30 September 2012

a scarcity of wirgins.

14. Andy Warhol's Dracula (1974)
[a.k.a. Blood for Dracula]

If there's a yin to the yang of Tod Browning's 1931 Dracula, it might just be Andy Warhol's Dracula—which, as you probably expect from any film bearing Warhol's imprimatur, doesn't blunder accidentally into campiness but rather sets out with that destination in mind. Although the film is approximately in English, the cast includes only two native English speakers, prototypal 'beefcake' Joe Dallesandro and former British model Maxime de la Falaise. Vittorio de Sica, Italian director of cinematic classics Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves, and Umberto D., turns in an almost completely undecipherable performance as an impoverished aristocrat who wishes to marry one of his daughters to Count Dracula. (Also, watch for a cameo by a mustachioed Roman Polanski in the tavern.) But the primary role of the hapless vampire is taken up by perhaps the ne plus ultra of cult film actors Udo Kier, whose credits range from the films of Lars von Trier and Dario Argento to Madonna's 'Deeper and Deeper' music video and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective

Apparently, a lot had happened in the world since Browning's lumbering classic; in 1974, tits and asses and hyperbolic gore were now fair game for the big screen—and thank you, sweet Jesus, for that!—because we sure as hell needed something to spice up this tired-ass, color-by-numbers vampire story. Director Paul Morrissey, who was responsible for just about all of Andy Warhol's full-length feature films, forsakes any attempt at genuine horror, preferring instead the comic-absurdist route, as we follow the twentieth-century Dracula's ill-fated quest to locate a virgin (or 'wirgin' as the actors have it) in this era of declining sexual inhibition. Whenever the count inadvertently drinks the blood of a non-virgin (or 'hoooor' as the actors have it), he becomes violently ill, vomiting blood and gasping for air. (Yeah, it's a strange kind of morality tale, ain't it?)

This is what happened. Andy Warhol was the hands-on creator of his films before the attempt on his life by Valerie Solanas in 1968—after which time he farmed out the cinematic works to Factory denizen Paul Morrissey. Here's Ron Edelman's punches-not-pulled take on Morrissey's talents and artistic merit (courtesy of filmreference.com):
The pre-Morrissey Warhol films may be far removed from the mainstream; nonetheless, Warhol attempted to commercialize his projects, but did so on his own terms. There is an art and integrity to these films. Morrissey, meanwhile, was more of a packager than an artist. He wanted to concoct a formula that would make the films more mainstream. That formula consisted of imbuing them with a more orthodox cinematic structure, creating more conventional plot lines, and capitalizing on the Warhol name by slapping it on the finished product. Morrissey's best films of the period may be absurdist classics and impertinent freak-show fun, but they are not art.
Ouch, right? Anyone familiar with my many bugaboos knows that I hate when critics try to use the word 'art' as certification of merit, to be either earned by or stripped from a given artistic creation. Art is a value-neutral term. It's not yours to award or withhold, asshole. Anything produced, assembled, or arranged by a human being as an act of creative endeavor is art. Period. Let's spend our time, instead, talking about whether it's good art or bad art and not simply depriving it of the status of deserving to be discussed seriously to begin with. When we say that a work of art isn't art at all, we dismiss it without actually reckoning with it in any thoughtful way. 

But let's leave all that aside for the moment, and draw our attention to the fact that this guy Edelman has (embarrassingly enough) missed the point of Warhol's art altogether. Commercialization, conventionality, and packaging were the very things that he was trying to get the world to notice as art! This isn't to say that Morrissey was good at what he did—which is a matter for a separate discussion—but it certainly underscores the absurdity of praising Warhol's 'art and integrity' while at the same time dismissing Morrissey's work out-of-hand for merely working toward the same ends.

In other words, THIS IS MOTHERFUCKIN' ART. And I kind of like it.

29 September 2012

count draculski.

13. Dracula (1931)

Béla Lugosi looks like a mafioso of yore or the man in the hairnet who works the counter at an ethnic delicatessen on the Lower East Side. One thing he does not look like, however, is a vampire. Ever since I was born, the pop cultural machinery has been working me over, trying to hoodwink me into believing that Lugosi is the archetypal Transylvanian vampire, but I just don't buy it. He's too paunchy, too hammy, and too old for my taste. If you're born of East European stock, as I am, you have about a dozen older relatives who look a lot like Lugosi—all of whom can't remember your name. They have drawers full of ketchup packets—even though they never use ketchup—and they still eat entire meals comprised predominantly of lard and horseradish. At Christmas get-togethers, they talk about two things: (1) all the distant relatives who are seriously ill, dying, or dead and (2) how the spades are overrunning their neighborhood and not taking care of their lawns. If you dare to get close enough to these men, you'll find they smell of mentholated ointment and, faintly, of sour milk. 

I'm just going to be honest here... Count Chocula is a more convincing vampire than Lugosi ever was. He uses less Grecian Formula and lipstick, and he's a subtler actor. Sometimes I felt that Lugosi wasn't even told this was a sound picture. I mean, he's really playing to the back rows in this thing. 

I don't know. I guess there comes a point in your life when you just have to accept the fact that vampires maybe aren't your thing. First Nosferatu—then Twilight—and now this... I guess any pervasive vampire-related dread is sort of counteracted by the knowledge that they're dormant during the daytime, fairly slow-moving and unathletic, and not terribly smart. Again, like many of my Polish relatives.

27 September 2012

hifalutin horror.

