Wednesday, 10 December 2008


FUNHOUSE

So the end result appears to be that Tobe Hooper’s best are his debut, the seminal "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre", and his adaptation of Stephen King's "Salem’s Lot", which remains a benchmark in TV horror. Hooper could do scary, in different ways. Even "Poltergeist" is a consummate example of family-friendly and toothless horror… with some scary. "Funhouse", another early Hooper horror, is ultimately disappointing. Apparently beset with production problems and interference that left subplots going nowhere, it’s a routine tale of "teens" not doing as they are told and uncovering terrible monsters at the local fair. It’s long on build-up, hobbled by pedestrian dialogue, characters and plotting and lacks for inventive killings. What it does have is a wonderful evocation of the carnival in all its detail and tackiness, a wonderful midway crane-shot, an unforgettable monster (some debate as to whether Rick Baker’s design is good or not: I say it’s scary, repellent and truly nightmarish), some lukewarm to above-average acting, and excellent set design. The funhouse itself is packed with garish lighting and mechanical monsters, seemingly bigger on the inside than the outside, full of genuine carnie adornments. Ultimately, it’s a routine slasher dressed up really nicely, and so it is more than acceptable when the milieu is so winning.

The most interesting aspect is that when we start off in the family home, our female protagonist Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) is getting ready to go out on a date, it quickly emerges that her prankster younger brother Joey (Shawn Carson) has turned as much of the place as he can into a funhouse of his own. Dummies, masks, cheap shocks… all present and correct, and damned if he isn’t engaging from the start in a thoroughly cheeky homage/rip-off of "Halloween" and "Psycho". In their respective funhouses, both attackers indulge in displays of violence from sexual immaturity: Joey attacks his sister in the shower with a decidedly limp fake knife, wearing a mask that makes him look like a demented old man; our hideous monster Gunther’s (!) premature ejaculation and un-fulfilment drives him to murder girl scouts and fortune tellers. Gunther and Joey both have excellent reveals when their masks are torn off to reveal… greater horrors than the masks traded in. In another "Halloween"-style gag, we see Gunther ( Wayne Doba) help run the funhouse wearing a Frankenstein’s monster’s mask long before the truth about his deformity is revealed (the patrons are deliciously clueless). But at base what "Funhouse" has is the kind of two-dollar sexual motivation and undertones of most post-"Friday the 13th" killer flicks, and exactly the kind that "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" didn’t trade in. On the one hand, sexual immaturity drive the confused to horrible crimes and pranks of passion, and on the other, it’s only the virgin seemingly rewarded with survival.

It is the carnie father and son that represent the family sticking together and surviving against the odds, despite also evidently being the foreign threat to small-town America. The father (Kevin Conway, adding much needed class) is both repulsed and loving to his hideously deformed son, given to bouts of cruelty but also not ready to let him be lynched like his mother or displayed as a sideshow freak like his brother. In comparison, the respectable middle-class suburban family are cold fish indeed, peddling in quick disdain, superficial concern and seemingly disinterest in one another. We can at least allow credentials of tragedy to the horrific monster and dad team, especially as mime artist Wayne Doba gives his best Karloff’s monster rendition to inscribe the Gunther with all kinds of pathos. There’s not much to care about in the double-dating couples who decide to stay overnight in the funhouse, just for chuckles and foreplay. Despite a nice realistic moment where an initial altercation between Amy and her slightly disreputable date sets the night off on the wrong foot, there is little of interest to the couples themselves.

Once these nondescript couples see Gunther commit murder and are hunted down, one might have asked for a little more inventiveness with the funhouse lay-out and props, what with them being so creepy, fun and fascinating. One might have wished for a more creative killing spree to compensate, although there is quite a convoluted castration for Gunther, with his midriff crushed in the gears of the funhouse… yet it never feels as excessive as it ought to be. …Meanwhile, our Joey has skipped out of home and is enjoying the carnie all by himself, and in a further state of impotence can’t get inside the funhouse, which is surely his spiritual home. One can argue that his side-story finally goes nowhere. We could also leave the funhouse asking who the real monsters are… and that’s your standard issue horror coda right there. It will probably always work.

Tobe Hooper, 1981, USA

PERSONA

What you hardly read about Bergman is that he is often scary. If you are looking for a precursor to David Lynch's creepiness and surrealism, turn to the opening nightmare sequence of "Wild Strawberries"; or to the hanging woodsman in "Summer’s Children" for a genuine ghost story chill; or death walking the lounge in "Fanny and Alexander"; or the all-round eeriness of "Hour of the Wolf", amongst others. And this is before we have even encountered his essays in psychological breakdown. For someone who isn’t known as a horror writer, Bergman was very assured and casual with the genre’s motifs. "Persona", for example, not only has psychological breakdown and seemingly a personality-transference between an actress and her nurse, but also plays with a wealth of vampire imagery. Or, perhaps, we are dealing in split personality, which we must puzzle out and which is another horror staple. Bergman happily has his characters and dramas interacting with seemingly supernatural elements that may or may not be genuine. I have always loved this because you never know when he is going to spring these moments upon you, and when you are not watching as a horror audience, your guard is often down and the effect is often genuinely surprising and chilling.

"Persona" is a famously unsolvable mystery, and if the opening montage of images are clues, they don’t really help with answers: film stock reeling and burning up; an erect penis (originally censored, naturally); bodies in a morgue; a boy asleep like a corpse in a white empty room. He wakes… is he the actress’ son, dreaming of her, or is she dreaming of him? Or is he a manifestation of the nurse’s aborted child? We can wonder this later or after, when we know some stories concerning our main characters: an actress who refuses to speak or function, apparently in an artistic and existential collapse; and the nurse assigned to oversee her recuperation in a beach house. But it is the nurse who uses the actress’s silence for experiments in unburdening herself in a quintessential Bergman confession of an adulterous dalliance. When the nurse feels her confidence has been condescended and betrayed, a confusion of the women’s characters threatens meltdown. What is real and what is fantastic is not clear: does the actress’s husband really turn up to the beach house and mistake the nurse for his wife? Some kind of emotional vampirism is occurring here, and the actress pours out of fog to seduce her victim. There is also some sucking of blood, completely Nosferatu. Cinematic conventions being played with, where the screen burns up as if the projector is on fire from the drama, but somehow this is more akin to an emotional variation of the formal shock moment from a horror film (rather than, say, the kind of conceited self-reflexive trick of the fast-forward moment of Haneke’s "Funny Games").

It is open to readings of criticism of psychotherapy, and it also acts nicely as a tale of the unreal affinity and emotional demands audiences make of artists: the nurse (Bibi Andersson) may just as well be telling her secrets to a poster of Liv Ullman. But for all this stark, pretty imagery and genre bending, Bergman knows that the real horrors can be existential states of despair and fear, that non-communication, disloyalty and superciliousness can force wide open cracks in vulnerable people. Fascinating, frustrating and compelling, very few can force such ideas to work and transcend. Bergman had a vast output and range, and even now he never fails to surprise and, frequently, to chill.

Ingmar Bergman, 1966

Death in Venice



Death in Venice


Renowned masterpiece of mood and décor, nearly dialogue-free except for some flashbacks featuring hyperbolic, quite hammy arguments between a couple of artists. One of them, Dirk Bogarde, finds his career as a composer booed down and a breakdown follows, motivating a trip to Venice. The cityFont size seems to be in the seizure of barely concealed paroxysms of death and the decay. The similar corrosion and loneliness of the composer finds relief only in the beatific youthfulness of an adolescent male also staying in the decorative hotel. Scenes roll out slow and decorated with detail, as if to lull the viewer into the very wallpaper and as if staring at a busy painting for a long time. Bogarde pours his performance into carefully, almost painfully measured affected gestures of repression and expression. Everything possesses the aroma and reek of a bona fide classic of the old school. Finally, it floats into a funereal paean to the myth of cities, to aging, to loneliness (but perhaps a relieved and content loneliness)… and then, after all that hanging around, a handsome angel of death points into the distance, having cast furtive smiles at you all the while.
Morte a venezia, 1971, Luchino Visconti

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

"Halloween": the biopic (World of Remakes #1)



"HALLOWEEN":
THE BIOPIC



1/ Fear of the Remake.


Firstly, the original "Halloween" is scary. As a kid, it terrified me every time I watched it… for years… I have no idea how many times I have seen it, and even now I am happy to leave it on as wallpaper, because the direction alone is a pure treat. There’s a killer on the loose, and that’s all you need to know. You don’t need to know why.

