Friday, December 28, 2012

You've Got the Silver...

There's a short conversation in Silver Linings Playbook (2012, directed by David O. Russel) when its protagonist, Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) meets Tiffany Miller (Jennifer Lawrence) in which they compare notes on their various experiences with medication. Both of these characters share a history of mental illness. I think this is the scene that really won me over to the movie, because in most "meet-cute" scenes in romantic comedies, you don't get truth. Here, you get truth naked for both characters to see. It struck a chord in me because whenever I meet other people with similar histories to my own history, you can be sure that the conversation will eventually turn to the minutiae of the medications we've taken: dosages, delivery methods, effects, drawbacks. The shock of recognition is powerful. The difference between a run of the mill romantic comedy and a really great romantic comedy is in the details and if you can make the lovers in such a movie real to me--as this film does--then you've gone a long way toward taking me willingly on whatever emotional journey you like.

Monday, December 24, 2012

All The World's a Stage

Joe Wright's version of Anna Karenina (2012), the umpteenth version of that story, reunites Wright with his muse, Kiera Knightley. It's one of several pedigreed literary adaptations littering this year's awards season (others include Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights and Tom Hooper's Les Miserables), and like those films, this one attempts to breathe new life into the story with bold formal experiments. This is a film for which the word "stagebound" is not a pejorative so much as it's a blank description of what one sees on screen. Wright and his screenwriter, Tom Stoppard, have imagined Anna Karenina as a deranged stage production in which the theater serves as the world. It's a bold choice. It creates unexpected visual textures and unusual scene transitions. Whether or not this is the story for which this approach is appropriate is something that can be debated.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

I'm Packin' My Bags for the Misty Mountains...

After I got home from seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012, directed by Peter Jackson), I dug out my copy of The Hobbit to see how many pages of the book the movie actually represented. My copy, an old paperback from the 1970s, ends the "Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire" chapter on page 114. This is where the movie ends. The movie is 160 minutes long. There's an axiom in screenwriting that says one page equals one minute, so there's obviously more material on screen than is provided by the book. Critics of director Jackson's brand of "more is more" cinema will almost certainly view this as another example of how Jackson's movies tend toward bloat, and they wouldn't be wrong, exactly. An efficient movie adds more information to the screen to advance the plot or theme from shot to shot. Jackson sometimes adds material to show off his technology or his exuberance as a filmmaker. The result with this particular film and the two that will follow it is, perhaps, the first cinematic literary adaptation that takes longer to watch than it does to read.

But maybe I'm being unfair. In truth, I didn't notice that the film was bloated while I was watching it. In the moment, scene to scene, I was grooving on what I was seeing. In Jackson's defense, he's not just taking material from The Hobbit. He's also folded a lot of the back story of Middle Earth into The Hobbit, drawing from the appendices in The Return of the King and scattered material from The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales (particularly "The Quest for Erebor"). Most of it makes sense. Most of it is fused into the story more or less seamlessly. Jackson isn't inventing anything that isn't canonical from the books, even though it sometimes feels like it. Jackson and his partners have pored over the minutiae of Middle Earth and gleaned everything they can find that might make for a cool set piece or for heightened drama. What Jackson sees in Tolkien is a vast playground and he apparently wants to try out every swing and seesaw. I don't blame him, really. I grew up with Tolkien and were I in Jackson's position, I might do the same.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Sibling Rivalry

For the first two acts of Lynn Shelton's Your Sister's Sister (2012-ish), I was getting kind of impatient with it. Is this film going to show me anything that wasn't in the trailer? I wondered. This is a plague upon a blighted cinematic landscape: trailers want to make sure that the film is a known quantity, a safe quantity, in order to part you with your hard earned scratch, which means by the time you actually sit in the theater, you've seen the movie already. The rest is make-work. This is not Your Sister's Sister's fault. It is, rather, a fault with the economies of movie making. It turns out that there IS something in the first two acts of Your Sister's Sister that isn't in the trailer, and it's something that provides a key to a final act that managed to be a pleasant surprise. (Note, here there be spoilers).

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Mountains Out of Molehills

My partner and I have a recurring joke. Sometimes, when I'm in our living room watching a movie, she'll randomly chime in from somewhere else in the house: "So do you like Steel Magnolias yet?" "No," I'll answer. "The estrogen isn't working," she'll snipe. Hilarious, eh? Here's the thing about switching genders: it doesn't really change one's tastes a whole lot. If you like dumb action films before transitioning, you'll probably still like them afterward. You won't magically start liking chick flicks if you didn't like them to start unless you're hellbent on really "performing" your gender. I still watch a ridiculous number of horror films, after all. I had this go-around with my therapist once. She recommended that I start reading certain types of books to "socialize" me. I was kind of resistant to this idea because the first book she recommended was horrible. I didn't even bother with a second. My preferred beach reading is still hard boiled crime novels.

