tertiary and occasionally humorous terms on why Gates was not drafted into the Vietnam War. But overall, these historic events are not given any coverage in Flicker. Considering that academic writing correlating the tragic events of the 1960s and 1970s with the edgier films of this time period did not emerge until the early-mid 1980s, Roszak may have cleverly averted the historical issues and their relation to films with good reason, considering the state Gates is narrating from by the end of the novel. Roszak makes a few clever set-ups throughout Flicker, things that are likely meant to annoy some readers for much of the novel, but eventually have some sort of pay-off. This includes Gates’ habit of sleeping with every woman that is introduced into the book. This aspect quickly became annoying to me, but Roszak has this as a part of the book for a reason, even if it is for purely contrasting reasons, as to eventually show how far Gates has become obsessed with Max Castle and his religion, the Orphans of the Storm.






Towards the end of the novel, he correctly equates himself to Joseph Cotten’s naïve character in The Third Man. Gates is perhaps not the most compelling or smartest character in the world, which is at a detriment to the story, whether it is an homage to The Third Man or not (side note: Orson Welles does make an appearance in the novel, as does John Huston via letter). While Flicker is in part a detective story (that takes about half of the book to get to), Gates spends the first half of the novel relying on one woman to teach him what he should think of film and film history. His obsession with Castle creates a break in this relationship, but he still trusts and relies on others too much, which is another factor in his downfall.


The character of Jonathan Gates may be a more modern take of Doctor Faustus. Gates does everything short of selling his soul to the Devil to acquire more knowledge on a single film director. It takes him around the world, and in the end, he loses what little he had to begin with. Like Faustus, Gates does not use his knowledge to benefit himself in any way. Although he is able to sleep with every woman he encounters, whereas Faustus is only given that option (such as it was in the sixteenth century), his friends encourage him to use his knowledge and his stature as an expert on this one director to gain tenure at UCLA, yet he continues this obsession because he thinks he can write a book once he figures everything out. His friends know that this obsession is going to lead to Gates’ end, and that according to the majority of the characters in this novel, searching for Castle’s films may not be the noblest cause to begin with. The main question Flicker seems to ask is if film has the ability to mask evil images and ideas either layered under the film’s main image in the print or within a film’s flicker, and if these “evil” images and ideas hidden within films can cause evil in people or in the world. Of course, this question is never resolved.


A stereotypical Robinson Crusoe device is used for the ending. It is a somewhat pampered Crusoe device, but a device nonetheless. Although I guess there are only so many ways to end a novel that heavily concerns conspiracy theories attached to a secret religion, but placing the narrator on an island is not the most compelling ending.













Flicker seems to have had an influence on a few films that have come out in the past few years. Cigarette Burns, one of the episodes in the first season of the television series Masters of Horror, concerned a young and troubled repertory film theater owner and his commissioned search for a film only screened once because it caused an entire audience to go insane and burn down the theater it was being screened in at a film festival. The search for the film of course leads the man on a dangerous path. Directed by John Carpenter, Cigarette Burns is both the most worthwhile episode in the Masters of Horror series and possibly the only worthwhile film Carpenter has made in the past 10-15 years. As a side note, Cigarette Burns was one of the first episodes of the 2-3 season series (at least if you count its major network-spinoff show Fear Itself), however, Masters of Horror got progressively worse from the end of its first season and into its second season. Carpenter’s second season episode, Pro-Life, is completely awful and preposterous. The recent DVD release The Hills Run Red follows a documentary film student and his friends as they try to hunt down the director and a print of a horror film called The Hills Run Red. The film was only screened once, immediately banned, and all prints were thought to be destroyed. While the first 45 minutes or so of The Hills Run Red are interesting in that it tries to subvert the typical horror film tropes, it fails in that the last 30-45 minutes return to other horror film tropes. It’s a shame really because the film, the film-within-the-film, and the film-within-within-the-film feature the creepy slasher Babyface. But The Hills Run Red and the documentary film inside of it do not focus on Babyface, and instead try to make the first two films a character drama, and a somewhat weak one at that. None of the characters are written or developed well enough to affect the audience when bad things start happening to them. This means that the filmmakers stuck to the biggest horror trope of them all. Not that sticking with Babyface would have likely been much better, but he was perhaps the only pitiable character in the films. Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Inglorious Basterds shares a theory that Flicker puts forth. Lt. Archie Hickox (played by Michael Fassbender), the British soldier and film critic espouses the theory that while German Expressionist films of the 1920s reflected German’s damaged psyche post-WWI, it also weakened them and allowed the rise of Hitler. Of course, Flicker adds to it that secret images and messages may have been added to these films to allow that.


What Jonathan Gates and the protagonist of The Hills Run Red have in common in that both seem to pursue their obsessions with their one “lost” film director as a hope that in the end, they will also find themselves. While this idea is directly expressed by the protagonist in The Hills Run Red, we’re not given enough background on him for it to be compelling or valid. The same idea is not directly expressed in Flicker, but it would make sense for a person like Gates, who basically spends half of the book in the shadow of a smarter and eventually more successful woman, to attach himself to a cause so he can find himself and achieve his own success. Gates really does not have much of a personality, is not very bright, and it is frankly hard to accept him as a character to follow for 600 pages.