Come the Twenty-First century and many previously scorned low-budget horrors had be reclaimed as cinematic classics, or at least worthy. And there seemed a greater and more cynical spate of old favourites being remade. Or "re-imagined". This isn’t anything new, and Horror has always been a highly, ahem, cannibalistic and incestuous genre. That and shamelessly derivative, of course. But to be a horror fan is, unlike proper critics, to find the gold in the trashy, and not to criticise the trash for not being shiny enough. Inevitably, a remake of "Halloween" was declared, and they said Rob Zombie was going to remake it. Well Zombie had earned a lot of fandom with his earlier features - "House of a 1,000 Corpses" and "The Devil’s Rejects". They showed promise, but lacked discipline and erred on what I’ll call the "heavy metal" vision of horror. He was known for white trash sleaze. Then we heard Zombie was going to give Michael Myers a proper childhood back-story. A white-trash back-story. It didn’t sound promising. It sounded like blasphemy. A small corner reserving judgement because they believed in Zombie; the rest of us did that thing of snorting our derision at Hollywood defiling the greats.

My first reaction was fascination. I groaned at the un-sophistication of the opening set-up. Repulsive stepfather cussing everyone in sight and if he wasn’t an abuser, that‘s probably only because he didn‘t have enough screen-time to get around to it. Mother-stripper. Michael Myers sister making weak gags about his masturbating. Baby wailing in this maelstrom. On the other hand, we had young Michael starting the morning by cleaning up having murdered another pet, and during the bad white trash breakfast dialogue asking for a replacement furry victim. The shaky-cam began to reveal itself as cinematic, not just Hollywood YouTube. We had standard school bullies who, naturally, brought with them a load of smut-talk concerning Michael’s mother. And then there was the first killing… the bully gets it and it’s horrible. Truly horrible. Something chilling sets in. After the family murders, Malcolm McDowell dominates Act II, which is concerned with Michael’s institutional treatment. Act III, and Michael is a gigantic slab of heavy metal meat, on the rampage in all washed-out ugly colours. There’s a station rest room with a black guy offering a Tarantino-esque segment. There are a lot of bloody bear breasts, firmly staking this as exploitational and unprogressive, maybe even cynical. It’s too long. I was waiting for it to end shoddily, but it doesn’t: the end is straightforward, nothing fancy. And yet.

It finished and it stayed with me. I saw it again. The dialogue was still weak, and yet I found I had remembered, and still recall it mostly as a silent movie. The camerawork is impressive still, utilising a variation on the handheld prowl cam brilliantly used by Carpenter; it shakes around the scenes and glances around the killing, often falling still on framing as consummate as the original. Here, rather than stalking and prowling, it’s like a voyeur-bug, or a detached part of Myer’s psyche watching himself. The early killings are compelling and eschew fast-cutting shock-editing for a more elongated sense of dread. The resonance is of matter-of-fact brutality, rather than cheap thrills. The view shakes around the murder of the stepfather, then it pauses as the blood floods from the bottom of the frame, off screen. As the household slaughter unfolds, Michael takes a moment to look outside at the fake horrors, all those trick-or-treaters. The final rampage has none of the thrills and clutch of suspense of the original, but it does give Michael a moment of utter pleading and confusion when he falls to his knees before his non-comprehending sister; and it does have a finely executed and extended metaphor of the old Myers house being torn apart by Michael from the inside.

As trite as the expression "re-imagining" is (smacking of denial as to the actual nature of the carrion-like "remake" beast eating from the good name of the original), Zombie’s "Halloween" almost validates the term. Zombie has filtered Carpenter’s original through his own agenda, and ultimately that is as it should be. The alternative is the kind of serviceable but unremarkable horror remake in the vein of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre". I didn’t care that "Halloween" was too long (I rarely do). I chuckled at Malcolm McDowell showing everyone else how to actually dispense a line. I was convinced by Daeg Faerch’s angel/devil delivery: one minute momma’s boy, next silently creating corpses around the house. I wallowed in the sleaze, the flipside of Carpenter’s clean suburbia (decades later and suburbia had devolved into "Gummo" and "Suburbia"). Damn if the very choices mostly dreaded - extended and coloured-in Myers origins - became that which elevated Zombie’s version and gave a parallel vision of the original. It’s more grungy than heavy-metal. With a more focused basis - using Carpenter’s original rather than Zombie’s own idea - Zombie arguably revealed more disciplined and mature aesthetic compared to, say, the "Natural Born Killers" style of throw-every-at-the-wall-hope-it-hits-on-a-statement of his earlier efforts. It was more "Martin" and "Henry" than "Friday the 13th" and "Black Christmas". There was meaning in this remake.



2/ The Ups and Downs of Michael Myers

In ‘Film Comment Magazine’ (March/April 2008), Nathan Lee lays out the proper way to watch Zombie’s "Halloween": not as a teen-titillating slasher, but as a biopic. Indeed, it sports all the obvious, clunky dialogue typical of biopics of even Oscar-fraternising repute such as "Walk the Line". It follows a linear childhood-to-adulthood timeline, but it also inverts the biopic genre. Whereas many biographies follow the Lazarus and martyrdom templates, Zombie offers up Myer’s life story as an unstoppable, scarcely explicable fall from barely held grace. There are two endings to "Halloween", one where Myers achieves some glint of redemption in sparing his sister, and the other in a faintly ambiguous showdown where she kills him. This latter is the version I saw theatrically, and the one I base my comments upon. The former offers some respite, some speck of humanity for Myers; the latter doesn’t, as he pursues his sister through the wreck of their childhood home only for her to pull a Final Girl turn-around. But even with the more positive ending, this isn’t a story of redemption like many biographies, but of complete psychological collapse. (For your comparison: "There Will Be Blood".)

Zombie is at pains to trace the line between internal and external psychological climates that drive Michael to his first kills - and a second viewing reveals the earliest murders as unforgettable and shocking as Carpenter’s original. Then to the failings and inability of institutions to help, indeed, they compound Myers’ psychosis. When the prison guards go on a despicable spree to abuse their inmates, it’s trashy enough, but also reminiscent of similar scenes in Lynch’s "The Elephant Man". But here, Myers is not salvaged by the kindness of civil society, but crushed in its wheels in a world where everything seems to be devolving, and the niceness of suburbia seems to barely compensate. The institutions, as represented by Malcolm McDowell’s psychologist, seem to be making stabs at humanitarianism, even towards someone like Michael Myers; but their smugness, self-congratulatory manner and inability to prevent their charge’s complete psychological collapse allow Myers the total monster to fester until he sees his chance to unleash himself. It is probably this middle section that bores those that come for the tits-and-blood that Zombie can’t help but wallow in and which, at first glance, appears to be his main conclusion to all that has gone before. But this second act shows the extent of Zombie’s ambition and dedication that he pushes the boundaries of the slasher form, by stopping the whole show to make sure we see the final environmental reasons for the evolution of this monster. Arguably, watching Michael’s psychological retreat from the world is just as distressing as his early murders. And also, Zombie is not interested in evolving Myers into a Myth. Myers is a pure meat-and-potatoes monster.

As a biopic, Zombie’s "Halloween" offers qualities that Carpenter’s peerless original did not: despair, pathos and a genuine slice of tragedy. It is not a delicate piece, but it is considered in its rendering and chilling in its detachment, a detachment that hides a surprisingly curious and humanitarian core. Why is Myers? it asks. The camera not only spies, it pries. It asks without pretensions to knowing. Although rampaging is all it ultimately concludes, this is only because "Halloween" knows we have no answers. For these reasons, it is a worthy remake, a genuine re-imagining, and, I expect over time, it will be revealed as a minor classic on its own merits.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

HALLOWEEN


"Halloween":
Suburbia, Sex, Slashers

1: The Mystery of Michael Myers


It goes without saying that ‘faceless’, expressionless, silent killers terrify due to their apparent emotionless and impenetrable veneer. To this deliberate end, Michael Myers of John Carpenter’s "Halloween" has the gimmick of the mask - famously, a William Shatner mask. We see Myers’ face only twice: as a child, and as an adult in the frenzy of killing - and in the latter example he desperately pulls the mask back over his face. Once the mask becomes his true visage, he moves from Myers to the boogeyman, or The Shape, elevating to mythical and iconic status, before our eyes, within the film and across its fan-base. No definitive explanation is given as to why Michael murders his sister, and this too is deliberate ~ unlike "Nightmares in a Damaged Brain", it is not the confused witnessing of the sexual act that triggers him, the primal scene. Is it his suspicion of his sister’s sexual nature that activates him, perhaps? Prepubescent, incestuous jealousy? We assume it’s the deviant teenage sex, as we always do, but we really have little evidence. Or did he always intended to kill from the moment he approaches the house? Obviously this lack of motivation is essential to Myers: it matters not why he kills, only that he does, He’s the boogeyman.
Myers enters his own home like an intruder, by means of a definitive use of point-of-view hand-held camera, gliding and searching an unremarkable suburban home. And the camera goes out of focus at one point so we cannot identify the hand reaching for a knife, withholding the killer’s identity until the prologue’s shock revelation. (In fact, this is [producer] Debra Hill’s hand, which creates a far more mundane reason for this out-of-focus moment: to disguise the fact that it was not a child’s not for the sake of surprise revelation, but for purely practicality.) It is a seminal horror film opening: smooth, brilliantly executed, wry, chilling, thrilling and promising all the unspeakable terrors to come.

