Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Creeper Convention:

Lemora-A Child's Tale of the Supernatural 

 

The 70's was a great time for poster art.

Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1975) is a film that I saw a week ago, and I'm still having flashbacks to it. Remembering Lemora isn’t hard; forgetting it will be a bitch.

Lemora is a film about the corruption of Lila Lee (Cheryl Smith), a thirteen year old girl who tries to rescue her mob boss father from the clutches of Lemora, a vampiress, a witch and possibly a pedophile. Lila’s journey is punctuated with many potential pederasts, from her sweating minister foster father to the bus attendant who offers her cream filled chocolates to swarms of feral vampires who want to make her their queen. Scenes of Lila and Lemora are especially cringe worthy as the pale, unblinking, middle-aged vampiress encourages hair brushing and sponge baths.


Call child services immediately.

 A sharp-eyed friend made comparisons between The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Alice in Wonderland (1951); the concept of a defenseless young female is also echoed in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). The most frustrating thing about Lemora is that Lila is a completely passive character. She has none of Dorothy’s sense of fair play, Alice’s inherent curiosity or Ofelia’s precociousness. She just wanders from the clutches of one group of mean-and-nasties to another. At first, this makes you feel tense, but eventually it just makes the second act drag. In movies, if the heroes are active, we’re active. If they are wandering aimlessly in the spooky woods, we’re looking at our watch.


This is the part where she meets the Cheshire cat. 


Lemora is built less like a film and more like a haunted house: The back story is an excuse for atmosphere. As a haunted house, it succeeds. In one room, Lila is circled by a milky-eyed old woman who sings in nursery rhyme. In another, Lila sips a red, non-wine liquid as Lemora holds court with a half-dozen of her vampire Gypsy children. Lila stumbles through misshapen sets that echo The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Like Carnival of Souls (1962) or Eraserhead (1977), Lemora is a series of macabre images strung together by a modicum of plot.


This is where the film shines.  This shot looks like it was painted in oils.

What plot there is echoes Le Fanu’s Carmilla, a Gothic novella published in 1872. Written 25 years prior to Dracula, it describes a vampiress’s seduction of a young girl.


Lemora on the left, Carmilla on the right.

Lemora keeps the seduction, but drops Lila’s age to worrisome levels. Not that Lila looks like a teenager; she’s played by an actress in her early twenties. So many problems could have been solved by aging Lila up while still keeping the concept of loss of innocence.  Lemora made its choice though, even going so far to remind you by placing “child” in the title. In the end, you just want to stand up and say “This is weird! You’re a vampire. He’s a werewolf. She’s 13. And there are all these creepy Gypsy children everywhere! You’re a witch now? That wasn’t clear. Now it’s over? What?”


If you're confused, tough.

The real tragedy isn’t Lemora’s descent, but that such strong visuals are tied to a gobbler of a script. It’s a great film for Halloween parties; just be sure to put it on mute.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Give Me Back My Shoes: 

The Teratology of The Bad Seed


Do NOT reveal the ending.


Psychopaths thrive in our culture by exhibiting boldness, confidence and total self-interest. Success makes psychopaths sexy, and that means we want to see them in film and television shows, doing all the wonderful horrible things that common decency stops us from doing (see Patrick Bateman and Dexter Morgan for details). But even psychopaths were children once, and the question of what to do with evil children is a bit of anxiety-gristle upon which pop culture likes to chew, as shown by The Omen (1976), Children of the Corn (1984), The Children (2008) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). But the queen of these pint-sized monsters is Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack), child star of The Bad Seed (1956), a film about a pigtailed suburban girl with a secret.


Revelations 13.1: And I stood upon the sea, and saw a beast rise
up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns and pigtails


Rhoda is an adult in a child’s body: She curtsies, she prefers talking with her mother’s friends than to other school children, she is downright elegant. Most important, she’s cold. As a man burns to death on her home’s front lawn, his screams are intercut with Rhoda practicing piano. Christine, Rhoda’s mother, is played with great fervor by Nancy Kelly.  At one point Christine tearfully informs her daughter that a little boy in Rhoda’s school drowned on a class trip; the girl replies “Can I have a peanut butter sandwich?”