When Jonathan Gates compares himself to Holly Valens, Joseph Cotten’s character in The Third Man, it is not a totally correct assessment. Holly’s quest in The Third Man is yes, naïve, but almost completely unselfish. He wants to clear his old friend’s name. Even when his old friend turns out not to be an upstanding citizen, Holly does what is considered the moral thing. Valens has his own career, and has not seen his friend Harry Lime for several years when The Third Man opens. Throughout the story, it is his intention to be the good old moralistic American hero in the film, not to find himself. Holly has the elements of being a lost man-child, although on the surface he is too old and too well-dressed for it by modern standards. He comes to Vienna for a job with Harry, although what sort of job is not revealed until much later. His only reason for seeking work is probably because he is bored with writing cheap pulp western novels, and because he misses his old friend. This displays a sharp contrast of the men and young men in Flicker and The Hills Run Red. The Third Man takes place after the end of World War II. Flicker opens in the late 1950s while Gates is in college, and American culture is changing just as much as film culture, with each affecting the other and vice versa (although Roszak does not acknowledge this). Film criticism, especially post-war European criticism is beginning to be taken seriously, and film studies programs are opening up at universities. Within a decade, it is okay for people to say things like “I’m trying to find myself.” Cut to almost a decade into the new millennium, and a young person’s search for the self becomes intertwined with the mega nerdy fanboy era and the need to discover and revive the most obscure film objects for glory and a place in obscure film history books, or at least Wikipedia. Reviving lost art, literature, and film is nothing new and often results into the formerly lost works becoming canon, especially if the works were by a member of a marginalized group of people (i.e., not white heterosexual males). Flicker, first published in 1991, predates the meteoric rise of director Quentin Tarantino, a man who has almost single-handedly revived obscure genre films and brought them to the public, albeit usually indirectly. Besides his former Quentin Tarantino presents video series, just his endorsement of an ultra obscure film will cause a cheapo DVD boxed set to be produced by a company willing to cash in without providing quality DVD transfers, but wanting to cram as many supposed-Tarantino-endorsed films as possible onto 3-4 discs and sell them all in a boxed set for $15-20 at Best Buy. Finding and reviving these films are for a niche market. How would one find themselves in such a project? It shows how much the world has changed since the 1940s that one has the ridiculous combination of privilege, egotism, and naïveté to believe that they can discover who they are by trying to uncover a “lost” film or director.


What Flicker merely touches on, and Cigarette Burns and Hills Run Red do not, is that it is normally works of art by marginalized peoples that become part of the canon after they have been rediscovered. Max Castle is somewhat marginalized because of his ancient, obscure, and secretive religion, and his religion’s dark influence over his films. But part of the conspiracy Jonathan Gates is trying to uncover in the novel is the Orphans of the Storm’s attempts to use film as a way to make their views become mainstream, and Gates’ work on Castle, conspiracy aside, does allow Castle’s work to become somewhat canon, even if on a cult level. Since all of the protagonists in these three stories succeed in their individual goals at a terrible price, these stories imply that searching for “lost” films for purely selfish or egotistical reasons is a path to destruction on its own, nevermind the films.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Notes on Jennifer's Body (2009)...

Repost from 2010.

Dir. Karyn Kusama (written by Diablo Cody) || 2009 || USA


Preface, Part I:
I could go on about how Jennifer's Body was much maligned before and during it's release last fall, by both the horror community and its subsect, the feminist horror community, but frankly, I was too busy studying 16th century British plays last fall to pay attention to blogs, or go to the movies very often. I think I was only paying attention to womenandhollywood.com's coverage because I thought it would be interesting. Melissa Silverstein is a feminist film marketeer and critic who tends to promote and review films I would never see in my life if I can help it (Katherine Heigl romantic comedies, most modern romantic comedies). But she actually wrote a favorable review of the Jennifer's Body and was confused when the film didn't do well. I know enough to understand that Jennifer's Body was not a well-marketed movie. For more information on the plot of the movie, go to Final Girl. For more information on how off-base it was for the horror community to dismiss Jennifer's Body, go to And Now the Screaming Starts.

Preface, Part II:
I am titling this post "Notes on Jennifer's Body" because I really do not have the time or energy to write a proper review, essay, or treatise on this film. I'm just going over the more interesting aspects. I will likely be responding to the posts made by Stacie at Final Girl and C at And Now the Screaming Starts, so I am encouraging everyone to read those posts first, since I'm not going to go over the plot of the film too much.