Far less politically charged than the new living dead, Texan cannibals and last houses on the left, "Halloween" nevertheless subversively laid bare the fragility of the post-Baby Boom suburban opulence. The old monster-on-the loose scenario was updated and rampant in your conservatively inclined leafy town, subtext relatively intact. Myers might just as well be a man in a rubber suit, so alien and inhuman is he. Just because you have a nice house, it won’t stop him, and he doesn’t roar and run so that you call the military in either. Nonetheless, Myers is a force of nature: that unleashed Id, dispatching sexually active young adults; a smalltown horror that doesn’t know to stay dead, finally transcending himself into a supernatural, mythical entity.


There is little realism to Myers: his sole redeeming feature is that he was once a child, but this is barely substantial: it is simply the first shock and twist. Even as a child, when his Halloween mask is first taken from his face by his parents, the face is equally blank and unreadable. His childness - I.e., his vulnerability and innocence - it’s an assumption he discards presumably as soon as he can. He suffers none of the detailed psychological disturbances of "Nightmares in a Damaged Brain"; he does not possess any knowing smirks like the variably human Damien Antichrist of "The Omen" series. There is no filling-in of Myers’ childhood; no distraught but insightful interviews with the parents; no concept that rehabilitation will redeem him, or that he even qualifies for it. Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) is almost there simply to run around refuting Myers’ ability to be human, to declare the blank concerning ‘The Blank’. Loomis is not so far from Kevin McCarthy at the end of "Invasion of the Bodysnatchers", trying to warn the impenetrable traffic of an alien invasion, bringing about the end of humanity. There is no attempt to endow Michael Myers with any sympathy or reasoning, and therefore he ends up forever the inhumane murderous child. Damaged children and mutant offspring have always been essential to the genre, as much as child abuse has created a large proportion of TV "tragedy" drama. Robin Wood has rightly identified childhood itself as a state of "Otherness"[1]. Myers is s parental, cultural and social nightmare. What is he the result of? Idealised but ineffectual Baby Boomer parents? The net result of repression in a Christian-Conservative-Capitalist society? The manifestation of virgin-babysitter Laurie’s fear of sexual punishment and the predatory male? Or is he just, you know, plain bad?


[1] The other states of Otherness is to be: other people; woman; the proletariat; other cultures; ethnic; alternative ideologies/politcal systems; sexually ‘deviant’ - & children. ~ Robin Wood, "An Introduction to the American Horror Film", in Movies and Method: volume II, ed. Bill Nicholls, (University of California Press, London, 1985) pg.199-200.

halloween002

2: The Friends of Michael Myers

Sidestepping the slasher’s origins in giallo (like a disreputable pal to American thrillers, what with all that European explicitness), in its American horror context "Halloween" was released the same year [1978] as "Damien – Omen II" and "The Fury"; 1977 had offered "Audrey Rose", "The Exorcist II: the Heretic" and "The Island of Doctor Moreau". All these were mainstream expressions of the horror genre, all possessing monstrous offspring. Their subtexts were filtered through a middle-class, neo-Gothic setting and traditional Christian and conservative ethic, working on a vision that at once embraced and then rejected modernity in all its opulence, as well as contemporary science for solutions to spiritual questions and advancements. By contrast, the alternative low-budget scene offered the likes of "The Hills Have Eyes", "Night of the Living Dead" and "I Spit on Your Grave" alongside "Halloween". Unsurprisingly the big-budget horrors reaffirmed your basic status quo of Good and/vs. Evil, whereas the independents, in an post-Vietnam era, just weren’t so sure.

George Romero and Tobe Hooper had already clearly pointed out how horror had a natural affinity for documentary technique and aesthetic. Despite being low-budget and ostensibly modest, Carpenter’s "Halloween" helped point to how the new wave of horror could carry a modest but slick sheen too. Free from the demands of mainstream production, finding it increasing easier to at least get hold of a camera, the low-budget filmmakers were able to carve new paths through taboos, and their influences were permanent. Damien’s smirk in "The Omen" signifies the audience’s complicity in the enjoyment of such high-concept, absurd demonic shenanigans; but "Halloween’s" killer offspring is far too close to home, confirming our fears for our children left unsupervised there, confirming our worst fears about their promiscuity, about the realism of prowlers and murderers. Despite Myer’s supernatural evolution, it is his corroboration of our paranoia and worst fears that consolidates his mythic qualities. That’s no big secret, but nevertheless, despite its homage to the fun of fear, therein lies the poignancy of Carpenter’s film.

It is easy to see how Aurum concludes that "by sidestepping social or moral comment, [Halloween] offers a foolproof blueprint for bloody violence," [2] but Halloween offers very little blood and by-passes easy moralising in order to create a symbol of a very real and deep fear for a fresh-packed suburban generation. Myers is a moral void, ergo inhuman, ergo a killer. When he kills his sister, he watches himself stabbing her; later he will use the same gaze to study his victim as they hang dying upon the wall. It is as if he cannot understand or believe what he has done, his fascination very much like a child pouring acid upon a slug or smashing bottles. Y’know: just to see. And further to this, Carpenter, and his unsurpassed use of prowling Panavision camera toys with us and our nerves in the same way. And again it links the serial killer deeply with voyeurism, and therein cinema itself. What does it mean to watch someone being killed, even cinematically? In this way, Myers is the very passive-aggressive audience that simultaneously celebrates the fear he provokes in them. This alertness to voyeurism was always present in killer films, (e.g. "The Spiral Staircase") but Myers was a somewhat quieter and decidedly modern rendition of your Hitchcock killers or Peeping Toms. Pretty soon, serial killers were going to be a sub-genre all of their own.

Legend has it that from "Psycho" and "Halloween", a brand new batch of novelty murders were born. If "Psycho" was the sly entertainer, "Halloween" was the overachieving runt and "Peeping Tom" the despised black sheep, academically pointing to the phobias and perversions of his peers. "Psycho" leads to "Silence of the Lambs". "Halloween" led immediately to "Friday the 13th", whereupon the lineage immediately stunts itself, and to too many derivatives to speak of; latterly revived somewhat by post-modernism and post-MTV ‘cool’ of "Scream". "Peeping Tom" led to… "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer", "Man Bits Dog" and "Funny Games", perhaps. Arguably it was going to be David Fincher's "Se7en" that distilled all these into one fin de siecle package, and then Fincher's "Zodiac" that denied all the showbiz of the genre by treating it purely as police procedural and puzzle. The urban-legend-come-super-naturally true would give the world Freddy Kruger (a despicable but safely fantastic horror) and Candyman (ditto)… And so on. Nevertheless "Halloween" remains a truly entertaining and influential piece, a recognised classic and, due to its staking a claim on a seasonal holiday, classic and eternal.

[2] Halloween review, the Aurum Encyclopedia of Horror, pg. 329.
 
halloween003
 
3: Myers is a Bad Date

It is impossible to avoid reflecting upon serial killer flicks without mentioning Carol J. Clover’s concept of ‘The Final Girl’: a masculinised heroine who survives or destroys the serial killer [3]; she is a homoerotic stand-in for the male audience, and thereby denies feminist reading. But it seems short-sighted to assume that any violent female reaction to a male threat immediately endows her with unquestionably masculine traits [4], or even that her use of a knife immediately endows her with a substitute phallus ~ sometimes a weapon is just a weapon (it depends upon representation, context, etc.). ‘The Final Girl’ also more-or-less sidesteps the erotic appeal of the female in distress to the male audience. The female body is threatened and damaged in the scenario, it is stabbed and slashed and revealed, pierced and bloodied; often taking the form of a stab-and-strip show. The Final Girl is not the only surrogate upon which the male gaze can project his own vulnerability and fears, apparently ‘feminine’ qualities. There are those also played out through male surrogates, the erotic appeal of the female left intact: these apprehensions are played out in an archetype which might be termed the Male Protector.

In many horrors, the desire for the male to protect the female is stimulated and challenged, and almost always they fail. Defending one’s loved ones is deeply fixed in the traditional male gender role, and slasher flicks - unlike action films - spell out how fathers, husbands and boyfriends can/will fail as the Male Protector. The threat is often another, stronger, homicidal male who wants to deny other males their sex-lives and to punish the females for theirs. Films like "Halloween" renders the male fear of being unable to save and safeguard the female body and feminine objects of lust and affection from superior male predators. This arousal and failure of the Male Protector, who is often dispatched early, symbolises all kinds of impotency. Other times the dynamic might change and become more complex when the threat facing the Male Protector is a mother ~ "Psycho", "Friday the 13th", "Deep Red", etc. In "Black Christmas", the final twist rests upon the Male Protector’s failure to recognise the female threat. These latter films also show the perceived homoeroticism of The Final Girl as failing to address female violence.