This mashup, this sweetness-covering-horror-badly is the essence of The Bad Seed. The film is set in the '50s, an era when the only way to defeat the Russians was to clench one’s butt checks tighter than a hipster’s jeans. There are cracks in Rhoda’s Leave It to Beaver lifestyle. Christine’s friends are writers and psychoanalysts that discuss criminal cases and Freud like the weather. Everyone drinks—the mother of the little drowned boy, Mrs. Daigle, confronts Rhoda by spilling whiskey and pawing at her. Mrs. Daigle (Eileen Heckart) is a character that smears the veneer off of polite society, which is interesting considering she’s a beautician by trade.  It’s her business to mask people’s ugliness.


No, here's to you, Mrs. Daigle.

The concept of masking is shown visually too: A reoccurring sequence in Seed is a long shot with one character in the foreground with their back to a character in the background. The background character speaks plainly, while the foreground character frets and fidgets in a way that only the audience can see.


No, look at her from this side, dum-dums. She's not at all well.

A reoccurring focal point in shots is a framed silhouette of a mother lifting up her daughter. 


I was forced to stop a drinking game made from spotting these after I passed  out.

But why is she holding her? She could be strangling her, or holding her away in disgust. At one point, after hearing about the boy’s death, Rhoda’s grandfather stares at Rhoda too long after embracing her. 

“Why do you look are me?” Rhoda asks. 


A tender moment.

“I--just want to see your face,” the elderly man stammers out and puts her down as if she were a pet cat that just ate a robin’s babies.  

Silhouettes dot almost every frame in the film, and when Rhoda throws a pair of incriminating shoes into the incinerator, she’s shot in low light that turns her into a shadow.



Incinerators were outlawed in 1959 when it was discovered
that they were principally used to destroy evidence.

To modern audiences, The Bad Seed is a B-movie that was built for parody.  It has a small cast, uses few locations and its actors feast on the scenery. However, The Bad Seed was always meant to be played straight. The use of set, the melodramatic acting and the blocking are all remnants from when The Bad Seed existed as a play; much of the cast were from the stage production, and there’s even a curtain call at the ending credits. Rhoda has fullness to her voice and precision that could only come from dozens of live shows--Christine gives a performance meant for the people in the nosebleeds.  The Bad Seed survives as a unique classic because it could never be recreated; the tools and environment that made it live are gone.  Today, film and live theatre exist in two separate worlds with the latter being a niche market (honestly, when was the last time you saw a play?).  As a marriage of the two, The Bad Seed is a bastard child from another era; they don’t make them like this anymore because they can’t.  

Friday, June 29, 2012

Attack of the Fishmen: Dagon

For a bookish misanthrope who died seventy-five years ago, H.P. Lovecraft has done well for himself. His creature Cthulhu is an Internet meme, and Lovecraft's name itself is used to describe stories full of ancient and unfathomable evils, insanity, malicious knowledge and revelations about the insignificance of mankind. While 2005's The Call of Cthulhu, a silent film shot in the style of a '20s horror movie, is probably the first and last word in faithful adaptation, other filmmakers have brought Lovecraft to the big screen with less an eye for accuracy and more for entertainment. One director who has taken H.P. from page to motion picture over and over again is Stuart Gordon.

Gordon's first film was Re-Animator (1985), a horror comedy similar in tone to Sam Raimi's Evil Dead (1981). While Re-Animator doesn't exactly follow the events or setting of the serial that inspired it, Lovecraft's original "Herbert West--Reanimator" (1922) was a pulp send up of Frankenstein (1818) and not high literature; Gordon proved that he needn't stay true to all aspects of a story to capture its feel.

Green goo and talking heads: This work is truly the modern Prometheus.
After Gordon's Re-Animator came From Beyond (1986), another modern take on an old Lovecraft tale, and sixteen years after Re-Animator, Stuart Gordon drew Dagon (2001) up from the deeps.

Despite an update and a shift from the East Coast to a secluded Spanish town, Dagon is a fair retelling of "The Shadow over Innsmouth" (1936). Ezra Godden, a bargain basement Jeffrey Combs, plays Paul Marsh, who is chased by gibbering man/fish/frog hybrids through Imboca (Innsmouth's sister city), a dilapidated village hiding terrible secrets.

Won't someone please help reunite these long lost brothers?
Perhaps the narrow alleys and secret churches of Imboca also contain revelations about Paul's own past: Why does our protagonist keep dreaming of a strangely alluring mermaid?

No, I said an alluring mermaid. Hold on.
That's really not any better, is it?
To this setup, Gordon adds a heavy dose of squick: The hybrids flay men and capture woman as offerings to their god Dagon so that he may make more hybrids.