But that's not to say that there's not an influence. There is, and it's subtle.

One of the bitterly funny things about joining an oppressed minority is that things that didn't bother you before really start to bother you after, whether it's because you shed the blinders of privilege or you feel the pinch of overt aggressions from the dominant culture. It's a hard pill to swallow, sometimes. I didn't grow up as a queer feminist. I was a middle class white kid who barely knew what feminism even was. My awakening came once I discovered to my sorrow that all of that stuff you hear feminists complaining about is very, very real and applied to me directly. I'm not proud of this, but late to the party is better than not showing up at all.

I got to thinking about all of this while watching Clint Eastwood's 1975 mountain climbing thriller, The Eiger Sanction, which, to be charitable, is not among Eastwood's more laudable films. It's a horrible brew of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism, all packaged together in a way that would likely have resonated with a Men's Rights movement, had such a thing existed in 1975. Have you ever visited a comment thread when the topic was feminism? This film seems to have the same spirit of lashing out against the encroaching matriarchy feminism is obviously seeking to foist upon poor, put-upon, disenfranchised menfolk. But I'll get to all of this.

Monday, December 03, 2012

The Worse Demons of Our Natures

I knew going into it that Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (2012, directed by Timur Bekmambetov) was going to hurt my head. How could it not? With a title and high concept that ridiculous? A few years ago, some people made a movie called Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter, so this isn't even a novel idea. I thought that movie sucked, so I expected the pain from this one. I underestimated it.

Friday, November 30, 2012

An Appointment In Tehran

So, two different versions of Tehran in two films in two months. The Tehran of Argo was a place of terror, of menace, of geo-politik paranoia, in which dissenters hung from construction cranes. Argo, made by a white American, communicates its fear of Iran, of the Other. It's a very different Tehran from what one finds in Chicken With Plums (2011, directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi). That Tehran is a place of magic and mystery. It's a place a modern Scheherazade might set one of her fanciful tales. The story, based on director Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel of the same name, has that feel to it. It even begins, the movie's narrator tells us, in the way all Persian stories begin. "There was a man, there was not a man." The Tehran of Chicken with Plums is a place of dreams, where mysterious shops lurk in out of the way corners and savants take on students and teach them the deep mysteries of their arts. It's obviously a place that Satrapi loves--she's actually been there, unlike Ben Affleck. Sure, Satrapi's Tehran is a place that probably never existed--surely not in the 1958 of the movie--but it's a place I like to believe exists somewhere. It's a place I'd love to visit.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Eighth Wonder of the World

I was going through some of my old notebooks earlier this week looking for the review I wrote of King Kong when I was 14. I won't inflict my juvenilia on you, but suffice it to say, that kid was absolutely convinced that she had written the definitive overview of Kong, one that would never be surpassed by future film scholars. It was the kind of hubris only a 14 year old kid can have. You can probably see why I'm not going to share it with you, right? Right.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Bond and Back

With apologies to Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg and Daniella Bianchi and Ursula Andress and all the other bombshells who have worn the mantle of "Bond Girl," the most important woman in the Bond franchise is Judi Dench, who has played "M" since Goldeneye and retires from the role in Skyfall (2012, directed by Sam Mendes). This is something of which the makers of Skyfall are acutely aware. The relationship between Bond and M in the Judi Dench years has been a complicated one, one that is founded on mutual respect and a prickly balance between duty and personal feeling. M is the only woman in the series to whom Bond's charm means nothing. She's the only woman that Bond doesn't chase. Dame Judi's predecessors in the role (including Bernard Lee, who played M eleven times) left nothing like the same impression and had nothing like the same relationship with Bond, either personally or thematically. When she first appears on screen in GoldenEye, she tells Bond, point blank, "I think you're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War..." She tells another operative at MI6 "...if I want sarcasm, Mr Tanner, I'll talk to my children, thank you very much." Dench is a master at the cutting witticism. She meets Bond not as an equal, but as a superior. She also mentions: "You don't like me, Bond. You don't like my methods. You think I'm an accountant, a bean counter more interested in my numbers than your instincts." In GoldenEye, she's the new blood, doing things differently than the old guard. In Skyfall, she is the old guard, and she has a different point of view, defending her use of agents and espionage networks before a parliamentary subcommittee in light of a world where the enemy has no face and no state. She's making an argument for the necessity of not just James Bond and his ilk, but for the relevance of the Bond films themselves.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Head in the Clouds