The slasher film also services rape-revenge fantasies for women. The surviving and central/final girl may not actually be violated, but her fear and the threat of it alone is enough to validate extreme self defence. After all, she must dispatch the killer in a gratuitous, graphic and inventive manner to satisfy revenge for having been stalked and humiliated. Oh, and the slaughter of her pals. Evidently, this also co-insides with the need for a show-stopping, sweaty, exhausted end to the cinematic experience, and we are often left celebrating female endurance and resourcefulness. Faceless or excessive male sexuality, often seen as violent, warrants extermination, or at least a good castration. In Abel Ferrara’s "Ms. 45: Angel of Death", the mere ability of men to breathe heavily upon the disturbed woman Thana is enough to earn their deaths (and she goes one better than wearing virginal white: she dresses as a nun!). Laurie in "Halloween" avoids symbolic rape, but she must pay back Michael Myers for what he has done to her friends, as if they were but rehearsals for her potential fate. This is why she must witness her friend’s corpses, in a moment of amassed horrific revelation and plot assemblage. Through these films, female protagonists are allowed the power to survive and eliminate the sexual abuses suffered by all sisterhood, past and present.


[4] Another key qualification of the masculine "Final Girl" that Clover states is their given unisex name: Laurie in Halloween, Marti in Hell Night, but this is obviously highly limited and easily dismissed once past a handful of final girl candidates.

halloween001

4: Michael Myers is a Monster


William Schoell finds Halloween endowed with tedium, repetitious music, a rip-off of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (they are, of course, two quite different beasts, but…). He says: "Bloodless and pedestrian, Halloween just sits there when it should be doing something," despite its "nice premise." [5] Alternatively, "Halloween" anticipates the mythologizing of the modern serial murderer; the repetition of the score may be seen as a motif for the killer’s relentlessness [6]; its bloodlessness may reflect only a "comparative tastefulness" [7]. He is correct on the mythologizing and the score, but also misses the film’s reliance upon build-up, menace and suspense rather than cheap gory pay-offs, as used by its many imitators. Further, it is often the lesser known Bob Clark film "Black Christmas" (1975) that is often credited with forerunning the youth-orientated slasher genre, and is a far more identifiable forerunner for "Halloween" than "Texas Chainsaw", if only in atmosphere and use of a national ‘holiday’. Or, as Kim Newman puts it, "'Halloween' was about as original as an Italian Western remake of a samurai epic" [8].

Nevertheless Myers was a culmination of his killing predecessors, and for better or worse pointed the way ahead. The originality of "Halloween" is obvious: in near-definitive and timeless use of its widescreen Panavision streetscapes and of subjective camera; in its non-Gothic unmannered acting reminiscent more of Seventies neo-realist thrillers (all the camp is neatly distilled into Pleasance‘s Loomis); in bringing giallo traits to American killer flicks; in the thick but modernised shadows and sudden shocks; in truly giving the girls centre stage and a fighting chance for a feminised age; in bringing the slaughter to suburbia. Both in technical execution and entertainment value, it rewards study and repeated viewing. It remains seminal as a purveyor and portrayal of contemporary fears.

_____________________

NOTE: This article is a shorter version of a work-in-progress chapter for my intended book on horror/thriller cinema, "The Gory Id: essays on killer films".
_______________
[5] Schoell, Stay Out of the Shower: the shocker film phenomenon, (Robinson Publishing, London, 1988) pg. 133.
[6] Carpenter has often said how the film did not frighten preview audiences at all until the score was added.
[7] Schoell, pg. 134.
[8] Kim Newman, Nightmare Movies, (Harmony Books, New York, 1988) pg. 144.


Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The Grunts: a live show review


I went to see The Grunts play at The Good Ship (Kilburn, 3/10/08). A friend of mine said that they sounded too much like their influences. When chatting with Paul, bassist with The Grunts for six months or so and counting, he said he felt The Grunts sounded like a lot of bands you know, but not exactly like any of them. I'm going to agree with Paul here. The Grunts are something like Echo and the Bunnymen on Route 66. High churches of guitars steeped in Americana: Jim Jones, highways, koolaid, purple hearts, Jerry Springer and endless summers all get a reference in The Grunts, and in a live show, the swagger and rootsy origins of the songs are even more evident.

Bearing in mind that this is an Irish band, homed in Cork, and it's even more admirable that they pull it off. They can be funny too, though it's humour of the dry kind: "I'm a hetero-on-Death-Row-sexual" hollars Max Vanilla on their jeans-busting declaration "Hetero". It's satirical, surely, right? Their live shows are less glacial than the recordings (where Max's favourites, The Bunnymen, are definite inspirations in sound, though dirtier), but they are no less huge and sweeping, just a little more unashamed rock. They start with "Party Weirdo", their dancefloor anthem. They play songs about Jerry Springer being god. "If It Feels Good Do It" is one of my favourites, soaring and celebratory as Max croons "She won't enjoy the summer, 'coz she doesn't turn anybody on." The rhythm section bangs and buzzes along, holding down the tune as Max lets loose a dazzlement of guitar frenzy. Max's right hand works itself into a dervish of upward string-thrashing, culling a variety of sounds before even touching an effects pedal. Meanwhile, his left hand often works the frets like a pump-action shotgun. It really has to be seen, and it's mesmerising. His stage talk is mild mannered, and his voice carries a natural Irish melody, but he shouts and sours during the songs, thoroughly unleashed. In closing, Zack of The Refusniks joins The Grunts onstage to sing the closing numbers, and it all ends with "If The Leader of a Doomsday Cult Said", Max's perversion of the kind of dancefloor anthem they started with.

Sure, they sound a lot like what you know, but in the way that they take their influences and run with them, creating a thoroughly dark, satirical, jubilant and rocking-out that is truly disarming and thoroughly engaging on a number of levels. I have liked The Grunts for a long time, and it's a joy to see them prove they are much more in a live show.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

THE DARK KNIGHT


Christopher Nolan, 2008


1: So much has been written about this flick that my words are purely redundant, but here I go anyhow. A note on my reaction to the phenomenon that is the reaction to The Dark Knight: I saw it and I loved it. Chock full of too much, and yet I felt it to be a brilliant and convincing balancing act. It's pretensions to seriousness are captivating, and it's also great entertainment. To be clear: I have been a fan of the comics medium since I was eleven and although I buy very few super hero titles now (I still buy a lot, but not superhero titles: there are more than enough horror and alternative titles out there to eat into my cash) but I still have a very soft spot for Batman.

And then, inevitably, I sought out critical reaction. There is so much of it, equal parts adoration and hate (perhaps a little more of the former), and both sides were convincing. To varying degrees. Fight scenes incomprehensible? I didn't think so. Ledger over-rated? No. When they fall out, land on the car without a blemish, leaving Joker unchallenged in a party full of people... that's weak on plausibility. Yes it is. The game theory experiment with one "bad" ferry population and one "good" and a button for blowing the other sky-high... plausibility straining and doesn't work. Possibly (but I'll go with it, because it's very Joker). Batman is a fascist. Well, yeh, Batman has always been, to varying degrees, engaged and complicated by issues of fascism. Most self-evidently in Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight" graphic novel.

And so on.
But most of the detractions seemed based upon the premise that, well, pfft, this is a comic book movie. This was declared by those that think "comic book" means "super-hero"; those without knowledge of the breadth and density of the comic book medium. I didn't recall much focus on the fact that being based on a comic was a dubious origin for, say, "Ghost World", "A History of Violence" and "30 Days of Night". In fact, some said it wasn't comic book enough, and how dare it try to be more. I could stock this piecce full of links to pros and cons articles, but it's all out there if you dare. I was disenchanted with the amount of reviews that simply couldn't digest a superhero film that tried to be as dense and outrageously over-reachings as, you know, any other proper film; and at those that felt that picking at presumed plot holes and plausibility weaknesses were a sign that it didn't work as a whole - I don't believe any of the arguable weaknesses of The Dark Knight are enough to bring the whole scaffolding down. No, I thought: it is still a brilliant blockbuster sprawling crime drama, huge and ambitious and fun.

2: The amount of politics surrounding this blockbuster is phenomenal: the Right Wing claming it as their own, even casting Bruce Wayne as a Bush figure; liberals not trusting its somewhat conservative conclusions (police and legal people are okay and stuff, but in the end, you gotta bend the law to clean up the streets). But the fact that a Blockbuster is worth so much debate is considerable, and proper debate, not just nitpicking at its evident weak spots as an act of contrariness. Nolan directs at such speed and with such confidence, you can barely pause to consider all the ideas it’s taking on. Where "Spider-Man 3" was an embarrassment when trying to juggle all its bad-guys, Nolan delivers an extensive roll call of Batman’s finest enemies (The Scarecrow, The Joker, Two-Face) and a batch of organised crime bad-guys too, all without losing grip. You’ve got gun-wielding copycat vigilantes; game-show like moral dilemmas featuring two ferries and explosive devices (vintage Joker! Even is Mark Kermode argues convincingly that the scene doesn‘t work); Bruce Wayne about to step aside to let a brighter light lead the way to cleaning up the streets; the rise and fall of Harvey Dent; the wit and wisdom of Alfred; some show-stopping action scenes; and then you have the Joker.