As a director, Stuart Gordon does not shy away from questionable scenes, as evidenced by a shot in Re-Animator of a head, ah, giving head. Where his movies and Lovecraft's stories differ is shock and gore. In "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," no visitors are skinned--though guests go missing, they do not reappear later sans flesh; no kidnapped young women are offered up screaming to Dagon, and they certainly don't get their arms pulled off. There's no sexy fishgirl Uxia (Macarena Gómez) and no old men get their faces removed.

Deep Ones give the worst eye exams.
Dagon is an ugly film; viewers are sure to lose a few Sanity points.

This difference between original and update is just a sign of the times. Translating Lovecraft for today's audiences is difficult, since many of his tales consist of protagonists reading or doing research, all described with overwritten prose. While maddening secrets about one's genealogy and the secret history of the Earth might have been enough for the 1930s, Lovecraft's style doesn't work for modern crowds used to blood and body counts. Most movies don't bother emulating Lovecraft's stories, but instead incorporate his themes: An obvious reference to "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" and Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" (1936), John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness (1995) features a protagonist who enters an insular community, deals with malicious literature, sees strange creatures and loses his mind. Prometheus (2012) is full of Lovecraftian questions about the origin of human life.

Whatever their methods, it's clear that Lovecraft and Gordon were influential. The imagery of Dagon must have caught the eye of the developers of video game Resident Evil 4 (2005), since the story takes place in an isolated Spanish town inhabited by hybrids--not fishmen this time, but Ganados.

Looking for Leon in all the wrong places.
In Resident Evil 4, you're trying to rescue the president's daughter, and the Ganados are infected by a plague that transforms some of them into monstrous amalgamations of body parts; I guess the game is more John Carpenter by way of The Thing (1982) and Escape from L.A. (1996) than Stuart Gordon.

A Carpenter/Gordon mashup like Resident Evil 4 invites further comparison of the two men. Both are major cult directors of the '80s, both use extensive practical effects; Dagon is a grotesque masterpiece of set design and makeup. Neither Gordon nor Carpenter have made anything memorable recently: A dearth due to their use of outdated methods in an evolving environment. Lovecraft’s stories are about new races taking over and pushing out the old. For these great old men of horror, that’s exactly what happened.

Friday, June 22, 2012

For the Lulz: Pontypool

Explaining the threat in 2008's Pontypool requires spoiling. So, stop everything and watch Pontypool NOW.

"Allons-y!"
When we were children, we were warned about "bad" words: phonemes whose utterance is forbidden. As teens, we learned that saying bad words is fun; the more of them we knew, the more of them we repeated. While we grew, so did the Internet, and its rise showed that newer, filthier phrases could be spread at the speed of thought. Meme culture flourished online, where its participants can repost catchphrases and pictures as fast as a mouse can be clicked: a community of members obsessed with repetition of the taboo. The dissemination of words gone wrong is the focus of Pontypool, a horror film about the power of language.

A musical adaptation of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is only a taste of the terror to come.
Pontypool is part Crazies (1973), part The Signal (2008) and In the Mouth of Madness (1995). A down-on-his-luck DJ in a Canadian small town is slogging through his morning show when reports come in about rioting at a doctor's office: The community is afflicted by disease, and the military is called in to quarantine. From this setup, it may seem like Pontypool is just another zombie movie, but the ideas and writing are unique.

The action takes place inside the claustrophobic interiors of a radio station; the only place of safety is a soundproof room. Outside is a "a big, cold, dull, dark, white, empty, never-ending, blow-my-brains-out, seasonal-affective-disorder, freaking-kill-me-now" snowstorm that traps the protagonists like the mists of The Mist (2007).

I thought joy-crushing snow was Canada's default weather.
The story is told through news updates and frantic phone calls. We know only as much as the main characters: Is the whole thing a hoax? The situation worsens gradually; first, sightings of violence from a local reporter. Now the reporter is in dire straits and infected. Then, as in 28 Days Later (2002), the trouble is "on the street outside. It [is] coming through [the] windows": Someone inside the studio is ill, the zombies are banging on the front doors, then they're in the studio itself.