With a bullet, number one, kill the family, save the son
I left a comment at And Now the Screaming Starts about how a satanic emo or indie band would not be entirely off-base if Diablo Cody knew much about the indie music scene. There are stories of a couple of indie bands whose singers have raped or assaulted women and have more or less gotten away with it. One band in particular, these stories came out about 15 years ago in blurbs in national music magazines, and this band finally became popular about 5 years ago, complete with an iconic music video (I am leaving enough information to piece things together, y'all). Considering how 90s-centric Juno kind of was, and the obvious tip-off of the title of the film coming from a Hole song, I'd be surprised if Cody didn't know. There is even a scene where Needy tries to tell a classmate about how Low Shoulder are a bunch of creeps who actually didn't help anyone at the bar when it burned down, and her classmate basically replies that Low Shoulder are saints. People get really defensive about their favorite bands, and "indie" and/or emo bands tend to carry the stereotype of either not being sexist (or portraying themselves as such) and/or basically being wimps to the point where no one ever thinks they could do anything wrong, especially physically harming someone (or again, portraying themselves as such, considering a lot of indie band singers sound like whiny eunuchs).

Low Shoulder's reason for wanting to be successful is like any other band's: they don't want to work in coffeeshops anymore. But what is funny about this is that when the singer tries to convince his bandmate that sacrificing Jennifer is the way to go, he asks "Do you want to work in a coffeeshop or be Maroon 5?" I'm not sure if this, combined with the fact that Adam Brody is doing an impersonation of Brandon Flowers from The Killers (in both looks and moves), is supposed to be some sort of commentary on the term "indie" being just another marketing ploy, since neither Maroon 5 or The Killers were ever considered indie. Hell, it was that way 20 years ago, and it wasn't too different in this past decade. The casting of Adam Brody as Low Shoulder's singer is either perfect stunt casting or unintentional genius, since it was both the actor and his character on The O.C. who caused some "indie" bands to become so popular in the 00s. He's actually spot-on and menacing as a douchebag in a band.

In a twist opposite of the recent stories of bands whose shows resulted in fires that killed people, Low Shoulder becomes successful instead of failures involved in years of litigation (it is never fully implied that they started the fire but they were at least expecting it to happen - the whole scene at the bar is weird, between Jennifer becoming increasingly hypnotized during the band's performance, and the singer just strolling out with a drink from the bar after the girls get out of the fire). However, in a sort of Tales from the Crypt-ian twist, their success is somewhat short-lived after Needy, now partially demonized herself after her final fight with Jennifer, is successful in her revenge in killing the coked-up band in their hotel room. If the movie had gone on past that however, we likely would have found out that Low Shoulder became even more successful, because that's the way things are. Famous people are typically more successful and nearly sainted in death more than they were in life.

Bitter you, bitter me
As Stacie at Final Girl mentioned, the subplot of Jennifer terrorizing the town Devil's Kettle and Needy to try to maintain some sort of relevancy arrives too late in the film for much to be done with it. This is not a typical high school film where Jennifer terrorizes the other students for not being popular or pretty. While Needy tells Jennifer in their first fight that she was always a terrible friend, the only evidence we see of it is in the beginning where Needy tries on outfit after outfit to fit Jennifer's definition of "cute, but not cute enough to make me look bad" before they go see Low Shoulder. The only other way that this can be linked to the issue of relevancy is if you take C's take on why this was not a film where a girl was using her sexuality (and therefore, not the unfeminist film some people were making it out to be) - Jennifer maybe seduces one out of her four known victims, tops. Almost all her victims are confused and shaken boys in some manner - one from surviving the bar fire, the second a guy mourning the death of his best friend in the fire, and the fourth was just emotionally conned by Jennifer, and is reluctant and confused. It is a possibility that Jennifer's main target of terror was Needy. While Jennifer and Needy have a severely co-dependent relationship, Needy does have a boyfriend, and one other friend from school, and Jennifer kills them both. Jennifer seems to have no other friends but Needy. It is only when Jennifer realizes that Needy has more power over her than she does over Needy, and that Needy may genuinely not love her anymore that Jennifer is ready to surrender and die.

This is how the ending of the film comes as a surprise. In a typical horror film, it would have ended at Jennifer's death. But with Needy's newfound confidence and demon powers, she goes and exacts revenge to the band that ruined her and her friends' lives. She takes charge, and is the only one to throughout the entire film. I thought I would have a huge misgiving about the film stating in the beginning where Needy was and the story being told via flashback, but it was handled better than I thought it would be.

In some ways with the late relevancy subplot, it feels tacked on as though it is some sort of cautionary tale about the two women who star in the film. Megan Fox is not a terrible actress, especially not in this film, and even if she says stupid things from time to time in interviews, I kind of have to respect anyone who made it out alive after starring in two films with the black hole of charisma that is Shia Leboeuf. But considering the only successful films she has been in are the Transformers films, there is a relevancy issue with her career. Amanda Seyfried keeps a significantly lower profile than Fox, and is considered the more respectable actress, so she makes it out of the film and her post-Jennifer's Body career intact.

And yeah, I liked the film.

ETA 03/04/10: It is also possible that Cody was making a dig at the success of the Juno soundtrack when the singer calmly explains to Jennifer that the only way for indie bands to become popular now "is if they're on some shitty soundtrack!" As I stated in my Juno review two years ago, I am not one for twee cutesy acoustic music, but it was bizarre seeing a local record store mark up the what was likely a normally $5 self-released or Plan-It-X Records-released Moldy Peaches CD with a xeroxed black-and-white cover to $10-14 during the time of the soundtrack's popularity.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Crossed

Repost from 2010. This series is still going on, albeit under a mixture of authors and with subtitle/sequel titles attached. I believe Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows also occasionally still participate in the series.