12. Hour of the Wolf (1968)

Yeah, yeah... I know. An Ingmar Bergman film is gonna be a tough sell to horror purists, and even I myself don't know if Hour of the Wolf is quite at home within the genre—but a film in which an old woman tears off her face, removes her eyeballs, and casually drops them into an etched crystal wine goblet deserves to be recognized (at least) as a not-too-distant cousin of the classic horror film. Hour of the Wolf is perhaps best described, like Roman Polanski's 1960s film Repulsion, as a psychodrama—in which the dawning insanity of a lead character is seamlessly blended with external reality, so that the audience eventually becomes disoriented and unable to distinguish which acts are imagined and which are the real but aberrant acts occasioned (in Shakespeare's turn of phrase) by a mind diseased

26 September 2012

pleasence: the man, the legend.

11. Raw Meat (1972)

Do you want to know why a majority of horror films end up being critically or commercially unsuccessful? Well, tough nuggets—I'm going to tell you anyway. You see, far too many horror movies today suffer from a dearth of Donald Pleasence. Lest you blame this unacceptable scarcity on Pleasence's death from heart failure in 1995, let me remind you that they are doing wonderful things with holograms these days. Just ask Tupac Shakur. Many youngsters brought up in the post-Pleasence era are woefully ignorant of a time in cinematic history when you immediately got Donald Pleasence on the horn if you needed a shrink, priest, or police inspector in your garden-variety horror film. If there was a mass murderer or deranged lunatic on the loose, you bet your ass Pleasence would be there. Goateed and scowling, he'd do all the boring cutaway scenes, when you needed a little breather from the tension or the gore, and he'd try his damnedest to lend the film a little artistic respectability with his crisp elocution and his ominous line deliveries. (Par exemple, from Halloween... Jamie Lee Curtis: 'Was that the boogeyman?' Pleasence [squinting, portentous]: 'Yes... as a matter of fact it was.')

Donald Pleasence starred in a total of five Halloween films. Surely only his death prevented him from appearing in any more. He also appeared in the horror films Phenomena by Dario Argento, Prince of Darkness by John Carpenter (previously discussed), From Beyond the Grave, Alone in the Dark, and this film—originally known as Death Line in England, its country of origin. I might go so far as to claim, however audaciously, that Donald Pleasence was the go-to straight-man of the modern horror film era. (I love being audacious.)

Pleasence turns in a wonderfully idiosyncratic performance in Raw Meat, which is (yes, unpromisingly) the tale of a cannibal, covered with countless large, pus-engorged sores, who lives in an abandoned subway tunnel in London and grabs a bite to eat from the buffet of the last train riders at the nearby Russell Square station. If you were hoping that Pleasence played the cannibal, I'm sorry. It wasn't meant to be—and that is not what Donald Pleasence does. He's the voice of reason—or the suited professional whose unfortunate job is to do battle with whatever form evil takes in a given film. It could be a cannibal with problem skin, a masked murderer, or even a canister of swirling green fluid. 

Appropriately then, in Raw Meat Pleasence handles the role of the grouchy, smart-ass police inspector, who initially suspects an American student in the recent disappearances from the station (for reasons too implausible to go into here). The film is really two films at once—the story of the cannibal's revolting life underground, amidst decomposing corpses and seeping bodily fluids, and the life above ground, where the inspector's investigation plods along, with no shortage of sardonic humor. Both halves of the film are somewhat effective—Pleasence's half more so than the cannibal's—but they are oddly incompatible. Watching Raw Meat is a lot like flipping between two channels on TV, without the physical effort required in the actual flipping—but at the end the two shows somehow merge, and it's disorienting. 

I have to hand it to Raw Meat though. There is some genuinely sickening stuff in this movie. You kind of think you get immune to gore in this day and age, when most slasher films are little else but a catalog of creatively grisly deaths, but Raw Meat's cannibal—covered with all variety of gaping sores and oozing boils—ends up scoring very respectfully on the gross-out meter, especially for 1972. You definitely want to make sure you're not eating pizza while you're watching this.

satan buys a leisure suit.

10. Phantasm (1978)

I will brook no dissent: the 1970s was by far the creepiest decade of the twentieth century. Almost everything committed to celluloid during those earth-toned, wash-and-go years seemed in danger of turning into a snuff film at the slightest provocation. Even films distributed by the major studios often had the grainy, grimy look of footage found in a dumpster behind the Days Inn off the interstate. Meanwhile, the increased prevalence of amateur filmmaking—coupled with the relative crudeness of the accompanying technologies—lent these pedestrian efforts a quality of eerie authenticity, more appropriate to the documentarian artifact than the polished narrative. 

But why limit ourselves to the cinematic realm for evidence of the decade's overall ickiness? From macramé owl wall hangings to butterfly shirt collars to the surprising popularity of the color 'rust'—the 1970s remade the whole world as a murky, cum-drenched, highly bacterial porn set. Shit-brown wall-to-wall carpeting and puke-green upholstery helped the average homemaker dissemble unsightly stains, resulting from discharged bodily fluids or other oozing contagions—while seemingly all the graceless luxury vehicles of the era traced their aesthetic ancestry to the hearse. As for fashions—the skin-tight sheaths of patterned synthetic-blends would probably survive a nuclear apocalypse, leaving the barren earth strewn with swaths of plaid rayon and pools of melted vinyl calf boots the color of rotting yams. 

So clearly any horror film made during the '70s has a leg up on the competition. That's just a fact. If you did a shot-for-shot remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre today, using all the modern technology and the crystalline digital photography, it would be completely castrated. (Sorry. I'm still thinking about I Spit on Your Grave for some reason.) It's the glossy, overprocessed quality of the contemporary horror film which has, in many ways, been its undoing. As we admire the production values and expensive artificiality of these films, we feel more and more alienated from them as a possible reality.