The virus in Pontypool is carried in the English language: Some words are infectious. Upon hearing them, the listeners stutter in alarm, repeating the offending word until progressing into mimicry. These zombies are not fast, they do not moan, they do not spread their disease through bites: They repeat things, and that noise is far worse than groaning silence. Anyone can be infected if they focus on the wrong word. It's a little out there so far as concept goes, but it works: Phonemes are threats.

The primary form of Internet culture today is the meme: An idea transmitted and reiterated from person to person. Pontypool's crowds are meme-infected, repeating jokes until no longer funny, until they are just background noise.

"Trolls be trollin'!"
The idea of technology, of language, of words as danger has appeared in other works. The peril of radio signaling is handled adeptly by the short film AM1200 (2008). Technology was a vector for an infectious sound that turned people into zombies in Stephen King's novel Cell (2006). Dangerous words and information were seen in John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness; in Carpenter's case, it's reading that gets you into trouble. The final punch line of In the Mouth of Madness is an infectious book being turned into a movie--its vector mutated for better transmission.

It's a rare film that manages to challenge our obsession with technology, talk radio, our understanding of language, of memes and of zombies at the same time. Questions about free speech, language, the nature of disease all combine in a film that manages to bring something new to the already dead and shambling zombie genre.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Welcome to My Mortuary--

The Teratology of Tales from the Hood


Never take off the shades.

Setting is not a substitute for plot, but it is often used as a substitute for effort. In his multidecade career, Jason Voorhees was sent to Hell, Manhattan and even space, as though he was trapped in an episode of Quantum Leap, hoping each sequel would be his leap home. Not to be outdone, the Leprechaun was sent to space as well. Three years later he traveled to the true final frontier: the Hood. Leprechaun in the Hood (2000) places one absurd cultural stereotype inside another absurd cultural stereotype like some Turducken-style hatemonger metaphor. The filmmakers couldn’t have offended more if they catered a function honoring the Irish ambassador and the leaders of the NAACP with a punch bowl filled with fried chicken and Lucky Charms.



With new, bigotry flavored marshmellows.

Leprachaun in the Hood wasn't the first film to use the Hood as its stage: In 1995, Spike Lee’s studio, Forty Acres & A Mule Filmworks, released Tales from the Hood:

The camera pans across a dull gray surface filled with peaks and valleys. A flash of metal pulls into view—a small caliber hand gun. Cut to a tooth with the numbers "666" etched into it. Pull back to the whole of these parts: a skeleton smoking a massive blunt, holding a gun, its head wrapped in a bandana.


Welcome to Tales from the Hood.

We join three young black men as they walk towards a mortuary in the dead of night hoping to buy drugs. A door opens to reveal an eccentric mortician, played by Clarence Williams III, who channels a mixture of Vincent Price and Cornel West. He’ll lead them to "the shit"—but they must first hear four tales of horror.

Horror stories reflect the fears of the story tellers, and the four stories show there was much to fear if you were black in the mid-'90s. The assault on Rodney King occurred in 1991 and is echoed in "Rogue Cop Revelation," in which a black police officer is forced into collusion to protect three white officers after they beat a prominent community activist to death. The piece bleeds racial tension; one of the cops is named Strom, most likely after anti-segregationist senator Strom Thurmond, while the activist is named Morehouse after the historic black university. Billie Holliday cries out the mournful tune "Strange Fruit" as the cops' batons rise and fall on the bloody Morehouse. In "KKK Comeuppance," a racist ex-Klan politician beats a slave-spirit-possessed doll with an American Flag.

This really says it all, doesn't it?


In "Hard Core Convict," a black gang member is exposed to "behavioral modification," which intercuts sequences of him wearing a white balaclava while he robs and kills other black people with archival photos of hooded Klan members triumphant in front of hanging black corpses. Tales from the Hood offsets these gut twisting scenes with our mortician host, who feasts on the scenery like a vampire at a blood bank.

The pieces are exciting: The prominent car chase in "Rogue Cop Revelation" has police vehicles careening into interstate traffic. The effects dazzle: "Boys Do Get Bruised" features a man being molded like Gumby, this occurring after a painful description of child abuse. Like a balanced album, Tales from the Hood offsets intense sequences with something light.


He puts the "fun" in funerals.


