Monday, April 30, 2012

Hail to the King: The Teratology of  

Army of Darkness

In Heaven, all movie posters will be as cool as this one.

Unintentional cult movies are the result of colossal mistakes that balance out. A movie like Troll II can’t be manufactured—it just happens. Making an intentional cult film takes skill, guts and vision; a single misstep and your movie is just a giant wink to the audience. You have to be a tightrope walker. Sam Raimi is a director who knows how to walk that rope.

He made his bones in the industry with the Evil Dead trilogy. The third installment, Army of Darkness (1992), continues the saga of Ash, the wisecracking, Oldsmobile-driving S-mart employee whose trip to a secluded cabin with his girlfriend was derailed by the discovery of recordings from the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, the Sumerian book of the dead. Demons from another dimension (called Deadites) systematically kill and possess Ash’s loved ones. Ash isn’t immune; ultimately, he must exorcise his own Deadite by cutting off his hand (which he replaces with a chainsaw). Army begins with Ash and the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis (and his Oldsmobile Delta 88) being banished to 1300 AD. Ash battles knights, the undead and himself to find his way back home.

The scene where Ash saves President Obama from Tea Partiers was left out of the theatrical release.

I like this movie—not as much as the first two (1987’s Evil Dead II is responsible for my descent into horror), but I do recommend it. Army is campy, it’s funny and action leads it around by the nose; it manages to be zany without being cutesy. Raimi is one of the few directors who does cult intentionally and does it well: The movie oozes cult. The trilogy is a master class on how to make a genre film. Army teaches two things to directors trying to craft their own underground classics.

First, know your cult: Who is the audience for your film? Raimi is writing for teenage boys—he was only 22 when he started the series. Ash is the man every zombie-loving geek wants to be: a cutup with a heart of gold who isn’t afraid to play rough (“Good. Bad. I’m the guy with the gun.”). The film focuses on gadgets more than a film set in the middle ages should: Ash manufactures a robotic hand a la Luke Skywalker—he also converts his Oldsmobile into an engine of death. It features women with heaving bosoms that spend half the movie wanting to sleep with Ash and the other half wanting to kill him. It even has an issue of Fangoria, a magazine that’s been catering to the gorehound teen since 1979.

If Santa is listening, one lifetime subscription, please.

Second, send your cult a strong message: If laws of physics are diluting your message, change those laws. A cult film is one that bends reality to tell a story with style—there’s a reason why noir films are filled with low light and shadow. In Raimi’s case, he set out to make a live action cartoon. Characters don’t just spurt blood when eaten by a demon: They shoot it out like a fire hose. In one scene, a Deadite does a somersault after being shot by a double-barreled Remington. In another, Ash is attacked by skeletons using a Three Stooges eye poke. The first ten minutes of this movie are a goldmine of comedic style.

Army of Darkness is Raimi at his best. It is a film that has embedded itself into the geek lexicon (when someone says “boomstick,” they have this movie to thank). His style is so distinctive that it has become an adjective: When a film uses extreme gore as a sight gag or gives the viewpoint of a fast-moving object, it’s being “Raimi-esque.” When Raimi sticks to his style, he walks that tightrope discussed earlier with ease (see 2009’s Drag Me to Hell). 

If you haven't seen this movie, stop reading and watch it.  NOW. 
When he doesn’t, he falls (do NOT see 2007’s Spiderman III).

 Sitting dejectedly in the rain was also how most audience members responded to this film.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Once More, with Feeling: REPO! The Genetic Opera

REPO! The Genetic Opera (2008) is set in a future inhabited by surgery-addicted masses. Feeling ill? Not as beautiful as you could be? There's an operation for that. You can have the designer organs you've always wanted, but they come at a price. Miss an installment on the payment plan, and the Repo Man reclaims his company's property, be it eyes, heart, spine--the procedure is almost always fatal.

Saying it'll cost you an arm and a leg is probably an understatement.
Early hype about REPO! suggested that The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) had finally found a successor. REPO! had a surprisingly well-known ensemble cast: Anthony Head as the Repo Man himself, Alexa Vega from the Spy Kids franchise as his daughter, Paul Sorvino as owner of the GeneCo corporation, veteran horror actor Bill Moseley, famed soprano Sarah Brightman, Paris Hilton, even Joan Jett shows up for a cameo. Prior to REPO!'s release, all we had to judge it were a good soundtrack and a slick trailer with suitably warped visuals. After a viewing, it's clear that REPO! has much in common with the medically-altered crowds in its cast: beautiful at first glance but rotten on the inside.

The movie never lives up to its promise. What could be a great, gory, campy excursion is hamstrung by baffling writing and pacing choices. The story's weak, but that's forgivable in musicals; the problem is that instead of showing, REPO! tells, and it tells in the worst way possible--with slow, drawn-out, unvoiced, immersion-breaking storyboard sequences. What really twists the knife is that the information in the storyboards is either inconsequential, explained later in song or is obvious to the audience.