Phantasm exemplifies how a lo-fi '70s aesthetic can contribute to the pervasive eeriness of a film. Admittedly, the plot doesn't make a lot of sense. You've got an old, balding undertaker in a tight black suit and platform boots (known only as the Tall Man), some homicidal dwarves (who are indebted, sartorially speaking, to the Jawas), and—most famously—a little floating mirrorball that impales its victims and then drills a hole into their craniums, sending a fountain of blood through an excretory hole on its opposite hemisphere—for maximum showbiz effect, of course...

How this hodgepodge of disparate elements fits together into a single story about alien slave labor is beyond me—so I'm guessing that fussbudgets who demand internal consistency from their horror film mythologies will probably be very disappointed with Phantasm. If I were taking an essay test on the overarching rationale and the workaday specifics of the Tall Man's sinister plot, I think I would need to see a tutor pronto. Luckily, during much of Phantasm, I was too busy being creeped out to worry about what was actually happening. 

The film centers on the mysterious goings-on at the Morningside Funeral Home and its adjacent mausoleum. If you were unfortunate enough to visit a funeral home in the 1970s, then you know that this is the perfect intersection of time and place for a horror film setting... The heavy drapes, the dark woods, the chilly marbleized walls, the chalky-faced corpses—you can almost smell the cheap, gaudy floral arrangements from here, can't you? Only in the '70s could they find a flower the color of dried menstruation—and think it's pretty. In other words, a '70s funeral home is basically a nightmare factory waiting to happen. 

The main character of Phantasm is a pubescent boy named Mike (played by an 'actor' named Michael Baldwin). I was bothered by two things while watching this film: (1) the boy's ugliness—it's like taking an iron ingot to the eye—and (2) his resemblance to some other person, whom I couldn't quite place. After staring with great concentration at his repellent face through the first half of the movie, I had a sudden breakthrough when the Tall Man's severed finger turned into a giant furry insect and attacked his hair. ZOMG! He looks like Nellie Oleson! Nellie Oleson from Little House on the Prairie!

Imagine my disappointment, while searching for photos of Mike, to discover that the likeness had already been remarked upon by another blogger years ago! 

Yeah, whatever. I made the observation independently...

25 September 2012

have yourself a racist little christmas.

8. Sheitan (2006)

Sheitan ('Satan' in Arabic) is a strange little French horror film that's never fully committed to being a horror film until the last half hour or so. Until then, it meanders—at its own leisure—through a series of oddball sequences concerning three young douchebags named Bart, Thaï, and Ladj trying to score some pussy and two young women named Eve and Yasmine whose pussies happen to be the most ready-to-hand, for scoring purposes. Eve invites the group (or lures them, depending on your interpretation) to her parents' large manor house, secluded in the French countryside, and introduces them to Joseph, the grinning, demented groundskeeper at the estate—and eponymous demon—played (with obvious delight, I might add) by Vincent Cassel.

9. Sint [a.k.a. Saint Nick and Saint] (2010)

If you think that American horror movies have cornered the market on obnoxious, shallow, utterly repellent teenagers who deserve to die grisly deaths for the amusement and entertainment of others, then I've got a movie for you. Sint is the tale of a marauding St. Nick (with third-degree burns and a jaunty red miter) who rides around present-day Amsterdam on horseback killing teens and children to avenge being burned alive by angry villagers in 1492. As you might guess, this film isn't exactly Citizen Kane of slashers. In fact, it was so uninvolving that Sint became the first aborted viewing of the Halloween Film Fest. What's more interesting than the film itself, however, is the cultural education it afforded me: Did you know that, instead of elves, the Dutch yuletide mythology includes 'Black Petes'—which are demonic moors dressed in old-timey page costumes? I'm not making this shit up. So on or around St. Nicholas Day, many Dutch people walk around in blackface and red lipstick. (Wouldn't you like to see them try that in Compton?) 

24 September 2012


7. Prince of Darkness (1987)

When you assign yourself the task of watching as many horror films as possible, you have to expect that you're going to end up watching a lot of shit. After all, the horror film assembly line has never been known for its persnickety quality control. Practically anybody who can scrounge up some fake blood, a little atmospheric synthesizer music, and a few non-professional actresses willing to take their tops off is qualified to make a horror film by the prevailing industry standards. (Just troll through the Netflix horror selections some time if you don't believe me.) While we tend to be a little more forgiving of the amateur schmuck who—armed only with a hand-me-down video camera and a dream—tries his hand at movie-making, it's a little more difficult to wrap our minds around a complete turdburger of a movie when the director has shown he's capable of much better work.

Okay, I'm not saying John Carpenter is Stanley Kubrick or anything. I really haven't even watched many of his films made after 1980s—mainly because of the warnings I've received against them—but Halloween and The Thing are truly genre masterworks. (And despite my better judgment, I have to admit I also love The Fog and They Live.) So, as you can clearly see, we have sufficient evidence that John Carpenter is indeed capable of making a movie that isn't the evocation of drooling, finger-sniffing mental retardation...

And yet he directed Prince of Darkness. How exactly are we supposed to reconcile Carpenter's prior accomplishments with this story about a canister of swirling green fluid that sprays itself, bukkake-like, onto the faces of female grad students in order to prepare the way for coming of Satan? And the horrifying culmination of all this ominous music and apocalyptic foreboding ends up being this:

Yep, that's right. The Son of Satan manifests himself as a woman with damaged '80s hair in a Lands End henley shirt—who really, really needs to see a dermatologist. (Is anyone else having Pizza the Hutt flashbacks right about now?)  Yeah, I'll admit she's a little gross-looking—by the way, this is what happens when you pick your zits, kiddies—but my only genuine fear is that she might sit on my light-colored upholstery. (Doesn't it look like she's posing for a class photo? She's really gonna give the air-brusher a workout on this one.)