The major difference between Tales and many of its imitators is its portrayal of black professionals. They are police officers, teachers, academics; "Hard Core Convict" has a black female mad scientist, effectively breaking two social barriers for the price of one (honestly, try to think of one other black female mad scientist). Most of the black adults in Snoop Dogg's Hood of Horrors (2006) are gang members or in the music industry, missing the point entirely. Tales from the Hood isn’t written around a physical location of poverty and crime, but a cultural location, a mindscape filled with steep peaks and dangerous valleys, where the real horrors are inequality and injustice. It’s both the genesis and the best of its subgenre, and until other filmmakers stop focusing on its setting instead of its message, it will never be exceeded.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

My Hand is Stuck in the Safe:

Give Me the Brain

Editors Note: This Friday's post was written by Mr. Bassman from boardgamegeek.com.  It's a change of pace, but not too far off--many of the themes of movies are echoed in board games (it even works the other way around, as in Battleship [2012] and Clue [1985]).  Sharp eyed readers will recall the post on Death Race 2000 (1975) and game Car Wars (1980).  Enjoy.

Nowadays you not only find zombies lurching across the cinema screen, but you can also discover them lurking in the boxes of games like Last Night on Earth, Mall of Horror, and Zombie State:  Diplomacy of the Dead.  Yet in the mid-'90s, the only zombie themed game you were likely to find was SPI's Dawn of the Dead, a hex-and-counter style combat game with rules complex enough to scare off all but the most ardent wargamer.  

In 1995, game designer James Ernest reasoned that the most important parts of a game are its rules and not the components, so he founded Cheapass Games to inexpensively publish a line of games which usually contained nothing more than a sheet of rules, cards, and sometimes a game board.  Give Me The Brain is his game about zombies working in a fast food franchise.


The game comes in a white envelope that unfortunately doesn't contain hard drugs.

If the only card games with which you are familiar are various incarnations of Uno, then playing any of the Cheapass games will have you rethink what games can be.  Give Me The Brain starts with players using bidding cards such as "The pickles are staring at me," and "I'm locked in the fleezah!" to get the brain.  Getting the brain is important because task cards with the brain icon on them can only be played by the player who has the brain.  And emptying your hand by playing all your cards is how you win.

Good help is hard to find.

Give Me The Brain also includes a rudimentary action point system in the form of the hand icons on the cards that determines how many tasks a turn you can play.  You can't play cards that contain a total of more than two hands during a turn--unless you are fortunate enough to find a third hand in the back.

Tasks requiring one or two hands--and occasionally a brain.


Unlike George Romero's zombie classics Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead which make gory social commentary about brainless mass consumerism, Give Me the Brain pokes fun at that high school rite of passage, the food franchise job.  While it may be politically incorrect now to ridicule minimum wage employees, the mid-'90s were the boom time when hamburger joint counters were manned by bored teenagers who had trouble making change without counting on their fingers.

Give Me The Brain is not terribly deep, nor is there pulse pounding tension as you desperately search for another ammo clip to refill your pistol.  Instead, you will experience the frustration of one step forward and two steps back as playing cards like "Who, Me?" force you to draw more cards, because obviously you don't have enough to do.  As for theme, well, the cards do have pictures of zombies on them.  And you can play the game mindlessly.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Say Your Prayers--

The Teratology of Red State

 

I don't think she's a fan of gun control.

If you are unaware of Fred Phelps, consider yourself lucky; you are much better living in a world where a character such as Phelps does not exist. Unfortunately (the world being what it is), Phelps does exist--as the pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka which has gained international notoriety with their “God Hates Fags” campaign. In this crusade, Phelps and his followers travel around the country to picket gay pride parades, military funerals and other churches. They have no political message, they don’t seek repentance; their purpose is to say that the world is coming to an end because men have sex with men. Along with inspiring general hatred and disgust, Phelps and his church are the basis of Kevin Smith’s 2011 movie, Red State.


Director Kevin Smith's counter-protest to the Westboro Baptists.

There were so many places where Red State could have derailed: At the beginning, when three rural high school boys travel to a remote location to have sex with an internet contact, the movie could have become a clichéd hillbilly horror flick, a la The Hills Have Eyes (1977--or 2006, take your pick). When the boys are captured by religious fundamentalists belonging to the Five Points Trinity Church (patterned after the Westboro Baptists), the film could have become another example of torture porn with a Southern charm, a la 2001 Maniacs (2005). At any point the film could have devolved into a two-hour-long monologue by Kevin Smith--a la Kevin Smith: Too Fat for 40 (2010) or Kevin Smith: Burn in Hell (2012). But despite tottering at places, Red State remains upright and rattling along.