Unfortunately, the disease was boring comic strip interludes, and there was no treatment.
The film suffers from superfluous characters. Primary among these is GraveRobber, an out of place Greek chorus. It's only until REPO!'s production history is traced does his real purpose become clear. Like Rocky Horror, REPO! started life as a stage show. Its first iteration was The Necromerchant's Debt, which starred a GraveRobber played by Terrance Zdunich: He's REPO!'s writer, composer, producer and illustrator (Zdunich drew the storyboard sequences). As REPO!'s story evolved, GraveRobber remained, even after he became vestigial. It's a case of self-indulgence: The writer gives himself a role of overblown importance, and he just happens to get the most memorable songs (including one where he dry humps Paris Hilton).
This man truly suffers for his art.
It may sound as if I hate REPO!, but I don't. I want to like it, and it's got some standout moments: Bill Moseley angrily chews scenery as he belts out lyrics, Paul Sorvino adds gravitas to the musical performances, Anthony Head is excellent. There's a scene where he sings a duet with a corpse that he's turned into a puppet. His Repo Man is a Batman gone wrong, complete with scary Batman voice.
He already knows how you got all those scars.
These moments are overshadowed by the film's flaws--the show itself needs a little work done. My advice? Buy the soundtrack, arrange the songs in your preferred order, and write your own story to stitch them together. It's your chance to play surgeon!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Werewolves Ate My Platoon: Dog Soldiers

The United Kingdom is lousy with werewolves. Whether a tourist-turned-monster is rampaging through London or Lawrence Talbot is running rampant in remote Wales, you can't enjoy a night on those islands without bumping into a lycanthrope.

Werewolves hate hikers.
Even the military isn't safe! Take Dog Soldiers (2002): It's 105 minutes of desperate British soldiers holed up in a cottage, battling the beasts. What makes this movie a treat are the quality and care put into the production: The dark humor and dialog, the charisma of the characters, the slow reveal of practical-effect monsters. You never get a good look at them until the end--before that, and it's just a claw here, a snout there.

Dog Soldiers shares the gritty British horror cinematography from 28 Days Later (2002). The forest is a brilliant green in the day; nights and interiors are grainy and claustrophobic. None of the pyrotechnic effects look like they were performed safely. Action is desperate, frantic, funny: Werewolves don't just get shot or stabbed--they get impaled by broadswords, taunted into a fistfight, burned by the hair spray and lighter trick, jabbed in the head with a faucet and blinded by a camera's flash.

Also, hit with a frying pan by a man screaming hilarious obscenities.
If these elements seem familiar--a cabin in the woods, a squad fighting encroaching creatures, violence that borders sometimes on slapstick--it's on purpose. Dog Soldiers does not work because it's original; there's not an original bone in its body. It wears homages on its sleeve with referential quips: We've got the Kobayashi Maru, a summary of Zulu (1964), the "There is no Spoon" line from The Matrix (1999), children's stories like "The Three Little Pigs" and "Little Red Riding Hood." The final confrontation is Evil Dead (1981), it's Aliens (1986). There's even a Burke-like shill, but we know right away he's a bad guy--at least Paul Reiser had his goofy charm and smile.

All these references and callbacks give Dog Soldiers an almost retro vibe. Neil Marshall, the writer/director (who would go on to The Descent in 2005), stripped the werewolf to its barest bones--a forest-dwelling thing with a canine's teeth and hunger but man's intelligence--and installed it into an '80s throwback. The early 2000s had a number of monstrous revivals in the same vein.

Werewolves were brought back to their violent roots in Dog Soldiers, zombies got fast in 28 Days Later. 30 Days of Night updated vampires; it began life first as a graphic novel in 2002 and arrived on the big screen in 2007. Meant to return the bloodsuckers to their Nosferatu-esque stature, 30 Days of Night ends up feeling like a so-so zombie film set in Alaska. For a movie whose plot is incomprehensibly silly by the end, 30 Days of Night's tone is overly melodramatic; the filmmakers forgot that horror movies don't always have to take themselves seriously. Dog Soldiers doesn't.

Where else can you see a dog in a tug of war over a man's intestines during a werewolf attack?
Dog Soldiers and 30 Days of Night are perfect examples of how this genre can be (mis)handled. One is a scary and fun werewolf romp--the other should be renamed 2 Hours of Boredom.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Teratology of 

Nashville’s Tattoo and Horror Convention

Part II: The Reckoning

The previous post discussed who to see at a Tattoo and Horror Convention; this post deals with what to see.  The shows at this year’s convention were phantasmagoric as all hell—a helter-skelter/hurdy-gurdy/rapid-fire collection of the fantastic. This is what I saw:

"Okay, not all of this.  But it looks impressive, doesn't it?"

 Costume Contest

This contest was predominately female and zombie. 