Heath Ledger’s Joker is a revelation and deserving of every accolade given. His Joker comes from the inside-out, rather than the Nicholson outside-in showman. Is this the first comic book adaptation to actually give a sense that absurd characters like Joker and Two-Face could actually exist? Nolan’s fidelity to credibility gives the whole excessive carnival a realism. That Joker slash-mouth and caked face-paint make-up is a true stroke of genius. It never fails to unsettle and convince simultaneously. Rightly, the Joker here is a sado-masochist whose freakish appearance and alarming manner obscure a frighteningly precise intelligence - here, he’s smarter than Batman, it seems. Even in losing, Joker is victorious for the losses, sacrifices, compromises and horrors of what madness and chaos can truly achieve have been too great. And Ledger is funny: not because he is given lame quips; it’s in the performance, from the first moment he walks on, seemingly mocking his own manic laugh.

The whole show tries to have all its cake and then some, biting off more than it can chew, genuinely trying to exceed it’s superhero origins. Mostly it holds up and where it doesn’t, entertainment and ambition make up for it. It is in the little choices where it impresses: so kinetic, stuffed and fast is the plot and action that you might miss the subversion of the conclusion one expects from supero-hero films ("Iron Man", "The incredible Hulk", "Hellboy" etc.): there is no final fistfight resolving things here; rather we are left with more moral dilemmas and the nominally good haggling with the bad over the life of a child.

August-September filmwatch: Hitcockian, man-made and monsterous and incoherent horrors

It occurs to me that all the films I have watched in this period were horror films to some degree or other. “Night of the Sunflowers” isn’t strictly a horror film, but it has horror and thriller ingredients and, like “The Mist” is concerned with the fear of the mistakes that we make. Similarly, “Rear Window” isn’t strictly a horror, but it is a murder mystery with some barely concealed dwelling on dismemberment. “Disturbia” gives “Rear Window” to Twenty-First Century youths - and there is also a decidedly retro-Hitcockian feel to “Vacancy” which, like “Them”, reduces the couple-under-siege, psychological torture tour-de-forces of modern horror down to the bare bones in tight, brief packages. I also saw a good monster movie, and some terrible, terrible ones…



Night of the Sunflowers / Noche de los girasoles, La

(Jorge Sanchez-Cabezudo, 2006)
- Spanish thriller more concerned with the environmental influences and errors of judgement than just the mechanics of the murder. In rural Spain, there are dead towns, dead-end lives and rapists at large. Ugly opportunities are taken for a variety of reasons: to escape small town life; to preserve the civilised life one has; to succumb to barely repressed sexual and murderous urges. There is black humour too: the only two residents of a deserted town are locked in a stubborn feudal conflict. Excellently performed and revealed through a non-linear, multi-perspective narrative, this makes for a slightly chilly and absorbing thriller.





Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest
(James D.R. Hickox, 1995)
Inexplicably long-running series: this third offering starts with interesting enough good/bad siblings and country/city conflicts, but descends into a hilarious final monster attack in which toy humans get devoured… the kind of deliriously bad effect you probably wouldn’t have thought possible in the modern age. And the monster monent strangely winning for that. Otherwise, there are a couple of nasty deaths, some choppy narrative, increasing incoherence and a strong central performance by Daniel Cerny as Eli holding the nonsense together.

Darkness

(Jaume Balagueró , 2002)Despite early promise and some good ghostly reveals, “Darkness” is a total incoherent mess that doesn’t know what on earth it is. Increasingly silly character behaviour and cripplingly bad dialogue add to the groans. The first clue is that all the carefully composed moments of spookiness give way to strobe-cutting flashback ‘scares’, a latterday horror film tic that acts more to diffuse unease and real scares. By the time we get to things crawling across ceilings, all coherence and interest has long since been lost. Bafflingly bad.



Dinocroc
(Kevin O'Neill, 2004)
- Unremarkable but fun enough monster flick from the Roger Corman. The Dinocroc is more Raptor-Rex wannabe; the Australian croc hunter is all Paul Hogan and probably offensively stereotypical; the bad guys are the heartless company scientists, and there are plenty of moments you recognise as being done better in other films… Notable only for its grandstanding set piece where the horror kid, usually savvy and resourceful, doesn’t make it past halfway through the film.


Them/Ils
(David Moreau & Xavier Palud, 2006)Stripped down shocker, wins for washed out ghost-house look and genuinely frightening mid-section, and for leaping into something a little more surprisingly socially charged by the end. Probably doesn’t wholly gel, but it proves the old premise of a couple under siege and terrorised from unknown tormenters can still work with a cool aesthetic, good scares, a little artiness and a dab of social commentary. Highly recommended.


Disturbia

(D.J. Caruso, 2007)- “Rear Window” for sexy Twenty-First Century teens; or “My Summer Of Murders”. Reaches its peak early with its opening car-crash and despite Shia Labouf’s winningly natural performance, quickly exposes itself as having little new to offer. There’s no suspense concerning whether or not the neighbour is a serial killer (he is) or whether the hot girl next door will get it on with our main man (she does) or whether it will all ultimately play safe whilst indulging in an excessive and unnecessary faux-gothic ending (it does). Unlike Hitchcock, there is no interest here on the nature of voyeurism or people and privacy. Reminded me a lot of those 1980s Hollywood serial killer flicks: slightly edgy, enjoyable in passing, but ultimately toothless.


Rear Window

(Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)The real deal. Stuck at home overlooking his neighbours in the square, James Stewart does what comes naturally to a photographer, or anyone with an artistic bent, and becomes voyeuristic in both appreciation of his neighbours and for cheap spying thrills. He’s also avoiding committing to his gorgeous girlfriend… but luckily their love-life spices up when she too is convinced that the neighbour across the way has murdered his wife. Little perversities and kinks like this are quintessential Hitchcock and all the better for not being overstated. Likewise, there is plenty of grisliness going on, just not on camera. Plus, slowly, we too get involved with the little life stories of the neighbours, so it’s not just an exercise in cinematic and narrative high concept cleverness, though it’s that too. For all his reputed detachment and odd callousness, Hitchcock’s design shows real empathy for those populating the tiny films in the windows opposite.



Devil Times Five
(Sean MacGregor (& David Sheldon [uncredited]), 1974)
One of those rewarding little oddities for those that enjoy rough-edged low budget strangeness and exploitation with slightly offbeat trimmings. In the 1970s, a bunch of adults under the domineering finger of Papa Doc head out to a summer house for business and bonding; simultaneously, a bus carrying a bunch of homicidal kids crashes and lets loose the murderous gang. I am not sure what kind of institution for the mentally ill would allow their young charges to dress up in the cookie clothes of their own choosing, but there ya go. There’s some gratuitous breast-revealing bitch-fighting, a thoroughly contrived death-by-piranha, some padding here and there as murder scenes play out in slow….slow-motion, some solid b-movie acting… It is never quite as interesting as it ought to be: the precocious intelligent kid (Leif Garrett) is always undermined by the one that dresses like a soldier and spouts military speak evidently learnt from bad war movies. Leif is the most bizarre, even alongside the homicidal nun, as he goes tearing off a wig every now and then, cross-dressing in the film’s one surprise reveal, and cursing, purring vengefully, ambiguously, “That’s it! You’re all mine, Harvey Beckerman.” Filmed by two different directors when the first didn’t produce enough usable material, then in true z-movie fashion it went through a number of monikers, “Devils Time Five” is probably less than the sum of its oddness, but it has plenty of interest and strangeness to interest.


Vacancy
(Nimród Antal, 2007)
Another stripped-down terrorised couple flick, more Hitchcock-that-never-was. More modest and less memorable than “Them/Ils”, but this too has a frightening midsection and wins with excellent production design and retro-packaging. The excellent Saul Bass-like credit sequences give way to motel décor that evoke a set left over from a film that hasn’t yet heard that Hitchcock has been dead a while, and yet, strangely, has heard of snuff films and ‘70s exploitation. Excellent performances from the leads and credible characterisations help immensely. Nothing new, but solid, fairly scary and enjoyable.





Hellboy: Blood & Iron
(Victor Cook & Tad Stones, 2007, TV film)
Another animated film from Hellboy, after the Oriental horrors of “Storm of Swords”. This is a slightly lesser tale, but nevertheless stays true to the Hellboy formula: losts of monsters and ghosts, a story that escalates into near-incoherence, all knocked into conclusion with a fist-fight showdown. And Hellboy says “Oh crap” at some point. Engrossing with fine voice work and chock full of weirdoes, creepiness and monster excess.


Wilderness
(Michael J Bassett, 2006)- A bunch of youth offenders are sent to an island for a “rehabilitative” exercise after they are all held responsible for driving one of their own to suicide. The packaging for “Wilderness” has a pair of monstrous jaws coming for you, but don’t be fooled: there are no monsters here, and the horror of killer dogs is secondary to the “Deliverance”-style revenge flick. The barking monstrosities are, ya know, “us”. The characters are so repulsive and weak, and their dialogue the same, that there is nothing to care about and no reason to worry or be scared. A couple of gory death scenes divert, but, just like director Michael J. Basset’s equally terrible “Death Watch”, the initially intriguing set-up devolves rapidly. Everything caves into macho posturing and absurd bickering in lieu of drama, so that it all ends up bellowing such absurdities as “Kill me like a man!” The worst kind of cheap, weak British soap operatics with some kinda juvenile pretensions to social commentary. Avoid.