Watch this: Kevin Smith is more thoughtful than he lets on.

The movie has help staying on track: Its cinematography is well done, focusing on long shots in the rural community and close-ups inside the fundamentalist compound as a way of contrasting the isolation of middle American secular life with the clan mentality of Five Points. Five Points’ spiritual leader and patriarch, Abin Cooper, is perfectly portrayed by Michael Parks, who gives the preacher a rattlesnake’s low rasp instead of the typical televangelist’s bark. Opposite him is ATF agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), who is called in to investigate Five Points’ compound and is a perfect choice as a low-key everyman; when we’re introduced to his character, he’s talking to his boss while drinking coffee with his wife at the breakfast table.


I lied--they actually drink OJ.


As a Smith film, Red State shows extreme restraint. It's heavy-handed, but it has the integrity to be heavy-handed equally: The faithful and the faithless have equal amounts of warts for the camera. It has naturalism to it: The scarcity of music, the realistic dialogue and slow pacing make it seem at times like The Wire instead of a Kevin Smith horror film about Christian whackos. Most importantly, it never gives way to formula. Any time an obvious space opens in the plot, Smith closes it and throws the narrative through a window. Red State does what many current horror movies don’t: keep you wondering what happens next. It’s refreshing, as is its message: A nation of polar opposites doesn’t mean a nation of good and bad, but a nation of bad and worse.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Knee Deep in the Dead: Ghosts of Mars

Amateur Teratologist is a fan of John Carpenter. He's directed favorites like Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986).

Apparently, we also really like Kurt Russell. He's so dreamy.
During the '90s, Carpenter slowed down. From this era, I can only recommended Escape from L.A. (1996) and In the Mouth of Madness (1995), though the latter took multiple viewings before I made my peace with it. What remained constant over the years were Carpenter's techniques, but like old ghosts haunting the silver screen, they became more intrusive and out of place over time; in Ghosts of Mars (2001), they let him down completely.

Ghosts of Mars flopped at the box office, causing John Carpenter to sit out the 2000's after a whimper, not a bang. The movie is three or four earlier efforts smooshed together: The backbone is Carpenter's second film, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), in which a police station in LA is besieged by bloodthirsty gang members. To survive, the cops must team up with a convicted killer whose prison transport stopped at the precinct. In Ghosts of Mars, space cops are sent to pick up a prisoner from a mining camp on Mars only to discover that the miners are possessed by space ghosts. As before, the space cops join forces with the criminal they were sent to collect.

On your left, Earth by way of The Thing; on your right, Mars by way of Ghosts of Mars.
There's elements of other Carpenter movies in Ghosts of Mars: The threat of subversion from The Thing (1982), the insanities of the possessed from In the Mouth of Madness (1995), there's even a slasher vibe at the beginning and end of the movie that can be traced to Halloween (1978). Ghosts of Mars is undoubtedly a John Carpenter movie: The way the shots are composed, the pacing, the dialog, the synthesized portions of the score, even the effects--in 2001, Ghosts of Mars is still using the same special effects Carpenter was using in the '80s. Keep in mind, The Matrix and all its high tech CGI was released in 1999.

I'm a fan of movie miniatures, but this landscape looks more like a game of Warhammer 40,000 than a feature film.
After hearing all the negative hype, I was disappointed to find that Ghosts of Mars was merely a paint by numbers sci-fi action movie rather than a trainwreck. The only truly bad parts are the heavy metal soundtrack (it's just trying too hard) and the main enemy boss, Big Daddy Mars. Big Daddy screams out orders in what I can only assume is supposed to be Martian, but it sounds like some kind of cartoon baby mushmouth tantrum.

He couldn't decide if he was going to a Kiss, Gwar or Marilyn Manson concert, so he dressed for all three.
After a decades-long career, it's clear that John Carpenter was out of ideas. While I like his style, it's a weakness here; Ghosts of Mars is a curious anachronism, and if it had been released ten years earlier, I think it would have been much better received. The video game Doom came out in '93, and Ghosts of Mars could have been an early '90s film adaptation--instead, we got 2005's Doom movie, but that's a review for another day.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

In the Lab, Late One Night--

The Teratology of Splice

One word: Homeschooling

In 1997, a picture appeared of a human ear on the back of a mouse. It’s a picture that set wheels turning; anti-genetic manipulation groups were horrified (despite genetic manipulation not being involved in the mouse’s creation), South Park lampooned the experiment in its 12th season ("Eek, a Penis!"), and after 10 years of financing, Vincenzo Natali created Splice (2009).