Almost all movies fracture time. It's fundamental to the art of film. We're used to it now. We don't always know that they're doing it because the language of film has evolved to make it seem invisible, but even movies that adhere to a strictly linear chronology omit things in order to move from significant action to significant action. Sometimes the gaps between significant actions are long, sometimes as long as eons. How long is the gap between the second and third acts of Spielberg's A.I., I wonder? Geological epochs, methinks, but the film is not particularly confusing. Some movies fracture time and rearrange events so that they appear on screen in achronological order. Some films return to a specific event again and again like someone is hitting a reset button. Some films take place over the course of many years. Some are made in "real time." This isn't always the province of experimental films. Movies in the mainstream are as likely to eviscerate the flow of time as art films. I wonder, then, why it is that some audiences--including the one I was sitting in--have such a hard time with Cloud Atlas (2012, directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer). It's not like what they're doing is actually new, even considering the wide gulf of time the movie encompasses. D. W. Griffith made more or less the same movie nearly a hundred years ago.

I'm exaggerating, of course, though not by much.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Any Colour You Like

I wouldn't be upset at all if the filmmaking model pursued by The H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society were to spread. Their relative success within their own self-defined niche of semi-pro filmmaking can be cloned. I've already seen it replicated. The results are as watchable as either The Call of Cthulhu or The Whisperer in Darkness, even if the source material, the already much-filmed "The Colour Out of Space," is a more intractable source material. The Colour Out of Space (aka: De Farbe, 2010, directed by Huan Vu) transplants the familiar Lovecraft story to Germany just after WW II. It actually thrives in its new setting.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Baying at the Moon

The Howling Reborn (2011, directed by Joe Nimziki) is what you get when exploitation filmmakers try to ride the zeitgeist. It's about as good as any other movie that bears the title, "The Howling," whenever said movie is not directed by Joe Dante. Which is to say, it pretty much sucks. I don't know if this is the worst episode the franchise has ever produced--the standard of comparison is ridiculously low--but it's probably in the conversation.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Night Life

One of the things I've been noticing about some of my horror movie selections this October is a tendency among low budget horrors to delay their horrors as long as they can. I understand this, of course. This is the soul of so-called "slow burn" horror, in which tension mounts from the outset, or in which the filmmakers spend some time getting to know their characters before pushing them over the cliff. This can work wonderfully in the right hands--Ti West is good at this among currently working horror filmmakers--but in less sure hands, it can result in movies that are kind of a slog. When I see a movie that plays like this, I sometimes think of the wisdom Samuel Z. Arkoff, who once claimed that all a good (horror) movie needed was a good first reel, a good last reel, and that what's in between doesn't matter. I was thinking about this while I was watching Midnight Son (2011, directed by Scott Leberecht), a film that opts for the slow burn. Like many contemporary American slow burn horrors, this one plays out like a mumblecore indie drama for most of its length before erupting in its last act as a full-blooded vampire movie.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

A Public Service Message

See that sticker? That's right. I voted. I vote in EVERY election, even the wee local ones. If that terrifies you (and it probably should because I'm totally a radical queer leftie socialist feminazi who wants to dismantle global capitalism), get your ass to the polls before they close. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Much love to you all,

Your humble bloginatrix.

The Eyes Have It

I have a phobia about my eyes. You know all those injury to the eye scenes in Lucio Fulci movies? Yeah? I can't watch those. It squicks me out. And don't even get me started on the scene with the needle in Dead and Buried. Do you know the one? Where the nurse enters the room of a burn victim and inserts a huge needle into his one unbandaged eye? Where the camera holds the shot just long enough to see the needle quiver in the man's socket? That scene sent me from the room, screaming. My own eyes are not the best. I have an astigmatism. I wear glasses. I can see my eyes getting worse as time goes by and the next glasses I get will be progressive lenses. I may, like my grandmother before me, develop cataracts if I live so long. I may end my life blind. This thought terrifies me, and not just because I'm an artist and graphic designer by trade. Some people dream about losing their teeth. I dream of losing my eyes. So I'm an easy mark for movies like Julia's Eyes (2010, directed by Guillem Morales), whose central character is going blind.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Darkness, Take My Hand

The HP Lovecraft Historical Society returns to filmmaking with their version of The Whisperer in Darkness (2011, directed by Sean Branney). "The Whisperer" is probably my favorite of Lovecraft's stories, so I was keen to see what the HPLHS did with it. I loved their version of The Call of Cthulhu. Like that film, this is made as if it is a contemporary to Lovecraft--an early talkie, rather than a silent film this time. This film's production values are higher than their first film, which is a double edged sword, because it lets the filmmakers attempt visuals that might best be left to the mind. But maybe not. "The Whisperer in Darkness" isn't as replete with gelid monstrosities as some of Lovecraft's other stories, and the Mi-Go, its alien creatures, are well represented in this film version. And while The Call of Cthulhu works as a kind of curio, this film aspires to more. It's a fully fledged feature film rather than a well-executed fan film, though it's not without its problems...