Written by Garth Ennis || Illustrated by Jacen Burrows || Avatar Press || 2008-2010, 9 issues

My initial interest in the recently completed 9-comic book series Crossed is pretty much a case of "don't judge a book by its cover" gone awry. I first saw Crossed at a comic book store in Los Angeles last summer, but didn't pick up the series (which was at issue #6 at the time) because they didn't have the first couple of issues. It looked like an interesting zombie comic. By the time I got home, I had forgotten the name, and didn't get around to trying to piece it together until November. Once successful (fanwikis are useful) I ordered the back issues online and from my local comic book store. Before I got each of my orders, I found out that Crossed was probably going to be different from most zombie comics (for one, it's not really a zombie comic in the same way a lot of people will say 28 Days Later is not a zombie movie)

It was probably not good that I got into Crossed after finishing the 10-volume Y: The Last Man graphic novel series. The apocalypse scenario in Y was that a sudden plague outbreak killed all males on the planet at once, except for one male human and his male monkey companion. It's a good, compelling series. Crossed, on the other hand, seems to be Garth Ennis thinking, "let's think of something worse than zombies or the worst case scenario for the world to end". The "crossed" are infected humans who do the worst things in their mind to inflict on and infect other humans. Most of it involves rape, which is one of the ways one can become infected. Men, women, children, the elderly, it doesn't matter (even if children are mostly shown being murdered rather than raped). It also involves mass murder, but that seems to be mostly in the background. Other infected blow up a nuclear facility. So the infected can think, even if it is mostly centered around hunting down or hurting humans. It is never revealed how the infection came to be, and the infected are called the "crossed" because of the scabby series of marks on their faces that form a cross.

The series follows a group of survivors from a diner as they try to make it out to the northwest, then Alaska (under the assumption that there will be fewer infected there, and if there are any, they will freeze soon enough - you know, the obligatory Max Brooks reference). The main characters are a guy and a single mother who assumes the leadership position because she knows how to defend herself (mostly due to being the survivor of an abusive marriage). There is little-to-no character development until late in the series, and the comic is mostly vignettes of fucked up situations the survivors get into while trying to stay away from the crossed. The group's numbers dwindle issue by issue until there are only five left by the final issue. The only character I found compelling was the underused Kitrick, a man who had to see his family murdered by the crossed while he was swimming at the beach.

If I don't sound enthusiastic, it's because other than the artwork by Jacen Burrows, which is what attracted me to the comic in the first place, there is nothing to be excited about in Crossed; unless you really like new, nihilistic endgame scenarios. Once the shock wears off, there is really nothing much to the series. It pretty much ends with the biggest zombie movie cliche line ever, which is "they're us and we're them", it's as if Garth Ennis wanted to remind people of the pain that was Diary of the Dead, or every badly written academic article on zombie movies. He tried to proceed the cliche with an explanation that the infected were the rapists, pedophiles, and terrorists of the world, but that was a gross disregard of his own work and the initial premise and setting of the story, especially when contrasted against Burrows' covers for the series, which depicted people being attacked by the infected in everyday situations (fast food joints, high school, police stations, airplanes). The series does not play well with what it seems to want to say, which is that all humans are capable of evil, regardless of whether they were good or bad people before this infection struck. It wavers on the subject quite often, but abandons it almost altogether late in the series, especially as the survivors become followed by one group of the crossed.

The collected volume of Crossed is supposed to come out in the next couple of months, if Avatar Press can stick to the deadline, which was another problem with this series coming out in a timely manner. The series will apparently continue under a new writer and artist soon.

Postscripts:
- And I really need to learn not to stick with things after I learn how awful they are. The casual optimism of "oh, maybe it will get better" gets me nowhere everytime.

- There should also be a moratorium on using the line "they're us and we're them" and any variations thereof in all forms of writing on zombies and other formerly human creatures. Any sort of writer who uses it will get smacked with an automatic "F- -".

Update 03/14/10: Courtesy of a comment someone from Avatar Press left: the collected volume of Crossed should be in stores by April. My local comic book store is already taking pre-orders for the new series Crossed: Family Values, which I think is due in May.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Picture of Dorian Gray (2004?)

Repost from 2010, when I was working on my undergrad thesis on the film adaptations of The Picture of Dorian Gray.



Dir. David Rosenbaum || 2004 || USA(?)