"THE look for Spring this year."
As the contestants took the stage, the announcer described each one: 

“We have a sexy undead farm girl! Don’t the maggots really bring out her eye sockets, folks? After that, a sexy undead Marie Antoinette—got that head back on straight, I see. Then a sexy undead cheerleader: Go Trojans! And then, Steve.” 

Steve was a man dressed in pigskins carrying a killing floor hammer. Steve was not a crowd favorite. 

Before the competition, I talked with one of the entrants: a sexy undead pin-up girl. She was wearing a black and white polka dot dress, high heels, hair in an updo and blood into which she had mixed red glitter. She looked like a lithe Betty Paige after a glamorous car crash. I asked her why she picked that costume. “It’s a real classic look that makes a woman feel sexy,” she replied.

I followed with, “What are you planning on doing with this?” She had a model’s face and million-watt charisma.

“Have fun,” she said and smiled.

For her, this event was a chance to look good on stage. The makeup, the prosthetics, the clothes—it was a runway show.  She was a starlet on the red carpet, just playing with a different set of paints. It takes effort, talent and love to look gorgeous. 

It just takes a little more to look drop dead gorgeous.

 Tattoo Contest

Also a female-skewed event.

"Better get this girl some medicine--'cause that octopus is SICK!"
Winning at the convention is good for the tattooist and tattoo-wearer—the latter receives a silver plaque that she (and it is often she) gives the former. Passing by the tattooist side of the hall, you can see tables covered with past awards. A tattoo done by an exceptional artist is magic: It grabs the eye and doesn’t let go.

I had to talk to the owner of the large color piece above: “What’s the reason behind the tattoo?”

She looked thoughtful for a moment. “I guess ‘Because it’s fucking cool’ is not a really good reason… I think a large part of it was to cover up thigh fat.” 

Just then a tall woman with a lip piercing and full sleeves goosed her and said “Hey, if you can’t tone it, tattoo it, am I right?” The two slapped hands.

Drag King Show

The performance I saw started with a drag king in a white t-shirt cuffing a woman with a faux hawk to a metal folding chair. Then the drag king brought out a suitcase. This was where the show went Looney Tunes.

The drag king produced a short knife and a whip, with which he menaced the girl. The crowd was confused—a low grade BDSM scene was taking place onstage while non-descript pop-music played in the background.  My biggest concern was why the girl being threatened didn’t just pick up the metal chair to which she was cuffed and run away.

I have a high tolerance for weird, but this one threw me--it’s odd to see a crowd of zombies and tattooed bikers look on as a woman in a false beard threatens someone with a knife. 

I needed a beer after this exhibition.

 Film Festival

Movies played from 2-11 PM in room 108, which was empty throughout the afternoon except for the odd teenaged couple or a parent who wanted to take their child somewhere quiet to nap. I slipped in and out throughout the day, watching as much of a film as I could stand before heading back to the main hall. Keeper was the only film I watched in its entirety.

Keeper is a short film that describes the fate of four criminals who are guilty of the worst kinds of sin. In the middle of a night of torture and debauchery, an old man arrives at their dilapidated mansion, asking shelter from the rain. He brings with him judgment in the form a shadow-beast called "The Creature."

Keeper has excellent set design and an interesting concept—what really hamstrings it is budget. I talked with Chris St. Croix, the director, after the screening. Chris is a compact man and a fast talker, and I appreciate the passion and care he puts into his work. As a promotion, The Creature was placed outside the screening room: It’s a 12-foot tall figure in black robes. As we were talking, Chris noticed robes at the bottom of the Creature pulling away from the stilts that give the monster its height. Gently, like a mother wiping her son’s nose, he reattached the robes and continued speaking with me. That small moment speaks volumes—this is a labor of love.

I recommend Keeper; not for what it is, but for what it could be. The film needs the background of the monster expanded and the writing tightened.  Also, the Creature is a great practical effect, but we see too much of it too often. Less is more—suggest the Creature and we’ll fill in the rest.  

Make those changes, and this could be a great little film.

Keeper is a part of the upcoming horror anthology In the Dark. Give it a look.

"Click here for horror."


It was 10:00 PM, and the convention was closing up. Vendors packing it in; tattooists putting inks away. It was time to go.

Good night, girls with cat ears. 

Good night, anime-people waltzing to dubstep. Good night, gray-haired man with a full body tattoo. Good night, convention hall funk. Good night, crowd of people smoking outside the building. Good night, row of motor cycles.

One of the motorcycles was a piece of art: a brilliant bone white chopper under-lit with a neon blue glow. The license plate read "Dr. Show." A muscular black man wearing a wool sweater vest and a bowtie started it and growled off. As I was biking home, I saw him idling at a red light: “Sweet ride, man!”

“Thanks, son.” The light flashed green and Dr. Show was lost in the night.

Dr. Show is the essence of this convention—fierce individualism. The Tattoo and Horror Convention is an annual meeting of people who say, “This is who I am—this is what I like.” Every year, it’s equal parts strange, beautiful and bizarre.

I hope it stays running for another ten years. 

Ten times ten years.