For some unknown reason, Satan has to jump through a bunch of procedural hoops before he can launch his comeback tour. (Apparently the metaphysical realm is over-regulated.) First, the woman pictured above has to bump her arm on a large piece of machinery, thus bruising her bicep. This bruise will gradually transform itself into some kind of ancient satanic symbol, marking her as the Prince of Darkness's chosen human vessel. Next, while the demonic host is simmering on the stove, a couple of young women will have their money shots with the canister of green fluid:

Oooooh, yeah, baby. You like that? You like that? Oh, yeah, baby, show me how much you like it. 

Evidently Satan's spunk is so delicious and nutritious that it turns women into his zombie slaves. (I can totally relate, Satan.) So the two of them schlep the canister up from the basement into the human host's bedroom, where the canister, for lack of anything better to do, starts dripping green fluid UPWARD onto the ceiling. (Did you hear me? It's dripping upward! Isn't that fucking terrifying?) Once the fluid has emptied onto the ceiling, it suddenly gushes down into the host's orifices—and that's when she turns into Freddy Krueger's kid sister. In between moaning and cackling—her two main hobbies, it seems—she makes her way to a large, conveniently-placed mirror through which she must pull Satan into this world before Donald Pleasence throws an ax at it, shattering it to bits. 

Maybe I just don't appreciate the pageantry of satanic tradition, but this sounds like an awful lot of legwork to accomplish what the Republican party has been doing for two decades—and with much less mess, I might add. 

23 September 2012

count shylock.

6. Nosferatu (1922)

I know that you're supposed to love classic silent films because they're, like, historical and artful and stuff, but holy shit! I was bored stiff by F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu. I guess that makes me a heathen—but I'll gladly live with that epithet if it means I'll never have to sit through this movie again. 

Wikipedia told me that Nosferatu was an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but since the novel was only thirty years old (and not in the public domain as it is today) the studio couldn't procure the rights, so they just changed all the names and a few of the details to avoid litigation. Count Dracula is now Count Orlok, who somewhat resembles a Nazi caricature of a greedy Jew. I guess Orlok is creepy-looking—kind of like your alcoholic middle school janitor—but he's a little over-the-top for my taste. You could almost imagine Charles Nelson Reilly in the role without too much adjustment. 

Nothing much happens in Nosferatu, to be honest. Count Orlok wants to move from his secluded castle to a fixer-upper in town so that he can be closer the smorgasbord of unbitten necks that an urban center provides. In the end, a virginal woman who lives across the street (who looks suspiciously like a man in a Scarlett O'Hara wig) lures Orlok to her room in the hope that he'll be so busy guzzling down her blood that he'll forget to take cover when the sun rises. 

The plan works. The end. 

22 September 2012

the art of voyeurism.

5. I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

Freudian slips are the worst. Remember that time in second grade when you accidentally called the teacher 'Mommy'? Your psyche will never let you live that one down. Or how about the time the Best Buy employee asked if there was anything she could help you find and you blurted out, 'Guilt-free, mutually-fulfilling coitus'? How embarrassing. What you meant to say was 'Steel Magnolias on DVD.'

I Spit on Your Grave is sort of a cinematic Freudian slip. I'm sure that writer-director Meir Zarchi imagines the film empowers women—because not only does it depict a brutal gang rape in a way that unequivocally sympathizes with the victim, but it also ethically sanctions and celebrates the victim's gruesome vengeance, which she summons her own psychological and physical wherewithal to achieve. On paper, this interpretation is very persuasive, and I have little doubt that this was probably Zarchi's conscious intention in making the film—but once a work of art leaves its creator's hands, it must speak for itself, without the aid of his rationalizations.

Yes, it's absolutely true: the rape scenes are graphic, disturbing, and not at all what a healthy viewer would find sexually titillating. The victim is crying out in terror, while four backwoods types—including one cartoonishly retarded man—hold her down, beat her, and rape her orally, vaginally, and anally. The attacks are episodic. She is attacked once, allowed to escape in the woods, attacked again, allowed to return to her cottage, and attacked a final time there. In between the assaults, the film stays with the victim, who is filthy, bloody, naked, and traumatized; she's gasping for air—she's crawling on the ground—she seems only technically alive.

But what exactly are we supposed to make of a film that dwells for approximately a half hour on a rape sequence? The same directorial impulse that draws out a scene of graphic violence in order to make the audience appreciate (in some small way) the horrific reality of these acts also inures us to this violence and provides us a safe psychological vantage from which to satisfy our voyeurism. 

It's similar to slowing down one's car to rubberneck at a gruesome accident scene. The conscious mind would certainly never admit that it takes pleasure in someone else's injury or death—but then again the conscious mind has nothing to do with it. It's the impulse itself that tells us everything we need to know.

I'm going to give the director Meir Zarchi the benefit of the doubt and assume he was not disingenuous in his intentions—in other words, that he did not try to rationalize the film's motivations in order to provide ethical cover for what is essentially a crass exploitation film. But again, what Zarchi tells the audience in interviews or press materials doesn't overrule what the film itself says. I Spit on Your Grave seems preoccupied with the rapes to an unsettling degree, so much so that they eclipse the (implausible) revenge scenarios in the second part of the film in both duration and cruelty. Also, the episodic assaults seem structured to elicit glib horror movie responses from the audience; for example, when the victim crawls back into the cabin and struggles to call for help, the movie cheats and places the rapists just outside the frame where the victim would clearly see them in order to surprise the audience when the phone is kicked out of her hand. 