If you can withstand the first two minutes of the 2004 film The Picture of Dorian Gray without having to reach for whatever alcohol is handy, you are a stronger person than I am. This makes Pact with the Devil look like a masterpiece. The film tries to set the story in the mid-20th century with some vague notion that the Gray family was inherently cursed because Dorian's grandfather created the atom bomb. This notion is only vaguely and occasionally followed through in the film. The acting is horrible across the board, with the actors reciting lines from the novel in a wooden and unintentionally hilarious manner, as evidenced in the video above. The film becomes tedious within the last half-hour, when the fun and alcohol wear off. Unlike most of the other Dorian Gray adaptations, which at least make a point to either subtly or unsubtly point out Dorian's pansexuality, this adaptation's take on it is to mostly make Dorian a heterosexual cad ("I spoiled your bride on your wedding day!") involved in a hetero love triangle between the (female) painter Basil Ward and Harry Wotton; whilst having Josh Duhamel parade around in skimpy bikini briefs for 10 minutes of the film, with at least three of those minutes being shot over his ass while he's laying in bed. Also unlike the other adaptations which actually try to have the portrait done by a real artist on the production team, the painting in this one looks as though it was done by a first year art student whose strong suit is not painting. The degenerated portrait is pretty much James Cameron in a swimsuit (meant to be Dorian's grandfather, I think), not a hideous monster.

Unlike Pact with the Devil, or any other Dorian Gray adaptation, there is no good actor or interesting performance in the film to give comfort or make watching it somewhat worthwhile. Some people will want to watch this because of Josh Duhamel, but it's not a good reason because he is just as awful as all the other actors in this film. He's not even inoffensively passable, like he is in everything else he acts in. He even looks awful, with his badly dyed blond hair.

There is probably a lesson to be learned here, by the time I am done with this paper, since I generally avoid film adaptations of books. I get the feeling it's to just be happy when a film adaptation of a good novel is watchable at all. I think I am mostly happy that I did not choose the film adaptations of Dracula, which are numerous and are also likely to have more bad adaptations than good ones.

This version of The Picture of Dorian Gray is only available on Youtube, via the playlist of favorite movies of what is likely a 15-year-old girl. After the conclusion of the movie, it goes immediately into a 3-year-old video preview of the Twilight film adaptation with some commentary, which I imagine is hell for some people, but was actually a passive improvement for me to listen to while I stared off into space for a few minutes. This version of The Picture of Dorian Gray has never been properly released because it's awful or maybe because Josh Duhamel is rich enough now to have it suppressed, but you can occasionally find an overpriced DVD version of it on Ebay or at libraries.

(Apologies if this post isn't very coherent. I have fairly coherent notes and drunk texts to a friend that I made while watching this last night, but these posts are increasingly becoming an excuse to vent.)

(Adverbs, motherfucker!)

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Padackles, I love you, but you're bringing me down. Also, if you keep this up, I'm really leaving you for Doctor Who.

Repost from 2010.

The Christmas Cottage (a.k.a Thomas Kinkade's Home for Christmas)
Dir. Michael Campus || 2008 || USA (seriously, what did you expect, does any other country have a guy who calls himself "The Painter of Light"?)

Devour
Dir. David Winkler || 2005 || USA


There needs to be some sort of Oracle-like Twitter or Facebook page that tells you in 140-160 characters just how bad a movie is before you watch it. It could say that a film is "worse than stepping in dog shit while you're already late for work, but not as bad as watching the cast of The Room simulate sex" (or vice versa, depending on your taste) and other vague things that would at least give an idea what one is in for when they watch certain films. Yeah, there is Google and reading blogs, but having something that could be sent as text message moments before you hit "play" is best. At the very least it would serve as an indicator of how many breaks you would have to take while watching the movie, or how much alcohol may be required to get through it. It would take a mass effort, and some sort of database, but someone should make this happen.

In stupid whims to best some of my more stupid and masochistic whims, for Bad Movie Night at my house, I watched The Christmas Cottage and Devour back-to-back because they star Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles from Supernatural. I knew these films would be bad going in, and neither of these guys have great track records in their forays into film (Padalecki's is a tad better, even if they're mostly horror remakes). I'm no apologist, and I'm certainly not one of those Stans that harbors insane delusions that I'm going to marry them or that they're going to marry each other. Supernatural is a highly entertaining show and Padalecki and Ackles are very pretty men, and that's about as far as my interest goes.

I'm not sure much can be said about The Christmas Cottage. The Christmas Cottage is a film based on a Thomas Kinkade painting, or his life, or something. It falls somewhere between a wacky comedy about a quirky small town and your average Christmas movie that's about finding the true meaning of Christmas with a large dose of "we gotta save the *(insert structure here)*!". I think almost everyone but Padalecki and the people with actual acting honors were told that this was a comedy, and it sometimes seems as if the scenes were shot around Padalecki due to the high angle-reverse-angle shot and montage ratio. Marcia Gay Harden, Peter O'Toole and Ed Asner are there to give the film some sort of gravitas, but any attempts at gravitas or sentiment just makes things worse. There are so many subplots in this movie that after 20 minutes, it's not worth keeping up with.

The only scene of any worth is below, in a video response shot by Dustin Rowles of pajiba.com, and who provides his own laugh track. This is why Ackles is the only one who is allowed to cry in the Pretty Man Tears/"hell, let me tell you about my time there" scenes in Supernatural these past couple of seasons, while Padalecki just looks constipated.