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Shameless Self-promotion: Dreams in the Bitch House edition

I don't talk about it much here, but I'm part of the brain trust at Dreams in the Bitch House. I'm normally responsible for recording and editing the podcast. The podcast kind of got derailed a couple of years ago when one of our collaborators died. It kind of shocked us out of doing it. This year, I had the opportunity to sit in the same room with a couple of the other women who contribute to the site and record a podcast with us all around the same table. It was awesome, and I hope to do it again. Meanwhile, the result is an hour and a half of four movie fans pouring out our love of horror movies, Halloween, and really, each other. Check it out at the Dreams in the Bitch House site.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Writer's Block

David Koepp's Secret Window (2004) is another avatar of the vogue for identity horror that was so popular around the turn of the millennium. As such movies go, it's not bad. It mostly acts as a showcase for star Johnny Depp, who dials back the quirks of his usual roles for a more nuanced character than we're used to seeing from him. It's a middlebrow horror movie that's light on the violence and long on psychological suspense. For all that, it's not bad.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Festival of Samhain

At one point in the first act of Livid (which I wrote about a couple of days ago), there's a scene where the main characters are accosted by a trio of trick or treaters wearing, respectively, a pumpkin mask, a skull mask, and a witch mask. Most of us (I saw that film in a kind of party atmosphere) sat up and took notice of the fact that this was a reference to Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982, directed by Tommy Lee Wallace), the redheaded stepchild of the Halloween franchise. Halloween III has been reviled by horror fans for three decades now, and I understand it. I do. Horror fans, like most movie fans, are essentially conservative. They like seeing the same thing they saw last time when they shell out for a sequel, and filmmakers make fundamental changes at their peril. It doesn't help that the film isn't particularly good--though I'd stack it up against any of the other Halloween sequels in terms of the quality of the filmmaking. It IS daring though, and I love, LOVE the thinking behind it. Producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill conceived of this film as being akin to an edition of a magazine. Every year, their reasoning went, they would come up with a different story on the theme of Halloween, kind of like a yearly anthology. Have you seen 2007's Trick 'r Treat? That film is Halloween III's spiritual descendent, unencumbered by the expectations of franchise.

Matter Over Mind

The Boxer's Omen (1983, directed by Chih-hung Kuei) is a late-period Shaw Brothers production that sees the studio trying to adapt to the changing film landscape of Hong Kong in the 1980s. The Hong Kong New Wave was in full bloom when it was made and the Shaws were struggling to break from their hidebound formulae and keep up with the rockets being sent up by the suddenly competitive rival companies. The results were often oddities, and none are as odd as this film, an exercise in goo and spew that aims to disgust as much as it aims to entertain (perhaps conflating disgust and entertainment as the aim of horror filmmaking).

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Rats in the Walls

The zombie apocalypse finds a different wrinkle in Mulberry Street (2006, directed by Jim Mickle). Instead of the walking dead, this film posits a plague of rats and people who have been turned into rat monsters. It's not quite as silly as it sounds, though some of the creature make-up is risible. In all other respects this is a standard zombie film, though it gets points for an urban setting that most zombie filmmakers avoid.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Break a Leg

Michele Soavi's Deliria (aka Stagefright, 1987) is of its time and place. It's a slasher, of course, but it's a slasher film that exists at the confluence of that subgenre and the Italian giallo. It's not exactly a giallo. It doesn't have the perverse investigative plot of most giallo films, but it borrows the giallo's style, in which massacre is lovingly mounted as slick entertainment. This is the descendent of Dario Argento, of course, for whom director Michele Soavi once worked as a second-unit director. Take out the director's credit, and you might mistake this for Argento's work. It's certainly cruel enough.

Death Becomes Her

While I was in the moment, I had a grand old time watching The Dead Inside (2011, directed by Travis Betz). It starts as a sly comedy send-up of the zombie genre, mutates into a domestic drama, and turns into something entirely different in the end. When it's in each of these moods, it's always watchable and often compelling. Whether it fully integrates all of these moods into a cohesive whole is another question entirely. Did I mention that this is also a musical? It's that kind of film.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Dream Logic

While a certain amount of the sensibility that made Inside such a relentless horror experience is present in Livid (2011), Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury's long awaited follow-up, those expecting the same kind of bete noir will be disappointed. Livid is less concerned with linear narrative. Rather, it pursues its ghastly images through the looking glass into a bleak, poetic fantasy, while refusing to bend it to some rigid plot construction. The result is a dream fugue of a movie.