Can you hear me now?


Splice begins with a scene reminiscent of Fight Club’s opening: We float through a sea of biological muck, too close to tell if we’re looking at snake scales or a human fetus in utero. Suddenly, we see a light and we’re pulled into the waiting arms of Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley), scientists at the privately funded NERD research group. Besides making dreadful acronyms, they specialize in splicing together DNA from multiple animals to create new life. Their newest experiment is Dren, the world’s first human/animal hybrid.


This plush is an abomination before God and man.


Splice is Jurassic Park through a mirror, darkly. The raptor attack at the beginning (“Shoot her, shoot her!”), the gimmick of animals switching genders, the moral tone (Playing God should be left to god) all exist in Splice. But where Jurassic Park loses us in a lush jungle, Splice locks us up in a lab for half the film; when trees are finally shown, they’re barren in the middle of winter. Characters look gaunt and sickly under constant fluorescent lighting. It’s a much quieter film—instead of following several groups of characters as they try to escape, we’re focused on a single couple, Clive and Elsa.

The soul of Splice is the family dynamic between Clive, Elsa and Dren. While they begin handling their specimen with gasmasks and gloves, they soon transition to Barbie dolls and teddy bears as Dren becomes more and more human. The couple struggles with common parental problems: feeding, handling Dren’s first fever—Splice could almost be a prequel to Jurassic Park, with Dren playing the role of the first raptor bred by the scientists at InGen.


Raptors make terrible children.  They never call.


Splice is a daring effort. The conflict Dren creates and Elsa and Clive’s response will shock, but the lack of a likable character hamstrings the film. Clive and Elsa are scientists in the worst way: cold (Elsa treats Dren as equal parts specimen and daughter), impersonal (despite being a seasoned couple, the two barely touch one another) and immature (their work ethic is similar to an undergrad hopped up on Mountain Dew). Clive is weak, physically and morally. Elsa is absurdly rigid and arbitrary, putting her own interests before her colleagues and partner. The researchers are more monstrous than Dren—and she’s got kangaroo legs. It joins a long list of films that make the scientist a caricature: Frankenstein in 1931 (scientists refuse to take responsibility for their creations!), The Island of Lost Souls in 1933 (scientists are playing God!), The Fly in 1986 (scientists are reckless and short sighted!). These films don’t need to make us empathize with scientists—Splice, unfortunately, does.


Remember when Jeff Goldblum was a sex symbol?  Neither do I.


Despite its problems, Splice deserves credit for at least trying to have a conversation about bioethics. Daily advancements are blurring the lines between human and animal. Splice tries to shock people into thinking about where those lines should be, but it’s not Jurassic Park, no matter how many elements it shares. To tell its story effectively, it should have patterned itself as a film about a disquieting family dynamic and left the horror elements to Spielberg and ILM.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Economy is About to Crater: They Live

John Carpenter hit his stride in the '80s, directing a film nearly every year of that decade.  Unfortunately, most people don't associate the 1980s with classics like Escape from New York (1981) or The Thing (1982), but rather with the rise of yuppies and corporate greed. Another director, George Romero, picked up on this trend early, lampooning cannibal consumer culture in Dawn of the Dead (1978). Carpenter's take was 1988's They Live.

They Live is about a "roaring '90s" ruled by "divine excess." It features a commercial of a woman with long nails attempting to operate a typewriter; alas, the nails are too unwieldy, though they do allow her to neatly spear cheese cubes.

I'm pretty sure these are an actual product these days.
This decadence is contrasted with camerawork that focuses on the unemployed, on urban decay, on people down on their luck. We are told that more of the "sleeping middle class" is slipping into poverty. Were it not for the old '80s TVs and lack of cell phones, you'd think you were watching today's news. We witness the apocalyptic destruction of a Hooverville-esque shantytown by police, images that bring to mind the breaking up of Occupy Wall Street encampments.

Is this a picture from the AP or a still from the movie?
After twenty minutes, They Live becomes a science fiction film: Rich people are really a co-opted superclass conspiring with alien visitors that can only be seen with the help of special sunglasses. What follows is a tribute to '50s B-movies: The glasses themselves are reminiscent of the 3D gimmicks of early genre cinema, and the images seen through them are black-and-white, showing skeletal, rubber-masked aliens and patrolling saucer-shaped drones.