Another major problem with characterizing the film as 'feminist' is that all the characters are complete blanks. The woman is only the victim/avenger. She fulfills no other role for the audience. We know nothing about her personality because she provides us with no evidence that she even has one. The film doesn't attempt to draw her as a fully-realized human being and then to make her a victim whom we can truly identify with; rather, she is merely a void, an empty shape, a place-filler, much like the anonymous names of crime victims we read about in the newspaper. This problematizes Zarchi's claim that he takes the woman's side in the film. The depersonalization of the victim actually encourages our voyeuristic pleasure in her attack because nothing is at stake. She's a concept, not a person. She's the Victim. She stands for victimhood like a symbol does—she gives shape to the crime but we really don't experience it through her.

21 September 2012

keep abortion safe and legal.

4. The Omen (1976)

Anyone who ever considers having a child—and thereby further burdening our already overtaxed natural resources in order to gratify his genetic egotism—should bear in mind the possibility that his newborn child could be murdered in an Italian hospital and replaced with the Antichrist. This will then lead to a whole series of unfortunate events, likely culminating in the father's awkward attempts to impale his adopted demonic son on a church altar with ritualistic daggers he's procured from a bearded mystic in Jerusalem. 

Just think. If you and your (poor dead) wife had just left well enough alone, you could be sipping Mai Tais in Negril, Jamaica, and blowing your kid's college fund on a new hot tub instead of thwarting the forces of pure evil in your golden years. 

I guess I understand wanting to have children so that you have little servants around who can do the dishes and work in the coal mines to supplement the family income—and there's also a certain appeal in avenging the wrongs inflicted upon you by your parents on a new generation of victims—but on the whole, it seems like a lot of work (and a lot of money down the shitter). 

While an enjoyable film for the most part, The Omen is a little too ridiculous to be considered truly scary, so I prefer to think of it as just a PSA on the dangers of parenthood. I watched the interview with Richard Donner (the director) in the DVD supplements, and he seems to think that this film isn't about supernatural goings-on, but rather about the mental dissolution of the parents—who are undone by the father's initial deception. Donner, in other words, is full of shit. He obviously doesn't want to think of his 'great' work as a schlocky horror film with a TV-movie sensibility. In his egomaniacal delusion, The Omen is an elegant psychodrama. (Whatever gets you through the day, buddy.) But I do think the movie can function as an effective warning against breeding. In presenting the nth-degree worst scenario, The Omen nicely counteracts the myths regarding the joys of parenthood. If you are only imagining your daughter's first steps or your son's graduation, try thinking about the first time your kid tries to kill you on his tricycle instead. It isn't pretty.

I also want to add that—in addition to Gregory Peck and Lee Remick—The Omen's cast includes David Warner, an underrated actor of whom I've been a fan since childhood. Who's David Warner, you ask? You should be ashamed of yourself.

20 September 2012

camping: a cautionary tale.

3. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

My ex's brother believed that The Blair Witch Project was exactly what it (fictionally) purported to be—found video footage of the last days of three young documentarians researching the legend of the 'Blair Witch' in the wilds of Maryland. At first it was difficult to grasp that a twentysomething man actually believed an amateur video of three persons' psychological disintegration and (presumed) death would be distributed for the vicarious thrills and casual entertainment of audiences worldwide. Now, of course, in the full bloom of the reality TV era, I realize how naive I was. It now seems entirely probable that—once the last inhibitions of reality television have been worn away—a snuff film will elbow a superhero franchise out of the top spot on the box office chart. 

I asked my ex why she didn't disillusion her brother; she shrugged me off. I'm pretty sure it was because she didn't want to embarrass him when she exposed him as preposterously gullible. It would be akin to the shame that a fourteen-year-old might feel when he discovers that there is no Santa Claus—and that all of his peers have known this for six years already. At any rate, he didn't seem overly distraught to be living in a world where the events of The Blair Witch Project could really take place. So we said to the sleeping dog: Lie.

There's a reason why his gullibility wasn't as idiotic as it could have been. As a work of cinéma vérité, The Blair Witch Project is utterly convincing. I don't know about you, but I think I knew a half dozen girls exactly like Heather (Heather Donahue) during the '90s. The footage of the ill-fated trio trekking through the woods is as persuasively real in its banality as it is in its terror. These interactions—as annoying and prosaic as they sometimes are—are the authentic interactions of young people in their twenties. (Having actually been one—eons ago—I can vouch for the veracity.)

I had a hunch that—over a decade later—The Blair Witch Project wouldn't hold up to my initial (very positive) impression. I was wrong. I still think it's one of the best, most well-crafted horror movies out there—without requiring all the gore, pointless special effects, and genre frippery that's become a staple of the modern horror film. Blair Witch certainly has its detractors though—and many of them will point to the apparent nothingness of the film as its great fault. But that is precisely the key to its success, in my opinion. The film doesn't resort to another crude literalization of boogeymen but instead creates a pervasive feeling of dread by limiting what we see and what we know. We can't even mentally reckon with the evil of the film because, having never been seen or explained, it's always several steps ahead of our ability to come to terms with it. It's everything we can imagine all at once.

19 September 2012

it knows what scares you.

2. Poltergeist (1982)

In the summer of 1982, I was ten years old. My father—undeterred by the clamorous warnings in the media that the film was too frightening for children (despite its PG-rating)—dragged me to see Poltergeist with him. This, you must understand, was the modus operandi with my parents. If they wanted to see a particular movie and had nobody else to go with, I was either tricked or strong-armed into accompanying them and, thus, for the sake of two hours of cheap entertainment my fragile psyche was scarred for life. (Thanks, Dad.) 