Hungry Like the Wolf

Lobos de Arga (2011, directed by Juan Martinez Moreno) has been burdened with a couple of international titles. I prefer "Game of Werewolves," myself, but the version I saw was stuck with the boring "Attack of the Werewolves." Either way, it's a fun little horror comedy that doesn't forget to paint the walls red.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Fish Out of Water

For the last several years, I've traveled to Ypsilanti, Michigan to attend a big horror movie party. My friend who throws this party is a true horror fan, who studies the genre like some kind of Talmudic scholar. She finds real obscurities. This year, she and her partner in crime went out of their way to get movies that weren't in release anywhere. Such a film is Weaverfish, which kicked off her party. It's a first film still looking for a distributor.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Hollywood Option

Ben Affleck's Argo (2012) takes on the Iranian hostage crisis from a clever and engaging point of view. In January of 1980, the CIA conceived of a fake Canadian sci-fi movie that would be scouting locations in the middle east. The movie would never be made, because the aim of the production was to get into Tehran and escape with six American foreign service workers who had escaped the seizure of the American embassy and who had hidden in the house of the Canadian ambassador. The Iranians, for their part, know that six people escaped the embassy and are on a constant watch for them. The film itself is simultaneously an espionage thriller and a droll send-up of the movie business.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Scream and Scream Again

Entire cycles of self-referential horror movies have risen and crumbled in the years since Scream briefly revived the slasher film as critique of the slasher film. Like it or not (I generally don't, but that's neither her nor there), Scream is a touchstone film, one that must be referenced when one examines whole swaths of the horror genre. Scream's sequels have the additional burden of trying to expand on the first film's big idea. Scream 2 (1997, directed by Wes Craven), finds this burden to be too much. It rehashes the first film, true, and it introduces "rules" for sequels and dutifully follows them even as it comments on them. But when you get right down to it, Scream 2 is a dead end. The only reason I revisited it was because I'm planning to watch the third film later this week (I've never seen it) and I thought the continuity would be nice. I was mistaken. I remember now why I never bothered with the third film.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Welcome to the Dollhouse

Has there ever been a more drastic and perverse evolution of a horror movie franchise than the Child's Play movies? When most movie franchises reach their fourth or fifth entry, the well has been poisoned and the concept has entered an unpleasant kind of unlife. But not the Chucky movies. This is a franchise that doesn't really come to any kind of life until its fourth, much belated entry. And the fifth entry, 2004's Seed of Chucky (directed by Don Mancini), veers so far away from its origins that it seems to exist in an entirely different universe.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Watch and Wait

There's a fine line between an exploitation movie and an art movie. Walking that line is a tightrope act. Sometimes, it seems to me that the Japanese walk that line better than anyone else. Nowhere is this more evident than in the unique genres of erotica that grew up as the studio systems collapsed during the 1970s. Toei's "pinky violence" films and Nikkatsu's "roman porno" movies have no equivalents elsewhere, really, and showcase the dance between art and exploitation as a matter of course. On balance, Nikkatsu's films were probably more geared toward art, whatever you might want to use that word to mean. 1976's The Watcher in the Attic (directed by Noboru Tanaka) is a case in point. It has a deliberate, artfully composed visual image paired with an erotic impulse that slowly evolves into a death wish. It's certainly perverse.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Walk Like An Egyptian

Mummy movies, if you'll pardon the expression, seem like they're cursed. Is there a horror sub-genre with a worse ratio of good movies to misfires? I can't think of one. Hammer films was victimized more than most by this. They made a conditional success with their first mummy movie, and then made a complete hash of it with subsequent entries. The last of these was Blood From the Mummy's Tomb (1971, directed by Seth Holt), which seems like it was cursed (if you'll pardon the expression) from the start. It was originally set to star Peter Cushing, who bowed out when his wife died, and then its director, Seth Holt, died before finishing the film. The film was finished by an uncredited Michael Carreras with Andrew Keir in the role intended for Cushing. For all that, it could have been a lot worse. Blood From the Mummy's Tomb, it turns out, is a mummy movie without a mummy.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Wolf in the Fold

I was discussing the new DTV movie, Werewolf: The Beast Among Us (2012, directed by Louis Morneau) with a friend of mine while I was watching it and I noted that I couldn't tell when or where it was set. Late 19th century, I suppose, but where? Eventually, I decided that it was set in Horror Movie Land, which I take to be somewhere in Eastern Europe based on the number of Romanian names in the credits. But I could be wrong. There's a babel of accents among the characters in this movie, so I guess Horror Movie Land could be like one of those magic shops in fantasy/horror short fiction where it appears where it's needed and vanishes again. Regardless, it's nowhere real. More a theme park than a setting.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Shrine On You Crazy Diamond