The Garden
(Don Michael Paul, 2006)
Garbled religiously-themed horror. Lance Henrickson is the Devil in a country old-timer guise, trying to tempt someone to eat from the tree from Eden, growing just outside his house in view of the porch. Everything is undermined by the fact that characters react in an unconvincing manner throughout. All credibility is subservient to plot whim and plot points mostly come to nothing. The boy goes through enough to be traumatised ten times over, but his only reaction is to act piously. Annoyingly pious. There is a religious scientist who tells the boy’s father that the kid has visions of another dimension… and no one bats an eyelid. The boy has a history of self-harm but this doesn’t seem to bother anyone much. When he cuts himself during an obligatory session of bullying, the bully apparently just gets tutted at … and the self-harm comes to nothing. The ghosts of the victims… come to nothing. The visions… come to nothing. When the father and son have a serious car crash, all they need is a little bed rest. When the annoying scientist lady get murdered, no one follows it up. When the boy sees the irritatingly smug scientist lady murdered by the sinister old man Lance… he does nothing and he and the Devil just use Chess metaphors to confront on another. When the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse turn up, they exercise their penchant for slice-and-dice horror and then… well, then everyone nods at each other, what with the Devil having been defeated and all. One wonders if they are all going to group hug and praise the lord, ghosts and all. There’s probably something interesting trying to get out, but it becomes obvious that there’s nothing to creep the audience out, or to make sense, long before the end.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

THE MIST




On the story "The Mist"

Stephen King adaptations are a sub-genre unto themselves, and contribute some of the very best and the very worst to horror. I always considered King a kind of Spielberg to horror literature: incredibly popular, evidently artful storyteller and almost completely hobbled by key flaws. In Spielberg it’s the infamous sentimentality; in King it’s a broad crassness and borderline narcissism. Spielberg’s crassest excesses are to all to be found distilled into his one directorial effort so far: "Maximum Overdrive", an ode to dumb popcorn horror so unapologetic, it’s like the dumbest pal you ever had throwing that popcorn at you for feature length between calling you stupid made-up names, laughing obnoxiously and telling you, himself, how dumb and unapologetic he is. That King often misjudges his own strengths is evident simply by comparing Kubrick’s "The Shining" and King’s proposed corrective, his own TV series of the same considerable novel. That King didn’t like Kubrick’s film, and purloined Kubrick’s treatment of key moments, is surely a warning sign that he can miss the point. The whole ending of "It" is also another indicator: it is quite simply one of the most jaw-droppingly bad showdowns in the history of literature.

But to the good: at his best, at his least-self-referential, King is an immensely satisfying read, with a handling of broad character types as sure-footed as Dickens. However illogical and unfocused his stories can be, however annoying and distracting some of his literary tics are, he serves up some solid and highly memorable concepts, conceits, scares and stories. He has a wide enough scope and an irrepressible desire for prose, regardless of actually how good he is. You know, he tries, and he tries hard. He is not, as the CEO of Simon & Schuster once said, "non-literature", no matter his flaws and failures. He is an erratic, unreliable but always tempting brand.

"The Mist" is the novella that opens his anthology "Skeleton Crew", a collection that is dense and full of treats (as opposed to "Night Shift", which is, by the way, a collection of badly written and under-conceived horror snippets). "The Mist" benefits from the briefer length: it lacks those aforementioned tedious tics you find in much of King’s work: for example, the italicised repetitions and catchphrases which trip you up when you are happily trying to walk on. After a violent and destructive storm, a man and his son head for the supermarket to get supplies and find themselves stranded there by a mist full of monsters from ols B-movies, Bosch and Lovecraft. But these monsters are not what King is particularly interested in: rather it is the reaction of a group of people thrown together, trapped and subjected to fear and an undefeatable enemy. The story is populated by standard King-types, all quickly drawn and immediately both broad and convincing, who are then subjected to a sequence of increasingly nasty and upsetting set-pieces. The monsters attack, hysteria sets in, the monsters attack again; some of the people make a failed attempt to get further supplies; more hysteria sets in and there are murmurings about sacrificial offerings… The story is streamlined and meanders only for visions of God and a little angst-of-the-artist: our protagonist is an artist who muses on why does it feel like dying when you realise you are only a good rather than a remarkable artist. But in this piece at least, King seems to know his limitations and leaves the piece open-ended: not in that annoying, "it’s-not-really-over" manner (e.g., "Pet Sematary"), but more like Hitchcock’s "The Birds". There is no conclusion, just a wandering out into the unknowable apocalypse.
mist-actors


On the film "The Mist"

Ever since the cinematic revolution of post-Vietnam unhappy and ironic endings freed by the likes of "Night of the Living Dead", "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Easy Rider", we know that the worst might happen. Frank Darabont’s adaptation of "The Mist" takes King’s concept to its logical conclusion, one that King hints at but did not bring himself to render. The original story leaves itself open-ended: "but you mustn’t expect some neat conclusion", King says, trying to offer up the inconclusive as subversive storytelling. But Darabont takes a throwaway hint, a single sentence, and runs with it. You’ll know the sentence when you read it.

The film has all the ingredients mentioned from the original story and takes its time filling out the set-pieces and turning the screws. It works as a nod to old fashioned monster movies and feels especially resonant of the bright fun-chew horror flicks of the '80s, and not in a bad way. But there are no hammy or camp inclinations here, despite the scenery-chewing of prime villainess Miss Carmody and dodgy CGI tentacles. "The Mist" is deadly serious and ultimately a more successful post-9/11 film than Shyamanlan’s "Signs". "Signs" erred on the side of ‘faith’, and "The Mist" comes like a corrective, carrying a weight of conflict-weariness and the dangerous properties of fear and fear-mongering. There are solid performances, both broad and subtle; some fun if conventional monsters; a real claustrophobia; a credible escalation of character behaviour and drama; some nasty gore; but it’s the ending that elevates "The Mist" into something more troubling and worth discussing.

In going one step further than its source material, Darabont’s "The Mist" (he is also the screenwriter) offers an escalation of bad luck, bad decisions and a sense of deeper horror than just crazy evangelical women and monsters: it offers the horror of your bad luck and your bad decisions occurring when knee-deep in fear and trying to survive an unstoppable threat, if not the end of the world.

It is from this argument - that Darabont is attempting to evoke deeper layers of horror - that I cannot agree with those criticisms that ending of "The Mist" is cheap nihilism, pointless and a cop-out. There is no big showdown, just an excursion into a real feel-bad ending, alleviated only by a beautiful, surreal vision of a gigantic God-like Lovecraftian monster wandering in the mist. The fear is that being saved may not be enough, that it may come too late. This conclusion troubles because it is unfair: in more 'spiritual' terms, they give up hope too early. When we know how test screenings and the pressure for happy, emotionally conclusive endings have ruined many films - not least, the Will Smith "I Am Legend" - Darabont’s insistence on a double-edged resolution seems audacious. I’ll venture that some commentators dismissal of Darabont’s ending stems from a refusal to accept its injustice. But, as I have already said, injustice and bad luck are deep, profound dreads, and that is why Darabont’s "The Mist" adaptation generates emotional horror from a more conventional source.

Note: firstshowing.net reports that King approves of Darabont's ending. The official statement is: "Frank wrote a new ending that I loved. It is the most shocking ending ever and there should be a law passed stating that anybody who reveals the last 5 minutes of this film should be hung from their neck until dead." -

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS


Coleman Francis, 1961, USA


To the "bad film" aficionado, there is nothing quite like the consummate incompetence of an old B-monster B-film. "The Beast of Yucca Flats" is a fine example of that complete ineptitude. Every scene aches with poor timing, bad narration or dialogue, weak or nonexistant acting and action... you see better on youtube these days. But it takes a special lameness to elevate a film to cult bad status, and "Yucca" has it. Hmm, being English, I briefly but stupidly misread the title as meaning some menace of a housing estate of some kind; but nope, Yucca flats is open terrain used for - uhoh - ATOMIC TESTING!! What will it be next? Ants? Scorpions?? Coyotes??? No, it's Tor Johnson! He's a - ahem - Russian agent defecting to the USA, carrying a suitcase full of secrets that actually provides the film's one notable special effect.