My mother simply refused to see horror films, and because she was an adult, this disinclination was generally respected and codified into family law. The preferences of a ten-year-old boy, on the other hand, are swatted away as easily as a gnat. At first, my father tried a little persuasion—to prime the pump, as it were: he would remind me that Steven Spielberg had his hand in this movie—and that was the same guy who made Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.—which were movies I loved. Of course, his logic was spurious, but he capitalized on the fact that I wasn't the debating powerhouse that you see before you today. Still, I remained leery... Eventually, my father got tired of the appeasement route, and one day he just told me that we were going. Case closed. Fast forward to me a few hours later: sitting in a cavernous, old-school movie theater, watching an evil toy clown assault an eight-year-old boy in his own bedroom. (Yes—in his own bedroom!)

This incident is but one ingredient comprising the psychological goulash that is the David of Today. To be honest, Poltergeist didn't leave any lasting scars because—even at the time—it wasn't that scary (except for that demonic clown, of course). Sure, I was probably scared while I was in the theater, but once I was in out in the bright June sunlight, my fears were mostly dispelled and I went back to worrying about death in general, my default angst.

Watching Poltergeist last night—for the first time since the 1980s, I think—flooded me with memories. In the end, it became more of a bittersweet experience than a thrilling one. For an hour and fifty-odd minutes, I felt exactly like I did on those Saturday afternoons in the early '80s—when my father and I would fortify ourselves with Sno-Caps and popcorn and hunker down in a frigid theater for a summer tent-pole movie (before they were known as tent-pole movies, of course). One thing I remembered—or seemed to, anyway—was how those two hours were the whole world while you were watching. School, teachers, chores, bullies—all of it vanished and the ever-present nowness of the experience overtook you.  It reminded me that, as children, we usually lived in the moment. We weren't obsessing over the past or wondering about the future. The whole world was there—on that movie screen.

The thought of living that way now as an adult is both appealing and frightening to me. On the one hand, I want to let go of it all—and to experience the fullness of the present—but on the other hand, in order to do that, I would have to relinquish control. I would have to trust that today was good enough and surrender my tight grip on tomorrow. I don't know that I'm quite ready to do that—or ever will be—but maybe remembering what it was like, if only for a little while, is the best I can hope for. 

18 September 2012

is it november yet?

The other day, Mitt Romney said that he doesn't care about the 47% of Americans who are going to vote for Obama—or something to that effect—and predictably enough the Democrats have been dry-humping Romney's gaffe ever since. Once again, it seems that Romney has tripped over the stereotype of Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly—the ur-capitalist who wet-dreams about deregulation and economic Darwinism at the expense of the nobodies who keep the machinery (so to speak) running.

The far-right perfected the art of demonizing its opponents—but the left is no slouch either. Romney—a rather bland, non-committal alternative to fire-breathers like Rick Santorum and Herman Cain—isn't even distinctive enough to mark a strong contrast with Obama, who (health care excepted) has offered up a mostly milquetoast centrist agenda to those wishing to cash in their hope-and-change vouchers. Yet the left has still managed to build up an effigy of Romney as a heartless, hoarding Scrooge who'd steal the money under your grandmother's mattress.

Whenever I see political posts on Facebook—particularly the ones that passionately denigrate or celebrate a given presidential candidate—I can't help it... I feel a little pity for the person who posted it. I mean, come on... Obama vs. Romney? How much will it really matter in the end? Without a doubt, I will ultimately support Obama, but how do these people muster up so much enthusiasm or fire and brimstone for the lesser of two evils? There's a reason why the right wing establishment isn't overjoyed that Romney is their nominee; it's because he fails to assert himself convincingly in many of the issues that preoccupy the mouthbreathing Republican base. In Middle America, for instance, there are still people who imagine that the president, with the wave of his royal scepter, can outlaw abortion. Pragmatic candidates like Romney and Obama, on the other hand, understand the business of American politics. It's a lot like showbiz, actually: image is everything. It doesn't matter if Obama contributed to the recession, helped slow the recession, or had no discernible effect on the recession—if the economy is bad at the time of the election, he will be blamed for it by many voters. This is the crude populist thinking that tries to establish a meaningful correlation between any adjacent ready-to-hand variables. Again, the perception of effective leadership will always trump the complex realities—which most voters don't even seek out, at any rate. And if they craved thoughtful and challenging political analysis, where would they turn? The Today show? Newsweek? If the constituent gets lucky and finds a source for news and analysis that transcends the almighty blurb, then that source will inevitably be impugned on ideological grounds. Oh, you read X? That's just liberal propaganda.—or: You listen to Y? He's practically the mouthpiece of the Republican National Committee. Alternatively, you can always think about what Noam Chomsky says—that media outlets are essentially beholden, ideologically speaking, to their advertisers or donors. You might think you're reading all the news that's fit to print, but you're really reading all the news that JPMorganChase thinks is fit to print.

Hey, I'm not offering my viewpoint as a recommendation to anyone. I know I'm not fulfilling my civic duties by remaining detached and coolly cynical about these proceedings, but at the same time I'm not sure how to drum up excitement about the status quo. And when I see people regurgitating the Democratic talking points on Facebook like giddy cheerleaders, I get... kind of horrifed, actually—because now I'm seeing them in the same light that I saw all those brainwashed right-wing ideologues. It's a disturbing realization—that they're just dogmatists with empty slogans too. 

As I said before—yes, I'll support Obama, but I'll do so with the same reluctant sense of duty that drags me out of bed on Monday mornings to go to work. There's no hope in it—and there's no certainly no sense of satisfaction that comes from electing someone I feel will make a real and substantial difference. We all know by now that a true dyed-in-the-wool liberal will not win a presidential election in this country—at least not in the foreseeable future—because 'liberalism' has been transformed (very effectively, I might add)  into a dirty word by the right wing. So as a compromise, we get Obama. 