It's not without a certain amount of affection that I suggest that The Shrine (2010, directed by Jon Knautz) reminds me of something that Charles Band's Full Moon might have made circa 1990 or so. It has that same feel of something cobbled together from spare parts lying around on the floor of the genre factory, along with shocks that are no deeper than the monsters on the surface. This isn't a movie with deep wells of subtext. In former years, it would have been a staple on the back shelves of the horror section at your local video store. In this post-video store era, it languishes on Netflix. It's not bad at disguising its plot twist, though it's a familiar plot twist (at least one other movie I've seen this year has used it), and it's not bad at creating a certain amount of dread during its long build-up, but when it starts to let the freakshow take over, it turns into pure schlock. As I say, it's not without a certain amount of affection that I say so.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Couple's Therapy

Tales from the zombie apocalypse are coming from every corner of the globe these days. In truth, I'm a little bit worn out by zombies, so numerous are the movies. The movies seem like the zombie hoard itself: eventually you'll be pulled under. Still, there remain interesting stories being told in the idiom, so I put up with it. (I wish the same think could be said about vampires, but that's another conversation). In any event, Germany provides us with the brief, heartfelt Rammbock: Berlin Undead (2010, directed by Marvin Kren), in which the zombie apocalypse is the backdrop for a bittersweet story of a relationship that's falling apart. It narrows its focus such that the end of the world is distilled down to a more personalized apocalypse.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Monsters and Mazes

When Pan's Labyrinth (2006, directed by Guillermo del Toro) was first in theaters, I remember thinking that I really needed to wait a while before writing about it. Here it is nearly six years later and I'm finally getting back to it. Waiting was probably wise. Pan's Labyrinth is a film that needed to sit in my consciousness for a while because my initial viewing of it was overwhelming. I was aware of the fact that it was a legitimately great movie, but I wasn't prepared to deal with it. I'm not sure I'm up to it even now.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Shadows Out of Time

"Novel. n. A short story, padded." -- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

I have to admit that when I first saw the trailer for The Valdemar Legacy: The Forbidden Shadow (2010, directed by José Luis Alemán) last year, it had me rabid to see the movie. Paul Naschy's last film has The Great Cthulhu in it? You couldn't design a movie more tailored to my baser horror appetites. It's too bad the movie couldn't possibly live up to that expectation, and this movie doesn't. Little did I know that it's absolutely essential to see the first film to have any hope of following along (particularly if you're watching without subtitles, as I was, and if your Spanish is functional at best, which mine is). Really, they're one movie split into two, though you can make an argument that each of them has a na7rrative unto themselves. These were two movies I wanted to target for the challenge and the internet obliged me.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Into the Woods

YellowBrickRoad (2010, directed by Jesse Holland and Andy Milton) is another horror movie in which a group of researchers follows the footsteps of some mysterious disappearance. In this film, it's a New Hampshire town that up and walked into the great north woods in 1939. Basically, the premise is an excuse to maroon a group of diverse personalities in a kind of microcosm and watch them tear each other to pieces. These kinds of films are often POV found footage films. This one, mercifully, is not.

This is a slow-burn kind of movie. It has a deliberate pace and it withholds its secrets. There's some violence, but the violence isn't the aim here. The aim here is to disorient, to discombobulate, to knock the planks of reason out from under the feet of its characters (and, by proxy, the audience). It's a more polished descendent of The Blair Witch Project and it uses most of that film's toolbox: wrong geographies, sounds in the woods (in this film, an incessant distant music), stupid decisions on the part of characters with diminished capacity for reason. There aren't any monsters in this film, or, rather, the monsters are always on screen. They are the people who wander into the woods. The woods themselves are a kind of crucible that brings out the worst in them. Until the end, that is.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

I Like the Dark. It's Friendly.

Jacques Tourneur's Cat People (1942) is one of those movies that's so interwoven with my love of movies that I hardly know where to start with it anymore. Maybe with this:  my mother introduced me to Cat People on one of those late nights when my dad worked very late. As such, it's a movie that I treasure not only because it's a legitimately great movie (which it is), but because it has an intensely personal association in my mind. I probably can't be objective about it. Fortunately, Cat People's place in the canon of great horror movies is secure enough without my imprimatur.