Devour is something else, and I mean that in the most sarcastic and borderline abusive way possible, because this is a less watchable film than The Christmas Cottage. Someone should have informed Jensen Ackles that it's never a good sign when your co-stars are Shannyn Sossamon without her trademark short and sassy haircut, Dominique Swain, and a guy who looks like the result of Willie Aames, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Brad Dourif's spliced DNA; ergo, making Ackles the best looking person in the film. The plot of the film itself is the spliced DNA of The Omen and the numerous horror films about video games, websites or software that are evil and want to control you and make you question your reality (eXistenZ, Stay Alive). Like most films about evil video games, websites, or software, the filmmakers have nothing to say about the matter really and instead pull the "you're the son of Satan" card with some equally weak add-in about free will and a twist ending that revolves around incest. Instead of you know, maybe formulating an idea about why the film's particular video game, website, or software is evil or perhaps an allegory about how video games, the internet, or software may be evil in general, if you really want to try to state such a thing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Crazy Theory #8: Ghostbusters as a Metaphor for Koch Era NYC


Last year for my Cinematic Urbanism class, I chose NYC to write about for my final paper. It was not until almost very late in the semester that I chose to write on Born in Flames after realizing No Wave Cinema was not going to pan out due to inaccessibility of most of the films. I briefly flirted with using the more mainstream films of 1970s and 1980s NYC in my paper, including Ghostbusters.*

I conducted some historical research into the Koch era of NYC beginning in the mid-1970s when everything was rather bad and the US government declined to help financially save the city that was on the brink of bankruptcy. NYC began to see some reversal in the early 1980s. But you still see how bad it was in films** - the city did not prevent these films to be made, sort of under the guise of "any publicity is good publicity". Wolfen (1981, Dir. Michael Wadleigh) was shot in the Bronx after a large portion of it was burnt down (primarily by landlords or pyromaniacs hired by landlords) and the borough's destruction becomes a part of the film: 

A shot of the Bronx from Wolfen (1981).

Ghostbusters was released in 1984, or thirty years ago this month. Stories have been told, particularly after Harold Ramis' death in February, about how he helped Dan Akroyd scale the film down so it would have a more reasonable budget and therefore more studio support. The film was originally supposed to take place in space in the future, instead of then-modern day NYC. Perhaps partially due to the fact that Ghostbusters was filmed in NYC as well as a soundstage in Los Angeles, the audience is never shown how rough NYC was or looked, even as it was in the beginning-middle stages of being cleaned up. The Ghostbusters somehow never leave Manhattan, nor do they venture to Times Square or 42nd Street - which were filled with porn theaters at the time, because Ghostbusters is a family film. But their work appears to be a metaphor for the clean up NYC was in the midst of during the film's production and release. They are cleaning out the past to make way for a future for the city (or arguably, the ghosts are the have-nots). This is alluded to in one of the perkier MOR songs on the soundtrack with the line "the Ghostbusters are back here, cleaning up the town, oh yeah!" The only allusion given to the aesthetic state of the city is when Egon says the future Ghostbusters HQ is in "a demilitarized zone." 

But of course the clean up job turns out to be much bigger than anticipated, particularly after the government (the EPA) steps in and releases all the ghosts that they have caught. Despite perhaps only having no more than 6 blocks of the city destroyed by the end of the film, mostly due to the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man exploding, we find out that the city and state blamed the Ghostbusters***. By the release of the second film, when the clean-up of the city was a success (and maybe a handful of years before the "Disneyfication" of Times Square), the Ghostbusters are not needed anymore. It is hard to say whether they are there to remind the city to not forget its past, including the past buried in NYC's infrastructure, or to remind the city to come together in the face of adversity.  

* If this post seems a bit stilted, it's because it's somewhat impossible to write about the one film I have seen the most times in my life. I used to watch Ghostbusters obsessively as a child, and I still watch it a few times a year as an adult. 
** While there is a coffee table book released within the past 5 years on NYC in films, I do not know if it chronicles the rougher Koch era much. You can see the issues in not only in Taxi Driver and Wolfen, but in The Warriors, Street Trash, C.H.U.D., Smithereens (and Desperately Seeking Susan to a lesser extent), Lucio Fulci's The New York Ripper, Frank Henenlotter's films from this period (Basket Case, Frankenhooker, Brain Damage), and you can see the porn districts in Bette Gordon's film Variety. The documentary Blank City features clips from No Wave films and early Jim Jarmusch films shot in the mid-1970s-early 1980s. Escape from New York was primarily filmed in St. Louis, which also had some trouble during the same period.
*** Okay, maybe I am underestimating the destruction. This simulation video released this week demonstrates the amount of damage the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man would do in terms of zones. The maximum impact zone would be 4-6 blocks, while the total impact area appears to be 24 blocks of Manhattan.


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Crazy Theory #6: You're Next and Its Ugly, Undeveloped Idea

Promotional street art for You're Next apparently from the Midnight Madness screenings at Toronto International Film Festival. Also: a perfectly good discarded waffle.

SPOILERS because this movie is a few months short of having been out for a year, not counting festivals.

