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.

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.