The thing that strikes me every time I've watched Cat People as an adult is how much it looks like film noir, and not just because of the shadows with which Tourneur and cameraman Nicholas Musuraca have woven this movie. It also reminds me of film noir because it's a film about night in the city. It's set in after hours offices, late night cafes, and stylish apartments. It's a modern movie (in 1942), one that I imagine had a real immediacy when it was released, given that the audience of its day was used to horror movies set in some theme park version of Eastern or Middle Europe. Over time, its association with film noir has lent the film a kind of timelessness. Film noir is an idiom of nightmare logic and a poetry of shadows, both of which were pioneered by Cat People and the other noir-ish horror movies made by Val Lewton's b-movie unit.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Blood in the Water

It's kind of refreshing to see exploitation as shameless and in your face as what one finds in Alexandre Aja's remake of Piranha (2010). It's vicious little film that indulges in the basest pleasure of the genre: tits and blood. Tits and blood in copious amounts. It's kind of a throwback to the bad old days of exploitation. I don't know that it makes the movie particularly good, but it's a nice purity of purpose, and it occasionally shocked a laugh out of me with its sheer nastiness.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

A Tall Tale

I'm not entirely sure of what to do with Pascal Laugier's The Tall Man (2012). It's some variety of genre film, but it's a confounding one. It has the trappings of a horror movie. It has the mindfuck qualities of a puzzle movie. It ultimately resolves itself with a moral question that I don't know that it is equipped to deal with through the instrument of genre, particularly because the way it frames its entire problem reeks of privilege--a fact of which I'm not sure its makers are aware. A word of warning, this is a movie that relies on sleight of hand for its effects and I want to talk a bit about the plot turns on which the film's legerdemain relies. Here there be spoilers. You have been warned.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Past Imperfect

There aren't any new ideas in the horror genre, usually, but sometimes, someone will take an existing idea and give it a new twist. I was thinking of this, as I watched The Caller (2011, directed by Matthew Parkhill). I'd seen this before, and not in the horror genre.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Blood and Brocade

The Erzsébet Báthory legend is one of the most persistent stories in the horror myth pool, partially because it's so utterly ghastly and partially because it's a so-called "true story." I mean, I certainly remember being riveted by it when I first discovered it as a teen horror geek, particularly as a queer teen horror geek. It goes something like this: In 1610, Hungarian noblewoman Erzsébet Báthory (1560-1616) was tried and convicted of murdering peasant women with the aid of her servants. For this crime, she was walled up in her castle for the last five years of her life. The tally of her victims ranges anywhere from 36 to 650, though no one knows for sure. There is some evidence that the whole thing was a frame-up either by the Catholic Church and the Hapsburgs, who wanted to turn the Holy Roman Empire Catholic and turn back the reformation, or by King Mattias of Hungary, who owed the Bathorys a huge amount of money after they financed his war against the Ottoman Turks. Is the Bathory story propaganda? Maybe, but even so, Elizabeth Bathory is still listed in the record books as a the most voracious female serial killer in history. As if her story weren't ghastly enough, somewhere along the line, someone appended the notion that Bathory was a lesbian who bathed in the blood of virgins to maintain her youth. This is unsupported by the historical record, but the myth pool doesn't care about history, it cares about stories. So like Lizzie Borden and the forty whacks, Erzsébet Báthory has been convicted of crimes of dubious or even fictional veracity in the popular imagination. She is forever "The Blood Countess," and the font from which the lesbian vampire archetype flows.* I'm sure she burns in hell this very day, deserved or not.

Bathory (2008, directed by Juraj Jakubisko) attempts to rehabilitate Erzsébet with indifferent results. It restores to the myth the notion that Erzsébet was the victim of the machinations of her enemies, but it falls under the sway of the myth even as it does this. It can't help itself. It presents the image of Bathory bathing in blood (later revealed to be water colored red with herbs--yeah, whatever) and it presents Bathory as a murderess, who kills while under the influence of hallucinogens and in fits of pique. Basically, Bathory wants to have it both ways and makes a muddle of the whole thing.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Splendor in the Grass

The Reeds (2010, directed by Nick Cohen) uses two of the more metaphysical tropes associated with ghost stories to great effect. First, there's the idea that ghosts and those who are haunted by them are trapped re-enacting some horrible trauma and, second, that ghosts are often reflections of ourselves. Used in combination, these lend the film a kind of nightmare logic that feeds off some of the more disorienting narrative structures in film. The Reeds is essentially circular, though its circles of story are concentric within one another. It also embraces the conventions of the horror genre as pulp while using the familiar formal tricks of the genre. It's kind of a perfect post modern horror movie, though whether that makes it a good movie or not is another matter entirely.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The October Horror Movie Challenge is Nigh

Tomorrow is October 1st and that means one thing: it's horror movie time. No more hoarding those twisted little movies. It's time to watch them and write about them.