I only went to see You're Next in theaters last summer because a couple of friends wanted my opinion on it. I am not much for home invasion horror, and yet I managed to see this and The Purge last summer for the same reasons. I am not sure that I found either film that interesting or remarkable. If you have seen Twitch of the Death Nerve or Intruder, you have seen You're Next. The only interesting thing about You're Next is the simultaneously explicit and implicit idea that at least one of the children supported the murders because if their parents and most of their siblings were dead, they would inherit enough money to pay back their student loans, as well as the student loans belonging to their girlfriend. Granted, one of the characters already has become a disgrace in his young academic career because he became involved with his girlfriend while she was his student. But the murder for inheritance-for student loan payoffs is an interesting, if ugly and fairly undeveloped idea for a movie with a sea of undeveloped characters. Why no films have been made about generational resentment, I have no idea.

I cannot really discern if most horror films from the past 4-5 years have really have been confronting modern economic issues that well, if at all. But I have increasing trouble paying attention to more recent horror films because very few interest me or appeal to me. Drag Me to Hell is perhaps the most explicit and in the moment, while the first Paranormal Activity film is more implicit about the lending and housing crisis, despite its being made right before the collapse. Sinister's story hinges on the housing crisis at the beginning and end to some extent, but it is not a driving force (although this may be arguable). The reoccurring flashback sequences in Oculus occurs at least 5 or 6 years before the housing and job crisis. American Mary used tuition payment issues as the catalyst, but it is never explicitly stated that it was for student loans, because Mary was still a student and you do not have to pay your loans back while in school. The currently limited release of Cheap Thrills also appears to be confronting the job and housing crisis. I will not lament the issue much, although horror has the reputation for being at the forefront of criticizing modern issues.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Ring (2002) and Its Prediction of Viral Media


I recently re-watched The Ring (2002, dir. Gore Verbinski) for the first time in about ten years because a friend is using it in his thesis on surveillance films. io9 recently ran a discussion post on what films could never be made today, and several people listed The Ring. Granted, it appears that some filmmakers in Japan, Ringu/The Ring's country of origin, have recently tried to place the story into 2014 with a "reboot" of the series. 

I do not necessarily believe that a film like The Ring could not be made today, but what I noticed upon my recent viewing is how it does exist in a certain weird time period in regards to technology. It also seems to predict viral media in a way, while at the same time functioning as an actual virus on some level.

The technology in The Ring exists in a time right before technology became more compact, or more functional. The video itself is on a VHS tape, not DVD. The characters have flip phones, but in their brief use at various points of the film, they almost seem foreign and they definitely cannot get a signal once on the island where Samara originated. The characters still have home phones, whether cordless or not. Rachel (Naomi Watts) conducts her research both in libraries or archives as well as on a computer.

The tape in The Ring functions as a normal biological virus would with the same imperative biological beings have - it has to replicate in order to survive. But where it goes horribly wrong is that if the viewer fails to replicate the tape, the viewer will die, not the virus/tape. The tape seems to exist with the confidence that it will never actually cease to exist, perhaps even predicting that it will continue to exist even as new viewing formats are invented and become popular. Samara's father seems to have an older, top-loading VCR (I mistook it for a Betamax player initially), so the tape began its rotation as home viewing technology became easily accessible. If somehow the series was perpetuated in sequels into the 2010s, there is no reason to disbelieve that the video would be online, or co-existing with physical media as well.

The Ring also came out sort of right at the beginning of viral media – preceded by The Blair Witch Project and its viral marketing campaign in 1999, but the only other sort of “viral” media I can think of or remember around that time are those images of 9/11 that circulated but were also doctored to feature things like Satan’s face in the smoke/dust of the buildings. So The Ring is predicting the uptick of viral media in a way, just making it biological on some level and deadly. Either that or it’s predicting creepypasta, which, like The Ring, exists in a realm that incorporates both urban legends and technology.

PS - The separate issue in this film is the presentation of what are essentially experimental film and Surrealist aesthetics as horror. This is not exactly the first film to do it, I just find it kind of amusing. Because this film was so popular, I like to think that it was the gateway to experimental films for some people.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Crazy Theory #4: Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4 as Superhero Origin Story



I think between my research a couple of years ago and the documentary Never Sleep Again, in my mind, the Nightmare on Elm Street series has kind of built itself up as the only respectable slasher series. It was consistently trying different things within the confines of slasher sequels, while also having an almost enclosed narrative because it rather smartly stuck to one town or one circle of people. Within the enclosed narrative, only maybe parts 2 and 6 were somewhat jettisoned out of the entire Nightmare narrative to various extents, because Nancy was not linked much in those films. Nancy exists in a sort of off-screen space in 2, with the new inhabitant of her room finding her diary. When she returns for part 3 and later dies after teaching the kids that their "superpowers" within their dreams can help defeat Freddy, she still manages to become the link to the fourth and fifth films. 