This new campaign direction really isn't working out for [insert your least favorite politician here].
They Live is part of a subgenre of hidden invaders and unheeded heroes who see past the disguises. This movie's grandparent is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956); its cousins, the V franchise; older brother, The Thing; you can find strands of They Live's DNA in Doctor Who's Silence or even the goblins of Troll 2 (1990). Other gimmicks of They Live survive in popular culture: Last year's Syndicate video game featured a black-and-white overlay mode that revealed propaganda messages in futuristic advertisements. The line about being "here to chew bubblegum and kick ass" has been referenced many times: It was included as dialog in Fallout 2 (1998), among other places.

The far-reaching influence of They Live indicates it has struck a chord with the public. We identify with Roddy Piper's protagonist, a hard-working everyman with no name (technically, it's Nada, "Nothing"). He "believe[s] in America, [he] follow[s] the rules"; when Nada finds that these rules are rigged by the upper class, he begins a rampage that starts at a bank. When Americans found out about the banking shenanigans that caused the 2008 depression, we reacted with similar anger--though thankfully without gratuitous '80s action movie violence. In reality, Rowdy Roddy Piper hasn't blown up a brainwashing satellite dish to reveal the real crooks, alien or otherwise.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Turning Japanese--

The Teratology of Battle Royale

There can be only one.

The economy is collapsing. The education system is crumbling. The traditional family structure is in shambles. This is not America in 2008; it’s Japan of 1999 during the middle of an economic depression. A best-selling novel is Battle Royale, which tells the story of 42 middle schoolers who are forced to kill each other. The Battle Royale Program takes place in a near future totalitarian Japan that randomly selects a teenage class and places them in an undisclosed location to participate in a “survival” game. The rules are simple: kill or be killed. Popular action film director Kinji Fukasaku transferred Battle Royale to the silver screen in 2000.

Fukasaku was known as a pulp director, which is a narrative style where the author uses hyperrealism to enhance a story: scenes are bloodier than they should be, situations more absurd, dialogue more stylized. A perfect example in Battle Royale occurs when a character has a hatchet embedded in his skull and continues to speak for several moments afterward, like Wile E. Coyote running for several minutes in midair before remembering gravity.


Walk it off, dude.


Fukasaku’s Battle Royale is pulp on a grand scale. Its violence is sudden and brutal—students are shot, stabbed, decapitated and poisoned. After each death, the victim’s name flashes on screen along with their class number and the number of students remaining, like a gruesome scorecard. With 42 players to keep track of, Fukasaku defines characters by action and weapon of choice: The vicious Mitsuko Souma (Kou Shibasaki) uses a farmer’s sickle to rack up her kills, but the practical Shogo Kawada (Taro Yamamoto) uses a pump-action shotgun. It also includes several haunting visuals: The images of Mitsuko smiling while underlit by a handheld flashlight or the erratic program director, Kitano (Beat Takeshi), leading a calisthenics class in an empty athletic field will stay with you long after the credits roll.


For reference, this is what evil looks like.

Like Terminator 2 (1991) or The Matrix (1999), Battle Royale is pulp that takes itself seriously. Its practical effects are top notch as is its attention to dialogue and characterization; Kitano’s quirkiness and subtlety make him one of cinema’s great villains. Its effects are far reaching; much of Kill Bill’s (2003-2004) elements are drawn from this film. While its effect on The Hunger Games (2012) is debated, it can be seen echoed in a film like Brick (2005), which also places teenagers in adult situations in a pulp setting.

The respect Fukasaku has for the original story comes in part from a massacre during his childhood. During World War II, after a nighttime bombardment, he was conscripted to clean up the body parts from civilian casualties. The experience had a lasting effect on him—he commented in an interview made during the final stages of production on Battle Royale: “Contemporary children don’t encounter situations where their arms and legs can be blown off, right? But I have. I used to watch as bodily fluids oozed from the corpses I carried on my shoulders.” He was 15, the same age as the characters in Battle Royale.

Fukasaku as an adult. Is it me, or have we seen that smile before?
Fukasaku’s firsthand experience makes Battle Royale different from a movie like The Matrix or Kill Bill and unique in the history of pulp film making. Battle Royale’s violence is not glorified, but absurd enough that it echoes the bizarreness of real carnage.