To return to Romney's blunder again—that he doesn't care about Obama voters—when I hear anyone harping on this, I think, Really? This is what we're talking about? Of course, Romney doesn't care about Obama voters. And Obama probably doesn't care about Romney voters. Let's put on our big boy pants and face facts here. We all understand the hard truth, don't we?—that there is a strong ideological divide in this country that can't be remedied by rhetoric or P.R.? Romney only said what we know to be true—what is obviously true in American politics today: that a president's positions are dictated by his constituency and the practicalities of governance. The fact that we expect Romney to say otherwise exposes the political arena as second-rate theater on a grand scale. The script may change, but the actors remain the same—still strutting and fretting their hours upon the stage and signifying a whole lotta nothing. 

17 September 2012

children of a much lesser god.

1.  Children of the Corn (1984).

I would guess that, ever since the city was invented by the parking garage industry, there has existed a mutual distrust—if not outright enmity—between larger urban centers and their sprawling hinterlands. For rednecks, white trash, and inbreds alike, city life has often been synonymous with moral decadence, crime, ostentation, pretense, and H&M stores as far as the eye can see—while, conversely, faggots, spades, and kikes from the inner cities have long been wary of the ignorance, superstition, and savagery thought to be lurking in the shadows of the bait-and-tackle shop just off the interstate.

When I watch a film like Deliverance—in which the dichotomy between urban vs. rural is so clearly drawn, in favor of the former—I can't help wondering if Ned Beatty's anal rape in the bucolic Appalachian wilds was what Jean-Jacques Rousseau had in mind as an antidote to the pernicious effects of society. Let's face it—it was the civilizing effect of his education which (ironically) allowed Rousseau to formulate an intelligible position against civilization in so many of his writings.

They call them FLY-OVER states for a reason, honey.

At the outset, it would seem that Children of the Corn charts a familiar course: an educated urban couple (played—very badly, I might add—by Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton) drives through the wastelands of Middle America and finds devilment at work out in the cornfields, where a cult of children—some of whom are a little long in the tooth to deserve that name—spend most of their time skulking and killing people with farming implements. The cult is led by an androgynous boy with an apparent iron deficiency named Isaac and his chronically over-emoting henchman, a creepy ginger named Malachai. (Is 'creepy ginger' redundant?) 

Now I might court controversy here, but I would argue that the children of said corn are implicitly Amish—or they are at least intended to make viewers incorporate some of what they know about Amish people in the backstory. (In other words, they ride in buggies and make apple butter.) Maybe I'm totally off-base here... I don't know... Do you see any similarities?

Isaac from Children of the Corn.

Real-life child of the corn, out for a stroll.

Children of the Corn tricks us into thinking that this is just another in a series of films giving expression to liberal America's fear of religious extremism and backwoods 'justice.' But then the film does a strange thing—from an ideological standpoint, at least: it validates these children's odd and uncivilized beliefs. The weird Jesus-Devil that they worship and commune with actually does exist, although—without any apparent concern for theatrics—he manifests himself as a moving bump in the ground—kind of like an earthen Adam's apple. When the kiddies suddenly turn on their master Isaac and hang him from a cross in the field like a scarecrow, this marauding lump of dirt assails the cross and blasts it up into the sky like a bottle rocket.

Well, now. This makes Children of the Corn perhaps one of the vehemently anti-rural films I've ever seen—because not only are these half-wit cornshuckers dangerous in and of themselves; they are also able to summon a demonic hellbeast from the depths of Hades. So there you have it: hicks are both an evil unto themselves (of course) and conjurers of a greater supernatural evil. Unfortunately, the supernatural powers of the devil seem largely restricted to making the clouds move rapidly through the sky and starting small electrical fires, the likes of which can usually be snuffed out with a common household fire extinguisher—but this doesn't diminish the fact that bumpkins apparently have a hotline to hell. And a dearth of Starbuckses. If that's not enough to make the average city-dweller hide under the covers of his IKEA bed with a shiver of dread, then I don't know what is.

I haven't actually seen Children of the Corn since the 1980s. So it was obviously a great shock to me when I watched it last night and discovered it was a complete piece of shit. Veering in tone between cheesy sitcom and an episode of The Hitchhiker, this is the kind of movie that you space out during. You start thinking about your life: Where has it gone? Where is it going? Are there any Nutty Bars left? And then you remember the movie is still on, and Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton are still wandering around a deserted town, being stalked by some kids who—and I'll be honest here—look like a bunch of pussies to me. The only weapons these Jr. Luddites seem to have at their disposal are scythes—a dramatic weapon, to be sure, but maybe not the most practical one. I hate to celebrate the Second Amendment, even fictitiously, but—c'mon, Peter Horton—go get your ass a Glock or something and let's spill some brains outside the Tastee Freeze.

When a dead child wanders in front of your
car, check all nearby cornfields for clues.