Part 4 quickly jettisons the remaining survivors of Part 3, who have returned to relatively normal teenage, high school lives. Kristen manages to call her friend Alice into her dream right before she dies. Alice then gains Kristen's power. As each of her friends and her brother begin to fall victim to Freddy, she gains their skills or powers. Her brother was into karate, her above-pictured friend was into weightlifting, another friend is highly skilled in science and can create tools out of simple objects. Alice becomes the only person who can defeat Freddy with her superpowers and release the souls of her friends and his other victims. Essentially, the film is a sweet story about how your loved ones never really die wrapped in a superhero origin story. This is not to say this storyline is maintained into the fifth film exactly, but it's an interesting experiment for the fourth Nightmare film.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

(Film) books, check 'em ouuuuuuuuut!

Repost from 2011, pre-grad school days. I re-read the two middle books at least twice during the course of my graduate education. The nitpicking may still stand, but I can discuss the theoretical issues with the two books pretty well when I want to.
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Here are some of the film books I was reading a month or so ago. Other than the Jonathan Lethem book, I felt the need to start out with some classics and basics

Feminist Film Theorists (Routeledge Critical Thinkers Series) - Shohini Chaudhuri
I think the number one thing I learned from this book is of the divide in early feminist film criticism that was American (sociological) versus British (psychological). And for the most part, this book puts forth the more psychological theorists. It's a minor fact, but it sort of explains why I do not absorb the psychological aspects too well. I was very close to minoring in sociology during various points in college as well. This book is mostly good as a starting point, but not much else.




Games of Terror: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the Films of the Stalker Cycle - Vera Dika
This was released roughly a year before Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Clover's book is more in-depth. Dika has some fleeting good ideas and it's not too bogged down with psychological theories; but it's a basic book that monotonously outlines the monotony of slasher/stalker films by discussing the plots of about a dozen films; in particular the Jamie Lee Curtis ouevre. Dika's jumping off point is Psycho, but from there she goes straight to Halloween, while only giving passing and brief references to Peeping Tom and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. My problem with this book and Clover's book is that it skips over Black Christmas. I do not know the history of Black Christmas past what Wikipedia tells us, and it wasn't a film I remember seeing around often in video stores when I was a kid and teenager. Was Black Christmas that obscure? Did Dika ignore it because it was Canadian or because it had an experienced cast in John Saxon, Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea; a post-Sisters, pre-Superman Margot Kidder, and a pre-SCTV Andrea Martin? Peeping Tom, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Black Christmas do not completely fit in the checklist of plot occurrences that Dika outlines for the films she discusses in this book, but neither does Psycho. By and large, The Burning seems to be more obscure than Black Christmas, yet that film receives a section in this book.

Other issues I had with this book: the frequent misspellings and typos. She misspells Steven Spielberg's name quite often. It was also hard to tell whether or not Dika was approaching these films from a feminist POV (and then a feminist POV as to whether or not slasher films can be feminist). And the way she used a Freudian binary system to declare characters as valued or devalued did not sit well with me. It's not a terrible book, but it has some issues that made me twitch.


Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film - Carol J. Clover
I have read this book twice now and in regards to the first book I reviewed in this post, I am perhaps still finding trouble absorbing most of the psychological criticism in this book. The only thing I feel as if I better absorbed this time around was the chapter on possession films and the chapter on the sort of meta horror films that concern viewing horror films (Peeping Tom, Demons). I did check out a lot of the films mentioned since having first read this book in 2006, like the oft-mentioned Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and I Spit on Your Grave. In fact, I checked out so many of these films that I could parse out some of Clover's mistakes (wrong dates, the implication that Motel Hell was inspired by Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 when Motel Hell was released six years before that sequel - also TCM2 is a terrible movie and I don't understand why anyone would want to write at length about it). I can't get too mad at Clover about them though, because for one thing, she's an expert in something like Nordic history. Film is not her primary academic interest, although the dates thing bugs me a bit because most VHS boxes back in the day did have dates on them, and it's not that hard to figure out dates from the roman numerals on copyrights at the end of films. And again, nary a word on Black Christmas, although at least Clover does cover Peeping Tom extensively. Also, for better or for worse, I can't shake off the fact that it is acknowledged by Clover herself in the Afterword that the writer of Slumber Party Massacre 3 changed the story significantly after reading the first chapter of her book, which was released in an academic journal in 1987; making for that film's ugly and brutal third act three years later.


Proof of my marginalia in Men, Women, and Chainsaws.




Deep Focus #1: A Novel Approach to Cinema: They Live - Jonathan Lethem

They Live is the first book in a new series of books published by Soft Skull press that allows fiction writers to discuss their favorite films. I haven't read any other books in the series yet, so I don't know if all the other writers take the same approach as Lethem. Lethem writes about John Carpenter's They Live on a almost shot-by-shot or scene-by-scene basis, each with a timecode reference. Some scenes receive only a paragraph of discussion, others receive up to four pages. It took me awhile to get used to this approach as I was sort of expecting something akin to the short books the British Film Institute publishes on films (although it is mostly film critics and academics who write those) that are long essays or treatises on a certain film. But after getting used to Lethem's approach, I found that he does have some interesting things to say about They Live, especially in connection to the art of Jenny Holzer and Shepard Fairey.