Wait, first, a pre-credits sequence that has a breast-bearing woman being murdered in her room by over-sized hands. Well, we would guess these are the hands of "The Beast", and although we don't see his face, those hands and that butt which blocks out the screen and alludes to necrophilia look big enough to be Tor's. This poses a chronological and narrative quandary: since Tor spends all his time raging from a cave out on the flats, whose home is this and at what point did he commit this murder? And who the hell was she? The only plausible explanation is that this is Tor's murdered wife, mentioned in narration... but those hands are so big... can't... compute.... we soon discover that, no, the scene was just there for the titillation. To the "ominous" sound of a ticking clock - and boy, those clocks sure ticked loudly in those days, huh? - this has to be the most quiet and sleepiest murder ever put to screen. Actually, this will be typical of the entire film: people don't seem to die; rather they fall into states of chronic drowsiness. Hmm, same as the dialogue, which seems to get more disinterested as the film goes on. You can also practically see and hear the man with the stick trying to prod the actors to, you know, do something. But not the narrator. Oh no. Not him. He's got things on his mind. Important things. Frightening things. Prophetic things. Appalled. Random. Things. Progress. Science. Inhumanity. Fate. Coyotes. Flying Saucers. Well, it's hard to tell why he mentions flying saucers, but one obviously fluttered through his mind when giving his droll running commentary. "Nothing bothers some people. Not even flying saucers," he says. Man, that's so good, I'm making it as a reusable by-line and quote for a long time to come!

According to (the wonderful) jabootu.com, the soundtrack for "Yucca" was lost and so what we have is quite a disjointed experience. No natural ambience, just sound effects trowelled on and dialogue recorded with a tin can found on the flats replacing a more costly microphone. It all fits together with all the finesse of Robot Monster's expressive hand gestures to his dialogue: almost. Not quite. Figuratively. But what this does mean is that we get the priceless narration, which surely marks out "Yucca Flats" from its bad movie peers. "Flag on the Moon. How did it get there?" he says, apropos of nothing. Oh, wait, this is some cool, abstract reference to Professor "Tor" Javorsky's "secret plans" with which he arrives at Yucca flats. But uhoh, Russian agents are waiting with their sneaky plan of trying to kill him a the airport with open gunplay and follow-on car chase. The most somnambulistic car chase in cinema. Geez, even the cars looks like they can't be bothered. They seemingly chase all day into the night... no, wait, it's day... no: night... no: day. There's finally a stand-off: guns fire randomly and unconvincingly; some guys fall asleep... oh, they are dying... Tor simply walks away. At a snail's pace. He looks like walking is going to make him pass out. He's a big guy ... I guess the bad guys never went to target practice.
He's also a big Swedish former wrestler... hmm, wonder if that will come in handy later? But what do you know, Tor "flees" from his assassins into an atomic testing zone!!
His briefcase smoulders.
Symbolically.
And that is the best visual and effect of the film.

Ah, to be fair, not even director/writer/narrator Coleman Francis can quite ruin the natural stark beauty of "Yucca Flats". And we'll see a lot of them. Otherwise there's a moment of random cleavage from character Jim Archer's wife, but we don't see her again and otherwise it's the flats for us. The beast kills a young couple who stop out on the highway, or at least grapples them into heavy slumber. I could mention how badly staged this is - Tor seems to be in the back seat one moment, without the woman noticing, then he's outside... oh what's the use? It's quite painful watching Tor - all Beasted up with what looks like randomly applied flour patches on his face - trying to lumber across the flats with the woman under his arm. He looks likes he'll have a hernia at any moment, and you keep waiting for him to drop her. No monstrous striding for Yucca Beast, just some awkward lumbering. You'd think that there might be some military presence, the flats being the site of atomic testing and all; and you might expect to see a soldier or two, what with all that "killing" going on. Surely they've seen the "Beast Kills Man and Wife" headline? But nope, what we have instead are dumb-ass Jim and Joe from the Sheriff's department. Their plan seems to be focusing on a single plateau - they must have had a map of the vast flats and just stuck a pin in someplace - which just happens to be where Tor-Beast is hiding out, fondling his female's hair. Now, the whole scenario concerning the unreachable plateau is the subject of much head-slapping from almost every review on "Yucca". But not this one. It's just plain stupid though. Anyway, Jim and Joe get to Tor's corpse bride... wait, no, she's alive (??!), and they... wait, no, she's dead (!!?).


Next up are a family who stop at a gas station - "Boys from the city, not yet caught in the whirlwind of progress, feed soda pop to the thirsty pigs." - And, hey, there's a coyote. Tor could do with a radioactively enhanced coyote. Sure! "Coyotes... once a menace to... travellers...missile bases... run them off their hunting grounds." Oh. Oh well. That's out then. No atomic coyotes after all. Anyhow, after the thrilling gas station visit, the family go out onto the open road and get a flat tyre in the Beast's general vicinity. Well, it looks like the exact same spot as the attacked travellers earlier... The two boys wander off like tumbleweed and when their dad Hank goes in pursuit, the cruel Tor-like hands of fate, or "man's inhumanity to man", intercedes and - for no good reason - he is mistaken for the killer. This'll be the shoot first, questions later philosophy of Jim and Joe who are flying around Yucca, searching for The Beast. It's not quite "North By Northwest", since (a) it is absurd they would open fire, and (b) they aren't really flying, now are they? Just a camera tilting up in a close-up of the plane window. Anyway, he gets back to his wife, leaves her there, takes the car to get help (!!), and.... bah. The kids just happen to stumble on the Beast, who dynamically WALKS after them and somehow herds them into his formerly inaccessible cave. Beast returns home and expresses his rage at finding the woman gone by throwing a rock and making bad I'm-A-Monster grunts.
ARRGH! fumes Tor.
The kids get out, the Beast WALKS in threatening pursuit, Jim and Joe attack him, there’s a bit of a struggle in which The Beast exhibits some strangely Swedish wrestler-like manoeuvres. He's dead... Jim and Joe are relieved. A little bunny rabbit - according to legend, unscripted and seizing its chance at scene-stealing brilliance - hops up to the body of The Beast who then comes awake again - Tor Johnson apparently also seizing his moment at unscripted and improvised pathos - kisses the bunny and expires. Hmm, Jim and Joe didn't really check he was allll dead then.


"The Beast of Yucca Flats" oozes desperation. It's desperate to pad out its barely-an-hour running time. Desperate to create tragedy, creeping menace, narrative, action.... desperate to make one minute look credible. It's tough to sit through all in one go. Take a pillow. But it is enjoyably bad, although it can't even muster enough energy to be wonderfully bad, like "Robot Monster" and Tor's other crowning achievement, "Plan 9 From Outer Space". I guess they tried. But when a small desert bunny out-does everything else in a 'monster' film, you know that film is in trouble.

Friday, 25 July 2008

JAMES BOND... and me.

Growing up in the seventies and eighties, it's inevitable that I grew up with Bond in some way. Bond sign-posted special occassions, such as Bank Holidays and Christmas. There was always a 007 to catch up on or remind yourself of, always heralded with "Bond. Is. Back." It was near enough a patriotic duty to watch the Bond... practically mandatory... and I guess it is still meant to be. I was a kid when I saw "The Spy Who Loved Me," "Moonraker" and "For Your Eyes Only" at the cinema (1977, '79' '81) What do I recall remembering about them? Richard Kiel as Jaws, an arachnid-like underwater base; "Star Wars" tendencies and a "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" security code gag; A parrot and some snow. When you're young, you're quite innoculated to the tackiness of these 007 outings, you go with the silliness and the puns - which I was used to from the "Carry On" films and Saturday night TV. I remember watching "Octopussy" ('83) when it came out, renting it on VHS of course, and watching it maybe two or three times in a week. Dear Lord, how weak and camp it actually turned out to be.

Of course, these weren't my only points of reference for Bond: I knew all the earlier stuff. "You Only Live Twice", for example. I was intrigued at the conundrum of the title, and knew I loved the sweeping strings of John Barry's music and the longing in the theme song. And I loved it equally when the Trash Can Sinatras did a heartbreaking cover of it. I remember thinking Roger Moore was the "funny" bond ... I didn't know what 'tongue-in-cheek' was, but I knew that "From Russia With Love" wasn't it. No, Bond number two related far more to my knowledge of steely, humourless Cold War-esque Seventies thrillers. I knew Bond was exotic, because he travelled and kick butt in countries that were only now being promised to us with the incredible opportunities of Concorde and and developing holiday industries. I knew Bond slept with any attractive woman onscreen and that they all had dirty names, not that I could quite work out why or how. I knew he wasn't part of the real world.

Apart from the mini Austin Martin car I possessed (pop-up bulletproof shield and ejector-seat! - the latter doomed to be lost...somewhere...), I also owned a book of Bond. Probably called "Book of Bond", I forget. It was a book without a wraparound jacket, so I was left with the serious black hardcover to contemplate. Inside, the book was packed with all the things you had to have or do or know to be a spy. I was young and impressionably and took much of this as rote and truth, and it panicked me that you had to have, do or know these things. It was threatening and anxiety-provoking because it seemed to be an anology for all the adult things I would have to do, and couldn't, and was expected to succeed at. Masculine things.