There are so many stupid and annoying things about this film that I can't really devote sufficient outrage to each of them individually. I'll have to content myself with listing a few and then trusting you to be outraged for me. Be my surrogate outrager.
  1. The film begins with a little prologue in which the kids murder all of the adults in town. (We're never told why—but I'll let that slide.) Then, the story flashes forward three years. The kids are living in the cornfields and the abandoned houses, I guess, and have somehow managed to eke out an existence for themselves over this time. Apparently nobody in the world ever thought about any of the murdered adults ever again. Nobody ever tried to contact them or find out what happened to them. Nobody happened to drive through the empty town in three years and notice that something might be wrong. The IRS never noticed that all the townspeople stopped paying taxes and filing tax returns. No nearby or affiliated law enforcement agencies noticed that the local police were no longer in communication. People from outside the town that have business there—truck drivers, postal employees, utility workers—none of these people alerted the authorities about this suddenly abandoned town. COULDN'T SOMEONE JUST FUCKING DRIVE OUT THERE FOR CHRISSAKE AND SEE WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?? Oh—and take a gun. When an entire town disappears, it usually isn't because they're all at the Ice Capades...
  2. When Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton are driving down the highway, a bloody child abruptly darts in front of their car, and they mow him down. (Eat grille, twerp!) Linda wonders what happened, and Peter explains that the kid was dead and he wandered into the road. (That's right. The wandering apparently happened after the death. Genius.) This couple is incredibly jaded; they take vehicular homicide in stride. You'd think they'd just hit a possum. They throw the corpse in the trunk and—oh, what the hey, they'll probably find someplace to report the death along the way, right? But before they hit the road again, Peter Horton has this brainiac idea to walk out into the cornfield for—a clue? Luckily for him, the screenwriter leads him straight to a blood-spattered suitcase within this immense cornfield. A crueler screenwriter would have made him walk around for three hours, get lost, and then die of starvation.
  3. I hate to bring up the obvious here, but it needs to be said: Children are not scary! I'm sorry. They just aren't. Push them over. Kick them. Throw heavy or sharp things at their face. Set them on fire. This is freestyle pubescent homicide; it's your choice! They're just kids, for God's sake. If you can't lay waste to some hormonal tweens, then I don't know what the fuck you're good for, Peter Horton.

halloween film fest.

Because I seem to lack any discernible goals or purpose in life, I've decided that this Halloween season—which, I hereby declare, begins today—I'll endeavor to watch as many horror films as the dual strictures of time and sanity permit and then to report back to you with my findings. My reports will not be reviews, per se, but merely reactions—occasionally but not always pertinent—which will seek to address the philosophy of fear. (Genre nerds, please keep in mind that I'm using 'horror' as an admittedly inaccurate catch-all term for any and all films incorporating suspense, gore, eeriness, mystery, monsters, and the like. If you happen to be a basement-dwelling gamer with a mylar-sealed collection of Fangoria back issues in your possession, then please take your genre hair-splitting elsewhere. If I decide, on a whim, that Roman Polanski's Macbeth is a horror film for the sake of this experiment—and it is, by the way—I won't be chastened by genre conventions. As many of you know, I am unchastenable.) 

blogito, ergo sum.

When one (i.e., I) unexpectedly flees a given location (i.e., this blog)—more so at the bidding of a compulsion rather than a hard-won conviction—I find it preferable to act as though nothing at all had occurred during that mysterious ellipsis. I did not truly live in any worthwhile sense since my last entry because I was not asserting my life. Didn't you know, by the way, that we are no longer allowed to live passively? The Buddhist monks who shave their heads and while away their superfluous hours on a mountaintop in Tibet are, technically speaking, dead. In fact, they're more dead than Michael Jackson or Marilyn Monroe, who seem to inhabit our lives with a stubborn insistence that makes me feel like a ghost. I'm the dead one, shouting in the town square just to be heard... but the town square turns out to be Times Square, and my voice is drowned out by horns, hollers, and hysteria. Everyone's crowding the same stage.

Blogging is a symptom of arrogance, usually. There's no getting around it. I am saying to you—not specifically you, of course, but anybody and everybody who might ever read a blog—'I have something to say that deserves to be said.' There's an effort involved: whenever I crap out a blog entry, I must do the work of arranging and organizing my thoughts, to whatever degree, and then assembling them into something coherent and pleasing to a hypothetical audience. In other words, I've got to tart up the language—make it voluptuous—in order to seduce you. It's a whore's art. Of course, I'm not claiming that I'm successful—after all, I have only a handful of followers—but any failures on my part do not imply a lack of effort. I always try—and trying is work. There is an essential shame in that effort—because it carries with it a desire to be loved. Or if not loved, then not hated. All art (in the mere sense of 'artifice') is an effort to be approved of or credited with some meager accomplishment. Even the most iconoclastic and 'difficult' artists have an audience in mind; their disingenuousness cannot absolve them.

Do you ever watch The Soup (formerly Talk Soup)? It's a show on the E! network—a channel more culturally deleterious than child beauty pageants or heroin addiction—which anthologizes the worst/best moments (i.e., best in their worstness) from the previous week in television. This past week included a snippet from Entertainment Tonight; apparently the entertainment news show did a story on the prevalence of celebrity death hoaxes on the internet, which consisted—in part—of photos of celebrities who were (supposedly) rumored to be dead with the words 'FALSE' or 'NOT TRUE' stamped on their faces. It's important to note, however, that these celebrities were not old washed-ups who have long been out of the public eye, but A-list celebrities, like Brad Pitt. The long and the short of it is that Entertainment Tonight aired a 'news' story to inform its viewing audience that celebrities like Brad Pitt were, in fact, still alive. As an addendum, the program also showed viewers how easy it is to create an online celebrity death rumor—essentially providing a how-to guide for the aspiring hoaxster. (I'm working on the Adam Levine death rumor immediately after I post this. Apparently he was torn apart by rabid yaks.)

Why am I reporting this to you? My reasons are twofold. First of all, I am attempting to remind myself that a nationally broadcast television program like Entertainment Tonight, which has been on the air since 1981 and no doubt costs quite a bit to produce, believes that is useful or diverting to inform its audience that Brad Pitt is not dead. So why then should I ever think that anything I might blog about fails to meet some minimum criterion for public interest or relevance? Secondly, I am reminding all of us that if there is in fact a danger of someone like Brad Pitt being killed off so easily by some computer nerd in stained underwear living in his mother's basement, then what hope is there for the rest of us? We must constantly assert ourselves online; otherwise, we cease to exist. Blogito, ergo sum. 

In other words, I'm back.