The Rules: Your mission is to watch 31 horror movies between 12:01 AM on October 1st and midnight on Halloween. 16 of those movies must be movies you have never seen before. TV movies count. TV episodes do not count unless they are feature length entries in an anthology series. TV miniseries also count, so if you want to watch The Kingdom or Bag of Bones for the challenge, feel free. Feature length is arbitrarily cut off at 50 minutes. Anything shorter than that is a short and does not count (unless you want to play the variant where several shorts collectively count as one feature once they collectively reach 50 minutes, but that's a pain to keep track of). As for what counts as "horror," use your best judgement. My own definition of "horror" is notoriously permissive, so who am I to throw rocks. You are, of course, more than welcome to watch movies beyond 31, so if you have time for fifty or a hundred movies this month, knock yourself out.

If the Challenge is too easy for you, you might try some variants: only watch movies you haven't seen before, only watch zombie movies, only watch movies from Asia, whatever you like. It doesn't matter HOW you do it so long as you make it to 31 movies with 16 first time viewings.

One variant of the Challenge that I do encourage is this one: watch horror movies for charity. I'll be blogging for the National MS society again this year, and I encourage you to donate some nominal amount--ten cents, fifty cents, whatever--to the charity of your choice for every movie that you watch. It's not mandatory, so don't feel bad if you don't, but I'll be cutting a check in November for my viewings and I hope you will too.

I'll be doing Challenge roundups every day, so if you post something for the challenge, leave me a comment and I'll add you to the link dump.

Here are some other banners for the challenge if you want them for your posts, or just use the ones at the top of the page.

Now then, ladies and gentlemen, start your screaming!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Kicking a Dead Horse

There's no easy way to say this: I've been blocked. I won't get into the reasons, but it has been next to impossible for me to concentrate on writing lately. Some of this is blogging burnout, which eventually afflicts almost everyone who blogs for any length of time. Sometimes, those burnouts never resume blogging. Hopefully, that won't be me. I enjoy writing about film. I've been writing about film since I was a teenager. It's just not coming as easily right now as it used to.

I'm also tired of my current blog design, so even though I plan to resume blogging regularly next week (when the October Challenge begins) or possibly this weekend, stately Krell Labs will probably look different sometime very soon. I definitely need to clean up the clutter and find a better way to index my blog than that insanely long list of tags on the sidebar. Hopefully, this will result in a blog that's easier to read and easier to navigate.

Meanwhile, here's a drawing of Snake Plissken I did for one of my fundraiser backers. I'm still accepting commissions, if anyone wants a drawing, but I didn't make it to Fantastic Fest (again) this year, so it's not a fundraiser, per se, just a means of keeping my blog afloat in a crappy economy.

Also, a reminder to anyone who wants me to participate in the October Challenge, send me a note at christianne_in_leather at yahoo dot com with links to your blog, or just leave me a comment.

Love to everyone who reads my rantings. I'll be back in a bit.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Myth Guided

This is a part of the Camp and Cult Blogathon. The mad genius behind this is Stacia over at She Blogged by Night.

One of the things I always loved when I was in grade school was the English sections on mythology. I was a monster kid, after all, and I read the two books my parents had provided me on mythology to tatters, looking for stories with monsters. I got quite the education in the bargain, even if the reason I loved Herakles above all the other Greek heroes was because he fought the most monsters. But I also responded to a good story, and one of the stories that royally hooked me was the one about Theseus and the Minotaur. The early parts of the Theseus myth are a kind of ur-E. C. Comics collection of stories, in which Theseus takes on various villains in poetically just ways (Procrustes, the stretcher, is my favorite: if guests in his house were too short for his bed, he'd stretch them. Theseus was too tall for it, so you can guess his intentions. Theseus turns the tables on him). But as I got to know the full myth in later English classes, I really began to appreciate the Greeks and their knack for creating heroes that were recognizably flawed. Theseus, it turns out, is a bit of an asshole. Flush with victory, he forgets to change the black sails on his ship to alert his father that he's successful and his dad flings himself into the sea. King Minos's daughter, Ariadne, helps him navigate the labyrinth only be marooned on an island with her kid sister for her troubles. There's a reason that Theseus isn't a major hero when it comes to movies based on the Greek myths. He's a right bastard. Which is why I was interested to see Tarsem Singh's Immortals (2011), in spite of all the horrifically bad reviews. It puts Theseus front and center. How, I wondered, were they going to pull that off. Certainly, Tarsem is an arty enough director to buck conventional wisdom and make the character heroic but unlikeable. Maybe having a prick for a hero is what garnered all the hate.

I should have known better.