And Bond is nothing if not an mythical machismo. Being British, of course, it is suave and viper-like. It cuts you down with a deadly karate move and a neat one-liner, set off with either a sadistic smirk or raised eyebrow. And in a suit. It's very British, that. You reserved and repressed yourself until the right moment, and then struck at just the correct point in a surge of precise violence. I'd seen "The Avengers" and I adored "The Prisoner", so I knew all this. Americans, however, were earthier men, in cowboy and soldier outfits, chomping cigars with shark-like teeth a'la James Coburn, Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. Or Magnum P.I. I like, and probably still like Bond best when he is silent, suited and deadly. Bond versus Oddjob... well, that was glorious. Lethal Englishness against the inscrutability of the East.

I also knew that "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" was meant to be the crap one, because it had that other Bond who only appeared once. But that's a general fallacy, it seems, and I note a lot of reclamation of George Lazenby's outing in later criticism by more serious aficianados. Truth is, Lazenby does seem to be the perfect embodiment of the morphing from hallowed Connery to variable Moore. He looks and acts like he handle himself in a fight, and yet comes burdened with those puns that diffuse the horror of his murderous manner. "He branched off." Despite this, it was a film that, for all its silliness of brainwashed colour-coded national females stereotypes and so on, tried to have the sharper edge of the first Bonds. Oh yes, and tried to shade him in with an ill-fated wife. Diana Rigg makes the film, and when she turns up late in the adventure on the ice rink and smiles, you realise how sorely she's been missed for the middle chunk. The other fluff can't compete. And Lazenby was unfairly dismissed. "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" still seemed to possess the Bond qualities that I liked most: good action; a certain edge of threat, rather than the TV-humour, tacky moments and excesses of, say, "Live and Let Die". Does the franchise's humour and campness increase as Bond's misogyny and sadism falls out of favour towards the Twenty-First Century? And yet Dalton was chastised for returning to the earlier seriousness... Brosnan settled a happy medium for a while.

And now there is that new Bond... with added pain again. It seems this time, it's being embraced. Zero tolerance and no-nonsense retaliation is thoroughly in vogue. The difference is that I have long since stopped being mildly excited at the promise of a Bond. I might go see "Casino Royale", I'm not sure. Last year, I read an A-Z of "Goldfinger", full of details on the development and history of the film, and my curiosity was aroused again. I have decided at some point to add the first three 007s to my collection, but I think my interest proper now in the series ends with "On Her Majesty's Secret Service". Is Bond evergreen and seemingly endlessly remakeable because the legend and market tells us so? The brand is still strong, and the critics are saying "Casino Royale" 2006 is best one in a long time, and perhaps my curiosity is sparked again...

But really, I was always more of a Harry Palmer guy. Now, that Ipcress dilemma seemed closer to home and far more disturbing for it.



CASINO ROYALE

Ian Fleming, 1953


~ What is most alarming about Fleming's novel and Bond, and what causes reservations about the romp, is the misogyny. Yes, we know Bond is a man's man and that he's a bit of a sexist from the film, therefore ditto Fleming, but nothing quite prepares for his aggression and immaturity concerning women. Vesper is a "bitch" even before he has met her; she's going to be a hinderance with her feelings and girl stuff. Why couldn't she stay in the kitchen? Or more exactly, when Vesper has been kidnapped by professional, ruthless killers:

This was just what [Bond] had been afraid of. These blithering women who thought they could do a man's work. Why the hell couldn't they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men's work to the men. ... For Vesper to fall for an old trick like that and get herself snatched and probably held to ranson like some bloody heroine in a strip cartoon. The silly bitch. (pg.116)

Or: for Bond to spiel such a stream of impassioned invective, like some cartoon ex-Etonian stereotype from a bygone age. The silly buffoon. Caresses, it seems, are for Bentley's and for a villain's gaze upon the naked spy he is about to torture. Not for a "damn fool girl getting herself trussed up like a chicken, having her skirt pulled over her head as if the whole of this business was some kind of dormitory rag." (pg. 124) And let us not forget that, even if by proxy, it is Vesper that almost brings about Bond's emasculiantion. That's women for you.

But even this isn't quite the extent of Bond's immaturity. Whenever something goes wrong, he tends to blame others: if it isn't Vesper, then perhaps it is the fault of "M" and the Secret Service for not warning him of the superior villainy of his adversary. When initially beaten at baccarat, and when tortured and told how he cannot win, Bond seems just to give up in an instant. Is this truly an efficent, pragmatic and dependable spy we thought we knew (we can omit the superhuman elements)? And no, this doesn't necessarily imbue him with a more complex humanity: upon scrutiny, it is the immaturity that rises to the surface.

More surprising, having been nearly emasculinated, Bond lays in his hospital bed and has an existential, ethical crisis. Having been forced to identify with his adversary in the increasingly sado-masochistic torture triste, Bond finds himself questioning his whole stand. Is he really on the side of good? Are his actions and motivations uninpeachable? Does patriotism justify his career? Was Les Chifre truly the face of evil, and would patriotism justify his actions? How can Bond assure himself of his own righteousness? Bond seemingly starts to grow up, or at least belatedly starts to grasp the complexity and subjectivity of behaviour, politics, morality, his whole profession and so on. When a man has almost been made a eunuch, he begins to reflect. But this, indeed, does give Bond some true shading and certainly this chapter sets literary Bond apart from his cinematic interpretation.

Elsewhere, there is much to enjoy in this boy' s own romp. The concentration on a baccarat game rather than world domination. A streamlined narrative focused on a handful of set-pieces and an uncomplicated prose: Casino; torture; hospital; Vesper. Then there is the appealingly cartoonish portrayal of secret agents and evil organisations; and, yes, a formidable protagonist. Fleming proposes a seductive world of exotic locations and foreign menaces, something drawing from the Cold War era and looking towards the brave new world of affordable international travel and luxuries a decade or two ahead. Even now, it's a neverland that still captures culture's imagination. The 007 premise, it seems, is still durable in its datedness and still capable of appeal and being contemporised for new centuries.

Buck vs. Fleming



CASINO ROYALE

Ian Fleming, 1953




The novel - What is most alarming about Fleming's novel and Bond, and what causes reservations about the romp, is the misogyny. Yes, we know Bond is a man's man and that he's a bit of a sexist from the films, and so ditto Fleming, but nothing quite prepares for this aggression and immaturity concerning women. Vesper is a "bitch" even before he has met her; she's going to be a hinderance with her feelings and girl stuff. Why couldn't she stay in the kitchen? Or more exactly, when Vesper has been kidnapped by professional, ruthless killers:

This was just what [Bond] had been afraid of. These blithering women who thought they could do a man's work. Why the hell couldn't they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men's work to the men. ... For Vesper to fall for an old trick like that and get herself snatched and probably held to ranson like some bloody heroine in a strip cartoon. The silly bitch. (pg.116)

Or: for Bond to spiel such a stream of impassioned invective, like some cartoon ex-Etonian stereotype from a bygone age. The silly buffoon. Caresses, it seems, are for Bentley's and for a villain's gaze upon the naked spy he is about to torture. Not for a "damn fool girl getting herself trussed up like a chicken, having her skirt pulled over her head as if the whole of this business was some kind of dormitory rag." (pg. 124) And let us not forget that, even if by proxy, it is Vesper that almost brings about Bond's emasculiantion. That's women for you.

But even this isn't quite the extent of Bond's immaturity. Whenever something goes wrong, he tends to blame others: if it isn't Vesper, then perhaps it is the fault of "M" and the Secret Service for not warning him of the superior villainy of his adversary. When initially beaten at baccarat, and when tortured and told how he cannot win, Bond seems just to give up in an instant. Is this truly an efficent, pragmatic and dependable spy we thought we knew (we can omit the superhuman elements)? And no, this doesn't necessarily imbue him with a more complex humanity: upon scrutiny, it is the immaturity that rises to the surface.

More surprising, having been nearly emasculinated, Bond lays in his hospital bed and has an existential, ethical crisis. Having been forced to identify with his adversary in the increasingly sado-masochistic torture triste, Bond finds himself questioning his whole stand. Is he really on the side of good? Are his actions and motivations uninpeachable? Does patriotism justify his career? Was Les Chifre truly the face of evil, and would patriotism justify his actions? How can Bond assure himself of his own righteousness? Bond seemingly starts to grow up, or at least belatedly starts to grasp the complexity and subjectivity of behaviour, politics, morality, his whole profession and so on. When a man has almost been made a eunuch, he begins to reflect. But this, indeed, does give Bond some true shading and certainly this chapter sets literary Bond apart from his cinematic interpretation.

Elsewhere, there is much to enjoy in this boy' s own romp. The concentration on a baccarat game rather than world domination. A streamlined narrative focused on a handful of set-pieces and an uncomplicated prose: Casino; torture; hospital; Vesper. Then there is the appealingly cartoonish portrayal of secret agents and evil organisations; and, yes, a formidable protagonist. Fleming proposes a seductive world of exotic locations and foreign menaces, something drawing from the Cold War era and looking towards the brave new world of affordable international travel and luxuries a decade or two ahead. Even now, it's a neverland that still captures culture's imagination. The 007 premise, it seems, is still durable in its datedness and still capable of appeal and being contemporised for new centuries.